In this era of post-truth politics, I’ve heard over and over again from those I’m predisposed to listen to the urge to “take back the narrative.” The Moral Majority: take back the narrative. Obamacare: take back the narrative. Entitlement programs: take back the narrative. Free speech: take back the narrative.
The ubiquity of the expression, how the ease of saying it turns into automatism, the way the claims underlying it don’t usually surface. It all makes me reflect on the weird relationship I have with “narrative” because of my schooling in poetry.
While I was in college, a housemate and good friend, Helen, started applying to our school’s poetry workshops, so I followed. I followed because one of my high school English teachers was among the few who gave me hope about myself, and because I wanted to be like Helen.
She was keen and beautiful, with a narrow face, dark oily hair, skin the color of the palest parts of abalone shell, and a red crescentic mouth notched by a neat Clara Bow V at top. When she smiled, the corners of her lips drew back on a growly panorama of teeth—uppers, lowers, almost to her molars—and if laughter overtook her enough that her teeth parted, it felt like the opening might conjure a crack in the crust of the seen and known, through which truth could erupt as does magma. She suffered from insomnia and migraines, so in our long talks, her eyes battled the fog and blare, searching inward and out, puzzling. As she spoke, she snatched her straightened slender fingers at the air as though she were catching dandelion seeds with castanets.
When I first showed Helen my writing, she seemed truly interested and respectfully unimpressed. Thus, I was drawn in. Because, though Helen inhabited and still inhabits a question, she knew something of what she was about, she knew writing was among the ways to know more fully, and she seemed to believe I had it in me to know through writing too.
One semester, playing Scrappy-Doo to Helen’s Scooby-Doo, I applied and was accepted to two workshops that put me smack-dab in the middle of the decades-old but new-to-me debate about the merits and demerits of narrative poetry. One group was led by Bob Hass, the other by Lyn Hejinian.
The feeling I had being in those two classes at once was what I imagine it feels like to be the child of parents in the middle of a divorce. I felt confused. I assumed I needed to choose my allegiances, but I was persuaded by both camps in different ways. My preferences in writing didn’t always align with my preferences for the people, and my writerly preferences didn’t always align with each other.
My memory of Hejinian is that she vocally criticized narrative poetry, sometimes alluding to other faculty without deigning to name names. I could, however, be confusing Hejinian’s attitude with the attitudes of some of the students in the class, who banked double points by disavowing narrative poetry and suggesting the debate about it was old hat. But if she didn’t explicitly detract from narrative poetry, I think she must’ve assigned reading from works of theory that supported the case against it.
Hass didn’t so much engage in the debate head-on as stand as the exemplar of the narrative poet. He devoted himself to his form of poetics and praxis, and, because of what attracted him, he had much less to defend, in academic and literary spheres as well as with a popular readership. He was established and establishment, which is not to derogate him. Hass is one of the most elegant lecturers and readers I’ve heard. His voice fills up words that, in turn, fill up a room with sense, life. Its cadence and subtle tremolo, without melodrama, transmit an interrogatory optimism, the split and marvel. Once, in office hours, he substantially improved a poem of mine just by reading it aloud. He’s one of those people whose amiability, intense interest, encyclopedic knowledge, and ability to peel back layers and draw connections in plain English can elicit a unified satisfied hmm from a crowd. As one among his audience, that hmm sometimes inaudibly welled up from me and sometimes made my skin itch with its ring of self-satisfaction at having achieved a “deeper” understanding, its implied assumption that there might be an understanding that constitutes a coherent whole.
I was most at home in Hass’s class, but most desperate for acceptance in Hejinian’s. I had the impression that the folks in Hejinian’s class, who were mostly graduate students, were the real deal, the certifiable grade A poets. So, I tried very hard to prove myself by attempting a non-narrative style. Trouble was they saw through me, and I hated almost every ticktock moment with them. I resented being condescended to and having my work shredded, and I understood not a lick of what most of those hifalutin PhD candidates were on about. One of them was writing a collection of dark, disjointed epithalamia that was more like an autopsy of a marriage than a celebration of bride and groom. One was writing a series drawing parallels, again with funky disjunctive language, between Richard III and our then-president George Dubya. Another was throwing together specialized terms from the field of anthropology, her area of study, in the manner of shards from a dig—to what end, I didn’t know. I had to present on her work, and I was at a total loss.
All that jargon and obscure diction stripped of syntax left me sullen and dumb. What was worse, I suspected that any open complaint would earn me a reputation as an anti-intellectual. I can only remember liking the writing of two of the students in that class, one who was working on a series that mixed kaiju and anime with imagery of the omnipresent sediment rich with bodily slough—dust—and another who was working on a handful of poems about donuts and coordinating the creation of life-size donut sculptures out of inedible materials.
The writing and discussions in Hass’s class felt less like a frontal assault on regularized ways of making sense, and that put me more at ease, but Hejinian and her students had begun to prejudice me against some of the kinds of writing that Hass’s students produced. I’d absorbed a particular prejudice against spoken word, for example. Somewhere, I’d picked up that spoken word couldn’t really be considered poetry, couldn’t be called literature. It was in its own category, maybe performance art or political activism, and whatever its category, it was hermetically sealed from admittance into Hejinian’s classroom. Hass, however, had accepted two students into the same workshop I was in who weren’t full-blown June Jordan acolytes and members of Poetry for the People, but were influenced by spoken word and hip hop.
Now I know the ideas I parroted about spoken word—nursery rhyme artlessness, shouty woe-is-me one-upmanship—were deluded. I had an inkling of it then, too: when I went to June Jordan’s campus memorial service, the recordings they played of her reading, others’ readings of her writing, the views she expressed, and the evidence of the impact of her lifework were right. I managed to ignore what I knew was right probably up to my early thirties, seduced by the status, which I deemed to confer safety, that might be achieved through snobbery, and convinced that subterfuge was the best way to manage my experience.
Two other poets admitted to Hass’s workshop that semester were skilled mimics of a few canonized narrative poets; I can’t remember the names of the authors my classmates imitated, but they were male, conversant with traditional forms, and masters of that reverent, ponderous tone that’s peculiar to (some) po-tree. I was impressed by the discipline of their craft, and I could not relate to it. I’d been taught scansion and the standard catalog of poetic forms a number of times and had forgotten all of it promptly. These poets’ emulations gave the impression of a person in a cassock: spare and beautiful and pleasurably organized and lofty, but representative of a torturously buttoned-up kind of humanity that denies our beastliness. Really, my disinclination toward traditional forms was a result of intractability, forgetfulness, and my sense that my natural tendency to be restless in writing made it so my ideas wouldn’t be improved by trying to fit them into a preset pattern of rhyme and rhythm.
I think Hass used the Noah’s ark two-of-every-sort principle for selecting his workshop students. So, while Hass’s status and the category of writing to which he was said to belong lumped him in with the establishment, the writing of the students he chose was far more heterogeneous than that of Hejinian’s students. He included not only spoken word and formal narrative poets, but also indeterminate poets like me and studiously “avant-garde” poets like a boy I dated for awhile who turned in an unaltered excerpt from a news article as a readymade poem for workshop. The atmosphere in his class was also warmer, felt less like a convention of ladies and lords of the academe presiding over each of their own gated intellectual estates.
Fortunately, the graduate poetry program I went on to at the University of Utah was not like my experience in Hejinian’s graduate-level workshop. As a master’s student, I could avoid most of the doctoral candidates’ infighting over fellowships and teaching assistantship placements and the editorship for the school’s journal, and enjoy the affection and inspiration and support of my friends and colleagues.
Again, though, lines drawn in the sand over poetics and praxis around narrativity played out socially. One of the students in my program earned the abiding scorn of a few of the other poets because of her narrative style. One of my friends not only had a distaste for her poetry, but he also distrusted her personally because of her style of writing. He seemed to think she was a downright bad person, morally corrupt. He wasn’t posturing or overreacting. The stakes were real for him. (He could also be worked into a lather over Billy Collins.) Most of the other poets also treated her with some level of disdain or disregard. I recall someone speculating sneeringly that her writing gave good explanation for why she was the only one there paying for her degree.
Oddly, the same poets who ostracized that one narrative poet in our group had no hesitations about befriending (and kissing) the fiction and nonfiction prose writers and the poets who were mixing non-narrative poetics with nonfiction prose. At first, I could only understand this amicability between the non-narrative poets and narrative prose writers as being similar to a willingness to accept the customs of a person from a different culture when those same practices would be unacceptable from a member of one’s own culture. While, the poets crisscrossing genres may have been excused for the sin of narrativity because they were putting themselves in an even more precarious position as far as publishability than most poets already do. Even as they were using narrative, these mixed-genre poets were outside the narrative of fixed genres that appeal to publishers because they are recognizable to a general readership.
At Berkeley, I gathered through inference that formalism was a no-no among non-narrative poets, and, at the U of U, narrativity was explicitly placed in the “unacceptable” column with formalism. Where the English department at Cal created the drama of the binary with its appointments of Hejinian and Hass, the U of U cast a similar drama with Jackie Osherow, a neoformalist, and Don Revell, a member of Robert Creeley’s lineage. One workshop, I hid in the host’s kitchen, working my way through a bottle of wine, as Revell yelled down a doctoral-candidate friend for turning in a formal poem. I think my friend took a perverse pleasure in the thrashing, though, so no bards were harmed in the making of that workshop; he, like most of the poets, was there primarily to work with Revell, and he was probably heartened that Revell could care enough about the prospects of his soul to slam him with such missionary zeal.
Confessionalism, as a narrative mode, was also singled out for criticism in my cohort at the U. I agreed with the complaint that the works of some of the writers in that so-called school were subjecting close relations to a trial by one with a foregone conclusion; in these cases, little ambiguity was admitted that might make the villains in the authors’ lives sympathetic and, thus, plausible. What troubled me was that the “confessional” label was also applied disparagingly to works that, without a vendetta, exposed crunchy and murky and painful personal experiences. As far as I could tell, the motivation for criticizing a piece as confessional was an aversion to sentimentality. The general consensus seemed to be that there should be some “distance” between a writer and their subject, and this remove would be evidenced by “craft.”
For example, in one class, a poet turned in a piece that dealt with 9/11, that event that forked history and politics into a new pre- and post-. Now, if this writer had had to get a street cred license before composing her poem on the subject, she would have easily met the criteria. She was born and raised in New York, and was there when the towers were attacked. At the time she presented this poem to the class, it’d already been at least six years since the attack. Also, her writing—at least, what I’ve seen—has always been sensitive and multivalence, and her craft, as I understand the term, is in order. The subject matter of the poem she presented didn’t qualify it as confessional, but the tone of the workshop was that the author hadn’t achieved enough distance, and we could not have a good conversation about the piece. It’s no wonder we downed gallons of boxed wine and whiskey. My fellow poets and I, whose domain, if the widely accepted archetype could be trusted, included the emotional, were all running scared from our feelings.
So far, I’ve described the tension between narrative and antinarrative camps within poetry mostly in terms of a social study by way of personal history. But what were the terms and parameters of the argument? I’ll be honest that I didn’t know then and I only have guesses now. Which is also to admit that in this essay I’ve been playing it fast and loose by using the term “narrative” to describe a category of poet. The only evidence I have to support this categorization is gut feeling and hearsay.
I kept myself innocent of the terms of the debate in college by avoiding reading about it and not studying up on my teachers. I even skipped a lot of the assigned reading for the first couple years of college. I could be lazy. (A mop-headed Berkeley boho Marilyn Monroe comes to mind, draped over an oversize armchair in Doe and drawling “No, it’s just that I’m languid.” I have the idea I was wandering around campus half asleep, wearing a floor-length hoodie nightgown with a snow vest to give the outfit some shape and the appearance of legit daytime wear.) But, to be fair, I was an empiricist, and I didn’t feel reading achieved the full status of experience.
It wasn’t until Salt Lake City that I started sussing it out, and I don’t think the understanding I gained was thanks to the fact I got theory there for the first time. Probably, time and the skill and kindness and sincerity (yes, tricky but true) of the writers I was so fortunate to be among primed me to be more receptive, even though I was already half-heartedly aping non-narrative praxis.
What I came to understand was that the main beef the crew I was running with had against narrative in poetry was that it could be used to restrict the text to the narrowest of interpretations, which usually grafted easily onto widely accepted philosophies of meaning making badly in need of a shake-up, a do over, or a few more emergency exits. In the poems that my friends at the U put down as “narrative,” craft was used to construct something like a labyrinth: you might experience a sense of excitement about “solving the problem” and feeling lost momentarily as you work your way through the poem’s twists and turns, but there is only one exit, not counting the way you came in.
For these non-narrative poets, this beef did not exclude the possibility of incorporating in their work concepts associated with or part and parcel of narrative. I would say that all of them were engaged, whether implicitly or overtly, in argumentation, which I don’t believe can take place without drawing from the stories we tell ourselves about the observations we make. Most, if not all, of them also tackled identity in some way or another, mostly personal but also through characterization. And I don’t think a discussion about identity can be had without being in conversation with narrative. Even if the identity modeled in the work were opposed to normative identities and notions of the nature of identity, and even if the mode of the piece were explosion, the writing would still have to interface with those good ole narratives and narrative structures. Also, I have a theory that if you asked the poets in my program whether their work was nonfiction or fiction or some combination, most of them would be able answer with one of the three given options, though likely with some reluctance. I’ll admit that I may be making too large of a leap in logic, but it seems to me that one tell you’re trading in narrative is if you can classify your writing in terms of fiction and nonfiction.
So, since these poets’ contention with narrative was focused on techniques of storytelling that lassoed and hog-tied meaning, it makes sense that one of their regular strategies was to disrupt grammar. They would stress and break and complicate and discard the sentence, the basic unit of narrative, to loosen narrative’s knots, light the way to the exits, and hammer through the walls for a few more ways out. They flung phrases across the page, neologized, made atypical constructions, invented forms that generated nonstandard grammars, used erasure, “wrote through,” practiced aleatory methods, mixed contemporary English with Old English.
For me, these adventures in jacking up the sentence became hollow. I had learned how to appreciate the practice in others’ writing, when those writers believed in the reason they were doing it, but doing it in my own felt fraudulent. Instead, I discovered my way into loosening meanings typically fixed by grammar was through enjambment. Especially when Revell assigned us James Schuyler, I became interested in the ways enjambment could open up the grammatical, along with the denotational and connotational, possibilities of words and phrases. A noun split from what follows it could, for the moment before the eye jumps to the beginning of the next line, be an image of its own, a thing sitting on its own little display pedestal for consideration. A word with different grammatical possibilities—that could, say, function as a verb or a noun, depending on what came before or after—kept apart, with a line break, from the parts of the sentence that spell out its function could sit in limbo.
I began to play with using enjambment on grammatical constructions that interrupt and nest meaning, such as appositive phrases and relative clauses. Together, enjambment and interruption could parse out the strictures, multiply the possible meanings of a sentence by stuffing it full and atomizing it, without abandoning the usefully standardized meaning making of grammar and colloquial language. Also, I played with grammatical pileups within the line, which made the function of a word or words shimmer. (Grammatical pileup is a fuzzy description, I know, but these lines didn’t have a syntax in common so much as a sense of density). For example, “Night water wavelets muscle back the city lights’ shining,” where almost all the words feel like nouns, discrete images strung onto the line, even when they are billed as an adjective, adverb, or verb.
Allied with and operating beyond grammar, the musicality of language was another feature I worked with to unsettle or inflect entrenched, dominant narratives. But, again, I wasn’t interested in traditional forms as guides to musicality. I didn’t care for using music as a prefab shape into which meaning could be fit, but as a driving force, not the sole force, not with the kind of runaway-train musicality of sound poetry, but in combination.
My experience was that certain kinds of musicality were freer than others. Too much alliteration could clot up the words and make your mouth feel sticky reciting them. Perfect rhyme felt like a cat who’s had its tail docked looks—some handy bodily feature has been lobbed off. Near rhyme could sweeten the sauce nicely, but become cloying if used in excess. My favorite became the gradual modulation of internal vowel sounds—from short to long and back, from one vowel to another—pulling the words through on the strain, lifting up variation in the pattern.
On top of this kind of sensitivity to language, the constant retuning of the sentence and its grammar, I think taking back a narrative in public discourse has to involve a lot more of our psychic complexity and physicality than mainstream narrative forms—movies, TV, pop songs, news, business presentations, political speechmaking, computer games, social media, advertisements, advertisements, and advertisements—admit.
Dreams need to be considered. The meaning-seeking parts of our minds that are suppressed while awake but speak out while we sleep need to have a say in the story. They remind us of the mystery of ourselves and sometimes surface submerged thoughts in need of a lucid looking at.
The incoherent and strange juxtapositions that cast an overlay of nonsense and serendipitous significance on waking life would be good to consider, too. Although it often fits what’s happened to us into existing narratives, stream of consciousness contributes to the everyday overlay of human nonsense. For instance, while remembering my time at the U, I started thinking about this one ingratiating, big-talk poet in the program who ripped off the ethos and writing style of a mutual friend. This writer then went on to win awards that the poetry world considers important. As I thought about him, my head filled with the invectives “slippery, slimy,” then, unintentionally, I completed the series with the last word of that well-known candy bar slogan: “peanut-buttery.” Slippery, slimy, peanut-buttery. Associative logic projects us out of the plot to the edge of the atmosphere for just a moment, then we fall back to earth.
These juxtapositions also take place in the physical world, giving the mind feed for interpretation. Just the other day, I saw a man in the 19th Street BART station wearing a laborer’s jumpsuit with a patch sewn on saying “F.A.C.T.” By all appearances, his uniform wasn’t a costume meant as a heady joke. He looked like a real worker, employed by a company or agency with a peculiar acronym inviting the investment of meaning.
The taking back of narratives will hopefully also account for perception of the peripheral. What’s seen to the side or out of focus or heard from a distance or in motion takes on a different dimension. A bus schedule on the ground looks like sheet music, a toppled roadblock like a German shepherd. “Swish, swish, bish” stretched low as it moves away becomes a dirge. In a city or town, the white noise of traffic at different distances in every direction is the persistent basis for the soundtrack to life’s action. These environmental conditions are not the setting for the narrative. They are the narrative.
And, it bears repeating, if you’re reading this, the body is here. The bodies are there. The large-scale murder mystery, the whodunnit we all star in. The burned body. The shot body. The drowned body. The sick and injured body. The body containing cancerous cells, with their mutinous genetic material. The body immobilized in front of the screen. The eyes of the sighted human body, evolved frontward toward predation, focusing on a screen. The body dancing, singing. The disabled body. The disabled body dancing, singing. The body eating crap. The body eating Early Girl tomatoes. The body crapping, pissing, farting, queefing, menstruating. The swampy, swampy body. The body having sex. The birthing body. The body that doesn’t birth. The asexual body. The bodies of different genders and different sexes. Bodies with differently pigmented skin and textured hair. In grad school, they called me a “poet of the body.” When they said this, I’d mentally insert “bawdy” in the place of its homonym. Now I’m thinking body-ody-ody, at the same time as I’m trying to feel something for all the dead bodies being covered in the daily reports and the somebodies that survived them.
If we can’t incorporate some of the above in the narratives we take back, I fear we’ll keep having misunderstandings like the one in the announcement for a Duty to Warn event in Castro Valley this October. The organizers of the event described the interviewees in an educational film about the Twenty-fifth Amendment as “respected professionals” and the signatories of their Duty to Warn Petition as “60,000 professionals and their supporters,” and they asked for participants in the post-screening Solemn March to wear “dark clothing or business attire.” These organizers might do better to screen Songs from the Second Floor and Divine Horsemen and 13th. Then, maybe, the march would be solemn.
I’ll close with a few short stories that come to mind as points of reference for the process of taking back narratives. They all happen to be nonfiction—little journal entries. And they’re not exactly case studies of narratives that have been taken back or that have never been “taken” in the first place, or demonstrations of how to take back a narrative. The suggestions about narrative that these stories make by entering into each other’s company here are indefinitely implied. You will make your own connections, and I hope the connections you make will help you suspend, rather than reach, conclusions about a controlling idea.
My brother, Pal, his wife, Sarah, and their two-year-old son, Brendan, visited us in Oakland a few months ago, as part of a quest to get in as much travel as possible before Sarah gives birth to their second son in November. The day after they arrived, we’d planned to go to Fairyland, down the street, but it turned out to be closed. So, instead, we fixed on the playground a couple blocks away at the lakeside.
Pal and Sarah took their time packing up all their supplies to go. It’s always been an exercise in patience to try to get them out the door. Sarah is what my aunt would call a “sensitive hothouse flower.” She needs her earmuffs, even in Los Angeles, even in the summer. And my brother is a caretaker and a kind of urban survivalist with a deep need to gather all the facts and weigh all the possibilities. When he packs for the day, he will not only bring enough for himself, Sarah, Brendan, and the holy ghost, he will also consider whether each thing he’s bringing is the best option.
Having a young child has only added another layer of bureaucracy to the mix. But Pal is aware of the issue and how it can affect the moods of the people around him. So, when, just as we were stepping over the threshold of our apartment into the hallway, Sarah decided she should take a precautionary pee, Pal and I made a break for a it, lest we should lose all momentum.
Brendan felt immediately the pang of separation from his mother, and began crying. But we pushed on, down the single flight of stairs to the foyer, to wait for Sarah closer to the door out to the street. With each step farther from his mother, Brendan’s frenzy grew, threatening full nuclear meltdown by the time we got to street level. I summoned up something I’d learned working in childcare, and without pulling out a toy from his stroller or trying to console him with food or kisses and caresses and hugs, I said in a firm voice: “I know where your mother is.”
His eyes widened. He quieted. “She is in the bathroom, peeing. And after she pees, she’s going to wash her hands, and then she’ll dry them on a towel. And then she’ll walk out of the bathroom and out of the door of our apartment, and she’ll close the door and walk down the hallway and down the stairs, and then she’ll be here.”
He was calm, observant.
Sarah materialized on the landing above.
The first time our dance teacher from Haiti led us in movements across the floor, we were all stumped by one of the steps. Laure—a beautiful, squat woman, both bold and diffident—showed us how it was done, and our attempts ended in a dance-floor battlefield scene: some of us panting and straggling, others defeated, and some bravely soldiering on. We gathered around her in a circle to watch again. Her feet were turned out, her legs in a grand plié in second position, thighs parallel to the floor. She moved in the direction she was facing by pushing her heels forward, then swiveling the rest of her foot forward just a little, and repeating the same, without her legs coming any closer together toward midline. Her hands were set down on her knees, and she was rotating her shoulders forward separately as though she were pedaling a bicycle with them. Her eyes, set inside dark circles, were unblinking, her lips clamped together as though she were holding her breath from the effort.
We tried again and floundered. She sat us down and talked us through it, her Creole accent making the words pliant in her mouth. “This is a dance for Damballah. Damballah is a snake. A snake lives in nature. Nature is green. A snake is green. The snake moves like this, like the leaves, like the waves. When I dance for Damballah I have to guess like a snake. I have to guess like the leaves in the wind. I have to guess like the ocean.”
She moved on to a song she planned to teach us about Damballah and his wife Ayida wèdo that would be paired later with dance. She wrote the Creole on a chalkboard, and, in a nasal suppliant tone with a harp-trill vibrato on the held notes, sang a phrase at a time, waiting for us to repeat after her. She wouldn’t go on to the next phrase until she was satisfied with our repetition. We repeated in part and in full again and again:
Damballah wèdo se bon se bon/ Ayida wèdo se bon se bon/ Lè ma monte chwal mwen/ Gen moun-n kap kriye/ Lè ma sele chwal mwen/ Gen moun-n kap rele
She glossed a few of the words as we went along, but the only explanation I can remember is the one she gave for chwal. “‘Chwal’ is ‘horse,’ like ‘cheval’ in French. When I am possessed, I am the horse. The lwa is the rider. Lwa is a spirit. When I am possessed, I know nothing.”
In an earlier class, our other teacher, a second-generation Dunham adherent, showed us the documentary Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. The movie’s title refers to the idea Laure explained to us that the possessed person is a horse and the lwa (or loa) the rider, and its footage consists of scenes of Haitian Vodou ritual filmed in the ’40s and ’50s. The rituals shown often involve song, sometimes involve drawing patterns on the ground by pouring powder, sometimes processions, sometimes libations and animal sacrifice. Always, drumming. Always, dance. Dancing without soloists, only an ensemble of horses, some mounted, some not. The drum and the dance entrancing, not like Hollywood’s Dracula and voodoo witches or the synthetic high of drugs, but like the crush-wash of the sea, the bumping in your ears and neck and belly button after a sprint, the extreme humid heat that pits you.
One scene shows a woman dancing as or for Papa Ghede, the top hat–wearing, cigar-smoking jokester spirit who stands at the crossroads of life and death. The dated, stiltedly anthropological voiceover during this scene says this: “Life for Ghede is a destiny: the inevitable and erotic in man. He is lord of that eroticism, which being inevitable is beyond good and evil, and beyond the elations and despairs of love. Of this, he is neither proud nor ashamed. If anything, he is amused by the eternal persistence of the erotic, and by man’s eternally persistent pretense that it is something else.”
On-screen, the woman thrusts her hips backward then forward, spins on one foot, thrusts, spins, and moves her arms like a chicken flapping its wings. She thrusts, spins, and skips, hops on one leg and kicks, then does a few playful charges, hopping back, pausing, and thrusting her hips quickly as though backing up had spring-loaded them. The setup, the pause, the thrust are like a joke for the Crossroads Comedy Club, where the thrust is the punch line.
The Intercept just put out an article and companion video called “How White Nationalism Became Normal Online,” which highlights how 4chan, the anonymous imageboard website that helped spawn Anonymous, coalesced “alt-right,” white nationalist, and “Men’s Rights Movement” supporters and recruited other disaffected users through a culture of desensitizing “irony poisoning” and trolling. The article’s authors, Lee Fang and Leighton Akio Woodhouse, cite what Angela Nagle has called “Tumblr-liberalism” as a major impetus for the coalescence of these groups. Nagle coined the term to criticize left-leaning online communities for their growing practice of publicly humiliating anyone who transgresses the codes of a politics “based on the minutiae and gradations of rapidly proliferating identities.”
Fan and Woodhouse also discuss how online trolling moved offline when far-right groups and individuals, from white-nationalist internet celebrities to billionaires, discovered goading liberals into rash, reactionary responses was a successful method for recruiting younger right-of-center people. The use of this method was focused on college campuses and other localities with reputations as havens for “liberal thought,” presumably because any suppression or retribution could be pointed to as evidence of hypocritical liberal persecution against right-wing free-speech defenders. As a consequence, UC Berkeley, the City of Berkeley, and San Francisco have been treated to a whole string of right-wing rallies and speaking engagements (some of which were canceled), including Milo Yiannopoulos, the Patriots Day rally, the Patriot Prayer rally, and the No to Marxism in America rally.
The latest of these provocatory events, Free Speech Week, was especially bewildering for the layer cake of fiction it made real. The multiday event, co-organized by Yiannopoulos and scheduled to take place on the UC Berkeley campus in late September, was advertised to include Ann Coulter and Stephen Bannon as speakers. The campus was, once again, putting in place an extensive, expensive security plan. Around 130 professors, lecturers, and graduate-student instructors announced they would cancel classes for the week in protest. Then, the day before the event was supposed to have begun, it was canceled, and Coulter and Bannon made statements that they were never contracted to speak for Free Speech Week.
The foundational fiction of this event, most obscured by the drama of its unfolding and a nostalgic delusion shared by those on either polar end of the constructed conflict, is the myth of the Bay Area as a mecca of political and social liberalism. Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s homegrown artificial intelligence has listened in on the 4chan and Facebook chatter and elected for the Las Vegas mass murder a villain who didn’t do it (the result paired with ads handpicked for us based on our user data). The promotion of the misidentified shooter has not disrupted these companies’ business, and we are assured their algorithms will be adjusted appropriately.
When Facebook releases its brain-computer interface, using optical imaging to connect to the speech center in the brain, we will be able to vote for candidates, popularize performers, accuse people of wrongdoing, incriminate ourselves, and buy cars online nearly at the speed of thought, without saying or typing a word.
Jorrit and I ended our PCT section this August by hitching out from Cascade Locks to Portland, to meet with my cousin, Alyssa, before taking the train home. For many years, hearing the stories of Alyssa’s life through the family, I felt an affinity to her beyond kinship. But there had never been a moment for us to connect as equals. The age gap between us meant that she was always several steps ahead of me, in a different stage of life. She also intimidated me for the longest, because she was portrayed in the family as a Golden Child. She had perfect pitch, starred in her high school musical, spoke at least four languages, and became an Ivy Leaguer. Everything she did she did with exceptional facility and passion and charisma. Up to a point, all the family stories about her implied she was destined for great things.
Then the stories changed. Her convictions diverted her from what her parents understood as “great things.” She traveled to Ecuador to teach and, witnessing the massive ecological destruction of the Chocó rainforest and the cultural collapse of the region’s indigenous people, she vowed to learn as much as she could and offer her skills in any way she was called upon in the service of staunching the wound. She fell in love with a Chachi man, and they made a family together, bringing three daughters into being. And so much else happened in her and her family’s life, from the first time she went to Ecuador till now, that would be difficult for anyone else to retell besides Alyssa, her former partner, and her children. Only a fraction of the developments in her life reached me through the static of the family rumor mill, but what I heard aroused my sympathy.
The visit this year was the first time we expressed our shared feeling as people on par, not because I had caught up with her officially recognized accomplishments or life stage, but because I’d caught up in some way with her way of thinking.
As we talked, Alyssa’s daughters, each with their own flavor of badassery, wandered in and out of the kitchenette and dining room to scavenge food, eavesdrop, and unload a sentence or two. Our conversation flowed and ranged. We spoke about how each of our impressions of the other’s nuclear family differed from the experience of being inside our families. I told her how I fantasized about removing myself from the economy as much as possible by minimizing the amount of money that flows through me. She told me about her dream of healing whole communities, and described the moral and personal quandaries of pricing her healing work so it would be valued by those who engage her and also support her family.
Somewhere in between her responses to my questions about how she became a healer and how she reconciled herself to Western materialism, Alyssa related an experience in Ecuador that made her accommodate in her beliefs supernatural forces alien to the scheme of the cosmos she’d inherited from her middle-class Jewish upbringing in Northridge. She was inside a raised hut, her home in the rainforest, when her lover entered looking tired and harried and lay down wordlessly in the hammock. She asked him what was wrong, and, before he responded, she sensed a presence floating outside the window. The presence was making itself appear to be manifold and mean when it was really singular, small, and benign. She focused on it and thought, “You have no business here.” Then her lover, who became the father to her daughters, answered. He said his grandfather was a shaman and gave him a magic book, and a diabulu, a demon spirit, had followed him down the river that night and was bothering him for the book. He said the diabulu tries to scare people by acting like it is fierce and many and everywhere, but it is only one little thing, and you can get rid of it by telling it to go away. “I saw the diabulu,” Alyssa said, and she’d known what to do.
On one of my recent rounds of the lake, a man pattered past me, and I watched as he stopped by the roses to take a picture with his smartphone of the sunrise over the water. The haze mixed its dead-leaf brown into the band of scoured-penny copper over the horizon, and the lake jiggled the sunrise’s reflection. Every day, but a bit later this time of year, a bit different depending on the refractive conditions. “What makes him stop to take a picture?” I thought as I overtook him, “and what will he do with it?” He sprang into a jog again and leapfrogged me. Just ahead, he let out a yip that sounded like the first word of prayer or a song, but he was off before I could hear the rest of it, if there was a rest of it.