Thursday, September 25, 2014
1. The Fastest Runners
In Book Four of his Histories, Herodotus tells us that the Kingdom of Garamantes was a powerful nation located in Libya. The Garamantean’s occupied lush oases in the Sahara desert. Their lands were well-watered and fertile and their people numerous. For sport, the Garamanteans hunted troglodyte Ethiopians, people who lived in caves in the scorched mountains to the east of their lands. The Garamanteans pursued the troglodytes in chariots drawn by four horses.
Capturing troglodyte Ethiopians was no easy task. The "Burnt Faces" or "Ethiopians" were swiftest runners on earth. Often, they outpaced the chariots pursuing them and they could run without resting for many miles. Herodotus says that the Ethiopians spoke a language "like no other" squeaking like bats to one another. They nourished themselves on snakes and other reptiles. Herodotus’ epithet for the Ethiopians is either "long-lived" or "fleet-footed" – he thought they were the most beautiful people on earth.
Herodotus’ account of the Garamantes and the cave-dwelling Ethiopians was regarded as a charming, if childish, fiction. Then, a few years ago, archaeologists discovered a rock shelter in Libya’s Acacus Mountains with stone surfaces covered with petroglyphs. Several of the paintings on the rock showed chariots apparently drawn by four-horse teams, that is, quadrigas to use the Greek term.
Ethiopian and Kenyan runners are the best in the world. (Kenya shares its northern border with Ethiopian.) Wikipedia lists 393 Kenyan long-distance runners; the same source lists 193 Ethiopian long-distance runners. The ten best times recorded for the marathon were all achieved by Kenyans and Ethiopians. These African runners can run a marathon course in about two hours and three minutes.
The Kingdon of Garamantes, whose nobility drove quadrigas in pursuit of the Ethiopians, no longer exists. The water table withdrew below the level of the foggaras or underground channels chiseled in the desert bedrock. Without water, the Garamantean cities withered and died. Sand eroded their palaces and their famous gardens perished.
2. A long distance race
In Austin where I live, a paved trail leads from a city park, through a tract of woods and along a creek to another larger city park with soccer fields and softball diamonds. The distance between the two parks is about 1.3 miles and most of the way the footpath leads through a picturesque forest. It is a good place to walk my dog, although caution is required – bicyclists jet along the trail between the two parks, noiselessly coming and going. On the trail, there is always something to see: basketball-sized white mushrooms growing from trees shattered by lightning, scarlet dragonflies, ornate fiddle-head ferns caressing the trunks of ancient oaks, water in all its varieties – trickling creeks, big loops of still, sullen river, lagoons remaining from floods, puddles black with decaying leaves.
Some sort of race must have been run along the footpath through the woods. I encountered chalk marks scribbled on the asphalt trail, foot-high letters. The first legend inscribed on the trail was near a railroad track, two huge staring eyes chalked on the asphalt and the words: LOOK FOR TRAINS. A little later, the path said U R HALFWAY, then RUN TO LIVE and a dozen yards father down the trail LIVE TO RUN. These last two admonitions were written in bright pink chalk. Another forty or fifty yards down the trail, I encountered a thick line drawn across the path and the words TWO MILES. Beyond the two mile mark, I came to a place where local satanists sometimes celebrated their rituals, a couple pentagrams pecked into the asphalt and a burned spot with some kind of organic substance melted into the tar, a bad, sweet odor over the remains of the bonfire, and, then, more pentagrams and a gang sign shaped like fat, bas-relief italics, the marks contoured with shadows painted onto the path. Not surprising, the trail said KEEP CALM and RUN ON beyond the satanist emblems. The trail crosses a pond, asphalt poured over a culvert through which sometimes a trickle of water flows and, then, there is a hill. On the hill, someone had chalked CHARGE UP THE HILL and JUST DO IT! The trail rode the crest of a river bank for two-hundred yards, then, dropped into the other park, a grassy meadow with swingsets, a steel slide, and a jungle-gym – UR FAST, the sidewalk said and, then, ALMOST THERE! At the edge of the park, the path was marked with white letters: LOCATE and two arrows pointing back down the sidewalk toward a set of brackets painted on the trail.
I would like to have seen some sign of the race’s finish line. But, apparently, the course continued beyond the park, down a residential lane, toward a destination unknown to me.
3. Fifteen minutes of Fame
The 1972 Summer Olympics were held in Munich. Terrorists murdered the members of the Israeli wrestling team. Today, the slaughter of the Israeli wrestlers is the only thing that most people recall about those Games. But I remember something else; I have a different memory.
I am watching TV. On the screen, a beautiful young man, blonde and with muscular legs, is trotting along the track in the great stadium. The young man has the classical Aryan features of a member of the Hitler Youth. His face is curiously vacant, indifferent, bland. He lopes along the track with a long graceful stride and his long hair streams behind him like a wreath of victory. The youth has the grace and solidity of an archaic Greek kouroi figure with broad shoulders and thick, powerful thighs and his face bears the same enigmatic, slightly mocking expression, insouciant pride in his strength and stamina. But, for some reason, everyone is howling at the young man, booing and denouncing him, and a great roar rises from multitude of people in the terraced bowl of the coliseum. The spectacle is curiously dreamlike and I have thought about it many times and wondered whether I really saw this young man taking his victory lap in the great German stadium.
East Africa was poor in 1972 and the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners who were later to outpace all rivals were insufficiently trained to compete at the Olympic level. The American runner, Frank Shorter, was favored to win the marathon. Shorter ran a strong race. After two-hours and ten minutes, Shorter appeared, running on the road between cheering crowds in the shadow of the coliseum. He was twenty or so seconds ahead of a Belgian runner struggling behind him.
Shorter had a long, easy stride and, although I presume that he was in agony, his pace was steady and his gait graceful. His face was a mask of determination, jaw set and eyes staring ahead of him. Shorter turned and ran through a dark arched opening that lead into the stadium. As he entered the opening, the cameras tracking him could not follow and so, for a moment, he vanished from the screens of the hundreds of thousands of people watching the race on television. In a grandiose long shot, the camera caught the lone runner striding alone down a straightaway. For a moment, the audience was confused – it seemed that Shorter had somehow lunged ahead, sprinted, perhaps, through the dark bowels of the stadium to emerge in the middle of the track under the eyes of the ten-thousand Germans assembled to watch the race. People rose to their feet and began to cheer loudly.
On the BBC, the announcer cried out with exaltation: "It’s Frank Shorter, well in the lead." Similarly, the two ABC commentators, Jim McKay and Eric Siegel, a professor of Greek, bestselling novelist, and Herodotus scholar, shouted that "Frank Shorter has entered the stadium." But, a moment later, the BBC sportscaster howled: "No, no, no – it’s a hoax, he’s an imposter, that’s not Frank Shorter, he’s having a lark. Look at him, he’s as fresh as a buttercup." Jim McKay said: "This is not Frank Shorter." By this time, Shorter had entered the stadium. Eric Siegel was horrified: "Frank doesn’t know that he’s won. He’s looking at the other guy. He thinks the other guy is going to win." Siegel abandoend all pretense at objectivity and addressed Shorter directly: "No, Frank, keep going, you’ve won. He’s fake. Don’t let it bother you – Frank, you’re the winner."
The cameramen did not know which runner to show. In a picturesque close-up, filmed with a long lens, the beautiful blonde runner swept forward, barely sweating, moving with lissome precision. His eyes were opaque and mysterious and he seemed to be scarcely breathing. The crowd roared its approval to the blonde runner, but he ignored the accolades, surging forward toward the finish line. Eric Siegel screamed: "Get him! Get him off the track! Someone should get him!" Jim McKay said that the entire Olympic games had been marred by chaos and confusion and "just when you think that nothing more awful could occur than this happens." Someone signaled to the photographers that they were filming the wrong man. The live-feed cut to Shorter. Shorter was emaciated and haggard-looking. He kept looking to his left, apparently startled and baffled by the runner who seemed to be cruising toward an easy victory 200 yards ahead of him.
Just short of the finish line, the blonde runner suddenly changed directions and ran off the track into the darkness under the stadium. Shorter continued forward and finished the race. By this time, the ten-thousand people in the stadium were booing loudly and whistling and stamping their feet. Shorter continued to trot forward after he had won the race, apparently unable to stop the ceaseless motion of his long, slender legs. "You’ve won," Siegel cried into his microphone. "You’ve won." Shorter glanced over his shoulder and, then, looked around in all directions, gradually slowing. He seemed to be searching for the phantom runner. Clearly, he was baffled by the loud booing and catcalls coming from the stands.
This was not the first time such a thing had occurred. In August 1904, the Summer Games were held in a steamy St. Louis, Missouri. On the day of the marathon, humidity was high and the temperature stood at 90 degrees. The American front-runner, Frederick Lorz, managed nine-miles of the hilly and grueling course. Then, he exited the race and hitched a ride on a motorcar for eleven miles. His conspirator deposited him at the foot of a hill seven miles from the finish line when their car broke-down and he ran the rest of the way to the stadium. Like the German in 1972, Lorz was cheered by the crowd and, even, awarded the medal. Later, his ruse was discovered. Second-place in the race had gone to Thomas Hicks and, ultimately, he was given the gold medal. Hicks had trouble on the last couple hills and seemed on the verge of collapse. His trainers gave him a mixture of strychnine and egg-whites dissolved in brandy and Hicks revived enough to complete the race, although the elixir that he had been administered almost killed him in the aftermath of the marathon. In 1980, the Boston Marathon’s women’s division was apparently won by Rosie Ruiz. Ruiz had run only one mile. She slipped from the middle of the pack and rode the subway to within a half-mile of the finish line and, then, hustled back onto the course and finished the race. Ruiz was a serial cheater; she had qualified for the Boston Marathon by achieving a good time in the New York marathon run a few months before. In that race, she had also used the subway to reach the finish-line. (Ruiz was dishonest in many ways – she was, later, convicted of embezzling, served time in jail, and, then, a few years later, went to prison for cocaine trafficking.) As late as 2000, Ruiz continued to maintain that she was the true victor of the 1980 Boston Marathon.
As the German imposter smoothly rounded the corner of the track, Jim McKay said: "We need to know the name of this guy." Eric Siegel replied: "No, no, I hope no one ever hears his name." The German runner wore bright orange shorts and a blue track shirt with a laurel wreath over his heart. On his back, he wore the number 72. After the race, the imposter was arrested in the tunnel under the coliseum and, immediately, taken to see Willi Daume, the German chairman of the Olympic committee. Daume was a controversial figure; he had been a star athlete during the Hitler period and some people doubted his commitment to democracy. It is not recorded what Daume said to the German imposter. It is also unclear as to whether the man had violated any laws or was ever charged with any crime – is it contrary to statute to pretend to be the winner in a marathon race?
Frank Shorter’s time was unimpressive by Olympic standards – he won the race in two hours, 12 minutes, and 19.7 seconds. (His own best time was two minutes faster). The German police were unable to explain how the imposter had got onto the track. The marathon course was complex – it had been designed in the form of the profile of dog, Waldi, the mascot for the 1972 races. Perhaps, the German had darted out onto the course in one of the many turns and corners necessary to trace the dog’s silhouette on the streets of Munich.
The runner who cheated in the 1904 marathon race in St. Louis, Fred Lorz, ran again in 1905. Lorz was a bricklayer by trade. Photographs show a saturnine young man with a dull, simple-minded face. Lorz always contended that he had not meant to cheat in the St. Louis Olympics. He said that he had collapsed on the course at the nine-mile mark, been picked up by a motorist and driven toward the finish line. When the car broke down, Lorz simply ran the rest of the way to the stadium and did not know that he was ahead of the other competitors. He claimed to have crossed the finish line by accident, spurred on my cheering crowds that he was too ashamed to disappoint. He said he was surprised when he was awarded the medal and meant no harm.
Lorz was a real athlete and he won the Boston Marathon in 1905, completing the race in a creditable two hours and 38 minutes.
The German imposter was a 22-year old student from a provincial West German city. His name, which you can discover on the internet, was N – S –. Herr S– claimed that he had intervened in the race to "cheer people up" since the world was mourning the Israeli athletes murdered a few days earlier. S– said that his appearance on the track was a practical joke and that he had meant no harm. (Herr S– did not explain how his hoaxing a victory in the marathon was supposed to "cheer people up." Why would his fake victory be any more heartening than Shorter’s actual success in winning the race?)
Shorter was angry at the hoaxer and the German officials. He felt that he had been deprived of the glory of his victory. Herr S – sent Shorter a letter a few years later begging for his forgiveness. Shorter tore the letter up and did not respond.
Herr S– decided to atone for his prank by becoming an actual marathon athlete. For several years, he trained and, in fact, qualified for the half-marathon in Munich, a road race run on part of the course where Shorter had prevailed in 1972. He ran full marathons in Berlin and Hamburg. Each time he completed a marathon, he sent a card to Shorter announcing the fact. Between 1971 and 1974, Shorter was victorious each year at the Fukuoka marathon in Japan, a race run on the first Saturday in December each year. Herr S– took an interest in that race, probably because of its association with Shorter, and began traveling to Japan to participate in the late seventies. The Fukuoka marathon is open and no qualifying time is required, but the race attracts world-class runners. In 1981, Herr S– was at the height of his powers as a long-distance runner, a respectable contender in the middle of the field. At Fukuoka, he paced the Ethiopian star, the world-class Tsegaye Kebede, for the first nine miles but, then, stumbled on the wet pavement (it was raining), badly tearing ligaments in his knee. Herr S– was treated in a local hospital and, when he recovered, remained in Japan. He was the son of a German industrialist and independently wealthy and, in Fukuoka, Herr S– was not notorious for his 1972 escapade. By the late eighties, Herr S– was a member of the Board of Directors of the Fukuoka marathon. Each year, he sent an invitation to Frank Shorter to come to the city and run, at least a 10K race or a half-marathon. Shorter, who had become a well-known motivational speaker, declined the invitations.
Fukuoka is famous in Japan for its Yamakasa matsuri (festival). This festival celebrates a 12th century monk who saved the town from the plague by carrying a shrine on his shoulders through each street, blessing all intersections and dowsing them with holy water. The monk’s exertions were successful and the pestilence departed from the city. Like the original runner of the marathon, however, the monk died of exhaustion. In the matsuri, teams of men from each ward of the city carry heavy wooden altars on their shoulders, lugging the big shrines weighing several thousand pounds, through the streets, completing a course laid-out in nine-hundred years before. The teams compete with one another and the race is both dangerous (shrines have fallen from their platforms crushing competitors) and exhausting. Each year, Herr S– stripped to his loin cloth, the traditional shimekomi, and participated on the team from his neighborhood. In 1991, the race was run in a torrential rainstorm – Fukuoka is sub-tropical and July, the month of the competition, is part of the rainy season. It was hot, almost ninety degrees, (34 degrees centigrade) and windy with typhoon-force gusts and the race was extraordinarily arduous. After completing the course, Herr S– collapsed and died that evening in an ambulance en route to the hospital. No one informed Shorter and, as far as I am aware, he doesn’t know to this day that Herr S– died in Japan in July 1991.
5. The Trail
I walked my dog from the park with the playground equipment through the woods to the railroad tracks across the road from the softball diamonds and soccer fields. The scarlet dragonflies still patrolled the trail. Black crickets like tiny frogs hopped from the grass across the asphalt path – I saw them every fifteen or twenty feet. The grasshoppers were lethargic, overfed victims of their own autumnal success – they lay on their bellies on the trail, unable to move, comatose, fat as cigar butts tossed down on the sidewalk,
It had rained several times since my last tour of the trail and the admonitions chalked onto the sidewalk were all washed-away. They had vanished like the oases and palaces of the Garamanteans. An African emigrant jogging on the trail passed me. He moved with long, loping strides. I said "hello" to him, but he didn’t hear. He had headphones over his ears.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
A wise friend told me that the class war was finally over. History has ended, but not as Marx expected: the rich, my friend maintained, have won the class war completely and irrevocably. I don’t know enough about economics to comment on this intelligently. However, most of what I see around me confirms that the game is rigged, that the middle class is doomed, and that our politics is an oligarchy dominated by moneyed interests. Legislation and foreign affairs are not democratically managed; rather the wealthy purchase those laws and wars necessary to serve their interests.
There are two factors that dramatize the victory of wealth over the rest of us. First, money now dominates politics and other aspects of the res publica with an impunity and shamelessness that seems unprecedented to me: greed is openly celebrated and the Supreme Court has declared that money is speech, a conclusion that may have always obtained to some extent, but that was never publicly declared as a political principle. (In this analysis, I follow Slavoj Zizek’s notion that to speak a truth that was hitherto operative, but discretely veiled, is a quantum shift in consciousness; it is one thing to torture people secretly in the cellars of an autocratic state – it is another thing entirely to declare publicly that torture is acceptable.) The second symptom of income equality is the imminent collapse of the middle class. Income inequality squeezes the middle class downward – society is increasingly imagined as a tiny minority of oligarchs managing a vast class of minimally educated, impoverished proles. Among industrialized nations, the United States has become less like Germany and Scandinavian countries and more like Chile and Mexico. Indeed, statistical studies suggest that the American division of wealth is rapidly eroding the middle class – in 2014, families with income in the top ten percent saw their wealth increase significantly; by contrast, the families with the least, the lowest 40 % saw their wages and earning capacity decrease substantially.
Of course, the dissolution of the American middle class is a cause of concern. Most politicians promise that they will debate the issue. But, of course, in a society in which all journalism, as well as all other media, are controlled by plutocrats, debate is a form of Kabuki-theater. Democracies debate problems that they are helpless to solve. Indeed, debate is a means of social control. The more thoroughly a subject is debated, the less likely that there will be any solution. Public debate simply lulls the poor into false security: someone somewhere is talking about our problem and so, therefore, we may accept the status quo as natural, ordained and inevitable. In modern America, debate authorized and empowered by media outlets is typically limited: everyone agrees that income inequality exists, is destructive to our institutions, and dangerous; but everyone also agrees that the problem is inexorable and that the only way to ameliorate this peril is to slow its progress – there is no one really suggesting that measures should be taken to redistribute wealth or do anything that would reverse the trend.
One of the most pointed and effective comments about income equality appeared recently in a magazine that is, as it were, the house organ for very rich, The New Yorker. In the September 8, 2014 issue of that magazine, there is published a poem entitled Nursing Assistant: Chapter Review. I think that poem is worth a dozen treatises and tracts on income inequality, its causes and effects. The poem appears over the name C. Malcolm Ellsworth. Ms. Ellsworth is an Iowa poet and on the evidence of this verse, a great writer. (She has published a volume of poems called that I will have to obtain.) It is curious that this excellent poem is printed in a magazine that features an advertisement for Tiffany & Co. on its back cover, cheek by jowl with other ads for expensive vacations, luxury hotels, and Broadway musicals with tickets that cost $250 dollars per seat. Because this poem is superb and, even, important, I think, I shall quote it in full:
NURSING ASSISTANT: CHAPTER REVIEW
After we shave balloons,
but before the test on decubitus ulcers,
a shamelessly bellied
Venus of Willendorf talks trash
and recounts every detail of her long-past pregnancy,
her meltdown in a family photograph at age ten,
and the recent transgressions of a drunken live-in.
In the chapter on mobility,
two h’s are silent, eschar,
as in necrotic tissue, a black wound,
and trochanter, as in trochanter prominence,
as in there are many ways to be broken.
In keeping with its ostensible subject, the poem divides neatly into two stanzas – one of them is descriptive and the other analytical: we are presented with a symptom and, then, diagnosis or commentary on that symptom. The poem replicates the way that medical practitioners are trained: we are taught to see something clearly and without sentimentality and, then, provided with scientific analysis of that phenomenon. The portrait in the first stanza is labeled and described in the second part of the poem.
The poem’s first seen lines describe the kind of person not ordinarily portrayed in verse: she is a student, vulgar, fat, and garrulous. The text’s heroine is not reticent, intelligent, elegant or blessed with a refined artistic sensibility. Her training seems oddly pointless – she is tested on her ability to shave a balloon, presumably one slathered with lubricant cream, without puncturing the latex. (Shaving balloons was intended to educate nurses to use razors safely. Surgical sites on hairy patients have to be shaved in preparation for incision and, presumably, bedridden men also need to have their cheeks, lip and jaws dewhiskered. This work is ordinarily done by electric razor, but some nursing programs still require that students complete this exercise – this is a nice photograph on the internet of two handsome nurses in cap and white dress shaving a balloon sometime during World War Two. The Nevada School of Nursing posts two pictures of contemporary nursing students using razors to carefully scrape shaving cream off a balloon on which a face has been drawn in magic-marker.) We are told that the nursing assistant student will also be tested on decubitus ulcers – that is pressure or bed sores. These ulcers are a condition arising from immobility. Patients who are paralyzed or too weak to move are prone to develop penetrating ulcers at pressure points where their motionless body rests upon the bed in which they are lying. Accordingly, the student is being prepared for menial labor, presumably shifting or turning bedridden elderly patients to keep them from suffering decubitus ulcers as a consequence of their immobility. The ballooning latex mirrors the student’s rotund and slovenly body, her "shamelessly bellied" form. The razor poised over the swollen balloon threatens it with deflation, just as the decubitus ulcer pierces the body of the motionless patient inflicting injury upon his or her flesh.
From description, we imagine the nursing student as heavy-set, a niece to Dr. William Carlos Williams’ "Elsie" in his great poem that begins with the lines "the pure products of America/go crazy":
some Elsie –
expressing with broken
brain the truth about us
ungainly hips and flopping breasts...
Ellsworth’s nursing assistant student looks like the "Venus of Willendorf," a prehistoric figurine showing a voluptuous female figure with broad, fat hips and pendulous breasts. The birth of her child (or children) has been the principal event in her life and she regales those listening to her with "every detail of her long-past pregnancy" – presumably a gory and intimate narrative. We understand that she may have had an unhappy childhood, although this is not clear – perhaps, she has impulse control problems that resulted in "meltdown" when posing for a family photograph. She "talks trash" about her boyfriend, described in the demotic, as her "live-in," a man who is apparently a drunk and, also, perhaps abusive. These details serve to delineate a specific type of woman. She is middle-aged. After an impoverished and chaotic youth, she now seeks training to do the menial and backbreaking work of nursing assistant. The pathos in her situation is that she is engaged in seeking certification for dead-end, low paid employment that no one else desires. She can’t afford to care about her appearance. She lives in a world of drunkenness, casual male abuse, and difficult pregnancies. Her horizons are defined by violent drunken men and reproduction. When certified, she will work with dying patients and the demented, paralyzed elderly. Her plight is essentially hopeless although she doesn’t see her situation in those terms – indeed, she seems cheerful, robust, even, vibrant, talking trash about her uterus, unhappy childhood, and drunken boyfriend.
Ellsworth’s accomplishment in the first stanza of the poem is noteworthy. She must describe her female subject and her milieu without condescension. The poet treads a rhetorical tightrope in the text’s opening lines – she has to be accurate but not condemnatory, truthful without being patronizing. In part, this trick is accomplished by cunning deployment of the pronoun "we" – like William Carlos Williams’ poem, this Venus of Willendorf expresses "the truth about us" – she is shown to tell us something important about American society.
The last five lines of the poem are Ellsworth’s oblique commentary on the plight of her heroine. The poem is a "chapter on mobility." If we are unable to move, then, certain pathologies will afflict us. These pathologies include decubitus ulcers that appear as "necrotic tissue," or "black wounds." In medicine, it is important to call things by their proper names – this is Ellsworth’s ethic in first half of the poem and applies as well to her analysis. "Eschar" is the scab covering an open wound, in this case an injury caused by immobility. (Ellsworth’s diagnostic language here departs slightly from clinical reality – eschar is not always dire and may, in fact, be symptomatic of the body healing itself; however, the emotional valence of the word "eschar" in this poem is controlled by the words "necrotic" and "black wound. The injury here is not one from which anyone recovers.) The "chapter on mobility" teaches us that a person who has fractured their "trochanter," that is the bony prominence at the upper end of the femur, will be seriously immobilized. A fractured trochanter is a hip-fracture, a frequently fatal disease of old age. "Trochanter" is the Greek word for "runner" – if we can’t "run," if our hip is broken, then, we will be immobilized and, presumably, exposed to the risk of diseases of immobility, including, most notably, decubitus ulcers.
Of course, the word "mobility" alerts us to a common usage of that term: a healthy society is one in which there is "upward mobility" – that is, people are rewarded for their labor by improved wages and social advancement. But Ellsworth’s nursing assistant occupies a world in which there is no meaningful mobility – if you are born poor and had a baby when you were young and unmarried and if you live with an abusive drunk, you will stay poor. This woman is studying to achieve a certificate authorizing her to do a minimum wage job. Her employment will not lift her out of poverty and will probably not improve her situation economically – she might well do better to simply remain on the dole. Furthermore, it’s likely that her children and their children will be mired in same poverty. The "trochanter" of our society is broken, the "runner" doesn’t work any more – there is a "black wound" festering at the center of our economic system.
Why does the poem emphasize the silent "h" in "eschar" and "trochanter?" The "h" in the spelling of the two words is a relic of the medical terms linguistic prehistory. Once the "h" was pronounced but now it remains in the words as an artifact of their past. In this way, the "h" in "eschar" and "trochanter" is like the Venus of Willendorf, and, also, an attribute of the nursing assistant – once people like her were integral to the world and the source of its fertility and life. But, now, no one needs her; she has no skills that can be profitably transferred to the modern world. She is a person that history has passed-by. A poignant aspect of the poem is Ellsworth’s protagonist is loquacious – she likes to talk. But her voice is silenced both in our society and culture at large. No one writes poetry or novels about nursing assistants working with old ladies with broken hips in nursing homes. There are no TV shows about such people, no movies, no representations as to their lives. Like the "h," they are unvoiced – nursing assistants are an important part of the social integument, they hold certain parts of the world together, but no one talks about them.
Ellsworth’s poem probably has other meanings as well. The two parts of the verse resonate against one another and each stanza illumines the other in a complex dialogue. The poem attracts our attention with its exotic and intriguing elements – shaving balloons, the Venus of Willendorf, curious specimens of medical jargon. The poem is challenging; on first reading, the relationship between the two stanzas is unclear. But a moment’s reflection suggests an interpretive strategy linking the first stanza portrait of the student to the lines diagnostic as to her condition. The reader experiences a shock of recognition and a sense that the poem has revealed something that was previously hidden. In my estimation, "Nursing Assistant; Chapter Review" is an exceptionally good poem and deserves to be anthologized.
A critic who praises should be prepared to blame as well. I think it illustrative to examine a poem that is similar in many respects to Ellsworth’s lapidary gem but that seems unsuccessful to me. For this exercise, I suggest consideration of a very late poem by Paul Celan, a Rumanian who wrote his verse in his mother-tongue, German. Celan’s lyrics are highly regarded, but I think much of his late poetry is overrated. The poem that I have chosen for analysis is untitled but called "Was bittert" or "What embitters" after its first words. Like Ellsworth’s verse, the poem is very short: it is only fifteen truncated lines to Ellsworth’s 12 line verse. (Neither poem cleaves to any obvious structural form – they don’t t rhyme and seem idiosyncratically constructed.) Both poems reference medical textbooks and use recondite clinical jargon. Furthermore, both poems require the reader to solve a riddle: in each case, the challenge posed by the poem is to establish meaning by construing links between radically disparate elements – for instance, the Venus of Willendorf and eschar in Ellworth’s poem; the auditory cerebral cortex and thumbscrews in Celan’s poem. Although the poem’s inhabit very different contexts, I think it is useful to compare them.
Celan was the pseudonym for Paul Antschel, a Rumanian-born Jew who spent much of later life in Paris. Celan was a survivor of the Holocaust in which all other members of his family perished. Certainly, he was badly damaged by his wartime experiences and, probably, seriously mentally ill as well. (Celan drowned himself in the Seine in 1970; he seems to have attempted suicide in the context of the attempted murder of his French wife, Gisele Lesestrang, on at least two prior occasions.) Celan’s principal subject is the extermination of the European Jews, a subject to which he returns with obsessive and, sometimes, tiresome frequency. In my view, many of Celan’s last poems are gibberish. However, I should remark that this is a distinctly dissenting view. Indeed, Celan’s late work is often praised exorbitantly and said to verge on the ineffable. Furthermore, I must declare that a couple dozen of Celan’s poems, including the astounding "Todesfuge" ("Death-Fugue"), are among the very greatest German lyrics. But I don’t count "What embitters" in that number.
Here is the poem in my translation in its entirety:
The great solitudes
in auditory cortex hymns
the thumbscrews mutter in
in the counting room
It is often alleged that Celan’s works are untranslatable. (This has not prevented writers from attempting translation – indeed, Celan is the most translated of all modern German poets.) However, to avoid any assertion that I have cheated in my translation to make Celan seem more difficult or bizarre, I append the actual German with some comments:
WAS BITTERT (the adjective "bitter" used as a verb)
herein ("herein" suggests motion inward)
Die grossen Alleinigkeiten ("Alleinigkeiten" – the condition of being alone in the plural)
verzwergen (a "Zwerg" is a dwarf– "verzwergen" means to stunt or dwarf)
im Hoerrinden-Hymnus, ("Hoerrind" literally means "edge" or "skin" – as in fruit – of hearing)
tuscheln die Daumschrauben ("Daumschrauben" – thumbscrews)
Streckfolterhoehe (literally "stretch-torture-heights)
erhalten ("to give, receive, offer, present")
Zufuhr ("supplies" or "provisions" but with a sense of something brought somewhere)
in der Zaehlkammer ("counting chamber")
beten die Ringe ("the rings worship")
den Rest an. ("Rest" – what’s leftover, the remains or remnant.)
We know that Celan wrote these words in February 1970 about two months before he killed himself. It is possible, of course, that the words are merely sketches for a poem that was never completed. But Celan’s hyper-compressed and cryptic style of utterance is consistent with other late poems that we know the poet considered to be finished. Scholars have discovered the sources for some of the imagery in the poem. Apparently, critics have examined Celan’s copy of books that he was reading at the time and have located underlined passages that correlate to certain words in this lyric. Specifically, Celan seems have been perusing a textbook on physiology, a volume called Leitfaden der Physiologie des Menschen (Introduction to Human Physiology). In that book there is a reference to the auditory cerebral cortex, a portion the brain to which nerves convey signals from the ears. Those signals are received by the "Hoerrinde" – the auditory cerebral cortex – at various locations that may be mapped according to the frequencies of sound experienced at the ear. The last several lines in the poem alludes to another underlined passage several hundred pages later in the textbook. At that location, the book describes the process of using a microscope to count red blood cells – this accomplished by: "in a purified counting room, a convex piece of covering glass is pressed down until the Newtonian rings emerge at the points of contact." The rings of Newton are concentric interference patterns that arise when a convex lens is forced down onto flat plane of glass; tiny angles of refraction in the light passing through the convex lens creates a wave interference pattern apparent as uniformly spaced concentric patterns of shadow or darkness.
The torture imagery in the poem derives from a completely different source, a collection of aphorisms written by the Jesuit priest Balthasar Gratian (d. 1651) in the 17th century. Gratian’s aphorism are collected in The Book of Worldly Wisdom, sometimes called The Pocket Oracle. These aphorisms were highly regarded by Nietzsche and Celan read them in a translation by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. (It’s worth noting that these book, construed as a manual for success in the business world, achieved brief bestseller status in the early years of this millenium. The book was on The New York Times Bestseller list in 2003). One of those aphorisms contains these words: "The malicious cunning of others uses such moments of temptation to search the recesses of the mind: employing such thumbscrews as are wont to test our best intentions." The February 1970 issue of a Rumanian literary magazine (published in German) revived allegations made by the widow of the poet, Yvan Goll, that Celan had plagiarized the French writer’s verse after translating it into German. Celan vehemently denied these charges but seems to have felt that Goll’s widow was part of a cabal of enemies maliciously inflicting "torture" by accusation on him. No doubt exists that these accusations that were fraudulently made seriously unhinged Celan. In a letter to the German poet, Ingeborg Bachmann, Celan said that those responsible for traducing him as a plagiarist were worse than Nazis. (Celan thought of these accusations as anti-Semitic, an attempt to discredit him similar to the Dreyfus Affair in France prior to World War One.)
Armed with this information, can we successfully construe the poem? Celan’s words describe, and, possibly, enact some kind of process. We might hypothesize that Celan imagines the innermost self as a kind of inaccessible fortress of solitude, a place that is lonely but well-defended, "the great solitudes." When sound penetrates to this solitude and is mapped onto the cerebral cortex – described in German as a kind of permeable skin ("Hoerrinde") – the self experiences itself as limited by the outer world impinging upon it: sensory data "dwarfs" the majestic loneliness. The core of consciousness, this dark Ding-an-sich, suffers torture by compression ("thumbscrews") and extension ("rack torture") – a previously unbounded entity is "embittered" by being cast into physical dimensions involving painful compression and torturous extension, that is, a physically material realm. Entrapment in space, which is ultimately an illusion, is painful but the experience of sound encroaching on the "solitudes" of the self also makes possible some sense of the divine – the auditory cortex generates "hymns." (Celan uses the Latin form of the old Greek word humnos – meaning a "song of praise.") The first part of the poem dramatizes the experience of hearing something. The poet’s attitude toward hearing is ambivalent: what is heard destroys the great solitude and tortures, but also makes possible praise. (Rilke said that the poet’s function was "ruhmen" – that is "praising".)
I am skeptical about my own explication but it accounts for most features of the poem’s first part. But the last eight lines are wholly indecipherable. There is no way to know what Celan means because the language that he uses is dauntingly abstract and not moored in any kind of physical reality. Celan describes some sort of relationship but we don’t know the nature of the objects or ideas involved in the relationship. Consider this sentence: Fish live in water. Celan’s poem omits the tangible words "fish" and "water" – we are left with "live in"; in other words two things are in a relationship to one another, but Celan doesn’t tell what those things are. (This is exemplified the opening lines of the poem: "What embitters/going in" – so something makes bitter when it goes in; but what is the something and where is going into? "Pauses" offer "provisions" or supplies? And this is decisive? Provisions or supplies for what? The concept of Newton’s rings echoes the imagery of compression ("thumbscrews") in the "counting room". But what is being counted and why? What does it mean for interference rings to "worship" something that "remains?" What remains? Why is it worthy of worship? And how does compression induce worship? Celan might be saying that the experience of torture or martyrdom is related to worship. Celan exegetes always fall back on the Holocaust as their explanation for everything that is problematic in this writer’s poetry – but I’m not sure this glib explanation is always tenable or relevant. One might argue that the destruction of the European Jews leaves a "remnant," so few that they can be readily counted – they have been pressed into extinction and that what remains of them is surrounded by concentric halo-like rings, both the evidence of their slaughter and a kind of aureola of divine glory. But if this is the meaning of the final four lines, then, how does this relate to the "great solitude," the auditory cerebral cortex, and the rack torture. Ultimately Celan suggests that the real location for misery and martyrdom is somewhere buried deep inside us, some intractable zone of incurable wound – but is this implicit in his poem, or am I merely reading the verse in light of Celan’s subsequent suicide? If Celan had lived into a ripe old age like Robert Frost or John Ashberry, we would read his poems in a completely different light.
Further, we must not discount the possibility that Celan’s mental illness, his paranoia, motivates much of the poem. In Celan’s late work, his sense of private grievance often assumes a metaphysical cast. We should remember that Celan hysterically accused his enemies of being "worse than Nazis,’ that he interpreted accusations of plagiarism as being anti-Semitic and evidence of his Dreyfus-style persecution. It’s certainly possible that the sound that "embitters" Celan as it penetrates to his cerebral cortex is false witness, an accusation that he is a plagiarist. The lurid imagery of torture might simply mean that Celan is wounded by allegations made against him by the widow of a man that he thought that he was his friend. Ultimately, it’s impossible to say what the poem is about. We can’t define its meaning and must accept the possibility that the words may be gibberish. Celan himself may not have known what he intended to express. Furthermore, the poem doesn’t repay the labor required to construe it. The allusions are purely private and hermetic – if we didn’t know that Celan had marked words with underlining in the two books identified in his library, the source of the metaphors would be wholly mysterious. Unfortunately, once we are aware of the sources of Celan’s allusions the poem’s difficulty is not ameliorated – if anything, the poem becomes even more impossible to understand. By all criteria, Celan’s untitled 1970 poem is fatally flawed – if it doesn’t communicate anything than why should we read it?
Of course, Celan’s poetic objective is ultimately a foray into the incommunicable. His subject matter is largely inexpressible – it is fortunate that most of us can’t imagine what it would be like to endure a death camp or experience suicidal depression. These experiences are probably beyond words, capable of depiction only by silence and enigmatic bursts of words, inarticulate ejaculations that are meaningful only in the most painful and problematically private way. Further, Celan’s case is complicated by the fact that his sense of historical grievance is blurred by mental illness – ultimately, it is impossible to distinguish between miseries inflicted by genocide and the trauma of Celan’s disabling (and ultimately fatal) depression. As a result much of his verse is private, secretive, and, ultimately, self-defeating in a way that may seem irritatingly self-indulgent. By contrast, Ellsworth’s poem addresses things that we have in common. We can check her description of the nursing assistant against people we might see caring for an elderly relative and her metaphors as to the pathologies of immobility appeal to our actual experience. Poetry is not a political act. Poems don’t vote in elections just as verse can’t set a bone or feed a starving child. But poetry written for others is a public utterance. Poems that are published operate in the world, among people, and guide their thinking. For this reason, Ellsworth’s poem about the nursing assistant and her test is an important and moving commentary on the pathologies of income inequality.