on belief

“ ‘I wonder,’ Howard said. ‘You have to believe, and then it will help you. It’s the same with the Lord. If you belief in the Lord, then there is a Lord for you; if you don’t believe in Him, there is no God for you – nobody who lights up the stars for you and directs the traffic in the heavens. Now, don’t let’s argue about such details; let’s come to the plain story.’ ”

(B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, p. 187.)

“ ‘Conscience,’ he began again reflecting on this word and speaking to himself, ‘conscience! What a thing! If you believe that there is such a thing as conscience, it will pester you and blast hell out of you, but, on the other hand, if you don’t believe in the existence of conscience, what can it do to you? And I don’t believe in it any more than I believe in hell. Makes me sick, so much thinking and fussing about nonsense. Let’s hit the hay.’ &rdquo

(B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, p. 248.)

b. traven, “the treasure of the sierra madre”

B. Traven
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010; originally 1935.)

I have not, I should first point out, seen the John Huston film of this, which seems marginally better known than the novel; sooner or later I’ll get around to it, but I haven’t yet. This is a caper narrative, of course: something that’s set up early on and repeatedly emphasized is the corrupting power of gold, and the narrative tension is the question of whether any of the characters will be able to escape this. The characters are not very likable (with the possible exception of the experienced old man, who we suspect will pull through); but it’s impossible to tell three-quarters of the way through the book who the villain will turn out to be. The book is oddly structured: characters are introduced who seem like they might be significant, then they fade away. It’s true to life, but confusing for fiction.

The narration of this book is also confusing: there are frequent excursions for long stories (in the style of the Manuscript Found in Saragossa); though they are told by a particular character, they are in the same narrative voice as the rest of the book, an omniscient third-person. The narratives always seem to know things that they shouldn’t know (the thoughts of dead characters); in this sense, this might be thought of as a clumsy book. A paragraph in which a main character is killed, for example, starts with his thoughts, moves to a description of what he does, moves to the thoughts of his murderer, and describes the act of murder; the paragraph consists of nine sentences but the perspective repeatedly shifts. This doesn’t seem to be self-conscious in the style of Faulkner; rather, it’s the easiest way to tell the story. While written in 1935, characters think of what they’ve seen in the movies as a model for what might happen to them.

The social perspective of this novel might be unexpected. The first chapter concentrates on what work – or the lack of it – can do to a man, pointing out exactly how much money it costs to continue to exist when you have none. As noted, Traven’s character’s aren’t particularly sympathetic; he’s operating in the naturalist tradition of Dreiser or (more likely) Zola, and he’s deeply interested in how the machinery of the economy works. (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was contemporaneous with John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy; they’re told differently, but the perspective of the danger of capital is similar.) One notices this now: contemporary novels concerned with work and how terrible it can be are very much the exception. The socialist novel has more or less disappeared; but here economic justice is openly debated by the characters:

“. . . The old man hasn’t stolen the goods. They’re his honestly earned property. That we know only too well. He didn’t get that money by a lousy cowardly stick-up, or from the races, or by blackmailing, or by the help of loaded bones. He’s worked like a slave, the old man has. And for him, old as he is, it was a harder task than for us, believe me. I may not respect many things in life, but I do respect most sincerely the money somebody has worked and slaved for honestly. And that’s on the level.”
     “Hell, can your Bolshevik ideas. A soap-box always makes me sick. And to have to hear it even out here in the wilderness is the god-damned limit.”
     “No Bolshevik ideas at all, and you know that. Perhaps it’s the aim of the Bolsheviks to see that a worker gets the full value of what he produces, and that no one tries to cheat a worker out of what is honestly coming to him. Anyway, put that out of the discussion. It’s none of my business. And, Bolshevik or no Bolshevik, get this straight, partner: I’m on the level, and as long as I’m around you don’t even touch the inside of the old man’s packs. That’s that, and it’s final.” (pp. 236–7.)

This is the point, of course, where it becomes clear who the villain is; there’s not so much a hero as another victim. The gold will be lost, as we’ve been told over and over again by the stories the wiser characters tell; the best one can do is to get by without ripping anyone off too much. The old man mentioned here comes out fine because he’s taken for a doctor by the natives; the natives are foolish, but, it’s made clear, better than the American interlopers or the Church which is cheating them. Men are in competition in this book; only a single notable woman appears in this book, Doña Catalina María de Rodríguez, described in a story in chapter 16: but she falls as well because she takes on the avarice that killed her husband.

One finds one pausing at the distinctive dialogue, which doesn’t sound quite like anything else. A representative passage of Americans speaking from near the beginning of the book:

“Aw, gosh,” said one of the sailors, “don’t talk so much squabash. It makes me sick hearing you. Come up, you two beachers, and we’ll stuff your bellies until they bust. We throw it away anyhow. Who the funking devil can eat a bite in this blistering heat? Gee, I wish I was back in that ol’ Los An, damn it.”
     When they left the tanker, they couldn’t walk very far. They lay down under the first tree they reached.
     “That was what I call a square meal, geecries,” Dobbs said. “I wouldn’t walk a mile even for an elephant tooth. I’m out for the next two hours. And we better get a rest.”
     “Okay by me, sweety.” (p. 21)

Or later in the book, some Mexican bandits (previously established as only speaking Spanish) castigate each other after a murder:

“Aw, shut up, you damned yellow dog! Why didn’t you do it? Afraid of that funking son of a bitch by a stinking gringo, hey? I know who did it and bumped him. And I tell ye, get away from me, both of you chingando cabrones and que chinguen los cabrones a las matriculas. Do I need your stinking advice, you puppies? Out of my way, you make me sick looking at you, you dirty rats.” (p. 269)

anish. Generally when Spanish is used in the text, it’s followed by a restatement in English (“Tiene un cigarro, hombre? Have you got a cigarette?”); maybe profanities left untranslated are more powerful. The euphemisms “funking” and “geecries” appears all over the book rather than their antecedents; neither appear in the OED, and “geecries” would appear only ever to have been used in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though it’s vaguely possible that Traven is using “funking” in the sense of “cowardly”. One wonders if anyone actually ever talked like this.

This particular edition is, it should be said, an embarrassingly ugly book. The insides have been reshot from some older, smaller edition, leaving the text box weirdly positioned on the page; the cover of this paperback employs the hoary old trick of trying to make it look like it’s a frayed old hardcover, the spine about to fall off, then negates that entirely by slapping a strictly two-dimensional yellow banner obliquely across the front declaring that “READERS WHO IGNORE THE GENIUS OF B. TRAVEN DO SO AT THEIR PERIL,” a quote sourced to the NYTimes Book Review, though one that I can’t find in their archive. Another tacky yellow banner adorns the back, with a blurb from John Chamberlain’s original review in the Times in 1935; the rest of the back cover ignores the concept of the front.) The back cover copies suggests that the book is worth reading because it may have inspired 2666, which suggests a certain amount of desperation. When confronted with a cover like this, one remembers Jan Tschichold’s dictum that dust-jackets of books should always be thrown away as advertising.

One wonders as well why there’s no editorial apparatus around this book, save a brief biography of Traven on the first page that uses phrases like “many scholars think.” Certainly an introduction could be cobbled together for a novel’s seventy-fifth anniversary edition. An interview with Vice last year (the source, probably, of the “many critics” connecting this book to 2666) could have been turned into something serviceable; a sharp editor might have had Blixa Bargeld put together something. A history of the text – if it started out in German, how much of it was the creation of the original editor – would be useful and probably of general interest, especially when the author’s life is being used to sell the book on its back cover.

john waters, “role models”

John Waters
Role Models
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

It’s hard not to like John Waters. Certainly his films of the past decade or so don’t make it seem like he’s trying particularly hard; but he’s made his particular aesthetic mark on our culture, and it would be beside the point to go on stressing it. Waters has aged gracefully; his gallery shows in Chelsea are minor but enjoyable, in the same way that his cameos and appearances tend to be. A favorite moment: a few years ago I saw Mr. Waters attired in a brown suit at a show of his, explaining the art to two small girls, whom I assumed, without any evidence, to be his nieces. I remember fondly when the late, lamented Nest‘s visit to his house in Baltimore, much more interesting than one might expect; the same is true is most of his interviews. Role Models is a collection of ten essays; and while some of the material has appeared before and is thus familiar (his introduction to Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs, for example), the book is thoroughly enjoyable and holds together.

What one notes about Waters’s writing is his sense of morality. This is not as surprising as it might be; certainly it could be read from his films, but the layers might confure. It’s in his essays, outside of the realm of fiction, that a picture of how Waters thinks and engages with the world becomes clear. This is apparent from the first essay, an attempt to make sense of Johnny Mathis, an early hero, now a recluse turned reactionary, his sexuality still ambiguous: as much as Waters would like, Mathis can’t quite be reclaimed because he’s solidly himself. The essay starts with Mathis but spirals out to include other childhood heroes that Waters has managed to meet and how they fared against expectations; and finally it ends at Mathis’s house, where Waters realizes that he can’t quite turn Mathis into what he wants him to be. It ends with a meditation on death: Waters realizes that he will die “alone but not lonely,” and wonders what will happen to Mathis, to all appearances a similarly single man. It’s similar to another essay about Little Richard, a magazine piece that didn’t quite turn out: Waters revisits his time with Little Richard and comes to a better understanding of how screwed up his subject seemed to be.

“Leslie” is the volume’s standout: an account of Waters’s friendship with Leslie Van Houten, accessory to the Manson murders. Waters was first attracted, of course, by the scandal and glamour of the story: attractive young people brainwashed by a maniac; eventually he met and befriended her. But the second paragraph announces a swerve:

I am guilty, too. Guilty of using the Manson murders in a jokey, smart-ass way in my earlier films without the slightest feeling for the victim’s families or the lives of the brainwashed Manson killer kids who were also victims in this sad and terrible case. (p. 45)

His status as a celebrity gives Waters the ability to visit Van Houten in prison in 1985; the woman he meets is something of a disaster, a life ruined by a night of insanity. The magazine piece he’d planned is abandoned. They become friends: he comes to see the futility of her stay in the penal system, and the essay is an argument for her parole, which hasn’t been granted. One’s past is a difficult thing: Waters brings in how he accidentally killed a man (an old man walked out in front of his car), and how entirely fortuitous it was that he suffered no consequences (a cop happened to see the whole thing and testified that nothing could have been done). He doesn’t suggest an equivalence between deaths; but some end up paying for chance more than others.

The other essays display this soft humanism towards damaged humanity: Waters writes about Baltimore lowlives and the producers of “outsider porn” with the same tenderness. “Roommates” considers his art collection; and it might be worth stopping to consider “Bookworm,” his essay on fiction. Waters usefully ploughs through platitudes about reading:

You should never read just for “enjoyment.” Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick “hard books.” Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for God’s sake, don’t let me ever hear you say, “I can’t read fiction. I only have time for the truth.” Fiction is the truth, fool! Ever hear of “literature”? That means fiction, too, stupid. (p. 164)

The essay is a list of five books Waters finds worth reading; it’s an interesting and not entirely predictable list. First Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure; then Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children receives a better appreciation than the boring litany of praise Jonathan Franzen recently trotted out in the NYTimes Book Review: Waters argues that the book’s pure vitriol should be appreciated on its own merits. It’s hard for me not to love any list that includes Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, which deserves to be in print in this country outside of Bowles’s collected fiction. An finally there’s an appreciation of the use of dialogue in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels which makes me want to move her books to the top of the list:

The monstrously intelligent and all-knowing children in Darkness and Day speak like no other children in the history of youth. “Do you remember your Uncle?” a relative asks his nieces Rose and Viola. “You used to be younger,” Rose says with steely reasoning. “That is true,” the uncle answers, “and I feel as young as I did.” “People do feel younger than they are,” she quickly responds. “They don’t get used to a new age , before they get to the next one. I feel I am nine, and I have been ten for a week. I am in my eleventh year.” “I don’t often think as much as that,” her sister Viola comments. “I always think,” answers Rose with a vengeance. .  . After the children in Darkness and Day are told of a passing in the family, they are asked to “run upstairs and forget what is sad. Just remember the happy part of it.” “What is the happy part?” wonders Viola. “There is none,” answers Rose. “Why do people talk as if they are glad when someone is dead? I think it must mean there is a little gladness somewhere.” (pp. 178–9.)

This essay again ends with death: “I have all twenty of her novels and I’ve read nineteen. If I read the one that is left there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself” (p. 180). This is flippant, a joke, but there’s a sting there; this is a slight book, but there are hidden depths.

june 21–june 25



  • “Reflection,” Peter Blum Soho
  • “Adolph Dietrich/Richard Phillips: Painting and Misappropriation,” Swiss Institute
  • “Vija Celmins: New Paintings, Objects, and Prints,” McKey Gallery
  • “Fairfield Porter,” Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
  • “John Wesley: May I Cut In? Important Paintings from the 1970s,” Fredericks & Freiser
  • “Carsten Nicolai: Moiré,” Pace Gallery
  • “Claude Monet: Late Work,” Gagosian
  • “Roy Lichtenstein: Still Lives,” Gagosian
  • “Ressurectine,” Ronald Feldman Fine Arts
  • “Provocateurs of Japanese Photography,” Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts
  • “Ben Gocker: There Is Really No Single Poem,” PPOW
  • “Anne Truitt: Sculpture 1962–2004,” Matthew Marks Gallery
  • “Richard Diebenkorn: Paintings and Drawings 1949–1955,” Greenberg Van Doren


  • JLG/JLG – autoportrait de décembre, directed by Jean-Luc Godard
  • The Old Place, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
  • Io sonno l’amore (I Am Love), dir. Luca Guadagnino

the dialogue

“The principal influence on the origin of dialogue as a genre was of course Socrates: his associates wanted to bear testimony to the personality and teachings of a man who refused to write anything himself and whose philosophic ideals – in theory, at any rate – were of cooperative dialectic. Yet tensions between dialogue and democracy are immediately apparent in Socrates’ activities. In Plato’s Protagoras, the character of Socrates insists on conversing by way of short question and answer; yet in the Gorgias, we are told that such a method (brachylogy) is impossible with a large audience and can only take place with a select few. So Socratic dialectic, which arguably could not have flourished outside a democratic context, is nevertheless a pursuit of the leisured elite.

When we consider Plato himself, the most brilliant practitioner of the dialogue genre, the tensions and ironies multiply. Quite apart from the general irony that all dialogues written by a single author are in a sense monologues, Plato was one of democracy’s most implacable critics, and one of the central reasons for his hostility was that the Athenian democracy had put Socrates to death – at least partly, it could be claimed, because of the way he did dialogue, interrogating self-appointed experts and deflating their pretensions to knowledge. Yet Book One of the Republic can itself be read as an implicit critique of the historical Socrates’ style of dialogue (and of course Plato’s works do not just consist of brief question and answer: there are plenty of longer speeches, including, with tongue doubtless in cheek, one in the Protagoras about the origins of brachylogy). Furthermore, to add an extra layer to the complexity, Plato’s own dialogues, including the Republic, would almost certainly not be permitted into the ‘ideally just’ (and certainly not democratic) state outlined in the Republic: they break many of the censorship rules laid down there. Plato’s dialogues, in other words, simultaneously arise from the culture of democratic Athens and offer a robust critique of that culture, and would be banned by the philosopher-rulers whom Plato (apparently) advocates instead.”

(from Angela Hobbs, “Too much talking in class”, review of The End of Dialogue in Antiquity, ed. Simon Goldhill, p. 17 in the 18 & 25 Dec 2009 TLS.)

the more oil is lost, the higher the price

“They went up the river on the right shore. The whole road, an ugly dirt road at that, was covered with crude oil. It seemed to break through cracks and holes in the ground. There were even pools and ponds of oil. It came mostly through leaks in the pipes and from overflowing tanks which were lined up on the hills along the shore. Brooks of crude oil ran down like water into the river. Nobody seemed to care about the loss of these thousands and thousands of barrels of oil, which soaked the soil and polluted the river. So rich in oil was this part of the world then that the company managers and directors seemed not to mind when a well which brought in twenty thousand barrels a day caught fire and burned down to its last drop. Who would care about three or four hundred thousand barrels of oil running away ever week and being lost owing to busted pump lines, to filling tanks carelessly, or to not notifying the pumpman that while he has been pumping for days, sections of the pipe lines have been taken out, to be replaced by new ones. The more oil is lost, the higher the price. Three cheers, then, for broken pipes and drunken pumpmen and tank-attendants!”

(B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, p. 22.)

the death of seneca

“But in Tacitus’s version of events, the death is marked, too, by a surprising and self-conscious lacuna: Tacitus tells us that Seneca, his ‘eloquence persisting at each final moment, summon scribes are dictated a considerable amount to them’, but that he,Tacitus, will ‘refrain from adapting’ this material, since it has already been published. (As it happens, Seneca’s final thoughts, whatever they were, have not been preserved.) This most notorious death scene has an absence at its heart: the extraordinarily prolific and voluble philosopher-playwright, whose writings dwell so often on how best to face our final moments, speaks right up to the end, but in words we cannot hear. Tacitus’s suggestive omission silences Seneca, and claims a kind of authority over him. This adds to the nuanced exploration of control in the passage: Seneca’s control of his own departure, Nero’s of Seneca, and Tacitus’s as narrating author, of them both.”

(Victoria Moul, from “A long, enduring end,” review of James Ker’s The Deaths of Seneca, p. 13 in the 23 April 2010 Times Literary Supplement.)

ray johnson & bill wilson, “a book about a book about death” / “from bmc to nyc: the tutelary years of ray johnson 1943–1967”

Ray Johnson & Bill Wilson
A Book about A Book about Death
(Kunstverein Publishing, 2010)

From BMC to NYC: The Tutelary Years of Ray Johnson 1943–1967
curated by Sebastian Matthews
(Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, 2010)

These are two catalogues of recent shows of the work of Ray Johnson. Johnson was a visual artist; but it’s his use of language, in its different incarnations, that keeps me interested in his work. Johnson could profitably be read as a poet; to my knowledge, this hasn’t really happened.

The first of these catalogues accompanied a show at the Black Mountain College Museum; it focuses on Johnson’s work when he was attending that school (then being run by Josef Albers) and work done during his early years in New York, though it draws back even further, presenting a series of illustrated letters and cards that Johnson sent to a high school friend, Arthur Secunda, in the early 1940s. In all of these, there’s a mixing of text and image: sometimes illustrations added to text, sometimes text built around illustrations, and, more rarely, collage, the principle that much of Johnson’s later work would spring from. It’s unclear whether Johnson thought of this as “mail art,” though it certainly could be described as that; he did declare that he thought his work should be catalogued back to 1943, which might make that case. Despite this, Not a huge amount of Johnson’s early work, especially what he was doing at BMC, survives: he cut up most of it to serve as content for later works in the form of tesserae, and he evidently burned his class notes in the 1950s. Julie J. Thomson’s essay scrutinizes the effect of the teaching of Albers on Johnson: in particular, she points to his assimilation of Albers’s ideas on colors, which resonate through his later work. His famous portrait of Elvis Presley as Oedipus, for example, might be seen as a meditation on the meaning of red, that collage’s dominant color: red streaming from the eyes signifies blood, but were the image in black and white, as the original image of Presley is, the streams might as easily be tears. In front of Presley’s mouth appear blocks of red, rectangular but of irregular proportions, seemingly representing words: the shapes are abstract like language, and though each is of the same color red, the meaning of a word varies with context, just as the value of red varies in the color studies of Albers.

Kate Erin Dempsey’s essay looks at how Johnson used language: in particular, the influence of Mayan hieroglyphs, a frequent subject of scrutiny at BMC. The hieroglyphs had not yet been discovered, but it was clear that this graphical system signified: the form of a glyph has several layers of meaning, only some of which were available. This fascination with the visible form of language continues in Johnson’s later work: an work from the 1980s owned by the LACMA is given the title Untitled (James Dean with Magritte’s Pipe):

untitled (james dean with magritte's pipe)

The apostrophe is a clue for the informed viewer what the rectangles stand for: Magritte’s ceci n’est pas une pipe, though actually fitting those letters into the rectangles proves challenging: the text both belongs there and it doesn’t belong there. The image is both Dean but also – and very clearly – the Ben-Day dots that make up his image. The pipe is a silhouette of Magritte’s. Dempsey points to earlier work employing the same strategies:

Several collages contain definitions cut out of a Yiddish dictionary. Others include Chinese characters with their English translations below. In Untitled (Toad/Water) of 1957, for example, a picture of a toad is followed by the Chinese symbol for toad, “Toad,” and then the Chinese symbol for water and finally “Water.” It could very easily also have text explaining, à la Magritte, “This is not a toad,” for neither the image, the Chinese symbol, nor the English word really ARE the signified. (p. 25)

It’s hard to tell from the reproduction if the image above the words is actually a toad (there might be bumps on its back) or a frog (as the coloring of the legs seems to suggest); while I’ve seen the original, I don’t remember whether it actually was a frog or a toad.

The BMC book concludes with an essay by William Wilson, owner of the toad collage, ruminating on the meaning of hats – and specifically Marianne Moore’s tricorner hat – as they cascaded through Ray Johnson’s work:

Those hats for women in society, perhaps worn for lunch at Schrafft’s, were a visual answer to the question, What do women want? The hats provided an answer for husbands: women want too much, and want more than is good for them, hence they must be governed by men for their own protection. The men judged themselves as reasonable and functional, indulgently governed the women whom the men assigned themselves to protect. The plot of many movies from the 1930s is telegraphed ahead in the hats the male and female characters are wearing. Katherine Hepburn did not wear fanciful hats. Watch for the moment a wife removes her dizzy hat, takes off her white gloves, and turns toward the husband, who feels he knows better than she does what she needs.
     Moore’s tricorn Napoleonic hat was androgynous, with a military air, suggesting an image that had survived historical forces, and picturing and imagination capable of military strategy and reason. Her hat was, and is, an image of her imagination as she kept it persistently answerable to experience. She praised New York (Manhattan) for its “accessibility to experience.” And she aspired to an art of poetry as an imaginary garden with real toads in it. Marvelously, she mentioned that she wore her tricorn hat because her head was shaped like a hop toad. A toad is an image of experience without false illusions, like the toad before it is enchanted into a prince, who must become like a poet, a self-governing governor of images and themes. Moore used the hat to meditate on her modesty, to challenge herself, for while she wore it as armor for her soul, the hat revealed her imagination and her aspirations, so that she could not lie to herself about her modesty, and always had to review her renunciations. (p. 28)

Wilson was a long-time friend of Johnson, and the executor of his estate after his death; his earlier With Ray: The Art of Friendship (published as part of the Black Mountain College Dossiers series) is the best introduction to Johnson’s work available; a complete set of his essays would be an invaluable book. A Book about A Book about Death is an extended essay about Johnson’s A Book about Death. From 1963 to 1965, Johnson mailed 13 pages of his Book to a handful of correspondents (including several members of Wilson’s family); the pages weren’t sent all together, and most recipients didn’t all the pages. The book-ness of such a work comes into question; so it was also referred to as a “boop” or a “boom”.

Wilson works through each page of A Book about Death, which is very much about death. The first page, for example, contains an ouroborous; the text “Mary Crehan, 4, choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich last night” (handwritten, though presumably found in a newspaper); an accidental splotch of ink next to the author’s name. Wilson’s analysis of how this page is worth reading in its entirety and doesn’t lend itself to excerption; after a discussion of chance in the making of art, an enormous subject for American art in the 1950s and 1960s, we get this:

The accident of a drop of ink is part of the comedy of constructing a work of art, a process which can’t say much about how it works. However, the comedy of chance is answerable to tragedy, because some accidents cause something good to perish. The effect is that “chance” renders the accident unknowable in its causes, and unintelligible in a universe presided over by a God who is good. The child choking to death is a large irreversible accident, and such perishing is a tragedy such as art is answerable to. That Mary Crehan choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich is absurd, so that it joins the absurdities which raise questions of consolations for the death of a child four years old. The cartoonish image of a rabbit at the bottom of the page is not adequate as explanation or consolation. The rabbit is Ray Johnson, representing the rest of us, who understand no more than a rabbit does of where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going. Ray was aware that Anne and Bill Wilson had had a daughter who had died shortly after her birth. (pp. 15–6.)

Wilson is not a disinterested reader; but this is not a disinterested text; as mentioned, this was a book created as correspondence, sent to specific readers, some of whom were mentioned directly in the text. This is not a book in the simplistic sense that we usually have of how an author and readership works: this is a book that was designed for specific readers. Wilson’s reading of the book is something of a gift: it opens Johnson’s thinking to the potential readers who did not know him. Johnson is of course dead: he can no longer explain his work directly.

So many causes may have contributed to the incompleteness of the Boop about Death that no one cause can be isolated. Without an explicit cause, no one is either responsible for this book, not to be credited with this book. Thus the question is about what we have here, an unbound book which no one was supposed to have a complete version of. For Ray, The Book about Death must remain an open work, lest an event of dying close a book on life. A closed book is death, or is an image of death, while The Book about Death is an open book. One theme of this unfinished Boom about Death is that death does not close, death opens. (p. 55)

june 13–june 20



  • Cecil B. Demented, directed by John Waters
  • Simple Men, dir. Hal Hartley
  • The Unbelievable Truth, dir. Hal Hartley
  • Amateur, dir. Hal Hartley
  • WarGames, dir. John Badham
  • Sympathy for the Devil, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
  • Burn after Reading, dir. Ethan & Joel Coen