Friday, February 29, 2008

Flann O'Brien: A Brief Biography

Sodden with whisky, the elder Flann O'Brien struggled to keep his writing in tune with his preternaturally subtle ear. His first great novel At Swim-Two-Birds and a long-standing column in the Irish Times had established him as the prime wit of a generation of Dublin intellectuals disillusioned by the sham romanticism that clung to Irish letters after the Celtic Revival. As a comedian of the learned, O'Brien's humor was more bookish than pedestrian, more ironic than patriotic. Along with an ambiguous dedication to the tenets of High Modernism, O'Brien's best work showed a creative imagination torn between Roman Catholicism on the one hand, and a corrosive, almost nihilistic cynicism on the other.

Such writing found its audience in a particular Dublin crowd. His books never had much likelihood of becoming bestsellers, and so the writer shouldn't have been surprised that a publisher might balk at bringing one of them out. Here, however, was one of O'Brien's weaknesses. In an uncharacteristic bit of naivete, he seems always to have hoped for lucrative deals and a wide readership. That his work was often compared to that of James Joyce wasn't enough. Comments here and there in his letters even suggest he felt the oft-repeated comparisons to be a lifelong annoyance.

O'Brien's mother tongue was not English. In fact this master of English prose spoke only Gaelic until age six, and began picking up English almost despite his family's designs. The father's desire that his sons be educated in Gaelic at a good Gaelic-language school meant that the boys were kept out of school altogether for years longer than was normal. A good Gaelic school couldn't be found near any of the places the family lived as O'Brien grew up. There were also attempts to keep the boys away from English-speaking playmates, which ensured for them a rather isolated childhood. O'Brien and his brothers would only start learning English after the family had moved to Strabane in 1917, picking up the tongue of the conqueror while hanging around a grocery store owned by an uncle. Although he'd later write a comic novel in Gaelic entitled An Beal Bocht (translated as The Poor Mouth), O'Brien never did end up studying in any Gaelic school. His father eventually gave in and sent him to a Christian Brothers school where the language of instruction was English.

A family anecdote recounts the moment when, well before his son's attendance at the Christian Brothers school, the father had to face the fact that his son's reading in English was undermining the family's Irish-only policy. The two were working together in the house, laying linoleum near an open window. Outside were a group of people conversing in Gaelic, but it was Gaelic with a heavy Offaly accent, which the son immediately began to mimic. The father, in Gaelic, told him to pipe down: "Bi do thosc. Clainfhidh siad thu." ("Be quiet. They'll hear you.") The nine-year-old O'Brien turned to his father: "And as for you, sir," he replied in English, "if you do not conduct yourself I will do you a mischief." According to the story, this was the first time any of the boys had dared address their father in English. That the sentence was mock-formal, and had a nasty barb in its tip, was characteristic of what would come later from the boy in question.

It would be years later in fact, as a freshman at University College, Dublin, that O'Brien would first begin to recognize the full destructive and purgative potential of his linguistic abilities. This recognition didn't come through the medium of writing, however, but, as is not too surprising for an Irishman of the 1930s, through oratory. The university's Literary and Historical Society held their meetings in the upstairs lecture theater of an old Georgian mansion. The semi-circular hall held around two-hundred people, but normally around six-hundred attended. Those without seats, typically the rowdier bunch, would congregate in a lobby adjoining the hall. At Swim-Two-Birds has a passage that probably evokes O'Brien's first impressions of this scene as an incoming freshman:

Outside the theatre there was a spacious lobby or ante-room and it was here that the rough boys would gather and make their noises. One gas jet was the means of affording light in the lobby and when a paroxysm of fighting and roaring would be at its height, the light would by extinguished as if by a supernatural or diabolical agency and the effect of the darkness in such circumstances afforded me many moments of physical and spiritual anxiety, for it seemed to me that the majority of the persons present were possessed by unclean spirits. The lighted rectangle of the doorway to the debate-hall was regarded by many persons not only as a receptacle for the foul and discordant speeches which they addressed to it, but also for many objects of a worthless nature--for example, spent cigarette ends, old shoes, the hats of friends, parcels of damp horse dung, wads of soiled sacking and discarded articles of ladies' clothing not infrequently the worse for wear.
Interesting here is the association of this scene of student disorder with some "diabolical agency". Whether these students were demon-infested or not, O'Brien would eventually become their spokesman, standing at the entrance to the meeting hall proper and interjecting loud remarks more or less on their behalf. The applause gained by his initial wisecracks emboldened him toward actually giving speeches from his post at the door, speeches both part of the proceedings and not, in that their goal was to puncture the phony legalism and would-be sophistication of the Society meetings. O'Brien soon found himself in the position of a kind of student leader.

We can see that the young O'Brien as orator instinctively sided more with the "diabolical" crowd than with the attempts at dignity being staged by the "more serious" group inside. This choice can be recognized as a figure for his eventual poetics, or even for his thinking about the world and man's place in it. A Catholic all his life, O'Brien had a deep-seated conviction of the corruption inherent in all human institutions. This conviction went beyond that of most Catholics, in that O'Brien's Catholicism at times verged on Manichaeism, a leaning which presents itself in his writing in the form of pointed questions about the ultimate justice of the universe. For example: Wasn't it perhaps the case that the human world was as it was because the Devil was more in control of it than God? Or was it maybe true instead that God and the Devil were equally powerful beings and that the world was a kind of battlefield? If so, how was the battle being waged? Was the outcome truly already decided? How could one reliably distinguish between good and evil when the world was so thoroughly shot through with both? Such "Manichaen" questions are everywhere implicit in O'Brien's work, comic though that work may be. Regardless of their often outrageous outer forms, it's obvious O'Brien took these questions very seriously. They were one of the intellectual driving forces of his work.

Sensitive as he was to the pervasiveness of the diabolical in human affairs, O'Brien was especially keen to attack the hypocrisy of those in society who tried to put themselves above the general malaise. His desire to undermine the meetings of the Literary and Historical Society can be seen in this light: the chaotic and rowdy behavior of the students in the lobby was closer to the truth of our state than any official society program could ever be. O'Brien's work, its persistent satirical bite, can be understood on the basis of his constant need to remind readers just where things really stand here and now after the Fall. The teeming scene of history is certainly not one of progress, but rather of our degraded state repeatedly making itself obvious. Only liars and fools could pretend otherwise. O'Brien's deep yearning for truth--for a certain side of the truth--is what made him such a trenchant satirist, so adept at ridiculing such a wide range of institutions and types. He didn't become a rabble rouser because he was an apostle of disorder or a mere cynic, but rather because he couldn't abide pretensions about the nature of things. He would continue to show this intolerance to the end.

O'Brien's masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds found its origins in the same University College experience. It too is situated in a kind of no man's land between learned discourse, chaotic play and fated depravity. A work very similar to At Swim-Two-Birds was written up during his student years. Called Scenes in a Novel (Probably Posthumous) by Brother Barnabas, the work has many of the structural elements and some of the prototype characters of the later work. It presents us with a writer, Brother Barnabas, who as part of his projected novel creates a character named Carruthers McDaid, a man meant to be "a worthless scoundrel, a betrayer of women and a secret drinker." Some writers, Barnabas explains

have started with a good and noble hero and traced his weakening, his degradation and his eventual downfall; others have introduced a degenerate villain to be ennobled and uplifted to the tune of twenty-two chapters, usually at the hands of a woman--'She was not beautiful, but a shortened nose, a slightly crooked mouth and eyes that seemed brimful of a simple complexity seemed to spell a curious attraction and an inexplicable charm.' In my own case, McDaid, starting off as a rank waster and a rotter, was meant to sink slowly to absolutely the last extremities of human degradation. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was to be too low for him, the wheaten headed hound....
McDaid, Barnabas' literary creation, doesn't stay in character however. Barnabas learns that his "worthless scoundrel" has turned to religion and refuses to continue following the requirements of the projected plot. The other characters in the novel also begin to lead lives of their own, and soon the depressed author has reason to suspect that his characters have hatched a plot to murder him. Much of the structure and atmosphere of At Swim-Two-Birds are already here in this earlier student work.

During these university years O'Brien also contributed to a student magazine called Comthrom Feinne as well as to other student periodicals. He received his B.A. from University College, Dublin in 1932, then went on to get an M.A. with a thesis on "Nature in Irish Poetry". All his life he'd refer back to his M.A. thesis as a joke and to his entire university education as a kind of fraud:

I paid no attention whatsoever to books or study and regarded lectures as a joke which, in fact, they were if you discern anything funny in mawkish, obtuse mumblings on subjects any intelligent person could master single-handed in a few months. The exams I found childish and in fact the whole University concept I found to be a sham. The only result my father got for his money was the certainty that his son had laid faultlessly the foundation of a system of heavy drinking and could always be relied upon to make a break of at least 25 even with a bad cue. I sincerely believe that if University education were universally available and availed of, the country would collapse in one generation.
To say nothing of billiards, O'Brien's heavy drinking would become more and more "systematic" as the years went on. As for the inconsequentiality of his M.A. thesis, that seems in part his own fault. His own brother Kevin, who became a lecturer at University College, later pointed out that O'Brien intentionally chose a pushover as thesis advisor, one Agnes O'Farrelly, rather than Osborn Bergin, who was one of the great authorities on early Irish poetry and who would have been the "really serious man."

Leaving university, O'Brien had to make a choice of career. In what was in some respects an obvious choice, he applied for the Civil Service. Posts in the Civil Service were particularly sought after in Ireland at that time, since the benefits were decent and the positions secure. What's more, O'Brien's father had been a successful civil servant. The year O'Brien applied there were several hundred applicants competing for three available posts. One required exam tested for general knowledge, another for ability in spoken Gaelic. The set-up could hardly have been better for O'Brien, whose Gaelic was excellent and whose mind had a marked encyclopedic bent (the encyclopedism of a budding Joycean satirist no less). He was given one of the three posts.

Official reports show that O'Brien did well during his first months in the service, successfully taming his acerbic wit and learning to write the colorless memos and letters required in a position where it was strictly forbidden to show any personal opinion of government policies or of the service that was to carry them out. In July of 1937, O'Brien was duly informed that he'd passed through the probationary period and was being made an established civil servant.

It looked to O'Brien as if his career was set, and that at least as far as his economic situation was concerned it would be relatively smooth sailing from there on out. On the night of the very same day he was established, however, his father suffered a fatal stroke. Given the status of the family fortune, O'Brien suddenly found himself responsible for supporting ten siblings and his mother. Ironically, one older brother, Ciaran, was still unemployed, and spent his days in the family home working on a novel in Gaelic. The younger literary genius had to sweat his hours away as breadwinner, while the older brother lived off his earnings in order to write a novel of scant importance.

Almost simultaneously with entry of the Civil Service came the beginning of serious work on At Swim-Two-Birds. The novel about the long-suffering novelist Dermott Trellis was written on a table O'Brien had carpented from pieces of an actual trellis--also long-suffering and frequently repaired--that had stood in the family's back yard. The plot of At Swim-Two-Birds has been well summarized by one of the book's first readers, Graham Greene:

We have had books inside books before but [O'Brien] takes Pirandello and Gide a long way further. The screw is turned until you have (a) a book about a man called Trellis who is (b) writing a book about certain characters who (c) are turning the tables on Trellis by writing about him.
This summary should indicate the novel's partial descent from the above-mentioned student work Scenes in a Novel by Brother Barnabas. In that novel, as we've seen, the characters also turn tables on their author.

At Swim-Two-Birds became quite a different matter from O'Brien's earlier work, however. It is not merely a case of the earlier work on a grander scale. Besides destabilization of relations between author and characters, At Swim-Two-Birds also effects a destabilization of genre. The novel orchestrates a panoply of genres and milieus, from popular cowboy novel to drawing room farce to Bildungsroman to ancient Bardic lyric. And this list is far from complete. On the first page already O'Brien introduces various genres, one of them featuring the legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool, a bragging and voluble character who wreaks no small generic havoc in the pages to come. Following are some of Finn MacCool's words as he denies a story which told of him flattering a threatening stranger come to Erin:

Who has heard honey-talk from Finn before strangers, Finn that is wind-quick, Finn that is a better man than God? Or who has seen the like of Finn or seen the living semblance of him standing in the world, Finn that could best God at ball-throw or wrestling or pig-trailing or at the honeyed discourse of sweet Irish with jewels and gold for bards, or at the listening of distant harpers in a black hole at evening? Or where is the living human man who could beat Finn at the making of generous cheese, at the spearing of ganders, at the magic of thumb-suck, at the shaving of hog-hair, or at the unleashing of long hounds from a golden thong in the full chase, sweet-fingered corn-yellow Finn, Finn that could carry an armed host from Almha to Slieve Luachra in the craw of his gut-hung knickers.
We learn later that Finn is only present in this novel because the foolish novelist Trellis was impressed by his venerable appearance and decided to take him on. The other, twentieth-century characters have to get along with him as best they can.

Generic clashes, collisions of different worlds and different manners of speech, rather than hampering the movement of plot, actually work like teeth in the gears of the novel's progress. Made of wildly disparate pieces, it miraculously still holds together: it is still a novel. O'Brien's work somehow manages to be both more realistic and more outlandish than Joyce's Ulysses, the work to which it's most often compared.

When At Swim-Two-Birds was published by Longman's in 1939, O'Brien got a copy to the master in Paris. Joyce, although nearly blind by this time, read the book and came out in its favor: "That's a real writer with a true comic spirit," runs the quote. "A really funny book." At Swim-Two-Birds was in fact the last novel James Joyce read. He went to some trouble to help O'Brien promote it on the continent, but died before his efforts could bear fruit.

Around a year after the publication of At Swim-Two-Birds O'Brien had already finished his next novel, The Third Policeman. The novel is a murder mystery situated mainly in and around a police station located in an unlikely corner of Hell. That this particular plot of Hell resembles Ireland manages to throw off the novel's narrator to such an extent that he doesn't even know he's already dead. The narrator's dialogues with the policemen in charge of the station are treasures of offbeat quackery. The policemen, he finds, are obsessed with bicycles and bicycle theft--this to the exclusion of nearly all other crimes; they're masters of a sort of barometric or metaphysical balance in the environment which, according to their discourse, seems in constant threat of falling into chaos; and they're determined eventually to hang him for a crime they've framed him for, a frame-up they openly admit.

The narrator of The Third Policeman introduces us to other crackbrained worlds besides just this absurdist Irish Hell. During his life he'd been an obsessive scholar of a writer named de Selby, about whom we learn from the narrator's frequent musings and the novel's hilarious footnotes. De Selby stands as one of O'Brien's great fictional creations, a polymath with elements of Des Esseintes and something of the trappings of Jules Verne. The great man's eccentric theories (concerning everything from night to the illusory nature of travel to the unused potential of water) are regularly brought forward by the narrator as he struggles to understand the impossible things encountered in the policemen's nightmarish little precinct.

When The Third Policeman was finished, O'Brien sent the manuscript off to Longman's. In what was to prove a fateful blow to Irish letters and (perhaps) to the writer himself, Longman's rejected it. O'Brien's agent A.M. Heath claimed to have tried other publishers, but with no luck. O'Brien then sent the manuscript to a different agent, who wrote back saying the book was good but that it was "impossible to place." These rejections proved fateful because of the writer's reaction to them. Rather than shrug them off and keep trying, O'Brien got his manuscript back and set it on a little-used sideboard in the family home, where it would more or less remain for the next twenty-seven years. He then began telling Dublin acquaintances that the manuscript had gone missing. In one version he'd left it on a train; in another he'd taken it to the Dolphin Hotel to show to someone, then gone home without it. "I'm after going down there," he's quoted as saying, "had them beat the whole bloody building and sight or light of it's not to be found." This story of the "lost manuscript" became part of Dublin literary legend.

The motives behind O'Brien's reaction are probably various. On the one hand, there must have been an element of scorn. Didn't Longman's and the other clowns realize that he, Flann O'Brien, was the writer of At Swim-Two-Birds, the man, in short, who'd just published the major work of Irish prose after Ulysses? Didn't they realize what this meant? In other words: If Flann O'Brien sent them his Third Policeman there should have been no question as to whether or not they'd publish it. O'Brien was a major writer, as they should have known. They ought to have been grateful.

Along with this scorn, however, came another and in some respects contrary feeling: Wasn't it maybe true that the second novel wasn't quite of the same stature as the first? O'Brien must have known so. He must have realized that At Swim-Two-Birds was an accomplishment he'd never get beyond. At Swim-Two-Birds, one is tempted to say, was the full and absolute embodiment of O'Brien's character. It covered all the styles and modes, held nothing in reserve; it sang snatches or more than snatches of all the tunes he'd ever need to know. If his second novel, then, had been rejected, O'Brien felt or at least began to suspect that it might be because its readers at the publishing house had seen it as a weak successor to the masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds.

A writer is never wrong to doubt the value of his work. This is because the writer can never quite see his own work with the eyes of the reader. It's a question of distance. Good writers know they are too close to their own work to detect flaws that may jump immediately to a good reader's eye. Just such a wise pinch of self-doubt probably led O'Brien to abandon The Third Policeman to oblivion. This is unfortunate though, because The Third Policeman is part of O'Brien's essential achievement. Along with At Swim-Two-Birds and selections of the Irish Times column, it is the very best of his writing.

The rejection of The Third Policeman had a lasting effect on O'Brien's sense of his work, on his sense of where it could go. The rejection brought a feeling of futility and self-doubt that hadn't been there previously. The bitterness of the early satire would henceforth be joined by a more self-inclusive bitterness. O'Brien began to face up to a new fear that his career as an artist might be limited to the one major triumph of At Swim-Two-Birds. And that major triumph was itself often presented as a kind of second-generation Joyceanism, a mere youthful offshoot of the Master's earlier achievement.

The Times column was called "Cruiskeen Lawn," not, as one might guess, a place name, but a Gaelic phrase meaning "little brimming jug". Gaelic name or not, the column was nearly always in English. O'Brien wrote it under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen ("Myles of the Little Horses"). During the writer's life, this persona Myles na Gopaleen was certainly better known in Ireland than the name Flann O'Brien. The writer's crackbrained, lighthearted newspaper columns naturally gained a wider readership than his crackbrained but often bleak modernist novels. "Cruiskeen Lawn"'s first appearance was October 4th, 1940, about the same time O'Brien was having difficulty placing The Third Policeman. Considering the energy he'd put into the column over the next decades, there's good reason to see in it a shift. Despairing over the future of his work as a novelist, O'Brien decided to change his strategy. He'd move some of his creative forces into the daily press. His offensive on the world's folly would be continued in short bursts of newspaper fire rather than in the more sustained, but recently shunned, prose of his novels.

The testimony of witnesses shows that O'Brien wrote these columns rather quickly, usually in one sitting at a typewriter. Sometimes when he was too drunk to type he'd drag a drinking comrade to his house to do the typing while he dictated. The subject of the column varied widely over the years, some devoted to the introduction of Myles' ersatz scientific inventions, others to a series of spurious stories about Keats and Chapman. (My personal favorite are the columns which present "the Brother," a paranoiac Dubliner who manages to lord it over his naive housemates through sheer force of his own self-importance. The Brother is a milder and, alas, more carefully articulated version of a character whose exploits I wrote in the early 1990s, a man by the name of Cosmo di Madison.)

Over the years O'Brien and the Irish Times got into frequent spats over the content of his columns. Though the writer rarely used the names of his victims, there were occasionally reasons to fear possible libel actions. And the column was not without its effect on O'Brien's civil service career either. On entering the service O'Brien had had to submit to its particular rules and regulations, among which was the warning not to express political opinions that may be seen as biased toward or against any party. The civil servant had to remain strictly neutral. O'Brien's column occasionally broke this rule, and the fact that he wrote it under a pseudonym finally wasn't enough to protect him. It was common knowledge in the Service that Myles na Gopaleen was one of their own. When problems with work attendence and other problems stemming from alcoholism started to win O'Brien enemies in the hierarchy, the newspaper column was brought forward as grounds for getting rid of him. O'Brien was forcibly retired from the Service for "health reasons," and lived thereafter on the modest pension he'd secured and the scant income he got over the following years from his writing.

O'Brien published a moderate body of work over the latter years of his life, but none of it, aside from some of the work published in "Cruiskeen Lawn," attains to what was achieved early on. It is in fact the early English novels that make O'Brien a major writer. As I've hinted above, this sense of an early accomplishment that would not be surpassed seems to have been shared by O'Brien himself. The aura of failure and disappointment that hangs over much of his later life shouldn't, however, take away from the genius of O'Brien's best work. It is satiric genius of the highest order.

In this essay the writer is referred to consistently as Flann O'Brien. I've done this for convenience. Flann O'Brien is in fact a pseudonym, and the writer's real name was Brian O'Nolan or, in the Gaelic spelling, O Nuallain. Brian O'Nolan's published works include those mentioned above, namely: the novel At Swim-Two-Birds, the novel The Third Policeman, and the long-running column in the Irish Times, "Cruiskeen Lawn". Other works published, many of which are still in print, include: The Dalkey Archive and The Hard Life, both novels in English; An Beal Bocht, a novel in Gaelic (translated into English by Patrick C. Power and available as The Poor Mouth); and various stories and plays (among which the play Faustus Kelly).

Many of the quotations in this essay and all of the biographical information came from Anthony Cronin's No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O'Brien. Cronin's is the standard biography, and any who'd like a more detailed knowledge of O'Brien's Ireland are well advised to consult it.

Four volumes that make for a solid beginning O'Brien collection can be ordered from Amazon through the links below.

Check At Swim-Two-Birds.

Check The Third Policeman.

Check The Best of Myles.

Check Anthony Cronin’s biography of O’Brien: No Laughing Matter.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Deserving Herzog

"I'm in love with my animal friends. I'm in love with my animal friends. In love with my animal friends. I'm very, very troubled. It's very emotional. It's probably not cool even looking like this. I'm so in love with them, and they're so fucked over, which so sucks."

"If I show weakness, I'm dead. They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces--I'm dead. So far, I persevere. I persevere."

--quotes from Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is the most provocative documentary I've seen in years. Certainly it's the most beautiful "nature film" I know of. That it's sparked so much debate over its fanatical subject, Timothy Treadwell, raising arguments about whether he was "admirable" or "dead wrong" in his methods, as well as debate about whether the director was right or wrong to present him as mentally unsound--all this seems inevitable but beside the point. The film is a masterpiece for a simple reason: it narrates a story that is tragic in a classical sense. With Grizzly Man Herzog has offered us a kind of environmental tragedy; Treadwell is a modern example of the ancient tragic hero.

Some clarification might be called for, as these words tragedy and hero risk being misunderstood. I use them in their academic sense--or at least in the sense they're used in courses on Greek drama: that of of Sophocles and Euripides. To say that Treadwell's story is a tragedy doesn't mean merely that it is sad he died young. Many people his age die every day and their deaths are not "tragedies" in the rigorous sense. Likewise if I say Treadwell is a hero, I don't want to imply that he should be taken as a role model or emulated. That's not the point at all.

The tragic hero in classical drama is a figure who sticks to his guns in difficult circumstances, one who has both charisma and pride, but who also has a tragic flaw, one that will finally bring him down. In its original Greek sense this flaw, called hamartia, meant quite literally missing the mark. Often the flaw is obvious as hubris, an overweening confidence in the rightness of one's ways, a refusal to recognize what others, what the audience for example, can see clearly: that the protagonist's blindness will be his undoing, that there is already a machinery in motion that will destroy him.

Timothy Treadwell fits this model to a tee. One admires his courage and love of nature: one admires his bubbly monologues and anti-establishment stance. Treadwell is the nature lover beyond nature lovers. His shock of golden hair under the golden sun and his confidence that he can reach out and touch wild grizzlies make him a nearly mythical figure. That he is so close to the nature he loves, that he speaks human language to us almost as if from within that natural realm--it nearly convinces us that his dream is possible: that one might enter the world of wild animals as a kind of Garden of Eden if only one's heart is pure and one's purpose strong and steadfast. Treadwell's presence on camera is compelling: we listen to him and sympathize with him; we nearly agree with him that what he is doing is possible, if only because we watch him doing it on film. What makes Herzog's film a tragedy is that while we watch Treadwell and are nearly convinced by him, we also know that he is getting closer and closer to the day he will be dismembered and eaten by one of these "friends" he is out to protect.

Aristotle, the first great writer on drama, theorizes that tragedy is an important art because the audience, while watching the drama, is cleansed "through pity and fear." (Poetics 6.2) The spectator feels pity for the protagonist and fear that the same fate or a similar could become his own. Meanwhile tragic irony is working its heavy magic. Tragic irony has little to do with our current use of the term irony: instead it indicates the gap between what the audience knows and what the hero knows. In a tragedy, the spectator knows where the protagonist is headed even as he struts on stage and boasts of his skill in solving his dilemmas. The protagonist is headed towards a death made certain by his own actions. Grimly, the spectator knows this but cannot help the hero avert it.

This too fits the movement and power of Grizzly Man. We watch Treadwell expatiate on how only he has figured out how to live with the grizzlies, how only he has the strength and mastery to live among and even protect them, all the while knowing that this man speaking so animatedly will soon become one of their meals.

Treadwell spoke of the bears as his "friends," and gives them human names. But friends may not be the right word for Treadwell's perception of them. Lovers may almost be better. There are moments in the film, as when he marvels over the beauty of one female bear's just dropped excrement, that show an unmistakable perversity. Not that Treadwell was possessed by any merely localized fetish: no, his perversion was all-encompassing. His fetish, if that is the right word, was the whole landscape the bears occupied and everything about them: about the bears and foxes and even the bumblebees on the Alaskan flowers. And it was certainly the all-encompassing nature of Treadwell's perverse desire to be unified with this world that made him face the possibility of being eaten up by it almost as a kind of ecstatic martyrdom.
They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces--I'm dead.
Why does Treadwell speak so graphically of his possible undoing? Is he merely boasting of his bravery? One can see there is more to it than that. Treadwell is giddily describing the machinery of his own movement toward the bears; describing the extreme limit this movement might take; and he is doing so with grim pleasure.

In his own narrations, Herzog occasionally states bluntly where he disagrees with Treadwell. The two most striking moments are when he distances himself from Treadwell's rant against the park authorities and when he tells what he sees in the roving eyes of the last grizzly Treadwell filmed, perhaps the same bear that killed both him and his girlfriend. Treadwell saw in those eyes both perfection and a kind of companionship. Herzog saw something quite different:
What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.
I agree entirely with Herzog in his implicit criticism of Treadwell's vision. Yet I do not think Herzog is looking down on Treadwell, or that he shows any disrespect in such remarks. That Treadwell was to some degree mentally unsound is obvious. But so what? As Herzog well knows, all of us, to some degree, are mentally unsound. Herzog, a great and thoughtful artist, admires the beauty of Treadwell's vision even as he recognizes how Treadwell was blinded by this beauty. This is part of the nearly religious drama of Herzog's film: a drama the director masterfully brings out but one already there in the movement of his subject's life. Treadwell was certainly unsound in his methods, but to say so is not to scorn him. The uncanniness of his vision of harmony in the face of these terrifying beasts raises his story to another level.

It was said by two of the men interviewed in the film and it has been repeated elsewhere that Treadwell more or less "deserved what he got," but that it was unfortunate he had to "take his girlfriend with him." The attempt to separate Treadwell and Amie Huguenard in death is understandable--her journal entries reveal that she herself argued with him over his fanaticism--but I feel she more than he should carry the ultimate responsibility for her own life. Amie put herself in the maze with him in the first place. Certainly she had not been duped into thinking the bears were harmless. Is it possible that Treadwell filmed himself speaking of the dangers of his life with the bears--"Every day I'm living on the precipice"--and yet told Amie nothing of this danger, that he told her instead: "Don't worry--I've got them all trained like pets"? It doesn't seem likely. To some degree Amie was sharing in the vision that undid both of them. One should give her enough autonomy to be responsible for her own decisions.

One may speculate on what led Treadwell to his vision. Did the fact of his having suffered from alcoholism push him to despise "merely human" society? It seems at least possible. But finally, any explanation of the origin of Treadwell's deadly desire to identify with grizzlies is not quite commensurate with the strange beauty of this desire: the fact that it existed and the fact that it is, in such a haunting way, recorded. Treadwell himself is the main director of the film we watch him in. But Herzog has brought to the material a master tragedian's touch.

Roger Ebert finishes his review of Grizzly Man as follows:
"I will protect these bears with my last breath," Treadwell says. After he and Amie become the first and only people to be killed by bears in the park, the bear that is guilty is shot dead. His watch, still ticking, is found on his severed arm. I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.
The point Ebert is trying to make is that Treadwell, because of his foolish humanizing of bears, deserves to become the subject of a director famous for portraying obsessed men who've fallen prey to impossible dreams. He deserves also to be subjected to Herzog's starker vision of nature as "overwhelming indifference" and "a half-bored interest in food." In other words, Ebert thinks Treadwell is given a dressing down in Herzog's film. I agree with Ebert that the naturalist "deserves Werner Herzog." But I'd frame the statement another way: it is not Treadwell's foolishness--"got eaten"--but the mad grandeur of his vision that deserved Herzog's attention. A smaller character than Treadwell would not have deserved it. I'd insist that the human experience of the world and nature is richer because of Treadwell's work. Many have died for much less than this.

Check Herzog's Grizzly Man at

Monday, February 25, 2008

Karen Armstrong on Genesis

Karen Armstrong's In the Beginning is a depressing performance all around. It's hard to believe that the same writer who gave us A History of God, that brilliant and multifaceted introduction to Western monotheism, could have penned this weak and predictable "new interpretation" of Genesis. Rather than interpretation, In the Beginning is an exercise in interpolation. The author inserts a vaguely progressive ethics in the interstices she can find in the ancient text of Genesis. The results are not convincing and, as far as I'm concerned, they're not progressive either.

What is the intent behind this kind of work? My best guess is that Armstrong is here trying to make the first book of the biblical canon "relevant" for modern readers. She's trying to demonstrate how the stories in Genesis dramatize many of the same "issues" that (supposedly) concern us. Unfortunately Armstrong does this by betraying Genesis. Her interpretations are not adequate to an ancient Semitic scripture. Certainly a scholar as widely read as Armstrong knows very well how anachronistic Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Jacob appear in the outfits she puts on them. So why has she undertaken such a dressing up? For whose benefit?

The texts that make up Genesis strike us by their radical otherness, their inconsistencies and uncanny strength (the paradox of their inconsistencies/strength). There is powerful artistry both in the writing of Genesis and in the editing that established its final biblical form. By trying to domesticate the book the way Armstrong does--by schematizing family relations according to modern psychologies of trauma, by submitting the ancient writers' representations of God to modern political ethics--Armstrong offers us an essay unworthy of its subject. What is worthwhile in her book is not really new, and most of what is new is unpersuasive as interpretation.

Read A History of God, which demonstrates Armstrong's great powers as a teacher and writer. But if you're interested in interpretation of the book of Genesis, look elsewhere. Robert Alter's excellent edition of the text would be a good place to start.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Just a Reminder

Cows moo, dogs bark, sheep bleat, horses neigh, donkeys bray, cats meow, ducks quack, roosters crow, lions roar, wolves howl, ants are quiet, pigs grunt, elephants trumpet, hyenas laugh, hens cackle, llamas are usually quiet, moths are very quiet, crows caw, pigeons coo, mice squeak, trout are quiet, moles are quiet, chameleons are quiet, bears growl, oxen low, whales sing, salamanders are quiet, stag beetles are quiet, bass are very quiet, owls hoot, crickets chirp, parrots talk, impala are quiet, manatees are quiet, haddock are excruciatingly quiet, snails are quiet, lobsters are quiet, centipedes are quiet, sloths are quiet; porcupines resist all our efforts at communication: they are quiet; dace are quiet; salmon are quiet; earthworms refuse to tell us what they know: they are quiet; flounder are quiet; termites are quiet; after all our coaxing the mayflies remain quiet; hedgehogs are quiet; turtles are quiet; both the carrot and the stick have proven of no avail: walleyed pike persist in a dogged and perverse silence that apparently nothing will break.

* * *


From: Ryu Makoto
To: Eric Mader-Lin
Subject: SLOTH

Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 07:50:39 +0000 (GMT)

Dear Eric,
I already knew that sloth(s) were quiet.
I vant to be left alone....
Drew Sloth


From: Eric Mader-Lin
To: Ryu Makoto
Subject: sloth(s)


Yes, Herr Sloth, your parenthetical (s) raises a question I had--not about your being left alone but about the plural of sloth. Is it "sloths" or "sloth"? Does one write: "A herd of sloth slowly took over the mall" or "Three sloths together are slower than one by itself"?

This is a sincere question. My unabridged dictionary doesn't give a plural.



From: Ryu Makoto
To: Eric Mader-Lin
Subject: sloth


Two sloths were hanging from a tree
Said A to B, Please let me be!
Sloth B replied,
I thee defy
to tell me whether we should lie
in cloth or clothes
as sloth or slothes.
It seems to me, said A to B,
if goose are geese
then, hanging loose,
we should be "sleaze."

If we are called "edentate" beasts
Then shouldn't we be pluralized like "teeth"?
One slooth, two sleeth?

And you must take care
When talking to a bear.
A pack of bears, when very wroth,
Are oft referred to as "one sloth."

Too bad the plural of toe is never "tee."
For we have sometimes two toes, sometimes three.
If then you take a two-toed sloth to tea
Could two hold up the cup as well as three?
Dear me!

With a Lear in your direction,

If you can't Poet, toe it,


You can frame this by the way... royalties due next month. No sincere answer available. My American Heritage is mute on the topic.


From: Eric Mader-Lin
To: Ryu Makoto
Subject: sloth(s)

Tree-hugging crank,
Sloth sleuth tunes lute
--Loud clank--
Dodges plural,
Pulls poetic rank:
Another toothless
Slowly Learing prank


Getting Colds in Taiwan

If you’re from some northern clime, from Finland or Maine or Ontario, and planning to move to Taiwan, you’ll probably imagine before the move that one advantage of living on the island will be that you won’t have to deal with colds and flus anymore. The cold and flu season is winter, after all, and semitropical Taiwan doesn’t really have a winter to speak of. But I can tell you from personal experience and that of many others: you’re going to be sorely disappointed, friend.

One of the oddest suprises this particular semitropical island holds in store for newcomers from the West is how often they will get colds or flu. I’m not sure if it’s the humidity or the population density or something else, but the fact is that during the first year here, regardless of the relatively warm weather, the average Westerner will come down with four or five vicious viruses, often like nothing they had before when living in, say, frozen Nova Scotia. Why is it? And usually by the second year the colds are less frequent, but still can be quite nasty. But again: why is that?

The colds and flus of Taiwan are bad enough, but what makes them even worse is the reactions of people here. It is a standard of American wisdom not to give advice to others unless you are specifically asked. Taiwanese thinking on this seems to be the opposite. You come into the office feeling terrible, just wanting to get to work, and immediately your Taiwanese coworkers start in. “Did you go to the doctor yet? You didn’t go to the doctor? Why didn’t you go to the doctor?” “It’s because you’re not used to the weather here. It’s the weather: you’re not used to it.” “Don’t drink anything cold, especially not orange juice. Why are you drinking that? Hey, I just told you: don’t drink that.” “Don’t eat such and such: it will lower your body temperature. You should eat such and such, but not such and such.” “You need so and so; you shouldn’t such and such.” “Here. This is a map to a good clinic. When can you go? You really should go.” And on and on. And on and on again. And then on and on, and more people come into the office, and they have something to say too. Until your headache and congestion seem the least of your problems.

Of course the Taiwanese tendency to give advice shows concern. Your coworkers are trying to show you they care about you. For the average Westerner, however, it is nothing but annoying. Doubtless it’s because of our over-developed sense of self-reliance and individualism. Listening to all their advice, one can’t help but smile and think: “Who the hell are you to tell me what to drink and not drink? Just because you’re Chinese you think you know how I should take care of myself? The last time you got a cold, which was two weeks ago, I didn’t lecture you, did I?”

Another problem is that one simply doesn’t agree with their advice. For one thing, the fanatical prohibition against citrus. “Don’t drink orange juice! Don’t drink lemonade!” They somehow think the citric acid in the orange juice will irritate a sore throat and so will somehow make the cold worse. But the cold, as we know, is a matter of the progress of a virus. The soreness of the throat is merely a symptom of the cold; it is not the cold itself. Yes, it’s probably true that cold drinks are not good when one has a cold. But if the orange juice isn’t really cold, then it can do nothing but good: it’s liquid, it contains vitamin C, etc. Still it’s useless arguing such points with them: if their mamas have once told them not to drink orange juice, they will stick to the notion forever.

And their: “Quick, go see a doctor!” “Have you seen a doctor yet?” “Oh, my God! Why haven’t you seen a doctor?” “Here, let me draw you a map to the clinic.” Doctors, as we know in the West, cannot cure a cold. Doctors can only confirm that you have one and then give you something to make the symptoms less troublesome. But the drugs they give--these too are not necessarily healthy, so maybe it would just be better to let the cold take its course, no?

And the doctors here, regardless of what you have, will always prescribe antibiotics along with the other things they give. This is bad medical practice, as anyone who knows anything can tell you. Antibiotics can do exactly nothing against a virus, and prescribing them when they aren’t needed will only serve to make them worthless when they are needed.

The other day I was in the metro waiting in line for the train to come. A somewhat short Taiwanese man, aged around 40, was going down the line of people earnestly speaking a few sentences to each of them as they waited. He was speaking softly in Chinese, and I couldn’t quite pick it up, but it had something to do with health, with the heart and the body’s circulation system. When he got to me, he switched to English: “Excuse me. You should always go to bed before ten o’clock. It’s better for the heart and blood circulation. So remember: go to bed before ten, okay?”

These are the exact words the man said to me and this is all he said. And so: without a by your leave or any kind of self-introduction, a man in a metro station took it upon himself to tell me when to go to bed! If it were a Western country, I’d be sure the man was a lunatic. Here, he qualifies as just a bit on the eccentric side.

But how did I react to him? Did I ask him who the hell he thinks he is and tell him to go fuck himself? No. Since I’ve been here in Taiwan a while, I know how to react. I smiled, said, “Thank you,” and continued waiting for the train.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Making the Grade in Naples, Florida

They nabbed me because of my weight. I'd been doing the best I could, thought I'd ease my way into it slowly, but in the end I wasn't gaining fast enough. So they got me. I'm just hoping I'll get out in a month or two, three at the most. It's my own damn fault really.

Cindy and I moved to Naples last year, the summer of 2019. We'd visited before and liked the peaceful, gated communities, the subtropical climate, the immaculate shopping malls and white sand beaches. It's no surprise Collier County, where Naples is located, has remained one of the fastest growing counties in America. We were convinced on our first visit. Naples is the gem of Florida's Gulf Coast, a little American Cote d'Azur with none of the unpleasantness of the real Cote d'Azur.

While still in New York we knew we had some work ahead of us as far as getting used to our new Florida home: a bit of adjusting before we'd really fit in. We'd read the Naples Community Guide to Right Living, of course, but hadn't realized before the actual move how seriously the Neapolitans took their lifestyle rules. It was only after settling in, after we saw how strict the place was, that we realized what we were in for.

In all the most important things Cindy proved quicker on the uptake than me. It was Cindy who insisted on getting the two SUVs--one red, white and blue, the other just white. And Cindy put on the pounds faster. Even our huge neighbors were impressed with how quickly she gained. She picked up all the right mannerisms too: the little gestures and movements that prove one belongs; the various saccharine expressions of delight that accompany the different Neapolitan greetings; that earnest way of pushing a full shopping cart to the car and popping the trunk to load the bags. In fact the security people hardly ever bothered us when I was out with Cindy. Still, I knew I couldn't hide under her wing forever. I had to make better progress.

I'd already been in Naples eight months when they arrested me. I'm ashamed to say that by that time I'd only put on forty pounds. It wasn't up to par, and I knew it. I knew it from the guidebook, of course, but I could see it also in the looks I got from neighbors. I guess I thought I could still claim to be a newcomer. It was naïve of me.

I should have seen the trouble I was in when Alec, the cheery man who guards the entrance to our gated community, finally questioned me outright.

"Say, Mr. Westerman," he said one day as I was pulling in.


"How heavy are you now--if I might ask?"

"About 240," I said. "Or at least I was about 240 last time I checked. Why?"

"And you're over six foot tall, aren't you, Mr. Westerman?"

"Yes, I'm six foot two," I said.

Alec pursed his lips; he shook his head slightly.

"Pardon me for saying so," he said, "but a man your height should be at least 260 pounds. 260 at the very least."

"I'm working on it," I said. "I'll get there yet."

I flashed him a smile and was ready to drive off, but he continued.

"I'm just reminding you, Mr. Westerman. Just to let you know. I mean, you realize how people in this community will talk."

That exchange took place just a week before the arrest. To tell the truth, Alec's words didn't fall on deaf ears. That same night I made a new resolution: to use more butter on my scones in the morning and eat a slab of Tiramisu every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, not just on Thursdays as I'd been doing previously. Cindy warned that this wouldn't be enough.

"You should be eating some rich dessert every night," she said. "You know what the guidebook says. Why do you always go against the guidebook?"

Cindy was right. My new resolution wasn't enough: it was too little too late. They picked me up a few days later as I got out of my car at the Waterside Shops.

"Derek Westerman?" the officer said. There was a community ethics officer with him, his huge potbelly nearly popping the buttons off the green uniform.


"I've a warrant here for your arrest."

"I understand," I said. "It's the weight, isn't it?"

"Just come along peacefully, Mr. Westerman."

* * *

The Naples Re-Education Center is pretty much like I'd heard it was. It's off Airport Road heading north, about two miles out of town, just after you pass the third tan strip mall with the Eckerd Pharmacy. The third Eckerd Pharmacy, I mean, the one to go with the third strip mall. The Re-Education Center is on the right, next to the golf course.

They've got me in a sumptuous room with curtains the color of Key Lime Pie and a placid scene of flamingos painted on the wall. The flamingos are in pastel tones, stepping through soft blue water, and in the background there's a scene of a golf course. The room has two queen-sized beds, one for me and one for my roommate Vern (in such a comfortable room it wouldn't be quite right to call him a "cellmate," though it's true we aren't free to leave). We've got a huge refrigerator regularly restocked with beer, pizza, cheesecake and various other high-calorie things. There are also three large TV screens on the walls, two of which can't be turned off, not even while we sleep. The screen closer to Vern's bed plays 24-hour ESPN, and the other one plays 24-hour financial news. The room has air conditioning of course, and this air conditioning works a bit too well, just as expected. The message they're trying to convey by this is subtle but irrefutable: If you're chilly at night, they seem to be saying, maybe it's because you haven't enough flesh on your bones to keep warm.

My roommate Vern is a portly man, so it's obvious he wasn't picked up for the same reason as me.

"It's because of a stupid remark I made," he admitted when I asked him what he was in for.

"What remark was that?"

"I was at the cigar lounge with some of the fellas," he said. "They started talking about golf and I said I thought golf was a stupid sport. They arrested me the next morning at work."

"Because you thought golf was stupid?"

"Well, not only that," he said. "But that was bad enough, to say something like that I mean. A man can get arrested for less than that."

"But what else did you say?"

"Well," he began, then seemed to change his mind. "It's not important really. Let's just say I made an ass of myself."

"C'mon," I prodded. "We're in this together, Vern. Just tell me. I'm new to Florida too, you know. Maybe you can save me from shooting off my mouth later on."

"Oh, alright," he said. "It was the same day at the cigar lounge. I must have had a few too many. Beers, I mean, because I remember we were drinking beer that day. Anyhow, one of the guys invited me to a patio party at his house on the Fourth of July. He said he was having a barbecue."


"And I told him I don't like barbecues."

"You didn't."

"I did."

"You actually said you wouldn't go to a Fourth of July barbecue?"


"And you said it in front of how many people?"

"Five or six."

"Christ, Vern!" I laughed. "You're lucky you're in here and not the real detention center up in Tallahassee."

"I know it," he said. "It was damn stupid of me."

* * *

Cindy visited me this morning and I had to eat the cookies. It was tough because of the pancake and sausage breakfast we'd just been forced to eat. But it's a rule here that if a visitor comes they have to bring two dozen fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and the inmate has to eat them before the visit it over. They think it's good for morale.

Cindy told me about some things she bought at the Waterside Shops and about an origami class she's taking with some "gals" she met at the hair salon. Cindy really is fitting in well: she even refers to everyone as gals already. I'm thinking they might let me out early just for her sake.

* * *

Most of the inmates are in here for weight problems, but there are others, like Vern, who ran afoul of the authorities on other grounds. The young guy Chris across the hall (his room all in peach tones: wicker furniture, ceiling fan, decorative bowl of dried starfish and other sea creatures on the table) came to Naples to teach high school. But he wasn't prepared for the move. He told me that before he came down he hadn't read even a chapter of the guidebook. So when he took the I.Q Test he tried to do his best on it. I mean the Naples Residency Permit I.Q. Test, of course, the NRPIQ, which we all had to take to reside legally in Naples. Chris took the test and was rated with an I.Q. of 139. They hauled him in the very day scores were announced. They were furious. It seems they even roughed him up a little that first night, accused him of being a "subversive," an "intellectual" and other such things. They were going to send him straight to Tallahassee, but finally just kept him here. While at the Center, they say, he must try to purify his thoughts of all the "nonsense and critical thinking" such a "shamefully high I.Q." has "forced his brain to pick up over the years": "like a piece of tape dragged across a dirty floor picks up hair and dust and dead skin flakes." This is how Chris quotes their words. In fact I don't envy him a bit. He'll be in here a lot longer than Vern or I. And he may end up in Tallahassee after all.

* * *

Spent the morning at a Golf Appreciation Seminar with Vern. Then more interrogation after lunch. Today was the worst of it yet. My interrogator, Dr. Adler, hails from Minnesota and has been working at the Center for three years. He's a tough one, this Adler. If he doesn't like my answers he comes out with another big bowl of mixed nuts and I have to eat it down before we can continue.

It seems they didn't just arrest me because of the weight problem after all. It seems a neighbors had been spying on me while I was reading. I sometimes read on the back porch, and one of my neighbors must have seen me. Already at our first interrogation Dr. Adler had brought up the question of my reading European novels, but of course I denied it vehemently.

"I've never read a European novel in my life," I said. "I don't even like American novels, so why should I be reading European ones?"

"Novels are bad for the community," he said. "Studies have proven it. They lead to unpatriotic, cynical thinking."

"You needn't worry about my reading habits, doctor. Really. Besides gardening magazines and food magazines--that and the Naples Community Guide of course--besides these things I read almost nothing."

"Is that so?" Adler said.

"It is," I insisted. "I've two perfectly good TVs in my home and I've a member card to rent movies at Blockbuster, so why in God's name would I be wasting my time reading novels?"

That was at our first interrogation. I thought I'd done pretty well because Adler never talked about novels again. I thought the warning about European novels was just pro forma and I was in the clear. But today he took off the kid gloves. After pressing a bit on my interest in books and after more of stubborn denials on my part, he finally pulled a big manila folder from his desk and took out three large black-and-white glossy photos. Sure enough. Two were of me sitting on my back porch reading Thoman Mann. And in the third picture I was reading Marguerite Duras, a French writer, something that could get me in much deeper hot water than the Naples Community Re-Education Center had to offer.

"You know, Mr. Westerman," he began as I looked at the photos aghast, "you know that reading European novels is illegal all over these fifty states, and you know besides that reading French novels is technically a felony ever since the dissolution of NATO during Jeb Bush's first term."

"I have never shown any of these books to anyone else, I swear it, Dr. Adler. I've only kept them to myself." My voice was already beginning to crack.

"Whether you show the novels to others or keep them to yourself is not the point," he said gravely. "Just reading the novels is already a crime, Mr. Westerman, something I'm sure you're well aware of."

"I know it's a crime, doctor. But this kind of reading, it's just an old habit of mine, something I did before the break with Europe. I just haven't been able to kick the habit."

"Not even in an upright community like Naples?"

"No," I said, hanging my head. "I guess not even in Naples. I've been so busy trying to improve my life in other ways . . . well, I guess I didn't think much about cutting down on my reading."

Adler took the photos from me and put them back in his desk.

"It is not my purpose to push this issue further," he said. "The neighbor who took these photos and brought them to me was doing it for your own good, Mr. Westerman."

"My own good?"

"Yes. This neighbor of yours wanted you to realize how reckless you were being keeping such books in a solidly patriotic community like ours. This neighbor did it to help you reform."

"And I will reform," I said, beginning to feel somewhat at ease. "I will destroy those books as soon as I get out of here. I promise you, doctor."

"Your wife has already taken care of that, Mr. Westerman. You needn't worry about it."

"My wife?"

"Yes. She destroyed all the novels during your first week here. She agreed with me that it wasn't wise keeping them in the house. Of course I contacted her about these photos."

"I am grateful for your kindness, Dr. Adler. And I'm glad those novels are finally gone. Sometimes the only way to quit a bad habit is to go cold turkey."

"I think you are right on that, Mr. Westerman. At least if the bad habit is also a felony."

But inside I wasn't glad the novels were gone. It was my mistake to read them on the porch. Probably I'll never be able to find anything by Duras again.

* * *

I'm to be released tomorrow. Vern apparently hasn't done as well as I. Although we were arrested about the same time, he's in for at least another month. From what I've heard, his interrogator can still see how much he hates golf. He hasn't made enough of an effort.

I'm now a solid 297 pounds. My cholesterol level is dangerously high and I can hardly make it up a flight of stairs. But that isn't all. After almost two months of watching ESPN, I know about all kinds of sports teams, so I can now talk confidently about the kind of subjects proper to men of my age. I'll no longer be at a loss for words when I sidle up to the bar.

It really wasn't all that bad being in the Naples Community Re-Education Center. Of course it would have been better if I'd have managed to become a real Neapolitan on my own, without the push the Center gave me. But in fact there are many prominent Neapolitans who started with a stint in the Center, and from what I've heard it's not something to be overly ashamed of.

I'll stop typing now because the dinner bell has just rung, and to tell the truth I'm quite hungry. Some of the fellas will be having a little graduation party for me in the dining hall. I'm guessing there will be a chocolate cheesecake with red-white-and-blue candles. At least that's the proper protocol when someone graduates.

Tomorrow Cindy picks me up in the SUV. She herself has reached a whopping 238 pounds. From this day forward Cindy and Derek Westerman will be a couple to be reckoned with.

God bless America and God bless the people of this great state of Florida. May He continue to give us the great bounty that He in His wisdom has seen fit to give us so far. And may we always use this great bounty wisely in order to bring greater glory to Him. For He is indeed a huge God and He watches over us always, bringing us our three squares a day and more. Amen, and I'm off to dinner.


Belated Reading of George Saunders

As an American who's lived in Taiwan nearly a decade, I sometimes feel a disconnect from what's going on back in the States. That I spend only a handful of days in America each year doesn't help much either. My country seems to be getting weirder all the time--ever more unhinged with each passing climatically altered season. Is what I see maybe just America's true colors beginning to bleed in the general heat and mayhem? I hope not. Is it possibly just me that's gotten weirder? Many would argue that it's so--but then, they make their arguments from right there in the Belly of the Beast, so how can they be expected to judge?

Recently again I managed to spend some time back in the Homeland's Secure Embrace. While there I picked up a copy of George Saunders' CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. The tales in this collection proved to be the perfect reading to help a confused and overly liberal expat like myself readjust. Saunders writes the best and most American dystopian satire I've read.

Of course in the real America the Wendy's aren't yet burnt out shells, the WalMarts aren't occupied by teen militias, and the theme parks aren't as horribly elaborate as the ones in Saunders. But we're getting there. A bit more unhinging and it'll all fall into place. Saunders' America is only the current America with the volume turned up.

The familiar idiom of these tales--the sales pitches, self-improvement jargon and confident self-justifications of the myriad scammers one meets--gives them an immediate truth entirely lacking from the State of the Union Address which I also, very forgettably, took in during my time home. I certainly wish I could write like Saunders. [The closest I've come might be here.]

Saunders published CivilWarLand in 1996. The perfect pitch of the collection makes me eager to read what this master satirist has penned since the dawn of our New Millennium. I've only read one recent tale in The New Yorker, which showed Saunders in the same brilliant high fever and which led me to pick up CivilWarLand in the first place. I believe that tale was entitled "CommComm."

As the Library Journal review put it: "Saunders' surreal depiction of a bleak future for the country is both startling and believable. Here's hoping he is not a prophet." In the strict sense of the word prophet--namely, one who warns of pending disaster unless people mends their ways--Saunders is already one. And a trenchant one too. I absolutely recommend CivilWarLand--available while there are still books.

February 2006 (initial posting)

Check CivilWarLand in Bad Decline at

That was 2006. I’ve since read his other recent collections, also impossibly funny and brilliant:

Pastoralia at

In Persuasion Nation at

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Yes, I am Louis Kemp from the novel Taipei Mutt. The writer was a friend of mine during my first stint in Taiwan. Or rather: kind of a friend. Fact is he stole parts of my story to make his "novel," which pissed me off for awhile, him using my real name especially. I've forgiven him since, and we're on good terms now. A lot of the book wasn't true anyway, though it is true that I was changed into a dog. Those who still say it isn't, that I was suffering delusions, they don't know what the hell they're talking about. This photo of me, taken near the end of my time as a dog, should help prove the skeptics wrong. I have more evidence if anyone cares to ask about it.

Anyhow I’m back in Taipei, I’m well again--the new meds actually work--and I’m teaching English like I planned to do the first time. I’ve gotten over my ire about the book, and Mader (maybe as a way to pay me back for stealing my story?) has even agreed to a request of mine. He’s going to let me edit his manuscript so as to bring it closer to my actual memories. So here it’ll be my version of what happened--finally. Mader is also letting me post the re-edited chapters on his blog, since he doesn’t much care about the further few thousands of NT he might make from selling copies of the novel. Anyhow that’s what he claims. Mader’s book, in any case, is pretty heavily fictionalized, though this edited version, I’m telling you myself, is going to be just as it all really went down.

It's kind of strange posting on Mader’s blog though--most of his writing is about gnosticism and theology and the Bible, quite different from what you’ll find in my own story. But I’ll be sending him the edited chapters, and he's agreed to post them.

Mader’s book was called A Taipei Mutt. My version, sharper, meaner, truer, I’ll just call Mutt. Check out the first chapter here.

Gnosticism: Rethinking the "Mother of all Heresies"

Review of: Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Michael Allen Williams, Princeton UP, 335 pages

If one seeks out a quick definition of ancient gnosticism, one is liable to get something like the following:

A religious movement that flourished in the Roman Empire between the second and fourth centuries C.E. Identified as heretical by both Christians and Jews, the gnostics taught that the world was created not by the true God but by a lesser, deficient being called the Demiurge, who ruled over his creation, our world, with the help of administrative powers called Archons. The realm of the true God (the Pleroma, or "Fullness") lay beyond this faulty creation, and it was the goal of the gnostics to escape the trap of this world and return there.

According to the gnostics, human beings contained a spark of true divinity that did not belong in this lesser creation, but would continually be reincarnated here unless redeemed by gnosis (the liberating knowledge of our true origins). Human beings were divided into three types: the spirituals (those predestined for salvation), the psychicals (those who could attain a kind of salvation through gnosis and various purifying practices) and the materials (those who by their nature were permanently tied to the material realm). Gnostic religion was thus characterized by a radical contempt both for the world (understood as a prison) and for the body (each individual's prison cell). Ancient sources show that this contempt led in some groups to a rigorous asceticism, in others to an equally rigorous licentiousness (since the laws of morality were merely part of the trap created by the Demiurge, some gnostics taught that the spiritually liberated must demonstrate their liberation by breaking as many of these laws as they could).

Christian gnostics understood Jesus to be a messenger of the true God, sent from the Pleroma to bring the liberating teachings of gnosis. They rejected the orthodox doctrine that Jesus died to atone for the sins of men. According to the gnostics, the evil in the world did not result from human sin, but rather from the Demiurge's faulty creation: i.e., the world was evil because its creator was evil. Whereas orthodox Christians accepted the Old Testament as part of their sacred scriptures, the gnostics saw in the Old Testament God a depiction of the Demiurge. Only Jesus was sent from the "Father," i.e. the true God.

Given its rigorous contempt for the world and its concomitant rejection of social norms, most scholars understand gnosticism to have been a religion of radical revolt. The Bogomils in eastern Europe and the medieval Cathars in the south of France are considered to be later incarnations of gnostic religion. A buried collection of ancient gnostic scriptures was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
Here in a few paragraphs is an example of how gnosticism is typically defined in university classes and encyclopedias. It is a presentation buttressed by such classic modern studies of gnosticism as Hans Jonas' book The Gnostic Religion. Through force of repetition it has become more or less standard. But is this definition really apt to the beliefs and practices of the ancient gnostics? How appropriate is it to what we find in the Nag Hammadi texts? After all, most of the elements of this definition were forged before the discovery of these writings. With actual gnostic writings now available, scholars should be able to come to a more nuanced understanding of gnosticism than was previously possible. Has their reading of the Nag Hammadi texts changed our understanding of this ancient religious movement?

In his book Rethinking "Gnosticism" Michael Allen Williams assesses the validity of such usual definitions and finds them seriously lacking. To read his study is to realize to what extent this thing called "gnosticism" is an amalgam of modern scholarly caricature and uncritical reliance on ancient heresiologists like Irenaeus and Epiphanius. Such reliance was maybe inevitable given the previous lack of original sources. But now with the wealth of gnostic gospels and treatises uncovered in Egypt, things have changed. Williams' work sets out to reveal the extent of the needed change.

Williams' overall methodology is simple: take the current scholarly presentations of gnostic religion and compare them point by point with what we actually find in the gnostics' writings. But also: take the ancient heresiologists' presentation of the gnostics and undertake a similar comparison. Do the gnostics' presentations of themselves in their writings correspond to the doctrines attributed to them by Irenaeus? Do they correspond to what we hear from the community of modern scholars? If not, why not?

If Williams is right, our idea of gnosticism as an ancient religion would not, in important respects, have been shared by the ancient gnostics themselves. Our understanding of gnostic doctrines and attitudes (to the body, to society, to ethics) has often put the stress in the wrong place. And our presentation of gnostic practices still relies on the heresiologists, even though their portrayals have been given the lie by the Nag Hammadi writings.

For one, gnosticism is usually presented as a world-denying religion of revolt: a religion adopted by outsiders in a state of rebellion against social norms. The gnostics were believed to have erected a barrier between themselves and the surrounding world by mechanically reversing dominant social values. This notion of the gnostics undertaking a kind of systematic denial of everything society held sacred grew mainly from select observations of gnostic readings of Hebrew scripture (for example, they frequently understood the serpent in the Garden of Eden in a positive way, while Yahweh, understood as the Demiurge, was seen negatively). But, as Williams points out, such instances of gnostic scriptural interpretation do not necessarily indicate a rebellious attitude to society at large. Using models developed from the sociological study of religious movements, Williams argues that in many cases the opposite was more likely true: that the gnostics were actually interpreting Judeo-Christian ideas of the divine in ways more in harmony with the dominant pagan society in which they lived. Williams' argument here is convincing. Our interpretation of the gnostic attitude as one of revolt against society has been foisted on us by the heresiologists, who themselves, for obvious reasons, sought to portray the gnostics as rebels against orthodoxy. To claim the gnostics were radical social deviants is thus anachronistic.

Williams likewise takes up the question of "gnostic determinism": the oft-repeated modern assertion that the gnostics believed mankind to be strictly divided into different types (the spirituals, the psychics, the materials) or different races (the race of Seth, the race of Cain), and that the doctrinal upshot of such divisions was that each individual's potential for salvation was understood to be already determined at birth. Williams shows that this modern notion of gnostic determinism is not supported by the original texts. A careful reading of the sources shows that one is not "born into" the race of Seth: rather it is a status one may attain or earn. The race of Seth is more a spiritual community than a biological "race" in our modern sense. Likewise with the division into three types: one's status as a spiritual is seen to be linked to one's behavior: one may lose this status through abandoning the truth, and thus to be born as a spiritual is no guarantee of salvation. The assertion that the ancient gnostics were elitists in the sense of believing themselves predestined to salvation (saved in essence) is misguided. Williams demonstrates that there was at least as much flexibility in these gnostic notions as there is in more recent Protestant doctrines of the elect.

With these remarks I've only scratched the surface of this subtle and wide-ranging study. Williams offers an important discussion of gnostic hermeneutics (their practice of Biblical interpretation) and reassesses gnostic notions of the body and how these might relate to the different doctrines of salvation. One abiding concern of Williams' book--and I've maybe been irresponsible in skirting it until now--is the appropriateness of the term "gnosticism" itself. On the basis of the many disadvantages Williams sees in the term--its vagueness as a category, the baggage it brings with it--he suggests scholars refer instead to "biblical demiurgical traditions" when discussing much of what is typically called "gnosticism." He seeks to demonstrate that 1) the ancient people we refer to as "gnostics" did not themselves use this term, and 2) modern scholars have long had difficulty establishing a stable set of characteristics for gnosticism: i.e., we still cannot define clearly what gnosticism is. The argument Williams finally puts forward is that the term has impeded our understanding of the ancient religious movements in question. It has led generations of scholars to grapple with false problems and construct arguments on the basis of unexamined preconceptions. This is a pretty serious charge to make. Whether or not Williams is right in these assertions--something I'm in no position to judge--it seems obvious that his book has brought forth much that is new in the field of "gnostic" studies. And it seems clear that many of his new perspectives on the "gnostics" grew directly from his attempts to think beyond the (academic or heresiological) category "gnosticism."

Williams' book is not for scholars only, however. Even a reader only slightly familiar with the Nag Hammadi texts can gain much from it. He helpfully begins the book with a chapter summarizing the myths or doctrines of four important "gnostic" traditions: the myth from The Apocryphon of John; the doctrine of the Valentinian teacher Ptolemy; the myth taught by Justin the Gnostic; and the teachings of Marcion. These four different examples are then referred to repeatedly in the remainder of the study in order to clarify this or that point. Williams has structured Rethinking Gnosticism in a way that allows him to write both for fellow scholars and the general reader. It is a successful strategy all around, one that makes the book fascinating reading for anyone interested in "gnosticism," the Nag Hammadi texts, or the history of Christianity.

Check the book at Rethinking "Gnosticism"