December 29, 2008

Charles Bernstein Recants

Selections from Charles Bernstein's “Recantorium (a Bachelor Machine, after Duchamp after Kafka)”:


I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that National Poetry Month is not good for poetry and for poets.  I abjure, curse, and detest the aforesaid error and apostasy.  And I now freely and openly attest to the virtues of National Poetry Month in throwing a national spotlight on poetry, so crucial to keeping verse alive in the twenty-first century.

     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that only elitist and obscure poetry should be praised.  I abjure, curse, detest, and renounce the aforesaid error and aversion.  And I now freely and openly attest that the best way to get general readers to start to read poetry is to present them with broadly appealing work, with strong emotional content and a clear narrative line.


     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon and renounce the false opinion that poetry is a social and ideological construction and not the expression of the Pure Feeling of the Poet (PFP) and declare, The Sovereign Human Self (SHS) is the sole origin of authentic expression and meaning.  In full recognition and acknowledgement of my error, I hereby declare and swear, to all present company, that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine.

     I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that official verse culture, through prestigious prizes awarded for merit and reviews in nationally circulated publications selected for major importance, and including the appointments of the poets laureate, does not represent the best and the finest, the most profound and significant, the richest and the most rewarding, poetry of our nation.  And now that I myself, in my person and through my work, have ascended into this Exalted Company, and joined the rarified and incorrigible company of official verse culture, I do here cast stones and sticks and call an abomination and curse and scorn and repudiate any who would not cherish and adore both the process and product of that official verse culture that has embraced, with trepidation and embarrassment, and with noses tightly pinched and earmuffs in place, my unworthy ascent.


     I am with regret fillèd and by errors o’erwhelmed, having chosen the broken path over the righteous, the warped over the erect.  I cant and recant.  I altogether abandon the false opinion that advocacy or partisan positioning has any place in poetry and poetics.  Poetry and poetics should be reserved for those who look beyond the contentions of the present into the eternal verities, the truths beyond this world that never change, as represented in the Books of the Accessible Poets.  I further stipulate that I recant, categorically, that poetry is an activity of the intellect and herewith and hereby declare and proclaim that true poetry is an affair of the heart and only the heart.


I was wrong, I apologize, I recant.  Like a rat seeking a dark cavity to eat its hapless prey, I succumbed to the dictatorship of relativism, a state of profound confusion in which I could not recognize anything as definitive and based my judgments solely on my own ego and desires.  In this graceless state, I falsely believed that the real tyranny was intolerance to those who do not adhere to the aesthetic values of honesty, coherence, clarity, and truth as revealed to all with a moral conviction and a commitment to the timeless human story.  I repudiate this gutless indulgence toward benighted and fallen ideas and commit myself to the dictatorship of obedience.

     I was in error, I apologize, I recant.  I altogether abandon the false doctrine of midrashic antinomianism and bent studies, which I have promulgated in writings, lectures, and teaching, with its base and cowardly insistence on ethical, dialogic, and situational values rather than fixed and immutable moral laws.  I loved language more than truth, discourse more than reality, and so allowed to spread, in myself and others, an intellectual virus that uproots the plain sense of the word.


The full “Recantorium” appears in the January 2009 Harper’s and the Winter 2009 issue of Critical Inquiry, both behind pay-walls.  A video of Bernstein reading “Recantorium” is available here.

December 19, 2008

Relations of Notes

“If you say that in a book the Italians should speak Italian because in the actual world they speak Italian and the Chinese should speak Chinese because Chinese speak Chinese it is a rather naïve way of thinking of a work of art, it’s as if you thought this was the way to make a painting: The sky is blue.  I will paint the sky blue.  The sun is yellow.  I will paint the sun yellow.  A tree is green.  I will paint the tree green.  And what colour is the trunk?  Brown.  So what colour do you use?  Ridiculous.  Even leaving abstract painting out of the question it is closer to the truth that a painter would think of the surface that he wanted in a painting and the kind of light and the lines and the relations of colours and be attracted to painting objects that could be represented in a painting with those properties.  In the same way a composer does not for the most part think that he would like to imitate this or that sound – he thinks that he wants the texture of a piano with a violin, or a piano with a cello, or four stringed instruments or six, or a symphony orchestra; he thinks of relations of notes.

            This was all commonplace and banal to a painter or musician, and yet the languages of the world seemed like little heaps of blue and red and yellow powder which had never been used – but if a book just used them so that the English spoke English & the Italians Italian that would be as stupid as saying use yellow for the sun because the sun is yellow.  It seemed to me reading Schoenberg that what the writers of the future would do was not necessarily say:  I am writing about an Armenian grandfather Czech grandmother a young biker from Kansas (of Czech & Armenian descent), Armenian Czech English OK.  Gradually they would approach the level of the other branches of the arts which are so much further developed.  Perhaps a writer would think of the monosyllables and lack of grammatical inflection in Chinese, and of how this would sound next to lovely long Finnish words all double letters & long vowels in 14 cases or lovely Hungarian all prefixes suffixes, & having first thought of that would then think of some story about Hungarians or Finns with Chinese.

            An idea has only to be something you have not thought of before to take over the mind, and all afternoon I kept hearing in my mind snatches of books which might exist in three or four hundred years.  There was one with the characters Hakkinen, Hintikka and Yu, set provisionally in Helsinki – against a background of snow with a mass of black firs, a black sky & brilliant stars a narrative or perhaps dialogue with nominative genitive partitive essive inessive adessive illative ablative & translative, people would come on saying Hyvää päivää for good day there might be a traffic accident so that the word tieliikenneonnettomuus could make an appearance, and then in the mind of Yu Chinese characters, as it might be Black Fir White Snow, this was absolutely ravishing.”

                                                                                     Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

December 10, 2008

Thomas Bernhard's Report

One thing first-time readers of Thomas Bernhard notice right away is the repetition of speech-attribution tags.  For me, this is ultimately a more idiosyncratic feature of Bernhard’s style, more of a signature, than the absence of paragraph breaks (which his novels share, for instance, with some of Claude Simon's).  I’ve underlined the attribution tags in this more or less random excerpt from Bernhard’s Old Masters

People always make the mistake in museums of embarking on too much, of wishing to see everything, so they walk and walk and look and look and then suddenly, because they have devoured a surfeit of art, they collapse.  That is what happened to my future wife when Irrsigler took her by the arm and led her to the Bordone Room, as we subsequently established, in the most courteous manner, Reger said.  The layman in matters of art goes to a museum and makes it nauseous for himself through excess, Reger said.  But of course no advice is possible where visiting a museum is concerned.  The expert goes to a museum in order to view at most one picture, Reger said, one statue, one object, Reger said, he goes to the museum to look at, to study, one Veronese, one Velasquez.  But these art experts are all utterly distasteful to me, Reger said, they make a bee-line for a single work of art and examine it in their shameless unscrupulous way and walk out of the museum again, I hate those people, Reger said.

 That’s six in this one short sequence of as many sentences, not bad.  We’re most familiar with these tags, of course, from the back and forth of directly presented dialogue, the “he said, she said” of so many novels that read like wannabe film scripts.  While Bernhard eschews dialogue of that type in favor of monologue, he still finds plenty of opportunities for the attribution tags of reported, rather than directly presented, speech (or writing, or thought).  From Correction:  

The question was not only, how do I build the Cone, but also, how do I keep the Cone, the building of the Cone a secret, so Roithamer.  Half of my energies were concentrated on building the Cone, half of them on keeping the Cone a secret, so Roithamer.  When a man plans such an enormity, he must always retain control of everything and keep everything secret, so Roithamer.  First based on my reading, then on the basis of reading no longer taken into account, so Roithamer.  My own ideas had led with logical consistency to the realization and completion of the Cone, when my sister was frightened to death, the Cone was finished, so Roithamer, I could not have taken her into the Kobernausser forest at any other than the deadly moment, she had dreaded this moment, when she dreaded it most deeply I took her there and so killed her, at the same time I’d finished the Cone (April 7), so Roithamer.  For supreme happiness comes only in death, so Roithamer.  Detour by way of the sciences to supreme happiness, death, so Roithamer.  The experts, the critics, the destroyers, annihilators, so Roithamer.  We always come close to the edge of the abyss and fear the loss of equilibrium, so Roithamer. 

That’s ten; if I had reproduced the whole page there would have been sixteen.  The page before has twelve and the page after six.  Sixteen is on the high side, however; this passage comes from near the end of the novel, as the narrator closes in on the grim inevitable ‘correction’ of Roithamer’s suicide.  Perhaps the repetition functions, in this instance, like the ritual behavior of certain obsessive-compulsives; it lends Bernhard’s survivor-narrator the equilibrium he needs to keep from tumbling into the abyss after his alter-ego.  But it is simultaneously, of course, a kind of knell. 

There are pages from earlier in Correction that don’t have any attribution tags, just as there are pages from later in the novel that have over a dozen.  Four or five tags per page, then, might be a reasonable average for the novel.  With a scanner and the right software program, of course, it should be possible to arrive at the exact number of overall tags in the entire Bernhard corpus, and thus also to calculate the precise numerical average of tags per page (tpp) for the entire Bernhard corpus.  One might arrive at a figure such as 4.85tpp, for instance, rounded up from, say, 4.8489tpp.

(Now I am thinking like one of Bernhard’s own obsessives.  Is the obsession what is bringing me to the edge of the abyss, or is it what is supposed to rescue me – the last fingernail-hold at the edge?  Or like the self-defeating compensations of the neurotic, is it both?)

To keep myself from going under, I turn my attention to The Under-goer (more commonly known as The Loser):

This crazy idea of visiting the hunting lodge had already occurred to me in Madrid.  It’s possible that Wertheimer never told anyone but me about his writings (and notes), I thought, and tucked them away somewhere, so I owe it to him to dig out these notebooks and writings (and notes) and preserve them, no matter how difficult it proves to be.  Glenn actually left nothing behind, Glenn didn’t keep any written record, I thought, Wertheimer on the contrary never stopped writing, for years, for decades.  Above all I’ll find this or that interesting observation about Glenn, I thought, at least something about the three of us, about our student years, about our teachers, about our development and about the development of the entire world, I thought as I stood in the inn and looked out the kitchen window, behind which however I could see nothing, for the windowpanes were black with filth.

Most writers would be searching for equivalents – “I mused,” or “I considered” or “it occurred to me.”  Not Bernhard.  He even sticks to the same order:  if he’s settled on “Reger said,” chances are you’re not going to be reading, “said Reger.”  Just the pounding of the one attribution, over and over and over again.  It becomes a kind of report, like a gunshot or a hammer blow.  Either the nail is long or the wood – maybe our blockheads – exceptionally unyielding.

They cook in this filthy kitchen, I thought, from this filthy kitchen they bring out the food to the customers in the restaurant, I thought.  Austrian inns are all filthy and unappetizing, I thought, one can barely get a clean tablecloth in one of these inns, never mind cloth napkins, which in Switzerland for instance are quite standard.

In more conventional fiction such tags exist only to be elided.  Their traditional function is to anchor the enunciation firmly in the narrator or character, to ensure the seamless procession of the “vivid, continuous dream,” the flow of vicarious experience and psychological identification.  They are lowly markers which do not enjoy the status of the other elements on the page.  When reading to oneself, they’re to be almost skipped over, registered by the eyes but not necessarily by the mental tongue.  Read aloud, the voice drops and gives their syllables a matter-of-fact little shove out into the cold, as if they were asides.  Less than asides: stage directions.  They are like the inert substrate in pills, the delivery system but not the stuff that is supposed to kill your pain or make you sleep.

But what happens when they metastasize?  When they proliferate and threaten to disrupt what they were meant to enable? 

In Bernhard, the tags become pronounced, in both senses of the word.  After five or ten or twenty repetitions in more or less close succession, they get louder rather than softer.  They stick in the throat, won’t let the prose – no, the story – go down easily.  Compared with the “fine” writing of so much contemporary literary fiction (brought to us by the ethic of writing-as-craft that holds sway in the MFA programs), their effect is powerfully unlovely, brilliantly “bad.”  And suddenly, instead of tripping over them, you find yourself laughing. 

Even the tiniest inn in Switzerland is clean and appetizing, even our finest Austrian hotels are filthy and unappetizing.  And talk about the rooms! I thought.  Often they just iron over sheets that have already been slept in, and it’s not uncommon to find clumps of hair in the sink from the previous guest.  Austrian inns have always turned my stomach, I thought.  

There’s a high-wire quality to the performance – how many of these can he get away with, anyway?  But maybe that’s one reason the laughter is so anxious:  the wire is suspended over an abyss.  In places Bernhard even double-bunks the attributions:

But Wertheimer often ate in these inns, at least once a day I want to see people, he said, even if it’s just this decrepit, down-and-out, filthy innkeeper.  So I go from one cage to the next, Wertheimer once said, from the Kohlmarkt apartment to Traich and then back again, he said, I thought.  From the catastrophic big city cage to the catastrophic forest cage.  Now I hide myself here, now there, now in the Kohlmarkt perversity, now in the country-forest perversity.  I slip out of one and back into the other.  For life.  But this procedure has become such a habit that I can’t imagine doing anything else, he said.  Glenn locked himself in his North American cage, I in my Upper Austrian one, Wertheimer said, I thought.  He with his megalomania, I with my desperation.  All three with our desperation, he said, I thought.  I told Glenn about our hunting lodge, Wertheimer said, I’m convinced that that’s what gave him the idea of building his own house in the woods, his studio, his desperation machine, Wertheimer once said, I thought. 

But this abyss is without depth.  Again and again, the speech-attribution tags return us to the surface of the page.  They remind us that it’s writing we’re looking at.  In the absence of these repetitions, Bernhard’s narratives might read more like conventional free indirect discourse.  Their insistent interruptions, however, do more than merely answer the question of “Who speaks?” (or “Who thinks?" or “Who writes?”).  So far are they in excess of that function that they confound the question itself.  They take us out of the narcissistic pseudo-profounds of identification and put us back on the surface.  Their report highlights nothing so much as their own stubborn, interminable materiality. 

Thus Bernhard’s narrator in The Loser, standing in the Austrian inn and looking out the kitchen window – “behind which however I could see nothing, for the windowpanes were black with filth” – enacts an allegory of reading the very novel he is in.

Maybe this kind of abyss, a depthless abyss, is even more terrifying.  With depth – even a bottomless or an endless depth – there’s always the comfort, however cold or last-ditch, of a covert, a hiding place or refuge, or a recuperation:  an inside.  The writing is made to yield up a little bleak, desperately attenuated Romanticism of the diminished soul, but at least still a soul.  Persistence itself becomes its testimony.  Beckett, I think, is sometimes (wrongly) recuperated this way.  The agonizing equivocation of ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ is turned too blithely into a heroism. 

Bernhard narrates like Nietzsche philosophized – with a hammer.  And the goal is in some ways similar, the smashing of metaphysical idols.  Certainly Bernhard’s report is a species of defamiliarization, but even this assertion must be qualified.  The conventional take on defamiliarizing devices is that they are meant to break readers out of habitual or conventionalized modes of thought and perception, in the service of “new” or “refreshed” perception.  In other words, there is still the rehearsal of a moment of transcendence.  But Bernhard’s report awakens the reader only to sameness, utter repetition, bad infinity, just as his books don’t end so much as simply stop.  There’s no “new.”  I don’t wish to traffic in paradoxes for their own sake, but there’s something about this particular Bernhardian device that defamiliarizes defamiliarization itself, that estranges estrangement.   

I thought, I thought, I thought; Reger said, Reger said, Reger said; so Roithamer, so Roithamer, so Roithamer; boom, boom, boom.

Thus Bernhard.

December 6, 2008

The Ugly Americans

Taipei Zoo Station, Taipei, March 2008

November 28, 2008

24 Frames Per Second

"We see Godard sitting at his electric typewriter, smoking a cigar.  He is murmuring titles of novels and movies, staring into space.  If there is an archaeology here, it is an archaeology of mind, the apparently disordered rescue of a lifetime’s memory of film.  At another point, and for quite some time, Godard is interviewed by the critic Serge Daney, who does most of the talking.  ‘The New Wave,’ Daney says, ‘is perhaps the only generation which found itself in the middle of the century and the cinema at the same time.’  Godard was lucky, he adds, to have ‘arrived early enough to inherit a history that was already rich and complicated and shifting’.  When Daney remarks that the cinema is ‘the affair of the 20th century’, Godard mildly corrects him:  ‘It’s the affair of the 19th century which was resolved in the 20th century.’  We begin to see where we are.  Histoire(s) du cinéma is among other things a wake for the cinema.  ‘So it is,’ we hear on the soundtrack close to the end, ‘that the art of the 19th century, the cinema, created the 20th century, which on its own existed only a little.’"
from Michael Wood's review of Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma in LRB.

November 24, 2008

The Return of the Dead

Watching Jean Renoir’s 1937 film Grand Illusion last night, I came upon a scene that arrested my attention with a shiver of the uncanny.  It’s near the start of the film’s final sequence, the trek of the escaped officers Maréchal (played by Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) from the German prisoner-of-war camp of Wintersborn to the Swiss border.  Unshaven and exhausted, in their ragged and mud-splattered coats and hats, they move through a desolate countryside like a couple of tramps.  Rising one cold morning from a ditch where they have huddled the night away, Maréchal says to Rosenthal, 

      — Let’s go.

But Rosenthal can only limp along behind Maréchal, slowing them down even further.                

— You coming or what?                        
— I’m doing the best I can.                         
— You and your foot.                         
— It’s not my fault! I slipped.                        
— You slipped!  That’s all I hear.

Extinction looms, yet their bickering seems comic.

      — We’re out of food.  Might as well give up now.                         
— Gladly.  I’ve had enough too.                         
— Had enough of me?
— Damn right!  If you only knew how you make me sick!

In a burst of rancor and recrimination, they split up.  The gimpy Rosenthal slumps on a rock, while Maréchal makes his own way across the barren heights.  Eventually, however, he reappears at Rosenthal’s side.

      — Why’d you come back?                         
— Come on.  Let’s go, fella.

Maréchal helps Rosenthal to his feet.  They go on. 

Exigency has stripped all fullness of character from these two; somehow they are bound to each other, but it has less to do with personal psychology or even, finally, with shared history than it does with sheer existential necessity:  they have become a pseudocouple. 

Of course, they were not a pseudocouple earlier in the film, nor will they be by the film’s end, but there are moments during this bleakly comic sequence when viewers might be forgiven for thinking they’re watching a cinema adaptation of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and moreover one that somehow managed to get filmed a dozen or so years before the play was written.  The impression is so strong that when Maréchal and Rosenthal finally reach safe harbor, it doesn’t seem like they’ve escaped German soldiers or starvation so much as they have some condition of interminability that must be the deep grammar of such wasteland trials.  A fissure opens up in Jean Renoir’s generous humanism through which a rather starker vision appears, one that parallels Beckett’s in situation, costume, dialogue, setting, and, in flickering moments, sensibility.  Even the names Maréchal and Rosenthal have the rhyming lilt of Beckett’s first pseudocouple, Mercier and Camier, who served as a sort of dry run for Didi and Gogo.

Surely I can’t be the first person to have noticed this.  I check the indexes in the Beckett biographies, but there’s no reference to the film or the director.  Googling a variety of Beckett-Renoir search terms, however, nets me a couple of related hits.  Yes, it’s been suggested before that this sequence in Grand Illusion may have influenced Godot

But now that I think of it, the term “influence” doesn’t do justice to my experience. It had seemed, during that sequence anyway, that Renoir had quite simply been displaced – or had graciously given way – and the film inhabited instead by the Beckett of Godot.  During Maréchal and Rosenthal’s trek, Beckett was primary, Renoir came after.  To put it another way:  Renoir was influenced by Beckett. 

I’d heard of this strange phenomenon before, but I had to wrack my brains for a while until I could remember where.  Before Harold Bloom became the windbag that inflated such volumes as The Western Canon, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and How to Read and Why, he was an idiosyncratic late-Romantic Freudo-gnostic who wrote a very interesting book called The Anxiety of Influence.  The book outlines six “revisionary ratios” or literary ju-jitsu techniques whereby “strong” poets have been able to defeat their precursors and transform mere “influence” into original art.  One of these is apophrades, or, The Return of the Dead, of which Bloom writes:

The apophrades, the dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead return to inhabit their former houses, come to the strongest poets, but with the very strongest there is a grand and final revisionary movement that purifies even this last influx.  Yeats and Stevens, the strongest poets of our century, and Browning and Dickinson, the strongest of the later nineteenth century, can give us vivid instances of this most cunning of revisionary ratios.  For all of them achieve a style that captures and oddly retains priority over their precursors, so that the tyranny of time almost is overturned, and one can believe, for startled moments, that they are being imitated by their ancestors.

In this observation, I want to distinguish the phenomenon from the witty insight of Borges, that artists create their precursors, as for instance the Kafka of Borges creates the Browning of Borges.  I mean something more drastic and (presumably) absurd, which is the triumph of having so stationed the precursor, in one’s own work, that particular passages in his work seem to be not presages of one’s own advent, but rather to be indebted to one’s own achievement, and even (necessarily) to be lessened by one’s greater splendor.  The mighty dead return, but they return in our colors, and speaking in our voices, at least in part, at least in moments, moments that testify to our persistence, and not to their own.

We’ve probably all had the experience, and not only with poetry, of reading a writer’s work and suddenly coming upon lines or a passage which really seems to have been written by a later writer, to be in fact the very sort of material which properly belongs to that later figure.  And clearly this phenomenon can cross boundaries of genre and even of medium.  But while Beckett may or may not have seen Grand Illusion in the time between its first release in 1937 and its seizure by the Nazis as “Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1” in 1940, I don’t think that he can be said to have suffered any anxiety of influence in relation to Renoir such that he would have felt compelled to engage the director’s work in one of Bloom’s revisionary wrestling matches.  Beckett’s contest was with Joyce, and it wasn’t until the precursor had died that he could even begin to undertake his revisionary purgation, eschewing the encyclopedic for a sort of via negativa, the way of ignorance, of not-knowing and of failure.  The appearance of Godot in Renoir’s Grand Illusion is one measure of the paradoxical “success” of that venture.   

November 21, 2008

Return to the Chateau

. . . and probably even if he did manage to locate the house which had served as the prototype for the notorious chateau of Histoire d’O it would turn out to be some monstrosity that the French heritage industry had subcontracted to Disneyworld France and it was now The Story of O World, after paying for tickets you stood in a long queue to be herded onto miniature shuttle-buses which looped on tracks through a series of animatronic tableaux reenacting the travails of O, which if he remembered correctly had more to do with clothing and fabrics than sex, the novel was really just a high-end adult clothing catalog for haberdashers and outfit-fetishists, excruciatingly tiresome and moreover excruciatingly Catholic, O like a nun with her wrists chained to her collar at night to keep her in an attitude of prayer and the chateau run according to the most restrictive rules that even the men of the secret society had to obey, to his mind it didn’t sound like much fun for the men any more than the women, so many rules and timetables like some sort of monastic order, it was a religious tract enjoining service and submission, sex the last refuge of the sacred in a secular age blah blah blah, the Catholic Church in France had given the Disney corporation its blessing and even sent out a priest to the Story of O World to bless it with holy water and censers of incense at the grand opening, with plenty of politicians from the conservative and Gaullist and so-called socialist parties and the National Front on hand to have their pictures taken and speak of the French tradition of art and commerce.  He was just about to quit and return to the hotel-zone when he saw a man ahead, from around the corner an actual person of the public walking in his direction on the same public sidewalk about thirty paces ahead, he was surprised to see an actual live person, there were so few other persons on the streets of this so-called village of Roissy that this one had to be an official of the Charles de Gaulle airport or a representative of Air France out on official business, unless he was just another addled tourist who had been overbooked and bumped, although as the stranger approached he gave off distinctly the air of a French person, somehow it was clear right away that the stranger approaching him was French, perhaps because his attire looked stylish in that subdued way of the French who as a people love stylish vestments more than sex, including Italian shoes, to be a properly dressed French person requires Italian shoes, but more especially because of his prominent nose, a truly impressive Gallic honker worn no doubt in honor and emulation of the victorious commander of the Free French forces and later President of the Fourth or is it the Fifth French Republic the late General Charles de Gaulle.  And he worried that he would be in trouble with this distinctly French person wearing Italian shoes and a nose in honor of Charles de Gaulle because his own appearance inspired suspicion and maybe he had strayed into some kind of forbidden zone, unwittingly he had strayed into a zone that was off limits at certain times of the day, or off limits at least to suspicious-looking characters such as he had always suspected himself to be.  He and the approaching French stranger shared the trait of wearing large noses but the French stranger wore the large nose of a Gallic person and whereas he wore the large nose of a Semitic person, or so the mirrors had always communicated to him, mirrors and other reflective surfaces which he gazed into anxiously had communicated to him this idea that he wore a nose of the Semitic type, even the convexities of spoons and the surface of his watch in the right light could communicate to him this idea that he wore a Semitic-type nose, to say nothing of his wife’s sunglasses, he wore the nose of a Jew or an Arab in spite of the fact that to his knowledge he was neither Arab nor Jew, the old problem of appearance versus essence.  To his mind neither Jews nor Arabs were especially popular in France right then but he thought that on the whole the Arabs were less popular than the Jews, which was unfortunate because he believed that on balance he looked more like an Arab than a Jew, in the context of his complexion and hair and five o’clock shadow and the je ne sais quoi of his overall demeanor his Semitic-type nose came off more like an Arab’s than a Jew‘s, at least to people in the United States and Europe, in the United States and Europe everyone took him automatically for an Arab, in fact everyone everywhere took him for an Arab except for the Arabs who took him for a Jew.  He did not wish to be classed as an Arab by this French person, possibly an official of some kind although in no uniform save that of the well-attired French person, in principle his sympathies were all with the Arabs but at that particular moment he did not wish to be classed among things such as rabbits, frogs, snails, and Arabs, things which the French people and Western Europeans in general fear are going to overrun their tarmacs in hordes and thus need at regular intervals to be exterminated en masse, he and the French stranger were heading right towards each other but it would have looked even more suspicious for him as a suspicious possibly Arab-looking person to cross to the other side of the street even definitively suspicious an open and shut case of suspiciousness, he wished his wife were at his side she had blond hair and an open face, he needed to get the Frenchman’s mind off his appearance right away, now that they had drawn near to each other he would speak first in such a way as to demonstrate the harmlessness of his presence in the zone—   Excusez-moi, monsieur, et bonjour, eh . . . je suis ein tourist, eh, er . . . un tourist Canadien, oui, et je suis tres interessant dans le literature, n’est-ce-pas?  Et je . . . je . . . et, to, to look for, I’m looking for . . . um, parlez-vous anglais?  As he spoke the French stranger lifted his nose, throughout this demonstration of his harmlessness the French stranger slowly but steadily lifted his nose, pausing only at the interrogative to roll its Gallic impressiveness from side to side like the dorsal fin of a sea mammal and expel from the opening beneath it a brief non.  Oh, that’s alright, I mean, c’est ca, oui, mais . . . je, je voudrais aller a la musée, oui, je voudrais aller a la musée de la chateau de le roman Histoire d’O, oui,?  Eh, eh, le roman de Pauline Reage, n’est-ce-pas?  To make his meaning perfectly clear he supplemented his speech with gestures, indicating first himself, then making walking fingers in the air, then pointing to the nearest house, then making a waving motion as if to erase the house and bringing his hands together and apart as if opening a book, and finally lifting and lowering his fist in the air to suggest flogging.  Yet the French person only continued to lift his great Gallic nose skyward by worrisome increments as if sampling the air in order to determine if there might be an Arab on the tarmac, or else he was farsighted and had to rear back his head in order to bring the importuning questioner’s nose into focus in order to determine if it was a nose belonging to an Arab.  And so the questioner found himself steadily lowering his chin, dipping his chin downwards in increments in the hope of foreshortening his nose in the French person’s perspective, the French person lifted his nose while the questioner dipped his chin until at last it was difficult for him to question let alone breathe, with his chin tucked into his breastbone his last question came out in a wheeze while the French person’s nose had positively taken off and now soared like the Concorde over the Pays de France.  At last in exasperation S’il vous plais, monsieur, le chateau! he cried, raising his chin again but making up for this insolence by cringing deeply and flailing his arms in several directions, Le chateau, s’il vous plais!  Ou est le chateau, n’est ce pas, le chateau?  Ou est le chateau? at which point the Concorde returned to earth and the light of a successful communication circuit came on in the French person’s control panel.  Ah, le chateau! cried the French person.  Oui, le chateau! the questioner cried.  Suddenly they were friends.  The French person turned and pointed.  Le chateau est la!  All the questioner had to do, it turned out, was to continue in the direction he had been traveling and he would without question find himself at the chateau.  He and the French person parted in high spirits and each bore their noses buoyantly in opposite directions.  Buoyantly he bore his after all perhaps not so Semitic-looking nose in the direction he had originally been traveling through the village of Roissy, for the moment no longer the “so-called” village, it might not be so bad a village as all that with such a literary point of interest as the prototype of the notorious chateau of Pauline Réage’s notorious novel Histoire d’O, a serious literary investigation into erotic clothing as the last refuge of the sacred in a secular age . . . 

(an excerpt from “Return to the Chateau,” a chapter of the novel ENEMY COMBATANT)