I made this as practice: “The Stony Streets of Stockholm.” A painting of a street near the Södermalm district…
This originally appeared in the Cal Literary Arts Magazine, spring 2009.
The Tale of The Hermit
From the Diary of Lt. Col. Jean-François de Montparnasse
Excerpt Translated by O. Malik
Dated 15 Dec. 1881
In one of my travels in the East, I had heard a fascinating story. Whether it is true or not, I will never know, although I surmise it to be a fable, of the kind that is quietly sown somewhere in history and then draws its fabulous strength from the life-giving soil of humid coastal villages. Let me recount it to you, as it was to me by a shepherd youth whom I met long ago:
In one of those sleepy towns at the feet of the Caucasus, it is said that there was once an old man who had fought in the War of ‘51 and had come back a hero. He had saved his entire village from certain destruction, but at the expense of himself, for the sounds of cannon fire had so bombarded his ears that he could no longer hear a single word of his lyrical Tartar dialect; and, upon finding out that his family had died of an illness during the winter before his return, he was so stricken by grief that he lost his ability to sleep. He thus decided to leave the village forever, and, despite all protests of the fawning widows, who demanded he stay, he mounted his mule and rode indiscriminantly North. It is said that he found the sea, at the very edge of Siberia (though I would guess he in fact went somewhere near the Caspain or, at most, the Aral Sea), and there built himself a hovel on a barren, rocky beach. The construction of his home, however, was very peculiar; gathering seashells on the shore, of every shape and color imaginable, he proceeded to lay down a wall against the frigid southerly wind, starting from the protected center and working radially outward, laying shell upon shell and layer upon layer, until at last he miraculously fashioned a man-sized conch in all of its golden dimensions. Seen from afar, it would have been a mosaic of all the colors of the cold, hard Earth—its stratifications, the camouflage of geological ages past.
Indeed, it was not wantonly made. He exacted such precision in his construction that the entrance to his home aligned with the heliacal rising of the Sun on a certain day of every spring, illuminating the interior via the mother-of-pearl that lined the inner walls. Also, and most amazingly, the entire monument served to capture and amplify the sound of the water’s waves, creating, in a manner not unlike that of children pressing shells to their curious ears, the sound of an ocean roaring, in this case magnifying a hundredfold the tumultuous passion of the sea. In doing so, he at last managed to hear something again: the churning of the waves that lulled him, finally, to sleep.
The peasant boy who told me this said that he had personally witnessed the old man many summers ago, whilst he was wandering far from home. Though the hermit had scarely been visible before he fled, he was heard muttering to himself repeatedly, “The sea! The sea!” He could say nothing else. The youth came back to the same place some time later, bringing with him several of the townsfolk, but he could not find any sign of the old man or his seashell monument. They naturally assumed that the persitent motion of the sea had consumed it.
The old hermit of this tale was clearly mad, whether he existed or not. And the youth, who swore an oath to the veractiy of this story, must likewise have been mad for believing in such delusions. But perhaps even I, who take delight in the thought of that exquisite solitude, and at times do truly yearn for it, am too, in a sense, a madman. In my old age, having outlived both precious son and belovéd wife, I cannot but question whether it is more mad to desire that which is lost forever than to fear that inevitable acquiescence to the eternal, that thing we call death.
Here the manuscript ends.
 Somewhere in the Crimean region of southern Russia.
 The Crimean War, 1851-5; however, the actual events if they occurred, must have been earlier.
 Probably the Spring Equinox, around March 21-22.
 Note: The handwriting of the manuscipt is barely legible here; the last word has been rendered as mort (“death”), which is more plausible given the context, than the alternative, montant (“rising”)—the extra letters have been considered errors on the original author’s part.
Stephen Colbert recently featured Ernest Hemingway on the Colbert Book Club. Mr. Colbert played at the usual tropes–the animal pelts, the wineskin, the rifle in hand–
–but he made an interesting point when he said that Hemingway had been, during the early years of his life, dressed up as a girl by his mother. As a consequence, Colbert joked, he’d been overcompensating ever since.
This reminded me of something I had been thinking about lately with regards to Hemingway’s public image: whether or not he is actually more sensitive and romantic of a guy than we usually give him credit for.
I think Hemingway’s popular portrayal is different from the Hemingway one can get to know through his books. In fact, while reading him, I often sense a narrator who is typically introverted and sensitive and a lot more like the Hemingway one sees, for instance, in a photograph such as this, with his leg bent bashfully, almost awkwardly:
After all, wouldn’t a sensitive guy be be inclined to be a writer?
But, on the other hand, machismo doesn’t preclude introversion.
This relates to the other, stylistic misconception: that Hemingway writes using simple sentences for prose. Or at least, that’s one impression that students might be taught in high school. Witness the following opening sentence of For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.
A straightforward description, and a standard compound sentence structure. Yes, yes, that is all fine and good. But then witness the following passage from later in the novel, when the narrator is lying with his lover in the woods and lets words flow out like poetry as they share a moment of rapturous communion:
Then they were together so that as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now, they knew that nothing could ever happen to the one that did no happen to the other that no other thing could happen more than this; that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now, and where are you and where am I and where is the other one, and not why, not ever why, only this now; and on and always please then always now, always now, for now always one now; one only one, there is no other one but one now, one, going now, rising now, sailing now, leaving now, wheeling now, soaring now, away now, all the way now, all of all the way now; one and one is one, is one, is one, is one, is still one, is still one, is one descendingly, is one softly, is one longingly, is one kindly, is one happily, is one in goodness, is one to cherish, is one now on earth with elbows against the cut and slept-on branches of the pine tree with the smell of the pine boughs and the night; to earth conclusively now, and with the morning of the day to come. Then he said, for the other was only in his head and he had said nothing, “Oh, Maria, I love thee and I thank thee for this.”
This passage is so much more modernist. It combines stream-of-consciousness and nostalgia, the characteristics of that age. It also betrays the image of the stoic, spartan Hemingway, and reminds the reader that Ernest can still surprise. Isn’t that nice?
I just finished the the last season of Breaking Bad and it’s gotten me thinking about anti-heroes.
Was Walter White a hero? It’s a tricky question because of the moral ambiguity of the show. One thing that I think enables the possibility of the idea, though, is the fact that he was dying which could displace the blame for his actions. That is, we, the audience, could find ways to forgive his actions when we were periodically reminded that he did it all “for his family,” in that relatable phrase, and also that he wanted to “feel alive.”
There is also the ambiguity of his health. In the final episode, did he die because of the shrapnel wound, or because his cancer caught up with him? He had been coughing more and more up until then. Or did he die because now his mission was complete and the balance of blood debt was restored, and so he could let his body go? Did he not, after all, want to die?
I think the unknown possibilities–those kernels of doubt–are part of what drives the show to its success.
And in the end, after all, doesn’t it turn out that Walt still has some selflessness left in him? His final act is to save Jesse, a final sacrifice. As a consequence, his the scores have been settled, the money may be found, and he takes on the blame (like a Batman taking on sins) in order to protect Jesse and others. So in the end, also, a son and father find each other, like Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus crossing paths.
To be simultaneously a hero and anti-hero is a powerful paradox, like black and White at once.
The United Nations used aerial drones in a peacekeeping mission recently. It was the first time they had done so–but was it about time?
The drones were needed to monitor the forested border regions near Rwanda and Uganda, where the (D. R.) Congolese rebels were hiding. When I read the story, though, I had been working on a global deforestation project, so forested regions–not the Age of the Drone–were fresh on my mind.
Although they were initially developed for military purposes, drones have been cleverly co-opted for civilian purposes. For instance, they’ve been used for oceans monitoring by NOAA and also have been used in, e.g., rhino conservation. However, their scientific and civilian uses are still generally new.
Furthermore, their proliferation has been so quick that in many places legal regulations have not yet been defined.Even Yale Law School held one of its first-ever discussions on drone warfare and the implications for international law just this year:
But, certainly, legal questions will still arise because the drone is clearly successful and is not likely to go away any time soon. I mean, it makes use of our technologies and, after all, it spares soldiers’ lives. So why won’t the technology proliferate and get used more and more in peace and war?
An extrapolation of the trend of robotics in warfare was envisioned by Hideo Kojima in his Metal Gear Solid video game series, which comes to mind as being vaguely connected:
…and now that that technology is coming to life…
…it’s not quite a game anymore (remember the ending of this movie?):
Also, on the note of extrapolation, I just recently read The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013), which has an unsettling scene in which drones are guided by a mob of young people working at a Google-like company (who think they are changing the world for the better.) [Incidentally, it was Google that just bought the "BigDog" by acquiring its parent company...]
On the Oresund bridge, between Sweden and Denmark. When you look across the water, you see wind turbines at work, like stoic giants under a grey sky.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of two very turn-of-the-century things (the last turn-of-the-century, that is): the publication of Marcel Proust’s novel, Swann’s Way, and the finalized construction of Grand Central Terminal. If you’ve passed through New York this spring, you might have unwittingly passed by a relevant exhibit (I know I did).
Both In Search of Lost Time and the famous Beaux-Arts building are documents of the changes in technology taking place at that time. Around the time of the Great War, cars were replacing horse-drawn buggies, electricity was here, and even the telephone became a household tool. How much can happen in a century! What will things be like in 2113? one can only wonder.
Interestingly, the statues decorating the outside of GCT were made in France. The figures of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva were carried by a tide of neoclassicism across the Atlantic and into America.
Speaking of France, it’s also the 100th Tour de France this year (although it first started in 1903).
(Note to self: Use the pun fin-de-cycle somewhere?)