The Brief History of the Dead :: Kevin Brockmeier

When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand. First he had died, he said, and then—snap!—the desert. He told the story to everyone who would listen, bobbing his head to follow the sound of their footsteps. Showers of red grit fell from his beard. He said that the desert was bare and lonesome and that it had hissed at him like a snake. He had walked for days and days, until the dunes broke apart beneath his feet, surging up around him to lash at his face, then everything went still and began to beat like a heart. The sound was as clear as any he had ever heard. It was only at that moment, he said, with a million arrow-points of sand striking his skin, that he had truly realized he was dead.

Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district, said that he had felt a prickling sensation in his fingers and then stopped breathing. “It was my heart,” he insisted, thumping on his chest. “Took me in my own bed.” He had closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was on a train, the kind that trolleys small children around in circles at amusement parks. The rails were leading him through a thick forest of gold-brown trees, but the trees were actually giraffes, and their long necks were reaching like branches into the sky. A wind rose up and peeled the spots from their backs. The spots floated down around him, swirling and dipping in the wake of the train. It took him a long time to understand that the throbbing noise he heard was not the rattling of the wheels along the tracks.

The girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park said that she had died into an ocean the color of dried cherries. For a while, the water had carried her weight, she said, and she lay on her back turning in meaningless circles, singing the choruses of the pop songs she remembered. But then there was a drum of thunder, and the clouds split open, and the ball bearings began to pelt down around her—tens of thousands of them. She had swallowed as many as she could, she said, stroking the cracked trunk of the poplar tree. She didn’t know why. She filled like a lead sack and sank slowly through the layers of the ocean. Shoals of fish brushed past her, their blue and yellow scales the brightest thing in the water. And all around her she heard that sound, the one that everybody heard, the regular pulsing of a giant heart.

The stories people told about the crossing were as varied and elaborate as their ten billion lives, so much more particular than the other stories, the ones they told about their deaths. After all, there were only so many ways a person could die: either your heart took you, or your head took you, or it was one of the new diseases. But no one followed the same path over the crossing. Lev Paley said that he had watched his atoms break apart like marbles, roll across the universe, then gather themselves together again out of nothing at all. Hanbing Li said that he woke inside the body of an aphid and lived an entire life in the flesh of a single peach. Graciella Cavazos would say only that she began to snow—four words—and smile bashfully whenever anyone pressed her for details.

No two reports were ever the same. And yet always there was the drumlike thumping noise.

Some people insisted that it never went away, that if you concentrated and did not turn your ear from the sound, you could hear it faintly behind everything in the city—the brakes and the horns, the bells on the doors of restaurants, the clicking and slapping of different kinds of shoes on the pavement. Groups of people came together in parks or on rooftops just to listen for it, sitting quietly with their backs turned to each other. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. Ba-dum. It was like trying to keep a bird in sight as it lifted, blurred, and faded to a dot in the sky.

Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use it to produce a newspaper. He stood outside the River Road Coffee Shop every morning, handing out the circulars he had printed. One particular issue of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet—theSims Sheet, people called it—addressed the matter of this sound. Fewer than twenty per cent of the people Luka interviewed claimed that they could still hear it after the crossing, but almost everyone agreed that it resembled nothing so much as—could be nothing other than—the pounding of a heart. The question, then, was where did it come from? It could not be their own hearts, for their hearts no longer beat. The old man Mahmoud Qassim believed that it was not the actual sound of his heart but the remembered sound, which, because he had both heard and failed to notice it for so long, still resounded in his ears. The woman who sold bracelets by the river thought that it was the heartbeat at the center of the world, that bright, boiling place she had fallen through on her way to the city. “As for this reporter,” the article concluded, “I hold with the majority. I have always suspected that the thumping sound we hear is the pulse of those who are still alive. The living carry us inside them like pearls. We survive only so long as they remember us.” It was an imperfect metaphor—Luka knew that—since the pearl lasts much longer than the oyster. But rule one in the newspaper business was that you had to meet your deadlines. He had long since given up the quest for perfection.

There were more people in the city every day, and yet the city never failed to accommodate them. You might be walking down a street you had known for years, and all of a sudden you would come upon another building, another whole block. Carson McCaughrean, who drove one of the sleek black taxis that roamed the streets, had to redraw his maps once a week. Twenty, thirty, fifty times a day, he would pick up a fare who had only recently arrived in the city and have to deliver him somewhere he—Carson—had never heard of. They came from Africa, Asia, Europe, and theAmericas. They came from churning metropolises and from small islands in the middle of the ocean. That was what the living did: they died. There was an ancient street musician who began playing in the red brick district as soon as he reached the city, making slow, sad breaths with his accordion. There was a jeweller, a young man, who set up shop at the corner of Maple and Christopher Streets and sold diamonds that he mounted on silver pendants. Jessica Auffert had operated her own jewelry shop on the same corner for more than thirty years, but she did not seem to resent the man, and in fact brought him a mug of fresh black coffee every morning, exchanging gossip as she drank with him in his front room. What surprised her was how young he was—how young so many of the dead were these days. Great numbers of them were no more than children, who clattered around on skateboards or went racing past her window on their way to the playground. One, a boy with a strawberry discoloration on his cheek, liked to pretend that the rocking horses he tossed himself around on were real horses, the horses he had brushed and fed on his farm before they were killed in the bombing. Another liked to swoop down the slide over and over again, hammering his feet into the gravel as he thought about his parents and his two older brothers, who were still alive. He had watched them lift free of the same illness that had slowly sucked him under. He did not like to talk about it.

This was during a war, though it was difficult for any of them to remember which one.

Occasionally, one of the dead, someone who had just completed the crossing, would mistake the city for Heaven. It was a misunderstanding that never persisted for long. What kind of Heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river? What kind of Hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end? No, the city was not Heaven, and it was not Hell, and it certainly was not the world. It stood to reason, then, that it had to be something else. More and more people came to adopt the theory that it was an extension of life itself—a sort of outer room—and that they would remain there only so long as they endured in living memory. When the last person who had actually known them died, they would pass over into whatever came next. It was true that most of the city’s occupants went away after sixty or seventy years. While this did not prove the theory, it certainly served to nourish it. There were stories of men and women who had been in the city much longer, for centuries and more, but there were always such stories, in every time and place, and who knew whether to believe them?

Every neighborhood had its gathering spot, a place where people could come together to trade news of the other world. There was the colonnade in the monument district, and the One and Only Tavern in the warehouse district, and right next to the greenhouse, in the center of the conservatory district, was Andrei Kalatozov’s Russian Tea Room. Kalatozov poured the tea he brewed from a brass-colored samovar into small porcelain cups that he served on polished wooden platters. His wife and daughter had died a few weeks before he did, in an accident involving a land mine they had rooted up out of the family garden. He was watching through the kitchen window when it happened. His wife’s spade struck a jagged hunk of metal so cankered with rust from its century underground that he did not realize what it was until it exploded. Two weeks later, when he put the razor to his throat, it was with the hope that he would be reunited with his family in Heaven. And, sure enough, there they were—his wife and daughter—smiling and taking coats at the door of the tearoom. Kalatozov watched them as he sliced a lemon into wedges and arranged the wedges on a saucer. He was the happiest man in the room—the happiest man in any room. The city may not have been Heaven, but it was Heaven enough for him. Morning to evening, he listened to his customers as they shared the latest news about the war. The Americans and the Middle East had resumed hostilities, as hadChina and Spain and Australia and the Netherlands. Brazil was developing another mutagenic virus, one that would resist the latest antitoxins. Or maybe it was Italy. Or maybe Indonesia. There were so many rumors that it was hard to know for sure.

Now and then, someone who had died only a day or two before would happen into one of the centers of communication—the tavern or the tearoom, the river market or the colonnade—and the legions of the dead would mass around him, shouldering and jostling him for information. It was always the same: “Where did you live?” “Do you know anything about Central America?” “Is it true what they’re saying about the ice caps?” “I’m trying to find out about my cousin. He lived in Arizona. His name was Lewis Zeigler, spelled L-E-W-I-S. . . .” “What’s happening with the situation along the African coast—do you know, do you know?” “Anything you can tell us, please, anything at all.”

Kiran Patel had sold beads to tourists in the Bombay hotel district for most of a century. She said that there were fewer and fewer travellers to her part of the world, but that this hardly mattered, since there was less and less of her part of the world for them to see. The ivory beads she had peddled as a young woman became scarce, then rare, then finally unobtainable. The only remaining elephants were caged away in the zoos of other countries. In the years just before she died, the “genuine ivory beads” she sold were actually a cream-colored plastic made in batches of ten thousand in Korean factories. This, too, hardly mattered. The tourists who stopped at her kiosk could never detect the difference.

Jeffrey Fallon, sixteen and from Park Falls, Wisconsin, said that the fighting hadn’t spread in from the coasts yet, but that the germs had, and he was living proof. “Or not living, maybe, but still proof,” he corrected himself. The bad guys used to be Pakistan, and then they were Argentina andTurkey, and after that he had lost track. “What do you want me to tell you?” he asked, shrugging his shoulders. “Mostly I just miss my girlfriend.” Her name was Tracey Tipton, and she did this thing with his earlobes and the notched edge of her front teeth that made his entire body go taut and buzz like a guitar string. He had never given his earlobes a second thought until the day she took them between her lips, but now that he was dead he thought of nothing else. Who would have figured?

The man who spent hours riding up and down the escalators in the Ginza Street Shopping Mall would not give his name. When people asked him what he remembered about the time before he died, he would only nod vigorously, clap his hands together, and say, “Boom!,” making a gesture like falling confetti with his fingertips.

The great steel-and-polymer buildings at the heart of the city, with their shining glass windows reflecting every gap between every cloud in the sky, gave way after a few hundred blocks to buildings of stone and brick and wood. The change was so gradual, though, and the streets so full of motion, that you could walk for hours before you realized that the architecture had transformed itself around you. The sidewalks were lined with movie theatres, gymnasiums, hardware stores, karaoke bars, basketball courts, and falafel stands. There were libraries and tobacconists. There were lingerie shops and dry cleaners. There were hundreds of churches in the city—hundreds, in fact, in every district—pagodas, mosques, chapels, and synagogues. They stood sandwiched between vegetable markets and video-rental stores, sending their crosses, domes, and minarets high into the air. Some of the dead, it was true, threw aside their old religions, disgusted that the afterlife, this so-called great beyond, was not what their lifetime of worship had promised them. But for every person who lost his faith there was someone else who held fast to it, and someone else again who adopted it. The simple truth was that nobody knew what would happen to them after their time in the city came to an end, and just because you had died without meeting your God was no reason to assume that you wouldn’t one day.

This was the philosophy of José Tamayo, who offered himself once a week as a custodian to the Church of the Sacred Heart. Every Sunday, he waited by the west door until the final service was over and the crowd had dissolved back into the city, and then he swept the tile floor, polished the pews and the altar, and vacuumed the cushions by the Communion rail. When he was finished, he climbed carefully down the seventeen steps in front of the building, where the blind man stood talking about his journey through the desert, and made his way across the street to his apartment. He had damaged his knee once during a soccer match, and ever since then he felt a tiny exploding star of pain above the joint whenever he extended his leg. The injury had not gone away, even after the crossing, and he did not like to walk too far on it. This was why he had chosen to work for the Church of the Sacred Heart: it was the closest church he could find. He had, in fact, been raised a Methodist, in the only non-Catholic congregation in Juan Tula. He frequently thought of the time he stole a six-pack of soda from the church storage closet with the boys in his Sunday-school class. They had heard the teacher coming and shut the door, and a thin ray of light had come slanting through the jamb, illuminating the handle of a cart filled with folding chairs—forty or fifty of them, stacked together in a long, tight interdigitation. What José remembered was staring at this cart and listening to his teacher’s footsteps as the bubbles of soda played over the surface of his tongue, sparking and collapsing against the roof of his mouth.

The dead were often surprised by such memories. They might go weeks and months without thinking of the houses and neighborhoods they had grown up in, their triumphs of shame and glory, the jobs and routines and hobbies that had slowly eaten away their lives, yet the smallest, most inconsequential episode would leap into their thoughts a hundred times a day, like a fish smacking its tail on the surface of a lake. The old woman who begged for quarters in the subway remembered eating a meal of crab cakes and horseradish on a dock by Chesapeake Bay. The man who lit the gas lamps in the theatre district remembered taking a can of beans from the middle of a supermarket display pyramid and feeling a flicker of pride and then a flicker of amusement at his pride when the other cans did not fall. Andreas Andreopoulos, who had written code for computer games all forty years of his adult life, remembered leaping to pluck a leaf from a tree, and opening a fashion magazine to smell the perfume inserts, and writing his name in the condensation on a glass of beer. They preoccupied him—these formless, almost clandestine memories. They seemed so much heavier than they should have been, as if that were where the true burden of his life’s meaning lay. He sometimes thought of piecing them together into an autobiography, all the toy-size memories that replaced the details of his work and family, and leaving everything else out. He would write it by hand on sheets of unlined notebook paper. He would never touch a computer again.

There were places in the city where the crowds were so swollen you could not move without pressing into some arm or hip or gut. As the numbers of the dead increased, these areas became more and more common. It was not that the city had no room for its inhabitants but that when they chose to herd together they did so in certain places, and the larger the population grew the more congested these places became. The people who were comfortable in their privacy learned to avoid them. If they wanted to visit the open square in the monument district, or the fountains in the neon district, they would have to wait until the population diminished. This always seemed to happen in times of war or plague or famine.

The park beside the river was the busiest of the city’s busy places, with its row of white pavilions and its long strip of living grass. Kite venders and soft-drink stands filled the sidewalks, and saddles of rock carved the water into dozens of smoothly rounded coves. There came a day when a man with a thick gray beard and a tent of bushy hair stumbled out of one of the pavilions and began to bump into the shoulders of the people around him. He was plainly disoriented, and it was obvious to everyone who saw him that he had just passed through the crossing. He said that he was a virologist by profession. He had spent the last five days climbing the branches of an enormous maple tree, and his clothing was tacked to his skin with sap. He seemed to think that everybody who was in the park had also been in the tree with him. When someone asked him how he had died, he drew in his breath and paused for a moment before he answered. “That’s right, I died. I have to keep reminding myself. They finally did it, the sons of bitches. They found a way to pull the whole thing down.” He twisted a plug of sap from his beard. “Hey, did any of you notice some sort of thumping noise inside the tree?”

It was not long after this that the city began to empty out.

The single-room office of the L. Sims News & Speculation Sheet was in one of the city’s oldest buildings, constructed of chocolate-colored brick and masses of silver granite. Streamers of pale-yellow moss trailed from the upper floors, hanging as low as the ledge above the front door, and each morning, as Luka Sims stood cranking away at his mimeograph machine, sunlight filtered through the moss outside his window and the room was saturated with a warm, buttery light. Sometimes he could hardly look out at the city without imagining that he was gazing through a dying forest.

By seven o’clock, he would have printed a few thousand copies of his circular and taken them to the River Road Coffee Shop, where he would hand them out to the pedestrians. He liked to believe that each person who took one passed it on to someone else, who read it and passed it on to someone else, who read it and passed it on to someone else, but he knew that this was not the case. He always saw at least a few copies in the trash on his way home, the paper gradually uncrinkling in the sun. Still, it was not unusual for him to look inside the coffee shop and see twenty or thirty heads bent over copies of the latest Sims Sheet. He had been writing fewer stories about the city recently and more about the world of the living, stories he assembled from interviews with the recent dead, most of whom were victims of what they called “the epidemic.” These people tended to blink a lot—he noticed that. They squinted and rubbed their eyes. He wondered if it had anything to do with the virus that had killed them.

Luka saw the same faces behind the coffee-shop window every day. “HUNDREDS EXPOSED TO VIRUS IN TOKYO. NEW EPICENTERS DISCOVERED IN JOHANNESBURG, COPENHAGEN, PERTH.” Ellison Brown, who prepared the baked desserts in the kitchen, always waited for Luka to leave before he glanced at the headlines. His wife had been a poet of the type who liked to loom nearby with a fretful look on her face while he read whatever she had written that day, and there was nothing that bothered him more than feeling that he was being watched. “INCUBATION PERIOD LESS THAN FIVE HOURS. EXPOSURE AT NOON, MORTALITY AT MIDNIGHT.” Charlotte Sylvain would sip at her coffee as she scanned the paper for any mention of Paris. She still considered the city her home town, though she had not been there in fifty years. Once, she saw the word “Seine” printed in the first paragraph of an article and her fingers tightened involuntarily around the page, but it was only a misprint of the word “sienna,” and she would never see her home again. “VIRUS BECOMES AIRBORNE, WATERBORNE. TWO BILLION DEAD IN ASIA ANDEASTERN EUROPE.” Mie Matsuda Ryu was an enthusiast of word games. She liked to read the Sims Sheet twice every morning, once for content and once for any hidden patterns she could find—palindromes, anagrams, the letters of her own name scrambled inside other words. She never failed to spot them. “ ‘TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR BUG’ CROSSES ATLANTIC. FATALITY RATE NEARING ONE HUNDRED PER CENT.”

The people who went knocking on the doors of the city began to notice something unusual. The evangelists and travelling salesmen, the petitioners and census takers, they all said the same thing: the numbers of the dead were shrinking. There were empty rooms in empty buildings that had been churning with bodies just a few weeks before. The streets were not so crowded anymore. It was not that people were no longer dying. In fact, there were more people dying than ever. They arrived by the thousands and the hundreds of thousands, every minute of every hour, whole houses and schools and neighborhoods of them. But, for every person who made it through the crossing, two or three seemed to disappear. Russell Henley, who sold brooms that he lashed together from cedar branches and hanks of plastic fibre, said that the city was like a pan with a hole in it. “No matter how much water you let in, it keeps pouring right through.” He ran a stall in the monument district, where he assembled his brooms, marketing them to the passing crowds, which barely numbered in the low hundreds these days. If the only life they had was bestowed upon them by the memories of the living, as Russell was inclined to believe, what would happen when the rest of the living were gathered into the city? What would happen, he wondered, when that other room, the larger world, had been emptied out?

Unquestionably, the city was changing. People who had perished in the epidemic came and went very quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours, like a mid-spring snow that blankets the ground at night and melts away as soon as the sun comes up. A man arrived in the pine district one morning, found an empty storefront, painted a sign in the window with colored soap (“SHERMAN’S CLOCK REPAIR. FAST AND EASY. OPENING SOON”), then locked the door and shuffled away and never returned. Another man told the woman he had stayed the night with that he was going to the kitchen for a glass of water, and when she called to him a few minutes later he did not answer. She searched the apartment for him—the window beside her dressing table was open, as though he had climbed out onto the balcony—but he was nowhere to be found. The entire population of a small Pacific island appeared in the city on a bright windy afternoon, congregated on the top level of a parking garage, and were gone by the end of the day.

But it was the people who had been in the city the longest who most felt the changes. While none of them knew—or had ever known—how much time they had in the city, or when that time would come to an end, there had usually been a rhythm to their tenure, certain things a person could expect: after finishing the crossing, you found a home and a job and a company of friends, ran out six or seven decades, and while you could not raise a family, for no one aged, you could always assemble one around you.

Mariama Ekwensi, for one, had made her home on the ground floor of a small house in the white clay district for almost thirty years. She was a tall, rangy woman who had never lost the bearing of the adolescent girl she had once been, so dazed and bewildered by her own growth. The batik cotton dresses she wore were the color of the sun in a child’s drawing, and her neighbors could always spot her coming from several blocks away. Mariama was a caretaker at one of the city’s many orphanages. She thought of herself as a good teacher but a poor disciplinarian, and it was true that she often had to leave her children under the watch of another adult in order to chase after one who had taken off running. She read to the smaller children, books about long voyages, or about animals who changed shape, and she took the older ones to parks and museums and helped them with their homework. Many of them were badly behaved, with vocabularies that truly made her blush, but she found such problems beyond her talents. Even when she pretended to be angry with the children, they were clever enough to see that she still liked them. This was her predicament. There was one boy in particular, Philip Walker, who would light out toward the shopping district every chance he got. He seemed to think it was funny to hear her running along behind him, huffing and pounding away, and she never caught up with him until he had collapsed onto a stoop or a bench somewhere, gasping with laughter. One day, she followed him around a corner and chased him into an alley and did not come out the other end. Philip returned to the orphanage half an hour later. He could not say where she had gone.

Ville Tolvanen shot pool every night at the bar on the corner of Eighth and Vine. The friends he had at the bar were the same friends he had known when he was alive. There was something they used to say to each other when they went out drinking in Oulu, a sort of song they used to sing: “I’ll meet you when I die / At that bar on the corner of Eighth and Vine.” One by one, then, as they passed away, they found their way to the corner of Eighth and Vine, walked gingerly, skeptically, through the doors of the bar, and caught sight of one another by the pool tables, until gradually they were all reassembled. Ville was the last of the group to die, and finding his friends there at the bar felt almost as sweet to him as it had when he was young. He clutched their arms and they clapped him on the back. He insisted on buying them drinks. “Never again,” he told them. And though he could not finish the sentence, they all knew what he meant. He was grinning to keep his eyes from watering over, and someone tossed a peanut shell at him, and he tossed one back, and soon the floor was so covered with the things that it crunched no matter where they put their feet. For months after he died, Ville never missed a single night at the tables—and so when he failed to appear one night his friends went out looking for him. They headed straight for the room he had taken over the hardware store down the street, where they used their fists to bang on the door and then dislodged the lock with the sharp edge of a few playing cards. Ville’s shoes were inside, and his wristwatch, and his jacket, but he was not.

Ethan Hass, the virologist, drank not in the bars but from a small metal flask that he carried on his belt like a Boy Scout canteen. He had been watching the developments in his field for thirty years before he died, reading the journals and listening to the gossip at the conventions, and it sometimes seemed to him that every government, every interest group, every faction in the world was casting around for the same thing, a perfect virus, one that followed every imaginable vector, that would spread through the population like the expanding ring of a raindrop in a puddle. It was clear to him now that somebody had finally succeeded in manufacturing it. But how on earth had it been introduced? He couldn’t figure it out. The reports from the recently dead were too few, and they were never precise enough. One day, he locked himself in the bathroom of the High Street Art Museum and began to cry, insistently, sobbing out something about the air and the water and the food supply. A security guard was summoned. “Calm down, guy. There’s plenty of air and water for you out here. How about you just open the door for us?” The guard used his slowest, most soothing voice, but Ethan only shouted “Everybody! Everything!” and turned on the faucets of the sinks, one by one. He would not say anything else, and when the guard forced the door open a few minutes later he was gone.

It was as though a gate had been opened, or a wall thrown down, and the city was finally releasing its dead. They set out from its borders in their multitudes, and soon the parks, the bars, the shopping centers were all but empty.

One day, not long after the last of the restaurants had closed its doors, the blind man was standing on the steps of the church, waiting for someone who would listen to his story. No one had passed him all day long, and he was beginning to wonder if the end had come once and for all. Perhaps it had happened while he was sleeping, or during the half minute early that morning when he had thought he smelled burning honey. He heard a few car horns honking from different quarters of the city, and then, some twenty minutes later, the squealing of a subway train as its brakes gripped the tracks, and then nothing but the wind aspirating between the buildings, lingering, and finally falling still. He listened hard for a voice or a footstep, but he could not make out a single human sound.

He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello?” he shouted. “Hello?” But no one answered.

He experienced an unusual misgiving. He brought his hand to his chest. He was afraid that the heartbeat he heard was his own.

— (via dibache)

On Thin Ice: Two Russians Skate Off the Reservation

A loin-clothed homage to Aboriginal peoples backfires.

By ERIC FELTEN
Wall Street Journal

OPINION: DE GUSTIBUS
JANUARY 28, 2010, 7:55 P.M. ET, wsj.com

Russian figure-skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who have been favorites to win gold medals at next month’s Vancouver Olympics, thought they had found an admirably multicultural theme for their ice-dancing routine—an homage to aboriginal peoples. In it, they leap and dance and spin to a hip-hoppy track of sampled didgeridoo sounds while wearing loincloths over bodysuits painted with pseudotribal designs.

They have now learned the hard way that the politics of multiculturalism are tricky: The pair were denounced last week by Australian Aboriginal activists who don’t like outsiders dabbling in their traditions. Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, declared the skaters had co-opted “a foreign culture, and used [it] inappropriately.”

Who can argue with that? After all, there is rarely anything indisputably appropriate in figure skating, an endeavor famous for mawkish overemoting and sequined unitards. The Russians’ aboriginal fantasy is hardly the first or most egregious lapse of taste on ice.

But the Aborigines’ complaint goes far beyond the assertion that the skaters’ routine is corny or crass. The more serious accusation here is that the Russians are infringing on the cultural property of Aborigines. “We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture,” said Sol Bellear, a member of the Aboriginal Land Council. “It is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited.” Ms. Manton said the performance is “not acceptable to Aboriginal people” because it is “offensive.”

***

James O. Young, professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and author of the book “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts,” doesn’t see it that way. I asked him about the kerfuffle and he said that for Aborigines to take offense at such a hapless effort at cross-cultural kitsch is rather like a Parisian boulanger getting in a huff when an American tries to ask for a croissant in fractured French. That is, it’s unreasonable.

The Aboriginal gripe is a variation on an argument that has nagged jazz and popular music in America for most of a century. We’ve been told not to celebrate the endless cross-pollination of musical cultures, not to see it as a welcome force for integration in the old melting pot, but to view it instead as theft. For example, the “blues is black man’s music, and whites diminish it at best or steal it at worst,” wrote jazz critic and Rolling Stone magazine editor Ralph J. Gleason in 1968. “In any case, they have no moral right to use it.”

Gleason was unintentionally belittling the blues. To say that a style, an idiom, or a cultural aesthetic is the province of a race or ethnicity is to give it a status beneath that of art. Would we be elevating Beethoven’s odes if we asserted that orchestral romanticism is the sole province of Teutons? When he was a young man, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods expressed to bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie his worry that, as a white man emulating Charlie “Bird” Parker, he was misappropriating an idiom to which he had no claim. “You can’t steal a gift,” Gillespie replied. “Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”

Hipster-band-of-the-moment Vampire Weekend liberally borrows from the staccato arpeggios of African pop, much as Paul Simon did with his “Graceland” album. The preppy Columbia University grads who make up the group have created something new and different out of the mash-up of cultures, a genre that, with postmodern irony, they call “Upper West Side Soweto.” We can furrow our brows and harrumph that they have inappropriately co-opted a foreign idiom, or we can marvel at the endlessly jumbled global culture that mixes Locust Valley garb with township grooves.

***

T.S. Eliot endorsed the idea of artistic theft, with the caveat that “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” I don’t think we need to demand that cultural interlopers make something “better” than the sources that inspire them. That would be the real insult—borrowing on the premise that one will be improving upon the original. Instead, it should be enough that a poem or a song or a dance or a play makes for something different—even if it is different in the excruciating way that the joke auditions on “American Idol” give us different takes on famous pop songs. Goodness knows the Russian Olympic skaters have done at least that much (unless there is a thriving tradition of Aboriginal ice ballet in Australia that I’ve somehow missed).

Aboriginal activists met earlier this week to weigh their options and decided that the Russian ice-dancing routine “while offensive to Aboriginal people, is not illegal.” That’s a relief—though we can expect the Russian pair to be treated as cultural criminals at the Olympics nonetheless. Which is a shame, because even as we celebrate the great multiplicity and variety of cultures in the world, there is a case to be made that we all share in them.

“My people,” writes Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, “made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination.” By “my people” Mr. Appiah means that biggest and most catholic of tribes, “human beings.”

Write to me at EricFelten@wsjtaste.com

Why the Fetish About Footnotes?

In the world of academe, Web clicking would be too easy.

By MARK BAUERLEIN
Wall Street Journal

OPINION: TASTE
JANUARY 28, 2010, 7:38 P.M. ET, wsj.com

Is there a college graduate alive who doesn’t react to the words “footnotes” and “bibliography” with at least a small shiver of lingering dread? But while the citations, the style manuals, the numbering, the numbing tedium are just unpleasant memories to folks who now labor far from the groves of academe, they are a continuing affliction for scholars in the humanities. Thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Accurate sourcing guarantees that researchers make rigorous inquiries, handle evidence responsibly, and give credit where it’s due. In my first year of graduate school back in the early 1980s, a professor I worked for gave me a stern lesson in research. He was wrapping up an essay on Romantic poetry that borrowed upon recent critical studies, each one of them citing, in turn, previous works of scholarship and primary texts. We went up to the library one afternoon to make sure his immediate sources had reproduced earlier sources accurately. That meant collecting old books and journals one by one and finding relevant pages and passages. “Can’t you just assume they did it right?” I asked. He looked at me, raised a finger, and replied: “Never trust a footnote—always check the original.” After an hour we found one slight misquotation. He corrected it in his text and proved the point: Do your homework and get it right.

It can be so much easier now. If you’re in the middle of a 400-page tome and want to verify a footnote on an essay by John Dewey from 1905, you don’t have to leave your desk. Almost all scholarly journals are now online. A click to the library Web site, then to the electronic version of the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods gives you Dewey’s piece “The Realism of Pragmatism” in handy pdf format. Thousands of old books important to scholars are available, too. If you need to check a quote from William James’s volume “Pragmatism,” there it sits at Google Books, and a word search carries you right to the relevant passage. As more e-versions become available, only books still in copyright and unique archival documents require a day trip to the library or a trip across the country to a special collection. All those hours pulling old periodicals off the shelves, recalling old books and poring through 45 pages to find one sentence shrink to minutes of online delving.

The process works most efficiently, of course, when scholarly writing is online and the scholar embeds a link into the text so that readers can click directly to the original source. But even in hardcover books and paper-and-ink periodicals, a Web page reference inserted at the end of a sentence allows readers to type it into a laptop and have both works at hand for comparison. One of the prime reasons for documentation, the evaluation of a scholar’s evidence, happens more smoothly—and collegially. Researchers who don’t have access to print versions of the works cited in a book they are reading can download them and join professional conversations well-equipped and up to speed. Graduate students who are pressed for time and money but have to complete a reference-heavy dissertation move swiftly toward that blessed ascension to Ph.D. status.

Yet digital modes of citation have not been standardized as scholarly practice in the humanities. The 2008 MLA Handbook still spends 97 pages detailing nondigital formats and protocols of documentation. This means that scholars must devote long hours to an apparatus that in a digital age is inefficient and increasingly unnecessary. As links have multiplied and become standard practice in blogs, online magazines and e-commerce, the academic model appears ever more just that—academic. Citations are supposed to enhance scholarly communication, but as you read one monograph after another, wading through notes and works cited until the eyes glaze over, you sense a different objective at work. Authors clog the pages with notes not to facilitate peer review, but to demonstrate their place at the table, their ability to speak an obscure language that few bother to translate for the world at large.

Canny novices discover the game early in graduate school. Load up your papers and chapters with references, position your work against a dozen figures in the subfield, for every major point give a minilineage of precursors, and sprinkle allusions to Big Thinkers such as Michel Foucault (and, of course, your local mentors). Readers won’t examine the notes closely. They’ll just chalk up the lines by number and names, and recognize you as a legit practitioner.

If we shrink the apparatus with digital links, we’ll lose that brand of professional gamesmanship. Yes, digital citation has its problems. The Web contains lots of unreliable sources and the environment fluctuates over time. The same Web page can say one thing one day, another thing on another day, as in the case of a Wikipedia entry. But the utility outweighs the downside. One of the worst trends in the humanities in recent decades has been the insularity of scholarly expression. The conversation is so mannered and self-involved, so insider-like, that it has no readership beyond a few dozen colleagues in the same sub-sub-field. How many people could stomach a sentence like this one, a runner-up in the celebrated Bad Writing Contest a few years back: “Punctuated by what became ubiquitous sound bites—Tonya dashing after the tow truck, Nancy sailing the ice with one leg reaching for heaven—this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narrativized representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual codes”?

If digital technology streamlines documentation, we might get fewer hyperacademic treatises weighed down with notes, numbers, allusions and other machinery and find more books and articles built on interesting ideas presented in accessible paragraphs. The MLA and other professional organizations could do a great service by authorizing and standardizing the practice.

Mr. Bauerlein is the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.”

The Meaning of No Meaning :: Jennie Yabroff

By Jennie Yabroff | NEWSWEEK
Published Jan 15, 2010
[From the magazine issue dated Jan 25, 2010]

Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, a comic look at work culture during economic upheaval, was a bestselling National Book Award finalist that propelled Ferris into Next Great American Novelist territory. So when you hear that his new novel, The Unnamed, is about a man named Tim who is periodically overcome by a compulsion to walk without stopping until he collapses from exhaustion, you’ll probably say, “Yes, but what is it about?” The affliction must be a metaphor for something larger. Addiction, maybe. Looming environmental catastrophe. The search for God. After all, a smart and agile writer like Ferris has to be smuggling a Big Idea under his seemingly straightforward premise. But what if the book is about nothing more than a man who takes really long walks?

When we talk about the difference between “high” and “pop” culture, we often mean that one requires the work of interpretation, while the other is a ready source of easy pleasure. Certain writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers are assumed to have intentions beyond simple entertainment: The Metamorphosis can’t really just be about a guy who wakes up one morning transformed into a beetle. It has to be a metaphor for self-alienation. (Unless it’s about the Holocaust. Or capitalism.) Anyone who has taken an introductory course in literary theory can play this game, and feel all the smarter for it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it deepens our appreciation of the work.

When we evaluate a work first and foremost for its subtext, we can overlook the power of the text itself. “To interpret is to impoverish,” Susan Sontag wrote 50 years ago, arguing that the best way to engage with a work of art is not to analyze or unpack it, but to take it at face value. Sontag believed cinema, with its capacity for total sensory immersion and its designation as mass, instead of high, culture, was the art form most likely to resist the deadening effects of interpretation. But today even the most mainstream movie is ripe for pseudo-serious analysis: consider the recent essay collection The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, a compilation of academic papers about the cult favorite The Big Lebowski. Rather than film, the most interpretation-proof form of art is nonfiction: memoir, documentary, and, at its most mass level, reality TV. It is possible that the current popularity of nonfiction art is due to just this freedom to consume it whole, without first having to figure out what it “means.”

Consider if Ferris’s novel were published as nonfiction: the true story of a man with a life-destroying condition that baffled medical doctors and psychologists alike. The story’s success would hinge on how effectively Ferris conveyed the pathos and terror of Tim’s affliction, not how cleverly the writer disguised his true concerns. In fact, The Unnamed could work as nonfiction. There’s enough medical detail to make Tim’s condition plausible, and while some events are fantastical, they could just be the result of his mind’s erosion by his disease. (Taken this way, the book resembles Into the Wild, a nonfiction account of a young man who hiked deep into Alaska for unknown reasons.)

Even more than a cure, Tim craves a diagnosis, words to describe his condition. The reader, too, begins to crave the catharsis of comprehension—if not for Tim, at least for ourselves. In the middle of one of his walking spells Tim buys a bird book: “Name a bird and master the world. Reveal nature’s mystery and momentarily triumph over it.” It’s tempting to read this as Ferris’s commentary on the futility of the search for meaning, both in literature and in life. After all, Tim abandons the book in less than a day. But to say Ferris’s message is no message is still an act of interpretation. Maybe sometimes it’s best to just let the birds be birds. And the beetles be beetles.

© 2010

Preface (excerpt) to Poems from the Book of Hours

[T]he monk who is the imaginary author of the poems is represented as an adherent of the peculiar faith that Rilke ascribed to his spiritual kinsmen, a faith in a God remote from the august if benign Father of western Christianity, a God, rather, who is waiting to be born of the artist’s alert and sensitive consciousness.

— Babette Deutsch (translator), from the Introduction

. . . In The Book of Hours, Rilke, not quite ready to speak purely as himself, uses a persona; he is a monk, a meditator, a solitary seeking God. But though there are echoes in the poems of Russian iconic mysticism and the severe sweetness of Giotto frescoes, this monk is not praying in a church; no institution or congregation supports him in his solitude, and his search is not for certainty. His elusive God is not imprisoned, like a fugitive in sanctuary, by beliefs or by cathedral walls. Rather the wall that separates the worshipper from his diety is built of images of the deity, and the soul’s illumination is “squandered on their frames.” God isn’t in the church: he is the church, the cathedral not yet built. “We are all workmen . . . building you.” God is the neighbor we hear breathing in the night. He is the gift, the lost or unfound wholeness of being. Flowing through all things, yet he needs mankind. Which creates the other? “What will you do, God,” the poet-monk asks with childlike directness, “when I die?”

In one of the greatest lines of the book, God is “to the ship, a haven — to the land, a ship.” And yet this is a contingent God, threatened, dependent. He might yet be joy, sword, ring, mountain, fire, storm — but is, now, only a starved fledgling bird who the poet must try, in fear and trembling, to keep alive. He must be wooed into being, refined into purity, he must ripen in deep peace and silence towards the future, like a wine “that unperturbed, grows ever sweeter and all its own.”

That mankind and deity may grow slowly together towards fulfillment in ages yet to come is an idea inexhaustible in suggestions, and welcome to a heart that looks for hope. Maybe it is an idea only a poet could have. The word that was not spoken in the beginning is the word we must all learn to speak.

Babette Deutsch’s selection and translation of nineteen poems from The Book of Hours is thoughtful, felicitous, and honest, a noble introduction to the work and to the poet. When New Directions first published this book in 1941, it appeared as part of an effort by several poets and critics to bring Rilke to the attention of English-speaking readers. But unmistakably the motive force of this, as of all good translation, was the translator’s love of the texts, the pure desire to sing what the poet sang.

— Ursula Le Guin
2009

The death of Virginia Woolf

She hurries from the house, wearing a coat too heavy for the weather. It is 1941. Another war has begun. She has left a note for Leonard, and another for Vanessa. She walks purposefully toward the river, certain of what she’ll do, but even now she is almost distracted by the sight of the downs, the church, and a scattering of sheep, incandescent, tinged with a faint hint of sulfur, grazing under a darkening sky. She pauses, watching the sheep and the sky, then walks on. The voices murmur behind her; bombers drone in the sky, though she looks for the planes and can’t see them. She walks past one of the farm workers (is his name John?), a robust, small-headed man wearing a potato-colored vest, cleaning the ditch that runs through the osier bed. He looks up at her, nods, looks down again into the brown water. As she passes him on her way to the river she thinks of how successful he is, how fortunate, to be cleaning a ditch in an osier bed. She herself has failed. She is not a writer at all, really; she is merely a gifted eccentric. Patches of sky shine in puddles left over from last night’s rain. Her shoes sink slightly into the soft earth. She has failed, and now the voices are back, muttering indistinctly just beyond the range of her vision, behind her, here, no, turn and they’ve gone somewhere else. The voices are back and the headache is approaching as surely as rain, the headache that will crush whatever is she and replace her with itself. The headache is approaching and it seems (is she or is she not conjuring them herself?) that the bombers have appeared again in the sky. She reaches the embankment, climbs over and down again to the river. There’s a fisherman upriver, far away, he won’t notice her, will he? She begins searching for a stone. She works quickly by methodically, as if she were following a recipe that must be obeyed scrupulously if it’s to succeed at all. She selects one roughly the size and shape of a pig’s skull. Even as she lifts it and forces it into one of the pockets of her coat (the fur collar tickles her neck), she can’t help noticing the stone’s cold chalkiness and its color, a milky brown with spots of green. She stands close to the edge of the river, which laps against the bank, filling the small irregularities in the mud with clear water that might be a different substance altogether from the yellow-brown, dappled stuff, solid-looking as a road, that extends so steadily from bank to bank. She steps forward. She does not remove her shoes. The water is cold, but not unbearably so. She pauses, standing in the cold water up to her knees. She thinks of Leonard. She thinks of his hands and his beard, the deep lines around his mouth. She thinks of Vanessa, of the children, of Vita and Ethel: So many. They have all failed, haven’t they? She is suddenly, immensely sorry for them. She imagines turning around, taking the stone out of her pocket, going back to the house. She could probably return in time to destroy the notes. She could live on; she could perform that final kindness. Standing knee-deep in the moving water, she decides against it. The voices are here, the headache is coming, and if she restores herself to the care of Leonard and Vanessa they won’t let her go again, will they? She decides to insist that they let her go. She wades awkwardly (the bottom is mucky) out until she is up to her waist. She glances upriver at the fisherman, who is wearing a red jacket and who does not see her. The yellow surface of the river (more yellow than brown when seen this close) murkily reflects the sky. Here, then, is the last moment of true perception, a man fishing in a red jacket and a cloudy sky reflected on opaque water. Almost involuntarily (it feels involuntary, to her) she steps or stumbles forward, and the stone pulls her in. For a moment, still, it seems like nothing; it seems like another failure; just chill water she can easily swim back out of; but then the current wraps itself around her and takes her with such sudden, muscular force it feels as if a strong man has risen from the bottom, grabbed her legs and held them to his chest. It feels personal.

More than an hour later, her husband returns from the garden. “Madame went out,” the maid says, plumping a shabby pillow that releases a miniature storm of down. “She said she’d be back soon.”

Leonard goes upstairs to the sitting room to listen to the news. He finds a blue envelope, addressed to him, on the table. Inside is a letter.

Dearest,
I feel certain that I am going
mad again: I feel we can’t go
through another of these terrible times.
And I shant recover this time. I begin
to hear voices, and can’t concentrate.
So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have
given me
the greatest possible happiness. You
have been in every way all that anyone
could be. I don’t think two
people could have been happier till
this terrible disease came. I cant
fight it any longer, I know that I am
spoiling your life, that without me you
could work. And you will I know.
You see I cant even write this properly. I
cant read. What I want to say is that
I owe all the happiness of my life to you.
You have been entirely patient with me &
incredibly good. I want to say that —
everybody knows it. If anybody could
have saved me it would have been you.
Everything has gone from me but the
certainty of your goodness. I
cant go on spoiling your life any longer. I dont think two
people
could have been happier than we have been.
V.

Leonard races from the room, runs downstairs. He says to the maid, “I think something has happened to Mrs. Woolf. I think she may have tried to kill herself. Which way did she go? Did you see her leave the house?”

The maid, panicked, begins to cry. Leonard rushes out and goes to the river, past the church and the sheep, past the osier bed. At the riverbank he finds no one but a man in a red jacket, fishing.

.

She is borne quickly along by the current. She appears to be flying, arms outstretched, hair streaming, the tail of the fur coat billowing behind. She floats, heavily, through shafts of brown, granular light. She does not travel far. Her feet (the shoes are gone) strike the bottom occasionally, and when they do they summon up a sluggish cloud of muck, filled with the black silhouettes of leaf skeletons, that stands all but stationary in the water after she has passed along out of sight. Stripes of green-black weed catch in her hair and the fur of her coat, and for a while her eyes are blindfolded by a thick swatch of weed, which finally loosens itself and floats, twisting and untwisting and twisting again.

She comes to rest, eventually, against one of the pilings of the bridge at Southease. The current presses her, worries her, but she is firmly positioned at the base of the squat, square column, with her back to the river and her face against the stone. She curls there with one arm folded against her chest and the other afloat over the rise of her hip. Some distance above her is the bright, rippled surface. The sky reflects unsteadily there, white and heavy with clouds, traversed by the black cutout shape of rooks. Cars and trucks rumble over the bridge. A small boy, no older than three, crossing the bridge with his mother, stops at the rail, crouches, and pushes the stick he’s been carrying between the slats of the railing so it will fall into the water. His mother urges him along but he insists on staying awhile, watching the stick as the current takes it.

Here they are, on a day early in the Second World War: the boy and his mother on the bridge, the stick floating over the water’s surface, and Virginia’s body at the river’s bottom, as if she is dreaming of the surface, the stick, the boy and his mother, the sky and the rooks. An olive-drab truck rolls across the bridge, loaded with soldiers in uniform, who wave to the boy who has just thrown the stick. He waves back. He demands that his mother pick him up so he can see the soldiers better; so he will be more visible to them. All this enters the bridge, resounds through its wood and stone, and enters Virginia’s body. Her face, pressed sideways to the piling, absorbs it all: the truck and the soldiers, the mother and the child.

— Michael Cunningham, The Hours

Gods :: Vladimir Nabokov

Here is what I see in your eyes right now: rainy night, narrow street, streetlamps gliding away into the distance. The water runs down the drainpipes from steeply sloping roofs.

Under the snake’s-mouth of each pipe stands a green-hooped bucket.  Rows of buckets line the black walls on either side of the street. I watch as they fill with cold mercury. The pluvial mercury swells and overflows. The bareheaded lamps float in the distance, their rays standing on end in the rainy murk. The water in the buckets is overflowing.

Thus I gain entry to your overcast eyes, to a narrow alley of black glimmer where the nocturnal rain gurgles and rustles. Give me a smile. Why do you look at me so balefully and darkly? It’s morning. All night the stars shrieked with infant voices and, on the roof, someone lacerated and caressed a violin with a sharp bow. Look, the sun slowly crossed the wall like a blazing sail. You emanate an enveloping smoky haze. Dust starts swirling in your eyes, millions of golden worlds. You smiled!

We go out on the balcony. It’s spring. Below, in the middle of the street, a yellow-curled boy works lickety-split, sketching a god. The god stretches from one sidewalk to the other. The boy is clutching a piece of chalk in his hand, a little piece of white charcoal and he’s squatting, circling, drawing with broad strokes. This white god has large white buttons and turned-out feet. Crucified on the asphalt, he looks skyward with round eyes. He has a white arc for a mouth. A log-sized cigar has appeared in his mouth. With helical jabs the boy makes spirals representing smoke. Arms akimbo, he contemplates his work. He adds another button. . . .  A window frame clanked across the way; a female voice, enormous and happy, rang out summoning him. The boy gave the chalk a punt and dashed inside. On the purplish asphalt remained the white geometric god, gazing skyward.

Your eyes again grew murky. I realized, of course, what you were remembering. In a corner of our bedroom, under the icon, there is a colored rubber ball. Sometimes it hops softly and sadly from the table and rolls gently on the floor.

Put it back in its place under the icon, and then why don’t we go take a walk?

Spring air. A little downy. See those lindens lining the street? Black boughs covered with wet green spangles. All the trees in the world are journeying somewhere. Perpetual pilgrimage. Remember, when we were on our way here, to this city, the trees traveling past the windows of our railroad car? Remember the twelve poplars conferring about how to cross the river? Earlier, still, in the Crimea, I once saw a cypress bending over an almond tree in bloom. Once upon a time the cypress had been a big, tall chimney sweep with a brush on a wire and a ladder under his arm. Head over heels in love, poor fellow, with a little laundry maid, pink as almond petals. Now they have met at last, and are on their way somewhere together. Her pink apron balloons in the breeze; he bends toward her timidly, as if still worried he might get some soot on her. First-rate fable.

All trees are pilgrims. They have their Messiah, whom they seek. Their Messiah is a regal Lebanese cedar, or perhaps he is quite small, some totally inconspicuous little shrub in the tundra. . . .

Today some lindens are passing through town. There was an attempt to restrain them. Circular fencing was erected around their trunks. But they move all the same. . . .

The roofs blaze like oblique, sun-blinded mirrors. A winged woman stands on a windowsill washing the panes. She bends over, pouts, brushes a strand of flaming hair from her face. The air is faintly redolent of gasoline and lindens. Who can tell, today, just what emanations gently greeted a guest entering a Pompeian atrium? A half-century from now no one will know the smells that prevailed in our streets and rooms. They will excavate some military hero of stone, of which there are hundreds in every city, and heave a sigh for Phidias of yore. Everything in the world is beautiful, but Man only recognizes beauty if he sees it either seldom or from afar. . . . Listen . . . today, we are gods! Our blue shadows are enormous. We move in a gigantic, joyous world. A tall pillar on the corner is tightly swathed in wet canvases, across which a paintbrush has scattered colored whirlwinds. The old woman who sells papers has curling gray hairs on her chin, and mad light-blue eyes. Unruly newspapers stick chaotically out of her pouch. Their large type makes me think of flying zebras. A bus stops at its signpost. Upstairs the conductor ba-bangs with his palm on the iron gunwale. The helmsman gives his huge wheel a mighty turn. A mounting, labored moan, a brief grinding sound. The wide tires have left silver imprints on the asphalt. Today, on this sunny day, anything is possible. Look—a man has jumped from a roof onto a wire and is walking on it, splitting with laughter, his arms wide-spread, high over the rocking street. Look—two buildings have just had a harmonious game of leapfrog; number three ended up between one and two; it did not fully settle right away—I saw a gap below it, a narrow band of sunlight. And a woman stopped in the middle of a square, threw back her head, and started singing; a crowd gathered around her, then surged back: an empty dress lies on the asphalt, and up in the sky there’s a transparent cloudlet.

You’re laughing. When you laugh, I want to transform the entire world so it will mirror you. But your eyes are instantly extinguished. You say, passionately, fearfully, “Would you like to go .  .  .  there?  Would you? It’s lovely there today, everything’s in bloom. . . .”

Certainly it’s all in bloom, certainly we’ll go. For aren’t you and I gods? . . . I sense in my blood the rotation of unexplorable universes. . . .

Listen—I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator.

Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale, release life’s rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life.

They are leading camels along the street, on the way from the circus to the zoo. Their plump humps list and sway. Their long, gentle faces are turned up a little, dreamily. How can death exist when they lead camels along a springtime street? At the corner, an unexpected whiff of Russian foliage; a beggar, a divine monstrosity, turned all inside out, feet growing out of armpits, proffers, with a wet, shaggy paw, a bunch of greenish lilies-of-the-val . . . I bump a passerby with my shoulder. . . . Momentary collision of two giants. Merrily, magnificently, he swings at me with his lacquered cane. The tip, on the backswing, breaks a shopwindow behind him. Zigzags shoot across the shiny glass. No—it’s only the splash of mirrored sunlight in my eyes. Butterfly, butterfly! Black with scarlet bands. . . .  A scrap of velvet. . . . It swoops above the asphalt, soars over a speeding car and a tall building, into the humid azure of the April sky. Another, identical butterfly once settled on the white border of an arena; Lesbia, senator’s daughter, gracile, dark-eyed, with a gold ribbon on her forehead, entranced by the palpitating wings, missed the split second, the whirlwind of blinding dust, in which the bull-like neck of one combatant crunched under the other’s naked knee.

Today my soul is filled with gladiators, sunlight, the world’s din. . . .

We descend a wide staircase into a long, dim underground chamber. Flagstones resound vibrantly under our steps. Representations of burning sinners adorn the gray walls. Black thunder, in the distance, swells in velvet folds. It bursts forth all around us. We rush headlong, as if awaiting a god. We are packed inside a glassy glitter. We gather momentum. We hurtle into a black chasm and speed with a hollow din far underground, hanging on to leather straps. With a pop the amber lamps are extinguished for an instant, during which flimsy globules burn with a hot light in the dark—the bulging eyes of demons, or perhaps our fellow passengers’ cigars.

The lights come back on. Look, over there—the tall man in a black overcoat standing by the car’s glass door. I faintly recognize that narrow, yellowish face, the bony hump of his nose. Thin lips compressed, attentive furrow between heavy brows, he listens to something being explained by another man, pale as a plaster mask, with a small, circular, sculpted beard. I am certain they are speaking in terza rima. And your neighbor, that lady in the pale-yellow coat sitting with lowered lashes—could that be Dante’s Beatrice? Out of the dank nether world we emerge anew into the sunlight. The cemetery is on the distant outskirts. Edifices have grown sparser. Greenish voids. I recall how this same capital looked on an old print.

We walk against the wind along imposing fences. On the same kind of sunny, tremulous day as this we’ll head back north, to Russia. There will be very few flowers, only the yellow stars of dandelions along the ditches. The dove-gray telegraph poles will hum at our approach. When, beyond the curve, my heart is jabbed by the firs, the red sand, the corner of the house, I shall totter and fall prone.

Look! Above the vacant green expanses, high in the sky, an airplane progresses with a bassy ring like an aeolian harp. Its glass wings are glinting. Beautiful, no?  Oh,  listen—here is something that happened in Paris, about 150 years ago. Early one morning—it was autumn, and the trees floated in soft orange masses along the boulevards into the tender sky—early one morning, the merchants had assembled in the marketplace; the stands filled with moist, glistening apples; there were whiffs of honey and damp hay. An old fellow with white down in his auricles was unhurriedly setting up cages containing various birds that fidgeted in the chilly air; then he sleepily reclined on a mat, for the auroral fog still obscured the gilt hands on the town hall’s black dial. He had scarcely gone to sleep when someone started tugging at his shoulder. Up jumped the oldster, and saw before him an out-of-breath young man. He was lanky, skinny, with a small head and a pointed little nose. His waistcoat—silvery with black stripes—was buttoned askew, the ribbon on his pigtail had come undone, one of his white stockings was sagging in bunched wrinkles. “I need a bird, any bird—a chicken will do,” said the young man, having given the cages a cursory, agitated glance. The old man gingerly extracted a small white hen, which put up a fluffy struggle in his swarthy hands. “What’s wrong—is it sick?” asked the young man, as if discussing a cow. “Sick? My little fish’s belly!” mildly swore the oldster.

The young man flung him a shiny coin and ran off amid the stands, the hen pressed to his bosom. Then he stopped, turned abruptly with a whip of his pigtail, and ran back to the old vendor. “I need the cage too,” he said.

When he went off at last, holding the chicken with the cage in his outstretched hand and swinging the other arm, as if he were carrying a bucket, the old man gave a snort and lay back down on his mat. How business went that day and what happened to him afterwards is of no concern to us at all.

As for the young man, he was none other than the son of the renowned physicist Charles.  Charles glanced over his spectacles at the little hen, gave the cage a flick of his yellow fingernail, and said, “Fine—now we have a passenger as well.” Then, with a severe glint of his eyeglasses, he added, “As for you and me, my boy, we’ll take our time. God only knows what the air is like up there in the clouds.”

The same day, at the appointed hour on the Champs de Mars, before an astonished crowd, an enormous, lightweight dome, embroidered with Chinese arabesques, with a gilded gondola attached by silken cords, slowly swelled as it filled with hydrogen. Charles and his son busied themselves amid streams of smoke blown sideways by the wind. The hen peered through the wire netting of her cage with one beady eye, her head tilted to one side. All around moved colorful, spangled caftans, airy women’s dresses, straw hats; and, when the sphere lurched upward, the old physicist followed it with his gaze, then broke into tears on his son’s shoulder, and a hundred hands on every side began waving handkerchiefs and ribbons. Fragile clouds floated through the tender, sunny sky. The earth receded, quivery, light-green, covered with scudding shadows and the fiery splashes of trees. Far below some toy horsemen hurtled past—but soon the sphere rose out of sight. The hen kept peering downward with one little eye.

The flight lasted all day. The day concluded with an ample, vivid sunset. When night fell, the sphere began slowly descending. Once upon a time, in a village on the shore of the Loire, there lived a gentle, wily-eyed peasant. Out he goes into the field at dawn. In the middle of the field he sees a marvel: an immense heap of motley silk. Nearby, overturned, lay a little cage. A chicken, all white, as if modeled out of snow, was thrusting its head through mesh and intermittently moving its beak, as it searched for small insects in the grass. At first the peasant had a fright, but then he realized that it was simply a present from the Virgin Mary, whose hair floated through the air like autumn spider-webs. The silk his wife sold off piecemeal in the nearby town,  the  little gilded gondola became a crib for their tightly swaddled firstborn, and the chicken was dispatched to the backyard. Listen on.

Some time elapsed, and then one fine day, as he passed a hillock of chaff at the barn gate, the peasant heard a happy clucking. He stooped. The hen popped out of the green dust and hawked at the sun as she waddled rapidly and not without some pride. While, amid the chaff, hot and sleek, glowed four golden eggs. And no wonder. At the wind’s mercy, the hen had traversed the entire flush of the sunset, and the sun, a fiery cock with a crimson crest, had done some fluttering over her.

I don’t know if the peasant understood. For a long time he stood motionless, blinking and squinting from the brilliance and holding in his palms the still warm, whole, golden eggs. Then, his sabots rattling, he rushed across the yard with such a howl that his hired hand thought he must have lopped off a finger with his axe. . . .

Of course all this happened a long, long time ago, long before the aviator Latham, having crashed in mid-Channel, sat, if you will, on the dragonfly tail of his submerging Antoinette, smoking a yellowed cigarette in the wind, and watching as, high in the sky, in his little stubby-winged machine, his rival Bleriot flew for the first time from Calais to England’s sugary shores.

But I cannot overcome your anguish. Why have your eyes again filled with darkness? No, don’t say anything. I know everything. You mustn’t cry. He can hear my fable, there’s no doubt at all he can hear it. It is to him that it’s addressed. Words have no borders. Try to understand! You look at me so balefully and darkly. I recollect the night after the funeral. You were unable to stay home. You and I went out into the glossy slush. Lost our way. Ended up in some strange, narrow street. I did not make out its name, but could see it was inverted, mirrorlike, in the glass of a streetlamp. The lamps were floating off into the distance. Water dripped from the roofs. The buckets lining both sides of the street, along black walls, were filling with cold mercury. Filling and overflowing. And suddenly, helplessly spreading your hands, you spoke:

“But he was so little, and so warm. . . .”

Forgive me if I am incapable of weeping, of simple human weeping, but instead keep singing and running somewhere, clutching at whatever wings fly past, tall, disheveled, with a wave of suntan on my forehead. Forgive me. That’s how it must be.

We walk slowly along the fences. The cemetery is already near. There it is, an islet of vernal white and green amid some dusty vacant land. Now you go on alone. I’ll wait for you here. Your eyes gave a quick, embarrassed smile. You know me well. . . . The wicket-gate squeaked, then banged shut. I sit alone on the sparse grass. A short way off there is a vegetable garden with some purple cabbage. Beyond the vacant lot, factory buildings, buoyant brick behemoths, float in the azure mist. At my feet, a squashed tin glints rustily inside a funnel of sand. Around me, silence and a kind of spring emptiness. There is no death. The wind comes tumbling upon me from behind like a limp doll and tickles my neck with its downy paw. There can be no death.

My heart, too, has soared through the dawn. You and I shall have a new, golden son, a creation of your tears and my fables. Today I understood the beauty of intersecting wires in the sky, and the hazy mosaic of factory chimneys, and this rusty tin with its inside-out, semidetached, serrated lid. The wan grass hurries, hurries somewhere along the dusty billows of

the vacant lot. I raise my arms. The sunlight glides across my skin. My skin is covered with multicolored sparkles.

And I want to rise up, throw my arms open for a vast embrace, address an ample, luminous discourse to the invisible crowds. I would start like this: “O rainbow-colored gods . . .”