On Blood Meridian

Sean Lewis

Cormac McCarthy is renowned for the violence of his works, his minimalist approach to punctuation (some would say hatred of) and his intensely Faulknerian writing style. With Blood Meridian, he earns fervent praise from critics, with Harold Bloom declaring it the ultimate Western. It has even joined the sacred ranks of The Great American Novel. Bloom elucidates in an interview with AV Club:

AVC: When you called it “the ultimate Western”, did you mean merely the paramount example of the genre, or its final expression?

HB: No, I meant the final one. It culminates all the aesthetic potential that Western fiction can have. I don’t think that anyone can hope to improve on it, that it essentially closes out the tradition. And in the sense that it serves as an extension of the pastoral tradition, it provides an interesting and ironic contrast with American Pastoral by my friend Philip Roth.

Such laudatory comments do not go unwarranted. The book is an entrancing, merciless descent into savagery. It is loosely based on the real-life Glanton gang, a horde of scalp hunters led by Texas Ranger John Joel Glanton. They travel the stark Mexican borderlands, murdering and scalping countless Native Americans for bounty and entertainment during the dark times following the Mexican-American War (1849-1850). The first few chapters leave no doubt that Blood Meridian is gruesome, with excruciating scenes of trees hung with dead babies, the massacring and scalping of innocent women and children, deserts bathed with blood.

We follow the Kid, who joins the gang in their destruction and in so encounters John Glanton, the very picture of a bloodthirsty bounty hunter and the intimidating, ominous figure of Judge Holden. In many ways, Judge Holden stands as one of the best villains of modern fiction. A hairless man of gargantuan bulk, he is eloquent, speaking on the nature of man, war and the law at the campfire before his fellow murderers. He behaves bizarrely, from striding around naked, to documenting artifacts and promptly destroying them, asserting that:

Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He appears a strange, all-knowing, almost supernatural spectre. After the gang comes upon Anasazi ruins, he is the sole character who understands and holds respect for this relic of an ancient Mexican civilisation.

For whoever makes makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.

This comment amplifies the wickedness of the judge, for he knowingly participates in the destruction of Mexican civilisation whilst other men desecrate out of hatred and greed bred of ignorance. The Judge is the living embodiment of the naked, undeniable human instinct for destruction. He is the very agent of war. He preaches:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

The kid’s travels span the height of the gang’s victories, the riotous revelry which wrecks the towns they pass through, to the ultimate fall of Glanton and the demise of the gang. The kid does not come away unscathed. He is pursued by the judge for being “mutinous”, and he is accompanied by an ex-priest who cautions the Kid against the judge, whom he deems to be the devil itself. The kid evades the judge, but encounters him years later. The bleak conclusion is vague, in McCarthy’s characteristic style, but it is clear that the kid, who represents the wavering flame of morality, eventually succumbs.

McCarthy’s skill with prose is nearly beyond compare. What stands out the most are the landscapes described in Blood Meridian. It will not make for easy reading, but it frames the brutality of the story perfectly. Oftentimes I was transported to stark deserts and salt plains, parched and dusty, beneath painfully clear night skies and bright stars. The landscape is essential to the narrative. As McCarthy puts it:

The desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone.

And his talent goes beyond this. Read this beautiful paragraph from the opening chapter.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her bosom the creature who would carry her off. the father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. he can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence. All history present in that visage, the child the father of the man.

There are scholars who see Blood Meridian as an anti-western work due to the manner in which “McCarthy’s narrative diverges from the traditional mythology of American westward movement […] Unlike traditional westerns, McCarthy’s novel makes “visible those violent episodes that accompanied the fight over land” (Eaton 157), and reveals a different kind of violence: the violence of cultural amnesia. After all, the problem with southwestern mythology is not only that the “myth was easier to swallow than the reality” (Eaton 157), but that the American national identity was grounded in a willed forgetting of the violence of these events.” (Shawn Mark Jasinski) In simpler terms, McCarthy exposes the brutality and violence of America’s expansion, one that has been glossed over in Western fiction and American history.

Others see it as a universal statement on the prevalence of conflict and mankind’s predisposition towards violence, any time, anywhere, amongst all peoples. No man, white, black or Mexican is innocent of violence in Blood Meridian. An old hermit warns in the book:

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but When god made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything.

I am more inclined to agree with the second camp; certainly, McCarthy framed it in that historical context but he is too brilliant an author to have meant it to be a simple statement on American expansionism and wilful blindness towards the darker sides of its history. Blood Meridian, as Bloom says, is too grand for that. I have to agree with Caryn James (NYT) who observes:

Blood Meridian makes it clear that all along Mr. McCarthy has asked us to witness evil not in order to understand it but to affirm its inexplicable reality; his elaborate language invents a world hinged between the real and surreal, jolting us out of complacency.

McCarthy

Blood Meridian reigns as one of the best novels I have encountered. The last paragraph burns, even now, upon my memory. 
And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling all at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

In the Midst of Such Paradox

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Sage advice by Barry Lopez.

Poem of the Day

A girl on a swing

by CHUNGMI KIM

She sees the mountain
upside down.

With her long hair
sweeping the fallen leaves
she swings
like a pendulum.

From the lagoon at sunset
a hundred sparrows fly away.

Wishing them back
she whistles softly.
And downward
she falls into the sky.

 

On Things Fall Apart

After reading Heart of Darkness, which I liked for its lyricism and denunciation of imperialism, I turned immediately to Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Achebe’s strong criticism of the racist undercurrents in European accounts of Africa, such as Joseph Conrad’s work, should be well known to all. On hindsight, certainly I could see that he made many valid points about European literature, though I hesitate to accuse Conrad of blatant racism (from the way he used certain words, his framing technique, his opposition of imperialism). That aside, I wanted to witness the contrast for myself. How would Achebe do justice to his own people and country? Would Things Fall Apart be an admirable introduction for Western readers to true African Literature?

Achebe did not disappoint. There is a stark contrast between the prevailing Western description of the African people and Achebe’s enthralling prose. Immediately one is thrown into village life in pre-colonial Nigeria, with the great wrestler Okonkwo, son of the weak, lazy, gentle Unoka. It details Okonkwo’s ultimate fear of being weak like his father, his great rise and fall. His fall is closely followed by the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries. From then on, Okwonko’s life, the village, the African people, all things fall apart. The title of the novel could not be more apt.

“Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and of weakness.

It was deeper and more intimate that the fear of evil and capricious gods and of magic, the fear of the forest, and of the forces of nature, malevolent, red in tooth and claw.

Okonkwo’s fear was greater than these. It was not external but lay deep within himself.

The most important difference is how African characters are treated in this story. Since the world is viewed through the lens of African culture, Achebe sheds light on African (perhaps more accurately Nigerian) village practices, the beliefs and fears of his people, their skills and superstitions. Achebe also utilises many delightful African proverbs that spark the imagination. From early on, we, across the years, distance, cultural differences, are immediately able to identify with the characters as fellow human beings. Imagine how foreign this must have been to Western readers accustomed to reading literature such as Conrad’s tale of savages in the wild jungles, who either inspired fear or pity.

Very much like Joseph Conrad, however, Achebe doesn’t have a simplistic view of the atrocities being committed by the colonialists. Achebe shows both the strengths and the pitfalls of his people: their superstitious beliefs, the sacrifice of one member for the greater good of the village, their treatment of women. Indeed no other scene best illustrates this than Okonkwo’s son defecting to the missionaries. He is understandably encouraged into this by his many reasonable doubts about village culture, law and beliefs. The missionaries are not all demonized and presented as evil imperialists: Mr Brown, the first missionary takes in village untouchables, rescues twins abandoned in the forest, he respects the villagers and tries to live in harmony with them. And yet Okonkwo warns:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

The tragic ending leaves you with many conflicted feelings. (in fact I was reminded of Brave New World) It calls out and rejects the racism in previous Western literature, explores cultural conflicts and is a bright window into the true soul of the African people. Bookmania’s take on it:

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is fantastically flocked with the consciousness of the African cultural paradigm, a multitude of evolving characters, and words that sing the mouths of the African post-colonial community […] The novel derives its simple, yet powerful characteristics from that of the realms of African social and religious connections. Okonkwo’s story defines the prospect of his widely-branched family, and ultimately, the tragic breaking down of his illustrious clan. Overall, this three-part-novel which paves the way to the societal, religious and cultural clash is an example of an insightful breadth and a powerful hand which penned not just for the purpose of showing, but also for the intention of provoking the readers.


There is no story that is not true, […] The world has no end, and what is good among one people is an abomination with others.

On Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski’s poems hit you like a punch to the gut and dredge up emotions buried deep, deep down with your fears. His poems are often gritty, bitter and dark. The shadows of his childhood and human failures are unflinchingly presented to the reader. The honesty and realism that runs through his poems, however, are what draw you back and back again. No other modern poet manages to peel back the facade of humanity to reveal the dirt that clings to us all, yet finds that, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.” He doesn’t want your pity, he acknowledges that everything is just a messy, dirty, chaotic affair; his final message is that life sucks, but you get to live it on your own terms and there is beauty in that.  

Bluebird

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

(Yes, Charles, we do, thanks to you) 

Cause and Effect

the best often die by their own hand
just to get away,
and those left behind
can never quite understand
why anybody
would ever want to
get away
from
them

To the Foxes

don’t feel sorry for me.
I am a competent,
satisfied human being.

be sorry for the others
who
fidget
complain

who
constantly
rearrange their
lives
like
furniture.

juggling mates
and
attitudes

their
confusion is
constant

and it will
touch
whoever they
deal with.

beware of them:
one of their
key words is
“love.”

and beware those who
only take
instructions from their
God

for they have
failed completely to live their own
lives.

don’t feel sorry for me
because I am alone

for even
at the most terrible
moments
humor
is my
companion.

I am a dog walking
backwards

I am a broken
banjo

I am a telephone wire
strung up in
Toledo, Ohio

I am a man
eating a meal
this night
in the month of
September.

put your sympathy
aside.
they say
water held up
Christ:
to come
through
you better be
nearly as
lucky.

How is Your Heart? 

during my worst times
on the park benches
in the jails
or living with
whores
I always had this certain
contentment-
I wouldn’t call it
happiness-
it was more of an inner
balance
that settled for
whatever was occuring
and it helped in the
factories
and when relationships
went wrong
with the
girls.
it helped
through the
wars and the
hangovers
the backalley fights
the
hospitals.
to awaken in a cheap room
in a strange city and
pull up the shade-
this was the craziest kind of
contentment

and to walk across the floor
to an old dresser with a
cracked mirror-
see myself, ugly,
grinning at it all.
what matters most is
how well you
walk through the
fire.

Say what you will about Bukowski, his women, his booze, his bitterness. But he certainly wrung the most out of life and died beholden to no one but himself. Listen to Atticus Finch describe Mrs Dubose and decide for yourself. 

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs. Dubose won, all ninety-eight pounds of her. According to her views, she died beholden to nothing and nobody. She was the bravest person I ever knew.”

Love is a temporary madness

Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident.”

Louis de Bernières, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

On Arches National Park and Edward Abbey

I love Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Documenting his three seasons as a park ranger in Arches National Park in Southeastern Utah, it is a passionate and oftentimes angry love letter to Nature and the desert. The NYT described it as such: “A passionately felt, deeply poetic book. It has philosophy. It has humor. It has its share of nerve-tingling adventures…set down in a lean, racing prose, in a close-knit style of power and beauty.”

I own a physical copy and flipping through it now, I find lovely passages:

Now the night flows back, the mighty stillness embraces and includes me; I can see stars again and the world of starlight. I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

Suddenly it comes, the flaming globe, blazing on the pinnacles and minarets and balanced rocks, on the canyon walls and through the windows in the sandstone fins. We greet each other, sun and I, across the black void of ninety-three million miles. The snow glitters between us, acres of diamonds almost painful to look at.

I read Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s thesis on the desert and freedom, after my visit to Arches National Park. How I wish I could have had his book on hand while travelling amongst the cliffrose and juniper, the burnished rocks and soft sands. Here are a couple of photos from that trip (I will upload more in future). I believe the bottom is Landscape Arch.

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On Rabindranath Tagore

Just a brief post on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, who received the Nobel Prize for literature a century ago. I shall let his words speak for themselves. Interspersed with vibrant pictures of Holi powder by Marcus Palmqvist.

Unending Love

I seem to have loved you in numberless forms, numberless times…
In life after life, in age after age, forever.
My spellbound heart has made and remade the necklace of songs,
That you take as a gift, wear round your neck in your many forms,
In life after life, in age after age, forever.

Whenever I hear old chronicles of love, its age-old pain,
Its ancient tale of being apart or together.
As I stare on and on into the past, in the end you emerge,
Clad in the light of a pole-star piercing the darkness of time:
You become an image of what is remembered forever.

You and I have floated here on the stream that brings from the fount.
At the heart of time, love of one for another.
We have played along side millions of lovers, shared in the same
Shy sweetness of meeting, the same distressful tears of farewell-
Old love but in shapes that renew and renew forever.

Today it is heaped at your feet, it has found its end in you
The love of all man’s days both past and forever:
Universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.
The memories of all loves merging with this one love of ours –
And the songs of every poet past and forever.

From The Gardener: 

My heart, the bird of the wilderness,
has found its sky in your eyes.
They are the cradle of the morning,
they are the kingdom of the stars.
My songs are lost in their depths.
Let me but soar in that sky,
in its lonely immensity.
Let me but cleave its clouds
and spread wings in its sunshine.

And my personal favourite from The Gardener:

My soul is alight with your infinitude of stars. Your world has broken upon me like a flood. The flowers of your garden blossom in my body. The joy of life that is everywhere burns like an incense in my heart. And the breath of all things plays on my life as on a pipe of reeds.

On e. e. cummings: And death I think is no parenthesis

I never really “got” e.e.cummings in the past. Being used to reading the smooth lines of Neruda, Shakespeare, Lorca, Blake, I was utterly unprepared for Cumming’s jagged manner of writing. It’s different now, and I’m glad for it. e. e. cummings is truly a wordsmith, breaking free of the rigid rules of grammar and syntax. To think that such avant garde poetry came from a man born in 1894, at the turn of the century. His love poems, of course, are the most famous of his near three thousand poems. And I confess a deep desire to hear them read at my own wedding. But remember how you get so unsatisfied with movies adapted from books? How the actors never quite get the words, the essence of the prose? I am convinced that no one can ever get the spirit, the cadence and the emotions of e. e. cummings poetry across. They just never get it right as what I imagine in my mind. His words are best left to the mind; what you imagine will be vastly better than what could ever be spoken aloud.

My favourite (it’s pretty unoriginal of me, but so there) poem of his:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

 

Quite apart from the tender words, the depth of feeling to this poem, is the magnificent cadence of it. It trips and falls, and swirls upwards swiftly in the penultimate stanza, the adoration swells in a rush of words. Excuse me while I dissolve into a puddle of emotions.

 

Then there is this; words which dazzle…

 

dive for dreams

dive for dreams
or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)
trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)
honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at the wedding)
never mind a world
with its villains or heroes
(for good likes girls
and tomorrow and the earth)
in spite of everything
which breathes and moves, since Doom
(with white longest hands
neating each crease)
will smooth entirely our minds
-before leaving my room
i turn, and (stooping
through the morning) kiss
this pillow, dear
where our heads lived and were.

silently if, out of not knowable

silently if, out of not knowable
night’s utmost nothing,wanders a little guess
(only which is this world)more my life does
not leap than with the mystery your smile
sings or if(spiralling as luminous
they climb oblivion)voices who are dreams,
less into heaven certainly earth swims
than each my deeper death becomes your kiss
losing through you what seemed myself,i find
selves unimaginably mine;beyond
sorrow’s own joys and hoping’s very fears
yours is the light by which my spirit’s born:
yours is the darkness of my soul’s return
-you are my sun,my moon,and all my stars

I can’t really comment more on them; the words speak for themselves.
 

it is at moments after i have dreamed

it is at moments after i have dreamed
of the rare entertainment of your eyes,
when (being fool to fancy) i have deemed
with your peculiar mouth my heart made wise;
at moments when the glassy darkness holds
the genuine apparition of your smile
(it was through tears always)and silence moulds
such strangeness as was mine a little while;
moments when my once more illustrious arms
are filled with fascination, when my breast
wears the intolerant brightness of your charms:
one pierced moment whiter than the rest
-turning from the tremendous lie of sleep
i watch the roses of the day grow deep.

Who knew words and punctuation could be moulded in such a way.

i have found what you are like

i have found what you are like
the rain,
(Who feathers frightened fields
with the superior dust-of-sleep. wields
easily the pale club of the wind
and swirled justly souls of flower strike
the air in utterable coolness
deeds of green thrilling light
with thinned
newfragile yellows
lurch and.press
-in the woods
which
stutter
and
sing
And the coolness of your smile is
stirringofbirds between my arms;but
i should rather than anything
have(almost when hugeness will shut
quietly)almost,
your kiss

all which isn’t singing is mere talking

all which isn’t singing is mere talking
and all talking’s talking to oneself
(whether that oneself be sought or seeking
master or disciple sheep or wolf)
gush to it as diety or devil
-toss in sobs and reasons threats and smiles
name it cruel fair or blessed evil-
it is you (ne i)nobody else
drive dumb mankind dizzy with haranguing
-you are deafened every mother’s son-
all is merely talk which isn’t singing
and all talking’s to oneself alone
but the very song of(as mountains
feel and lovers)singing is silence

The quiet ache of this gem:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
-the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

Though I have said that no one will ever read his poetry in the way we can imagine it, Tom Hiddleston does this poem (about an affair) justice:

And his other poems, well they leave me breathless sometimes as well.

I Will Wade Out

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
lipping
flowers
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

You can find more of his poems here. You might also want to listen to this soundtrack while reading them. I will end off with this:

If I Believe

if i believe
in death be sure
of this
it is

because you have loved me,
moon and sunset
stars and flowers
gold crescendo and silver muting

of seatides
i trusted not,
one night
when in my fingers

drooped your shining body
when my heart
sang between your perfect
breasts

darkness and beauty of stars
was on my mouth petals danced
against my eyes
and down

the singing reaches of
my soul
spoke
the green-

greeting pale-
departing irrevocable
sea
i knew thee death.

and when
i have offered up each fragrant
night,when all my days
shall have before a certain

face become
white
perfume
only,
from the ashes
then
thou wilt rise and thou
wilt come to her and brush

the mischief from her eyes and fold
her
mouth the new
flower with

thy unimaginable
wings,where dwells the breath
of all persisting stars

On Reading American Psycho

This book was an experience. Bret Easton Ellis, for all his twitter mishaps, is a master at satire. It was bloody, hilarious, dark, helpless, disquieting. The copious amounts of blood spatter and gore and body parts aren’t easy to stomach. And yet I cannot imagine the book without it. The rampant materialism, the detachedness, the superficiality of the 80s yuppies culture is made fun of so much in this book. I alternated between giggling and shocked horror in reading this violent, mad work.

Patrick Bateman is both a likeable and horrifying character, he undergoes an existential crisis (Is evil something you are? Or is it what you do?), he is awkward at times, painfully sharp at others, cutting through the absolute bullshit some of the other characters spout. He is both human and inhuman. I don’t know if he really killed all those people, or whether they were wild imaginings of his very sick mind. He is without doubt, a psychopath, but a fully functioning one. One that is able to navigate Wall Street, give fashion advice, who goes for facial treatments and shiatsu massages. It is both chilling and comedic, wrapped up in the psychedelic descriptions of the 80s clubbing scene, of snorting cocaine and moo shu custard.

The first part of the book was dazzling but Patrick’s true nature is still obscured to us. The second half becomes progressively weirder, bloodier, as we see Patrick lose his grasp of reality, as he loses the last strands of control over his inhuman desires and motivations. Even he knows and starts to panic, quietly. The rest is a haze of drugged violence, decimating his final vestiges of morality. Inside what the world knows as Pat Bateman, is nothing.

…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel my flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable,  I simply am not there.

It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference towards it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed.

Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behaviour must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this- and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed- and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding that can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing

But I am not convinced. Deep down, there is a shrivelled up, weak and bleeding part of Patrick that can feel something apart from self-professed greed and an urge to kill. The fact that he can assert that he feels nothing, this self-awareness, indicates that he does feel. There are moments of sparkling clarity in the book that serve to show the humanity in Patrick. His insecurity about his hair, his nervousness when meeting up with Bethany, his jealousy, his imitation of the trends of the 80s, his spouting of meaningless music reviews, these are all reflections of any of us. Trapped in the nightmarish, superficial world as he is, Patrick wants people to see him. Remember his conversation with Bethany, perhaps the only girl who ever saw and heard Patrick, the real Patrick, not the facade he puts up. He even confesses to her: “I…want…to…fit…in.”, admitting the “pleasures of conformity”.

I mean, does anyone really see anyone? Does anyone really see anyone else? Did you ever see meSee? What does that mean?

And when the people around him don’t see him, he pushes the boundaries. How far can he go until people see the “real” him? That deep dark nothing inside of him. He can’t believe it himself how easy it is to get away, as shown clearly in his killing of the child at the zoo. He experiments with cannibalism, all in an attempt to see how far he can push the boundaries of morality and still keep up the facade of being a human.

Jean and Bethany are possibly the only ones to get close to getting him feel something. And they are not part of the world he lives in everyday either. Jean and Bethany (and to me, the whole host of beggars he meets, the prostitutes he kills) are the genuine characters, and he simultaneously craves and is afraid of their ability to see him. The entire conversation he has with Jean at the end provokes some of his clearest and most intriguing thoughts. Jean, who is in love with him, is probably the only genuine girl in his life, and is the only one he considers being happy with:

I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.

There are more things I can talk about. Patrick’s reaction to Luis Carruthers, how disarming it is to be the object of homosexual love. Patrick’s insecurity about his hair. He talks about this “nameless terror”, worrying about the Fisher account, his obsession with fashion and securing reservations. His blatant confessions (real or imaginary?) of insanity to the bland characters around him, and the pervasive subculture of self-absorbedness, superficiality, materialism and suppressed violence. The mindless world he cannot escape, and we ask ourselves, in a world such as that, how could one not go insane? The only thing more terrifying that Patrick is the world and culture that made him.

Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

This book is a must-read. I have to go return some videotapes now, so I end with the words from the beginning and the end of the book:

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

P.S. More gems from the book:

I stare into a thin, web-like crack above the urinal’s handle and think to myself that if I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No… one… would… care. In fact some, if they noticed my absence, might feel an odd, indefinable sense of relief. This is true: the world is better off with some people gone. Our lives are not all interconnected. That theory is crock. Some people truly do not need to be here.

Where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s own taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliche, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I laugh maniacally, then take a deep breath and touch my chest- expecting a heart to be thumping quickly, impatiently, but there’s nothing there, not even a beat.

P.P.S Here are some brilliant reviews that helped me understand this book further: here, here, herehere. Also, a vlog.

I am aware of DFW’s criticisms of it as expounded in the second last link: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I can’t help but question DFW’s definition of “good art”, though he is, after all, entitled to his own opinion. Does good art have to be a beacon in the dark for us? Is there no value to nihilistic art? What is “good” art? This is intensely subjective. Isn’t Bret pointing out the flaws of society, reminding us that materialism, superficiality, the surface can lead to nowhere good, isn’t that a valuable lesson to learn?