This Morning’s Wave

This morning was the first time I’ve been able to surf in about two months. The report said that high tide was at 9:58 a.m. with light wind and a SSE swell coming up from hurricane Sandra. My break of choice is the Bolsa Chica jetties. The people are generally friendly there, and it’s rarely crowded.

Every time I get to the water’s edge, start to feel the cold of wet sand, my gut starts to tighten, my heart begins to race. No matter how many times I’ve paddled out before I still get nervous as I dip my cupped hands into the water and pull. A wave begins to build in front of me and, uncontrollably, I whisper words to myself. Words, such as “inevitable,” “destroy,” “failure,” “passion,” “disbelief,” “structure,” all evaporate into the ether of history in no particular order, and somehow, while they are not part of any phrase or complete thought, they all seem to fit into context of one another as some desperate response to oncoming waves. The paddle out is a struggle against time, the weight of the water, and past defeats. This morning, though, the word I whispered to myself over and again was “nightmare.”

There is a moment in House of Leaves, the moment where Will Navidson is lost inside the house and has just discovered that he is no longer supported by anything. He is falling, not down, or up, or in any direction. He’s not suspended, he just is. There are no more walls, no floors or ceilings, doors, nothing with which to triangulate his position. There is nothing separate from his being with which to define himself as a separate entity at all. He realizes he’s been falling for quite some time and desperately attempts to redefine himself, to reaffirm his existence. “I am,” he says. It’s hopeless, because hope is a non sequitur in this house, for it implies an end where there is not even a means to that end. Ultimately,

Navidson’s words, tunes, and shivering murmurs trail off into a painful rasp. He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will. Memories cease to surface. Sorrow threatens to no longer matter.
Navidson is forgetting.
Navidson is dying. (Danielewski 482-83)

This is the closest comparison I can make to how I feel when I am in the water. The ocean is is alive, ever in motion, consuming. Yet, it is also senseless, unaware of my presence, and altogether uncaring. The moment I think I have figured it out, crouched down on my board and gliding along the face of a wave, something unforeseen happens, a ripple in front of me lifts up, the nose of the board pearls, and I am suddenly under the surface. It’s dark in the water, cold, there are no shapes to discern, the growl of the passing wave has silenced, and I am falling. Of course, I hold my breath, but I’m never certain if I will breathe ever again. All sights and sounds disappear and even the memory of what has happened only a second ago already begins to fade. There is no voice to heat this world.

I floated out in the line-up for quite a while, maybe forty-five minutes, give or take. It’s hard to be certain. The current El Niño season has kept the water temperature around 60°F, but the November morning air has retained its bite. I stared at my board, followed the line of the stringer from underneath me to out beyond the nose and through to the horizon. The grey of the marine layer blurred the threshold between the water and the sky.

I saw something that I had never seen before. A few feet in front of me I noticed what looked like glitter or confetti twirling in the water column right near the surface. It was a shoal of sardines, or maybe smelt. I generally notice them only out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement, the only evidence of which is the ripple on the surface left behind as they hurl themselves out of the water and fall back in.

Is this not all that experience is anyway– phenomena that eludes observation, a cause that is only evidenced by its effect?

Johnny Truant experiences this when he visits the Whalestoe hospital his mother died in. His emotional state is heavily strained, to say the least. He wanders the country aimlessly, albeit to escape his fears. Though, it is a path of escape which leads him directly back to the origin of those fears, where “no cry of light, no glimmer, not even the faintest shard of hope to break free across the hold” has shone (497).

It’s a melancholy moment because he is initially convinced that he has become “a creature unstirred by history, no longer moved by the present, just hungry, blind and at long last full of mindless wrath” (497), and yet when he is unable to sense the spectral presence of his mother, he is unable to rectify his “mindless wrath.” So, he begins to break down. That is, he is indeed moved knowing that he still carries the memory of her. However skeptical he must remain of that memory, it is nonetheless unshakable. He sees his life as the ripple of her own nightmarish life.

All things observed are ripples. In which case the only quantitative or qualitative understanding we have of a cause is the memory of it, the effect. No one remembers the birth of their parents. Instead, those memories are passed down through language and the vernacular of genealogical history. For Truant, that language is collected in the feverishly written letters he receives from his mother, and it is the same language he uses in his own journal.

Someone else’s. Someone else’s memories…Oh god what constant re-arranging of thoughts, an endless rearrangement of them, revealing nothing but shit…The journal too. I thought I’d only written a few entries but now I can see–I can feel–it’s nearly full, but I don’t recall any of it. Is it even in my hand?…October Three Zed, Ninety Eight. That’s the day today. That’s the date. Top of this page. But the first page in the journal isn’t October Three Zed but May one. May one mean–meaning, I mean–months and months of journey. Before Lude died. Before the horror. Or all of it horror since right now I can’t connect any of it.
It’s not me.
It cannot be.
As soon as I write I’ve already forgotten.
I must remember.
I must read.
I must read.
I must read. (498)

Truant’s journal is still another ripple in the chain of causality, but his experience resembles a feedback loop. A question arises– is Johnny an end in of himself? When memory ceases so too does experience. Since Johnny cannot recall the experiences he  has apparently described in his own journal, his only true experience is the vicarious reading of his past. He is merely the audience of his own narrative, not the subject.

This is how I often feel about surfing. At best I can only describe the experience through my mind’s journal, the memory of the experiences in the water. Yet, I must remain skeptical of these memories because, as we know, memory is a severely faulty thing, easily altered by emotion, and all the thousands of factors constantly imposing influence. The wave that I caught this morning, according to memory, was multifaceted, deeply complex, nuanced. How can I trust the notion that I remember every detail of it? Of course I can expand the wave metaphor to many other memories– childhood, school and profession, romantic relationships. Because my only understanding of those experiences is gained from my memory of them, I feel as though I too am merely an observer. I am the audience witnessing the downward spiral a self-defeating character who loathes the dichotomy of future and past, and who is obsessed with the means to his own end in order to finally disintegrate that and all other binaries. Each wave is a ripple in the closed loop of his narrative.

The future is always a fiction, and it is impossible to actually experience the present. By the time any phenomena is perceivable, having taken even a few milliseconds to travel our neural pathways, it is already past and is therefore committed to memory. The past and our faulty memory of it is the only conduit for the narrative of our lives. So, as Johnny Truant discovers, we have no means of objective understanding. Even a moment of clarity, for all it is worth and what it may seem to be, affords him no answer.

It took me another hour to locate her room. So many of the rooms looking the same, all familiar, but never quite right, quite the same, their dimensions and perspectives never precisely lining up with the memory I had, a memory I was soon beginning to doubt, a surprisingly painful doubt actually, until I saw through her window the now vine entwined tree, every wall-line, corner-line, floor-line, instantly, or so it seemed–though nothing is ever instant–matching up, a sharp slide into focus revealing the place where she finally died. Of course it’s final, right? Closet to the side. Empty. And her bed in the corner. The same bed. Even if the mattress was gone and the springs now reassembled the rusted remains of a shipwreck half-buried in the sands of some half-forgotten shore.
Horror should have buried me.
It didn’t.
I sat down and waited for her to find me.
She never did.
I waited all night in the very room it happened, waiting for her frail form to glide free of beams of glass and moonlight. Only there was no glass. No moonlight either. Not that I could see.
Come morning I found the day as I had found every other day–without relief or explanation. (504)

If the memory of his mother is faulty, he must also keep suspect of letters she had written to him. “Her letter,” he says, “was hopelessly wrong. Maybe an invention to make it easier for me to dismiss her” (517). Johnny realizes that he must also suspect the nature of the narrative these two sources coalesce to create. That is, he must ultimately suspect the very narrative of his life, it’s verisimilitude, and question the truth of his own existence. As we read further, we discover that the last section of Truant’s journal takes a drastic shift in point of view and voice. “I’m sorry,” he continues, “I have nothing left…Except this story, what I’m remembering now, too long from the surface of any dawn” (518). It is a very heartbreaking scene that follows, and one that I think about often, particularly while I’m in the water. It describes a woman who has just given birth to a baby boy with severe developmental issues and is “cyanotic.” The child is not expected to live more than a few hours. Doctors and nurses hurriedly employ an IC unit, an EKG monitor, IV pumps and lines, a ventilator, probes, saturated oxygen. Yet, the “mother sees none of this. She sees only her baby boy, barely breathing, his tiny fingers curled like sea shells still daring to clutch the world.” She refuses that her son “can only survive on machines,” refuses the inevitable, that “she will have to let him go.” To her the future is a fiction, and she can spin her own narrative yarn with her love for this child. She endures the hours clinging to a life that at once she is both defined by and is her only source of meaning. She doesn’t sleep. She sings to him, whispers her love to him. Then, on the fourth day, “ she leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. ‘You can go now,’ she says tenderly”–

And right before everyone’s eyes, long before Dr. Nowell or anyone else can turn a dial or touch a switch, the EKG flatlines. Asystole.
The child is gone. (521)

There is no mystery in this story, only loss. The reader must realize, just as Johnny does, that the entire time they’ve been reading HOL they have, in fact, been reading the life which the mother has imagined for her baby boy, and which she clung to out of love. Johnny is that narrative. As does Johnny, I can’t help but question what I have imagined for myself, and what others have imagined for me. Whether out of desperation to somehow alter the nightmare, or out of love, my life is still only a facsimile of memory, which is itself a facsimile. It’s a scary thought that the perceived world is possibly unreal, is false, for there is no where to turn after that, no trust, no hope of ever getting out of the house built by faulty semiotics and the misleading vernacular of day-to-day experience. After all “the words fail, the voice fails, so be it” (Beckett 406)

It happened in an instant. One moment all is calm, somewhere down the line-up a group of friends chuckled to some punchline I could not hear, a pelican silently floated by on a pocket of air ahead of a swell. In the next moment the face of a wave appeared in front of me, dark, moving fast, amassing as it approached the beach. Just as I had done maybe a thousand times before, I quickly turned the board around and started pulling myself along the surface. Just as I had felt maybe a thousand times before, the leading edge of the wave slid under me and lifted me up. Just as I had done maybe a hundred times before, I pushed myself up and to my feet. What happened in the next ten seconds, though, I am at a loss to reason beyond conjecture. Sometimes we surprise ourselves by our failures to act, to comprehend, or to respond to the ever changing whim of circumstance. Other times, we are surprised by our intuition. My skill level is amateur at best, and ‘innate’ has never been a term I use to describe my surfing. However, something was released and possessed me for those few seconds on the face of that wave. I saw the wave in it’s entirety out in front of me as I took a left for my frontside. Every ripple, dimple, and every breaking section of the wave I saw before it even happened, anticipated it’s every motion. I crouched to picked up speed and looked up to the lip at least a foot over head. I dragged the palm of my trailing hand along the face. Off I went down the line.

It was over in an instant. One moment I banked into my third carve of the wave, and the next moment I lay on my back on dry sand, breathing heavily, eyes tearing up. It was my only wave of the day. It was my first wave in at least two months. It was, by far, my best wave since last winter.
“Wow, man, I saw the whole thing.”
I sat up and turned to see a guy walking up to me. Salt and peppered hair, like mine, and with what looked like a seven-five or six mint-green Becker under his arm.
“You even got a little barreled,” he said.
“No shit?”
“Yeah.” He pointed to the line-up, “I saw it.”
I shook my head, “That’s kind of cool. I’ve never had that happen before. Wasn’t looking behind me so I didn’t see how far into it I was.”
“Yeah, it was real quick, like. But you were in it. Almost happened on the reform, too.”
“Wow,” I shook my head. “No one ever sees me surf, so I can never prove what happened.”
“Nope,” he said nodding, “But I saw it this time. Great job, man.” He strapped his leash to his ankle then started towards the water.
“Good luck,” I said, to which he responded with a thumbs-up.

There is no choice but to move forward in experience, whatever it may be. The best we can hope for is that someone will be there to witness it with us and share in the facsimile, for they see what we can’t, they see what is behind us, perceive it differently, and somehow expand our experience.

Surfing is a very lonely venture to me. Yet, just as Will Navidson was drawn to the depths of the house, and Johnny Truant must wander the country in search of a past that does not exist, I too am compelled to paddle out. In search of what, though, I cannot say. If nothing else, through the unyielding solitude of it I have learned a great deal about the value of others in my life. Though it is only conjecture, I might discern some luminescence in the house with the thought that Navidson has discovered this too. He is prepared to die in the house. In what are his final moments–at least as far as he can tell–his “tunes” and “shivering murmurs” are all meditations on one thing, one subject. There is no voice to heat this world because he is alone, without Karen. As the fictional “Italian translator,” Sophia Blynn, says in her critique of The Navidson Record:

The most important light Karen carried into that place was the memory of Navidson. And Navidson was no different. Though it’s commonly assumed his last word was ‘care’ or the start of ‘careful,’ I would argue differently. I believe this utterance is really just the first syllable of the very name on which his mind and heart had finally come to rest. His only hope, his only meaning: ‘Karen.’ (Danielewski 523)

I am led to wonder whether these short, personal essays are my own shivering murmurs, tunes that go unanswered except their refraction and diffusion off the walls of language in this house.

Still, there is no choice but to move forward, for there are many, many waves to be surfed. “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on…I’ll go on” (Beckett 407).

Work Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z.. House of Leaves. NY, Pantheon 2000. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. NY, Grove Press 2001. Print.

Nature and Grace: Dichotomies in Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of life Requium

There is a line in the film Tree of Life, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” This motif– an inner struggle between waring subjectivities, dichotomies –runs throughout the film, and it’s closely related to the greater theme of the story, which is in the opening monologue, “The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life– the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.”

The Tree Of Life: Way Of Nature, Way Of Grace from Otto on Vimeo.

The story is among the heaviest, darkest, yet most illuminating spiritual meditations that I have come across in recent years. This story weighs heavily, hits close to home, and I’m certain many others feel the same way. Malick’s style, like a deluge of river rapids (which, is a prevalent image in the film), is not necessarily inviting. For these reasons I think it’s the type of film that either someone won’t understand on any level, or is entirely subdued by.

Spirituality in the film is heavily informed by Christian theology, but it’s not at all dogmatic. In fact, the story stands as an indictment of steadfast and blind ideology. Dogma– social, theological, familial, cultural dogma –is decidedly an antagonistic factor in the life of the central family, the O’Briens. The family is particularly white, suburban, middle class, the archetypal Texas American dream, sans only white picket fences. However, this family, a token of American pride and sensibility, is fragile, inherently susceptible to it’s own weight. It only takes something so paltry as a telegram, which the mother receives at the end of the clip, to level the family, disintegrate it.

Roots of conflict are seeded in the hearts of the three O’Brien children, but the eldest boy, Jack, is most directly effected. His struggle, the war of dichotomies, factions of subjectivity, nature and grace, is ignited by dogmatism, fueled by immense histories, the ever echoing voices of his family, his mother and father, their cultural legacies that remain a constant din inside of him. “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” As we follow him on his journey through the annals of boyhood we are forced to ponder our own histories, the legacies of the many journeys that led to our being. Jack bears the weight of these legacies, but he cannot escape his growing suspicions about patriarchal control and matriarchal peace. He watches his father, keenly, studying, his eyes narrowed. He searches his father for evidence of either humility or malice, though is convinced of neither. “Do you love your father?” he is asked, to which he responds with only the certainty of condition, familial dogma.

And yet, Jack is drawn to the promise of strength he sees in his father. He finds solidarity in simplicity, a momentary calming of the factions inside of him. As all boys must attempt at some point, Jack indulges in the violence within him and redirects it outward, essentially relinquishing himself of it. However, Jack’s younger brother, known simply as R.L., presents a challenge to the violence. Jack recognizes that he has followed a path to nature because his brother has followed a path to grace. “Hit me son,” his father challenges, and Jack obliges. “Come on, hit me,” his father then says to his brother, but his brother is reluctant.

Jack wonders about the separation between nature and grace. “Always you wrestle inside of me,” he says. He constantly finds himself on the side of nature while praying, “help me to be good.” At one point violence swells within him. He happens upon his father who is underneath the family Buick for repairs. He walks up and his father quietly, but sternly points at him, dismissing him. Jack then walks around to the rear where the car-lift is positioned. He stares at the wrench for a moment, then walks away. The implication is that Jack momentarily considers knocking the wrench loose to let the car drop onto his father. This is an experience that all boys must have, testing the boundaries of love and anger and the willingness to forfeit one or the other.

Nature, and grace. One defined by the other. The war continues. Much as Jack must face his suspicions and fears, we too have no choice but to realize that, regardless of whether we scale the highest, most remote and frozen peaks, find ourselves lost and hidden in metropolitan back alleys, or are adrift in an unmeasured sea, that inner war will wage. It is inescapable. And so, Jack discovers that there is no boundary between nature and grace. The line that he may arbitrarily draw between past and present does not exist, the two are simultaneous, are not independent. And the war continues into his adulthood, boundaries between factions blurred.

“Feel like I’m bumping into walls,” he says, “Any how, it’s all about your career. But I don’t understand anything.” The way of nature, the way of commerce, hierarchies, architects of industry, resources, exchange. Facsimiles of order. The way of grace, the way of restless imagination, culture, messy harmonic resonance, ideas, humility painfully gained. Facsimiles of beauty. These are all uncertain terms, but we are somehow expected, conditioned even, to simply take them for granted, to commit ourselves to them, without question. Just as each member of the O’Brien family must, we too seek to shrink into the obscurity of nature as a refuge from the tumult, the disorder of grace. And so, we justify our sacrifices in order to fortify our security, equating substance and sustenance, though, we have only confused the two.

The father of the story, Mr. O’brien, fortifies himself and his family with the pleasantries and minutia that have been handed to him through cultural dogma, and he’s come to depend on them. Tithing, skilled work, prayer, discipline, tenacity, a smile and a hand shake, fatherly advice, all tenets of a ‘good man.’ However, as his priest, Father Hayes, cautions in a sermon, “Misfortune befalls the good as well.”

The Tree Of Life: Job from Otto on Vimeo.

After all, what is our place in nature if not a single point in a long chain of cause and effect, linearity where, of course, there is no boundary between the past and future? We do not exist presently, and so we are free of the obligation to actively navigate this phenomena we call our lives, the tempest of the present. Instead, we abstain. It’s easy to retreat into the comfort of nature– a human being. Yet, we recognize it as perdition only too late. At some point we stop planning for the future and reluctantly accept the finitude of the time that we are given. We desire to “be loved because [we are] great.” We are saddened, having “lived in shame,” wondering why we had never risked ourselves for our only passions– a human doing. Desperate, we then seek forgiveness in grace yet cannot seem to resolve a lifetime of fear. We have passively accepted our life having never actively created, or engaged it. We stand at the precipice and peer over the edge, frightful because we see nothing whatsoever below, nothing to make sense of, nothing to verify the separation between above and below, our curiosity beckons us toward self-destruction, to jump, yet we are paralyzed. The burden of guilt, and the endless war.

The Tree Of Life: Life’s Work from Otto on Vimeo.

There is, however, only one thing that silences the war– grief. Utter, and complete loss. In grief all questions narrow, metamorphose into “Why?” There is no dogma steadfast enough to justify the loss that the O’Brien family experiences. Jack also watches his mother, attempts to see through her eyes as she asks “Lord, why? Where were you?” Here he discovers the weight of history. Through her eyes he sees the cause and effect of nature, that all things manifest are inevitable. He sees that loss is inescapable. “Answer me,” she begs. As we understand early in the film because of the telegram Mrs. O’Brien receives, the family has peered over that precipice and saw nothing where they were told they would see God. They are cautioned, though, “does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away?…Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”

The Tree Of Life: Lacrimosa from Otto on Vimeo.

However deep her suffering, Mrs. O’Brien continues to be a beacon of grace for Jack. He hears her pain, “We cry to you, ‘My soul, my son.’ hear us,” but he carries her voice with him into his adulthood. Her voice is the memory of the times he and his brothers play in the river, the memory of his birth, family dinners, afternoons spent cradled in her lap on the river bank. From the expenses of the past grace reaches out to him, and he hears her voice, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

The Tree Of Life: Love from Otto on Vimeo.

All the skepticism, the tumult, is quieted. Just as Jack has begun to forfeit his tendencies toward nature and begin to accept the way of grace through his family’s loss, we are invited to ponder our own griefs, many as they are. Is there any refuge from grief, and what does it mean to be redeemed? Do we forgive for the sake of love and happiness? “You spoke to me through her,” he says, her voice echoing from the past and beyond even his own recollection. “Lacrimosa,” or “weeping,” resounds from long before even the Earth was formed. The tragedy of his family, it’s grief, is felt long before its own cohesion. He knows this, and asks, “When did you first touch my heart?” The way of nature, though, points in one direction, the direction he will ultimately choose, a path that leads to grace.

The Tree Of Life: Questions from Otto on Vimeo.

And so, whatever Malick’s motivations, he invites us all to heed Jack’s story, embrace our grief, our inner dichotomies, and quiet those factions, to realize that our struggles are far greater than the sum of our selves, so that we can move towards grace.

Having Already Jumped: Thoughts about End of the Tour

I just got back from watching the film End of the Tour. Don’t remember saying “thank you” to the lone attendant at the theatre, but I know I did. Sat on my bike for a long time, engine running, helmet, gloves and jacket on, and sweating in the August early afternoon. I sat and stared for a while, listening. Though, to what I have no idea. Must’ve been the same mode, the same staring at nothing in particular after I saw Mindwalk or My Dinner with Andre, broken only when an elderly woman pulled up in a Buick and parked right next to me, stoned rings on every one of her fingers.

Feeling very ashamed at the moment. Ashamed that I haven’t taken the time to read Wallace’s work. A copy of Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf for well over six years now, a clear indication of my status as a lightweight, a poser. How long can one hide from their own insecurities, their own, complacencey, apathy, lethargy? A simple equation S+a/W•w=L, where “S” is the weight of society, a weight that has, throughout the years, hammered one’s confidence down, shaping it into the sprocket necessary to continue the provisions of the wealthy few, “a” is the aggravation that has resulted, the particular dismay learned and conditioned only by consistent failure, “W” is the proposed body of work one is expected to accomplish, “w” is the body of work actually accomplished, and finally, “L” is unbridled laziness. Try this list on the Sesame Street Alphabet segment.

There was an idea brought up around the climax of the film. I’m going to have to paraphrase, of course, because I can’t remember the lines. It’s late. Wallace enters the guest room where Lipsky is staying. The two have been carrying around an awkward silence, an anger pointed at one another, but a circumstantial anger and resentment, one neither of them could help but feel nor distinguish the reasons for or the origins of. Wallace needs to apologize, but can’t find a justification for it beyond defending his need to protect his interests, which, he arguably has lost sight of. He references a section in his book, where a person makes the choice to jump out of a burning sky-scraper. To outside observers, the jump is the horror, the absolute of self-destruction, unquestionable death. Yet, to the person who decides to jump, the fall is the escape from the horror that awaits them otherwise. He goes on to say that he grew up entirely “American,” that he realized his fears, relentless anxieties that had come to define him, were altogether unfounded. That there was nothing to be afraid of. That was exactly the point, that there really was nothing whatsoever behind the veil of his existence. The greatest horror of all, nothing. Sartre one-oh-one. And so, anything that could help him escape from the “faux” of it all, be it television, drinking, a job as a security guard where he had no concerns and was amused by trivial things, all of it could serve to help him escape the fate of nothing. He was free to jump out of the burning building into his addiction, the chance to “turn off,” and fall into the banal world of television.

I don’t know the validity of the conversations that took place in the film, nor what percentage has been altered to fit the context of ninety-minute cinema. I could read Lipsky’s book, and intend to, but again, verisimilitude remains a question. If nothing else, though, the loneliness that Wallace mentions, and how it is inescapable because he sees something that no one else does, this is what will echo through these chasms for a long time. If not in the hollows of my own thoughts, but in the empty zeitgeist that, I feel, society seems to define. Is this not part of the great struggle to find more, or less value in the public and the private self? Is there not a raging conflict between the two? The battles between them have become so constant and ubiquitous that we hardly register the difference between the two. They are one in the same, our selves, ourselves. And yet, somehow both are controlled by forces unseen, colossal influences just beyond the horizon of our perceivable landscape.

During the dénouement, Lipsky attempts to fill in the blanks about Wallace. Wallace steps outside to begin to cut away the ice and snow that has buried his car, Lipsky hurriedly walks around Wallaces home with his tape recorder and speaks into it, listing and describing objects found around the house. He’s desperate to find some substance beyond the esoteric conversations that he and Wallace have had. Soda cans, Mountain Dew and Pepsi, stains on the carpet from the dogs, cigarette burning in an ash tray, cartoon of left and right human brain and a dog brain on the refrigerator, blue toilet seat, postcards on the wall of the bathroom. Lipsky is compelled to gather this information for two reasons. Firstly, he needs copy, something to round out the article. Lipsky is also attempting to reverse engineer Wallace, map him, define the equation that makes Wallace the success that he is, figure him out so that he can then apply the same terms of the equation in his own calculations, and therefore discover his own measure of success. But it doesn’t work. For as he finds these items in the house, he does not see the banality they alert too. They are the drone of the emptiness Wallace mentions earlier in the narrative, the drone Lipsky does not hear. It’s only after Wallace’s death that Lipsky begins to detect but the echo of what Wallace had said.

Right behind you, Dave. Right behind you.

“Poor Stevie”: The Element of the Grotesque and Identity in Conrad’s The Secret Agent

Stevie’s death in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is undoubtedly one of the most baffling and violent moments in literature. It is certainly a tragic incident in the novel, but when pursuing a more clear definition of its distinct grotesque quality we begin to uncover a multifaceted correlation between each character and their sense of identity. With particular focus on Chief Inspector Heat, we can see that in exposing each successive layer of this correlation morality and social aesthetic become increasingly arbitrary. Thus, it is the element of the grotesque which destabilizes any sense of a singular, unified identity.

It seems the human psyche, no matter how morally resolute, will always be guilty of a voyeuristic infatuation with destruction. This is entirely natural. Take for example a moment from another of Conrad’s works, Under Western Eyes, when the “excited crowd” assembles “round the sledge” of the Minister-President after the first bomb explodes (Under Western Eyes 59). The crowd immediately gathers and it is only after witnessing the awe of destruction that they offer aid to the coachmen and the Minister-President. It’s as if the sight of destruction demands an audience. For what is destruction if not gazed upon and contemplated? To Chief Inspector Heat in The Secret Agent, the fleshy scraps collected from the site of the bombing that are displayed upon the hospital table are just such a sight to be witnessed, investigated, and marveled at. He stoops “guardedly over the table” of the indistinguishable remains (The Secret Agent 70), but what is to be “guarded”? Simply being near the remains, he feels he is in the presence of a “shattering violence of destruction” which threatens to turn he too into “a heap of nameless fragments” with “ruthless cruelty.” He is deeply mortified at the thought of experiencing the violence of having his own body shredded by a fiery bomb blast; it is ironic then that his name is “Heat.” This is a moment for him to ponder his own death, face its inevitability, and he realizes it is consistent with and inextricable from one of the most basic definitions of the human condition– pain. His “calm face” conceals his inner consternation as he peers at the table like a shopper “bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher’s shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner” (70). The image of the butcher shop uses the allegory of the meat packing industry to affirm the sentiment of the moment: an insignificant animal is raised for the sole purpose of slaughter and will inevitably face the cold, apathetic forces of commerce in the form of its complete dismemberment. We get the sense that the manner of Stevie’s death is also inevitable and equally dispassionate for he is subject to the forces of ideological, political, and socioeconomic maneuvering.

This dismemberment greatly affects Inspector Heat because of his instinct to empathize, or his attempt to imagine himself in Stevie’s position. He imagines himself being destroyed by the blast of a bomb:

It seemed impossible to believe that a human body could have reached that state of disintegration without passing through the pangs of inconceivable agony. No physiologist, and still less of a metaphysician, Chief Inspector Heat rose by the force of sympathy, which is a form of fear, above the vulgar conception of time. 

Sympathy as a “form of fear” is key to understanding the grotesqueness of the image. The human body itself is arguably the most grotesque object to us for many reasons. There is a primordial aspect about our concept of all objects foreign to our bodies, such as rocks, chemicals, and especially things that are biological like predators or even fungi. This primordial aspect– fear. That is, we assess a foreign object as something to be frightened of according to the level of physical harm it may effect upon our fragile bodies. Rocks are solid and rigid in contrast to our soft flesh, chemicals are associated with burns, predators maul and devour, and fungi decompose, reminding us that the antithesis of life is not death, but the absence of a body’s homeostasis. The body is the only tool we have, or the only frame of reference by which we relate and quantify consequences caused by objective forces to our self-awareness– our identity. In other words, we identify ourselves as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, and this sense of identity depends upon our body’s homeostasis, or its amalgamated and sustained health. Grotesque occurs when the body is pressed beyond its physical limits. We might press those limits via a delusion that the body is infinite in its faculties, but in doing so, we discover that the body is, in fact, flawed and imperfect. This thought of imperfection, or the failure of homeostasis, induces a fear that is “at once underlined and contained by the defamiliarizing of the human” (Phillips 44). In other words, if the physical human body is deconstructed there is no unified identity and there remains instead only unrelated parts which no longer signify a whole. For example, the ball joint of the femur does not make sense without the socket of the hipbone. Much the same, a clump of flesh does not independently signify the whole of Stevie’s body.

This defamiliarizing is consistent with Conrad’s “discomfort with reducing a group of individuals as a ‘public’” because this “results, in [his] imagination, not in a unified, unbroken body but a mass of mismatched undifferentiated features” (Oliver 210). The word “grotesque” is itself “a storage-space for the outcasts of language, entities for which there is no appropriate noun” (Harpham xxi). This is where a “sense of formal disorder” arises in things we perceive to be grotesque and where “ontological, generic or logical categories are illegitimately jumbled together.” As an “outcast of language,” the word grotesque is linked to anarchy in that they both defy definition. Things that are grotesque are thus made up of indescribable parts. For example, while being essentially made up of countless drops of water, a puddle still has a form and is situated in one local, but the rain which formed that puddle is chaotic and difficult to quantify. Originating from visual art, the grotesque is then primarily concerned “with the beholder and the beholder’s attempt to define and categorize” every aspect of human life  according to social norms or moral statutes “to which the grotesque may be regarded as resistant, hence the predominantly negative view of it held during the eighteenth century” (Phillips 42-43). Because Conrad was determined to expand the reader’s experience of his work, this may be why the grotesque is so evident in the novel.

In The Secret Agent, these “mismatched” and “undifferentiated features” become the visceral, unforgettable image of Stevie’s remains. Conrad might have used the element of the grotesque, in this case, as a “strategy for fragmenting rather than unifying his reading public” who, as suggested by the singular word “public,” are otherwise considered to share universally the same experience of reading his novel (Oliver 210). Instead, fragmentation, or the grotesque image of the remains of Stevie’s body, “favors multiplicity and uncertainty” (211). Thus, the definition of identity expands beyond the physical boundaries of the body and begins to test the limits of the psyche. Upon witnessing Stevie’s remains, Inspector Heat first empathizes with Stevie’s pain, then enters the foyer of the existential question– the meaning of life. In that instant of grotesque destruction, where lies the “inexplicable mysteries of conscious existence,” Heat sees a vast expanse of time and human experience (The Secret Agent 70). He sees “long and terrifying dreams” and an “atrocious pain and mental torture” that is “contained between two successive winks of an eye”. He comes to understand that the single most significant element that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is the knowledge of mortality. To ponder one’s own finitude of his or her lifetime in relation to the infinitude of time and space is quite possibly the only acceptable meaning of life, albeit horrific. What’s more, the conclusions drawn from this internal struggle yield no further insight into the nature of identity. Inspector Heat can not even identify the bomber which means that his empathy for the deceased is displaced, and therefore in his attempt to identify with the deceased by imagining himself in the latter’s place he too becomes “mismatched,” formless, indistinguishable, and without identity.

Through his investigation of the bombing, Inspector Heat thus comes to discover that its grotesque aspect signifies a violence almost infinitely deep because it exposes and threatens to destabilize the core of human identity. He is ultimately able to cope with the grim sight of Stevie’s remains because shortly thereafter he discover’s the only psychological weapon to counteract the grotesque. This weapon is not the body– which is fragile and finite –but comedy, or humor. After being awestruck by the remains in the hospital he says “grimly” to the constable on duty, “‘The coroner’s jury will have a treat’,” the irony being that there is so little of the body for the coroner to examine much less make a report on which would add anything not already apparent in the case (79). While comedy may be equally hazardous as the grotesque, it is a great equalizer that renders the profound and the horrific as arbitrary, for “hazard has such accuracies” (208).


Works Cited

Danow, David K.. The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1995. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. The Secret Agent. NY: Penguin Classics, 2007. Print.

––– Under Wester Eyes. NY: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.

Harpham, Geoffrey. On the Grotesque. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982. Print.

Meindl, Dieter. American Fiction and the Metaphysics of the Grotesque. Coumbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996. Print.

Oliver, Matthew. “Conrad’s Grotesque Public: Pornography and the Politics of Reading in The Secret Agent.” Twentieth-Century Literature 55.2 (2009): 209-231. Print.

Owens, Margaret E.. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Cranbury, NJ: Rosement Publishing & Printing Corp., 2005. Print.

Phillips, Terry. “A Study in Grotesques: Transformations of the Human in the Writing of Liam O’Flaherty.” Gothic Studies 7.1 (2005): 41-52. Print.

Days Like Today

It’s familiar, routine.

Awake before everyone else in the house, before most everyone in your neighborhood. You smell it in the air, taste it. It urges you, ignites your desire to grab the keys and go. Your muscles are stiff from an entire weekend of having not moved much except to cycle through the list of “honey-do”s. You abhor that list, not just because they are things you do with or without the list, but because your version of the list includes the one thing that you need most. But like a child who is told “you can’t have your dessert unless you finish your meal” you are trapped in the domestic limbo of laundry, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog you didn’t want in the first place, grocery shopping, more laundry, entertaining the in-laws, staring at online job-applications because of course you’re drastically underemployed and underpaid, resenting the process of online job applications because of course you don’t even work for these companies yet and you’re already being undervalued and treated like a peon, paying bills on credit, still more laundry, yet more cleaning, and on to infinitum, everything but the one thing you have made explicitly clear that you need solo time for. But, as usual, your needs have been entirely subjugated and swept under the rug of “doing the right thing, placing others first.” Now it’s Monday. In three hours you will once again be bent over a desk and sodomized for nine hours straight by Uncle Sam and Uncle Wall Street. But it doesn’t have to be so bad if only you could get in an hour or so at your favorite break. It’s not the best spot and you’re sometimes chided by others for preferring it, but whether it’s got ankle-biters or those rare peaks that will cut your head off, you always find it to be a challenge. And lets face it, there’s nothing more realigning, more centering, more wholesomely chaotic than sitting alone on your best heavily dinged, delaminated board while watching a pod of three dark shadows pass directly under you and quietly resurface only a few meters away just as a brown pelican glides silently past you riding a pocket of air in front of an incoming wave.

It won’t happen, again, this morning. It’s now a quarter to the hour. Fortunately your commute is only a few minutes, but have yet to shower, eat, and do all the other petty things we are conditioned to do according to the bourgeoisie schedule. “And miles to go before I sleep” repeats endlessly in your head.

You step over your board bag just as you fasten your name badge to your breast pocket. You quickly glance in the mirror to make sure your mask is on properly, then grab your keys, step out the door and arch your back to accept the heavy foot of Moloch.


Hello, this is the introductory post for my blog. Everything previous to this is migrated from a previous blog. This blog will be a series of short, semi-academic essays. In terms of context and subject matter I’m betting that a focal point or certain themes will begin to emerge after a number of posts. Nonetheless, after being a professional student for as many years as I have now I’m starting to feel rather enervated with respect to theory or critical perspective. However, I do feel very much akin to my literary, linguistic, and philosophic predecessors, so I am inherently compelled to write. Like many others, I’m sure, who feel trapped in the “postmodern condition” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, right?), I also often find myself hurling linguistic vomit into some nonsensical, cyclical social eternity. I’ll attempt to hold together some island with which to compile words and ideas upon as I float shamelessly through the universe that Hubble and Sagan helped to define and that Lyotard and Foucault have managed to disintegrate. Whatever manifests (Oxford commas and all), so be it. Take or leave it, that’s your prerogative.


Here’s another topic modeling of Heart of Darkness.

List of Topics

  1. river time looked back water house face sea
  2. mr good kind ivory lot round things back
  3. eyes great feet night bank side began steamer
  4. men manager life day work air forest wanted
  5. man station thing thought asked talk time felt
  6. black head suddenly people half word purpose stopped
  7. kurtz heard voice moment kurtzs understand hear idea
  8. made dont white left silence cried hand bush
  9. long earth pilgrims high light stood end place
  10. hands heart trees human knew low put things

I chose to TM this novel to try to test the “subtlety of humor” concept a bit. As anyone who’s read his work before could tell you, there’s very little in the way of humor in Conrad’s work, but I had a hunch that there might be a little bit of the residue of humor coupled with the abject aspects in the novel. As predicted, though, nothing of the sort came up. However, there is certainly a sense of magnificence and raw presence in the novel, like in topic 10, “hands heart trees human.” In the novel there’s a moment where Marlowe first begins to understand what’s happening to the people of Congo and how they’re exploited by ivory trade:

Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of the helpers had withdrawn to die.

Here we find an economic philosophy, capitalism, that bears down on these people. It’s a philosophy that changes the human body, transmogrifies it from life to void. Where human hands were once “infinite in faculty…like an angel,” under this philosophy these hands are become merely kindle in to the firestorm of profit. And while their bodies face an exponential rate of entropy under the weight of capital, so too do their minds and culture decay in the trap that has been set for them. They were sold an idea, and they believe it ceaselessly, and will forever, until the end of their civilization, believe in Kurtz– topic 7, “kurtz heard voice moment kurtzs understand hear idea.”

In other news, eggs are now available from hens that were cage fre…oh, wait.

Subtlety of Humor in War Letters

I did another topic modeling sample on my own data from the war letters from Lt. Cpl. Daryl Eigen which I had transcribed. Here is the list of topics that came up:


List of Topics

1. wrong area marine work company gun base tomorrow leaches killing

2. write corps early mar meters hit walked liberty today times

3. vc things daryl back div rations months made part wounded

4. days pretty man letter day setting radio rounds number field

5. night lbs ill ambush riding south shore leave send bullets


What I find interesting is that Daryl’s humor doesn’t come out in the topics. It’s interesting that my understanding of Daryl’s time in Vietnam is that of general humility, humility in the face of great danger and the horrors of war, humility which is maintained through lighthearted humor. Maybe there is a kind of subtlety about humor that escapes the rigidity of databasing, classification, modeling, all of the basic functions of historical archiving and research. It takes subjective inquiry to really get a sense of what’s going on in these letters. Although, I should say, too, it’s likely that Eigen was withholding his true sentiments about what he was experiencing in order to prevent his family from worrying too much. If this is the case, it’s also possible that the topic modeling sees through the veil of humor and picks up on the more realistic aspects of what was happening. However, topic 3, “days pretty man letter day setting radio rounds number field,” does seem to suggest the poetic beauty that Eigen saw in the region.

Dad! Send Money!

One of my colleagues, Rutillio Castor, worked on transcribing letters from Cpt. John Safford to his father during the American Civil War. Apparently Safford had difficulty handling money (though, who doesn’t). A Wordle matrix of six of his letters indicates “want,” “soon,” and “know” as the three most common words in his letters. In other words, he knows that he needs money soon.

I also ran Saffords letters through a Topic Modeling tool and came up with the following list of topics:

1. night morning suppose dr mail
2. dont capt stay safford months
3. long write back friends milk
4. day office james discharge adjt
5. george lt home make place
6. commission due st made company
7. put rey discharged papers written
8. send close days bring friend
9. good entittell glad thing half
10. col pay major hope things

Most of the topics are confusing because the data itself needs to be cleaned up a bit first, but the topics do seem to reinforce the the general theme of money, or lack there of. This isn’t much of a surprise, though. It’s common knowledge that a lot of service men were in dire straights during the American Civil War, as they often are in contemporary times. The first topic also suggests the routine quality of the day-to-day, that and there also seems to be a much slower kind of life. Obviously, without iPads, internet, and video games, servicemen back then had much more time to write, contemplate life, and long for home and companionship.