• The Rat King: On the Fascinations (and Revulsions) of Rattus

    Leo [Stein, brother of Gertrude] went to Harvard in 1892 to study philosophy but soon got distracted. He described his problem: "There would be that same irresistible tendency to find out one day the truth about the Battle of Vicksburg, another the most recent determination for the date of the second Isaiah, then perhaps Hertwig's answer to Jennings' paper and on a fourth the relation of recalled future time to the possibility of a logically complete induction … I'm all too easily distracted. If somebody asks me about the habits of giraffes I'm strongly inclined to look up their anatomy, physiology, and embryology. The amount of time I've wasted because foolish people asking foolish questions have started my mind off on things it hadn't any business to monkey with."

    — Gertrude and Alice, Diana Souhami

    Is there such a word as "xenogastronomy"? (There should be; now there is.) While chewing over a stranger-than-fiction reference to mouse on toast in Gordon Grice's Deadly Kingdom, I find myself thinking of strange cuisine.

    How can I not think of ortolan, the thumb-sized songbird prized by gourmands in France, where the endangered animal—whose sale is illegal but whose consumption, perversely, is not—is force-fed to the point of delectable plumpness? Poetically dispatched by being drowned in Armagnac (there are worse ways to go), it is roasted whole and, ultimately, eaten entire, under cover of a napkin draped over the diner's head "to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God" (not to mention the disapproving gaze of any PETA activists at nearby tables).

    When prostate cancer handed Francois Mitterrand a death sentence, he hosted a fabulous Last Supper whose pièce de résistance was ortolan; shielded from the all-seeing eye by the traditional napkin, Monsieur Le Président had two. (The atheist in me loves the presumption that our omniscient, omnipotent Heavenly Father, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and can see from here to infinity, is defeated by a napkin.) "[T]here's a lot of contemplation that goes on underneath that cloth napkin," says the journalist Michael Paterniti, who has eaten the dish. He compares the experience to "being in a confessional. You have to own up to the fact that you're not only eating this bird, but you have to own up to your own mortality. And I think that's what Francois Mitterrand was most attracted to; trying to achieve some immortal gesture, [he] felt that this bird was the perfect ending of his life." Paterniti claims Mitterrand "ate not another bite of food" until he dropped off the twig eight days later, an act of aestheticism Oscar Wilde would envy. (Presumably, he made a full confession before the celestial bench.) François Simon, the restaurant critic for Le Figaro, has called the experience of eating ortolan "monstrous" but sublime nonetheless: "Crunching the bones was like munching sardines or hazelnuts. I chewed a long time. When I finally had to swallow, I regretted the end of a very sensual experience." Would roast mouse be equally toothsome? Who knows what monstrous sublimities we're missing?

    Which makes me think of the HBO series Rome; in one episode, a soldier chowing down at an unprepossessing osteria declares the dormouse on offer the best in the city. By all accounts, this little detail is historically accurate: the ancient Romans farmed the rodents, fattening them on walnuts; the bill of fare at the "Dinner of Trimalchio" in Petronius's Satyricon includes "dormice sprinkled with poppy-seed and honey…served on little bridges soldered fast to the platter." (Apparently, the Italian appetite for the Edible Dormouse, as it is helpfully named, didn't die with the Caesars. Despite the fact that Glis glis is now a protected species in Italy, food inspectors discovered, in 2007, dormouse casseroles for sale from multiple restaurateurs at a festival in the Calabrian region of Southern Italy. Facing criminal charges, the suspects offered a novel defense: the "dormouse" in their dishes, they claimed, was actually rat.)

    Slovenian dormouse stew. All rights reserved, Gourmet.com

    Talk of mouse-phagy makes my thoughts return, naturally enough, to mouse on toast. In Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler meditates on mouse on toast, eaten "fur and all," as a remedy for bedwetting (who would, after that?) and mouse pie as a cure for childhood stammering. That leads—how could it not?—to Salvador Dali's 1939 "readymade" Freud's Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat), an innocuous photo of a smiling baby, accessorized by Dali with a half-gnawed cartoon rat dangling from the child's mouth, oozing gore. Dali offered little in the way of explanation for this image, whose leg-pulling outrageousness is pure punk rock, although he does claim, in The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, that at the age of five he "all but" bit the head off a bat. (The "all but" is a nice touch.)

    (Dali, by the way, was an ortolan fan. In his autohagiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he enthuses, "How wonderful to crunch a bird's tiny skull! How can one eat brains any other way! Small birds are very much like small shellfish. They wear their armor, so to speak, flush with their skin. In any case Paolo Uccello painted armor that looked like little ortolans…" And so on, in the usual Dalinian fashion, delivered with impeccable comic timing and a perfectly straight face. Exit through the gift shop, please.)

    Salvador Dali, Freud's Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat) (1939). All rights reserved.

    From there, it's just a free-associated hop, skip, and jump to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-'71, when rat was on the menu. ("People are making rat pâté," Victor Hugo noted, matter-of-factly, in his memoirs. "It is said to be quite good.") A menu from the Jockey Club, touting delicacies such as Salmis de rats à la Robert, lives on in weird-food legend. (A salmis is a rich ragout; in his Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris, the journalist Henry Du Pré Labouchère pronounces salmis of rat "excellent—something between frog and rabbit," adding, philosophically, "The older one grows, the more tolerant one becomes.")

    English translation of a menu from a dinner in Paris during the siege of the city, which lasted nearly five months, from September 19, 1870 to January 28, 1871. Found on FoodReference.com; all rights reserved.

    Speaking of Robert, could there be a connection, here, to William Burroughs's scabrous satire on haute cuisine in Naked Lunch? In the Burroughs novel, the "Transcendental Cuisine" served by a snooty restaurant called Chez Robert goes downhill by degrees until it is literally "garbage, the clients being too intimidated by the [restaurant's] reputation…to protest." Judging from Robert's spécialités de la maison, its chef must have trained at the Jockey Club: the restaurant's menu includes siege-of-Paris-style offerings such as "After-Birth Suprême de Bœuf, cooked in drained crankcase oil, served with a piquant sauce of rotten egg yolks and crushed bed bugs." No mouse, though.

    Returning to Murinae (the mammalian subfamily comprising mice and rats), rats must have been plentiful and frolicsome in the Missouri of Mark Twain's childhood, since they scamper through the novels he sets in the antebellum South. In Tom Sawyer, when Tom cons the neighborhood boys into trading their prized possessions for the opportunity to take over his whitewashing chore, Johnny Miller antes up "a dead rat and a string to swing it with"; later, Huck Finn has a premonition of disaster in the form of "a rotten bad dream last night—dreampt about rats." In Huckleberry Finn, a country woman bemoans her poverty, lamenting that the rats in her shanty "was as free as if they owned the place"; deriding Huck's easy-as-pie plan to free the recaptured runaway slave Jim, Tom groans, "Why, cert'nly it would work, like rats a-fighting."

    My favorite rat reference in the Twain canon—an arcane category, admittedly—is Tom's blissful inquiry in Tom Sawyer, while spooning with Becky, "Do you love rats?" Is there a more perfect expression, in all of American literature, of the joys of carefree youth? Ever since I first clapped eyes on that line, its happy-go-lucky perversity has been a source of inexhaustible pleasure to me, surpassed only by the exchange that follows: "No! I hate them!" says Becky, to which Tom replies, reasonably enough, "Well, I do, too—live ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing round your head with a string." Oh, to be young again, with all the time in the world, and a dead rat, and a string to swing it on!

    Aunt Sally versus the vermin in Huckleberry Finn.

    That rats scurry and squeak in the Victorian unconscious, popping up in fact and figure of speech in Twain's novels, and others of the period, should come as no surprise. The 19th century was a good time to be a rat; hygiene and sanitation, or the lack thereof, favored rats, and they were fruitful and multiplied, especially in the squalid, overcrowded cities. Knee-deep in garbage, with overworked horses left to die at curbside, streets in the slum districts were a rat's idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Slaughterhouses and bone-boilers' shops, too, were a gift to vermin, as were the crammed tenements with which they often sat cheek-by-jowl.

    A rat's only regret was the rat-killer (whose dogs, traps, and poisons weren't exactly an existential threat in those innocent days before state-of-the-art rodenticides) and rat-baiting, the most popular betting sport of the period. (At a time when tickets to illegal prizefights went for 50 cents, the price of admission to a ratting match could rise as high as five bucks, depending on the number of rats a dog was to face.) The seedier drinking establishments in New York and London turned a handsome profit from their basement rat pits, where upper-class swells rubbed elbows with lowlife, placing bets on how many rats a terrier could dispatch within a given time.

    The contests took place in open enclosures whose wooden walls were over four feet high, too high for rats to leap, and lined with polished zinc or tin, too slippery for rats to climb. Henry Mayhew, in Volume III of his London Labour and the London Poor (1861), sets the scene: "When [the rats] had been flung into the pit, they gathered themselves into a mound which reached one-third up the sides, and which reminded one of the heap of hair-sweepings in a barber's shop after a heavy day's cuttings. These were all sewer and water-ditch rats, and the smell that rose from them was like that from a hot drain." Set loose, the dog tore into the squealing rodents, seizing them, snapping their necks with a quick shake, and tossing them aside. A good ratter "could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to 45 minutes," Luc Sante writes, in Lowlife: Lures and Snares of Old New York, "although the modern record was set by Jack Underhill, a terrier belonging to one Billy Fagan, who slew his hundred in 11 and a half minutes." There was a brief vogue, in the late 19th century, for pitting rats against men in heavy boots. And Mayhew, in his portrait of "The Rat-Killer," quotes his subject's somewhat shamefaced admission that, wagering he could beat a bulldog's time, he climbed into the pit and took on the rats "like a dog."

    There was a bull-dog a-killing rats, so I says, "Oh, that's a duffin' dog; any dog could kill quicker than him. I'd kill again him myself." Well, then they chaffed me, and I warnt goin' to be done; so I says, "I'll kill again that dog for a sov'rin." The sov'rin was staked. I went down to kill eight rats again the dog, and I beat him. I killed 'em like a dog, with my teeth. I went down hands and knees and bit 'em. … On the hind part of my neck, as you may see, sir, there's a scar; that's where I was bit by one; the rat twisted hisself round and held on like a vice.

    Rats scurry down the bolt holes of my unconscious. They've always inspired in me a mixture of revulsion and fascination, the tension between the two perfectly calibrated. In New York, where a sizeable number of the city's two-legged denizens embrace the city's grime as proof positive of its street-tough authenticity, I fit right in. New Yorkers have a perverse relationship with rats: they shudder at the sight of the vermin gorging themselves at garbage-bag buffets, they gasp in appalled fascination at "track rabbits" gamboling on subway tracks, yet, at the same time, they evince a kind of hometown pride in the rat as Manhattan's unofficial mascot, fair warning to tourists that they aren't in Kansas anymore. A sardonic T-shirt appropriates the logo for Cats, the sort of schlocky Broadway musical beloved by out-of-towners, retitling it Rats and replacing the pupils in the iconic cat's eyes with rat silhouettes; another hacks the ubiquitous "I (Heart) New York" slogan, replacing the cartoon heart with a prancing rat. To a certain species of New Yorker—aging Lou Reed fans, prototypically, who grouse about the Disneyfication of Times Square and groan at the irony of the Met's "Punk: Chaos to Couture" show—the rat is the totem of the city's underclass, too tough and too streetwise to be eradicated completely by the real-estate developers and other forces of upscale gentrification determined to price them off the island. It's no accident that Dustin Hoffman's two-bit Times Square con man in Midnight Cowboy goes by the nickname "Ratso" Rizzo.

    The rat as pet, though: that's groaningly overdone—a mall goth's idea of shock treatment for the squares, as the rat owner profiled by Jerry Langton in his book Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top makes resoundingly clear. A die-cut nonconformist who calls herself—what else? —Raven, she sports the regulation-issue tattoos and pierced tongue; her pet rats are named—what else? —Lucifer and Bela and Bubonic and Aleister (after Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist, naturally).

    Then again, the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as charmingly unselfconscious an iconoclast as ever there was, exhibited a lifelong fondness for rats, and kept them as pets as a boy and again in later life, when at one point his rat collection exploded, as rat collections will, to 40. In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he quotes his sister's reminiscences of their childhood pets, most memorably "an enormous rat, as big as a rabbit, a rather filthy beast with a long, rough tail" who nonetheless "was treated like one of the family," accompanying the Buñuels on trips in a bird cage. "The poor creature finally died, like a saint, showing obvious symptoms of poisoning." The Buñuels had five servants; none would admit to dispatching the creature.

    The murderer, whoever he was, has all my sympathies. Pet rodents—hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, rats—have always made my flesh creep. I make an exception for Leporidae, whose association with Trickster figures like Bugs Bunny and Harvey, the invisible six-foot rabbit in the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, charms me. Not so rodents, who've always impressed me as depraved in some way I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's their long yellow incisors, their manic production of droppings, their nocturnal squeaking, their frantic rooting in their nests of cedar shavings, their obsessive sniffing, their neurotic twitching, their hardwired compulsion to gnaw. There's something of the furtive fetishist about them, the unsatisfied masturbator, the clammy palmed deviant; if rats were human, they'd be Peter Lorre in M, Dylan Baker in Happiness, John Malkovich in anything. Urban myths about "gerbiling," the entirely imaginary practice of inserting, for sexual pleasure, small rodents into your rectum—one's rectum, I mean, not yours—only heighten the vague sense of unsavoriness that clings to small rodents, the baselessness of the libel notwithstanding.

    Of course, it's what rats have in common with us that accounts in no small part for their creepiness. To be sure, our commensal friends are repugnantly Other in some obvious ways—their habit of cannibalizing their neighbors' newborns, for starters—but they're uncomfortably similar to us, too, an inconvenient truth underscored by their ubiquitous use as human surrogates in laboratory research. Their neuroanatomy and internal organs resemble ours; like us, they're social animals, and live in communities. They display a disquieting cunning—ask any exterminator—and problem-solving abilities (famously, in mazes and in B.F. Skinner's "operant conditioning chambers") that while no threat to Homo sapiens's inflated sense of himself as the crown of creation are nonetheless impressive. True, they lack our capstone achievement, language, but they do communicate, in their own ratty way, through pheromonal messages coded in their urine, feces, and scent and decoded with a specially evolved olfactory tool called the vomeronasal organ. As well, they signal each other with a repertoire of squeaks and squeals. Dale Peterson, in his book The Moral Lives of Animals, quotes a team of neuroscientists who have discovered that rats, when tickled, let loose with ultrasonic chirps, which the researchers believe is a form of "primitive laughter."

    (They may in fact have the last laugh: musing on the possibly apocalyptic consequences of global warming, Jan Zalasiewicz, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester, thinks rats will inherit the Earth. If he's right, the Anthropocene, as some climate scientists call the period of anthropogenic climate change that began with the Industrial Revolution, will be succeeded by a posthuman age that will witness the rise of Rattus. Some species, Zalasiewicz speculates, may evolve to be the size of the world's largest rodent, the capybara, which can tip the scales at 176 pounds. "Rats are one of the best examples of a species that we have helped spread around the world, and that have successfully adapted to many of the new environments that they found themselves in," he said.

    Rats, he thinks, are well-positioned to come into their own, "in the mid to far geological future," asserting their claim to the "ecospace" where Homo sapiens once strutted and fretted his hour upon the Darwinian stage.)

    Rats are like us in other, less flattering ways: they like to eat, and they like to have sex, and they indulge in both as often as they can, with gluttonous gusto. When it comes to dietary preferences, rats are amusingly Bubba-esque, shunning raw vegetables for Elvis-approved fare like mac and cheese, white bread, fried chicken, peanut butter, and beer (which gets the better of them, because as one exterminator tells Robert Sullivan, in the New York-centric Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, "they drink a lot and then they can't throw up"). Also like us, they're supremely adaptable: Sullivan quotes an exterminator who theorizes that New York rats come to like the signature dishes of the ethnic neighborhoods they call home, an opinion borne out by scientific studies, which call this adaptation "local food dialect."

    As for sex, they engage in it constantly—a dominant male may mate with as many as 20 females in six hours, Sullivan claims—and they don't scruple at niceties: rats mate with underage rats, pregnant rats, and even dead rats caught, headfirst, in snap traps. Male rats' testicles are enormous, and are thus the subject of much merriment among rat fanciers; according to Langton, a 400-pound gorilla's are less than half the size of a rat's.

    Let's play the Association Game. (Which I've been playing from the beginning, of course). What does the word "rat" bring to mind? I think of the 1971 horror movie Willard, about a Norman Bates-ian dweeb who exercises a mesmeric power over a pack of homicidal rats. Which makes me think, naturally, of Freud's Rat Man, plagued by obsessional thoughts of rats gnawing their way up his fiancée's anus, as well as his father's—a gothic vision, if ever there was one. Of course that doesn't hold a candle to the scene in Francis Ford Coppola's criminally underrated Dracula, where the blood count shapeshifts into an enormous man-bat, sneering down the crucifix Van Helsing is shakily brandishing. "I, who served the Cross," the monster thunders. "Look what your God has done to me!" When the vampire-hunters empty their pistols into him, he simply spreads his wings into a grotesque parody of Christ on the cross, then metamorphoses into a crucifix made of rats; the image hangs on the wall for an instant, mocking God and man, then collapses, exploding into a squeaking, skittering horde when the rats hit the floor, scrambling over the men's feet.

    Dracula transfigured into a cross of rats, from Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

    Critics who insist on psychological depth or intricacies of plot or Big Ideas miss the point that, in cinema, surface is depth; images are ideas. Coppola's Dracula is a gothic rebus, a dreamlike procession of signs and symbols worthy of Fuseli and Klimt and the ghosts and ghouls conjured up by Japanese woodcut artists of the Edo period. If a movie gives us even one unforgettable image, a vision that does an end run around language and strikes a responsive chord in the unconscious that never stops echoing, isn't that enough? For whatever inscrutable reason, the image of Coppola's Dracula mocking the God who promised eternal life but gave him living death, aping the crucifixion then dissolving into a cross of rats, is deeply satisfying to this aging atheist. I like to revisit it, from time to time, in my memory palace, and am always happy to discover its power undiminished by age.

    Right beside Coppola's cross of rats, in the galleries in my head, is the Rat King, that fabled phenomenon in which rats become inextricably entangled by their tails. The result is a circle of outward-facing rats, held fast by the knot of tails in the center of the ring. Enshrined in European folk belief, the existence of the Rat King is substantiated, in some eyes, by relics such as the mummified specimen on display at the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany, a skin-crawling clump of 32 rats still tethered to one another in death, like some chain gang from pest-control hell.

    To the skeptical inquirer, the Rat King has a whiff of the cryptozoological about it, but both Langton and Sullivan treat the phenomenon as established fact. "There have been Rat Kings ranging in size from three rats to 32 rats," Sullivan claims. "Sometimes the rats die, sometimes they are fed by the other rats and stay alive for a time in the nest." It bears pointing out that neither Langton nor Sullivan is a biologist; the assumption that an animal capable of chewing through concrete, with a bite force of 7000 pounds PSI, would resign itself to starvation rather than just gnawing its tail off requires a greater suspension of disbelief than I can manage. (As any pest-control professional will tell you, finding hind legs in glue traps, chewed off by a rat desperate to free himself, is far from uncommon.)

    One especially fanciful aspect of the Rat King myth is not in dispute, however: it's certifiably a fiction that "the rats' tails were tied together by other rats to form a sort of living throne for the Rat King, whose regal paws they supposed were far to important to touch the ground" (Langton). While rats are highly social creatures who live in colonies, they have no leader, although according to Langton a dominant male "will usually emerge as the rat that mates most often and gets the most food." But his dominance is lightly worn, more nominal than the brute authority exercised by the Alpha male in, say, a wolf pack.

    "Rat king in the scientific museum Mauritianum, Altenburg, Germany." (Wikipedia)

    Katharina Fritsch,Rat King, 1993, polyester and paint.

    The Rat King's enthralling horror owes much to the Dantean awfulness of the creatures' plight, and to the instinctual revulsion the rat inspires. The scourge of humankind since civilization first put down roots, rats are harbingers of pestilence and death. The Black Death of the 14th century, spread by contagion-bearing fleas riding on rats, cemented that association; Dracula movies, from Nosferatu (1922) to the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic (in which Dracula's thrall Renfield has a vision of "Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them!" controlled by the vampire) to the Werner Herzog remake (1979) to the Coppola film, ensured its survival in the age of mass media. Herzog's film testifies to the post-traumatic echoes of the rat-borne plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1350, killing as many as 75 million: in one scene, Nosferatu's army of rats overruns a town square where, amid coffins stacked high, a handful of townspeople mock death by banqueting amid the horror, apparently oblivious to the rats underfoot, on the table, everywhere.

    A last supper amid the rats, from Nosferatu (1979), directed by Werner Herzog.

    The Rat King's repulsion distills the essence of one of the rat's more queasy-making traits: its characteristic tendency to merge with the seething mass, to lose whatever individuality it has in a fast-running tide of squeaks and scrabblings whose only thought is to gnaw and whose only direction is toward you. Langton describes a corn farmer lifting a piece of plywood to give the author a sense of his rat problem: "The horde of rats underneath, temporarily blinded by the sunlight, ran around and into each other in the confusion—the overall effect was that of a bubbling, flowing carpet of brownish-gray fur." It is this engulfing multiplicity, as much as the rat's associations with disease and filth, that inspires our primordial loathing; like the demon that calls itself Legion, and the centipede with its numberless, frantically wriggling legs, the onrushing wave of rats has no identity, other than that of a faceless, mindless mass. Worse yet, it threatens to obliterate ours, swallowing us up figuratively, then literally. To be drowned in a living flood, then devoured: that is the special horror the rat holds in store.

    Ultimately, however, the Rat King's occult power has more to do, I think, with its inscrutability. The Rat King is a semiotic black hole, infinitely dense with apparent meaning but, at bottom, an enigma. It's open to all the Freudian or Jungian or Lacanian or Derridean readings you're clever enough to balance on its knot, right where the Rat King himself is supposed to squat, carried by his underlings like an emperor in his sedan chair. We can read it as a dream symbol of the futility of human existence, or of our tendency to cage ourselves in prisons of our own making, psychologically speaking, or of the black comedy of human relations, in which we sometimes find ourselves caught up in what our 12-step culture likes to call mutually destructive codependencies. But why read it at all? Why not regard it, rapt, as a message written in an inhuman script, a cipher in fur from the scurrying world beneath the floorboards of our minds, a tangled tale of tangled tails whose meaningless meaningfulness we'll never unriddle? Like Meret Oppenheim's fur-covered cup or Duchamp's bicycle wheel grafted onto a kitchen stool, there's a perfection to its Surrealist logic. On first encounter, we're boggled by its logical impossibility—a wreath made of rats!—but on second thought it seems ineffably right, somehow: nature imitating art, and doing it with whimsical perversity. Lusus naturae, as they used to say of marvels and monstrosities: nature's jokes.

    — Mark Dery


  • The revenge of the lawn

    This is the house at Terror Street and Agony Way. From the outside, it looks innocuous enough, a stucco-clad box in the Spanish Colonial Revival style ubiquitous in '20s L.A.

    Don't be fooled: it was "the house of horrors, the house of agony, the house where I was almost done in," the poet Charles Bukowski says, in the documentary Born Into This—almost done in by his (almost) comically sadistic father, a German-American of grim mien who beat his son with a razor strop weekly, if not daily, and condemned the young Hank, as his schoolmates dubbed him, to social purgatory by dressing him in lederhosen and giving him the short-back-and-sides haircut favored by the Prussian military class.

    Photo: 2122 Longwood Avenue, Bukowski's childhood home, by Jacob Härnqvist

    Standing in front of his childhood home, Bukowski tells the camera the "horror story" of his Depression-era childhood. A blocky, big-bellied man with a face like a topographical map of the moon, pocked and seamed by the ravages of acne and dominated by the bulbous nose of an aging barfly, he points toward the rectangle of lawn in front of the house.

    This is the lawn that I manicured. I had to mow it both ways, this way first, then this way; then I had it get all the hairs with the shears. If I missed one hair, I got a beating. One hair. It's very hard not to miss one hair, you know. Try it sometime. So I always got a beating.

    In his barely fictionalized autobiography, the novel Ham on Rye, Bukowski milks the moment for its nightmare hilarity. On his hands and knees, Bukowski père examines the lawn his son has just mown.

    "AH HAH!"
He leaped up and ran toward the house.

    "MAMA! MAMA!" He ran into the house. "What is it?"
"I found a hair!"

    "You did?"

    "Come, I'll show you!"
He came out of the house quickly with my mother following. "Here! Here! I'll show you!"
He got down on his hands and knees. "I can see it! I can see two of them!"
My mother got down with him. I wondered if they were crazy. "See them?" He asked her. "Two hairs. See them?"
"Yes, Daddy, I see them…"
They both got up. My mother walked into the house. My father looked at me. "Inside…"


  • Original Ballantine book cover concept art for J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings on eBay

    Tolkien, perhaps rightly in marketing terms, though with the insistent literalism that makes writers writers (which is to say: not artists), demanded, of Barbara Remington's cover art for Lord of the Rings, "What has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a Lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with the pink bulbs?"


  • Nerval's Lobster: Is walking a crustacean any more ridiculous than a dog?

    Boing Boing Feature

    Nerval's Lobster

    By Mark Dery

    Part of a Series: "Self-Help for Surrealists."

    "Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!"

    — Gérard de Nerval, when asked why he kept a lobster as a pet and walked it on a leash.

    "Le rêve est une seconde vie," declared Gérard de Nerval.i The dream is a second life.

    Before Rimbaud, before the Surrealists, there was Nerval (1808 – 1855), living his life as if it were a lucid dream. Of course, it didn't hurt that his mental skies flickered with the chain lightning of madness—bouts of insanity that condemned him to periodic stays in asylums and, ultimately, self-murder.

    Mapping the psychogeography of Paris in all-night peregrinations that reconciled the flâneur with the somnambulist; indulging in the hashish-dream Orientalism expected of any self-respecting 19th-century bohemian by dressing up in Arab garb and drinking drug-laced Turkish coffee with Balzac, Baudelaire, and the rest of the Club des Hachichins; chronicling, in Voyage en Orient (1851), his travels in Turkey, the Holy Land, and Egypt, where he supposedly bought a slave girl in the bazaar, only to absent-mindedly leave her behind when he returned home; consorting with radical bohemians such as Petrus Borel, who perfumed his beard and went by the nickname "the lycanthrope," and Théophile Dondey, who wore spectacles to bed, the better to see his dreams;ii declaring God dead yet claiming adherence to 17 religions, many of them dead; seduced by the occult and firmly convinced that if we could only unriddle "the magic alphabet, the mysterious hieroglyphs" transmitted by antiquity, the doors of the "spirit world" would swing wide, Nerval died by his own hand at the age of 46—hanged from a window grate with an apron string that he believed to be the Queen of Sheba's garter. iii

    He was wretchedly poor. To make matters worse, the lunacy that had tormented him all his life was back, scrabbling at the basement door of his mind. The only photo we have of him, taken days before his death by the celebrated portrait photographer Nadar, captures a balding man with a careworn face, his mouth—what we can see of it, behind the overhang of his moustache—set in a rueful expression somewhere between resignation and defeat. Yet he regards us with intensity; in his fixed gaze we see the dying flicker of defiance and, if we insist, the glitter of madness. "Poor Gérard's face, said Nadar, was marked equally by the memory of lunatic asylums and the foreboding of his tragic death."iv At long last, the Black Sun of Melancholia, as he put it in his poem "El Desdichado" ("The Disinherited," written in a "state of supernaturalist reverie"), had gone nova.v "Don't wait up for me tonight," he wrote, in a cryptic note he left for his aunt, "for the night will be black and white."vi

    Setting the scene of Nerval's death, in A Century of French Verse (1895), William John Robertson gilded the lily just a little, one suspects: "One chill grey dawn in January…Gérard's body was found by a rag-gatherer, hanging in the gutter near the foot of a narrow staircase which led up from the squalid little rue de la Vieille-Lanterne, one of the filthiest courts of old Paris. The stones were sprinkled with snow, and on the steps a tame raven was hopping about."vii (On loan from Poe, no doubt.) In The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Clifton Fadiman adds a too-perfect touch, claiming that the raven—someone's pet, apparently—kept repeating the only phrase it knew: "J'ai soif!" ("I'm thirsty!")viii

    T.S. Eliot sampled him in his modernist mash-up The Waste Land. Proust thought he was one of the most important French writers of the 19 th century. Yet Nerval lives on in the collective unconscious of the Google Age not as the visionary Romantic who wrote the hallucinatory sonnet sequence Les Chimères but as the eccentric's eccentric: the boulevardier who took his pet lobster for a walk, on a leash made of blue ribbon, in the jardins of the Palais-Royal. (Its name was Thibault, for those who are curious about such things.) News of his (calculatedly outrageous? certifiably cracked?) stunt made the rounds; what was it all about: inquiring minds wanted to know. Nerval's response, handed down to us by his friend Théophile Gautier, is funny and sweetly melancholy and strangely moving all at once, flickering irresolvably between Surrealist bon mot and philosophical feuilleton:

    Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad!ix

    ("Monadic," incidentally, derives from "monad," Goethe's term, borrowed from Leibnitz, for his conception of the soul as an irreducible, indestructible metaphysical atom.) Strolling in the park, Nerval stepped into history. His lobster walk has given rise to a thicket of theories about what happened and why, the art—historical equivalent of the Kennedy assassination's Grassy Knoll industry. Richard Sieburth, translator of the poet's Selected Writings, calls the anecdote a "piece of disinformation" concocted by Gautier, "a harmless hoax to épater le bourgeois," then hedges by adding, "I don't want to claim that Nerval's lobster is completely false: it has the truth that accrues to stereotypes, to clichés, to commonplaces, the truth of ideology or of repetition."x

    By contrast, Nerval scholar Richard Holmes finds Gautier's account credible in light of the poet's well-documented fascination with odd or exotic animals; they recur, as symbols, in his work and life. "Often, on his wanderings through Paris, he would leave messages for his friends in the form of animals," Holmes informs, in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. On more than one occasion, unsuspecting writers were greeted, on returning home, by flustered concierges bearing lobsters or parrots—calling cards from Monsieur de Nerval. xi

    Embroidered or not, the story invites close scrutiny, and not just Talmudic readings by literary critics but hard-eyed analysis by marine biologists: how long can a lobster survive out of its element? Could a decapod, stranded on dry land, really have kept pace with its master?

    Among the scientists I spoke with, opinion was divided regarding the likelihood of Thibault's stroll. xii Bob Steneck, a professor at the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, was doubtful. "Lobsters out of water can walk a bit," he allowed, though it's "very tiring" for them. "They are more likely to get stressed and rapidly flip their tails" than traipse along amiably, taking the air. (Lobsters are designed for rapid backwards movement underwater, propelled by a flip of the tail.) And speaking of taking the air, "prolonged exposure to air will kill lobsters," said Steneck, since "unlike crabs, who have gills sealed within their [bodies], lobster gills are exposed." As a wry afterthought, he added, "I'm no expert, but I bet taking lobsters for a walk in the park is not the first un-truth uttered by a Romantic poet."

    Jeffrey Shields, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, flagged the problem of temperature. If the weather is congenial—say, 15 degrees Celsius or below, with "relatively high humidity" moistening their gills, enabling them to breathe—a lobster "might survive up to 30-40 minutes" in the gardens of the Palais-Royal, "maybe longer."

    Diane Cowan, executive director and senior scientist at The Lobster Conservancy, elaborated on the locomotion problem: "On dry land, a lobster of the size humans typically eat simply can't walk with legs extended. Large lobsters crawl on their bellies on dry land, if they have the stamina." If you insist on following in Nerval's footsteps, she said, avoid hot days, since the blazing sun will "turn the lobster vibrant red, making it look cooked because it will be cooked." Cowan wasn't charmed by the Romantic whimsy of the thing: "Taking a lobster for a walk in the park is a cruel and sadistic idea. Please do not even think about it."

    Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, was more sanguine than his colleagues. Lobsters are closer kin to cockroaches than anyone who's ever worn a lobster bib likes to contemplate—both are members of the world's most populous family, Arthropoda —and can scuttle at insectlike speed, Beal insisted. Fishing off the coast of Maine, he's seen them escape, when hauled aboard, and "quickly walk into a dark corner of the stern and hide." (Jelle Atema, a professor of biology at Boston University, told me he's seen "unsupervised lobsters drag themselves off the dock back into the sea.")xiii

    Mindful of his colleagues' objections, Beal argued,

    It is not too far-fetched to imagine that if de Nerval had methods [of keeping] a lobster in captivity (not an easy thing because it requires a large tank with relatively cool seawater and it would have needed some kind of aeration), then the lobster most likely would have [needed to be] taken out of its tank from time to time for cleaning [the tank]. What do you do with a lobster when it isn't in its tank? Take it for a short walk, if conditions permit. A short walk on a cool, damp day or at dusk? Sure. It wouldn't have walked a great distance, but as long as it was not out in the hot sun for any great length of time, I can see this happening. Certainly do-able, and why not? We should all extend the boundaries of what we think is possible, and lobsters as pets taken for short walks (with or without a leash) is a boundary we can step over!

    A suitably Nervalian sentiment. So, if Nerval's lobster promenade did happen, was it a proto-Dada prank on the humorless, stuffed-shirt bourgeoisie, as Sieburth would have us believe?

    A dissenting view, given credence by the discovery, circa 2008, of a letter to his childhood friend Laura LeBeau, holds that Nerval was an early animal-rights activist. Returning from a visit to the coastal town of La Rochelle on the Atlantic, Nerval recounts a droll dust-up with the locals: "And so, dear Laura, upon my regaining the town square I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets. I will not bore you with the rest of the story, but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city…"xiv On this evidence, some conjecture that Nerval intervened to save a peaceful, serious creature from Death by Lobster Pot and in so doing earned himself a hallowed place in the history of animal-rights activism, well over a century before lobster liberator Mary Tyler Moore.xv

    Let's not forget, however, that Nerval was a fervent scholar of the occult, steeped in classical myth, Egyptian magic, medieval fables, Teutonic tales of Lorelei, the Gnostic wisdom of the Druses of Lebanon, alchemy, the Kabbalah, the Tarot, the secret teachings of the Illuminati, "the strange legends and bizarre superstitions" of the Valois countryside outside Paris, where he grew up; his work is hermetic, rich in arcane allusions and hidden meanings.xvi Holmes believes Gautier intended the lobster story as an example of Nerval's all-consuming affair with symbolism, a fixation that extended beyond the page, shadowing his daily life with obscure subtexts.

    Holmes draws our attention to the Tarot card called The Moon (number 18 in the Major Arcana), which is associated, he notes, with "the Unconscious, the Irrational, the Feminine Mysteries, the Imagination"—perfect for an artist dedicated to blurring the line between dreaming sleep and waking reality, not to mention a man plagued by mental illness who couldn't always tell the difference between the two.

    At the foot of this card lies a deep, mysterious pool, out of which a Crayfish or Lobster is attempting to crawl onto the dry land. A path leads up from the pool and twists like a ribbon towards the horizon. The path is guarded by two animals—in most Tarot packs, these are both Dogs, in others they are a Dog and a Wolf. … Above, a full moon hangs in the night sky. Drops of moisture like diamonds float in the air, as if being slowly drawn up from the Pool by the power of the Moon. The Lobster raises its claws from the water, and the Dog and Wolf lift their heads and bay at the Moon. xvii

    In the classic Rider-Waite version of the Tarot deck, the Moon card tells an allegorical story about the imagination. According to Waite's Pictorial Key to the Tarot, the road, which winds between two towers, leads to what Waite rather redundantly calls "unknown mystery"—Unknown Unknowns, as Rumsfeld would say. The cold light of the moon is intellectual insight, a pale reflection of the more profound illumination yielded by the imagination, with its access to the unconscious and the irrational. As well, says Waite, the moonlight "illuminates our animal nature…the dog, the wolf, and that which comes up out of the deeps, the nameless and hideous tendency which is lower even than the savage beast." xviii The lobster—Freud's id?—struggles toward enlightenment, clambering out of the black lagoon of our primordial selves, "but as a rule it sinks back whence it came" (Waite). The mind, in the person of the grave, contemplative Man in the Moon, gazes tranquilly "upon the unrest below, and the dew of thought falls. The message is: 'Peace, be still,' and it may be that there shall come a calm upon the animal nature, while the abyss beneath shall cease from giving up form.'"xix

    Some sources associate the Moon card with confusion, fear, anxiety, romanticism, sleep, and dreaming. Rather than succumb to a moon-maddened confusion of dream and daylit world, they advise, the seeker should strive to sublimate his turbulent psychic energies into creative expression. Holmes reads Nerval's turnaround, from the quest for illumination in exotic lands to an inner odyssey through memory and madness, as a parable about Romantic excess: "The imagination of the Hero had finally doubled back on itself, and the rivers and mountains, the visions and revolutions had become…those of a purely internal landscape, or moonscape, the world of dreams."xx

    At times, Holmes himself seems to teeter on the brink of a hermeneutic rabbit-hole, perilously close to the semiotic madness I've called the Casaubon Complex, after the scholar of occultism and conspiracy theories, in Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, who, "wanting connections, …found connections—always, everywhere, and between everything," plunging him into a frenzy of intertextuality where "the world exploded in a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…" xxi Holmes worries about getting lost in the "labyrinth that Nerval himself made of his life; a maze of fantasy and memory."xxii

    I…began to interpret Nerval's life almost entirely in terms of the magic world by which he himself was so fascinated. … Everything in Nerval's life came to have symbolic meaning, full of archetypes, alchemical processes, astrological signs, mystic correspondences and invisible harmonies. … I saw his whole life as a pilgrimage, or journey of initiation, intended to reunite the spiritual and material values of his generation. xxiii

    Read through the magic glasses of occult symbolism, Nerval's life does indeed encourage overinterpretation. This, after all, was the man who said, "I like to arrange my life as if it were a novel"; the man whose first breakdown, brought on by the frenzied delirium of the Paris mardi gras in 1841, was marked by manic talk of numerology and astrology and "mystical systems" under his control (a condition his doctors diagnosed as "Theomania or Demonomania," he claimed).xxiv Doesn't his description of the awakened consciousness that follows his mystical epiphany, in his novel Aurélia (1855), sound like a variation on Casaubon's theme? "The talk of my companions took on mysterious turns of meaning which I alone could understand, and formless, inanimate objects lent themselves to the calculations of my mind." xxv Hadn't Gautier noted, in his review of Nerval's magazine dispatches from Cairot, Beirut, and Constantinople, Scènes de la Vie Orientale (1846-7), the author's uncanny ability to penetrate "the profoundly mysterious spirit" of the myths and folklore of the East, "in which each object contains a symbol"?xxvi

    One could even say that he took from them certain occult meanings intended only for the neophyte, certain cabalistic formulae and overtones of theIlluminati, which made one believe, at times, that he was writing directly of his own personal initiation. xxvii

    Was the lobster walk-initially dismissed as symptomatic of Nerval's nuttiness, more recently historicized as anti-bourgeois performance art—an occult transmission, broadcast to anyone with a working set of gnostic antennae? Is Nerval's famous quote a compressed meditation, informed by the Tarot, on the importance of balancing the rationalism of industrial modernity and the repression of bourgeois society with the creative energies of the unconscious? (Well over a half-century later, Andre Breton would take a page not only from Nerval's writings but from the book of his life, acknowledging his "supernaturalism" as Surrealism's antecedent.xxviii Salvador Dali, never one to miss a marketable trick, would resurrect Nerval's totem in his Surrealist object Lobster Telephone (1936), cannily mystified with the usual Dalinian flapdoodle about phallic symbols and castration complexes.) Were Nerval's barking, ravening dogs the rough beasts of the id, familiar from the Moon card? Was his "peaceful, serious" lobster a Surrealist reconciliation (perhaps even an alchemical or Kabbalistic synthesis) of the Moon's ruminative intellect with "that which comes up out of the deeps," the unconscious? Are his "secrets of the sea" the Hidden Meanings of Things, accessible only through a meeting of our rational and irrational minds, a conjunction symbolized by the primordial lobster scrambling into the sunlight of reason? Is that why Thibault's leash was blue—blue for the marriage of Heaven and Earth; blue for the empyrean and the briny deep; blue for midnight blue, the color of the conscious day when it yields to the dreamworld of sleep; blue for "the real, or rather climate, of the unreal—or of the surreal," as The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols has it? "Blue stands still and resolves within itself those contradictions and alternations of fortune—day following night—which modulate human life," the Dictionary tells us. "Indifferent and unafraid, centred solely upon itself, blue is not of this world: it evokes the idea of eternity," or, for our purposes, surreality.xxix When Nerval says, of the descent into dreams, "I have never been able to cross through those gates of ivory or horn which separate us from the invisible world without a sense of dread," is he also alluding to the twin towers guarding the Moon card's twisting, turning path, perhaps the "royal road to the unconscious" of Freudian dream analysis?xxx

    The Lacanian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls the Black Sun of Nerval's melancholia "a dazzling metaphor that suggests an insistence without presence, a light without representation…bright and black at the same time."xxxi For Kristeva, the oxymoronic sun of Nerval's sonnet is that unnamable, unrepresentable "supreme good" of which the depressed narcissist believes he has been deprived. But given Nerval's mystical Surrealism (or, if you prefer, Surrealist mysticism), couldn't it also stand in for the gnostic mysteries that taunted him, a lowly lobster making his painful way along the road to Unknown Mysteries? Could that be why he hoped his last night would be black and white, bright and dark at the same time, closing the curtain on this world and parting the veil to reveal…something, some ineffable truth beyond the symbolic realm?

    Then again, the proposition that Nerval expected any sort of posthumous payoff seems dubious in light of his black-humor homily, decades before Nietzsche, "God is dead! the heavens are empty… Weep! children, you have no father now!"xxxii In Aurélia, published shortly after his suicide, he sends one last message, encrypted as always: "I said to myself: eternal night is upon us, and the darkness will be frightful. What will happen when they all realize there is no more sun?" xxxiii


    Daily Meditation

    God may be dead, but I can still amuse myself with extinct religions. At the same time, I must beware of staring too long into the Black Sun. My irrational mind and my animal nature are essential aspects of my best self; they should follow me wherever I go (though always on a leash). Each night, I will descend into the abyssal depths of the unconscious without fear, secure in the knowledge that seeking the secrets of the sea is its own reward, even if I don't remember them in the morning. Likewise, I will arrange my life as if it were a novel, even if no one will ever read it but me. As its author, I have the power to edit out people who gobble up my monadic privacy, making room for peaceful, serious types who remind me of arthropods.


    About the Author

    Mark Dery is a cultural critic who suffers from the Casaubon Complex.
    His books include
    The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. He edited the trailblazing anthology of digital-culture criticism, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, and popularized the culture jamming phenomenon through his widely reprinted monograph, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is at work on a biography of the author, illustrator, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey (Little, Brown: 2014).



    i Quoted in H. Kay Moon, "Gérard de Nerval: A Reappraisal," Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. VII, No. 1, Autumn, 1965, https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/7.1MoonGerard-7867cea9-73a6-42ad-9410-cb9c51b3af3a.pdf .

    ii Borel and Dondey, along with Nerval, Théophile Gautier, and others were part of a group of Parisian bohemians, equal parts salon and cultural insurgency, who called themselves the Petit Cénacle. They were Young Romantics, says the critic Richard Holmes, "in effect the literary groupies of Victor Hugo." (See Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (New York: Vintage, 1996), 223.) Soon, the group changed its name to the Jeunes-France and ultimately to the Bouzingos, a slang term that translates, roughly, as "shit-heels." According to the critic and cultural historian Luc Sante, "Most of them were poets; they were fascinated by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, by upheaval, delirium, and death. They flirted with nudism, smoked hashish, dressed extravagantly, waved daggers, drank from skulls, lived every minute in a state of heightened artifice, as if they were onstage." (See Luc Sante, "Petrus Borel," HiLoBrow, June 26, 2011, http://hilobrow.com/2011/06/26/petrus-borel/.)

    iii Gérard de Nerval, Aurélia, in Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings, ed. Richard Sieburth (London: Penguin Group, 1999), 291.

    iv Holmes, Footsteps, 210.

    v Quoted in Richard Sieburth, "Introduction," in Nerval, Gérard de Nerval: Selected Writings, 350.

    vi Quoted in Sieburth, "Introduction," xxxi.

    vii William John Robertson, A Century Of French Verse: Brief Biographical and Critical Notices of Thirty-Three French Poets of the Nineteeth Century With Experimental Translations From Their Poems (A.D. Innes & co., 1895), 75.

    viii Clifton Fadiman, The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1985), n.p.

    ix Quoted in Madeleine Schwartz, "Lobsters and Lies," The New Yorker,

    August 19, 2011, The New Yorker.

    x Richard Sieburth, "Hieronymo's Mad Againe: On Translating Nerval," Penguinclassics.co.uk, Penguin Classics .

    xi Holmes, Footsteps, 213.

    xii All quotes from scientists taken from e-mails to the author.

    xiii Dr. Atema wonders if Nerval's lobster was really a crayfish. In an e-mail to me, he speculated, "People sometimes confuse (marine) lobsters and (freshwater) crayfish. If it were a freshwater crayfish, it could take an occasional dunk in the Palais pond. Crayfish can make short overland excursions across moist terrain as do eels and some catfishes. The European lobster could be one- to two-feet long, a memorable appearance. In Europe, the crayfish would be no more than six inches long, which would not inspire lobster lore." Then again, "as Ovidius said: rumors grow with time, thus turning a crayfish into a lobster," explains Atema, adding, "a crayfish is more likely to have been a 'pet' with a home tank of fresh water and a palace pond to wet his gills, now and then, during strolls on a blue ribbon leash."

    xiv Quoted in Scott Horton, "Nerval: A Man and His Lobster," Harper's, October 12, 2008, Harpers.

    xv Moore, an outspoken animal-rights activist, is well known for promoting the idea that there's no cruelty-free way to kill a lobster. See the unbylined article, "New Animal Rights Cause Urges, 'Free the Lobsters!,'" The New York Times, December 31, 1995, NYT .

    xvi Holmes, Footsteps, 220.

    xvii Holmes, Footsteps, 215.

    xviii Arthur Edward Waite, "XVIII. The Moon," in The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (London: W. Rider, 1911), Sacred-Texts.com.

    xix Ibid.

    xx Holmes, Footsteps, 236.

    xxi Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), 463-4.

    xxii Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, 214.

    xxiii Holmes, Footsteps, 267.

    xxiv "I like to arrange…": Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010 edition of E.P. Dutton & Co., 1919 edition), 69. "Mystical systems": Holmes, Footsteps, 237.

    xxv Quoted in Holmes, Footsteps, 268.

    xxvi Quoted in Holmes, Footsteps, 248.

    xxvii Ibid.

    xxviii Breton in 1924: "I believe that there is no point today in dwelling any further on this word [surrealism]…[W]e could probably have taken over the word SUPERNATURALISM employed by Gérard de Nerval. It appears, in fact, that Nerval possessed to a tee [sic] the spirit with which we claim kinship." Quoted in Nancy Frazier, I, Lobster: A Crustacean Odyssey (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press), 117-18.

    xxix Jean Chevalier, Alain Gheerbrant, and John Buchanan-Brown, ed. (London: Penguin, 1996), The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, 103.

    xxx Nerval, "Aurélia," in Selected Writings, 265.

    xxxi Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 13.

    xxxii Nerval, "Christ on the Mount of Olives" in Selected Writings, 369.

    xxxiii Nerval, "Aurélia" in Selected Writings, 369.

  • The Kraken Awakes: What Architeuthis is Trying to Tell Us

    Architeuthis. Photo: Discovery Channel

    The Kraken Wakes: What Architeuthis is Trying to Tell Us

    By Mark Dery

    Captured live on video in its deep-sea element, for the first time, the Kraken of tall tales and sea shanties—Architeuthis, the giant squid—is coming into sharp focus, a flesh-and-blood reality. But why now?

    Here be monsters: Neil Landman and I are crowded, along with some graduate students, into a storage room at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where Landman is curator-in-charge of fossil invertebrates. We're gathered for an audience with Architeuthis, the giant squid. Before us, pickling quietly in a big, stainless-steel tank, is the stuff of sailors' nightmares, the serpent-armed leviathan that drags hapless seafarers to their doom.

    As Landman gaffs a tentacle and hoists it for me to touch, I half-expect the limp, dripping thing to lash out and grab me. Myth has a long half-life.

    Bleached white by its preservative bath, the tentacle feels hard yet rubbery to the touch, like an overinflated bicycle tire—a bicycle tire studded with suckers the size of quarters, on stalks. Running my thumb around the inside of one, I feel the sawtoothed ring of chitin that gives the creature its fearsome grip. In life, its suckers leave proof of the fabled beast's existence: ring-shaped scars on the hide of its archnemesis, the Sperm whale. A photo in a 1917 Smithsonian publication bears the poetic caption, "a piece of Sperm whale skin relating a battle with a giant squid, in sucker scar script."1

    Time and again, marauding cephalopods rise out of the fathomless depths of our collective unconscious, from the 12-armed Scylla in Homer's Odyssey, plucking men from passing ships like canapés off a waiter's tray, to Pliny's foul-smelling "polyp," whose stupefyingly bad breath "tormented the dogs,"2 to the beached "devil-fish" described in 1879 by the biologist Thomas Kirk. Quoting from an awestruck New Zealander who happened on the carcass, Kirk conjured a "repulsive-looking brute" with tentacles "as thick as a man's leg," "horrid goggle eyes," and "a powerful beak," reputed by the Maori natives to grab men and rip their insides out.3 (Duly chastened, the New Zealander vowed, "No more sea-bathing for me!")

    Yet, despite their antiquity (and ubiquity), accounts of many-armed abominations molesting humans are no more than old mariner's tales, scientists insist. Consider the 1873 account, recounted by Richard Ellis in his book The Search for the Giant Squid, of a confrontation between Architeuthis and a small fishing boat in a Newfoundland cove. Legend has it that a quick-thinking fisherman in Conception Bay thwarted a giant-squid attack by lopping off one of the monster's tentacles with an axe. There's no denying that something happened: the animal's severed limb provided incontrovertible evidence, in the words of an excited local, "of the hitherto mystical devilfish…whose existence naturalists have been disputing for centuries."4 But contemporary teuthologists dismiss the "attack" as the death throes of a moribund animal, pointing out that virtually all giant squid encountered on the ocean's surface are dead or dying. "There is not a single corroborated story of a [giant] squid attacking a man, a boat, or a submersible," asserts Ellis.5

    Dosidicus Gigas

    There are, however, irrefutable instances of jumbo squid behaving aggressively towards humans. In 1990, while diving with a film crew for the PBS series Nature, off the southern coast of Baja California, Alex Kerstitch, a University of Arizona biologist, was mugged by Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas). No giant like Architeuthis, Dosidicus is a mere jumbo, reaching a maximum length of six feet and weighing a hundred pounds at most. But it more than makes up for its comparatively smaller size with a muscle-bound mantle and a hair-trigger, Joe Pesci aggressiveness. Excited by the scent of the bait the crew was using to attract them, several squid grabbed Kerstitch by the legs, without warning, and took him on an elevator ride to hell, yanking him into the pitch-black depths. Others piled on, ripping off the scientist's dive computer, collection bag, light, and, like any wilding gang, his gold neckchain.6 Then, just as suddenly, the creatures released Kerstitch, who swam back to the boat. Producer Howard Hall recalled,

    [T]he squid mugging hadn't really terrified Alex while it was happening. He was too busy to be afraid. But when he got back on board he began to wonder what if…? What if they held on just a little longer? In moments they might have dragged him down into abyssal depths. What if they ripped out his regulator? And his worst fear, what if that beak (much larger than the largest parrot's beak) had grabbed his neck and ripped out a two-pound hunk of flesh? As he thought about it, his knees became progressively weaker. He decided he needed some rest.7

    Not for nothing do the Mexican fishermen call these creatures diablos rojos .8

    Most scientists believe that Dosidicus is far more aggressive than Architeuthis. But even if the giant squid doesn't earn its mythic status as a shipwrecking, man-eating behemoth, the unadorned truth about Architeuthis is sufficiently unsettling to enhance, rather than dispel, its reputation as the poster beast for sea monsters. It has three hearts, blue blood, and the biggest eyes in the animal kingdom— the size of "volleyballs," says Clyde Roper, a Zoologist Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution who is widely considered to be the world's leading authority on Architeuthis. Giant squid have been reputed to attain lengths of 45 feet.9

    Like Kubodera and Landman, Roper believes Architeuthis hunts by hanging motionless in the inky darkness, 600 to 1,000 meters down. When a fish or smaller squid swims by, they conjecture, the animallashes out with its two long tentacles, dragging its prey within reach of its eight shorter arms and, ultimately, the wicked-looking, parrotlike beak in the center of its thicket of limbs. The beak is sharp as a bolt cutter, its upper jaw scissoring neatly into the prognathous lower one. Shearing off chunks of living flesh, the squid uses a rasping, tongue-like organ called a radula, covered with tiny teeth, to push its food down its gullet. "There's a school of thought that thinks these things are gentle giants," says Landman, wryly. He's not buying it. But like almost everything about Architeuthis, the question is open to debate: Steve O'Shea, New Zealand's preeminent teuthologist, or squid scientist, O'Shea is unequivocally on the gentle-giant side of the battle lines.

    As Ellis writes in The Search for the Giant Squid, Architeuthis is "the least-known large animal on earth, the last monster to be conquered."10 Historically, much of what we've known—or thought we've known—about the giant squid has been nine parts gothic horror, one part fact, stitched together from fear, fantasy, and educated conjecture based on specimens that washed ashore or floated to the ocean's surface, dead or dying.

    Until recently.

    Close encounters with real-life kraken are on the rise: in recent years, giant and even colossal squid have been caught—alive and in their element—in still photos and, on rare occasion, on hooks. "In terms of Architeuthis sightings, historically, all we've had are dead animals," says Steve O'Shea, New Zealand's preeminent teuthologist, or squid scientist. "Now, we're seeing live animals being photographed and filmed. The progress that's been made in securing footage of these animals, and in understanding their life history and biology, over the last few years is phenomenal, compared to where we were several years ago."

    Despite its status as the largest invertebrate on the planet, no one had ever seen, much less photographed, a live giant squid in its habitat until 2004. On September 30, at precisely 9:15 A.M., near Japan's Ogasawara Islands, a 26-foot-long giant squid attacked a baitline that Dr. Tsunemi Kubodera and his research team had rigged with a strobe and a digital camera, timed to snap an image every 30 seconds.11 Within days, cephalogeeks all over the Web were posting links to astonishing photographs of the animal12 vrooming up out of the deep and grabbing the bait "in much the same way that pythons rapidly envelop their prey within [their] coils…immediately after striking," as the researchers put it.13

    Since then, we've witnessed a flurry of megasquid firsts. In December 2006, Kubodera and his team outdid themselves by hooking an Architeuthis near the Japanese island of Chichijima, then videotaping the thrashing 24-foot animal as they dragged it aboard. (Unfortunately, it died from exposure to the warm surface water, not to mention being beached on the deck of the ship.)14 Then, in February 2007, a New Zealand fishing crew topped that: fishing for toothfish in the Antarctic waters south of New Zealand, they hauled up a 39-foot, 990-pound colossal squid—Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, by any other name—alive.15 It didn't survive, but it was the most mature specimen of the biggest (and, some maintain, baddest) member of the order Teuthidaever recovered, not to mention the largest confirmed specimen of a cephalopod to date.16 (Why baddest? Because Mesonychoteuthis beats Architeuthis in the arms race, hands down: the clublike ends of its tentacles bristle with vicious, swiveling hooks, the better to grab you with.)

    Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Photo: British Antarctic Survey

    Now comes the first video footage of a live Architeuthis in the vasty deep—2,000 feet below the Pacific, 620 miles south of Japan, in an area where Sperm whale hunt the giant squid. In June and July 2012, an expedition jointly funded by The Discovery Channel and Japan's public-broadcasting organization, NHK, went in search of the vanishingly elusive animal. The scientists heading the team, Kubodera, O'Shea, and the marine biologist Edie Widder, conducted 55 dives in two submersibles. Using Widder's ingenious "e-jellyfish" lure, which mimics the bioluminescent displays of the Atolla jellyfish, together with her innovative "Medusa" video technology, which marries a noiseless floating camera to a "far-red" light source invisible to most sea creatures, researchers were able to capture otherworldly images of a squid approaching the bait.17

    Chromatophores flashing from iridescent silver-gold to gunmetal blue, the animal danced in the dark, an emissary from a sunless, starless void. "The eye was very human-looking, but the whole creature just looked like an alien," said Leslie Schwerin, a Discovery Channel producer who accompanied the research team.18 (The Discovery Channel will air the video as part of its show, "Monster Squid: The Giant is Real," on January 27 at 8 P.M. Eastern Time.) "The color was utterly different than any of us expected," Widder told NPR. "The one that had been brought to the surface [by Kubodera]…was red, and a lot of deep-sea squid are red. But this was a spectacular silver and gold. It just looks like it was carved out of metal, it's just completely breathtaking."19

    The kraken of tall tales and sea shanties is coming into sharp focus, a flesh-and-blood reality. But why now?

    Ellis thinks our increasing ability to peer and pry into the world's most remote nooks and crannies has something to do with it. "We are only now learning how to investigate the ocean without sending a man down in a bathysphere or a research submersible," he told me. "The use of robot cameras enables researchers to cover greater swaths of dark ocean without endangering themselves. The more we do it, the more surprises we get." (His new e-book, The Little Blue-eyed Vampire from Hell, is about one such surprise, first described in 1903 but only recently videotaped in its bathypelagic haunt in 1992: Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the freakish little squid with the largest eyes in the animal kingdom, proportionally speaking; light-producing photophores dotting much of its body, like deep-sea Christmas lights; and of course that awesome name, worthy of a Norwegian death-metal band.20) Stealth—made possible by far-red lighting and noiseless cameras—is also a factor, says Widder, in increased sightings of giant squid and other figments of the oceanic unconscious.

    Yet, as O'Shea points out, it's commercial interests such as the oil industry, rather than scientific researchers, that are leading the charge in undersea exploration. "Deep-sea oil exploration is why we're seeing footage from ROVs [remotely operated underwater vehicles] of Magnapinna ["—another species of squid, a "spindly thing" with "inordinately long arms," which attains lengths of 20 feet] —at depths of four-and-a-half-thousand meters in the Gulf of Mexico."

    Nonetheless, some of the most dramatic still photos and video footage of megasquid are the fruit of painstaking labors by devoted teuthologists on a Mission from God to capture this thing on film and, with luck, in the flesh. "Dr. Kubodera spent three years—26 week-long expeditions—before he got the first photographs, and he did it in an area where he knew giant squid had to exist because that was the migration route of sperm whales," says Roper. "He just kept going back, putting down cameras and waiting for things to happen and, you know, you do that enough, it's gonna happen! Then, he went right back out to the same area, set a great big baited lure, and was able to snag one. He put in phenomenal effort over a very long period of time and he was successful; that's what it takes."

    O'Shea believes that the media, by heightening public awareness of the animals, have played a prominent role in amateur sightings of megasquid. He cites edutainment programming such as the Discovery Channel documentary "Chasing Giants: On the Trail of the Giant Squid" (in which he figures prominently) and museums' use of Architeuthisspecimens as a guaranteed draw, second only to Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs. ("Every time a colossal squid goes on display, we have another bloody media frenzy," he says, with the unmistakable air of a scientist suffering from chronic kraken fatigue syndrome).

    Of course, he adds, the Web spreads word of giant- or colossal squid sightings at viral-outbreak speed, whipping up Architeuth-ophilia and alerting everyone from commercial fishermen to boating enthusiasts to beachcombers of the existence of such creatures. "In 1925, [the British malacologist G.C. Robson] recorded two specimens [of Mesonychoteuthis] from the stomach contents of a harpooned whale down in the Antarctic," says O'Shea, "and then probably the '70s was the next time these things were hauled aboard: the Russians caught quite a number of them when they were trawling for Patagonian toothfish. So it was in the Russian literature, but who on earth was going to pick up on that!? But in the '90s, when Google takes over, all of a sudden everybody is aware of these things, especially when you call them something like 'colossal squid.' Catchy name!"

    Another, obvious explanation for the upspike in megasquid encounters is the fact that longline and bottom-trawling fishing technologies are plumbing—most marine scientists would say plundering—the ocean's deepest places. For example, longline boats are venturing, increasingly, into Antarctic waters, where Mesonychoteuthisis known to feed on Antarctic toothfish.

    "The depths to which we fish are increasing," says O'Shea, "and we are encroaching into new environments with huge trawls and long lines. Is it any wonder that in the process of this invasion fishermen are capturing new, inconceivably bizarre animals?"

    Roper joins the chorus. "The animal is not increasing in population density," he says, noting that the best evidence, based on an exhaustive study of giant squid beaks retrieved from the stomachs of whales, indicates that Architeuthis numbers in the "multiple millions." (Mesonychoteuthisis less studied, making population estimates for that animal guesswork at best).

    Like O'Shea, Roper attributes the megasquids' higher media profile to the fact that "we humans are now going to places where it exists." Typically, Architeuthis can be found in the neighborhood of 400 to 900 meters, from the mesopelagic to the upper bathypelagic zones, he says; Mesonychoteuthis lives further down the water column, "probably 800 to a thousand meters." According to Roper, "a lot of the deep-sea fishing nets, now, are going down to a thousand to 1200 meters."

    Not only are we reaching deeper into the ocean, he says, but we're extending our geographic reach as well. Fisheries now extend "way down in the southern ocean, down around Antarctica. Until recently, there was no fishery down there, but with the traditional fish populations pretty well decimated, fishermen have to go farther afield, [and] they have to go deeper and deeper." This, he explains, is why big squid are turning up in what is known as "by-catch"—the accidental capture of species other than the ones you're fishing for (the vast majority of which are dumped overboard, dead).21

    Vampyroteuthis infernalis—the vampire squid from Hell

    For Roper, the recent uptick in big-squid sightings and captures is part of a larger, more ominous story. As our exploitation of the world's oceans extends into their nethermost depths, could there be potentially catastrophic consequences? Could monster squid be the canaries in the coal mine?

    Roper decries the bottom-trawling techniques that indiscriminately scoop up deep-sea creatures with "life cycles of 30, 50, 100 years," seriously compromising a population's ability to sustain itself. He offers the parable of the orange roughy, which grows slowly, matures late, and can live to the age of 130:22 "orange roughy spawn in coral forests on the edge of seamounts, where soft and hard corals grow to 35 feet. And along come the trawls and they essentially clear-cut everything. They've got gigantic rollers, and they just wipe out the forests."

    O'Shea, whose laconic New Zealand style tends toward the blunt, puts the case even more pointedly. Bottom trawling amounts to "raping the seabed," he says. "If you're working on seamounts or deep-sea reefs, your weights are large steel balls, which smash over the seabed to keep the lower part of the net above the rock itself. You can have stands of coral in New Zealand that can be 20 meters high from the seabed. The base of the coral can easily be two thousand years old, although the live part of the coral, the terminal branches, will be recent, perhaps from the last couple of decades. This is a huge amount of structure, providing habitat for myriad encrusting animals and smaller fish species. You can trawl through that, destroying two thousand years of growth at once—complete annihilation of everything that's on the seabed, [including] coral communities that are millennia old, all for the purpose of taking out a couple of fish."

    Doubling back to the subject of squid, O'Shea observes that trawl nets are decimating 78 out of 86 species of New Zealand squid—all of those species whose fragile, free-floating egg masses are easily destroyed by trawl nets. He worries that trawling "will contribute to the complete collapse and loss of these species."

    Why should we care about a few less calamari, give or take a couple zillion? Two words, says O'Shea: "Trophic cascades," the downside of that Circle-of-Life thing that gives us a feeling of interconnectedness with nature. "What are the cascading effects of this through the food chain?" says O'Shea. Nobody knows. We do know, however, that scientists are finding more and more whales—"sperm whales, pygmy sperm whales, pilot whales, all toothed whales"—suffering from "extreme ulceration of their stomachs." Why? Because they're not getting enough squid in their diets. Turns out squid are not only food to toothed whales but a source of water as well, since they don't drink salt water. Thus, "they're both hungry and thirsty," says O'Shea; the ulcers, he speculates, may be caused by powerful digestive acids gnawing holes in their stomach linings.

    But there's a glimmer of hope. O'Shea "takes his hat off" to the New Zealand fishing industry, which "has volunteered 30 percent of the New Zealand EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone, the territorial sea zone within 200 miles of the country's coastline] as no-bottom-trawling zones."23 Roper is heartened by the prohibition on trawling "in a huge section of the Southern Pacific" following the Republic of Kiribati's designation, in 2006, of a vast expanse of atolls, reefs, and deep-ocean habitat as a marine reserve,24 and George W. Bush's transformation, that same year, of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands into a national monument—a stroke of the pen that created the world's largest marine sanctuary, a protected area bigger than California.25 In 2009, President Bush added a huge swath of the American-controlled Pacific Ocean to that endowment.26

    The Kraken

    As always, however, there's a buzzkill: cheered as they are over such protected zones, marine scientists can't help pointing out they make up the merest fraction of the world's oceans.27

    At a moment when the commercial looting of the deep, with a little help from pollution and global warming, is banishing the notion that the seas are too immeasurably vast to be damaged by mere man, Architeuthis and Mesonychoteuthis are as portentous as they were in pre-modern times. The kraken that once reminded us of Hamlet's words to Horatio, about the limits of human knowledge, still has stories to tell us, premonitory visions of the silent seas that wait for us if we don't scrap the obsolete beliefs of the industrial age: the vision of nature as an inexhaustible resource, fuel for the engines of capitalism; the frantic cycle of hyperproduction and overconsumption that has piled high our landfills and spawned a self-assembling monument to our civilization: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating mass of mostly plastic debris that's twice the size of Texas and weighs an estimated 3.5 million tons.28 29 According to a 2006 report by Greenpeace, marine species are mistaking refuse such as plastic bags and Styrofoam fragments for jellyfish and other prey. Inevitably, many of these animals, such as birds and sea turtles, die because they can't pass plastic; they starve to death, their stomachs filled with trash.30

    O'Shea has found plastic in the stomachs of giant squid. "The oceans are very sick," he says. "The predictions that I have, in terms of published reviews, maintain that we will see the collapse of all commercial fisheries by 2025. Any fish that you're getting on your plate when you go down to the supermarket will be gone by 2025," commercially extinct though not absolutely extinct. "It's going to be another 25, 30 years after 2025 before levels might have climbed up again to justify some sort of commercial fisheries. But during the intervening years, we'll have had to go for an alternative food source and I don't think that people are going to be so interested in completely annihilating the oceans all over again."

    "If we continue to go the way that we're going as a global society, virtually all life forms are threatened, in one way or another," says Roper. "It's not gonna happen tomorrow, and if we wise up and respond quickly enough, it doesn't have to happen. But we really, really do need to become better stewards of the oceans."

    In Tennyson's poem "The Kraken," the monster rises from the abyss at the end of the age, when "fire shall heat the deep." Perhaps real-life sea monsters like Architeuthis and its colossal kin are surfacing in the public imagination to warn us that, in an increasingly virtual reality where the wild is something we click away from when we're bored, we're more entangled in nature's incalculably complex systems than we know. Only a few degrees of separation, ecologically speaking, lie between us and nature's darkest places, its most alien things.

    Mark Dery is a cultural critic who never shrinks from the opportunity to write about Teuthida.

    His books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. He edited the trailblazing anthology of digital-culture criticism, Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, and popularized the culture jamming phenomenon through his widely reprinted monograph, Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams.

    He is at work on a biography of the author, illustrator, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey (Little, Brown: 2014).


    1 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1917) Volume 71 (Google eBook), . The image is attributed to John Murray and Johan Hjort, The Depths of the Ocean: A General Account of the Modern Science of Oceanography Based Largely on the Scientific Researches of the Norwegian Steamer "Michael Sars" in the North Atlantic (Macmillan and Co.: 1912), but the caption is the Report 's, not Murray and Hjort's.

    2 Quoted in Richard Ellis, The Search for the Giant Squid: The Biology and Mythology of the World's Most Elusive Sea Creature (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 11.

    3 T. W. Kirk, "On the occurrence of a giant cuttlefish on the New Zealand coast," In Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, 12 (1879), 311, .

    4 Quoted in Ellis, The Search for the Giant Squid, p. 85.

    5 Richard Ellis, e-mail to the author.

    6 For an account of the squid attack on Kerstitch, see "It's Hard Out Here for a Shrimp," Tim Zimmerman, Outside, July 2006, .

    7 Howard Hall, "Mugged by Squid," Howardhall.com, .

    8 In an e-mail to me, Roper debunked the notion that Kerstitch's experience was uncommon. "Just go to Santa Roselia, Mexico and ask the oldest fisherman you can find…he'll reel off a number of incidents," he wrote. Better yet, just ask Roper. "I was an attack victim in the Sea of Cortez in 1997 when we were filming the National Geographic special Sea Monsters: the Search for the Giant Squid (1998) ," noted Roper, in a comment on the final draft of this article. "Some of the action appears in the film, but it certainly does not show the location of the bite, nor the amount of blood it caused. The bite went through my wet suit, dive skins, and bathing suit and caused a significant laceration on the inside of my upper thigh (it was uncomfortably too close to 'home')."

    9 If this figure seems a little short of the Brobdingnagian claims made for Architeuthis in most pop-science stories about the animal, that's probably because virtually every general-interest article dutifully repeats the magic number of 60 feet.

    Steve O'Shea deplores the media's perpetuation of what he believes to be a credulity-straining exaggeration, based on the 19th-century biologist Thomas Kirk's eyeball estimate of a specimen's length. In a comment on the final draft of this article, O'Shea wrote, "Kirk paced it, in his own words, for he had no ruler/measure handy, and I believe this misrepresentation has been perpetuated enough; if they were foot-on-foot, as in heel directly to toe, I would accept 57 (or 58, whatever the precise figure was), but I think perpetuating this as fact any longer is doing a disservice to science."

    Roper, in his comments on the final draft of this article, was even more conservative, writing, "there are no confirmed records of giant squid longer than about 45 feet total length. Most are in the 25-35 foot range. I have examined specimens in museums and laboratories around the world—perhaps a 100 or so—and I believe the 60 foot number comes from fear, fantasy, and pulling the highly elastic tentacles out to the near breaking point when they are measured on the shore or on deck."

    10 Ellis, The Search for the Giant Squid, p. 8.

    11 Tracy Staedter, "Live Giant Squid Photographed for First Time," Scientific American, September 29, 2005, .

    12 See gallery of images, "First Live Giant Squid Photographed," at Nationalgeographic.com, .

    13 Quoted in Staedter, "Live Giant Squid Photographed for First Time," ibid.

    14 Clyde Roper, inline comments on final article draft.

    15 Ted Chamberlain, "Photo in the News: Colossal Squid Caught off Antarctica," National Geographic, Nationalgeographic.com, .

    16 Ibid.

    17 Architeuthis is attracted to the jellyfish's panicked bioluminescent fireworks not because giant squid eat jellyfish, Widder informs, but because they eat the predators that prey on jellyfish. "The reason the lure worked is because it imitates a bioluminescent burglar alarm," she explained, in an e-mail. "The jellyfish lights up when caught by a predator in order to attract another larger predator that may attack its attacker thereby affording it an opportunity for escape. It's the same reason that birds and monkeys have fear screams."

    18 Quoted in Deborah Netburn, "Catching the elusive giant squid on video, watch a snippet," The Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2013, .

    19 Quoted in NPR Staff, "The Kraken Is Real: Scientist Films First Footage Of A Giant Squid," NPR.org, January 13, 2013, .

    20 See Richard Ellis, "Introducing Vampyroteuthis infernalis, the vampire squid from Hell," The Cephalopod Page, thecephalopodpage.org,

    21 No author, "Crisis in ocean fisheries," United Nations System-Wide Earthwatch, Unitednations.org, .

    22 G. E. Fenton, S. A. Short, D. A. Ritz, "Age determination of orange roughy," Marine Biology, 1991, Volume 109, Issue 2, 197-202, .

    23 No author, "Groundbreaking initiative to protect underwater habitats," Ministry for Primary Industries, fish.govt.nz, April 4, 2007,

    24 Brian Handwerk, "Giant Marine Reserve Created in South Pacific," National Geographic News, March 29, 2006, .

    25 Msnbc.com staff and news service reports, "Bush creates world's biggest ocean preserve," MSNBC.com, June 16, 2006, .

    26 John M. Broder, "Bush to Protect Vast New Pacific Tracts," The New York Times, January 5, 2009, .

    27 William J. Broad, "Mapping the Sea and Its Mysteries," The New York Times, January 12, 2009, . Relevant passage: "The problem, Dr. Earle said in the interview, is that the protected zones add up to a very small part of the global ocean, which covers more than 70 percent of the planet's surface. … They're a tiny fraction of 1 percent. On land, across the world, about 12 percent is off limits for development, in parks or preserves."

    28 Justin Berton, "Continent-Size Toxic Stew of Plastic Trash Fouling Swath of Pacific Ocean," The San Francisco Chronicle, October 18, 2007, h.

    29 In an e-mail to the Boing Boing editors, marine biologist and science blogger Miriam Goldstein takes issue with the ubiquitous figure of 3.5 million tons of debris and inevitable state-of-Texas comparison that appear in virtually every article about the Pacific Garbage Patch. Goldstein writes, "Since the patch is formed of miniscule floating pieces that can be further together or far apart, comparisons to the State of Texas are misleading (though certainly ubiquitous). To my knowledge (and this is my area of expertise), that '3.5 million ton' figure has no source. I checked the linked article and it has no source there either."

    Point taken. However, since these facts are near-universal in stories on the subject, it's not entirely unlikely that they originated somewhere. We encourage the Hive Mind to run these numbers to ground, and will append a correction or update once their origins are elaborated.

    30 See Michelle Allsopp, Adam Walters, David Santillo, and Paul Johnston, "Plastic Debris in the World's Oceans," greenpeace.org, November 2, 2006, .


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  • A Season in Hell

    A Season in Hell

    By Mark Dery

    On the wall at the foot of my bed, a poster displays the Faces Pain Scale, a series of earless, genderless everymen arranged, from right to left, in increasing degrees of agony.1

    "The faces show how much pain or discomfort someone is feeling," the caption explains. "The face on the left shows no pain. Each face shows more and more pain and the last face shows the worst pain possible. Point to the face that shows how bad your pain is right NOW."2 The blurb adds, helpfully, that your face need not resemble the cartoon visages in the Pain Scale.

    It's August 2011. I'm lying in a room at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, waiting to undergo surgery for a small-bowel obstruction, an intestinal blockage resulting from postoperative adhesions caused by my 2008 surgery for my first small-bowel obstruction, itself the result of my 2006 surgery for a rare and virulent cancer. Abdominal surgery begets scar tissue. Which gives rise to adhesions. Which sometimes cause bowel obstructions. Which may necessitate surgery. Which begets more scar tissue, which…

    I'm feeling nigh unto death, driven half-mad by my nasogastric tube, a tube running up my nose and down my throat, pumping a bilious green froth of stomach acid and half-digested goop out of my belly, into the canister behind my headboard.

    (Few readers will know firsthand the horror of the NG tube, or, more exactly, of its insertion. Handing you a cup of water, the doctor prods a plastic tube up one of your nasal passages, down your throat and into your stomach, exhorting you to drink, drink, DRINK! to ease the tube's passage and suppress your gag reflex. The violation is over in seconds, but for those seconds the retching, suffocating nightmare is unendurably awful, like drowning on dry land. And for the days or weeks that the tube lives in you, like some parasitoid alien organism, you gag a little every time you swallow, the tube rasping against your throat.)

    In my agony, I take some small comfort in knowing that the Faces Pain Scale is there for me, even if I don't look like a constipated mime.

    In 2006, I was diagnosed with squamous-cell cancer of the urethra, a rare form of the disease. I spent that summer at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, riding the sickening swells of a chemotherapy so toxic it left me limp and nauseous for the first of the two weeks between each session, poisoned by the cure that felt as if it was killing me.

    By summer's end, it had shrunk my tumor, but not enough. Thus, my date with the O.R. at New York-Presbyterian—foreordained from the moment my surgeon saw my first MRI—would be more harrowing than I'd hoped. "Of course, it was dispiriting," I told my friends, in one of the periodic e-mail updates I called cancer-grams. "I had hoped that the tumor would shrivel up and die, nuked by the chemo." That said, I noted,

    The most painful part of having my hopes dashed was the deadpan affect with which my Sloan-Kettering oncologist delivered the news that my chemo had failed, adding that, in his considered opinion, I should have my everything removed as an offering to the Angry God of Cancer, in the desperate hope that this thing will never come back. "Radical penectomy," he snapped, tonelessly. Then, without so much as a handshake, he swept out of the room, white coat flapping. That, I gathered, was the end of our doctor-patient relationship.

    I'll always remember him as a man who put the "care" in "caregiver," with a bedside manner whose saintly compassion and twinkly-eyed avuncularity recalled Joseph Mengele at his best.3

    Mercifully, my surgeon was as profoundly humane as my Sloan-Kettering doctor was bloodless. Dr. James McKiernan struck a delicate balance between an unfeigned compassion, leavened with a hilariously bent wit, and an unassuming mastery of his field. He was by all accounts preternaturally skilled with a scalpel. A radical penectomy, he reassured me with an eyeroll, would not be necessary.

    In October 2006, Dr. McKiernan carved away my cancer in an epic operation. Since then, I've undergone MRIs and CAT scans at ever-greater intervals. So far, no bogeys have appeared on the radar screen; hitting the five-year mark without incident, as I have, means that the statistical likelihood of a recurrence is astronomically small—cause for celebration indeed, since of those patients who are favored, by the blithely cruel God of Random Chance, with my vanishingly rare cancer, 70 percent experience a recurrence. And virtually all of them are killed by it. This thing is a slate-wiper.

    I'm a statistical outlier, incalculably indebted to the man who saved my life by cutting out every last vestige of this murderous thing.

    Snaking from mid-belly down to just above my pubic bone, a scar marks the spot where doctors have unzipped my abdomen three times. Sometimes, looking at it in the bathroom mirror, a train track of parallel nubs where the sutures used to be, I'm back in the grayscale limbo of hospital life.

    Despite their half-hearted attempts at cheer—paint-by-number seascapes, insistently bright abstracts—hospitals tend toward an institutional grimness: walls painted drab shades of mustard yellow, slate gray, terra-cotta brown; baseboards scuffed by the wheels of numberless gurneys; linoleum faded by countless scrubbings. Even the light slanting in through the windows seems wan, drained of all radiance, as if it had undergone a bloodletting measured in lumens. And then there's the smell: the ever-present ammonia scent of all-purpose cleaner and underneath it a faint but distinct whiff of cabbage-y rottenness, a bouquet of feces and flatulence and unwashed bodies.

    Hospitals aren't like prisons; they are prisons. True, they're kinder, gentler ones, whose inmates are usually desperate to be admitted, but even the most grateful patient realizes, at some point, that hospitalization is just a more benign incarceration: the lookalike cell and inevitable cellmate; the swill-bucket food; the patient's powerlessness in the face of the lowliest flunky; his Kafkaesque uncertainty about when and at whose whim he will be transferred from one hospital to another, or sent to the O.R., or discharged to walk the streets as a free man.

    Even the standard-issue hospital gowns and pajama bottoms, generic as prison jumpsuits, encourage a carceral state of mind. Designed to demoralize, the user-unfriendly gowns are slit down the back and ineffectually secured with ties, making them virtually impossible to tie without assistance. With their resemblance to housedresses, they make the male patient feel vaguely transvestic; at the same time, their slit backs remind those of us with a morbid streak of the funeral suits reportedly worn by Dear Departeds to their open-casket viewings. The pants are equally dispiriting: held up by the ubiquitous knotted ties, they're forever threatening to come undone and expose the sufferer's bare behind—a constant reminder of the patient's infantile dependence on nurses, nurse's aides, or anyone luckless enough to be within earshot when he bleats for help.

    The fluorescent purgatory of hospital days can feel like Sartre's No Exit, staged as an episode of the medical drama House. Around every corner, a Diane Arbus photo come to life: a man sitting alone, on the edge of his bed, holding his penis in one hand, staring at it disconsolately; the immensely fat woman in the room next to mine, spread out on her bed like a blood pudding, bawling melodramatically at the merest needle prick; the family crowded into the room across the corridor, discussing with hale-fellow-well-met heartiness the frequency, laboriousness, and specific gravity of Dad's bowel movements.

    I remember the nurse who hung a bag of potassium on my IV stand, set the drip speed on high, and left the room; the pain was unutterable, the chemical searing my veins like an electrical fire tearing through wiring. I remember waking up in the small hours, beddings soaked through by cold ooze leaking from the surgical drain in my abdomen. I remember the impotent desperation of punching the call button again and again, frantic to rouse a nurse, powerless to help myself in even the smallest of ways. In these waking nightmares, it's always three A.M., because in the "real dark night of the soul," as F. Scott Fitzgerald notes, "it is always three o' clock in the morning."4 And the nurse never comes.

    Recovering from major surgery, we're helpless as newborns or nonagenarians, moved to tears by the kindness of strangers—or their casual cruelties. Some nurses are candidates for canonization; some missed their calling at Guantanamo. The night after my cancer surgery, I swam up to consciousness, in intensive care, woken by a woman screaming that her oxygen tubes had come loose, that she couldn't breathe… She screamed and screamed, her voice rising to a ragged crescendo of terror. When no one came, other voices joined hers. A mass of punctures and pain, held together by sutures and butterfly stitches and Foley catheters, I added my hoarse yelp to the chorus of wails coming from nearby beds; every time I yelled, I felt something tearing inside. In the fullness of time, a nurse materialized and, with the dead-eyed unconcern of sleep deprivation and empathy burn-out, plugged the woman's oxygen tubes into her nostrils.

    Yet other nurses were ministering angels, changing my dressings and bringing me ice chips to suck on and tossing me throwaway kindnesses that, in the purgatorial grayness of a hospital day, felt like salvation.

    In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our metaphors come with hidden ideological costs and psychological surcharges that too often blind us to the flesh-and-blood facts of the disease in question. "The most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill," she advises, "is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking."5 Sontag's prescription seems especially apt when we consider that illness and injury drag us down, out of the symbolic realm, into the prison of the literal. They reduce us to bodies to be X-rayed, MRI'd, CAT-scanned, intubated, IV'd, woken throughout the night by nurse's aides armed with blood cuffs and thermometers, pricked at first light by phlebotomists in search of blood samples, sliced or sawed open in the OR, stapled or sutured up, and, ultimately, spirited back to bed to dream the murky submarine dreams of the anaesthetized.

    As Elaine Scarry points out in The Body in Pain, "physical pain—unlike any other state of consciousness—has no referential content. It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists objectification in language."6 To the mind in the body in the sickbed or on the operating table, the pain that shadows disease and injury doesn't stand for anything; it's experienced as an irreducible sensation, the furthest thing from a figure of speech.

    Disease drives a wedge between mind and body, widening the Cartesian split. We're reminded, with a jolt, that even those of us who live in our heads are alarmingly dependent on the fragile, failure-prone bodies we'd previously regarded as an afterthought. We're troubled, too, by the wild surmise that the body is Other, an alien thing with a mindless mind of its own.

    This is especially so with cancer, a creeping horror that colonizes our bodies one cell at a time, insidiously turning us into It. The philosopher Derek Parfit's thought experiment comes to mind. Inquiring into the nature of the self, Parfit imagined the science-fictional replacement of your cells, "one by one, with those of Greta Garbo at the age of 30. At the beginning of the experiment, the recipient of the cells would clearly be you, and at the end it would clearly be Garbo, but what about in the middle? […] A self, it seems, is not all or nothing, but the sort of thing that there can be more or less of."7 Isn't this what cancer does—turn our bodies, by degrees, into something far less appealing than Garbo, and far more alien?

    But even mechanical breakdowns—a small-bowel obstruction, for instance—invite anxious speculation about an Enemy Within. Despite Freud's dethroning of the conscious mind and the recent assault, by philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, on the very idea of the self, most of us muddle gamely along, confident in the assumption that a homunculus in our heads is still running the show. Disease unsettles that confidence.

    When my most recent intestinal blockage sent me to the hospital for 20 nightmarish days, 18 of them without food or water, I struggled to digest the unpalatable fact that I—that is, the thinking, speaking self I regard as the essence of who I am—was at the mercy of my bowel, a brainless but seemingly willful thing that could send me to the ER, doubled over by peristaltic waves of pain, anytime it wanted to.

    Of course, your intestines can't want anything; attributing volition to your innards takes anthropomorphism to certifiable extremes. Nonetheless, metaphors are the skeleton key to a society's unconscious. It must mean something, at an evolutionary juncture when we seem to be leaving the body behind—hunched over a computer keyboard or diddling a cellphone while our wandering minds are elsewhere, watching video on demand or socializing through screens—that doctors speak in terms of "irritable" bowels, of bowels that "resent" being handled in the OR, of bowels that are "confused" by the dormant period brought on by obstructions and must be "woken up" with stool softeners and bulk fiber supplements and Milk of Magnesia.

    Drifting in a Benadryl haze one hospital night, I remembered an article on the enteric nervous system, a network of neurons in our intestines, incapable of conscious thought but complex enough to play a role in our state of mind—a "second brain," neurogastroenterologists call it, a sobriquet worthy of a 1950s' creature feature.8 Of course, Dr. Michael Gershon reassures, "The second brain doesn't help with the great thought processes…religion, philosophy, and poetry [are] left to the brain in the head."9 Dr. Gershon, who chairs the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at New York–Presbyterian, is the author of The Second Brain, whose cover bears a tagline worthy of Ed Wood: "Your gut has a mind of its own." (Might I suggest, for the revised edition, It Came From Within?) Alone with my night terrors, I worried, Does the good doctor protest too much? In a chapter luridly titled "The Bad Bowel," in a section called "The Gut is Not Immune to Mental Disease," Gershon asserts that there is nothing "to prevent the enteric nervous system…from giving rise to enteric misbehavior, independently of any influence the second brain receives from the first."10 I couldn't help wondering, Are my entrails, lately the focus of most of my waking thoughts, mounting an insurgency on my brain?

    Recovering from surgery, I gaze away long stretches of the day, mind empty as the slate-gray blankness of the Hudson. Hurricane Irene came this way a few days ago, but the river is barely ruffled; it looks almost motionless. The sky is an intense, rain-washed blue. The midday sun is radiant. Or does the world just look supersaturated, from a hospital room?

    One thing is certain: the world goes bustlingly on, oblivious to the hungry ghosts in the windows high above. I glimpse cyclists, joggers, rollerbladers on the path that hugs the river, merrily unaware of how lucky they are to be of sound body, alive in the sun, instead of languishing in this morgue for the unwell. Unbidden, a thought whispers in my mind like a ventriloquist's voice. I hate the living, I hear myself think.

    Illness may not be metaphor, but metaphor is the mill we use to grind meaning; it keeps insinuating itself (as it just did) into the stories we tell ourselves about our diseases: Why me? What does it all mean? Even Sontag can't resist beginning her critique of the cultural costs of metaphor with a metaphor:

    Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.11

    The image of sickness as a Limbo of the Lost to which anyone may, without warning, be consigned is a popular one. "Disease has a land, a mappable territory, a subterranean but secure place where its kinships and its consequences are formed," Foucault writes, in The Birth of the Clinic.12 Christopher Hitchens referred to his transformation from hard-drinking, chain-smoking terror of the debating circuit into cancer sufferer as a "deportation" from "the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady," a land he called "Tumorville."13 Elaine Scarry suggests that someone else's pain—"the events happening within the interior of that person's body"—"seem to have the remote character of some deep subterranean fact, belonging to an invisible geography that, however portentous, has no reality because it has not yet manifested itself on the visible surface of the earth."14 Of course, Shakespeare got there first when he rendered death as "the undiscovered country from whose bourn/ no traveller returns." (Not that death and illness are synonymous, but as Will Self notes in his essay on being diagnosed with a rare blood disease, death is the metaphor we inevitably reach for when we're ailing, because "when we are ill, do we not always feel like we are dying, even if it's only a little?")15

    What those who've never spent a day in the hospital want to ask those of us who've been to the kingdom of the sick and back—or would want to ask, if it ever occurred to the average boomer that he may not die on his rollerblades or midway through the tasting menu—is: What did your trip to the night-side of life teach you? How did it change you? What does it mean to live with the knowledge that you might someday be snatched back into that underworld? All of which is to say: What's the meaning of malady?

    Every patient has his answer. Mine is the existentialist's koan: the answer is that there is no answer. My first impulse, as a godless rationalist, is to say that diseases like urethral cancer and system breakdowns like bowel obstructions are object lessons in the capriciousness of the cosmos—the unpredictability of life, its random unfairnesses. Our insistence that things have meanings and morals impels us to turn our sickness into metaphor and narrative; to demand something deeper from it than purposeless pain. To my Christian-fundamentalist relatives, my near-fatal cancer was just the Lord moving in mysterious ways, showing me the error of my atheism before death consigned me to eternal torment. To my father, the colorectal cancer that killed him was, he confided in all seriousness, the likely result of a lifetime of emotional repression—karmic retribution for anal retention.

    In truth, cancer is a lightning strike out of the godless blue (smokers and workers exposed to environmental carcinogens being the obvious exceptions). Its etiology is often obscure or dauntingly multifactoral. Inspirational tales of sufferers mounting hard-fought "battles" against the Big C aside, a patient's only active role in his treatment typically consists of choosing an "in-network provider"—a doctor sanctioned by his health insurance—and hoping or praying, as the case may be, for delivery from evil.

    To be sure, there are inexhaustibly driven, impossibly resourceful patients like Germaine Berne, the "vivacious psychologist from Atlanta" with a rare and ravenous cancer described by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

    Germaine fought cancer obsessively, cannily, desperately, fiercely, madly, brilliantly, and zealously… Her quest for a cure had taken her on a strange and limitless journey, through Internet blogs and teaching hospitals, chemotherapy and clinical trials halfway across the country… She had deployed every morsel of energy to the quest, mobilizing and remobilizing the last dregs of her courage, summoning her will and wit and imagination…16

    But few of us are Germaine Bernes. In the first flush of my cancer diagnosis, I, too, scoured the Web for information, poring over medical journals and newspaper science pages and NIH and CDC FAQs and online forums noisy with the desperate chatter of cancer sufferers. I, too, came to my appointments well-armed with questions, as I imagine Bernes did, interrogating my doctors with prosecutorial zeal. An archaeological dig into my file cabinet turns up the spiral-bound notebook my wife and I took to those early meetings with Dr. McKiernan, head-spinningly intense sessions that left us woozy with information vertigo. Leafing through the pocket-sized book, I come across methodically numbered To Do lists ("opinion of second opinions?"), medical terms to be looked up ("corpora cavernosa"), pop-psych homilies ("depression is normal"), demands for the quantification of the unquantifiable ("How much is chemo going to help me? 5 percent? 95 percent?"), a laconic note acknowledging the worst-case scenario without comment ("if it [my cancer] comes back, incurable").

    Soon enough, however, I was defeated by the Herculean labors demanded of the amateur cancer researcher. Hacking my way through a thicket of medical jargon was a thankless task that became exponentially more thankless when the thicket turned out to conceal just how little medical science knows about 40-something men with my obscure cancer, which typically targets geriatric women. Most of all, though, I simply didn't want to allow the disease to metastasize across my mind, occupying my thoughts as it already had my body.

    Yet, looking back on My Cancer Year, it occurs to me that perhaps we do bring something back from the land of malady—not a meaning or moral in the capital-"M" sense, necessarily, but maybe a philosophical memento, some little insight that, in a kind of existential parallax effect, subtly shifts our perspective on everyday life.

    For me, that insight is the grudging admission that there's some truth in the notion that serious illness is a touchstone, revealing the stuff we're made of. Hitchens's unbowed atheism in the face of a cancer so rapacious only five percent survive it is unquestionably the measure of the man, an inspiring lesson in the consolations of reason in an age of birthers, truthers, anti-vaccination crusaders, global-warming know-nothings, and Darwin-denying god-botherers.17 Likewise, we can see Sontag's sublimation of her dark passage through breast cancer, in the omniscient historiography of Illness as Metaphor, as a resolute refusal to allow herself to be redefined as a cancer "victim"—a chemo-clouded mind subservient to the needs of the abject flesh.

    As a career patient, I've learned one thing at least: the importance of clinging to the rag-end of your sense of self, however you define it—intellect, sense of humor, generosity of spirit, a stoicism worthy of Seneca or Mr. Spock, or, in a writer's case, the mind that makes sense of itself as a reflection in the mirror of language. In the M.A.S.H.-unit chaos of the E.R.; in the nowhere, notime of the hospital room; in the O.R., where the euphoria of oncoming anesthesia and the doting attentions of apparitions in scrubs make you understand, in an instant, the perverse seductions of Munchausen's Syndrome as you ride into the stage-light radiance on your gurney like the Son of Heaven in his sedan chair, feeling for all the world like a pathological celebrity—in these moments of inescapable embodiment, I've learned to float free in my head, a thought balloon untethered from the body on the sickbed or the operating table.

    In The Body in Pain, Scarry contends that "physical pain has no voice"; that its profoundly subjective nature confers on it an "unsharability" that makes it fundamentally resistant to linguistic expression. "Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it," she argues, "bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned."18 I contend that, while metaphor may be an illness when it obscures our understanding of the true nature of disease, language—the meta-metaphor—is the Indian rope trick that lets us climb into our minds, out of bodies in pain.

    Propped in a lawnchair in my backyard after weeks entombed in a hospital room, I think of Hitchens's remark to an interviewer, shortly after learning he had metastasizing esophageal cancer. "I was very afraid it would stop me writing," he said. "And I was really petrified with fear about that because I thought that would, among other things, diminish my will to live because being a writer's what I am rather than what I do."19

    I am a story narrating itself into being, I think. A strange loop of mind and language—the ontological equivalent of "Drawing Hands," a picture by M.C. Escher of a right hand drawing the left hand that is drawing the right. It may be true, as the linguist Steven Pinker maintains, that the human capacity for language is an evolutionary adaptation. But language, in turn, shapes the internal monologue that narrates the conscious self into existence. The I that says "I" is the only I; the self is a center of narrative gravity.20

    Drawing Hands, M.C. Escher. Lithograph, 1948.
    © Cordon Art-Baarn-the Netherlands.

    Through closed eyes, I sneak a glance at the sun; a fireball flares across my lids. I've read the surgeons' "operative notes" on my surgeries, read them as if they were postcards chronicling a trip taken in another lifetime, to a country whose name has changed so many times and whose borders have been so repeatedly redrawn that it can't be found on any map. My nine-hour cancer surgery: "The patient was administered general endotracheal anesthesia and placed in the dorsal lithotomy position, prepped and draped in the usual sterile fashion. … An incision was made in the perineum…" My most recent bowel-obstruction surgery: "Exploration was performed with the findings of abdominal cocoon [a fibrous membrane of surgical scar tissue swaddling the bowel]. The adhesions were carefully taken down using sharp and blunt dissection." Reading these travelogues from the dark interior makes me feel like Lazarus, post-traumatically stressed by memories of what it's like to die and rise again.

    I was the body lying on the table, prepped and draped in the usual sterile fashion, tumors and adhesions carefully taken down using sharp and blunt dissection; I am the body sitting in the sun, passing for healthy and whole. I shift slightly, tracking the light as it moves across the yard. On one arm, a grayish blotch tattoos the spot where surgical tape secured an IV, the tenacious adhesive resistant to weeks of showers and scrubbings. Through my shirt, I can feel the rubbery seam of the "midline incision" created by my first surgery, a souvenir of a trip that took me perilously close to the border of the undiscovered country whose visitors never return.

    "I'm alive," I say, out loud. More than the sound of my voice, it's the way language gives thought a body—the shape and weight of words, like smooth stones in the palm of the mind—that makes me believe it.

    — Mark Dery

    © Mark Dery; all rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, except under Fair Use provision of U.S. copyright law, without author's written permission. Author contact: markdery AT markdery DOT com.

    Design: Rob Beschizza

    1 This illustration is taken from the "Faces Pain Scale Revised (FPS-R)" page of the Geriatric Pain Website, developed by Sigma Theta Tau International for the Center for Nursing Excellence in Long Term Care, Link.

    2 "Faces Pain Scale Revised (FPS-R)," accompanying text, Geriatric Pain Website, Link.

    3 Mark Dery, "Cancer-Gram #2," mass e-mail from the author to friends and family, September 26, 2006, 5:41 P.M.

    4 F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-Up" in The Crack-Up (New York: New Directions, 2009), p. 75.

    5 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978), p. TK.

    6 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 5.

    7 Larissa MacFarquhar, "How to Be Good: An Oxford philosopher thinks he can distill all morality into a formula. Is he right?," The New Yorker, September 5, 2011, p. 43.

    8 Adam Hadhazy, "Think Twice: How the Gut's 'Second Brain' Influences Mood and Well-Being," Scientific American, February 12, 2010, Link.

    9 Quoted in Hadhazy, "Think Twice," Scientific American, ibid.

    10 Michael D. Gershon, The Second Brain: A Groundbreaking New Understanding of Nervous Disorders of the Stomach and Intestine (New York: HarperPerennial, 1999), p. 177.

    11 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, p. 3.

    12 Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 149.

    13 Christopher Hitchens, "Topic of Cancer," Vanity Fair, September 2010, Link.

    14 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 3.

    15 Will Self, "The Trouble with My Blood," The Guardian, October 21, 2011, Link.

    16 Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (New York: Scribner, 2010), p. 470.

    17 "Only five percent survive it": See transcript of 60 Minutes interview with correspondent Steve Kroft, "Outspoken and outrageous: Christopher Hitchens," March 6, 2011, 10:22 P.M., Link.

    18 Elaine Scarry. The Body in Pain, p. 4.

    19 Quoted in "Outspoken and outrageous: Christopher Hitchens," ibid.

    20 Daniel Dennett, "The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity" in F. Kessel, P. Cole and D. Johnson, eds, Self and Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1992), Link.

    Buy Mark Dery's new book

  • Ghost Babies

    Ghost Babies

    by Mark Dery

    The traffic in dead babies is booming, on eBay.

    There are daguerreotypes of dead babies, ambrotypes of dead babies, tintypes of dead babies, cartes de visite of dead babies, cabinet cards of dead babies; dead babies from the Victorian era, the Edwardian era, the roaring '20s.

    Here's a listing titled "POST MORTEM DEAD BABY CABINET PHOTO"; in the thumb-nailed image, a little girl in a lacy white burial gown lies propped on a pillow, crowned with a wreath of flowers. Click the ENLARGE button, and you can just make out a sliver of lusterless white peeping from one sunken, slitted eye. Another offering, this one for a daguerreotype of an "Exquisite Post-Mortem Girl," is accompanied by a description that strikes an uneasy balance between graveside elegy and auctioneer's patter: "The young girl is surrounded by blankets and quilts. Very dramatic poignant image. Excellent!"

    "Poignant" is a pet word in the collectible postmortem photo category. As in: "POIGNANT POST MORTEM BABY," an antique photograph of an infant, asleep forever in her toy casket. Her arched eyebrows give her a fretful look, querulous but a little quizzical, too, as if she's startled to realize that death, unlike gas, doesn't pass. The chrysanthemum-sized bows on her bonnet ties look tragicomically big beside her little doll head.

    "Heartbreaking postmortem photo," notes the item's description, conceding the obvious. Should we read this as a moment of silence–a brief halt in the hum of commerce, in recognition of the fact that this lugubrious curio was the last, precious glimpse someone had of her child, before the undertaker dropped the lid? Or is it a lucky charm against the charge that buyers and sellers of such artifacts are trafficking in tears? Or just more of the mawkish morbidness that characterizes the American Way of Death?

    When Marx wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism "has left remaining no other nexus between man and man" than the "naked self-interest" of the cash nexus, he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, "You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death. He/she is laid out for viewing on a bed or table covered in lace, and dressed in a long white christening dress. This may have been the only photo taken of this precious child."

    Browsing this obscure corner of eBay feels like wandering through an Orphanage of Ghost Babies, in which the Shirley Temple-esque moppet in the listing for a "POST MORTEM CDV DEAD LITTLE GIRL POIGNANT PORTRAIT!!" ("beautiful portrait of a little girl posed by an window, which bathes her in natural light") racks up multiple bids while the pitiable "POST MORTEM Dead Child with SUNKEN EYES in COFFIN" languishes unloved by any bidder. After all, who wants a used baby with sunken eyes? Even here, the beautiful command the highest bids while the unlovely dead go for bargain-basement prices.

    Fittingly, some sellers court the goth bidder; eschewing Forest Lawn sentimentality, they accentuate the macabre: "Haunting Open Eyes Original Post Mortem Cabinet Card"; "EERIE POST MORTEM MAN Cabinet Card"; "1910s PHOTO! POST MORTEM DEAD WOMAN in GLOWING CASKET!"

    Demand for postmortem images is sufficiently high that some sellers, fresh out of dead people, do their best to drum up business for dead-ish people, as in the unwittingly hilarious listing for a carte de visite of "CIVIL WAR ERA 2 WEIRD CADAVER-LOOKING MEN." Despite their baleful stares and unsmiling rigidity, the two men in the photo are victims of photographic technology in its infancy, nothing more: the long exposure times required by the cameras of the day compelled subjects to assume a rigor-mortis stiffness. At the time of this writing, the item, offered for the BUY IT NOW price of $30, remained unsold.

    Still, the trade in darkroom apparitions of the antique dead, whether "poignant" and "heartbreaking" or "eerie" and "weird," is brisk, attracting eager, sometimes naive buyers and more than a few guileful sellers. As a public service, Jack Mord, an expert on "early postmortem and memorial photography" who maintains a collection of such images at his Thanatos Archive website, has posted a bogus listing for a "SAD and POIGNANT!" Civil War-era carte de visite. The photo, of two little boys in their Sunday best, is innocuous enough; what makes it postmortem is the stranger-than-fiction fact that it was taken by a dead man. "Although you cannot see him in this photo (because he is behind the camera), the photographer is dead and propped up with a stand," Mord deadpans, in his sales pitch for the item.

    Then he steps out of character:

    Yes, this is a joke. The lesson is this: NONE of the "standing postmortem" photos you see on eBay that show standing people being "propped up" or "supported" by a stand…are postmortem photos. Not a single one. […] The stand seen behind these people is a posing stand, used by photographers of the time to keep the person still and on mark for the photograph. You can usually see the base of these stands between the person's feet.

    The people you see on eBay who sell these "standing post mortem" photos are scam artists, banking on your ignorance to dupe you into paying them as much as possible for a 50-cent photo of a live person.

    To dissuade gullible buyers from taking his instructive hoax seriously, Mord priced the item at a preposterous $500. Naturally, someone bid on it anyway.

    In his seminal study, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, the anthropologist Jay Ruby notes that "the custom of photographing corpses, funerals, and mourners is as old as photography itself." A direct descendant of the posthumous portraits commissioned in earlier centuries by the well-to-do bereaved, the practice was widespread in 19th century America; "secure the shadow, ere the substance fade" was a popular tagline for photographic studios, exhorting customers to preserve lasting images of the near and dear, even if death had already claimed them. As early as 1846, an ad for the Boston photographers Southworth & Hawes proclaimed,

    We make miniatures of children and adults instantly, and of Deceased Persons either at our rooms or at private residences. We take great pains to have Miniatures Of Deceased Persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a deep sleep.

    Death was a fact of life in the 19th century. Until 1885, childhood mortality took one out of every five children in her first year, two out of every five by their fifth; children were carried off by cholera, dysentery, diphtheria, typhoid, yellow fever, scarlet fever, or measles. Losing all of one's children to an epidemic, in a matter of days, was not uncommon. "From [baby] carriage to coffin was the fate of over 30 percent of 19th century children," writes Stanley Burns, M.D., in his pioneering study, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America.

    In the 19th century, especially in rural America, families prepared their own dead for burial by laying the body on a board and washing and dressing it for the wake, traditionally held in the front parlor of the family home. Unlike residents of big cities, people who lived outside urban centers typically had no easy access to a photographer; thus, a postmortem photograph was often the only image kinfolk might have to remember a person by.

    This was especially the case with children cut down too soon to have had a studio portrait taken. As evidence for the belief that "parents were often desperate to have one picture of their dying child," Ruby includes a copy of the carte de visite of a baby named Florence May Laser, noting, "An adult hand supports the child while on the back of the image someone has written, 'Taken while dying.'"

    By the first decade of the 20th century, however, death was disappearing from everyday life, swept aside in the cultural housecleaning that would soon be called modernism. The Machine Age had arrived, banishing the lugubrious specter of Victorianism (or so it looked, in retrospect). In modernism's revisionist vision of the passing era, the late 19th century was the age of the hidebound bourgeois paterfamilias, snug and self-satisfied in his sense of entitlement, ruling his domestic castle in a Lilliputian parody of England ruling the waves. And nothing better served the modern caricature of Victoria's reign as a time of rigorlike social stiffness, stultifying class consciousness, and tight-lipped prudishness than the Victorian conception of stylish decor: rooms stuffed with hulking furniture and bric-a-brac and plunged into a sepulchral gloom by dark colors and heavy drapes.

    Nothing, that is, except what James Stevens Curl, in his book of the same name, calls "the Victorian celebration of death." Death, for the Victorians, was a subject for polite conversation, and postmortem photographs were prominently displayed in the home. Mourning was a protracted agony, formalized into periods (a premonition of Kübler-Ross's famous stages of grieving?), each of which required its own expensive wardrobe, accessorized with memento mori in the form of brooches and lockets containing a lock of the deceased's hair or a photograph. For women of means, widowhood was a two-year sartorial death sentence and, in some cases, a lifestyle: think of the Widow of Windsor, Queen

    Victoria herself, who after Prince Albert's death in 1861 retreated into melancholy seclusion for a decade; after emerging, she wore mourning costume for the rest of her life, inspiring punctilious Englishwomen to follow her example.

    All of which has fostered the inextirpable myth that postmortem photography died with the Victorians, a fiction encouraged by Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip. Woven from 19th-century newspaper clippings and photos, some postmortems among them, Lesy's poetic history of the aptly named Black River Falls mythologizes late Victorian America as a comic-gothic nightmare of morbidity and depravity. Darkly satirical in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Wisconsin Death Trip helped cement the popular perception of the Victorians as death cultists, a vision symbolized by the postmortem photograph. "Some of the most affecting [images] show dead infants in their coffins," writes the visual-culture critic Rick Poynor, in a Design Observer essay on the cultural impact of Lesy's book. "Such photographs were commonplace then, but many viewers, including me, saw them here for the first time."
    To be sure, formal postmortem photography did indeed disappear "in mainstream middle-class America" in the 1920s, as Burns points out. But as he also stresses, amateur postmortem photography persisted, most commonly among so-called ethnic groups, as it does to this day. Of course, given the prevailing view of postmortem mementos as morbid, "people who want to photograph their deceased loved ones do so surreptitiously." Wary of social taboos, families take covert photos at funerals, to be circulated among a trusted few to help heal what Ruby calls "the social wound of death." (In the flashbulb era, funeral directors often found spent flashbulbs in the wake of a wake.)

    In his discussion of the contemporary perception of postmortem or funeral photography as morbid, Ruby notes that "even the idea of collecting 19th-century examples of these images upsets some people and causes them to assume the collector has a morbid, unhealthy fascination with death."

    Before we ask why people traffic in such images, let's consider the easier question: when did the subculture of collectors whose obscure passion is antique postmortem photography emerge?

    The historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen speculated in an interview for this article that "the traffic in postmortem photographs probably picked up at roughly the same time that the trade in photographs as collectibles began to accelerate, sometime in the 1970s"–an uptick in collector activity that coincides with the publication of Wisconsin Death Trip in 1973. Batchen agrees that books like Levy's and, later, Burns's, "probably stimulated the market." Even so, he points out, "there have always been private collectors who specialize in such things. It may seem strange to non-collectors, but it's not nearly as strange as collecting, say, lynching photos, which some people also do."

    Jack Mord believes that eBay played a pivotal role in ginning up interest in the genre. "In my 12 years as a member of eBay," he told me, "I have seen the number of postmortem photos for auction there–as well as their prices–skyrocket." Spiking collector interest in postmortem images has given rise, in turn, to niche obsessions, he says–"collectors who tend to collect only a certain type of postmortem image–a mother holding a baby, for example–and are willing to pay plenty for them."

    As well, says Paul Frecker, "serious collectors" of "PMs" (postmortems) will pay top dollar for "anything out of the ordinary." A collector and seller of 19th century photography who maintains an extensive archive of postmortem photographs at PaulFrecker.com, he notes that postmortem photographs of children posed to look as if they're asleep are dime-a-dozen common. Many of the antique postmortems for sale on eBay are paper prints such as cartes de visite and cabinet cards, dating from the latter half of the 19th century, when the aesthetic of the day euphemized death as "eternal sleep." Deceased children were often posed with a favorite toy, as if they'd dozed off while playing; deceased adults were posed with open books on their laps. At the dawn of the daguerreotype era, by contrast, no attempt was made to conceal the cold, hard fact that the sitter was a cadaver. Its title notwithstanding, Sleeping Beauty includes ghastly images from the 1840s–shocking by today's standards–of corpses, neatly attired and ceremonially laid out, but with blood oozing from their noses that no one had bothered to wipe away before the photo was taken. "The terror of death was still taught by some religious sects," writes Burns, "and little attempt was made to beautify the image."

    According to Frecker, "There are umpteen PMs available of children that have been posed to look as if there asleep. But a photograph of a dead child with a trickle of dried blood running out of the corner of its mouth would be in a different league altogether, not because it's grotesque but because it's so much more unusual and the photograph has a punctum, a hook that draws you in and establishes a personal relationship with the image and generates a bigger emotional response."

    Frecker uses the term "punctum," Roland Barthes's coinage in Camera Lucida for that aspect of an image (often a seemingly incidental detail) that "pierces" the viewer emotionally, charging the photograph with a significance unique to that viewer. In so doing, he directs our attention to the deeper question: what is it about antique postmortem photographs that casts such an uncanny spell on collectors?

    For Frecker, such images "resonate in a way that not many other genres do. These are photographs of dead people, yes, but someone loved them and wanted to commemorate their life–to have one last (or perhaps an only) portrait of them before putting them in the earth. One simply doesn't get that level of emotion in a view of Brighton pier. The message of any photographic portrait is 'I was here'; with a PM, that message becomes all the more poignant." In psychoanalytic terms, the image is cathected–charged with emotions so deeply felt they still reverberate in the viewer's mind, a century or more later.

    Unsurprisingly, such photographs strike a responsive chord in viewers who've lost a child. "Sadness is definitely part of their appeal," says Jack Mord. "Many postmortem collectors are mothers who've lost children of their own. Their own sadness draws them to these photos, which in some way comfort them." Grieving mothers who take cold comfort in these images are close kin to the women who find some measure of consolation in the "memorial dolls" sculpted by Jennifer Stocks-Dearborn–commissioned reproductions of babies who died, disconcertingly photorealistic down to the last hair on their little clay heads. Like postmortem photos of dead children, Stocks-Dearborn's dolls flicker irresolvably between pathos and uncanniness, an unsettling ambiguity that seems to divide the minds of many–including the artist herself.

    On her website, My Tangible Peace, Stocks-Dearborn (who lost her own infant daughter to SIDS) speaks earnestly of using her talent "to create portrait pieces for families who have lost children in pregnancy, birth, to SIDS, or other illness," one-of-a-kind simulacra "small enough to be tucked away in a drawer and kept private until an emotional collapse." In interviews, however, she swerves into dead-baby-joke territory, referring to her sculptures as "creepy, naked babies" and wisecracking that, because the final stage in her production process involves baking Mohair or Tibetan lamb's hair onto their heads, "I always have a baby in the oven."

    Similarly, comments in an online discussion about her memorial dolls give voice to a wide range of reactions, from shudders of revulsion ("Burn the abominations") to heartsick tendresse ("I requested one of these 'creepy' babies in memory of my daughter who passed away at 23 days old. If you think that these dolls are creepy, [you] obviously haven't experienced the death of a child") to profound ambivalence ("This is very morbid. And disturbing. Not unlike the photobooks of the dead. Having had three miscarriages, however, I would have wanted to have had something-anything-like a baby, at least to bury").

    Likewise, postmortem photographs, especially those of babies and children, inspire radically different reactions, inflected by the viewer's experiences with death. As Mord observes, such images may trigger sympathetic emotional vibrations in mothers who've lost children. But for palely loitering souls who wave their fascination with the macabre as a flag of transgression—codeword: goth, a demographic whose youth more or less ensures that it hasn't experienced death up close and personal—a postmortem photograph, prominently displayed, is subcultural shorthand for conscientious objection to Middle America, with its Julia Roberts smile and its power-of-positive-thinking homilies. The artist Edward Gorey, the unwitting granddaddy of goth, was fond of postmortem photos.

    Then, too, postmortem photographs reverberate with uncanniness because their dead are doubly dead, –done in by disease or wrongful death, then killed again by the camera–trapped by the wink of a shutter in a moment that will last forever. (Not for nothing do they call it "shooting.")– Yet the human subjects of such photographs, or for that matter of any photograph, are simultaneously undead, and therefore uncanny–phantoms materialized in darkrooms, on glass plates, and given ageless immortality as images, images that stare back at us across the gulf of time. Spectrum, spectacle, specter: the common root is instructive. Barthes called photography the flat death; Sontag called it the soft death; Derrida believed that film is "the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms." All photography is necromancy, raising the dead or, put another way, embalming the present. Barthes speaks, in Camera Lucida, of "that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead." No wonder, then, that he finds photographs of the corpses especially ghoulish: because photography, like formaldehyde, fixes life–that is to say, it preserves "the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment)"–yet the subject, in this instance, is dead. "If the photograph then becomes horrible," he reasons, "it is because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing."

    Daguerreotypes of Victorians–who, with apologies to Baudrillard, seem in their photos to be Always Already dead–embody these qualities par excellence. Alejandro Amenábar's movie The Others, a ghost story with a Henry Jamesian plot twist, exploits this uncanniness to spooky effect. The scene in which the lady of the house discovers, by stumbling on a photo album of postmortem daguerreotypes, that her servants are ghosts, is a study in sepia-toned horror.

    In the here and now, antique postmortem images are riveting because they emblematize the Authentic in an ever more mediated world. In a time when we interact, more and more, through Tweets, text messages, and Facebook pokes and likes, the black-and-white dead of the 19th Century condense raw emotions; at a moment when the here-and-now seems increasingly like a fading afterimage of our vivid imaginative lives on the other side of the screen, they confront us with the inescapable fact of embodiment, more corporeal for the dead weight of death, more real for the trickling blood, blood that dried 100 years ago but through the necromancy of photography looks blackly wet all over again, every time we look at it.

    "The post mortem photograph is a relic of a past that has been erased by modernity," says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. "And in that lost world, people had more direct and less mediated experiences of shit/sweat/blood/piss/grime/dust/phlegm/pus. And less mediated (less medicated) experiences of death, with a lot more suffering."

    Postmortem photos force us to look death in the face, up close and personal. Irony of ironies, the 20th century–one of, if not the, bloodiest in history, when the Nazis applied the logic of Henry Ford's assembly line to genocide and the Americans brought their genius for push-button solutions to the vaporization of whole cities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki–bore witness to the medicalization of dying, the professionalization of funeral rituals, and the repression of death in everyday life. Death decamped to the hospital, and the ritualized leave-taking of the Loved One moved from its traditional domestic theater–the front parlor–to the funeral parlor, stage-managed not by the eerily named undertaker but by the more antiseptic-sounding funeral director. (This, by the way, is why the front parlor was transformed, by the emphatic decree of a Ladies' Home Journal editor in 1910, into a living room.)

    As the cultural critic Mikita Brottman told me, "There's something fascinating about the juxtaposition of home and death" in postmortem photos. "Those things just don't go together any more. Home is the realm of shelter magazines and Sunday supplements, and death is the realm of sterile drips, hospital beds, heart monitors, health insurance. To see a corpse in the home is now a jolting juxtaposition."

    Our plasma-screen TVs, videogame consoles, and multiplexes are awash in CGI gore, yet few in the so-called first world, where medical advances have made the science-fictional Right to Die movement a reality, have ever looked into eyes of a dead man, trying to meet the gaze that—in the memorable words of the hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler—you can never quite meet.

    Except in a photograph.

    Mark Dery (markdery.com) is a cultural critic. His byline has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet; his books include Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. In 2013, the University of Minnesota Press is bringing out his essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. He is currently at work on a biography of the artist, writer, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey.

    Images courtesy of The Jeffrey Kraus Collection and Shorpy archive. Typeface: Mike Allard

    (Note: This essay is an extensively revised version of a piece previously published in the Australian magazine Photofile and subsequently reprinted in the technoculture webzine 21.c.Many thanks to Ashley Crawford, editor of both publications, for commissioning and editing the original version of "Ghost Babies.")

  • Mark Dery: Post Mortem

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    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    Pic 0211

    Worshippers of Morbid Anatomy: Just as I'm warming to my task, my time on the Boing Boing marquee is over. I'd hoped to squeeze in posts about the pornographic rapture of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (don't you love the sweetly sadistic smile playing at the corner of the cherub's lips as he hovers, poised to plunge the golden spear of holy desire into Theresa's "very entrails," leaving her "all on fire with a great love of God," moaning with the "surpassing… sweetness of this excessive pain"?) and about the hallucinogenically beautiful sculptures in the Borghese Gallery, carved from seemingly infinite varieties of marble: snow-white Carrara, perfect for modeling the soft swell of a breast, the curve of a flank, a chin-dimple; busts of cardinals made of pink marble mottled with white blobs, giving their heads the appearance of being sculpted out of, er, headcheese; marble the color of blood sausage, marble the color of raw salmon, marble green as mint jelly, purple as eggplant, marble flickering with blue and gray veins, Pentelic marble, Parian marble, and let's not forget Phrygian marble, a psychedelic rock that the Victorian writer Henry Hull described as "one of the most curious, as well as handsome varieties of marble with which I am acquainted," a mineral delirium of "banded layers of silicious limestone of various shades of green, verging on blue or gray, alternating with others of a pure white…contorted, waved, or foliated in a remarkable manner…"


  • Aphrodites of the Operating Theater: La Specola Museum of Natural History of the University of Florence

    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    Specola Head
    "Why have we not developed an aesthetic of the inside of the body?," wonders one of the twin gynecologists in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. He speaks for Cronenberg, who took up the thread in an interview he and I conducted. "We have contests in which we decide who is the most beautiful woman in the world," said Cronenberg, "and yet, if you were to show the inside of that woman's body, you would have a lot of grossed-out people. Why is that? We should be able to have a World's Most Perfect Kidney contest, where women or men unzip to show their kidneys. We can't become integral creatures until we come to terms with our bodies and we haven't come remotely close to that. We're incredibly schizophrenic."

    Cronenberg's visceral aesthetic is bodied forth (so to speak) in La Specola, an 18th century anatomical museum at the University of Florence. It's fitting that the name, from the Latin for mirror (the museum is housed in a former observatory), is close etymological kin to speculum, an instrument used, as every woman knows, to dilate the opening of a body cavity for examination. La Specola is home to a collection of visible women and men, medical teaching aids that comprise some of the finest examples of ceroplasty, the art of modeling anatomical specimens in wax.


  • Smart Bombs: Mark Dery, Steven Pinker on the Nature-Nurture Wars and the Politics of IQ

    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

     About Photographs Steven Pinker3 4X6 150Dpi
    In February, 2009, I approached Steven Pinker, a deep thinker about linguistics and cognitive science who fishes where the two streams flow together, with a request for an interview. I was on assignment for the cultural studies journal Cabinet, writing a personal essay that would intertwine my own fraught relationship to the notion of intelligence with a historically informed critique of the cultural politics of the IQ test, specifically the Stanford-Binet and its successor the Wechsler.

    A professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University (until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT), Pinker has popularized his theories of language and cognition through articles in the popular press and via critically acclaimed books such as The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. The furthest thing from a vulgar Darwinian—he rejects the term "genetic determinism"as a social-constructionist slur—Pinker is nonetheless a vigorous opponent of what he contends is the ideologically inspired insistence (often from the academic left, he maintains, and typically from those in the humanities rather than the hard sciences) that we are exclusively products of cultural influences, rather than, as he puts it, "an evolutionarily shaped human nature."In his popular critique of this assumption, The Blank Slate, he takes up the sword for evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and cognitive science against social constructionism.

    Exhaustively knowledgeable about the science of cognition, and a foeman who gives as good as he gets (if not better) in the nature-versus-nurture culture wars, Pinker seemed the perfect foil for some of my ideas about the IQ test. Thus, I was delighted when he agreed to an informal e-mail exchange that lasted through much of February and into early March. I was equally chagrined when I had to inform him that his thoughtfully considered, sharply argued quotes didn't make it into my published essay. Happily, my guestblogger stint offered the perfect solution: publish our spirited exchange as a Boing Boing exclusive. I owe Professor Pinker a debt of gratitude for allowing me to publish our interview on Boing Boing. I'm very much the beneficiary of his deeply insightful, eloquently argued ideas; the privilege of sharpening my ideas on the whetstone of his intellect is a rare one, and I'm delighted to share that opportunity with Boing Boing's readers…


  • Dery: "Head Case" in Cabinet Magazine


    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    As its name suggests, the Brooklyn-based quarterly magazine Cabinet is a wunderkammer between two covers, a Baedeker for psychogeographers, a random walk through the postmodern baroque.

    Although many of its contributors are card-carrying members of the professoriat, a significant number are artists and some are "independent scholars," a discreet euphemism for defrocked academics; trust-fund autodidacts who've disappeared down the rabbit hole of their obscure obsessions; intellectual omnivores with a magpie's eye and a hummingbird's attention span who Want to Know Everything About Everything (a cardinal sin in an age of intellectual niche marketing).


  • Abjection Sustained: Dery visits Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria


    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    Unloved, underfunded, and more or less untended, the Museo Storico Nazionale dell'Arte Sanitaria—"National Museum of Healthcare," in your correspondent's me-talk-pretty-someday Italian—is, like so many of Italy's obscure museological gems, a study in abjection.

    The Museo is housed in a 17th-century building, in the middle of a complex that some claim constitutes the oldest hospital in Europe: the Ospedale di Santo Spirito, erected in around 1198 by Pope Innocenzo III on the site of the Borgo Sassia, a hotel-cum-hospital for pilgrims to the nearby Holy City. "Its historic memory as an institution, recorded on its walls in frescoes ranging from the 15th to the 18th century, goes back to the 13th," writes Milton Gendel in his article "Rome's Unknown Museum Of The Holy Ghost" (PDF). But "the history of the hospital and hospitality on the site is at least five hundred years older than that," he notes. "Nero's grandmother, Agrippina, owned a suburban villa here on the right bank of the Tiber, and it was on this land that her son Gaius, known as Caligula, built his circus. In Nero's reign, St. Peter was crucified head down in the middle of the race track, having been condemned for proselityzing the Christian religion, which was held to be an anti-state activity before the Emperor Constantine, three centuries later, was himself converted." (Somewhere, Sam Harris heaves a sigh of regret for All That Might Have Been…)


  • Great Caesar's Ghost: Dery on Rome's Cemetery of the Capuchins

    Crypt Of The Capuchins 4

    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    In the dream life of 18th and 19th Europe, Italy and the Gothic were conjoined twins.

    The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764)—a spookhouse ride whose oubliettes, subterranean passageways, and doors that slam shut by themselves still stock the Gothic prop room—is set in Italy. In fact, the first edition purported to be a translation of a 16th-century manuscript by an Italian cleric named "Onuphrio Muralto," rediscovered in the library of "an ancient Catholic family in the north of England." Ann Radcliffe's hugely influential Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), which provided seed DNA for all Gothic romances to come, takes place partly in Italy, in a gloomy medieval pile in the Apennines where Our Heroine is menaced by the sinister Count Montoni. (Radcliffe had used Italy as a backdrop before, in A Sicilian Romance (1790), and would again, in The Italian (1796), where a diabolical monk named Schedoni puts a twisted face on the terrors of the Inquisition.) To Northern Europeans, especially the English, Italy reeked of cultural atavism—the inbred depravity of a decaying aristocracy and the perversions of Papism (paganism in a reversed collar, as far as protestants were concerned).

    It's as if the sheer antiquity of the place—all those Roman ruins, haunted by the godless shades of all those parricidal, pedophilic Caesars Gibbon described in such scandalous detail in the Decline and Fall (1776-1788)—deformed the Italian psyche, warping it under the accumulated weight of a thousand years of perversion and profanation, scheming and throat-slitting.


  • Dery and Lecter do Italy

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    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    On a recent flight to Rome, I found my sleep-deprived thoughts turning to the question that has launched a thousand doctoral dissertations: Why is Hannibal Lecter an Italophile?

    He wasn't always. When we first meet the debonair, serial-murdering doctor, in the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, he's curled up with a copy of Alexandre Dumas's Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. We can see from the class signifiers he flashes—waspish wit, feline grace, courtly manners, and refined, Old Money tastes—that he's a highbrow degenerate (in the evolutionary, Max Nordau sense of the word), struck from the mythic mold that gave us real-life archetypes such as Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles de Rais, and the Marquis de Sade, as well as their fictional kin (most notably, Count Dracula (with whom Lecter shares many supernatural traits). His unabashed Eurocentrism would gladden George Will's wizened heart, but he hasn't yet outed himself as a flaming Italophile. (more…)

  • A Young Person's Guide to the Pathological Sublime

    Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

    So, what is this thing, the Pathological Sublime? Many, if not most, Boing Boing readers who have done the grad-school death march will be familiar with the sublime, a durable philosophical meme that, arguably, dates back to the Greeks but is more typically associated, in academic circles, with Edmund Burke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The invaluable Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism helpfully defines the sublime as:

    a sense of wonder or awe (colored by fear, according to English theorists), which is created by the experience of grandness or 'vastness'; and in some cases writing on the sublime comes close to being nothing more than a list of objects said to produce the effect in question: mountains, oceans, Milton, an angry deity, etc. At its most sophisticated, however, 18th-century reflection on the sublime shows a new interest in aesthetic psychology, with attention shifting away from the sublime object and onto the response of the reading or perceiving subject.

    The Dictionary goes on to note that this tactical interest in the psychological reverberations of the sublime was in some ways a reaction against neo-classical virtues such as order, symmetry, and The Beautiful, with which it (the sublime) is often counterpoised.

    (This cultural dynamic replayed itself in the postmodern era, when critics such as Jean-Francois Lyotard rebooted the sublime as a corrective to the instrumental rationalism of modernism. Personally, when I need to destabilize "repressive totalities," I reach for a Bombay martini, the reliable culprit behind many of "Poppy" Bush's snarling rants to the startled press corps on Air Force One, according to several Bush family bios.)