Thomas Paul Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”

poster2I drafted a review-response to this movie Saturday morning, after driving home late Friday night with surf tunes and sand visions gritting up my imagination. Before I could post it over the weekend, my site got hacked, & it took all day Sunday for my Thoreauvian web-maestro to get me back on line. As all Pynchonistas know, there’s no such thing as coincidence.

Oh, that was no found crab, Ace, no random octopus or girl, uh-uh. Structure and detail come later, but the conniving around him now he feels instantly, in his heart. (Gravity’s Rainbow 188)

I spent the noontime hour Friday sneaking across town to catch Paul Thomas Anderson’s joyous & brilliant film of Thomas Pynchon’s last-novel-but-one, Inherent Vice, an homage to the stoner sixties via hard-boiled detective novels and a generous helping of conspiracy. The film opens and almost-closes with a narrow view of Pacific surf down a side-street, the view from the hippie bungalow where private eye Doc Sportello hangs his many hats, cleans beach tar off his feet, and occasionally faux-Afros his hair. The repeated view of the beach, one of the few repetitions in a busy and sometimes disorienting narrative, captures the film and novel’s imagined Gordita Beach, a loosely adapted version of the Manhattan Beach neighborhood where Pynchon lived in the 60s. It’s Utopia, and it keeps Doc happy with its surfers, seers, dope, travelers, and — since it’s the spring of 1970 in the film, and the long decline out of the sacred decade has just started — rich helpings of nostalgia.

The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not. (Inherent Vice 314)

Shasta in flatland gear

Shasta in flatland gear

I have trouble writing critically about this film, especially now that the holiday cyber-nappers virus’d away the first draft of this post. (I kept a hard copy. Proverbs for Paranoids #6.) I loved watching it so much. I’m sure many old Pynchon hands will enjoy it too — the mid-day show at Lincoln Center was filled with grey hair, or little of it, as in my case — though I wonder a little about how friendly it might be to non-initiates. If you’ve not read the novel, you might want to start with this trailer first.

I can’t resist mentioning what we all knew going into the movie theater: the movie can’t dive all the way into the wild exhuberance of Pynchon’s imagination, any more than it can replicate his just-past-the-edge-of-control beautiful sentences. But it comes closer that I really dared to hope. It helps that Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s most linear novel, which isn’t to say it’s very linear, even in Anderson’s stripped-down version. The trimming was smart, though I missed some potentially distracting riffs: the road trip to Vegas that clarifies the real estate plot, and (as Anthony Lane also notes) the surf-saint with his piece of the True Board.

But the genius of the movie was that it got so much in, despite having to leave other things out. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc played a perfect combo of confusion, generosity, and “paranoid skills” (318). Josh Bronlin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornson was if anything better, eating up the screen with intensity, rage, and — particularly in a denouement that Anderson added to Pynchon’s ending-less novel — a sympathy for Doc to which he would never cop. Perhaps Anderson’s shrewdest narrative gambit was making Sortilege, Doc’s ex-receptionist turned full-time surf prophetess whose name refers to a Roman practice of divination, into a voice-over narrater who helped the film smuggle in lots of Tommy P’s prose:

…before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, to shore and safety. (Inherent Vice 5)

Doc and Bigfoot

Doc and Bigfoot

Anderson’s film does a good job jump-cutting Doc’s mostly-stoned “operational paranoia” into a fast-paced cinematic style. He briefly kicks into a higher gear during the action-movie semi-climax, when Doc, drugged on PCP by an Aryan Brotherhood baddie, fights a confusing three-way shoot out with Puck Beaverton the skinhead, Detective Bigfoot, and hit-man Adrian Prussia, who appears, in a partly-opaque backstory, to have killed Bigfoot’s partners some years ago. It’s a good scene, but I’m not sure that it’s the heart of the matter.

Some of my favorite bit-pieces in the novel, St. Flip of Lawndale who surfs a sacred & perhaps imaginary offshore break, Sortilege’s visions of the drowned Pacific continent of Lemuria, and especially the fog-frozen final tableau on the San Diego Freedway, couldn’t fit into Anderson’s crowded vision. That seems a pretty reasonable choice: he stuck instead with characters. He got great performances from Owen Wilson as semi-zombie surf sax player Coy Harlington, Martin Short as mad dentist Rudy Blatenoyd, Benecio del Toro as Doc’s (maritime) lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Reese Witherspoon as Assistant DA and Doc’s sometime girlfriend Penny Kimball, and many others. I missed the Lemurian riffs, but my favorite snatch of sentimental poetry from the novel got prominent voice-over treatment as Doc and Sauncho gazed out into the LA harbor:

 …yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have that claim jumped by evildoers known all to well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire… (Inherent Vice 341)

Doc and Penny

Doc and Penny

(I wrote about that passage, plus Lemuria and the foggy ending, along with Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, James Cameron, in a recent essay in Jeffrey Cohen’s collection, Inhuman Nature. Read it all here, and support Punctum Books while you’re at it!)

But the true thing about this film, and this novel, is that more than any other one of Pynchon’s eight, it plays up the love story. You can feel the emotion in the opening sentences:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look. (Inherent Vice 1)

Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s ex-old lady and from these opening sentences a hazy allegory of paradise lost, passes between both sides of the historical fence in film and novel, from Doc to real estate mogul Micky Wolfmann and (perhaps) back. Anderson sprinkles his film with flashbacks to the flower-bikini era, including a lovely sequence of Doc and Shasta dancing in the rain to Neil Young. Pynchon’s novel keeps that 60s Shasta just out of sight. She’s on Micky’s side when she comes to Doc’s place looking for help, entangled along with everyone else, even Doc, in rising tides of greed, ambition, and willingness to abandon the past.

Hollywood likes its women gorgeous and vulnerable, and to me Katherine Waterson’s Shasta — the Muse of the film — was the only actor who didn’t quite ace it. Pynchon’s heroines, from Oedipa Mass in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) to New York-based PI Maxine Tarlow in Bleeding Edge (2013), aren’t immune to the charms of Bad Men like Micky, but they don’t feel quite as doe-eyed as Waterson’s Shasta, especially in the opening scene. Anderson is reasonably faithful to the novel’s strange reunion sex scene, which the irreplaceable maniacs over at the Pynchon wiki have calculated takes places during an extra non-calendared day between May 4 and May 5, 1970, within the otherwise-precisely datable narrative of Inherent Vice, which incidentally ends on Thomas Pynchon’s 33rd birthday. Doc and Shasta’s sexual reunion occupies that gap outside time, — and the implication, once we unravel the chronology, is that such a reunion is only possible outside of the fast-falling arc of history. Anderson doesn’t quite show it that way.

The film’s version of the scene is powerful and shocking, with a bit of erotic role-playing making the middle part of the encounter ambivalent, and Shasta’s “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” (307) making sure we don’t miss the point. The film is too knowing, and too committed to Pynchon’s tragic view of American history as a narrative of the Fall, to give much more than that. Poster

What if it was a deliberate insurance hustle? Maybe Shasta could still get ashore in time, onto some island where maybe even now she’d be pulling small perfect fish out of the lagoon and cooking them with mangoes and hot peppers and shredded coconut. Maybe she was sleeping out on the beach and looking at stars nobody here under the smoglit L.A. sky even knew existed. (Inherent Vice 120)

Except that, in the movie’s end, it can’t resist giving just a bit more. After stopping back through the opening shot of the surf down Doc’s alley — at which point I was hoping that would be the last shot, thumbing its nose at narrative closure, what we want is the surf, man — Anderson added two short scenes about the two key relationships. Bigfoot bigfoots his way into Doc’s place by stomping through the glass door. They share a joint, the munchies, and — almost! — recognition. Then bright light shines down on Doc and Shasta snuggled together, him looking up behind dark shades and her looking slightly away and down. Together, more or less.

It’s hard to avoid closing with the love story, and Anderson probably resists it as much as he could. Though maybe I’m being over-picky: if there’s one thing the post-Gravity’s Rainbow run of “new” Pynchon novels, especially the most recent two, Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, has shown, it’s that the greatest American postmodern novelist has a soft heart. After crowing in Gravity’s Rainbow  that “There’s nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist,” (696), Pynchon since the 90s has seemed determined to embrace this self-caricature. Maybe Anderson’s semi-happy ending is almost true to that spirit? (Pynchon’s novels tend not to end in romantic clinches, but there’s plenty of sentiment among friends in Mason & Dixon and towards growing children in Bleeding Edge.) My sense is that Pynchon’s novels are less committed to choice in love than our pop culture wants to believe — sex in Pynchon is as much overwhelming force as life-defining alliance — but in stripping away so much of the centrifugal debris from the novel, has Anderson found, at its core, a simple love story?

I’m wondering now whether that final shot is Anderson’s attempt to capture Pynchon’s skeptically-redoubled version of human sentiment inside tragic history. Can we see in Shasta’s not-looking-at-us eyes “some heavy combination of face ingredients …that [Doc] couldn’t read at all” (3)? Or maybe also evidence of her claim that she was “never the sweetest girl in the business” (312)? In Doc’s confusion can we read both love and anticipated loss, a kind of postlapserian sense of History and human weakness, “back to his old wised-up self, short on optimism, ready to be played for a patsy again. Normal” (303). It’s a lot to get into one shot, and I’m not sure Anderson gets it all in.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie again (and again) to try to figure it out.

For those not in New York or LA, it opens nationwide January 9! 2014-12-12 11.48.04


Tamburlaine by Theatre for a New Audience

tamburlaineAfter watching a great buckets-of-blood play with the news of violent injustice from Ferguson and Staten Island ringing in my ears, I spent a good part of last Friday’s slow and rainy drive home thinking about Simone Weil. I’ve been mulling her quasi-mystical writings on attention for a little while, but the subtext for Theatre for a New Audience’s Tamburlaine was her great essay on the Iliad, in which she describes Homer’s epic as a poem of force:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.

Many of the literature professors flocking to Fort Greene to see this rare production of both parts of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great will be listening for the hero’s “high astounding terms” and “winning words.” John Douglas Thompson’s exhausting and exhilarating performance hurled Marlowe’s verse high up toward heaven, and Michael Boyd’s fast and violent direction emphasized the harsh charisma of force. On stage, the Scythian shepherd was a hard monster not to love.JDT

He had a good supporting cast, most of whom played multiple roles. Chukwuki Iwuji played Bajazeth in Part 1 and the King of Trebizon in part 2 with wonderful style and flair. My friend Ivan Lupic, who I bumped into during the intermission’s inevitable professors-in-line-for-wine-in-pastic-cups chat session, said of Iwulji’s Bajazeth, “he was good in the cage,” referring to the mighty emperor’s captivity as Tamburlaine’s footstool. The loyal Scythians Usumcasane and Techelles were played with brio by Carlo Alban and Keith Randolph Smith, and their soon-allay — the first of Tamburlaine’s many civilized converts — Theridamas with heartfelt passion by Andrew Holvenson. Patrice Johnson Chevannes’s brilliant turn as Zabina, empress of Turkey, nearly stole the show as she bewailed her own and her husband’s captivity. Morphing into the King of Syria in part 2, Chevannes carried the frustrated regal bearing of her imperial role with her.

The trickiest part in the ensemble to judge was Merritt Janson as Zenocrate, the princess of Egypt Tamburlaine captures, woos as his wife, and keeps by his side even while sacking her father’s city of Damascus. Like Theridamas, Zenocrate demonstrates to the audience that Tamburlaine cannot be resisted; both characters begin by opposing him but are swept forward by his power. Marriage to the hero, and mothering three male heirs in part 2, proves less straightforward for Zenocrate than military allegiance does for Theridamas. In part 2, after Tamburlaine hurls curses at heaven over the death of Zenocrate, Janson shifted to the role of Callapine, Bajazeth’s son who escapes from Tamburlaine’s prison to unite the eastern powers against the usurper. As the mighty warrior struggled toward his final trap, dragging Zenocrate’s monument to Babylon for the last of many battles, Callapine stared down at his adversary with Zenocrate’s face, and her sadness. It was a powerful theatrical effect, overlaying the adversary’s stubborn defiance with the  dead wife’s sorrow. The moment recalled Zenocrate’s unsuccessful attempts to get Tamburlaine to spare the virgins of Damascus and the city of her people. As Callapine, she faced him down but still could not persuade him.

My blood-spattered notes, taken during the show

My blood-spattered notes, taken during the show

In the end, though, it was a one-hero show. Riding onto the stage atop a cage filled with the crowns of kingdoms he has conquered, drawn by defeated kings, the “pampared jades of Asia” who can “draw but twenty miles a day” (Part 2 4.3), Thompson’s Tamburlaine filled up the stage with ambition, dancing physicality, and rich, incessant pleasure. He wasn’t a frightening tyrant so much as a happy warrior, joyously casting defiance to the stars and to mighty kingdoms. I’ve seen John Douglas Thompson in several roles — as Enobarbus, Mark Antony, and most recently as Satchmo at the Waldorf (I saw it in New Haven before it went to Broadway) — and he’s one of my favorite performers. He grabbed this over-wrought part into one of the enthusiastic bear hugs he deployed liberally among his allies, and also sidled up to it with the passion he displayed most nakedly on Zenocrate’s deathbed. Some of the wine-drinking professors thought he handled the verse about beauty (1.2, 3.3) less powerfully than the verse about conquest, which I think is pretty much true — but I also think that during the face-off of Bajazeth and Zabina v. Tamburlaine and Zenocrate (3.3), no one could out-speak Patrice Chevaness’s Zabina.

Will and shall best fitteth Tamburlaine” (3.1),  insisted the conqueror, and Thompson’s striding, leaping, laughing, crowing, blood-covered performance drove the play for more than three hours stage time. Would you not like to be a king?, he teased the audience. It cost him everything by the end, but his drive for the visible triumph, the “sweet fruition of an earthly crown” (2.7), rolled over all of us like a breaking wave.

The warriors played on a bloody stage, filled with puddles of stage-blood mopped up with sawdust. Ceremonial buckets splashing on heads marked numerous deaths. The slain virgins of Damascus stood mute and blood-stained behind dripping clear plastic curtains, which we clever professors called Psycho-shower curtains. A repeated motif of the tragic second part of the play involved parents killing their own children: Olympia killed her son to keep him from the torments of Tamburlaine’s army (Part 2 3.3); the hybrid figure of Callapine, played by the same actor as Zenocrate, assailed Tamburlaine and the sons of Zenocrate; and finally, horrifically, after yet another high rhetorical flourish, Tamburlaine stabbed the one of his three sons who eschewed combat. I thought of Derrida’s excruciating reading of the sacrifice of Isaac as yet another body fell on stage: this slaughter of the weak, Derrida insists, has not ended and continues each day. To embody the “scourge and wrath of God” (3.3), as Tamburlaine claims he does: isn’t that to insist on always wielding Abraham’s knife? On seeing all the world’s bodies as sons to be sacrificed?

At Zenocrate's deathbed

At Zenocrate’s deathbed

Tamburlaine’s hubristic climax included burning the Koran in Babylon, which finally turned the stars against him — though perhaps it was just sheer exhaustion at the end of a long night. He passed his crown to his bloody-minded son Amyras and died after a last long blank-verse rage in which he imagines “all the earth, like Etna, breathing fire” (5.3). After three-plus hour of relentless theatrical force, the ending felt oddly abrupt: after so much action, stillness?

Of course the night didn’t end in silence; we applauded the full cast in their blood-stained costumes, stood for John Douglas Thompson, and marveled at his endurance. Driving home in the rain, I thought about force, how it lasts, how much it mars, and how we humans love it.

I heard this weekend that the play’s run has been extended through January 4. Maybe I’ll go back.

Cleaning up the stage

Cleaning up the stage


Winter 2014 – Spring 2015 Shakespeare in NYC

I was asked recently for a list of Shakespeare and other early modern plays that I’m planning to see this upcoming season in New York. I decided to do a blog post in case other people would like to see what’s on my radar. I’m sure there are other things that I’m missing, and I welcome suggestions. Stay tuned for blog reviews!

Dec 2014

Tamburlaine (by Christopher Marlowe) at Theater for a New Audience, with John Douglas Thompson, one of our best young Shakespearean actors.

I’m going this coming Fri, 12/5.tamburlaine

The Tempest (Nella Tempesta), a multi-lingual & multicultural adaptation that includes assorted other writers besides Shakespeare at LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club in the East Village.
Run is 12/11-21; I’m going Fri 12/19.

Tempest at La MaMa

Tempest at La MaMa

Jan 2015

Titus Andronicus at the Shakespeare Exchange (a small new Shakespeare company)
Jan 22 – Feb 7; I’m going to take students around Jan 27.

Feb 2015

The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theater
Feb 10 – March 15. Probably take students on Feb 17 or 24.Winter's Tale

March 2015

Cry, Trojans (Troilus & Cressida) by the Wooster Group at St Ann’s Warehouse
March 24 – April 18. I’m taking students on March 27.

The Wooster Group's "Cry, Trojans"

The Wooster Group’s “Cry, TrojansI’m taking students March 27.

Hamlet by Classic Stage Co
March 25 –

April 2015

April 14 – May 16, 2015 Tis Pity She’s a Whore (John Ford) Red Bull Theater


downloadApril 17 – May 2, 2015 Othello Titan Theatre Company (Queens)

April 24 – May 24 Two Gentlemen of Verona by Theater for a New Audience


May 2015

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Classic Stage Co
May 29 –


Pericles: The Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit

Being in prison means the loss of many precious things, but Pericles encourages us to believe that all losses are not final… — Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester

Scenes from the Mobile Shakespeare Unit

Scenes from the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s run

Along with students, colleagues, and friends, I braved the pre-Thanksgiving press and the crowds protesting Mike Brown’s killing last night to see Rob Melrose’s fast, brilliant, emotionally powerful production of Pericles at the Public Theater. Inside of two hours we had it all: riddles, incest, shipwrecks (two!), starvation, cannibalism, pirates, brothels, music, magic. The actors played multiple parts and navigated exotic geographies, transitioning from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus to Mytilene with the spin of a table. The traveling show had just completed a tour of the five boroughs with a minimal set: a table, a book, a pillow, a few three-legged stools (useful in the jousting scene), eight actors. Out of these things grew an emotional urgency and force that stayed with me as I waited on my way home, watching a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest march surge around my stationary car on E. 14th Street, wishing I had spoken to my students as clearly about this week’s injustice as Karl Steel did to his.

By the end of the night I was right there with Pericles, needing help to feel what I was feeling. How can a story I’ve read and taught dozens of times still choke me up?

Pericles and Marina

Pericles and Marina

Give me a gash, put me to present pain,

Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me

O’erbear the shores of my mortality.

The play opened with Flor de Liz Perez, who would go on to play Marina in the second half, singing Gower’s opening lines. The song was a great way to enliven the four-beat couplets that pound out the play’s narrative interludes. The show’s a-cappella music was one of the particular joys of the evening; actors not currently onstage provided beats, and several scenes, in particular the jousting and dancing at Pentapolis, were wonderfully festive. Often many voices collaborated on Gower’s long speeches, adding speed and variety to the dizzying geographical movement of the play.

The second shipwreck

The 2nd shipwreck

The double casting choices were intriguing. I’ve often seen Marina cross-cast with Antiochus’s daughter, so that the virtuous savior of the play’s second half trumps the incestuous temptress of the first scene. Melrose’s cast, by contrast, cast the charismatic Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as Antiochus’s daughter and as Thaisa, eager suitor to Pericles at her father’s court in Pentapolis. Bringing these two parts together allowed Stewart to play two different visions of female sexuality: enticing and dangerous as the incestuous daughter, forthright but still powerful as Thaisa. The lingering echo of Antiochus’s daughter clung faintly to rediscovered Thaisa in the play’s final scene in Ephesus, so that her play-closing lines to husband and daughter — she calls them “mine” and “mine own” — reunite the family while also granting dramatic power to the sexuality she has presented in multiple guises.

Instead of cross-casting Marina with the evil daughter, the play’s second-half heroine matched up with ancient Gower, the medieval poet-ghost who narrates the complex comings and goings of the play in the eastern Mediterranean. I love this choice, which renovates the ghostly narrator and also gently reminds us that it’s the young girl, not any of the kings, queens, or priests in the play, who controls the plot after its mid-way break. Marina confronts a murderer, pirates, customers and overseers of a brothel, a sexually eager governor, and finally her own melancholic and silent father. “Virginal fencing” is the phrase that lord Lysimachus, played with stately grace by Christopher Kelly, uses to describe her dialogue, and I was struck last night by the connection between her rhetorical combat and the chivalric jousting and dancing at which her father excelled earlier in the play. Marina is one of my favorite figures in Shakespeare because of her oceanic connections — I’ve called her Shakespeare’s Aquawoman — but in thinking about her crossed with Gower last night, it seemed to me that more could be said about how she bears the power of a literary tradition — the virtuous saint who cannot be corrupted — and also about how her varied and strategic rhetorical modes structure the second half of the play.

Simonides and Thaisa

Simonides and Thaisa

There were some other interesting cross-casting choices, including David Ryan Smith as Antiochus and Simonides, and also great comic work by Ben Mehl as the criminal trio of Boult, Leonine, and Thalliard. Raffi Barsoumian’s Pericles was wonderfully naive in the early scenes, and I was pleased to see him, after he has married Thaisa and reasserted his aristocratic idenity, find the fishermen who rescued him to give them their due reward.

Redemptive theater makes a nice pre-holiday treat, though the contrast with bitter realities was stark when I encountered the protest march after the show. The juxtaposition between Shakespeare and 21c politics reminds me that the Mobile Shakespeare Unit represents the furthest out-reaching effort of the Public Theater’s democratic vision, taking free Shakespeare to prisons and mental institutions and the outmost fringes of boroughs that don’t always feed at Manhattan’s cultural buffet. The poster from last night’s program shows pictures of the cast and audience members during the Mobile part of the run. “We are One Public,” proclaims the headline, and the page is filled with smiling faces and testimonials from places like the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and the Park Ave Armory Women’s Mental Health Shelter. Whenever I’m tempted to think that Shakespeare is too canonical, or too white-male, or too whatever, I’m reminded by outreach like this of the positive value of literary culture. One thing we as teachers and Shakespeareans like to show show is how our rage for justice and love and redemption share space inside a cultural heritage that is also, then and now, encrusted with violence and injustice. (Rick Godden and David Perry have written eloquently about this subject today.) There is plenty of violence legible in that inheritance — last night the comic bluster of Marina’s near-rape had me thinking uncomfortably about the recent news from college campuses — but Shakespeare and literary culture remain places to teach awareness and to imagine responses. I was struck last night by the joy and awareness of this production.

Antiochus and his daughter

Antiochus and his daughter

Director Rob Melrose and the cast

Director Rob Melrose and the cast

I’d feel sentimental if I said this in my professorial persona, so I’ll let another New Yorker who saw this great Mobile Pericles this month have the last word:

You brought light to a dark place. — Riker’s Island Women’s Facility


The Tempest (2 of 3): Mokwha Repertory Company

Miranda finds her Prince

Miranda finds her Prince

My kids make fun of me when I say that I love seeing Shakespeare in other languages — some of my recent favorites have been in Dutch, Czech, and French, but I’m up for whatever I can find. I think it has to do with being released from cliche into experiment. In The Tempest last night, when that old saw about what dreams are made on gets translated into Korean, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to be the same as any of the other times you’ve heard it.

The Mokwha Repertory Company’s production of The Tempest, part two ofThe Tide is Rising, La MaMa’s three-part collection of fall Tempests, starts with a wonderful swirl of linen and music, a drum-structured storm-dance that presents the shipwreck as a collective performance of disorientation, with actors rising, staggering, falling, and dancing their way around a crowded stage. I loved the way the company’s minimal props — a drum on the balcony and white sheets flowing through everyone’s hands —  generated so much fluid motion and confusion. I think this scene is one of the hardest to perform, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production that really hits it just right, but the Mokwha company were pretty close.

Caliban catches Miranda in a net

Miranda and Caliban

I didn’t know anything about the company when I sat down in the Ellen Stewert Theater on East 4th St last night. The program notes say that they were founded in 1984 and employ traditional Korean techniques, which clearly include music, dance, and something quite close to martial arts. I found a little more about them online this morning, courtesy (of course!) of the brilliant Professor Huang, who brought students to see the company in DC in 2011.

I especially loved Youngkwang Song’s angry Prospero, who raged his way through several scenes that often, in more traditional versions (including part 1 of La MaMa’s grou, which I saw in the same theater earlier this fall), can be a bit flat or expositional. This was a Prospero who wanted to eat his enemies raw, and who only calmed himself slowly over the course of the play.



The task of reducing the magician’s rage fell to Wonjun Jo’s dancing Ariel, to a wonderfully goofy two-bodied Caliban, performed by Seungyeol Lee and Minji Lim as a conjoined twin, finally liberated at the end of the play when freedom became in style, and most of all (I thought) to Yeonju Jung’s wide-eyed, emotionally compelling Miranda, who I thought was the real heart of the play. Bantering with her father, oogling the lovely form of the sleeping Prince, playing with the spirit-animals, who roamed the stage with heads like ducks, mice, or pigs, this Miranda wormed herself wide-eyed into the play’s core. I’ve never seen a better performance of this difficult part.




From a previous tour

That’s what you get for changing things up!


Shakespeare without Nature at Loyola New Orleans

Loyola NO poster-page-001I’m very much looking forward to heading down to Louisiana to talk to the English and Environmental Studies Programs at Loyola tomorrow and Friday. I’ve not been down that way since 2010, when I was a guest of the Williams-Mystic Program and visited the bayou in Cocodrie, the oil-stained beach in Grand Isle, and very briefly New Orleans itself. I’m eager to see Loyola tomorrow, where the English and Environmental Studies are doing such amazing things. Surrounded by memories of Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the inexorable dissolution of the southern parts of the state, they have been building a program, that responds to what they call “Teaching at the End of the World,” as Chris Schaberg talked about at BABEL.

When I was in southern Louisiana in 2010, I heard fascinating presentations from three very different men on Grand Isle about their responses to the oil spill and to Katrina before that. I wrote up three blog posts: “David’s Dolphins”Chris Hernandez and the Prisonhouse of Story,” and “Moose.” They make interesting reading four years later, as everything changes and stays the same.

My talk tomorrow will be about “Shakespeare without Nature,” with a strong emphasis on the preposition that both connects and displaces. Here’s the opening bit:

The two watchwords of today’s talk, “Shakespeare” and “Nature,” are both complex collective nouns with varied histories, some parts of which are more embarrassing than others. I’ll say plenty about both today, but I’m going to start with the uncapitalized preposition that links them, “without.” The “without” in my title captures my central point, or perhaps my central hope. I’m not quite willing to go as far as Michel Serres in expounding a “philosophy of prepositions” that claims that these little connective words represent the most important features of human language. But the innocent-seeming preposition indicates my desire to disassociate from once-accepted collective ideas about both Nature and Shakespeare. “Without” works in two directions, asking for revisions in our thinking about both capitalized nouns. To be “without-Nature” – imagine now that I’m pronouncing a hyphen between the words – means living in a nonhuman environment that cannot be happily rolled up into a comprehensible collective. That’s the eco-theoretical point I’m building on today. I imagine many of you are familiar with already, having hosted Timothy Morton here a little while ago. Being “Shakespeare-without” – you can hear the hyphen this time, right? – means bringing our engagements with canonical literature outside traditional seminar rooms, lecture halls, and stages. In both cases “without” signals a movement outside familiar spaces into disorderly systems. It’s about mucking around in strange places.

“Without” makes things fuzzy. It deterratorializes. It strips away Romantic ideas of Natural harmony and Harold Bloom-ist fetishizations of the transcendent Bard. Being without does not entail liberation from materiality or textuality, but instead requires a deeper burrowing into these things. To quote one of my favorite novelists only slightly out of context, “this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into.” “Without” is the project of this talk. I’ll make some points about both Shakespeare and Nature along the way, but it’s the lever of “without” that does the work. This talk seeks a Shakespeare-without and a without-Nature. The idea in both cases is to go outside.


Half-Arcadia, no Angels, but…the Master!

MM posterIt’s been a ragged week of theater-going, as I continue to dig BABEL sand out from between my toes. Probably I had too much on my plate. The plan was to go see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia on Wed night at Yale Rep, then to see Toneelgroep’s 5+ hour Angels in America at BAM on Friday, and cap it off with the Yale Drama School’s Master and Margarita last night in New Haven. Struggling with sleep debt and a sick child, I ended up batting about .500: we left Arcadia after the first act, despite liking it very much. I pulled the plug entirely on the late night in Brooklyn on Fri & cooked family dinner at home instead. But last night’s Master and Margarita in New Haven was utterly brilliant: the best play I’ve ever seen by Yale Drama School students in two decades (!) of seeing their productions. I wasn’t sure how Bulgakov’s sprawling, chaotic novel could work on stage — but it did, and I’m still reeling from it. Genius is a powerful thing!

I’ll take the three plays very quickly in order, though the last was the best.

Stoppard’s Arcadia was very well-done at Yale Rep, at least in the half I saw. Stoppard has a wonderful ability as a playwright to capture the excitement and irregular progress of thinking. This play, set partly in the Romantic era and partly in the 1980s on the same English estate, moves mostly through conversation — but it’s gorgeous conversation. I now wish that we’d stuck in out until the last scene, when the doomed tutor Septimus, who would become the mysterious Hermit of Sidley Park shortly after the play’s early-period events, and his doomed student Thomasina, who dies in a fire just before her 17th birthday, enjoyed a halting dance.Arcadia banner

I’m very sorry I missed Toneelgroep’s Angels, but I just couldn’t manage the long night in Brooklyn on Friday. Olivia’s been home for a couple days with a bad sinus infection, and I needed to get home Friday.

I’m very glad, however, that we didn’t let our general exhaustion or Ian’s far-away soccer game Sat afternoon keep us away from the Yale Drama School’s amazing production of The Master and Margarita. As the only review I could find, in a local online site called the New Haven Review puns, the show was masterful in all ways: acting, staging, setting, costumes, lighting. A thoroughly professional and joyously entertaining evening. There was no way we were going home at the interval this time!Angels

Watching the play bring Bulgakov’s massive novel, arguably the great triumph of early twentieth-century Russian literature, to the stage was dizzying. The novel is a rollicking comic satire, in which an urbane devil, named Woland but he also answers to Satan, comes to Moscow to perform a magic show and stage a Satanic Spring Ball. Woland’s  entourage, which includes a giant cat-demon named Behemoth, played with fantastic cat-mannerisms by Zenzi Williams, crosses paths with Bulgakov’s semi-autobiographical Master, a writer struggling with the Soviet system and with his play about Pontius Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus). Woland seemsultimately more interested in Margarita, the Master’s lover, who in order to save her beloved and redeem the play that the Master burns in a fit of rage, becomes a naked witch, and hosts the Devil’s Ball.

“Manuscripts don’t burn,” croons Woland, thereby restoring the Master’s burnt playscript and providing twentieth-century Russia with its most enduring literary phrase. The play like the novel celebrates the persistance of art, the joys and recklessness of creativity amid sorrow and oppression.

But the heart of the show for me was the Master’s painful and gorgeous portrait of Pilate, played by James Cusati-Moyer, as a man who recognizes Yeshua for what he is, knows that his political position in the Empire won’t allow him to spare the prophet, and with great reluctance condemns Yeshua to die. Pilate’s knowing cowardice, his refusal to sacrifice himself for justice in an unjust world, occupies the moral heart of the story. The Master’s cowardly burning of his rejected manuscript parallel’s Pilate’s choice. Pilate is, as the bad poet-turned-witness Ivan notes towards the play’s end, the Master’s “hero.” He gets rewarded the same way the Master does, with an ambiguous reunion after death with the beloved.

The figures who never sacrifice their principles and who smilingly accept whatever fate provides, Margarita in the Moscow plot and Yeshua in Judea, remain slightly opaque and inhuman. When Margarita, played by Ariana Venturi, becomes a witch and Satan’s consort, she performs several scenes entirely nude, as if no longer bound by human customs. The Master’s journey to Margarita parallels Pilate’s to Yeshua: both meet after death a person who has become a supernatural principle.



But the heart of the play (and novel) lies in the world, in Patriarch’s Park and in several Moscow apartments that become lairs for the Devil and his theatrical following. Woland dissects the hypocrisy of Soviet society. His strange alliance with Margarita represents corruption, compromise, and sacrifice, but also art.

Mick Jagger was apparently thinking of Bulgakov when he wrote the song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968, soon after Bulgakov’s novel first appeared in English. This production in New Haven hit me with the force that rock’n’roll imagines itself to have.

What if Pilate is the central figure in the story? What can the procurator do when faced with the prophet but confined by the world?

The final scene of both play and novel relates that supernatural visions have faded from Moscow, surviving only in the full-moon dreams of the writer Ivan, who has been confined for madness. Once a month he sees Margarita emerge from the moon:

And then the moon bursts into frenzy, it tumbles streams of light upon Ivan, it splashes light in all directions, a moon-flood fills the room, the light sways, rises, washes over the bed. And it is then that Ivan Nikolayvich sleeps with a blissful face.

A moon-flood: that word on the final page of Bulgakov’s novel is as good a way as any to describe this wonderful show, adapted by Edward Kemp and directed by Sara Holdren. I wish the short run were not over so that you could all go see it!




BABEL 2014: Experience and Allegory

From Vanessa Daws's book "Lambay Swim"

From Vanessa Daws’s book “Lambay Swim”

BABEL in Santa Barbara surged over me like (the metaphor is unavoidable) a breaking wave. We happy BABEL-isiti swam through the white water together – in fact on Thursday morning before the first set of plenaries I bodysurfed Hendry’s Beach with a full dozen other conference-goers, a neoprene-clad advance party. For the past three days we rode the waves. On Sunday the foam dispersed us into the morning breeze.

My drive south to the airport Sunday morning with a carful of medievalists rolled time backwards, traveling across my own personal history on Pacific shores & then reaching farther back, swooping out from my body, across the sloping shoulders of wave after wave in the sunglitter. We passed familiar names: Carpentaria. Ventura. Point Mugu. Tarzana. Sepulveda. Santa Monica. Venice!

In one of my talks I lamented not having a whale’s throat to swallow oceans whole. The BABEL-fullness that has followed me home isn’t pacific in the historical etymological sense, in which Magellan misnamed the stormiest waters in the world for peace. Heading home today, I’m stirred up, turbulent, low on sleep. I didn’t manage three meals during any of the conference’s three days. I’m unsettled, and couldn’t scrub the sand and tar off my feet in the hotel shower.

My first talk positioned bodysurfing between experience and allegory. Those two categories swam, talked, drove, ate, and questioned with me all weekend. They’re organizing my espirit d’aeroplane now.

Opening plenary (Th)

Opening plenary (Th)

  1. Experience is better than knowledge.

The heart of this conference for me was the time spent in the ocean. A hardy dozen scholars and artists, many of whom had never met before, gathered at Hendry’s at 7 am on Thursday, before the conference had officially started. We bodysurfed alongside two kids’ surf camps and inside a thick bed of kelp. In the surf I met Vanessa Daws, the swimming video-artist I found on Facebook via Michael O’Rourke & whose picture from the Lambay Swim inspired the four eco-swim poems I published last month. I’m glad we met in the water. Thanks to all our fellow surf-adventurers!

I went back each morning for pre-conference bodysurfing. Lowell Duckert, my partner in co-plenary adventures that also included a dawn plunge into the campus lagoon before the bodysurfing on Thursday, joined me Friday too. We had the gorgeous water to ourselves. No kids, and almost no kelp. The waves were big enough to give us a slight bounce when we plunged down their faces onto the flat water in front.

On Saturday I got to the beach right at dawn – around 6:30 – and bodysurfed solo for thirty precious minutes before being joined by Jeremy Gordon & Juliane Mora, part of a brilliant group of Indiana-based rhetoricians I met at the conference. At 7:30 one of my favorite people, Elizabeth Teare, who hired me for my first-ever teaching job in 1992 (?) in LA and later navigated the turbulence of grad school with me in New Haven, arrived for breakfast with her husband and daughter. We talked about the past, and weddings, and travels. So great to emerge from waves into personal history!

During lunchless breaks on campus both Friday and Saturday I swam with Santa Barbara’s Ocean Ducks, an open-water swimming group that Vanessa had made contact with before the confidence started. Both days BABEL-isti splashed alongside.

All told I figure that I spent over 4 hours during the three-day conference in the ocean. One-seventh of the total conference time? Not sure that’ll be an easy mark to beat!

Lowell in Lagoon (Th)

Lowell in Lagoon (Th)

Immersion was also a subject of the Thursday morning plenary, in which Lowell’s lagoons and my bodysurfing anchored an over-full relay of conference intros and talks by Benjamin Bratton (on the cloud) and a pair of great Pittsburgh-based poets, academics, and activists, Robin Clarke and Josh Zelesnick, who explored academic precarity. (Robin told me on Saturday that she’d successfully taught herself to bodysurf after listening to my talk and going to Hendry’s that afternoon: perhaps the best compliment I’ve ever received after a lecture!) During the session, I fretted as the clock kept insisting that we were going over time. When Robin and Josh started talking I stopped worrying.

My point about experience has to do with the inadequacy of intellectual analysis to capture the world’s dynamism. The split I felt all weekend at BABEL’s core wasn’t something that could be spanned or unified. Experience is not knowledge & can’t perform the movements and create the coalitions that knowledge generates. Experience is the thing that precedes. It’s not always easy to talk about, but I felt as if I edged toward it near the end of the talk. Or maybe what really got at it was Lowell’s insistence on wearing his wetsuit all day? A suit for a plenary, he said.

Experience describes the abundant physicality of immersion, the uncatagorizable sensation of all that water and all that power surging around and with you. It trumps knowledge because experience is always excessive, there’s always something left over, that grain of sand up your nose or the salt water that’s right now still in my ear and won’t drain until sometime, I don’t know, maybe tomorrow, so if I don’t answer when you’re talking to me in a crowded bar later, please know that it’s the ocean in my ear, not you. Theorizing experience is like freezing a flower: you can do it, but what you’re left with isn’t the same as what you were looking for.

  1. Always allegorize!
Lines written in sand (Fri)

Lines written in sand (Fri)

I’m changing the phrasing of the second half of my big BABEL-idea, because I think that the exhorting imperative is more what I was hoping for. Allegory is action! Why not reach for those symbolic structures, flashing around us in the surf like silver fish? The last morning when we were bodysurfing at Hendry’s, Juliane pointed out a brown head bobbing in the swell nearby. The sleek creature stayed close as we all played in the surf. All seals are selkies, at least potentially.

Whether Spenserians, ecocritics, Material Collectivities, or surfer environmentalists, allegory is our shared practice. Every paper I heard at BABEL allegorized. I count 67 total talks in my itinerary, not including the sometimes-substantial introductions, the brilliant flash-exhibitions, and the Material Collective’s quite amazing Walk on the Beach, which, even though I ducked out in the middle of it to go swimming with the Ocean Ducks, was for me one of the great events of the weekend.

To allegorize ocean and beach means finding intellectual meaning in grains of sand – but that’s the easy part. The best sessions, for me at least, surprised with their allegorical velocities, their dizzying turns and dives. A splash, and then – floomph! – they’re gone.

I’ll attempt a hyper-compressed three-day narrative, with no apologies for its impossibility but anticipatory regrets for omissions. Come into the turbulence with me!


From clouds onto strands pricked the not-always gentle knights, organizing and bodysurfing ourselves across lacunae, rock-ruling invisible pools but finally unable to cross the beached verge. We faced down inequitous dragons whose defeat may be impossible – but what is impossibility but improbability, as a mathematician might say, squared? Sea creatures didn’t block us so much as organize our #bottlesNbones so that we soaked in seismic aquifers, borrowing sun block from Chaucer at the beach. Where was Ceyx when we needed her? Wracked upon neighborly rocks?


After the morning’s surf I woke inside a zebrafish heart where all was endless and Greek. Dissolving our acidified shells past time limits was a good idea: it exo-skeletized empathy until we arrived, at last, at the impossible heart of the matter. Still enraged by time I returned to the strand and tried to read ocean scribbles in sand. Brilliance surrounded me. An aesthetic coward, I plunged into my familiar blue, leaving clothes and art history ashore. I was happy to find both still there when I came back. My meager contribution to the flash exhibition was an instant photo that did not develop, on which I wrote with a sharpie: “This is an attempt to photograph what water writes on shore.” With joy and trepidation I joined thirteen super-heroes of SCALE to ring the day shut: Subatomic cosmic ocean sand square? relativity intimate foot flash abyss global fear. Hearing the words still make me happy.




Salt and sand clung to me during the last morning plenary as I thought about my grandfather, a 22nd- (or something, I don’t really know) degree Shriner (is that the same as a Mason? I don’t know, and neither does Karl Steel, who’s sitting across the aisle from me on our flight back to JFK) in a hall whose geometry screamed under repeated temporal strain. I wanted more: more fishes and more drawings and Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novels reaching out of Indonesia. When I spoke my assigned speculative part of Dear Climate, I wondered how Una & Marina know me so well that they could write my lines as an acute self-parody. Am I transparent, like water? “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” In Cute Shakespeare I found refuge and some discomfort. A mid-day swim affixed tar to my left toe that’s still there today as I fly over Grand Junction. (What an evocative name – don’t all conferences aspire to be that Grand Junction, that place of connection, that high desert town facing west?) Anyone who missed the revolutionary work of young scholars in the Sous les paves session organized by Justin Kolb missed that which must now be sought for. So many things I love were there: Marina, Spenser, surfing, saint-seductions, amphibians. But maybe my favorite object in the whole weekend was the word-rope in the Sea Changes session, superlatively organized by Jodi Enders and Ellen MacKay, which included my last (and sixth) speaking part. The rope was braided out of printed words on paper, words each of the six speakers had written and still love and had sent by email to P.A. Skantze. She twisted the pages into maybe 10’ of rope, on which we all hauled and sang out a work-chantey: “Haul away, sea changers!” All the talks were brilliant & provocative, but there was something special in the music of that shared worksong. Glorious – but not quite the end, as we convened one last time in familiar plenaric confines for somewhat uncontextulized hymns of surf-love, and a last enmeshment in early modern poetic seas. Impending ending, plus exhaustion and salt-chapped lips, smoothed over possibilities.

That’s not really all of BABEL 2014 – there is no “all,” only allegorical circulations. I am hopeful that the conversations will surface soon in multiple forms and media. I look forward to seeing them. The things that I spoke of – bodysurfing, beach-walking, Okeanos, weather-genres, beach-revolutions, salty language – have long fetches to travel before their waves crest. I hope my fellow conferees will beat me to publication.

I’m not always a big fan of long sub-titles, but this years BABEL-icious combination of “Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World” opened wide the voracious maw of this conference. If the silver tube in which I now travel above Colorado must mark a return from disorienting utopia – a return from the waves, from beloved California, from a briefly-opened space between and across – perhaps there are things we can take home with us.

Dawn over Hendry's (Sat)

Dawn over Hendry’s (Sat)

I want the empathy that precariousness creates, the free-fall of risk, life’s formal variety, fluid affinities, and the evanescence of play on shifting sands.

I left early from all three nights’ parties, partly to be sure I’d get to the beach at sunup the next day and partly because my rocker powers are sadly diminished. As I fly over the Rockies and write, I’m conscious that, amid all the joy – puns & allegories always intended – and blazing imagination of BABEL, I’m looking forward to going home.

Toronto 2015 looms. Its non-biennial nearness appears (I’m sorry to admit it) a little forbidding. Its time will come, and be welcome. There is only one time after all, that time when all things happen. As the poet said about the iceberg: “now!”






BABEL 2014 Preview: Heading to the Beach in Santa Barbara

babel_biennale_2014I leave for the West Coast on Wed afternoon, just in time for the voracious whirlpool of BABEL 2016. Whenever I browse through the overflowing program I find something new I’m looking forward to: art installations! rooftop parties! epigraphs from Moby-Dick!

Having not been able to resist the wonders of the Calls for Papers, I’m going to speak five (!) times over the three days of the conference. I’ll be brief, don’t worry.

Here are some previews of the flood.

Thursday morning early I’m heading into the surf with some brave souls and neoprene as an immersive preamble to my 9:30 am Plenary talk, “Bodysurfing.” The talk will start with two mantras to guide my surf-theory and my BABEL-ing:

1. Experience is better than knowledge. (Samuel Champlain)

2. Everything is allegorical.

The next day I’ll meet the Material Collective just after noon for a Walk on Goleta Beach on the UCSB campus, which will lead into our double-session seminar/flash exhibition/presentation. A little piece of the CT Shoreline will travel with me.

I’m also going to serve as designated Flanuer for a 3:30 pm panel that afternoon on “Coastal Creatures,” which sounds excellent.

At 5 pm on Fri, I’m part of the overflowing SCALE Plenary session. My talk, “Ocean,” flows over 40,000km in just four minutes.

The hard thing about this thinking is scale. The great waters are too big, too close, and too flowing to hold in hand or mind. We have no whale’s throat to swallow them whole.

Saturday at 2 pm I’m chairing Justin Kolb’s panel, “Sous les paves, la plage!” — under the pavement, the beach! He’s kindly let me adapt his great CFP for my intro. He describes arriving in Cairo in May 2013 when the square was a beach.

When Tahrir Square became beach, its traffic circle was a vibrant democratic assembly, with possibilities and vulnerabilities that attend life on the edge of the world.

Last of all I’m contributing seven vocabulary words to Ellen MacKay and Jody Enders’s “Sea Changes” session on Saturday afternoon.

What if all our talking hasn’t been oceanic enough? I want to change our grounded terrestrial metaphors. What happens if we swap out terrestrial language for salt-water terms?

That doesn’t include plans for immersive adventures, breakfast Saturday with one of my favorite friends, plus hearing and seeing so many great-sounding talks and exhibitions that I don’t have space to list them here.

Flying home on Sunday morning I’m going to be pretty tired.



Three Caves in France with Olivia

In Peche Merle

In Peche Merle

The part of my trip to France this past summer that I’ve still been meaning to write about happened underground. We went down into three famous caves: Pech Merle, Lascaux II, and the Gouffre de Padirac. Three very different sunless worlds.

One reason I’ve not gotten to writing these visits up is that Olivia, as part of the utterly brilliant travel journal she kept during our summer travels in Iceland and France, beat me to the pen (or keyboard). She’s agreed to let me quote from her descriptions here. Really I don’t have that much to add. She turns twelve tomorrow — 10/10/14 — and, doting Daddy though I may be, I’m amazed by her sentences.

I’ll take the caves in reverse order of our descents.Lascaux sign

Cave #3: Lascaux II

We went into the replica, an artificial cave which was opened to the public in 1983. The famous cave drawings, often described as prehistoric equivalents of the Sistine Chapel, were overwhelmingly beautiful. Art historians estimate that there are over 2,000 figures in Lascaux, the majority of which have been painstakingly replicated in the replica cave. I’ll let Olivia describe what it feels like to look at them. I pick up in the middle of her journal’s entry on Lascaux, when she starts thinking about why the guide, who was deeply committed to a religious interpretation of the artworks, called it the cave of dreams:Lascaus animasls

That is why it was called the cave of dreams to me. I have talked of leaving the world of reality when I dream, and coming to rest on the shores of imagination where anything is possible. There in Lascaux, though I wasn’t sleeping, I left the world of reality.

In the world of dreams the bulls ran freely, and I rode on a stag’s back as it jumped for joy at having escaped the dungeons of truth to a place where anything is possible, and you can climb over the rainbow high into the ever-blue sky and when you climb down again there is a cauldron full of gold waiting for you. In that world frowns are hidden, and smiles permanent, and I ran wild with the animals of Lascaux for the afternoon.

Cave #2: Gouffre de Padirac

In the Gouffre

In the Gouffre

Our middle cave was artless. The Gouffre de Padirac is in the same region as many of the cave painting sites, but there are no surviving human traces in these wet caverns prior to the caves’ discovery in the late nineteenth century. It’s a massive limestone sink, with an underground river at the bottom which we crossed in gondolas on our way toward some amazing underground pools.

Olivia focused on the absence of humanity in that other-worldly space.

Do you ever get the feeling that you are in space floating among things that you don’t know, discovering things you didn’t know existed? That is what happened when I entered the Gouffre de Padirac.

Nothing else had ever trodden down these roads, breathed this air, and searched around with piercing eyes looking for secrets. I was brought back to the other cave with the paintings, clear marks of civilization before time. Here though, nothing touched this cave, no prehistoric creature had left its mark upon the wall, to be discovered, to be pondered over, to be admired. I was overwhelmed by the fact that the only living things in this cave were us. Nothing else, not fish, or insects, or other small creatures had ever breathed the fresh, cold air of the cave, nor seen the shining crystals within. I heard the whisper of the water moving quickly over

Looking up from inside the Gouffre

Looking up from inside the Gouffre


Cave #1: Pech Merle

The “other cave” was Pech Merle, a famous site of Neolithic paintings only about 20 minutes away from the lovely little village of St. Cirq-lapopie where we spent most of our two weeks in France. It was the first cave we visited, and one of the most intense art encounters I’ve had. Olivia called it the cave of lost time:

In the cave of lost time there is magic and power and forgotten wisdom waiting to be remembered. The cave dwellers left their marks upon the wall, and in the sparkling droplets of water secrets whisper, they laugh, they watch us as we pass, everything watches. They see us, but we cannot hope to see them, for man cannot penetrate that which is guarded in these caves.

Pech Merle

Pech Merle

I could picture the cave people making the curves and spots and circles with the black and red pigments mixing, perfecting, making a masterpiece that was to be remembered, and stared at for millennia after it was made. Did he know then that people ages after his time would look upon it? Was that his idea, or was it for pleasure? I wish I knew, wish I knew the answers that were buried in tombs when the ice covered all of Europe, never to be found, not yet at least, but never is a strong word, we can always hope.

The handprint and the wounded man were us, showing that even thousands of years ago we were there, fighting for our place in the world. Thousands of years ago we lived, and breathed, drank and ate, looked upon the world with the same two eyes we do now. What we thought then was a mystery, a mystery that was partly solved by the great paintings of old that stood before me, in all their glory. They were more royal than Buckingham Palace, stronger than all the armies in the world, more beautiful than all the dresses of queens, because they were man’s mark on the prehistoric world that was secret to them and animals and that is all. They swim before my eyes still, days later, and from them people thousands of years ago smile and wave at me, saying a last unforgettable goodbye.

When we settled on the Dordogne as our family destination within France, I was especially focused on seeing cave art. The kids grumbled sometimes when I gushed about my reading list: The Mind in the Cave, Juniper Fuse, some amazing picture books. When I read Olivia’s words in response to the three caves, I know I was right to have been excited.

Art hits the imagination with the mysteries of presence and persistence, things that are right there in front of you and have endured through time. There once was a human — perhaps not necessarily, despite Olivia’s phrasing, a “man” — who put his or her hand on that cave wall and blew red ochre pigment out of a tube onto it to create a lasting image. That artist is known and unknown to me, just like my writer-daughter who lives and grows in my home and turns twelve years old tomorrow.

Happy birthday, Olivia!

Olivia and her brother in the Gouffre de Padirac

Olivia and her brother in the Gouffre de Padirac

Pech Merle

Pech Merle