Junior Review: Nathalia Buttface and the Most Embarrassing Dad in the World

In this book, the main character, Nathalia Buttface, is forced to live with her embarrassing Dad and her sometimes supportive Mum. 
They have just moved to a different town (in their shameful campervan, the Atomic Dustbin) and now she must start a new school and make new friends. 
She thinks this a chance to start again without her Dad embarrassing her, but she still has the same silly last name and the same embarrassing Dad.
This book is full of hysterical stories of how her dad embarrasses her and how she tries to overcome her shame. I found it an easy read and I recommend this hilarious book to girls aged 10 – 12.
Title: Nathalia Buttface
Author: Nigel Smith                         
Publisher: HarperCollins, $14.99                                                                      
Publication Date: 12 January 2014
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780007545216
For Ages: 10 – 12
Type: Middle Fiction

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Double Honor

Double Honor | John Bevere

Many times God will send us what we need in a package we don’t want. Give respect and honor to all to whom it is due. — Romans 13:7 One primary reason God instructs us to give honor to the authorities over us is for our sake, not for theirs. It is exciting to note

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Redeeming the Years Spent in the Pit

Lord, I’m choosing to believe that You can and will redeem the years I have spent in my pit. In our Christian subculture, we think a pit of sin is the only kind of pit there is. But we have to think much more broadly. For starters, I see in God’s Word three ways we

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The Words We Don’t Use: On Eviatar Zerubavel’s “Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable”


Language makes us mean. It tricks us into revealing what we think to others. It tricks us into saying things we didn’t even know we thought.

We know, for example, that when we talk about “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” we are staking out a position in the abortion debate. But according to Eviatar Zerubavel, no matter whether we mean to or not, every single sentence we utter betrays our bias.

As Zerubavel argues in his slender new book Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable, we declare ourselves not only through the words we use, but also — in fact, mainly — through the words we don’t use. Because it is the non-emphasized words that show how indebted we are to the tacit norms and prejudices of our society. The “unremarkable” of his title refers to our ability to overlook implications, and through “unmarked” words, entire communities.

Often, as Zerubavel points out, we only realize what our default assumptions are when we have to qualify them. The term “African-American” reminds us that unhyphenated “Americans” are assumed to be white; “same-sex marriage” reminds us that unspecified couples are assumed to be heterosexual; “women’s soccer” reminds us that “regular” players are men; “disabled access” reminds us that “normal” people can walk up steps.

Understanding our embedded biases is crucial for citizens today because the complicated question of what is “normal” is one of the drivers of the disinformation and hate-as-free-speech that characterize our contemporary national conversation. Whether it arrives through social media, propaganda broadcast groups, Russian bots, or partisan websites, what we “know” as normal comes from the language we use.

Zerubavel explains, for example, that the controversial backlash over “Black Lives Matter” is a matter of ignorance or bad faith by those who complain that “All Lives Matter.” Obviously, he notes, all lives matter, but the explicit marking of “Black Lives” by the movement is a way of showing the tragic consequences of the assumption that “unmarked” — and therefore “normal” — Americans are white.

Indeed, race is one of the more obvious categories in which language betrays our presumptions. It’s certainly not the only one. American society labors not only under its racist past but also under its homophobia. At the start of Taken for Granted, Zerubavel cites Wayne Brekhus discussing his studies of suburban gays: “I was often asked if I am gay. No one ever asked, however, if I was suburban.”

As a professor of sociology in the United States, Zerubavel is focused on an immigrant society whose diversity precludes a simple definition of “normal.” As an immigrant and someone suffering from a debilitating illness, he has skin in the language game. As the riddle of the Sphinx makes clear — and as Lennard Davis, among others, reminds us — those of us able to walk are, at best, “temporarily abled.” Zerubavel tells us in the introduction that, during the writing of the book, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so when he quotes Davis quoting a disabled activist who says, “Come back in twenty years and a lot of you will be with us,” there is special resonance to the utterance.

In every area of life there are norms, and we rapidly internalize the norms of our adopted societies so that we can “fit in.” Centuries of immigrants have wanted to be unmarked Americans. And yet, ironically, though waves of American immigrants — Irish, Jewish, German, Chinese — have striven to speak English, wear blue jeans, and salute the Stars and Stripes, the “normal” community they are trying to emulate, which is supposed to be a majority, can also, “as Somerset Maugham once quipped, […] be ‘the rarest thing in the world.’”

One only has to look at the March furor in Austin, Texas, to understand the power of assumptions. When local police chief Brian Manley labeled the series of package bomb attacks “domestic terrorism,” he faced the ire of those who tacitly believed that “terrorist,” “Arab,” and “Muslim” are synonyms. When politicians like Sarah Palin define people from “the real America” as post–Native American white immigrants, Zerubavel notes they are “effectively excluding […] recent immigrants […] and thereby ‘otherize’ such ‘abnormal’ Americans.” The lines are clearly drawn “Us: Americans” on the one side, “Them: Terrorists” on the other. Manley crossed these linguistic lines and sparked outrage.

In the book, Zerubavel also discusses attempts to correct the retrograde faults of our language. Sociologists, artists, and literary theorists have talked about doing this for centuries. When anthropologist Horace Miner first suggested looking at the strange habits of the Nacirema (“American” backward), he was trying, in Proustian parlance, to “possess other eyes.” When theorist Viktor Shklovsky identified the literary trope of “defamiliarization” and Bertolt Brecht referred to his theatrical praxis as employing “Verfremdungseffekt” — alienation effect — they were figuratively achieving what Marcel Proust suggested.

Zerubavel analyzes strategies for “unmarking the hitherto marked” and “marking the hitherto unmarked.” One way is to add what Zerubavel calls “semiotic superfluity.” This marks the unmarked by showing how we had assumed that a term included its qualifier. For example, by using the phrase “historically white colleges” we show our linguistic, sociological assumption that colleges are white and, in the same breath, “de-naturalize” the patronizing phrase “historically black colleges.” When our assumptions are brought to the surface, the results can be both funny and deeply sad:

[T]he most spectacular example of the comic subversion of andronormativity is the classic riddle about a fatal car accident in which the man driving the car dies on the spot and his son is rushed to a nearby hospital, where upon seeing him there a startled surgeon exclaims: “I can’t operate on my own son!” As Douglas Hofstadter describes this seemingly illogical puzzle,

What do you make of this grim riddle? How could it be? Was the surgeon lying or mistaken? No. Did the dead father’s soul somehow get reincarnated in the surgeon’s body? No. Was the surgeon the boy’s true father and the dead man the boy’s adopted father? No. What then is the explanation?

By far the simplest solution, of course, would be that the surgeon must therefore be the boy’s mother. Yet as I have come to realize after trying this riddle on friends and students and watching many of them failing to solve it, people often seem to find it difficult to invoke the image of a female surgeon, thereby exposing the taken-for-granted conventional assumption that the term surgeon actually implies a man.

In political discourse, efforts to upset such social assumptions are often contentious. As the controversy surrounding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s calls for an Equal Rights Amendment showed earlier this year, seemingly uncontroversial beliefs and rights such as women’s equality in law are far from accepted. We can see proof of that assertion in the constellation of marked and unmarked phrases surrounding the gendered sphere of labor. Women’s paid work needs to be specifically labeled: the phrase “working mother” stands implicitly opposed to the semiotically superfluous “working father” (we assume men, thus fathers, work). And the way that we mark the hitherto unmarked in this sphere is with the phrase “stay-at-home mom.”

Taken for Granted is listed as being 160 pages in length, but over 60 of these pages are supporting notes and citations, which gives you a sense of how condensed the main text is, but also of how you might use it. The book is perhaps best treated as a primer on how language perpetuates and exacerbates social inequalities. It is thought-provoking and mind-opening in the way that a great college lecture can be. Though not free from clunky academic language, it is rich in insight and has the power to shift a reader’s worldview. Cramming #BlackLivesMatter, Marcel Proust, Luis Buñuel, and Stephen Colbert into fewer than 100 pages of dense sociology might suggest that Zerubavel is pandering to a hip general audience. But he isn’t. The very point of the book is that language is our common property, and its workings affect every level of society.

Just to demonstrate how relevant Zerubavel’s message is, here is a passage that might as well have been inspired by two African-American men getting arrested in Starbucks: “Social dominance, in short, involves the privilege of being considered ‘normal’ and thereby assumed by default and taken for granted.” As broad questions of racial, gendered, and religious intolerance are raised nationally by the exclusionary words and actions of the current administration as well as by the revelations of the ongoing Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, the nation is searching for common ground. But a national conversation cannot take place until we have the tools for that dialogue, and this remarkable book shows us how to make the language we need.


Dan Friedman is the executive editor of Forward.com, a contributing editor to 8by8Mag.com, and author of an eBook about 1980s rock group Tears for Fears.

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Review: A Stone for Sascha

Aaron Becker is the younger reader’s Shaun Tan.

Becker combines a touch of Fantasia with images of lyrical beauty as he depicts raw grief and the pain of having to get on with life.

Without a single word, he narrates several epic journeys, weaving each within and between the others.

He starts with the loss of a beloved pet, Sascha, and moves quickly to a family holiday by the beach.

There, from the sand between a young girl’s toes he catapults us to outer space,where we witness the birth of our planet and life in its earliest forms. From here, we explore early civilisation and venture on to adventures on the high seas.

Each each double-page opening, worthy of art gallery space, filled both my heart and my imagination to the brim. Yet, while I dreamed and sighed over vast worlds, my personal grief over losing a beloved pet was gently cradled.

A Stone for Sascha requires time and space: time to pour over every detail on every page, time to notice what was missed in the last viewing, and space for the gentlest of healing found within these pages to germinate and spread.

And yet, for all this depth, A Stone for Sascha allows each reader to create their own story about what each illustration represents and about how grief, Sascha’s Stone, the history of the universe and pirates fit together.

Like I said: a younger reader’s Shaun Tan: absolutely priceless.

Title: A Stone for Sascha
Author/Illustrator: Aaron Becker
Publisher: Walker Books, $27.99
Publication Date: 1 May 2018
Format: Hard Cover
ISBN: 9780763665968
For ages: 5 +
Type: Picture Book

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In the Snatches of Free Time: On Collecting Roland Barthes

IN AN 1885 letter to Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé grumbled that all the thousands of bits, shreds, and fragments he had written over the years “make up an album, but not a book” [composent un album, mais pas un livre]. In 19th-century France, the album, echoing its Latin root albus (white), was an actual notebook of blank pages to which one’s friends and acquaintances contributed drawings, poems, and even musical scores (think of it as a yearbook on steroids, assembled just for your enjoyment). In the last course he ever offered at the Collège de France before his untimely death, Roland Barthes revived Mallarmé’s distinction, pitting the album and the book against one another as literary forms: if the album is circumstantial, discontinuous, and lacking in structure, the book is an ordered totality basking in its own architectural design. Mallarmé’s Divagations is an album, he readily agrees; Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a book.

With all those associations in mind, Éric Marty has edited an intentionally idiosyncratic collection of Barthesiana entitled Album, containing previously unpublished correspondence as well as six unedited essays translated for the first time into English by Jody Gladding. The volume is the latest installment in a wave of rolandisme, following the recent publications of Barthes’s unedited diary entries, observations from his stay in China, and lecture notes from the Collège de France. Given Barthes’s painstakingly thoughtful curation of his own life — who else has written a book like Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes or asked aloud, “Should I keep a journal with a view to publication?” — reading these letters can feel a bit like playing Dorothy, finally getting to peer behind Oz’s satin green curtains. The process has all the voyeuristic guilt, the delight of discovery, and the inevitable bathos of getting to live for a few days with the flesh and bones behind your Instagram crush. Instead of ogling their intentionally natural vibe or pensive downward gaze, you get to see their confidence unmasked.

To wit, we come to Barthes’s letters after almost four decades of looking at the photographs by way of which he chose to present himself with: in a trench coat coolly lighting a cigarette with his left hand, the breeze perfectly slanting the flame from his lighter; in black-rimmed reading glasses, surrounded by a book fortress, lodged in his various studies (caption: “My body is free of its image-repertoire only when it establishes its work space”). In his letters, we are instead privy to a writer who is preoccupied with his pace, fretting over the value of his work as the years go by: “I am working, and I am working quite a lot. How much time? Hours and hours each day […] it torments and tires me to be taking so long.” We see him batting down publication requests and patiently soothing those who feel neglected by his withdrawal. “You must never read into my silence; I think of you with much tenderness,” he writes to the photographer and novelist Hervé Guibert. Similar pleas and apologies for his reticence are peppered throughout the letters (most notably to Georges Perec) as is his conviction that he is not really “a man of letters.”

The letters go as far back as Barthes’s adolescence, including his time in a sanatorium, and reach up until his death in 1980, and therefore, cover a wide range of exchanges. One of the longest of these relationships was with his friend Philippe Rebeyrol, who later became the French ambassador to Athens. Letters written to Philippe as early as 1932 shed light on Barthes’s literary formation, and it is remarkable to see almost 30 years later Barthes returning to the same texts he first discovered during those years. Racine emerges as a major influence (“I have also reread nearly all of Racine’s plays, who is to me as Voltaire is to you”), as well as Proust, whom a starstruck 17-year-old Barthes describes as “a prose poet […] [who] analyzes all the sensations and memories that this act awakens in him, as an observer might study all the successive circles emanating from a stone thrown into water.” As Barthes begins publishing more, the correspondences in Album expand to include other French intellectuals. While some of these exchanges reveal new facets of Barthes’s intellectual development, others — such as those to Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Hélène Cixous — are mostly uninteresting thank-you notes to Barthes for passing along his newly published books. In his foreword, Marty admits to not being able to include letters from Barthes’s most intimate circle — François Wahl, Jean-Louis Bouttes, and Michel Foucault to name a few — and even confesses to destroying the letters the French theorist sent him, an ironic gesture perhaps for a steward of Barthes’s ephemera. (For what it’s worth, François Wahl and Jean-Louis Bouttes did not hold on to Barthes’s letters either.) In addition, while Marty had access to a large collection of letters Barthes wrote to Robert David, with whom he was in love, only a handful of letters to David are reproduced, officially on account of their illegibility.

Do these lacunae advance a particular image of the theorist preferable to other images, or is it about drawing a line around certain matters that will or must remain private? What do we mean when we designate a body of writing as “private”? Is the album, rather than a complete letters, a genre more suited to privacy? Although in The Preparation of the Novel, Barthes argues that “[a] page of an album can be moved or added at random” with an arbitrariness that could lead us to question its value, he also assures us that compared to the book, it is the album that is the stronger form, for the album represents what remains. In adopting the title of “album” for a collection of unpublished letters and essays, is Marty arguing that what he has selected is what really matters, what remains? Not having access to what has been left out, as readers, he is asking us to trust his judgment.

Paradoxically, despite its intentional gaps, Album offers valuable insight, not only into the particulars of Barthes’s life, but also into the themes that haunted his writing, making it a worthwhile resource for Barthes scholars and ordinary readers alike. One of those recurring motifs is Barthes’s complex and sometimes contradictory feelings about the sanatorium as a space of both isolation and camaraderie. Barthes first became acquainted with the institution at the ripe age of 19 during a bout of tuberculosis and over the years stayed at several French and Swiss sanatoriums. He met and fell in love with Robert David (reportedly straight) during a stay at the Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet facility in 1943. Among the first group of essays Barthes ever penned, and which was culled from the archives at the Bibliothèque nationale de France for inclusion in Album, is “Sketch of a Sanatorium Society.” In this essay, Barthes reads the “theocratic” structure of the sanatorium — in which the doctor is both mocked and obeyed, and is a “miracle worker and hotelkeeper” at the same time — as hostile to the idea of the couple. By suggesting the possibility of happiness outside of the sanatorium’s artificial community, intimacy threatens that highly controlled structure.

Yet, as we know from the letters, that confinement also provided the space for a hidden, sub rosa form of companionship. As Barthes notes, David’s presence makes his stay less painful, his absence more so: “You see, the same routines but without you, my friend, and I suffer a thousand times a day.” When one remembers that an initial version of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, with its meditations on the solitude of the lover’s voice, was written during one of Barthes’s many sanatorium stays, these fragments from Album take on even greater meaning. Hints at other forms of company remain in Album, such as when Barthes complains to Georges Canetti: “Two or three intelligent fellows, that’s it. No one handsome, without lowering one’s standards […] All these spineless, mediocre boys with their old flesh that I have known for two or three years, from every angle (so to speak!), what game would you like me to play with them?” “Sketch of a Sanatorium Society” effaces all these personal details, filing them away under the private and focusing instead on the group psychology of its inhabitants within the power structure of the sanatorium. With the doctor at the top and the patients, whom Barthes describes as reverting to the carefreeness of the childhood, at the bottom, the sanatorium is an oppressive space: “It is enough that the patient’s irresponsibility is justified by the inevitable existence of a being, who knows and does not suffer, whereas he suffers and does not know.” This focus on the sanatorium as perpetuating “the irresponsibility of childhood” clashes with the more pedestrian concerns over friendships formed or not formed in the letters, in a way that puts the essay and letters in a sometimes contradictory relationship.

Beginning with the posthumous publication of Incidents (1987), which unearthed Barthes’s explorations of gay desire in Morocco, much has been written on the erasure of homosexuality in the work he himself published as well as his alleged repression and shame. Traces of that hidden life emerge from Barthes’s missives to David, which swing from painfully sincere declarations to conceptual musings. He idolizes David, lamenting the “girlish” tone of his earnestness, while turning at moments to lecture his intended recipient, observing (in a kind of prophecy of affect theory):

Why do our famous psychologists waste their time on contrived topics like Will, Attention, etc., instead of studying the only important thing in modern psychology: Mood? Mood is basically the contemporary form of ancient Fate, that irrepressible power that makes someone different from one day to the next.

Sometimes Barthes’s letters even playfully slip into the third person in an attempt to provide a detached picture of their relationship: “Mood […] a kind of symbol in opposition to classical Passion, the engine of contemporary philosophies, Sartre’s novels, Barthes’s days […] the engine of David’s letters, which […] still cross in groups of three or four […] small lifeless deserts.” There are no letters from David included in Album, leaving us with a one-sided narrative, a soliloquy to an unresponsive Other.

The exchanges in Album also function as a real-time but highly partial catalog of the texts Barthes is reading (Racine, Voltaire, Michelet, and Dostoyevsky) and the music he is listening to (Debussy, Piaf) as well as the to-and-fro of various manuscripts between leading French intellectuals. We see the first note Barthes ever sent to the noted French anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose publication of Tristes Tropiques had cemented his status at the Collège de France. Barthes’s 1961 note is a plea to him to advise his thesis, The Fashion System, ultimately turned down with the excuse of busyness. Subsequent exchanges between the two spell out their agreements and their differences, including Lévi-Strauss’s strongly worded assessment of Criticism and Truth as indulging in “subjectivity, affectivity, and let us use the word, a certain mysticism with regard to literature.” While earlier Lévi-Strauss warns Barthes against “fall[ing] into a Ricoeurian kind of hermeneutics,” he later gives Empire of Signs more favorable reviews. The exchanges with Jacques Derrida are more effusive but laconic, each man offering brief gratitude and admiration in return. Barthes, teaching at Johns Hopkins at the time, seems ambivalent of his American days (“I don’t want to get started on the written account of my American ‘madness.’ I would risk being unjust [because in short I am against, basically]”). He even compares Of Grammatology to “a civilized book amid barbarism” (meaning perhaps Baltimore) and “a book by Galileo in the land of the Inquisition,” hinting at an air of longing for the Parisian intellectual scene.

Among the most interesting of these conversations is a letter from 1967 in which Barthes stubbornly refuses to sign a political petition penned by Maurice Blanchot. Its content was supportive of the Algerian rebellion and highly critical of Charles de Gaulle’s colonial campaign, calling on writers and scholars not to lend their “words, writing, works, and names” to the “dictatorship” of the Gaullist regime and to refuse to become agents of state propaganda. Barthes disagreed with the content of the text, including the characterization of de Gaulle as a fascist, for political reasons, but also, interestingly, on literary grounds. He had just a few months prior published “The Death of the Author” in the American journal Aspen (it first came out in English). In his response to Blanchot, Barthes identifies the act of signing a petition as a betrayal of that literary agenda: as summoning up an author at the very moment of its death knell.

I always feel repugnance toward anything that could resemble a gesture in the life of a writer. Such gestures occur outside one’s writing but nevertheless give credence to the idea that writing, independent of its actual substance and somehow institutionally, is capital that lends weight to extraliterary choices. How does one sign [comment signer], in the name of a work, at the very moment when we are attacking from all sides the idea that a work can be signed [l’idée qu’une oeuvre puisse être signée]?

This argument was not new territory for Barthes. His disapproval of the act of lending one’s name to a text that itself demands not lending’s one’s name to a political structure — on account of its legibility as a personal message to which the writer’s work could risk being reduced to — derives from ideas he was working on as early as 1946. A previously unpublished essay that precedes the publication of Writing Degree Zero, “The Future of the Rhetoric,” laments contemporary literary criticism’s focus on personal dramas and “chronology” at the cost of a deeper study of rhetoric and style. Barthes would rather devote his time to the fabric of the text itself through terms drawn from his study of linguistics and classical rhetoric: antonomasia (converting a concept into an epithet, the “Bard”), catachresis (stretching common usage, “mow the beard”), and pleonasm (using more words than necessary, “black darkness”). In the same essay, Barthes also denigrates any quantitative or statistical approach to literature, arguing that it produces uncertain and useless results, unconsciously anticipating and dismissing what would eventually be called “distant reading”: “We recognize the barbarism involved in listing the accidents of language for a given writer, and that nothing could appear to be further removed from the spirit of refinement, the customary, glorious tool of literary criticism.” Rather, it is always to rhetoric itself that the reader and critic must return.

Barthes’s worship of rhetoric and style culminates in Album in his slow-motion reading of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet. This essay, one of the finest in the book, dissects seven individual sentences from Flaubert’s last novel, meditating microscopically on the traces and tonal colors, all of the sfumatura rising out of a linguistic unit as short as a sentence. He is chasing, as he playfully notes, the “scent of the sentence.” Out of a neutral-sounding narratorial observation such as, “As the temperature had climbed to thirty-three degrees, Bourdon Boulevard was absolutely deserted,” Barthes finds a parody of scientific discourse, the flavor of a maxim and the “sociology of the Paris summer.” Reminiscent of his approach in S/Z, Barthes’s aggressively granular form of reading seeks to break down the complexity of Flaubert’s “analyzable stereophony.”

In the end, the productive ambiguity of Album requires trying to square its deliberate mixture of text and biographical material as well as understanding its self-conscious incompleteness, its status as the antithesis of a Complete Letters. How do we enjoy this compilation without succumbing to biographical determinism? While I do wish, selfishly, that more time was spent with letters to David, their exclusion creates the opening for a kind of unexpected textual longing, a projection of eros into that unspoken space. Perhaps then the answer to the riddle of Album’s biographical material lies in treating these diverse sources more like texts. What is critical is not reconstructing a more “authoritative” version of Barthes, but in using these fragments of correspondences and essays almost as one would the Hadith, as a supplemental layer of textuality to read in conversation with the Qur’an. The selected letters often speak to and against the essays, and some of those contradictions must remain unresolved.

Ultimately, what Marty attempts is not to assemble an image of Barthes the man of letters in his entirety, but to show how even a book of juvenilia, letters, and unpublished projects can, through its juxtaposition of those materials with one another, go beyond mere contextualization and perhaps become something greater than the sum of its fragments. In his final Collège de France course, Barthes notes that the passage of time renders the futures of the album and the book uncertain. It may be that, as time wears on, all that remains in us from a work of literature is a single sentence. That sentence from Dante’s Divine Comedy would be, he says, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Conversely, an author’s untimely death can transform the unconnected fragments that they leave behind into a larger book. Pascal’s death transformed “a mass of unconnected thoughts” produced “in the snatches of free time between other occupations and over conversations with friends” into the Pensées. Time will tell whether Album’s “tableau” will stay an album or whether its idiosyncrasy will keep open the possibility of it one day becoming a book.


Ayten Tartici is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Stanford Arcade, MAKE Literary Magazine, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among other venues.

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The Secondary Mourner

An old family friend died recently, someone I’d known all my life. She was there when I was born, full of stories of my little girlhood when, for a time, I was the only child among them—my parents, their closest friends. They lived two blocks from each other in Brooklyn for a time and, later, when my parents moved to a house with a backyard, they were often there, drinking martinis and grilling food.

The husband died years ago—more than 20—and the wife went on, traveling to places he’d never wanted to go, being adventurous, sailing to the Galapagos, riding elephants and camels well into her 80s. They had only one child, a daughter. I found out the family friend was pregnant when she passed on a martini and had milk instead.

They—the husband and wife, the daughter—lived in the same apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan they’d moved to around the time my parents bought their first house in Brooklyn: more than 50 years. The apartment was filled with art, a collection of antique salt boxes, photographs of her two grandchildren, her daughter, her son-in-law.

Her daughter is the primary mourner, of course. She and her mother were a close mother/daughter pair always. She’s had a lot to handle in the weeks since her mother died, and though she is an only child, she’s had lots of support—from her family, her husband’s family, a large network of friends.

The morning it happened she called from her mother’s apartment, waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive. I went over to be with her—it’s not a time or a situation to be  alone.

I’ve been with her at other times too: when arrangements needed to be made. When the ashes needed to be picked up. She’s cried sometimes, not all the time. It comes in waves, she said, and I admire the way she’s been able to ride them, to let the sadness wash over her, then wash away, her certainty that the tears would leave in their own time, the same as the certainty that they would come.

Once, after we’d done something together, she texted to thank me.

“You’re welcome,” I said. “But you don’t need to thank me. We’re family.”

We are. And we’re not.

I’ve known her all her life, as her parents knew me, and I loved them deeply. There have been times in my life they—her dad in particular—made a profound difference to me.

How do you grieve when your “status” as a mourner is secondary? When you’re family, but not? When you aren’t a primary mourner?

I’ve been in this place before. I had just separated from my husband of nine years when he called to tell me his father had died. I went to the funeral, alone. In separating, I’d forfeited rights—rights to the family, rights to primacy, rights to affection. I knew that. I’d given up my place.

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Still, I went to the funeral because, despite knowing I’d be the object of gossip, of whispers about why I was there and how I looked, going felt like the right thing to do. I’d known his father for almost 10 years. I had love and affection for him.

I sat in the back of the church, not in front, with the family. I greeted my husband, who awkwardly thanked me for coming, but I didn’t speak to his sisters nor they to me. I decided not to go out to the cemetery for the burial but, if I had, I’d have gone in a car with my husband’s sister’s in-laws—other secondary mourners.

It was hard to be there, as I’d known it would be. People think you’ve forfeited feelings when a marriage ends, but that’s not true. The feelings I had for my husband and his family didn’t evaporate just because the marriage didn’t last. But I was definitely in a kind of limbo—neither family, nor not.

When my mother died, my father received calls and notes from people he hadn’t heard from in a long time—old school friends, people from old neighborhoods. Helene.

Helene was the woman before my mother—a previous, brief marriage I’d never heard a word about until my father told me, when I was an adult. There was no trace of her in my father’s life. No children, no talk, no pictures. When, years earlier, I’d helped my mother clear out my grandmother’s apartment I came across photo after photo of my father with the person he’d clearly been standing next to carefully snipped out.

And yet now—here she was. Not even a secondary mourner, not even a tertiary one. Someone who’d once loved my father. Who wanted to reach out, to offer condolence, even though she had no status in my father’s life. No place. Still, she was sorry for his loss.

Belonging is a human need. It’s why we form ourselves into families and clans. Why we join societies and clubs, churches and temples. If we leave them—the church or the temple, the society or club, even the family, it doesn’t mean we have forgotten what it was like when we belonged.

So what does that make us—the former in-laws and spouses? The family friends? We are mourners once removed, like second cousins no one’s ever met. Technically family, practically not.

My relationship with my parents’ best friends, and with their daughter was like that as well. It was family-like, but it wasn’t family.

Being a secondary mourner means your grief is private because if it’s too public, too loud or visible, you divert attention from the real family. You might not sit in the last row at the funeral, but you don’t sit in the front row either. Your role is to offer support, not receive it. You are necessary to the family, but you are not family. You’re something in the middle.

Image Credit: Buckley AFB.

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Saving the World with Metaphor: Toward an Ecological Poetics

RECENTLY, A GOOD FRIEND who has practiced and taught transcendental meditation for many years told me a story about a trip to India on the occasion of the death of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, his teacher, the one who famously instructed the Beatles during the 1960s. While there he consulted with a renowned Ayurvedic healer whom he had visited previously. This man’s gift was his ability to diagnose people based on touching the pulse points on their wrists. Scores would come each week seeking his counsel, and despite the volume of consultations and his own advanced age, he seemed always to remember his patients through the touch, even after several years, and could remark on the progress or lack thereof resulting from his prescribed therapy — usually some herbal remedy but sometimes a lifestyle change.

The group with which my friend traveled to pay homage to the Maharishi included a troublesome American woman who continually complained about the unhygienic conditions and general poverty she encountered in India. Her practice of meditation seemed to have little effect on her demeanor, and she often would hijack the conversation with negative rants. One day, my friend tells me, the group was walking down a busy street on their way to visit this pulse healer when the woman, who was once again casting her sour spin on things, suddenly stopped and turned in horrified dismay to her colleagues. A gull had just flown over and let loose on her face so that a white smear was now dripping from her nose — nature’s seeming commentary on her behavior. Temporarily chastened, she wiped her face clean, and they proceeded to their appointment. My friend tells me that the old man, after holding his pulse for about 15 seconds, remembered him and commented on his progress and the need to continue his herbal infusions. When it became the splattered woman’s turn, he held her wrist for a while and offered the following two remedies to alleviate her unbalanced condition: (1) she should watch cartoons daily, and (2) she should go to the local schoolyard and give candy to all the children.

One may speculate that both ecological and poetic justice are the morals of this true story. Clearly, the healer’s prescription for the woman’s miserable attitude focused on alleviating it through immersion in joyful, unmediated play and on personal action without expectation of reciprocation or consideration of consequences, on performing actions that are daring for their dramatic departure from the norm and truthful in that they reside in the purity and simplicity of the moment. Both require imaginative leaps fusing originality and the intensely personal in order to realize an absence and make it present. Such a discovery is also a recovery, an ability to see oneself again through fresh lenses.

Lest you fear that I’m preaching some evangelical conversion tract, well, I am. However, it is not premised on scripture or doctrine but on reclaiming our missions as humanists and ecologists. I wish to emphasize the dynamic and powerful linkage between these missions, a linkage that I believe we ignore at our peril, by emphasizing that success in — and proselytizing for — humanistic and ecological endeavors requires originality, imagination, and personal transformation. Such success assumes attaining a vision premised on connection, on finding something within the self that transmits us beyond the self. This kind of integration makes sense rationally, feels good emotionally, and presents a sense of spiritual wholeness or belonging that manifests the etymological root of the word “religion” — religare, to bind fast.

In arguing for more pronounced connections between the humanities and ecology, which the rapidly emerging field of environmental humanities has undertaken, I return to their original impulses and their primary methodologies: interrogation and bridging. I also worry about their frequent co-optation and marginalization, and locate at least part of the cause for this resulting diminution of potency in their capitulation to the colonizing discourses and practices that increasingly assess, evaluate, and define them, digesting their identities and disgorging them as peripheral, or even oppositional, rather than as central to the public good. I wish to argue for a restoration of a poetics of ecology and an ecological humanism, a reinvigoration of critical focus on the process of discovery as well as on product, and a celebration of the personal as it animates the collective rather than being subsumed by it. I also wish to argue that it is incumbent upon us as scholars, teachers, and advocates for the public good to enter the fray of contemporary concerns and to play a significant role in addressing the large questions that confront us.


Our current status as humanists and ecologists — in charge of policy, financial allocations, conveying information, and molding perceptions from the halls of Congress to university trustees to media and entertainment outlets to mundane daily conversations among our polarized voting citizenry — is often surrounded by misunderstanding, conflict, and suspicion. Why? In part because we, the rhetoricians, have ceded the rhetorical advantage. In our reactive defensiveness, we have become reliant on the discourses that have overtaken and colonized us, discourses premised on circumscribed accountings couched in vocabulary that is, at best, reductively economic, impersonal, and quantified without context, and, at worst, arrogantly dismissive, condescending, and adversarial. Much of our response, especially as academics, has been to seek compromise, to accept dominance, and to adjust our practice and product to the requirements of assessment, allocation, or appeal. I keenly recall serving on a university committee to award competitive research grants, on which I was the lone humanities person, and being told by the associate vice president for research who chaired the committee and whose appointment was in the health sciences that “now I would see some real research.”

As a former dean who established the country’s first graduate program in environmental humanities, I recall the frequency with which I responded to requests for economic justification of the humanities from parents, students, legislators, donors, community members, and the corporate sector as well as my own provosts, presidents, decanal and faculty colleagues. While the culture wars of the 1990s were fraught with questions about what the humanities should be, today the conversation is more often concerned with whether or not they should continue to exist. The same kinds of economic exclusivity pervade policies and processes used to justify the recently accelerating deregulation of environmental protections, conservation practices, and species safeguards. Such arguments and justifications are premised on half-truths, misinformation, and short-term thinking that violates the integrative principles and holistic approaches at the heart of ecological and humanistic thought, ultimately undermining both individual fulfillment and collective sustenance.

It is not overly difficult to muster economic counterarguments to the STEM-only mantra in education. We might cite the fact that today’s students, unlike their grandparents, will change jobs several times over their lifetimes and require the adaptable problem-solving skills fundamental to a humanities education. Or that statistics show liberal arts graduates earn more money over the course of their lifetimes than business majors. Or that majors in both the physical sciences and mathematics appear to be diminishing more rapidly than those in the humanities. Or that a substantial proportion of those who graduate in STEM fields are not working in these fields after 10 years but do not possess the foundational skills taught in the humanities necessary for adaptability in a changing workforce. But many institutions of higher learning have seized the one-dimensional STEM trajectory, the logical outcome of which is that they might become little more than vo-tech schools with football teams.

A counterpart tale in this regard is China, where educators and industrialists have recently realized that their exclusive emphasis on STEM-focused training has resulted in inherent weaknesses in their workforce’s ability to solve problems and innovate. And, while the Chinese education system now produces more than 10,000 PhD engineers each year and over 500,000 BSc graduates, China’s continued economic success requires more than a large, technology-trained workforce. For this reason, as the United States continues to devalue the humanities, our Chinese counterparts are rebounding in the other direction, reforming their educational system to include a strong liberal arts core.

Meanwhile, under the new regime in Washington, facts now have alternatives, and not only journalistic accounts but also intelligence reports, economic data, and congressional testimony have been labeled fake, hoaxes, lies, manufactured, ridiculous, and the work of “a culture of radical alarmists.” By constantly casting what traditionally have been legitimate means of conveying information as sinister manipulations to achieve a depraved agenda, trust is destabilized, paranoia enriched, and insecurity heightened. For those who succumb, the only consistency and reassurance rests in accusation and in the grandiose promises of halcyon restoration. Such is the well-trod historical path to totalitarianism.

The assault on nuanced thought and critical interrogation, the essential methods of the humanities, is also evident in the prevailing language and its means of conveyance. The spatial and intellectual constraints of a tweet negate any complicated unfolding of metaphor. Simple declarative phrases and hyperbolic clichés in less than 280 characters have become the new lingua franca, a perfect vehicle by which to virally transmit impoverished positions masquerading as empowering solutions. The strategic appeal of simplistic fantasies, with their inherent disregard of reason, is articulated in that best-selling guidebook to achieving power, Tony Schwartz’s Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987): “I play to people’s fantasies. […] People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

So, what forms of resistance might we practice, as environmentalists, as humanists, as environmental humanists, to combat this adversarial atmosphere? More clearly and strategically explaining our influence, our distinction, and our significance would be one obvious route. But I think it is also important that we do so not only by assembling cogent bullet points but also by owning and celebrating the flights of imagination that provide us with our purpose and our means of expression. While we must arm ourselves with factual economic and practical arguments in order to counter misinformation, I think we make a mistake in dwelling only in that arena, ceding our poetic power in order to fit into a procrustean bed. The humanities remain distinct from the quest for certitude that governs the sciences; they interrogate facts, parse proclamations, and invert binaries. While the humanities always have been and must remain at the forefront of interdisciplinarity, so that complex problems may be addressed comprehensively, demonstrating our contributions too often has been curtailed by one-size-fits-all forms of evaluation with which we have been too compliant. By adapting ourselves to the voice of the colonizer, we permit our language to be appropriated and marginalized, its nuances and complications elided, and its emotional impact rendered suspect. Should our defense of what we do so consistently be rendered in terms like “toolkits,” “data points,” “headcounts,” “taxonomies,” “drill downs,” and “metrics”?

What seems clear is that proponents of humanities education and advocates for the humanities overall have fallen short in their efforts to connect with their fellow citizens. If asked to define the humanities, most Americans would likely refer to the list of disciplines that are most generally associated with humanities curricula — history, literature, philosophy, et cetera — rather than considering their shared pursuit of common questions about what it means to be human, what constitutes a good life, how we know the truth, and how we preserve democracy. Similarly, conversations about the humanities and their value too often narrowly focus on what is delivered by the field’s constituent products and components rather than on the greater importance of the core processes and methodologies. What is so often missed about the humanities is their revelatory, even transformative, power. They are so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives and into the culture surrounding us that we often fail to notice how we came to know and understand the things they uncover, how they provide the materials from which we construct our world.

In Democracy in America (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us that “poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought, all these gifts which heaven shares out by chance turned to the advantage of democracy […] [that] [l]iterature was an arsenal open to all, where the weak and the poor could always find arms.” Indeed, he argues that democracy is founded on the imaginative expanses and critical interrogations fundamentally embedded in the humanities.


The conversation I hope to spark with my comments would insist on posing alternative or supplementary means of assessment more suited to the methodologies and contributions of the humanities, including the philosophy of unification that has steered ecology from its inception in the mind of Alexander von Humboldt in the early 19th century. The very term oecologie, coined by 19th-century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, comes from the Greek word for household (oikos) as applied to the natural world. What if we better underscored and unwrapped the metaphoric possibilities of this etymology as attached to the conservation of the natural world, linking such practices to good housekeeping and a fuller understanding of what constitutes home and why we must be attentive to its maintenance? Public acceptance generally is attached to personal understanding, and the sustainable recognition of personal meaning mostly proceeds through identification with a compelling narrative. Therefore, it is paramount that we facilitate conversations and construct adjudicative lenses that are invested with a richness and delight in language more common to a Lincoln letter than a Trump tweet.

“Can anyone imagine anything so cheerless and dreary as a springtime without a robin’s song?” Rachel Carson presciently warned in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, a cautionary volume that launched the modern ecological movement. I ask you to imagine a world without metaphor, a primary means in the humanities for understanding and explanation, if not belief. Metaphor orients the mind toward freedom and novelty, permits one to experience simultaneously the perpetual and the instantaneous, and conjoins disparate items through the act of imagination. The very act of imagining an absence of metaphor proceeds metaphorically, but in the attempt we glimpse the flat, homogeneous, and linear perspectives that persist when we cease to augment or disrupt them. In doing so, we might begin to fathom how the erosion of comparative and integrative thinking that is fundamental to both the humanities and ecology robs us of our method and our substance.

In imagining a world without metaphor (and I draw a sharp distinction between cliché and metaphor), we might begin to reimagine, or at least expand, the entire value proposition for the humanities and ecology. Rather than focusing exclusively on finite material end products, counting books, articles, grants, seats, what if we were also to concentrate on illuminating the process of discovery, describing the “a-ha” moments, the severing of mental Gordian knots, the crystallizing stray conversations, unexpected literary passages, natural wonders, or other-species encounters that emphasize how imagination and reflection help to solve problems while bridging personal and public concerns? What if we were to locate the value of the humanities and ecology more directly in the transitive rather than the static, the sudden openings and cognitive diasporas that require rigorous and multidimensional reconceptualizations to address? This process of invention inevitably proceeds via metaphoric linkage. In his Poetics, Aristotle states that “a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” Employing tropes of transference, metaphor seeks congruity, instilling poetic energy into a deliberately inexact but adventurous yoking. Bridging, along with interrogation, constitutes one of the primary methodologies of the humanities and ecology. Such a methodology is at the heart of creativity and deserves elucidation, examination, and celebration.

Such a shift in perspective reminds me a bit of the 2016 film Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life” (1998) by Ted Chiang, where the breakthrough in communication with an alien species depends on a recognition that their concept of time is convergent rather than linear. “Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness,” Chiang writes, “while heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness.” Indeed, I am advocating an alien mode, a radical decentering that replicates the work of metaphor and instills it as a mode of analysis simultaneously subjective and connective, resistant to codification or quantifiable measurement. It rests more in the realm of revelation — how we perceive beauty, for example — and therefore depends to an extent on emotional impact. In ecology, the landscape becomes sacramental, consistent with the hermetic tradition summarized in W. B. Yeats’s statement that “the grass blade carries the universe upon its point.” Environmental communication acquires a poetics just as poetics becomes affiliated with an ecological sensibility in its attachment to place. To underscore the conversant nature between the two is to foreground the power of each.

Personal impact becomes inextricably bound up with collective human experience, which mutually sharpens both. The process of recognition then focuses on the means to the end rather than on the end itself. An ecological perspective might entail studying the process of belonging to a place with attendant human/nonhuman social intricacies rather than owning it via anthropocentric impositions. A humanistic one might map the points of discovery in solving a problem and excavate those points to establish a pedagogy of inquiry. Such processes are immensely practical in fostering replicable applications, deepening our understanding of personal empowerment through creative methodologies, and affording reflection regarding the precision and the implications of our techniques.


Recently, the National Humanities Center launched the Humanities Moments campaign, premised on illustrating the fundamental role of the humanities in civil society by demonstrating the critical intersections between humanities lessons and transformative moments in people’s lives. The campaign carries all the intrinsic value of a powerful story collection but also concretely links the humanities to intensely personal moments of discovery. Additionally, the project facilitates sharing those “Moments” with one’s own virtual communities, which in turn seeds its viral growth potential. Potentially working with all state and US territory humanities councils, the project envisions potential exposure to people from all walks of life. It also has a strong K–12 component that integrates the humanities across disciplines in the high school curriculum through the “Moments” strategy, a scholars-in-public-libraries program, and a series of summer seminars for humanities scholars. In the latter, scholars will be asked to focus on their process of discovery as well as how to teach that process.

The Humanities Moments project is broadly conceived as an intervention in our national discourse around the humanities’ value — at the level of the individual and the nation as a whole. The project encompasses a broad strategy designed to touch people from many walks of life, urging them to recognize and reflect on their encounters with the humanities, to listen to others, and, as a result, to begin to understand intersections in their personal and professional lives as well as in their roles as citizens. The project seeks nothing less than to create a bridge between the intimate and personal and the national and functional. Through an examination of the monumentally personal, emotional, and powerful junctions in our lives, it helps us relate to and connect with those moments whereby we become who we are and discover who we want to be.

Humanities moments are based in the essential skill of problem-solving, specifically those episodes when one achieves a resolution to a seemingly intractable problem or a vexed situation by reimagining it from a humanities perspective. Such an application of humanities precedents and contexts has led, time and again, to transformative personal and communal understandings. Indeed, one could argue that the United States was founded on a humanities moment, James Madison’s humanities moment. When the Continental Congress issued a call in February 1787 for a convention to devise a new plan of government, Madison repaired to his history books to find an answer to the problem of the moment: why did republics invariably fail?

The republics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian city-states during the Renaissance, and, most recently in Madison’s day, the Dutch Republic had all succumbed to factionalism, civil war, or the rise of tyrants, among other ills. Madison concluded from this history, however, that the Founders could create an enduring republic if they constructed it to prevent any one faction, region, or individual from gaining too much power over it. Madison’s Plan of Government provided the basis for the debates in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. Its principle of checks and balances, moreover, laid the foundation of the US Constitution and what is today the oldest republic in the world. Thus, Madison found a concrete, practical solution to the seemingly intractable problem of republics in a creative reading of history.


Let us remind ourselves how the work of metaphor functions as dramatic revelation that is at the heart of personal fulfillment and empathic engagement by returning to literature, that supposedly impractical pursuit that does nothing less than tell the story of the human condition in all its exasperating complexity:

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

In this sonnet, Rainer Maria Rilke wonders whether the observer defines the art object or the object the observer. The poem powerfully provides a personal revelation in the final turn in which the authentic beauty perceived in the statue, despite its missing parts, forces an awareness that something essential is lacking in the observer. Ironically, the headless statue reveals itself to be fluid, its beauty suffused with energy — brilliant, gleaming, dazzling, running, flaring, cascading, glistening, bursting, all-seeing. The observer’s epiphany is that his is the life that is static and must be transformed. This is a humanities moment, full of sudden clarity, the shock of recognition, insisting on translating revelation into action. Feeling and thought collide in ways that strip the moment bare and force a daring leap of imagination that is simultaneously disturbing and renewing.

The poem is also a thought experiment in which one must use one’s powers of empathy and imagination to unite with another self through the intercession of art. We do the same thing when we read novels, placing ourselves in the minds and situations of other characters and discovering what is hitherto unknown in ourselves. It is an innate, unscientific, unmeasurable, unsalaried skill, immensely worth honing and intimately connected to what makes community communal and home, well, homey.

Metaphor is impossible to codify, so poetry is inherently different from science. Efforts to codify myth in the latter 19th century, such as James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), became, as Seamus Heaney writes, efforts “to banish the mystery from the old faiths and standardize and anatomize the old places.” By contrast, Yeats’s far-flung engagement in mystical societies constituted an “embark[ing] upon a deliberately counter-cultural movement to reinstate the fairies, to make the world more magical than materialistic, and to elude the social and political interpretations of society in favour of a legendary and literary vision of race.”

Humanities moments have their analogues in countless ecological moments, moments that transcend codification and embrace science within the realms of astonishment and empathy. Such codification finds an analogue in our anthropocentric dismissal of animal communication, stemming from Descartes’s assertion that animals lack the ability to think and therefore have no souls. Descartes follows the lineage of Aristotle, who designated speech as the primary separation between human and animal, the means of expressing rational thought (logos).

Of course, we have now studied various forms of animal communication and are beginning to understand its intricacies and identify its parallels with our experiences of what were previously considered exclusively human behaviors — grief, empathy, laughter, play. Although we fail to appropriate the funds necessary to change economic conditions in order to dissuade poachers or sanction countries that collude in elephant slaughter, we now understand that elephant song amazingly spans 10 octaves, from subsonic rumbles to trumpets, from about eight to 10,000 hertz. Carl Safina’s groundbreaking book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (2015), tells us how their low-frequency rumbles create waves not only through the air but also across the ground. Elephants can hear rumbles inaudible to humans over distances of several miles. Their great sensitivity to low frequencies derives from ear structures, bone conduction, and special nerve endings that make their toes, feet, and trunk tip extremely sensitive to vibration. A significant part of elephant communication is sent through the ground and received through the feet, below human hearing — in addition to ear-flapping and the streaming of their temple glands.

Safina offers the story of Lyall Watson, who describes finding himself in an extraordinarily poignant and personal encounter on the cliffs of South Africa’s seacoast while he was watching a blue whale:

The sensation I was feeling on the clifftop was some sort of reverberation in the air itself … The whale had submerged and I was still feeling something. The strange rhythm seemed now to be coming from behind me, from the land, so I turned to look across the gorge … where my heart stopped …

Standing there in the shade of the tree was an elephant … staring out to sea! […] I recognized her from a color photograph put out by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry under the title “The Last Remaining Knysna Elephant.” This was the Matriarch herself …

She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The under-rumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next-best thing.

My heart went out to her. The whole idea of this grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls. But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place …

The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible. The Matriarch was here for the whale! The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating! In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.

I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man …

An ecological moment steeped in a sense of connection, and a meditation on belonging and the loss of home.


Magic, stories, elephant vibrations, interspecies empathy. Is this mere airy-fairy stuff that evades the meat and potatoes of life while also failing to put them on the table? Here is the core of the misperceptions we must directly confront. What unlocks our passions more than exposure to compelling and emotional ideas that motivate us to think in new ways? What excites us more than unexpected identifications that expand our concept of who we are and what we can do? Rather than circumscribed and xenophobic retreats, the humanities and ecology promote generosity of vision and spirit. Rather than maniacally guarding our wealth, the humanities and ecology enthusiastically redistribute it. Rather than erecting walls, the humanities and ecology deliberately make boundaries permeable. Rather than resisting self-examination, questioning, and change, the humanities and ecology embrace them.

Further, the elitist disdain for work that engages the public domain must take a back seat to the necessity — rhetorical, ethical, and for the sake of survival — to translate the impact of our inquiries both within the esoteric communities of experts and in the profound intersections where broad ideas touch everyday pleasures and struggles. We are a culture of rigor, pluralism, innovation, and evidence. As long as these values are maintained in our processes and products, the shape our work takes, the audiences it reaches, and the valuation it receives benefit from a healthy multiplicity and a resistance to static definitions and one-dimensional accountability. Our mission includes knowledge production and dissemination not only for the benefit of an esoteric scholarly community but also for the common good.

Wallace Stevens writes, “I am the necessary angel of earth / Since, in my sight, you see the earth again.” He describes an alchemy of vision, a restorative glimpse, akin to ecological affiliation and poetic renewal. Discovering our angelic and poetic selves, which reside in profound and personal collisions with imaginative tangles, enables us to lift ourselves above restrictive linearity and confining quantification in order to understand and convey collective attachments to place and polis, idea and ideal, human and not. Such discoveries constitute an ecological poetics, a substantively influential methodology that deserves celebration, the resilient core from which resonant paths of identity and resistance emanate.


Robert D. Newman is president and director of the National Humanities Center.

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In Praise of the “Starter Book”

Recently, in a networking group I’m part of, a woman posted in a panic. She was about to publish her first book with a small press, and she was lost. She didn’t know which way to turn, what to do next. She couldn’t stop wishing she was on the best-of lists, had the support of a Big 5 publisher behind her. She didn’t know how to market herself. In short, she was crying, “Help!”

Reading her post, I went back three years in time. When I published my first book, it was with a small press where I felt that one or two people really understood what I was going for, but the rest were baffled by my weird, not-quite-genre genre-fiction. The editor who had chosen the book for publication got switched off it as my editor at the last minute. In one of the few acts of support I got from my in-house publicist, she promoted my book, an acid western largely concerned with the genocide of Native American people, as a “beach read.” Every bit of press the book got was a hard-won victory that I could trace back to my own work. Sometimes I felt like this publisher was actively working against me, giving me a terrible book cover and refusing to relent when I objected to it, handing the blurbers I found without their assitance the pub date instead of the date the book was being printed as their deadline, leaving my book blurbless. I cried the day I realized I’d “won” a scam book award contest that the press had entered me into, that I’d found out was a scam simply by Googling the name of the contest.

At the time, I felt like a failure. I looked at the best-of lists and felt like crying. But three years later, having learned how to market a book with little support, how to look at the issue of getting your book into the world as one with creative solutions, having spun that work into a graduate assistantship and freelance work in marketing, having set up my own reading series, having built connections to other writers and publishers, I look fondly back on my first book as my “starter book.”

Maybe you’ve heard of a “starter home,” or a “starter marriage,” the short-lived or what-I-can-do-at-the-moment solutions to building a future. The starter home is often a small, older place that a family is expected to grow out of eventually, but which is where they start learning to care for a home and begin building their family. A starter marriage is a first, short-lived, endeavor that serves as a learning experience for a later marriage that is hoped to last much longer. The “starter book” is really no different.

Even when I was just starting out with trying to publish my first book, I knew that it wasn’t going to make me a million dollars. I looked at it as a beginning to something I was invested in for life. And now, after the sting of selling 200 copies in three years has passed a bit, looking back fondly on my little “starter book,” I’m able to say that even though I didn’t write something that changed lives, even though I didn’t hit a home run on the first pitch, I learned lessons that were invaluable to building a career as a writer.

I learned how to market your book when it doesn’t seem anyone else cares. I learned to make spreadsheets and contact lists and do outreach. I learned to take every opportunity, no matter how small it may seem at the time. I learned to take interest and care in the careers of other writers who were at early levels, and to cheer them on and support them the way I wished to be supported—and which I now am beginning to be. I learned that the answer when someone offers you a way to promote your book is always “yes,” except when that “yes” would truly not serve you or your project. Even when “yes” has to be creative. Even when “yes” means you’ll be eating peanut butter and jelly for two weeks because of the train ticket you had to buy. Even when “yes” means doing a Skype session because you can’t be there. Even when “yes” means “do I have a couch in the area I can sleep on?” Even when “yes” means renting a car with terrible steering and fearing for your life the whole way to the opportunity.

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I learned that I had to get my writing out there in every way possible. I called PR agents I pretended I had the money to hire, just to pick their brains. I implemented everything I learned from them, even when it wasn’t comfortable for me. When I published my “starter book,” I was a total fiction snob, someone who felt they didn’t have time for writing that wouldn’t further that goal. But what good is your fiction if no one can find it? While promoting my starter book, I learned to take every writing opportunity I could. I wrote personal essays and blog posts and articles, I learned how to do storytelling events when the idea of being on stage had previously frozen me with fear. I learned that when people made a connection to me, often though my personal essays and stories, they were much more likely to want to make a connection to my fiction.

I learned to have confidence in myself, even when it seemed like the whole world was indifferent. I had always believed my voice should be out there, but now it was, so what was I going to do about it? Lament that it wasn’t with a Big 5 publisher, or a dream press that backed me up every step of the way? No. I was going to push to get it recognized in every way that I could. Even when I stepped into a small, independent bookshop in Queens and had their owner look me up and down and tell me that I’d have to have my publicist contact her if I wished to work with them on book events (crushing! humiliating!), I didn’t lose faith in what I was doing.

None of this is to say that my first book was a mistake, or I didn’t love it, or put all my heart into it. I did love it, it meant the world to me. But it didn’t go very far. And that’s okay, too. The way that it crushes you when that marriage that lasts a year ends, I was hurt by this for a while. But as time went on, I was able to look back more and more fondly on the experience I’d had, and all I learned. I was able to treasure every time a random transgender person found my novel and sent me fan-mail telling me that they’d forgotten that trans people could write anything outside the realm of words about gender identity. I was able to look at my first, largely-failed baby as a “starter book.” Not a mistake. Not something I wish I’d never done. But something that built the groundwork for what I was going to go on to do.

I have two more books coming out next spring, from an indie press and a mid-sized one. I feel excited and supported, but mostly I feel confident. I’ve been here before. I’m not going in brand new to the experience. I’ve learned so much from having my work out in the world, even in the form of a “starter book,” that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Image Credit: Flickr/Kelly Taylor.

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The Great American Read: A Book Giveaway with Dover Books

Dover Partners with PBS for the Great American Read

Enter for a chance to win a set of 7 titles from The Great American Read list, as well as box set of 5 great English novels!

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