Daedulus's Daughters: Caracole and Emily and Me and You And Everyone We Know

Sometimes Mateo wondered if he and his friends were malicious because they’d inherited all the intellectual pretensions of their parents and none of their scope. After all, when the capital had been rich and powerful, the ideas (even the whims) of its nobles had caused things to happen. Now they all took stands—but they were standing on air. Their impotence made them irritable.
This quote is from Edmund White’s 1986 novel Caracole, a beautifully rendered novel set in a mythical, conquered country that, as the back cover blurb helpfully informs us, is meant to be “reminiscent of Paris under the Nazis or Venice under the Austrians or Rio under the Portuguese.” The title page furthers this referential refraction by highlighting the multivalent meaning of the word “caracole”: “caper” in English, “prance” in French, “snail” in Spanish. But even to a casual reader (like me) of White’s other, more straightforwardly autobiographical books, it becomes obvious that more than a treatise on any of the specific milieux that inform the creation of this imagined community, Caracole reads as a cunning dissection of the New York intellectual scene White himself is writing from within. The removal of specificity allows him to blend, reconfigure, and distill the personalities within this scene in a way that transforms them into mythical figures, much in the same way that his deliberately imperfect composite of Rio, Paris, and Venice transforms into a setting that resonates beyond the specificities of those cities, evoking, for example, the international semicolony of late 1920s Shanghai or the ambiguous legacy of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan.

By the time I reached the passage quoted above, I realized that I was finding the novel particularly compelling because it was beginning to read as an acute dissection not of a late 1980s New York of which I had only the vaguest conception or colonial situations I’d only contemplated in academia, but of the communities forming via the internet at sites like Gawker where I was spending a perhaps ill-advisedly large portion of my free time. This feeling only amplified as, shortly after completing Caracole, I found myself reading along as these communities erupted into a cacophony of indignation and invective over former Gawker editor Emily Gould’s account of the messy intersections between her career and her love life, which was published as a cover story in New York Times Magazine. Exhausted by attempting to find my own words to convey my complicated feelings regarding this article, I found myself quoting the passage above in a comment thread otherwise devoted to excoriating Emily’s duplicity, malice, narcissism, and bald-faced fame-seeking. I felt it gave perspective on the compulsion to write comment after comment either asserting her apparent inelegance and insipidity or defending her against these charges, a compulsion that I found myself unable to stifle as well. Why did I feel the need to participate in this public debate about the indelicacy and possible immorality of the actions of someone I never knew and likely never would? Who did I think I was? Who did the other commenters think they were? And who did we think Emily was?

is written in a studiously ornate third person that examines in extraordinary detail the complicated and shifting psychologies of each of its main characters as they negotiate the fraught terrain of their contentious, petty, and tumultuous world. Like the debate over Emily’s article, these negotiations are conducted primarily through the dissection of personal relationships: love affairs and friendships, rivalries and shifting alliances, spats and make-ups. But what becomes clear in both cases is that the compelling aspects of this dissection lie not in the salacious details so revealed but in the way that parsing these relationships becomes a parsing of a world where the frivolous, all-too-human micropolitics of the love affair and the bon mot intersect directly with the violent, inhuman macropolitics of empire and class warfare.
It seems counterintuitive at first to think that a book like Caracole, conceived and published before the rise and normalization of internet-facilitated community formation and set in a even older composite milieu, would provide any insight into a situation so inextricably bound up in the webs-within-webs that make up contemporary internet culture. And yet, the layers of abstraction that transport the characters and setting into the realm of myth also allow them to resonate with the futures superceding their creation; this is how myths work, after all. And it is as a myth of discontented civilization, of leaving the animalistic, retrospectively paradisiacal world of the de facto private country life for the self-conscious, neurotically public life of the city that Caracole speaks most clearly to the dynamics of internet culture that Emily’s story and its reception exemplify so piquantly.

The novel tells the story of two young people from the hinterlands, Gabriel and Angelica, who exist in a state of unreflective grace as children scrabbling for food amid the crumbling ruins of a neglected estate before being whisked away by Gabriel’s indolent uncle Mateo to the city. Once lovers, Angelica and Gabriel are kept apart until the last ten pages of the book by Mateo, who acts as a mentor to his scrawny nephew even as he conducts an illicit affair with the beautiful, “tribal” Angelica. It takes an outbreak of civil unrest to dismantle the elaborate machinations Mateo sets up to keep his two charges apart, a violent disintegration that leads them to fulfill their names’ implied promise that they’d become avenging angels of revolution. But it seems equally important that the final transformation is facilitated by an act of violence stemming not from the grand historical narrative of the colonized citizens revolting at last, but from the interpersonal intrigues perpetrated by Mateo and his ilk, whom he describes in the quote above as irritable with impotence.
Most of the novel involves the minute descriptions of the tiniest shifts in the emotions and psychological make-ups of members of a privileged demi-monde of intellectuals, artists and writers who make up the upper echelon of the conquered population. The prose’s style is one of piercing observation, a deliberate approximation of the modulated hypersensitivity of Proust or Gide, despite the third person. The reader is privy to every self-delusion, hypocrisy, and Machiavellian calculation the main characters undertake, and tracing these interior contours constitutes the primary “action” of the story, which saves major plot advancement for the opening section and the short, violent final one. The process of civilization Gabriel and Angelica go through is a coming into self-consciousness, a learning of a language that clings to the skin of experience, at once alienating and enlightening. Angelica reflects upon this process as she reunites, at long last, with Gabriel near the novel’s end:
Angelica loved Gabriel. He was her husband. This “love” they talked so much about, as real and invisible as “art” or “happiness” or “work,” now seemed so full and present within her that she looked and looked into Gabriel’s eyes—did he feel it too? Surely anything so strong must be shared. She couldn't be hearing so much love unless he was saying at least some of it to her. She reworked their past so that every tough, animal grappling followed by aversion now seemed to have prefigured love and the promise of happiness. What had been all silence and shame now became talk, the eloquence of love.
This passage is typical of the prose filling the entire book: emotions are felt and analyzed simultaneously, the two processes inseparable and coterminous. Further, the third person narrator grants the reader access not only to the innermost workings of each character’s mind, but to insights that exceed these characters’ self-knowledge. The reader glides effortlessly with the narrator from mind to mind, each incident played and replayed from different perspectives and parsed accordingly, in effect giving the reader a kaleidoscopic view into this world in the sense that a kaleidoscope presents a new, differently refracted image with every turn even when it is pointed consistently at the same object. The eventfulness of the novel consists mostly of scenes of frivolous sociality: openings, poetry readings, dinner parties, masked balls. These events provide the venues for the micropolitics of power that govern private personhood — love affairs, friendships, petty revenges — to gain a larger force through the segmented publicity of this privileged yet powerless class of intellectuals, actresses, and bon vivants. Moments of indiscretion are relayed and revisited from several points of view as the third-person narrator guides the reader from mind to mind, and this layering and the constant cogitation and analysis it forces the reader to engage in defines the public sphere the characters live within, one that resembles less a sphere than the chambers of a mollusk’s shell. Like Daedulus’s seeing-eye ant, the reader travels perpetually forward through White’s prose only to discover that the road forward folds inexorably back on itself; unlike the ant, though, the reader is provided no exit out of these delicate, endlessly involuting chambers filled with caprice, just scene after scene of apparently inconsequential action that reflects through bohemian indolence the perpetual carnival of the lower classes of the conquered.

Until the shell itself breaks. Fighting in the streets foreshadows the dissolution of this hermetically sealed world, but the true end occurs during yet another masked ball. A culmination of cogitation and tiny slights, one character shoots and kills another whom she perceived to be a romantic rival for Gabriel’s attentions. The reader has been informed, of course, that this perception is at least partly a delusion, but it hardly matters — the true dynamics are, of course, as endlessly complicated as every interpersonal dynamic has been shown to be in the novel, but these complications are rendered effectively moot by the finality of the action they nonetheless propel, and the revolutionary spark that action provides. The particulars of the action are quickly reconfigured for maximum revolutionary purpose, the true killer whisked away and a woman from the conquering class framed — a consequence of she and the killer showing up at the ball in the same dress, which itself is the result of yet another complexly motivated attempt at humiliation that ironically ends up saving the woman it was engineered to embarrass. As witnesses to and perpetrators of this deception, the newly reunited Gabriel and Angelica find themselves suddenly positioned to be the symbolic standardbearers for this long-delayed revolution, itself the culmination and dissolution of the coming into civilization the entire book portrays.

Contemporary internet culture is frequently spoken of as a system of interwoven webs, a metaphor that seems to function similarly to Caracole’s segmented shell. And like this shell, it seems to be a series of interlocking scenes of little inherent consequence that are nonetheless worried over in a series of endless cogitations as blog after blog, commenter after commenter, decides to “weigh in” on whatever event has been caught in the webs of publicity that brought it to his or her attention. There is an odd leveling that takes place in clearinghouses of such events such as Gawker, which is less a blog than a venue that reduces/raises everything it publishes to the status of the events that take place at the masked balls and dinner parties of Caracole. News of Ted Kennedy getting diagnosed with cancer is given the same level of attention as Emily Brill comparing cancer to excess weight; a photo of Julia Allison pursing her lips at a party is considered and reconsidered as endlessly as a Presidential campaign speech. There is a dividend of frustration with this that becomes apparent whenever a comment thread turns serious — a frustration that mirrors precisely that described by Mateo in the opening quotation. It is a frustration of people given just enough power to feel their own essential impotence. On the internet, we are transformed instantly into a demimonde, our every word public yet mostly inconsequential, every speech act a moment of potential reckoning that can ruin or exalt the speaker within this world of pure rhetoric at the same time as it remains for the most part invisible outside it. We want to change the world through our words but are terrified at the possibility that it may actually happen, since the motivation behind these words are the product of the fluid eternal present of constantly updated content and the shifting ground of off-the-cuff conversation that accompany each new post.

In a follow-up feature wherein she answered a select few of the mostly antagonistic questions volleyed at her in the comment section accompanying her article’s online incarnation, Emily writes that she is reading The Future of Reputation, a book she claims is helping her think about the redefinitions of public and private that the internet is catalyzing and that her own story illuminates as a kind of wounded and wounding parable. Ironically, a commenter on her personal site revealed just before the publication of her article that s/he saw Emily reading this book on the subway, a comment that neatly inverted the dynamics of the gaze that Emily herself defended during a television appearance conducted while still at Gawker that focused on the aspect of the website that she had the least to do with directly: the “Gawker Stalker” map that allows readers to submit sightings of celebrities in and around New York. As Emily writes in her article, it was this appearance that launched her into precisely the sort of visibility that rendered her a target of this feature herself, a visibility that continued even after she quit Gawker, as the comment on her personal site demonstrated (and which will inevitably amplify again in the wake of the New York Times Magazine cover), and which forces her to confront on a personal level the redefinition of public and private the book she was seen reading itself examines.

Emily’s conundrum exemplifies a central paradox of contemporary internet culture, the simultaneous insularity and permeability of its eventfulness. We are all initiates in one way or another, all able to learn how to participate in this eternal present tense and let its language civilize and alienate us, render us sophisticated and indolently clever, able to footnote and link and refer and allude and analyze in a series of public speech acts that in themselves both create chambers to stage new scenes and link them to others: every new blog, every new comment, every new profile represents both a new wall and a new doorway, a new more or less permeable membrane. As readers, commenters, participants in social software, writers, and bloggers, we are constantly negotiating a world defined almost entirely by modulations in the publicity of the words we write on this internet. All internet writing is public. Yet learning what this means involves a constant confrontation with the vicissitudes of power within a privileged demimonde frustrated at the prospect of only being able to change the world by supporting and promoting each other’s fame. There are grander, exponentially direr things that deserve the attention Emily receives for being a particularly articulate participant in this process, and so when she attains the fame and rewards that accrue to her for doing essentially a version of what any of us theoretically could do, she becomes a convenient scapegoat for the frustrations inherent in realizing that we really cannot do much more. Elections, genocides, human rights abuses, wars, careers – these things too are affected by the chatter within the rooms of little consequence that make up the internet, and yet the process by which this happens seems inescapably accidental and capricious. It is easy to trace how Emily became a celebrity within a few of the linked chambers in the internet through her sparkling conversation and manipulation of persona, but it seems impossible to trace, for example, why Obama will never stop being linked to a Muslimism he’s repeatedly disavowed and which commenters, bloggers and journalists have spent so much time asserting his distance from. Like the end of Caracole, the chain of events that lead to this or that instance of essentially impotent yet incessant public speech to suddenly accrue real power is so divorced from any one person’s control that a kind of hyper-articulated hum of worldly frustration permeates the atmosphere online, reflecting in microcosm a larger, increasingly decentralized geopolitical field of power that nonetheless features an increasingly centralized conglomerate of governmental and corporate interests as its major players. All we can really hope for is that one of our random shots in the dark will strike lucky and pierce this complacent shell once and for all, and we can find our exit, and a different version of ourselves, in the revolutions this shattering precipitates. We’re all angels of revolution in this sense, but it is not within our control how or when or whether we’ll ever get our wings. So we mope and bitch and whine and make jokes, then analyze these utterances endlessly as we wait and see how it all ends.


Bell-Cricket Body Positions Through Being Tokyo Female

So there's this site called Wordle that turns whatever document you feed into it into an artsy, tastefully colored word cloud featuring its most commonly used words. So I fed the article I wrote about the proletarian woman writer Nakamoto Takako into it for fun:

I think it turned out pretty cool! I particularly like the way it put "writer" and "play" inside "body." That's basically a rebus of the article's thesis.


Fathers, Sons, Holy Ghosts

This post is in response to a friend who asked about the portrayal of father/son relationships in Japanese literature and specifically what I thoguht about Oe Kenzaburo in this regard. Here is my dashed-off response:

One thing I think is important specifically to Japan regarding the representation of father/son synamics is the role of the Emperor, especially after the 1868 “Restoration” of him into symbolic status as a kind of “father" of Japan (and link to the Sun goddess) as a part of creating the nation state and legitimizing the displacement of the Shogunate. This was when the idea of novels and literature in the explicitly Western sense took hold, and classics from the classical Imperial court were popularized and used as a basis for “Japanese” literary aesthetics.

The Tale of Genji thus became canonized as the “first” novel of Japan (and, by some estimations, the world!); it is a story of succession, parentage, and legitimate vs. illegitimate rule. A father-Emperor commits the indiscretion of loving the wrong mistress too much and produces a shining (that’s part of his name-“Hikaru”) son who should be next in line due to his idealized qualities but who isn’t. Genji’s mom dies and the Emperor loves Genji explicitly as a replacement/memento of her, but makes him a commoner because a Korean seer predicted that a Genji-as-Emperor would plunge Japan into chaos; Genji embarks on a series of love affairs in and around the court with women who remind him of his dead mother, until he gets a mistress of his father’s pregnant and the son becomes Emperor himself. Another affair leads to his self-imposed, though temporary, exile. His true successor in the narrative is a son who is not a son but the product of an affair of one of his own wives; this is phrased as a type of karmic return, since his own father is being succeeded by a son who is Genji's. This "son" is named Kaoru, ("Scent") as opposed to Hikaru ("Light"), and is a pale reflection of his "father" as he somewhat aimlessly emulates his romantic conquests after Genji's death in the final, unfinished sections of the Tale.

The incestuous overtones of this have not been ignored by the modern Japanese literary canon, and Tanizaki, for one, makes the implied mother/son incest of Genji into a recurring theme (one story, named for a chapter in the Genji, involves the protagonist peeping on a stepmother who resembles his dead real mother so much he cannot differentiate between them as she pumps her breasts into a glass; upon discovery, she offers him a glassful). The idea of a too-intimate relationship between Japanese mothers and their sons (and anxiety about the sons’ resultant “weakness” and “infantilism”) has become a cliché of not only literature but social theory/anthropology, most famously Takeo Doi’s Anatomy of Dependence. Women writers with a feminist slant have a tendency to exalt in portrayals of abusive mothering as a way to subvert the coercive demand at the heart of this cliché (Kono Taeko’s “Toddler-hunting” is a good/extreme example of this; a less overt but no less unsettling one is Ogawa Yoko’s “Pregnancy Diary,” which was translated in the New Yorker.

Fathers, on the other hand, are treated as a political problem more often than not, as ways of dealing with the implications of imperial power and succession in the context of modernity and the traumas of history. For example, Natsume Soseki’s hyper-canonical Kokoro (1914) is narrated by a callow college student who scorns his real father’s provincialism and idolizes a substitute father named “Sensei” [teacher] who is depressive and guilt-ridden over a crime he committed in the past that is implied to be associated with money and selfishness, indicators that he is betraying“traditional" values by being too caught up in the present – his tragedy is his living fully in neither, existing instead in a space (and a marriage – the crime was committed for the hand of a woman) defined by the betrayal itself. The story takes place as the first modern Emperor, Meiji, dies; the protagonist’s ailing father reads the news of one of Meiji’s most loyal and famous subjects, General Nogi, has killed himself (and his wife, of course) out of loyalty and his own condition becomes significantly worse in sympathy. At his father's bedside, the protagonist receives a letter from Sensei that is actually a suicide note, explaining the past crimes that feed his depression. The protagonist leaves his ailing father and reads the lengthy note on the train he takes to go back to Sensei (the note takes up a third of the book and is its last chapter). The novel ends with him on the train, reading, and neither his father’s or Sensei’s death is ultimately certain.

The father/son dynamic is defined as the transmission of the burden of history, both in the grand and personal senses of the term. As Sensei begins his note to the protagonist:

In the end, you asked me to spread my past like a picture scroll before your eyes. Then, for the first time, I respected you. I was moved by your decision, albeit discourteous in expression, to grasp something that was alive within my soul. You wished to cut open my heart and see the blood flow. I was then still alive. I did not want to die. That is why I refused you and postponed the granting of your wish to another day. Now, I myself am about to cut open my own heart, and drench your face with my blood. And I shall be satisfied if, when my heart stops beating, a new life lodges itself in your breast.

I read Oe in relation to this, but it is important to factor in the complicated role of Emperors and fathers who have been shown to be culpable, human, even criminal in the context of WWII’s aftermath. Young male Japanese writers like Oe see themselves as sons splashed with tainted blood from diseased hearts, and their literature is full of self-loathing young men finding themselves confronting fathers who seem like liars or worse as they spout new propaganda received from the occupying American presence, words that diametrical oppose what was said by the same fathers and Emperors during wartime. Everything is ugly, deformed, all-too-corporeal, haunted by the shining Emperors and shining Genjis the fascist imperial state promised even as the current Emperor declares himself a human, his war a mistake; how can any son of his shine? Oe’s early fictions, like “Seventeen,” explore this conundrum with bracing, graphic, and deliberately disgusting verve. Eventually, Oe’s humanism seems to finds its basis in the space that opens up between the abject reality and shining ideals of being this kind of boy, this kind of son; there are no easy answers, but facing the truth of the situation becomes an ethical act.

And when he does grow up, he produces a son of his own, and it is a moment of trauma, a “personal matter” that throws this political conundrum into unbearable relief. His developmentally disabled son seems to alternate for him between being yet another symbol of his own compromised flesh with its brutish desires and inability to articulate (remember all the animal imagery?) and being a symbol of a hope, a way out, an alternative to the competing rhetorics of fleshy realism and ruthless, shining, fascist beauty. His son, after all, is bad at talking but good at music, as it turns out. Maybe what Japan needs is a way out of language itself; after all, Japanese is, mythologically, a possession of the Emperor.

As Oe has gotten older, this understanding of his son has become increasingly sentimentalized even as his humanistic rhetoric has become more hackneyed and his fiction has become riddled with repetitive and disturbing invocations of a shining, youthful male savior (named Gii in Somersault) whose strength will save Japan from the weakness and abjection of its adults through becoming a “myth,” a “New Man.” I feel this as a betrayal of sorts of the fearlessness of his earlier work, and of A Personal Matter itself. It's almost cartoonishly grotesque that the abstract, historical, and inevitable counterpart to his sentimentalized son would turn out to be yet another holy ghost, and one that smells an awful lot like Mishima.


Celebrating Academic Writing #1: "White Glasses"

Academic writing gets a bad rap. Convoluted, gangly, jargon-larded, empty, pretentious -- there are myriad examples of how the weird world of academia has produced a culture of writing that shows all too clearly the costs of driving generation after generation of scholars to publish or perish without giving even cursory mention of how to go about making the things they publish enjoyable, or even readable in the most basic sense. It is seen as at best indecorous to criticize a paper for inelegance -- as long as it is technically grammatically correct, the criticism should focus on whether it is "correct," whether it is "cohesive," "organized." There is no room for a consideration of beauty, even in literary and cultural studies; sometimes the articles and books I read come off as even jealous or spiteful in relation to the beauty of their objects, ripping them apart and paraphrasing them in the dullest fashion as if actively trying to drain the language of any power beyond that by which the academics themselves are routinely judged — is it cohesive? Organized? Correct?

What is saddening about this situation isn't just that the writing produced by many of the people who care about writing the most is becoming less and less pleasurable to read, but also that there is precious little opportunity to acknowledge when an essay or article or book produced within academia is, indeed, beautiful. The fact is, despite all the factors working against it and despite the generally bad reputation academic writing has even amongst academics, academic writing can achieve a kind of bracing, stirring beauty all its own. So, I feel that the least I can do is share some of my favorite moments in academic writing in a little weekly-or-so feature on this little blog, pieces that have stuck with me both for their insight and their sheer beauty, and which humble and inspire me as I attempt to do right by them in my own attempts at academic authorship.

To kick off this celebration, I have chosen an excerpt from one of my favorite articles by one of my favorite academic authors of all time, "White Glasses," by Eve Sedgwick, which she wrote about her colleague, Michael Lynch, who was dying of AIDS at the time she was writing and who was also something of a fashion icon to Eve with his snazzy white glasses. It is proof to me of the importance of allowing emotion and intellectual precision to inform one another, as opposed to working constantly to keep them apart; I miss the anger of this period of queer theory, and the unapologetic passion that vivified its rigor and prevented it from curdling into mortis.

One thing I learned…is that the white of the glasses means differently for a woman, for a man. The white of the glasses is two things, after all. White is a color—it is a pastel. White the pastel sinks banally and invisibly into the camouflage of femininity, on a woman, a white woman. In a place where it doesn’t belong, on Michael, that same pastel remains a flaming signifier.

White is also, however, at the same time no color, the color of color’s own subtraction and absence. At once the white-flaring acid of dissolution, the acid’s crystalline residue and its voided trail, in many cultures white is the color of mourning. On women of all colors white refers, again banally, to virginity (to virginity as absence or to the absence of virginity) and the flirtations of the veil—to ways in which our gender tries to construct us heterosexually as absence and as the dissimulating denial of it, and tries also to inscribe in us, as a standard of our own and other people’s value, the zero-degree no-color of (not the skin of Europeans themselves but) the abstractive ideology of European domination. A white woman wearing white: the ruly orderliness of this sight makes invisible the corrosive aggression that white also is: as the blaze of mourning, the opacity of loss, the opacity loss installs within ourselves and our vision, the unreconciled and irreconcilably incendiary energies streaming through that subtractive gap, that ragged scar of meaning, regard, address.
The entirety of this essay can be found, along with many other gems, in her collection Tendencies (1993)


ALL BODIES ARE MUTILATED / It's enough that I am collecting what I love

Inspired by the Fiction Prompt over at Koreanish, I have conducted my own water-witching expedition amongst my books and found seven passages that, as will likely inevitably happen, ended up flowing together into a strange yet cohesive meditation. In this case, one pondering violence and artistry, blood and bloodlessness, girls in trouble and men choking on self-loathing. None of this is really all that surprising. A lot of it is more beautiful than I remembered.

Even among those recognized as masters there are perceptible differences of accomplishment, though at a level so high that comparisons tend to take the form of arguments concerning the nature of beauty. Yet it may happen that one master stands out from the others by virtue of some scarcely to be defined yet immediately apparent quality, as our history demonstrates again and again; and as is the case at present, in the disquieting instance of Heinrich Graum.

For it is indeed of him I wish to speak, this troubled spirit who has risen up in our midst with his perilous and disturbing gift; and if I have seemed to hesitate, to linger over other matters, it is because the very nature of his art throws all into question and requires one to approach him obliquely, almost warily.

Steven Millhauser, “The New Automaton Theatre,” in
The Knife Thrower and Other Stories

I can’t feel anything she said. You could see the ghost of bone beneath all the dripping red. What if I ruined her finger? What if she couldn’t ever use it again? She’d break up with me, she icily informed me. I Didn’t Do It On Purpose! I was crying and she was telling me to shut up. She had no patience. She wasn’t crying. Two coyotes crossed the road and we almost ran them over. They were tan like the dry ground, they looked just like dogs, with soft bits of tongue slipping out of their mouths.

Michelle Tea, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption
of One Girl in America

To employ once again Nenami’s favorite metaphor, the ticket gate is like the gate of the enormous prison of society. The men, convicts serving a life sentence of penal servitude, come through the gate and, together with the invalids who have come to meet them, return home to their isolation wards. These, however, were two wives who dreaded their husbands’ release from prison. Each time the train pulled in, they felt a cold shiver of fear in their hearts. Whose husband would arrive first?

Kawabata Yasunari, “The Rainy Station,” in
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories
Lane Dunlop, trans.

“You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own”; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions; for I often noticed that living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil, we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy sweetheart, I and Annabel, Lolita and a sublime, purified, deified Harold Haze, might have discussed—an abstract idea, a painting, stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of a genuine kind. Good will! She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom, whereas I, using for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of voice that set my own last teeth on edge, provoked my audience to such outbursts of rudeness as made any further conversation impossible, oh my poor, bruised child.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita






Bush’s mind: The Cardinal’s exit should have scared Bush but only served to reify this man’s conviction that enemies were living all around him. Now, these enemies included both his own family, as he had known before, and the Pope. Bush had always recognized that his sons wanted, through inheritance, to take away the money he was earning in his presidency. I, said Bush, must preserve the economy.

As he was thinking, a young novice entered the black-hung chamber.

“Tell my daughter that I want to see her at midnight, when all the light has failed.”


(Pictures of a man, not recognizable, extracting a dead girl’s eye, then cutting off her left leg.)



Kathy Acker, My Mother: Demonology, A Novel

With ordinary treasures, what counts is the power to get them; with relics of the past, what counts is the collector's taste and his wholehearted love of them. But even compiling a catalogue does not quite set to rest Ouyang Xiu's anxieties about the future of his collection. He consoles himself in a fabricated dialogue:
Someone mocked me saying: “If a collection is large, then it will be hard to keep intact. After being assembled for a long time, it is bound to be scattered. Why are you bothering to be so painstaking?”

I replied: “It's enough that I am collecting what I love and that I will enjoy growing old among them.”

Judith Zeitlin, Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the
Chinese Classical Tale