Drone Hive Strange

From the Beats to BAM to Punk | The Cold War Was Never Cold

Secular Fundamentalism in Martin Hägglund’s *This Life*

I was raised to fear death. My parents were devout Evangelicals who practiced a charismatic, joyful version of Christianity, but their faith was also rooted in the hellfire-and-brimstone tradition of the Great Awakening. Sermons in the churches we attended often focused on the consequences of sin, and the looming certainty of Judgment Day—always presented as a fearsome, humiliating taking of accounts rather than a celebration of one’s ultimate unity with God—was used to motivate both religious conversion and righteous behavior. Salvation was a part of this story, of course, but the fear that death may lead to eternal suffering was one of my core childhood experiences. Even in adulthood, having developed convictions that have little to do with salvation or damnation, the thought that hell awaits is something I grapple with when thinking about my own mortality.

That being said, fear of death doesn’t motivate my behavior. I am not sure that it ever has, to be honest, not even when talk of Judgment Day was offered as motivation. And yet I still find the prospect of death deeply disconcerting. I do not want to lose my life and all of the commitments, struggles, and pleasures that it holds. I do not want to die. This is not to say that I welcome the idea of eternal life in the hereafter, or even that I desire immortality in this world. The idea of eternal life is dreadful in its own right. But I do relish a strong connection to my lived experience, and I am unsettled by the knowledge that life will someday come to an absolute end.

Martin Hägglund’s recent book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom takes up the question of mortality in order to probe what it means to live a moral life.1 He argues that, as finite beings, we live in direct relation to death, and that the knowledge of our own mortality serves as a powerful catalyst for acting on our commitments in this world. Maintaining strong commitments in the face of certain death is, in Hägglund’s thinking, what it means to have secular faith. This is in contrast to religious faith, which encourages people to pursue eternal results in whatever comes after this life. He writes, “To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down” (5-6). The acceptance of finitude and fragility is central to this devotion, for fidelity to the finite, when valued for its own sake, frees those with secular faith from nihilism and allows them to transform their acceptance of death into a passion for living. At the core of Hägglund’s theory, therefore, is the idea that existing in relation to death is the ground from which the good life springs.

Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

I am sympathetic to this view. Nobody can know for sure what comes after death, but what we do know is that we have this life now. Anything more is speculation and must be taken on faith. If this is true—as seems obvious to me—then it makes perfect sense to value life as an end in itself, and I don’t see any reason why doing so cannot produce behaviors that are every bit as desirable as the best behaviors that religion promotes. Unlike some religious people, I do not believe that we need religious laws or fear of eternal damnation to live moral lives. Morality can emerge from our commitments to the people, places, communities, and institutions that we value and love. Such faith in the value of finite life is central to Hägglund’s project, and he is right to argue that the certainty of death, and the uncertainty that anything lies beyond our finite lives, should motivate us to commit ourselves to the only world of which we can be assured.

Where I take issue with Hägglund is in his insistence that secular faith is the only authentic means of committing oneself to this life. While it may be true that religion subordinates material life to spiritual ideals, including the ideal of eternal life, Hägglund’s argument strikes me as overly rigid in excluding religious faith as an authentic means of valuing the material world as such. This is true even when he acknowledges that religious people are often deeply invested in caring for this life. For example, he writes:

Of course, even if you identify as religious you can still care intensely for the fate of our life on Earth. My point, however, is that if you care for our form of life as an end in itself, you are acting on the basis of secular faith, even if you claim to be religious. Religious faith can entail obedience to moral norms, but it cannot recognize that the ultimate purpose of what we do—the ultimate reason it matters how we treat one another and the Earth—is our fragile life together. (9)

I am at a loss to explain why religious faith cannot encompass an authentic commitment to our fragile life together. Are religious faith and an absolute commitment to material existence really mutually exclusive? Hägglund maintains that they are, and this leads him to draw conclusions that participate in an unfortunate form of fundamentalist thinking that cuts against his vision for a cooperative, mutually-sustaining life together.

Hägglund’s fundamentalism is most apparent in the absolute terms with which he discusses the limits of religious faith. For example, his argument rests on the premise that the “ultimate goal” of religious faith is “to be absolved from vulnerability,” and that this absolution “requires that we renounce our commitment to finite life. To achieve absolution we cannot love any mortal beings as ends in themselves but only as means toward the end of suffering” (47). This assumes that the desire to transcend suffering is the sine qua non of religious faith, and it elides the many other principled reasons that people embrace religion, including love of God, commitment to family and cultural traditions, submission to moral laws, the near-universal sense that there exists something beyond material reality, and indeed the obligation to nurture life on this Earth. By ignoring these factors, Hägglund limits the meaning of religious faith, which is precisely what he must do in order to reserve secular faith as the only means of cultivating an authentic concern for the finite, fragile lives we share together.

Unlike some religious people, I do not believe that we need religious laws or fear of eternal damnation to live moral lives. Morality can emerge from our commitments to the people, places, communities, and institutions that we value and love.

A more complex critique of religious faith would acknowledge its relationship to social justice. There are many examples for Hägglund to drawn on, both historical and contemporary. Two that spring immediately to mind are Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activism and Pope Francis’s advocacy for an environmentally-conscious faith. Hägglund would likely say that these are actually examples of religious people practicing secular faith, but careful attention to how King and Francis frame their Christian activism yields a more nuanced understanding of how religious faith can encompass the sort of care and concern for finite life that Hägglund wants to see flourish in the world.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King explicitly rejects the distinction between secular justice and the divine justice of eternity. Expressing his disappointment that more White clergymen had not joined the struggle for civil rights, King writes:

In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

King even goes so far as to assert that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands” [emphasis added]. This is a far cry from Hägglund’s claim that the ultimate goal of religion is to transcend the limits of material existence. King’s argument is that the divine will can be found in the struggle for justice in this world, that the finite embodies the eternal, and that those who seek to draw a distinction between the sacred and the secular misunderstand—or intentionally disregard—the scriptures that structure their faith.

King’s belief that the “eternal will of God” is embodied in the struggle for social justice expresses a very different understanding of the relationship between religious faith and temporality than Hägglund develops in This Life.2 Whereas Hägglund argues that the religious belief in eternity renders time irrelevant, King develops some of his most forceful arguments in direct relation to temporality—arguments that are both secular and religious. He argues that the limited nature of temporal experience creates a moral imperative to act on behalf of justice before time deprives another soul of their God-given human dignity. In his famous rebuttal to the status quo argument that segregation would ease in due time, King writes:

I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

The central thrust of King’s argument is that it is immoral to defer justice precisely because the experience of human dignity is bound by time, and when people are denied that dignity, even for a moment, they suffer a grievous spiritual wound. His example earlier in the letter of being forced to explain to his “six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people” is a poignant illustration of how deferring justice corrupts the inner purity that is such an important aspect of religious faith. For King, racial injustice is both a secular and a spiritual crisis. Not only does it debase people’s material conditions, but it also deprives them of the human dignity that is part of God’s eternal will. This is why King considers those who work for justice in this temporally bounded, finite life to be “co workers with God,” for achieving justice in this life is a spiritual calling, a religious obligation, and a divine end in itself.

A similar concern is evident in Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato si’, a document that repeatedly calls attention to the fusion of material existence and divine will. Arguing that human beings are “spirit and will, but also nature,” Francis writes, “The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.” In opposition to Hägglund’s emphasis on the religious concept of eternity, Francis emphasizes the material dimension of human experience—the gift of life itself—as being every bit as worthy of care as the soul. And like King, who called on people to be “co workers with God” in achieving racial justice, Frances urges his readers to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation.” Nowhere in Laudato si’ does Frances appeal to eternity as a justification for doing what is right visàvis material life. On the contrary, his encyclical is very much about understanding “how faith brings new incentives and requirements with regard to the world of which we are a part.”

Even in those sections of Laudato si’ that are explicitly theological, Frances makes clear that a key purpose of human existence is to care for one another within the material context of the Earth, and he frames this duty as an essential part of religious faith. Focusing on the Christian concept of creation, he argues that everything in existence is an expression of God’s love, and that all beings contain a God-given dignity that must be protected. This dignity even extends to non-human beings, which Francis insists “have a value of their own in God’s eyes.” The presence of such inalienable dignity throughout nature compels Christians to treat finite creation as an absolute value in itself. Indeed, just after claiming that “creation is the order of love,” Francis draws the reader’s attention to the most finite of living things: “Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.” Whereas Hägglund posits that “we cannot love any mortal beings as ends in themselves but only as means toward the end of suffering,” Francis would say that the material universe itself is an expression of love, and to participate in that love by caring for finite things is what it means to keep faith with the divine plan of creation.

The experience of human dignity is bound by time, and when people are denied that dignity, even for a moment, they suffer a grievous spiritual wound.

None of this is to say that Hägglund is wrong when he identifies the tendency within religioun to treat secular life as a means to religious ends. Even in Francis’s progressive theology, which is very much concerned with the material conditions of the poor and the oppressed, as well as with the ecological health of our planet, care for this world is understood as a means of glorifying God. Secular faith, on the contrary, doesn’t compel people to care for this world for any other reason than that sharing a good life together is a worthy end in itself. I appreciate this aspect of secular faith, but I struggle to understand why it matters if the religious faithful care for this world because they believe doing so fulfills a divine plan or brings glory to God. Does it really matter what motivates people to fight for justice and equality, so long as they do it? And what exactly is at stake in denying and/or mischaracterizing that aspect of religious faith that has long been concerned with human dignity? If the point is to promote the virtues of secular faith, that effort gets lost in the narrowness and inaccuracies that always attend fundamentalist thinking.    

I share much in common with Hägglund’s argument, particularly when it comes to his critiques of Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and C.S. Lewis, which are the most astute and persuasive sections of his book. And the way he frames issues of mortality is an important contribution to how we think about life. However, I see his fundamentalism as a flaw, for the absolutism with which he excludes religious faith from any authentic concern for finite life doesn’t hold up when considered alongside Christian thinkers such as King and Frances. Hägglund would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of how different faiths are invested in shaping this life we share together. There is no one single way of developing authentic love for mortal beings as ends in themselves, and to dismiss the ancient traditions that billions of people practice as a means of achieving this end strikes me as needlessly divisive and self-defeating, especially when there are so many opportunities for cooperation between the world’s religious communities and those who live by secular faith. Such cooperation may prove vital in facilitating the culture of care This Life so passionately promotes.

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Happy May Day!

Walter Crane’s woodcut, “A Garland for May Day”

A very happy May Day to all who labor for a living, especially those who jeopardized their own health and welfare for the common good during the COVID-19 pandemic. And warmest greetings to all contingent, migrant, and undocumented laborers who work without the benefit of job security and/or legal protection, as well as to the millions of unpaid care workers who hold our basic social fabric together.

The International Labor Movement has won many notable victories, but its loftiest ideals have yet to be achieved. Walter Crane’s “A Garland for May Day” touches on a few of them:

  • Production for use not for profit
  • Solidarity of labor
  • A commonwealth when wealth is common
  • Art & enjoyment for all
  • Hope in work & joy in leisure
  • Cooperation & emulation not competition
  • The land for the people

May Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the value of these principles and to refocus our energies on working for more equitable social relations.

If you are able to do so, join a union! And if not, do what you can to forge connections with those who find themselves in similar positions. It is only by coming together that we can hope to achieve the noble goals of freedom and equality for all.

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Amazonia > Another World

French heavy metal band Gojira is out with its seventh full-length album today. Just under an hour in length, the eleven songs on Fortitude are significantly more accessible than the band’s previous efforts, while remaining rooted in the technical virtuosity that makes their music so compelling. The result is an innovative mix of melodic grooves, intricate time signatures, and heavy breakdowns that, taken together, accomplish something new in progressive metal. Yet Fortitude also marks a return to Gojira’s environmentalism after Magma‘s more inward-looking meditation on death and personal loss. Songs such as “Amazonia,” “Another World,” “The Chant,” “Sphinx,” and “Into the Storm” draw attention to how precarious our current situation is, and they urge action to preserve our lives together on this Earth. At a time when so many metal bands are writing albums about death and/or the mythic past, Fortitude reaffirms Gojira’s career-spanning commitment to defending life in the here and now.

Gojira’s Fortitude

Gojira released several tracks from Fortitude over the past couple months in a run-up to today’s full album release, and two of those tracks—“Amazonia” and “Another World”—were accompanied by music videos that make the band’s environmental politics explicit. Both videos focus on the threat that ecological collapse poses to human civilization, though they do so in very different ways. “Amazonia” addresses the dire situation indigenous communities face as corporate interests eviscerate the Amazon, while “Another World” dramatizes the impending doom advanced industrial society invites with its mindless pursuit of unbridled growth. Taken together, they make an anthropocentric argument for environmental conservation that I wish was more influential in ecocritical discourse.

“Amazonia” begins with the monotonic twang of what sounds like a jaw harp, accompanied by the kick-heavy beat of Mario Duplantier’s drums. The sounds of scattered vocal whooping, Jean-Michel Labadie’s driving bass riff, and the high-pitched trill of a wooden flute are gradually introduced, before syncing with the guitars into a more straight-forward groove. The effect is an inventive interplay of the electrified sounds of heavy metal with the more organic sounds of folk music. The only thing that comes close to the creative mix of musical traditions that Gojira develops in this song is the Brazilian heavy metal band Sepultura’s classic album Roots, which is similarly invested in merging extreme music with the traditional rhythms of the Amazon.1 The effect is simultaneously modern and tribal, and it provides a compelling soundtrack for guitarist/singer Joe Duplantier’s lyrics about the destruction of the Amazonian ecosystem.

The video for “Amazonia” opens on panoramic views of the Amazon River basin, which are cut with images of local tribespeople adorning their bodies in ritual costumes and paint. The images of people dancing and playing traditional instruments continue throughout the video, but the panoramic views of a healthy ecosystem are soon replaced by heartbreaking scenes of forest fires and the charred, otherworldly landscapes they leave behind. These images illustrate the song’s chorus in a way that makes the lyrics’ simplicity all the more effective:

There's fire in the sky
You're in the Amazon
The greatest miracle
Is burning to the ground

The fact that a contemporary band can write lyrics about fire in the sky as a defining feature of the Amazon is unsettling, and Duplantier’s vocal delivery conveys an appropriate sense of outrage over the mindless deforestation that has been occurring in recent years, particularly in Brazil. By all accounts, the situation in the Amazon has reached a tipping point, and the song captures something of this urgency, especially as it relates to the cultures of the people who live there.

Gojira’s “Amazonia”

It is important to note that Gojira avoids romanticizing the Amazon’s indigenous communities by highlighting the relationship between their traditional practices and their contemporary activism, including scenes of indigenous-led mass protest against the industries that are destroying their homelands. By acknowledging the leading role indigenous communities play in the environmentalist movement, the band affirms the agency of traditional societies and encourages viewers around the world to join them in their fight to defend the Amazon. Gojira used the early release of “Amazonia” to launch a month-long fundraising campaign to benefit the indigenous-owned NGO Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), which is on the front lines of the struggle for indigenous rights, including the right to manage indigenous lands. I encourage readers to learn more about APIB and other indigenous-rights groups.

Whereas “Amazonia” is rooted in the traditional sounds of indigenous music, “Another World” creates a futuristic soundscape that draws attention to the technological culture that has led us to this moment of ecological crisis. The way that the song’s opening arpeggios transition into a repetitive, grinding rhythm recalls the relationship between advanced digital technologies and the industrial machines that have laid waste to so much of our planet. As with “Amazonia,” the sonic texture of “Another World” provides a fitting context for the song’s misanthropic lyrics, which give voice to the urge many people feel to abandon Earth and settle a new civilization somewhere else. For example, the opening verse captures the disdain Duplantier holds for the way human beings treat animals, while also expressing a desire to simply walk away from the mess that we have made of our world:

We mock and slaughter all the purest kinds
Blinded by the noise and maze, this flash in our eyes
Hope for the world but prepare for the worst
I'd rather find a way on my own

Both of these emotions are captured in the music video for “Another World,” which dramatizes a failed attempt to escape the Earth for another, more verdant planet. Starring animated versions of the band members, the video follows the musicians as they research, build, and launch a rocket into deep space. Their self-imposed exile is motivated by a series of newspapers articles with titles such as “R.I.P. Ancient Forests,” “The Last Elephant,” “The World Is on Fire,” and “The Virus Is Spreading,” headlines that could appear in any mainstream newspaper today. These horrific realities reinforce the song’s opening line: “We mock and slaughter all the purest kinds.” This misanthropic posture suggests that industrial society is beyond redemption, a belief that leads the animated band members to make what some may consider to be the only logical choice: they abandon hope in humanity and strikes out for Planet X.

Gojira’s “Another World”

The idea that it would be better to populate another planet than to simply stop destroying the perfect, life-sustaining planet we already inhabit strikes me as an infantile delusion. And yet intelligent people often suggest doing so as a serious option when pushed to imagine solutions to our planetary crisis.2 Fortunately, Gojira doesn’t fall into this trap. As the video reaches its climax, the band’s spacecraft is sucked into a wormhole that destabilizes time and thrusts them deep into the future. They emerge above an Earth that has rid itself of humanity, and when they land, the only sign of industrial civilization they find is a ruined Eiffel Tower jutting from a forest canopy in a way that recalls the haunting image of a moldering Statue of Liberty at the conclusion of Planet of the Apes. The message is clear: we are eternally bound to the Earth. Our destiny lies here, in Amazonia, not on another world.

The songs on Fortitude advance an anthropocentric environmentalism that refuses to separate human vitality from planetary health. Unlike many prominent ecocritics, Gojira does not seem interested in thinking about the posthuman, object-oriented ontology, or any other ecocritical trend that seeks to minimize—and even disparage—human concerns as such. On the contrary, this new album is very much about the ways that environmental degradation impacts human well-being. Whether in the hinterlands of the Global South or the urban centers of the Global North, ecological collapse poses an existential threat to human civilization. Cultivating a clear awareness of the dangers we face provides us with a rationale for doing something about the situation. This is good politics, but in Gojira’s hands it is also good music. Extraordinary music, in fact. Fortitude deserves a wide audience, not only because its songs exemplify the creative potential of progressive metal, but also because it speaks to an issue of urgent social concern with the moral outrage that is absolutely vital if we wish to continue thriving together on this beautiful planet.

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An Experiment in Reversing

My downstairs neighbors have taken to playing video games, a move no doubt motivated by a desire to drown out the sound of their crying children and yapping dog—stunted creatures, yes, they spend their time running and bouncing and yelping out needs and pleasures and warnings to passers-by—though the effort does little but mask the wellspring of child’s play with the sounds of the middle dominating each other in Mario Cart and Donkey Kong, a domineering that makes its way through the floorboards and into my kitchen, where I stand chopping onions and blinking my eyes against the burning tears.

My tears, they burn as I stand chopping onions, the sounds of the middle dominating each other in Mario Cart and Donkey Kong rising from my floorboards. Positively domineering, but not enough to mask the wellspring of child’s play—stunted creatures, yes, they spend their time running and bouncing and yelping out needs and pleasures and warnings to passers-by. . . it never ends. Amazing what the sound of crying children and yapping dogs can motivate. My downstairs neighbors, soft in middle age and responsibilities of office jobs and church groups and the travails of parenthood, have taken to playing video games.

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The Yippie Panther Pact

Academic and popular discourse on the Sixties often separates that decade’s social movements into two dominant camps: the militant political factions such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers, and the more culturally oriented Merry Pranksters and Yippies. For example, in his excellent history of postwar domestic terrorism, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, Bryan Burroughs characterizes the Sixties as being divided between “hippies, who tended toward hedonism and pacifism,” and “young radicals,” who were, “for the most part, deadly-serious, hard-core leftists.” In other words, the way the history of the Sixties is told draws a clear distinction between militant ‘fists‘ and countercultural ‘heads.’

This division has always bothered me, not so much because I think that Burroughs and others who draw this distinction are wrong in every instance, but rather because so much of the rhetoric used by ‘heads’ like Jerry Rubin and Ed Sanders intersect with the rhetoric used by ‘fists’ like Eldridge Cleaver and Bernadette Dohrn. The key difference between their rhetoric, I suppose, is that while Cleaver and Dohrn advocated for overt forms of militancy, including actual violence, Rubin and Sanders drew on forms of symbolic violence to unsettle mainstream culture. There is a way that these two tendencies fed off of each other to produce a larger culture of radicalism that can’t be separated from itself, or at least not so neatly as the proponents of the ‘fists’ vs. ‘heads’ dichotomy suggest, and it seems to me that this symbiosis is worth pursuing if one wishes to understand exactly how the Sixties took shape.

There are many historical examples of the political and cultural wings of the New Left intersecting in meaningful ways. Take, for instance, the “Yipanther Pact,” a statement of solidarity between the Black Panthers and the Yippies, which was published in the October 4-10, 1968 issue of the Berkeley Barb. Subtitled “Open Salvos from a Black/White Gun,” the announcement carries the following description: “Following are two statements on the same subject by madmen grappling with the cause of their madness in search of a cure. We have been driven out of the political arena into the wilderness of our own dumb minds. We will not dissent from the American Government. We will overthrow it.”

Berkeley Barb vol. 7, no. 15 (Oct. 4-10, 1968)

There are two things that jump out at me about this editorial remark. First, the language clearly echoes Allen Ginsberg’s famous line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” an echo that suggests the paper’s editors worked within the shadow of Ginsberg’s influence and the counterculture he helped create. Even a passing familiarity with the Berkeley Barb confirms this. The second thing that strikes me about the remark is that, notwithstanding its nod to Ginsberg, its “Opening Salvos from a Black/White Gin” self-consciously pushes beyond the peacenik aspect of the counterculture.1 I don’t want to suggest that such militant language is uncharacteristic of the Berkeley Barb. It’s not. In fact, many of the Sixties underground newspaper published articles about personal and cultural liberation alongside those about political revolution. But it does illustrate how militant and countercultural discourses circulated within the same milieu.

The pact itself, titled “Yipanther Pact,” includes two sections. The first is written by Eldridge Cleaver, while the second is co-written by Stewart E. Albert, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin. Presented as opposing columns on a single page, and flanked by illustrations of the Black Panthers’ logo and a floppy-eared pig, the statements are united in condemning the 1968 presidential election, which offered voters a choice between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. The election occurred at a time of significant social unrest, including a violent police response to mass protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that, broadcast live on television, set the nation on edge as it went to the polls.2 The Panthers and the Yippies were dissatisfied with the three candidates, as they were with the electoral system more generally, and they chose this moment to officially align their respective organizations against the political status quo.

“Yipanther Pact,” Berkeley Barb vol. 7, no. 15 (Oct. 4-10, 1968)

Cleaver’s statement on behalf of the Black Panther’s is characteristically severe, staking out a militant position that opposes a corrupt, racist political establishment with the prospect of armed political revolution. He argues that the electoral system is broken and that it is no longer in the interest of Black people to continue seeking justice through electoral means, stating: “Our only recourse is to join a second Boston Tea Party in order to blow their game. In order to blow their minds, we must chart our own course, a new course designed to manifest how we feel about the insufferable political manipulation and chicanery that has made the national election into a circus devoid even of the saving grace of humor.” And indeed, Cleaver’s rhetoric is humorless, relying as it does on the construct: “The death of the ballot, the birth of the bullet.” This is a serious statement, especially when considered in the context of the social unrest and political violence that occurred in the United States in the years between John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the 1968 election.

Much of that political violence was directed against Black people, including the Black Panthers themselves, so Cleaver may be forgiven for asserting that “this shit is not funny.” Unlike many of his White contemporaries in the counterculture, he argued from an existential position of life or death, pleading with his audience that “the pigs are plotting our death,” and that “they seek to deprive us of life, of our human rights, of a future, through their rigged technological political crap game.” When the ballot is rigged against one’s very existence, extreme means—including recourse to the bullet—are easy to justify, and Cleaver follows the examples of Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X, both of whom he references in his statement, in appealing to the Black community to defend itself against racist oppression by any means necessary.

Yet Cleaver knew that the bullet was not the only (or even the best) means at his disposal in the fight against injustice. The tremendous outpouring of left-wing activism in the Sixties, from the nonviolent Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements to women’s and gay liberation to the anti-colonialist revolutions in Africa and Asia, offered meaningful opportunities for intersectional activism, and Cleaver understood that consolidating these various movements into a united front against the forces of racism, capitalism, and imperialism would likely be the most efficient means of achieving the Panthers’ goals. So while he made clear that the Panthers considered violence to be a legitimate mode of resistance, he also used the “Yipanther Pact” to call for an explicitly intersectional mass movement against the existing power structure:

Let us join together with all those souls in Babylon who are straining for the birth of a new day. A revolutionary generation is on the scene.

There are men and women, human beings, in Babylon today. Disenchanted, alienated white youth, the hippies, the yippies, and all the unnamed dropouts from the white man’s burden are our allies in this human cause. The entire anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist world of mankind is with us.

Let us manifest our solidarity with them. Let us say loud and clear that we are not going to accept four more years of Slavery, Suffering and Death under the hooves of racist pigs.

Cleaver’s call for solidarity may have made sense in the face of unified State resistance to the varied social movements of the time, but there were some significant obstacles to achieving that solidarity, not the least of which was the Panthers’ militancy. The sorts of violent rhetoric and self-defense measures that Cleaver and his compatriots practiced was hardly compatible with some of the more heady aspects of the counterculture. Flower Power and the Black Panthers’ brand of militant revolution may have shared some goals in common, but they had very different ideas about how to achieve them.

It was from within the tension between the militant ‘fists’ and the countercultural ‘heads’ that the Yippies emerged. Unlike the “deadly-serious, hard-core leftists” whom Burroughs references, the Yippies were out for a good time. They wanted to have fun, get high, and ball in the streets, and their idea of a revolutionary society had more in common with the carnivalesque traditions that Mikhail Bakhtin outlines in his classic study Rabelais and His World than it did with the Panthers’ more rigid revolutionary order. And yet they were deadly serious about disrupting mainstream culture. Between their ironic displays of patriotism at HUAC hearings, their fantastical attempts to exorcise the Pentagon, and their obscene writings and public declarations, Yippies such as Hoffman and Rubin cultivated a zany form of activism that drew on satirical and militant traditions alike to unsettle and subvert the institutional forces they opposed.

In their contribution to the “Yipanther Pact,” Albert, Hoffman, and Rubin follow Cleaver’s lead in calling for unity across the various factions of the progressive movement. The Yippies are at once more specific and humorous than Cleaver is in his column, identifying exactly who it is that they want to unify in the following terms: “Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, bomb throwers, bank robbers, peacock freaks, toe worshipers, poets, street folk, liberated women, professors and body snatchers: it is election day and we are everywhere.” The appeal to peacock freaks and toe worshipers is in keeping with the silliness that makes hippy culture so entertaining to study, but what is most remarkable about this list is the presence of bomb throwers and bank robbers in its ranks. Later in the column, the Yippies develop a second list that includes “rioters, anarchists, Commies, runaways, draft dodgers, acid freaks, snipers, beatniks, deserters, Chinese spies.” Taken together, these lists may be read as an open invitation to partisans of actual violence—bomb throwers, bank robbers, rioters, and snipers—to join the larger, generally nonviolent counterculture of rebels, youth spirits, and rock minstrels.

When it comes to how the Yippies imagined this united front of countercultural hippies and militant politicos would go about subverting the 1968 presidential election, the results are similarly carnivalesque. But they are also violent, and this is where something noteworthy occurs, for the Yippies were developing a mode of militant satire that originated in novels such as William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and The Wild Boys and extends through the fiction of Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, and Kathy Acker, to name just of few practitioners of this particular strain of satire. However, whereas satirical novels may construct acts of symbolic violence, the Yippies were intent on taking those acts into the streets, thus transforming the symbolic into something actual. Consider the following paragraphs from the Yippies’ section of the “Yipanther Pact,” in which they articulate their desire for election-day mayhem:

Ministers dragged away from polling places. Free chicken and ice cream in the streets. Thousands of kazoos, drums, tambourines, triangles, pots and pans, trumpets, street fairs, firecrackers–a symphony of life on a day of death. LSD in the drinking water.

Let’s parade in the thousands to the places where the votes are counted and let murderous racists feel our power.

Force the National Guard to protect every polling place in the country. Brush your teeth in the streets. Organize a sack race. Join the rifle club of your choice. Freak out the pigs with exhibitions of snake dancing and karate at the nearest pig pen.

Release a Black Panther in the Justice Department. Hold motorcycle races a hundred yards from the polling places. Fly an American flag out of every house so confused voters can’t find the polling places. Wear costumes. Take a burning draft card to Spiro Agnew.

Stall for hours in the polling places trying to decide between Nixon and Humphrey and Wallace. Take your clothes off. Put wall posters up all over the city. Hold block parties. Release hundreds of greased pigs in pig uniforms downtown.

Check it out in Europe and throughout the world thousands of students will march on the USA embassies demanding to vote in the election cause Uncle Pig controls the world. No domination without representation.

Let’s make 2-300 Chicago’s on election day.

This fantasy of civil disobedience not only recalls the carnivalesque practices that Bakhtin analyzes so interestingly in his work on Rabelais, but it also recalls the folk custom of charivari, which includes the violent practice of deploying “rough music” (i.e., acts of mob violence) against wrongdoers. In other words, while the Yippies fit squarely within the larger counterculture, drawing much of their élan from the hippies, the Diggers, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and Beat writers such as Ginsberg and Burroughs, they also advanced a more militant vision of revolutionary direct action that blurs the distinction between ‘fists’ and ‘heads’ that continues to structure so much of the literature on the Sixties.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many historical examples of this sort of interdependence between the various progressive movements of the countercultural New Left. The “Yipanther Pact” just so happens to be a particularly explicit instance of a much larger phenomenon that can be found at work in protest movements, postmodern literature, street theater, and even popular music. There were many times when the distance between symbolic and actual violence was remarkably thin. This is perhaps never more true than in the expressions of militant satire that the Yippies perfected as a means of bridging the gap between the hippies and more politically-charged factions of the New Left, including the Black Panthers. That thinness should be of interest to students of satire, but it should also encourage historians and cultural critics to reassess the categories they have imposed on postwar progressive activism. Doing so may open new horizons of understanding and appreciation for the way that disparate movements with distinct and sometimes opposing values were able to look beyond their differences and work together for a better world.

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La Recoleta

Convinced of impermanence
by these noble declarations of dust,
we stop and quiet our voices
among the rows of mausoleums,
their rhetoric of shadow and marble
a promise of what we desire:
the dignity of death.
Beautiful are the graves,
the naked inscriptions and death dates,
the interplay of flowers and stone,
the courtyards, cool and reposed,
and the many yesterdays of the past
today fixed and unique.
We confuse this peace with death,
longing for the end,
when what we truly desire is sleep and indifference.
Vibrant in arms and in passions
and slumbering in the ivy,
only life exists.
Its forms are space and time,
magic instruments of the soul,
and when it ceases to exist,
space, time, and death will also cease,
just as the darkness of midnight
annihilates the mirror's simulacrum,
which the dusk had already begun to erode.
In the benign shade of the trees,
the wind alive with birds and rustling branches,
souls pass into other souls,
impossible that they should cease to be,
an incomprehensible miracle,
and yet its repetition
insults our days with horror.
Such were my thoughts in la Recoleta,
in the final place of my ashes.

Translated from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges.

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Transversal Ecology in V.S. Naipaul’s *The Enigma of Arrival*

V.S. Naipaul’s autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival is a nervous text. Its unnamed narrator (almost always read as Naipaul himself, as I will refer to him here) repeatedly confesses to suffering from a “rawness of nerves” as he migrates from Trinidad to England, where he settles in a small cottage on the grounds of a derelict Wiltshire manor (123). He attributes his nervous temperament to his self-consciousness as a postcolonial subject who lives on a hereditary estate established and long sustained by colonial plantations such as the one his grandparents worked as indentured laborers. But the estate also offers Naipaul the time and space to develop a critical intimacy with the Wiltshire countryside, an intimacy that revolutionizes his understanding of imperial England and its cultural legacy. He spends large portions of the novel walking the droveways of this ancient landscape, carefully observing the spatial and temporal dimensions of what is, at first glance, an idyllic environment. But as he comes to know the land more intimately, he develops an increasingly critical perspective, experiencing what he calls a “second childhood of seeing and learning” (93). Observing how the passage of time inscribes itself on the manor’s built and natural environments, as well as on its human community, Naipaul arrives at an understanding of England that diverges in significant ways from the one passed down to him in the literary and artistic representations that formed such an integral part of his colonial education. This “second childhood” is thus a process of disillusionment with the cultural ideal of England. It is also a reorientation of how Naipaul understands the relationship between natural ecology, social history, and his own subjectivity, an “awakening to the natural world” that ultimately empowers him to reassess his place within a post-imperial England, which is characterized in the novel by the grandson of indentured laborers roving the iconic landscape of the Salisbury Plain (105).

What Naipaul sees and learns as he explores the derelict Wiltshire estate is the subject of much critical commentary. Virtually all of this commentary focuses on issues of postcolonial identity, and much of it is critical of what Pascale Casanova refers to as the novel’s “colonial nostalgia for British power” (212). Casanova joins Rob Nixon, Ann Lora Stoler, Ian Baucom, and Derek Walcott, to name just a few of Naipaul’s many detractors, in reading The Enigma of Arrival as the apotheosis of Naipaul’s “unmistakably English view of the world, his almost provocative determination to prove himself more English than the English, more nostalgic than his neighbors for the Empire and England’s lost power” (Casanova 211). Others are more sympathetic. For example, Shirley Chew, Lucienne Loh, Sanjay Krishnan, and Anna Jörngården offer more nuanced readings of the novel that see in Naipaul’s fixation on England’s imperial decline a challenge to what Chew calls (quoting Naipaul) “the colonial fantasy of ‘security,’ that is, the notion of a ‘fixed world’ comprising, on the one hand, the timeless perfection of England, and, on the other, the disorder of ‘half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made’” (137). I too am interesting in how The Enigma of Arrival represents postcolonial identity, but I want to approach this question by exploring how the landscape itself—the natural ecology that contributes so mightily to the novel’s setting—functions as a means of framing and reorienting Naipaul’s struggle to understand his place within post-imperial England. In what follows, I will offer an ecocritical reading that draws on theories developed in Félix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies to argue that Naipaul’s “second childhood of seeing and learning” is, in ways germane to the question of postcolonial subjectivity, an awakening to the multiplicity of ecological registers.

Before considering how discrete passages from the text engage in an ecocritical approach to postcolonial identity, it may be fruitful to consider why The Enigma of Arrival is not read more often as a work of nature writing. Perhaps the reason why more critics do not address Naipaul’s interest in the natural world as such is because that intersects with a larger postcolonial critique. Naipaul himself admits as much when, in his preface to the novel’s reissue, he writes: “I knew there was a long tradition of nature writing and I knew that I was not equipped to add to it. My concern as someone from the colonies was the use of the land, nature pushed to its limits by a repeated crop” (v-vi). Naipaul’s emphasis on “nature pushed to its limits” works against the norms of mainstream nature writing, which have their roots in the pastoral. Although major literary figures such as Salman Rushdie have identified The Enigma of Arrival with “pastoral England, an England of manor and stream,” the novel does not, in fact, belong to a tradition that emphasizes the natural environment as a benevolent, contemplative, spiritually rejuvenating space. If anything, the evidence of material ruin and decay that Naipaul discovers embedded in the landscape as he walks and re-walks the Wiltshire countryside exposes the conventional pastoral as an illusion, if not an outright deception. Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin attest to this when they call The Enigma of Arrival an “anti-pastoral,” arguing that “Naipaul’s work is no haven for the literary nature-lover. His despoiled landscapes tell of centuries of human cruelty, greed and plunder” (128). The fact that Naipaul’s landscapes seem to insist that “land is not land alone, something that simply is itself,” but rather that it “partakes of what we breathe into it,” shifts attention away from his work as nature writing and toward his work as pure social or cultural critique (Huggan and Tiffin 366). Yet the novel does not support this division. Indeed, The Enigma of Arrival represents environmental, social, and subjective experiences as mutually embedded phenomena.

In his essay The Three Ecologies, Félix Guattari refuses the distinction between nature and culture in ways I find productive for thinking through Naipaul’s claim that “land is not land alone.” Guattari writes, “Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’” (28). To think transversally is to develop the critical capacity to address three overlapping ecological registers at once: environmental ecology, social ecology, and mental ecology (Guattari 18). Recognizing the interdependence of these ecological registers complicates Naipaul’s concern with “nature pushed to its limits” because transversality demands that we incorporate social and subjective dynamics into those limits (v). Naipaul models this in The Enigma of Arrival’s representation of Trinidad as the site of such extensive environmental exploitation that the near-total transformation of the land has left its occupants estranged from their own history. In fact, it is only in researching the history of Trinidad for a book he had been commissioned to write that Naipaul recognizes the artificiality of what he had always assumed to be his native island’s natural condition. He explains, “As a schoolboy I had assumed [Trinidad’s] torpor to be a constant, something connected with the geographical location of the island, the climate, the quality of the light. It had never occurred to me that the drabness I knew had been man-made, that it had causes, that there had been other visions and indeed other landscapes there” (170). This is the torpor of a colonial plantation society at the waning of the British Empire, which is altogether different from post-imperial Trinidad, where the landscape is again transformed, this time by the discovery of oil and natural gas. Naipaul bemoans the fact that the fossil fuel industry “ravaged and remade the landscape where we had had our beginnings in the New World,” and he does so in explicit transversal terms, noting that the shift from sugar cane to oil and natural gas “altered our landscape, our population, our mood” (384 and 385). There is a keen recognition in his bringing together landscape, population, and mood—terms that mirror Guattari’s emphasis on the three ecological registers of the environmental, the social, and the mental—that a change in one ecological register has the potential to transform all the ecological registers.   

A transversal consciousness is also active in Naipaul’s representation of the Salisbury Plain. What at first appears to be a timeless landscape emanating from the pages of Sir Gawain and the Green Night or William Wordsworth’s The Prelude gradually reveals itself to be shaped by spatiotemporal historical processes. For example, Naipaul recognizes in the seeming emptiness of the plain subtle traces of social activity: “Daily I walked in the wide grassy way—perhaps in the old days a processional way. Daily I climbed from the bottom of the valley to the crest of the way and the view … A vast sacred burial ground, bounded by the sky—of what activity those barrows and tumuli spoke, what numbers, what organization, what busyness in these now virtually empty downs!” (19). His ability to discern traces of ancient social activity in the shape of the land gradually opens his eyes to how contemporary social activities are also reshaping what may seem, at first glance, to be wholly natural. Musing on the absurdity of the fact that the Royal School of Artillery at Larkhill’s luminous targets stand out more dramatically on the Salisbury Plain than Stonehenge, both of which are visible in the same vista, Naipaul notes that “because of the purely military uses to which the land had been put for so long, and contrary to what one might expect after the explosions and mock warfare, there survived on the plain some kinds of butterflies that had vanished in more populated parts” (14). As with the previous example, the different ecological registers are intertwined: beneath the surface of what appears to be untouched nature are the traces of frenzied social activity; within the center of explosive social activity is the most unexpected and unlikely trace of untouched nature. It is precisely in recognizing this transversal quality that Naipaul can see through the so-called “timeless perfection of England” to something that is altogether more temporal (Chew 137).

I will conclude with one final example of transversal ecology in The Enigma of Arrival, an example that shows how the reach of what Guattari calls “the mechanosphere” into the heart of rural England degrades both corporeal nature and communal bonds. Although the territory over which Naipaul ranges throughout the novel bears subtle traces of pre-industrial social activity, that ancient landscape is also in the process of being transformed by large-scale industrial agriculture. Naipaul writes of “Change! New ideas, new efficiency,” an ironic exclamation that soon takes on a dystopian tone. Where once was “a wooden platform where the milk churns were placed” now stands a modern, prefabricated milking barn. He notes that “this milking building or milking ‘parlour’ (quaint word) was a mechanical-looking affair”—what he calls “a little factory at the top of the hill”—that was full of “pipes and meters and gauges; and the men who worked the parlour, who corralled the dung-stained cattle into the pens or channels, had something of the grimness of industrial workers” (58). This description of industrial-scale animal agriculture stands in marked contrast to the ideal of “pastoral England” with which Rushdie associates the novel, in part because it acknowledges the ecological registers that Guattari identifies in The Three Ecologies. This is made explicit in the passage’s concluding description, in which Naipaul writes: “The brightly-coloured cars, the hum and hiss of the milking machine (the cows, even with their dung, reduced to machine-managed objects), the tense young men, their moustaches and cars—they were all aspects of the new, exaggerated thing that had come upon us” (58). As had befallen Trinidad with the discovery of oil and natural gas, the introduction of industrial agricultural practices into the rural Wiltshire economy has a powerfully estranging effect, distancing the landscape and its occupants from the ideal that Naipaul had internalized as a postcolonial subject whose sole experience of England came through art and literature.

The disillusionment that Naipaul experiences as he observes the technological transformation of the dairy industry allows him to see through the supposed authenticity and historical continuity of agrarian England. For example, he fondly recalls the illustrated cows that graced the labels of the condensed milk he consumed as a child in Trinidad, an image that he describes as “the very heart of romance, a child’s fantasy of the beautiful other place” (90). But what he finds in reality refuses any such romantic ideal. Walking the droveways, he encounters a “ruined, abandoned, dungy, mossy farmyard” in which are penned a group of deformed milk cows:

The breeding of these cattle had become so mechanical that the malformation appeared mechanical too, the mistakes of an industrial process. Curious additional lumps of flesh had grown at various places on the animals, as though these animals had been cast in a mould, a mould divided into two sections, and as though, at the joining of the moulds, the cattle-material, the mixture out of which the cattle were being cast, had leaked; and had hardened, matured into flesh, and had then developed hair with the black-and-white Frisian pattern of the rest of the cattle. (9)

The radical incongruity of this reality with the fantasy Naipaul brought with him when he migrated to England extends to the larger social register as well. For example, he initially assumes that the people he encounters on his walks have ancestral connections to the land, that they are—as he says of one of his neighbors—“emanations” of “literature and antiquity and the landscape” (21). But as with the distressed, hideously deformed cattle, they too are soon exposed as something other than Naipaul first assumed: “So much that had looked traditional, natural, emanations of the landscape … now turned out not to have been traditional or instinctive at all” (49). Indeed, with the exception of the reclusive owner of the manor, none of the residents have an authentic connection with the land. They are temporary residents of the estate, and those social bonds that do exist between the neighbors lack depth and stability. When one of the longest surviving residents dies, nobody notices. The children are discourteous to their elderly neighbors. And an itinerant laborer, come to work the mechanized milking machines, murders his wife in a jealous rage.

This social fragmentation is coterminous with the deformed cows, and together they powerfully reorient Naipaul’s perspective on his own place within post-imperial England. But his disillusionment is also an awakening to a new way of seeing England that challenges and ultimately transcends the ideological representations he encountered as a schoolboy. As Anna Jörngården argues in a recent article, “Rather than a cause for nostalgia and regret, this shift from seeing the valley as replete with living history to seeing it as a field of ruins opens up alternative histories that destabilize fantasies of the valley as the authentic home to rooted, authentic people” (217). It is precisely in this destabilization that the subjective register of Guattari’s transversal ecology intersects with the environmental and social registers. If The Enigma of Arrival is, at its core, a novel of postcolonial identity—as the critical consensus suggests—then one way to achieve a deeper understanding of such an identity is through a transversal ecocritical approach. Read transversally, the novel’s mutually embedded ecological registers redefine who can legitimately claim the Wiltshire estate as their own. If socioeconomic and environmental transformations have emptied the Salisbury Plain of its meaning as “the authentic home to rooted, authentic people,” then it can now be the authentic home of the rootless, the postcolonial, the transnational. The Enigma of Arrival thus emerges as a critique of how social and environmental transformations shape the mental ecologies of all who exist within changing spatial and temporal contexts, including both the localized English countryside and the globalized, postcolonial setting within which Naipaul’s work is so often understood.

Note: I presented a version of this paper at the “Conceptions and Perceptions of Time and Space” conference at the London Center for Interdisciplinary Research in London, England on February 17, 2019.

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Holocaust Literature: A Bibliography

January 27th was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A lot has happened since then, most notably a winter storm that left millions of people in Texas, including my family and me, without electricity, heat, and water for more than 100 hours in sub-freezing temperatures. In the days running up to the storm, I had been grappling with how little attention I have given the Holocaust in my scholarship and teaching, and I was intending to gather some resources to post here—mostly for my own reference, but also for the benefit of others—when my plans were derailed by the utilities failure. I did, however, manage to re-read the few works of Holocaust Literature that I own, including both volumes of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Elie Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy, which includes the novels Night, Dawn, and The Accident. These are important works, but they are also among the most widely read accounts of the Holocaust, second only to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, and I’m a little embarrassed that these are the only works of Holocaust Literature that I’ve read.

I know there is a massive body of Holocaust Literature, including many published and unpublished survivors’ accounts. When I worked as an intern at Stockton University’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center, I saw full-time staff members help Holocaust survivors record their experiences living under European fascism, and I recall frequent discussions about the importance memoirs, novels, and other literary texts to the remembrance of the Holocaust. Stockton launched its Holocaust & Genocide Studies program just a few years before my internship, so I was also well aware that Holocaust Literature fit within a clearly delineated field of academic study. But my interests at the time were in creative writing, so I didn’t explore what the university had to offer by way of Holocaust Studies as much as I now wish that I had. Fortunately, there are some great online resources, including some good bibliographies of Holocaust Literature, that point the way toward further independent study.

Many of the works in the following bibliography are taken from bibliographies published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Jewish Women’s Archive, though I have also added a fair number of titles that I discovered through my own research. Additionally, I used WORLDCAT to correct and complete the citations. This bibliography is not comprehensive and only includes books available in English. It also excludes individual stories, poems, and articles, of which there are many. If there are book-length works missing from the list, please leave a note in the comments and I will add them. I will also expand the list as I become aware of additional titles.

Note: The following bibliography is under construction. New titles are added regularly.

Holocaust Literature

Aarons, Victoria, and Phyllis Lassner, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Holocaust Literature and Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Aichinger, Ilse. Herod’s Children. 1960. Translated by Cornelia Schaeffer. New York: Atheneum, 1964.

Aizenberg, Edna. On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015.

Alexander, Edward. The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.

Apitz, Bruno. Naked Among Wolves. 1958. Translated by Edith Anderson. Berlin: Seven Seas Books, 1960.

Appelfeld, Aharon. Badenheim 1939. 1975. Translated by Dalya Bilu. Boston: D.R. Godine, 2009.

Appelfeld, Aharon. The Immortal Bartfuss. 1988. Translated by Jeffrey M. Green. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas: A Scene from the Holocaust. 1979. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2000.

Becker, Jurek. Bronstein’s Children. 1986. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Becker, Jurek. Jacob the Liar. 1969. Translated by Leila Vennewitz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Begley, Louis. Wartime Lies. 1991. Ballantine Books, 2004.

Berger, Alan L. Children of Job: American Second-Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Berger, Alan L., and Gloria L. Cronin, editors. Jewish American and Holocaust Literature: Representation in the Postmodern World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Bigsby, Christopher. Remembering and Imagining the Holocaust: The Chain of Memory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Bitton-Jackson, Livia. Elli: Coming of Age in the Holocaust. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.

Bitton-Jackson, Livia. I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing Up in the Holocaust. London: Pocket Books, 2000.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Literature of the Holocaust. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. 1946. Translated by Barbara Vedder. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Bos, Pascale R. German-Jewish Literature in the Wake of the Holocaust: Grete Weil, Ruth Kluger, and the Politics of Address. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Bosmajian, Hamida. Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979.

Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. Writing as Resistance: Four Women Confronting the Holocaust: Edith Stein, Simone Weil, Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Brett, Lily. The Auschwitz Poems. Brunswick, Australia: Scribe, 1986.

Brown, Jean C., Elaine C. Stephens, and Janet R. Rubin, eds. Images from the Holocaust: A Literary Anthology. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Publishing Group, 1997.

Bryks, Rachmil. A Cat in the Ghetto: Four Novelettes. 1952. Translated by S. Morris Engel. New York: Perseus Books, 2008.

Chapman, Fern Schumer. Motherland: Beyond the Holocaust: A Daughter’s Journey to Reclaim the Past. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. 1965. Translated by Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Epstein, Helen. Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s Story. 1997. New York: Holmes & Meier, 2005.

Epstein, Julia, and Lori Lefkovitz, editors. Shaping Losses: Cultural Memory and the Holocaust. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Epstein, Leslie. King of the Jews: A Novel of the Holocaust. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1979.

Ezrahi, Sidra DeKoven. By Words Alone: The Holocaust in Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. 1992. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal. To Paint Her Life: Charlotte Solomon in the Nazi Era. 1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Fink, Ida. The Journey. 1990. Translated by Joanna Weschler and Francine Prose. London: Penguin, 1994.

Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time and Other Stories. 1983. Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Fink, Ida. Traces. 1996. Translated by Philip Boehm and Francine Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Fishman, Charles Adés, editor. Blood to Remember: American Poets and the Holocaust. St. Louis: Time Being Books, 2007.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. 1947. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Friedman, Saul S., ed. Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Friedlander, Albert H., ed. Out of the Whirlwind: A Reader of Holocaust Literature. 1976. New York: UAHC Press, 1999.

Friedman, Carl. Nightfather. 1991. Translated by Arnold Pomerans and Erica Pomerans. New York: Perseus Books, 2004.

Fuchs, Elinor, editor. Plays of the Holocaust: An International Anthology. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.

Fuks, Ladislav. Mr. Theodore Mundstock. 1963. Translated by Iris Urwin. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969.

Gouri, Haim. The Chocolate Deal. 1964. Translated by Seymour Simckes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Grynberg, Henryk. Child of the Shadows. 1965. Translated by Celina Winiewska. London: Vellentine Mitchell, 1969.

Gwyer, Kirstin. Encrypting the Past: The German-Jewish Holocaust Novel of the First Generation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Habe, Hans. The Mission. 1965. Translated by Michael Bullock. London: Panther Books, 1967.

Hartman, Geoffrey H., editor. Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

Hersey, John. The Wall. 1950. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Hilsenrath, Edgar. Night. 1964. Translated by Michael Roloff. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Hilsenrath, Edgar. The Nazi Who Lived as a Jew. 1971. Translated by Andrew White. New York: Manor Books, 1977.

Hungerford, Amy. The Holocaust of Texts: Genocide, Literature, and Personification. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Halperin, Irving. Messengers from the Dead: Literature of the Holocaust. London: Westminster Press, 1970.

Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. House of Dolls. 1953. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. London: Senate Publishing, 1997.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Atrocity. 1961. Translated by Moshe M. Kohn. New York: Lyle Stuart, 1963.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Star Eternal. 1966. Translated by Nina DeNur. London: W.H. Allen, 1972.

Ka-tzetnik 135633. Sunrise Over Hell. 1977. Translated by Nina DeNur. London: Corgi Books, 1978.

Kaniuk, Yoram. Adam Resurrected. 1969. Translated by Seymour Simckes. New York: Grove Atlantic, 2008.

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(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Unemployed Fragments

Footbridge over creek, pond-formed dam.
No. The reverse---
turned inside out again.

Wait to hear what can be heard.

An ice-cream truck roving distant neighborhood,
the tack tack tack of beak on bark, and then
the sudden snort of a dog ("adda boy!") eating dust.
Late morning with the boy (the elder)
"Fifth and Seventieth" just read, he's digging
animal facts---what they eat
the size of their teeth.

Last day for freedom. Tomorrow knowledge.
Diamond painting the marvel
universe---table top & tools of the trade.

The boy (the younger) in panic:
"Oh no! they didn't give me enough bags!"

Window open breeze
flushing strong
incense through the room.
Impossible not to see (these streets
sleeping rough under Congress w/ neon
crowd out for weekend run and I
a saunter) the bright sigh of earth---
Mid-morning speech
sleeping bats, dreaming of flight and insect
feast--- drainage from street to Colorado.

in the darkness

A squeal.
A squeak.
Hours left to sleep---

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades,” with its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs catalogued in the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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