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Georg Heym’s “The Thief”

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Jacob Wrestles with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659-60

Not long after arriving in Berlin for the first time in 2011, I ran into the haunting poem “Ophelia” by the Expressionist poet Georg Heym (1887-1912), which captivated me with the dark power of its imagery.

Intrigued, I soon discovered his overwhelming short story “The Thief,” which is, I think, not well known to English-speaking audiences. This short excerpt from early in the story gives a sense of its feverish, vivid imagery:

And now he lived in a large guesthouse, buried in his small attic room, alone, known by no one, one of the many solitaries of this great city. 

He spent the evenings in the depths of his armchair, tracking the dwindling light and the cloud ships that sailed with their red keels on their voyage to new, mysterious lands. Or in late summer when the days of the north winds began with large, strange shapes in the heavens, he watched huge whales, giant camels, and the fleet of innumerable small fish that vanished over the ocean of the sky into the endless blue. 

He kept a record for himself of all the strange apparitions. Once he saw the devil before a wine-red ground above a pile of worshipful black bodies. Another time he saw a monstrous bat with outstretched wings that appeared to be struck to the heavens like farmers nail them to barn doors. Or a gigantic barque, or trees on mountains, or powerful lions, monstrous serpents laid on the shoulders of the sky, or a giant monk dragging his cassock, or men with strange, long profiles. One time he saw a fiery angel that rose with a great blaze above the steps of the aether. 

At times, everything was filled with a strange, nearly inaudible music, like the roar of the ocean in the darkness of endless grottos and subterranean cathedrals. 

I am pleased to share with you my full translation – you can read it in its entirety here: The Thief, by Georg Heym.

Translation © Barnaby Thieme, 2019. All rights reserved.


Written by Mesocosm

November 9, 2019 at 6:58 am

Goethe’s “Elective Affinities”

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Die Passion Christi – Hieronymus Bosch

Goethe’s final novel is often described as “experimental;” a description which, I think, primarily reflects its puzzling character. Like Beethoven’s late quartets or Shakespeare’s Problem Plays, it’s hard to know how to take it, or how it wants to be taken. Its readers have long struggled to articulate a coherent response to this book, and I daresay my own response – a mix of admiration, frustration, and confusion – puts me in good company.

Most of the action occurs beneath the level of story and must be extrapolated from the events. The plot, such as it is, is relatively simple. Eduard and Charlotte are a happily-married couple who live on an estate in the country. As part the leisure class, they have the luxury of pursuing their personal interests, which primarily consist of directing a series of continual and ever-incomplete improvements and modifications to the buildings and the grounds.

Like a Japanese gardener, they attempt to collaborate with nature, and to coax the world around them toward their ideals. The wanderer on their lands should have the experience of chancing upon inspiring, meditative vistas in a series of perfectly-timed disclosures as they move through a landscape of controlled epiphany. To this end, paths are modified or closed off, views are opened up through the pruning of trees or the removal of rocks, and buildings are reworked to provide rest at just the right point on a steep path.

Before long, Eduard and Charlotte are joined in their endeavors by an old friend of Eduard’s called “the Captain”, and later by Charlotte’s charming foster-daughter Ottilie. The newcomers take to the estate work with inspired passion, and quickly join the rhythm of the house.

One night in the drawing room, where they come together to read and to play music, Charlotte comes across the esoteric topic of “elective affinities.” She and the reader subsequently learn that this term refers to a theory in chemistry that accounts for the tendency of certain pairs of compound substances to break their stable bonds and “trade dance partners,” as it were. That is, stable compound AB is introduced to stable compound CD, and, after a sudden, destructive reaction, you end up with AC and BD, which are united by even stronger bonds.

The characters and the reader quickly pick up on the amusing possibility that such reactions could also affect human couples, and the author thereby sets the stage for the complicated emotional entanglements which play out for the remainder of the book. As Eduard and the young Ottilie become closer, so too do the Captain and Charlotte, which leads headlong into a conflict between two competing views of marriage – as a socially-recognized and regulated bond, and as the epitome of passion, intimacy, and choice.


One of the core concerns of this book is the irreconcilable conflicts that result from regarding the same situation from competing systems of values. Take, for example, the theory of landscaping which preoccupies the protagonists. On a superficial level, their work celebrates the Romantic ideals of free wandering and the unadulterated experience of nature. Someone walking through their grounds is meant to feel the wonder of vistas encountered by chance.

Ironically, we know that the landscape is highly controlled, with the heavily-planned paths subtly directing the wanderer to the illusion of happenstance. Choice only plays out within an invisibly-regulated landscape.

On one level, this is presumably a critique of the Romantics, who may conceal their own elaborate techniques for producing the controlled aesthetic effects which are celebrated as the experience of natural spontaneity.

On another level, this is an arresting image of how people shape their lives, acting not just on the level of conscious choice, but working in dialog with their inner selves, and with their societies, to affect the context in which they live. It is probably worth noting that this, in the language of the book, is the prerogative of the leisure class.

The book is fundamentally concerned with the hidden rules that shape choice. Through altering the landscape, as in altering their relationships, the characters shape their own context for action, and thereby experiment with the possibilities of life.

The book functions as a kind of scientific experiment or laboratory in which the mechanics of human choice become more visible. Here, the fact that the landscaping is always a work-in-progress becomes significant. We follow as the characters experiment with the very framework for their own action and experience, just as people build their lives: gradually, playing out different possibilities, and then course-correcting, in a never-ending process of trial and error.

The link between this work as an examination of human nature and as a kind of laboratory experiment is called out by the title. This laboratory provides indirect access to the characters’ inner lives, which can only be extrapolated, just like the bonds that unite various compounds. The governing patterns that regulate the dynamics lie under the surface.

In another sense, the book functions as a laboratory by presenting life on a remote estate as a microcosm of their society as a whole. The use of a mini-society as a device for depicting core dynamics of human interaction has a long tradition. It has been pointed out, for example, that nearly every comedy of Shakespeare’s involves some version of characters going outside the city walls and creating an alternative social order.

The link between the language of chemistry and the language of the unconscious tells us this is a sort of alchemical laboratory. We have known since Carl Jung that when the alchemist speaks in a hybrid language of chemistry and metaphysics – describing, for example, the mystical marriage of chemical substances that unites and reconciles opposites – they present an image of their own unconscious process of psychic integration, using the vocabulary of the natural sciences, which is noticeably hijacked by the twilight language of dream and myth.

The question posed by the motif of elective affinities, then, is to what degree our choices are free, and how do we gain insight into the invisible rules. I see this as a kind of naturalistic antetype to the modernist use of myth, such as we find in Wagner, Joyce, Eliot, or Thomas Mann. For these great artists, myth sheds light on the hidden patterns that shape conscious action and intention.

Thomas Mann described “Elective Affinities” as “a perfect book,” and its profound influence on his own work is readily apparent. In “The Magic Mountain”, for example, we also find characters trapped together in a miniature world, which functions as a microcosm of society and nature, and as a macrocosm of the individual psyche. The ordering patterns of life are examined as if in a Petri dish or alembic, where they are reduced, extracted, and sublimated to an archetypal plane.


Green Man, Bode Museum

It must be noted that the character Ottilie is the chief catalyst for the action that drives the plot forward. Eduard is the principle agent of action, but he is motivated by his passion for Ottilie, which she elicits through the unique qualities of her character. It is no surprise, then, that we find her at the heart of the book’s pivotal events.

Ottilie embodies on the level of character the irreconcilable contradictions inherent in the co-occurrence of orders of value. She drives the action, but indirectly; she is both conscious and unconscious of the economy of passion she is inscribed within; she is both guilty and innocent of transgression. She guarantees the contradictions that come forth from the collision of passion and social regulation, but by her being, not through her action or choice.

One can say much about this special status, but what most illuminates her function in the novel is knowing that Goethe had a daughter-in-law named Ottilie, with whom he was much enamored. As Rüdiger Safranski notes in his recent Goethe; Kunstwerk des Lebens: “It should here be remembered, without making too much of a fuss over it, that in 1816, Goethe pushed hard in support of the liaison between his son [August von Goethe] and Ottilie von Pogwisch, so that he should have this fetching and clever young woman in his vicinity” (pg. 579, my translation). Ottilie and August would marry a year later.

In my opinion, in the context of “Elective Affinities”, it would actually be difficult to make too much fuss over this fact, which is the single most important key we have to understanding what happens in the novel and why. I have been genuinely surprised by how gingerly this is held by many interpreters, who sometimes give the impression that it would be in poor taste to recognize it. But Goethe could hardly have called more attention to this point than by naming this key character after his daughter-in-law.

It would be a mistake to reduce the entirety of this complex book to an autobiographical study of the author’s obvious infatuation with his son’s wife, but it would also be obtuse to fail to recognize that the book reproduces the same logic of ambivalence that Goethe presumably felt. By this reading, Goethe blames her for his own attraction, yet cannot find fault with her, because he is the agent of his own passions, even if she is the catalyst. He wants her and cannot have her, and he feels trapped between the irreconcilable dictates of the logic of passion and the social code of marriage and fidelity. Ottilie von Goethe, like Ottilie in the novel, embodies the conflicts that governs this novel.

Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2019 at 2:45 am

Posted in Literature, Reviews

52:04 It’s Postmodern Time! Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow

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“She has turned her face, more than once, to the Outer Radiance and simply seen nothing there. And so each time has taken a little more of the Zero into herself.” – Gravity’s Rainbow

ouroboros-benzeneGravity’s Rainbow is a novel about nothing. More specifically, it chronicles the emergence and proliferation of disembodied systems of mechanized thought and control which have no ultimate ground, and no ultimate purpose.

And this indeed is how the book is written – continually positing and then undermining its own plots, moods, and meanings, until the reader, like many of the book’s characters, are ineluctably thrown back into paranoid uncertainty regarding the meaning of the book, and of life itself.

The novel takes place in the final days of World War II, primarily in the European theater. Pynchon persuasively locates the roots of postmodernity in the strategic, bureaucratic, mechanized fragmentation of information and communication as it was collectively expressed on unprecedented scale by the confounded pedants, zealots, and office workers who prosecuted the war in the midst of the shattered European heritage.

In one reading, the novel is a grotesque celebration of the totality of the collective psyche insofar as it had advanced at that time. Conflicts, patterns, and mysteries arise, only to be meticulously deconstructed in a frenzy of verbose rhapsodizing, and the action moves on without any sense of progress or closure to the next theater of action. The story unfolds with a mechanical logic while signs and meanings arise, multiply, and vanish, much like the war itself:

The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes – gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival.

Pynchon suggests the rocket as the sign of a new kind of worship for a new kind of God, and its handiwork is a cathedral to nothing. The bombed-out architecture of the London Blitz is described more than once as openwork, likening the networks of cracks and fissures to the tracery of Gothic cathedrals. How this is to be read – as atheism, nihilism, solipsism, or an apophatic theology which denies the knowability of God – is held in permanent suspension, signifying a crisis of meaning that still holds the Western tradition in its grip.

In hoc signo vignes,” Constantine saw in his prophetic dream of the Cross on the advent of Christianity’s ascension in Rome: “By this sign, conquer.” Thus, Pynchon:

Outside, through the dirty periscope, gnarled fog unloosens from the bright zone of frost that belly-bands the reared and shadowy rocket, where the liquid-oxygen tank’s being topped off. Trees press close: overhead you see barely enough sky for the rocket’s ascent. The Bodenplatte—concrete plate laid over strips of steel—is set inside a space defined by three trees, blazed so as to triangulate the exact bearing, 260°, to London. The symbol used is a rude mandala, a red circle with a thick black cross inside, recognizable as the ancient sun-wheel from which tradition says the swastika was broken by the early Christians, to disguise their outlaw symbol. Two nails are driven into the tree at the center of the cross. Next to one of the painted blaze-marks, the most westerly, someone has scratched in the bark with the point of a bayonet the words in HOC SIGNO VINGES. No one in the battery will admit to this act.

Note that again we see life’s primary action proceeding from the root of the world tree – it turns up again and again, wholly unlooked for.


Gravity’s Rainbow is famously about the V-2 rocket, but it is no less about the concept of zero, which serves as the point of origin and return.

In one arresting image, the zero is imagined as the ouroboros, or serpent devouring its own tail. It forms a zero with its very body, in an age-old symbol of the self-subsisting character of life itself.

In a well-known legend, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé is said to have discovered the chemical structure of benzene after a night of fitful sleep while he was feverishly working on the problem. He had a vivid dream about the ouroboros, and awoke with the realization that the benzene molecule forms a ring. Pynchon uses this striking image:

Kekulé dreams the Great Serpent holding its own tail in its mouth, the dreaming Serpent which surrounds the World. But the meanness, the cynicism with which this dream is to be used. The Serpent that announces, “The World is a closed thing, cyclical, resonant, eternally-returning,” is to be delivered into a system whose only aim is to violate the Cycle. Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity — most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to being with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.

This is one of many overpowering images that seem to encompass the totality of the book in a single sign. These images frequently appear to the book’s enormous cast of characters, who are often paranoid, drugged, stupid, or mentally unstable, and who expend enormous energy gratuitously interpreting and theorizing about their meaning.

The central puzzle involves a mysterious link between the sexual conquests of Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrup and the sites of V-2 bombings in London during the Blitz. The sexualized/phallic character of the rocket plays like a book-length parody of the German Romantic motif of the Liebestod, or love-death, which goes back at least as far Gottfried von Strassburg’s 13th-century masterpiece Tristan, but is better known today as the core motif of Wagner’s great opera. In this symbol, love and death are combined in a single image, uniting temporal existence in a dual expression of generation and extinction.

Obvious musicological parallels between Wagner’s method in Tristan und Isolde and this book may be drawn, particularly regarding the opera’s famous overture based on the “Tristan chord.” It progresses but never resolves, leaving the listener in a constant state of suspension, waiting closure like Vladimir and Estragon.

For Wagner, this endless chromatic progression implies the insatiable character of romantic love, but Pynchon elaborates it into an image of metaphysical estrangement. I believe the fact that the word Liebestod never appears in this book is a minor joke.

Music and its meaning is obviously of interest to Pynchon. One of my favorites of several ongoing philosophical arguments in the book is the debate between Gustav Kerl and Säure on music. Kerl argues that the new “atonal” style of Schoenberg and his disciples is the future of music, while Säure unapologetically argues for the sentimental music of the 19th century. In this scene, they wrangle over the Row, which is the basic compositional unit for Schoenberg’s 12-tone composition:

“You’re caught in tonality,” screams Gustav. “Trapped. Tonality is a game. All of them are. You’re too old. You’ll never move beyond the game, to the Row. The Row is enlightenment.”

“The Row is a game too.” Säure sits grinning with an ivory spoon, shoveling incredible piles of cocaine into his nose[..].. “Sound is a game, if you’re capable of moving that far, you adenoidal closet-visionary. That’s why I listen to Spohr, Rossini, Spontini, I’m choosing my game, one full of light and kindness. You’re stuck with that stratosphere stuff and rationalize its dullness away by calling it ‘enlightenment.’ You don’t know what enlightenment is, Kerl, you’re blinder than I am.”

This struggle between the human and the abstract may tell us something about a divide within the author. This book is, after all, extremely abstruse, and the very names of its characters often calculated to keep us at a distance in high Brechtian mode. Characters often evidence little interiority or personality and strike me as little more than pieces on a great board, or ciphers for theories or ideas.

Yet the interiority that Pynchon denies to his characters is evident in the voice of the novel itself, and may be sensed in how it focuses its attention. Gravity’s Rainbow often betrays its author’s deep concern with the real human cost of bad ideas, evidenced by numerous lacerating jibes at war, such as “Don’t forget the real business of War is buying and selling. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals.”

One can only read real human feeling in such bitterness – a sentiment that the author clearly goes to considerable lengths bury in his book, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.


Although Gravity’s Rainbow is obviously a work of genius, in many important respects it is not a book that I enjoyed reading or would lightly recommend. It pointedly and continually poses deep aesthetic and interpretive challenges to the reader, and not always in a manner I found rewarding or enjoyable.

Indeed, it is often unpleasant. Like a bad acid trip, the book inventories the repressed contents of the European collective unconscious at punishing length, with numerous hateful scenes of debauchery and vulgarity that to me were exceedingly tedious – but not as tedious as the witless lyrics that fill this book in inexplicable songs that crop up repeatedly, caricatures of something that I think never existed. Here is one of the first:

Colder than he nipples on a witch’s tit!
Colder than a bucket of penguin shit!
Colder than the hairs of a polar bear’s ass!
Colder than the frost on a champagne glass!

The point of these hateful songs is beyond quite me.

Pynchon revels in obscenity, and the book is crowded with long, repugnant descriptions of scatological fantasies and S&M orgies that left me equally revolted and mystified.

Perhaps these scenes serve the artist’s need to deal with the totality of humanity’s physical and psychic life in the same way that the novel Ulysses unflinchingly accompanying Leopold Bloom into the outhouse. But Joyce was concerned with people in their totality, while Pynchon’s use of the Freudian Id feels arbitrary to me – neither illuminating or amusing. To be sure, if I never see the word “cunt” in print again, it will be too soon.


Many of us are unlucky in the year of our birth, and it can be a diverting meditation to ruminate on which time one would have preferred. Perhaps one would have been happier living in Elizabethan London, rubbing elbows with bawdy playwrights and playing high-stakes political chess. Or one might have lived in Baghdad during its Golden Age, gathering in the great mosques alongside Neoplatonist philosophers and Central Asian spice merchants bound for the Tarim Basin.

When I play this idle game, I would like to have come of age in the 1920s, which saw the appearance of Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” Being and Time, To the Lighthouse, The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” Bliss it would have been in that dawn to be alive, but to be young would have been very heaven!

Alas, I’m a castaway on the rocky shores of the late 20th century, having formed my worldview within the horizon of postmodernism, and I can only look back with wistful longing at the golden age that lies almost within reach. And in some sense, we are still in the wake of the great creative age of modernism, for the questions and concerns that haunt postmodernity were all well known to the modernist. It is only that the center of gravity has shifted – where the modernist was creative, the postmodernist is critical – and that is the tragedy.

parmigianino_-_madonna_dal_collo_lungo_-_google_art_projectI sometimes think this must have been what it was like to grow up in the time of Mannerism, so close to the Italian Renaissance, and to see the profound epiphany of Da Vinci and the theophany of Michelangelo debased into Mannerism in works like Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck.

But postmodernism is where we live, and if I doubted it before, I could doubt it no longer, having made my way through Thomas Pynchon’s novel, for it is just like the present, only more so.


I have three primary complaints about postmodernism. The first is that its fixation on a critical posture makes it reactive and alienates it from a truly generative creative impulse. It elaborates and responds, but never affirms, never becomes what Nietzsche refers to in Zarathustra as “a wheel rolling out of its own center.”

My second problem is with postmodernism’s critical engagement with epistemology and metaphysics. The central theoretical preoccupation of postmodernity is how to deal with structure and meaning in a world devoid of any transcendental basis or framework for understanding either. In my view, structure and value are not arbitrary, but emergent. That is, they arise from the interaction of elements of complex dynamic systems, and cannot be reduced to the individual elements.

The absence of a reductive or transcendental ground poses a crisis of meaning to the postmodernist, who sees values as arbitrary, historicized creations of human culture. In my view, they are not arbitrary, they follow the logic of systems. This problem was already largely solved in postmodernism’s heyday: Bertalanffy wrote General System Theory in 1968, and Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action appeared in 1982.

My third problem with postmodernism is that it’s often boring. I have never encountered a postmodern work that did not wear out its welcome, because once the rules of the game have been established, it can only continue to play, embracing its arbitrary quality as an aesthetic virtue. The reader absorbs the point, and then they’re just along for the ride while the artist pontificates like a Free Jazz soloist.

Gravity’s Rainbow would have benefited enormously from aggressive editing – I believe it would have worked far better at 400 pages than 750, and it was often tedious, repetitive, and dull.


I could imagine no more fitting testimony to Gravity’s Rainbow timeliness and success than the fact that it was literally awarded no Pulitzer Prize.

That is, the Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction unanimously voted for Gravity’s Rainbow to receive the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but their selection was vetoed by the board, and no prize was awarded that year. If you view the Pulitzer website, look for the Fiction award for 1974, and you will find nothing there.

Written by Mesocosm

September 24, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Posted in Literature, Reviews

52:02 Humbaba of the Cedar Forest

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This week’s artifact is a small clay mask of the Sumerian mythological figure Humbaba, which comes to us from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk. It dates to around the second millennium BCE, and is housed at the British Museum.


Humbaba is primarily remembered as an antagonist in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most engaging and imaginative pieces of literature from the ancient world. If any reader hasn’t had the pleasure of making its acquaintance, I enthusiastically recommend Stephen Mitchell’s fine rendering in his  Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Mitchell does the casual reader the favor of smoothing out the ragged text, which is pocked by lacunae, presenting it as a graceful running narrative.

The heart of the epic is the fast friendship between the Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and the wild man Enkidu. When our story opens, the people of Uruk lament that the king has no respect for the social order and runs amok among the people, taking what he will and generally acting in a dreadful manner. The gods hear their prayers, deciding that someone of his verve requires a foil, a companion against whom he can wrangle, and with whom he can adventure.

After various machinations, Gilgamesh meets, fights, and eventually befriends Enkidu, a true child of nature who has never been tamed or subdued by the arts of civilization.

After declaring their mighty friendship, the two warriors resolve to set out to the cedar forest sacred to the great god Enlil, and there to face and slay the forest guardian Humbaba. So they travel beyond the fields they know, and after many adventures and a series of oracular dreams, they come to the forbidding forest, to meet and challenge their foe.

Humbaba has long been regarded in the scholarship as a figure of ambiguity. He is accused by our heroes of being a diabolical force that they are tasked to destroy, and he does seem to have a horrible, ogre-like appearance. But he also appears as the guardian of the forest and sacred to the gods. His slaying cannot but impress the reader as wanton, and is if to amplify the point, once the heroes have slain him, they lay waste to the precious cedar forests with their axes.

I often wonder if Humbaba was the inspiration for the Forest God in Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful film Princess Mononoke. Both figures embody an ambivalent status as lord of life and death.


In 2011, an important new clay tablet came to the attention of scholars. It contains a previously-unknown portion of the Gilgamesh epic, and sheds new light on the character of Humbaba and his forest. A full translation and discussion may be found in the fascinating short paper Back to the Cedar Forest by F. N. H. Al-Rawi and A. R. George.

The passage describes the entrance of Gilgamesh and Enkidu into the forest in one of the “very few episodes in Babylonian narrative poetry when attention is paid to landscape.” Here is a short excerpt; the remainder may be read in the paper cited above:

They stood there marveling at(?) the forest,
observing the height of the cedars,
observing the way into the forest.
Where Ḫumbaba came and went there was a track,
the paths were in good order and the way was well trodden.
They were gazing at the Cedar Mountain,
dwelling of gods, throne-dais of goddesses:
[on the] face of the land the cedar was proffering its abundance,
sweet was its shade, full of delight.
[All] tangled was the thorny undergrowth, the forest a thick canopy,
cedars (and) ballukku-trees were [so entangled,] it had no ways in.
For one league on all sides cedars [sent forth] saplings,
cypresses […] for two-thirds of a league.
The cedar was scabbed with lumps (of resin) [for] sixty (cubits’) height,
resin [oozed] forth, drizzling down like rain,
[flowing freely(?)] for ravines to bear away.
[Through] all the forest a bird began to sing:
[…] were answering one another, a constant din was the noise,
[A solitary(?)] tree-cricket set off a noisy chorus,
[…] were singing a song, making the … pipe loud.
A wood pigeon was moaning, a turtle dove calling in answer.
[At the call of] the stork, the forest exults,
[at the cry of] the francolin, the forest exults in plenty.
[Monkey mothers] sing aloud, a youngster monkey shrieks:
[like a band(?)] of musicians and drummers(?),
daily they bash out a rhythm in the presence of Ḫumbaba.

This particular mask is inscribed on the back with a cuneiform inscription pertaining to rites of divination. Its features are traced from one long, continuous coil, suggesting viscera that were probably used in the associated rites. You can see the inscription on the British Museum research website here.

Written by Mesocosm

September 10, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Reading List: December 2015

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Hey there, readers – thought I’d drop you a line and let you know what I’ve been up to. I’ve been pretty busy with work the last year or two, so I’ve not been writing as much as I used to, though I try to keep things going from time to time. But I’ve been having a very lively year reading and researching in my own precious personal time. I’m currently finishing up Heinrich Heine’s book of poems entitled Deutschland; Ein Wintermärchen, or Germany; A Winter’s Tale. If you know a bit about Germany in the 19th century it’s spellbinding stuff. Heine wrote it not long after the failed 1848 uprising in which liberal nationalists in German-speaking Europe attempted to do away with the Ancien Régime, as Napolean called the crusty old order of hereditary rule, and replace it with a federal representative government. Wagner fans will note that the young composer, like most right-thinking intellectuals of his day, also fervently supported this goal and was himself demonstrating in the streets, until the uprising was harshly suppressed and many of its supporters were imprisoned or fled into exile.

In his Winter’s Tale, Heine reflects on the state of things in a contemplative set of poems describing a journey through the Rhineland on the border of France. He falls into a series of reveries, heavy with a dreamlike quality, and the events of the recent past are animated by images from the distant past, or from songs, or passing fancies. In one powerful sequence, he dreams that he is with the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who, according to German legend, lies sleeping under his Magic Mountain, waiting for Germany’s hour of need, prepared to rise again.

It’s easy to get the impression of Heine as a sentimental lyricist and writer of pretty verse, but he’s widely regarded as one of the chief figures of early German modernism because of his powerful and unflinching engagement with serious issues of contemporary import. It’s interesting to contrast him to another poet who, in my mind at least, stands for the advent of modernity in German literature: Friedrich Hölderlin. In a way Heine and Hölderlin are dialectical opposites – Heine, in form, is extremely conservative, using light cadence and simple rhyme schemes to clearly and eloquently convey his striking, complex and often-ironic ideas. That is, his style is conservative but his content is strikingly modern. Hölderlin, in contrast, is extremely conservative in subject, dwelling on the sublime and Ancient Greece with all the ardent nostalgia of the high Romantics, while his style is extremely modern, problematizing the status of the subject and the voice of poetry with his obscure and complex forms, setting down layers of ambiguous imagery in the service of ideas that are, ultimately, somewhat simple.

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian Pergamon Museum

Prayer Niche (detail), 7th century Persian
Pergamon Museum

I’ve found Heine hard to reach – anthologies often carry his light and whimsical verse, and it’s hard to get a sense of his importance from those delightful but relatively inconsequential poems. Going through this volume has made it perfectly clear why he’s widely regarded as the most important German poet of the 19th century.

In the last several months I’ve also been going somewhat into Islamic philosophy, focusing particularly on the Neoplatonists, especially Ibn Sina. As a kind of corollary I’ve been looking at modern voices in Islam – particularly voices of modernization in German Islam, such as Navid Kermani and Karajan Amritpur. I’ve been having a field day with Kermani’s magnificent Zwischen Koran und Kafka, or Between Koran and Kafka, which is one of the most useful works on Islam I’ve ever read. Kermani reads Islamic history in the light of aesthetics, particularly in dialog with his European literary and philosophical training, and consequently has a capacity to articulate a central aspect of the Muslim worldview in terms that I find extremely easy to understand.

I also deeply appreciate Kermanis insistence that Islam be understood as fundamentally an aesthetic phenomenon. He eloquently pulls from a panapoly of traditional sources describing people who are so moved by the beautiful of Qu’ranic recitation that they swoon, or even die. (!) That led me to a deeper interest in Islamic art, and I wish I’d given it more attention earlier on in my studies – nothing tells you about the way a religious tradition actually supports human life like its art.

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

Cult Figure, Fifth Century CE, Neues Museum

The third area I’ve been researching heavily in the last several months is German and Norse mythology. Here my cornerstone has been reading through the Austrian scholar Rudolf Simek’s magnificent book Religion und Mythologie der Germanen, which I picked up this summer in a bookstore in Zürich. The thing I love about this book is that Simek really puts the whole picture together, linking the literary evidence with the archaeological data, and asking a lot of hard questions of what we know and what we don’t know of the whole thing. In most of the English-language sources I’ve found on the Norse and German myths, the evidence is almost completely literary, and that can paint an extremely misleading view of the whole thing. All of our literary sources are quite late, after the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity, and they are unreliable sources for what the pre-Christian beliefs and practices actually were.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, I’ll probably write more about all of these topics soon. Please share what you’ve been thinking about lately in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

Written by Mesocosm

December 20, 2015 at 5:10 pm

Posted in Literature, Musings

Bashō’s Narrow Road

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It’s interesting to find how much your experience of a book can change when you’ve put on a few years. Today I’m having that experience going back to Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. It didn’t make much of an impression on me when I first read it, but now I find it nearly overpowering.

Great moments:

“I went to see the shrine of Muro-no-yashima. According to Sora, my companion, this shrine is dedicated to the goddess called the Lady of Flower-Bearing Trees, who has another shrine at the foot of Mount Fuji. This goddess is said to have locked herself up in a burning cell to prove the divine nature of her newly-conceived son when her husband doubted it. As a result, her son was named Lord Born Out of The Fire, and her shrine, Muro-no-yashima, which means burning cell. It was a custom of this place for poets to sing of the rising smoke, and for ordinary people not to eat konoshiro, a speckled fish, which has a vile smell when burnt.”

Small moments:

“I mounted the horse and started off, when two small children came running after me. One of them was a girl named Kasane, which means manifold. I thought her name was somewhat strange but exceptionally beautiful.”

Excerpts are from the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Noboyuki Yuasa.

Written by Mesocosm

April 27, 2015 at 11:38 am

Posted in Literature, Poetry

In the Dark

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One of the key episodes in James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake is something that occurs in Phoenix Park after midnight, involving the protagonist HCE, two ladies, and three soldiers. What exactly occurred is somewhat obscure, but there was evidently some sort of offense, and rumor of it spread widely.

Joyce’s polymorphous prose allows him to play with this idea both brilliantly and wickedly – there’s a dynamic sense of rumor running amok through transformation, and of course pious denunciations of all kinds are made from all sides, and the mood is one of wrath and retribution, but the events themselves are unrecoverable, not just in fact but in principle, because they rely on different points of view, and even the people who were there are not necessarily certain what occurred.

In reading that book it was of great interest to me that this case should be so important that he would include it as one of his core archetypes or patterns that recur in history, again and again. His ultimate model for this was no doubt the disgrace and pillorying of the Irish politician Parnell, whose movement for national independence was undone by a romantic indiscretion.

But is this pattern really so central, as to deserve a place of privilege in one of the finest novels ever written? All I can say is that since reading the book, I have become aware of precisely this same pattern occurring over and over and over again. Rumor of the event spreads far and wide, and people organize into camps, although no one is precisely sure what occurred. But it was rotten, that’s for sure.

And maybe it was rotten, but there’s a part of myself that increasingly believes that if HCE deserves it, then we all deserve it. And of course, “HCE” stands, among other things, for “Here Comes Everybody.”

Oho, oho Mester Begge, you’re about to be bagged in the bog again. Bugge. But softsies seuf-sighed: Eheu, for gassies! But, lo! lo! by the threnning gods, human, erring and condonable, what statutes of our kuo, who is the messchef be our kuang, ashu ashure there, the unforgettable treeshade looms up behind the jostling judgements of those, as all should owe, malrecapturable days.

Written by Mesocosm

November 26, 2014 at 11:10 am

Posted in Literature

James Joyce’s Art

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“The intricacy of this scheme should not conceal a fact about all Joyce’s writings which he mentioned to Budgen, that his complexity was only in his means. ‘With me,’ he said, ‘the thought is always simple.”
   -Richard Ellmann

James Joyce is one of the great artists of our age, casting a brilliant light on the mind and its mysteries from a remarkable stance of warmth and affirmation. His work is unified and shaped by a common set of concerns, which he examined to great effect in a single line throughout his career, leaving us nothing less than a joyful and profound image of our spiritual and creative possibilities.

Finnegans Wake famously begins “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore and bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” This river of creation burbles from the earliest wellsprings of childhood, as chronicled with delightful precision in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then flows on through the process of maturation and individuation in Ulysses, and on through the deepest wellsprings of art and religion in the dream world of Finnegans Wake, and finally back into the sea.

In this post I’d like to try to bring across something of the main line of Joyce’s art as I’ve come to see it by focusing on three short passages in his three major works. I believe these moments, viewed in aggregate, signal the basic trajectory of his overall project, and I hope it will be thought-provoking to any reader, however familiar you may be with his work.

A Portrait of the Artist

Our odyssey begins with the early childhood of Joyce’s first literary counterpart, Stephen Dedalus. Portrait presents his experience entirely in its own terms, beginning:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived; she sold lemon plat.

In these charming lines, Joyce conveys the direct sense of what it is to be a young child – this is a technique he will develop much further in Ulysses.

“When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had a queer smell.” How did he remember this?

When we read these words, we first notice his technique, because it is always the most striking feature about his writing. But something deeper is at work here, too, and we have to tease it out of the story with careful attention. Notice that here at the beginning, our first glimmer of childish awareness is shaped by a story reflecting who he is, and told by his father – he is baby tuckoo.

Blink and you might miss it, but many of the key themes of his corpus are right there – the father and the son, human consciousness, narrative, language, and even whimsy and play. Readers familiar with his work may think of the more complex relationship of Leopold Bloom to Ulysses, or of this, from Finnegans Wake: “The fall … of a once wallstrait oldparr [Finnegan] is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.”

The process by which experience becomes story and story becomes experience is Joyce’s central preoccupation, as his work chronicles in every conceivable register.

For our primary consideration of this work I’d like to look at this interesting passage, in which young Dedalus has gone to study at Clongowes Jesuit boy’s school, perhaps six or seven years old:

Father Arnall came in and the Latin lesson began and he remained still, leaning on the desk with his arms folded. Father Arnall gave out the themebooks and he said that they were scandalous and that they were all to be written out again with the corrections at once. But the worst of all was Fleming’s theme because the pages were stuck together by a blot: and Father Arnall held it up by a corner and said it was an insult to any master to send him up such a theme. Then he asked Jack Lawton to decline the noun mare and Jack Lawton stopped at the ablative singular and could not go on with the plural.

–You should be ashamed of yourself, said Father Arnall sternly. You, the leader of the class!

Then he asked the next boy and the next and the next. Nobody knew. Father Arnall became very quiet, more and more quiet as each boy tried to answer and could not. But his face was blacklooking and his eyes were staring though his voice was so quiet. Then he asked Fleming and Fleming said that the word had no plural. Father Arnall suddenly shut the book and shouted at him:

–Kneel out there in the middle of the class. You are one of the idlest boys I have ever met!

Now, underlying this amusing episode is something important, for mare is the Latin word for sea. The sea is a key image for Joyce that suggests the universal wellspring of our being – the undifferentiated base from which all things come and to which all things return.

As the book goes on, we will learn that the problem for young Dedalus, like his mythological namesake, is that he is trapped in a labyrinth – in this case, a labyrinth of political and religious squabbles that endlessly divert his countrymen into merely provincial concerns, cutting them off from the rest of the world and from their own inner resources. And like his namesake, he will forge the wings that carry him out of the labyrinth and over the sea to Europe.

Odysseus is, of course, trapped at sea, unable to return home, and Ulysses examines the movement of the individual ego across the tides of experience. That book begins with Dedalus, now a young man, having breakfast with his intellectual rival, Buck Mulligan, on top of an old stone tower they’ve rented out, overlooking the Irish sea. When their conversation turns to the Greeks, his interlocutor breaks in with “Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.”

Thalatta is Greek for sea, and here Mulligan is quoting Xenophon’s Anabasis, a true account of a Greek mercenary army that was trapped far behind Persian lines and had to fight their way through hundreds of miles to friendly territory. (Incidentally, this story was the inspiration of Sol Yurick’s novel and the film The Warriors). When the weary Greek troops at last reach the sea and realize they’ve made it, the host cries out as one “Thalatta! Thalatta!” This is stirring stuff, linking the sight of the sea with safety and homecoming, release from captivity, and exultation.

This line is parodied again and again in Finnegans Wake. For example, when we’re dealing with an incriminating letter about our hero HCE, we get “The letter! The litter!” and so forth.

In the gorgeous final pages of that work, Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is identified with the River Liffey, flows back through Dublin and into the sea beyond. She cries out “Sea! Sea!,” as the dawn light rises, and the image of homecoming is, for the first time in his work, named in plain English.

And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, monanoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.

Circling back to our early pages in Portrait – Fleming’s offense was to snidely protest that mare has no plural. Taken in the light of the sea’s manifold importance for Joyce, we can see that this isn’t just an act of rebellion, it’s an act of heresy. And it is punished as such, much as Joyce would be punished for this very heresy for much of his life, seeing the publication of Portrait delayed for ten years, and several editions of Ulysses confiscated and destroyed.

This minor incident calls our attention to the relationship of individual beliefs to the universal ground out of which they arise, and Joyce takes the reader on a thrilling intellectual journey that illustrates precisely how that process occurs, and how it directs human life, imbuing it with a secret and mysterious dimension of significance and value. Joyce’s movement is always through the individual forms of literature and culture and out to the universal basis from which they arise.


Portrait deals with Dedalus’s process of awakening to his vocation as an artist, and ends with his conviction to go forth from Ireland and “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my own soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” So no one will accuse Joyce of an excess of humility.

Ulysses finds his journey interrupted, as his short stay in Paris was cut short by the death of his mother from cancer. He has gone back to Ireland and is now somewhat trapped. As a result, he sinks behind the tower walls of his self-identity as a heretic artist, constantly defending his ego against perceived attacks.

His early morning peregrinations take him to the sea, where he walks along the beach and meditates on the hidden sources of experience. A boat trawls the sea for the body of a drowned man, lost nine days earlier. In Stephen’s meandering mind, this poor fellow becomes identified with the drowned king of alchemical lore, and with the drowned father-king of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Walking back into the city, he glances over his shoulder, and in a striking epiphany, sees behind him a silent ship.

Now, this ship, we will learn later in the book, is a merchant vessel carrying a passenger named Odysseus Pseudangelos.

As is well known, this book takes as its governing structure Homer’s Odyssey, and here we have Stephen paired with Odysseus’ son Telemachus, setting out in search of his father. The father-principle that he seeks is Leopold Bloom, who embodies an older, more settled, and more compassionate side of Joyce’s character, who may suggest an antidote to the fierce egoism that keeps Dedalus cut off from people.

So we have that story going on. Rather than attempt to chart the long course of the delightful book, I’d like to look briefly at its method, to shed some light on what this book is doing on a deeper level, and how it extends the line of Joyce’s project.

Joyce tells this story primarily with what he called “interior monolog,” the idea being that he is presenting, as it were, an exact transcript of the thoughts that pass through his characters’ heads as they go about life. Now, this introduces some significant difficulties for the reader, because it is often difficult to know purely on that basis what exactly is happening. Important information about setting and the identities of characters is not always clearly indicated or foregrounded for the reader’s attention, so most of us need to rely on the help of secondary literature to be sure we catch the basic facts of the story.

That’s the heavy lifting we have to do to read Joyce, but the payoff is huge. Once you get the swing of how it works, you’re presented with an immediacy of experience that is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

On a deeper level, by presenting a record of human experience in “real time,” as it were, Joyce is able to illuminate the nature of human experience on a deep level. A simple example from the “Lotus Eaters” chapter will illustrate what I have in mind, I believe.

It’s ten AM, and Leopold Bloom has some time to kill, after breakfast and before the eleven o’clock funeral of an acquaintance. He’s strolling about town on his way to the post office, where he will see if he has any post from a woman with whom he’s been having an flirtatious correspondence. He’s hiding a card he will use to claim her letter in his hat.

In Westland row he halted before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read the legends of leadpapered packets: choice blend, finest quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea. Must get some from Tom Kernan. Couldn’t ask him at a funeral, though. While his eyes still read blandly he took off his hat quietly inhaling his hairoil and sent his right hand with slow grace over his brow and hair. Very warm morning. Under their dropped lids his eyes found the tiny bow of the leather headband inside his high grade ha. Just there. His right hand came down into the bowl of his hat. His fingers found quickly a card behind the headband and transferred it to his waistcoat pocket.

So warm. His right hand one more slowly went over his brow and hair. Then he put on his hat again, relieved: and read again: choice blend, made of the finest Ceylon brands. The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes. Hothouse in Botanic gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves.”

The chapters of Ulysses correspond more or less to episodes in Homer’s Odyssey. This episode corresponds to Odysseus’ run-in with the lotus-eaters, a tribe of islanders who spend their lives in a drug-induced fantasia. In this chapter, the psychedelic haze corresponds to the late morning heat, the racy game of flirting with infidelity, and images of fragrant fruits, perfumes, and flowers.

This chain of association is kicked off by his daydream at the tea shop, and gradually takes shape in his mind as a plan to visit the baths, where he burbles down with his lemon-scented soap, in a fantasy or simulacrum of the verdant paradise he imagines.

As you read the passage above, you can follow his drifting stream of attention, guiding his thoughts in a blend of ideas and associations, moving in counterplay with sensations and images, and ultimately directing him to take action. You know, he thinks, a bath WOULD be nice.

This is how Ulysses functions, in a nutshell. It directly illustrates the mechanics by which our associative, symbol-using minds create experience and meaning out of the flowing river of impressions and thoughts. This directed flow of interpreted energies directs our lives and give them shape and order. At a trivial level, the process leads a man from the window of the tea shop to the baths. But on a deeper level, these dynamics guide Dedalus toward the father-image he desperately needs – one who can bring him out of his self-imposed isolation and help him break through the walls he has built around his own humanity.

The relationship to Homer in this book is not a device – it is a template for analyzing the role of myth and symbol in unconsciously directing the significant episodes of our lives. Myth is born out of, and feeds back into, this process, in one “endless vicus of recirculation.”

Finnegans Wake

We have been flowing with Joyce’s work toward the sea, as it were – first, by charting the process of individuation in Portrait, as Dedalus develops a mature ego, and then through the process of breaking through that ego into a living relationship with the world, as we see in Ulysses.

Finnegans Wake takes us even further, using dream consciousness as a framework for plunging deeper into the symbolic unconscious that we previously explored from the day-side. In this work, the organizing symbols themselves take the center stage as characters, and we view the panoply of human history in terms of recurring motifs which organize our experience of the chaotic and protean stuff of life.

Finnegans Wake is, I believe, Joyce’s masterpiece, at times overpowering in its raw beauty and majesty. I can only compare its magnificent final pages to the conclusion of Paradiso in terms of its effect. But Dante was an author of the High Middle Ages, who articulated the beatific vision in the language of abstraction and other-worldliness, while Joyce presents his profound spiritual insights in terms of the world. The eternal hero-journey is reflected in individual lives as they are lived by real human beings, and the realm of this realization is not the remote and starry Empyrean, but the streets of Dublin. His characters marry and have children; they are men who doubt themselves and suffer through their jobs, and women of the middle class. It is a revelation for our times.

In the background of this book is the proto-story of Finnegan, who, as we learn from the old American-Irish ballad (lyrics), fell off the ladder and died while working a construction job. His friends threw him a lively wake, which broke out into a brawl. When whiskey was spilled on his body in the ensuing fracas, he sprang back to life and joined the party.

We can, on one level, read this as a book-length version of that song, exploded onto a gargantuan stage, in which the whole of human history is played out at the wake, centered around the never-ending process of the rise and fall.

As we noted earlier, Finnegan’s fall “is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.” This is, in a sense, the story that stands behind the unfolding of history, told and retold in a thousand myths and songs, great and small, about death and resurrection. Here the story plays out on a domestic scale as the adventures of a family consisting of an English innkeeper named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife Anna Livia, twin sons Shaun and Shem, and a little daughter Izzy.

The Wake is legendary for its obscurity, running throughout with composite words, multilingual puns, and passages which can be read in six or nine ways. At a glance it seems nigh incomprehensible, and many readers never give it a second glance. But I am certain that Joseph Campbell was correct when he claimed that there is not one meaningless syllable in the entire book. Coming to terms with it is simply a matter of doing what you can, and with the aid of the copious secondary literature available, it is quite manageable.

Let’s take an early passage and try to get a sense of how it works. To set the scene – we have just been taken on a tour of a history museum, with relics of various battles and invasions of Ireland, and are now being directed by the guide out (mind your head please) and back into history unfolding.

(Stoop) if you are abcdedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is given to Meades and Porsons. The meandertale, aloss and again, of our old Heidenburgh in the days when Head-in-Clouds walked the earth. In the ignorance that implies impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality.

To make sense of any passage in Finnegans Wake you have to begin by noting some of the wordplay at work – I’ll give you what I can of the key ideas. Rede is an English/German pun, meaning read (English) and speak (German) – here we are read/speaking the “claybook” of the world. We have a reference to the Medes and the Persians, two civilizations that fought over the territory of Iran in ancient times. An allusion the Neanderthal and then the so-called Heidelberg Man, Homo heidelbergensis, another precursor to Homo sapiens. And then, we have an ingenious presentation of the Buddhist doctrine of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, which traces out the process by which consciousness, through the afflictive emotions of hate and longing, shapes our experience of the world, and we become ensnared in the eternal unraveling of existence in a never-ending cycle.

With those comments as our guide, we can read this passage as a description of the process by which the story-making mind gives shape to historical experience. We come out of the alphabet-bed of experience and read/speak the word (if you’re going to be so subject/object-y about it), and out of this flows life. The images of myth and art are the stuff out of which our authorship of experience stems, leading from consciousness to engagement and through the various links to the on-flowing of time and being.

In a later passage we get “Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure Eryan!”

Pausing only to note that “Eryan” is a composite of Irish and Aryan, here we find a comparison of Joyce’s method to the scholastic interrogation of Trinitarian doctrine, a notoriously intractable intellectual problem. Joyce tauntingly observes that his project of exploring the plurality of all things as reflections of one another and of the common base is far more difficult than explicating the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity.

We have already examined the mechanics of this process in Ulysses, but now we are seeing it from the other side, as it were. We’ve arrived at an analysis of the basic problem in terms of the images themselves, which here take on their own directing force and agency. They have become players in human affairs, acting out their patterns again and again: “They lived und laughed ant loved end left.”

And then we come round again to start the play anew. “Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! Comeday morm and, O, you’re vine! Sendday’s eve and, ah, you’re vinegar! Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again!”

The laughter is not accidental – it’s central. The refrain of our ballad of Tom Finnegan is “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake,” and this connects directly to an aspect of Joyce’s work we haven’t looked at much – the doctrine of affirmation.

Joyce’s constant reply to this whole bungled comedy of unfolding experience with all of its disasters is to hold it with clarity and compassion. His ability to hold history honestly, and with an expansive and warm humanity, is one of the greatest achievements of his work.

But all rivers lead to the sea, and, I note with a deep pang, Joyce had signaled his intention to write a sequel to the Wake, which was to have been a short, lucid statement of its manifold themes. Tragically, his life was cut short at the age of fifty-eight. His final book was intended to be the crowning work that would unify all that he had done before. We know very little about what he had intended, except that it was to have been about the sea.

Written by Mesocosm

June 4, 2014 at 8:40 am

Posted in Literature

Heiner Müller on “Hamlet Machine,” 1977

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“I want to live in my veins, in the marrow of my bones, in the labyrinth of my skull.” – Die Hamletmaschine

The following is my translation of German playwright Heiner Müller’s reflections on the composition of his play “Hamlet Machine,” drawn from his autobiography War Without Slaughter; A Life under Two Dictatorships. For my analysis of the play, see Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”.

There is very little available on Müller’s work in English, so I hope this will be a useful reference for interested readers. The play itself available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).


Heiner Müller: When the year 1977 began, I was hanging around in Bulgaria again. I had filled an entire Bulgarian schoolbook with notes, drafts, and sketches of pieces. And just across from the highrise where Ginka had a flat stood the biggest power plant in Sofia, called the “Traicho Kostov.”

Traicho Kostov was the Bulgarian equivalent of [László] Rajk. [László Rajk was a Hungarian Communist who was persecuted in Stalinist show trials and then executed in 1949.] Kostov was executed during the great purges.

Kostov had been Secretary under [Georgi] Dimitrov. According to the Bulgarian interpretation, Dimitrov was killed during “medical procedures” in Moscow. He had been in talks with [Yugoslavian autocrat] Tito about leading a Balkan Federation. Then he became ill and flew to Moscow for the better medical facilities, and there he died. Then the trials started up, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, in the USSR, in Poland. That was the beginning of the 50s.

In Bulgaria, Traicho Kostov was the designated agent of imperialism. He was the only one of them who hadn’t made a confession, so they just had him killed, because they had become impatient and time was marching on. And after the Rehabilitation, this central power plant was named after him.

I had been planning for a long time to write a piece on Hamlet. I was interested in writing a version in which Hamlet was the son of a Rajk, Slansky, or Kostov. I didn’t know much about Kostov before – I knew a bit more about Rajk. That was the best-known case. Hamlet comes home from his father’s state funeral, and he has to carry on. Hamlet in Budapest. I envisioned a two-hundred-page work to lay out the whole problem.

Then I came back to Berlin, and [the Swiss director Benno] Besson wanted to stage Hamlet, and he asked me if I could translate it in four weeks, because that’s when he had to start. I said it wasn’t going to happen in four weeks, so he asked “What is the best translation?” I told him the one by Dresen and Hamburger would be the best. The performance I had seen in Greifswald was very good, and it also led to Dresen coming to the Deutsche Theater [in Berlin].

Besson had already started rehearsals with that translation. Matthias Langhoff was the director’s assistant because it interested him. He kept coming by with questions for me from Besson. This or that passage didn’t work, so I should change it.

In the meantime, Langhoff became bored by the rehearsals and was happy when we got together to work on the text. Then it became more and more a new translation. The actors couldn’t learn the new script fast enough, and for the dress rehearsal they delivered a composite of the old and new translations. Subsequently there was a plagiarism lawsuit.

Anyway, when I was finished with the translation, I saw my own plan in a new light. Then came this new nine-page work very quickly, “Hamlet Machine,” like a shrunken head.

I had already noticed in Bulgaria that it would be impossible to create dialog out of this material, if we were to travel into the world of so-called actual Socialism-Stalinism. It was a place where there was no dialog any longer. I had already seen, again and again, that it didn’t work, there was no dialog, only blocks of monolog, and that shrank the entirety down to this text. The theme of Budapest in 1956 also produced no dialog.


Naked Man with Knife
Jackson Pollock, c 1940

The history of the RAF, also material for the play, was [likewise] a single breakneck monolog. [The RAF, or Red Army Faction, was a far-left terrorist group led by the radical activist Andreas Baader and former journalist Ulrike Meinhof.]

After a failed action against Der Spiegel offices, the Baader Group, along with Ulrike Meinhof, threw the furniture out the window of the apartment she shared with her husband, the editor-in-chief of Konkret. The destruction of the bourgeois life context, the withdrawal from the bourgeois life and the entry into illegality – that interested me.

[During Ophelia’s long monolog near the beginning of the play, she states “I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home.” (1)]

Then there was the echo of Charles Manson. The final movement [of Ophelia’s monolog in “Hamet Machine”] is from Susan Atkins, member of his “family,” one of the murderers of Sharon Tate, who was famous for her “scaring phone calls.” One was cited in Life. I had read about it in Bulgaria by coincidence – in Bulgaria I depended on coincidence, when it came to reading. The sentence was “When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives, you’ll know the truth.” [This line, spoken by Ophelia, ends the play.]

I had no title for the text. Betty Weber, a German scholar from Texas, had a plan to publish one volume with [the prominent German publisher] Suhrkamp, with my attempt withs and at Shakespeare. So we had to find a title, and through Andy Warhol I came up with “Shakespeare Factory.” That brought me back to Duchamp’s “Bachelor Machine,” and to “Hamlet Machine” as the work’s title.

The Suhrkamp project failed, because it was essential to me to have the photo in there, of Ulrike Meinhof down from the gallows. [Meinhof was found hanged in her prison cell before her trial concluded in 1976.] Unseld said “That’s not possible, that cannot appear in my publishing house.” For me it was a point of honor. That’s why it didn’t appear in Suhrkamp.

One can make many things of “Hamlet Machine.” First of all, the impossibility of using dialog in this material certainly signifies stagnation. And if nothing occurs on the male plane, the women must come up with something. And so forth. Lenin always said, the Movement comes from the provinces, and woman is the province of man.

The machine metaphor may have something to do with the factory opposite the place in Sofia, too. I would have not have been able to write the piece without the trip to America – certainly, not without the travel to the west. Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka was certainly important, because it dealt with the province, with the mobilization of the province. Criminality is also a province.

“Hamlet Machine” was not staged with Hamlet as I had hoped, at that time. It was banned until the fall of the DDR.

It was through the aforementioned plagiarism trial that I made the acquaintance of [the prominent left-wing politician and attorney] Gregor Gysi. There was a plagiarism trial, which took place in Leipzig, brought by Dresen and Hamburger against my translation. Gysi was our lawyer, Hamburger represented himself. He said that history has shown that no one could independently produce a translation of a Shakespeare play in two months. That was completely impossible. Gysi said “That just demonstrates the brilliance of my clients.”

He won the trial.

1) Müller H. “Hamletmaschine”. from Hamletmaschine and Other Texts for the Stage. ed. Carl Weber. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p.54.

Written by Mesocosm

April 21, 2013 at 9:21 am

Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”

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Ophelia, John Everett Millais

I throw open the doors, to let in the wind and the cry of the world. – Ophelia

Although not well known to English-speaking audiences, Heiner Müller is considered by many Germans to be a leading dramatist of the twentieth century. Many of his plays rework classical myths in a struggle to make sense of the collision between mythology and ideology in post-war Eastern Europe.

His Hamlet Machine is a postmodern masterpiece and a harrowing portrait of life under totalitarian rule. Much of the complex work consists of dramatic monologs, dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s play and other monuments of European culture and history.

The Hamlet-actor begins in Brechtian mode, aware of his own role in the ensuing drama, announcing: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLAH BLAH, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” (1) These lines echo the Fisher King of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who “sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. (2)

Like Eliot, Müller also presents “a heap of broken images,” where mythological symbols flail like broken engines, gesturing wildly toward inhuman meanings.

In Shakespeare’s play, it will be recalled, the hero’s father fell victim to murder at his uncle’s hands, abetted by Hamlet’s complicit mother. Hamlet Machine describes the funeral thus: “The bells tolled the state-funeral, murderer and widow a couple, the councilors goose-stepping behind the highranking carcass’ coffin, bawling with badly paid grief”. (3)

Müller’s inspiration for Hamlet’s father was Traitscho Kostoff, a Bulgarian communist who was executed in a Stalinist purge. (4) Contemporary audiences may sooner think of the bizarre state funeral of Kim Jong-Il, but the subject of the allusion does not matter. While different actors play the parts, arriving on cue for their prescribed roles, the historical drama does not change. Hamlet reflects:

The set is a monument. It presents a man who made history, enlarged a hundred times. The petrification of a hope. The name is interchangeable, the hope has not been fulfilled. The monument is toppled into dust. (5)

Historical action is fixed by a small number of possibilities, pre-determined by unpersuasive narratives that bind action to violence and oppression. Even the utopian visions they nominally serve have lost the power to persuade or animate. One thinks of the playacting technocrats of Müller’s East Germany, tunelessly singing Marxist-Leninist songs.

As the play proceeds, the Hamlet-actor attempts to reject the role to which he has been consigned, refusing to go along with this murder-drama. The dramatic action breaks down, and a political demonstration explodes onto the stage, suggesting the 1967-8 student protests in Berlin.

The Hamlet-actor is swept up in the angry mob and pushed to the police lines, where, in one arresting image, he confronts his own reflection in bullet-proof glass, and sees himself facing himself from the opposite side of the line.

He responds with rage to his own complicity in totalitarianism:

Heiner Müller

Heiner Müller

I look through the double doors of bullet-proof glass at the crowd pressing forward and smell the sweat of my fear. Choking with nausea, I shake my fist at myself who stands behind the bullet-proof glass. Shaking with fear and contempt, I see myself in the crowd pressing forward, foaming at the mouth, shaking my fist at myself. (6)

He then goes home to watch television, “at one / with my undivided self.” (7) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inaction is a fatal flaw, but when all courses lead to murder, and the character is forced to choose between several dreadful alternatives. Inaction and action both mean self-betrayal, and purity is found only in death, or, in its political equivalent, television.


“I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep.”

Ophelia chooses suicide instead of murder. Like Nietzsche’s ascetic, her violence turns inward, sublimating her will to power. Her character represents a type for Müller, a woman whose inflexible moral code renders her capable of anything.

She is the “woman dangling from a rope,” suggesting the far-left RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, whose strident critique of hegemonic capitalism ignited a series of bank robberies and murders. (8) Eventually she was captured, and hung herself in her cell.

Müller’s Ophelia would also choose death as a way of dismembering the mechanisms of oppression:

I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home. I fling open the doors so the wind gets in and the screams of the world. I smash the window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. (9)

Compare to Meinhof’s approving citation of Fritz Teufel’s statement that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one,” written after her group set fire to a Frankfurt department store in 1968 “to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam.” (10)


Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:

In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (11)

Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.

After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.


Flandern (detail)
Franz Radziwill
Image by Barnaby Thieme

I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)…. (12)

In these early memories, we find the germ of his later political views. Müller would remain a socialist for the rest of his life, though he appears to have been deeply demoralized by Stalin’s tyrannical abuses. He was tolerated as a high-profile artist of the GDR, but was also a fierce critic of his country. Hamlet Machine was banned in East Germany until its final days. (13)

Perhaps in these early memories, we also find the seeds of his feverish, fragmentary style. Hamlet Machine resembles the disjointed impressions of a child-dreamer, woken from sleep by disturbing events for which he has no context or compass.

Perhaps Müller seeks to bring his audience to that moment of his childhood, to share with them his epiphany of chaos. It may be the only truth of which he was certain.


“One can make many things of Hamlet Machine,” Müller said. “First of all, its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation.” (14) Indeed, the play is notoriously difficult to stage. The playwright Tony Kushner notes:

Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (15)

This may gives a clue to the title of Müller’s play. It is sometimes taken to refer to the author himself, i.e., Hamletmaschine (HM) = Heiner Müller (HM). The author himself “carefully disseminated this interpretation.” (16)

I prefer to think of the play itself as a meaning-making machine. It runs on interpreters, directors, actors, readers, and an audience; all are free to move among its fragments, and to create something for themselves.

This essay originally appeared on the Modern Mythology blog here.

Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine is available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).

1) Müller H. ed. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for stage. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p. 53
2) Eliot T. S. “The Waste Land,” lines 423-5, from The Complete Poems and Plays; 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1971. p. 50.
3) Müller, 1984. p. 53
4) Müller H. Krieg Ohne Schlacht; Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994. p. 292
5) Müller, 1984. p. 56
6) Müller, 1984. p. 56
7) Müller, 1984. p. 56
8) Müller, 1994. p. 294
9) Müller, 1984. p. 54-5
10) Meinhof U. “Setting Fire to Department Stores.” from Everybody Talks About The Weather … We Don’t; The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. ed. Karin Bauer. Seven Stories Press. 2008. p. 248
11) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
12) Müller, 2001. p. 15
13) Müller, 1994. p. 296
14) Müller, 1994. p. 295
15) Kushner, T. “Foreward,” from Müller, 2001. p. xvi
16) Müller, 1984. p. 51

Written by Mesocosm

April 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Literature, Reviews