The Spectacle Of The Void by David Peake

This is the dilemma of being human: believing that something needs to be communicated – a feeling, a thought, an urgent message – and not being able to communicate it; or, having made an attempt at communication and ultimately failing, causing irreparable harm. – David Peake, The Spectacle Of The Void, p. 11

Lovecraft’s Vaginal horror Cthulhu. As Stephen King once wrote, is it any wonder the guy had weird ideas about sex and probably died a virgin?

There’s a notion in semi-pop philosophy that I kind of like: It’s called “The Weak Anthropic Principle”. The idea is actually a mixture of commonsense, about both ourselves and the larger Universe. It states that human consciousness as it has evolved is precisely the kind of consciousness one would expect to evolve in the Universe as we understand it. It’s admixture of order with a chaotic element that itself is governed by mathematical laws would, in all likelihood, evolve consciousness similar to our own, with its own understanding of order and acceptance of contingency and limited disorder that provides us the freedom both to imagine as well as figure out the Universe in which we live. With too much order, there would be no imagination, no room for any spark of insight that escapes the rationally resconstructed idea of knowledge. With too much chaos, the physical, chemical, and biological rules that create the needed stability for life itself, then evolution including consciousness, wouldn’t exist.

In other words, it isn’t a Matrix. It isn’t God. It isn’t a demiurge. It’s just the laws of probability with their openendedness that create the condition for a consciousness like our own to evolve. We are not so much special because of consciousness as we are the Universe having evolved to contemplate itself by using the very laws of the Universe to do so.

My recent foray into a species of recent explorations of philosophical pessimism, The Spectacle Of The Void, makes up in repetition what it lacks either in insight or originality. The argument that the facts of our own  finite existence, combined with the evolution of human consciousness, which allows us to ponder that gap between our own contingency and the enormity of our Universe as well as the limits of our own ability to comprehend somehow, inexorably, leads to a kind of meta-existential horror in which we understand existence itself and human consciousness in particular as ethically vicious fails on so many levels it’s a wonder it carries on.

Perhaps the most egregious failure of philosophical pessimism is its combination of privilege and hubris. It takes someone with the time and education to consider these matters fully to articulate a philosophical notion of existence itself as evil; it takes a hubris that would make the Greek gods blush to insist that the best – indeed the only – response to the nothingness that is the limit both of our ability to think as well as what awaits us at the end of our contingent, limited life, is to end the entire species. No consciousness, no evils that flow from it. It’s the kind of logic any first-year philosophy student would be proud of.

The thing is, that nothingness, that limit both to human thought and existence, well, that’s not really a big deal, is it? I mean, really, when you think about, after a long life, the rest of death all too often seems like a blessing, particularly to those who are going through it. “But what about . . .?” demand so many voices who insist that certain kinds of death – the death of a child or spouse; young people dying needlessly in wars; the accident of genetics or environment that bring on diseases from cancer through MS to early-onset Alzheimer’s that destroy the human brain and body piece by piece – are morally wrong and proof enough that our Universe is one of singular horrors of which consciousness is the most evil, in need of destruction.

To all those who point out those horrors of disease and intra-human self-destruction, I can only say, “Well, it’s kinda always been this way, hasn’t it?” We lose some diseases – smallpox, say – and we gain others – like the Hanta Virus that emerged in the desert southwest of the US a couple decades ago, a hemorrhagic disease carried by fleas on desert animals. Europe’s age of internecine war is largely over while Africa’s enters its own stage of slaughter over much the same reasons as Europe’s in the 20th century – land, resources, and control over wealth and its production. This isn’t so much an evil as it is just kind of the way human beings and the world are made. A “making” that created our consciousness of that making as well as the “how” of that making. Nothing evil or immoral about it. The evils are the diseases we continue to seek to end; the evils are the human need for power and control over resources for the pursuit of personal and national wealth at the expense of others. These are things we continue to fight against. To struggle with. Rather than insist our consciousness of them renders us incapable of action, that it would be better if the human species cease reproducing in order to end them, that self-same consciousness gives us the tools to work to solve these problems.

The Spectacle Of The Void offers the reader nothing particularly new or interesting, especially if one has read other recent works of a similar bent. The idea that horror is about “nothingness”, besides being wrong, is only outdone by the claim that horror is the result of the contingency of interpersonal communication and the limits of understanding between people. This latter is no more a source of horror than are urban legends. We are, it needs to be repeated, limited contingent creatures who inhabit an unbounded but finite Universe that operates according to mathematical laws and meta-laws that determined, in the first nano-seconds after the Big Bang, the limits and possibilities of variety within the then-natal Universe. As such, we have the freedom to imagine all sorts of wonders and horrors; we also are limited in how much of that imagination we can bring into actual existence.

Real horror would be a Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more order than ours has: A Universe in which imagination, freedom, even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible. Real horror would be Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more chaos than ours has: A Universe in which space-time has no direction, or changes randomly; a Universe in which it were as easy to put a broken glass together as it is to break it; a Universe in which human life lasted mere moments, or centuries. A Universe, in other words, in which imagination, freedom, and even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible.

That is the source of horror: Not an active void that steals even our ability to comprehend it as void; but a world that would permit, say, a creature like Cthulhu to exist, or in which human beings aged backwards, or in which the thermodynamic, space-time clock were not bound by any laws. A world in which murderous revenants, shape-shifting humanoids, evil shadows, creatures of pure evil intent on human destruction were at all possible is not a world in which human beings would or could live with any hope of maintaining anything like sanity. Horror fiction takes our fear of chaos, gives it shapes and names and faces and teeth and claws and allows us to face it and destroy it (or have it destroy us, as sometimes happens).

The idea that human consciousness is an active evil that needs to be destroyed for the benefit of the Universe at large is kind of silly. The idea that human existence is an active evil we should seek to end is ethically horrible, considering it views other human beings as inherently active agents of evil, in need of destruction. The fascism that lurks behind the idea that we human beings are some kind of deformation the Universe coughed up before it had a chance to apologize needs to be called out as it is. The idea that we human beings use horror fiction as a way of expressing the long-repressed “reality” ignores what horror fiction, when done well, really is and how it works.

There should be better works on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy than the ones currently available.


Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror Of Philosophy – Eugene Thacker

This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories – what is horrific is not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. – Eugene Thacker, Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror of  Philosophy, p.4

Ray Milland in The Man With The X-Ray Eyes. Having been pushed to the edge of sanity by his ability to see through not just clothes and stone, but reality itself, he has ripped his eyes from his their sockets. The last line, dropped from the final print, was his agonizing declaration, “I can still see!”

While I’ve had my share of nightmares, including those that leave me waking up screaming, only once as a child of about eight or so did I ever have a Night Terror. Upon waking from a nightmare, I always know what is and is not real, that I was asleep and am now awake, that it was nothing more or less than my brain scaring me.  That Night Terror, however . . . I awoke to see a large patch of blood on the ceiling of my room. It had dripped into a spreading pool on my bed. I screamed and screamed. It wouldn’t go away. My father came in to see what was wrong and he started to sit down in that spreading pool of blood! I told him not to sit down and when he asked me why, in that instant, the blood, the dark patch on the ceiling, the pool at the foot of my bed, that horrid plop of the drops – it was all gone. I tried to tell my father what had happened, but the impossible part was making clear to him that what I had seen and heard and felt wasn’t just a dream. It was, in fact, a horrible reality that may well have begun while I slept, but chased me into the waking world, leaving me terrified.

In the third and final volume of his series Horror of Philosophy, Eugene Thacker offers what is, in effect, a lengthy study of various literary themes in (mostly literary, although some Manga as well) horror fiction. Blurring the lines between literary criticism and philosophy – something that is really quite irritating, to be honest – Thacker’s major premise in this work, as in the previous two volumes, is that when human thought confronts its own limits, it encounters that which can neither be thought nor spoken, yet seems to demand to be named and spoken and described.

Except, really, what’s so horrifying at the thought of human beings limited in their abilities? We can’t run very fast. For our size we’re far weaker than other animals. Consciousness (the villain in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race), when combined with our sociability and language, are the tools with which we’ve been equipped to survive in a world in which there are the eaters and  the eaten. Other than the fear of being eaten by another creature (which, let’s face it, is pretty terrifying), what’s so awful about the reality that our world isn’t about anything, that we’re contingent, limited creatures, and that not just ourselves, but all that we know and all we will never know will disappear? It is what it is, after all.

Horror fiction, whether literary horror, genre horror, novels, or films, or manga all present us with a variety of questions, including important philosophical questions. When done well, we confront not just the literal (or figurative) horror on page or screen; we also confront that which frightens us most. The pay-off, of course, comes when that horror is defeated. Contemporary horror, particularly in film, offers the disquieting idea that, in fact, the horror is not overcome. Indeed, it seems to insist over and over that there is no escape from the horror that awaits us – whether that be death itself, a protracted dying, or a madness so thorough one’s very self becomes irretrievable.

Last week, I watched for the first time in 20 years the last movie that truly scared me. Event Horizon is about the attempted recovery of the first ship designed to travel faster than light. It had been lost, but has suddenly appeared in a decaying orbit above the planet Neptune. Along for the ride is the man who designed the ship, played by Sam Neill. When asked about the whole faster-than-light travel being impossible, Neill goes into a discussion about creating an artificial singularity which would, theoretically, bend space-time, allowing the ship to travel immense distances in an instant.* When they arrive on the ship, they find the crew missing, a haunting yet indecipherable log entry, and the occasional uncanny event, such as seeing dead loved ones, or those left behind on earth, or worse.

The horror of Event Horizon comes when that enigmatic log entry is deciphered. Apparently the cost of breaking the laws of physics is more than just the ability to move between the stars in an instant; it also propels you into a dimension of what Neill’s character calls “pure choas. Pure evil.” For me, this right here, is the most horrifying thought. Not that our Universe places a limit upon our abilities to travel long interstellar distances. It is, rather, the idea that there exists somewhere a place in which chaos rather than the ordered regularity of our Universe rules. A place where things like cause, effect, time, matter, energy have no meaning. While such a place is certainly possible, in theory, it is a place in which life would be impossible; the horror would be to find oneself trapped in such a place with no hope of escape.

The idea that the world and the Universe are quite indifferent to humanity and its concerns is neither new nor particularly frightening. It certainly carries with it, contrary to Thomas Ligotti’s insistence, no negative categorical imperative, that we human beings should end ourselves once and for all. How it’s possible to make the leap from the “is” of inhabiting a Universe where our very existence is an accident of circumstance to the “ought” that we should, therefore, end ourselves is quite impossible for me to figure out.

Whether it’s a Manga series about spirals (and this does sound quite terrifying), a Poe story about a maelstrom, one of Lovecraft’s many stories about indescribable horrors he goes on in some detail about, or a radio play about a darkness that seems to have teeth (and, yeah, this one would be pretty scary too), this idea that human beings encounter the unknowable, therefore confront our own limitations and thus have some kind of existential revelation about our own limitations and irrelevance is also at the heart of one of Stephen King’s better short stories from the 1980’s. Included in the collection Skeleton Crew,  the story “The Jaunt” concerns itself with a family about to embark on a trip to Mars via teleportation. While the family waits, the father tells his son the stories he knows about how teleportation was invented. When asked why they have to be put to sleep before using the teleporter, the father offers the wild suggestion that, even though in the physical realm, teleportation happens in an instant, there might yet be something . . . in . . . that instant that is beyond our ability to comprehend. So, of course, the story ends with the family arriving on Mars. The son, however, didn’t take his sedative, remaining awake during the teleportation only to discover that “in” is far bigger and more horrible than it is possible to imagine.

Everything else is just a variation on this simple formula.

I find it fascinating to believe that our being a contingent, limited species is somehow a source of angst, whether metaphysical or existential. Oh, I’m sure it is for some people. By and large, however, the idea that the Universe really doesn’t care one way or another about us human beings seems to illicit shrugs more than screams of fright. To select obscure pieces (with the exception of Dante’s Inferno and various works by Poe and Lovecraft) that would open up the possibility of this paradoxical encounter between that which cannot be yet it, that which cannot be explained yet is described incessantly ignores the variety of topics laid bare by horror fiction in its sheer variety: fear of sex and becoming an adult; fear of the ambivalent relationships we continue to have with friends and family members who have died yet continue to be a part of our lives; fear of the possibility that science just can’t explain everything; fear of our annihilation, whether through natural or artificial cataclysm; various political fears. A fear of the unnameable “Nothing” that brings human thought  both to an abrupt end yet causes it to work harder just doesn’t seem, well, very scary at all.

There are things that horror fiction and philosophy share. There are ways each can inform the other beyond an exploration of the boundary regions of human thought and experience. Most of all, both are simultaneously base yet vaunted exercises of the human imagination. It would seem to me a multi-volume work on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy might explore these commonalities rather than propose a singular topic – das Nicht – as the core not only of horror, but of the horror of philosophy.

*Never mind that, by passing over the event horizon of the singularity, the ship and the people on it would be stripped of their materiality, reduced to elementary particles that would forever be trapped within the singularity. I know science fiction loves to travel faster than light, but, yeah, not so much.


When [people] finally got around to writing theories about what they had been doing for some time, such action was inevitably looked upon as a succession of events beginning in the past. In many instances the sequential ordering of the text, the series verborum or narrationis, was simply and crudely imposed on events in the real world. As a consequence of this interpretive activity, the issue of oral and written communication cannot be separated from that of reform, utopia, and primitivism. . . . [An] approach . . . augmenting self-knowledge of course favored the search after origins or first principles that we associate with primitivism. To be better was to be earlier and to be earlier was to find ultimate precedent, which, not surprisingly turned out to be a text. – Brian Stock, “Medieval Literature, Linguistic Theory, and Social Organization”, in Listening For The Text, pp.38-39

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century. Many of us have this image in our head; in fact, Paul dictated most of his letters. Being from Tarsus, he looked less like a Dutch bookkeeper and more like a contemporary Turkish shop owner.

St. Paul Writing His Epistles, attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century. Many of us have this image in our head; in fact, Paul dictated most of his letters. Being from Tarsus, he looked less like a Dutch bookkeeper and more like a contemporary Turkish shop owner.

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling expanding marriage rights to all persons takes place in a community and context defined and limited by a particular document: The United States Constitution. Public disagreements, when not veering into bigotry, have centered around the meaning of words. “Right”, “freedom”, “equality” are secular holy words in the United States. For that reason, their meaning is contested on a daily basis. How best do we understand them so they can regulate our behavior as citizens, allow us legal and civic space to participate in the common life?

Many people insist that it is best to understand these words as they were understood by those who wrote and ratified them 226 years ago. The simplicity and clarity of James Madison’s text, it is said, does not lend itself either to innovation or the accrual of meaning over time. To be “free” as the Constitution guarantees it, to have a “right”, means nothing more or less than what it meant in 1787.

We Americans, then, are a textual community rooted in a species of primitivism, as Brian Stock defines it. All sides in the discussion claim the Constitution as their authoritative text. The matter is not Constitutionality or its lack. The argument is over the definition of words.

In much the same way, Christian communities, rooted in a particular text, make appeals to it both for innovation and steadfastness; we demand adherence to the text of Scripture with most Christians knowing little to nothing of its content. We are offered particular moral precepts, particular personal and social values, and insist best contemporary practice is exhibited within the stories and exemplars of Scripture. We insist that Jesus was a contemporary radical disguised as a poor itinerant Jewish carpenter-cum-teacher; his death on a Roman cross-tree is proof that his was understood to be a revolutionary movement by the authorities of his day. We are told that particular legal codices not only should but do continue to apply to current social life.

Much of contemporary Biblical scholarship and theology centers around the search both for textual clarity (arriving at as clear an original MSS as possible) and original meaning. With these accomplished, we are told, we will be better able to appropriate the texts for our own time. Since the first historical critical readings of the Bible in the early 19th century (although late medieval and Renaissance scholars engaged in a limited historical criticism), this has been the goal; each interpretive method offered a path through the thickets of additions and subtractions; through difficult questions of editing; once through we shall not only have the authoritative text, but the authoritative interpretation. Whether it’s the Jesus Seminar, the writings of Marcus Borg or N. T. Wright, or the body calling itself The Center For The Study Of Christian Origins, both the work and the larger ecclesiological goal is the Church Universal understanding itself as indistinguishable from our origins.

Not only Biblical primitivism, but also Doctrinal primitivism reigns in many of our churches, particularly my own United Methodist Church. We are told ad nauseum that we as a Body have lost our doctrinal roots. A return to strict adherence to Christian doctrines will help us overcome our current social and cultural decline and internal malaise. Overcoming contemporary liberalism, conservatism, contextual theologies, fundamentalist theologies all require adherence to Church doctrine, which itself is a body of texts rooted in interpretations of the Scriptural texts.

As I pointed out elsewhere, the pursuit of understanding, particularly of societies and cultures long dead, using languages that are also dead (or at best only dimly related to contemporary languages), is an expression of hubris I find both interesting and tiresome. Whether it’s the Scriptural texts or the doctrinal texts, the assumptions behind the claims of a practical primitivism are neither sound nor falsifiable. There is simply no way contemporary scholars, even after decades of work, building on previous centuries of work, can hope, say, to arrive at a clear original presentation of a manuscript. Even form criticism, which pays attentions to minutiae of sentence structure in an attempt to identify additions to a text, can never answer the question of what might have been removed from a text and for what reason. No doctrinal purist can answer with anything like clarity what words like “salvation”, “grace”, “Incarnation”, or even “God” meant for people in the first, second, ninth, or even 17th centuries. For one thing, those words as they appear above didn’t exist. They are contemporary English words that reflect as best as possible an on-going tradition rooted in ancient dead languages (rooted in ancient dead societies and cultures). Pretending the modern English word “salvation” means the same as its first century Greek equivalent is to play kindergarten games with serious issues. It does violence both to the original understandings – whatever, in the end, they may be – as well as reducing our current understandings to little more than word play.

I understand the lure of primitivism. At the end of the day, however, the claims of many primitivists, regardless of their scholarly credentials, should be stopped by the simple act of demanding what their original meanings have to do with people living in an age unimagined and unimaginable to those original authors. Not that historical, textual, and literary criticism isn’t necessary. Rather, there must come a point not only when scholarship needs to end and proclamation should begin; there also needs to be just a bit more humility in our claims at understanding “original meaning” in any text, whether it’s the United States Constitution, Christian doctrine, or the Bible. As the task of the Biblical reader is to allow the text to read our lives, to interpret our faith, and to let it be the foundation for our proclamation and mission, we should always remember that scholarship ends when practical theology begins. If we aren’t engaging in an interchange that moves first from Scriptures to us, then we aren’t reading the Bible correctly, no matter how much information we have in our heads about the original languages, the authors and editors, and how the words of the text were understood by those who first wrote them down.

Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching And Jazz”

At the second Dial [Records] session, in July [1946], Parker had a mental breakdown triggered by his abuse of inferior-quality narcotics and perhaps the tensions caused by public attacks on his music. The crisis was cruelly captured by the microphones as Parker attempted to play “Lover Man” while reeling around the studio. He considered the release of that record humiliating and a personal betrayal by producer Ross Russell. Yet we dare not dismiss this most controversial of all jazz recordings. Opinions have finally settled on Free Jazz and Ascension, but “Lover Man” can still get an argument going – does it appeal only to the voyeur in us, or is it musically valid? Why did so many musicians memorize the solo down to the last painful misstep? Undoubtedly, Parker commands attention, eve in this state, climaxing faltering phrases with an emotionally devastating arpeggio at measure twenty-four. – Gary Giddins, Visions Of Jazz, p. 275


No jazzman, not even Miles Davis, struggled harder to escape the entertainer’s role than Charlie Parker. The pathos of his life lies in the ironic reversal through which his struggles to escape what in Armstrong is basically a make-believe role of clown – which the irreverent poetry and triumphant sound of his trumpet makes even the squarest of squares aware of – resulted in Parker’s becoming something far more “primitive”: a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, onstage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which has only the slightest notion of its real significance. While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict from which issued both his art and his destruction, his public reacted as though he were doing much the same thing as those saxophonists who hoot and honk and roll on the floor. In the end he had no private life and his most tragic moments were drained of human significance. – Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching And Jazz”, in The Collected Essays Of Ralph Ellison: Revised And Expanded, John F. Callahan, ed., pp. 260-261

"In attempting to escape the role, at once sub- and super-human, in which he found himself, he sought to outrage his public into an awareness of his most human pain. Instead he made himself notorious, and in the end he became unsure whether his fans came to enjoy his art or to be entertained by the "world's greatest junky," the "supreme hipster." " Ralph Ellison

“In attempting to escape the role, at once sub- and super-human, in which he found himself, he sought to outrage his public into an awareness of his most human pain. Instead he made himself notorious, and in the end he became unsure whether his fans came to enjoy his art or to be entertained by the “world’s greatest junky,” the “supreme hipster.” ” Ralph Ellison

Jazz is difficult. The music itself places unbelievable demands even on the casual listener. Whether trying out something by Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, or settling in for World War II-era swing, or perhaps a popular tune by Duke Ellington, one can hardly just sit and listen. From the most basic element, the rhythms, up through harmonies that are too often opaque to melodies that seem to appear and disappear like images out of a fog, it takes discipline just to relax and understand what hits your ears.

It becomes so much more complicated when reading too many jazz critics. Often fans who immerse themselves in the music like Baptist are the river, critics are vociferous in their demands both upon readers and musicians. They too often write using musicological terms they really don’t understand, but pretend to do because it’s part of being a jazz critic. The result is both the music and the ever-growing literature about it, its practitioners, and its various sub-genres have a cultic, gnostic quality about it. Venturing in to jazz leaves many wondering when the dark room, robed figures, and ceremonies will occur. The music invites you in. Writers about the music, however, are guardians at the gate, ensuring this music that is both their mainstay and first and perhaps only real love remains pure, unsullied by the messiness of a world that seems neither to appreciate the intricacies of the art nor wish to use the common vocabulary to express their understanding of the music.

Which is why the few essays Ralph Ellison wrote about jazz and musicians – including Charlie Christian, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, and Charlie Parker – are such a treat. Ellison was many things, but most of all he refused to deny the humanity both of the music and those who performed it. He understood the music as a racial phenomenon in a country then undergoing agonizing changes regarding the racial status quo. He was not a reductionist, however, or essentialist. The music was racial because it was birthed by African-Americans, raised by and among African-Americans, and its most important and innovative performers were African-American. It was only because of the equivocal status of the black man as entertainer in a society of white supremacy that left Ellison far more clear-eyed than many critics, at the time and since, not only about the music, but the musicians and the audience as well.

A review of a posthumous collection of essays about alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, Ellison pulls no punches in his view that the book is inadequate to its subject precisely because, as Giddins would write decades later, the book itself is little more than offers to sit and stare at the antics of a drug-addled clown rather than a serious musician of incredible gifts. The musical revolution Parker and others sparked could not have been accomplished without intimate understanding of music in all its intricacies, followed by hours and hours of practice, trying and trying to get to the place the musicians keep hearing in their heads. Ellison wishes the book were not another recounting of the too-worn ground of Parker’s life outside the music around which everything else swirled and whirled.

And who is the Parker revealed in this book? Ellison’s description is justly famous:

Bird was a most gifted innovator and evidently a most ingratiating and difficult man – one whose friends had no need for an enemy, and whose enemies had no difficulty in justifying their hate. According to his witnesses, he stretched the limits of human contradiction beyond belief. He was lovable and hateful, considerate and callous; he stole from friends and benefactors and borrowed without conscience, often without repaying, and yet was generous to absurdity. He could be most kind to younger musicians or utterly crushing in his contempt for their ineptitude. He was passive and yet quick to pull a knife and pick a fight. He knew the difficulties which are often the lot of jazz musicians, but as a leader he tried to con his sidemen out of their wages. He evidently loved the idea of having a family and being a good father and provider, but found it as difficult as being a good son to his devoted mother. He was given to extremes of sadism and masochism, capable of the most staggering excesses and most exacting physical discipline and assertion of will. Indeed, one gets the image of such a character as Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, who while many things to many people seemed essentially devoid of a human center – except, and an important exception indeed, Parker was an artist who found  his moments of sustained and meaningful integration through the reed and keys of the alto saxophone. It is the recordings of his flights of music which remain, and it is these which form the true substance of his myth.(Ellison, pp. 263-264)

The book Ellison is reviewing sets to one side the most important thing Charlie Parker brought to this world, preferring a kind of forensic voyeurism that in the end celebrates what should be decried, and makes of Parker the one things he never wished to be: just another black entertainer performing for whites on those white’s terms. Ellison neither denies nor downplays the person Parker was; on the contrary, for Ellison it is precisely this that made him the artist he was. The book Ellison considers is little more than those fans who, as Giddins notes, memorized Parker’s most tortured recording precisely because it was so tortured (and please note, Giddins joins in the musical autopsy, insisting “Lover Man” has merit not only despite but precisely because of all the pathologies that flow through each phrase). Giddins is little more than a late-coming white hipster, denying a fascination with Parker’s human excesses while reveling in them as some kind of well-spring of his art.

Ellison, on the other hand, uses the apocryphal nature of the origin of Parker’s nickname “Bird” as a starting point for understanding who Parker was. Rather than celebrate the mythic legend (which Ellison reminds readers was originally a word used to describe the life of a saint) of the tragic, tortured artist, Ellison looks to birds, particularly the mockingbird, to understand just who Parker was and what his music was about. At once mocking and celebratory, imitative and inventive, incredibly fast yet often too clear both in intent and completeness, Parker was the mockingbird sine qua non, taking even the most popular songs and transforming them into barely recognizable works that might at best nod at the original harmonies while moving beyond them. He often used the higher chord intervals – ninths, in particular – as the source of his melodic inventions, while playing with harmonic modulation to prevent even the most basic blues, which were in his music blood from years of woodshopping around Kansas City’s notorious nightclubs, from growing stale. Only someone with an expansive mind, a demanding desire to play something no one has ever heard (including the musician), and willing to push through hours of practicing and jamming could ever have done even a small part of what Parker achieved. That Parker did so, all the while living an often vagrant, piecemeal life filled with drugs and booze, women and his wife and child, destroying the vessel through which he offered the world himself in a musical tone as bitter and sharp as he was is nothing short of a miracle.

Ellison recognizes this without dwelling gratuitously on the gory details of the worst of Parker’s too-often-celebrated personal pathologies. He keeps the “Bird” front and center because the real myth of Charlie Parker isn’t his overindulgence. It is, rather, the song that will ensure this bird lives forever. Ellison isn’t a bird-watcher (how Ellison refers to the voyeuristic celebrants of Parker’s dysfunction). He is, rather, an ornithologist. In that regard, his review of what must have been a most unfortunate volume offers readers an opportunity to return to Parker and his music free from the necessity of keeping Parker’s life in front of his art. Ellison offers the opportunity even for the uninitiated to hear Parker’s pain and pleasure, his deep devotion to music and his appalling disregard for himself, others, and even his songs through the music. Rather than settle for simple answers or join a cult, Ellison wants us to join together and listen, again, and remember Parker’s singular genius, a genius that couldn’t flinch in the face of drugs, racism, disregard, misunderstandings, confusion, love, and even impending death.

Mockingbirds don’t flinch, but lead predators on a merry chase, after all, refusing to settle on a song, sometimes bringing lovers to tears, but never surrendering their identity as mockingbirds.

Holocaust Testimonies II(b): Memory And The Eternity Trap

As memory plunges into the past to rescue the details of the Holocaust experience, it discovers that cessation play a more prominent role than continuity. – Lawrence Langer, Holocaust Testimonies:The Ruins Of Memory, p.75

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

The realization that horror never leaves but is ever-present leaves one in anguish over any possibilities.

Venturing in to Lawrence Langer’s guidebook for understanding the verbal testimonies of Holocaust survivors, it becomes apparent very quickly that we are entering . . . not a place or time at all. Oh, we who were neither there nor alive can look back and say things like, “The Third Reich began its imprisonment programn with Dachau in the spring of 1933”; we can pinpoint when the death camps, as opposed to the consentrationslager began churning out their product. It was in 1942, not long after a Conference in Wansee among those higher-ups in the Nazi regime responsible for what was ignominiously called “der Judenfrage“. That, however, does nothing more than locate along some arbitrary scale when particular events took place. We as observers can use this particular way of “understanding” to shield us from the multiple horrors these naked facts hide from us.

I originally began reading Langer as a way to remind myself that I was, indeed , familiar with real evil. Human evil at its most depraved. Spiritual evil at its most murderous. I am now not so sure that doing so for my selfish purposes honors the lives of those for whom this was more than just a lived experience but an always-present reality from which there was no escape. At the same time, both Langer’s reflections and the testimonies themselves lead the reader willing to expose himself or herself to the threats they pose to conclusions that are as frightening as they are inescapable.

The major theme of Langer’s book, subtitled as it is “The Ruins Of Memory”, is how the Holocaust exists in the memories of those who came out the other side of this event. The chapter titles of his book – “Deep Memory”, “Anguished Memory”, “Humiliated Memory” and so on – point to part of his project: in order to understand the oral testimonies of Holocaust survivors (as opposed to written accounts , which follow different rules) we have to recognize how memory operates in the lives of those for whom the Holocaust is a lived experience.

Again and again, Langer leads the reader to the conclusion that something more than “memory” – he follows one survivor, Charlotte Delbo, and her distinction between “common memory” and “deep memory” – is involved. Reading the transcriptions of the testimonies, the reader can only conclude that the events they relate do not exist in time at all; indeed, Langer is at pains to highlight the temporal disruption the Holocaust creates from the personal to the historical level. Precisely because of this disruption, we are doing more than reading the stated recollections of those who once were in Treblinka, Auscwitz-Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen; they are there, have been there, and will be there. Time ceases to have any meaning; as such there is never an escape from the torments of the camps. The life, skin, sense of smell, sense of self is, in each moment, both traveling through time yet never free from the sights and smells and sounds and (lack of) feelings the camps induce. When we read these recollections, we are pulled through the veil time uses to keep us safe and are there with them. As Langer himself writes on page 69: “For the witnesses, the Holocaust is at once a lived event and a “died” event: the paradox of how one survives a died event is one of the most urgent (if unobtrusive) topics of [witness] testimonies . . .”

German theologian Paul Tillich preached a sermon entitled “The Eternal Now”, in which he described the reality of eternity less as endless time and more that all moments are alive in each moment, the whole exists not as a succession of events but as a whole without the need for perception and interpretation through our time- and space-bound categories. What could be more clear, reading these testimonies, than that they present this, tout court? Rather than a comforting notion, which is how Tillich – who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, the Gestapo close on his heels – wished to use it, the dawning fear scraping the back of our minds is there is a diabolical mirror image to the comfort of eternal bliss. Consider the following transcription of the testimony of Chaim S., on page 62-63:

No, no, no. I try in my best words to bring the picture of out it. But you see, when I . . . I see the picture in front one me; you have to imagine something. The one that listens has to imagine something. So it has a different picture for me than for the one that imagines it. At least I think so, because sometimes I hear telling back a story that doesn’t sound at all the same what I was telling., you see: it doesn’t sound the same. It was horrified and horrible, and when you live once with this tension and horrification – if that is the right word – then you live differently. Your thoughts don’t go too far. In normal life, you think about tomorrow and after tomorrow and about a year, and next year a vacation then, and things like that. Here you think on the moment what it is. What happen now, on the moment. Now is it horrible. You don’t think “later.”

How else is it possible to understand the testimony of Edith P., from pages 54 and 55?

One morning, I think it was morning or early afternoon, we arrived. The train stopped for an hour; why we don’t know. And a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you stand up?” There was just a little window, with bars. And I said, “I can’t. I don’t have enough energy to climb up.” And she said, “I’m going to sit down and you’re going to stand on my shoulders.” And I did; and I looked out. And . . I . . . saw . . . Paradise! The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over. It was a station somewhere in Germany. There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, not animals. And I thought: “Paradise must look like this!” I forgot already how normal people look like, how they act, how they speak, how they dress. I saw the sun in Auschwitz, I saw the sun come up, because we had to get up at four in the morning. But it was never beautiful to me. I never saw it shine. It was just the beginning of a horrible day. And in the evening, the end – of what? But here there was life, and I had such yearning, I still feel it in my bones. I had such yearning, to live, to run, to just run away and never come back – to run to the end where there is no way back. And I told the girls, I said, “Girls, you have no idea how beautiful the sun is, and I saw a baby crying and a woman was kissing that baby – is there such a thing as love?”

In the Gospel of St. Luke, we read the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this story, Jesus tells of two men, the beggar Lazarus who sat at the gates of the rich man’s house, who died and was comforted in the bosom of Abraham. The Rich Man soon died as well, only he was consigned to a place of torment. He could see Lazarus embraced by Abraham and asked for consolation. He didn’t receive any. The above is a horrid, wicked reversal of that story: Edith P. is consigned to a place of torment from which there is no escape, while the comfortable Germans go about their lives, including loving their children, having the privilege of seeing the sun actually shine, oblivious to the hellish existence that is mere feet from them. I can imagine few tortures more awful than this particular moment when Edith P. caught a glimpse of life outside the camp, had a momentary yearning that is always with her, then wondered aloud if love really existed .

The Nazis created an infernal eternity with their industry of death. Those who entered the camps understood they were the raw material to be forged in to the final product: millions upon millions of corpses. That some few somehow avoided that fate creates a dual reality for them. They are always there, never to escape the death that awaits them on the other side of this grim assembly line. That they have escaped never relieves them of this knowledge. They cannot escape because these places and times are no-place and no-time. We who hear and read the testimonies of survivors are not so much invited to join them as we are pulled against our will to stand with them, feel the cold and constant hunger, the stink of shit and death that can never be washed from our skin, the absence of any emotion save the most base need to survive, a need that is never satisfied, even decades after they have been “liberated” and live on, having jobs and families and lives. That is the deepest horror and the deepest truth of hell: that those trapped within its gates are there, have always been there, and always will be there.


Holocaust Testimonies II(a): Nothing Can Prepare You

The anus mundi was the habitat of the Devil. If ever [human beings] successfully created such a habitat on earth, it was at Auschwitz.

Only at the anus mundi could the Jew as deicide, betrayer, and incarnate Devil be turned into the feces of the world. – Richard J. Rubenstein, “Religion and the Origins of the Death Camps: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation,” in After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, p.32

I usually try to provide a photograph that creates an atmosphere for what I’m writing. For this post, however, I have chosen only to link to two distinct photos. First, there’s this photograph of “the last Jew in Vinnytsia,” in his last second of life. Few images capture the bleak reality of the horrors individuals lived when faced by Nazi terror. Not only is this the last Jewish person in this small Ukranian town; he is kneeling at a pit filled with the corpses of his friends, his family, his co-workers. Knowing he is the last, he gazes at the camera with something like a plea: Please remember me. Considering the Holocaust on any level, we should always begin with the individuals who faced the machinery of death powerless, alone, understanding the fate that was theirs no matter what they did.

The other image is a pile or corpses at Majdanek. If the truly human predicament of the millions can be seen in the final moments of the life of one man, the results of years of dehumanization, increased restrictions on civil rights, and finally a desire to eradicate European Jews wherever they might be can only be understood when we sit and look at the images of corpses, barely recognizable as human, and consider what any of this means.

As Lawrence Langer notes in the first chapter of Holocaust Testimonies, the search for meaning, like every other attempt to grasp the events of the murder of European Judaism, is useless. There is no moral lesson. There are no heroes or villains; rare moments of true humanity can turn just as quickly to murder, making even those gestures of solidarity we consider part of the armory of weapons human beings have in their fight against evil not only meaningless but actually antithetical to survival.

Written accounts of victim experience prod the imagination in ways that speech cannot, striving for analogies to initiate the reader into the particularities of their grim world. This literature faces a special challenge, since it must give most readers access to a totally unfamiliar subject. When searchlights at Auschwitz are said to lick the sky like “flaming rainbows,” we are invited to use this simile as a ticket of entry to the bizarre deathcamp landscape. The singular inappropriateness of an image of natural beauty, symbolizing good fortune and joy, to describe one’s arrival at Auschwitz underlines the difficult of finding a vocabulary of comparison for such an incomparable atrocity.(pp.18-19)

Nothing at all really prepares anyone for what they will see and hear encountering evidence of the Holocaust. That is why Langer insists that, just as reading fantastic fiction requires a willful suspension of disbelief, so, too, does reading and hearing the testimonies of those who witnessed these events as victims. Part of the suspension includes a most-necessary silencing of our usual, all-too-quick need to understand the actions of survivors under traditional moral and humanistic categories. Even the landscape of death and unreality had, for many victims, a sense of familiarity that those of us who have not lived it cannot – truly – fathom, except perhaps through an extreme effort of imagination.

One [survivor] reports that when he was first brought into a crematorium area with a work detail, he did not flinch at the pules of bodies because every day in the Lodz ghetto, from which he had been deported to the deathcamp, he had seen dozens of corpses strewn about the streets. What might seem like fantasy to us became a sign of “ordinary” reality for him, so he could make the adjustment enabling him to accept this “abnormality” as part of his normal daily routine.(p.22)

If this diabolical background can become commonplace, and can be understood by we witnesses to these testimonies as really becoming so, it still takes an effort to set aside our preference for morality tales.

Expecting to encounter heroes and heroines, we meet only decent men and women, constrained by circumstances, reluctantly, to abandon roles that we as audience expect (and need) to find ingrained in their natures. Ideally, for example, even in the camps you honored the sanctity of your fellow prisoner’s bread ration, often literally the staff of life. But in practice, as these testimonies constantly remind us, starvation and moral sentiment were uneasy bedfellows. A gesture of generosity from the world of the “normal” might momentarily kindle the despondent spirit, but the starved stomach sought other nourishment. One of the most difficult truths for the outside to grasp is the moral and physical havoc wrought on conscientious human beings by hunger’s ceaseless tyranny.(p.25)

This persistent upending of our usual sense of expectation requires a depth of feeling and honest willingness to hear what is being said as a once-lived reality, rather than something either edifying or not for future generations to grasp.

Audiences have little difficult dealing with heroic gestures where the agent is in control of the choice – episodes of sharing and support and even of self-sacrifice, all of which occurred in rare favorable circumstances in the usually hostile camp environment. Such gestures feed the legends on which the myths of civilizations have been built. But few witnesses mention them in their testimony, where, unflattering as it may sound, spiritual possibility turns out to be a luxury for those not on the brink of starvation. To understand and to sympathize with unheroic gestures . . ., withholding endorsement or blame but finding instead an admissible frame for them in the moral discourse of our culture – this is one of the burdensome but crucial challenges that still lie before us . . . .(pp.26-27)

Even the most important bonds, the ones we hold up as inviolable, become a burden in a situation in which all the ways we think human beings do and should act no longer apply.

Anna G., for instance, recalling a scene on the ramp at Auschwitz upon her arrival there, relates it to her own life much later, during the postwar period of “normalcy”, suggesting how hopeless is the quest for total immunity from the original ordeal. She tells of a ten-year-old girl who refused to go to the “left” (toward death) after the selection. (earlier she had explained that the members of her transport from Plaszow, having experienced many “selections” there, had learned to dear their meaning.) Kicking and scratching, the young girl was seized by three SS men who held her down while she screamed to her nearby mother that she shouldn’t let them kill her. According to Anna G. one of the SS men approached the mother, who was only in her late twenties, and asked her if she wanted to go with her daughter. “No,” the mother replied . . . .

Hell, they say, is the absence of God. The world of the ghetto and death camp, the slave labor factory and the local community overrun by the Einsatzgruppen, God was indeed absent. As Dostoevsky noted, everything was permissible. The corpses that were the final product were sped along their way not only by the removal of any restraints on human behavior among those in control; when real human choice, our normal moral universe, even the bonds of parent and child, no longer apply, we know we have entered a Universe where sense is no-sense, where terror is the commonplace backdrop, and both the rational and temporal sequence of events, of cause and effect, no longer exist.

Nothing really prepares a person for entering Hell. It is here, however, I must go, listening to the voices of those who made it through the Pit to the other side.


Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark

For the straightfoward pathway had been lost. – Dante Allighierei, Inferno, Canto I


One of Dore's illustrations for Inferno, with Virgil and Dante overseeing souls trapped in the pit.

One of Dore’s illustrations for Inferno, with Virgil and Dante overseeing souls trapped in the pit.

I need to confess something. It may be one of the more shameful things I’ve ever written.

I’ve never read Dante’s Divine Comedy.

And when I read the above, the very first lines of this massive, beautiful poetic adventure, I realized I have neglected a resource that has been available for 800 years. To follow as Virgil leads Dante in search for his lost Beatrice, their journey begins in Hell, spiraling down the circles.

All beginning from a dark forest, in the mid-years of his life.

What more do I need to say? I need to get a-reading, hadn’t I.