Friday, November 16, 2012

Letters from Caliban's Winter Haitus

Dear readers,

I will speak plainly and to the point.  I have grown uncomfortable with my own writing.  Frankly I have come to dislike it, thematically and especially structurally, and to dislike even more the whole idea of a creative writing blog.  The blog should be a kind of display case -- "Look, here are the things I've made!  Come and buy."  Any cabinet-maker or sculptor or butcher, such that those breeds have not been driven into extinction, does the same thing.  What I need right now is a workshop, not a display case. 

(What a horribly maligned word, workshop.  The schools have ruined it with their "writer's workshops."  Maybe I should say I need a garage like an auto mechanic's; its apter, anyway.)

I have made some errors on this blog, not dreadful but serious and in need of serious attention.  You will permit me to say that I would prefer to work on these errors by myself.  One of my errors has been my compromising my need for privacy to write.  There have been many others, and you probably know them almost as well as I do.

I need to separate myself from this blog.  I considered deleting it, but I trust that my work will remain safer on blogspot than on my hard drive, so I'll let it be.  I am going to the Pyrenees in a few weeks and won't be back to the States until spring or summer.  Check in occasionally, but be aware that there won't be much to report that I foresee.

The old principles do not change. 
Ride, string a bow, and tell the truth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Gold of the Mountains

Outside it was raining.

“I dreamed last night,” she said. “I dreamed of money.”

“You had a nightmare.” They were speaking English.

“Oh, no, it was – marvelous. It was a beautiful dream. I was bathing in money.”

“That doesn't sound beautiful. Money is filth.  Open the newspaper, you'll see what I mean.  I wouldn't bathe in money if the stuff cured cancer. You keep telling yourself that getting money is such a great thing and ”

“I didn't tell myself anything. I dreamed it, that's all. I dreamed that I was bathing in a shower of money.” She looked away from the mirror she was polishing. “Are you mad, Paul?”

“No. I'm peeling potatoes.”

“You sound mad. Are you mad at me?”

“I'm peeling potatoes. How could I be mad while I'm peeling potatoes?” He turned around in the shaky wooden chair. “Alright, alright. Tell me about your dream.”

“So I was standing.”

“That's good, I guess.”  He was intent on his peeling.

“I was standing, and the moon was out, and the sun was out, and on the right it was nighttime and fresh and cold and all the stars were out. And on the left side it was daytime and the sun was shining and it was warm and blue.”

“Where were you standing?”

“Right in the middle. And there was a river.”

“Was I there?” He had finished peeling and had turned the chair around to face her. One of the legs was giving out, and he shifted a little to lighten its load.

“Where? In the river? No, silly, you weren't there.”

“Hang on a second, the water's boiling.” He stood up and carried the bowl of potatoes to the range. With a knife he skewered them one by one, almost to the handle, because it was not a very big knife, and pushed them off the blade into the water. Then he scraped the peelings into the bin, along with the damp newspaper he had spread out over the table to absorb the juice. The girl in the meantime had finished polishing the mirror and began straightening out the bed. When it was finished she sat down on the foot, and the bed being across from the kitchen door she watched him bending over the bin, swearing in Georgian, with his short legs and his dark hair.

When he finished he gave the potatoes a quick look and sat down at the table. His glass from yesterday was sitting there, a lowball, and a jug of no-name California red next to it. He picked it up by the neck, very carefully, and let a little stream out of the mouth, so slowly that it didn't bubble or make a purple foam in the glass.

“So,” he said, “there was a river. Do you want some wine?”

“The river was underneath me. So on the right it was nighttime, and on the left it was daytime, and below me there was this river. Exactly below me, and it was flowing backward.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean away from me. The water was coming toward me and then under me and then passed me behind.”

“Oh. What was above you?”

“Well, so I looked up, and there was this cloud, a storm cloud, but not black. It was silver, and gold. And it started raining coins on me. You know, quarters and pennies.”

“It must have hurt.”

“Oh, no, not at all. It was marvelous. It was like a warm shower. And all these coins – they were piling up around me, and on me, and in my hair. I sat down and they kept pouring down. I was catching them in my hands and scooping them off the ground and they went down my shirt and into my shoes, and when I looked up it was so beautiful, Paul, because all I could see was the cloud and the coins like rain. Have you ever done that?”

“No,” he said, “I can say pretty certainly that I've never been rained on by money.”

“I mean have you ever looked upward while it was raining.”

He considered the question and took a sip of wine. Then he stood up with his glass in one hand and the chair in the other and stepped through the door. He set the glass down in front of the mirror and the chair next to the bed, backward, and sat down so that his belly was against the chair back. Then he thought better of it and sat down on the bed, glass in hand, next to the girl.

“I think I have,” he said finally. “I think – yes. Actually, I have looked up when it was raining. It's not what you expect. I mean it's not what you expect to see.”

She had waited patiently to continue. “So you know what I saw when I looked up. But then guess what happened.”

“More money came down.”

“Yes, but paper money. Hundreds and fifties. The coins stopped and hundreds and fifties started falling. But they were falling slowly, because they're paper. It was like snow.”

“You've never seen the snow.”

“On TV I have.”

“That's not the same. It's different in real life. It's nasty, actually, it gets all black and dirty, and you slip and you can't drive on it. Do you remember when we lived in Moscow, or were you too young?”

“No, I don't remember. But it doesn't matter, because this was like perfect snow, like the snow you see in the movies, but it wasn't snow because it was money.”

“Actually,” said Paul, “when it snowed at home it was nice. It didn't get black. Or maybe it did, I don't know, I was a little kid. You were just born.”

“And it fell and fell,” she continued, “like the coins, except more, and longer, and it was all clean and crisp like when you get it from the bank and it hasn't gotten all wrinkled yet. It started piling up, and it covered all the coins even, but you could feel the coins underneath, and they were warmer than the paper money. It was like warm soil under warm snow.”

“Thousands and thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands,” he said, “maybe millions.”

“And I started rolling around because it felt so good, and I tried to make a snow angel but there was too much and it kept on falling, and my clothes were full of money, and when I stood up I fell over because I was so heavy, but it even felt good to fall. And then I looked down and I couldn't see the river anymore.”

“The river? You mean”

“Right, the river from in the beginning. There was just money on the ground all around me, big piles, and I was laying down on my back all heavy with money and my hair and my feet were covered.”

“Was it still night and day at the same time?”

“Oh, yes, dark on the right and bright on the left. That didn't change.”

She stopped and drew her feet up onto the bed, and sat on them. Paul lay the glass on the floor and sat cross legged against a pillow, facing her.

“And then what happened?”

“Nothing,” she said, “I was just laying in the money and it was beautiful. The end.”

“The end?”

“Yes. The end.”

He looked away. “Well, it sounds lovely.” Then after a moment he spoke again. “You know I had a dream last night too.”

She turned to look at him. “Really?”

“Do you remember Grandfather Michael, who lived in Mestia?”

“No. Was he the one who has a cigar in all the pictures?”

“That's him. When I was little they would send me to go stay with him on school breaks. He had this little house in the middle of nowhere near Mestia and he would take me up to the mountains. Well, I dreamed about those mountains. First I saw this mountain that was like a tower with two peaks, very sharp peaks, and there were fir trees around it. All gray, very very tall, and the forest underneath it. Other mountains around it. And then the mountain, the big one, was Grandfather Michael.”

She smiled. “It was a mountain and it was Grandfather Michael?”

“I wish I could explain it to you. It was a mountain. I mean, it looked like a mountain. But it was also him. You could almost see him, his face, in, I don't know, the cracks and all. It's hard to explain.” He swore softly and whistled. “I don't know. I couldn't tell you if it was a real mountain that I remembered from being a kid or if I just made it up. If it's real it doesn't look like that anymore. They're all ski resorts and stuff like that. Big money from Russia and Tblisi, vacation villas and resorts and all that.”

“But not in the dream.”

“No, no. Good God, no, just mountain. Just rock and trees. And Grandfather Michael, kind of.” He stared back toward the kitchen. “But what a mountain. So tall.”

They sat still for a while, and then she got up to check on the potatoes and make dinner, and Paul picked up the day's paper from where he left it, on the floor by the front door beneath their jackets, and carried it into the kitchen to read at the table.

“Do we have any fish in the cupboard?” he asked.

“No, I was planning on making eggs. Do you not want eggs? I can run to the store”

“No, no, eggs are fine. Eggs are fine.” He turned to the international section and started reading aloud to himself. At dinner they sat elbow to elbow. The smell of frying had penetrated the walls and the linoleum.

“That Russian from the City,” said Paul, “are you still seeing him?”


“Him,” he said. “Mr. Cufflinks. Does he still call you?”

“No. Not for two weeks.”

“Good. I know his type, I knew when I saw him. Actually I knew when you first told me about him.” He said something in Georgian that made her look down sharply toward her plate. They kept eating, slowly, because there wasn't much left in the pan, and when they finished they refilled their glasses, hers fuller than his.

“Were the eggs good?”

“They're always good.” The paper was open on his lap again, wrinkled and a little damp from sitting under the dripping rain jackets, so that the ink smeared a little on the front page. He squinted in annoyance. “Speaking of bathing in money,” he said, more to himself than her. “Good God.”

After dinner she washed the plates by hand and he dried them. He opened the cupboard, but then closed it. “I'm tired,” he said, “I think I'll do this tomorrow.”

“So am I,” she said, “don't worry about it.”

They both undressed without much ceremony, taking turns in the bathroom, and they went to bed, one on the left side, the other on the right side, and Paul kept the lamp on while she wiggled down into the warmth of the sheets. After a while he turned his head toward her.

“Does the light bother you?”

“Mm. No.”

“Hey, Martha. Are you awake?”


“That mountain I dreamed about. Grandfather Michael used to call it Gold Mountain. How do you like that?”


“Gold. The Gold Mountain. I don't know what its real name is, but it was a real place. Gold Mountain. Huh.”

She rolled a little and sighed in her sleep. Paul stared at the ceiling.

“The Gold Mountain. How do you like that.”

He reached for the drawstring of the lamp. It was an old lamp, second hand, and had once been purple but now was a dull reddish brown. “Like old blood,” he thought, “the color of old dry blood. And the gold, golden mountain. Gold, gold, golden gold.” And he, too, drifted into sleep.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sketches from the Campagna: Nino and the Bicycle

When the crisis hit, and no one had any money at all, the roads that lead into Nicosia became full of bicycles. People who worked started cycling to work and people without jobs cycled to wherever they spent their day. Far fewer cars made the rounds on account of the price of petrol.

This pleased Giovanni Catalano, called Nino, who had previously driven to his job in Nicosia and had always wanted to cycle. He hated the heavy, sterile frame of his car. He hated having to roll down a window (it was fairly old, the car) to feel the wind. Every day since the bicycles started to appear he would stare in envy at the people leaning over their handlebars in the full flush of the good clean air, up the hills and down the hills, who could smell the orange blossoms as they passed the orchards. He hated having to find a few meters of empty space in the crowded street when others could simply lock their bicycle to a streetsign or shoulder it into work. When he filled the tank he would swear viciously. “All you do is suck life. A bloody stramaladetto vampire. It's not enough that you suck my wallet dry. You have to leave my bloodless in this miserable box. You rusty old carcass.”

Nino envied the commuter cyclists and admired them. He had seen a TV documentary on Denmark, where it seemed that everyone rode a bicycle everywhere, even politicians and famous people, and he burned up inside. Apparently Holland was the same way. And so was Nicosia once, he reflected, because his grandfather had ridden a bicycle to work for as long as he worked, and even his father – Nino's father – had commuted by bicycle as a young man, before his first car.

He brought this up at the table one night. His mother nearly dropped the pot she was holding.


He told her again.

“What's gotten into you? You want to give up the car?”

His father chewed the tip of his knife, slowly. “I used to ride my cycle to work, before I got a car.”

“Before you could afford a car.” --His wife.

“Right, before I could afford one. It wasn't so bad. The old one-speed. And anyway with fuel prices being what they are.”

“The price is not the point. The point is that a man of almost thirty years doesn't ride a bicycle when he could drive. He simply doesn't. One doesn't do that. Nino, you are going to drive and you are going to forget this bicycle business immediately.”

The father placed the knife delicately back next to his plate. “My old bike,” he said calmly, “is in the garage under a tarpaulin. The tires'll be flat. But that's where you'll find it.

The next day Nino stuck the old singlespeed into the back of his Fiat and, having managed to get out of work early, shouldered it and walked a few blocks to a cycle shop. He waited in line a good quarter hour before he got to the counter.

“Fix it up so you can commute?” asked the mechanic, a bored-looking boy with long hair and a rakish beard. “Right. Give me your number, we'll call you.”

And by the following Monday Nino had a well-oiled, properly pumped bicycle. He left the house early, much earlier than before. He took the same road that he had taken to work for years to school for years before that, past an orange grove, intersecting the highway, over the hill into town; but it was like a new road, a new country, and he felt himself an explorer in uncharted territory. A new old country. A new old world.

He learned. He learned that the stretches he'd always thought were flat were actually on an incline. He learned what gravel felt like under the tires and how easy it was to slide clear off the road, and how the air dries as the sun rises, which he knew but didn't remember ever feeling. As he travelled day by day he began to recognize the rabbits on the roadside and the doves in the cypresses, and they were no longer little flashes of color but real animals. He had found a new country in old Nicosia town and its outskirts.

What new disdain he now felt for his old car, his great rusting life-sucker! When his coworkers complained about petrol prices his smiled. On the road he wondered what a gearshift must be like, to slide easily in and out of the fast-spinning little gear and back into the great slow heaving first, to control the flow as he willed, to make music from the rhythm of the clacking, whispering chain. He whistled at the doves. The rabbits sat on the roadside and and waved. Spring came; flowers opened up for Nino on his ride.

On a Thursday night he sat on the bed of his friend, the girl who worked mornings at the Bar Belfiore, and talked about the bike as he pulled on his shoes.

“I like it,” she was telling him. “Take me some time. Your rabbits sound adorable.”

He stood up to fasten his belt. “I will.”

“I don't know anyone he rides a bike. There's a young guy who comes in for a cappuccino all sweaty and flushed every morning early but I don't know if he rides his bike or a scooter or what. Does that happen to you?”


“I mean does it wear you out. Do you show up to work all sweaty?”

“A little.”

“It doesn't seem to wear you out too much. Not in a bad way, anyway.”

“No, it gives you energy.”

“I can tell.”

“I'm serious, though,” said Nino, “you live when you're on a bike. You breathe. You move... I don't know how to explain it.” She smiled and kissed him.

The next morning was a Friday, and the sky was clear and and Nino saw magpies busy with their nest building. The bees were singing in choirs, and the sky arced wonderfully and the cypresses smelled wonderful and everything lost its dimensions and became like a painted image, all on the same plane and glowing. A little bit faster he pedaled, and a little bit faster; he was the wind that blew the pollen now, the warm spring wind that stirred the grass. His thighs burned with the speed and the hill and sang out to each other in turns, call, response, right, left as he topped the hill, left, right, right, right. Down the hill he sped, blind in the wind. He never saw the truck, and when it caught him broadside he flew forward in an arc, headfirst with his body whipping behind him like a tail. Up, up, up and then down, down, down; and when he smashed into the asphalt it was like he had been swallowed by the curving side of the Earth, and the bits of his body here and there on the road were the only proof that he hadn't.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

San Giorgio - Monferrato

Colli, vigne, orti e campi:
un registro di timbri dolci
e luce bionda, e foschia
leggera e garbata.
Ametista ed oro dei colli e campi,
chiarezza chiodata dai pini solitari.

Ma sotto quel suolo che tiene le vigne
c'è roccia, roccia
né ametista né oro, plutone
roccia cieca, che sa l'antico canto
dei falchi che gridano lassù.

O San Giorgio!

          Tu vedi il dorso delle Alpi
          l'orrore del sasso sorgente
          come carne solida, vivente, sì
          le Alpi le vedi, San Giorgio
          potenti e sfrenati, sì tanto
          la coda scagliosa del tuo drago

Friday, October 19, 2012

Si torna

E la vita eccheggia nell'arco dei secoli
di vita in vita.
Ecco: stamattina ho raccoltato il grano
davanti allo specchio.
Cadeva il grano, fino e dorato; ed al campo è rimasta
l'ombra della stoppia, comprendomi il mento
e le guance.

E la memoria eccheggia nell'arco di tempo
di occhio in occhio.
Vedi: ho aperto un libro
e là fra i fogli i disegni d'inchiostro
si son riformati.
E vedevo il carro, il gran cacciatore
le sette sorelle ed il fiume ed il cane
e gli altri sillabi della lingua
del cielo.

E la vita corre nel torrente di sogno
di cuore in cuore.
Penna in mano comincio la vendemmia.

Ecco finalmente il mosto.
Guarda quant'è scuro
e che profumo fa.

Incantesimo di Merseburg: Sassonia, anno 900 d.C.

Fol ed Wodan passavan pel bosco
e la caviglia del cavallo                 di Balder fu storta.

Ed allor lanciò l'incantesimo              Sinthgut sorella di Sunna
ed allor lanciò l'incantesimo               Frija sorella di Wolla
e lanciò l'incantesimo Wodan            al meglio possibile.

Quanto rotta l'ossa               tanto rotto il sangue
                       e tanto rotta la storta.

Ossa all'ossa
Sangue al sangue
Nodi ai nodi

                      come fosser legati.
(per un cavallo ferito)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The White Bull

A white bull, a king of the field.
Magnificent. Who else could match you?
The chest scraping the clover
the massive haunches and the shimmering flanks
the powerful roll of the shoulders
the ripple of throatflesh
and the circumspect twitch of the tail.
Whose bone was it that splintered your crown?
How many calves now grazing in your field
came to the sunlight from your dreadful loins?

One comes to the kingdom to meet the king.
One comes to the pasture to meet the bull.
Life straddles horsebacks and drips from horns
And I to see life with my own eyes
and breathe it with my own lungs
have come to you, to the field of dung
and dandelions
at least to sit upon a splintered post
and watch you graze
swallowing green life to produce white--


if not to feed you clover with my hand
and feel the stormcloud of your breath against my skin
then to have your hide, tight drawn like a bowstring
stretched and nailed, embracing the house wall;
and your bullslaying rack
I would paint red
and fix to the lintel
to catch the hearthglow in the night
and blaze by day when the door is open
crowning the field of blue with red.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sketches from the Campagna: The Chickens

One morning the sky was especially blue, and the lawyer decided he wanted chickens. Actually he had always wanted chickens, but now that his new house had space for a henhouse he could finally have some, and eat fresh eggs whenever he wanted. When he arrived at the office the first thing he did was make a couple phone calls; when he came home for one o'clock dinner he announced that he was buying chickens, that a hired man was coming over on Thursday to put together a nice henhouse, and soon they'd be eating fresh eggs.

His wife was delighted and began dreaming aloud of all the wonders she could cook up with fresh eggs, and laughed with triumphant derision at the store-bought eggs that they wouldn't be eating much longer. The tall, skinny boy twisted up his face and laughed at the idea of chickens, and the little girl clapped her hands in oblivious joy.

That Thursday the workman came. The lawyer took the day off to supervise, standing in the sun and dust, directing the old man as needed. There was a terrible wind blowing, and the palms shook, and all the olives that stood along the edge of the property wailed and threw their leaves into the air. By dusk the old workman had more or less finished, as good as done, and the lawyer dismissed him.

When all was done the lawyer drove back to his office and made another call, this time to a chicken farmer. He greeted the old farmer over the phone with extravagant courtesy, inquired after the price of a few good layers, and immediately set into bargaining. The farmer had little patience for it and invited him to come tomorrow, and then bid him good night and hung up. The lawyer was not offended; he was too pleased in his handiwork to feel resentful. He had knocked the price down a considerable number of lire, he was sure, and anyway he'd be eating fresh eggs within a few days. The next morning he went to see the chicken farmer on the latter's little holding in Marausa. When he arrived he parked his car on the potholed street and called to the farmer's son, who was just snapping up the kickstand of his Vespa to leave, to open the gate. He was a big hulking boy in his late twenties, wearing a mustache and a shiny jacket; there was a piece of flesh missing from under his eye, as though scooped out like a morsel from a block of cheese. The son obliged silently, and the lawyer made his way to the farmhouse, where the chicken farmer greeted him without wasting much breath and showed him what chickens he had for sale.

The lawyer walked down the short corridor of the barn, stroking his chin and hmming and scratching meditatively at his belly. He wanted big ones, he said, nice big fat ones to lay nice big eggs. He pointed to a great lethargic black hen on a top shelf; the farmer chuckled grimly and advised against it. They walked a few more steps and the lawyer, a bit desperately, asked about a second one: the farmer said no, that one laid very little. In the end the farmer chose two good layers, accepted the lawyer's offer without complaining, handed him the chickens and went back inside, coppola pulled firmly down on his head.

At the lawyer's house everyone crowded around to look at the chickens, to poke at them and admire their fine plumage, and the lawyer threw open a window that faced the sea and proclaimed how much he enjoyed living in the country, what a good contadino he made. The little girl clapped and danced in the excitement, the dog barked in the yard, the wind howled in the olives, the skinny boy tried to poke the birds with a stick. Neighbors passing along the road heard the ruckus and stopped by the open window, smiling and appraising the fine hens that the lawyer had bought. The chickens themselves clucked and twitched and blinked their round chicken eyes.

That night at supper the lawyer took second and third helpings of everything, put away almost a liter of wine, and had two glasses of bitters after dessert. He slept like a baby, curled up under the covers, his snores almost drowned by the sirocco that was shrieking through the fields, churning the sea and bending the trees.

He waited in breathless anticipation all the next day for news of eggs; he checked before going to the office, again when he came home for dinner, and even called his wife that afternoon. Nothing yet. The lawyer came home with his lip a bit twisted, yelled at his son for making too much noise, yelled at the television because Napoli had beaten Inter three to one, drank too much wine at supper and went straight to bed. The next morning he woke up before light, and wrapping himself in a bathrobe crept outside to the henhouse. The wind had let up for a moment, but the air was cold. The henouse itself, mostly finished, loomed in the dark like an apparition. The lawyer glanced around nervously, then retied the belt of the bathrobe around his belly and unhinged the little wooden door. There were the chickens, their open eyes unnerving in the dark. He slipped in his hand awkwardly under the first one, almost embarrassed to disturb her, and suddenly the ghostliness of the scene melted into joy: he felt an egg. Grinning he thrust his hand under the other chicken and felt shell. He chuckled to himself as he turned on the flashlight he had brought in his pocket. But he stopped short, his mouth open in confusion, because in the light he saw that both eggs had been shattered in the nest, that there were bits of yolk along the wood plankings, and that both hens had their beaks and breasts specked with mutilated egg. One even opened its mouth to squawk in annoyance, and he saw that there was more egg in the bird's mouth.

He went back inside at a run to find the chicken farmer's number. He called immediately, not caring that it was barely six in the morning. It hardly mattered though, because the farmer was awake, having his first coffee after the early morning chores; as taciturn but uncomplaining as usual, he listened stonily to the lawyer's story and advised bringing the chickens back to the farm as soon as possible. The lawyer threw on whatever clothes he had on hand, and without his usual morning shower and shave and aftershave he seized the birds by the feet, threw them into the car, and drove to Marausa.

Light was leaking over the hills, but the sea was still dark; the farmer's son was just arriving home on his Vespa, the crator on his face twitching a little, and opened the gate for the lawyer. The farmer himself was outside smoking in overalls a size too big and his coppola pulled down over his eyes.

“This happens,” he explained. “There isn't much you can do.”

The lawyer was desperate.

“Well,” said the farmer, “we can try this.”

He went inside and called his son to fetch a saw. A moment later the big, broad boy was walking around the side of the house, not at all sleepy, with a hacksaw in his huge hand. Without a word he handed off the saw to his father and seized one chicken with his hands and laid it on a wooden bench. The farmer calmly sawed about half the beak off. The son grabbed the other one, laid it down, and the farmer sawed its beak off as well.

“Hopefully that stops it,” he said, and excused himself, flicking his cigarette butt onto the road and plodding back inside.

Back at home he explained everything to his wife, who nodded wearily because she knew of chickens who ate their own eggs. She was a country girl herself, and had grown up with all sorts of animals, and knew their vices. The next day the wind returned. The lawyer banished the chickens from his mind to concentrate on his work. But every time the windowpane in his office shuddered he lost his train of thought, and thought of the chickens and their vileness.

The next morning he went out after coffee with his wife to check on the eggs. There was nothing to be done. The broken shells lay on the floor, and the stumpy, mutilated beaks were covered in yolk and the clear drippings of the whites. The birds stared and twitched. The wife sighed; the lawyer ran clumsily inside to call the farmer. The farmer answered almost at the first ring and knew who it was. The lawyer explained in a rush, tripping over his words. The farmer cleared his throat.

“I knew it. When a chicken gets the taste of its own blood in its mouth there's nothing to be done. It gets the taste for it and the taste never goes away. All those birds are good for is eating. At least they're young, they'll be tender.”

The lawyer and his wife sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. The wife suggested they take the birds to her mother, who could wring their necks. The lawyer started and knocked over his chair. If anyone would be killing the chickens it would be him. He had bought them, he declared, so he was going to knock them off. It didn't matter that he had never wrung a chicken's neck before, or watched it done. How difficult could it be? He wasn't an idiot.

Imperiously he marched to the henhouse, followed by his young son, wheezing with laughter, and his weeping young daughter; the dog slept by the woodpile, and the wife lingered by the telephone, ready to call her mother. The chickens stared with their round chicken eyes, twitching their heads. The lawyer bit his lip and thought for a moment. He rolled up his sleeves and slid off his tie, draping it over the unfinished henhouse roof. He slipped on a pair of garden gloves. Then with his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth he grabbed the first one around the head and held it in the air. With his left hand, not entirely steady, he held the body with his thumb pressing into the chest, and he fastened his right hand over the bird's neck. It twitched and squawked once. Then with one tremendously exaggerated pull, far too strong, he twisted and yanked with his right hand. The bird screamed: all he had done was pull all the feathers from the bird's head. A cloud of dirty white feathers floated toward the ground as the bird, now entirely bald, screeched horribly. The dog woke up and began to howl, the wind whipped the olive trees and cut furrows in the fields, and the little boy laughed and laughed.

Postscriptum:  I have been told that this story's scientific accuracy is dubious.  I countered, and counter, that this is in fact a true story, related to me by one who saw it happen, and that whoever wants scientific accuracy can find it easily enough in a scientific paper.

A Message from Letters From Caliban

Dear readers,

The output has been a little less than prodigous these last few weeks.  Allow me to explain.

Before I started this blog I kept much of my writing on my computer.  Computers, as you know, can be temperamental -- especially mine.  Out of what I imagine must have been pure spite, my laptop some how did away with dozens of my documents a few weeks ago.  (An IT guy can probably help, but that would mean a lot of work that I'd rather not do.  The lazy will inherit the earth.) 

Among those documents were two or three short stories and several finished poems.  Luckily, I had printed copies or rough drafts of most of them; the task of late has been to dig them out of file drawers and backpacks, transpose them onto the computer, and tidy them up so as to be presentable.  Don't worry, you'll see them soon.

So this week, if I can offer you nothing else, at least let me give you an idea of what the editors here at Letters from Caliban are reading.  The mood here has been decidedly modernist:  Ulysses (at the point where Bloom encounters the Citizen-Cyclops); the Cantos (having left the thirteen hundreds, Jefferson and Adams are writing each other about money and freedom); Isak Dinesen's Winter Tales; and a little bit of Baudelaire.  And also Tad Szulc's Chopin in Paris.

I admire Pound, but I don't see much that I can borrow (read: steal) from the Cantos for my own poetry.  That's not to say I haven't learned from him.  My poem "7 September" is based in part on Pound's explanation of Chinese characters in the beginning of ABC of Reading.  But those choppy, heel-pounding Poundian rhythms (pound Pound pound), such as you see later in Gary Snyder and some of Robert Lowell, are not a key that I can sing in. 

As far as Joyce goes, I have found in Ulysses a voice from heaven, a complex of word and feeling and thought and image sublime in its dimensions.  Only once have I ever read anything like it, and that was the Divina Commedia.  Faust comes close, but is too fragmented in its form and its music, not nearly as perfectly controlled a vision as Dante's or Joyce's. 

In practical terms, I have the most to learn from Dinesen.  At first I didn't like Dinesen.  She struck me as too artificial, overwraught.  But I've read more craefully this time around.  What primal power!  She is a teller of tales, the voice of all the legends of childhood - the Arabian Nights, Robin Hood, the stories from Homer and Ovid and the Eddas.  More importantly she is a surgeon and a craftsman of the highest grade.  She presents a story; but she has already dug deep into the weird, murky, eternally dark cavity of the story and found its mad beating dreamheart.  Having seen this strange subterranean soul, she returns to the surface story and dresses it with such elegance that the reader has no conscious idea of its primal force.  But she does.  That's the sly smile that characterizes Dinesen.  It's not the postmodern wink that promises emptiness beneath the gilding.  It's the opposite.  The gilding is unimportant.  There is a heart in the story, buried but beating. 

My dear readers and friends, don't hesitate to comment or ask questions.  And expect more stuff, soon.


To ride; to string a bow; to tell the truth

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dream of the Angel

I dreamed an angel in the desert,
astride a horse. The stars were piercing,
so many that the sky burned more in icy white
than dripping dark.
An angel in the saddle in a diamondbright night.
Arms bare, head wrapped,
black skin like rivermud shining with silt
holding a gun like a bolt
of miscarried lightning, his waist wrapped
in constellations
tucked in belts and piercing in the night. The horse was white
in the face, like its head were just a skull,
some long-toothed totem, some mask
fixed to four hairy legs
brown and clay-stained and liver and white
tail sweeping like the river of the stars.
And after he vanished, I saw only stars,
stars, stars
and a long white ladder where he'd stood,
soaked by a rain that I hadn't seen fall.

Friday, September 14, 2012

From a Line in Callimachus

Dawn came like a black horse.
I had not slept the night for fear of day.
Now the sunlight crept in cold
and I thought of you:

Your smooth hips, your horseblack tresses,
of how I might lay silent in your arms.
What more could I have asked than that, if not
six pips of a pomegranate
from your soft white hand.

The City of David

I never saw his city but in dreams
the tall block towers of his crownèd head
stone sinewed walls along the ridge of his arm
and between the spires and his hard bent knee (the foot
planted flat in the desert)
the valley of his beard, dark with pine trees
and white with smoke.

And the city, steady on his shoulders,
shines dully, burnished
though his eyes on the rooftops burn golden.
A thousand cobbled wrinkles run their maze
Palms and arches shade his countless courtyards,
the craggy men of his narrow lanes,
the pearl-fingered daughters of his dusk
and the Cave of Kings in the cavity of his chest.

דוד מלך ישראל, חי וקיים

Postscriptum:  I was in San Diego, taking coffee and a paper after a walk through Balboa Park, when I saw nearby a young mother and her infant child.  The mother was singing in Hebrew, to the delight of the child.  The song had only one verse, the line quoted at the end of this poem, transliterated as David melech yisrael hai v'kayam.  I didn't know what it meant.  Neither did a certain other young mother, who asked the first what she was singing.  She responded, "David, King of Israel, lives forever."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Welcome to Letters from Caliban

Generally this is the first page in a blog to be published. Not here.

My name is Carlo Massimo. For the record, I am the Caliban from the title – more of that anon. This blog is where I'll be posting my completed work, and any of you who write know that for every work you complete about a dozen embryos and half-constructed pieces lay buried somewhere in your notebook. The content will change periodically: expect a book review and an essay about poetic form in the next few weeks. You might also find film reviews or essays about matters not strictly literary (though I would argue that films are a kind of visual literature), or academic papers like “Dionysus in the Fin-de-Siecle.” Mostly, however, I hope to put up poems and stories.

Do feel free to leave comments or to contact me by email. If you have any questions I will be happy to answer them; if you have requests I will try to accommodate them. If you are a publisher I will invite you to my house for a bottle of wine, and we can speak further at our leisure.

So: why Caliban? Well, I like the name. It was also Robert Lowell's nickname, or rather Cal, and so I chose it in Lowell's honor as well. But mostly Caliban symbolizes my own aesthetic, my own view of life. He is ugly and monstrous:  am I not?  (Are we not?)  But he is a child of the Earth, a creature of flesh and dirt, and given the magic of the spoken word he howls and swears with it. I have howled; I have sworn; I worship the body and the soil in an age of plastic magic and computerized Prosperos.

Let me tell you a brief story to illustrate what I mean. Maybe you know a folk group from Ireland called The Dubliners. They happen to be a favorite band of mine. Sometime in the sixties they were invited to play the Ed Sullivan show. Now generally, the musicians who played on Sullivan's stage fit neatly into one of two types. There were the “good boys,” like the early Beatles, who wore suits and ties and smiled and wanted to hold your hand. And then there were the “bad boys,” wild and long-haired, who jumped around like animals and leered at girls in the audience and did everything that bad boys must to distinguish themselves from the good boys.

The Dubliners arrived at Sullivan's studio and started warming up for the evening's show. Sullivan came in to meet them, and was dreadfully confused. For here before him were not pseudoadolescents but mature men; moreover their hair was wild and bushy, and they sported long beards, and they were all wearing suits and ties. They were not the good boys or the bad boys. They sang about drinking and courting, and played with careful virtuosity. They wore beards like the bad boy rock'n'roll stars, and suits. They would never not wear a suit. It would never have occurred to them not to wear a suit.

These were children of the Earth, singers of the flesh and blood of man, who needed no disguise, no wild uniform. On Prospero's island they were mooncalves. Really they were Parzifals. They had no agendum but to follow those words of Herodotus, and later of Nietzsche, and Isak Dinesen, which are now inscribed at the top of this page:

To ride, to string a bow, and to tell the truth.

Welcome to Letters from Caliban.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Romantic Past

I first learned the last stanza of Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” as a young boy, from an encyclopedia. That was some thirteen years ago; and for thirteen years I had misunderstood what Keats was saying. The last stanza’s sixth line reads, “When old age shall this generation waste.” I had always interpreted “this generation” as being the line’s subject, and “old age” as being the object. In other words, I thought the line referred to a time when this generation, having been given the gift of old age, would waste it. Only recently did I realize that what Keats meant, more likely, was for “old age” to be the sentence’s subject and “this generation” to be the object– referring to the time when this generation becomes old and loses its vigor. Upon reflection, however, my former, mistaken interpretation rings strangely true. The Romantics uniformly placed high value and honor on the ancient past: the very fact that Keats composed an ode to a Greek vase reminds us of this. This aspect of Romanticism is crucial: by understanding the Romantic fixation on the past, we can better place Romanticism as a historical movement, and better see how the poets and writers of its pantheon helped beget the future, for better and for worse.

The Romantic obsession with the past is a continuation of their veneration of nature. Rousseau, who deserves the title of progenitor of the Romantics perhaps more than anyone else, believed in the superiority of the society that existed before property, when man lived “naturally.” Oppression, according to Rousseau, was a recent development; and just as he escaped to the fields around Lake Bienne to escape injustice, so could man escape the injustice of tyrannous property by returning to his natural state. This natural man, existing before the taint of civilization, is also manifest as the child whom the Romantics adore. Children appear so often in Romantic poetry because their perception of the world is uncorrupted, their sensibility unprejudiced by social constraint. Man is “natural” in his childhood, be that the springtime of his civilization or the early years of his life.

Later writers, more strictly Romantic than Rousseau, also saw a connection between times past and the value of nature. We are moved by the mountains immortalized in Coleridge, Wordsworth’s “Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,” and the lonely moors of John Clare not only for their beauty and their immunity to human pettiness but because they are so much older than we could possibly fathom. In fact, the feeling of the sublime – best illustrated by Coleridge, by the Alpine descriptions in Frankenstein, or by the painted crags and storms of Caspar David Friedrich and J.M.W. Turner – is often conjured by reflection that nature is so unthinkably longer-lived than humanity. Nature and the past are inseparable: it is befitting, therefore, that the generation of artists who so thoroughly threw themselves into mimesis of and mediation on nature should come to venerate old age and the past with an equal zeal.

It is also befitting that a generation so obsessed with forces outside society should also have so much to say about the classical, pre-Christian world. Keats, after all, was apostrophizing a Greek urn, and figures from mythology appear frequently in his verse. Shelley paid homage to the “true Poetry of Rome.” Hölderlin wrote an entire novel, Hyperion, set in Greece; and although the story takes place in the nineteenth century, during the independence struggle against Turkish domination, Hyperion’s visit to the Parthenon is a glorification of classical Athens and everything that entails: the pristine marbles of Praxiteles, the eloquence and magnanimity of Pericles, the high-minded thoughts of Socrates. All of these are voices calling from a world as devoid of modernity’s unpleasantries, at least in the 19th century imagination, as the meadows of the Swiss countryside, the rugged hills of Scotland, or the tumbledown shepherds’ cottages of rural England.

But Hölderlin’s enthusiasm for the past stretched even further back. The name of his protagonist comes from a Titan, one of the divine beings that preceded the Olympian gods. On the same note, Hölderlin’s poem “Kunst und Natur” is a denunciation of Jupiter in favor of Saturn. Saturn, like Hyperion, came from a generation of mythological spirits that existed before civilization; Saturn was associated, among the Romans, with time and the cycle of seasons, familiar motifs in the Romantic canon. In the worship of Saturn, Hölderlin gives us a vision of man whose spiritual focus is nature, observation and celebration of nature, simple and without trapping. He gives us natural man. Jupiter, desposer of Saturn and giver of mighty laws, is thus the great violator of natural man. He is the property that Rousseau sees as causing man to live everywhere in chains; he is the religion that so revolted the adolescent Shelley; he is the man who, like Mary Shelley’s narrator Walton or even Victor Frankenstein, violates the will of older generations and plunges himself into misery. He is the generation of whom I misunderstood Keats to write, receiving the gift of old age and squandering it.

The influence of the Romantic attachment to the past goes beyond these poets. Romanticism had political ramifications and reverberations, not the least of which was the bold Prometheus of French revolutionary liberalism – Bonaparte, who dared to snatch fire from the gods of history and thrust it into the hands of Europe. Napoleonic art was Romantic, but also strongly neoclassical. We can imagine both Percy Shelley and his stuffy professors approving of a painting like David’s Oath of the Horatii; Canova’s tomb for Napoleon’s sister has the graceful proportions of the Aphrodite of Knidos, and yet we can see the marble woman as the girl sitting on John Clare’s lap in one of the simple ploughman’s love sonnets. The nationalist movements that followed, or revolted against, the changes in Europe ushered in by Napoleon all hearkened back to times past. The image of revolution in politics, just as in poetry, began to derive from memory, and would continue to do so even after the rise of Marx, realism, and the disdain for sentiment.

For this reason, the political adoption of the Romantic love of the past has proved a dark legacy. The romantic nationalists of Germany had as clear and unique an image of natural man and the natural past as had Rousseau and Wordsworth. This in itself was nothing to lament; in fact, it gave us such classics as the collected folklore of the Brothers Grimm and the sweeping symphonic epics of Wagner. But looking at history, we see a direct line of descent beginning with these attempts to reclaim the natural spirit of a nation and ending with the torchlight processions of Nürnberg and the twentieth century’s most fearful and hideous scar. This, too, was the legacy of Romanticism. We see, at last, the face of Frankenstein’s monster, created in the best of faith and carried out in the worst; and we find it in the same history to which Rousseau appealed against tyranny, to which Hyperion turned against the wretchedness of modernity. Old age can be turned to; its lessons, however, can also be wasted. Keats’ line in the “ode to the Grecian Urn,” whether he meant it so or not, was prophecy.

Sketches from the Campagna: Soil and Rain

The man wore sunglasses and the driver wore a cap, but neither helped much. The sky was unbearably blue. Sweating through his blazer the man stared, annoyed, at the stunted brush and gnarled cactus on the roadside. The driver was talking ceaselessly, his third cigarette on his lip, and occaisonally the man replied. Every time the driver adressed the man directly he used a plural pronoun, which made the man cringe.

“I can assure you, signuri, I can personally assure you that this is a fine piece of land. You won't find better in this zone.”


The truck was rounding a curve by a thicket of dead cane. Evidently a creek had run through this part, but had not survived the ravages of August. The road had at one point been paved.

“I know it doesn't look like much, signuri, but that's because the summer has been very dry. If you wait for the rain you'll see how good it is. Good soil. Personally, signuri, if I was the padruni of a piece of land like this I'd have vines – vines, vines like you never saw before. All it needs is a little rain.”

The man had given up trying for an internet connection on his phone and had resumed staring through the window.

“The first thing we'll need here,” he said, “is a decent road. Do you do asphalting as well?”

“Certainly, signuri.”

“Good. Add that to the estimate. Can we do anything about the internet reception?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, signuri, I really can't answer that. I don't know. As soon as we get back to the office I'll ask the principale about fixing the internet here. I'm sure--”

“Just take the measurements,” said the man, “and write up the estimate. I'll call the director when we stop.”

They drove a while in silence. The driver glanced over at the man and licked his dry lip. He was a man of undeterminable age, the driver, in a Diadora shirt, his fingernails thick and cracked on the steering wheel.

“Bellissimo, this piece of land. Perfect soil. Madonna, the grapes you could grow here.”

“Our firm is not interested in grapes,” said the man without looking away from his cell phone, “and frankly neither am I.” He'd had quite enough. The driver raised his eyebrows, and flicked the cigarette butt out the window. Two thick brown fingers teased a new one out of his side pocket.

When they finally arrived the driver opened the passenger door, and then with his feet firmly planted he began explaining the layout of the property, where he advised building the garage, which hill to level to make room for the trucks, how much that might cost, which road led to the autostrada and which to the airport. His lecture finished, he strode around back to open the truck bed and remove his equipment. The man remained standing on the cracked yellow ground, pecking away at his phone, sweating and refusing to remove his blazer. The heat was unbearable. The blueness, the unrelenting blueness of the sky was rippling in the heat; the thistles had all lost their purple and had withered until they looked like bones.

The driver worked and the man stood pecking at his phone. The sky was heavy with heat, so heavy that its unbroken blueness was like mockery, a false promise of serene weather. The driver looked over his shoulder. “Signuri, if you'd like to call the principale in the shade the truck is still open, or you can stand in the casetta over there.” He pointed with his thumb to the faded ruin of a shed or barn, one of those skeletal hovels that pockmarked the countryside. There was no door and there didn't seem to be windows, but its roof at least was mostly intact, which promised shade; it had probably lain abandoned for some seventy years. The hovel stood on the edge of the property, choked with yellow weeds and the skeletons of thistles.

“I'll make the call from there,” said the man.

Suddenly, quietly, a dog emerged from the darkness of the casetta. Its ribs jostled against the slack skin; great fat ticks, black and gray, clung to its ears like snail shells or embroidered beads. It lowered its narrow muzzle, eyeing the man calmly and without malice, and went back in. A minute or so passed before it popped its head back into the light, retreated into the dark again, and finally padded out into the sunlight, swaying a little with each step as thin dogs do, and licking its mouth energetically. The man had not ventured to approach the whole time; the driver noticed this and laughed.

“He won't hurt you, signuri, don't worry,” and he threw a dry clod at the dog, swearing in dialect. The dog tripped downhill and disappeared into the cane.

The driver nodded and the man entered the casetta, phone in hand, blinking. He had not expected to find the ruin as dark as it was. Once inside he stood still, staring into the blind darkness. The first thing he noticed was the smell. Then as his eyes adjusted he saw the shoes, soles up, then the denim of the legs, and then the three clean holes in the back, and how the head had been nearly blown off; and then when his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he made out the bullet casings on the ground, and the congealing black pool that the dog had disturbed. It is impossible to say how much time had passed before he found himself able to move again, to take a single backward step, and then another, until he had left the darkness and stood in the unforgiving brightness of day. The driver was working some twenty meters off.

“Almost done, signuri.”

“Let's go. Let's go.”

The driver shrugged and stubbed out his cigarette. Back in the truck he threw the stick into reverse and waved a thick cracked hand at the property.

“Just needs rain. Wait for the rain and it will be beautiful.”

“Just drive,” said the man. “God damn it, just drive.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dionysus in the Fin-de-Siecle

Dionysus, a god of death and rebirth, died at the hands of post-pagan Rome, and only crept back into the European psyche in the nineteenth century. There he peeked his head through the lines of Goethe and Byron and grinned darkly over Schopenhauer's shoulder. But only in 1872 did Nietzsche introduce the god of the thresholds by name, and thenceforth Dionysus became a fixture of Western thought. Why Nietzsche, and why 1872? How could Dionysus, of all gods, make his entry into the European mind through the pen of a German scholar in the staid late-nineteenth century? This was, after all, the age of Victoria. Its popular oracles were Bentham and Mills, whose gospel of cheery conformity and strict rationalism had no room for the wine-god and his maenads; the heavy handed militarism of Prussia, and the imperial projects of Britain and her competitors, certainly afforded no more.

The truth was that Europe, thundering forward in its industrial and technological development, obsessed with progress, constantly decreasing the size of the world and increasing the size of world markets, felt haunted by a sense of decay. Progress had dehumanized Europe. The money that fattened its middle classes had been wrung from the flesh of colonial labor; the huge, gray metropolises that supplanted traditional ways of living left people physically feeble and spiritually ill; the obsession with linear progress that Weber documented in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism had sucked dry the creative spirit. Each nation's drive to empire threatened its neighbors. The specter of war hung over the Continent, bringing to fruition its nightmare promises in the meaningless slaughter of 1914. The working classes, in the thankless misery of their labor, began to listen to the voices of change and the prophets of armed revolution. Europe faced a political crisis; and moreover, it faced a human crisis.

The last time Dionysus had appeared in a major work of literature was in the sixth century before Christ: in the Bacchae of Euripides, written in the long shadow of Athenian social decay. Athens, the great empire and long the pinnacle of Greek culture, had lost the Pelopensian War. The Spartans stripped Athens of its colonies, its city walls, and its relevance as a superpower. Euripides himself, shortly after composing the Bacchae, left in exile for the barbarous kingdom of Macedon, which within very few years would conquer all of Greece in one sweep. But certainly we cannot attribute the fall of Athens to exterior forces, the armies of Sparta and Macedon, and exclude the probability of interior decline, a decay of order and power. Or at least, Euripides did not. For the incarnation of (implicitly Athenian) social order in the Bacchae is Pentheus, Pentheus the rigid, the obsessive and obstinate upholder of rational authority. Euripides' audience knew very well that the empire had failed, and that the spouting of its hyperrational apologists had no meaning. Dionysus, as a character in the drama, knows that just as well. Only Pentheus cannot see it, and in the end the sick society that he has tried to hold together with his high words, the very society that he has helped create, tears him to pieces.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the sick society was back. Pentheus sat stiff necked and smug in the pulpits and parliaments of Europe. And following him, naturally, came Dionysus, the Dionysus of the age of imperialism, of monopoly capitalism, of middle classes who could sit content and turn a blind eye to the slavery and murder that bloodied their hands. The Belgians had brought hell to Earth in the Congo, and justified the slavery, the mutilations, the murder of their schemes with the high pretences of bringing civilization and Christianity to a benighted race. And at home, the Europeans who bought the ivory and rubber of the Congo, who wore the clothing sewn by child laborers, struggled and agonized to keep themselves in line with the moral ideology of the time – the school of thought that held that homosexuality was a mental illness, that there is a difference between pure love and physical love; that there are highs and lows in the human spectrum, the lows belonging to the animals and lower races, and the highs being proper to the higher races and classes. These two boiling contradictions, these crimes against the human spirit wrapped in the robes of righteousness, were inseparable. They were two symptoms of the same sickness, the same illness, the same decay of society.

Of the literature of the time, there are perhaps no two better texts that describe this twofold decay than Conrad's Heart of Darkness, published in 1900, and Mann's Death in Venice, from 1912. Both of these short novels speak directly to their era. Heart of Darkness addresses the darkness of empire, and Death in Venice the human darkness weakly repressed by culture. They both have a Pentheus figure: Conrad has Kurtz, Mann has Aschenbach. And both show Europe at the fin-de-siecle in the world of Dionysus, far from rational order, giving way to chaos and its own repressed humanity.

The similarities between the two novellas are striking. In terms of plot structure, both take place on the border of ultracivilized empire and the primitive colony. Both are set in a place where the security of land meets the wild fluidity of water. Both involve a man who, having borne the banner of civilization to the fullest of his ability, comes to the colony and is swallowed up by its human wildness. This conversion is not a change but a continuation: the colony brings civilization to its ultimate conclusion. This conclusion has historical, cultural, and erotic implications. Both men realize this reversion to the savage, and attempt to overcome it by making it exterior, making the world around them into a kind of perverted symbology. And both men succumb to tropical illness, Kurtz having finally opened his eyes to the “horror” of his own Dionysian self, and Aschenbach having resisted resolutely any breach of his pure consciousness.

From this very basic sketch we see Dionysus clearly. A god of thresholds, neither male nor female, citizen nor foreigner, patrician nor plebeian, god nor man, Dionysus is fully at home amid the splendors of Venice, sinking into the sea, or on the banks of the Congo, deep in the jungle. Both Aschenbach and Kurtz have that fundamental ambiguity in their national identity. Aschenbach is half Silesian through his mother. He is half colonizer and half colonized, sprung half from stoic German stock and half from the implicitly more primal Central European races. Kurtz is part English, part French (“All Europe had contributed to the making of Kurtz”); and yet he sets himself up as a god, a tribal leader, among the natives of his Congo fastness. He is no longer European, but still not quite African.

The illnesses that haunt Death in Venice and Heart of Darkness speak directly to the Dionysian contagion that infects and maddens whole populations. The route of the cholera from India to Italy that Mann describes parallels the route of Dionysus to Thebes in the Bacchae; the malaria in Heart of Darkness does not follow such a route, but nevertheless refers back to the same.

Both novellas explore the erotic element of the Dionysian experience in great depth. In the Bacchae, Pentheus shows an obsessive hatred for female sexuality, and betrays an obsessive interest in it when Dionysus offers him the chance to see the Maenads in the throes of their madness. He also seems to harbor a homosexual desire for the beautiful young androgyne. Aschenbach refuses to approach eroticism, matching Pentheus in his hubristic disdain for sex. Instead he channels his lust into an image of platonic love and beauty, of eros as something aesthetic, unsensual, even socially beneficial. But like Pentheus he has hidden his sensual desires, his homosexual desires, from sight: he too desires to see the secret object of his lust, he too has hidden passions that for social reasons he could not afford to betray. Kurtz's descent into the Dionysian is less overtly sexual. The ivory he collects are still tusks, huge white phalluses born by black slaves. The phallic imagery returns with the spears and arrows of Kurtz's thralls, Marlowe's vision of the horned masks of the dancers, and the heads impaled on spears that surround Kurtz's house. The act of penetrating the thick of the Congo is itself a kind of recreated sexual intercourse. Marlow never explains just what he means when he recounts how Kurtz would “preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites” ; we infer some violation of a serious taboo, probably erotic. And of course, Kurtz has a black mistress, making him not only an adulterer but, much worse by his society's standards, a willing mixer of races.

Pentheus' own morbid repression of sensuality cannot stay hidden. Rather it emerges, and emerges with a vengeance, in the patriarchal strictness of his government. Order in Thebes, with correct thought and correct behavior as universal and unchanging conditions of life, is Pentheus himself, externalized. Likewise Aschenbach and Kurtz externalize their own condition. With Aschenbach, we first see this externalization in his choice to go to Italy. The text establishes a clear dialectic between the sumptuous, sensual, “decadent” South and the hardworking, civilized, rational North. Of course, no living human is entirely sensual or entirely rational. Aschenbach is a human, and has both of these characteristics. But as a good German, as a good bourgeois, as a good artist, he cannot tolerate the sensual in himself. High and low must be kept apart. He therefore projects his own sexual and uncivilized energy onto Italy, onto Venice. It is the highest kind of self-delusion, for the Venetians themselves turn out to be sophisticated and efficient in their cynical machinations-- they manage to hide a cholera epidemic from clueless northern tourists like Aschenbach, who succumb to the beauty of the rotting palazzi and stinking canals. The crisis of the sensual comes to a head when Aschenbach falls in love with Tadzio. Human love, all human love, is sensual. Aschenbach cannot bear sensuality: he therefore cannot bear human love. And so he transforms his human love object into exactly that – an object. Aschenbach never considers Tadzio as a person. He treats him as a piece of art, a plastic and unfeeling object, and even compares him directly to a statue, that of the Boy with the Splinter. His fantasies of being Socrates in the company of his beautiful young pupil are nothing more than another way of sidestepping the inevitability of sensuality. If Tadzio is a literary character, and love a philosophical concept, and a logical concept at that, there is no trace of perversion, of the sexuality that Aschenbach so desperately fears and hates. Aschenbach is not a monster, not a pederast: he is an artist, a bourgeois artist par excellence.

Tadzio is in effect Aschenbach's answer to Kurtz's ivory, and the Congo is Kurtz's Venice. Kurtz's lust is less specific that Aschenbach's. It seems to be a general animal drive, the will to destroy, to enslave, to fornicate, to rob, to devour men without pity. In historical hindsight this is not a particularly strange concept for us. We know that slaves in the Belgian Congo were mutilated by soldiers for not meeting their rubber quotas; we have read of the massacres and depredations of colonial armies. But it is an animal instinct, this will to destruction. It is fundamentally Dionysian; it is the drive, the human, animal drive to tear living animals to shreds and eat their flesh-- which is exactly what the Belgian mutilations in the Congo meant, or the impaled heads outside of Kurtz's house. The Dionysian, although fundamentally human, is antirational. It is antiutilitarian. It has no explicit place in the realm of bourgeois order, and yet it is fundamental to that system. The culture of Europe, conservative and hinging on rational order, could not afford to recognize the darkness at its very heart. And so empires were forged in the name of progress; missionaries accompanied soldiers. Marlowe routinely refers to his fellow ivory prospectors as “pilgrims,” a saintly name for the cowardly prospectors, who shoot Africans as thoughtlessly as one would slap a mosquito. They are worse, much worse, than the African crewmen, whom Marlowe christens “cannibals.” The pilgrims are the real cannibals. They act out the rites of Dionysus while pretending not to; the sparagmos implicit in the word cannibal belongs exclusively to the whites.

Kurtz himself came to the Congo on a moral mission. Marlowe finds a pamphlet, written by Kurtz, at the behest of the “International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Marlow, reading the pamphlet, says “It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.” “Exotic Immensity” is a wonderful turn of phrase. It designates the Europeans as exotic, not the Africans. The savage European, violating a continent, sits hidden behind a single adjective. And “Immensity” is an appropriately Dionysian word, as the Dionysian is a universal principle. Only “Benevolence” does not fit. There is nothing remotely benevolent about colonization, about the middle class values of linear logic and stolid complacency that fed on the blood and rubber of the Congo. Kurtz realizes this. “Exterminate all the brutes,” he scrawls on the report's last page. And later, as he dies: “The horror! The horror!”

Kurtz knew; metaphorically he understood what disease was sapping his life away. Aschenbach never faces that same reality. In fact, Aschenbach so thoroughly isolates himself from his own humanity that he not only cannot recognize his own sexuality, but cannot recognize himself in the political theater of Europe. Half Silesian, his hero is Frederick the Great, whose Prussia swept through and conquered Silesia. He throws his lot in with the Prussian Empire, the saber-rattling Prussian Empire, whole heartedly. He does not consider the rancor, the suffering, the rage of empire's many victims. When Tadzio makes faces at the Russian family, Aschenbach can only see the beauty of a Greek statue. He cannot see the centuries of ill-will between Russian and Pole, the clear promises of future strife and violence. His existence is upper-middle class to the core; the working classes hardly ever cross his mind. The gondolier that he sees as Charon really is the ferryman of death; he senses the rumbling of the workingmen of Europe against his own predatory middle class, but refuses to confront that lurking anxiety. And the first premonition of his fate – we might say the first apparition of Dionysus in the novella, in the form of a red-haired man – takes place in a Byzantine mausoleum. The mausoleum, which houses the dead, is clear enough as a symbol. But the fact that its architecture is Byzantine is in itself very telling. The Byzantium had once been a mighty empire, the successor of Rome, a receiver of tribute from all over the Mediterranean. And it crumbled, and collapsed. (We are well-advised to refer to Mann's contemporary, Yeats, and his poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” for evidence that the Byzantine Empire and its fall was already floating in the intellectual atmosphere of the time.) The German Empire, the British Empire, the Portuguese Empire, the Belgian Empire, the unofficial American Empire – the empires of steel, of rubber, of machine parts, of cotton, the markets that spanned continents at the point of the bayonet – all these Empires were hurtling toward the same end, the same collapse, that Byzantium suffered. Death in Venice preceded World War I by two years, but the buildup was well underway. The nightmare of mass slaughter, wreathed and bannered with good middle class values, was not an idea but a destiny.

When reading the Bacchae, we must bear in mind that Pentheus and Dionysus are first cousins. This is more than an incidental plot element: their relation is symbolic. They are ultimately part of the same person. Pentheus contains Dionysus within him. Behind virtue lies the wine god, who escapes all definition and will not suffer the bondage of morality. Euripides shows a gentle Dionysus as well as a violent one, a god who besides inciting murder and madness brings hope to bondsmen and women, feeds his worshipers with milk, comforts them with wine, bringing peace as well as strife. But by the fin-de-siecle, that side of Dionysus had disappeared from view. The colonial era, where Europe repressed both other peoples and its own humanity with the utmost violence, carried on a Dionysian tradition without redemption, without hope. Small wonder the Western intellectual world of the time was so obsessed with social decadence: they had nothing left to hold onto. The great industrial wheels and smoking furnaces of history had snuffed out the happiness of man's animal nature, the joy of being one with a blazing, mysterious god. The double nature of Dionysus had died; the wine god's rebirth as a whole being, a principle as creative as it is destructive, cannot coexist with capitalism. Perhaps it will return. If it did it would herald the coming of a new man, happy with and unafraid of himself, neither an Aschenbach nor a Kurtz.