Category Archives: Fiction

Iceberg aesthetics

In Death in the Afternoon, his book on Spanish bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway famously compared his laconic writing to an iceberg. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about,” Hemingway says, “he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” True to this understated style, Hemingway delivers his iceberg metaphor with no transition or embellishment: “The dignity of movement of an ice-berg,” he says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”*

Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” subsequently became a shorthand definition of the author’s narrative technique, and by extension the work of others, like Raymond Carver, who aim for similar spare allusiveness. Among such minimalist writers, Hemingway’s writing is distinctive, though, for its characteristic tension between persistent omission and equally insistent repetition, as seen in the “iceberg” quote itself, which uses several words two times or more. On a broader thematic level this pattern of repetition and absence, a kind of terse circumlocution, corresponds to the way the author’s major themes and obsessions seem to be not merely understated but suspiciously hidden or, indeed, repressed, which has created a minor industry, in Hemingway scholarship, of literary-psychological exegesis.

There are other puzzling things in Hemingway’s work that cannot, however, be readily attributed to an author’s more-or-less willful omissions or latent psycho-sexual dynamics. As if emerging from below the text’s surface, such meanings testify instead to the force of history exerting a kind of retroactive significance on the cultural artifact. To pursue these historical meanings is perhaps to widen the ambit of “paranoia-criticism” and expose secrets that exceed the author’s intent, unconscious or otherwise. Primary among these historical meanings is the mounting threat of climate change, that belated aftereffect of modernity — and modernism –, whose evidence today is making us confront, like traumatized subjects, the distant source of our ills. And here of course Hemingway’s iceberg becomes newly suggestive.


“Iceberg” is a word likely borrowed from the Dutch ijsberg, meaning “ice mountain.” The semantic resonance of the word, with all that it implies of cold enormity and weirdly joined contraries — stillness and motion, solidity and transience — no doubt explains its lasting attachment to Hemingway’s macho persona and pithy style. The specific metaphorical sense Hemingway evokes of a hidden bulk of meaning — his submerged seven-eighths — appears shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out. In this way, death, disaster and the unconscious are packed into a modern cultural password already fully formed in 1916, the year Hemingway published his first piece of writing. As the OED puts it, citing a contemporary source, “reason in men is only the very tip of their iceberg of mental life.”

Iceberg suspected of sinking the Titanic (Wikimedia)

These fatal themes are condensed in the image of the African volcano that dominates one of Hemingway’s best-known and most accomplished pieces of fiction, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” The eponymous mountain plays an unmistakably symbolic role in the short story, but in a more subtle way the tapering white summit above the volcano’s massive bulk also evokes the proverbial iceberg’s tip. With its ecologically isolated biomes rising far above the savannah, the “inselberg” of Kilimanjaro is topped not only by snow but secular glaciers. Moreover, as a dormant volcano, Kilimanjaro embodies the threat of a moving mountain, recalling in this way the “dignity of movement” Hemingway singles out as an iceberg’s main attribute. Finally, that movement is linked to the possibility of heat and thus melting — just as an iceberg in motion heads invariably toward obliteration.

Despite these suggestions of transience and movement, the volcano’s snow-tipped summit in Hemingway’s story is paired to themes of timelessness — albeit a timelessness beyond life. But this tension between eternity and finality reflects the story’s conflicted crux: the ambiguous death-in-life of literary posterity desired by Hemingway’s fictional alter-ego Harry. Confined to camp with a life-threatening infection, Harry, a washed-up writer on safari, is tormented above all by the thought of the works he may never write should he die. Harry’s frustrated ambition is conveyed in the story’s epigraph that speaks of a leopard found frozen at the mountain’s summit, emblem of fateful striving and incorruptible death. The story’s conclusion makes this connection abundantly clear, as the last thoughts of a dying Harry transport him to the shining, frozen mountaintop: “there was where he was going.”


It is an irony Hemingway could hardly have anticipated — or even indeed imagined — that his most striking emblems of the aesthetic ideal, combining timeless permanence with cold, compact solidity, are symbols now of evanescence and threatening change. Thanks to significant media coverage, notably Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it is well known today that the glaciers of Kilimanjaro are melting and expected to fully disappear in the near future. Likewise, polar icebergs are no longer Hemingway’s dignified emissaries of eternally frozen wastelands but alarming signs of ecological collapse.

It might seem anachronistic, then, in the light of Hemingway’s necessarily restricted viewpoint, his distance from our disasters, to read future threats in texts of his that could not possibly anticipate them. And yet, in writings from the period of “Snows,” Hemingway explicitly seeks a temporal viewpoint that extends both into the prehistoric past, a time “before man,” as he puts it, and into an apparently posthuman future, after “all the systems of governments” are gone, an entropic vision that verges on the ecological.*** In this light we could argue that critical anachronism is no error of interpretation or paranoid fabulation but inheres to our subject itself. Human and geological tempos collide; as Andreas Malm neatly puts it, “climate change is a messy mix-up of time scales.”****

This “mix-up” of time, pace and chronology is precisely one of the signal achievements of “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the key to its enduring success. Although Hemingway staked his reputation on his novels, his short stories better reflect his innovative style. “Snows” perhaps demonstrates this best of all. The theme of the story — the writer’s regret at all he has not written — epitomizes the conflict between Hemingway’s two main genres: if the novel remains Hemingway’s failed achievement, his short stories overcome that deficit, but only by making their unwriting — the bulk of the iceberg — their secret force and suggestiveness.

The compact coldness of Hemingway’s strongest writing is vividly conveyed in the almost telegraphic cursive passages in “Snows” where Harry’s racing memories revisit “the things he had saved to write” (42). Major episodes of Hemingway’s own life are compressed here as if preserved in ice, and with them, large swathes of history too, from the Paris Commune through WWI and including even the heroic legacy of polar exploration — the latter strikingly condensed in the single evocative surname of Nansen. Snow in these passages is palpably insistent and dazzling, “so bright it hurt your eyes,” Hemingway says, and accordingly, the word’s strobing flashes cast an intermittent blackness:

That was one of the things he had saved to write, with, in the morning at breakfast, looking out the window and seeing snow on the mountains in Bulgaria and Nansen’s Secretary asking the old man if it were snow and the old man looking at it and saying, No, that’s not snow. It’s too early for snow. And the Secretary repeating to the other girls, No you see. It’s not snow and them all saying, It’s not snow we were mistaken. But it was the snow all right and he sent them on into it when he evolved exchange of populations. And it was snow they tramped along in until they died that winter.

The great scientist, inventor and sportsman Fridtjof Nansen, record-setting explorer of the North Pole and first to cross the Greenland ice-cap, appears here in his humanitarian role after WWI as advocate and defender of refugees and displaced persons. In referring to Nansen as the “old man” not only once but twice, and casting him, quite improbably, as unable to judge the threat of snowy weather, Hemingway compacts into the vignette the enigma of his rivalrous toxic masculinity and his near-inexplicable self-destructiveness. This simmering violence adds to the retrospective resonance of the passage, as it is more than a little uncanny to see Hemingway’s iceberg prose combine the eminent incarnation of polar discovery with numberless “populations” of refugees. But the uncanny is always untimely. In Hemingway’s displaced persons we recognize the forerunners of today’s homeless and precarious populations, and the first waves of climate refugees, the lead characters of our apocalyptic future on a warming planet. Reading Hemingway, we too are displaced persons, unsettled and disoriented, scanning backward in his texts the tight-closed germs of today’s growing calamities.


In a often-quoted passage from “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin makes the striking claim that “the storyteller … has borrowed his authority from death.” This borrowed authority seems amply displayed in Hemingway’s imagined death on safari. Less cited is the next sentence of Benjamin’s: “In other words,” the critic says, “it is natural history to which his stories refer back.” Benjamin argues that the distinctive temporality of prose narratives — especially those with a link to oral traditions — is tied to rhythms that are longer, deeper, and therefore disjunct with mere life-stories. As an example, Benjamin recounts a tale in which a groom dies in the mines on the eve of his wedding, but whose body is kept intact over the years in a mineral solution until the day his bride, an old woman now, witnesses the exhumation of her handsome young suitor.

Southern glacier and ice field, Mt. Kilimanjaro

Benjamin’s illustration of “natural history” might strike today’s reader as strangely familiar, as similar anecdotes have been cropping up in recent news. But unlike in the German fable these incidents are not so much wondrous as alarming. In melting glaciers around the world, from Everest to the Alps, the near-magical preservation and re-emergence of bodies frozen in the ice has become a gruesome warning signal of climate change. In 1991 the naturally-mummified body of Ötsi, the 5,000 year-old Iceman, emerged from a glacier in the Tyrolean Alps; In 1999, the “remarkably well preserved body” of George Mallory was found near the summit of Everest. And in 2013, a pair of Austrian soldiers from WWI were found on Presena glacier. Casualties of the alpine conflict between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the soldiers were contemporaries of Hemingway, who served as an ambulance-driver with the Italians during the “White War.”

According to The Telegraph, the discovery of the soldiers proves that history “lives on, thanks to the preserving properties of ice.” In her 2018 book The Library of Ice, Nancy Campbell views this episode of historical recovery somewhat differently, connecting it to Hemingway’s formative war experience as related in A Farewell to Arms. For Campbell, the preserving qualities of ice are more ambiguous and shifting in the era of climate change; like the art of Giacometti that “reduced his models to their sparest elements,” Hemingway’s iceberg aesthetics may only leave us with perishable, mangled fragments of history, “disordered bodies merged now in a single mass.”***** Here Benjamin’s “natural history” is turned against us, no longer the “sanction,” like death, of reliable cycles of time. Likewise it defies our inherited tales of life, survival and posterity, disgorging the past into a dubious future. We might imagine Hemingway’s alter-ego Harry, would-be figure of timeless literary posterity, as similar: an untimely corpse released to the corrupting elements by Kilimanjaro’s Furtwängler glacier.

Obsolescent as they may be, tales of “natural history” such as Benjamin describes continue to have a dangerous hold on us. Dangerous because the narrative habits that sustain our redemptive notions of enduring memory and cyclical or progressive time may be fundamentally at odds with the terminal conditions we confront in climate change. One therefore reads with despairing amazement the words of the doyen of landscape theory, geographer Denis Cosgrove, who, in a magisterial account of the idea of the “symbolic landscape” in contemporary critical thought, summarily discounts the pertinence of environmentalism to our knowledge of man’s relationship to nature. Cosgrove scoffingly asserts that “Any sensitivity to the history of landscape and its representations in the Western tradition forces the recognition that human history is one of constant environmental modification, manipulation, destruction and creation, both imaginative and material.”******

Apparently, knowledge of the past imposes on us, “even today,” as Cosgrove notably insists, an implacable historical pattern with which to understand the present. This is conservatism as antiphrasis and history as alibi, and both are enabled by implicit narrative assumptions. Those structuring assumptions are continuity (“constant environmental modification”) and cyclical order (“destruction and creation”), where that last word, in a surreptitiously redemptive move, overtakes and supplants the negating force of the former. It seems especially fitting, then, that in Cosgrove’s fable of natural history the time-honored belief in such a cyclical and constant “process” is one that, like Benjamin’s sleeping suitor, is, as the geographer puts it, “deposited deep in myth and memory.” These words, it must be noted, were written a full eight years after the IPCC’s First Assessment Report warned that recent temperature anomalies had not been seen on Earth in 10,000 years.

Climate change has prompted a recent vogue in scholarship showing the influence of weather and climate on various events in history. In a brisk challenge to such studies, Andreas Malm argues that the point is not to look for the role of climate in history, but instead to consider the role played by history in transforming the climate. It might be said that our reassessment of Hemingway shares more with the former, and that we have done little more than shown how the Holocene left its mark on one man’s writing life. If so, we will be in good company; future readers will do the same, no doubt, distracted by the muted yet insistent hints of enviably mild weather wafting from between the lines of virtually any text penned in the past. Those readers will not be kind to Hemingway’s archetypical heroes roaming foreign wilds to claim big game for sport.

And yet Hemingway’s tragic vision highlights temporal conundrums that climate change has only exacerbated. How can one grasp finality within the relentless ongoingness of the present? How can one reconcile the brief span of one’s life to a broader responsibility on geological time scales? The author’s narrative evocations of snow and ice point to dilemmas that go well beyond his ordinary themes of heroism and adventure. If these are ‘existential’ questions, our human sense of lived time may be sadly mismatched with climate end-times. In this way we are all like the people living next to one of the world’s fastest-melting glaciers: as the Guardian reports, “locals cannot believe it will die because their own existence is intertwined with it.”


“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” was inspired by the author’s safari in Kenya and Tanzania in 1933. In his autobiographical account of the trip, Green Hills of Africa (1934), a striking passage embroiders on another image of enduring nature. Like the iceberg in Death in the Afternoon and the snow-topped summit in “Snows,” the suggestiveness of this figure has only increased with time. Anticipating the themes of Hemingway’s famous later works, including The Old Man and the Sea, it also echoes the writerly metacommentary of Death in the Afternoon, and as if to underscore its latent importance, it is found at the dead center of the safari, like the motionless eye of a spinning ocean gyre.

That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written in that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion, and when, on the sea, you are alone with it and know that this Gulf Stream you are living with, knowing, learning about, and loving, has moved, as it moves, since before man, and that it has gone by the shoreline of that long, beautiful, unhappy island since before Columbus sighted it and that the things you find out about it, and those that have always lived in it are permanent and of value because that stream will flow, as it has flowed, after the Indians, after the Spaniards, after the British, after the Americans and after all the Cubans and all the systems of governments, the richness, the poverty, the martyrdom, the sacrifice and the venality and the cruelty are all gone as the high-piled scow of garbage, bright-colored, white-flecked, ill-smelling, now tilted on its side, spills off its load into the blue water, turning it a pale green to a depth of four or five fathoms as the load spreads across the surface, the sinkable part going down and the flotsam of palm fronds, corks, bottles, and used electric light globes, seasoned with an occasional condom or a deep floating corset, the torn leaves of a student’s exercise book, a well-inflated dog, the occasional rat, the no-longer-distinguished cat; all this well shepherded by the boats of the garbage pickers who pluck their prizes with long poles, as interested, as intelligent, and as accurate as historians; they have the viewpoint; the stream, with no visible flow, takes five loads of this a day when things are going well in La Habana and in ten miles along the coast it is as clear and blue and unimpressed as it was ever before the tug hauled out the scow; and the palm fronds of our victories, the worn light bulbs of our discoveries and the empty condoms of our great loves float with no significance against one single, lasting thing — the stream.

The passage mimes its subject in the run-on flow of phrasing, while the description of random offal contrasts with what Hemingway calls the “permanent” and “lasting” force of the natural ocean stream. The passage certainly does not count among Hemingway’s finest. Its chief interest lies in its failures. Notably, Hemingway cannot help frame his evocation of entropy and loss with an image of eternity. The Shakespearean resonance of Hemingway’s “four or five fathoms” surely calls up The Tempest’s magical premise of “sea-change,” in which an apparent calamity at sea gives way to a message of transformation and enduring life. In spite of its grim disenchantment, then, the passage offers a redemptive message that owes something to the deep pull of metaphysics. But we might also attribute that conservative force to the Holocene, whose moderating climate allowed Hemingway to see nature as a circular force of recurrence and regeneration.

Needless to say, Hemingway’s claim that pollution amounts to nothing in the larger scheme of things has been proven sadly mistaken. Far from being an indomitable force of perpetual recurrence, a Gulf Stream warmed by greenhouse gases is contributing to rapid glacial melt in the Arctic. Icebergs are calving at unprecedented rates, and recent studies have suggested that the rate of melting in the Arctic may be 10 to 100 times faster than previously thought. This year saw a record-breaking hurricane Dorian, swollen in size by a sluggish, overheated Gulf Stream. And the slowing Stream threatens the North Atlantic’s entire circulatory system as melting Arctic freshwater pours into its path; some forecasts anticipate the Stream halting in the near future.

This month a memorial plaque was mounted at Ok, a volcano in Iceland, at the upper bend of the Gulf Stream. The glacier was recently declared dead. In highlighting the challenge of putting into words a eulogy for a glacier, a supposed “symbol of eternity,” the author of the memorial text notably faults literature for providing him poor counsel. Nor does any broader narrative notion of drama provide any help. “A dying glacier is not a dramatic event,” the author points out. With natural history turned on its head, the storyteller is at a loss for story.


*Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner, 1999 [1932]), 153-4.

**Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987), 56.

***Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935), 150, 149.

****Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (New York: Verso, 2016), 8.

*****Nancy Campbell, The Library of Ice: Readings From a Cold Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).

******Denis E. Cosgrove, “Introduction to Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape” in DeLue and Elkins, Landscape Theory (New York: Routledge, 2008), 37.


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Backtalk (on George Saunders)

The Frankenstein monster spoke French. Despite what we may have read in Mary Shelley’s novel, the creature did not begin his famous diatribe by saying “All men hate the wretched,” and asking the doctor “have I not suffered enough?”* Instead, he would have said something to the effect of “Tous les hommes haïssent les misérables” and “n’ai-je pas assez souffert?” Likewise, the creature never declared that “mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery,” but more likely said “Mon sort ne sera pas celui de asservissement misérable.” As for the threats he made against the doctor and his loved ones (“I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear”), he probably said something like: “Je me vengerai du tort qu’on m’a fait; si je ne puis inspirer l’amour, je provoquerai l’effroi.” And the creature’s most ominous warning must have been: “Je serai avec vous votre nuit de noces.”

This linguistic premise is of course built into the novel’s basic plot; the doctor hails from a French-speaking Swiss family, and in his choice of tongue the monster takes after his creator. But Shelley’s narrative gambit requires that the reader imagine everything the creature says as voiced otherwise than we see on the page. Moreover, we can suppose that the creature’s verbal mannerisms must have been quite different, too, as his speech is reported second hand by Frankenstein, his nemesis, and relayed third-hand by the doctor’s friend, captain Walton. Like his anatomy, then, the creature’s words in Frankenstein are fundamentally and irretrievably deformed.

Even putting aside the doctor’s unarguable malice toward his creature, the text’s infidelity to the monster’s words leads to an ethical conundrum. A sympathetic reader may claim to understand the monster’s motives, but we cannot claim to ever “hear” him. And a sympathetic ear is precisely what the monster requests of us. “I intreat you to hear me” (145), he says. “Listen to my tale; when you have heard that, abandon or commiserate me, as you shall judge that I deserve. But hear me” (146). The creature insists on this listening no less than six times. “Listen to me, Frankenstein,” he implores the doctor. And as if turning aside to the reader, he drops the surname to repeat, “listen to me.”

Ecoutez-moi, Frankenstein. Ecoutez-moi.

We have to suspend our disbelief to accept Shelley’s fictional premise that a creature only one year old could speak such eloquent lines. The author goes to some lengths to render this idea plausible and makes the monster’s awakening to conscience an allegory of enlightenment reason and the romantic imagination. A blank slate of confused sensory impressions, the newly-created monster stumbles upon a humble cottage in the German countryside and takes refuge in its adjoining “kennel,” as he calls it (mon chenil(?)). From his hiding-place he is able to observe the cottagers through a chink in a boarded-up window, eventually learning to speak good French, for, as it happens, the residents are exiled Parisians of high breeding who have fallen on dark times. He listens and watches closely as the young man in the family reads historical tomes aloud to his lover and in this way he learns to read books himself, including, not so shabby, Paradise Lost and The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Fox 8 cover (detail). Illustration by Chelsea Cardinal

This educational premise of Shelley’s is taken up by George Saunders in his short story “Fox 8,” which was recently republished as a hardbound volume with illustrations. The fox who narrates the story is an inquisitive dreamer who one day hears “the most amazing sound” coming through a window, and he is inspired to learn human speech by returning to the house every night and listening in on the bedtime stories a mother reads to her children.** Soon enough our protagonist is disconcerted to learn that foxes are maligned in human stories — a bitter discovery that presages many disappointments to come. Like Frankenstein, Saunders’ tale is the righteous vindication of a hunted, misunderstood outcast and an indictment of humanity’s reckless domination of nature. Appearing as it did at the end of 2018, Fox 8 is a fitting addition to the year’s bicentennial celebrations of Shelley’s novel; Frankenstein was released on January 1, 1818. Why, then, has no-one noticed the parallels?

The oversight is striking given that Fox 8 deftly targets the ethical conundrum of Frankenstein‘s linguistic infidelity, its implicit silencing of the monster’s own speech. Saunders, in contrast to Shelley, turns the distinctive inarticulateness of his narrator into a major premise of the tale. Whereas in Frankenstein we can only imagine and fatally misrepresent the words of the creature, Saunders foregrounds his creature’s own words and in so doing makes the experience of reading into a strangely pleasurable challenge. Like Fox 8 himself, the reader must learn to speak a new language.

One day, walking neer one of your Yuman houses, smelling all the interest with snout, I herd, from inside, the most amazing sound. Turns out, what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice, making werds. They sounded grate! They sounded like prety music! I listened to those music werds until the sun went down, when all of a suden I woslike: Fox 8, crazy nut, when sun goes down, werld goes dark, skedaddle home, or else there can be danjer!

Fox 8 at his “Story window.” Illustration by C. Cardinal

This apparent demotion of English is deceptively simple. Fox 8’s misfirings hit surprising targets (“I herd”; “They sounded grate!”) and his solecisms (“woslike”) seem perfectly warranted by the idiomatic speech they adopt as their own. Even the limping grammar, closely based as well on current vernacular, is highly suggestive (“what that sound is, was: the Yuman voice”): doesn’t the phrase is, was condense the essential gambit of narrative art, the storyteller’s near-magical wielding of narrative presents and present pasts? It seems not so farfetched to make this claim, as Saunders’ tale plumbs the primordial source of “storys” and enchants us like the children Fox 8 eavesdrops on from outside the window (4).

This is very much a story about storytelling; Fox 8’s innocent sincerity allows Saunders to foreground narration and metafiction, as when the protagonist charmingly but clumsily refers to conventions of suspense, to a venerable quote from Dickens, or chides other “buks” for being “fawlse” in various ways. Most importantly, Fox 8 learns that narrative is a way of teaching empathy: he finds out early on that Storys and luv always go together (4). For this reason, too, “a gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story” (12), a bid for righteous sympathy that takes on Byronic dimensions, as when Fox 8 says, “I woslike: Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” (37-8). Surely not a rhetorical question?

Saunders is hardly the first to raise lofty existential questions in childlike narrative. But the writer’s unique gifts can be seen in Fox 8‘s sudden shifts of affect and the subtle turns and shadings of empathetic feeling. This is a signature of Saunders’ work — its specific “curativity,” as Fox 8 might say. But the distinct aesthetic challenge and unlikely triumph of this little book lies in the jarring and disorienting way that Saunders can make silliness convey heartbreak and tragedy. Against all odds Fox 8’s goofy malapropisms and zany daydreams rise to the level of the Frankenstein monster’s stentorian flak. But that impressive monologue was badly deformed, we’re guessing, by Shelley’s romantic English. Saunders, in contrast, shows us that we can hear and empathize with people and other beings who do not speak like us, who we perhaps can’t understand at all. But we fail to do so, why? Fox 8 would like to know.

In Frankenstein, the monster’s first words to the scornful doctor are sulky and resentful: “I expected this reception” (“Je m’attendais à cet accueil”). Fox 8, only somewhat more hopeful, concludes his letter to us “Yumans” with a challenging offer: “I awate your answer.”

*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 145.

**George Saunders, Fox 8 (New York: Random House, 2018), 3.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fiction

On Resigning from Power

On December 2, Emmanuel Macron returned to Paris from the G20 summit and looked down from the Arc de Triomphe on a city ravaged by riots. The night before, gilets jaunes protesters had ransacked the Champs-Elysées and tagged the base of the triumphal monument with slogans, including a now-familiar call for the president’s resignation: “Macron Démission.” What began in November as a protest movement against an unpopular fuel tax has now increasingly targeted Macron in person. The gilets jaunes’ demand that the president resign offers Macron an exceptional political opportunity, were he to recognize it and claim the strategic advantage.

France Protests

Place de l’Étoile, December 2, 2018 (Thibault Camus/AP/SIPA)

As the gilets jaunes movement has grown and spread, the protesters’ grievances have also broadened; the fuel tax now appears to be merely the precipitating factor of a general revolt against Macron’s neoliberal policies and an economic order that favors the wealthy. But the most interesting political question raised by the protest movement lies precisely in the original controversy over fuel prices and the gilets jaunes’ claim that the government’s ecological carbon tax was to blame for high fuel prices. As it turns out, that belief was largely mistaken, since the tax increase accounted for only a fraction of fuel’s rising cost, as Le Monde’fact-checkers have pointed out. And while the protesters’ broader grievances are surely legitimate, the violent revolt against a relatively modest carbon tax is ominous, to say the least. The events in Paris — an “insurrection” and “revolution” in the words of Mélenchon — raise the alarming prospect of popular resistance to future climate change legislation. The dangers are hard to overestimate; during the coming years the world’s transition to low-carbon energy will likely demand unprecedented sacrifices on the part of people accustomed to the comforts and conveniences of consumer-based economies and the supposedly cheap fossil fuels that prop them up. No doubt the burden of those sacrifices should not fall on the poorest. But in demanding cheap fuel, the gilets jaunes are inadvertently denying its catastrophic cost. In this sense, the car-drivers’ protests run fully counter to the progressive agenda on climate change.*

Climate change is nothing less than the high price of supposedly cheap fuel finally coming due. More broadly, the shattered illusion of “cheap” goods has now wholly discredited the cost/benefit ledger of fossil capitalism. As it happens, Macron’s fateful December 2 was also the opening day of the annual UN Climate Change Conference. A mere three years after the much-vaunted 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, the landmark Paris Agreement now appears hopelessly weak; as the IPCC recently warned, the Agreement’s aspirational 2 degree limit on global warming is far too modest to avert climate disaster. That gross failure of world governance is now in repeat mode: on the eve of this week’s Climate Change Conference, the science editor for the Observer grimly warned that “Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable.” Recent events in Paris give us a sense of the social calamities that may accompany such ecological disruption. An ominous symbol emerges, pregnant with “condensed” meanings, as the psychoanalysts say: “Paris” is shorthand for a disaster we have unleashed on the future.

As Macron looked down from the Arc de Triomphe, was it a future of social unrest in an overheated world he glimpsed in the wreckage on the Champs Elysées? And as he considered his role in the green movement, might he have envisaged for a moment the opportunity to resign with honor?


It seems that only fiction is up to the task of imagining the challenge that confronts us today: the surrender of capitalism and the resignation of the powerful in the face of ecological necessity. But since it may be too late now to avert a disorderly outcome, standing down from power might also entail a ‘resignation’ to the inevitable and an avowal of hopelessness. This double resignation would require the invention of a political rhetoric that exists only in literature.

A short story of Mark Strand’s imagines just such a scenario. First published in 1979, “The President’s Resignation” is in many ways an absurd send-up of political discourse, though the tone of goofiness only underscores the story’s challenge to its readers, programmed as they are to understand politics in terms of human “reality.” Read in the present context, the story seems uncannily prescient, as Strand’s hapless head of state has sacrificed all his power and authority to the apparently pointless task of observing the weather: “His critics,” Strand says, “accused him of spending too much energy on such exercises.”** The story consists essentially of the president’s farewell speech, interspersed with applause.

Who can forget my proposals, petitions uttered on behalf of those who labored in the great cause of weather–measuring wind, predicting rain, giving themselves to whole generations of days–whose attention was ever riveted to the invisible wheel that turns the stars and to the stars themselves? How like poetry, said my enemies. They were right. For it was my wish to make nothing happen. Thank heaven it has been so, for my words would easily have been wasted along with the works they might have engendered. I have always spoken for what does not change, for what resists action, for the stillness at the center of man (32-3).

If the outgoing president had a mission, it was to advocate for “what does not change,” he says (33). And since weather is by definition changeable, the head of state’s focus on “what does not change” is a strong clue that “The President’s Resignation” implicitly aims beyond mere weather to address the preeminent political challenge of our time. This makes Strand’s story an invaluable document for the fight against global warming. Indeed, a close look at the story reveals that behind the president’s seemingly idle preoccupations about the weather is nothing other than the looming question of climate and its transformations over the course of human history. We learn, for instance, that the president’s focus on the history of climate was especially controversial: critics of the president “were especially severe,” the author says, “about his wasting public funds on a National Museum of Weather, in whose rooms one could experience the climate of any day anywhere in the history of man.” This enterprise might seem eminently pedagogical, and one imagines in retrospect (forty years after “The President’s Resignation”) what public education on the prehistory of the Anthropocene might have done to avert worsening climate change — to say nothing of the president’s much-maligned “‘gas crusade'” (31). But far from serving as a model for action, or even for that matter much activity of the mind, “The President’s Resignation” stands as a model of righteous inaction in an age of frenetic busyness. Strand’s nameless president is a latter-day Bartleby; like Melville’s do-nothing government functionary, he ‘preferred not to’ assume his office for a month and a half, a space of idle time that became fifty-one national holidays, or as he puts it, “the glorious fifty-one that now belong to the annals of meditation.”

“How like poetry.” The author slyly gestures to his own work as poet here, and even anticipates his later stint in the corridors of power (Strand was named US Poet Laureate in 1990). But we would be mistaken to understand the reference to the president’s “enemies” as indicating political rivals in an opposing party — or even a rioting populace. The president’s rivals should be understood instead as anyone with a practical mindset, who understand words only as prose and mistake fiction for mere “stories” — those, indeed, who have the sorry ambition to do anything at all. Accordingly, the president concludes his resignation speech with the calmly insurrectionary warning to anyone with a job or career: “weather shall always exceed the office of our calling” (35).

* *

Is this a viable political option today? Can the challenge of climate change be met in the mode of poetic idleness? And is it feasible to imagine a similar resignation of our would-be overlords, including the much-criticized Emmanuel Macron? It may well be, I am suggesting, that only an inspiring abdication from power can move the public to abandon hope in a capitalist future. At the end of his twenty-year, nine-volume inquiry into politics and biopower in the post-Holocaust era, Giorgio Agamben concludes in nearly the same tone as Mark Strand’s outgoing president, who strove to “make nothing happen.” This is perhaps not surprising; Agamben, after all, is a great admirer of Melville’s Bartleby. Fittingly, the words are found on the final page of Agamben’s concluding book. And although this may not be the last thing Agamben ever writes, we might well imagine the philosopher as signing off for good, that is to say resigning, with these closing words on the secret power of idleness:

The properly human life is the one that, by rendering inoperative the specific works and functions of the living being, causes them to idle, so to speak, and in this way opens them into possibility,” says Agamben. “Contemplation and inoperativity […], in liberating living human beings from every biological and social destiny and every predetermined task, render them available for that peculiar absence of work we are accustomed to calling ‘politics.’***

Or, as Strand’s resigning president artfully puts it, “Thank you and goodbye” (35).

*The gilets jaunes protests are commonly referred to as the largest French street protests since May ’68. It is worth keeping in mind that the May insurrection fell apart once the government reprovisioned the gas pumps, as Cornelius Castoriadis points out. In this account, the counterrevolution was not only a victory of the forces of order but was the political consecration of carbon-based individualism: “Order was finally reestablished when the average Frenchman was once again able to drive in his car, with his family to his favorite picnic spot.” Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Movements of the Sixties,” in The World in Fragments: Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination, David Ames Curtis, ed. and trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 49.

** Mark Strand, Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 31.

*** Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, Adam Kotsko, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016), 278.

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“Ostranenie” in Mexico

In a news article on the election of López Obrador as president, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips describes scenes of joy and celebration in Mexico City. The festival atmosphere in the city center seemed to turn Amlo’s message of hope into an immediate political reality. But the political changes promised by the president-elect appear to be both more subtle and far-reaching. A close look at the journalist’s account of the evening suggests that the events of July 1 are bringing about a profound shift in human consciousness that portends a truly revolutionary movement on a global scale.

I still can’t believe it,” said Victor Gómez, one of thousands of Andrés Manuel López Obrador supporters who had descended on downtown Mexico City on Sunday night to toast their leader’s historic election victory. Gómez, a 47-year-old artist, had brought a date to the fast-growing fiesta on the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue running through the Mexican capital: a papier-maché sculpture portraying the leftist president-elect as a caped superhero. (The Guardian, July 2, 2018)

By calling the Paseo de la Reforma “a wide avenue,” Phillips performs a subtle grammatical alteration of the described scene. The effect lies in his judicious use of an indefinite, rather than definite article. The word’s implications may well pass unnoticed by the average reader, as it appears in a seemingly innocuous and even superfluous phrase. But this sly deceptiveness suggests the word’s strategic role in a broader revolutionary movement of consciousness transformation, whereby the familiar is rendered strange, a process the Russian Formalists named ostranenie.

The Guardian’s Mexico City correspondent implies that the Paseo de la Reforma is not the one we are all familiar with, the avenue that runs through beloved Chapultepec Park, past the city zoo and the illustrious National Anthropology Museum; instead, as “a wide avenue,” it seems located in a different, somewhat unfamiliar place. In the same way, a person in a strange country may cross “a wide river” without knowing its name; an amnesiac might see “a large house” without realizing it’s the one he lives in; an idiot might look at the sun and not know it’s the same one as yesterday. But Phillips suggests that nothing is in fact the same as yesterday, before Amlo’s election; if the Paseo has now become “a wide avenue,” is not the Pacific ocean “a pacific ocean,” the sky “a sky,” and my husband “a man sitting at a table across from me”?

Accordingly, one is provoked, perhaps unconsciously, to imagine that these revolutionary celebrations are not happening, as Phillips says, in “the Mexican capital,” but some other capital also named Mexico City. Likewise, Amlo may not be “the leftist president-elect,” either, but just one such president among many. Of course, we should understand this apparent demotion as being part of a rigorous system of democratization that places Amlo on the same level as Gómez, “a 47-year-old artist” and even his date, “a papier-maché sculpture.” But the indefinite “a” also has a generalizing function, whereby the celebrations can no longer be thought of as local, specific, as if fatally bound to their particular place and time, but potentially everywhere and duplicatable.

This generalizing process, whereby the specificity of “the” becomes the duplicability of “a” is nothing less than the liberatory process of Formalist estrangement extended to its necessary global scale. In one of his late interviews Michel Foucault seemed to suggest as much. “The relationship between Russian Formalism and the Russian revolution should definitely be investigated precisely anew,” Foucault said.* But perhaps we should think of this estrangement not so much as an aesthetic intervention, such as the Formalists advocated, or even a surrealist subversion (like Gómez’s papier-maché president), but instead as a kind of delusion-producing infection, whereby all definites become indefinites, and all of social existence, rid of its uniqueness, thereby escapes all appropriation as well. In this way, reality, become the good of all, could also lose its ability to harm. One might then refer to “a city called New York” and “a president of the United States” residing in “a Trump Tower” – a building not located on Broadway, as we normally expect, but on “a wide avenue” like the Paseo de la Reforma.

Revolutions need the mass popular movements that only cities can breed. But liberation requires the everyday practices of space that can bring about what Henri Lefebvre called “the right to the city.” In Amulet, Roberto Bolaño has his heroine recount her life from the perspective of the roiling politics of 1968, a year of demonstrations and massacres in Mexico City. For Auxilio as for Bolaño, the right to the city is a labor of poetry, radical ostranenie and literally unearthly beauty:

“Off I went staggering through the streets of Mexico City,” says Auxilio, “… and although I was picking my way through craters illuminated by hundreds of moons, they were not the craters of planet Earth but those of Mexico.”**

*Michel Foucault, “How Much Does it Cost for Reason to Tell the Truth?” in Foucault Live (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), 234.

**Roberto Bolaño, Amulet, trans. Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2006), 65.




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200 Years of Frankenstein

She was born in 1797, toward the end of the Little Ice Age. Wolves had been extirpated from the country, but not so long ago that one could forget. Now man’s only predator in the British Isles was a mental throwback. Does the shadow of extinction fall on the children of perpetrators? What strange gap is left in the mind of men suddenly raised from the humble status of prey?

In the winter of her sixteenth year, the river Thames froze in London for the last time. The final “Frost Fair,” a tradition dating back centuries, was held February 1814 on the river’s hard surface.

The following year, a volcano in present-day Indonesia erupted. It was the most powerful and destructive event of its kind in recorded history. Fallout caused a “volcanic winter” across the Northern Hemisphere. In 1816 – “the year without a summer” – she was in Switzerland, where she began writing her first novel, Frankenstein, published 200 years ago today — on January 1st, 1818.

During her adult years the global climate gradually warmed. Glaciers stopped advancing. But it wasn’t until the year of her death, 1851, that they began their retreat.


Frankenstein is a work deeply embedded not only in history but in the climate and geology of its era. The novel’s dramatic opening and conclusion, and, notably, the entire personal account of the “monster” himself, take place in frozen locales. These settings of ice and snow are more than themes and symbols; they constitute the scientific matter of the novel, as much, if not more than, the story’s overt topics of chemistry, biology and physical reanimation. And as with those topics, Shelley’s fantastic imaginings of the Earth’s frozen latitudes are proving remarkable prescient.

Version 2

The novel’s opening pages relate Captain Walton’s passionate wish to be the first explorer to reach the North Pole. In the Captain’s first letter to his sister, his excitement leads him to describe the Arctic’s frozen wastes as a place of sunshine, beauty and delight. He goes so far as to say that in the North Pole of his imagination, “snow and frost are banished” – as if the curiosity he calls “fervent” and “ardent” were literally a heat-producing force of transformation.*

One measure of a classic text is that it discloses new meanings to different eras. Walton’s aim of “discovering a passage near the pole” may sound strangely familiar to a reader today. In the summer of 2016, the first luxury cruise liner traversed the fabled Northwest Passage, a sea route that had long been impassible, and, as recently as a decade ago, navigable only by icebreakers. Likewise for Russia’s northern sea route; last summer, a tanker made the first transit from Europe to Asia via the Arctic Ocean.

Climate change, in other words, is turning Walton’s fervid dreams of an overheated Arctic into reality. Ironically, global warming is occurring fastest in the polar regions; scientists now expect the North Pole to be ice-free within a few decades. Shelley could hardly have anticipated these outcomes, though the connection she makes is far from coincidental. Captain Walton’s adventurous spirit is no doubt symbolic of a Goethian Romantic ziel, but the man also embodies the period’s abrupt leap forward in science and the technologies of transportation. As such, Walton and his scientific ambitions personify a force whose environmental costs are now coming due. That earth-altering force is the European Industrial Revolution, whose opening act, variously dated from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, overlapped with the end of the most recent ice age.


Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice (1823–1824)

Shelley clearly dramatizes the destructive force of Frankenstein’s scientific work in the young doctor’s blind ambition, his reckless experimentation, his familial neglect, and his heedless irresponsibility to the creature of his making. What was merely allegorical in Shelley’s time has now become our sorry reality, however. Examples of Frankensteinian science abound; to cite only one recent instance, an investigative article by Reuters exposes the “horror movie” character of the commercial trade in body parts. But the everyday banalization of Shelley’s horror theme should not obscure the contemporary relevance of her cautionary tale, whose moral implications can be seen most clearly in the man-made predicament of climate change: a crime against nature that may warrant the name of “sin”; the unleashing of an unstoppable destructive agency in inhuman form; and, in what the World Economic Forum blithely calls the “upside” of catastrophe, a melted North Pole that will yield new profits for commercial transport.

Captain Walton sees in Victor Frankenstein a kindred spirit, and Shelley reinforces the symmetry of their burning passions when, at the end of the novel, Victor relates the “fervour” of his pursuit as the “monster” leads him northward and into the Arctic.

I resolved not to fail in my purpose,” says Victor, “and calling on heaven to support me, I continued with unabated fervour to traverse immense deserts, until the ocean appeared at a distance.… Covered with ice, it was only to be distinguished from land by its superior wildness and ruggedness.

As Victor considers the rigors of an arctic journey, he becomes a man entirely consumed by destructive rage. “At the idea that the fiend should live and be triumphant,” Victor says, “my rage and vengeance returned, and like a mighty tide, overwhelmed every other feeling.” As with Walton, Shelley insists on the burning force that drives Victor on.

I have endured misery which nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within my heart could have enabled me to support. Immense and rugged mountains of ice often barred up my passage, and I often heard the thunder of the ground sea, which threatened my destruction. But again the frost came and made the paths of the sea secure.


Caspar David Friedrich, study for The Sea of Ice (1821)


Frankenstein’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, links Victor to the Greek deity who created man and stole fire to give it to humanity. In light of this fiery theme, it is significant that Victor’s voyage ends with the break-up of the sea ice, as if, like Walton, his burning passion can melt the frozen landscape. Accordingly, Victor’s last vision of the Arctic is not one of frozen desolation but of water and melting ice. The doctor ends his journey north on a drifting ice floe, like a stranded polar bear — a ubiquitous metonym in the press and social media for the polar environmental crisis. If, then, the last words of Victor’s narrative might seem overwrought today in their romantic excess, one might instead imagine them as capturing the desperate anguish of an apex predator threatened with extinction. Shelley’s “fervid” rhetoric points ahead to dangers beyond man, beyond language, and thus beyond all hyperbole:

A ground sea was heard; the thunder of its progress, as the waters rolled and swelled beneath me, became every moment more ominous and terrific. I pressed on, but in vain. The wind arose; the sea roared; and, as with the mighty shock of an earthquake, it split and cracked with a tremendous and overwhelming sound. The work was soon finished; in a few minutes a tumultuous sea rolled between me and my enemy, and I was left drifting on a scattered piece of ice that was continually lessening and thus preparing for me a hideous death.

*Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818).


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American Carnage

I’m so ambitious / I’m looking back

— David Byrne, “The Book I Read”

Right-wing minds betray a constant paradox: their passion for the market is matched only by their nostalgia for the very world that capital destroys. In Donald Trump this contradiction is pushed to an extreme. Economic damage calls for more destruction; suffering warrants further punishment. The dark vision of “American carnage” on Trump’s inauguration day was quickly followed by a rollback of regulations that are bound to hit Main Street with especially nasty force.

The contradiction between backward-looking conservatism and headlong development has now arguably reached its terminal impasse. By favoring tax cuts and big business over climate protection the Trump administration has put the lie to right-wing calls to return to an earlier time, to rebuild the economy, to make America a great white ethno-state againThis is because the denial of climate change winds a clock that can’t be turned back. History, known for its fits, starts and reversals, now runs on fast-forward only. For climate scientists, the watchword of this awful predicament is irreversibility.

Life will get worse and there’s no going back: if this stark message has failed so far to rule our days, it’s because we’re used to coping with the rising costs of progress. The tax cuts passed by the Senate today will surely increase those familiar hardships. The difference now is that our collective delusions of profit and security are troubled by our fast-widening distance from the homeostatic past. In this way, we’re like the characters in George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo: looking back with regret at the world we’ve left behind, unwilling to face the future — and unaware that we’re already dead.


Lincoln in the Bardo is a treatise on irreversibility. The novel is anchored in a painful, lovestruck sense of irremediable loss. Like all great works of art, the book feels not only important but necessary. One might say timely, but it’s not clear what the word means to the untimely present. In Bardo’s Lincoln, Saunders gives us a head of state whose soulful anxiousness at the start of the Civil War is strangely suited to the man’s crushing historical responsibility. This topic can’t fail to move today’s readers with renewed wonder and horror at what we’ve suddenly lost over the past year. We face crises much greater than Lincoln’s, but we do so at a time when willful malice occupies the White House, language and truth are martyrized daily, and a government of vandals lays us open to disasters without end.

Obviously these problems have been a long time coming, but a cynical view of the past may underestimate the moral value of stubborn, agonized and desperate nostalgia, the reigning condition of Saunders’ main characters. Bevins, a young gay man thwarted in love, is in thrall to vivid yet chaotic images of earthly beauty — a stammering, captive Whitman. His regular companion, Vollman, knew a single night of perfect bliss before losing his wife and home. As they understand it (poorly), Bevins and Vollman succumbed to the same ailment and were confined to “sick boxes,” they say. At night, though, they can climb out of the “boxes” to share their grief and perplexity with the other captive residents of Oak Hill cemetery in Washington, DC.

Like these characters, Lincoln is unable to give up what he has recently lost. The night after the funeral of his young son, the president can’t help returning to the cemetery, where his desperate love drives him to remove Willie from the crypt to hold his body again. To the watchful ghosts Bevins, Vollman and others, this remarkable act of devotion — a “miracle” in their eyes — suggests that they, too, are perhaps not unloved, that they may not be unwelcome after all in “that previous place,” as they confusedly call the world of the living. Amazing also to the ghosts, Lincoln stays late into the night at the cemetery, and during a second visit to his son’s crypt, the distinguished revenant’s mind Version 2is host to many curious phantoms, young and old, rich and poor, black and white. Lincoln becomes legion, and on his way home, one of the ghosts, a black man, rides with the head of state into the dark and uncertain future.

The theme of metempsychosis allows Saunders to display his marvelous gifts of empathetic character portrayal, familiar to readers of his short stories. In this novel, Saunders’ first, the writer’s empathy takes literal form in the ghosts’ visitations of Lincoln’s mind and each others’ troubled spirits. The ghosts know each other’s life stories verbatim and often complete each other’s sentences, having heard everyone’s litanies of desire and regret thousands of times. This makes their condition tiresome, but the ghosts are fiercely proud of their persistence; they’re determined not to abandon the world they remember, and they even deny they are dead.  When a newly-buried civil war soldier emerges from the grave and opts for the afterlife, the ghosts furiously desecrate the “sick-mound” he has left behind. Vollman, observing the scene, explains with scrupulous care that they do this “not out of meanness, for there is no meanness in them; but rather from excess of feeling.”*

The episode suggests an allegory of historical remembrance, albeit one almost saintly in its forgiving empathy. We see an equally suggestive “excess of feeling” in the gruesome image of a soldier on the battlefield who has quite literally spilled his guts. Saunders yields the pen to historical testimony, and cites directly:

I had never seen a dead person before. Now I saw my fill. One poor lad had frozen solid in the posture of looking down aghast at his wound, eyes open. Some of his insides had spilled out and made, there on his side, under a thin coat of ice, a blur of purple and red. At home on my dressing table was a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and this fellow looked like that, only his bulge of red and purple was lower and larger and off to one side and him gazing at it in horror (153).

The “thin coat of ice” covering the ghastly wound of the soldier echoes the “placental sheen” that begins to cover Willie’s ghost, threatening to trap the boy’s spirit forever in the cemetery. Bevins and Vollman make it possible for Willie to finally pass on to the afterlife, and Willie, in turn, disabuses them of their delusion of returning to the world of the living, having learned from his father that they are all, in fact, dead. Saunders’ vision of American carnage ultimately leads to redemption and renewal.


We might fault Saunders’s novel for offering a moral that, despite its Buddhist echoes, reinforces familiar Christian motifs of purgatory and salvation (“Bardo” is a Tibetan term for the liminal state between death and rebirth). More generously, we could say the book is conflicted on this score. When Vollman complains that “the architect of this place” has judged that a child’s wish to to stay in the cemetery is “a terrible sin, worthy of the most severe punishment,” it is as much the author as the “architect” who can be faulted for the injustice. For it remains unclear why, in this fictional moral universe, it is wrong for the adults “to love one’s life enough to desire to stay here,” as Vollman, Bevins and others do. Saunders puts a thumb on the scales by making many of the ghosts’ characters flawed in some way, but this only exacerbates the moral conundrum. The case of Elson Farwell, a former slave, is instructive. Buried among the poor and criminal class in a common “sick-pit,” Farwell holds fast to the desire to go back and massacre every member of the family that owned and abused him, wife, children and baby included — a wish that should hardly be the cause of a reader’s reproof. It might instead serve as a model of moral justice.

Elson’s apparent “sin” is as fictional and deluded as the idea of his “sickness.” Likewise, by holding to what remains irreparable in history, Black justice may not turn back the hours, but it often faces counterclockwise. So too do socialism and ecological justice, which look back today at our lost best chances; for ten years now it has been “too late” to stop a warming world. At a time when the current president sows discord and makes good on his vision of “American carnage,” we can glean a different lesson from the ghosts’ insistence on returning to the past. To stop time in order to “reverse it,” as Bevins says, may not be to indulge in conservative bad faith or deluded nostalgia. Instead, it would be to commit ourselves to the impossible and to acknowledge what is truly hopeless in our present state.

Version 2


Postscript: On December 20, the U.S. Congress passed the Trump tax reform bill. It was disturbingly warm in D.C.; people were lunching outdoors in Georgetown. The mild weather highlighted the bill’s lurking threats: under cover of a gift to all, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was poised to supercharge economic inequality, and, by burdening the state with a huge deficit, virtually guaranteed draconian cuts to future social services. The tax bill’s biggest losers, the poor, the elderly and the infirm, were thus assured further suffering in the coming years. But a government downsized by revenue cuts also guaranteed worsening life prospects for all social classes: the state, crippled in its regulatory functions, would be unable to rein in end-game capitalism and accelerating climate change. It was easy to imagine these social, economic and climatic conditions prompting the civil conflicts presaged by Omar El Akkad’s novel American War.**

I chose to mark December 20 with a visit to Oak Hill Cemetery. It felt like a spring day — a spring without birds, flowers, or the slightest hint of color. On North Hill, a child lay under a stone slab, featureless. Nothing moved. The place was empty. In the tepid hush it seemed like time was set on pause.

* George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 140.

** Omar El Akkad, American War (New York: Knopf, 2017).


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In Bed with the Donald

Two days after this year’s US presidential election, Teju Cole signed an op-ed piece in the New York Times that drew parallels between Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the rise of Donald Trump. Ionesco’s play, inspired by the author’s own experience of fascism in his native Romania, suggests that political upheavals can be as baffling, disorienting and unexpected as his absurd premise, in which an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” transforms rational human individuals into mindless, violent herd animals.

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Chauvet cave, Ardèche, France / Photo: Claude Valette

Cole’s essay struck a chord echoed by other post-election commentators. An exasperated Tabatha Southey bitterly mocked journalistic “safaris” into Trumpland that sought to “humanize” Trump’s electorate. No, Southey countered, there was nothing more to “understand” about a Trump supporter than their tendency to violent anger, racism and misogyny. In a broader assessment of global politics in this new “age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra argued that “liberal rationalism” is under grave threat from such figures as Trump, who “strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.”

As theater directors confront the “political absurdism” of our present conjuncture, we may expect a general revival of Rhinoceros on the stage. Another Ionesco play, however, captures an equally significant aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the tendency to misrecognize one’s neighbors and, in the process, to misapprehend oneself. We can cite in this regard the failed assessment of the Republican candidate by the mainstream media, who all but wrote off his chances of winning, and the enduring confusion about the demographic identity of Trump’s supporters. In the election’s aftermath, commentators scrambled to put a face to this electorate, which many identified as an angry and disillusioned working class. Subsequently, as more complete polling data came in Trump’s electors began to look like a broad cross-section of the US population. To put it in tweet form, we were all in bed with the Donald.

In The Bald Soprano, a married couple arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the two are shown in by the maid. Strangely, however, as the husband and wife wait for their hosts, they can’t recall where they have met before. The two soon establish a series of increasingly absurd “coincidences”: they are both originally from Manchester, and each traveled to London not only on the same train but in the very same compartment, and in facing seats. Next, they learn that they both reside on the same street in London, and in an incremental process of careful cross-verifications, each provoking the same outbursts of surprise and amazement, they determine that both of them live in the same building, on the same floor, in the same apartment, and sleep in an identical bed “covered with a green eiderdown.” “How curious it is and what a coincidence!” says the lady of these last details. “It is indeed possible that we have met there, and perhaps even last night. But I do not recall it, dear sir!”*

The couple finally discovers that they both have a daughter with one white and one red eye, which provides them with sufficient proof that they must be married and living together. At this point the man and woman approach each other and they solemnly embrace. Stage directions say that the clock strikes once, very loudly, and specify that “this striking of the clock must be so loud that it makes the audience jump.” The couple does not hear the bell, however, and this disjunction alerts us to another distressing problem of misapprehension: should we, the audience, be amused by this seeming farce — or should our hair be standing on end?

“Donald, it’s you, darling!” exclaims the woman at the end of the dialogue, and the name rings like a gong struck by Ionesco from beyond the grave, another reason for the audience to start, rather than laugh at the scene. When the maid subsequently appears and addresses the audience, she only adds to our confusion. But she delivers what may be the political statement of our times, a warning to Trumpists and opponents alike, and a challenge to the president-elect’s governing ego, were it possible to inject into his consciousness a seed of healthy méconnaissance: “Donald is not Donald” (19).


Trump has put the id in president; he may in fact be the first surrealist chief executive of the United States. When this blustering, orange-haired Ubu demagogue is inaugurated on January 20, it will be almost exactly one year to the day he boasted on the campaign trail, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The future POTUS seemed to be riffing from André Breton, who famously said, “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”**

“Bitter victory of surrealism,” as the Situationists put it. Noting that modern business tactics had coopted the avant-garde, the agit-art group claimed that new radical art practices were needed to confront the social ravages of consumerism and the violence of an empire in its death throes. France, in that fateful year of 1958, was confronting the rise of its own strongman president. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros premiered in Paris soon afterward, proving, in spite of the Situationists’ doubts, that absurdism could make a strong political statement by reviving surrealist aesthetics. Is it too much to hope that political theater can do the same today?

For the time being we may be stuck with crowd-pleasing musicals. In any case, the prospects for French radical aesthetics in the US look dim. In a cautionary tour of pre-election Appalachia – a “safari” in Trumpland, as Tabatha Southey would put it – Chris Offutt recently described how the Republican governor of Kentucky has been dismantling the state’s public education system. For Offutt, the objective of this policy is clear: uneducated white men tend to vote Republican.

The governor’s own reasoning seemed more sinister. He took direct aim at French literary studies, implying that an American outbreak of rhinoceritis would be best promoted by removing Dada, Surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd from college syllabi. Was the governor aware of the subversive potential of foreign-language instruction, too? After all, The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s first play, was inspired by taking a course in the French Assimil method. But the governor’s explanations were as obscure as his motives. In his laconic turn of phrase, austerity measures are not so much choices as a confirmation of the inevitable or the joining of a stampede. Trumpism, it seems, is a triumph of the inexplicable. ‘“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French-literature majors,”’ the governor drily explained. ‘“There just will.”’

* Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 18.

**André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969), 125.


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Oaxaca in Vancouver

Dia de Muertos 2016, Vancouver, BC

There’s a great deal of mescal in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. As the author’s drunken, guilt-ridden alter-ego Geoffrey Firmin descends into a “mescal-inspired phantasmagoria,”* mentions of the drink accumulate, totaling more than 50 by the book’s end. Meanwhile, its role in the plot intensifies; tellingly, mescal is the first word of the final chapter, as Firmin orders yet another drink from the bar. ‘“Mescal,” said the Consul,”’ begins Chapter 12, an incipit as blunt and ominous as the novel’s opening words in the 1940 manuscript, “It was the Day of the Dead.”

To contemporary Anglophone ears, these references to a dangerous, sinister liquor may have an odd ring, as mescal is no longer the alien drink it was to Lowry’s early readership. Over the past decade, distribution and sales of the liquor outside Mexico have dramatically increased, especially in the United States. Mescal is now available not only in the US border states but in Chicago, New York and New England; well north of California in Washington State it can be found in mass-market liquor stores. The liquor is popular in mixed drinks, but mescal also includes many top-shelf brands that rival fine scotch. As mescal grows in popularity its distribution range will no doubt keep expanding, but the drink’s apotheosis was arguably reached a few years ago when it ultimately crossed the border into Canada and arrived in liquor stores and restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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Malcolm Lowry, Dollarton, 1953

It was in Vancouver, after all, that Lowry revised and rewrote Under the Volcano, having made his way north in penury and disarray after a tumultuous sojourn in Mexico, the direct inspiration for his harrowing novel. Lowry brought with him to Vancouver a narrative vision of personal hell and he used the Oaxacan liquor as a potent metaphor of poisoned temptation. It would be hard to gauge the impact of Lowry’s dark vision on the drink’s subsequent fortunes, but seventy years after his book’s publication, mescal’s long eclipse has finally come to an end. In 2013 a mescaleria opened for business in trendy, gentrifying East Vancouver, with a menu of higher-end Mexican staples and a large selection of mescals to wash them down. Since then, taquerias and Mexican restaurants have proliferated around Vancouver and mescal is sold in restaurants and bars of all kinds. One can even find mescal on the shelves of the BC Liquor Store in North Vancouver’s suburb of Dollarton, a stone’s throw from where Lowry and his second wife, Margerie Bonner, moved into a humble waterfront shack on Burrard Inlet in 1940.

The publication last year of an annotated edition of the 1940 Volcano manuscript allows us to delve more deeply into the sources of the 1947 novel and to assess the changes Lowry and Margerie Bonner made to the text during their stay in Vancouver. Interestingly, mescal has only thirteen mentions in the 1940 manuscript; the emphasis on mescal and its purportedly dangerous qualities in the published novel were developed in the course of revisions in Vancouver. The text establishes a contrast between wine and beer, on the one hand, and liquor on the other. “The dichotomy is clear: tequila and mescal would be the beginning of the end” for the Consul (333). A second contrast opposes tequila and mescal: “a contrast between tequila and mescal is maintained, with mescal the more deadly” (363). Forty-odd added mentions of mescal reinforce the theme in the novel as published. However, Lowry’s recollections in Dark as the Grave insist on no symbolic distinction: “His memories were all of suffering, hideous anxiety, or the escape from, or more powerfully into, these through tequila or mescal.”** Frederick Asals confirms as much: “The drink has no special significance in the 1940 version” of Volcano.***

In the title piece of his collection of essays Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass leans heavily on Lowry’s novel to argue that literary language is an “abstract system,” autonomous and non-referential, however much it may seem to index the real world.**** Under the Volcano is a willfully contentious choice for Gass’s argument, as the novel’s meticulous orchestral structure of recurring images and symbols is matched by its equally detailed rendering of the protagonist’s anxious, compulsive experience. Like all idealist formalisms, Gass’s claims cannot do without their sacrificial violence; here the victim of the critic’s “abstract system” is the real-life novelist, “that poor wretch Malcolm Lowry” (59), “who rounded the world as a sailor, wrote a few strange stories, was twice married, and, perfectamente borracho, choked to death on his own vomit” (57). We need not be naïve literalists to object to Gass’s neat separation of Volcano‘s formal beauty from such crude reality. Moreover, the image conjured by the critic of Lowry’s miserable drunken end is inescapably full of judgment and meaning, even if it doesn’t move us to the simple, symbolic pieties Gass ridicules, such as “the fall of man” or “the foolish frailties of flesh” (70).

At the opposite pole of Gass’s cold formalism is the fond attachment of Lowry’s biographers and admirers  to the facts of the man’s life, particularly in Vancouver, which houses the author’s archive and is the site of annual literary commemorations. The 1940 manuscript clearly shows how much the book published in 1947 owes to Lowry’s 15-year Vancouver sojourn. But Under the Volcano was neither begun nor, strictly speaking, completed in Vancouver. And if, as Sheryl Salloum amply documents, Lowry found much joy, productivity and security in Vancouver, from 1946 on he lived under the constant threat of eviction from suburban developers, small-minded neighbors and municipal authorities.***** Vancouver cannot claim Lowry without owning its inhospitality.

Mescal never killed Lowry. Neither, arguably, did the bottle of gin he drank the night he died in England in 1957. Lowry died of heartbreak and despair at having lost a life he felt was idyllic in his modest waterfront shack in Dollarton, less than three years after his last eviction notice. As we celebrate the Day of the Dead this year in Vancouver, we can raise a glass of mescal to Malcolm Lowry, remembering him not as a local treasure and a source of civic pride, but as a literary wanderer, a man evicted and a homeless ghost.

A haunting passage in Under the Volcano anticipates this homelessness and nostalgia when the lovelorn Consul, drunk in Oaxaca, pens a letter that describes Dollarton as a peaceful idyll at the end of a path through hell:

I seem to see now, between two mescals, this path, and beyond it strange vistas, like visions of a new life together we might somewhere lead. I seem to see us living in some northern country, of mountains and hills and blue water; our house is built on an inlet and one evening we are standing, happy in one another, on the balcony of this house, looking over the water (36-7).

* The 1940 Under the Volcano: A Critical Edition, Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen, eds. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2015), lx.

**Malcolm Lowry, Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid, (Toronto: General Publishing, 1968), 83.

*** Frederick Asals, The Making of  Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997), 392.

****William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1980), 63.

***** See Sheryl Salloum, Malcolm Lowry: Vancouver Days (Madeira Park, BC: Harbor Publishing, 1987).

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Frankenstein on site

Maybe … there is always another story / better unsaid, grim or flat or  predatory.

Ann Sexton

In 2011, a team of American researchers used astronomical data to solve a literary-historical puzzle: the date when Mary Shelley came up with the idea for her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein.* Cross-checking journals and autobiography against the historical phases of the Moon, the scholars were able to pinpoint not only the day but the exact hour at which the novel’s plot was hatched, 200 years ago, in the month of June, 1816.

Frankenstein is a tale of obsession, creation and responsibility, which is why the author’s introduction gives a detailed account of how it was first conceived. The story she tells has become part of the novel’s mythology: while staying in a rented house on the outskirts of Geneva, the Shelleys were regular guests of Lord Byron at Villa Diodati, in nearby Cologny. One evening Byron proposed to his guests that each of them write a ghost story. Mary cast about for a plot until an idea finally came to her in a “waking dream” following a late-night discussion at Byron’s villa some days later. Crucially, the author describes her bedroom at the moment she opened her eyes in alarm.

The idea so possessed my mind that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still: the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond.**

Given the phases of the Moon during the week in question, and factoring in the 15° incline of the hillside at Montalègre, the site of the Shelley house, the authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” conclude that Mary could only have seen the moonlight she describes on June 16th, 1816, between the hours of 2 and 3 in the morning.


Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary is inspiring events and commemorations of all kinds, from the latest cinematic rehash Victor Frankenstein (“You know this story,” says the voice-over), to last May’s grandiose Royal Ballet production, to various academic conferences, including the symposium “Frankenstein’s Shadow” held in Geneva this June. As for myself, I wondered what kind of commemorations were in store for the bicentennial hour of the novel’s inspiration, at the very place and time of its creation?

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Villa Diodati, 6/16/2016, 1:36 am

On  June 15th, 2016, I boarded a plane for Geneva. My friend Géraldine met me at the airport and was keen to join in on the excursion. Late that evening storm cells moved into Geneva from the southwest, and by midnight there was lightning when we set out for Cologny. At 1 am the rain was coming down hard. Next to Villa Diodati, where a hillside park lends fine views of the city, the lake, and the Jura mountains, the usual tourists and groups of teenagers were missing. A single lighted window could be seen at the Villa, but the surrounding area was deserted.

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Rue Byron 6/16/2016, 1:45 am

Cologny today is one of the world’s most exclusive addresses, but fields and vineyards still recall its old village character. We were surprised by cows among the trees as we headed down the hill to the site of the Shelley house. A lone window was lit at the property next door. Only the lower level of the Shelley house still remains; Mary’s former bedroom would be located within the dark void described by the building’s rectangular footprint, a space in tumult now, raked by sheets of rain and buffeting wind.

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Montalègre 6/16/2016, 1:55 am

We stayed until the historic hour, intent on the returning occasion, but feeling the familiar sense of a commemoration’s fastidious uselessness. This one was more elusive than most. After all, we were marking the moment of a passing fancy that might have come to nothing; the author’s first response to her idea, she says, was to try to put it out of her mind. And yet, that moment of inspiration — including the will to erase it — was significant enough that Mary incorporated it into the novel, when Victor, strangely enough, takes a nap immediately after his creature first opens its eyes and begins to stir. This somewhat implausible sequence of events seems dictated by the author’s need to restage the scene of her inspiration at Montalègre, including the Moon at the window.

I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds… (106).

The author’s memory of “the closed shutters with the moonlight struggling through” becomes in this scene a light that “forced its way through the window shutters.” Even the creature’s own account of his coming to consciousness in the amazing Chapter 11 includes descriptions of a violent, piercing light:

By degrees, I remember, a stronger light pressed upon my nerves, so that I was obliged to shut my eyes. Darkness then came over me and troubled me, but hardly had I felt this when, by opening my eyes, as I now suppose, the light poured in upon me again (148).

Few stories have had to endure as many faithless and inept adaptations as Mary Shelley’s philosophical tale. And yet, the scene of the author’s inspiration suggests that Mary herself was the first to repeat, adapt and retranslate her story, “rehashing” it, so to speak. But what story would that be?


In the case study of one of his most famous patients, the Wolf Man, Freud narrows in on a crucial transformative event in the patient’s life. “The date of this transformation can be stated with certainty,” Freud says, “… But the event which makes this division possible was not an external trauma, but a dream.” Citing this passage, Jean Laplanche exclaims, “What a strange history of events, in which one of the turning-points is a purely internal event!”*** Without discounting that “moments in time, situated and dated, constitute essential reference points” in a person’s life story, Laplanche’s exclamation emphasizes how mental events, understood psychoanalytically, constitute an object of inquiry quite distinct from that of historical research. “What he is aiming at,” Laplanche says of Freud’s work, “is a kind of history of the unconscious, or rather of its genesis; a history with discontinuities, in which the moments of burial and resurgence are the most important of all; a history, it might be said, of repression.”

Such a “history of repression” breaks radically with literal-minded attempts to reconstruct life-events in that the defining occurrences in a patient’s psychological history are always caught up in a dynamic process of interpretation. What the patient is compelled to interpret, or “translate,” in Laplanche’s terminology, are the formative experiences of their early life in which he or she was the receiver of strange, unbidden messages from an adult caregiver: messages that were traumatic because enigmatic, and enigmatic because sexual and deriving from the adult’s unconscious. There need not be physical abuse for such events to be traumatic, though the subject’s affective impression can be one of unwanted seduction or forced entry; as Laplanche says, the subject’s compulsive rememoration “has its origin in the forcible entry of the other and in the need to bind this forcible entry: the other (der Andere) of the enigmatic message in infancy, and then that internal ‘other thing’ (das Andere) that is the unconscious” (166).

Biographers have plenty of material in Mary Shelley’s biography with which to interpret the haunting and traumatic features of her Frankenstein. But limiting ourselves to the story’s inception, one notes an insistence on themes of violent intrusion suggestive of Laplanche’s general theory of seduction. The Moon seems to serve as metaphorical displacement of this violence, “struggling through” the shutters in Mary’s bedroom, and in the analogous scene from the novel, “forc[ing] its way through the window shutters.” The authors of “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein” are alert to these parallels but they do not notice that Shelley’s descriptions here combine the mental tableau of the monster’s creation with the attempt to erase that frightful picture; as she said of the moment of inspiration, she “wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around.” Those “realities” are the specific details of the moonlit room at Montalègre which persist as if immune to time: many years later, the author says, “I see them still.”

To adopt a formula of John Fletcher’s, Shelley’s moonlit room is “a scene played out with all the immediacy of a present event.”**** As a “scene,” however, it is far from static; rather, following Laplanche, it includes both “genesis” and “burial,” “resurgence” and “repression,” composed as it is of troubling signs in conflict, and translated as best as the dreamer can, such as the “inarticulate sounds” muttered by the creature at Victor’s bedside, or the enigmatic meaning of his monstrous countenance as “a grin wrinkled his cheeks” (106).

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Villa Diodati 6/16/2016, 1:47 am

Frankenstein’s countless adaptations testify to the story’s rich allegorical suggestiveness and its almost unique status as touchstone of our cultural modernity. But narrative adaptations no doubt tap into what was already “translated” by the author at the outset. What drives the need to commemorate, adapt and “rehash” the story may be a compulsion to retranslate that which remains opaque in Shelley’s most stirring passages and so to return to the original place and time of her patchwork creation.

* Donald W. Olson et al., “The Moon and the Origins of Frankenstein,” Sky and Telescope, November 2011: 69-74.

** Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Penguin, 1985), 59.

*** Jean Laplanche, “Interpretation between Determinism and Hermeneutics,” in Essays on Otherness, John Fletcher, trans. (London: Routledge, 1999), 150.

**** John Fletcher, Freud and the Scene of Trauma (New York: Fordham, 2013).

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Anonymous doctored text, unearthed at MacLeod’s Books, Vancouver, BC



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