Whatever Happened to Arnaldo Rios?

The image of Charles Kinsey lying on the street, arms raised as he tried to calm his client, Arnaldo Rios, before police shot Kinsey in is a nightmare scenario for many autistic people and our families. After the shooting, the local police union for North Miami tried to excuse Kinsey’s shooting by saying that they … Continue reading Whatever Happened to Arnaldo Rios?
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ADAPT Protests at White House to Stop the Shocks

Today, I am with a group of ADAPT protesters calling for the Trump Administration to release regulations prepared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and halt the use of contingent electric shock, a physically painful and mentally and physically harmful as a means of controlling disabled people. The shock, currently used only at the … Continue reading ADAPT Protests at White House to Stop the Shocks
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Oscars 2018: The Shape of Disability Representation

Oscar season: evening gowns, betting pools and accolades for non-disabled actors. When The Shape of Water won Best Picture, it sparked a conversation in the disability community about authentic representation. This year’s nominees, like so many previous slates, included a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character. Sally Hawkins received a nomination for her performance as … Continue reading Oscars 2018: The Shape of Disability Representation
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Half a Person

“Sixteen clumsy and shy.” Though I have always loved The Smiths’ great song of queer teenaged heartache “Half a Person,” it has never spoken to me as intensely as when I was going through an early-middle-age divorce with young children: the whole brutal yet banal package. The ambiguity and duality of the song deeply appeals to my conviction that I am also living the life of “half a person” as a single mother of two young boys. Of course, my boys, as children of divorce, also live the dichotomy of split selves on a daily basis, torn – even if only subconsciously – between loyalties to mother and father, through no fault of their own. The messiness of adult sexuality falls squarely on the shoulders of the adults in the room. Still, I perpetually feel as if I exist on two planes: the disciplined kid-caretaker who is always there for my boys when they are with me, with a running tab of the week’s playdates, doctor’s appointments, soccer games, homework and hurt feelings; and what one of my fellow badass single moms calls the “feral bachelorette,” juggling previously inaccessible events such as impromptu invitations to Dead Kennedys concerts, day drinking with child-free friends, the anthropological experiment that is online dating, and swimming in freezing lakes in the High Sierras. And yeah, far more than she participates in any of these activities, the feral bachelorette works like a maniac.

This inherently split personality post-divorce has its roots both in my ethnic/cultural heritage and in my relationship to The Smiths as a band. As a Chicana growing up in 1980s Los Angeles, I have loved The Smiths since long before I knew it was an especially Los Angeles-inflected Chicanx thing to do. The Smiths, mind you, not just Morrissey, despite the sustained focus on his Mexicanness-by-association, the christening of LA by his Chicanx/Latinx fans as “Moz Angeles,” and the existence of Morrissey and Smiths cover-version bands such as the Chicanx LA-based group Sweet and Tender Hooligans and the Mexican band Mexrrissey. Like any good Smiths fan, I knew that the band lived and died by the union of Morrissey’s morosely humorous lyrics and Johnny Marr’s jangly, joyful guitar riffs.  But despite how large Morrissey has always loomed, Johnny Marr was always the focal point for me. Sure, I was always a little bit in love with the mop-haired guitar hero. While I memorized Morrissey’s witty, literary lyrics, I obsessed just as hard over Marr’s versatile “jingle-jangle” guitar prowess, which few of my peers seemed to care that much about. And because I have always been nothing if not contrarian, at fourteen I proudly proclaimed myself #teamjohnnymarr and never looked back.

In my predilection for Marr I was swimming not only against popular consensus but also against my own Chicanx culture. Virtually every consideration of the Smiths and Chicanismo in the media and critical texts hinges on Morrissey, even as they generally privilege Chicanx and Latinx fans’ creative expressions of fandom, as in the book Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands, by Melissa Mora Hidalgo. Likewise, Kerri Koch’s 2010 documentary Passions Just Like Mine, foregrounds the question of why there are so many “Latino, Hispanic, Mexican Morrissey fans, especially in Los Angeles.” Yet Koch’s documentary only mentions Johnny Marr once, and only in relation to Morrissey’s past. Public Radio International’s Susie Blair further highlights the solidarity in angst and alienation that Chicanx fans feel with Morrissey, and the way that his music “evokes the classic ranchera genre that relies on romance, morose metaphors, and slow-moving ballads;” but never mentions Marr at all, even though he was the co-songwriter for all of the Smiths’ music.

My own experience of tension between cohesion and division along the Morrissey/Marr axis makes perfect sense in the context of The Smiths’ history. Many bands’ demises are more akin to divorce than to death; many even incorporate the requisite love triangle myth of the woman who intrudes upon the barely-concealed eroticism of the inseparable genius male pair, a la Yoko Ono. But The Smiths’ “divorce” was uniquely prolonged and acrimonious. With characteristic solipsism, in his autobiography Morrissey alludes to The Smiths’ end as something that happened to him twice: “If the Smiths split was designed to kill me off, then it failed. If the Smiths court case was a second attempt to kill me off, it too must fail.” The Smiths’ breakup is generally attributed to Johnny Marr’s desire to play different musical styles with other musicians. Recently, however, he has described his unhappiness with the pressure placed on him to manage the band; a service-oriented labor reminiscent of wifely caretaking. Marr held out for a sign that one of The Smiths “might do something to salvage the situation,” but the press preemptively announced that he had in fact left the band. In Marr’s own words, he “faced up to the inevitable and announced that he was leaving The Smiths.”

But the animosity behind The Smiths’ breakup has nothing on the all-out war of their court case. In 1996, Mike Joyce, the band’s drummer, sued Morrissey and Marr for an equal share of performing and recording royalties from The Smiths. Joyce won the case and was awarded damages of around one million pounds from Morrissey and Marr. Both parties discuss the case in their respective autobiographies. Marr is direct and concise, declaring “The Smiths as a band were not equal…Morrissey and I formed it, and…we managed it, and usually managers take 20 percent of a band’s income before the band members take their share.” For his part, Morrissey sharpens his most florid knives for his takedown of Joyce, calling him “a flea in search of a dog” and announcing, “Having been rescued by the Smiths in 1983, [Joyce] was again rescued in 1996 by the ensuing fame of the court case, beginning once more to be known, and beginning once more to profit by latching onto Morrissey and Marr.” In spite of their intensifying iconicity, The Smiths’ legacy has also devolved into political farce. Morrissey’s famously eccentric (if generally defensible) political stances of animal rights protection and anti-Crown rhetoric have bled into outright xenophobia, racism and misogyny as when he described Chinese people as a “subspecies” because of their treatment of animals, or in his recent, ill-advised defense of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein against allegations of rape and sexual harassment.

The Smiths’ prolonged divorce has even inspired parody through false rumors of a band reunion. Lead guitarist Joselo Rangel of the Mexican rock band Café Tacvba published “The Smiths Reunion” in a Mexico City newspaper, chronicling his orchestration of a secret rehearsal with all four Smiths in a house in Tepoztlán, Morelos (“La reunión de los Smiths”). That Joselo published his column on December 28, “Día de los Santos Inocentes,” an April Fools’ Day-style holiday in Mexico, does not make the letdown of the inevitable joke sting any less. The fans’ desperate hope that The Smiths might reunite one day echoes the fondest desires of children of divorce that their parents will one day get back together, even in the face of screaming matches, subsequent relationships, and tenuous mutual détente. But unlike the many other bands who have heeded the siren call of dollar signs promised by the ubiquitous reunion tour, The Smiths, like most divorced couples, are never ever getting back together.

And yet. The collateral damage for children, fans, parents and bands in the wake of both musical and personal divorce means that lots of people are living a split existence as “half a person.” For me, being half a person means worrying about and missing my boys when I am not with them so much that it physically hurts. It feels like I am permanently missing two limbs. It also means, somehow at the same time, a delirious, if fleeting, sense of escape. Dave Eggers’ reflection on being a 20-something single caretaker of his young brother after their parents’ untimely deaths in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius really resonates: “Then out the door, down the steps and into the car and as I’m backing out of the driveway there is the usual euphoria – Free! –which pretty much  overtakes me… Then, at the moment that I am turning the corner, I become convinced… – it happens every time I leave him anywhere – that Toph [Eggers’ brother] will be killed.” When your freedom is tinged with fear and guilt, maybe you can’t really call it freedom. But if that is what life in the trenches post-divorce, post-kids gives you, you had better take it.

In my irrational moments, I worry that I am damaging my boys by not providing them with a normative household in our rather normative small college town, though I am acutely aware that there has never been any such thing. But even more so, I know that I have never been normative. I have always had something of a split personality: American/Mexican, English/Spanish, introvert/wild card, virgen/puta. I tell myself that these multiple, split selves are inevitable for me, that they exemplify Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderlands condition and new mestiza consciousness with its “tolerance for contradictions,” its “tolerance for ambiguity.” Since I have spent a lifetime living this reality, and over half a lifetime researching and writing about it, I am certainly accustomed to the “plural personality” that such an existence requires, and the simultaneity of multiple selves that transcends a simple tolerance for contradictions. I don’t always own this ambiguous condition, but it is never too late to do so.

So I return to The Smiths’ “Half A Person” to understand that the song, like most of our lives, deliberately presents a scenario where it is impossible to determine a single identity for the speaker. As the titular girl/boy describes running away from a small town to the safety of the London YWCA, scrubbing women’s backs while pining for their forsaken (female) love interest, the heartache inherent to inhabiting multiple genders, sexualities, and even ages is ever-present. The space of the YWCA clearly suggests the queer potential of women’s empowerment. But the speaker’s plea, “I said I like it here, can I stay?,” also hints that they could be a boy drawn to the YWCA not in search of sexual awakening, but rather, of desperately longed-for motherly devotion. In “Half A Person,” identity is halved with all of the heartbreak that that implies, but it is also multiplied, continually shifting into new possibilities that simultaneously conjure present, past and future selves. Ultimately, the song teaches me that being half a person is not a failure, but nor it is the only path available to me. Instead, for me “Half A Person” reflects the logical expression of my intrinsic multiplicity: “That’s the story of my life.”

–Desirée A. Martín is Associate Professor of English at UC Davis, where
she specializes in Chicanx, Latinx, and US-Mexico border studies. She
is currently working on a book on Latinx cultural media and
translation, and she still listens to far more 80s goth/new wave/punk
than is seemly.

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At the Altar with Billy Graham

“I am a girl, and I love another girl!” M.D. writes to the Lakeland Ledger, “However, I am worried about my Christian life…Please help.” On November 20, 1973, Billy Graham replies, “Let me say this loud and clear! We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual warfare.”

When Billy Graham died on February 21, 2018, my friends — mostly writers and academics, liberal Civil Rights activists and feminists and queers — took to Facebook to circumvent the assured onslaught of praise for the man who had been known for decades as “America’s Pastor.” One friend shared a campy memorial: Billy Graham’s name atop the Wicked Witch’s body crushed under the house along with the words “girl bye.”

Another friend got more quickly to how many of us felt about the reverend: “Billy Graham is dead. Beneath that bland, non-denominational exterior was a disgusting bigoted man… Good riddance, and rot in hell.” I would be lying if I claimed a feeling otherwise, to claim that with hatred towards the good reverend, my cup didn’t runneth over. His list of sins is long and mighty. Graham preached against the feminist and gay liberation movements, and even spoke out against Civil Rights as a matter of cultural sin, painting racism itself as just a matter of the fallen heart. Graham encouraged Nixon in his anti-semitic fervor, both Bush’s in their respective wars on sovereign nations, and Clinton in his dismantling of welfare as we knew it. He was an outspoken supporter of massive bombing campaigns in Vietnam and later, celebrated the war in Iraq as an opportunity for our Christian nation to save people from Islam.

Graham blocked Protestantism — nay, all of Western Christendom — from abandoning its socially exclusionary ways. Graham mired us, softly, yes, but perhaps more than anyone else during the twentieth century, in Christian fundamentalism. A fundamentalism that gave us the culture wars, that gave us a broken American electorate, that gave us a Christian nation no longer interested in the social justice gospel of its origin, but hell bent on electing Donald Trump as a warrior for Christ.

I’m writing myself out of what I came here to say: that the legacy of Billy Graham is complicated. Is it? I’m not so sure, but I’ll try to imagine this version of remembrance, too.

In their obituary, The New York Times recalls Graham as one prominent version of the American dream incarnate, “a North Carolina farmer’s son who preached to millions in stadium events he called crusades, becoming a pastor to presidents and the nation’s best-known Christian evangelist for more than 60 years.” Perhaps more than anyone else, too, Graham ushered in the era of cult celebrity, a reality star who took church not only to the street, but also to the television. Celebrity, a complicated cultural position in and of itself, Jesus warned, saying “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43).

For all the shit things Graham did, and they are voluminous, he also encouraged a nation to feel. And this, I say now as a queer agnostic, is perhaps his greatest, perhaps his only great, legacy. Since the late 1940s, Graham appeared before millions of Americans, before millions more around the world, excluding many, yes, but comforting many others, from Queen Elizabeth II to Hurricane Katrina victims. “Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life?” he was found of asking the stadiums filled for his crusades. My father watched these on television, I remember now, just as his father, an abusive drunk, listened to them on the radio.

I remember my father crying then, “breaking under the strains of life,” unafraid to cry in front of me as the Spirit supposedly moved him, a reformation of American masculinity rarely seen in my household, certainly many others. Melissa Gregg tells us how in such moments, “bodies can catch feelings as easily as catch fire: affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear.” I am not saying anyone’s reaction to Graham’s death is wrong. He made many people feel, feelings which catch fire now in both tenderness and shame and rage.

My grandfather, were he alive today, would grow tender, I imagine. When I call him, my father feels shame, for worshipping at the bequest of a man who would want to teach him to hate his own faggot son. His son, that’s me, rages along with friends at the acquiescent misremembering of a man who taught Americans to devalue each other, with one hand, and with the other, to feel.


D. Gilson is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He’s working on a collection of essays on queerness and evangelical pasts.

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Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence

Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1848, on a slave plantation owned by Wiley Jones. Though Tom was originally designated to be sold off or left for dead for his blindness and presumed uselessness on a slave plantation, Tom’s mother fought to keep him with the rest of his family by … Continue reading Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence
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Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence

Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1848, on a slave plantation owned by Wiley Jones. Though Tom was originally designated to be sold off or left for dead for his blindness and presumed uselessness on a slave plantation, Tom’s mother fought to keep him with the rest of his family by … Continue reading Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence
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VII.* Mourning song

Like you, I’m mourning the late Ursula Le Guin. In an essay from 1982 that meditates on utopian potentials and failings, Le Guin writes that a persistent story about the Golden Age is that it is irrational and, unlike hyperrational utopia, conditionally possible “right here, right now.” Meanwhile, she muses,

it is of the very essence of the rational or Jovian utopia that it is not here and not now. It is made by the reaction of will and reason against, away from, the here-and-now, and it is, as More said in naming it, nowhere. It is pure structure without content; pure model; goal. That is its virtue. Utopia is uninhabitable. As soon as we reach it, it ceases to be utopia. As evidence of this sad but ineluctable fact, may I point out that we in this room, here and now, are inhabiting utopia. (“A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be”)

I’m sold on the idea that the Golden Age and utopia are not interchangeable (perhaps I have to be, since the book I’m writing is about this very thing), but not entirely on the idea that one is mystical and the other reason maddened. The differences are both more and less profound. But maybe what Le Guin means is that there’s a basic confusion at work here, as there must be in any act of translation.

Maybe she means that utopia is a no-place that can, from one angle, look like the memory of the Golden Age projected onto the screen of the future. This would have to result—how otherwise?—not in transparency, but in opacity. She’s in search of a utopia we haven’t imagined yet: one that divagates from the hard geometries of endless progress, expansion, automated logic without reference to material realities of lives as they’re already lived. This was—and is—the matter of much of her fiction, an attempt to draw new geographies within extant histories, ones that did not—do not—pretend to conditions of necessary blankness. While she believed that the traumas of history don’t die away from us, she also believed, more improbably, that history’s joys and potentials can sometimes stay gold with us.

The magic trick she works in her essay is this one: by alerting us to our arrival in utopia, she causes the coast of utopia to recede just far enough so that it’s as if we never managed to make land, tantalized between the grapes and the pool of clear water, the devil and the deep blue sea. Every time we consciously realize that utopia just might be here and now, we are immediately cast out of utopia. It passes in our conscious experience from possibility to history—or nostalgia—without ever pausing in our present.

But the mere acknowledgment of loss is not, by fiat, nostalgia, and nor is the work, equal parts avoidance and looking-it-straight-in-the-eyes, of mourning. The Other Wind, the final entry in Le Guin’s Earthsea sextet, turns its gaze to the dead. In the archipelago of Earthsea, those who go die into a place called the “dry land,” an actual geographically identifiable locale (contiguous with life, though not of it) within the physical world of the novel, separated from the domain of we with breath (as is any paradise manqué) by a wall. Like the Fields of Asphodel in classical visions of the afterlife—glaucous, hermaphroditic rambles of that greeny flower—the dry land is no golden Elysium, no endless feasting of slaughtered heroes, prodigies of aidos, exception, or (very occasionally) goodness. Nor is it like Tartarus, the realm of transgressors and their eternal contrapasso: Sisyphus and his boulder, Tantalus and his pool and his grapes, Ixion on his fiery wheel. It is, rather, the preserve of the ordinary dead, who were no one special, after all, only beloved (or not) and irreplaceable.

W.H. Auden (poet, ekphrastically) on Thetis, mother of the warrior Achilles, looking on as Hephaestos, armorer-god, forges a shield for her son, the demi-divine:

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead. (“The Shield of Achilles”)

In Le Guin’s dry land, it is jam yesterday and jam today, but never jam tomorrow: changeless, dark always, the stars fixed in their orbits. And yet, it bristles with none of the gravid promise of the (differently ambivalent) stasis of Keats’s Grecian urn, where “happy, happy love!” is “ever warm and still to be enjoy’d” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Think (as Le Guin does) what the experience of such an eternity is like! A man called Alder is tormented by the knowledge of what these shades suffer:

“It’s a terrible thing to hear one’s true name called by strangers . . . and it’s a terrible thing to be called by the dead . . . “I wake,” he said, “and I’m in my own room. I’m not there, on that hillside. But I know they are. And I have to sleep. I try to wake often, and to sleep in daylight when I can, but I have to sleep at last. And then I am there, and they are there. And I can’t go up the hill. If I move it’s always downhill, towards the wall. Sometimes I can turn my back to them, but then I think I hear Lily among them, crying to me. And I turn to look for her. And they reach out to me.” (The Other Wind)

Alder’s haunting tells us, nearly explicitly, that the dry land, if we hadn’t cottoned to it already, is an allegory of mourning. And Le Guin’s conceit evokes, particularly, models of mourning (like those of the late Roland Barthes) in which this process, whose best end is the freedom of the living and the dead alike, is not an orderly series of stages but, paradigmatically, chaotic.

The major matter of The Other Wind is the effort to achieve the work of mourning in a world that, structurally speaking, forbids this labor from becoming effective, ties the dead to the earth, will not allow loss to complete itself. In one of Le Guin’s perfect inevitabilities of invention, we learn that the creation of the dry land was a mistake born of an arrogant endeavor to achieve immortality here on earth, a bait-and-switch: limbo for paradise. And so the mechanism for this project was, unsurprisingly, the paradise-impulse: the building of a sorcerous wall meant to define the limits of an immortal garden. Instead: rigor mortis.

To change the terms of mourning, to align it again with liberation rather than a fruitless clinging to the goneaway, the wall must be torn down and the dead assimilated to the rhythms of what goes on without them. “All we build, we build wrong” says one character in the appealing, uninflected, slightly archaic argot in which Le Guin renders the dialogue of Earthsea. This little speech might contain a salting of irony; it’s difficult to tell. Staggering, in light of it, to think that in the space between the creation of the wall and its falling, those many centuries, no one subject to its creation has ever achieved what mourning wants. And nor have the ends of death itself (inasmuch as it has them) ever been accomplished. Moreover, what looked like a mythic Golden Age in the past—what was painted gold—turns out to conceal a history that requires from the occupants of the present—the long now, to quote a friend quoting someone else—a complete renovation of the physical, epistemological, and affective tapestry of that tragicomical loom, the world.

But consider for a moment the mouth of the underworld, by some called Averno or Avernus, the gate where epic heroes go to feed the dead from the veins in their own forearms, where daughters are brought, unwilling, to betray, in their turn, the living earth with pomegranate seeds, where the gate of false dreams is made of ivory and the gate of true dreams of horn. Consider the poet Orpheus, descending (katabasis) to sing to the king and queen for Eurydice, his hapless snake-bitten wife, and failing her with a doubtful look over the shoulder. That Orphic glance back becomes for many theorists, Blanchot, for example, an image of how art happens, what it wants to lead out of darkness and the desideratum it carries with it even as it sings so indiscreetly to the wild beasts and stands with lamblike quiet at the proper time for the maenads, avatars of passionate precision—euoi!—to carve it by hand into pieces and circulate it through the wine-dark sea.

Louise Glück (poet by conferred laurel) on a farmer contemplating a burned field:

The terrible moment was the spring after his work was erased,
when he understood that the earth
didn’t know how to mourn, that it would change instead.
And then go on existing without him. (Averno 69)

Our close intimations of mortality, the realization that the earth doesn’t know how to mourn, that things succeed us—supersede us when we die—can be—but does not have to be—limited to the terrible moment. This is not to diminish the pain of loss or the threat of self-dissolution. It’s to say, merely, that no particular reaction can be enjoined upon us in relation to this knowledge or in perpetuity and this is a degree of what is most frightened and least tame within us. But this means, too, that what leaves you behind, what moves and moves and shows no sign of stopping for time past measure, the sublime indifference of matter and energy—which is to say nothing of the slightly-less-sublime indifference of our human spheres (that Golden Record)—what merely goes on can also—oh, don’t you think?—be understood as a form of hope—no, more substantial, still, a form of solace—a form of solace so asymptotically close to certain knowledge of a lavish impulse of matter, a confirmation of abundance, somewhere, for someone (though maybe not for us) as to seem a generous madness. If this possibility for the imparadisement (the re-verdancing) of our own dry lands—our own grammars of mourning—if this possibility for imparadisement did not exist, we would, I think, be reduced to inventing it.

(—O, Averno, no wonder you hide your face! I’d sought you so restlessly, never for yourself, but for the impossible, to steal back what you, acting in accordance with your implacable clinamen, had claimed without fault. I never knew ’til now—and so—forgive—)

Rainer Maria Rilke (poet, nominally) to Orpheus:

And if the earthly no longer knows your name [ … ] (Sonnets to Orpheus XXIX)

Anne Carson (antipoetaster, theorist of the erotic sweetbitter, waggish palinodist of the ancient and the now), a thought experiment:

Imagine a city where there is no desire. Supposing for the moment that the inhabitants of the city continue to eat, drink and procreate in some mechanical way; still, their life looks flat. They do not theorize or spin tops or speak figuratively. Few think to shun pain; none give gifts. They bury their dead and forget where. Zeno finds himself elected mayor and is set to work copying the legal code on sheets of bronze. Now and again a man and a woman may marry and live very happily, as travelers who meet by chance at an inn; at night falling asleep they dream the same dream, where they watch fire move along a rope that binds them together, but it is unlikely they remember the dream in the morning. The art of storytelling is widely neglected.

A city without desire is, in sum, a city of no imagination (Eros the Bittersweet 168)

For Carson, banishment from the city of no-desire is a kind of Fortunate Fall, for it’s in the ostracism that possibility, a spirit and a motion, can be born. Whether from Eden or the walls of the Republic, Plato’s sanitary kingdom in the clouds (no place for poets, by decree), we have been in exile from the clean rooms a long time and in strangely good company.

 Rebecca Ariel Porte is a member of the Core Faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is currently at work on a book about paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age.

*This essay is adapted from a book manuscript about paradise, Arcadia, and the Golden Age and some of its text first appeared (fly-by-night) in the form of the 6 a.m. lecture at Night of Philosophy and Ideas (2018), an event co-sponsored by Brooklyn Public Library and the French Embassy.

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The Gift of a Reasonable Desire

W. B. Yeats’s “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” is a poem about turning older and being gifted with what you really want, which, stripped down, turns out to be a pretty typical wanting. It’s a poem I’ve loved dearly since my friend Julianne Werlin introduced it to me when we were undergrads at the University of Chicago, and it’s a poem I’ve never been able to read well on my own, both because it’s difficult and because it’s a series of tests. The first being: presented with non-transgressive and socially uninteresting desires, is it possible to not get carried away with the powers of deflation? Especially if the banal desire in question is one that, in paraphrase, should offend our collective disciplinary sensibilities, reflecting as it does the most common power dynamics of our practices of sexual love?

An uncharacteristic dramatic monologue written in 1923, “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” recounts the passing of a young woman from the caliph Harun Al-Rashid to his Christian courtier Kusta Ben Luka. It’s a thinly veiled fictionalization of Yeats’ young bride Georgie’s automatic writings, the output from the trances and séances she underwent right after their marriage, which he recorded and published as A Vision. Unfortunately, the poem’s topical connection to the occult has hindered its comprehension. There’s some mystical math in it but unless you really force it, you cannot find in its forms or structures the phases of the moon, the special curvature of gyres, or the combinatorials of the I-Ching.

This is what happens in the poem, which is also its “concept”: one day Harun Al-Rashid pays a visit to Kusta Ben Luka, “the least considered of his courtiers.” There, with “one hand amid the goldfish,” the mighty caliph proceeds to convince Ben Luka to accept as a bride a young woman that he has expressly chosen for him because she is interested in the same scholarly things that he’s interested in. Al-Rashid has already taken a young bride himself and has found this second (or fiftieth) youth.

For Ben Luka this should be a no-brainer. Somehow, he still has to be talked into it.

In the end the gift is accepted, and Ben Luka is brought to his knees by desire, which sounds about right. The girl is young, likely less than half his age, being “what now can shake more blossom from autumnal chill/ Than all my bursting springtime knew.” In what universe was an aged scholar going to turn down the gift of a beautiful young girl who had scarcely even toured the grounds “Before she had spread a book upon her knees,” who strained to understand the same arcane things he’s strained to understand while remaining “youth’s very fountain,/ Being all brimmed with life”?

And as Ben Luka’s incredible dumb luck would have it, his young wife also has a direct line of access to the “crabbed mysteries” he has been trying to decipher to no avail. Every so often, in the middle of the night, she runs out into the desert in a trance and “there marked out those emblems on the sand that day by day” he studied, all the “gyres and cubes and midnight things.”

Back in college I had asked Julianne what she thought this part of the poem meant. She had said, it means sign me up for that thing where I can fuck someone and then have differential geometry reveal itself to me in the same night.

Along the deflationary axis the poem goes something like this: there are two patriarchs who discuss among themselves the fate of a woman who remains voiceless throughout and who, having no recollection of her special powers, “swept the house and sang about her work in childish ignorance.” Through this conceit, erotically mediated communication is, as an ideal form, displaced onto the Orientalized other. Guys: we have the humanities scholar who dabbles in mathematics, who appropriates the mental activities and body of a young woman with impunity because her special knowledge is seen as something that doesn’t belong to her but is free for the taking, and who then wonders out loud if she’s better off not knowing about the theft because in knowing she might doubt the purity of his motivations. Along the deflationary axis this poem is basically our profession’s upside down.

Here’s the thing, though. Whatever analogies it brings to mind “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’ is proof that reason can be spun from sheer typicality into the unmistakable shape of desire.


Much of the poem’s slow burn takes place in the persuasive dialogue between Ben Luka and Al-Rashid. Ben Luka is worried that his old age has precluded real love and that, being Christian, he would not desire love if it was unrequited. Al-Rashid’s countervailing reasons are the stuff on which reasoning runs aground:


“But such as you and I do not seem old
Like men who live by habit. Every day
I ride with falcon to the river’s edge
Or carry the ringed mail upon my back,
Or court a woman; neither enemy,
Game-bird, nor woman does the same thing twice;
And so a hunter carries in the eye
A mimic of youth. Can poet’s thought
That springs from body and in body falls
Like this pure jet, now lost amid blue sky,
Now bathing lily leaf and fish’s scale
Be mimicry?”

Ben Luka:

 “What matter if our souls
Are nearer to the surface of the body
Than souls that start no game and turn no rhyme!
The soul’s own youth and not the body’s youth
Shows through our lineaments…”

And so on.

Julianne had exclaimed: “Why does he break the iambic pentameter with that word ‘mimicry’? It makes the line almost unsayable.”

The whole thing is fucking difficult to follow. I text both stanzas to Rachel Feder.

By the last comment she meant: there’s one way to make banal desires great again, and that is by having it overthought/micro-analyzed/abstract-philosophized for you in advance.

I’m thinking that I still don’t understand why, if hunters and poets are the same kinds of things, the hunter carrying a mimic of youth in his eye makes him immune to habituation while the poet’s mimicry sounds like something to be avoided.

In his game of love and theft Ben Luka wonders, too, about the unoriginal desires and unoriginal ideas that have lit up his life. After all, he has only copied Al-Rashid in taking a young wife and then has only copied her copies. To prolong this wonderment, he tries to keep the faculty of reason tethered to the faculty of desire to the very end. Even when there’s really no more reason for thought, he thinks. Should he tell his wife? “What if she lose her ignorance and so/ Dream that I love her only for the voice”? If she doubts his motivations and loses her love then “All my fine feathers would be plucked away/ And I left shivering.” Worse yet, what if her special powers only come with being in love and in losing the one she loses the other? Then, he reasons, he’d really have nothing left.

To settle these matters he decides to reveal his hand. The first reveal, he says, is that all of the math things “are but a new expression of her body/ Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.” I’m still not sure after all this time why or how this constitutes a mystery. We get it. Her body is a wonderland. And as for his big dilemma: there’s really no uncertainty there, either. He’s going to continue to sleep with her and get the math on the side.

Ben Luka, remember, has shrouded the poem in secrecy from the beginning, asking the recipient, the Treasurer Abd Al-Rabban (the poem written “for no ear but his”) to hide it with the Treatise of Parmenides (and not with “books of learning from Byzantium” or “the great book of Sappho’s song”) because what is being recounted is the mystery of “how great violent hearts lose their bitterness and find the honeycomb,” and this should definitely not fall into the wrong hands. Which, lol. Of course when old men take young brides, their hearts lose bitterness with all the honeycombs.

Ben Luka knows he has a beautiful thing that’s also primed for deflation, which is why only some readers can be trusted to properly appreciate it.


I make a phone date with my friend Rebecca Ariel Porte for a 9-10am slot on a Saturday morning. It has to be that hour because she has to write a talk for an all-night lecture marathon at the Brooklyn Public Library and she’s going on at dawn. She is writing about the Golden Age. It has to be that hour because that’s the only hour I have on Saturday free from my wretched kids.

We read these beautiful lines over each other’s interpretations:

And now my utmost mystery is out.
A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner;
Under it wisdom stands, and I alone —
Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone —
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

“A woman’s beauty” and the complex blazon that follows do not necessarily explain or even focalize the “utmost mystery.” We know this by the period after “out.” But we can know something about this utmost mystery in the repetitious “I alone/I alone”: how does one claim something that isn’t easily claimed, something that has to be routed through desiring circuits every single time?

We see now that this uncertainty has been inscribed from the very beginning which casts doubt about the letter reaching its intended auditor. The poet can’t be sure that the right person will find the hidden letter/poem—that it won’t simply be picked up to be dropped by a “boy’s/ Love-lorn, indifferent hands.” That’s the first rerouting—a test whether communication will be consummated. Then again in the garden: it takes a good while for us to figure out what “the gift” even is. When we get the thing that was so easily gotten, it’s only through voice that we get her at all. And even then, when it should be immediate as voice is immediate, it is still coming from the beyond, at a remove.

That might be why—this is Rebecca—the speaker’s “utmost mystery” is “out,” as it were: desire can only be recursively experienced through the formal processes of the series of exchanges that constitute the poem itself. We’re slyly trapped (by the logic of the text) into taking the experience of the poem’s formal workings in trade for a portable consummation.

It’s 10am and my time is up. The gift of Harun Al-Rashid is the fact of desire moving tangent to its object.


How do you like your shapes in the sand?

I love critics who, encouraged by the healthy amount of uncertainty in the wording, try to come up with candidates for the identity of the “armed man” in the last line of the poem. As if the poem didn’t already tell you. As if there’s Wisdom, standing disembodied underneath the storm-tossed banner, and somewhere else, 500 feet away, maybe, up the hill somewhere, there’s a non-referential armed man. As if, neither an integral part of a woman’s beauty nor separable from it, wisdom could not be the armored thing.

I email Julianne to tell her, essentially, that I’ve stolen her favorite poem for an essay without even having come up with an original reading of it myself. I tell her, in effect, that “mimicry,” in the poem as in real life, is hard to get out of one’s mouth.

She writes back with no greeting or sign off:

I took this to be the basic idea – that the most ordinary and banal forms of sexual love, after all of their troubling attendant circumstances have been explained and demystified, remain as mysterious as ever. And that it’s worth thinking about these mysteries, which are after all central to literature, through literature.

I’m reminded of a quote by Stephen Booth: “What does the human mind ordinarily want most? To understand what it does not understand. And what does the human mind customarily do to achieve that goal? It works away – sometimes only for a second or two, sometimes for years – until it understands. What does the mind have then? What it wanted? No. What it has is understanding of something it now understands. What it wanted was to understand something it did not understand.”

Nan Z. Da: Whitman Sampler sampler

Image: Caroline Walls’ “After Thought IV,” screen print 2017
Used with permission of the artist


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Harriet Tubman: Neurodivergent Black Excellence

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a four part series highlighting Black and neurodivergent leaders and historical figures, in honor Black History Month. Each leader was selected by Finn Gardiner, a contemporary Black and Autistic leader and scholar. Harriet Tubman is widely known as a brave Black woman who led herself and hundreds … Continue reading Harriet Tubman: Neurodivergent Black Excellence
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