chapter 21

“A Lady Reader, having read the novel up to this point, asked, ‘Just where is this story is headed? A proper story needs characters, and character development!’

‘But who will create them? I live in a godless world. I live in a world full of injustice. I don’t know what joy is, I don’t know what sorrow is. I don’t know who I am. Surya used to tell me about how his baby chicks would get carried away by kites. He would protect the eggs for twenty-seven days, help the chicks crack open their shells and come out, keep them warm, teach them to eat grain – all this just for a kite to come swooping down from the sky and carry them off in its talons. Not even nine chicks escaped. Tell me, where is the justice in this world?

‘A tortoise lays ninety eggs. Even before all the eggs can hatch and the baby tortoises can make their way back to the sea, most of them are taken by sea birds Only eighteen of the ninety make it back to the sea safely.

‘When a female cricket makes her chitek chitek noise, the male cricket comes flying in to have sex with her, after which it drops dead.

‘Ponder for a moment on the plight of this male cricket. Does he know that the female is going to call chitek chitek? Once he hears the sound, does he have any choice but to fly to her? It is his nature to answer her call, to have sex with her, and then to die.

‘Where is the justice in this world? Where is the order? How can I create characters under such circumstances? If I can’t even create characters, how can I possibly tell a story?’

‘You can,’ says the Lady Reader.

‘How?’ asked Nano.

‘I won’t tell you. Find out for yourself,’ said the Lady Reader, and left.”

(Charu Nivedita, Zero Degree, trans. Pritham K. Chakravarthy & Rakesh Khanna, pp. 115–116.)


“He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not be sure, for the Machine did not transmit nuances of expression. It only gave a general idea of people – an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes, Vashti thought. The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as the imponderable bloom of the grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something ‘good enough’ had long since been accepted by our race.”

(E. M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” pp. 5–6 in Fairy Tales for Computers, The Eakins Press, 1969.)

a short chronology of arson

A box of matches on the patio
settles everything – by fifty, sister,
you will be master of close-up tricks,

excellent at sleight of hand. But first
you must set fire to wicker furniture
in the backyard, let the fumes

from the flaming table haze over
the rhododendrons. Seven minutes
unobserved is ample time to turn

into someone else entirely, someone
who has always been likely
but restrained, mistaken for mood.

The the grass catches. A peppery haze
clouds the rounded back windows
of the house. Presses its way inside.

(Idra Novey, from The Next Country.)

bordando el manto terrestre


(Remedios Varo, Bordando el manto terrestre, 1961, oil on masonite, Colección Particular, México D.F.)

“But all that had then gone on between them had really never escaped the confinement of that tower. In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre,’ were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creature, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she’d wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there’d been no escape. What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?”

(Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, pp. 11–12.)

giotto’s joachim

The Expulsion of Joachim
Joachim among the shepherds
Joachim's Sacrifice
Joachim's Dream

(Giotto’s frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua. Proust:

When my father had decided, one year, that we should go for the Easter holidays to Florence and Venice, not finding room to introduce into the name of Florence the elements that ordinarily constitute a town, I was obligated to evolve a supernatural city from the impregnation by certain vernal scents of what I supposed to be, in its essentials, the genius of Giotto. At most – and because one cannot make a name extend much further in time than in space – like some of Giotto’s paintings themselves which show us at two separate moemnts the same person engaged in different actions, here lying in his bed, there getting ready to mount his horse, the name of Florence was divided into two compartments. . . . That (even though I was still in Paris) was what I saw, and not what was actually round about me. Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be.

from Swann’s Way (Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright trans.), cited in Eric Karpeles’s Paintings in Proust, p. 76.)

back to huizinga

“Is it surprising that the people could see their fate and that of the world only as an endless succession of evils? Bad government, exactions, the cupidity and violence of the great, wars and brigandage, scarcity, misery and pestilence – to this is contemporary history nearly reduced in the eyes of the people. The feeling of general insecurity which was caused by the chronic form wars were apt to take, by the constant menace of the dangerous classes, by the mistrust of justice, was further aggravated by the obsession of the coming end of the world, and by the fear of hell, or sorcerers and devils. The background of all life in the world seems black. Everywhere the flames of hatred arise and injustice reigns. Satan covers a gloomy earth with his sombre wings. In vain the militant Church battles, preachers deliver their sermons; the world remains unconverted. According to a popular belief, current towards the end of the fourteenth century, no one, since the beginning of the great Western schism, had entered Paradise.”

(Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, pp. 30–31.)

a white bear

“A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I never dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?

—Is the white bear worth seeing?—

—Is there no sin in it?—

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?”

(Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, chapter 43.)

the subway seems sweet after that

“But as we came from Antheil’s ‘Ballet Méchanique’ a woman of our party, herself a musician, made this remark: ‘The subway seems sweet after that.’ ‘Good,’ I replied and went on to consider what evidences there were in myself in explanation of her remark. And this is what I noted. I felt that noise, the unrelated noise of life such as this in the subway had not been battened out as would have been the case with Beethoven still warm in the mind but it had actually been mastered, subjugated. Antheil had taken this hated thing life and rigged himself into power over it by his music. The offense had not been held, cooled, varnished over but annihilated and life itself made thereby triumphant. This is an important difference. By hearing Antheil’s music, seemingly so much noise, when I actually came upon noise in reality, I found that I had gone up over it.”

(William Carlos Williams, “George Antheil and the Cantilène Critics: A Note on the First Performance of Antheil’s Music in New York City (April 10th, 1927)” from A Novelette and Other Prose, p. 355 in Imaginations.)


“The greatest work of the twentieth century will be that of those who are placing literature on a plane superior to philosophy and science. Present day despairs of life are bred of the past triumphs of these latter. Literature will lay truth open upon a higher level. If I can have a part in that enterprise, I shall be extremely contented. It will be an objective synthesis of chosen words to replace the common dilatoriness with stupid verities with which everyone is familiar. Reading will become an art also. Living in a backward country, as all which are products of the scientific and philosophic centuries must be, I am satisfied, since I prefer not to starve, to live by the practice of medicine, which combines the best features of both science and philosophy with that imponderable and enlightening element, disease, unknown in its normality to either. But, like Pasteur, when he was young, or anyone else who has something to do, I wish I had more money for my literary experiments.”

(William Carlos Williams, from A Novelette and Other Prose, p. 363 in Imaginations.)

(name day)

As an expression of a personality
to try to imagine the beginnings of a face
or a name or a body of water is pointless
when faces     names and bodies of water lack a beginning lack an end
These enormous lakes and rivers never arise
nor do they ever completely disappear     they just get bigger
or smaller
By way of example Victoria Lake (69000 km2) runs off
via the Nile (6700 km long) into the Mediterranean
on to Gibraltar     New York
I could continue for a long time – erect long catalogs
samples     encyclopedias     names of children who
grow up and become bigger than their parents     different types of
networks     generic memories of how Jerusalem Delivered
invokes The Aeneid which in turn invokes The Odyssey and so on
– but this is not an argument     it is just an attempt
to bring you into a new meaning     as in a dawning
(or darkening) beyond the leaves this spring

(Fredrik Nyberg, from “You . . .” in A Different Practice, trans. Jennifer Hayashida.)