25 Things about Boyhood

I watched Boyhood again during a very long plane ride, returning to the U.S. after some time in two very different countries: the United Arab Emirates and Sri Lanka. Sometimes I like to imitate the list style of Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things about Me Too. I love that book, and I enjoy imitating other writers. And long plane rides seem to inspire short bursts of writing.

1. Stories about mean stepfathers make me feel raw.

2. If you want to understand America, this movie is a good place to start (whether you’re American or not).

3. The soundtrack: Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Phoenix, Cat Power,  Gotye–and, yes, Britney. I could do without Coldplay’s “Yellow,” but it felt pretty true to the moment. I guess they probably couldn’t get the rights for Beatles songs.

4. Smart works of art with vernacular voices comfort me; they make feel like I have a place in the world.

5. I’ve never seen a Richard Linklater movie I didn’t like.

6. I still think the movie is about how hard it is to become a decent man in America, one who isn’t goaded into feeling like a failure under the pressure of American masculinity, one who doesn’t take that failure out on other people. This helps me think a little differently about the mean stepfathers in my own past. But as I mentioned in #1, it also just makes me feel raw. I guess feeling raw is important.

7. Like Before Sunrise,  this movie is also about the balancing acts of life: earning a living, chasing bliss, respecting others, pursuing and maintaining integrity, having fun, living with the unknown, figuring out when to forgive (and when not to).

8. Patricia Arquette is very appealing.

9. The movie is about girlhood and womanhood as much as boyhood. They’re all hard.

10. A lot of characters express casual homophobia. It’s clear we’re meant to see they are casually wrong. I don’t think any movie can do everything, so I’m not complaining, but there’s not much in the movie to counteract the casual homophobia.

11. College should be fun, and it should be fun on students’ terms—not packaged for them by a university. The fun is important to making the learning meaningful and lasting.

12. The editing between the various eras of the characters’ lives is elegant.

13. There seems to be a pattern to the editing: We get a scene that involves hard questions about the future, and then we cut to a reality where the characters have aged and their lives have changed, answering those questions (obliquely).

14. The movie is also about kindness, but kindness is complicated. Without mutual respect, it becomes condescending or controlling. Respectful kindness involves a negotiation.

15. Arquette’s charisma has a lot to do with the fact that she’s a little bit stout and a little bit fragile. Also, her speaking voice. Also, she reminds me of my beloved friend Kenna McRae.

16. I met only one American in Sri Lanka. He was about my mom’s age and lived in Encinitas, California—where I lived as a little kid. He talked like my uncle and was planning to stay in the Weligama for five months.

17. This movie is a melancholy transition after a short sojourn outside the U.S.—during which the country erupted into violence because of the very public injustice of the dismissal of Darren Wilson’s case and some outrageous announcements from powers that be, who seemed intent on provoking the violence.

18. The evolution of hairstyles for all the characters is entirely convincing. Did the same crew work on hair and makeup during every phase of shooting, over the course of twelve years?

19. The “mama for Obama” character is hilarious.

20. One guy in Sri Lanka told me Obama is black but great. I chose to believe the “but” was a language issue that meant something more like, “It’s a big deal that America has a black Preisdent.” I think I was right about that, but I’m not sure. Another guy told me that Obama is complicated because he seems to be a man of good character, but he oversees a military that invades other countries. This guy wonders if one day country as big as the U.S. might decide to invade Sri Lanka for some reason. Perhaps India.

21. American masculinity involves a set of ideas that govern everybody’s lives, starting pretty much from birth. I think Linklater’s saying we’d be better off without the pressures of these ideas, but you can’t simply change them at will. It’s up to people to live daily lives that create alternatives ways of being (and thinking). And feeling.

22. I’ve learned a lot about American masculinity from talking to Ken Nielsen. He’s eloquent on differences between American masculinity and the meanings of manliness various other cultures. I have a feeling Ken will write a book about this, and we can all learn from it.

23. Finally a portrait of a professor (Arquette) who is neither a HEROIC SAVIOR or a SCHEMING SOCIOPATH.The scenes with the gardener she inspires to go to college come close to casting Arquette as the savior professor, but they sill make me cry. (She does become the heroic single mother, even though she marries a bunch of assholes. Heroes aren’t so bad, though, and she’s a complicated one. Single motherhood is really hard in our world, obviously.)

24. I’m pretty sure I spotted a cameo from the guy who played the autistic kid in Waking Life, and I’m also pretty sure Mason’s college roommate was imitating Speed Levitch during the scene where they were tripping in the desert.

25. “It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

Margot’s Brain Shelf

by Kevin Ferguson

I’m currently writing about how the cinema affects memory, looking at how writers have invoked specific spaces—such as the attic, boarding school, or riverfront—to function as sites of memory in cinematic ways.

Virginia Woolf got me started. Born before motion pictures were invented, Woolf in her one piece of film criticism (“The Cinema,” 1926) expresses a skepticism towards the new art of cinema that is at odds with her later autobiographical writings about the possibilities for film technology to serve as a memory prop. For instance, in 1939’s “A Sketch of the Past,” she fantasizes that in the future “some device will be invented by which we can tap” the existence of the past. “I see it,” she imagines, “the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. [. . .] I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past.”

The device Woolf imagined is common today, and even in 1939 her “long ribbon of scenes” evoked film, even if she wasn’t aware of it. Woolf’s imagining of a “ribbon of scenes” as a utopian technology of memory overlaps with the materiality of the filmstrip. Woolf intuits there and elsewhere that memories need a “base” to rest upon, and this base can be both a concrete memento as well as a general location, such as her childhood home. For Woolf, the “ribbon of scenes” is a powerful, second space where memories can be located.

Talking about this idea and how it might relate to the “extended mind thesis” Sebastian Groes wrote about for californica, Jason pointed me to Temple Grandin, who begins her memoir, “I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head.” Grandin used a metaphor of video technology to explain how her autistic mind works differently from language-based speakers. But she actually shows again how easy it is today to perceive mind and memory as movie-like. In this account, the development of cinema technology changes the mediation of memoir’s central conflict between self and world as memoirists and their readers begin to internalize cinematic conventions.

So, I’ve been thinking about these things throughout my days, and reading up on them at night, and talking about them with work friends. But I was surprised to hear my four-year-old daughter answer a question by telling me, “well, I just looked at my brain shelf.” I had asked her how she knew a particular fact (something about the weather). It was actually a disingenuous question on my part; I was really fishing for information about how her day at pre-k went. Children are reticent (or maybe just unconditioned) to give the kind of summary-of-the-day adults have over dinner, so I was playing junior lawyer and trying to get her to connect some trivia with some event from the day. I had assumed she would answer something like, “Mr. Tse taught us about clouds” or “Ms. Francis had us do an experiment with water,” but instead there was this wonderful conception of the “brain shelf” as a source of information that otherwise could not be accounted for. Was she describing something like “intuition,” or was she becoming aware of rational thinking as something that requires mental effort? (I bet a child psychologist could answer this for me.) And then: what was her mind like before she had her brain shelf?

Margot's Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.

Margot’s Brain Shelf, by Margot. Ink on paper, 2014.


Margot:  My brain shelf tells me lots of information.

Kevin:  Like what?

Margot:  Like, um, like books tell me information that I want to know.

Kevin:  What kind of information does your brain shelf have?

Margot:  Like if you ask me what the weather is my brain shelf knows.

Kevin:  What’s your brain shelf look like?

Margot:  It looks like a rectangle.

Kevin:  Is it big?

Margot:  Yeah…a big rectangle.

Kevin:  When did you first learn about your brain shelf?

Margot:  I don’t know, but I forget. I learned it on a crazy, wacky day. *Margot talks in a goofy, deep voice, imitating her Brain Shelf*

Kevin:  Where is your brain shelf?

Margot:  In my brain.

Kevin:  Where’s that?

Margot:  Where in my brain?…In the middle of my brain.

Kevin:  Does everyone have a brain shelf, or just you?

Margot:  Everybody.

Kevin:  How do you know everyone has one?

Margot:  Because my brain shelf told me. My brain shelf can talk.

Kevin:  When is your brain shelf most talkative?

Margot:  At nighttime.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Because it sleeps in the morning and not in the day.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  It’s nocturnal.

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s nocturnal?

Margot:  Yeah.

Kevin:  Does it keep you up at night?

Margot:  No

Kevin:  Why not?

Margot:  Because it whispers.

Kevin:  Tell me something bad about your brain shelf.

Margot:  It never does bad stuff.

Kevin:  Only good? How come?

Margot:  It never hits me.

Kevin:  So how does it work?

Margot:  There’s a red button that you have to push, like three times.

Kevin:  No, seriously, you just made that up. Tell me how it works.

Margot:  No, I tell my brain, and my brain pushes the button. It’s sleeping in the morning so I whisper to it and I wake it up. It can also tell me math questions. In *goofy voice*: “What’s two plus two?”

Kevin:  Is your brain shelf cranky in the morning or happy?

Margot:  Happy. Because his mom always makes him dinner. And he loves it. It’s always his favorite dinner, but it’s always the saw thing.

Kevin:  What does he have to eat?

Margot:  All of his favorite stuff. Like Brussell sprouts, macaroni and cheese, and he also has chickpeas. [Margot refuses to eat the first two things]

Kevin:  Your brain shelf’s a boy?

Margot:  A girl.

Kevin:  How come?

Margot:  Cause it talks like a woman. It’s a woman.

Kevin:  Do you think your brain shelf is going to be any different next year?

Margot:  Yeah. Because it’s stretchy, and whenever I grow it stretches and goes. Actually, it likes to do Legos.

Kevin:  Could you name your brain shelf?

Margot:  Yeah. Dick. Sally. The Cat in the Hat. Lucia [school friend]. Lucy [cousin]. Margot. John Robert [cousin]. Baby Jack, I mean Big Jack [cousin]. Nana and Pa [grandparents]. Mimi and PopPop [grandparents]. Computer. Getting Videos Taken Away from You. [We go on a digression here because she had “videos taken away” as a punishment, but then realized she has more fun without them: “Daddy, It’s fun when I lose my videos. It’s fun when I have my videos, but it’s even funner when I get my videos canceled because I do other stuff and sometime I get to make Legos.”]

Kevin:  Anything else you want to tell me about your brain shelf.

Margot:  No. That’s it.

Kevin:  Thanks.

Margot:  You’re welcome.

* * *

Dear Kevin and Margot,

I wish I could have been there for your brain shelf conversation. I have so many questions:


This nineteenth-century engraving from an edition of Goethe’s Faust, the homunculus captures a perennial confusion about where the mind is. Is it inside the person who thinks and feels? Or outside? Or nowhere at all, as the fantastical element of the engraving might suggest?Illustration from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ depicting Mephistopheles creating a homunculus, 1854 (engraving). Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France / Archives Charmet / The Bridgeman Art Library. 

Has Margot been reading extended mind theories that suggest that some of the tools we use to think become so integral to our thinking process that they should be thought of as aspects of our minds? What does Margot think of Paracelsus’s sixteenth-century alchemy writing, in which he proposes the idea of a homunculus–a little human in the brain who controls our consciousness?

Margot seems a little impish about her brain shelf, like she knows she’s confabulating. She takes an image of a bookshelf and transports it from the external world into her brain. It seems possible to me that a four-year-old might not yet have absorbed the interiority metaphor.

For most adults in the western world, it’s almost impossible not to think of our mental states and the narrators of our consciousness as “inner” phenomena. We talk about our inner selves and interior monologues–and when we locate them this way, we mask the mystery of their origins. Many religious traditions solve this problem by locating them in a soul–usually conceived as a substance that transcends the human body but resides within it. So it’s both inside and outside. But if you don’t believe in a soul, where do you find consciousness? Woolf seems to do something similar by ascribing memory to a “ribbon of scences,” like film reel.

You should also know that while Margot is four, she’s got the personal style (and poise) of a Godard heroine. Godard, I would argue, locates consciousness outside his stylish characters’ bodies, whose nonsensical behavior seems motivated by their cars, glances, dance moves, and well-tailored clothing.







The Prosthetic God: Psychosomatic Extension in the Digital Age

Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that your mind and body are intricately intertwined with your partner. The other person is, then, not so ‘other’: they are symbiotic extensions of ourselves, sometimes to the degree that our partners seem to know us more that we do ourselves. Love, emotional security and sex are the psychophysiological interconnections that successful partnerships are based on.

Death and divorce are experienced as amputation; the mind and body of one’s partner act as phantom limbs, which, as James Krasner explores in his excellent essay ‘Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs’ (2004), we still feel even though they are gone. In Ian McEwan’s recent novel The Children Act (2014), the High Court Judge Fiona Maye kicks out her husband after he politely asks if he can have an affair. Their separation has an unsettling effect: ‘This morning, waking with a cold part of a bed to her left – a form of amputation – she felt the first conventional ache of abandonment.’ During a recent discussion at a literary festival organised by The Memory Network, The Story of Memory, however, McEwan expressed his scepticism over the possibility ofdigital technology as  extending our minds. This seems curious as technology increasingly takes over our thought and memory.

google glass

Someone wearing Google Glass.

This article investigates the nature of the increased prostheticization of humans in the digital age, and shows that despite sceptics such as McEwan we are moving to an increased integration of our mind with the world beyond the subjective self. I am deeply interested in what is known the ‘extended mind theory’ (EMT), which is championed by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who first wrote their ideas up in an essay in 1998 . They argue that consciousness if not simply a product of the brain, but that objects and tools outside the human body are used by the mind to augment cognitive processes. A notebook in which we write down an address of a friend, or our mobile phone that remembers telephone number, becomes an external tool on which our thinking relies. We live through an age in which we are increasing offloading cognition onto external tools, from Google to GPS, and are used digital prosthetics more and more. Thinking thus takes place not strictly within the brain, and becomes distributed across various external technologies and media. One may think, for instance, of Google Glass, a device which augments cognition. I call twenty-first century people ‘prosthetic Gods’.

Literary history is littered with examples of psychosomatic extension. In Meditations XVII (1624), John Donne notes the connection between people and their environment: ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself/ Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind.’ John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1666) sees God create Eve from Adam’s rib ‘with cordial spirits warme, And Life-blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound, But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d.’ The historical success of religion is based on the promise of self-expansion: it provides an imaginary framework that allows us to extend our selves into the wider community. It is not surprising then that religious doctrines aim to regulate of body-mind extensions, from being in love and sex to social relationships and immersion in works of art. We’re addicted to these extensions as a way of combatting the human condition: we can negate our loneliness and limitation through immersion in community, scriptures, and marriage, and the community.

Precisely because we humans are not beings of infinite understanding we aspire to be gods, as Sigmund Freud notes in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). We’re not just trying to overcome eternal strife between ourselves and others, but we’re searching for an ‘oceanic’ feeling – an sense of immersion that creates the sensation of wholeness. Hence the gods have become such a powerful imaginative force, as their omnipotence and omniscience embodies this sense of limitlessness and immersiveness. In the modern age, this religious sense of self-extension is gradually replaced by a new kind of logic of prosthetics, whereby material extensions, technologies and media allow us to aspire to a godlike status.

In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud notes:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. […] Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interest of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.

You might think that technology helps us to alleviate the human condition, yet technological prosthetics on the whole received a luke-warm welcome, as Freud already notes. The modernists experienced the early twentieth century as a state of increased isolation, alienation, unhomeliness, and their work is driven by an anxiety about the loss of self and organic connection with community. In T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) the typewriter turns a secretary into hapless cyborgian automaton, a ‘human engine’ who smoothes ‘her hair with automatic hand’. In our time, Google Glass will help us think and enhance communication. Our human mind seems to crave extension: during a Google Glass trial a test subject showed withdrawal symptom, and dream of his prosthesis. After the Second World War, Marshall McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media (1964) warned against the ways in which the human mind is undermined by new technology and media, such as the television: ‘Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.’


Scene from David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J. G Ballard’s Crash (1973)

This predominantly negative reception of modern thinking about technology and the cyborg finds it expression in latemodernist works such as J. G. Ballard Crash (1974) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), in which the integration of technology into the body is accompanied by a loss of control over the human mind, while also opening up to new connective potentialities. The protagonist of Crash, ‘James Ballard’, survives a crash after which he sinks into a druggy mirage of transformations that argues for the car as a prosthesis central to the twentieth century imagination. ‘Ballard’ confuses motor oil and cooling liquid, with semen, vaginal mucus and menstrual blood. Eyes ‘are flicking like windshield wipers’, the car crash itself is conflated with the sex act,  and Ballard realises how human behaviour is recoded along the technological rules of the car: ‘I realized that I was exactly modelling my responses to the car on the way in which Karen had touched Catherine’s body.’

videodrome 1

Scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which recalls Milton’s line ‘wide was the wound, But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d’ from Paradise Lost (1666)

In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) a scumbaggy media entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is lost in a labyrinth of hallucinatory media experiments whereby TV screens come alive to absorb the viewer. Renn inserts video cassettes and guns into his body via a new orifice in his belly, and this merging of bodies with technology should be seen as a surreal literalization of the way in which new technology acts as a prosthetics, and which changes social and sexual behaviour.

videodrome 2

A surreal literalization of the ‘hand gun’ as prosthesis in Videodrome (1983)

Donna Haraway and Hal Foster have continued to explore the increasingly symbiotic relationship between technology and the human body in the late twentieth century. Since the arrival of new digital technologies and media to the masses in the mid-nineties, the prostheticisation of human beings has accelerated. At the moment there seems to be a stand-off between the ‘cautionarists’ and ‘reluctant optimists’. In the former group we find Nick Carr, whose The Shallows (2010) argues that the distraction integral to our online experience prevents us from deep thinking. Other critics who warn against the detrimental impact of the digital include George Steiner, Will Self, Victor Mayer-Schönberger, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and Joshua Foer. In the other camp we find Clive Thompson, whose Smarter Than You Think (2013) argues that technology augments our minds, and that we should celebrate scientific innovations. Cognitive scientists such as Itiel Dror and Stevan Harnad show that our mental capacities are not simply lost because of new cognitive technologies, but that they are changing, and might trigger the next step in our evolutionary development. The tension between these camps is captured nicely in temporal terms by Hal Foster: ‘Sometimes these beginnings are seen as primordial, and cast into a distant field of primitive life; sometime they are viewed as futuristic, and dreamt as a new form of technological being.’

Another way of looking at this extended mind debate is through the current battle between the ‘brainiacs’, who believe that basically we are our brain and those believing in Clark’s ‘the extended mind thesis’. In Supersizing the Mind (2011), Clark argues for people being

part of an extended cognitive machine [whereby] body- and world-involving cycles are best understood […] as quite literally  extending the machinery of mind out into the world—as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason.

This idea has many detractors, including Ian McEwan. In a TLS review, cognitive scientist and philosopher Jerry Fodor argues that EMT is wrong because Clark takes literal what is actually a metaphor, namely, the idea that external memory and cognition devices are literally part of our minds. If one looks at the surreal literalizations of the mind-world relationship in Ballard’s and Cronenberg’s work, one might think McEwan and Fodor are right. Donne and Milton also used metaphors to suggest connectivity. We are imagining that our minds are extended.

I’m not sure if Fodor read the same book as I did. According to him Clark argues that the EMT can only be right if we assume that our mind is our brain. Clark’s argument is exactly the opposite, however: EMT thrashes what he calls the ‘brainbound’ perspective of brainiacs such as Antonio Damasio and Dick Swaab, who believe that all human cognition depends directly on neural activity alone’. This reductive thinking is widely disputed in the humanities, a discipline that believes that thought is generated and conditioned by history, culture, language, the senses, and communication with other minds.

Yet, what Clark calls ‘brainbound’ thinking has taken hold in contemporary literature, from McEwan’s Saturday (2005) to E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain (2014) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013). The brain also reigns supreme in novels that dramatize neuropathologies such as autism in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) and Lottie Moggach Kiss Me First (2013).

There are a number of new fictions that dare to let go of this brainbound solipsism. A strong example is Jennifer Egan’s short story ‘Black Box’ (2012), first published on via The New Yorker’s Twitter stream. ‘Black Box’ is a set of aphoristic messages sent by woman spy in a future Mediterranean setting. The spy receives Data Surges via a Universal Port built into her body, has a camera build into her eye and other senses are connected to the control centre as well. This produces the ability of the mind to behave separately from the body: ‘Keep your body in view at all times; if your mind loses track of your body, it may be hard—even impossible—to reunite the two.’ Some agents leave their bodies altogether. Egan’s short story argues: ‘In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favour of the dazzling collective.’ Egan’s short story becomes an exploration and celebration of the possibilities offered by augmented, transactive cognition and group intelligence in the digital age. Egan argues for EMT, for an active braiding together of mind, other minds and the world, so the other is less other, but seen and felt and believed to be an integral part of ourselves.

Naomi Alderman’s short story ‘Together’ (2013) predicts a future in which our very thought is broadcast via the social media network into which we have become fully integrated: ‘With broadcasts directly to the visual centres of your brain, input devices under your skin, and a soundstream that taps directly into the aural nerve, turning it off and on is as easy as a thought.’ In the story, Alderman also challenges the Cartesian mind-world duality on which modern thinking is based: ‘The relationship between the mind and the body is problematic. The 17th century philosopher Descartes thought that they were separate and distinct entities. The body is a machine, the mind is its driver. Other philosophers have accused him of imagining a homunculus – a tiny man – inside the skull, examining inputs from eyes and ears and other senses, pressing buttons in response to make the body move. This position is philosophically unsound.’ Yet, despite this effacing of the mind-world duality, Alderman, like Egan, notes that we will remain human: lonely, full of miscommunication and in search of love.

Dreaming Together: a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010)

Dreaming Together: a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010)

Other recent works of fiction have playfully negated the mind-world dualism too, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) to a score of tech thrillers such as Daniel Suarez’s Daemon (2006) and FreedomTM (2010), Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005) and James Smythe’s The Testimony (2012). One might also think of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010) in which cognition is also a collective enterprise.

I like this new heroism, an attitude that opens up new ways of thinking about a number of things. The idea of the extended mind starts from the idea that we are all connected with one another through technologies, and this has a profoundly democratic potential. After more than a century of capitalism the image of ourselves is deeply individualistic; the twentieth century was the century of the self. The extended mind thesis can work against this individualism and reclaim some sense of an organic collective spirit in the knowledge that we are all connected, on various levels. It also generates the idea that intelligence is not something that is generated strictly within the brain, but that it is a subtle and complex interactive process that partly lies outside the human body.  It questions ownership of, and control over, knowledge and has a radically democratic potential that re-directs individualism and re-organises society with a renewed focus on empathy, affect and altruism. Rather than be anxious, we could celebrate the increasing immersion, which should make us realize that people, nature and the world are fundamentally woven together. ‘Everything is connected’ goes the cliché, but not just in the sense of our keeping in touch with our friends across the world via email or Facebook. We are connected on profoundly deep physiological and sensory levels, through the informational streams that seep and leak into our minds, and through global phenomena like climate change, which affect us all. The twenty-first century prosthetic hero demands a duty of care for the human mind that transcends the reductive position of the brainiacs, and forges new ways of thinking about the changing nature of being human.

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks: A Glossary


Act of Hiatus (n. phrase): A mental feat performed by atemporals, whereby a fugue state is induced in the subject that prevents the registering of experience for a given period of time; may be used for benevolent or malevolent purposes. (Note: I’d appreciate an Act of Hiatus now and then.)

Anchorites (prop. n., plural): A cabal of Carnivores who survive through a ritualistic collection of black wine, stalking mortal psychosoterics for years in order to feed a supply of supercharged soul matter to drink up at their quarterly gatherings. (See Carnivore.)

Atemporal (n.): A human being who exists outside time–or in a rare relationship with time. Some atemporals do not age, like vampires, by feeding on the souls of psychosoteric mortals. Others perform a cycle of ingression and egression, occupying (colonizing? stealing?) the body of an ordinary mortal until it ages or dies. When this happens, most atemporals take a forty-nine day break post-egression, before finding a new body to steal. These are known as returnees; alternatively, sojourners “just move onto a new body when the old one’s worn out.” Nobody knows why atemporals exist, whether they evolved or were made. (Note: Sojournees and returnees are the good guys, but even good guys have to do some bad things in the name of The Script. (See Carnivore; The Script.)

The Blind Cathar (prop. n.): A powerful soul who occupies The Chapel of the Dusk, rather than a human body or an incoporeal form. (Note: That’s right. The Blind Cathar is a building with a soul, but also with a pretty hazardous crack in a load-bearing wall, because “faith requires doubt, like matter requires anti-matter. That crack is the Blind Cathar’s doubt.”) (See The Chapel of the Dusk.)

Bone Clock (n. phrase): Human beings (or perhaps any form of veterbrate life subject to decay with time). Use it in a sentence: “Using the brother as bait was clever, but look what you’re reduced to now, Horologist. Trying to hide in this slut-gashed bone clock.” (See Horology.)

Carnivore (n.): An atemporal who does not age due to the period ingestion of black wine, made from the souls of psychosoteric mortals; “carnivores are drug addicts and their drug is artificial longevity.” (Note: Carnivores are ordinary humans before they taste black wine.) (See Atemporal.)

The Chapel of the Dusk (prop. n.): A chapel that sits on the precipice of  The Dusk. (See The Blind Cathar; The Dusk.)

Cord (n.): A tentacle of soul matter that allow one soul entry into another. (Note: The existence of cords is a key to the novel’s central speculation about how life forms feel interconnected despite the fact that consciousness separates us.)

The Counterscript (prop. n.): The way things might turn out if the good guys can outfox the bad so that narrative and time take a different turn. (See The Script.)

The Dusk (prop. n.): “It’s a beautiful, fearsome sight. All the souls, the pale lights, crossing over, blown by the Seaward Wind to the Last Sea.” (See The Last Sea.)

Egress (v.): To evacuate a body, by squirting one’s soul through the chakra-eye of that body. (Note: It seems to me that Mitchell is fucking with a doctrine of the early twenty-first-century–that we know enough to presume dualism is a quaint artifact of a time when people believed in the fantasy of souls. The invocation of chakras may be evidence for this, in the sense that Mitchell is drawing on a Hindu concept appropriate by New Age westerners. In the horological world of his novel, flaky American mystics intuited partial truths that eluded materialist neuroscientists whose methodological myopia prevented them from realizing that there may be forms of matter that operate outside the laws of electricity and chemistry, even though their physicist colleagues down the hall would have told them had they asked. I think it’s doctrine in general that Mitchell is fucking with, rather than the particular beliefs of well-intentioned neuroscientists or new age philosophers. (See The Script.)

 Horology (n.): The study of time. This is a word in our ordinary world. In the novel, horologists are more than philosophers. They put theory into practice–playing with time, manipulating it, stopping it, doing cartwheels through it. 

Ingress (v.): To enter the mind of another, through the chakra-eye.

The Last Sea (prop. n.): The place beyond The Dusk, “which, of course, isn’t really a sea at all,” where souls subject to the laws of time go when the bodies they inhabit die. Nobody in the novel has been there, or seen or felt it: “If consciousness exists beyond the Last Sea and I go there today, I’ll miss New York more than anywhere.”) (See The Dusk. 

Mind-walking (v. / gerund)One mind in possession of another’s body.” (Note: Mitchell hints at the stakes of mind-walking through Ed Brubeck, an ordinary mortal journalist on assignment in Iraq, when he tells readers, “I’d give a year of my life to be inside the prime minster’s head.” If we could mind-walk, we might understand why Tony Blair could have been suasioned by George W. Bush when he wanted help ratcheting up global turmoil.)

Psychosedate (v.): To induce an anesthetic state through the telekinetic manipulation of the electro-chemistry of another’s brain. 

Psychosoteric (n.): An otherwise ordinary human who experience inexact precogntition, which is often difficult to interpret. Psychosoterics are the favorite food group of carnivorous atemporals. (See Atemporal; Carnivore.)

Redact (v.): To erase memory. It’s imprecise. Psychosoterics can erase a particular memory, but not without collateral damage to other memories presumably connected to the target memory. (See Psychosoteric.)

Scansion (v.): To conduct a comprehensive survey of another’s memory. (Note: The implication is the memory is like poetry, perhaps in its capacity to be precise and ambiguous at the same time.)

The Script (prop. n.): An immaterial narrative documenting all time, to which psychoterics and atemporals have limited access. Something like a Bible for atemporals. However, even the most adept atemporals are uncertain about the veracity of the script’s contents, possibly because time is too labile and contingent for any text to be trusted.

Suasion (v.): To alter another’s beliefs or convictions telepathically. (Note: Suasion comes in handy when other people refuse to cooperate with one’s plans.)

Subsay (v.): To speak telepathically. Variations indicate a range of telepathic communication, including subshout, subremind, subwarn, subsend, subcall, and subask.

Subvoice (n.): An agent of telepathic communication; generally used to describe agents whose identities are unknown. (You wouldn’t need to say “I hear a subvoice” if you knew who was invading your mind.)

Transverse (v.): To move through solid matter. To do so, one must  detach one’s soul from one’s body. To be good at it, one must also be “nasty” (in Janet Jackson’s sense of the word, meaning a badass mix of good intentions and a willingness to transgress.)


The Man Who Walked Away: A Conversation with Novelist Maud Casey


Two photographs of Dadas under hypnosis, reproduced in Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness.


In The Man Who Walked Away, your protagonist Albert Dadas is a tender creature. He’s got a filmy quality. In your words: “It was as though he’d always been there, haunting the landscape, if only you were paying attention.” He wanders around Europe in fugue states. Again, in your words, “When Albert walked, he was astonished.” That astonishment seems to be what makes it possible for readers to feel Albert. We get to experience the landscape, other people, medicine, and history through the lens of his astonishment.

So, my question. What’s the back story? How did you end up falling in love with this obscure historical figure and turning him into a novel?


Tender and filmy–that makes me really happy because that’s what I was going for. That’s the way the character always felt to me. I came across the historical figure of Albert Dadas through Ian Hacking’s nonfiction book, Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses. The story itself is riveting–a man walks in a semi-trance state throughout large swaths of Europe, often fifty miles at a pop, coming to countries away from home. I mean, what’s not to like? But the falling in love part, the part that made me want to write a novel, happened when I read the translated documents in the back of the book, which included sessions of hypnosis, and a document called “Albert’s Tale (1872-May 1886)”. Dadas had a way of telling his story–baffled, amazed, as if he was telling someone else’s adventure–that I found profoundly moving. The real guy had a great tenderness to him. He was tentative and full of wonder. He seemed to me to be seeking something in the telling, and that search was a question and the question felt as though it could be the engine for a novel.  I was astonished to learn that I had been apprenticed to a traveling salesman, he says in telling the story of wandering off the first time, at the age of 12.  And again, in describing another wandering, there is that astonishment: The next day I was astonished to find myself on the train and to hear the announcement, “Tours.” That astonishment you describe, that was the key.  The way I–tentatively and full of wonder–started writing my novel was to write down all of the phrases Dadas repeats in the telling of his tale. So, it seems, it appears.  I found myself, I discovered myself, I woke up.  Writing all of these phrases down launched me into the sentence that felt like the heart of the novel because it captured both the terror and the beauty of what was happening to him.  “When Albert walked, he was astonished.”


“Albert’s Longest Journey,” reproduced in Ian Hacking’s Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness.


Okay, I have two questions following from this.

Terror + beauty sounds like a recipe for the sublime. Do you think Albert’s fugue states were something like sustained sublime experiences. That might be pretty hard to live with. The sublime is fleeting by definition, right?

How close is your fictional Albert to the one you find in “Albert’s Tale.” Did you develop a style and a voice that mimics or matches his? Or did you stray from the original document?


I’m going to start with the second question…

My fictional Albert started very much in the language of the transcripts so the voice and the style of the narration–the rhythm, the repetition–began with the historical figure.  But then the fictional Albert started to become his own thing. That separation was really important to me, and was part of the reason I called my character Albert, not Albert Dadas. I wanted to signal the distance, and the difference, to the reader.  Partly out of respect for the real guy and partly because I wanted the story to feature feeling more than fact, if that makes sense.  It wasn’t that the historical context wasn’t important.  It was.  But I wanted the music of the character to be the loudest thing in the book.

My hope is that the music is a big mishmash of dreamy and beautiful and anguished and fearful and so, yes, I think related to the sublime. The walking is both fleeting, and a plunge into the unknown. The thing that moved me so much about the real Albert Dadas was the way he seemed to both yearn for the walking and be wrecked by it. Again, my interpretation, and one that became central in creating the conflict for my character. There’s his desire to be astonished, to be swept up in the ecstatic state of walking, and then there’s the fact that he has no control over it. The urge overcomes him, but then it ends just as suddenly and he’s utterly lost again. He’s at its mercy, and this is what makes him so unhappy.


I feel like crying when I read your description of Albert–just like I did when I read the novel. Albert does stop walking for a while. When he does, we get this: “The problem with oblivion, Albert has learned, is that your life goes on without you, making a fool of you. ‘Have we met before?’ Albert asks, though, really, he would rather not know.” Albert lands in a clinic, full of people–doctors, nurses, administrators, and patients. One of the great things about the clinic, as you portray it, is the pre-diagnostic quality of most of its inhabitants. They’ve all got distinct mental realities and eccentricities, but we don’t get names for their problems. What we get instead is their effects on each other.

I’d love to hear you talk about writing the world of the asylum–and your observations on how a group of people gathered together with their mental illnesses shape each other. What happens to Albert while he’s there? I also want to say that a big part of me wants to move into that place.


The asylum where Albert encounters the Doctor grew out of reading I did about what was called moral treatment, particularly as defined by an English Quaker named William Tuke in the eighteenth century. Tuke founded a place called the York Retreat in opposition to the harsher treatment employed by other asylums at the time. His retreat was a beautiful country home with a high staff to patient ratio and an emphasis on rest and spiritual development. There was a lot of talk of “family.” In the early nineteenth century, Tuke’s grandson, Samuel Tuke, wrote about the retreat and used the term “moral treatment” so it was part of the psychiatric conversation in the nineteenth century as well but, even though the real Albert Dadas’s real doctor treated him very well, this place is largely my invention. Sometimes I think fiction can function as a kind of wish fulfillment, and there may have been some of that as I was writing it. I’d like to move into that clinic too! At the York Retreat–and this is what really grabbed me in relation to a man who compulsively walks–there was a discussion of stillness as an aspiration. That’s what Albert has in the asylum–a rare and comforting stint of stillness.

The other characters in the asylum came into being rather slowly. I wanted them to feel real and not merely talking heads for this or that particular illness. I really appreciate your description of the “pre-diagnostic quality.” That was so important to me. Clearly, diagnosis is a big part of that era and so a big part of the novel, but diagnoses are stories too. I was much more interested in the bottomless depths of character. I think the biggest thing that happens to Albert there, besides stillness, is the sense of being among fellow, er, travelers. Each patient has his or her own slightly skewed way of moving through the world. When there’s a crisis, for example, they each react according to their own fears. While they may not grock each other’s fears, because they operate out of fear themselves they nonetheless have a great deal of empathy for fear, even fear they don’t understand fully, if that makes sense. I didn’t want to romanticize their illnesses but it did ring true that there would be sweetness even in the midst of all of that fear. They are a community They are a family. In a lot of instances, this is the only family they’ve got.


I love that asylum. I want some moral treatment! In the meantime, though, let’s talk about how diagnoses are stories. There’s plenty of mental illness in my family–and among my loved ones generally. I don’t know of a single person who fits neatly into a DSM diagnostic category. That leads me to imagine therapeutic models that can encompass symptoms without the necessity of classifying them so rigidly. It seems to me that few medical professionals would disagree, but medical bureaucracy makes it impossible to proceed without the categories.

Of course, we need categories to understand the world. But insurance and prescription protocols demand that the categories stick–get fixed. It’s not good for anybody.

I’m wondering what you think about this, but I’m also wondering if you had any social or political motives for writing The Man Who Walked Away. The novels feels like it’s about emotions and personal experience–how that feels, what it means. But it’s not hard to extrapolate some political lessons from what you’ve written.


41HcIPLwOwLI’m including several quotes at the very end (from Tanya Luhrman and Ian Hacking) because they capture, more eloquently than I could, what I spent a lot of time thinking about while writing my novel. Also because these articles are really worth reading! In Hacking’s book in which Albert Dadas figures, Mad Travelers, while he avoids quite rightly being didactic (and a lot of the pleasure of reading Hacking is he never quite shows his hand completely), considers the social, political, nationalistic implications of diagnosis.  Which is to say, like everything else in the world, diagnoses don’t emerge in a vacuum. How could anyone ever fit into one of these categories? And yet, what a helpful container. I’d say not only for bureaucracies but, yes, them especially, but also for the person in amorphous, scary pain who wants a container for that pain, which gives shape to it, makes sense of it. The trick is how do we respect the container and the way there is no containing a person at the same time. The ideal is a negative capability diagnostic method! And then there’s the stuff Tanya Luhrman writes about, to do with the different cultural interpretation of certain symptoms by the people experiencing them. So, in certain experiments patients in California often experienced the voices they heard as intrusions or violations, whereas in Chennai or Accra, the patients had less polarized relationships with the voices they heard. The voices weren’t an intrusion so much as a conversation with some aspect of themselves or with someone who had died, a lost mother, for example. As for whether I had social or political motives in writing this novel, I believe all fiction has an ethics behind it, which always to some degree has a social or political motive. That said, I didn’t write a nonfiction book about Dadas (that had already been done, and so brilliantly) so my primary interest lay in capturing a feeling, an emotion, empathy. That secret life of a character that Forster talks about. Increasingly these days, for me, empathy feels like a radical act. I’m not trying to make big claims about my novel as a radical work and certainly not as a radical political work, but I think fiction is an act of empathy and where you direct your empathy, and where you cultivate your readers’ empathy, has meaning and motive. For me, that included raising questions about diagnoses in general, what it is, what it’s good for, what its limitations are and then, sneaky fiction writer that I am, never answering those questions!

“We believe that these social expectations about minds and persons may shape the voice-hearing experience,” wrote the authors [Tanya Luhrman and the team of psychologists who wrote the paper for The British Journal of Psychiatry]. “The difference seems to be that the Chennai and Accra participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as the sign of a violated mind.”

“Who needs the 947 pages of the DSM-5? All that most consumers need is the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria Mobile App. The more interesting question is who needs the DSM anyway? First of all, bureaucracies. Everyone in North America who hopes their health insurance will cover or at least defray the cost of treatment for their mental illness must first receive a diagnosis that fits the scheme and bears a numerical code.”


“The DSM is not a representation of the nature or reality of the varieties of mental illness, and this is a far more radical criticism of it than Insel’s claim that the book lacks ‘validity’. I am saying it is founded on a wrong appreciation of the nature of things.”

–Ian Hacking from The London Review of Books article (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n15/ian-hacking/lost-in-the-forest)


Maud Casey and I will both be speaking at The Story of Memory Conference, hosted by The Memory Network (Roehampton University, London) in early September. The conference is an exciting gathering of artists, critics, psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists. Maud will be participating in a dialogue with literary critic Sebastian Groes. I will be participating in a dialogue with novelist Anna Stothard–as well as a panel on literary responses to twenty-first-century neuroscience. We’d love to see you there.

Del Dios

We kids of Del Dios were terrified of the dam, sure an evil guy lived inside it.

Tectonic plates gnashed at each other beneath a few hundred acres of southern California land, thirty miles inland from what would eventually become the coastal towns of Del Mar, Cardiff, and Encinitas. Escondido and Rancho Bernardo grew on either side of what would become Highway 15, a stretch of asphalt that divided and linked them, winding its way through strip-mall suburbs and scrubby hills until it reached downtown San Diego.

The plates pushed with patient force, like two well-matched wrestlers. Soil particles accumulated with slow deliberation until they formed hills. Sage, oak, and wild mustard sprouted to devour the sun that baked the soil. Fresh water on its way to the ocean filled the crevices between the hills. In 1916, some white men, ignoring protests of the Kumeyaay tribe that’d been living downstream for centuries, decided to fight gravity and built a giant concrete dam to frustrate the forward motion of a river that had been gunning for 40,000 years.The dam was finished in 1918. The result was Lake Hodges, a body of fresh green water shaped like two kidney beans laid end to end, providing drinking water for the county.

People who’ve lived in Del Dios will tell you there’s no place like it–and there’s no describing it. The name suggests a cult. Who calls their home “of God”? Del Dios was full of people who might have joined cults if they’d been more organized or more tolerant of authority. Instead, they gathered in a scrubby valley where hierarchies and ideologies could be ignored. I thought I hated these people as a kid, but I’m grateful to them now. To me, hierarchies and ideologies seem like somebody else’s religion. I know they govern everything, but they seem like phantoms. I’m fine living with that fantasy, and I’m sure it’s because I grew up in Del Dios.

The hippies who settled among the dust and sage and moss and carp think the name Del Dios had something to do with them, but it had been used for years before their arrival. Like anybody else, the hippies liked to think about names, and as with any name, this one choked with barely noticed meaning. Del Dios commemorated a past when the valley had been Mexican territory, blanketing a forgotten era when the Kumeyaay tribe had names of its own, before Spanish was ever heard in Southern California. Now the name marked a stop-gap paradise on earth that ensured the temporary survival of the free lovers putrefying on the banks of the lake.

One of a handful of photos that offer definitive proof that Hodgee is real.

One of a handful of photos that offer definitive proof that Hodgee is real.

The settlers and their progeny swore to the existence of Hodgee, an LSD-fueled cousin of the Loch Ness Monster. The hippies didn’t invent Hodgee. They inherited him. The Scripps Institute of Oceanography even lowered a cage into the lake in 1932 to capture the beast. The county poisoned the lake in an attempt to kill Hodgee in 1956–claiming their intent was to kill carp. Nobody never found him, but hazy photos document Hodgee’s buffalo-like shape and new sightings occur every decade or so.

Hippies had gone out of style by 1975, but enough brains had been altered that a place like Del Dios was necessary to quarantine them. We moved a lot, but we always seemed to end up back in Del Dios. My mom and I lived in six different houses there. We kids knew where the stashes of porn mags were in the brush around the lake. The Del Dios store–mostly a bar, really–sold enough Hostess products to fuel our days. Greasy men whose eyes were red with Vietnam flashbacks loped the streets that circled the lake up to Del Dios Highway. Parents in town weren’t sure they should let their kids visit the homes of Del Dios kids. The residue of evaporating counterculture was made of equal parts wasteland and paradise, both of which are scary.

Chrissie Hynde went back to Ohio, but her city was gone. When I go back to Del Dios, it’s mostly intact. It’s like it can remain because it was always just barely real.


Adapted from the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland, Donadio & Olson)


Writers’ Blog Tour

Welcome to the writers’ blog tour. I hear it’s sweeping the nation. I’m thankful Maud Casey–for being Maud,  for inviting me to join the tour, and for writing  The Man Who Walked Away, a tender and somehow physical novel that I’ve thought about most days since I read it. You can read Maud’s eloquent contribution to the tour here

If you want, you can follow the tour backwards, starting with Maud’s. To make it easier, I’ll link to Kerri Majors’s and Robin Houghton’s posts. On deck for next week (June 19): Scott Cheshire, Kaitlyn Greenridge, and Roger Sedarat.

1) What are you working on?

I’m revising a novel I’ve written, entitled Unbecoming. I challenged myself to write suspense, and I think I’ve pulled that much off. The story is set at an elite liberal arts college and narrated by a cocky, possibly sociopathic student raised by psychologists who taught him to dig out the secrets in other people’s minds (and brains). It turns out there are a lot of secrets at this elite college. It’s been a fun learning experience to write in a voice so far outside my usual repertoire–or who I am as a person. In a way, it’s like I’ve acquired a new way to think. I can step into my narrator’s voice and look at situations from his point of view, though it’s not a good idea to spend too much time there. 

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? 

Unbecoming is a campus novel, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Jane Smiley’s Moo, or Thomas Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. My narrator aspires to be a porn star, and the story takes place on two campuses. The second is a porn compound that calls itself a university, offering an education in sex work. So the story contains a lot of sex. I want to write about sex in a way that captures the totality of the experience–physically, emotionally, psychologically, logistically–the way I’d write about any other  fundamental element of human experience. I want the sex to be sexy and philosophical. The world of the novel is a sort of thought experiment: What would be different is sex wasn’t stigmatized, if we treated like eating or working or making art? The trick is not to let the agenda dominate or get in the way of telling an organic story.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I’m sure I have no access to many of my motives for writing. Most are probably not conscious–some loaded with personal history and some a product of my disposition. But I want to use language and story to give concrete form to what it feels like to be. Humans are willful creatures, and we want control of our lives, but most of life is beyond our control. We are shaped by an inexorable series of accidents. We respond with some will and a lot of impulse. When I write in any genre–essays, literary criticism, autobiography, or fiction– I hope to contribute to a collective conversation about the predicaments being human entails and the life strands that make us who we are.

4) How does your writing process work?

When I’m writing, I designate a certain number of mornings to the project. I wake up and write some stream of consciousness for fifteen or twenty minutes. This usually veers into some thinking about what I want to work on during particular day. I try to work only on parts of the project I feel ready to accomplish. Once these get written, they make other parts possible. I guess it’s like following a trail. I write until my motivation dims.  That’s usually a few hours. If I’m on a deadline or really on a roll, it’s sometimes six or seven hours, but that’s rare.

Next up:

Scott Cheshire earned his MFA from Hunter College. He teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. His work has been published in SliceAGNIGuernica and the Picador anthology The Book of Men. His first novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is forthcoming from Henry Holt. He lives in New York City. 

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s debut novel We Love You Charlie Freeman is forthcoming from Algonquin Press. Her work has appeared in “The Believer”, “Green Mountains Review”, “Guernica/PEN Flash Fiction Series”, “At Length Magazine” and “American Short Fiction” among other places. She has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She lives in Brooklyn.

Roger Sedarat is the author of two poetry collections: Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won Ohio UP’s 2007 Hollis Summers’ Prize, and Ghazal Games (Ohio UP, 2011). His translations of modern and classical Persian poetry have appeared in World Literature Today, Arroyo, and Ezra. He also has a forthcoming selection of verse translations by the modern Persian poet Nader Naderpour (Teneo). He teaches poetry and literary translation in the MFA program at Queens College, City University of New York.


Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone

The cover of this 1965 Airmount Classics edition of Collins’s novel dramatizes the mesmerizing quality of the stolen diamond. The suggestion seems to be that the stone’s religious origins–and, of course, the course–give it the power of a drug: to induce altered states in people who get near it.

Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), the subject of this fourth blog post about the nineteenth-century British novels I’m teaching this semester, is entrancing–for many reasons.

Collins’s novel is the progenitor of much modern detective fiction; it’s a tale about a cursed diamond plundered by British colonialists from a sacred Hindu shrine in India; this diamond is based on an actual diamond plundered from actual India by actual colonialists and then enshrined in Queen Victoria’s collection of crown jewels, where it remains to this day. In addition to all this, Collins’s novel documents the everyday use of opiates, tobacco, coffee and various stimulants among Victorians. The states induced by these drugs are Collins’s real interest. An altered state is a route to new knowledge, and what is a detective novel if not an exploration of routes to knowledge?

In The Moonstone, a laudanum-induced hypnosis turns its honest protagonist Franklin Blake into a jewel thief, after a bout of sleeplessness caused by giving up tobacco; Mrs. Verinder, the head of the household in which the crime takes place, keeps a phial of laudanum in her workbox, always close at and, to relieve symptoms of a fatal illness; Ezra Jennings, assistant to the town physician, is addicted to opium as a palliative for his own painful illness; the ancestor who stole the diamond from India was “a notorious opium eater”; sal volatile, or smelling salts, are prescribed when characters are agitated or listless; at one point, after taking a sip of coffee, a character’s “brain brigten[s].” One of the novel’s gothic staples, “the Shivering Sand,” is a quicksand that works like a drug, bedazzling a character into suicide.

For the first of the novel’s eleven narrators, Gabriel Betteredge, the drugs of choice are tobacco and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe–his “friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life.” Betteredge, house steward to the Verinder family, constantly invokes Defoe’s novel as an “infallible remedy” for suffering, for “cold sweat,” for “perturbation of mind and laxity of body”; he consults the novel as an “authority” on the human mind and behavior; he refers to its “comforting effects” and laments their passing when they “wear off”; he prescribes the novel when other characters are in need of guidance or a calming influence; he even uses the novel to predict (or diagnose) the trajectory of the narrative. In a novel in which a dose of laudanum results in the central conflict—the disappearance of the Moonstone—and another dose provides the resolution, the analogy Betteredge sustains between Robinson Crusoe and medicine points to a common denominator in both writing and medicine: they are both routes to unconscious knowledge. 

The caption for this illustration from the 1868 serialization in Harper’s Weekly quotes a scene in the novel in which Ezra Jennings interviews Franklin Blake: “Have you ever been accustomed to the use of opium?” For a full and fascinating account of this first American publication of the novel, see Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge’s essay “The Transatlantic Moonstone.”

The analogy is not limited to Robinson Crusoe. Betteredge indicts Colonel Herncastle, the villainous uncle who bequeaths the cursed diamond to Rachel Verinder, for “smoking opium,” “collecting old books,” and “trying strange things with chemistry”; the absurdly zealous Miss Clack inexorably suggests religious treatises as substitutes for the drops and tonics prescribed by members of “the notoriously infidel profession of Medicine.” Mr. Jennings, the physician’s assistant—who, like Collins himself, is addicted to opium as a palliative for the painful symptoms of terminal disease—dies without finishing his treatise on “the intricate and delicate subject of the brain and the nervous system” but with the satisfaction that his experiment with laudanum on the unconscious of Franklin Blake has restored the protagonist’s good reputation.

In Collins’s estimation, novels are like drugs. They stimulate, sedate, induce altered states, catalyze new ways of thinking, and offer plenty of pleasure–and existential or epistemological hangovers in place of physical ones. Books and drugs are catalysts to inquiry in The Moonstone. But solutions are seldom clearcut. Collins’s eleven narrators undercut and contradict each. While the mystery of the stolen diamond is solved, the social havoc and personal confusion it unleashes are not so easy to undo. In the words of Franklin Blake, one of the novel’s central characters, “When the pursuit of our own interests causes us to become objects of inquiry to ourselves, we are naturally suspicious of what we don’t know.” 

In her book, The Making of a Social Body, critic Mary Poovey tells the story of an experiment with chloroform. In 1847, twenty years before Collins wrote The Moonstone,  Dr. James Young Simpson used himself and some colleagues as experimental subjects in an experiment with chloroform:

The vapor Simpson inhaled that night was chloroform, and its impact literally realized Simpson’s ambition to “turn the world upside down” when it laid the three doctors under the table. As one of his contemporaries tells the story, Simpson awoke to find himself “prostrate on the floor,” Dr. Duncan “beneath a chair . . . snoring in a most determined and alarming manner,” and Dr. Keith’s “feet and legs, making valorous efforts to overturn the supper table, or more probably to annihilate everything that was on it.” 

Chloroform “turns the world upside down” for these physicians. The doctors assume the “prostrate” position of helpless patients or experimental subjects. They become the objects of their own inquiry, all too aware of what they don’t know. I think Collins wants something similar for readers. If his novel is like a drug, it’s one that provokes us to look at the world (and ourselves) askance, to think about what we don’t–or can’t know, about the world and about ourselves. This might sound arduous, but in Collins’s hands, the drug of narrative is pure pleasure.



Ebenezer’s Magic Lanterns

I never thought I’d teach Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I always thought of it as sappy and grim–not an appealing combination. But a literary critic, Joss Marsh, gave me a whole new view of Dickens’s perennially adapted story about greed, memory, haunting, and transformation. Joss Marsh helped me learn to like a book I used to find nearly unbearable. In this third installment in my series of posts on the nineteenth-century novels I’m teaching this semester, I’ll explain how.

In her essay, “Dickensian ‘Dissolving Views’: The Magic Lantern, Visual Story-Telling, and the Victorian Technological Imagination,” Marsh documents the influence of magic lantern shows on Dickens’s writing–including his portrayal of ghosts, the language and images he uses to describe how characters see, and the ideas about transformation that save Scrooge from eternal misery. Lanternists, as they were called, travelled Victorian England with their lamps and projection systems, putting on shows that were the precursors to early film. Their “magic” was making images move, in Marsh’s words, “by all means possible: illusion and speed lines; panoramic ‘sliders’ that pushed across the beam of light; ‘slipping’ glasses; levers; ratchets and ‘eccentrics’; pulleys; sometimes all of them at once.”

As part of its Dickens on Film project, BFI Films created a short documentary on Dickens and the magic lantern–including some really great demonstrations of what magic lantern shows looked like.

Early magic lantern shows often involved phantasmagoria–sensational gothic displays of specters designed to induce terror–and sometimes intended to trick audiences into thinking they were witnessing actual ghosts. In her essay, Marsh focuses on a later innovation: the dissolve, “whereby light was slowly stopped down on one lens and one image and brought up on another, with perfect registration, so that the second image slowly–almost magically–replaced the first on the illuminated screen.” The dissolve is familiar to us from movies. But what’s ubiquitous today was a revelation for Victorian audiences. As it turns out, that revelation seems to have been a direct influence on Dickens when he wrote about the famous ghosts who treat Ebenezer Scrooge to visions of his past, present, and future.

Dickens’s stories were often adapted by lanternists for their shows, but the influence went both ways. Dickens adapted the dissolve in his novels–and with his genius for concrete description, the famous realist wrote some passages I’m tempted to describe as proto-surrealism. The first of these involves the appearance of Marley, Scrooge’s long-dead business partner:

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large. It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it night and morning during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London, even including–which is a bold word–the corporation, alderman, and livery. Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of is seven-years’ dead partner that afternoon. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change: not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

Marley’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned upon its ghostly forehead. The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid colour, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

As in a lantern show, the knocker dissolves into Marley’s face, a “dismal light” illuminating it when all else is “impenetrable shadow,” and then dissolves again, back into the knocker. This happens near the beginning of the novella, almost as if Dickens is priming his audience to imagine his ghosts in the form of the familiar imagery of lantern shows.

The second instance of lantern imagery is creepier: Dickens’s description of the first spirit, known to most of us as “the ghost of Christmas past”:

Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn.

The curtains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand. Not the curtains at his feet, nor the curtains at his back, but those to which his face was addressed. The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.

It was a strange figure–like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished into a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom upon the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round is wast was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in a singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

The analogies to a magic lantern show are explicit: the drawing of the curtains, the sudden light, the hybrid figure of the child who is also an old man, and especially that “bright clear jet of light” springing from the crown of the spirit’s head.

Dickens does something particularly odd in this passage. His narrator addresses the reader directly–and physically. The visitor, he tells us, is “as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.” As one of my students pointed out, this may be a reference to the physical book the reader would be holding. This is a cool idea–and an excellent insight. I think Dickens does want us to think about the book as an object, but he also wants us to think about the fact that reading his words forces us to conjure a spirit in our imaginations. He wants to haunt us with that spirit by asking us to imagine it embodied, standing at our elbows. He wants to spook us.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m indebted to Joss Marsh for helping me learn to like–even love–A Christmas Carol. Her argument about the influence of lantern shows on Dickens’s prose is absolutely convincing. She concludes that Scrooge’s sudden transformation from greedy misanthrope to compassionate philanthropist works something like the dissolves of the magic lantern shows. It’s not realistic, because it’s not meant to be. That helps me see Dickens in a new way.

But there’s another element to these scenes that’s just as important. Scrooge is asleep when his visitors arrive, and the visions they show him resemble dreams as much as they do magic lantern shows. In a dream, it’s routine to meet figures with multiple identities–Liz Taylor and your mother, for example; or “a strange figure–like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man.” Freud called this condensation–whereby two or more elements from waking life are melded in a dream.

Like magic lantern shows, dreams interrupt the routines of ordinary experience and show us the surrealism of our lives. This is why I’m now convinced that Charles Dickens was sometimes, in some of his writing, an early surrealist.

I have somebody else to thank for changing my mind about Charles Dickens–my friend and colleague Carrie Hintz. Among her many talents, Carrie is an expert in children’s literature and utopian studies. She introduced me to the brilliance of The Muppet Christmas Carol, directed by Brian Henson. (I’m hoping Carrie will make an appearance on californica in the near future, so stay tuned for that.)

In this scene, everybody’s favorite cranks, Statler and Waldorf, add a layer of surrealism to the story by playing “Marley and Marley”–splitting Scrooge’s partner into two spirits for twice the haunting. Notice how Henson uses special effects to recreate something like magic lantern imagery, rendering Marley and Marley as semi-translucent figures “as if viewed through some supernatural medium.”

Jane Eyre, Goth Girl


Charlotte Brontë, painted by George Richmond (1850)

Jane Eyre is a strange creature. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine–often thought of as a kind of every girl–is much weirder than she gets credit for. She’s a taciturn idealist with a gothic imagination who spends much of her waking life “in a kind of artist’s dreamland” drawing shipwrecks, corpses, and icebergs; she prefers rudeness and downright abuse to polite company; she routinely antagonizes those with the power to make her life hell; and she is, apparently, telepathic.

As I thought about this second installment in a series of posts about the nineteenth-century novels I’m teaching this semester, I got to wondering why this downright eccentric creation of Charlotte Brontë’s became an every girl–the focus of so much readerly identification, the subject of so many film adaptations, the kind of cultural fixture easily taken for granted. I don’t have an answer, but the novel provides plenty of delightful evidence of Jane’s peculiarities.

Near the beginning of the novel, locked in the terrifying “Red Room” of her Aunt Reed’s rambling estate, ten-year-old Jane confronts her “strange little figure” in a mirror:

 Returning, I had to cross before the looking-glass; my fascinated glance involuntarily explored the depth it revealed. All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality: and the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit: I thought it like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp, Bessie’s evening stories represented a coming out of lone, ferny dells in moors, and appearing before the eyes of belated travellers. 

If this were 1983, little Jane–“half fairy, half imp,” with her white face and “glittering eyes of fear”–would be a budding goth. Her watercolors could be storyboards for a Stevie Nicks or Siouxsie Sioux video:

The third showed the pinnacle of an iceberg piercing a polar winter sky: a muster of northern lights reared their dim lances, close serried, along the horizon.  Throwing these into distance, rose, in the foreground, a head,—a colossal head, inclined towards the iceberg, and resting against it.  Two thin hands, joined under the forehead, and supporting it, drew up before the lower features a sable veil, a brow quite bloodless, white as bone, and an eye hollow and fixed, blank of meaning but for the glassiness of despair, alone were visible.  Above the temples, amidst wreathed turban folds of black drapery, vague in its character and consistency as cloud, gleamed a ring of white flame, gemmed with sparkles of a more lurid tinge.  This pale crescent was “the likeness of a kingly crown;” what it diademed was “the shape which shape had none.”

Rochester begins to fall in love with Jane through these drawings. In fact, we get her descriptions of them as she frets while he studies them. The message: Jane is not like the others. The drawings become something like a technology for rendering her psyche full of colossal heads with bloodless brows, glassy despair, and lurid gems. In a history of literary heroines, including the likes of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Bennett, Clarissa Dalloway, and Bridget Jones–Jane Eyre is her own species.

After eight years at Lowood school, Jane decides it’s time to get out into the world. But how? With the help of a kind fairy, naturally:

‘What do I want? A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances: I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better. How do people get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose: I have no friends. There are many others who have no friends, who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?’

I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response, and quickly. It worked and worked faster: I felt the pulses throb in my head and temples; but for nearly an hour it worked in chaos, and no result came of its efforts. Feverish with vain labour, I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two, shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.

A kind fairy, in my absence, had surely dropped the required suggestion on my pillow; for as I lay down it came quietly and naturally to my mind:–;Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the —shire Herald.’

This fairy has got to be a metaphor for the unconscious, as some of my students suggested. After all, Brontë describes Jane’s mental struggle as a profoundly physical experience. She “orders” her brain to solve her problem; her head and temples “throb”; she’s “feverish.” So why the fairy reference? I think Brontë is letting us know that Jane is in on the goth joke. She knows she’s strange, and she wants to invite us to share in her strangeness a little, by indulging her preference for imagining her life guided by kind fairies rather than her own ingenuity.

In fact, she’s drawn to Rochester because he’s in on the joke. After their first meeting, he remarks:

“No wonder you have rather then look of another world. I marveled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse. I am not sure yet.”

This is the first moment when another character sees what Jane saw in that mirror back in the Red Room. Not only that: he chides her on the subject of her otherworldliness. This is the kind of flirting Jane Eyre can accept. She’s finally found an intimate, somebody who reflects her weirdness right back at her–and even trumps her with his own. As their mutual admiration intensifies, Rochester tells her,

‘I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.’

That string that threatens to tear through Rochester’s organs and cause internal bleeding is a metaphor for love. Even so, it’s a bizarre–if effective–metaphor. This is not Jane Austen. But I don’t think it’s just a metaphor. Brontë continuously presents us with supernatural events without quite endorsing them as real or dismissing them as fancy. The ghosts in Dickens are real. We are meant to understand that they actually haunt Scrooge. Jane Eyre‘s fairies and imps are more ambiguous. They may be real, or they may be metaphors. It may be that an invisible string knots itself under Rochester’s ribs and stretches into a “corresponding” knot under Jane’s. Or not. Brontë wants us to wonder.

Near the end of the novel, this string blossoms into full-fledged telepathy. Jane and Rochester are separated by miles of misty moors. Rochester’s first wife is dead, his home destroyed in a fire that disfigured his face and destroyed his eyesight. And this happens:

I saw nothing, but I heard a voice somewhere cry—

“Jane!  Jane!  Jane!”—nothing more.

“O God! what is it?” I gasped.

I might have said, “Where is it?” for it did not seem in the room—nor in the house—nor in the garden; it did not come out of the air—nor from under the earth—nor from overhead.  I had heard it—where, or whence, for ever impossible to know!  And it was the voice of a human being—a known, loved, well-remembered voice—that of Edward Fairfax Rochester; and it spoke in pain and woe, wildly, eerily, urgently.

“I am coming!” I cried.  “Wait for me!  Oh, I will come!”  I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark.  I ran out into the garden: it was void.

“Where are you?” I exclaimed.

Jane doesn’t need an answer. She’s telepathic, after all. She goes to Rochester, and when they’re reunited he gives her his account of their telepathic love letter: “As I exclaimed ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ a voice—I cannot tell whence the voice came, but I know whose voice it was—replied, “I am coming; wait for me,” and a moment after went whispering on the wind the words—“Where are you?”

In this case, the novel seems to provide definitive evidence for the supernatural moment. Jane must not have imagined it, if Rochester heard her response. That string between them is almost like a telephone wire, and in fact critic Richard Mencke calls it a “cosmic telegram” and makes a compelling case that the moment represents the influence of telegraph technology, first patented in England ten years before Jane Eyre was published in 1847.

Nonetheless, there’s no dismissing the “cosmic” quality of the telegram, unless we remember that this is a story narrated by a goth who lives more in her “artist’s dreamland” than waking reality. That’s Brontë’s out: Jane Eyre is a story told by the artist who painted those storyboards for Stevie Nicks and Siouxsie Sioux videos. Is her love telepathic? We can’t know for sure, but we do know she’s not like the others. That’s what we like about her.

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