First published in 1923, Cane is a series of lyrical vignettes about life in rural Georgia told from the point of view of an ambivalently black teacher from the north. Cane’s protagonist is loosely based off of the author, Jean Toomer, a black man descended from mixed-race former slaves. Throughout his life, Toomer traveled across the color line, insisting that he wanted his work to be known beyond the confines of black literature.
I took the train north to New Haven one evening this spring. I had just read Cane for the first time as an adult, no longer in college. I am now twenty-seven, the age Toomer was when he wrote his masterpiece. I thought of how Toomer drafted Cane on trains returning to Washington from Georgia—did he sit in the black car or the white car?—and how he might have timed the rhythms of his words to the ringing of the rails, striking downhome talk and folksong into modernist poetry. I caught the reflection of my white-looking features in the train window and wondered at how my appearance eases me through time. How so many of my people have lit out for whiteness, never to return. My “white” Mormon cousins out West. Would there come a time, even worse weather, when I too might deny my past? I remembered my enslaved ancestors, their courage, the land they purchased when freed by the Union forces. At the Yale library, reading through papers Toomer kept during his time in Sparta and in his later time of exile, I witnessed how pain and fear—of the world, of one’s self—could be twisted into a terrible, haunting beauty.
Fear is as much of a medium for Philippe Petit as is balance, poise, and control in his high wire act. In his death-defying walks across the Grand Canyon and between the World Trade Center towers, Petit bent fear to his will. At Lapham’s Quarterly, Petit reflects on what a lifetime of fear has meant to his art, and how he has faced fear on the wire and off.
Before my high-wire walk across the Seine to the second story of the Eiffel Tower, the seven-hundred-yard-long inclined cable looked so steep, the shadow of fear so real, I worried. Had there been an error in rigging calculations? No. I had just forgotten how high were my expectations, how mad I was to have conceived such a project. On the spot I vanquished my anxiety by imagining the best outcome: my victorious last step above a cheering crowd of 250,000.
If imagination does not work, turn to the physical side of things. Give yourself a time-limit ultimatum: start counting! Yes, choose a number—not too high—and when you hear footsteps on your porch at three am, unfreeze your trepidation by whispering to yourself, “At ten, I open the door! One, two, three, four…”
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad—and you’re already smiling.
For the Winter 2017 “Home” edition of Lapham’s Quarterly, Renata Adler — whose parents fled Germany in the early 1930s — returns to her familial homeland to explore Germany’s present-day reaction to the refugee crisis, and the millions of people now trying to get in rather than out.
The “land” in question was of course Germany, which had—in living, though dwindling, memory—launched by far the worst, most immense, cruel, specific persecution in the history of mankind. One from which there were relatively few refugees fortunate enough to escape. The millions now seeking asylum were not in the old sense “refugees.” Most had fled (in German, they are called Flüchtlinge, people fleeing) from civil wars or in search of a better life. (The Yazidis, in Iraq, and the Tutsi, in Rwanda, would be refugees in the old sense. Their persecutors, eager to exterminate them, would not permit them to escape.) Historically, there has existed no genuine “right” to asylum from war, poverty, oppression, intolerable living conditions in the land from which you came. Even asylum from specific persecutions, extermination, genocide had been denied throughout the world to people trying to escape the Holocaust. Merkel’s invitation was, in part, an attempt—by welcoming all who could assert a claim for asylum—to expiate, atone for, above all to avoid repetition of this vast, unprecedented crime. Throughout human history, there had been migrations, voluntary and involuntary, of all kinds. But the current problem, whatever its moral claims, was vastly different from the Holocaust. It was different as well from every earlier migration. There seemed to exist no way for the more fortunate peoples of the earth to absorb all those less fortunate, even if their cultures were highly compatible. Which, in this case, they were not.
As part of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve vowed to read the hundreds of books I already own. Last night, I started and finished Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Córdova, which I received last year courtesy of a giveaway from Danika Ellis, a book blogger who runs The Lesbrary. Córdova’s 1990 memoir is compulsively readable—I couldn’t put it down. She writes about her decision to join the convent fresh out of high school, her growing unease regarding church politics, her deep friendships with her fellow postulants and secular students alike, and, eventually, her decision to leave the novitiate. Córdova is well-known for her 2011 memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, which describes her political work and LGBTQ community organizing in the 1970s. She was a force for good in the West Coast queer community. She edited a lesbian magazine, created an LGBTQ business directory, and even organized the Gay and Lesbian caucus to the Democratic Party. Sadly, Córdova died a little more than a year ago. I wish I could have met her.
In the two years since I compiled the first installation of “The Lives of Nuns,” Autostraddle wrote about queer nuns in history, Racked shadowed (fake) nuns growing marijuana, and The Huffington Post reported on a nun’s murder and the students who want the truth. Those stories and more are included below. Seclude yourself and read. Read more…
Johnny was more honest than most about his salvation. Other teens said they’d felt so lost in the secular world that they’d attempted suicide. When pressed for details, they produced accounts of the angry boredom of being sixteen in the suburbs: “attempted suicide” meant driving too fast, going for a too-difficult dive, getting dangerously drunk on dad’s Jack Daniel’s. One boy told me had resolved to strangle himself and would have, too, had not Jesus invisibly pulled the boy’s hands from his Adam’s apple. For Johnny there had been no special signs, no spiritual lows. It was simple as this: he was on a ski trip, and Jesus got him—shouldered into Johnny’s heart and said, “You’re mine, buddy.” It felt “wicked awesome,” better than eight girls in a Hummer all at the same time.
– Jeff Sharlet, in Lapham’s Quarterly, on a day spent with the sexually pure teens of Battlecry Honor Academy in Garden Valley, Texas — where he learns that renouncing your sins doesn’t mean redacting their memories.
Time carried back to the future, once again seen and understood as it was in antiquity, not only as mortal enemy but also as immortal ally. The counterrevolution against the autocratic regime of uniform, global time (commercially and politically imperialist) was pressed forward by many of the artists and writers of Einstein’s generation unwilling to bide time emptied of its being in order to accommodate the running of railroads and the rounding up of armies. In 1889 the French philosopher Henri Bergson discredits the measurable magnitude of time; Marcel Proust encapsulates the whole of a lifetime within a moment’s swallowing of a pastry; the cubist paintings of Picasso, Duchamp, and Braque play with the rearrangement of time in space, and the advent of Thomas Edison’s motion pictures in 1891 provide a means of printing time as a currency more durable than money. The Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky suggests that “what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had,” time in the form of fact, “a way of reconstructing, of recreating life.”
Time moves more quickly and efficiently by wire than it does on horseback or on foot, but the faster it goes, the harder it is to know (or taste or smell or touch), an observation that William Faulkner, in his novel The Sound and the Fury, published in 1929, locates in the head of his Harvard undergraduate protagonist, who first breaks, and then refuses to repair, a watch—“Because Father said clocks slay time. He said time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, published in 1931, presents a petition protesting the tyranny of Captain Clock: “It is a mistake, this extreme precision, this orderly and military progress; a convenience, a lie. There is always deep below it, even when we arrive punctually at the appointed time with our white waistcoats and polite formalities, a rushing stream of broken dreams, nursery rhymes, street cries, half-finished sentences and sights—elm trees, willow trees, gardeners sweeping, women writing—that rise and sink.”
The pagan appreciations of time implicit in the writing of both Faulkner and Woolf (as well as in the novels of James Joyce and the dream interpretations of Sigmund Freud) correlate with Jay Griffiths discovering that the Maori in New Zealand envision themselves moving backward into the future as they face the past, a practice consistent with the thought of Søren Kierkegaard (life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward) as with the thirteenth-century reflections of the Zen Buddhist Dōgen.
In 1727, a lady named Helen Morrison placed a personal advertisement in the Manchester Weekly Journal. It was possibly the first time a newspaper was ever used for such a purpose. As it happens, Morrison was committed to an asylum for a month. Society was clearly not ready for such an autonomous practice, especially on the part of a woman. But personal ads quickly became an institution. Heinrich von Kleist’s celebrated novella The Marquise of O, first published in 1810 (and said by Kleist to be “based on a true incident”) opens on the newspaper ad placed by “a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well-brought-up children,” to the effect “that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.” Read more…
Our latest Exclusive comes from the editors of Lapham’s Quarterly. They’ve been longtime contributors to the Longreads community, and this week we’re thrilled to present “Working the Room,” a new essay on humor and the presidency by Michael Phillips-Anderson, from their latest issue, “Politics.” (If you like this, you can subscribe to their print edition here):
In 1848, as a young representative from Illinois, Lincoln took the House floor in support of the Whig presidential candidate, Zachary Taylor. He mocked his Democratic opponents for not gathering behind a single candidate by telling a curious anecdote:
I have heard some things from New York, and if they are true, we might well say of your party there, as a drunken fellow once said when he heard the reading of an indictment for hog stealing. The clerk read on till he got to, and through the words, ‘did steal, take, and carry away, ten boars, ten sows, ten shoats, and ten pigs’ at which he exclaimed, ‘Well, by golly, that is the most equally divided gang of hogs I ever did hear of.’ If there is any gang of hogs more equally divided than the Democrats of New York are about this time, I have not heard of it.
When Lincoln finished with a remark, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘He looks up at you with a great satisfaction, and shows all his white teeth, and laughs.’
The story of my brother’s life is complicated by the fact that in my earliest memories there is no such thing as him or me. My brother was born one year and nine days after me, and although I was older, I have no recollection of life before he arrived. Growing up on a small family farm, we were alone in our play, and before the age of five it was always Dan and me together, sneaking strawberries from the garden, building snowmen in the yard until the darkness fell and our cheeks stung from the cold, whispering in our bunk beds at night. We were more than accomplices, much more even than friends; we were all the other had.