FROM OPIUM WARS TO LIFE AFTER MAO | More Intelligent Life
Glen Magnuson, Jr.
- A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.
Harold Bloom is 84 and a little under the weather. He is one of Yale’s more famous professors (where he’s been teaching for 60 years) and the author of dozens of books (including an anthology for “Extremely Intelligent Children”), many of them best sellers, many of them fascinating and enlightening, some of them infuriating or confusing (if you are not up on your Gnostic texts or the Kabbalah), and all of them written in his unmistakable voice — imperious, sympathetic, melancholy, intimate, playful, and brilliant in both depth and breadth. Long before we were friends, and in an academic pool in which I don’t so much as dip a toe, he was also a major pot-stirrer. I gather that the admiration he expresses for many women poets, for many gay poets (“Three out of four poets in America are gay or bisexual,” he says. “More than half of all the great poets are”), for James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (“A great friend, a magnificent writer, his Invisible Man is a novel as powerful as Magic Mountain”), for the poets Jay Wright and Thylias Moss, for writers as contemporary as Don DeLillo, Carl Phillips, and Henri Cole, didn’t count for much with the opposition when he wrote The Western Canon in 1994. He was seen as a forceful, unpleasantly old-fashioned defender of the Canon As Was. As he says, he was described as someone who partook of a cult of personality or self-obsession rather than of the “special vision” of critics focused on issues of gender, color, and power — and Lacanians and deconstructionists. He coined the catchy phrase “School of Resentment” (“I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor”), and he made a lot of people understandably angry, some of whom are angry still.
Elderly, unrelated orphans, Harold and I adopted each other as cousins instantly, a few years ago, after a friend brought us together for a cup of tea. I found a more erudite version of my undaunted, acerbic, intelligent father, Murray. He saw me, fondly, as like his mother in temperament, “the marvelous Paula, warm and vibrant and loving.”
We meet regularly at the house he shares with his wife, Jeanne Gould, a retired school psychologist. It is an iconic professor’s home, with art of every kind, comfortably worn furniture, and more books than I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot of houses like these). Sometimes, while I wait for Harold to settle in, I scan the latest tower of books in front of me on the dining-room table, not even bothering with the stacks listing toward the far end, where Jeanne’s laptop sits, ready for her correspondence and Harold’s dictation.
Some of today’s stack: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, by Friedrich Schlegel (“Very important to me”); Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín (“That very well-done novel on Henry James, very good”); The Poetry of Kabbalah, by Peter Cole; Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity, by Agata Bielik-Robson (“Splendid lady”); Nothing to Declare,by Henri Cole (“Very good. The best poet of his generation”);Shakespeare’s Horses, by Joseph Harrison (“My pupil. Next to Henri Cole.”), and multiple books by authors I expect to see: Hans Jonas, Gershom Scholem, Friedrich Hölderlin.
Then there is a pile of stuffed animals on the living-room couch that belong not to their grown sons but to Jeanne and Harold. I ask, and he tells me, happily. “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth; she presides over the boys. This little toy wombat, named MacGregor, from a William Morris exhibit, it reminds me of the story about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mrs. William Morris. MacGregor, the wombat, was sent to Rossetti by an Australian admirer of that name. Whenever Rossetti visited his closest friend, William Morris, he would bring MacGregor over. William Morris loved to lie down upon the floor and play with MacGregor and draw sketches of him. During that time, the redhead Jane Burden, wife to William Morris, but endless mistress to Rossetti, would run upstairs with the painter-poet for a rapid encounter. Thus, poor MacGregor served as an unwilling pander. And this little baby gorilla, well,
we call Gorilla Gorilla. And there is that famous original A. A. Milne donkey, Eeyore, and the last of our boys here, Oscar, the duck-billed platypus, named in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde.”
we call Gorilla Gorilla. And there is that famous original A. A. Milne donkey, Eeyore, and the last of our boys here, Oscar, the duck-billed platypus, named in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde.”
We have scones and tea and we get down to talking about his new book,The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime(Spiegel & Grau). Harold can tell that I’m a little nervous. I’ve already admitted that I haven’t read the last chapter, which is as good as admitting that I don’t fully grasp the greatness of Hart Crane, whose Collected PoemsHarold has been appreciating since he was 10.
“Cousin Amy, zie gesundt. This is a family affair. This is, as the great [Isaac] Babel said, how it was done in Odessa. We are two Odessan Yiddish literary types having a conversation.”
He explains how the book came together and almost didn’t. “It took four years,” he says, “partly because, alas, there were four or five hospitalizations and two bad falls. It was a time punctuated by exhaustion, illness, the insistence on going on, on continuing to teach.”
Much of the literature he discusses in this book he has discussed in previous ones, but in The Daemon Knows, Harold wants to persuade. “Shelley said that the function of the sublime is to persuade us to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones. One purpose of this book is to emulate Shelley in regards to my own readers.” He wants, he tells me, to “aid other readers in their own personal quests to find themselves more truly through the reading of superb imaginative literature.” He emphasizespersonal.
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve written on Emily Dickinson,” he tells me. “What’s new about it, what’s really vital, is the close relationship between her and Shakespeare, who in the end is the dominant figure for her, as he should be for all of us.” The dominance of Shakespeare over all of us is not new ground for Harold, but the depth of his feeling for Dickinson is — if not new, newly burnished. He reads to me from a dense, convincing argument in The Daemon Knows and then: “After Shakespeare, she is the most original, incisive, profound thinker among all the great poets in the English language, British and America. Shakespeare writes bisexually because he writes universally,” he says. “And Dickinson has that comprehensiveness, too.” This leads us to Walt Whitman, one of the stars in the Bloomian firmament and the subject of the new book’s first chapter. “He writes with such nuance and indirection and subtlety. He longs for contact, but he fears it. He writes, ‘To touch my body to someone else’s is as much as I can bear.’ And it is a marvelous moment when he writes, in ‘To You, Whoever You Are,’ in 1856, ‘Whoever you are, I place my hand upon you, that you may be my poem.’ I cannot think of another poet who addresses the reader with this wonderful immediacy and intimacy. Oh, it breaks my heart,” he says.
Compared to some of his other books, there may not be as much hue and cry about the The Daemon Knows, and Harold doesn’t seem to mind. As tired as he is, there is snorting and a dismissive wave of his hand, for the reviews he doesn’t read but has heard about. “As someone sympathetic once said of my reviews, ‘It’s an invectorium.’ I can only write the way I teach: personally and passionately. And with this book, you see that there is nothing polemical, only the style of old age: trying to see what one still has to say.”
Mindful of the passing of friends, of everyone’s illnesses and how long people his age are likely to live, he says, “This is probably my penultimate book.” Jeanne hands me the table of contents for the next project, a “rather more complex book.” I exclaim that I’m happy to see that he’ll be writing about Elizabeth Bishop, one of my favorite poets.
“Yes, finally,” Harold says. “I’ve only written a little bit about Elizabeth Bishop before. She stayed here overnight. A very splendid person. A great poet.” And he tells me another irresistible story.
The Most Expensive Word in History
May 1, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Since 1964, The Paris Review has commissioned a series of prints and posters by major contemporary artists. Contributing artists have included Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, and William Bailey. Each print is published in an edition of sixty to two hundred, most of them signed and numbered by the artist. All have been made especially and exclusively for The Paris Review.
Among these is Aram Saroyan’s lighght print, available in our online store. The print is a record of Saroyan’s most famous poem—one among many collected in his newly reissued Complete Minimal Poems. Soon after the poem’s first publication in 1965, “lighght” engendered a surprisingly long-lived controversy, in which The Paris Review’s own George Plimpton played no small part. As Ian Daly’s terrific piece at poetry.orgexplains,
The NEA lived to cut another check, of course, but more than twenty-five years later, “Ronald Reagan was still making pejorative allusions to ‘lighght.’ That sparked Saroyan to write about the whole affair for Mother Jones in 1981, in a piece he called ‘The Most Expensive Word in History.’”Plimpton decided to include it in the second volume of The American Literary Anthology, which he was editing for the National Endowment for the Arts … Plimpton picked Saroyan’s “lighght,” so the NEA cut him a check for $750—the same as all the other authors in the anthology. The Reviewkept $250, and Saroyan kept the rest. All of which seems reasonable enough—that is, unless you judge the poem’s worth on a strictly cost-per-word basis—which is exactly what Congress did.When Representative William Scherle, a Republican from Iowa, caught wind of the one-word poem, he launched a national campaign against the indefensible wastefulness of the newly established NEA, and urged the removal of its chairperson, Nancy Hanks … Mailbags of letters from fuming taxpayers clogged the agency’s boxes, most of them variations on a theme: We can’t afford to lower taxes but we can pay some beatnik weirdo $500 to write one word…and not even spell it right?!“If my kid came home from school spelling like that,” one congressman said, according to the now-defunct arts and literature quarterly Sabine. “I would have stood him in the corner with a dunce cap.”
But our lighght print is not merely a keepsake from an ill-advised chapter in cultural politics. As Daly elegantly writes—and as none of the pols could see through the fog of their vituperation—the poem is also energetic, ineffable, beautiful:
The Paris Review’s lighght print is available here in an edition of 150.“Lighght” is something you see rather than read. Look at “lighght” as a poem and you might not get it. Look at it as a kind of photograph, and you’ll be closer. “The difference between ‘lighght’ and another type of poem with more words is that it doesn’t have a reading process,” says Saroyan, who lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at the University of Southern California … “Even a five-word poem has a beginning, middle, and end. A one-word poem doesn’t. You can see it all at once. It’s instant.”
Very Trustworthy Witnesses
October 17, 2014 | by Forrest Gander
The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.
This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.
More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves.
First Ambrose Bierce died quickly in the battle at Ojinaga, just across the border from the American town of Presidio. In his last postcard, mailed from Chihuahua City, Bierce informed his secretary that he was headed for Ojinaga. He rode with Pancho Villa’s army as they left Chihuahua City, ready to show off his soldierly skills. According to Villa’s biographer, Friedrich Katz, Bierce took up a rifle in an earlier skirmish at Tierra Blanca where he killed a Federale and, for his marksmanship, was awarded a sombrero. Both an American mercenary and a customs agent testified that they heard an old gringo was shot in the battle of Ojinaga. And a Villista named Ybarra identified a photograph of Bierce, claiming to have seen him in Ojinaga, but never again. His body was burned with hundreds of others.
A little later, Bierce, only wounded now in the battle at Ojinaga, was spotted by a young Federale who was running for his life from the breached Ojinaga fort. With a swarm of other Federales, he was aiming to cross the Rio Grande to the U.S. side. When he saw the incoherent, moaning gringo, it occurred to him that things might go better if he showed up with a norteamericano. He half-floated the old man through the shallows on a two-wheeled cart, hearing him mumble his name—Ambrosia, was it? Ambrosia Price maybe? But once they made the U.S. side, they were unceremoniously swept up with hundreds of other refugees and railroaded to Marfa for processing. The gringo was delirious by then, nearly comatose. He had no papers, no identification. When he died, he was buried in a rush without a marker in the old Camp Marfa cemetery. This narrative, published in 1990 in the Big Bend Sentinel and later in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, was related to one Abelardo Sanchez of Lancaster, California, by a sixty-something-year-old hitchhiker and former Federale in 1957.
It was not long after his death in Marfa that Ambrose Bierce was killed near the village of Icamole when he and an Indian muleteer were the only ones who didn’t escape as Villa’s forces overran a party of government soldiers driving a mule train loaded with arms. This time Bierce was riding with the Federales. Both prisoners were executed by a firing squad under the orders of General Tomas Urbina. That’s what journalist James H. Wilkins asserted in his front-page article in San Francisco’s The Bulletin in March 1920. Wilkins had gone to Mexico and personally interviewed a witness who had managed to snatch a photo of a man—identified as Bierce—along with a few other personal possessions from the corpse before it was abandoned, unburied, in the desert.
I kept up a two-year correspondence with Padre Jaime Lienert, who served as pastor to a wide desert community that included Sierra Mojada, an isolated mountain town, where Ambrose Bierce was killed once again by suspicious government soldiers. Padre Jaime paid to have a monument erected in the cemetery that reads:
Very trustworthy witnesses suppose
that here lie the remains of
1842 Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce 1914
a famous American writer and journalist who
on suspicion of being a spy
was executed and buried at this place.
It turns out that the oldest man in Sierra Mojada, Don Jesus (Chuy) Benites Avila, happened to remember an incident from his childhood. Padre Jaime translates:
One morning when I was just a boy, a close pal of mine, Crysostomo, the son of Marcelo de Anda, the Comandante, came running up to me saying to come along because they were going to put someone to the firing squad. So we went to the corral of the soldiers’ quarters, and while we were there a soldier came up to the captain and said: “We have him, and everything is ready.” With that the captain dispatched several other soldiers, and everyone headed down toward the cemetery. There were a lot of other people following, too, and when we got to the cemetery the soldiers made everyone stand back as far as the stone wall. Then they stood the man against the wall and shot him.
Don Chuy remembered that the man was an American and was called El Ruso.
Backing up Don Chuy’s story, a soldier-journalist and contemporary of Ambrose Bierce, Edward (Tex) O’Reilly, wrote in his autobiography that while he was traveling with Villa’s commander Toribio Ortega, they heard rumors that a small bunch of Federales had taken Sierra Mojada. Ortega sent four hundred men “to clear them out.” Those soldiers returned with a story that an American had been killed there, so O’Reilly, thinking he should report the incident to the U.S. State Department, went to investigate. He ascertained that an old gringo had shown up with maps, asking questions about trails and how to reach Villa’s army. The Federales, who weren’t in uniform, suspected he was a spy. Not speaking Spanish, he couldn’t answer their questions, so they dragged him to the cemetery where they shot and buried him. O’Reilly, taken to the house where the dead man had been staying, asked the owner if any personal effects had been left behind. According to O’Reilly, “The old fellow reached up behind a rafter on the wall and brought out two old empty envelopes left by the Americano, and they were both addressed to Ambrose Bierce.”
As multiple sequoia trunks can erupt from a large stump, many deaths can befall a single man. There are some who say that Ambrose Bierce didn’t die in Mexico, that he traveled southward into Latin America as he once said he would. Others have mentioned that the handsome middle-aged Bierce looks suspiciously like Mexican American writer and journalist Francisco Goldman, implying perhaps that Bierce discovered an occult serum to age him slowly youthward, his literary style changing with the times. A past forks into innumerable directions.
Forrest Gander is an award-winning poet, novelist and translator. His numerous books include As a Friend, Science & Steepleflower, Core Samples from the World, and The Trace, which will be published in November. He is the A. K. Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University.
“What do we see when we read (other than the words on the page)?” asks Peter Mendelsund in a welcome and fascinating new book. Or more precisely, “What do we picture in our minds?”
Do we see Anna Karenina with her shining gray eyes under thick lashes, her faint smile and red lips; or Uriah Heep with his red eyes, red hair, dinted nostrils, and lank forefinger? Or Captain Ahab, who “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them”? Certainly this sounds vivid enough. But do we see him?
Mendelsund is convinced that readers already know, or think they know, the answer to this question. “When we remember the experience of reading a book,” he tells us—and throughout What We See When We Read he assumes that this experience is more or less the same for everyone—“We imagine a continuous unfolding of images.” And again, “When we read it is important that we believe we are seeing everything.”
Apparently we have a vested interest in supposing that we are capable of projecting a kind of continuous movie of the events in a novel, or indeed the events of our own past experience, to the point that we find it “terrifying and disorienting that we can’t recapitulate the world in perfect facsimile.” We must possess the world, visually, in our minds.
Art Director at Knopf and a highly respected book-cover designer, Mendelsund himself has an investment in all things visual and sometimes seems to think of visualizing as a necessary part of reading, a sort of proof of our readerly abilities: “I wonder,” he says, speaking of the reader’s passage from illustrated children’s books to adult novels, “if we … need, over time, to learn how to picture narratives unassisted.” Ironically, the least successful aspect of his book is its own obtrusive use of visual “support.” When Mendelsund talks about the timing involved in literary description, the fact that a novelist might withhold one feature of a character’s appearance for many pages—something a film can’t easily do and that readers will instantly recognize—he gives us a photo of a digital wristwatch. It is more a distraction, exhibitionism even, than an “illustration.”
The problem is that upon close examination the reading experience is far more complex and far less visual than is commonly supposed, or than Mendelsund supposes is commonly supposed. One of the pleasures of his book is his honesty and perplexity at the discovery that every account he offers of the process of visualization very quickly falls apart under pressure. We do not really “see” characters such as Anna Karenina or Captain Ahab, he concludes, or indeed the places described in novels, and insofar as we do perhaps see or glimpse them, what we are seeing is something we have imagined, not what the author saw. Even when there are illustrations, as in many nineteenth-century novels, they only impose their view of the characters very briefly. A couple of pages later they have become as fluid and vague as so much of visual memory. At one point Mendelsund posits the idea that perhaps we read in order not to be oppressed by the visual, in order not to see.
So what do we see when we read? First the page, of course, and the words printed on it. No “image” we have of the characters or settings will ever be as concrete, as indisputably and continuously present, as the solid book, or e-reader, itself. Meantime, characters and places are given to us in discontinuous fragments—this kind of nose, that kind of hair, a scar, a limp, a grimace—and in a process that Mendelsund recognizes as having a lot to do with memory we come to have the impression that we know this sort of person, this sort of place. “A man of about forty-five,” says Orwell of Big Brother, “with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features,” and we are satisfied we could pick out the man in a police lineup. Just find the guy who looks like Stalin.
So the faculty of recognition is important. The novelist says “wry smile” and we are satisfied we know what a wry smile is because we have attached those words to someone’s smile in the past. But do we visualize, or picture this smile? Mendelsund never really puts any pressure on these words—visualize, picture—which curiously do not have parallels for the other senses. There is no word for our deliberately recreating sounds or smells or touch or taste in our heads, as if it was generally accepted that memories of these other sensory experiences are more passive, while visually we can actively reconstruct an experience.
But can we? If I think of people I know, even those closest to me, the shadowy impression I have of their faces, bodies, gaits, has nothing of the intensity, immediacy, and solidity of their real presence. They may “flash upon that inward eye,” as daffodils did for Wordsworth, at the most unexpected moments, in a kind of echo of their presence, but this is not something I can control and it doesn’t last, it can’t be sustained. Often our visual memory is a sort of liminal waiting for the known person to appear: we stand at the airport arrival’s gate thinking of the son or daughter who is returning home. They are vaguely there, in our minds, waiting to be recognized, to become real. But we don’t see them yet.
More banally we may stand at the luggage collection carousel watching endless bags tumble onto the belt. We hold in our minds a shadowy idea of our own bag. Then suddenly it is there and the effort of “visualizing” ceases. Perhaps we realize that the bag is not quite as we remembered it. There are three zips not two. Or at least this is my experience. And when I read, I do not so much see the characters and the places as feel satisfied that if they were to appear to me I would recognize them. Hence our discomfort when we see the film of the book and the actors look nothing like the people we supposed we knew.
In general, as Mendelsund points out, the act of visualizing, struggling to see something that isn’t there, depends largely on semantics, on words. It is verbal as much as visual. If I’m sitting in a park by a river, close my eyes, and try to visualize the scene, I say to myself, river, trees, benches, and I seek to place them in relation to each other, though no idea I build up in my mind will compare with the intense presence of the scene when I open my eyes again. Quite simply, we do not possess the world, visually, in our minds. And if there is no word corresponding to visualize for the other senses—it may be because the other sensory experiences are verbally more difficult to reconstruct: of a smell we could say it was sweet, it was sour, or we could say the name we have given it, musk, lavender, but we cannot piece it together bit by bit, as we might a tree, thinking trunk, bark, branches, leaves, etc. An old half-forgotten smell may flash upon us with great intensity, but it is difficult to evoke at will, difficult even to trick ourselves into believing we can evoke it.
“The practice of reading,” Mendelsund says, “feels like and is like consciousness itself: imperfect; partial; hazy; co-creative.” This seems astonishing to me. My consciousness of the environment about me has nothing hazy or partial about it at all. As I type now, screen, fingers, keyboard, and the room around are all very present and wonderfully real, at least so long as I keep my eyes open. Perhaps Mendelsund means that our experience while reading, or on remembering what we have read, feels like our normal apprehension of all that is not immediately present to us, the places and people we try to imagine when we are far away from them. The reading process reactivates patterns of past experience to create new stories, pseudo-memories, in our minds.
But if we are not actually visualizing the people and places we read about in novels, what is the function of literary description? Quoting Nabokov on Dickens and his “intensely sensuous imagery,” Mendelsund gives these lines from Bleak House: “When the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea…” and Nabokov’s enthusiastic response: “these silvery pools in the dark sea offer something that Dickens noted for the very first time with the innocent and sensuous eye of the true artist, saw and immediately put into words.”
Mendelsund is unconvinced. The specificity of an image sparks our recognition and convinces us the author is attentive to a world we know and share. But it doesn’t really make us see. What neither man mentions is that Dickens always gives us lead characters—David Copperfield, Pip in Great Expectations—whose moods oscillate between gloomy depression and bright cheerfulness— and that these states are frequently evoked with references to weather and landscape. The description is part of an emotional pattern, what Mendelsund calls a “play of elements.” Its meaning is other than its visual content.
More generally, descriptions are exercises in voice and part of the overall verbal enchantment—literally, “entering into chant”—that Mendelsund never really discusses in his book and which remains, for me at least, the central experience when we read good fiction. Here is a passage he quotes from Huckleberry Finn. The phrases in square brackets show a few words that Mendelsund omits:
The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softened up away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; [you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts]; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds come so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off of the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log-cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other side of the river
Mendelsund remarks that the accumulation of detail in the passage doesn’t help one “see it all”: “I saw the dull, line, and then the spreading paleness, and then I heard a screaking, and then voices, and then I saw the current…” The passage has a rhetorical power, he says, not a combinatory visual power. He is right about the rhetoric, but it is strange that he presents this as somehow a disappointment. To me it seems a triumph. What we have is a description of drifting down a river where things do come at you one after another, not all at once (the section he omits clinches that). As we read it we enter into Huck’s distinctive voice, his earnest wakefulness, his constant concern that the river will throw up some unhappy surprise. A powerful suspense is generated (the passage continues for a couple of pages) in a manner that reminds us that fiction began in the oral tradition of the spellbinding voice, the voice that allows us to entertain the illusion that we have seen things we have not seen and heard things we have not heard, and in general participated in the experience of someone we never met except through this dazzle of words on the page, which are the only things we ever truly see when we read.
Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read is published by Vintage.
From The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health, by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, PhDs. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, 2015.
A primal connection exists between our brain and our gut. We often talk about a “gut feeling” when we meet someone for the first time. We’re told to “trust our gut instinct” when making a difficult decision or that it’s “gut check time” when faced with a situation that tests our nerve and determination. This mind-gut connection is not just metaphorical. Our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback about how hungry we are, whether or not we’re experiencing stress, or if we’ve ingested a disease-causing microbe. This information superhighway is called the brain-gut axis and it provides constant updates on the state of affairs at your two ends. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach after looking at your postholiday credit card bill is a vivid example of the brain-gut connection at work. You’re stressed and your gut knows it—immediately.
The enteric nervous system is often referred to as our body’s second brain. There are hundreds of million of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system, the part of the nervous system that is tasked with controlling the gastrointestinal system. This vast web of connections monitors the entire digestive tract from the esophagus to the anus. The enteric nervous system is so extensive that it can operate as an independent entity without input from our central nervous system, although they are in regular communication. While our “second” brain cannot compose a symphony or paint a masterpiece the way the brain in our skull can, it does perform an important role in managing the workings of our inner tube. The network of neurons in the gut is as plentiful and complex as the network of neurons in our spinal cord, which may seem overly complex just to keep track of digestion. Why is our gut the only organ in our body that needs its own “brain”? Is it just to manage the process of digestion? Or could it be that one job of our second brain is to listen in on the trillions of microbes residing in the gut?
Operations of the enteric nervous system are overseen by the brain and central nervous system. The central nervous system is in communication with the gut via the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system, the involuntary arm of the nervous system that controls heart rate, breathing, and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is tasked with the job of regulating the speed at which food transits through the gut, the secretion of acid in our stomach, and the production of mucus on the intestinal lining. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis, is another mechanism by which the brain can communicate with the gut to help control digestion through the action of hormones.
This circuitry of neurons, hormones, and chemical neurotransmitters not only sends messages to the brain about the status of our gut, it allows for the brain to directly impact the gut environment. The rate at which food is being moved and how much mucus is lining the gut—both of which can be controlled by the central nervous system—have a direct impact on the environmental conditions the microbiota experiences.
Like any ecosystem inhabited by competing species, the environment within the gut dictates which inhabitants thrive. Just as creatures adapted to a moist rain forest would struggle in the desert, microbes relying on the mucus layer will struggle in a gut where mucus is exceedingly sparse and thin. Bulk up the mucus, and the mucus-adapted microbes can stage a comeback. The nervous system, through its ability to affect gut transit time and mucus secretion, can help dictate which microbes inhabit the gut. In this case, even if the decisions are not conscious, it’s mind over microbes.
What about the microbial side? When the microbiota adjusts to a change in diet or to a stress-induced decrease in gut transit time, is the brain made aware of this modification? Does the brain-gut axis run in one direction only, with all signals going from brain to gut, or are some signals going the other way? Is that voice in your head that is asking for a snack coming from your mind or is it emanating from the insatiable masses in your bowels? Recent evidence indicates that not only is our brain “aware” of our gut microbes, but these bacteria can influence our perception of the world and alter our behavior. It is becoming clear that the influence of our microbiota reaches far beyond the gut to affect an aspect of our biology few would have predicted—our mind.
For example, the gut microbiota influences the body’s level of the potent neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates feelings of happiness. Some of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. for treating anxiety and depression, like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil, work by modulating levels of serotonin. And serotonin is likely just one of a numerous biochemical messengers dictating our mood and behavior that the microbiota impacts.