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r o u g h

b e a s t

winter 2013


Rough Beast a journal of new fiction and non-fiction, some photography, and a handful of poems Interests: Linguistic Inventiveness, Cultural Barometers, Personal Archives, Dilettantism Distastes: Irony, Polemics, Complacency, Dogmatism

Editors: Joseph Horan, William Stewart 2013

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 This magazine and all of the individual works included herein are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercialNoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). The reproduction of any of its contents is permissible under the conditions that the work not be altered in any form, no profit be derived from its reproduction, and that credit be given to the appropriate author. Any of these rights may be waived with explicit permission from the creator of the piece.   rough beast | 2


Â

[non-existence]


rough beast: a journal of new fiction and non-fiction, some photography, and a handful of poems • • • W inter 2013: [non-existence] Contributors: I. Fiction 8 Leah Coming Nest 12

Jane W agem an

Trees

17

Reggie Henke

Ball Pit

22

Joey Horan

Night Watchman

II. Poetry and Photography 29 Joe W egener Spindle • Santa Fe 32

Nicholas Gunty

Rooftops Morocco

35

Hilary Rasch

Helen’s Collapse

III. Nonfiction 41 W illiam Stewart

Eugene Walter and the Lost Salon of 2000 Dauphin St.

56

Thomas Rowell

A King or Something

61

Nicholas Gunty

In Search of the Middle Brow

Dain W illiams

Cover Art

Subm issions, Inquiries, Feedback: roughbeastmagazine@gmail.com Parcel Post: Rough Beast c/o Stewart Schivelbeiner Str. 47 5. Stock Vorderhaus D-10439 Berlin, Germany

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c/o Horan 4404 E. Oltorf St. Apt. 16101 Austin, TX 78741


Accom panying Photographs and Captions: PAGE: PH OTOGRAPH SOU RCE ; CAPTION SOU RCE cover, back & front: Dain Williams page 7: unknown ; none page 9: editor, October 2011 ; editor, personal conversation 26 August 2012 page 13: Jutta Auerbach / Hermann-Kurz-Str. 8 / 7 Stuttgart 1 ; ambiguous ( Acts of the Apostles 9:10, 22:12 or Acts of the Apostles 5:all ) page 18: unknown ; Richard Dawkins on Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind page 25: editor, May 2012 ; editor, personal text message 30 August 2012 page 34-35: Nicholas Gunty, Spring 2011 ; Nicholas Gunty page 42: Vedrana Madzar ; Joan Didion, “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles” page 57: untitled, undated, Folder 13 “Eugene Walter, Photos” in Box 25 “Eugene Walter Materials” from “Caldwell Delaney Papers” housed in the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama, USA Springhill, Room 0722, Mobile, AL 36688 ; Ezra Pound, marginal comments on original manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, line 251 page 62: editor, August 2011 ; editor, discarded lyrics October 2011 page 70: unknown ; Emily Shylock Conron, www.facebook.com 1 October 2012 page 73: unknown ; editor, personal correspondence 10 September 2012

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to the Reader: We're happy you found this magazine. You've taken a chance, set aside a few minutes to flip through the pages, and with any luck, you'll be pleased with what you find. The theme of this Rough Beast is [ non-existence ], appropriate because this magazine was born out of [ non-existence ], and it daily threatens to return to the abyss of over-ambitious emails and unrealistic daydreams from which it came. That each piece in this collection engages with the theme of [ non-existence ] in one way or another happened accidentally, but it made us smile when we noticed it. [ Non-existence ] seems like a fitting descriptor for the content of the individual elements as well as a humbling reminder about the potential nature of the whole. It’s probably fair to say that none of us feel we are where we should be, the editors here perhaps least of all. This project is a rough beast, but its members are all rough beasts too, and the pieces presented here evince each one’s slouching towards some new birth. If you've gotten this far, we're already grateful. ave atque vale, Joey Horan & William Stewart the Editors

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[non-existence]


“This is my favorite voice.” “What?” “This is my favorite voice—the one I use when we talk in your bedroom with all of the lights off as I lay on your floor and you confess things to me.” “Why is that your favorite?” “Because I don’t get to use it that often.” rough beast | 9


Nest h

LEAH COMING • Obsessive storytelling in six parts • Routine journeys • Arboreal violence • Tales from our aunts • Legends passed down in the rhythm of poetry • Noble lies • Run away to Carthage, to Odessa, to Brussels, Carcas, and Tripoli • The kindness of wagon-drivers • Protected sleep on a pile of hay •

I

her younger sister. The younger sister asked, “Why do you hum and rub your lip with your finger as we walk to I have told stories that grew from obsession and

fascination, but now I try to tell a story from the deep peace.

the Living Tree? Why do your eyes unlock when you eat of its leaves?” The elder did not give a satisfactory answer. One day, after they both chewed and swallowed a leaf of the Living Tree, there was a ferocious crack.

II

The Living Tree roared and its trunk ripped open. A purple-red heart beat in the center of the wood, There were once two sisters who daily visited

contracting so hard that the earth shook.

the Living Tree at the center of their village and daily

The older sister hesitated for one moment, and

ate of its leaves. They did this because that is what they

then ran to the gaping rupture in the tree’s body. She

were told to do.

pressed her body against the wood in ecstasy and then

After many years of this, the older sister began undertaking this ritual with a devotion that disturbed

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the tree closed.


The younger sister ran home weeping and

I opened my throat to praise

screaming. “We ate from the living tree and then the

and sing and say

tree ate my sister.” But no one was home, and the village

How Good This Is

was empty. She mourned her dead sister alone.

but then I stopped.

But within an hour the older sister returned. And she lived the rest of her life – married, had

I listened

children, and grew old. And I heard my open, burning soul in the center of the earth. It was a beast with an III

eagle’s head and a lion’s body sitting before the Throne of the Center, singing The niece sat on the wood floor and asked about

“AAAAAAA”

the past, looking out the corner of her eye.

with its eyes wide open in ecstasy.

Her aunt sat above her, leaning back in a rocking chair, her legs spread open. She smelled of

I lay down, and breathed, and the cells at the

coffee and the bergamot leaves she’d rubbed into the

pit of myself sang “AAAAAAA”

woodworking.

and then my throat sang too.

She said: I stepped forward and the wood molded to me.

IV

The wood grew up around my neck and behind my knees. Then the wood became thick dark air. Gravity was under my feet, and then gravity was

The young girl listened in agitated fascination, eating this grotesque and earthy dream.

under my back. I was lying down and heavy and blind. But before my heavy head I saw a rock of glowing blue. I

But her aunt was calm. She breathed and rocked in her chair.

stretched my weak neck

How could her aunt confess without looking out the corner of her eye? How could she confess without

and sucked.

quaking at the true self? – a flat board with a tiny crumpled mouth and hateful gaze.

As I sucked the rock it became flesh. And I sucked and drank

Her aunt smelled of fragrant herbs from

the burning sweetness

scrubbing the woodworking, and of the morning’s

from the flesh that had been rock.

coffee. She sat peacefully rocking with her knees spread apart.

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The young girl dashed her mind against this

They took pity on her and said

calm again and again, a bird colliding with a glass pane. She couldn’t understand.

“Sleep in the hay in the back and I will take you further on the journey.”

She gathered the calm against her stomach and immolated herself upon it.

`

Towards Carthage, Odessa Brussels Carcas Tripoli she wandered

V

and didn’t know the color of the hearth-smoke of home. She left on foot for Carthage

VI

burning To Carthage then she ran, burning red and purple, Carthage burning

I found this lost girl on a bleeding rock, so I carried her into my wagon, which is full of hay and warm. After many hours she woke up, and I asked her

And the flowers she passed she snatched and pressed them into her body to stain

about the bleeding rock and about herself. We did not travel together for long; but since

rubbing, bleeding, all to dye

that time, my monkey mind pressed her face on my eye.

in red and purple

While I rode through the night a phantasm played in my mind: I brought her home. Over and over I brought her

She found a rock and licked it

home. But this will be the last time I let her face stand

head bobbing up and down.

before my mind.

If she licked the stone away –

Perhaps you will understand why.

she licked and licked

We are both enpalmed together within the

ferociously

warm-black silence, so I need not hold her face before

she licked a thousand strokes

my mind. •r•b•

for a promise of sweetness – the sweetness came! But the girl was a fool in red and purple.

The wagon-drivers found her in red and purple.

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ANANIAS rough beast | 13


Trees h

JANE WAGEMAN • Anti-phototropic habits of trees • Feminine Insomnia • Childhood and Nature • Go back to bed, Baby • Arboreal knitting • Growth without Movement • Biological reflections of man and of the man-made • Hardened Axe, glowing Coal • Squeal of tires into the unending night • Clouds for Pillows, Soil for a Bed • Loose, Lose •

The trees grew in the darkness.i

The trees grew in the darkness because they could not

They grew when no one was looking; they grew in the

possibly grow in the light. Lia knew this because she

night. And you’d think that the black would suffocate

watched the trees in the day—she watched to see if they

them—you’d think that the heat and the weight of the

grew, but they did not. She swung under the big tree

sky would stifle and choke and push back to the ground

(the one already grown, with his roots laced through the

what was trying to rise. Because that is how it was,

dirt and the patches of grass). She swung and she

always: August every night, that pressing, humid feeling.

looked at the row of small saplings. Her feet picked up

The sky (in winter, distant and thin) came down to greet

the dust and the dirt; they formed a second skin on the

the rest of the world in the night, dark and heavy. The

soles and the toes, but the trees did not grow. They

air was full of the sky, like mud ink, and the fireflies

waited until she was gone, until the sun slipped away,

were sluggish stars that blinked and moved through it.

and they grew in the dark.

Everything present and dense and incredibly thick, and the trees (fragile skeleton little souls) grew to meet it.

The trees grew in the darkness while she was sleeping. She lay under the dark of her bedroom, on top of sticky sheets with the duvet kicked off, but under the heat, and

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the trees grew outside her window in the belly of the

body, and so Lia did not try to look at what she could

shadows. They were somber little soldiers in a line:

not see. But the trees were there, dark and growing.

ghost trees her eyes imagined but did not see. So they grew when no one was looking; they grew in the night.

They grew until they were up to her chin, fat branches

They grew slowly (so slowly) so that Lia couldn’t tell

bristled with green. Branch upon branch upon branch,

most days that anything was different.

they grew. Needle poked into needle, they grew. Lia pushed clothes and blankets into the back of the station

But they did grow. In the darkness, she was sure, they

wagon, and the trees smothered themselves under the

did. She checked when she swung on the swing, and

down-quilt air. Her sister hoisted a box, blew thick

she checked when the wiffle ball sailed into the weedy

bangs off her forehead, tensed her legs under the weight

growth of the vegetable patch. She stooped down to

of it all, and there were the trees, growing. Lia saw them

peer through baby-finger branches, pushed through and

from the rear window of the wagon, barely visible

they became thick, knobby thumbs. She glanced back

through the piles of clothes in the trunk. She watched

through sparse needles, turned to find the ball, and

as the car moved heavily over the edge of the driveway

looked again through obscure cluttered branches. Her

and onto the road, and she watched from the front

brother called her, then her brothers; her sister, then

window as it bounced lightly over the cracks in the

her sisters. She yelled back and threw first a wiffle ball,

driveway, trunk empty, back seats down.

then a baseball, through the trees and then over the trees. They seemed to grow in that moment, but she

The trees knitted together in secret until they were

watched and did not see anything. They grew when she

choking. They grew in the darkness under the

turned her back to run away; they grew after the sky

December stars, and the heat of August was still there in

dropped the sun to the ground, after she was hustled

that moment, trapped in their needles and the rub of

back into the house from the dark.

the branches, braided together. They grew until the night her father cut one down and brought it inside.

The trees grew the night of the moaning, when her

Then the trees breathed in the dark, and they grew,

mother climbed into the truck empty-handed and

except for the one in the living room, with its lights and

stepped out with a baby in arms. They grew in the

its bulbs. It died in the darkness, in the new year, when

shouts of go to sleep, stay asleep, Go Back to Bed! And

they drove outside town to dispose of it: a tree corpse on

Lia lay awake in her bed under a bed under the August

other tree corpses, dying beyond the rear-view mirror of

heat and ran her sweaty hands over her sticky face,

the wagon, after they left and stopped looking.

down the flat of her chest and her stomach, before sliding them off slippery legs and drying them on the

The trees grew up to poke the darkness, to pierce the

wood of the bed frame. The trees grew in the dark

sky and give it pricks of light. They grew beyond the

outside the window blocked by another bed, another

window, beyond an empty bed, but Lia did not pause to take note. She knew what she could not see; she knew it

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better than what she did see. The trees rose up and the

the window crack and rising up to the pointed needle

bed above her sank down, each night closer to her face,

tops jabbing the sky. Lia ran out into the absence of

each night a heavier, darker wood, each night easier to

sound, and the trees stood stiff and electrified. She slept

touch with the tips of her fingers. She brushed the

that night to the flash of light from the window, hands

panels and dropped her hand down to her side. She ran

up her chest and down, up her belly and down:

it up her chest and down to her stomach, rising and

growing, growing, growing, like a small mound in the

falling with emotions and emptiness. And the trees—

grass.

straight wooden and unfeeling—grew but did not move. The trees grew to match the reaches of the house; they The trees grew in the darkness—or maybe they grew in

grew to surpass the shingles and the roof. They pushed

the light after all. The row slipped by the side of Lia’s

up, they pushed out, one on the other, inevitably. They

eyes as she bounded out of the sides of cars (first the

grew until the third tree was felled mechanically, with

family’s, then a friend’s, then a boy’s). She stepped out

shrieking saws, in a magnificent collapse. It seemed to

of his car, paused, looked back, and maybe they grew in

grow even then, in the plunge to the ground, in the dig

that single moment.

of the ax into its side. Wrapped in licks of fire, it glowed and grew and rose to the sky as smoke. Lia sat, clothes

The

second

tree

disappeared

silently

and

so

anonymously that Lia could not remember when she

washed in burnt pine. She sat and watched the last flick of the coals, dimming, hardening.

first noticed the gap in the line. Perhaps she noticed on the day it was cut, or perhaps she noticed repeatedly,

The tree grew in the darkness, in the light, alone. Or

each time forgetting what she had seen before. She

maybe it didn’t. Lia wrapped her arms around it: left

came out one night to cry in the dark, glancing over to

hand on a low-slung branch, right hand on a hardened

branches intertwined again, over the absent spot of the

knot. Each month harder to span the distance, each

dead tree. The broken rope of the old swing hung over

month harder to believe in the growth of the tree. It

her head like an unfinished noose, and she cried salt

grew to the push of the bed away from the window, to

into the ground, wondering if she might kill the trees

the sweaty construction of wooden bars and legs, to the

with the bitterness. She came out again (another night)

careful spread of pastel sheets, to Lia’s heavy rise and

to laugh, to lift the branches up with her happiness, to

sink to the floor. It grew, finally, to the squeal of tires

save them with the small lift of her voice.

leaving in the night, to their steady return, to her slow removal from the car and the cries from the crook of her

The trees grew in the silent summer storm, lightning

arm. The tree sat outside of the lit window where she sat

mutely charging the air, leaving the needles dumb,

all hours of the night, arms folded on the edge of the

struck, shocked on the edge of the branches. Static hair

crib, eyes drooping but watching, determined to see

erect on the branches, growing. They grew to the heated

what grew in the dark.

shouts from the kitchen, voices falling out from under

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The tree grew in the darkness, sinking into the soil and lolling its head back against the clouds, nodding in the wind. It grabbed after the ground with its roots, pushed up, and grew. It grew until it was done growing, until each time Lia looked, there it was, the same. It remained, so much the same while time stretched and wound its way around the trunk, over and away and back again, so much the same that Lia let her mind roam and plant itself back in the tree. Her thoughts sat there, inside the trunk, where it grew intangibly. Shoes hitting the driveway, the tree remained. Tires rolling away, it remained. It remained so much that she imagined it there for the press of further generations, shedding its symbolism into the loose dirt below the solid trunk. •r•b•

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IT IS ONE OF THOSE BOOKS THAT IS EITHER COMPLETE RUBBISH OR A WORK OF CONSUMMATE GENIUS, NOTHING IN BETWEEN! PROBABLY THE FORMER, BUT I’M HEDGING MY BETS.

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Ball Pit

h

REGGIE HENKE • Forbidden inter-company relationships • Proustian effects of Cruisin’ USA • Kia Sephia and the low-wage boss • Speculative drug-use of a work crush • “Bravido” and cranberry juice • the Zen potential of an arcade •Janglin’ spurs • heyyyyyyyyyyy XOXOX <3 <3 XO • Carnitas and Fish Tacos •

She was pretty much perfect.

teams I desperately wanted to take a shower with.

Heidi worked there with me. I stood around in the

actively tried to avoid drawing comparisons between

arcade and she waited tables. We weren’t yet friendly,

angelic Heidi and my other, mortal, female coworkers,

but that was okay since I knew we were fated to be

but I concede I did it before at Mark’s prodding. Mark

lovers.

was a grizzled company veteran who’d served one too Company

policy

didn’t

allow

I

relationships

many tours up to his elbows in the muck of a skee-ball

between employees but I appreciated the adversity. In

machine. He had drafted me early as his weird little

truth, it was the dawn of our beautiful intimacy that

brotégé. Sometimes it felt like I was auditing his

started me thinking about quitting, loudly and proudly,

introductory course to workplace canoodling. Mark’s

for her—the noblest cause there was. She was real tall

boning stories snuck up on him like combat flashbacks.

and skinny and she had the weirdest arch to her

The clang of an errant Pop-A-Shot or the robo-lisped

eyebrows, the kind of attractive that’s super up my

“Final-Lap!” of Cruisin’ USA was enough to open the

personal alley but not necessarily anywhere near lots of

floodgates. His stories invariably collapsed in self-pity

other people’s alleys. She’d be my consensus number

when the remembrance of sex-past triggered the

one if I ranked women like that, like college football

realization that he wasn’t having any sex-present. And

rough beast | 19


this upset Mark. He was constantly tweaking his

been incorporating the idea of a pre/mid/post-work

algorithms, yet the weekly shuffling of the WBS (Work-

smoke sesh into a lot of my Heidi fantasies. Better intel

Babe Standings) never made any room for Heidi. He

could have told me for sure whether or not Heidi

even sort of snorted and frowned confused the one time

blazed, but if evidence did in fact lead me to the

I meekly proffered her name as an example of a “work-

contrary, my daydreams would feel super inauthentic.

babe” who made me feel reproductive. He shaved his

So I didn’t pry too hard.

knuckles and called condoms “jimmies.” I was glad he

As we handed in our yellow samples (mine was

would not be trying to do to her what I wanted to do to

clear—too dilute for veritable results, company couldn’t

her.

afford to retest me) Heidi looked super pretty and nice Beyond Heidi, there was nothing real redeeming

and kissable. Really damn inspiring, you know?

I

about that place. From day one I hated it. I had to drop

contemplated taking a huge stand against the injustice

a bunch of money not only on four aquamarine uniform

and bailing, quitting right there in the middle of the

polos but also shiny new shoes and gray (not black)

drug test, grabbing Heidi’s hand and storming through

pants.

This was because Kenneth, the floor manager

the glass front doors as Kenneth stared slack-jawed at

who re-authored the official policy handbook three

my pure display of bravido (bravado/libido, one of

times in as many months, said we had to, per whatever

Mark’s favorite self-descriptors). Instead, I crossed my

fucking rule Kenneth made up the night before. When I

fingers for fear I hadn’t drank enough cranberry juice.

first started, those were our only physical demands— that and a smile. But when Kenneth made me cut my

hair, which had been dope long, it pushed me over the edge. And so began my covert resistance as the arcade’s

I fucking loved smoking and fucking hated that job. I

subtle saboteur.

was being victimized so hard.

No more smiling-on-the-clock, no

Reggae songs about

more showing up on time, and no more getting “just a

oppression started making a lot more sense.

little, no, seriously guys, one hit” high before work.

corporate idiots were holding me and Heidi down, but

Those

Simple subversive stuff, intended to grind the gears of

we would eventually break free together and laugh

Kenneth’s 2001 Kia Sephia, formed the bulk of my

nostalgically about our times in America’s #1 Family

resistance.

Entertainment Center as we intercoursed in our marital

Quarterly drug tests had me burning less for

love-nest. In the meantime, as I waited for Kenneth to

some spells, but I always compensated during these

give up his futile war of attrition against my smokeable

grueling times with subliminal psychological resistance.

joy, the arcade’s spacey sound-effects and cheap light

My preferred tactic: pathological eye-rolling to the point

shows took on a certain Zen character for me. My face

of popping blood vessels during staff meetings.

No

got really good at doing ‘utter contempt’ for hours

pain, no gain, that was sort of my mentality during those

without reprieve. If we’re talking seven dwarves I went

gruesome stretches.

from Dopey to Grumpy. But soldiers got to soldier on

I duly watched Heidi for signals

come piss-test time to see if she smoked pot too. I had

rough beast | 20

and I was fighting for love.


Then, some weeks later, Kenneth broke all the tacit

agreements/treaties

between

It took me two weeks to cool down enough to go back in

minimum-wage

there, uniform balled up under my arm because fuck

workers and their bosses that protect them from MAD.

them they can enjoy these wrinkles, that’s what you get

In other words, he went absolutely thermo-nuclear on

when you fire me. I figured Heidi’d be near the host

me. “Can you step into my office?” he asked at the end

stand, radiating.

of a long shift. I was supposed to be watching the game

strollin’ in, casually gnawin’ on a toothpick, spurs

floor but I’d mostly been blankly staring at a blank space

janglin’ on the heels of my brand new boots.

She’d glance up as I approached,

on the wall as the surprisingly soulful Time Crisis III

“Oh, hey, didn’t see you there babe. Yeah, just

houseband exhausted its inflexible set-list four times

droppin’ off these old rags. Yeah, fired. No, it’s cool,

over. Good, I thought, the perfect time to ask him for a

I’m cool. Ring me sometime and I’ll tell you why.”

raise. It was nearing the three-month anniversary of my

Then she’d take down my phone number and

hire and I half-remembered something about a ninety-

key in “BADASS.” She’d text me five minutes later the

day evaluation process.

word ‘hey’ but with like an insane amount of y’s

Unfortunately, he fired me before I was able to bring it up.

followed by a sprinkle of XO’s and a dash of less than 3’s. She’d end up coming over later that night and we’d

I kind of wanted him to say something catchy

sit down together in the chair I built with my strong but

and scathing to me like “Kick rocks, kid!” but he seemed

comfortable-to-the-touch hands.

It would hold our

sort of morose about the whole thing. He gave me some

collective weight magnificently.

parting advice about responsibility and I think he

without even banging our front teeth together but I

gestured out to his Sephia in the parking lot at one

would have to stop her hand from wandering and say,

point.

“Hold on, let’s slow down.” I’d turn the TV to HBO,

We would make out

As I exited Kenneth’s wicked lair, already

yeah I have HBO, but probably not for much longer

texting my dealer, I didn’t bask in my new freedom or

unless she’d know of anybody hiring and of course she

even dwell on the sadness of the whole situation.

would, and then we’d just talk and talk and talk about

Instead, my thoughts went to Heidi. I knew my chances

everything and we’d find out so much about each

with her were just dealt a devastating blow. I would have

another. The conversation would be riveting and Oh My

to figure out how to feel about this pathetic and

God Can You Believe it turns out we both have weird

unexpected life turn later, ideally with some help from a

middle names and Oh My God she loves dogs too!! I’d

bong-mate and a healthy serving of carne asada fries. I

teach her a really sweet secret handshake, one I’ve been

managed to have one moment of clarity as I undid the

saving, slowly perfecting over the years. Next, I’d escort

top bottom of my polo for the last time: if I was going to

her to my queen-size bed and utterly disappoint her in

save what Heidi and I had, I would have to ask her out.

every physical way but guess what, it doesn’t even

In a few days, though.

matter one bit because she knows how much I’ll slowly

Probably like sometime next

week, no hurry.

improve with practice. •

We’d go get tacos the next

morning and she’d be a sweetheart and pay because she

rough beast | 21


understands my delicate financial situation and I’d get both a carnitas and a chicken and still valiantly help her finish her last fish one because I’ll be her amazing boyfriend/lover/taco-finisher. As it turned out, she wasn’t around. I was sort of just in and out. •

I got a text from Mark a couple of weeks later. “Brotége,” he wrote.

Said that things were quieter

around the ball pit with me gone. I said thanks and asked how Heidi was. Who? Heidi…the blonde who waits tables. ?? Oh haha u mean helen. right yea haven’t banged helen since that time a couple of months ago in the walk-in freezer.. weird shit haha got to keep your work interesting yo brotege u looking for some fire? I’m dealing these days. •r•b•

rough beast | 22


the other day, I thought how strange it would be to have a Hopper in your house. say hanging over your dining room table. because the reaction of your family and your guests would always be the same: placid daydreams about america suddenly replaced—and not without a twinge of horror—by the realization that, christ, is it all just about sex?

rough beast | 23


Night Watchman h JOEY HORAN

• Existential alarm clock • Lists as a form of self-centering • The Waning Star Café • Mystic encounters with Chango’s cards • Amazon Feminism • Nightswimming / Nightfighting / Swimfighting • Urgent night sprints through the neighborhood • Clothes end and the body begins •

There’s a man who blows his whistle

Now that I haven’t slept in a great deal of time,

beneath my window every night at a frequency of once

the whistle-blower plays a more prominent role in my

per hour. I used to contemplate the quirkiness of this

better-lit hours. I spend my days thinking about the

practice—an individual fighting hooliganism and petty

night. I ponder my role in keeping the darkness safe, a

crime with the audible assertion of his presence, a

role that has moved from tertiary to secondary to

manipulation of air that boldly states: “You think you’re

primary with alarming quickness.

in that dark alley alone, doing whatever it is you’re

then re-conclude that it is my restless duty to assure that

doing, but here I am, a vigilante, a witness with a

the night watchman whistles on and protects the

whistle, dignified and brave”—but now I blankly pass

neighborhood from the vagrant criminals beneath the

the hours of the night thinking of nothing. Despite—or

moon. Does he sense my secret accomplice? Should I

in

spite

of?—the

chamomile

tea,

the

I conclude, deny,

ceaseless

worry about him and prepare for the worst? If the hour

masturbation, and the marijuana cigarettes, my mind

comes to pass when his cry does not ring me from

and body, sadistically expectant of the whistle, half-live

desperate half-sleep, must I descend and save him? If

through the darkness.

he is dead—surely only death could prevent the sounding—do I yank the red rope from the heap of his

rough beast | 24


heavily clothed body (where do the clothes end and the

Christmas: Reading Year in Review articles while a

body begin? My gosh the whistler looks like a vagrant

dog houndishly licks between my toes

himself, his whistle is copper, girthy, and of the

Childhood: Too happy or too uneventful?

nineteenth century.), disentangle his limbs from the

Sandwich: Too much avocado spread

gears of a road bike, and assume the duty?

Copper: Fuck a P.O., fuck a piss test

These scenarios occupy my day.

They pre-

occupy me. I do not think of them at night because

Nausea/dizziness: Too much avocado spread Ring: Flying horses

seeking rest for me has become an exercise, it demands a clear mind, whiteness behind the eyes, and focused breathing. This whiteness, of which I have less and less

“Have you ever seen the whistle-blower?”

control each day, makes me think the whistle functions

“No, I’m always in bed.”

as something of a dream-catcher, far more mystical than

“Are you at all curious what he looks like?”

I previously imagined, a nighttime inhibitor of daytime

“No.”

preoccupations.

“Why’s that?”

Now I live terrified of the quiet. The true alarm will sound silently.

When there is silence, I will

descend. Yes, when there is silence, I must descend. Am I ready? Will there be any sort of apprenticeship? Why have I been chosen and how has the whistler made this so clear?

difference is.” “The difference between what?” “Between the imagined whistle-blower and the real whistle-blower.”

Sometimes I worry (worrying, in this case, is a certain knowledge) I’m becoming obsessive.

“Because I’ve constructed a pretty detailed image of him in my head and I don’t see what the

My

therapist has his theories too. “Clinically speaking, you’re an insomniac.” Clinically speaking, my therapist probably has

“So reality isn’t that important to you?” “Of course it’s important to me, but a little lessso from 1 am to 7 am on weekdays and 3 am to 7 am on weekends.” “This is the whistle-blower’s schedule?”

an M.A. and is under-qualified for situations of this

“Without fail.”

import. But this is just crankiness talking, or is it

“Do you chart his schedule?”

delusion? Maybe he has a PhD.

“No.”

I apologize. I’m multiplying. He’s asking me to associate things freely. This is what I’ve caught so far:

“Do you wait for the whistle to blow on schedule?” “I expect the whistle to blow on schedule, I wouldn’t say I wait.”

Whistle: Safety

“Why wouldn’t you say that?”

Silence: End of the world

“Because it seems a little dependent.”

End of the world: Not a virgin

“Dependent?”

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“Maybe I meant to say desperate. I don’t know.”

and I no longer depend on the sounding of

“What about self-perpetuating?”

his whistle to feel safe;

“The whistle will blow whether I hear it or not.”

“Mm.”

There

is

no

whistle

blower

and

my

‘delusion’ will end.

“What was that?” “What was what?”

In reality, of which I have total authority over

“I just answered a question and you said ‘mm’ in response.”

and can almost predict, my waiting on the stoop opens up the following possibilities.

“I was thinking on your answer.” “Are you suggesting that I’m conflating reality

me feel extremely vulnerable and fallible. I

with fantasy?” “I’m

The humanity of the whistle-blower makes

not

suggesting

anything,

we’re

just

take ownership of my safety by doing one of

conversing. Do you think you’re conflating reality with

the following:

fantasy?”

1)

I ride along with the whistle blower

“I doubt it.”

and learn his ways.

“Have you ever heard or seen a whistle-blowing

tandem for the rest of our days;

night watchman anywhere else?”

2)

“Have you?” “No.”

We work in

I kill the whistle blower and become the whistle blower;

“Then you’re probably not as safe as you should

The whistle blower will not pass and I will have to find him.

be. You owe it to your family to ramp up the security.” “I live alone and I have a trusty alarm system to alert me of any intrusions.”

I balance the banalities and predictability of Western therapy with a visit to the Waning Star Café.

“And this makes you feel safe?”

My friend, Chango, reads cards there. He sits Indian-

“I sleep well through the night.”

style at a booth with his belongings scattered before him

“Lucky you.”

on a two-person table: a cigarette holder that looks like a

“I’m sorry, our time is up. Maybe spend some

cassette tape (why do things that aren’t other things

time on the stoop tonight, look for the whistling man.” “What will that do?” “I’m not sure, just give it a shot.” By pushing me in this direction, my therapist thinks he is guaranteeing one of two things:

have to look like other things?), a candle, and his cards. We begin to chat about things: sharks, subways, Mayans. “The calendar doesn’t, like, predict the end of the world. It mostly predicts a major change in the world. You know?”

I recognize the humanity of the whistleblower, his own vulnerability and fallibility,

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“What do you think the change will be, Chango?”


“Women, man.

Women will finally come to

power. It will be the rise of Amazon Feminism.”

I was not certain of at the time, I was certain that the title would function better as an opening sentence), I

“What is Amazon Feminism?”

decided to try to kill Chango beneath the glowing

“I dunno, man. But it will be hot.”

skyline. I would replace all of the air in his lungs with

Chango’s an idiot.

H20.

The last time Chango and I met, I was in the

underwater briefly, knowing his next move would up the

Following his initial dunk, I pushed him

middle of a different episode, more crippling than my

ante.

current. After listening to an album on repeat for two

and quickly relinquished my hold when I put him under

I feigned weakness squirming beneath his grip

months, I learned the tracks were in the wrong order.

next. This childish exchange lasted a couple minutes,

As a lover of truth, intention, and craft, I reordered the

Chango having fun with it, me still serious about

tracks. (Plus, I used to believe in the refreshing twist a

murder.

randomized group of familiar songs can bring to a life

He began to dunk me for ten seconds at a time

that lacks certain things). The problem with this was I

and I would dunk him for twenty. He would hold me

had forgotten how to live my life without the originally

under until my headward veins bulged and I held him

ordered soundtrack.

This mostly manifested itself

under until his lips turned purple. He would pinch the

physically—the rhythms of my body were off, I was a

sensitive skin between my armpit and chest when he

poorly put together machine made to break. I felt like I

really needed air and I would twist his balls. Finally,

was brushing my teeth with my left hand, chewing with

exhausted but determined, I held Chango’s head

another

underwater for thirty something seconds before he

set

of

teeth,

and

looking

through

a

kaleidoscope.

found my nipple with his teeth, bit, and rose from the

When Chango and I met that day it was to go

springs gasping—my blood running watery from his

through some edits I had offered him on his essay, “The

lips. He punched me in the face and I spat in his. We

World is Ending, That Much is Clear.” I tried to explain

were both crying.

to him that the title would read better as an opening

He said something like, “What the fuck, man?”

sentence, but he wouldn’t budge. That’s as far as we

“Sorry. I thought we were having fun.”

got.

Now the Waning Star Café is closing and we are When the café closed, I suggested we go for a

significantly buzzed but know to avoid the springs. It’s

night swim. We drove down to the springs just below

late and he drives me home silently. When I get out he

the skyline and splashed around slipping on the earth’s

asks me how I am.

mossy belly.

about the springs, “It’s nerves. I haven’t been sleeping

Chango was convinced that eels were

sucking on his foot calluses.

He shoved my head

I apologize, mostly still thinking

well.”

underwater teasing that the eels would swim up my nostrils and suck out my brain. The shove whipped my

neck more than my already out-of-rhythm body would have liked. Still angry from before (out of all the things

rough beast | 27


In my bed I’m convinced that tonight, drunk and

That can happen.

cathartic (nothing calms like the memory of near-

watchman loves alleys for their visual discreetness but

murder by drowning), I will fall asleep. In fact, I am

auditory clarification. My heartbeat has re-quickened,

falling asleep. I am closer than I have been in weeks. I

my lungs currently expanding.

am half dreaming. There is whiteness and a distance in my head from which I can hear slight snoring.

I know that happens.

The night

I take off at a jog and move to a sprint.

The

Zigzagging through the neighborhood, I try to cover

whistle is not sounding and the whistle is not sounding

much space in little time. My unconfirmed assumptions

and my dreams are getting more vivid and less

of the night watchman are that his rear tire is a bit flat

controlled and the whistle is not sounding.

and he is old. In his old age he has adopted a leisurely

And then the 1am whistle sounds. I am reminded of my thankless duty.

I don’t need to be

thanked. My breathing quickens and my mind sharpens

pace, at least physically—mentally, there is no leisure, safety has no leisure—and rides through each block thoroughly and slowly.

and I descend to the stoop as the next hour approaches.

If our paths don’t collide I will still hear his

In five minutes I ascend and descend five times. I’ve

whistle and then I will run to the sound and our paths

lost track of time. It’s an easy thing to do this late at

will collide.

night, this tired.

indoctrination.

I settle on the stoop and rest my head against the rusting handrail.

I don’t see the things I see

everyday but I know they are there.

I will pledge my support and begin my I will assume my duties that very

minute, alone or by his side. In this hour, it seems the night watchman can no longer defend the neighborhood

A water tower

as he once could. Given back to its natural state, the

across the street (how am I to know there’s water in the

darkness will sharpen its teeth and silence will reign.

tower?). A freeway-bound ramp a few blocks down, in

The vagrants will quickly shed their weariness of the

the middle of the street, where things always get faster.

night.

A Japanese convenient store to my left with delicious

I arrive back at the stoop breathing quickly

ham sandwiches (things were once delicious, when I

through my nose.

could sleep).

toward the Japanese convenient store. It splatters about

And a pharmacy kitty-corner with a

judgmental clerk.

Blood, pooling at the curb, flows

my ankles, warm and not my own. It must be the blood I

of one hundred men. It flows purposefully through the

don’t know if the hour has passed or what an hour feels

I think I’ve dozed off against the handrail.

street, from the alley, as water from a heavy and sudden

like but I haven’t heard the whistle.

The night

rain. Has the night watchman fought the darkness in

watchman will pass if I stay put, the simplicity of a

his last stand? Surely I will find him, sucking in his last

known route tells me as much. But I don’t know the

breaths, bodies scattered radially about him, snaggle-

route, do I? I just know the frequency and sound of its

toothed vagrants dipping out the rear of the alley tales

rider. Does he pass my stoop? Or does he whistle from

between their legs. He will hand me the whistle and

the alley across my stoop? Its thin passage could narrow

whisper nothing in my ear.

the sound and propel it into collision with my ears.

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At the mouth of the alley I wade through kneehigh blood, then high step through it as I approach what looks like a heap of clothes.

I think about the

indignity of drowning in one’s blood and I begin to cry and my tears meet the ever-thinning red stream. The blood ends and begins all at once at the heap lumped by the road bike. I prod and pull away layers of clothes. Where do the clothes end and the body begin?

My

goodness, the night watchman looks like a vagrant himself. Bearded, toothless, leathered skin from wind and sunburn. Around his neck I find a worn red rope, tied to a whistle, girthy, copper, and of the nineteenth century. •r•b•

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J O E

W E G E N E R

• V E R S E •|||||| Spindle We watched all three Lord of the Rings movies. In succession. We turned the volume down, got high, and started playing music. This is how we composed our first album. Call it folk, call it baroque, call it indie-folk-baroque. Whatever. We call it mind poison. The title track is pretty interesting. It’s about a teenage boy that is half human, half bicycle. He falls in love with a quiet, book-wormish girl named Gracie. Sadly, Gracie’s parents don’t approve of boys that are half bicycle. Gracie, of course, is devastated. She desperately tries to defend her half bicycle lover. People don’t choose to be half bicycle, she explains between sobs. But it’s useless, Gracie’s parents just don’t understand. In the third verse, the song really hits its crescendo. Gracie’s father, home early from work, catches the two having unprotected sex in the family’s hot tub. Enraged, he runs into the house to get his shotgun. The half bicycle boy, still naked and dripping wet, makes a hurried escape through the backyard. We’re not the sum of our parts, We’re not the sum of our parts, the chorus sings.  

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W E G E N E R J O E rough beast | 32

Santa Fe Smooth jazz music is small in my laptop speakers. I take your face, fold it into an origami frog, and watch it hop into bed. I’m not stupid; our meeting is something like a lunar eclipse. A similar distance – I feel all spoony inside. You reach across the table to shake my hand. I decide to buy a new pair of shoes. But you’re still sitting there, undoing my conception of time. Crinkling, hopping, you move across the mattress. You hop into my outstretched arms, my opened palms. What color do you want to be? I ask. Seven cans of spray paint sit silently beside my bed. We’ve tried them all – save for one. A few hours later, we walk out of my bedroom in single file. I hold your rifle above my head, a soldier traipsing through the swamps of Vietnam.


rough beast | 33


Â

rough beast | 34


Â

Nicholas Gunty Rooftops Morocco 2011

rough beast | 35


rough beast | 36


Helen’s Collapse

Some of the ancients believed that Helen never went to Troy. The gods fooled the Trojans and the Greeks into thinking she was there, but she never was. Helen was in Egypt all along, and men fought a war over An absence. Did I ever tell you that before, love? I asked you. I’m pretty sure you have. I guess, I’ve told you everything already. Yep, you said. We don’t need To speak anymore. And we laughed because

H I L A R Y

R A S C H

Our Knowledge

Being generous made us happy and easy. But now that I’ve flown away from you I have unshared knowledge, like Helen never went to Russia either.

Nails and Bolts I sit on the dusty floor in my dorm in St. Petersburg, And turn the wispy clouds in the sky into the kind That pour water. It leaks into the room Through the corners of you not being here. You are in the ever temperate climate Of Hakodate bike riding to school Where you study Japanese language. You tell me over the phone— Your voice breaking in and out like sad waves Or heartbeats— That there is a Russian school nearby And Japan’s oldest Russian Orthodox church. Just how is it that your Russian landscape seems wider than mine? Mine is ungrateful rust and mud. The rain waters it, Growing it day by day, while my generosity Is stunted by space. I can’t give you everything From such a distance. When I tell you that Some Russian Orthodox churches forbid visitors From wearing shorts inside, I don’t say This repression feels violent. To flee, I force my running mind To read about ancient Egypt: How the tombs there Were carved to look like date-palms Because of the sacredness of these trees.

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My gestures here Are mostly unproductive. For example, I stab nails into the wall for each day I don’t see you and some days I have to stab in bolts. Long distance was a bad idea.

H I L A R Y

Time Travel Sometimes the ancient gods bend down to earth And give us gifts to remind us of their existence. And so, they made time Dissolve, my St. Petersburg days Dissolve like sugar stirred into vodka. I dove into the Neva, tunneled down and down until I finally dropped into Narita airport Where I saw you waiting at baggage claim.

Helen’s Boat

Time Zone Adjustment

When I imagine Helen, she is holding A boat in one hand and a train In the other because desire

Now that I am with you again I don’t count my days with nails, but feel Days being plucked away like flowers From a vase. I try to imagine

R A S C H

When Helen came, the men Gifted all their dates to her. When will I Be capable of such an offering?

Birthed transport Because there was something Somewhere else Needed. Well, I left What I needed. And isn’t that A betrayal? I take it back

That the vase is infinitely full of days and nights— That we somehow are Outside of the waters of time, that we are Not powerless before the gods.

At night

Sometimes it’s true. When I dance before you we become

And try to dream of Tokyo (Hot weather, the short dresses I’m going to wear When I’m there) because it is the city Where I will see you again.

Suspended. When we pull Our shirts off together and raise them up Above our heads, they become the night sky, and we Are almighty.

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Red-light district

On the road to our hotel we glimpse her:

A red, neon lip-shaped arch marks the entrance of Kabukicho, Or the Sleepless Town, as it is sometimes called By the Japanese.

A woman, profile view, with black hair, red lips, in dark blue Silk with shining sequins, her back arched to express

Around midnight we turn a corner and are in the belly of its

Her curves. She looks as though she wears the night. It’s just a billboard, you tell me, And I weigh this fact. True. I think We should name her anyway. Name her? I smirk and say, She’s Helen of Egypt. After we dive tired into bed, She plays on my mind, like an unfamiliar Game—Helen of Egypt: How unlike I imagined her to be! Much darker

H I L A R Y

R A S C H

Body on Body

In appearance. I move my right leg Over your left thigh, and you press Your body over me. What is desire? Did I come Here for Helen or for you?

(Our guide book tells us) 3,000 night clubs, Bars, and love hotels. We smile devilishly Into its lights, and blowing signs. I count the slickly dressed men, and you try to guess Which of them are yakuza as our bodies loosen Into the humid night air, and the district’s colors— An electric rainbow—pour out on us, Like a metaphor for ejaculation. I point and you take photos Until two Nigerian men beckon us In English and make our language sound beautiful, Come inside. They are handing out flyers, but tonight We cannot ignore them. Come see The goddess dance. Once inside, With others jamming in behind us, we’re pressed against A sweaty wall of people, But on my tiptoes I can see Her move as though she were touching me, And I lay my eyes over you Like want. You look Good, you tell me, Raising your voice over the crowd’s Noise. Come here.

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Our temple

And as we move over each other Our rhythms Are like the rhythms of the monks’ drums Gonging on Mount Koya, where pilgrims

After we stretch the sun into the sky, You tell me, I love you. I watch the earth awake

Bring melons and pineapples to give To small, grey Buddhas. Those gods Wear pink and green bibs For the feast. But I—being pagan and Strange here—see only you and Helen On the mountain. Do I worship her? Maybe, I did once. Bearing down on me, She looms, still and sharp as a stone idol: Harsh, cruel. I realize she is scared

H I L A R Y

R A S C H

The mountain of Us

Of being usurped. What happens to desire now That I have everything I want? I hand her back her ships and planes, but I give you All my fruit and trinkets of my body. As we stand against The grey night, grey mountain, gleaming, The moon plates us in silver. She watches us Like a mad step-mother.

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Outside my hotel window, and hear Its neonatal cries Shooting forth From the cars already roaming, And it’s strange—I feel We made this world. Raised above the traffic, Helen floats, wavering in herself— She is becoming us. What is it like To be desire itself? I press against you, and time and space dissolve, Dissolve completely Into us, and we are transformed Forever into the moment when I am coming To meet you at Narita airport.


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It is this instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the 19th century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.

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Eugene Walter and the Lost Salon of 2000 Dauphin Street h WILLIAM STEWART

• Christmas whiskeys at the solstice • the geography of fundamentalist thinking• North Haiti • 1970s urban sprawl • cryptography in Alaska • The Willoughby Institute, Bienville Square, and The Haunted Bookshop • the SIP Sisters of Termite Hall • agri-culture spells the end of the bluebloods • the sirens of mildew •

The images I keep of Termite Hall

Termite

Hall,

the

rambling

three-storey

are always in the time around the solstices. It’s late in

Victorian at 2000 Dauphin St., listed in the National

the night, early morning hours even, and gas lamps are

Register of Historic Places as the Greene-Marston

burning. That’s probably anachronistic. At the summer

House, sits five minutes by foot from the home I grew

solstice, guests sit out on the porch, quiet laughter and

up in. For a while, Termite Hall ca. 1940 embodied for

near-empty gin & tonics.

Some lean over the railing

me the high point of culture in Mobile, AL, some kind

and hope to catch a rare breeze against the heavy, still

of gravitational center (socially and geographically) for

heat. Full of crickets, the yard is deafening. In winter,

the intellectuals and poets that I supposed the city once

the porch is full too, 50 degrees a respite against the

had.

superfluous wood fire next to the Christmas tree. String

Passing by on Dauphin, it can be hard to get a

lights run between the eaves, and whiskeys mix again

good view of the place because of the unkempt hedges

with quiet laughter, this time because token children

and brambles in front, just a mossy pair of columns at

somewhere in the neighborhood are already asleep.

the foot of the driveway and a manor of arches and

I don’t exactly know what all this means, but it seems like something.

gables half-hidden behind a grove of oaks. There could be anything back there. Maybe those first few snippets

rough beast | 43


of lore about Termite Hall, odd tales about enormous

and categorical (i.e., the name given to the trend of

parties thrown there, extended families and guests who

contradictions that seems to abound in Mobile and from

never moved out, even the fact that it had a name—

which spring inordinately exaggerated, deep-seated, and

Termite Hall—had a similar effect. They obscured my

honestly-held beliefs about life there). Water culture, as

perspective on the house, allowed me to envision things

I understand it, is elusive, insubstantial, and, worst of

about it, kept me from seeing the place up close.

all, thoroughly inconsequential. But whether or not its

This obscured perspective means that my obsession with Termite Hall is a tangled knot of:

products are mirages or realities, water culture most certainly exists.

distorted childhood memories of Mobile (wrought iron things—benches, fountains, gates), old assumptions

about the kind of events that occur on a regular basis in the city, the mythology I have of my birth place, Eugene

I first heard the term ‘water culture’ from my father. As

Walter and roads with names like ‘Grand Boulevard

in, the city of Mobile’s complex social structures and

Street,’ a history of Termite Hall far richer in the

hierarchies reflect the water culture of ship captains,

retelling than in the actual occurrence, Adelaide

trade routes, ports, and longshoremen that have been

Marston Trigg, a tendency to believe in golden ages, a

present since the earliest days of the colony. I didn’t

wish that things of cultural significance have been

really grasp the deeper and more nuanced economic

hidden under my nose all along, etc etc.

commentary on sea-centered capitalism that my father

The task of untangling this knot around Termite

probably meant in this example, but ‘water culture’ felt

Hall means untangling my understanding of culture in

hefty and mysterious on the tongue. I filed it away as

the Azalea City.

something that might sound intellectual in certain social

And explaining culture in Mobile— 1

well, talking about it abstractly at least —means

gatherings.

explaining first the city’s inexplicable sense of self-

The first time I pull it out, it’s late October a few

importance and resultant (and unfortunate) small-

years ago, and Ben sits beside me on the bus to Chicago.

mindedness. Second, however, it also means attempting

I make a remark about Fall in the Midwest: It’s different

to put into words what I have often heard in

from home, where we barely have any Autumn at all,

conversation but never had explained to me to any

where the leaves all give up the ghost on account of the

degree of satisfaction: the concept of a water culture.

never-ending heat of the late- and then, later, indian-

What follows will demonstrate the impossibility of this

summer, which occasionally extends even into the first

task. I now believe that what is called Mobile’s water

weeks of December.

culture functions as a sort of mysterious and ubiquitous

Ben asks what it’s like down there.

It’s like

force which pushes all fantasies and fictions about the

here, I shrug. It’s America. But I reconsider. That’s

city toward a degree of reality. I believe in water culture

not really true.

not as something of content (i.e., some concrete and

because I grew up there, but Mobile’s something

demonstrable set of traits), but rather something formal

different. Then I remember my father’s words: it’s got a

rough beast | 44

Maybe I engage with it differently


water culture, I explain, having no idea what that

But that’s nonsense.

San Francisco sits on a

actually means, but thinking it sounds impressive

bay, too; Chicago has a lake shore; NYC is built upon

enough and complex enough to mean something.

bridges; and those cities certainly don’t project the

What’s a water culture? he asks honestly, inadvertently calling my bluff.

proclivity toward conservative or objective ideologies that one may want to pin on Mobile.

Besides,

It means we have boats, I answer dumbly. He

geographically speaking, the water topography in the

grunts and turns back to the fields streaking past the

Azalea City is in actuality far more convoluted and

window.

ambiguous than a water’s edge.

Unsure if my inability to expound on the

concept indicates an irresponsible use of the term or its

Mobile is no beach town; there is no simple

inherent vapidity and lack of content, I decide to let the

coastline. The bay is formed by the collision of the Gulf

conversation die and avoid any more embarrassment.

pushing up from the south and the Spanish, Tensaw, Mobile, Blakely, and Apalachee rivers all flowing in a

complex tangle of branches and fingers from the north. The Mobile-Tensaw Delta and its brackish domain,

Well, the city does have boats. The conversation with

neither fresh nor seawater, is the second largest in the

Ben returns to my mind some time later. The docks are

nation. Marshland, swampland, neither terra firma nor

the city’s most important industry. Yet the very idea of

a sand bar. Dog, Fish, and Fowl rivers slice into the

a water culture or water society suggests more than a

walls of the bay like some early draft of Yeats, and the

mere economic dependence on the water. It suggests a

Mobile river flows so close to the western shore that

total

(however

even long-time residents of the city pause and silently

subliminal) of every part of life in the port city by the

question themselves upon exiting the old Bankhead

phenomenon of water.

Tunnel: what body of water did I just drive beneath?

inundation

into

and

governance

I try tackling the concept abstractly. water

culture

a

objectivity—a clear differentiation between land and

even more so when taking into consideration that the

sea, a line, an example from nature of a binary world-

“city,” the one in which people live and have society,

view, either you are in the water or you are on land. In

only indirectly links to the water, at least geographically

addition, the city has a clearly identifiable source:

speaking: downtown lacks true access to the bay, and

growth

what riverfront it does have on the Mobile is largely

water→inland.

understood

Life

on

the

manifestation

To speak of Mobile’s water society, attempts to get at something far more complex, far more involved,

forever

geographical

Perhaps of

is

is

linearly, water

from

suggests

the an

obstructed by industry and docks.

Locating water

overarching, clear-cut construction integral to nature. A

culture paradoxically requires a search inland, on dry

cartographic explanation for the Mobilian’s disposition

ground.

toward fundamentalist thinking, perhaps, black and white moralities, black and white in general.

A drive down Dauphin Street beneath the canopy formed by the century-old live oaks, or an evening stroll around Washington Square to the noise

rough beast | 45


of the fountain and the shuffleboard shouts from the

represents a departure (in whatever respect, aggressive,

open doors of Callaghan’s might give evidence of it. Try

relaxed, intentional, accidental) from the true water

standing under the pergola of string lights at the

culture of the old city, this is not without certain

Blacklawn block party in late Fall or passing by Georgia

advantages. Travel, for instance. Water culture is slow;

Street porches overflowing with flowers on Easter

travel by boat requires time. Commercial jet lines began

Monday. Maybe it has to do with the curious feeling

operating out of the abandoned Bates Field sometime in

given

the late 70s. I’d much rather fly to Tampa than take the

off

Methodist

by

the

church

enormous that

white

dominates

faux-Baroque

the

corner

of

steamer.

Government and Broad Streets, the one with a historical marker bolted to its stucco façade that attests to the

origin of its nickname, the Beehive, on account of its one-time status as the religious and social center in the

Part of the difficulty in writing about the Azalea City is

city.

that it forces one to compress the aura of the place—the These are the vestiges of old Mobile—those

incessant self-inflation of the city’s ego, the cultural

parts of the city that pre-existed World War II.

richness lacking relevance, the old Mobile water culture

Fearnway, Ashland Place, Monterey, Houston Street,

je ne sais quoi—into an intelligible sentence.

Oakleigh District.

The wrought-iron porches on

more difficult, writing about Mobile forgoes the

Congress and Joachim or the odd rituals that take place

canonical benefit of the novels, essays, poems, dialects

in the Church St. Cemetery in late February. The fish

that accompany and instruct the writer of New Orleans,

and oyster markets down Old Water Street or the 19th-

Atlanta, Savannah, or myriad other Southern cities.

century artifact cottages out behind Tuthill.

Even Yoknapatawpha had a Faulkner. Writing about

Yet whatever key these parts of old Mobile

All the

Mobile is an isolated and isolating experience.

provide to the question of water culture, whatever aura

Ignoring whatever brief references to the city

or sense of authority these sections of town hold on

appear in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a literary tradition

account of their age or former status, it only shimmers

of any serious and non-incestuous character for the city

on the periphery; turn a focus on it, try to look more

can claim something like two works: “My Dream of

closely, and it flakes away, instantly disappearing into

Mobile,” an essay in the 1945 travelogue The Air-

the flatness of the present. The streets of old Mobile are

Conditioned Nightmare by surrealist Henry Miller, and

all too short.

The Untidy Pilgrim, a 1954 novel set in the port city by

They quickly empty out into a much

newer city, a six-lane, a self car-wash, a string of fast-

native son Eugene Walter.

food huts, and the old mystery suddenly seems like a

Miller’s stream-of-consciousness sketch reads

mirage or rainbow-end, surpassed without ever having

like the account of a near broke, strung out, exiled, and

been reached.

quickly unraveling writer who stumbles upon a copy of

That’s not necessarily intended as a lament or

The Travels of Marco Polo in a public library and

critique of the new against the old. If the new Mobile

fancies himself cobbling together a similar account of

rough beast | 46


contemporary exotic locales, mostly because that’s what

At any rate, Miller’s Mobile never actually

it is. The former French colony of Mobile (among other

appears. Instead, the essay snags on the author’s free

places in America that he has never visited, Miller

association and tangential discourse until the entire

admits early on in the essay) strikes the author as a

piece founders on a line of moon-soaked French

suitable place to begin on account of the same aura that

nonsense somewhere out in Mobile Bay, never having

I mentioned above, the one that evades expression so

actually reached the shore. I’ll let Miller be, content and

well.

alone on his cot, still floating with a bottle of absinthe

But Miller doesn’t even try to wrestle with it,

simply characterizes the city as hazy, fuzzy, amorphous,

out in the shallow water.

crumbling.

Bay, as Miller wants to imagine, wouldn’t take you to the

Miller fixates on the image of the Union Navy’s

Besides, steaming into the

city. You need to navigate the River for that.

Admiral David Farragut steaming up to the city during

Eugene Walter, on the other hand, took

the Battle of Mobile Bay. Though he can’t verify that

advantage of his native status and approached a

Farragut ever did steam into Mobile Bay (he did; August

description of the city from within.

15, 1864), Miller likes to imagine that his own entrance

literary patron saint, used the city as the backdrop for

to the city would unfold in a similar fashion.

Walter, Mobile’s

The

his first novel, The Untidy Pilgrim, which follows a

essence of Farragut’s importance to Miller is unclear, as

presumably autobiographical young man in late forties-

his writing quickly veers to claims about

Mobile as he spins in and through the city’s many social circles. With the true bravado of Southern-Lit, the

• the etymology of the city’s name [“Mobile is a

novel pits the cultural trappings of the Azalea City

deceptive word.

against the only other metropolis in the country that

It sounds quick and yet it suggests

immobility—glassiness.”],

Walter believes could rival it (New York) and not

• the musical persona of the city [“Guitarish. Perhaps

without a southerner’s heavy skepticism about the place.

not

mandolinish.”],

When three of the novel’s central characters flee to

• and the general atmosphere of lethargy that hangs

even

that

resonant—perhaps

Manhattan for a year, the events are boiled down and

over downtown [“I have never once though of work in

glossed over in about 35 of the books 250 pages before

connection with the word Mobile.

the Big Apple becomes boring and the action returns to

Not anybody

working.”].

the southern port. The rest of the chapters move lazily through southern living rooms, dockside warehouses,

Concerning water culture, about the best we get out of

and cabaret brothels, slow-cooking the city into a

Miller is a reassurance that, yes, there is water

caricature of its pre-war aspirations.

somewhere on the edge of the city, a bay in fact. But

Mobile that is sultry like Savannah and fetid like New

beyond that, for all Miller’s piece provides, the Bay

Orleans, overgrown with enormous oaks and Spanish

could just as easily link Mobile to Perpignan, Ponce De

moss, populated by eccentric old maids and tangled

Leon Springs, or Maine as it could (and actually does) to

genealogies.

Pilgrim paints a

Bon Secour and Fort Morgan Point.

rough beast | 47


The novel’s opening pages make clear Walter’s

claim for the city, it doesn’t help articulate what the

conceit that Mobile represents something different

characteristics of the phenomenon actually are. Second,

merely by merit of its location: when heading south

a closer look at the life and work of this author reveals

toward the city, one notices, beginning about forty miles

that Walter, native son though he may be, spent so

or so north of the coast, a distinct change in the

much of his life away from Mobile that a good deal of

landscape, the plant life, and the sanity of the

homesick nostalgia must be first distilled out of his

inhabitants. The Salt Line, he (and no one else) calls it,

comments for them to be of any use.

referring to the infiltration of the salt water and all its cultural effects up from the coast. other words.

Water culture, in

Having grown up with it, Walter

understands the oceanographic nuances of the city far

In the late 1970s, about the same time my father was

better than Miller. The significance of the River (which,

returning to Mobile after a few years working in

in a very pragmatic sense, Miller failed to note) figures

Birmingham, Eugene Walter was returning to the Azalea

explicitly into the novel’s treatment of this water culture,

City, too. Walter’s pilgrimage home, however, involved

a treatment that is uncanny if not also tongue-in-cheek.

a slightly longer route than my father’s and far more

One character, looking out over the River, explains that

fanfare.

the water has a strange way of hiding things: after long

Shipped out to Alaska as a cryptographer during

rainstorms like this, skeletons have been known to wash

World War II, Walter lived briefly in New York after V-

up on the banks of the River.

J Day before heading onto Paris and Rome for the next

Walter’s

most

condensed

and

oft-quoted

three and a half decades of his life. Digging through the

description of the city’s society is as figurative as it is

box of letters exchanged between Walter and his first

ambiguous. “Down in Mobile they're all crazy, because

cousin and lifetime Mobile resident Caldwell Delaney—

the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of

now housed in the McCall Library Archives [1504

clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet

Springhill

lunacy's county seat.”

remarkable as it is geographically diverse. He addresses

A separate land, he writes,

Mobile doesn’t belong to North America so much as it does

to

North

Haiti,

corroborating

(oddly)

Avenue]—presents

a

paper

trail

as

Delaney as ‘Fust Cuzzin,’ scratching out notes to him

the

observations of the positivist Bertrand Russell in his

• first on military letterhead [“Afterwards, Lt. H— (the

essay “Homogenous America”: the Old South is the only

handwriting expert) analyzed our scribbles. Mine was

part of the nation that can actually claim to be different

judged ‘impulsive, nervous, unusual,’ though anyone

than the rest of America, so different that “one feels as if

could have judged that.”],

one had arrived in a different country.”

• then later on self-made stationery [8, Rue Garanciére,

All well and good save two major issues. First,

Paris.IV; 18 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Rome],

if Walter’s novel of north Haitian monkey kingdoms

• or crammed into blue- and red-bordered envelopes

indeed points to the powerful water culture I want to

from the Paris Review [“I hope the people who

rough beast | 48


destroyed the Russell house will ROT in the deepest

against his continued and mostly voluntary absence

pits of HELL for eternity.”].

from Mobile.

His letters are filled with unelaborated

references to addresses in the city [156 St. Anthony, Indeed, Walter’s adventures are noteworthy, if

1511 Government, 1115 Palmetto, 2000 Dauphin, 109 N.

only for the cast of characters he managed to connect

Lafayette,

himself with.

demands to be kept abreast of events and gossip in

Truman

Capote

After Walter left childhood friend and

new

acquaintance

62

Ridgelawn]

and

incessant,

berating

Tallulah

Mobile: “Please write me, write me. A long letter. I’m

Bankhead in Greenwich Village, Paris found him in the

hungry for Mobiliana, especially Caldwelleán Mobiliana,

company of Richard Wright, T. S. Eliot, Gore Vidal, and

with lewd surmises and dirty digs. • I’m excited, there

George Plimpton, the last whom he helped with the

have been earth-shaking things happening in Mobile

founding of The Paris Review. In Rome, translation work

and me not there. Alas, I’m nearly died at missing the

for Federico Felini landed him a part in 8 ½ (in addition

Trigg-Marston, & am now molargnashing over missing

to a series of Italian television soaps), and his friendship

the forthcoming Plum-Young. • How’s Mobile’s sex life?

with Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Werner Henze

Vernal, tolerable vernal, I’spose. • Tell me WHAT ARE

resulted in the two creating for Walter the central

MOBILIANS SAYING ABOUT ‘STRANGE FRUIT’

(silent) role in the opera Il Giovane Lord.

AND MISS LILIAN SMITH.??????? I can just imagine,

If you want to read the incredibly bizarre story

but tell me anyway.”

of Walter’s life, you can, and in his own words even—

To read these letters and hear Walter caw on

Milking the Moon, the memoirs he dictated just before his

about the city suggests a social scene as squalid as it is

death.

But the Walter that I’m interested in is the

vibrant, but alive and virile regardless. And yet, these

Walter that all his biographies and autobiographies take

comments come from Walter’s pen while he charts a

for granted: the Eugene Walter who, despite spending

course from Alaska to New York, from New York to

the prime of his life outside of Mobile—in no less than

Paris, from Paris to Rome, farther and farther and

the three most culturally elite cities in the world—with a

farther from his beloved Azalea City.

clique of literary, film, and music gurus to rival nearly

Delaney for more than thirty years with his homecoming

any artistic circle, still returns to spend the last two

before it actually takes place in 1979.

decades of his life in the Azalea City.

He threatens

In fact, the

periods in Mobile that bookend Walter’s life reveal more

about the origins and effects of the city’s ineffable water culture than anything he wrote in The Untidy Pilgrim. Walter’s correspondences with Delaney are perhaps most telling of all.

Walter died of liver cancer when I was young, but while he was still alive, following the return to Mobile, he

From his first reports in

lived with his cats three blocks west of us in a bungalow

Alaska to his complaints about having to pack up his life

renovated by the city’s historical commission. He would

in Rome, an odd juxtaposition underlies them all,

turn up on Mr. Boyd Miller’s front porch, drunk as a

namely an ever-intensifying rhetoric of homesickness

skunk at 1 in the morning, reporting to have been

rough beast | 49


locked out of his house and asking if Miller by chance

and one would think that Walter would have needed

had a key to let him in, my father laughs. Pat Conroy

something more than a 10-minute weekly radio spot to

describes Walter’s cooking as incomparable, even if the

keep him occupied for those last two decades. He would

table was coated with a layer of cat hair, and the former

have searched in more places than on Bienville Square

ex-pat made his presence known in the city by devoting

and down Broad Street, and he must have found it

his last years to a weekly ten-minute radio program on

somewhere, in someone.

the local college station, “Eugene At Large.”

Well, he was all the time hanging out at Termite

Practically speaking, Walter’s homecoming may

Hall, my mother explains casually—common midtown

have resulted from the road simply running out on him.

gossip from earlier days in Mobile. That is, at the family

Despite the general fanfare and falderal surrounding his

house of the née-Marston sisters, 1940s friends Eleanor

arrival, he returned to Mobile nearly penniless. Worst

Marston Benz and Adelaide Marston Trigg, at 2000

of all for Walter, though, was the port city’s cultural

Dauphin St.

poverty that stood in stark contrast to the vibrant scenes

I don’t know when Walter and the Marston

he participated in (or at least waxed nostalgic about in

sisters first became friends. Perhaps Mobile’s Catholic

his letters to Delaney) during his youth. “What’s really

society, of which they were all a part, brought them

got to me since I’ve been back is that Bienville Square,

together from a young age. Maybe it was an adoption of

which had formerly been like a street salon, with

sorts, sympathy from the Marston family toward

everybody downtown on Saturday, was absolutely

Walter’s lack of one. Raised first by his grandparents,

empty.

I remember one Saturday when I came back

Eugene was taken into the care of local department

taking a walk in Bienville Square. There was nobody

store owner Hammond Gayfer after their death. From

there. And I thought, Oh my Lord, what’s happened?”

all accounts, Gayfer and Walter fit well together, as

To Walter’s dismay, the culture he remembered so

Gayfer’s house often found itself hosting local southern

fondly had been eroded by the complex socio-economic

writers and artists, in whose presence young Walter was

forces that redrew the city in the twenty-five years

all-too-eager to be. Yet despite the support he received

during and following World War II. This compounds,

from Gayfer, Walter’s adolescence in Mobile had

of course, with the nostalgic scaling-up and buffing

something of an orphan quality to it, a point that reveals

done to Mobile-ca.-1940 by Walter’s own memory. But I

a darker irony in being called a son of the city. Perhaps

have a hard time believing that a man who had spent the

it was pity that encouraged the Marston sisters to extend

previous thirty years running with the cultural elite of

hospitality to him.

Paris and Rome could then return to the spiritual damps

Nothing, however, suggests that the friendship

and Alabama anoxia of Mobile ("Twenty four hours in

that grew between Walter and the members of Termite

Mobile and you have the feeling a plastic bag is tied

Hall was contrived; in fact, just the opposite. Odds are

around your head and you're breathing your own air,"

that Walter and the Marston sisters found a common

notes Walker Percy.) and be satisfied living on Grand

love of books.

Boulevard Street [sic].

librarian of the city’s Catholic high school for nearly

rough beast | 50

He had no family save his cats,

Eleanor Marston Benz worked as the


fifty years, a library whose front face now bears her

More interesting, though, are the pieces of

name in enormous black letters. Her sister, Adelaide

memorabilia from Termite Hall.

Marston Trigg, gained an even more prominent bookish

programs from meetings of the so-called “Willoughby

reputation in 1941 when she opened on Bienville

Institute:” 1941-42, 156 St. Anthony St. and 2000

Square what, at the time, was Mobile’s only existing

Dauphin St., members (among others) Francis Kinney,

bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop.

Willie Mae Smutz, Caldwell Delaney, Adelaide Marston,

Although the shop managed to develop a respectable

presence,

hosting

readings

Eugene Walter (pres.).

The program (blue cardboard

book

with fountain pen-inscribed parchment leaves) lists roll

signings with writers as diverse as Thomas Mann,

call, recitation of minutes, then contributions from each

Harper Lee, and native-Mobilian William March, a look

member—lectures on fashion or etiquette from some,

through the old guest registers reveals the impact

poetry readings from others, and a play from Eugene.

Walter had on the bookstore. The signatures and dates

(2) A log for the meetings of the SIP Sisters, a women’s

quickly give way to full-page doodles and cartoons

group led by Adelaide.

signed “EW” or “Willoughby” with an accompanying

with

four-circle dog paw print, the latter being from Walter’s

Shakespeare,

sometimes-human,

themselves to the discussion of local society and

sometimes-canine

and

(1) Hand-made

alter-ego,

Sebastian Willoughby.

a

roll

call The

After opening their meetings

answered Sisters

by In

choice Progress

verses

of

devoted

occasionally took up a new piece of literature or

I think he started coming around here because

contemporary moral argument.

The evenings usually

he was bored and looking for company and would just

closed with a communal supper, except when the

end up spending the whole day nosing around the shop,

women were too hungry to wait (often), in which case

explains Angela Trigg, Adelaide’s granddaughter and

they began with the cooking, whose planning and

owner of Bienville Books, a resurrected, relocated, and

grocery gathering, as Adelaide notes in the log, usually

renamed offshoot of the no-longer-extant Haunted

dominated so much time that afterwards, there was very

Bookshop. I visit to ask Angela what she knows about

little energy left to stir up interest in a debate on women

the history of Termite Hall. Well, I live there now, she

in the workforce.

explains flatly. She lets me look through what boxes of

If the SIP Sisters represented the intellectual

Adelaide’s keepsakes she can find in her attic apropos to

and progressive feminine avant-garde of the city, they

the bookshop and Walter. I get the feeling he got on my

still carried out their agenda within the boundaries of

2

grandmother’s nerves, she notes.

I spend an hour

Mobile’s conservative and religiously oriented social

flipping first through diaries and registers from the early

system. Adelaide is quick to remark in the introductory

days of the Haunted Bookshop.

The entries turn

notes to the SIP Sisters’ logbook that the acronym SIP

quickly from lists of books read and thought-provoking

should by no means suggest that the meetings involved

quotations to costs of plumbing repairs and logs of

the consumption of alcohol. Whether this was a product

hours spent working overtime.

of naïveté or deep-seated conviction is unclear (there are rumors that in the later years of the Haunted Bookshop,

rough beast | 51


those who regularly hung out in the store knew that the

the

selection of a few choice books from the shelves would

intellectual endeavors (Willoughby, SIP, etc) as well

reveal

a

hidden

bottle

of

hard

liquor).

Haunted

Bookshop,

but

other

like-minded

The

would have been a bit out of place and swimming

paraphernalia from the Willoughby Institute rings with

upstream in the city. If the Termite Hall of Walter and

a note a bit more raucous and a bit less disciplined—to

Marston was ever the cultural high point that I want to

be expected with young Walter at the helm. Stationery,

imagine it was, it was an aberrant spike and not a

pamphlets, and small volumes of poetry from later in his

culminating zenith.

life appear under the name, too, paired with locations

Interestingly, Termite Hall’s role as a meeting

equal part European capitals and Mobile neighborhoods

place for Eugene, Adelaide, & co. is hardly the house’s

(again, the conceit of the Southern writer): The

first time in a role as a joining point.

Willoughby

Institute

ROME•SPRING

Before the

HILL•DOG

monikers Termite Hall or Greene-Marston House, 2000

RIVER•PARIS. These locations, I realize, refer not to

Dauphin St. once was called the Half-Way House, as it

offices or contacts, but rather to the locations that bore

purportedly

Walter’s self-created and ever-expanding aura.

downtown and the wooded escapes (as well as escapes

lay

halfway

between

the

courthouse

from yellow fever epidemics in town) surrounding the •

Jesuit university up Spring Hill. In the age of Eugene Walter,

the

house

continued

this

role,

but

it

“The Hall has always been a place where people came

transcended a mere geographical midpoint and became

for a week’s visit and stayed a year, where everybody

an intellectual and cultural meeting point, too. Most of

read and ate, ate and read, and listened to music and

all, as a symbol of the societal shift between old and

danced and painted pictures and climbed trees and ate

new, pre- and post-War Mobile, the 2000 Dauphin St. of

and gardened and read and ate. Naturally, it’s haunted,

Adelaide Marston and Eugene Walter should be seen,

delightfully so.”

figuratively speaking, as a temporal Half-Way House,

The Termite Hall so described by

Walter in 1982 is a salon of the highest intellectual and

too.

cultural variety, most of all, one where Walter, even with

Most important for Walter upon his return to

his cultural caliber and artistic status, comes off as just

the Azalea City in 1979, however, was the house’s

one more guest, hardly the center of attention.

perceived resistance to the post-War societal and urban

No

wonder no one wanted to leave.

shifts that concerned him so much about new Mobile,

But I get carried away. Angela Trigg points me

now a city of malls, poorly planned six-lanes, and the

to a passage in her grandmother’s diary: Adelaide’s

unapologetic suburban sprawl of the 70s. For Walter,

worries that the Bookshop will never survive in Mobile,

the chief detrimental consequence of these shifts wasn’t

warnings from friends and relatives—no one in Mobile

the white flight, which in fact placed the most

wants a bookstore, because no one in Mobile wants to

noticeable blight on the old city and his boyhood

buy books. If that is a fair barometer for the cultural

downtown.

climate of late 30s and early 40s Mobile, then not only

linking (and, in his mind, subsequent bastardization) of

rough beast | 52

Rather, Walter seems most upset by the


the old city French colony culture with the rural agri-

imported to work at Brookley Field, and which ushered

culture of the western part of the county. For Walter,

a wave of modern expansion and development into the

the creation of the suburbs in the west part of the city

city following the fighting’s end.

and the infiltration of the old high society with the

Further,

although

the

salon’s

patroness

formerly separate rural customs would have been doubly

Adelaide, in her capacity as a female entrepreneur of

devastating.

The shift was a microcosm and an

literature and philosophy, represents a strong and

aftereffect of Mobile’s linkage to and integration with (or

important counter-cultural figure in early-40s Mobile,

contamination by, from Walter’s perspective) the rest of

the social platform of Termite Hall’s golden age was one

the state in the period around 1945.

“Then in the

rooted (even if indirectly) in segregation and a static

Second World War,” recalls Walter in his memoirs, “all

socio-economic structure. The flowering social scene of

those peasants from the fields came to work in the

Walter’s youth in Mobile, the one he shoots through

shipyards. Forbes magazine said that Mobile was one of

such glossy and nostalgic filters in The Untidy Pilgrim,

the towns that grew the fastest during World War II.

is a southern city whose structure is inherently linked,

And those peasants did not go back to the fields when

whether intentionally or unintentionally, with pre-Civil

the war was over. They stayed in town and built Baptist

Rights segregation and Southern hierarchies of wealth.

churches on every corner.” An erasure of the old Salt

No discussion of that time can completely avoid an

Line, in other words. A desiccation of the water culture.

association with those integrated injustices, even though

But it would be irresponsible not to note, too,

I can imagine neither the flamboyant Walter nor the

the larger questions of social justice at play in the

progressive Adelaide as segregationalists or bluebloods.

background of Walter’s grief. Although he directs the

In Walter’s mind, the disappearance of the Willoughby

lament toward what he saw as the end of Mobile’s real

Institute, the SIP Sisters, and the other salons of

golden age (symbolized in places like Termite Hall), his

Termite Hall represent a decline of the city’s true water

complaints are admittedly hypocritical.

Declining to

culture and coincide with the appearance of a nouveau

return to the Azalea City after his service in Alaska,

riche—people whose wealth was made independent of

Walter escaped the post-war changes for brighter stages

docks capitalism, people who had no interest in

and bigger parties.

Meanwhile, the salons of 2000

spending Saturday evening on Bienville Square, and

Dauphin St fell prey to more abstract termites, namely

people who could not claim to be native Mobilians. As

1) chauvinistic or (more accurately) pre-feminist social

tragic a blow as this was to Walter, and as much as this

archstructures of the city ca. 1940, pressuring the SIP

nouvea riche undermines my own mythologizing of

Sisters one by one all to fulfill the southern expectation

water culture in Mobile, it represents a democratization

of marriage and children, and sacrifice Ophelia’s

of wealth in what was formerly a static aristocratic

soliloquies for more domestic duties; and 2) the war,

system, a change that I cannot help but be in favor of.

which shipped men like Walter off to the Aleutian

Finally, I suppose that any student of Walter

Islands, which forced the Hall to partition off its living

would begin to doubt the legitimacy of his depictions of

rooms to create housing for the non-Mobilian workers

the city, at least generally, when considering the

rough beast | 53


questionable literary ethos presented by his curriculum

claims with delight in the cookbook’s introduction, it is

vitae. Despite the fact that his Untidy Pilgrim won a

so only with the inventions of his own memory.

Lippincott Fiction Prize for Young Novelists in 1952,

Ultimately, it is Walter’s very ability to craft

that he picked up an O’Henry citation for the short “I

such a vivid picture of Mobiliana that makes me call into

Love You Batty Sisters” in 1957, and that he helped

question entirely his claims about the city’s water

George Plimpton found The Paris Review and Botteghe

culture.

Obscure with Marguerite Caetani, Mobile’s one true

slowly crumbling and rotting away, with no help from

literary golden boy nevertheless presents an oeuvre

the man who could do nothing more than steal its name

whose large majority is cookbooks: American Cooking:

to promote a cookbook that Mobilians don’t use. I can’t

Southern Style, Hints and Pinches; The Happy Table of

help but become cynical when an old Eugene Walter

Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink;

remarks. “Eventually, all Southerners return home, not

Delectable Dishes of Termite Hall. Appropriately enough,

to die, but to eat gumbo.”

Termite Hall exists today as an old house

it is in the last title that one finds his description of the Hall cited above. But even there, it comes to reader in a

one page introduction, misplaced, unexplained, and frankly, unrelated to his recipes. It feels like a line from

I suppose Walter’s description of Mobile—this kingdom

an aborted novel, as if Walter had ideas for a piece

of monkeys, north Haiti—is a kind of wishful thinking

focusing on the power of the old manor at 2000

and another manifestation of the city’s perpetual

Dauphin St., but was forced to abandon it when he

insistence that it is relevant.

realized that even his talents for creation and invention

Mobile has never once competed with the cultural

out of near-nothing (Walter explains in his memoirs

oddity of New Orleans nor with the ambitious economic

how

by

gunnings of Atlanta. It didn’t witness civil rights like

constructing costumes and scenery from construction

Montgomery or Birmingham, and, despite being home

paper for use in the one-acts he wrote and directed in

to a few of The J.B.s, it never had enough of the artistic

his foster home; elsewhere: “As a child of the hurricane,

consciousness of a place like Memphis. Its very name

I always have the basics. And colored paper to cut out

suggests transience and instability. It’s hot, stuffy, and

for games.”) wouldn’t be enough to keep afloat the

wet.

massive nostalgic weight of yearning located in that

appears from nowhere and overgrows an entire front

house.

porch.

he

would

occupy

himself

at

Gayfer’s

Perhaps the most powerful termites of 2000

But post-reconstruction

The climate is oppressive, people say.

Mildew

Dauphin St were the very thoughts and idealism that

Perhaps that’s the best depiction of water

allowed Walter to create it—he could only find a salon

culture—like humid air so saturated with water that an

of such grandeur and magnitude at a great distance, in

invisible mildew spore can grow to consume a house,

the powerful deceptions of homesickness that he

water culture is that tendency for societal value to

continued to feed, even cultivate from New York to Paris

appear and bloom out of nothing and for no apparent or

to Rome. If Termite Hall is indeed haunted, as Walter

discernable reason. Mildew’s tendency to drive Mobile’s

rough beast | 54


house

owners

comparison.

insane

further

substantiates

the

mythology says, are fated to live only so long as the

After all, Walter names the city sweet

mortals who hear their songs do not pass the singers by.

lunacy’s seat, and for all I know, the hallucinating and intoxicated Miller is still drifting in the Bay.

The

•r•b•

authors’ indifference to—even embrace of—the insanity might be the only true way to approach the Azalea City. Maybe my dream of Termite Hall is like Walter’s view on the course of civilization or like Miller’s admission that his knowledge of the city is a total fiction, illuminating something essential about the obsessive and lunatic Mobilian culturalist, namely our tendency to imagine things out of thin air and pass them off as the way things really were:

“I don’t know one tiny bit of history. I mean History. For me, Columbus discovers America, then the War between the States takes place, then Tallulah and the Sterling girls are born, and then we’re now.”

“The Mobile I knew was thoroughly imaginary and I wanted to enjoy it all by myself.”

Oddly, what Miller leaves out about Farragut is the historically bizarre note that, not only did the admiral steam into Mobile Bay, he did so lashed in Odysseus fashion to the mast of the flagship Hartford. I’d venture to say that Farragut had it right, that the city indeed has a Siren quality about it, smashing fools like me and Walter and Miller (and anyone else who wants to sail into port and capture the city) on the rocks of our own fantasies. Perhaps that’s where all the skeletons in the river come from in The Untidy Pilgrim.

Sirens,

rough beast | 55


Footnotes, various and sundry: 1

i.e., avoiding laundry lists of who’s-who and scales of petty social hierarchies, avoiding scrutinizing to which sorority the girls in the family belong or to which Carnival societies standing dues are paid, which is a serious part of Mobile society at one level and in other discussions could under no circumstances be omitted.

2

Adelaide’s granddaughter seems to miss the irony of the statement. On both afternoons that I stop by Bienville Books to speak with her, a young male shuffles around awkwardly, pulling a few books from the shelf without actually shopping, never entering our conversation about Adelaide, but later working Angela’s ear about his plans to write a screenplay for the Iliad (Didn’t they already do that? asks Angela) or his analysis of the plot flaws in the latest George R. R. Martin novel. He’s no Walter, but it’s amusing to see the dynamics of Marston-Trigg bookshops in Mobile maintained across the generations.

rough beast | 56


make up yr mind you Tiresias if you know know damn well or else you don’t. rough beast | 57


A King or Something THOMAS ROWELL • French formalities • DJ Dou’s stacks • The only toubab in sight • Tunics of unnaturally bright colors / pocket tee and work shorts • Crawling, staring • Trays of couscous and fish • The man with the shaved head and light sunglasses • An offering of cheap perfume • At home, anonymous •

-Ça va?

to maintain. It was hard to hear the man over the chanting

in

the background

under

the

-Oui ça va bien, et vous?

tent. The man seemed quite drunk.

-Bien bien merci, et la journée?

-Are you just here to watch? the drunk asked in French.

-Ça va, ça va—

-Yeah, what’s going on exactly?

-Et la famille ça va?

-Le Grand Marabout is in town, the drunk said craning his neck towards the tent.

-Oui, merci, ça va. I This repetitive and automatic series of greetings

had

no

rough beast | 58

who

or

what

the

Marabout was but I nodded as if understanding.

was always tiresome, the false smile and rapidity of the exchanges often belying the honesty they tried so hard

idea

-So it’s a party then?

Big


It was. A spectacle even. The entire street had been

taken

over. A

makeshift

tent

of stretched

First, there were women present. In fact, the crowd seemed to be mostly women. All dressed in their

tarp covered the night sky for an entire block, and

best

mismatched bits of turf and multicolored plastic carpets

and combinations with elaborate embroidery around the

covered the sandy concrete.

Some three hundred

necks and hems, sheen and glitter, gold and pounds of

people filled the space, standing or sitting in plastic

makeup to make their skin look lighter. Fabric

chairs and talking very little over the loud religious

that hung stiff like it was thickly starched. The men

chants. Drummers, off to one side. One man stood in

were just as fancy. Some in bright colors, some in

the center, warbling praise to Allah through two large

patchwork but all in the traditional matching pants

stacks of speakers with “DJ Dou” hand painted on the

and long tunic of West Africa. This the drunk wore

screens.

as well, a tunic of unnaturally bright colors and brand

Yet something was very different about this event. Twice before I had seen and heard late night

clothes.

Weeds

of

unimaginable

colors

new white leather sandals. I wore a pocket tee shirt, my cut off work shorts and a pair of ten year old sandals.

gatherings like this one. Each time it had been the same: sitting in the courtyard I could hear the distant call of

-So it’s a party? I asked again because the drunk

drums

couldn’t

and

a

fuzzy

crackling voice screaming

an

incoherent melody in a language somewhere between

hear

me

the

first

time

between

the

double bombardment of alcohol and loudspeakers.

the native African tongue and Arabic. Standing in the doorway, I could make out the general direction of the

-Oui oui, you want to—?

sound. All I had to do was follow. For the last two nights in a row, “following” had

The drunk’s inflection signaled that it was a

led to a group of men gathered in a tight circle under a

question, but I couldn’t make out what the end of the

single bright spotlight, chanting, gently swaying to

phrase had been. I responded with a knee jerk Oui.

the beating of the drums and the hypnotic call and

Just saying yes usually worked in these situations, and

response prayers. One man held the mic and called to

for a moment the drunk seemed satisfied by my answer

Allah. The members of the circle looked at him or at

and had gestured towards the tent, grabbing my hand.

the floor, listening for their chance to respond.

The drunk turned away and paused, as though looking

For the last two nights in a row, I had stood among

the

other

onlookers,

fifty

or so, the

for a friend, and then began leading toward the edge of the crowd.

only toubab in sight (typical), but unchallenged. Once a

I followed, trying to take my hand back. We

young man had even handed me a cup and offered

were at the far end of the tent now. Separated from the

tea. It was the only entertainment this late at night, and

large crowd outside, those inside the tent were

it seemed normal for people to all join in watching the

seated, obviously important.

chants. A social event. A chance to sit together without

amidst the crowd at the canopy’s threshold and looked

the obligation of talking. But tonight was different.

from side to side. A thin path sliced through the mass

The drunk and I stood

rough beast | 59


of colorful garments and led straight to the far end.

As

we

approached the

low

and

carpeted

Straight to the Big Marabout. With a sharp intake of

platform, the drunk the drunk fell to his knees Â

breath I realized what the man had asked and before I

genuflected in reverence and I followed his lead without

could say anything against it the drunk, who had never

hesitation.

let go of my hand, began pushing through the crowd,

Marabout and took the Big Maraboutâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s outstretched

his bloodshot eyes fixed on the far end of the tent.

hand. The drunk kissed the back of the hand, and then

The chanting continued and the drumming

The

touched it

to

drunk

his

crawled

toward

forehead.

The

the Big

Big

never stopped as we broke through the wall of people,

Marabout bent forward, prayed for a moment, and then

but

scene brought

touched the drunk on the shoulder, a dismissal. Still

a tangible silence to the air. Heavy women on either side

kneeling, the drunk backed away in a sort of unsteady

looked at us and only us from their plastic thrones. The

knee-shuffle until

stares followed us like a wave as we continued forward,

clothes with a shaved head and light sunglasses helped

past the drummers, then stepping carefully beside the

the drunk to his feet. The man with the shaved head

man with the microphone. Always more stares. I did

and light sunglasses pushed the drunk back towards

not belong, that was clear, but an escape was not.

where they had entered. The man with the shaved head

our

sudden

And

so

presence

I

on

the

followed, feigning

another

man

dressed in

darker

confidence,

and light sunglasses knew the drunk was drunk

pretended I knew exactly where I was going and why.

and handled the drunk in a way appropriate for

The music surged louder, the drums beat faster and the

handling a drunk.

entire room was watching as I inched toward the

Left alone now in the middle of the crowd and

platform at the far end. In front of me the drunk

before the Big Marabout, I turned away from the drunk

man marched in his Sunday best and short flat

and back toward the throne. I crawled, clumsy, with my

dreadlocks, bumping into waiters passing by with trays

heart pounding, sans lacking any dignity, towards the

of rice and fish. We walked through the crowd on

sandaled feet of the Big Marabout. My bare knees felt

the long thin pathway for what felt like a year or a split

the rough carpet, and I thought quickly that maybe I

second and then, as if the stage and throne emerged

should have taken my sandals off. Carpets were

from the foaming crowd, like Poseidon surfacing from

respected here, I knew that but had forgotten in all the

the blue, there he was.

commotion. Glancing up, I saw the outstretched hands

The

crowd.

and the sun stressed eyes of the Big Marabout before

Dignitaries and well dressed men with sunglasses

me. I took the outstretched hands into mine and

surrounded the throne. The Big Maraboutâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s elbows

touched them to my forehead like I had seen the drunk

rested on the arms of the big brown leather armchair,

do before. The hands of the Big Marabout were dry and

the

cool. Calm, resolved, the feeling swept through me like

at the

hands

Big

met

fingertips.

Marabout sat

at The

eye Big

facing

the

level, touching

only

Marabout was thinly

bespectacled and the only person dressed in all white.

a cool breeze. My eyes lifted and met those of the Big Marabout as I murmured an inaudible and automatic

rough beast | 60


Merci. The Big Marabout nodded, and with his right

ear and filled with an energy they could not control.

palm open, gestured for me to have a seat, there at the

Waiters passed with trays filled with couscous and

Big

have

onion sauce and fish and the people were happy. More

mattered anyway, we were so close to the stack of

Marabou’s

feet;

words

wouldn’t

men joined the singers and soon the people rose on

screaming speakers. It was clear what was meant, and I

either

turned as I sat, meeting the stares from the crowd,

in celebration. A sea of color and light and sound

which watched the exchange with disbelief and open

danced before me, and I watched calmly and at peace,

mouths.

like the Big Marabou in all white behind me, separated

The music droned on but now I felt separate from it. Like I was behind glass, observing something

side

dancing

and

raising

their

arms

from the mass at the center of the tent. I did not belong and yet I was right at home. No one knew my name.

bizarre I could never understand. Slowly, as though I’d

The air was warm and dry as it entered and

become part of the scenery, the stares left me and

exited my body. It was time to leave. That moment

turned back towards the singers and other guests. A

came clearly and truly, and I turned back towards the

young man approached and took one of the Big

Big Marabout. We took each other’s hands once again

Marabout’s feet and began giving a massage. The

and nodded in respect. I rose and exited through the

Marabout slowly sank back into the deep embrace of the

passage off to the side of the platform. I pushed

leather armchair and resumed the wise and patient

through the crowd of dancing colors and into the street,

position with the fingers falling now to form a cage over

just behind the wall at the far end of the tent. It was

his chest. A man approached me and sprayed my neck

dark and the street had no lights except for the stars

with a perfume bottle. It was a cheap perfume that

which shone bright and clear. I was alone. The street

smelled unnatural, and I said Merci to the man with the

was

perfume bottle as he passed on to the others on the

was muffled by the tent walls. The street was sand and

tiny platform.

rubble and trash and the stars shed a silent light on my

Now two men stood in the center chanting into the microphone, singing in reverence to their leader,

sand

and

the

sound

of

the

celebration

walk back home.•r•b•

directing their hands and voices just over my head. Minutes, maybe several years passed in a wash of

sound,

color

and movement,

and

I

was

shuffled slightly sideways to make room for other humble followers to pay respect. Each passed and brushed my side without looking or speaking to me, intent

only

on

the Big

Marabout in

white.

They

approached on hands and knees, heads bent. They mouthed thanks through tight smiles. Each came and went, passing off to the side, grinning from ear to

rough beast | 61


we rode bikes in the dark / brought a crate of beer through the park we sat out down by the bay / and the wind blew fear in our hearts

rough beast | 62

Â


The Problem of Value, or In Search of the Middle Brow h NICHOLAS GUNTY

• Solitary confinement in Charleston, IL • an off-the-cuff catalogue of the contents of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing • Money dirties the old Renaissance masters • Warhol does Marx • the Capitalistic irony of the avant-garde • Middlecla$$ voting block • Thomas Kinkade’s $30 million • the Complacency of Kitsch •

My “Happy Graduation” gift from the universe

Yet one element of this collegiate afterthought

came in the form of a rain check for another graduation

stands in stark contrast to the previous track: as a

at a later date. Perhaps I wasn’t enthusiastic enough at

graduate student, I teach one course. The prospect of

the first one, or I jinxed myself by forgetting a few lines

having students put me on edge initially, and my anxiety

to the alma mater. Maybe my cap decoration was so

heightened when I discovered I had to design the lab

lacking in craft as to be offensive to the great graduation

portion of “Introduction to Art,” a gen-ed course for

spirits, dooming me to thirty weeks’ punishment of

non-art majors. In other words, the unfamiliar and the

(near) solitary confinement in Charleston, Illinois, where

uninterested. I was nervous about putting my art-

I derive a trivial, ironic comfort from the fact that the

knowledge to the test. For the last four years, when I

city is so small I can ride my bike anywhere but the train

was wrong about something, my professors corrected

station. I find myself once again among small town

me. What if a student asked me one of my own

campus life, but this time as a ghost, reliving a kind of

questions, one I still hadn’t answered? It took about

2.0 of my college experience, hanging in graduate-limbo

three weeks for that to happen.

until the University gods redeem my voucher.

Though the details are fuzzy, the question itself, delivered in equivalent measures of truculent teenager

rough beast | 63


spunk and genuine rational hunger, I can recall

become limp and futile, so we look to an institution—

verbatim:

some structure embedded in its history—to help inform

(1917)

“How do we know what’s valuable?”

prevalent artistic considerations in more concrete,

I had just shown them the infamous “Fountain”

meaningful terms.

by

Marcel

We might begin by searching for an institution

Duchamp’s piece—an upturned urinal,

in a very concrete sense, a museum perhaps. Last time I

conspicuously signed under the alias “R. Mutt” and

stepped into the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of

originally mounted on a pedestal—had just validated the

Chicago, I found: an enormous replica of a fallen tree

student’s assumption that what is valuable in the art

trunk made of wood from another tree; a painting whose

world is, on the surface, defined simply by whether it

frame was as deep as the picture was wide so that the

garners the acclaim of influential people—this nod of

tall form popped out from the wall like a brilliant red-

approval often as arbitrary as it is insular. Yet this

on-gray architectural polyp; a mass of industrial felt

question is highly consequential to any artist seeking to

nailed droopily to the wall; a wooden cabinet laden with

sell her work.

As professionals, artists deal not only

photographs, news clippings, and other seemingly

with the values of their clients (dealers, gallery owners,

random objects splattered with waxy white paint; a

collectors, etc.) but if they wish to be considered avant-

simple but deceptively realistic oil painting of a lit

garde—that semi-hackneyed accolade mostly indicative

candle; a thin, colorfully striped wooden dowel propped

of culture’s helpless preoccupation with the new—they

against the corner of a room by itself like a forgotten

must address the institutional values of art practice

broomstick; and a pile of hard candy.

Duchamp.

Dada

Ambassador

to

America

itself. It seems that this has never been a more daunting

To distill from this sample a semblance of

task than it is today. Studies indicate that the

internal logic that informs a rigorous system of value is

increasingly pluralistic art world is losing the ability it

next to impossible. The educated visitor to the Institute

once had to “determine the artistic value of emerging

might answer that a working knowledge of art history

work.”1 Why would this be? What are the ramifications

would unlock this collection as a rich, eclectic, cleverly

on the structure of the art world? Is institutional value

insightful, playfully referential, and even touching body

true value, or is it just the mirage of centrality and

of work. Yet even an extensive knowledge of art history

power structures?

can only teach us so much about inherent value until it

When I asked my own painting professor the

begins to explain instead how value is constructed, in part

question of value three years ago, he didn’t seem to be

because “history” itself is arbitrary and vulnerable to

too concerned with mirages or institutions. He told me,

power structures. Its content is framed by subjective

plainly, that we are free to value anything we like, as

curators with self-interested (or present-interested)

long as we have sufficient reason.

biases. Just as a shrinking globe forces competing

This is common

advice in academia these days, and I think he’s

political

ultimately right, but at the time I took issue with such a

confrontation, it also elucidates the inherent pluralism

response. Art in a self-indulgent vacuum threatens to

and subjectivity of history’s narrative. The assumption

rough beast | 64

agendas

and

religious

institutions

into


that our museums, because they are institutions of “high

art critics sympathetic with postmodern relativism who

art”, are collections of the most valuable, advanced, and

have flooded the discipline from the bottom-up,

successful

cultural

inherent

resulting in a “flight from judgment” among other

historical

relativism

of

that

things (see Elkins, “What Happened to Art Criticism?”).

institution’s decisions to place a piece in its collection.

Value judgments that were once of “goods” and “bads”

Attempting to abstract from the museum’s contents a set

have been tempered into the more Facebook Age

of ideal axioms that could effectively and consistently

friendly “likes” and “dislikes.” Academia has been under

gauge the value of the works inside the museum

fire for entrenching art rhetoric in alienating jargon and

involves a completely circular logic.

exclusionary, “objective,” principles. And although not

artifacts and

ignores

the

arbitrariness

It begs the

question, to use that phrase correctly.

all critics believe the academy is entirely responsible

Our search for a stable institution is not made

(some even believe it offers critical solutions), this

any easier by the general motto of rejection by modern

deepening insularity of the art world has “greased the

and post-modern art against any entity claiming to

slippery slope to irrelevancy,” echoing our earlier

represent an establishment.

recognition of the difficulties the art world faces in

In “Radicalism as Ego

Ideal”, Diedrich Diederichsen terms this a “fetish for

assigning artistic value to emerging work.

radicalism”— its Oedipal complex that critical acclaim

Art criticism’s largest problem has to do with

comes from imitating, and then dethroning the reigning

the fact that money is often times more persuasive than

ideological presumptions of the season. Modernism (in

cohesive critical logic. Benjamin Buchloh succinctly

all

its

–ism

impressionism,

states that “you don’t need criticism for investment

expressionism, fauvism, cubism, suprematism, futurism,

manifestations:

structure, you need experts.” When he says experts, he

constructivism, and so on) had a certain hand in

means value-arbiters, a role which once belonged to

hatching this splintering of the institution precisely on

these critics and which now has been outsourced to

account of the ironclad assurance with which each of its

gallery owners, collectors, and other “insiders” who

constituents presented their often-oppositional value

define value behind closed doors rather than through

schemes. The result is a self-created lack of institutional

published essays and magazine columns. They assert

cohesion within art. This complex is deeply tied to

(not discern) the “value” of emerging works of art on

modernity’s premise of a linear historical narrative, so

private terms of economy and investment without even

the weathering and eventual exhaustion of this fetish—

the façade of public critical discourse. When the

yesterday’s institution—may indeed be the reason we

investment value of a work of art outstrips its critical-

are now asking ourselves the question of value in the

rhetorical esteem, cultural evaluation becomes wholly

first place.

inseparable from the economic architecture underneath

More recently, another dimension of the pesky

it; Chelsea begins to look a lot like Wall Street. Could

value question has become visible in contemporary art

we say that the language of modern value systems is in

criticism. The discipline has been approaching a

fact money?

“crisis,” one that stems in part from a new generation of

rough beast | 65


Yes, except that it’s important to note the arts market operates simultaneously in two different versions

She must market herself to death. Then she will be the most successful artist in the world.

of economic spheres: there’s the high niche market,

This answer unsettles us. On the one hand, a

open to a relatively small circle of billionaires whose

market- and money-based system of value offers little

private collections account for a good portion of the

beyond a barometer of gullibility (“Art is whatever you

works currently cycling through museums around the

can get away with” –Andy Warhol) and the rapacity of

globe; and then there’s the mainstream commercial

capitalism (“ M-C-Mʹ′ ” –Marx). But on the other hand,

market of concert halls, record stores, museum gift

tracing a “tradition” of art does coincide rather

shops, theatres, etc., tailored to middle-class consumers

strikingly to tracing a history of money.

of cultural artifacts that may be highly valued but are, as

In the pre-industrial centuries, tradition evolved

artifacts, too common or reproducible to sell for a very

in units of monarchical generations, progress was slow,

high price. Thus, at each node, value hierarchy is

ostensibly linear, and determined by a very, very narrow

represented differently; the high market operates on

conversation. But as industrialization allowed the

valuation, or an individual work’s price tag, while the

Western world to expand and connect to farther and

mainstream

farther flung lands, it forced this tradition to fracture

market

operates

on

popularity.

Both

become a tacit indication of the cultural value of that

also.

Weakened

object or artifact—one that can be used as a point of

patronage

reference to which we may compare all other objects in

conventions of artistic evolution received a coup de

its category.

grâce of melancholic inspiration during World War I,

in

by

the

an

increasingly

growing

bourgeois

decentralized class,

the

So now we’ve reduced what’s “valuable” to

refracting aesthetics taste towards a colorful, if not also

either a) it’s incredibly popular or b) someone bought it

incoherent schizophrenia of style, concept, and form.

for a very large amount of money. Now I can tell my

On the positive side, the development of the last three

student that in order to be a successful artist, she must

centuries finally removed economic patronage (projects

indulge

at

commissioned by an aristocratic family in exchange for

astronomical figures. She must hype her work as much

money and general being-taken-care niceties) from the

as possible while also appearing personally impervious

list of prerequisites for being an artist

trending

styles

and

price

her

work

to fame and popularity in order to avoid accusations of

Clement Greenberg’s 1939 “Avant-Garde and

egoism. She must either mystify us with her seeming

Kitsch” notes this connection particularly well, in part

insider authority, cast herself as a cult hero to generate

because Greenberg understands the original intention

intrigue and buzz, or, to appeal also to those who aren’t

of the avant-garde as an attempt to subvert precisely this

yet insiders, appear as if she is brilliantly radical,

link between money and “classical” art. The essay

original, and ultramodern. She may even hedge her

pinpoints the arrival of the avant-garde in high-art’s

success by creating alter egos who produce artwork in a

departure from (and confusion of) the socio-economic

multiplicity of styles and media so that, no matter the

ruling class, whose patronage had formerly comprised

season, at least one of them always finds the spotlight.

the lifeblood of high art:

rough beast | 66


The avant-garde’s specialization of itself, the fact

commentary of the avant-garde—the art “industry” of

that its best artists are artists’ artists, its best

kitsch served its processed and easily-palatable results.

poets, poets’ poets, has estranged a great many

Except now those being served weren’t so much patrons

of those who were capable formerly of enjoying

as they were consumers.

and appreciating ambitious art and literature,

Greenberg’s charitable but nevertheless critical

but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire

treatment of kitsch argues that the new middle class’s

an initiation into their craft secrets.

2

mere

access

to

art—or

perhaps

more

precisely

Greenberg follows the claim, however, by noting (and

articulated, mere potential for control of art through

not with a little irony) that the avant-garde of his day

buying power—could not serve “to distinguish an

still belongs to this ruling class: no social culture, no

individual’s cultural inclinations, since it was no longer

matter how militantly bohemian, can exist without a

the exclusive concomitant of refined tastes.”3

dependable and stable income. The “ambition” of

Greenberg’s own presentation of art’s relationship to

Greenberg’s avant-garde paradoxically thwarted itself

money (namely, tradition) does not allow for such an

when it threatened its own economic base. Accordingly,

easy dismissal of the artistic value reflected in kitsch.

avant-garde high-art burned itself from both ends, first

While Greenberg may have been correct in identifying

by ostracizing itself from its economic patronage but

the gap between what populous masses are capable of

second through its self-contradictory dependence on the

understanding and the avant-garde’s advancements in

bourgeoisie.

art practice, work that earns the popular vote of the

Yet

And of course kitsch, Greenberg’s antithesis to

middle class’s wallet still deserves some kind of

the avant-garde, i.e., whatever brings up the rear of the

consideration as having gained establishment within the

avant-garde’s advance, also exemplifies in the most

tradition. Despite the middle class’s “uninitiated” status

extreme and often vilified way the relationship between

inside the tradition of high art (i.e., historically

“art”

pre-digested

unconnected to the aristocratic patronage system where

fragments of high culture, kitsch concerns itself only

and

cash

flow.

Starting

with

style and taste exclusively lived), when the money

with the question, will it sell? At the same time that the

shifted, so did this tradition and whatever system of

avant-garde worked diligently to confuse the historical

value it espoused. And so the taste of the middle class

patrons of the aristocracy, a new patron-base immerged

became…legitimate.

from 19th/20th-century industrialized nations in the shape of

the

economically-independent

middle

This isn’t intended to suggest that the tastes of

class:

the middle class suddenly became refined; whether or

individually, the members of this group were less

not a work’s popularity bodes poorly for innovative,

monetarily powerful and less ideologically homogenous

challenging, or even interesting practice is a separate

but, together, they represented an equal-if-not-stronger

discussion altogether.

buying block. And to this new group of patrons—less

seeks to point out that even the works of a kitsch mogul

familiar with the “tradition” of the old families and thus

such as Thomas Kinkade cannot be dismissed as value-

uneducated in the specialization and complicated

less.

Rather, this line of reasoning

If, for example, Renaissance patronage helps

rough beast | 67


explain why Raphael or Titian are masters, then this

dissatisfied with the social order…does [it] begin to

middle class voting ($) block deserves to have a say in

criticize their culture,” concludes Greenberg about the

the artists in which tradition finds value. For the 5% of

middle-brow sensibility.

American households (primarily middle class, one

Whether or not the work of “masters” belongs

would assume) owning a work by Kinkade, his paintings

to a cohesive and continuous tradition, and whether or

do indeed have value, first and foremost the dollar value

not the tradition corresponds to any real ideal of good

paid by the “collector” via QVC. And the attribution of

or bad art, all “masters” have had one thing in common:

value, monetary or otherwise, establishes the piece

a desire to challenge and a desire to move.

within tradition. But that shouldn’t be worrisome: “all

humblest terms, the litmus test of valuable art becomes:

values,” Greenberg reminds us, “are human values,

is it personally moving? The middle class über-patronge

relative values, in art as well as everywhere else.” If you

of someone like Thomas Kinkade may deserve a serious

didn’t give up reading when this essay asserted the

place in the discussion of late 20th-century art tradition,

relativity of history, this last claim shouldn’t be too

but a reflection of complacency is by definition

much to bear.

necessarily un-moving.

In its

The truly worrying extension of this line of

This doesn’t leave us with much to stand on.

thought, however, is not the impossibility of a linear art

History, it seems, is problematic for structuring value

tradition that exclusively purges out those works failing

because it’s based in a hierarchy as relative, pluralistic,

to correspond to some unnamed ideal (invisible

and money-driven as the present. This helps to explain

PERFECT ART in the heavens). The real problem with

why contemporary art criticism has a hard time gaining

a whole-hearted vote from the middle class wallet for a

authority when it isn’t backed by a price tag—or is it the

kitsch artist like Kinkade (named by some as the most

very fact that we presume a connection between the two

successful artist of his generation, his profits were

that destroys the authority? Sell-out is not a friendly

somewhere in the 30 million USD-range) is kitsch’s

word among artists.

utter complacency with the cultural status quo and the

market as a gauge of value isn’t a sign of an artwork’s

perpetuation of such complacency by the monetary

thorough whoring, trust in a comparison of nominal

success

If

values leaves us to praise the Kinkade who can hang a

Greenberg’s statement holds true—that artwork gains

light-effusing cabin in every living room in America.

attention when the reality it generates corresponds most

Even then it’s hard to say whether that value is real and

closely to the reality recognized by the audience—then

pertinent, or if it’s just another arbitrary substitute

the value (monetary, popularity, otherwise) of a Kinkade

necessitated by the economic infrastructure of society.

reflects a generally satisfied reality, that of the economic

Value is an elusive concept.

of

an

equally

complacent

art

work.

And even if the reliance on the

security idealized by the middle class. This tendency

So what would the correct value structure look

realizes the biggest fear of those crabby intellectuals

like? returning to my poor freshman in “Intro”. That

discussed above: it encourages and protects an art that

society has such trouble reliably delineating value leads

utterly lacks a critical element. “Only when [it] becomes

to one final question; what is the role of our own

rough beast | 68


personal value systems in evaluating art, and how does that relate to these? It’s here where I must conclude that my former painting professor may have actually had the most sensible contribution to this conversation after all. Perhaps, by valuing whatever we want, we are creating the most organic vision of value possible, one that

Footnotes: 1

McCarthy, Kevin F., Elizabeth H. Ondaatje, Arthur Brooks, and András Szántó. "A Portrait of the Visual Arts: Meeting the Challenges of a New Era." Rand.org. RAND Corporation, 2005. Web. 26 Sept. 2012. Summary xv.

parallels another development within the art world indicated in recent studies: the increased importance of niche

markets

within

smaller,

more

localized

communities to patronage roles. For a discipline that

2

Greenberg, Clement. "Avant-garde Partisan Review 6.5 (1939): 34-49.

and

kitsch."

has found its richest, deepest rewards in a medium that transcends verbal logic, perhaps it’s appropriate, and maybe even beautiful, that the answer isn’t so simple. •r•b•

3

Greenberg actually applies this quote to literacy, but uses the example as a direct analogue to kitsch sensibilities. This would suggest (problematically) that, at one time, such access indeed was concomitant of fine tastes—a claim that becomes difficult to accept at face value in light of this essay’s position.

rough beast | 69


I'm stranded in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, praying that Depot Auto Service down the road just happens to have a belt for a 2007 Scion sitting on their shelf so I can drive back to South Bend in time to be on call tomorrow night. But because I'm taking a class on Hinduism right now, I'm wise enough to figure that witnessing a Packer victory at Lambeau field today used up all of my available karma and I'm screwed. More frustrating at the moment is that I can't connect my sister's laptop to the shitty wifi at the Sheboygan La Quinta, so my Peace Corps application is three hours late and counting.

rough beast | 70

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[non-existence]


Contributors:

Leah Com ing lives and works at the Peter Claver Catholic Worker in South Bend, Indiana. Reggie H enke lives near a basketball court in Austin, Texas. He makes rugs out of cowhide. Joey H oran lives in Austin, Texas, also near a basketball court. He works for a study abroad company and as a delivery driver for Java Noodles. N ick Gunty lives in Charleston, IL, where he pursues a graduate degree in studio arts in new media. H ilary Rasch is an AmeriCorps member at the non-profit College Forward in Houston, Texas. Thom as Rowell currently lives in St. Louis, Sénégal where he studies traditional African dance and builds masks with a local sculptor and bicycle repairman. W illiam Stewart lives in Berlin, Germany. He is studying for a Master’s in German Philology. Dain W illiam s lives in Cleveland, Ohio. He washes beer glasses at a bar, does marketing for a cultural center, and draws pictures on the side. Jane W agem an lives in South Bend, Indiana where she student-teaches high school English and works on her creative writing thesis. Joe W egener lives in South Bend, Indiana. He studies English and works at Waddick's Café.

rough beast | 72


Why? Why life so short and thin? Why the pain? Why the circles of young and old and…the damn shortness?! Why so little time to wake up and stretch and breathe? Well, because: honey bees. Did you know that a single tablespoon’s worth of honey is the life’s work of twelve honey bees? And so it goes. We’re all just bees buzzing our hearts out to make something, be something in this little hive of world. And we do. Little by little. Mystery. Whispers. Hums. Golden lights. Twelve bees.


rough beast.

a journal of new fiction and non-fiction, some photographs, and a handfull of poems. winter 2013 [ non-existence ]

leah coming reggie henke joey horan nicholas gunty hilary rasch

thomas rowell william stewart jane wageman joe wegener dain williams

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