Fear of Fairy Tales

Peter Roehr

“Fear lurks in everyone. The one who always asserts to not know fear is mentally damaged or a fool.”
Max Horkheimer (Psalm 91, Collected Writings vol 7)

“Fear, accompanying such an extraordinary state, also plays a role in enchantment. The thirteenth-century writer Albertus Magnus described wonder as “ ‘shocked surprise’ … before the sensible appearance of a great prodigy, so that the heart experinces systole. Thus wonder is somewhat similar to fear….”
Jane Bennett (The Enchantment of Modern Life)

“Adults live in fear of one kind or another—fear of failure, poverty, isolation, fear of loss of soul in the destruction of the earth. Those fears create a mood of “being lost in the forest.” Men in their twenties and thirties respond to those fears by leaning on a corporation, or an addiction…”
Robert Bly (More Than True)

“A brother asked one of the elders: How does fear of the Lord get into a man? And the elder said: If a man have humility and poverty, and judge not another, that is how fear of the Lord gets into him.”
Thomas Merton (The Wisdom of the Desert; Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

I keep returning to Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen’s book Diary of a Man in Despair. I was reminded it of while watching Vera Sharav’s interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtqT4b-qHoA.

There is a pronounced tendency in western countries, certainly in the U.S., to immediately and reflexively dismiss comparisons of events today with those in Germany in the 20s and 30s. The reaction is always total, and almost never (in my experience) one that admits of any points of convergence or comparison. But I was reminded of Reck-Malleczewen this week, too, when I went to Trondheim. My wife and the kids came because there was something at the mall that my wife needed. I had not been to Trondheim in a while, nearly six months probably. And to see that nearly everyone in the mall we visited was wearing a mask was unsettling. Even children. I felt a kind of numbness, and then a kind of fear for *my* children. I cannot long be out among these people.

Bernd Ribbeck

But let me segue (or digress) to something else that is happening. The cultural landscape, the official one, is one absent working class voices. Academic identity politics seems the guiding sensibility. Now, of course the culture wars are somewhat a fabrication, and yet, even as a manufactured distraction they have a certain meaning. And they were and still are not entirely that.

The New York Review of Books was once a favorite publication for me; Í looked forward to the long train rides I had to take across central and eastern Europe with a NYRB (or two) in hand (this is thirty years ago mind you). But the trend to move rightward did not spare the publication, and liberal fascist apologist tenor of today’s incarnation is painful to even skim through. But I wanted to touch on the strangely disconnected cultural voice of the mainstream (and Academia). Here is a paragraph from a newsletter (well, email) that the NYRBs sent me:

“Yesterday we published Namwali Serpell’s “Black Hole,” a scintillating and scrupulous essay that follows the author’s thinking and Googling on everything from scientific racism to clitoral orgasm, the summer 2020 rap anthem “WAP” to millennial Internet fiction. The piece finally—ecstatically—culminates in a tribute to the black woman’s vagina.”
Lucy McKeon (NYRB)

Jens Birkholm (1906)

Now, Mamwali Serpell is advertised as an African writer (though she left Zambia, her birth country, at age 9). Her father is white, and an Oxford academic named Robert Serpell. In other words, Ms Serpell, despite her self identifying as a sort of marginalized voice (queer, black African) is from a very privileged background and is only nominally African. She sounds smart in interviews (pretentious too, but that’s ok, and she is still young) and did her studies at Yale and Harvard. Again, not an average voice of the Global South. But she claims she is a socialist, so that’s good, and she was articulate about Walter Benjamin in one interview. I have no idea about her fiction. Her NYRB piece on *black pussy* was pretty lame, though. (Iceberg Slim was better on the same topic).

My point is not about Serpell, but about what is not in this picture. The working class, the underclass, the voice of dispossession. In the U.S. the proletarian voice went the way of the passenger pigeon, and only a few decades later (well, about five decades later). The bourgeois-ification of queer culture (gay culture) has meant that voices like the much neglected John Rechy, feel of another era. More than era, and I probably shouldn’t say Rechy is neglected, but he certainly deserves more serious analysis than he has received. (years ago HBO actually listened to me pitch an anthology of outlaw writers. I suggested Iceberg Slim and Rechy both. Of course it went nowhere).

Wanda Koop

As a something of a coincidence there is a piece in this same issue of the NYRBs on John Berryman’s letters. Now Berryman was an alcoholic of the most tedious kind (judging from reports) but what struck me (I’ve never liked his Dream Songs, but I will say his comments on Shakespeare, never really put into an entire book, are great — and really, I think there are places in the poems that are terrific. Berryman knew all the sprung rhythm techniques, he was technically never a dumb poet. And to me he sounds like Byron often, because of the anapestic meter that seems to be everywhere) was the minstrel voice he employed throughout his poems. The invoking of a black dialect, a minstrel voice no less, was connected in the letters (many to black author Ralph Ellison) to baby talk. The manufacturing of whiteness then was tied in directly (for the bourgeoisie, the academic educated liberal) with infantilism. And suddenly Berryman’s curious popularity with rock bands and sci fi writers made a bit more sense. Adrienne Rich in a review of Dream Songs (for The Nation no less) wrote…

“Some streak of genius in Berryman told him to try on what he’s referred to as “that god-damned baby-talk,” that blackface dialect, for his persona. No political stance taught him, no rational sympathy with negritude. For blackface is the supreme dialect and posture of this country, going straight to the roots of our madness. A man who needs to discourse on the most extreme, most tragic subjects, has recourse to n[—–] talk.”
Kamran Javadizadeh (The Roots of Our Madness, NYRB)

Actually the racial slur was spelled out by Rich, interestingly. Anyway, the point here is that it had not occurred to me that the fascist recourse to baby talk would find corollary in mid century academic poetry circles, in this manufacturing of whiteness. And of course in the shift (tidal swell) that was the removal of the working class from approved cultural product.

Walton Ford

Somehow that shift (and Bly argued this, too, back in the 50s) is ever more significant today, when Prime Ministers of several western countries sound like nothing so much as kindergarten teachers scolding their 3 year old students.

“By the eighteenth century the European intellectual was no longer interested in imagination really. He was trying to developthe “masculine” mental powers he sensed Socrates stood for a demythologized intelligence, that moves in a straight line made of tiny bright links, an intelligence dominated by linked facts rather than “irrational” feelings. The European intellectual succeeded in developing that rationalist intelligence and it was to prove useful. Industry needed it to guide a locomotive through a huge freight yard, or to guide a spaceship back from the moon through the “reentry corridor.””
Robert Bly (Leaping Poetry)

Bly noted that American poets of the 20th century had little in common with painters (there were exceptions, of course, like Frank O’ Hara). In France the surrealist painters and poets overlapped a good deal. Bly saw in Creeley a great poet but one who taught his students to stay in only one cave of the mind (Creeley, said Bly, had agony in his work, and he stayed far back in his cave, in a distant archaic part of it.) Criticism of such richness is nearly gone today. Bly is in his 90s now, and I see nobody to replace him.

Fake head made by prisoners (the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris) in Alcatraz and used in the 1960 escape.

It is worth reading his book of criticism Leaping Poetry, which I have always used when teaching writing. And in a sense they represent the ascent of what Bly called ‘the reptile brain’. For to look at Bill Gates or Zuckerberg is to be looking at reptiles. Lizard people. Their eyes have changed over time, too. They have died. Dead eyes. They are windows to the reptile brain. I mean this is perilously close to literally true. The ruling class vanguard today, this small neo Nazi multi trillionaires, are most certainly pushing an agenda that reeks of reptilian desire. And there is a drastic shortage of cultural resistance, let alone political resistance. And where there IS political resistance, the shortage of cultural support has dire consequences.

Part of the anti-human sensibility one sees in people like Gates or Bezos or Biden or Trump, or Prince Charles is the denial of their own desires. I often have asked what it is that makes a Bezos want *more*? There is nothing he can’t have, nothing he can’t do. And he yet he wants more. And this is deformation of desire in a sense. And it is tied in with a deep profound repression. Bezos doesn’t know what he wants.

“These days we want to live at the top of the head, in the brain, but for at least a couple of thousand years, a reptile has been representing the whole spine, and there’s a part of each psyche that is at least a little bit reptilian. In this story, the ancient nervous system was thrown out with the first birth. The midwife tried to throw it out when she threw the little snake out the window. It wasn’t considered necessary for civilized life. We used to say that the proper study of mankind is man, the whole man. But now we don’t want to bother with the chthonic, the under-worldly energy as it lives in us. We’d rather see it projected on an entertainment screen. We’d rather meet people online, where there’s no time for bodies.”
Robert Bly (More Than True)

Greg Hildebrandt

Bly is analysing fairy tales in this book, his most recent. And it is the poetic dialectic of Enlightenment, really. His discussions of The Lindworm, and The Frog Prince, are simply inspiring. The tendency toward specialization has meant a societal encouragement to deny aspects of one’s self. I was thinking of a diary from the early 20th century. It was the diary of a hunter. And he told of coming upon the last bird, he felt pretty sure, of a species. I forget the bird, unfortunately. But the diary entry related his sadness at seeing this last example of a species. It was a small bird, a sparrow perhaps, but he wrote beautifully of the his feelings as he watched it on a branch, and how terrible the species had been wiped out. And then he shot it.

“The old tradition says that if a man loves God he can become holy in twenty years; but if he hates God he can do the same work in two years.”
Robert Bly (Honouring the Shadow, an Interview with William Booth)

Bly then says something, in that interview, wonderful and profound.

“Paying attention to what one likes or hates in literature helps also. I’ve always been obsessed with certain eighteenth-century men, Pope and Johnson, for example. I grumble about them as neoclassical, haters of feeling, rationalistic sticks, followers of metrical rules, enemies of spontaneity, etc. I finally stopped attacking them, and looked down to the right: it’s obvious that I’ve had in me for years an unused and unrecognized classical side,
and I have to readjust my view of my own openness to feeling. It’s possible I’m not romantic. Facing that had two effects: first, I wasn’t able to sustain my hatred for Samuel Johnson. As a matter of fact, I find his essay on Milton absolutely magnificent.”

Robert Bly (Ibid)

Gabriele Basilico, photography.

This is very important for artists right now. One of the most depressing and troubling aspects of life today — if one wants to create — is the place for creativeness that doesn’t exist. I feel this all the time. When I was younger I knew where to be, both physically and psychically, to write, to direct, to create theatre. I knew others who were doing it. I knew an audience, both individually and collectively. Art held a place in the world. Or in my world. And I could watch Kantor and Cricot, or Peter Brook at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. I could read new plays from Pinter, Handke, or Genet, and if I read a work by Michel de Ghelderode, I understood its influence, its place in my world. When Heiner Muller mounted a new play, I could feel the planetary shift, the oppositional magnetic pole. I didn’t have to see the play, I didn’t have to read the play. I *knew* the play was there. There was a force field, a psychic balance that influenced techtonic movement. This is related to Lorca’s Duende, and it also related to enchantment.

Now, the lockdowns have taken all that away. The disturbing aspect of this is that the lockdown has forced many of us to realize how much of it had already been taken away years ago. One is being forced to look at that stuff, those artists, those works, that one had missed. For in that lies the key, or the clue, to finding a beginning for the future. I did a workshop in L.A. just before the pandemic. And already the discussion was about how to practice art today. In particular theatre. And I compared writers today to those desert fathers, monks, out alone in caves with ancient coptic manuscripts that only a handful of people could read.

I used to just hate Wordsworth. No reason. I just didn’t get it. So I have returned. Ive started to understand something, though I still don’t really hear him the way others seem to hear him. But trying that has made me grasp Milton better. I can’t even tell you why.

When Bly speaks of fairy tales he touches on something about narrative. This is perhaps a seemingly banal example of what Hollywood does. If you read any screenwriting instruction manual — and there are dozens — you will be extolled to create unity and if a gun appears in scene one the gun must return later. There are countless examples of these formulae, and yet, a striking feature of great novels or plays is the abandonment of all formula. And in fairy tales this is especially true (as it is in the King James bible, as Auerbach pointed out).

“Of course, our parents have many questions about our lover, and our ugly sisters are jealous, and soon all the ecstasy of early adolescence is gone and we are stumbling through the woods, ragged, deserted, and lost, like everyone else. That state can last for years, as we all know. It can be an unfortunate “marriage,” a “career,” an obsession. All during the ecstatic time, and the stumbling abandonment, though we don’t know it, we are headed for the Glass Mountain. That is, we are headed toward a confrontation with the Greedy One, who wasn’t even mentioned until most of the action of the story has already happened. So where did She come from.”
Robert Bly (More Than True)

Dan Holdsworth, photography.

“Sometimes a man rises from the supper table
and goes outside. And he keeps on going
because somewhere to the east there’s a church.
His children bless his name as if he were dead.

Another man stays at home until he dies,
stays with plates and glasses.
So then it is his children who go out
into the world, seeking the church that he forgot.”

Rainer Marie Rilke

There is a deep anti-human agenda in Capitalism. There always has been, but today, as capitalism reaches its most dire crises (one expected, perhaps even planned) the class struggle has taken on its most profound form. And fear is the currency in play. And the most coercive aspect of this struggle is the war on children. And it is found in many forms- from the known and ignored toxicity of plastics and the poisoning of the earth and oceans, to the revanchist sex negativity of social distancing and masks, and to the addictions of screens. And the habituation to screens is, of course, also intentional.

“Endings’ is a power discourse. Ends are ‘deployed.’ This is particularly evident in the popular press, where apocalyptic scenarios are used as a commonplace trope. The end – even if it refers to the last day of a department store sale – is a kind of publicity stunt, an effective means of emotionally intensifying an issue to push special aims and interests. To proclaim an apocalyptic, catastrophic end is to invoke a ‘shock horror’ calamity that will somehow overwhelm and foreclose aspects of our future. In other words, endings are political. They are phenomena of popular discourse and powerful interests.”
Paul Corcoran (Awaiting Apocolypse)

Adam Jeppesen

There has now been over two decades of acute eschatological fear mongering. It began with the media’s lurid criminalizing of all natural events (killer storms, killer bees, the battle against hurricane something, ) which I, at least, began to notice in the seventies. The metaphors were always military. Then came the first wave of climate prophets and their predictions of doom. The fact that going all the way back to Paul Ehrlich and his absurd predictions on population — this is forty years ago now — the projected demise of humankind is always given within a period of a few decades. This has had an effect on children. Most children cannot process death until around age four. Irreversibility is conventionally very difficult for three year olds. And larger ideas of absence and permanent loss are not understood until six or seven. Fear drove the revisionist environmental movement. And while I doubt most adults believed it, not deeply (as I have pointed out, if you REALLY believed life on earth would end in two decades you would not keep putting money away in the 401k) — children did believe, and often silently. This is an updated and more intensely marketed version of fear of ‘the bomb’ (which is still with us, of course). I think a generation carried this burden (climate cataclysm) with them, privately, and it has contributed to the enormous increases in adolescent self harm and suicide, as well as depression. It is not the only reason, needless to say, but it has coloured the sensibilities of youth today.

William Blake (The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve)

In the 3rd and 4th century there was a profound movement in Egypt, in the desert, and it was an early branch of Christianity. The monks who went out into the desert, most to live alone, in solitude, have come to be called the ‘desert fathers’. Thomas Merton wrote about them, and so did Sister Benedicta Ward. There are important reasons, I believe, to read these early texts now. What one finds are stories that read very much like fairy tales. It is not hard to hear the echoes of this anonymous authors in the works of Kafka, for example, or even Handke.

“I. We also saw another old man in the desert of Antinoe, the metropolis of the Thebaid, called Elias. By now he would be a hundred years old. People said that the spirit of the prophet Elijah rested on him. He was famous for having spent seventy years in the terrible desert. No description can do justice to that rugged desert in the mountain where had his hermitage, never coming down to the inhabited region.
2. The path which one took to go to him was so narrow that those who pressed on could only just follow its track, with rough crags towering on either side. He had his seat under a rock in a cave, so that even the sight of him was very impressive. As for the rest, his whole body trembled under the weight of his years. Every day he worked many miracles and did not cease healing the sick.
3. The fathers said of him that no one remembered when it was that he went up into the mountain. In his old age he ate three ounces of bread in the evening. In his youth he had made it his rule to eat only once a week. “

Lives of the Desert Fathers (tr. Norman Russell, Sister Benedicta Ward)

or this from John Wortley’s translation of the Apophthegmata Patrum:

“A brother made a duplicate key which he used to open the cell of one of the elders and take his small change. But the elder wrote a note in which he said: “Brother, whoever you are sir, have the kindness to leave me half for
my needs.” Then, dividing his change into two, he placed the note [there]. [The other] came in again, tore up the note and took the lot. Then, two years later, he lay dying but his soul would not come out. Then he called for the elder and said: “Pray for me, father, for it was I who stole your change.” “Why did you not say so earlier?” the elder said. Nevertheless, after he had prayed, the brother surrendered [his soul].”

Nathan Hylden

There is both a very concrete description of events, with very little setting. To return to Auerbach again, this is the King James Bible version of narrative. Not the Homeric. One can also hear Dostoyevski in these paragraphs. And this makes sense for these are writers (Dostoyevksi, Kafka ) who sought revelation, yes, but also sought to clarify the mysteries of the mundane. Kafka and Dostoyevski were acutely aware of how expectations work in narrative. They are the anti formula writers (as is Melville).

“The comprehensive commodification of higher education arises from a broad combination of powerful interests that have little to do with teaching, learning, and scholarship. Corporations profit from the talent pipeline because training costs are shifted to other organizations. Private investors, academic institutions, and city and state governments profit because they can enter into partnerships with one another, pooling financial resources and minimizing risk.{ } The disappearance of the liberal arts and the shift to technical training appeal, in different ways and to varying degrees, to people across the political spectrum. { } And the virus has greatly accelerated what one education-consulting firm heralds as the “reengineering” of higher education.”
Jacob Howland (The Campus as Factory,The Magazine, 2021)

Ride Across Lake Constance , Peter Handke, Claude Regy, dr. 1974. Gérard Depardieu & Delphine Seyrig.)

As Howland notes most Universities today have “…boards composed almost exclusively of CEOs, bankers, and lawyers.” These are not people who welcome revelation, or radical perspectives on anything. The makeover of university education is linked with the corporate ownership of said institutions. And that in turn links with the corporate takeover of climate activism, the Green New Deal, and with the Covid narrative and Big Pharma. And the alibi is always inclusion and diversity. Such terms are largely meaningless in this context. And the gradual removal of face to face education means the most critical and important feature of education will be lost. (Addiction to screens, again).

A society that markets itself as being too ‘youth conscious’, and the public nods in agreement about the obsession with youth is also a society now stealing childhood from children and killing off the excitements and joys of adolescence from the young.

Duccio (Road too Emmaus, 1308)

The above is from Duccio di Buoninsegna’s series of paintings based on stories of the Passion. Duccio seemed to me to always paint fairy tales. This piece also reminds me of Rossellini’s histories (for Italian television). There is a deceptive dialectic here with the notions of realism (or perhaps naturalism). And with Duccio there is little interest in the setting or locale, with background at all, really. Earlier above I posted a painting by Jens Birkholm. It also has this sense of fairy tale lucidity and deceptive plainness. Birkholm was a Danish painter who I think is wildly overlooked. And his work appears unsettlingly contemporary. (I will post another of Birkholm at the bottom. He was born in 1869 and died in 1915. And he painted a lot of studies of homeless shelters, the salvation army, soup kitchens. But he was never sentimental, nor was he preaching. He was decidedly uncanny however).

Thomas Merton writing of the desert fathers… (The Wisdom of the Desert)

“ And since we now have centuries of monasticism behind us, this puts the whole thing in a different light. The social “norms” of a monastic family are also apt to be conventional, and to live by them does not involve a leap into the void – only a radical change of customs and standards. The words and examples of the Desert Fathers have been so much a part of monastic tradition that time has turned them into stereotypes for us, and we are no longer able to notice their fabulous originality. We have buried them, so to speak, in our own routines, and thus securely insulated ourselves against any form of spiritual shock from their lack of conventionality.”

Merton’s observation is worth noting. There is no place where such a radical departure from *civilized* life is to be found today. There is a comparison to be made with Indian Yogis, as Merton mentions, and with Buddhist monks to be some degree. But still, the ‘terrible’ desert no longer exists. Everything feels compromised.

Age of the Medici (dr. Roberto Rossellini, 1973)

“The culture has a longing for primitive modes of expression as an antidote to repression. Nazi youth groups emphasized a kind of back-to-nature primitivism. Obviously Nazism involved a state insanity, and not all back-to-nature movements involve insanity; most embody health. And yet we can understand through Kurtz’s experience in ‘Heart of Darkness’ that the Western longing for the primitive is dangerous to the psyche. The ego becomes unable to hold its own among the primitive impulses and dissolves in mass movements, vanishes like sugar in water. { } Our language includes in its spectrum the tame, obedient man, on one end, and the savage, represented by men who rape women on pool tables, on the other end. There is no place in the psyche for the wild man who is neither. A few men took the image of the wild man as permission for being savage, failing to make any distinction.”
Robert Bly (Honoring the Shadow: interview with William Booth)

As I mentioned, Bly is in his 90s now. I met him once. And he was like a shining light in the room. My old mentor Terry Ork knew him well. I learned more from Bly than probably anyone. So I feel I want to return to him a bit more right now. I found his opening remarks at the 1968 National Book Awards Ceremony…

“I know I am speaking for many, many American poets when I ask this question: since we are murdering a culture in Vietnam at least as fine as our own, have we the right to congratulate ourselves on our cultural magnificence ? Isn’t that out of place ?”

King Lear (dr. Peter Brook, 1971)

This is what Aesthetic Resistance means, I think. Bly’s voice during the Vietnam war protests was profound. He toured the country (with other poets like Galway Kinnell, Alan Ginsburg, Robert Lowell…all now dead) and he spoke against U.S. imperialism constantly.

There is no place for aesthetics right now. No ‘place’. So, a place must be made, must be created. The pandemic and the government (and the billionaires advising and driving it) response has left meaning behind. There is no rational medical meaning any longer. There is now only the conditioned responses, the rote consensual behaviours, and beneath this are those primitive impulses and emotions. So parents put masks on their own children. The children silently obey, many thinking this must be the end.

Crisis has been normalized, and even aestheticized and eroticized.

“When you read, as you must almost every passing day, that ours is the great age of crisis—technological, military, cultural— you may well simply nod and proceed calmly to your business; for this assertion, upon which a multitude of important books is founded, is nowadays no more surprising than the opinion that the earth is round. There seems to me to be some danger in this situation, if only because such a myth, uncritically accepted, tends like prophecy to shape a future to confirm it.”
Frank Kermode (The Sense of an Ending)

The crisis provides meaning and a feeling of belonging. The Muslim terrorist is now among us, as the unvaccinated. Passports for the righteous are just around the corner, and are welcomed by many. Welcomed by those without a sense of a future.

Jacob El Hanani

“But although the fictions are alike ways of finding out about the human world, anti-Semitism is a fiction of escape which tells you nothing about death but projects it onto others; whereas King Lear is a fiction that ines- capably involves an encounter with oneself, and the image of one’s end. This is one difference; and there is another. We have to distinguish between myths and fictions. Fictions can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive. In this sense anti-Semitism is a degenerate fiction, a myth; and Lear is a fiction.”
Frank Kermode (Ibid)

A bit later Kermode writes…

“Schizophrenics can lose contact with ‘real’ time, and undergo what has been called ‘a transformation of the present into eternity.’ The ability to wait for the gratification of a desire is measurably less in children and in old people than in the mature; it is very low in the emotionally disturbed, especially in juvenile delinquents. And as readers we do seem to partake of some of these abnormally acute appetites. We hunger for ends and for crises. ‘Is this the promis’d end?’ we ask with Kent in Lear; if not, we require that it be an image of it. It is not merely, as I suggested, that we are like children; we are like some abnormal children, such as the autistic, who invent the most arbitrary and painful fictions. It seems that there is in narrative an atavism of our temporal attitudes, modified always by a refusal quite to give up our ‘realism’ about time…”

Jens Birkholm

The first line of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is…“It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.”

Something has surfaced in people with this massive propaganda campaign that is the Covid narrative. It is something about the giving of meaning to existence. And it is sacrificial in some sense. And children are the sacrificial lambs. Under cover of care for people’s well being, there is an attempt to strip mine everything human, everything that allows us to mature and grow. The travel restrictions are particularly sinister, actually. The commonplace term ‘a change of scenery’ became the cliche that it is because it held a truth. To stop changes of scenery is to demand dullness, it is to make material the pathological repetitions of mental sickness.

Theodora Allen

I close with two quotes from Antonin Artaud. From his essay Theatre and the Plague (found in Theatre and its Double);

“But one wonders whether the plague described by Marseille doctors was exactly the same as the 1347 Florence epidemic which produced the Decameron. Histories and holy books, the Bible among them, certain old medical treatises, describe the outward symptoms of all kinds of plagues whose malignant features seem to have impressed them far less than the demoralizing and prodigious effect they produced in their minds. No doubt they were right, for medicine would be hard put to establish any basic difference between the virus Pericles died of before Syracuse (if the word virus is anything more than a verbal convenience) and that appearing in the plague described by Hippocrates, which, as recent medical treatises inform us, is a kind of fictitious plague. These same treatises hold that the only genuine plague comes from Egypt, arising from the cemeteries uncovered by the subsiding Nile. The Bible and Herodotus both call attention to the lightning appearance of a plague that decimated 180,000 men of the Assyrian army in one night, thereby saving the Egyptian Empire. If this fact is true, we ought to consider the scourge as the immediate medium or materialization of a thinking power in close contact with what we call fate.”

“But if a major scourge is needed to make this frenzied pointlessness appear and if that scourge is called the plague, we might perhaps attempt to determine the value of this pointlessness in relation to our whole personality. The condition of a plague victim who dies without any material destruction, yet with all the stigmata of an absolute, almost abstract disease upon him, is in the same condition as an actor totally penetrated by feelings without any benefit or relation to reality. Everything in the actor’s physical aspect, just as in the plague victim, shows life has reacted to a paroxysm, yet nothing has happened.”

Samuel Jessurun

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  1. Thank you for again demonstrating the coherence and continuity that disciplined thinking and compassionate feeling can create. A good library helps too. At this current juncture of my peripatetic life, I miss my books!

    I would say, incidentally, that Chris Hedges has done some RT conversations and other interviews) where the connection to Weimar is covered. (I don’t know why Hedges and Cornel West are sticking their heads in the sand about covid when they are otherwise really good at critiquing power structures). I recently reread Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the conversion of the Jews to stateless subjects (prefaced by the mandated wearing of an easily discerned symbol of otherness) as the final step to avoiding any sticky supra-national intervention on their behalf keeps echoing in my head when I think of vaccine passports, etc.

    I’ve been worrying about the children for some time now. As a park ranger last summer, I couldn’t help but wonder how these children were processing these encounters with masked people. I remember mentioning my concern to a friend, and she happily suggested maybe they’d think it was “really neat.” I talked with an unmasked grandmother recently and she has a teenage grandson who won’t take off his mask. Perhaps he feels it’s one of the safest things around these days, if the repetitive cultural mantras are true.

    Finally, I wanted to chime in on your excellent observations about artists trying to create art. Trying to stay on the edges and resist the pull of this industrial vacuum of hegemony has been difficult enough, and while I frankly haven’t investigated other ways to supplement my personal finances while I address my writing, I think those admittedly silly but useful ways of say, residential writing centers, are closed probably to everyone but certainly to someone who doesn’t have a home to return to after a week or month, etc. Only people who show “results, that is a record of success/compliance, are going to get any institutional assistance, so it takes a wing and a prayer. Thanks for reminding me where and to whom to look for creative assistance: books, thinkers, and wherever I can find the creative spirit alive and well. Cats sort of help.

  2. Thanks for, among other things, reminding me of John Rechy. In my late teens I read and reread City of Night until I had to put rubber bands around the book to hold it together. That along with Tropic of Capricorn by Miller. On buses, subways, wherever, I read those two books and later told people they’d saved my life.

    As to this: “The disturbing aspect of this is that the lockdown has forced many of us to realize how much of it had already been taken away years ago. One is being forced to look at that stuff, those artists, those works, that one had missed. For in that lies the key, or the clue, to finding a beginning for the future.” I watched All that Jazz recently. Whatever the merits or defects of that movie, it showed a millieu, cultural or entertainment, whatever, that I had lived, although slightly later (for example I took dance classes with Ann Reinking, a few years after Fosse died). Those are visceral memories. Not at all to glorify that world, but I’d been reflecting on how it has almost nothing to do with the sort of sterilized dance/theater world of today, the one that existed even before the lockdowns, with its endless “explorations” or “navigations” of whatever identity crisis. And it is and was painful to see how the lockdowns have taken even that away.
    I didn’t think of those lost works or artists as a clue to finding anything, I’ve just been so flattened by this whole turn and wondering how in the world it happened and was happening even before the covimania, so thank you for that, too. Culture is important, and art as something that doesn’t push a “useful” point of view or whatever is doubly important and like Bly, there’s no one now to replace Fosse.

  3. John Steppling says:

    I was saddened to hear of ann reinking’s death, and I remembered her in All That Jazz (and other places). She was terrific.

  4. The irony with regards to comparisons to Nazi Germany is that my own family – all survivors – repeatedly makes analogies. When people began snitching on covid sinners my mother told me that when my grandfather was a young father in Hungary, so poor that he carried garlic in his pockets for snacks, a ninety year old neighbor went to all the troubles to rat on the Jews. My grandfather lost four children and a wife. With these covid restrictions, my mother has been spontaneously sharing many such stories.

    Meanwhile the Jewish Daily Forward pretends that comparing the vaxx passport is a neo nazi Trump republican thing – calling it “historically ludicrous” because;

    “The Nazis made Jews wear the yellow star… as a means to humiliate, to terrify, to separate, to persecute them. This is to allow people to return to a normal life.”


    The stupidity on these people is incredible. I’m dumbfounded by what’s happening to the Jewish people. I believe the global culture is selecting the worst of each culture’s lot and elevating them to absolute power. Sane Jews are marginalized and bullied. I’d guess it’s the same in Israel.

  5. re: Ann Reinking–she was also an amazing teacher. RIP

  6. Josephine says:

    The desert (ed) space. Everything I need is there. And seemingly nowhere else.

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