Truth in Literature: A Comparative Perspective

It might seem hopelessly quaint, even naїve, to write about truth in literature in an age when, at least in the realm of theory, postmodernism and poststructuralism have accustomed us to be skeptical of truth. While both related (or at least often linked) theories are still prevalent, this article will argue that they have never been universally accepted and may be in the process of being succeeded by a new paradigm known as post-postmodernism. Moreover, there should be nothing privileged about any theory. Rather, theoretical perspectives in literature should be accepted only insofar as they prove useful in evaluating works of imagination, where there can be little claim to truth in a literal sense. It can, however, be argued that there is an aesthetic truth in literature that is different from literal truth and that postmodernists have overlooked in their general skepticism. As this article will further argue, there is value in assessing this kind of truth for the pragmatic reason that it helps to assess what is useful and important in literature, which will be basically defined here to mean fiction that addresses more serious concerns than simply entertainment.

The motivation to write this article about truth in literature, beyond its pragmatic utility, is the postmodern failure to consider aesthetic truth as a possibility. While the more radical among them would almost certainly reject the notion, this article will argue that it deserves to be considered. The methodology of this article will be to address statements about truth in literature by William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Joseph Conrad, and the philosopher Donald Sherburne, the last of whom coined the term, “aesthetic truth.” The article will then apply their notions to novels and short stories by Philip Roth, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway to show how their concepts help to find what can be considered aesthetic truths in those three disparate writers, including Roth’s American Pastoral, in which the narrator questions the possibility of truth. While the range of authors is necessarily limited, it does extend from modernists like Faulkner, Welty, Conrad, and arguably Kafka to a postmodernist in Roth and from American to European literature. What unites these writers is their use of imagination to illuminate reality. They can hardly be said to represent all of literature, but their approaches are different enough to provide a reasonable sample for purposes of discussion.

A good place to begin a consideration of the kinds of truth that can be found in literature is a well-known passage in one of the novels of William Faulkner. Although Faulkner’s prose was notoriously long-winded and difficult, one of his most famous quotations is comparatively brief and clear. It comes from his novel, The Town, where Faulkner’s lawyer and southern romanticist, Gavin Stevens, says, “Poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth; which is why the truth they speak is so true that even those who hate poets by simple natural instinct are exalted and terrified by it.” Although critic Irving Howe pegged Stevens as Faulkner’s “intellectual alter ego,” we cannot simply assume that the author necessarily agreed with this statement.

That he did is suggested by Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950 (seven years before the publication of The Town). There, Faulkner speaks of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about. . . . the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Later he adds “endurance” to his list and says, “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”

These words seem to confirm that Faulkner did believe in the universal truths hinted at in Stevens’s statement, although in Faulkner from Within, William H. Rueckert advises his readers not to accept the Nobel speech “as a thematic key to [Faulkner’s] fictional creations.” Rueckert also writes, however, that what Faulkner says in the speech describes “in an accurate way the change in Faulkner’s vision . . . in all of his fictional works after 1942.” But since Stevens often says things in Faulkner’s novels that are clearly not as astute as his learning might imply they should be, there is still some doubt that his comment about truth should be taken at face value.

Arguably, though, in putting the words in Stevens’s mouth, Faulkner states his own beliefs. His long story, “The Bear,” supports this argument through the protagonist, Ike McCaslin’s statement, “Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart―honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.” Shortly after Ike says these words, he qualifies them: “what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth.” Earlier in the same section of “The Bear,” Ike reflects on “two threads [of cotton] frail as truth.” So obviously Faulkner recognizes that truth is not something we can know absolutely, but the litany of truths here is similar to the one in the Nobel Prize acceptance speech. As usual in his writing, Faulkner recognizes the complexity and ambiguity of reality.

In February 1959, Faulkner’s editor at Random House, Albert Erskine, was checking the three novels of the trilogy, The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, for discrepancies in the details they related. Faulkner wrote Erskine, agreeing to the fact checking. But he insisted that “the essential truth of these people and their doings, is the thing; the facts are not important.” This is totally in line with Gavin Stevens’s quotation about facts and truth. (Incidentally, it also provides an interesting comparison with the narrator’s statement in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”)

Further evidence for Faulkner’s basic belief in truth comes indirectly from Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House, who quotes Faulkner in his Reminiscences as saying to Erskine when the editor pointed out the discrepancies after delivery of the manuscript for The Mansion: “That doesn’t prove a thing, Albert. As I wrote those books, I got to know the people better. By the time I did the third volume, I knew a lot more about them than I did in the first volume.” To this comment, Cerf appended “as though they were actually real people.” His comment to Erskine suggests that to Faulkner they were real and that through them, he was trying to reveal truths about reality. Irving Howe seems also to believe this when he writes in his critical study of Faulkner: “In some basic sense The Sound and the Fury is about modern humanity in New York―and apparently Paris―to the extent it is about modern humanity in Mississippi.” The novel, Howe added, “seems a terrible criticism not of the South alone but of the entire modern world.”

Another theme of Faulkner that relates to truth and his deep sense of reality is the past. In Requiem for a Nun, he has Gavin Stevens respond to the statement by the deeply flawed Mrs. Gowan Stevens (Gavin’s niece by marriage) about her former, unmarried self, Temple Drake: “Temple Drake is dead.” To this, Gavin says, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” This pithy statement can be interpreted as only specifically related to Gavin’s attempt to get the former Temple Drake to accept important aspects of her life and herself.

But that interpretation seems too limiting within the context of Faulkner’s other writings. His sense of the past, especially as universalized from the Southern experience about the Civil War, runs through much of Faulkner’s fiction. In Go Down Moses, for example, Faulkner has the narrator talk of protagonist Ike McCaslin’s education by Sam Fathers, son of a Choctaw chief: “gradually to the boy those old times [as related by Fathers] would cease to be old times and would become a part of the boy’s present, not only as if they had happened yesterday but as if they were still happening, the men who walked through them actually walking in breath and air and casting an actual shadow on the earth they had not yet quitted.” This is obviously less pithy than Gavin’s statement about the past but says the same basic thing. In a literal sense, what Gavin says to his niece by marriage is false, though true in the figurative sense of the longer quotation. This illustrates a statement by philosopher Donald Sherburne in his book, a Whiteheadian Aesthetic, that a “bluntly, clearly false” statement “can be aesthetically true in the highest degree.” Sherburne is referring specifically to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Gavin’s two sentences are less “bluntly” false (i.e., literally implausible) than Kafka’s having Gregor Samsa wake up as an insect, but in the everyday sense of the term, the past is already over, hence dead.

An even clearer example of Sherburne’s point occurs in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where Quentin Compson remembers a statement of his grandfather, a general in the Civil War: “no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.” The statement occurs in the context of “the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear [in the sense of hearing a clock or watch tick]” and is relevant to Faulkner’s point about the past because, according to Jean Paul Sartre’s interpretation, “Quentin sees the present only in terms of the past.”

Faulkner nails down what he means about the past not being past in a statement made in 1957 while writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. Answering a student’s question about the long sentences he usually wrote, Faulkner said:

There is no such thing really as was because the past is [my italics]. It is a part of every man, every woman, and every moment. All of his and her ancestry, background, is all a part of himself and herself at any moment. And so a man, a character in a story at any moment of action is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him, and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something.

This statement has the advantage of offering one explanation of Faulkner’s long sentences, made fun of by critic Clifton Fadiman in his review of Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! Fadiman calls them “Non-Stop or Life Sentence[s],” and he writes, “To penetrate Mr. Faulkner’s sentences is like hacking your way through a jungle.” Of the novel as a whole, Fadiman opines that it is “the most consistently boring novel by a reputable writer to come my way during the last decade.”

William Rueckert, by contrast, adjudges Absalom, Absalom! to be “Faulkner’s greatest, most complex, and most intricately narrated novel.” Rueckert does agree with Fadiman to the extent that he refers to the style of the novel as “so opaque as to be nearly impenetrable at times.” But Rueckert has a much more intricate and sophisticated (and not at all humorous) view of what he calls Faulkner’s “verbal density” in Absalom, Absalom! (and elsewhere) than does Fadiman. Rueckert writes that Faulkner’s “unbroken series of words . . . [his] handling of time and the jumbled release of narrative details” are “deliberate obstacles to the rapid taking in and comprehension of the fiction . . ., a stylistic trait deliberately employed to a specific end, even if Faulkner did it ‘unconsciously.’ ” This is an acknowledgement of “the complexity of things and the inability of the mind or imagination to reduce any of the truly difficult human questions to simple terms.” We may interpret Rueckert here to mean that Faulkner’s style created the ineffability necessary to express the ambiguity and impenetrability of reality―itself a kind of truth, although one that at least moderate postmodernists might accept.

To return to Sherburne, his difficult and little known study corroborates two other points about Faulkner, made above: even though Sherburne does not mention Faulkner, who in turn is unlikely to have known about Sherburne’s Whiteheadian Aesthetic, published in 1961, only a year before the novelist’s death. Sherburne argues, in line with what was said above about Faulkner and reality, “art is not a realm apart, it is a realm indissolubly linked to the world, to reality.” And with regard to Faulkner’s differentiation (through Gavin Stevens) of facts and truth, Sherburne himself distinguishes between a “literal sense of truth” and “truth in art.” He writes that “falsehoods are of great aesthetic importance—grass in paintings need not be green; people in novels need not act as our neighbors do. A man couldn’t wake up one morning as a cockroach, but Kafka’s story [“The Metamorphosis”] is a work of art.” What is “aesthetically true,” he says, has to be “compatible with . . . dim emotional patterns.” He emphasizes “truths of feeling” in much the way that Faulkner does, as quoted above.

But in an age of postmodern skepticism about truth, can we trust Faulkner’s (as well as Sherburne’s and this article’s) views about truth in literature? Two philosophers, Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen have written a lengthy book entitled Truth, Fiction, and Literature in which they reject literature’s truth claims. Although neither critic cites Sherburne’s earlier book (1961) nor Faulkner, each seems to disagree with the specific notion of aesthetic truth (though not aesthetic value). Certainly Lamarque and Olsen’s skeptical view of truth in literature is complex in that they distinguish between literature and fiction and reject truth in literature while accepting that we can learn from it. Thus, they argue in Truth, Fiction, and Literature: “We have denied that literary value can be located in a truth-telling function. At the same time we have argued that ‘literature’ is an evaluative concept, which bears with it a commitment to some sort of universalist view of value.” They accept that “works of fiction” (distinguished from literature in terms of the “literary aesthetic value” and “humanly interesting content” in literature) “can . . . be about all of us but not about any one of us” and that we can “learn from fiction.”

These quotations from the two philosophers are consistent with their admission that “the problems of the relationship between literature and fiction have no obvious solutions,” but Lamarque and Olsen do insist: “the problem itself is at least clearly defined in relation to the description of particular characters, situations, events, actions, plots, etc. which constitute this level of a literary work.” Further complicating the picture, they argue that for many commentators, “although literary works are not literally true, . . . they are none the less metaphorically true.” Lamarque and Olsen themselves reject this view, stating “the unfamiliar juxtapositions effected by metaphor can, on a modest view, reveal previously unnoticed aspects of the world or, on more radical views, even create new realities. But this does not solve the truth problem.” Ultimately, what the two philosophers seem to conclude is that “literature like philosophy challenges the reader to make his own construction, to invest time and effort in reaching a deeper insight into the great themes, though this insight is ‘literary.’ ” And: “When we reject literary truth we do not reject literary value, even of a cognitive kind, properly understood.” This last point is perhaps best elucidated by one further quotation: “Much of what we know about life, mortality, pride and prejudice we have learned from fiction, not by adopting ‘the attitude of scientific investigation’ but by an imaginative engagement with fictive content which can be judged to be about these conceptions.” In short, although Lamarque and Olsen do not accept the concept of aesthetic truth per se, they do accept the existence of value in literature in a way that is not far removed from what Faulkner, Sherburne, and this article have been arguing.

Lamarque and Olsen are not postmodernists, despite their skepticism about truth, and writers of a postmodern persuasion would be even less likely than they are to accept literature as providing essential truths about reality, however aesthetic. But throughout our allegedly postmodern age, critics and book reviewers have not stopped referring to truths in literature. And postmodernism itself may be passing out of fashion in favor of a category that has been clumsily labeled post-postmodernism, which is not yet clearly defined. When (or if) it is clarified, it, too, will not last forever but will be succeeded by another viewpoint in the same way that postmodernism succeeded modernism.

In the meantime, whether or not we fully accept Sherburne’s argument for aesthetic truths as relating to reality, his and Faulkner’s views about truth as distinguished from mere facts can be useful in discerning what is of value in works of literature. Calling them aesthetic truths does not obviate the certainty that truth is elusive. We can accept that much from postmodernism. But the concept of aesthetic truth does have a pragmatic utility.

This can be illustrated, for example, by an examination of Philip Roth’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral. This is a particularly interesting example because the novel is often considered to be a representative of postmodernism in literature. Yet Faulkner’s conception of truth works as a way to interpret it. Roth’s novel tells the story of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a Jewish athlete and businessman who acquires his nickname from his Nordic appearance. He marries a beauty queen of Irish extraction (Miss New Jersey), has a daughter called Merry (short for Meredith), and moves from a Jewish section of Newark to a non-Jewish suburb of the city. Merry becomes a radical opponent of the war in Vietnam, blows up a post office in protest, and in the process, kills a person outside, who is mailing a letter. This act destroys the lives of her parents, though they, too, oppose the war. Merry goes into hiding and, according to her comments in a later meeting with her father, explodes more bombs in protest, killing more innocent people. By the time of the meeting she has become a radical Jain and refuses to eat much or even wash so as not to injure other living beings of any kind, including bacteria.

Roth’s narrator is his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who reflects on truth in the early part of the novel: “The sight of a coffin going into the ground can effect a great change of heart―all at once you find you are not so disappointed in this person who is dead―but what the sight of a coffin does for the mind in its search for the truth, this I don’t profess to know.” He also says, “That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”―a curious (though unstated) inversion of the basis of Descartes’s epistemology, “I think, therefore I am.” Zuckerman/Roth also states about Seymour, “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach―that it makes no sense.” In one other place, the narrator quotes himself in a conversation, “Writing turns you into somebody who is always wrong.” Then on p. 83 of the novel, Roth has Zuckerman shift from a self-reflective narrator making these skeptical comments about truth to an omniscient author telling Seymour and Merry’s story in the third person with quoted dialogue that Zuckerman could not plausibly have taken precise notes about.

Zuckerman’s comments about truth, whether Roth agreed or not, at least superficially separate this novel from Faulkner’s claims for truth in writing and Sherburne’s related conception of aesthetic truth. Yet in the largest part of Roth’s novel, the part narrated omnisciently by Zuckerman, Faulkner’s “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” which he identifies with universal truths, are movingly evoked in Seymour’s states of mind, as are Merry’s sacrifices for what she believes in: first radical opposition to the war and then an equally radical Jainism, which of course conflicts with her violence in supporting her earlier belief.

Here, some views of Eudora Welty, a great admirer of Faulkner, and also of Joseph Conrad come into play and help to make sense of Roth’s complex novel. In On Writing, Welty holds that “Making reality real is art’s responsibility.” She says this could be achieved through “a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving its impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, unavoidable vision” to be transferred “without distortion . . . onto the pages of a novel.” Here, it seems, Welty means to equate the reality made real by art with life and with truth about it.  She writes, “Human life is fiction’s only theme.” And, a bit later, “it is not to escape his life but more to pin it down that [a writer] writes fiction.” She also states that Faulkner’s novels about his invented Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi are “twice as true as life.” And relatedly, in novelist Joseph Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ he writes that his task is, “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel . . . before all to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.” This obviously is highly similar to Welty’s comment about reality and also to Faulkner’s and Sherburne’s statements about art and feeling, through which it is related to their conceptions about art and truth.

In accordance with Welty’s dictum, the later sections of Roth’s novel (as distinguished from the self-reflective comments of Zuckerman in the earlier sections) make the complexities of reality real, and Roth also makes the reader feel the horrors Seymour experienced, per Conrad’s prescription about the power of “the written word to make you hear, to make you feel.”

Faulkner, Welty, and Conrad are likewise helpful in elucidating Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” The pathos that Kafka does not state but implicitly evokes in the character of Gregor Samsa―as contrasted with the egotism of his family―Samsa’s sacrifice and the pity we feel for him (without any rhetorical suggestion from Kafka) fit into Faulkner’s universal truths. James Wood makes a different point about truth in “The Metamorphosis.” After admitting that truth in fiction is highly problematic, Wood writes that while the story does not portray “likely or typical human activity,” it is nevertheless “harrowingly truthful. This, we say to ourselves, is what it would feel like to be outcast from one’s family, like an insect.” Also “strik[ing] us with [its] truth” is “Gregor Samsa, being pushed [actually, chased] back into his room by his own, horrified father.” And, as seen above, Sherburne sees the story as art without explaining exactly what is artistic about it. But clearly, as quoted above, he sees Kafka’s masterpiece as exhibiting aesthetic truth.

Of course, it is something of a paradox to associate Kafka with truth since, in the words of one of his biographers, “he set out to find the truth and discovered instead its infinite ambiguity.” Kafka himself writes in “Prometheus,” “The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.” The same could be said of all Kafka’s stories, which range in type from parables to fantasies. Perhaps Kafka’s major truth is that life and reality are in essence incomprehensible, absurd, and futile, as he well illustrates in his posthumous novel, The Trial, which he had asked his friend Max Brod to burn. Fortunately for us, Brod did not comply with this wish. Faulkner’s novels suggest he would agree about the ambiguity and the inexplicability of truth, and Kafka certainly makes his particular view of reality absolutely real in Welty’s sense and makes the reader feel its palpability in accordance with Conrad’s dictum.

Further illustrating the utility of Faulkner’s conception of truth in literature as well as the perceptions of Welty and Conrad is Ernest Hemingway’s Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. In it, Hemingway presents the nature of the war and of Spain through the narration and self-reflections of his fictional (if partly autobiographical) character, Robert Jordan, a former Spanish instructor at the University of Montana who journeys to Spain to fight in the war. Jordan as narrator also quotes dialogue with other characters in a guerilla band he partners with. Jordan has become a specialist in demolitions and is sent by a general on the Republican side to work with the guerillas to destroy a strategic bridge in support of an offensive against Franco’s anti-Republican forces. Through the narrative and the different perspectives of the characters, Hemingway succeeds in portraying the atrocities committed by both sides in the war.

The novel provided an artistic and balanced picture of the war through the microcosm of the guerilla band and its members plus a number of other characters whom Jordan reflects about and quotes. Hemingway’s narrator makes the characters in the book come alive, causing the reader to share their emotions, to grieve with them over their dead, and to empathize with all of the suffering the war brings. This is so despite the “lack of political sophistication” with respect to events in Spain that Kenneth Lynn attributes to Hemingway in his acclaimed biography of the author. Nevertheless, the novel exhibits Faulkner’s point in his Nobel acceptance speech about love, compassion, and sacrifice as constituting universal truths. Clearly, Hemingway’s account in no way presents literal truths, but it does, I think, capture the feel of the war, an example of Welty’s “making reality real” as well as Conrad’s description of his task as a writer.

Even more, perhaps, than most novels, For Whom the Bell Tolls has been evaluated in widely disparate ways by critics. J. Donald Adams calls the novel ““the fullest, the deepest, the truest book that Hemingway has ever written.” Ralph Thompson characterizes the novel in a 1940 review as “a tremendous piece of work,” adding “the bell that began tolling in Madrid four years ago [when the Spanish Civil War began] is audible everywhere today [France having recently fallen to Nazi Germany].” Thompson even claims, “the dialogue, handled as though in translation from the Spanish, is incomparable. . . . A few of the scenes are perfect. . . . Others are intense and terrifying, still others gentle and almost pastoral, if here and there a trifle sweet.” It is, he proclaims, Hemingway’s “finest novel.”

Distinguished critic Edmund Wilson writes in only partial agreement, “Hemingway the artist is with us again; and it is like having an old friend back.” But Wilson holds that the novel’s shape is “sometimes slack and sometimes bulging.” He also criticizes the narration of the love affair between a character named Maria and Jordan. Lynn himself assesses the book in terms of Hemingway’s dark psychology and the novelist’s own biography. The biographer also points out that Communists had attacked the novel for its portrayal of the Communists in Spain. At the same time, Dwight Macdonald, an opponent of Stalinism, criticized the portrayal of anarchists. This appears to indicate the balance of the novel, though Lynn does not say so. However that may be, Lynn believes that “while the novel’s most memorable action scenes had the immediacy and fluidity of a motion picture, they also were suffused with the magic of Hemingway’s language.”

In short, while truth is elusive, whether in works that attempt to portray reality in a more or less literal way through journalism, history, political science, economics, sociology, and anthropology, or in literature, which offers more aesthetic kinds of truths, the views of Faulkner, allied with those of Sherburne, Welty, Conrad and others are worthy of consideration even in a still at least partly postmodern age. While we may not be fully able to accept them in an uncritical way, they are helpful in a pragmatic sense in elucidating themes from literature that have at least a ring of truth and help us to understand our world in a deeper way than we can grasp without their help. This is even the view of Lamarque and Olsen, even though, as we have seen, they did not accept the notion of truth in literature. And this is something that the skepticism of postmodernism, post-structuralism, and other recent paradigms do not help us to do.

The framework of ideas from Faulkner, Sherburne, Welty, and Conrad has wider application than could be illustrated specifically in this article. It clearly could help to illuminate classical as well as contemporary works of literature ranging from, for example, the writings of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of postmodern and magic realist fiction and to Jhumpa Lahiri, who arguably is post-postmodern. This framework perhaps hearkens back to the older paradigm of humanism in a sense, but it does so in a way that recognizes postmodernism’s elusiveness of literal truth. Yet it recognizes values in literature that postmodernism and its allied paradigms would reject. This does not mean that all postmodernists do so. This can be shown by a conversation between Günter Grass and Salmon Rushdie, who often are considered magic realists, a category closely allied with postmodernism.

Their discussion takes place in 1985. In it, Grass says that in the post-World War II period the official position about the Nazis “didn’t tell the truth.” He wanted, he says, to show that all the atrocities the Nazis committed “happened in clear daylight.” So he tried in his novels The Tin Drum (published in 1959 in German) and Dog Years (1963 in German) to tell the story of how Germany went “slowly, with all knowledge, into crime. Political crime.” Rushdie responds, “What you’re saying is . . . that the fiction is telling the truth at a time in which the people who claimed to be telling the truth were making things up. You have politicians or the media or whoever, the people who form opinion, who are, in fact, making the fictions. And it becomes the duty of the writer of fiction to start telling the truth.” Grass does not respond directly to this comment, but he obviously agrees. A bit later in the conversation, he speaks of fairytales and says, “They are telling truth. The flying horse is really flying.” Clearly Grass does not mean this literally but in the sense that Rushdie speaks about stories like the Arabian Nights in which carpets fly, “the belief was that by telling stories in that . . . marvelous way, you could actually tell a kind of truth which you couldn’t tell in other ways.”

This conversation, although it does not use the word “aesthetic,” clearly is talking about the same kind of truth in literature that Faulkner and Sherburne discuss in the quotations above. This convergence of viewpoint provides a kind of postmodern imprimatur upon Faulkner’s and Sherburne’s views, and thereby, upon the arguments made in this article.

Finally, in their quotations about emotions, Faulkner, Sherburne, and Conrad help us to grasp what is beautiful in many novels that evoke Faulkner’s “problems of the human heart” and that make the reader feel, hear, and see, as Conrad says. These are not the only ways in which novels can be beautiful, but they help to understand some of the beauty of novels which such theories as postmodernism and deconstruction totally fail to capture because of their emphases on uncertainty and finding contradictions. Nevertheless, beauty is a difficult concept either to define or to pin down. As Eudora Welty wrote, “beauty is not a blatant or promiscuous or obvious quality; indeed, it is associated with reticence, with stubbornness, of a number of kinds. . . . beauty we may know, when we see it.” She also associates it with truth.

Clearly, however, neither her association here of beauty and truth nor the more famous ones of Plato and Keats are in any way definitive or simple. And her subjective view of beauty as something we know when we see it is valid in the sense that not everyone agrees on what is beautiful any more than critics agree in their interpretations of literature. But not everyone accepts beauty as being subjective in nature. It is perhaps suggestive of the problems of associating truth and beauty that Lamarque and Olsen in Truth, Fiction, and Literature do not even include the words beauty and beautiful in their index, even though both men are aesthetic philosophers. Thus it may be more relevant for us to conclude this article by repeating their quotation about the utility of literature: “Much of what we know about life, mortality, pride and prejudice we have learned from fiction, not by adopting ‘the attitude of scientific investigation’ but by an imaginative engagement with fictive content which can be judged to be about these conceptions.” The ideas of Faulkner, Sherburne, Welty, and Conrad together with Sherburne’s conception of aesthetic truth help us to pinpoint what it is that we can learn from literature in ways that cannot be simply stated in terms of eternal truths or the master narratives so criticized by postmodernism. Such knowledge is too ineffable to be straightforwardly articulated, but it is imbedded in the prose of the greatest of our novels in ways that engaged readers can equate with wisdom if not necessarily with beauty.

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Excerpt from The Loneliness of Angels

January 1958, Port-au-Prince

Bruises, scrapes, smears of pressed dust dusky against the white of her sleeping robe. There isn’t any way to hide. Not any more.

The city is on fire.

Rose is standing in the middle of the flames.

Under cover of night, they find her in the kitchen. They come in their bedclothes and make themselves at home. Stare at her. Consuming. Moments she wishes she could crawl out of the envelope of her skin when the intruders leave behind grains of sand to grate between nerve ends and tissue.

The best she can do is run to the harbour when morning comes.

Run out of the house letting the small stones that cover the front yard fly loose beneath the soles of her shoes. Run down the cracked pavements while the heat rises from the asphalt and makes the world waver and undulate in front of her eyes. Run until there is no firm ground left to hold her, only the drop of the sea below, dark and deep. She could drown there, down below. She wishes she could keep running and just let her body drop, sink feet to head, her dress billowing around her like a cotton bloom emerging from its pod, the seaweed, thornlike, pawing at her body. The only thing that keeps her from throwing herself into the waves is the memory of her grandmother, and her mother, still bereft, in the house, cleaning rice alongside Virginie, their housekeeper.


Running and sinking.

Every time she thinks she’s done it, she wakes in a cold sweat with a feeling of dread clutching at her from her insides, remnants the ghosts have left in their wake.


Rose is afraid of telling anyone what she sees. La cubana, their next door neighbour, is the one who comes to her the most. No one knows if she’s really from Cuba or from somewhere else. She has straight, jet-black hair and a chalky white complexion that recalls the flesh of the coconut. To her face, they call her Coco.

Rose watches the woman from the corners of her eyes as she drifts into the kitchen like the others when night falls. Watches her eat leftover potato pudding with her hands. It’s been days since anyone has seen her in person, except for Rose, sitting at her mother’s kitchen table in the dark, seeing the ghosts walk by her in search of solace.

Rose knows they aren’t really ghosts, or zombies. They sleepwalk in search of rest. Unlike her, they have somewhere to go.


It’s not that she’s never walked in her sleep.

She used to walk the house in the dark, barefoot, inching forward with her splayed toes, trying to remember how the cold ground felt beneath her feet, charting a map of the house around furniture and the corners of walls. Her mother had told her that it would end when she was older and it had, for a time. But since the disappearances started after the elections, or just before – it’s hard to keep track – she sleepwalks restlessly, imitating the ponderous fear that catches everyone in the throat when they leave their houses. Some don’t even make it that far, don’t even make it to the stoop of their houses. One of them had told her, as he ate cold chicken down to the bone, that they’d found him collapsed in a pool of blood pouring out of four bullet holes, still holding a sock in his two hands that he’d been pulling on, sitting on the edge of his bed.

Rose hears the delicate chicken bones grind between his teeth.

Is he dead? Must be dead, she thinks, as she listens to the man standing against the kitchen counter dressed in a soccer uniform. She peers down at his feet and sees he has only one sock on. With the bare foot, he scratches the bulging calf muscle above the curled top of the ribbed sock.

Sometimes Rose isn’t sure what to believe, but the next morning she reads in the paper that they found the bodies of all the members of a soccer team, killed before a big match, none of them in the same place, as if the killing had been random, unplanned. Except that they were all dead. The opposing team won by default. They claimed their victory in silence, wondering who would be next to fall.

Who would be next? No one knew.

They lived daily in an elaborate game of hide and seek. No one knew who was it, who was safe, just that it was necessary to hide away.

They’re not always dead, Rose comes to realize. Often, they’re only dreaming, sleepwalking like her. They’ve left their bodies behind and appear to her like mirages. She’s meant to be their silent witness. It’s all they want. Someone that sees: to be seen.

Rose has no choice in the matter: she sees.


Some of the neighbours saw them take Coco away, the men dressed in lightning blue, saw how they dragged her out of her house in a sheer pink nightgown, the areolas of her breasts like dark eyes beneath the fabric, dragged her out by the hair so that the pebbles of her driveway were marked by scarlet drops. It takes weeks before she returns.

She doesn’t have her slippers, is all that her husband can babble. Rose listens to him speak to her mother across the fence. Her mother nods and walks away. What can they do? What can be done? As she watches the two separate, Rose is full of dread. She knows Coco will be next. And she is, standing in the kitchen, eating her way through the leftovers Rose will be blamed for taking in the morning, standing there with the others as they tell their stories, words slipping over each other until she can’t make out what they’re trying to say. They don’t seem to realize that all of this is slowly driving her to the edge. Rose tells this only to the water as she runs to the port and looks down, wanting to plunge.

Once, Rose looks out of a window into the yard and sees Coco’s husband sitting on a chair in the middle of the driveway. It’s as if he’s waiting. It’s dark but she can see his eyes are filled with tears, red. He wears the pink slippers, frayed and worn, on his feet, rubs his hands together as if he is a genie who could bring her back with a thought. Rose looks away, ashamed of witnessing something she hasn’t been asked to take in: his vulnerability, his nakedness. Feels the grains like sandpaper grating against her nerves. She’d scream if she could. If the night air wasn’t already choked with screams. It’s her burden. The others dwelling in the house are just bystanders who’ve heard the car crash but won’t inspect the carcass, people too afraid to bear witness in case they recognize a face lying inert against the asphalt, skin pocked with grit from the ground.


Lying in her bed, Rose’s body throbs with pain. She doesn’t know how to make it stop. She places pillows below the places that hurt. She swallows four or five aspirins at a time. She cries softly into the bed sheets that smell of coarse detergent. And once, after seeing Coco in the kitchen, face twisted and wistful, she feels a searing pain in her genitals, as if she’s been knifed, flamed there. She presses her hands between her legs but it doesn’t go away until she begins to recite Hail Marys. Hail. Hell. Mary. Mary. She moans. She twists in the sheets and moans. Hell.

She wishes she were dead. Just like the person whose pain she is feeling, with no explanation other than the fact that this is how she is, has always been.


One morning, Coco’s husband walks out of his house wearing her slippers on his bare feet as he crosses the sharp stones of their driveway.

He shuts the gates even though they are broken and can’t be locked. He places a large metal chain around the two sides of the gates and locks them with a large cadenas.

He won’t let anyone in, not even Rose.

Ravishing Scheme

no singing pours out onto the sidewalk stood our dream,
no cowardly wind crests, no waiting for a nod to leave,
no bright sun beckons and no hollow moon howls and we are
not moving on but engulfed by out loneliness as the bus stops

when every past address and passage is a full new concept,
when pleasures swirl in our buzzing and the past goes void,
when we may heave aside all our boldly scribbled letters and
the stakes are never be as high as us, and loom no longer or stare us down,
and we don’t need to run or chase or pant or run each other out of the room

I know we beat each other up over that fight we had and we have to
know that all the places we made love are not places anymore
know they are places that have become owned by others
and get to be in our dreams now
and in our dreams is some remaking,
more beautiful than knowing
it is not where you are

and shown off in the cool fizz below the rim of your drink
revealed over the waking and rousing and routine of our short time
as unwitting as folly in theater: we stared at mad overspent days and
revealed by the action of our sliding, on the gray ice of a cold morning

as was said, as if any relocation could really seal the deal,
as if those spheres we rode and left taught us something about
departing but not thinking of ourselves as apart
just like on that late summer night before,
when we kept quiet in the warm rain
like calm shadows as we were caught
and slid longingly into night

we hang no longer and no closer than ever, which means
we are no closer to love, which is the only way to escape
the ugly luster of our reconcile, we hang separately, uncontained
limited to only what appears in memory’s grainy image

on a street in a city I do not know
your toes curl over the edge of some concrete curb, waiting to pass the traffic,
and we are alone and my hands are empty and elsewhere
than where your rutted street is transfixed and your heart throbs,
and we have learned how the odds stack up and occupy
this, our world that grows

there was the second when I held you, before we split
and took our brief and gentle steps and parted into dusk,
and that second will live on forever,
no matter who goes back to which clouds
and what lives continue in unsung dust and unexpected lift,
there will always be that second, of embrace and division,
never has and never will be part of any dream

and our affection remains stamped on the city
where our kissing on the edge of the bay was sudden, and
where we avoided the rush of sleep and drove winding pavement
and you knew where we were headed and we did not vanish,
where we could not have vanished even if to vanish was what we wanted
and also separately now a real heat and
wind unfurls to us a more exacting place
than together we had been

“The Ruse of Analogy”: Blackness in Asian American and Disability Studies

Min Hyoung Song recently highlighted a disavowed yet structurally inevitable entanglement between blackness and Asian Americans in U.S. civil society when he noted that Asian Americans are becoming “less of a model whose successes specifically berate blacks and other racial minorities for their lack of resolve and more a kind of, for lack of a better term, super-minority whose successes berate everyone [including the disabled] who fails somehow to succeed” (18). Song’s provocative take on the evolving status of the “model minority” maps what I see as a potentially productive dialogue between Disability studies and the contemporary critique of the concept of an Asian-American model minority. Also, as Song makes explicit, we should also include in this dialogue the construction of blackness in any discussion of the “model minority” because the term insinuates that there is an antithesis of the “model” and it is safe to say within the Americas that people of African descent have historically and are now under the greatest scrutiny in that category. In this way, Asian Americans’ emergent status as “super-minority” also correlates with what Michelle Alexander has recently diagnosed as the “‘color blind’ public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded as felons for life” (234-5). Broadly put, the aim of the present essay is to foreground how subfields such Asian American and Disability studies can participate, however unwittingly, in deflecting attention from what Alexander calls the “structural arrangements” that contour blackness within U.S. civil society. In doing so, I hope to intervene in the ongoing depoliticization of ethnic/minoritarian studies within higher learning.

The Zero Degree of Sociality of Blackness

To clarify this structural displacement I also draw upon Frank B. Wilderson’s recent intervention entitled Red, White & Black (2011). Wilderson’s provocative study maintains that in order for a politics or ethics to become legible within U.S. civil society, it must be based upon an assumptive logic which calibrates all citizens-subjects as a priori human, which effectively puts under erasure what Wilderson calls one of the “structural antagonisms” that has historically framed black bodies as potentially, or rather, always already non-human. It is, therefore, only by attending to such “structural antagonisms” (as opposed to a conflict which can be dialectically resolved) that anti-blackness (and in a different way, the antagonism toward the Native American) can be brought into sharp relief not as contingent but gratuitous (i.e. structural) to the formation of U.S. civil society. Thus when the concept of the human (or any of its metonymic variation such as personhood) is invoked as the a priori condition that subsumes all persons within civil society, it has the effect of displacing and putting under erasure what Wilderson calls the “blackness’s grammar of suffering”―which is structurally bound to the Middle Passage that effectively transformed the African into the fungible object status of the Slave. Therefore, as Wilderson reminds us:

For the Black, freedom is an ontological, rather than experiential, question. There is no philosophically credible way to attach an experiential, a contingent, rider onto the notion of freedom when one considers the Black―such as freedom from gender or economic oppression, the kind of contingent riders rightfully placed on the non-Black when thinking freedom. Rather, the riders that one could place on Black freedom would be hyperbolic―though no less true―and ultimately untenable: freedom from the world, freedom from Humanity, freedom from everyone (including one’s Black self). (24)

In this, there can be no analogue to “blackness’s grammar of suffering,” which exceeds the descriptive power of representative language, as it gestures toward the unrepresentable, the zero-degree of sociality which the Slave embodies. Drawing upon the interarticulations between Disability and Asian American studies to illuminate this structural displacement is not as arbitrary as it might seem, as both become legible and ultimately unstable in and around “blackness.” This complex entanglement, says Wilderson via Ronald Judy’s (Dis)Forming the American Canon (1994) that

the mere presence of the Black and his or her project, albeit adjusted structurally, threatens the fabric of the ‘stable’ economy by threatening its structure of exchange. ‘Not only are the conjunctive operations of discourse of knowledge and power that so define the way in which academic fields get authenticated implicated in the academic instituting of Afro-American studies, but so is the instability entailed in the nature of the academic work.’ (40)

As previously mentioned, Wilderson’s deployment of the term “antagonism” reflects his understanding that U.S. Civil Society continues to gratuitously position the Black as a being without humanity. According to Wilderson’s extension of Judy’s study, the disavowal of the “structural antagonism” toward the Black is thus a necessary function that is crucial to not only “instituting of Afro-American studies” but the manner in which such fields as Asian American and Disability studies “get authenticated” within academia. This insight is crucial to understanding how the convergence of Disability and Asian American studies on their assumptive logic of the human unwittingly works to displace “blackness’s grammar of suffering” from the political and ethical terrain that contours U.S. civil society.

In other words, the more the Asian American is framed as a “super-minority,” capable of transcending through individual effort all kinds of material, cultural, political barriers, the more the subject of liberal politics gains legitimacy. Crucial to this essay is how this liberal model of political and cultural citizenship is constituted as ideally unmarked by either gender or race, let alone disability. Yet as Linda Martín Alcoff reminds us in her timely intervention, not just any body of any race or gender can embody this privileged model of cultural and political citizenship in the U.S.―a fact that needs reminding in our phantasmatic present that is prone to post-racial imaginings.

Blackness in Disability and Asian American Studies

The prevalence of colorblindness within U.S. civil society is not unrelated to the recent backlash against politics based on identity tout courtcomplaints from liberals and conservatives alike that politics based on social identity is at best philosophically naïve and at worst pathological. Disability studies, however, insists that distancing social identity from the lived embodied experience denies the materiality of the social world. Indeed, one could argue that the critical insight that lived experience is embodied and thereby embedded in the materiality of the social is the raison d’être of Disability studies. As Tobin Siebers, one of its leading practitioners observes, “Disability exposes with great force the constraints imposed on bodies by social codes and norms” (174). To wit Disability studies accentuates how for certain bodies, the normative ideal of abstract citizenship is at best contradictory and at worst unethical. This is not to imply that the body is neglected altogether in critical theory. Rather, as Lennard J. Davis observes, the problem lies in the fact that when the body does come to matter theoretically,

[it] is seen as a site of jouissance, a native ground of pleasure, the scene of excess that defies reason, that takes dominant culture and its rigid, powerladen vision of the body to task. … [while neglecting the] body … that is deformed, maimed, mutilated, broken, diseased. … [T]he critic [rather] turns to the fluids of sexuality, the gloss of lubrication, the glossary of the body as text, the heteroglossia of the intertext, the glossolalia of the schizophrenic. But almost never the body of the differently abled. (175)

In this, the poststructuralist tendency to read the body as a site of “excess that defies reason”―as a site of epistemological “excess”―works to legitimate the liberal model of cultural and political citizenship, which the universal concept of the “human” subtends. Therefore a politics based on social identity or embodied differences such as gender and race is said to not merit serious attention, as it distracts attention from explicitly universal social problems. As such, the present hostility toward politics based on identity tout court reflects what is:

In classical liberal political theory, the initial state of the self … [which is] conceptualized as an abstract individual without, or prior to, group allegiance. […] As Kant developed this idea, a person who cannot gain critical distance from and thus objectify his or her cultural traditions cannot rationally assess them and thus cannot attain autonomy. In Kant’s view, an abstract or disengaged self is for this reason necessary for full personhood. (Alcoff 21-1)

Contrary to this liberal political model of “full personhood” as an ideally disembodied rationality, free of material ties to individual, collective and structural Other, coupled with the tendency in poststructuralist theorizing of the body as a site of excess that defies signification, Disability studies foregrounds embodied reality as theoretically relevant to understanding the self in the world. Not surprisingly, however, such attention to how the self is embodied and embedded in material reality can work against Disability studies. For if the baseline of liberal and conservative critique of politics based on society identity hinges on the ideality of disembodied rationality, the disabled body, which illumines how self and body are ontologically and epistemologically imbricated becomes aligned with the absence of “full personhood.” In other words, if the mature Kantian political subject is able to achieve autonomy by objectifying his/her material ties to culture, society and history, by foregrounding the nexus between self and body the disabled subjectivity can potentially serve as a metonym for a compromised form of transcendence. Siebers underscores precisely this attendant theoretical and political danger when Disability studies touches upon how the body matters to the self:

Rather than objectifying their body as the other, people with disabilities often work to identify with it, for only a knowledge of their body will decrease pain and permit them to function in society. Unfortunately, this notion of the body as self has been held against people with disabilities. It is represented in the psychological literature as a form of pathological narcissism, with the result that they are represented as mentally unfit in addition to being physically unfit. (182)

Following this logic to its contradictory conclusion, the disabled subject can achieve “full,” that is equal status as person/citizen, only if he or she is able to objectify the very material (corporeal, visible or otherwise) condition that renders his or her disability socially meaningful.

It is through this tension that I read Davis’s call for an end to identity politics tout court. For example, in “The End of Identity Politics and the Beginning of Dismodernism: On Disability as an Unstable Category,” Davis supports a dismodernist politics based on what he calls a “new kind of universalism and cosmopolitanism that is reacting to the localization of identity” (239). As the title of his essay announces, Davis suggests “disability” as an identificatory “category” that cannot hold, and so rather than clinging to an outmoded modernist notion of the subject as complete and independent, he calls for a dismondernism which “[is] a new way of thinking [that] rests on the operative notion that postmodernism is still based on a humanistic model” (240). Though I agree with Davis that the essentialization of identity should be challenged, there is a strong sense in his reasoning that the historical-cultural (i.e. broad spectrum of material) specificity derived from the localization of social identity (serves as an obstacle to the achievement of his “new cosmopolitanism,” which unexpectedly intersects with Siebers’s description of how Disability studies is routinely accused of engaging in “pathological narcissism.” As Davis insists, “[t]he problem presented to us by identity politics is the emphasis on an exclusivity (i.e. “localization”) surrounding a specific so-called identity. […] Disability studies can provide a critique of and a politics to discuss how all groups, based on physical traits or markings, are selected for disablement by a large system of regulation and signification” (240). Though Davis’s overarching goal of unsettling essentialist notions of identity is to be commended (as such dismantling is crucial to building broad coalitions across differing social identities), to theorize the body (and by extension “wounds”) in universal and cosmopolitan terms can lead to what Disability studies cannot afford. Notice below how his critique of politics based on identity tout court forces his argument to swerve toward the erasure of crucial material differences, the cultural and historical specificities that obtain in and around the body, and I would argue, suffering:

Politics have been directed toward making all identities equal under the model of rights of the dominant, often white, male, ‘normal’ subject. In a dismodernist mode, the ideal is not a hypostatization of the normal (that is, dominant) subject, but aims to create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependence and interdependence. This is a very different notion from subjectivity organized around wounded identities; rather, all humans are seen as wounded. (240-1)

The problematic model of civil society as constituent of undifferentiated humans aside (a point to which I will return later), Davis’s critique of identity works to consolidate the idea of liberal political subject that is ideally unmarked by embodied difference such as race and gender. According to Chris Bell, it is precisely such flattening of racial difference in Disability studies that helps to authorize uncritical analogies such as: “Being disabled is just like being black … ” (277). Bell’s critique of Disability studies is far-reaching in its consequences not simply because it points to the structural and ontological differences between being “disabled” and being Black in the U.S., but because it undercuts the assumptive logic that universalizes the concept of the “human” itself, without which civil society would be bereft of it moral/ethical coherence.

For what Bell takes issue with is the tendency in Disability studies to displace race as a social factor that impinges in the materialization of identities in contemporary United States. Put otherwise, an effect made evident in and through Davis’s call for a dismondernist/cosmopolitan ethics is the displacement, if not making light, of cultural (historical) particularity. Indeed, recognizing that race and by extension gender are mere fictions of social construction does not, for example, contradict Manalansan’s insight that: “While race is established through numerous institutional, cultural, quotidian practices, in all of these arenas the racialized subject’s body filters, absorbs, and deflects various interpolating forces and practices” (182). In this, the corporeality of the body (and not simply its metaphorical substitute) is imbricated in production of racialized meanings. Crucial here is how Bell’s and Manalansan’s attempts to illumine embodied realities do not necessarily result in the production of reified, transcendent forms of knowledge. Yet by attending to how blackness structurally differentiates the disabled body, Bell’s critique does localize the disabled body vis-à-vis the social, frustrating, no matter how well intended, Davis’s search for the universal or more precisely, a point of analogy. Upon closer observation, Davis’s desire for the cosmopolitan body—the universally “wounded” body that resists localization enables the return of what he fears—the able-bodied white male subject as the proxy for normalcy. Incidentally, in a slightly different but nevertheless relevant context, Julia Kristeva’s ethico-political orientation toward the “stranger” has come under similar criticism. As Sara Ahmed queries, does not the model of “call[ing] ourselves (i.e. all human subjects) strangers … perform the gesture of killing the strangers it simultaneously creates, by rendering them universal: [as] a new community of the ‘we’ is implicitly created. If we are all strangers (to ourselves), then nobody is” (73). Or in Bell’s more scathing critique: “Far from excluding people of color, White Disability Studies treats people of color as if they were white people, as if there are no critical exigencies involved in being people of color that might necessitate these individuals understanding and negotiating disability in a different way from their white counterparts” (282). Though Bell does not go on to explore what specific “critical exigencies” differentiate how “people of color” embody disability or suffering, it is clear from his critique that he intuits a certain “grammar” to suffering which Davis’s “Dismodernism” cannot accommodate.

For instance, what at first glance seems merely naïve―that is the observation that in the U.S. “[b]eing disabled is just like being black”―actually does index how disability cannot be synonymous with Whiteness. For what is suggested through the forced parity between the construction of blackness and disability is that the disabled body or mind cannot properly embody Whiteness in toto. And that is what Anna Stubblefield demonstrates in “‘Beyond the Pale’: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability and Eugenic Sterilization,” which iterates how disabled white persons have historically been categorized as embodying a tainted form of whiteness. She convincingly argues that beginning from the 1800s in the U.S. those who were considered feebleminded, a form of cognitive disability, lost the full privileges attendant with white citizenship. As she writes, “ … to grasp feeblemindedness fully as a signifier of tainted whiteness, it is important to understand that the state-sponsored, involuntary sterilization of tainted whites meant that they had, in effect, lost the full protection that whiteness conferred in a white supremacist society” (178; emphasis added). Not only did the so-called feebleminded whites come to embody a compromised form of whiteness but also the “ … white men [and women] labeled as criminal, sexually deviate, homosexual, … or insane … ” (Stubblefield 178).

What Stubblefield emphasizes is that disability as a social construct cannot easily be detached from its imbricated positioning within a network of material forces that include not only race but sexuality, class, and gender. Her study foregrounds the need for Disability studies to attend to racialization as not a tangential focus but central to its overall theoretical and political project. Interestingly Stubblefield’s study of how disability can dispossess whites of their “full personhood” under U.S. law seemingly lends support to what “Dismodernism” authorizes, which is the idea that the suffering of blacks can be made equivalent to not only what disabled whites come to embody but also to all those other Others represented under the category of “people of color.” In short, disability has the potential to democratize civil society by recalling how all citizens are common in their humanity―that is, equally exposed to disability. Yet, if we read between the lines of Stubblefield’s summary of how “feebleminded whites” can become “tainted,” the singularity of “blackness’s grammar of suffering” emerges. For what distinguishes “blackness grammar of suffering” is how it does not operate according to the assumptive logic of capability. In other words, to approach “blackness’s grammar of suffering,” Wilderson insists that one must be able to imagine “an ethicality … so terrifying that, as a space to be inhabited and terror to be embraced” (41), it resists language. It is a “grammar of suffering” based not upon the logic of a “lost” capacity but that of a deontologized property, the Slave that is not “exploited and alienated” but rather “accumulated and fungible.” The effect of this singular grammar on Asian American and Disability studies is significant, but the impact of Wilderson’s critique on the “scholarly and aesthetic production” of the “Black theorist” is radical by comparison. As he writes:

This [“blackness’s grammar suffering”] makes the labor of disavowal in Black scholarly and aesthetic production doubly burdensome, for it is triggered by a dread of both being ‘discovered,’ and of discovering oneself, as ontological incapacity. Thus, through borrowed institutionality―the feigned capacity to be essentially exploited and alienated (rather than accumulated and fungible) in the first ontological instance (in other words, a fantasy to be just like everyone else, which is a fantasy to be)―the work of Black film theory [and by extension Black studies] operates through a myriad of compensatory gestures in which the Black theorists assumes subjective capacity to be universal and thus ‘finds’ it everywhere. (42)

Placed within the frame of “blackness’s grammar of suffering,” I want to examine the consequences of Davis’s attempt to render disability cosmopolitan. While the move has the virtual effect of equalizing all bodies around human capacity to suffer―such an ethical cum political strategy requires the disavowal of how concepts such as “human” and “civil society” in the U.S. have structurally depended on the production of social death, i.e. the Black (and the Red). As it should be obvious by now, what is therefore unthinkable in Davis’s attempt to make civil society cohere around the universality of human suffering is the contingent nature of the term human itself. This in fact is what Bells intuits but cannot name in his influential essay entitled “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” Bell’s hesitation is partly attributable to how pain or suffering is both social (that is communicable, sharable by all humans in equal measure) and incommunicable within Disability studies. That is, Disability studies’ uneven attention to the incommunicability of suffering is seemingly capable of accommodating the unrepresentability that is constituent of “blackness’s grammar of suffering.” As Siebers insists, “[i]ndividuality derived from the incommunicability of pain easily enforces a myth of hyperindividuality, a sense that each individual is locked in solitary confinement where suffering is the only object of contemplation. People with disabilities are already too politically isolated for this myth to be attractive” (176). Yet in an attempt to intervene in the poststructuralist tendency to idealize “physical pain” as site of either transcendent power or pleasure, Siebers also adds, “… [p]hysical pain is [at once] highly individualistic, unpredictable, and raw as reality. Pain is not a resource of political change. It is not a well of delight for the individual” (178). What is directly pertinent to the present essay is how the universal figure of the “individual”- human marks the critical horizon of Disability theory. Or, to put a finer point to it via Widerson’s reading of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask, “… the Negro … ‘is comparison,’ nothing more and certainly nothing less, for what is less than comparison? … [And as such] ‘No one knows yet who [the Negro] is, but he knows that fear will fill the world when the world finds out’” (42).

We find in the most sophisticated Asian Americanist deployment of poststructuralist strategies of reading―such as the one advanced in the influential work by Kandice Chuh―a similar call to abandon politics based on social identity. While I am in agreement with both Davis’s and Chuh’s overarching critique of uniform identity, I find troubling their wholesale critique of all identity formation as a priori essentialist. For such framing of social identity as necessarily restrictive can only lead to the return of the repressed in our present era of colorblindness―the ideal of abstract citizenship. As she writes: “‘Asian American’ … connotes the violence, exclusion, dislocation, and disenfranchisement that has attended the codification of certain bodies as variously, Oriental, yellow, sometimes brown, inscrutable, devious, always alien. It speaks to the active denial of personhood to the individuals inhabiting those bodies” (Chuh 27). In this, Chuh―along with Davis and Siebers―unwittingly announces the displacement and the erasure of “blackness’s grammar of suffering,” as their strategies of reading the presence or absence of justice within U.S. civil society is predicated upon exploitation and alienation of the a priori human subject.

Nevertheless, by embodying the self―Disability studies helps to shift (though only slightly) critical theory toward an alternative ethicality that does not programmatically endorse the idea and ideals of abstract citizenship. For contrary to the liberal model of the political subject that achieves “hyperindividuality” through social and material detachment, the alternative model of subjectivity that is afforded through the disabled body is a self that is always already in the process of negotiating complex relations to the materiality of the social. Thus, the embodied model of subjectivity helps to re-imagine “personhood” as relation itself, leading not to the reification or essentialization of self, this relational model of subjectivity demands that any identity whatsoever be thought not as autonomous substance but rather as a site, comprising of unfinished, mobile, heterogeneously constituted relations across an embodied hermeneutic horizon. It bears mentioning here that it is this interconnected and radically open vision of “personhood” as relation that is foreclosed in the liberal model of abstract citizenship. For in the liberal model of the self, the ideal is to attain singular indeterminacy through the negation of such social relations, without which no self can hope to attain intelligibility. As Alcoff’s important work suggests:

Social identities … are more properly understood as sites from which we perceive, act, and engage with others. These sites are not simply locations or positions, but also hermeneutic horizons comprised of experiences, basic beliefs, and communal values […] . We are not boxed in by them, constrained, restricted, or held captive―unless … it makes sense to say that we are boxed in by the fact that we have bodies . … (287)

Interestingly it is by attending to how the self is embodied and embedded in social reality that clarifies the radical singularity of the Black’s structural non-relationality, which in turn helps to bring into focus not only what Wilderson calls the “structural antagonisms” that contour U.S. civil society but also unexplored ethico-political limits and possibilities of sub-fields such as Disability and Asian American studies. For according to Wilderson’s Red, White & Black what gives internal coherence to such terms as “human” and “civil society” in the U.S. is the disavowal of the structural (historical) relation blacks have with what is essentially non-human, a form of social death known as slavery. As he summarizes:

During the emergence of new ontological relations in the modern world, from the late Middle Ages through the 1500s, many different kinds of people experienced slavery. … But African, or more precisely Blackness, refers to an individual who is by definition always already void of relationality. Thus modernity marks the emergence of a new ontology because it is an era in which an entire race appears, people who, a priori, that is prior to the contingency of the ‘transgressive act’ (such as losing a war or being convicted of a crime), stand as socially dead in relation to the rest of the world. (17-8)

Wilderson’s intervention therefore hinges on isolating and exposing this dual operation by which civil society makes sense of itself to itself―the simultaneous disavowal of and parasitic dependency on the Black. In other words, the desire to make blackness an analogue of disability amounts to denying the structural relevancy of slavery to the formation of U.S. civil society. Wilderson’s reading of Fanon helps to articulate the radical singularity of “blackness’s grammar of suffering,” as it emphasizes how “… the gratuitous violence of the Black’s first ontological instance, the Middle Passage, ‘wiped out [his or her] metaphysics … his [or her] customs and sources on which they are based.’ Jews went into Auschwitz and came out as Jews. Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks” (38). What Wilderson calls the “blackness’s grammar of suffering,” consequently, has no analogue in either the assumptive figure of the “individual” that subtends Disability studies and those other Others within U.S. civil society that have become included within the frame known as “people of color.” In this, “blackness’s grammar of suffering” gestures toward what is unnamable, a form of suffering that is in excess of any ethical language which is based upon the universal figure of the human. This is how Wilderson radically undermines the desire to transpose “blackness’s grammar of suffering” into the ethico-political language upon which civil society’s depends to make suffering (physical, psychic or otherwise) intelligible. As he writes:

The ruse of analogy erroneously locates Blacks in the world―a place where they have not been since the dawn of Blackness. This attempt to position the Black in the world by way of analogy is not only a mystification, and often erasure, of Blackness’s grammar of suffering (accumulation and fungibility or the status of being non-Human) but simultaneously also a provision for civil society, promising an enabling modality for Human ethical dilemmas. It is a mystification and an erasure because … their grammars of suffering are irreconcilable. (37)

Such is the logic that animates Bell’s critique of Disability studies but it does not, cannot obtain the force of Wilderson’s intervention because Bell cannot or dare not disarticulate the Black from the world. Nevertheless both Wilderson and Bell help foreground the important fact that even suffering obtains a “grammar,” that is, has a way of indexing―whether positively in the form of identification or negatively through dis- or even through non-identification, the presence or absence of a world. What Bell’s and especially Wilderson’s critique bring into sharp relief is that anti-blackness is part and parcel of the episteme that gives internal coherence to U.S. civil society. To approach “blackness’s grammar suffering” is therefore to contemplate, albeit always indirectly, not the paradigm of disability which is always already predicated on agency but a radical non-capacity.

Wilderson’s illumination of how the “antagonism” that obtains around blackness is structural to the formation of U.S. civil society has the effect of clarifying the positioning of sub-fields such as Disability and Asian American studies, especially when their protocols aim toward establishing some form of political justice based upon “exploitation and alienation,” which is at odds with “blackness’s grammar of suffering.” As previously mentioned, Wilderson draws a sharp distinction between “conflict” and “antagonism.” And this is key, as it is only when anti-blackness is positioned as an “antagonism” that the residual and structural effects of the Slave (the non-human) can be allowed to erupt into the living present of U.S. civil society. As such, though by comparison far more optimistic than Wilderson’s study, Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) gives powerful evidence to Wilderson’s theory of the “structural antagonisms” that contour U.S. civil society. This is how a critical theory based upon advancing a colorblind world or an ethicality based upon the universal human effectively silences the suffering of the Black. As Alexander argues:

Far from being a worthy goal … colorblindness has proved catastrophic for African Americans. It is not an overstatement to say that the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post-civil rights era if the nation had not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness. … Saying that one does not care about race is offered as an exculpatory virtue, when in fact it can be a form of cruelty. … Our blindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse―a public conversation that excludes the current pariah of caste [the incarcerated black males in U.S. civil society]. (228)

In this, Wilderson’s Red, White, & Black and Alexander’s The New Jim Crow bring into sharp focus why the framing of blackness within U.S. civil society cannot do without the ruse of analogy which effectively puts under erasure a “… violence which turns a body into flesh, ripped apart literally and imaginatively, destroy[ing] the possibility of ontology because it positions the Black in an infinite and indeterminately horrifying and open vulnerability, an object made available (which is to say fungible) for any subject” (Wilderson, 38). Put otherwise, this “violence” which is in excess of that ideologically saturated term called Humanity demands the infinitely difficult yet necessary encountering with what gives U.S. civil society the simulacrum of ethical and political decency.


Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Alcoff, Linda Martín. Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010. Print.

Bell, Chris. “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 275-282. Print.

Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Davis, Lennard J., ed. The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967. Print.

Judy, Ronald. (Dis)Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.

Manalansan IV, Martin F. “Cooking up the Senses: A Critical Embodied Approach to the Study of Food and Asian American Television Audiences.” Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America. Eds. Mimi Thi Nguyen and Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 179-193. Print.

Ruthrof, Horst. Semantics and the Body: Meaning from Frege to the Postmodern. Toronto:  U of Toronto P, 1997. Print.

Siebers, Tobin. “Disability in Theory: From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body.” The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 173-183. Print.

Song, Min Hyoung. “Communities of Remembrance: Reflections on the Virginia Tech Shootings and Race.” The Journal of Asian American Studies 11:1 (2008): 1-26. Print.

Stubblefield, Anna. “‘Beyond the Pale’”: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization,” Hypatia 22:1 (2007): 162-81. Print.

Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White, Black: Cinema and the Structures of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Fourth of July at Toscano

From our table by the window we watch a constant
procession of leashed Poodles, Collies, Corgis and mutts
on Charles Street’s cracked brick sidewalk, one Collie
wears a flag tucked into its star-studded collar and a fat
man in baggy shorts wears a red, white and blue USA
top hat, our waitress recites house specials like poetry:
Vino Nobile Corte Alla Flora, Funghi
Portobello, Minestrone di Vedura, Argosta,
we sip our wine, across the street three starfish
decorate the sash of third story apartment windows.

Already there are crowds on Charles and Chestnut
moving to the river for the concert and fireworks,
a flag that once flew over Kandahar drapes the band shell
on the Esplanade where the Boston Pops will play
Stars and Stripes Forever, in the Back Bay a gigantic flag
hangs high on the old Hancock Building, its field of stars
as big as the restaurant while inside away from the heat on brick
and cobblestone we enjoy our minestrone and argosta.

As we eat three fighter jets roar over in formation,
soon fireworks brighter than stars will light Boston,
a cannonade of thunder and fire too much like real artillery
or like the cannonballs over Boston Harbor in the Revolution,
for all the noise it’s hard to believe in God or anything at all—
the tables at Toscano are full while outside grayness
descends into humid night, all of us happy
to at least have a holiday with good wine.

A Poetic Politics of Place: Desire and Dwelling in the Works of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Terry Tempest Williams

Jimmy Santiago Baca and Terry Tempest Williams exemplify in their poems and prose the desire of humans to merge with the natural world that they inhabit. Place gets made, in part, through poetic response, a response of the body, mind, and heart to environment. It is important that each of these writers chooses to experience place in ways unique to them and to their own distinct autobiographies. Their lives as they have lived them in specific places—for Baca the Black Mesa of Southern Albuquerque in New Mexico and for Williams the red rock lands of Utah—emerge in their work as desire for place as a way of knowing and, too, as acknowledgment of the mystery that is life. The works of these writers reflect a desire to reconceptualize our notions of place through engaged experience and overcoming separation as fear to create new ways of being in relationship with culture, the body, and memory. Baca’s and Williams’ work exemplifies radical notions of place as a poetic politics of thinking and being based on relationality. Several thinkers offer unique ways of conceptualizing these authors’ works: the history of place rendered by Edward Casey in his intellectual history of place in The Fate of Place; French feminist theory that contests reality dictated by normative thought, particularly the work of Hélène Cixous on writing from the body; and, bell hooks’ critical work on the need for an evolving aesthetics that reflects the lives of people of color.

Baca’s and Williams’ writings reveal an intimate relationship with place and its life forms as a politics of dwelling and attending to environments in unique and idiosyncratic ways. The writer divulges this relationship to the reader, adding depth and acuity to understanding the relations she shares with earth, with others, and with herself. The definition of place becomes multiple selves in relationship, rather than a single self that lacks dynamism. These various selves the writers experience in relation to and their openness to multiplicity allows all forms of life as potential lovers.

Simone de Beauvoir, addressing women and creativity, asserts that truly great works “are those which contest the world in its entirety” (French Feminists 28). Of course, she argued when she gave her lecture in Japan in 1966 that the works of women had not yet contested the world, largely because women had not had the education and opportunity, let alone place and position, to contest the world created by men. Baca and Williams contribute to a tradition rapidly evolving of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, one which makes its central purpose not only contestation of the world as we’ve known and inherited it (in de Beauvoir’s case through gender), but new understandings of what it means to know and be in place-world. Baca gives us poems of grief and forgiveness in coming to terms with familial, cultural, and personal loss as a man of color. Williams’ work creates elemental explorations of body in relation to Utah’s desert. Utah also represents the region where her family and community have been exposed to atomic weapons testing by the United States government in the second half of the twentieth century. Her sensual connection with the earth in Desert Quartet becomes a means of renewal from the loss of health and community due to the testing. As we engage the work of these authors, we expand the ways in which we receive and engage place-world as it presents itself to us and we offer ourselves to it, knowing that it will change us and that the places we love and respect are in constant flux.

Tom Lynch describes Jimmy Santiago Baca as “one of America’s great bioregional poets” (EJR 257). In his poems Baca becomes the earth of his people. The poet’s mother abandoned him and his two siblings when he was seven years old. She left her family to live with a white man. After Baca’s release from Florence State Prison at the age of twenty-five he became reacquainted with his mother. Shortly thereafter, his mother’s husband murdered her. “Then he shot you and himself,” Baca writes in one of his poems (Mesa 28). Lynch asserts that mother abandonment has been for Baca an uprooting. He writes to his mother in his semi-autobiographical poem “Martín”: “Your departure uprooted me mother/hollowed core of child/your absence whittled down/to a broken doll/in a barn loft. The small burned area of memory/where your face is supposed to be/moons’ rings pass through/in broken chain of events/in my dreams” (Baca, Meditations 14). Mother memory haunts Baca, as does father-brother-sister-family memory. The adjectives and verbs he chooses in this passage—hollowed, whittled, broken, burned (two times)—address specifically the hole of mother absence and convey violent homelessness at the root of abandonment. The sense of being torn from home and the hole it leaves is for Baca embodied in the loss of his physical mother and the emotional support she might have offered him, but given her own limitations of culture, time, and place, did not.

In Baca’s passionate poems, he asserts the need for merging, a burning desire for possession by the earth, by another, and of himself. He wants to be known and to know totally. This knowing seems improbable, if not impossible. However much we long for total understanding by and from another, that knowing somehow eludes our grasp. He returns again and again to poetry to find this knowing within himself and his life in relationship to others through language. In “Who Understands Me But Me” he writes of learning to live with himself, his limitations and beauty, even while imprisoned and mistreated by guards. “I practice being myself/and I have found parts of myself never dreamed of by me” (Baca, Immigrants 84). It is this multiplicity of selves he engages and inhabits and comes to love. He finds his own best company within his fallible and injured body. That love arrives in total acceptance of all that he has incurred; following the signs like an old tracker into himself “deeper into dangerous regions” he finds so many parts of himself. He is not alone. He can live with himself now (Immigrants 84).

Baca becomes a place for himself and to himself. It is clear in reading his work that if the poet had not discovered that he himself was a place, he would not have survived time in prison. I believe that Baca in some of his poems enacts what feminist theorist and writer Hélène Cixous critically describes as coming to writing in physical movement toward the desired thing. The body serves as a means to writing. It carries us toward what we want and love. Writing is not an occurrence that happens outside the body. Writing is desire expressed through the body. We contain all histories and geographies, a vastness of being within ourselves: “Search yourself, seek out the shattered, the multiple I, that you will be still further on, and emerge from one self, shed the old body” (Cixous 41). Cixous’s thought in the tradition of French feminism has been influenced by Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory, which posits a splitting of self when the child sees his mirror reflection. Cixous further urges shedding the Law, which Lacan postulates as the father’s rule, or perhaps in metaphoric terms, the past itself. Baca sheds neither the old body nor his past. Neither is his desire to shed Law, as Lacanian thought asserts is first established by the parent in the role of father. He works these elemental influences in his poetry but does not abandon them. Baca integrates a sense of himself as a child, a growing man, a (sometimes nearly dead) wounded prisoner, and a flourishing poet as a dynamic process grounded in the present. In poetic utterances, cries for love, and expressions of grief, language allows Baca to create himself without separation from and abandonment of that which has created him. In the poems exists the palpable presence/absence of family, home, and community steeped in place and located in time.

What emerges in Baca’s poems is a living autobiography of the complex development of a consciousness in relation to self, others, and the material-sensual world. The combination of these relations forms Baca’s response to place. His poems are songs, inspired by poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, lengthy, breathless improvisations of jazz, and the insatiable desire to experience union with all living things. He sings his amazement in existence, captured in the most incongruous of pairings, such as when he writes in his collection of river poems: “I catch glimpses of eternity sometimes in stray dogs” (Baca, Winter 18). Simultaneously, he pushes away in hatred those who have betrayed him. The repulsion is complex. He refutes betrayals that he has experienced in the form of racism, violence, alcoholism, bureaucratic and corporate corruption, and “amenity migrants” (qtd. in Lynch 260) to his Southwestern homelands. He also insists on closeness to suffering as embodied knowledge as he makes these betrayals the subject of his poems.

Like Baca, the semi-autobiographical character Martín lives for a time in an orphanage after his mother runs away with her lover and his father disappears into a vagabond life of alcohol. There were times in his childhood and in prison that through dream and visualization Baca was able to transport himself above or away from embodiment. In one poem Martín leaves his body while lying on a cot in a Catholic orphanage. “I dreamed my spirit was straw and mud/a pit dug down below my flesh/to pray in/and I prayed on beads of blue corn kernels/slipped from thumb to earth/while deerskinned drumhead of my heart/gently pounded and I sang/ all earth is holy” (Baca, Martín 17). Baca reaches back through lines of ancestors to the earth. In his willingness to inhabit a past that lives in the narrative present of his body, he forges bonds with his Mexican and Apache ancestors. This transfiguration opens Baca to a different consciousness, as expressed in an interview with Bill Moyers, to “see the reality behind the reality” (Baca, “Swirl Like a Leaf”). In Baca’s work place is earth, acequía, leafy cottonwood, deerskin, and blue corn kernel. He finds place when he sets foot to ground. When absente from the things he loves—land, culture, mother, family—he discovers place as prayer, body-memory, heart-rhythm-beating-song that allows him to recall what matters and who he is in the present because of the past.

What are the philosophical underpinnings to our considerations of place in our contemporary experience? Immanuel Kant first spoke to the body as a locus of perception. His thinking later gave way to phenomenology, pursued by Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and Bachelard, thinkers who considered space local to the body and experienced intimately in daily life and in one’s sensate knowing of the material world. In Being and Time Heidegger leaves behind an early interest in region to consider dwelling as an act of nearness. This helps him locate place not only in the physical world but as an indwelling, so that place becomes infused with interiority. Nearing is an activity of drawing close, in physical proximity as well as in perception, body, and mind. Dwelling or inhabiting is residing in the nearness of things. Is this, then, an aesthetic as an intimacy with experience? One dwells not only with things but with feelings, senses, and the presences of others. Heidegger’s reflections posit a rehabitation of space, making it place-world and intimate. There are no monovalent definitions in this way of considering being in the world. He writes: “We always go through spaces in such a way that we already experience them by staying constantly with near and remote locations and things” (qtd. in Casey 276).

Forced migration, poverty, racism, and family separation characterizes place in a postmodern age. What are the ways that we experience displacement and replacement? The destruction of place through warfare, which includes racism, poverty, and violence, induces forced migration and creates homelessness, years of living in squalid camps or living in exile away from the origin of birth, culture, and family. Common to modern life is the presence of those without shelter, living on the streets, in the dumps, and under the highways of the world. Globalized industry and transported popular culture erases local, regional, and even national practices and identities. The places that cultures need to thrive dissolve under the pressure of corporate and/or governmental interests. Finally, and this list is not exhaustive, there is a growing sameness (cultural, visual, experiential, material) of the world’s cities under the pressure of globalization. Casey makes an argument for the vitality of place in the midst of these nonarbitrary conditions of modernity that impose sameness as uniformity. “An active desire for the particularity of place—for what is truly ‘local’ or ‘regional’—is aroused by such increasingly common experiences. Place brings with it the very elements sheared off in the planiformitiy of site: identity, character, nuance, history” (Casey, Fate xiii).

Baca has experienced such displacement and his writing becomes an effort to create for himself, mostly through poems but also in stories, memoir, and film, a renewed relationship to his native New Mexican land. He finds himself in cities—Albuquerque, San Diego, and Los Angeles, often homeless or situated in temporary housing and vulnerable to police harassment. Baca reminds us that lived experience of place—physically, in memory, and as expressed through language—allows intimacy with the body. Place fosters nearness to the thingness of multitudinous environments. It connects us, beyond site and sight, to that which gives us meaning and value in the world. When place is insufferable, it lets us occupy our experience. Place helps us determine what is real, if the ability to discriminate remains through suffering and depravation, and to decipher what’s happening and where we are.

In his later Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande (2004), Baca records the river as a teacher, one that shapes the character of the lands of his origin. “The river has taught me/patience—a year I’ve stood every day to watch it,/pray to it that I connect my present moment/to my origins as it does,/that I am connected now/to my beginnings as it is” (Baca, Winter 13). Place, here as river, allows his loves and accepts his despair. Returning to place as a ritual of solace and wisdom provides a vital form of nourishment for life and resistance to nihilism. The river is the dwelling, the thingness and nearness for Baca, to which Heidegger refers in his thoughts on place. Baca’s relationship with the New Mexican earth fuels his desire to enact rituals that connect him with his people, his culture, and the historic longing he has carried in an effort to return to true things. These later poems, written nearly thirty years after his release from prison, are untitled and numbered as a series of autobiographical vignettes. They are prayers of a man in gratitude to life and its sensual offerings, particularly as those sensualities arise in place:

over to the coffee shop to pick up
my latter with soy milk and two brown sugars,
and while my corn meal coagulates on the stove
and my garlic head is roasting,
I compose this poem, to my friend,
celebrating the small things—garlic, oatmeal, coffee,
soy, music, sage, prayers, friendship, laughter,
setting off on this day
prepared to honor the flame in each of us. (Baca, Winter 80)

In bell hooks’ Belonging, a collection of essays in which she explores living a culture of place, she writes of creating a black aesthetic that emerges from black culture and relationships to the earth. She suggests that people of color must reconceptualize beauty as an aesthetic inclusive of their experience. She shares a conversation with her sister upon a return to her native Kentucky in which she learns “to think about blackness in a new way. We think about our skin as a dark room, a place of shadows. We talk often about color politics and the ways racism has created an aesthetic that wounds us, a way of thinking about beauty that hurts. . . .In that space of shadows we long for an aesthetics of blackness—strange and oppositional” (hooks, Belonging 134). Reading her recommendation for an aesthetic of color and culture, I am reminded of Baca’s separation from his Mexican and Apache (mestizo) culture. In his memoir A Place to Stand, he awakens to the damaging impact of split from his culture when he meets Chelo in prison. He describes Chelo, whose body is covered in tattoos, as connected to his Aztec ancestry. He sees the man’s tattoos as written testament to culture, “a walking library” (Baca, Place 223). Others perceive criminality and rebellion in his tattoos, but Chelo shares a perception of beauty new to Baca. “I wear my culture on my skin. They want to make me forget who I am, the beauty of my people and my heritage, but to do it they got to peel my skin off” (223). Chelo is the art, the aesthetic of his people. He wears the stories of his ancestral lineage on his skin. Chelo’s courage and love returns Baca to his own memories that eventually manifest in poems and autobiographical writings that culminate in an aesthetic of his Chicano culture. The bio-regionality that Lynch detects in Baca’s poetry exists in the centrality of rituals, journeys, and social situations that infuse his poems with the nearness and thingness of culture lived and known in a particular place.

Baca’s poetic renderings of desire and memory connected with the past evoke those he has loved and lost. He experiences the earth as salve and nourishing parent. Terry Tempest Williams, on the other hand, experiments in Desert Quartet with sensuality in relation to the earth’s elemental forms: earth, water, fire, air. In the Utah desert, Williams opens to elements that inhabit, please, and pleasure her. She has written often about the damage of places due to human interference and thoughtless action, and, in this vein, Desert Quartet represents an effort to know the land and its life in renewed and life-sustaining ways. Though she does not necessarily recommend an erotics of place to others, as a philosophy or lived system of thought (the risks of such eroticism in open, wild lands are evident to most readers, as they are to her), we can travel with her, sensing her attitude of experimentation. “I dissolve. I am water. Only my face is exposed like an apparition over ripples. Playing with water. Do I dare? My legs open. The rushing water turns my body and touches me with a fast finger that does not tire. I receive without apology. Time. Nothing to rush, only to feel” (Williams, Desert 23). On one trail, within sandstone walls that rise sharply on either side of her, Williams feels her chest and back “in a vise of geologic time” (8). She must surrender in order to experience sensually the structures of rock. With that surrender she finds breath as arousal, a relationship with rock of giving and receiving so that “there is no partition between my body and the body of Earth” (10).

The possibilities of the erotic and of sensuality expand in Williams’ literal and figurative explorations of intimacy with all material forms. In interviews the author speaks to the influence of French feminists on her work, particularly Cixous’s injunction to write out of the body. In Desert Quartet her erotic experimentation evokes the mystery of female embodiment. Williams believes that thinking and relating constitute erotic activity. The editor of A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, Michael Austin, notes: “For her, wildness represents a force that is at once restorative, transgressive, erotic, playful, and deeply intuitive—terms that French feminist theory applies to the feminine body and to the art that flows from it” (Austin 5). Willliams, for example, compares thought to a river because “rivers inevitably follow their own path, and that channel may change from day to day. . .even though the property of water remains consistent, life sustaining, fierce, and compassionate, at once” (qtd. in Austin 5). In Desert Quartet we can experience her physical contact with the earth as a way of thinking and relating that offers a connected way of being with the place-world in ourselves.

Williams commits a feminist act of non-reservation in her willfulness to open to the desert. Luce Irigaray in “Sexual Difference” imagines that immanence and transcendence might be recast by the female sex. An opening comes in the mystery of female identity, of its self-contemplation, of that strange world of silence (Irigaray, Feminists 128). She wonders “is there not still something held in reserve within the silence of female history: an energy, morphology, growth or blossoming still to come from the female realm? Such a flowering keeps the future open. The world remains uncertain in the fact of this strange advent” (129). It is this flowering that Williams embodies in the desert as she explores physical and sensual contact with the earth as a means of knowing. She has shared that this contact is not expletive, but one undertaken in a manner of reciprocity. The idea is that the body is not just a receptacle of and for the elements, but that we are made of the earth, elemental in our very composition (water, fire, air, and dust). How we approach another—rock, river, flame, lover—creates a space of intention and possibility in our relating. Irigaray writes that desire is a tending toward. It exists in the intervals, the gaps, and requires “a sense of attraction: a change in the interval or the relations of nearness or distance between subject and object” (120). Rather than one subject moving toward or away from, both subjects move toward and away from each another. This, I believe, is the kind of reciprocity in which Williams engages the desert elements. Irigaray draws upon Heidegger’s idea of nearness as specified in place and induced by things and people who cohabit a common place (Casey 282). Nearness then becomes a means of relationality. Williams is radically thoughtful in her desire for nearness with the unknown and potentially dangerous in Desert Quartet. She draws near to what is not necessarily an anthropocentric space-made-place.

Each encounter in the desert is a way to realize something about human being. Like pulled-apart rock that reflects internal tensions and stresses that cause fissures in the earth, our bodies, too, break open with change. The insinuation throughout this sensual work is that we can allow ourselves to “be acted upon” and to “accept the life of another to take root inside” (Williams 11), as we feel life everywhere around and within us. Intimacy is a way to care for place while caring for ourselves. She asserts, “our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other” (Austin 75). A question central to Desert Quartet is how we cross borders so that fluidity, rather than fixity, shapes our exploration of relations between our bodies and the earth. Such fluidity becomes “No separation. Eros: nature, even our own” (75).

Thinking in terms of one’s relationship with land as eros is risky, even uncomfortable. Williams proposes place as an engaged dynamic between body and location, making love to land as “an ultimate reciprocity” (Austin 83). As she explores fire in the desert, with its harsh flame that sears and beckons, we find that it is our nature to be aroused repetitively. Such an assertion leads to questions as provocations: “Where do we find the strength to not be pulled apart by our passions? How do we inhabit the canyons inside a divided heart?” (Williams 45). Binaries become sensual areas of exploration and engaged relationship. Questions are arousals that lead us to explore the possibilities of close contact. Williams suggests one, two, even three bodies, as if bodies themselves were flames that jump and retract, play and sear in relation to one another and the earth. In this spirit she says that we cannot preserve or protect wildness. Courage provides impetus to move into what we do not know. “It is the desert that persuades me toward love, to step outside and defy custom one more time” (Williams 46). Love is courage that manifests in our willingness to experiment and to try new things. For Williams, that experimentation becomes a bodily play with flame in the desert as an active contemplation that permits her to honor the element of fire as life.

Irigaray writes that in reciprocity (what she calls “double desire”) each lover possesses place and that no lover is static and fixed in her position to another. Attraction and support might then elude disintegration or rejection; the double pole of attraction and decomposition replaces the separation that articulates all encounters and gives rise to speech, promises and alliances (Irigaray, Feminists 121). Such is the movement Williams shares with fire. In relation to the earth, she does not speak. She feels and intuits the language of the elements through embodied and visceral sensation. Williams offers us a poetic politics of being in place that allows reception as a mode of living. If we listen, she teaches us that to open to all life expands our singular life in the plural existence of multitudinous forms. Our lovers are many. We are loved, caressed, stimulated, burned, and blown by many forces.

Even as there is the risk of discomfort and unfamiliarity in thinking about our relationships with place as erotic, there is value and vitality in pondering environmentalism as primarily relational. When we begin to think in the way that Baca and Williams suggest, we enact an environmental politics as relations between places, bodies, thoughts, and communities of beings—current and ancestral. We create spaces that allow for difference (in race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and expression), places that allow us to experience without fear the kind of reciprocity these writers enact and imagine in their work. Gary Snyder writes: “A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth. It is a quality of one’s own consciousness. The planet is a wild place and always will be” (qtd. in Cronon 89). Attention to place and care for ourselves happens in heart and mind as well as in the physical environs we inhabit. A politics of place asks us to mend separation from environments that surround us. Baca and Williams show us that place is made partly in our evocations of it. Writers pore relation with place into language, forming new visions and versions of space. There is little separation between desire and the formation of places loaded with human meaning and longing for intimacy with the worlds we inhabit. These worlds woo us to know in the midst of the unknown. Our notion of intimacy with the land includes ignorance of it. The mystery of unknowing is a source of knowing.

Two blocks from my front door lays the Pacific Ocean. Though I hear the surf from my bed at night, I do not know its depths. There are dolphin, otter, and seal, but I glimpse them on the surface of the water. I do not fish, swim, or surf in it. Intimacy with this enormous, volatile body of water challenges me. How do I consider it a place—truly a human notion—when I do not inhabit it but live at its edge? My experience of the ocean happens from a trail in Big Sur. I ascend through redwood into a terrain of oak and chaparral and turn towards the Pacific, white-capped and blue under mist-shrouded sun. I feel the ocean as my son and I bike through redwoods that grow along this strip of Pacific Coast from Northern California into Washington. I wake to fog and live summer under a gray marine layer until the warm months of early autumn arrive. I buy lettuce, berries, and basil grown in coastal soil. I cherish the mystery of this place and that there are still some secrets here. I appreciate the ocean in simple ways—at its shore, playing with my young son, dry seaweed ornamenting our sand castles, wind in my hair, cold waves pounding against my thighs, with my child’s hand in mine. It is this spine of land, the coastal ecosystem where mountains meet sea that I know in a personal way and love.

We have to value intimacy in order to achieve it. This valuation requires care of human relationships as well the places of our planet. It asks for awareness of our limited knowledge. Baca and Williams demonstrate that we can create situations for mending within ourselves as well as in cooperative relations with others. These writers show us our desire to explore individually and collectively how we know, experience, and engage with these places that we love in relationship to self and to each other. We think in new ways about places as we replace words like wilderness, pristine, untouched, endangered, transcendent, even nature, with radical notions of passion, intimacy, erotics, and relationship.


Works Cited

Austin, Michael. A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams. Logan: Utah State UP, 2006. Print.

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place to Stand. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.

___. Immigrants in Our Own Land: New and Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1977. Print.

___. Martín & Meditations on the South Valley. New York: New Directions, 1986. Print.

___. “Swirl Like a Leaf.” [Interview with Bill Moyers.] The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. Arlington: PBS, 1995. Videocassette.

___. Winter Poems on the Rio Grande. New York: New Directions, 2004. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone de. “Women and Creativity.” French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. 17-32. Print.

Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. Coming to Writing and Other Essays. Ed. Deborah Jenson. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Ed. William Cronon. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. 69-90. Print.

hooks, bell. Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Irigaray, Luce. “Sexual Difference.” French Feminist Thought: A Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987. 118-130. Print.

Lynch, Tom. “Toward a Symbiosis of Ecology and Justice: Water and Land Conflicts in Frank Waters, John Nichols, and Jimmy Santiago Baca.” The Environmental Justice Reader. Ed. Joni Adamson, Mei Mei Evans, and Rachel Stein. Tuscon: U of Arizona Press, 2002. 247-264. Print.

Williams, Terry Tempest and Mary Frank. Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape. New York: Pantheon, 1995. Print.


A Shiny Pink Bra

(From the Bronx Stories collection)

I wanted that new shiny pink bra with the bow in the center, even though I was too young to need one. It would be years before I could wear it but I wanted it mostly because it was new. Most everything I wore as a child was ropa vieja, worn by someone else, and bought at Mami’s favorite segundas-the secondhand store, conveniently located upstairs in Doña Alba’s apartment. The old woman kept the discarded clothes in old steamer trunks and sold every article for twenty-five cents; bras, underwear, blouses, and skirts, any garment was just twenty-five cents apiece. The old shoes were just a dollar a pair. The used Stetson hats for men were Doña Alba’s prized merchandise. She sold each one for a whole five dollars.

Every other Friday, ten dollars in hand, Mami and I would walk upstairs to shop. The more you bought, the bigger the discount Doña Alba would give her favorite customers. Hyped by the promise of savings, Mami would dig, stop to gossip briefly and then dig some more. She dug deep in the trunks for two hours or more, and marveled aloud at all the treasures she had found this day: a naked doll for me, floral batas with fancy rick rack on the sleeves and neckline for her, and even handmade crochet doilies to put under her favorite saints’ statues and for the back and arms of our sofa and chair.

“Mira pa ya, lo que bota la gente,” Mami would exclaim over again to the shoppers present. It was always amazing to her what people would throw out and that is what kept her coming back. Mami would sniff the clothing, smelling for smoke and mold in the items, but not everything made its way into her shopping bag. There was her ten-dollar budget limit, for sure, and she never bought used underwear or anything that had been worn by a dead person or a whore. “La peste de muerte o de pecado no se puede quitar.” Mami was convinced that there were some smells, like the odor left behind by death or after committing sins of the body, which could never be fully washed out.

Mami bought the few new clothes I owned from the street vendors, who also sold out-of-date food, along with socks, underwear, communion dresses, veils, and holy medals from the trunks of their Buick Chevis. Don Prudencio, who sold the pasteles and alcapurrias that his wife made, sold biblias, light up pictures of Jesus with eyes that glowed and a halo that radiated beams of fire; he also preached the Nuevo Testamento, sat in the front seat of his car, and provided guidance and comfort to the pretty girls in the barrio. Don Hector, el mudo, my favorite vendor, sold limbes in all my favorite flavors: coco, tamarindo, and  mango;  and in all the years I bought limbes from him, I never once heard him say a word. “La tristeza se llevó su voz,” Mami told me, and everyone talked in secret about the terrible sadness that had taken the old vendor’s voice away. None of these other vendors sold a shiny pink bra.

My apartment building-a five-story, red brick structure, with a two-level courtyard separating two wings had fifty apartments, five to a floor.  The Puerto Rican families that lived here knew each other very well. Some had recently come over from the Island; they were the ones that hung the Puerto Rican flag from their windows and the railings of the fire escape, and when they drank would sing En Mi Viejo San Juan loudly for all in the streets to hear. Our neighbor, Doña Yolanda, who had been in Nueva Yor for a long time, like us, was my mother’s closest friend; her daughters, Violeta and her younger sister Consuelo, were my best friends in the world.

It was on a Monday, and our mothers had gone to work at the Madame Alexander Company in the garment district, sewing clothes for expensive dolls we would never own or play with. From the fire escape of my kitchen window, three floors up, we first saw the bra salesman approach and enter our building. Light hair, very pale skin, and blue eyes, he looked like the pictures of Jesus in the wall calendars that Don Pepe, who owned the only bodega on the block, gave his customers every New Year. My mother kept those calendars from year to year and hung them up, along with framed pictures of La Virgencita and wooden crosses, on the walls of our apartment. Mami, who knew the names of all the saints and holy virgins, would start every sentence, even every curse, with Jesu Cristo or Ave Maria Purisima and kept images of her favorite holy people in every room of our apartment. Just above her bed, she hung her favorite- the light up picture of El Corazón de Jesús showing God’s bleeding heart surrounded by thorns and on her nightstand, on top of a crocheted doily she had stitched herself, she kept a favorite statue of San Judas, who according to her, was the only saint that helped los desesperados, those who in despair felt they had nowhere else to turn. In the living room, on the wall above the floral sofa with the clear plastic covers, which squeaked when you sat down, made you sweat and stuck to your skin, she hung all the blessed rosaries that she had bought throughout the years from the old priest at Our Lady of Victory Church. It was the light coming from the eyes in the light-up framed picture of Jesus and the sound of the water in it, which appeared to be constantly moving, which would make the bra salesman, with the face of the Lord, the most uncomfortable.

Tap. Tap. Tap. No one home. It was a Monday morning, and most of the adults in the building were working. Tap. Tap. Tap. He knocked hard on several of the other apartment doors before knocking on mine. “Are your Mamis home. Can I come in?” he said softly in the doorway entrance. “No, my Mami is not home,” I said, and as usual, miedosa Violeta objected that I had been too friendly, said too much to the man, but I was the leader of our group and we always did what I wanted; the bra salesman came in. He figured out early that I was the one in charge and talked mainly to me. He talked to us about the bras and showed us the samples in his case. “I have a sale price on most of the articles,” he said directly to me. “I have bras ranging from 32 to 38, but I don’t carry all sizes in every style.” So soft, so new. I touched everything and then I saw it. The shiny pink bra with the bow at the center was in the middle of the stack of underclothes, just under the panties, and enaguas. As he picked up the shiny pink bra he said to me, “You’ve picked the prettiest one and I only have one like this. Only one.” Only one shiny pink bra. “If it fits, you can keep it,” he teased me, as he held the bra close to my face. “No need to try it on, I can tell if it fits by feeling your breasts.” He slowly worked his hands upwards, under my cloth scapular and the rosary beads that I wore for protection and stroked the hard masses behind my nipples. “Putting lotion right here and rubbing it in a circular motion, like this, will help you grow one cup size larger,” he suggested. “If it fits, you keep it.” But it didn’t fit, and he turned to Violeta.

I liked her lots, and she was my best friend in the whole world, but Violeta was nothing like me; always a big miedosa, she refused to let the bra salesman touch her. She had done the same with the underwear salesman- Don Luis, who had insisted on making me try several different sizes for the right fit. “There is nothing worse than underwear that falls down because it is too big or irritates the skin because it is too tight”, he had argued. He had grabbed a tape measure from his case and very carefully measured my waist first and then measured the space between my inner thighs. “The most important thing is a comfortable crotch.” Violeta would not pull down her underwear, or let him touch Consuelo either. It was always up to me to be the brave one.

A new shiny pink bra. “If it fits, you keep it.” How could anyone, I thought to myself, pass up a deal like that, how could anyone? I knew of someone who would also like the shiny pink bra and I was certain it would fit her. I suggested he visit Migdalia, the bigger girl, who lived on the fourth floor with her mother and Joe Cuba -her brother. The salesman, with the face like Jesus, thanked us and walked upstairs.

The next morning, Violeta and Consuelo had come over early to play. We drank Malta and listened to the sounds of people talking in the other apartments, babies crying and the sirens of police cars speeding up and down Third Avenue. We took turns standing up in the corner of the fire escape, looking up at the small patch of blue sky and looking out across 149th Street, pass Willis Avenue to the places we had never visited. My turn to stand up by the railing, and when I looked down, I got a glimpse of a body. I turned to my friends, “Look, there’s a man lying near the garbage cans. There’s blood. I think he’s dead. Let’s go look at it.” Miedosa Violeta was the first to refuse to go.  “Miedosa, I’ve seen dead bodies before. They can’t hurt you no more,” I yelled and convinced her and Consuelo to come with me.

I went ahead of them, and was the first to see that it was the bra salesman, who was lying on his side; blood was pooled around his head. Afraid, Consuelo shivered, and Violeta complained of having difficulty breathing. “It’s just an ataque de nervios,” I scoffed. “Mami gets them all the time.” I made sure to not step in his blood, and touched his face to make sure he wasn’t still alive. Violeta whispered, “Let’s go tell your Mami, and she can call the police.”  I protested, “Not yet. Not yet.” Frantically, I looked around for the samples suitcase, and the shiny pink bra. I found nothing. We ran upstairs to tell Mami the news. She never called the police for anything, not for the syringes we found in the hallway, not even for dead bodies, and so somebody else in “el bildin” finally called the police to take the bra salesman’s body away.

For weeks, everyone gossiped about the dead man, saying it was Migdalia’s brother who had killed him, but Joe Cuba kept silent. We never saw Migdalia again after that summer, and chismes reported she had gone away because the bra salesman, with the face like Jesus, had done something very bad to her. Don Luis, the old man who sold lady’s underwear from his suitcase, stopped coming to the barrio and Joe and his ganga took turns watching out for him and other door-to door salesmen.

Most nights, for weeks and months later, I would hear Mami saying the rosary aloud, the dozen Hail Marys and Our Fathers, giving thanks that the bra salesman had not visited her little girl.  She also had the old priest come to our apartment and sprinkle it with holy water, and even hung a picture of La Virgencita holding baby Jesus above my bed to watch over me and protect me during the day while she went to work, to sew the clothes for the dolls I could never own. Every night, on my knees, I prayed to Mary to protect me, but during the day, I pleaded for protection from the Jesus in the framed print in the living room- the one with the light coming from His eyes and the sound of the water in it, which appeared to be constantly moving, and which had made the bra salesman, with the face of the Lord, the most uncomfortable. I also prayed for Migdalia, from time –to- time, and wondered about what might have happened to her. “If it fits, you keep it.” I wondered too if it was she, who got to keep the shiny new pink bra with the bow in the center.