A political economy of madness

March 28, 2014

Madness is a vortex to contradictions, it swallows them up and rejects the discernment of reason. In one of the Sophoclean tragedies of the Trojan war saga, the hero Ajax throws himself on his sword in frustration when denied the satisfactions that only a fantasy visited on him by Athena will provide.

Grief_Wheel

He faces death with terrible resolve when his honor is thwarted, still impressed by the value of life and light but implacable that his fate in the world has become intolerable.

AJAX
“Oh Death, Death, come now and look upon me! To you I will speak in that other world also, when I am with you. But you, present beam of the bright day, and Sun in his chariot, I accost for the last, last time -”

Here the elegant manners of Sophocles only heighten the humane aspect of tragedy, allowing even kings to vibrate with sentimentality that their constant companions, the ceremonies, render obscure from the public eye in everyday life.

CHORUS
“Her soul is steeped in the anguish of that wail.”

On discovering his body, the widow Tecmessa is observed by this chorus when they weigh the general case of expressed feeling being indeterminate in intensity of experienced feeling against coincidence heard, con-substantive and mentionable. It is the human aspect that is larger than life in this play.

The kindness of a marriage like Tecmessa’s is modest; to ask less of trust when the minds of our closest companions are shut from us, a commitment to housing one’s heart where conventionality says enough to one’s housemate about what is to be expected of domesticity. A home life that strains nothing under the weight of uncertainty.

Ajax tells his wife little of what he intends, and mourns his own fate briefly, alone.

She frets in the doorway to their home, asking for news, while he goes to a secluded place to work his own end. They are in disfavor since he went mad, and she is without help until it is too late.

alatriste_1

Would news have been enough to stop him? Perhaps not, but allowing the action to devolve in this way ennobles the mundane as a subject for drama.

The Victorian economist Walter Bagehot uses access to information (social capital, gossip) as a metaphor for access to banking credit: “credit, the disposition of one man to trust another, is singularly varying. In England, after a great calamity, everybody is suspicious of everybody; as soon as that calamity is forgotten, everybody again confides in everybody.”

An interesting choice of metaphor, considering the way micro-credit relies on social networks as if setting up an informal system of blackmail in lieu of collateral.

There is certainly something parochial about the Greek myths today, but some of their hooks have enduring relevance. In a globalizing world susceptible to cultural and linguistic convergence theory, the inexorable aggression of commerce transcending cultural distinctions risks a sort of strangling off of imaginary worlds, as the life of the mind adapts to the pace of events and the pressures of a cognitive surplus with a practical dissolution into verbal poverty. What survives this convergence is primordial fear of death, and bitter vulnerability to the whims of forces outside an individual’s control. Here a simple, apolitical brute of a hero like Ajax is as natural a contestant for glory as a sports celebrity.

Whether you call it neoliberal or neoconservative, the new world order makes only modest promises about human rights and human dignity, and allows economic power to trump most other considerations wholesale. Anachronisms like Troy and Rome appeal to the postmodern imagination partly because there is a regression to the mean to be found under this new regime, stingy with transaction costs and quick to cite accomplished facts in political economics over policy promises. Primitivism is a natural choice of metaphor for the cutting edge of austerity measures.

Gladiator_imperium_screencaps

Why Troy then, instead of the all-against-all of Roman politics? The love stories surrounding the Trojan war are epic fantasies of perseverance cut short by the realities of indifferent fate and ruthless rivalry. Apart from Ulysses, hardly anyone of note survives his epilogue to the city’s overthrow.

Eventually the ironies of dissent within the ranks played up in Shakespeare’s satire Troilus and Cressida are confirmed in the conclusion of a war with no victors to speak of, no survivors of nobility, only glamorous deaths on all sides. These ironies fall heaviest on the mundane conventions of patronage politics, with virtually no one pretending to have a just cause for war.

Ugliness and shamelessness triumphs over beauty and glory. Thersites steals the critical acclaim from Helen and her champions for mentionable character development.

John Brady Kresling, in Diplomacy Lessons, describes “the social construction” of realism in international politics: “The most valuable expertise is the ability to generate immediate, plausible bureaucratic responses .. In practice, bureaucratic victory means having advocated whatever course the president ultimately adopts.”

Rather than evaluate available expertise on validity-related criteria, “bureaucrats accumulate instead a roster of presentable, credentialed persons with views likely to reinforce what they perceive to be the prevailing inclination” with caveats. A certain amount of contradiction embedded in the first stab at this is the only safeguard against an upset. Consider these remarks from a UN observer in Bosnia during the ethnic cleansings of the 1990s:

“I saw children placed under the wheels of tanks by fine, upstanding men and then crushed by other men in full possession of their faculties. These people have a coherent strategy. Their aim is to inflict the maximum terror on the civilian population, destroy the maximum property, and exercise the maximum violence on women and children. As soon as the mercenaries [the White Eagles] have accomplished their mission, the established authorities – the police of Karadzic’s militia – arrive to restore order.”

This is typical of tactical atrocities in modern war, as noted in a recent analysis of ongoing violence in Central Africa.

The female of the novice sub-species is naive enough to beggar belief in Leonard Frank’s brisk allegory on charity (in the spirit of the popular doggerel verse “The Development Set”):

“This Dutch girl [on the Development Team] is a Nuisance … She visits villages and reports back to us at dinner that the irrigation schemes are not working the way the government says they are … We make non-committal replies and try and change the subject. … You have to make a choice about the world you live in – the real world or the official world. … It’s always best to take the government figures. That way you save yourself work and don’t tread on toes. We are here, after all, as guests.”

But Kresling puts it this way: “successful – because ambitious, disciplined, and competitive – bureaucrats gradually lose interest in the outside world, no matter how curious they were about it when they started. … Bureaucrats are social animals. By the time [state department] bureaucrats have climbed high enough in the career ladder for their opinions to be heard directly, the successful ones are fully immersed in the study of their superiors and rivals, not the behavior of foreigners.”

What can you use except a “self-organizing bag of junk” analogy, to predict the behavior of consultant-model professionals in the security-intelligence complex? In an environment that discourages them from noticing how much of the official line is being ignored by the people who (politely?) appear to be listening, what exactly do you expect them to do, if asked to play things by ear?

CYMBELINE
Mine eyes
Were not in fault, for she was beautiful;
Mine ears, that heard her flattery; nor my heart,
That thought her like her seeming. It had been vicious
To have mistrusted her.

The awful familiarity of Troy is a great help here, within the canon for permissible fan references, on the heart of the matter for “a story that just won’t die” as they say, about political gossip.

pride_and_prejudice

“Middling dangers are horrid, when the loss of reputation is
the inevitable consequence of ill success.” Earl of Chesterfield

Where does a tone deaf ruling class come from? Profit maximizing imperatives and unconcealed pervasive corrupt practices would make having gut feelings a handicap in those who are actively engaging in the exploitation of the weak.

Yet when policy is dull from lack of scandal, the legislature is all absentee; terror tactics are fully within the reach of every rational actor, motivated or otherwise.

Michael Ignatieff says of the role of revenge-killings in modern ethnic warfare, their claim on the dead is to “honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect .. Political terror is tenacious .. a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect. .. it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat.

“As in nightmare, each side hurls itself at the locked door of the past, seeking in vain to force it open.”

Nightmare follows nightmare in the tragedies mopping up the dramatis personae at Troy, death after death after death.

Could Achilles have prefigured the gospels and passion merely by believing at war that “we” humans are vile things? Not with so few words, except for Shakespeare’s antecedent, the happy point. Homers do make books of the soul.

Talent is, only what it is, mentionable even among those who know less than what it is and repeat everything.

watercolor_khoi

In its way, a world embattled over false dichotomies is vying for balance and sanity. Every paradoxical contradiction in life is a qualitative distinction that announces itself powerfully enough to evoke universal significance in a microcosm, and so describes the grooves of the world.

Literatures travel more freely than ambassadors, and contrary propaganda regimes produce a diversified literature of dissent, until the end of history brings us to an epoch of manufactured dissent and artificially balanced election cycles robbed of foreign policy brinkmanship for cover of war.

Richard Sennett quotes several critics on the loss of negation in modern art in his book Authority, beginning with the stultification of nominal negation as a stock trick of the trades. The writer’s culture, he argues, was once treated as “the point of departure, the anchor, [and] everything is asserted in reaction to it.” But the center could not hold.

“Today … modern art is beginning to lose its powers of negation. For some years now its rejections have been ritual repetitions: rebellion has turned into procedure, criticism into rhetoric, transgression into ceremony. Negation is no longer creative.” – Octavio Paz

This formula for sounding relevant and original produces a tendency toward arbitrariness in the marketplace for dissent, until one must “take virtually for granted the adversary intention, the actually subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing,” in Lionel Trilling’s words. Irving Howe wrote that “modernism consists in a revolt against the prevalent style, an unyielding rage against the official order,” and this intellectual habit can only be relied upon so long as the official order is not quite overthrown.

The balance of yin and yang, in art and in theory, is loosely descriptive of the subsumed categories divided between any two seemingly definitive opposing forces. Precisely because the dividing lines and appropriate definitions of polar opposites are debatable, they enrich our descriptive vocabulary with metaphors that rely on inexactitude for relevance. Metaphors are additive magic; imprecision adds something to the conversation that wasn’t there before, neither description nor a real segue to something else.

Now, epic adventure taken to extreme ends gets a little campy. “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his pay-roll,” says Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not so Darken Rahl.

Maggot indeed. Modern man can make modesty look bad, fumbling with his idiomatic vocabulary of indifferent, preconceptual, mimetic and for all practical purposes nonverbal utterances that sloppily finesse the tenor of dumb posturing to say Stop or Go, habitually but unwittingly grammatical.

He has learned to coast on accident rates that somehow make it difficult to die anything but a slow, confused and frightening death in this bland and unreflecting incarnation of civilization, the accomplished fact of life that is not, in fact, alive but shows more cognizance than most human behaviors by way of extravagantly well-informed and artificially self-organized design.

The gunboat diplomacy they devote conviction to as human beings (who don’t want to die) is a losing enterprise financially, a largely fictitious genre of public diplomacy. Americans themselves were the last to notice foreign policy (“nukespeak”) is used for election cycles in small contract contests among advertising production design specialists with scant (but scarce) political rhetoric smarts.

“The penguins had the most powerful army in the world. So had the porpoises.” – Anatole France

Who knew, but nobody cares, and parsimony must count for something in the use of an attention span. It’s an attention economy now. Innocency is the only straw man joke that interests the electorate any more, as far as infotainment is prepared “to imply.” Even the genre’s rude ironies are going flat.

Auden is wrong but teaches correctly, to say “Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it;” Baudrillard can explain. In projects to unmask the illusion of the real, he says, thought tries to “advance in disguise and establish itself as a lure without concern for its own truth.”

Thought now trusts nothing it possesses. As Bakhtin puts it, “Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others.”

“The days of the future stand before us
like a row of small lighted candles -
golden, warm, and lively candles.

..

I don’t want to look at them, their aspect saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lighted candles.”

- C. P. Cavafy

The Trojan war story throws us into the primordial soup of material culture, immaterial heritage and psychological idiosyncrasies of place and background in how people experience cognitive dissonance. Lives hang in the balance between propriety and a measured exercise of degrees of disrespect when conversation ensues between mortal enemies.

Respect is as compound and nuanced an attitude as shame; for instance, showing disrespect can be a measure of incongruity between someone’s status and their potential status, a way of reminding them you have higher expectations. Putting it that way can be a reassurance rather than an effort to shame them into trying harder – as if being gentler would be worse, would condescend.

But the disability stigma that attaches itself to madness is a special kind of disrespect, incontrovertible and pervasive rather than situational. Only in the myths is madness cast over a hero and then lifted away, never soon enough to be a true reprieve but lifted just the same. Where lifestyle conventions run to madness, human dignity is no longer considered cause for much of anything at all, and posturing is only ever in the name of being able to afford a personal measure of indifference.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Inflation adjusted to who cares when, the price of care is what it is.


Frontier moralities

February 24, 2013

If Whitman is the poet of vagabonds fleeing the colonial conceit for a breath of fresh air at the edge of the wilderness, Virgil is the poet of colonists who garden for love of an empire, domestic dreamers who dwell on the past when they look at the stars, and threaten to rise up over “tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd.”

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you will replace you,
a yellow leaf framing a cluster of grapes
will shine, grief will hide itself, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us.

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden.

I haven’t read Virgil, but I’m curious. The book Strangers at the Gate held my attention on a day when I had been skimming all the other library books until I’d read it cover to cover, by mixing prosody with anecdote for modern South Africa’s Latin poetry fandom. Africa has more than great migrations to offer the 20th century, and can keep a writer busy doing things other than writing, while abroad.

Airport_Mark_Lewis

Airports are also good, for writing foreshadowing to sequence.

A writer not writing will even listen enough to become a better writer without having noticed. Aspiring to something more than residence in Kenya, Karen Blixen kept too many found mottos not to be known for it, and could not refuse when Denys gave her his family’s motto, “Je responderay,” as a present – it means I will answer and give account.

She said this motto spoke to her, partly because “the Danish word for responsibility is plain ‘Ansvar.’”

She did not like to see frontier morality as an off-color idiom of polite sayings from home, about what is not intended to pass for justice so far from the courts.

“.. just the same .. and everyday, there comes a song ..”

Martha Nussbaum’s phrase “the frontiers of justice” resonates for just this reason – at the edges of the map we find an unconstructed society, where invaders and invaded have each begun losing their capacity to govern in good faith. Their ambassadors must be ready to betray the trust they cultivate at any moment, or be set upon by their own people instead.

What privacy the wild affords is false –
a public mind works on the natural world.
I can’t forget my oath, the flag unfurled
above our fort to give the weather’s pulse
an air of expectation. What promise
this overwhelming strange enchantment holds
for me teases my sentiments, but folds
before harsh terms for trade. There is but this:
the nourishment of the James River’s fish,
the closeness of the timber to the sea,
our access to the tributaries’ kings –
such circumstances dictate every wish
and govern blindly. “Subsistence first” brings
strength without warmth, our mere security.

Some people seek out the frontier with the wilderness, rather than with strangers whose laws are not their own.

Tomohiro_Inaba

Tomohiro Inaba

My grandfather retired as far from the nearest neighbor as he could without losing access to a grocery store. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, of company in moderation. I remember my grandfather best for his hospitality, keeping house in the Oregon woods.

Farming trees in a black bear neighborhood called airplane ridge after a small plane accident, he never used a gun there, except to kill a porcupine that tried to eat his house. A salt lick in view of the breakfast table brought in morning guest lists of deer that would scuffle over the dirt it had percolated into, when it had washed down to nothing.

Coyotes could be heard singing there at night, though the wolves had been gone for generations. Listening for bugling elk, though, you are more likely to hear the cattle sounding in the dark. Coyotes inspire a healthy fear in ranch hands, and can sometimes be found crucified on a fence line where the range is being used for grazing. But coyotes have never been that easy to run off.

Coyote is the trickster hero, everywhere he’s known to storytellers, a savior everyone is loathe to turn to, but an acknowledged genius, sure to be rather brilliant when all else fails. A thief and a practical joker, he gave the world stars by stealing a bag of sacred white corn from a goddess of the Southwest, and carelessly spilling it in the sky.

A great basalt landmark in Oregon is all that remains of an all-swallowing monster he slew in the origin story of the Nez Perce people. Even the monster that swallowed every other living thing in the world hesitated to eat coyote, suspecting somehow that this could backfire.

But coyote bathed, and rolled in sagebrush, and persuaded the world’s enemy nothing could be tastier, so that he could roast the gorgon’s vitals from within, rescuing all the demoralized survivors languishing in stomach juices but not without humiliating the only marsupial known to him.

feathered2013_charlie

“Feathered” is from The Daily Coyote (Charlie, 2013).

Baby coyotes have big voices, and make for an eerie local caroling troupe. But it’s easy to fear for them, since the national forest on all sides of the tree farm is used for grazing. Ranchers don’t mind the cattle often while they’re there, or gather them efficiently, but they kill predators sometimes.

Things have begun to change. Even wolves are showing themselves lately, from the jogging trails of Boise to the meadows above Joseph, Oregon. A few weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, neighbors gave word a wolf pack had taken on his part of airplane ridge.


Mottos for adventure

February 23, 2013

Although Karen Blixen used the pseudonym Isak Dinesen mostly to publish short stories, my favorite piece of writing under that name is her essay “On Mottoes of My Life”, in the collection Daguerreotypes.

Here she reveals that she kept mottos in her heart that she had forgotten in the Latin original (like “still I am unconquered” and “often in difficulties, never afraid”), and she shares the legend behind Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse est! (“This audacious order was flung from the lips of Pompey to his timid Sicilian crew when they refused to set out against the gale and the high seas to bring provisions of grain to Rome.”)

Roman-galleon-Pompei-Fresco

Montaigne was just as much of a fangirl about quotable Latin. He relates in a great hurry how Bias said to shipmates during a tempest while calling to the gods for help, in keeping with traditions that it is unlucky to go to sea with those who are “dissolute, blasphemous, or wicked” but humorously: “Be quiet, so they may not realize that you are here with me.”

She gives another nautical motto in the story of a French scientific expedition lost at sea. The boat “had gone down below Iceland with her flag flying. And the boat had been named Pourquoi pas? – ‘Why not?’”

The Endurance expedition to the Antarctic, an adventure chronicled in Craig Parker’s Shackleton’s Captain, named their ship by brave words and sent her to a similar fate. The ship rechristened in honor of Shackleton’s family motto, “by endurance we conquer” was abandoned in pack ice, but the journey earned its epithet. Through the courage to endure brutal conditions and much waiting on a distant thread of hope in their own rescue expedition on the last serviceable boat hauled over ice from where the ship was lost, all men survived.

The film has its own motto, from Napoleon’s memorable saying: “it takes more courage to live than to die.” Napoleon is said to have hoped, above all, that his own life would be remembered like a motto, as an inspirational story.

I used to think being blown away by Master and Commander at the Far Side of the World made me a Peter Weir fan. Then I saw his toilet repair man movie. It’s diabolically clever, but I’m definitely just another Russell Crowe fan, and a genre fan of epic adventure. You need a lead actor the whole cast can hook on to for an ensemble performance that strong. And at sea (beyond the cinema’s massive tank for ocean adventure staging), some of the same rules apply.

In an essay on tragic drama, Maxwell Anderson conveys this hope for the role of theater in the modern world: “The theater is much older than the doctrine of evolution, but its one faith … is a faith in evolution, in the reaching and the climb of man toward distant goals, glimpsed but never seen, perhaps never achieved, or achieved only to be passed impatiently on the way to a more distant horizon.”

“Thow of foaming seas, dost still the tumultuous outcries
thow their high swelling, dose coole with lowly residing”
(Pembroke, Psalm 89).

On winds, it is easy to dwell with unease on a thought that the weather has seemed to answer before you had finished the question as a thought itself. This is for actors to see, but not because the wind is not indifferent, all phenomena that make up spectacles of convergence are, they whisper deja vu and are no less unpredictable than if they had said nothing. What you read into it you know, but the world is resoundingly silent before you have spoken.

The weirdness was from finding yourself the only one present who seemed to notice what you just came to think, as if those all around you should have heard the same passage of wind through the nearby treetops tell them the same thing, because you fear it is urgent and yet obscure. It is obscure, but you’re an actor so you noticed.

Theater helps us risk a glimpse at ourselves at the very worst, distancing the specter of our darker nature from ourselves just far enough to make a bit more honesty about the way we live our lives feel palatable. Only after such a glimpse does serious thinking about making the world any better become possible.

Literature and history could do no better, though the one is easily distracted with experiments in style, and the other with experiments in politics. The Babylonians encountered by Herodotus began (and never completed) a tower of Babel, and the traveling historian climbed its scaffolding.

But for the Greek this anecdote was only one among many, and it shrinks in perspective, one of volumes of stories engagingly told. Any story with a motto transcends the distance and time.

In the first lines of “Australia”, a sonnet by Bernard O’Dowd, kingfishers misplace the large, habitable island and all its marsupials in another salt body of water:

Last sea-thing dredged by sailor Time from Space,
Are you a drift Sargasso, where the West
In halcyon calm rebuilds her fatal nest?

The halcyon myth is the kingfisher’s origin story, about a couple mercifully transformed into water birds, after a god tried to drown the husband at sea. The bride’s father, a god of winds, yearly gives the lovers seven cold days of calm at solstice to tend their floating seaweed nest. The root syllables in Greek mean ‘salt’ and ‘to conceive’.

sidney_nolan_halycon

Halcyon painted by Australia’s Sidney Nolan

The Euripides Hyppolytos quoted in The Spirit of Tragedy uses the same stranded-at-sea image, as a metaphor for the human condition:

CHORUS
I have a secret hope
of someone, a god, who is wise and plans;
but my hopes grow dim …
Unpiloted we’re helplessly adrift
upon a sea of legends, lies and fantasy.

Of course, to be forgiven and begin again may not prevent us from repeating our mistakes. But there is repetition of mistakes in any life of adventure. Isak Dinesen’s essay ends with lines from The Tempest better than the saying a great hardship “shall pass.”

ARIEL
Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change
into something rich and strange.

She concludes, “We may make use of the words – even when we are speaking about ourselves – without vainglory. Each one amongst us will feel in his heart the inherent richness and strangeness of this one thing: his life.”

Being only about as seaworthy as a hobbit, I’ve never dared colder water than a glacier lake, and then only because I had to dive for binoculars dumped when I overturned a kayak at the pier, after a kite-drawn expedition manned by an intractable tinkerer who has likely still not finished building his own plane. But that was cold.

The captain played by Craig Parker (Frank Worsley) was an actor himself, in the sense that what seemed to have saved the crew (beyond not dropping the sextant in the choppy waters) was keeping up morale by example. This was in his nature, we are told, as if his spirit of adventure “keeps on the windy side of care” and had always been infectious and inexhaustible.

But then George Bernard Shaw would have us see Caesar as a comedian. They’re not the open books, they say.


The sense of the past

February 23, 2013

In the art of narrating history, few can compete with the Baron Corvo for flair. In a masterful attempt at rehabilitating the reputations of the Borgia clan, he juggles rationalizations on necessity for possible misdeeds right alongside exhaustive catalogs of exculpatory evidence, on the logic that redundancy is the secret to thoroughness.

Corvo was the pseudonym of Frederick William Rolfe, son of a piano manufacturer, dubbed “baron” by one Duchess Sforza Cesarini while living as an indigent freelance writer and tutor in Venice. His history of the Borgia pope’s career in nepotism would not necessarily be considered an authoritative one, but his diligence in shoehorning the available evidence into firm conclusions is not truly unusual.

Take C.V. Wedgewood’s assessment of Machiavelli’s legacy in The Sense of the Past (1960): “It has sometimes been said that the divorce of politics from ethics begins with Machiavelli. This was not true in practice; politics and ethics have been through a series of marriages and divorces since the beginning of recorded history. Machiavelli happened to live at a time and in a country where this divorce appeared to be absolute; his observations rested on this assumption.”

the_borgias

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Then Wedgewood corrects Machiavelli for his pretense of objectivity in the study of politics, arguing that in truth he favored flattering the politics of antiquity, and discounted most evidence he encountered of agreement between moral policies and pragmatism, out of “his natural taste for subtlety, and his admiration for cleverness and force” (exemplified in the personalities of contemporaries like Cesare Borgia).

You can find Corvo’s sense of humor in the voices of more circumspect historians. These are the masters of good poise, presenting compromised source material to a skeptical readership with good humor and not too many apologies for its questionable nature.

He updated in style the reputation of a political crime family as colorful as a Caravaggio, just in time to capture the Victorian era’s passing discomfiture with what a contemporary audience forgets to blush at.

Tip their mouths open to the sky. Turquoise, amber, the deep green with fluted handle, pitcher the size of two thumbs, tiny lip and graceful waist.

Here we place the smallest flower which could have lived invisibly in loose soil beside the road, sprig of succulent rosemary, bowing mint.

They grow deeper in the center of the table.

Here we entrust the small life, thread, fragment, breath. And it bends. It waits all day. …

But the child of Hebron sleeps with the thud of her brothers falling and the long sorrow of the color red.

- THE SMALL VASES FROM HEBRON

Of course, if like an ambitious politician he is full of rhetorical intensity but “trained in the art of inexactitude,” the narrator’s blind spots will come at a price. Some significant omissions in our history conceal from us what we still need to learn about ourselves.


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