27 February 2011


The Metamorphosis, Kafka's extraordinary depiction of melancholy, opens as Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find that it's half past six.  For five years he has risen every morning at four to support his parents and sister, trying to make up for the failure of his father’s business.  At first grateful, his father now takes this for granted: he no longer works, has grown monstrously fat, and lingers every morning over a ‘lavish’ breakfast.  Bullied and mistreated at work, Gregor is not free to look for another position: he's working off a debt the family owes to the head of his firm.  Gregor later learns that his father--another of Kafka's inhuman fathers--has actually put aside enough money to keep the family for a year or two, rather than paying down the debt and shortening his servitude.  Perhaps it's no wonder that he “awoke one morning from uneasy dreams...[and] found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

So begins a case study in what was once called “involutional melancholia,” now known unpoetically as “depression with psychotic features.”  In the theory of medicine which interpreted sickness as arising from the action of four bodily ‘humors,’ “black bile” was the one said to be derived from the spleen; those words in Greek give us the term “melancholia.”  The term “involutional” refers to ‘turning inward.’  Most depressed people do not lose touch with reality, but true involutional melancholics abandon the world, with its disappointments and persecution, and retreat into an interior charged with symbolic meaning.  Some, although psychotic, are able to maintain a fragile sense of wholeness through the mechanism of paranoia, that is, by believing that the threat is still outside the curtain wall of their fortress.  Guilt is more manageable if converted into fear.  Others cannot expel their guilty self-hatred beyond the wall: their persecutors are internal. 

For some of these melancholics guilt, even once internalized, remains more or less psychological.  Robert Burton, who tried to cure his own melancholy by writing The Anatomy of Melancholy (published 1621), says of such people that “they are troubled with scruples of conscience, distrusting God’s mercies, think they shall certainly go to hell... [One] must needs make away with himself, for fear of being hanged, and could not be persuaded for three years together, but that he had killed a man.”  For others, guilt takes on increasingly concrete form.  Burton describes “one ‘that had a black man in the likeness of a soldier'... following him wheresoever he was... [Another] fell into such a melancholy fit, that he believed verily he was dead... [and] could not be persuaded... to eat or drink.” 

Others, withdrawing inward still further, experience the body itself as traitorous.  Physical being is experienced symbolically rather than viscerally, and some have lost touch with their bodies to such a degree that they even move clumsily, like badly-designed automata.  Such sufferers are insensitive to some bodily sensations and hypochondriacally oversensitive to others.  They may be convinced something is terribly wrong inside them, in spite of all evidence; others lose the sense of having a human body at all.  Here is Burton again:  “[One] thinks himself so little that he can creep into a mouse-hole; one fears heaven will fall on his head... a baker in Ferrara... thought he was composed of butter and durst not sit in the sun, or come near the fire for fear of being melted.”  Joan of Arc's Dauphin, later Charles VII of France, thought he was made of glass, and dared not sit down for fear of breaking.  More to our purpose, Burton also mentions others who “think they are beasts” and “another that thought he was a case of leather, stuffed with wind.”

In becoming a dung beetle, Gregor Samsa tries to resist the world’s rasp with an exoskeleton, but the form also represents his own self-loathing and inspires loathing in his family.  When his sister ventures to feed him, the only food he can tolerate is garbage: “half-decayed vegetables... a piece of cheese that Gregor would have called uneatable two days ago.”  As to his carapace, far from being truly protective, it is more the representation of a body that no longer moves or feels like his own (I once saw this role unforgettably enacted by Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York).  This supposedly chitinous insect hurts himself badly trying to hurry through too small a door, and when his father drives him back into his room by throwing apples at him, one penetrates his body and rots, leaving a wound that won’t heal.

In his continuing sickness, like many melancholics, Gregor can't make himself go on eating: this dung beetle can no longer go on swallowing dung.  Vacillating between guilt at failing in his responsibilities and rage at being neglected, he becomes a living reproach to his family. They can't bear the sight of him and sequester him in his room, along with whatever other furnishings they can’t fit elsewhere but can’t bear to throw away.  As he hates himself, so they hate him, until he finally decides that he must "disappear" in order to free them.

As Burton points out, melancholics are grandiose too: they “think their melancholy to be most grievous, none so bad as they are, though it be nothing in respect, yet never any man sure was so troubled.”  Dung beetles roll balls of dung, but in ancient Egypt, an especially big one was said to roll the sun across the heavens every day.  Gregor’s suffering revives his family, inspires them to find work, to consider new possibilities, to change their lives.  By the time he takes "the last faint flicker of his breath," his body is “completely flat and dry,” easily pushed aside with a broom.  In the next paragraph it is spring, and as we leave the family thinking about moving to a new apartment a page or two later, Gregor’s parents have just been struck by his sister’s “increasing vivacity” and her “good figure.”  She has fattened on the substance he has lost, just as she did while he was working.  At the end, in this story anyhow, this squashed bug has been elevated into a kind of sacrificial hero.

26 February 2011


Mourning, by Saul Bellow, in a letter to Karl Shapiro:

"...losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window.  You didn't know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you're picking up the pieces--down to the last glassy splinter."

This beautifully nails the way grief reappears unprovoked.  All that's missing from it is that you're actually picking the glassy splinters out of yourself : splinters you thought you were finally done extracting, until something unaccustomed reminded you.

19 February 2011


In one of the most memorable phrases in book-reviewing, John Leonard said of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: "it burns the fat right out of the mind.”  There aren’t a great many books like that, but certainly J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is another.

David Lurie, fiftyish, formerly a professor of modern languages,  is now “adjunct professor of communications” in his newly “rationalized” university.  A specialist in Wordsworth and Byron, he’s teaching a course on the Romantic poets, the one elective he’s allowed.  He quotes from Wordsworth’s Prelude, at the moment when the poet first sees Mont Blanc in actuality:

                                           “[We] grieved
            To have a soulless image on the eye
            That had usurped upon a living thought
            That never more could be.”

The grief, Lurie explains, is because "the great archetypes of the mind, pure ideas, find themselves usurped by mere sense-images."  He doesn’t know it, but this prefigures the months to come, when Reality will usurp all the illusions which structure his narcissism.  His lecture continues:

"If you had [looked it up in a dictionary], you would have found that usurp upon means to intrude or encroach upon.  Usurp, to take over entirely, is the perfective of usurp upon; usurping completes the act of usurping upon."

The night before, believing himself impelled by romantic passion, he had usurped upon one of his students.  Accused, he is outraged: “choosing never to stoop,” he cedes his job, and drives out to his daughter Lucy’s farm.  He helps her market her vegetables and flowers.  He meets Petrus, her "new assistant.  In fact, since March, co-proprietor."  He also volunteers at a free clinic and shelter for animals. He's a long way from home:

"Two weeks ago he was in a classroom explaining to the bored youth of the country the distinction between drink and drink up, burned and burnt.  The perfective, signifying an action carried through to its conclusion." 

This is the new South Africa, seething with the rage of those once disenfranchised and still poor. Three men usurp upon Lucy's farm, rob them, savage them, and set him on fire as they leave.  He survives, burned but not yet burnt.  Lucy will not speak to him about having been raped, will not have an abortion, will not pursue their attackers, will not prosecute them even when they turn out to be related to Petrus.  She has a farm to look after, a life to adapt to, neighbors she has to live among.  Her moral world does not allow such neat separations as his ‘justice’ insists on.

In Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot speaks of "the shame/ Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/ Of things ill-done and done to others' harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue."  Shocked into recognition, Lurie tries to apologize to the family of the student he raped, but finds no true reconciliation in that.  Burned and guilty, he is being consumed from the inside out, soul first.  What can re-animate him?  Perhaps an image of Lucy’s flowerbeds: solid blocks of color: magenta, carnelian, ash-blue.  He works with the animals, he tries to write an opera about Byron, but nothing restores him.

Periodically, at the animal shelter, animals who are sick, broken, unwanted, have to be given their death and then cremated.  There is a dog he loves who loves him:

"He can save the young dog, if he wishes, for another week.  But a time must come... when he will have to... caress him and brush back the hair so that the needle can find the vein, and whisper to him and support him in the moment when, bewilderingly, his legs buckle; and then, when the soul is out, fold him up and pack him away in his bag, and the next day wheel the bag into the flames and see that it is burnt, burnt up.  He will do all that for him when his time comes.  It will be little enough, less than little: nothing."

Burned, burnt, burnt up: the perfective sequence is completed in the crematorium.  David Lurie has had to give up all the evasions and pretexts he has lived by: romanticism; an abstract justice; the hope of forgiveness through atonement which took its place; even, ultimately, the hope of redemption through service and self-abasement.  In the end, the evil that men do lives on.  In the end, all the garden this burnt-up Candide has left to cultivate is a bare piece of ground behind the animal shelter, empty of plants or flowers, even ash-blue ones.  What reason does he have to go on living?  Does he go on living?  Coetzee doesn't say. 

14 February 2011


Why do anything when you could dream about it instead?  Here is an excerpt from The Futurological Congress, a phantasmagoria about a time when there’s a drug for everything, by the great Polish writer Stanislaw Lem:

     “Sir," he said..."You see before you a successful advocate... but an unhappy father!  I had two talented sons..."
    "What, then are they dead?!" I cried.
    He shook his head.
    "They live, but in escalation.”
    Seeing that I didn’t understand, he explained the nature of this blow to his fatherly heart.  The first son was a highly promising architect, the second a poet.  The young architect, dissatisfied with his actual commissions, turned to urbifab and edifine: now he builds entire cities---in his imagination.  And the other son became similarly escalated: lyristan, sonnetol, rhapsodine, and now instead of serving the Muse, he spends his time swallowing pills, as lost to the world as his brother...
    “Is there no hope?” [I asked].
    “A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given the chance.  These, sir, are the casualties of a psychemized society.  Each of us knows that temptation.  Suppose I find myself defending an absolutely hopeless case---how easy it would be to win it before an imaginary court!”
What a sweetheart of a dad, worried not because both his sons are artists, but because they don’t actually produce art!  Later we find out that it’s not just a few misfits who dream instead of doing: as it happens, the actual opiate of the people is opium (and its variations), and not exactly religion:

      They give the children throttlepops, then develop their character with opinionates, uncompromil, rebellium, allaying their passions with sordidan and practicol; no police, and who needs them when you have constabuline...?  A good thing I steered clear of the theoapotheterias*, with their faith-giving, grace-bestowing, sin-absolving compounds, where with a grain of sacrosanctimonium you can be canonized on the spot.  And while you’re at it, why not a little dietary deitine, lo-cal allah-all, polyunsaturated brahmanox?  Our nazarine anointium, with apocryphyll... does the rest.... Paradisiacs for the pious, mephistol and ereban for the masochists... It was all I could do to keep from storming into a pharmacopium on the corner, where the congregation was kneeling devoutly, popping paternostrums and taking orisol like snuff.  But I restrained myself--they would only pacify me with obliterine.  Anything but that.

Of course we no longer have to envy the fictional universe: we finally have our own, actual apotheterias.  This brilliant translation of The Futurological Congress was published in 1974, long before the pharmacological-industrial complex marketed Abilify (to resolve your psychosis), Concerta (to focus your attention), Halcion (to calm you down), Viagra (for you know what), Ambien (to help you fall asleep), Paxil (to treat your depressive agitation), and the rest of their kind---all useful drugs in their place, I hasten to add.  Maybe Lem didn’t die, he just moved to New Jersey, brushed up his English, and got a different job.

*Theoapotheteria: theo-logical (or perhaps theo-phanic) apothe-cary cafe-teria.


This is the end of the story ”Out on Bail,” from Denis Johnson’s stunning Jesus’s Son---

    “As for Hotel, who was in exactly the same shape I was and carrying just as much heroin, but who didn’t have to share it with his girlfriend, because he couldn’t find her that day: he took himself to a rooming house down at the end of Iowa Avenue, and he overdosed, too.  He went into a deep sleep, and to the others there he looked quite dead.
    The people with him, all friends of ours, monitored his breathing by holding a pocket mirror under his nostrils from time to time, making sure that points of mist appeared on the glass.  But after a while they forgot about him, and his breath failed without anybody’s noticing.  He simply went under.  He died.
    I am still alive. “

Notice how Hotel’s friends try to look after him, however incompetently their human love is able to see through the mist of heroin.  In this book human love and human being are always trying (unsuccessfully) to break through the ‘virtuality’ of the intoxicated state; for example, the hyper-clear perception of ‘points of mist,’ dissociated from any clear understanding that something further should be done about Hotel’s breathing. 

Johnson teaches us about vital aspects of being fully human precisely because he conveys so vividly how intoxication dehumanizes us in the face of our very best intentions.


A brilliant writer, Malcolm Lowry killed himself with drink, though some have speculated that his wife put him out of her misery with an overdose.  His masterpiece Under the Volcano is about alcoholism seen not just as a spirituous but as a spiritual disease, a soul-sickness.  Its hero Geoffrey Firmin is the British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in the shadow of Mt. Popocatepetl. He awakens one morning with a hangover and the shakes, to find that his wife Yvonne, who had fled from his drinking a year ago, has returned in the hope of a reconciliation.  Over the course of the day, we see that his soul is dead to love and he will not allow it to be revived, though he goes on lying to himself that one more drink will give him the strength to quit drinking and love again.  A man of learning, he quotes Goethe: "Weary of liberty [the horse] suffered himself to be saddled and bridled and was ridden to death for his pains." A premonition.

Having avoided mescal, his special curse, into mid-afternoon by substituting it (openly) with beer and (secretly) with tequila, he finally gives in.  "But it mustn't be a serious mescal, he persuaded himself.  'No, Senor Cervantes,' he whispered, 'mescal, poquito.' ”   A few minutes later his self-delusion has a tight grip on the reins:

"Oozing alcohol from every pore, the Consul stood at the open door of the Salon Ofelia.  How sensible to have had a mescal.  How sensible!  For it was the right, the sole drink to have under the circumstances.  Moreover he had not only proved to himself he was not afraid of it, he was now fully awake, fully sober again, and well able to cope with anything that might come his way.  But for this slight continual twitching and hopping within his field of vision, as of innumerable sand fleas, he might have told himself he hadn't had a drink for months.  The only thing wrong with him, he was too hot."

Well, no, the only thing wrong is that he's too cold, and too attached to his own degradation, and no, he won't stop at one mescal.  He won't stop at all, until the book is done.  The allusion to Ophelia, who died of a broken heart, is no accident...