Mark Twain On Politics


Look at the tyranny of party — at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.

– “The Character of Man,” Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

Zizek and Harman: Strange Bedfellows


[I]t is not possible to clearly distinguish the inconsistencies of our notion of an object from the inconsistencies which are immanent to this object itself. The ‘thing itself’ is inconsistent, full of tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’.1
—Slavoj Zizek

The basic dualism in the world lies not between spirit and nature, or phenomenon and noumenon, but between things in their intimate reality and things as confronted by other things.2
—Graham Harman

The passage above brings me back to someone Zizek never mentions except in regards to Levi Paul Bryant (Democracy of Objects) and Timothy Morton (Hyperobjects) in his new book Disparities. Here is Harman on Objects:

Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur? Despite the unsoundable depth of substances, their failure to express themselves fully even in physical collisions, objects do somehow manage to interact. These relations are the very carpentry of things, the joints and glue that hold the universe together. Given that objects never seem to enter into relations, what does enter into relations? If objects cannot affect one another directly, then perhaps they do so by means of qualities. The notion of free-floating qualities, stripped away from any underlying substance, is the central theme of a group of philosophers already termed the carnal phenomenologists. Following Husserl, they recognize that the objects aimed at by intentional acts never quite become visible. Nonetheless, we do not just float through a void, pointing sadly at the ineffable: we also live in the world as in a medium, enjoying juice and sunlight, suffering and dying from epidemics. We inhabit a sensual space in which, strictly speaking, objects cannot be present. Yet there are objects everywhere, like black holes or vacuums hidden from sight. By following the tension between these two moments of human perception, it may be possible to unlock the tensions found in the universe as a whole.(20)

In another place Harman will tell us that the notion of “tensions” is central: “We already know that Husserl departs radically from traditional realism, shutting out the existence of the natural world altogether and letting phenomena rule the cosmos. But even within this limited phenomenal sphere, we encounter a classical problem of philosophy that marks a central theme of the present book: the deep-seated tension between a single object and its manifold qualities.”(29)

This sense of the drama within an object, the tension between the real and sensual, the gap opened up that brings as Zizek says of it the full gamut of “tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’”. Strangely Zizek and Harman are gazing at the same thing from two opposing perspectives which seem oddly aligned in a perverse tension that one should not try to resolve, but rather hold onto and continue to keep hold of the gap between them while at the same time seeing in their diverse vision something akin to weird realism and materialism upon the same event.

Zizek prioritizes physics over biology and the neurosciences as a philosopher. For him the central motif of ontological dualism that is central to his dialectical materialism is derived by way of analogy to the quantum notion of decoherence:

to look at the precise ontological duality at work in decoherence, a duality totally foreign to classical metaphysical dualities (the sphere of Ideas in contrast to the ‘lower’ sphere of material objects, the sphere of actual life experience in contrast to the illusions it generates, etc.). Decoherence refers to the so-called collapse of the quantum field of oscillations, to the passage from quantum universe defined by the superposition of states (a superposition which forms a coherent multiplicity) to classic ‘realist’ universe composed of self-identical objects. In this passage, a radical simplification occurs: the coherent mulplicity of superposed states ‘decoheres’, one option is cut off from the continuum of others and posited as a single reality. (ibid. KL 1042)

This is where Zizek without realizing it comes close to Harman’s notion of withdrawal, applying the notion of subtractive act rather than Harman’s term ‘withdrawal’:

The paradox (for the metaphysical tradition) is here that our ordinary stable reality emerges as the result of the subtractive act (decoherence) out of the fluid quantum oscillations. (ibid. KL 1055)

In other words the objects in our universe come out of quantum flux by way of a separation that is at once a subtractive act and a withdrawal into singularities. So that our external universe is a fully deployed realm of objects withdrawn from each other, and yet as we learn there is a split within the objects themselves into real and sensual, invisible force and sensual appendage. What we perceive is the free-floating qualities used by the invisible forces of the objects much like dark matter and dark energy interact with the visible universe.

Obviously one can take this support of quantum physics only so far by way of analogy, and both Harman on Zizek use it sparingly realizing the pitfalls of such a path or methodology of linking disparities. In fact both thinkers pit the disparities and tensions among thought forms, both linguistic/descriptive and matheme/symbolic in a struggle without end. As Zizek will state it:

In our standard metaphysical (and commonsense) tradition, the primal reality is firm actual objects which are then surrounded by the aura of virtual waves that emanate from them. With regard to the distinction between subjective and objective, actual real things exist ‘objectively’, while virtual oscillations arise from their subjective (mis)perception. What ‘objectively’ exists in the quantum universe is, on the contrary, only wave oscillations, and it is the subject’s interventions which transforms them into a single objective reality. In other words, what causes the decoherence of these oscillations, what constitutes objective reality, is the subjective gesture of a simplifying decision (measurement). (ibid. KL 1056)

In other words the difference that makes a difference is the determination of perception whether of Zizek’s Subject or Harman’s Object, both agreeing that what constitutes an interaction between two objects is the mediation in-between; or, what both will refer to as the ‘vanishing mediator’. The point being that objects never directly act on each other, but only through a medium. When we look out on the world what we see is the medium, the sensual world of qualities: light, sun, water, mist, fog, heat waves, clashing gongs of sensual reality. We never perceive the underlying structures and forces supporting the sensual war of elements around us. And, yet, the structure is not of the Classical Aristotelian kind either. Not some substantial realm of Ideas, etc. (in the Platonic sense). As Zizek states it:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute proto-reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The agency which registers the collapse of the wave function is not in any sense ‘creating’ the observed reality, it is registering an outcome which remains fully contingent. Furthermore, the whole point of quantum physics is that many things go on before registration: in this shadowy space, ‘normal’ laws of nature are continuously suspended – how? Imagine that you have to take a flight on day x to pick up a fortune the next day, but do not have the money to buy the ticket; but then you discover that the accounting system of the airline is such that if you wire the ticket payment within twenty-four hours of arrival at your destination, no one will ever know it was not paid prior to departure. (KL 1061)

So in the above Zizek is stating that there is a brute dualism in our Universe that is imprinted on the very medium of our sensual objects of perception, and that such is registered through external processes that do not (as in Kant and anti-realists) construct or create the observed reality but rather register it retroactively while accepting the contingency of all events (i.e., they could have turned out otherwise).

What’s interesting and funny at the same time is Zizek comes close to Harman’s notion of Vicarious Causlity and the Occasionalist forerunners when he says:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): one can cheat insofar as the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The theological implications of this gap between the virtual proto-reality and the fully constituted one are of special interest. Insofar as ‘god’ is the agent who creates things by way of observing them, the quantum indeterminacy compels us to posit a god who is omnipotent, but not omniscient: ‘If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantum experiments indicate that He is not observing the small.’ (KL 1078)

Occasionalism  brought to the fore the problem of causality between things and operations or acts. Philosophers have long wondered about the nature of causality. Are there true causes at work in the world, and, if so, what makes them the causes they are? How do causes bring things about, and what kind of connection does a cause have to its effect? These questions took on another level of complexity when various religious and theological considerations were brought to bear on these issues. For instance, philosophers came to question how divine causal activity is to be understood, particularly, in relation to the natural causality of creatures. It is from this context, in which questions about the nature of causation intermixed with questions about the relation between divine and natural causality, that occasionalism emerged. Occasionalism attempts to address these questions by presenting as its core thesis the claim that God is the one and only true cause. In the words of the most famous occasionalist of the Western philosophical tradition, Nicolas Malebranche, “there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; …the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; … all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes” (OCM II, 312 / Search 448) As the Stanford article relates:

A full-blown occasionalist, then, might be described as one who subscribes to the following two tenets: (1) the positive thesis that God is the only genuine cause; (2) the negative thesis that no creaturely cause is a genuine cause but at most an occasional cause. Not all philosophers who have been identified as occasionalists, however, were full-blown occasionalists in this sense, since some argued that only a limited subset of creatures lack causal powers, and thus affirmed the causal efficacy of other creatures. In addition to this issue of the scope of occasionalism, we will, in the following sections, examine how these core theses of occasionalism address the issues aforementioned and what arguments are presented in their favor. 3

Harman would secularize this notion and subtract divine intervention from the equation. Levi’s article on Larval Subjects is probably one of the best expositions of Graham’s notion of Vicarious Causation (pdf). Levi will tell us that there are three characteristics of this notion: it is vicarious, asymmetrical, and buffered. By vicarious as Levi states it after Harman What he means by vicarious is that no entity directly interacts with or encounters another entity. As Graham writes, “I [speak] of vicarious causation. A vicar is the earthly representative of something that need not act in person. But the same must be true of causation itself” (48).  By asymmetrical Levi remarks “if it is true that objects only ever relate to sensual vicars and never directly with other real objects, then this no longer holds true. This for two reasons. First, because sensual objects only exist on the interior of a real object, when one real object affects another real object through the intermediary of a sensual vicar, it doesn’t follow that the affecting real object will be affected in its turn. Second, it does not follow that the affected object will be affected according to the nature of the affecting object. Harman writes, “…I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one” (50). What the object relates to is not the other real object, but rather the sensual object that exists in the interior of the affected object.” And,  Levi relates the third characteristic of vicarious causation is that it is buffered. As Harman writes, “[w]hat I mean is that things can be in contact with something else without being fully in contact with them, just as the philosopher loves wisdom without fully possessing it” (50 – 51).

As Zizek in his comic stance on occasionalism and vicarious causation from his atheist reasoning tells it:

The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before its environs ‘take note’ of the discrepancy) is a way to cheat god himself, the ultimate agency of taking note of everything that goes on: god himself doesn’t control the quantum processes, therein resides the atheist lesson of quantum physics. Einstein was right with his famous claim ‘God doesn’t cheat’ – what he forgot to add is that god himself can be cheated. Insofar as the materialist thesis is that ‘God is unconscious’ (God doesn’t know), quantum physics effectively is materialist: there are microprocesses (quantum oscillations) which are not registered by the God-system. And insofar as God is one of the names of the big Other, we can see in what sense one cannot simply get rid of god (big Other) and develop an ontology without big Other: god is an illusion, but a necessary one. (KL 1084)

Strangely this aligns with R. Scott Bakker’s notion of Blind Brain Theory but on a Cosmic Scale of lunacy. The notion that this Big Other, the God or Symbolic Order is Blind to his/its own machinations and processes (disturbingly similar to the Blind God of the Gnostics, too.). But as Zizek will point out God is but a name for our objective Symbolic Order (Big Other).

On a final note we’ll let Zizek conclude:

The theory of decoherence is an attempt to explain the collapse of a wave function, that is, the passage from the netherworld of quantum oscillations to our ordinary reality, in an immanent way. The role of external observer in the theory of decoherence is therefore ambiguous, and therein resides its strength. Its basic claim is that decoherence (collapse of the wave oscillations) occurs only at the ‘higher’ macroscopic level, being registered by an observer – at the quantum level, nothing changes, coherence remains. This, however, in no way implies that we have to presuppose an external observer in whose eyes (in whose registering mechanism) decoherence occurs. One is almost tempted to claim that theorists of decoherence apply a new version of the old dialectical-materialist law of the passage of quantity into a new quality: when quantum interaction reaches a certain quantity, wave function collapses since the object in a way begins to ‘observe itself.’ Therein resides the strength of decoherence theory: it endeavours to articulate the purely immanent way a quantum process engenders the mechanism of its ‘observation’ (registration). Does it succeed? It is up to the science itself to provide an answer. (KL 1090)

It’s in this gap between wave and particle, coherence and decoherence that the oscillating tensions of Zizek’s and Harman’s philosophies touch base, collide and make contact. The duality between the symmetrical quantum level of pre-ontological chaos, and the asymmetrical realm of sensual appearance. And, as Harman will remark (relating to the epigraph I used at the beginning):

With this single conceptual step, metaphysics is freed from its recent pariah status in philosophy—supplanting all phenomenologies, hermeneutic circles, textual disseminations, linguistic turns, and other philosophies of access, and thereby regaining something of its former status as queen of the sciences. There is no question here of reviving the old style of metaphysics of presence criticized so vehemently by Heidegger, Derrida, and their various heirs. After all, the implication of the tool-analysis is that objects never become present—not even by means of some sort of gradual, asymptotic approach. All that really needs to be abandoned in the Heideggerian position is his unspoken assumption that the gap between Dasein and the world is the sole philosophically significant rift, the single chasm across which all of the problems of philosophy unfold. This assumption stems most directly from Husserl’s rejection of all naturalism, but is ultimately grounded in the Copernican Revolution of Kant. However, if we push the tool-analysis to its limit, we actually find that all relations in the cosmos, whether it be the perceptual clearing between humans and world, the corrosive effect of acid on limestone, or a slap-fight between orangutans in Borneo, are on precisely the same philosophical footing. (74-75)

In this sense both Zizek and Harman are moving philosophy back into the ‘things-themselves’, where everything is on the same footing and no one stance or observer (Big Other/Master Signifier) reigns.

  1. Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (Kindle Locations 998-1000). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  3. Lee, Sukjae, “Occasionalism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Richard Hugo (1923 -1982) Poet of the Northwest

Now I’m dead, load what’s left on the wagon
and have the oxen move on.
—Richard Hugo, The Right Madness on Skye

One of my favorite poets is Richard Hugo. Something about his world of abandoned wastelands of the Northwest with its ghost towns, lonely souls, broken worlds of survival and civilization in decay; along with the steely eye intake of the natural, almost Saga like acceptance of the way of things in all their monstrous force of impersonal and indifference, has always struck me as a poetry of the American Sublime like no other. Yet, there is the fallible, the brokenness of the poet, himself, as well. A man whose vision of nature even in his early poem Trout would harbor the truth of our predatory universe that is as well full of subtle beauty and power, and yet, without falling into the Romantic Sublime. Hugo’s poetry has a certain cantankerous obstinacy about, a vision of life and the universe that combines both a stoic perseverance and a fierce acceptance or fatalistic gesture of charm and passion for the murderous intent that exists deep within the cosmos; one that pervades the stars as much as the predatory worlds of the natural realms we share life with on this planet. An impersonal and indifferent predation, one which we as humans all too often love to ignore at our peril. For we defend ourselves against this dark truth by inventing lies or poetry, fiction, and stories that help us live as if we were the exception to the universal rule. In his poem Trout he conveys this:

Quick and yet he moves like silt.
I envy dreams that see his curving
silver in the weeds. When stiff as snags
he blends with certain stones.
When evening pulls the ceiling tight
across his back he leaps for bugs.

I wedged hard water to validate his skin—
call it chrome, say red is on
his side like apples in a fog, gold
gills. Swirls always looked one way
until he carved the water into many
kinds of current with his nerve-edged nose.

And I have stared at steelhead teeth
to know him, savage in his sea-run growth,
to drug his facts, catalog his fins
with wings and arms, to bleach the black
back of the first I saw and frame the cries
that sent him snaking to oblivions cress.

There is a certain force released in that poem, a power of metaphor and description that almost makes us believe again in language, in that ancient covenant of the word of the poet as revealer, enchanter, diviner. Poetry of such power opens up the world and exposes its inner layers darkness, offers us — not so much a window onto reality, but rather a knowing that is in excess of the objects it perceives; brining a language that goes for the juggler and shows forth the struggle of man and nature in their endless agon, a poetry that sees into things without imposing the human will upon the outer forms of existence. This sense that what is lured out of the abyss is only a fragment of the hidden force lurking there rather than some message to be deciphered. Poetry is not interpretation, but rather a dance among the stones of fire, a shamanistic enactment of vision and excess that calls down the powers, and uplifts the dark fires at the heart of existence. Poetry seeks to divine in the hidden noumenal that which can never be truly be put into words: those edges of the dark light — the aura of its nihilist tracings, without ever settling down in any one fixed form; rather showing the dance of metaphor and metamorphosis of the savage world in all its voidic glory and corruption, a movement that traces its own impersonal desires without imposing our human fantasias. If the poet’s are madmen and inveiglers of the dead they are as well the keepers of those dark images that transport us into a knowing of things that cannot be attained by some reductionary and scientific reasoning which would kill it rather than reveal its power. If the sciences have broken the atom into smithereens, the poet’s broke the etym revealing the kernel of a hidden quatum of natural power that cannot be tapped by the sciences no matter how they try to lock reality down in their hard mathemes. Hugo’s poetry does not so much capture the world, but rather releases its sparks like a hammer on flint letting the words lift if only momentarily the veil of darkness that reveals the underlying savagery at the heart of existence.

As I quoted in the epigraph Hugo’s poetry speaks of an acceptance and equanimity toward life in the universe that is neither a denial, nor a remorse but rather of a that knowing that things will go on even as we reenter the dark loam of existence. From darkness to darkness we come, we go. And while men of religion and philosophy have struggled to attain some immortal vision of escape, Hugo (like me) accepts what is here, now: the truth that this is it, the monstrous beauty and terror of our universe that gives back nothing to our questioning heart, but reveals instead a darker truth that most of us are unwilling to accept or believe but is nevertheless essential: that it is humans that seem, at least on this small planet on the edge of a small star on a minor galaxy at the edge of nothingness to be an accidental anomaly in an otherwise blank and impervious realm of process that we cannot encompass with all our linguistic or mathematical prowess; yet, must in the end neither bow down too, nor fly from, but rather see was is there to see with eyes that have been shriven of their defensive fantasies. Hugo’s poetry may fail in the end to attain such a sublime, yet it is in the indefatigable striving that is his glory and our admiration.

Hugo also wrote a novel Death and the Good Life which seems to bring out that world tapped into such men as James Crumley another Montanaite and writer of detective fiction and noir mysteries; along with another of my favorite authors of noir James Lee Burke, whose  best known for his Dave Robicheaux series, and though a native of Louisiana spends a great deal of time living up in Montana and the Northwest territories. As Kirkus says of Hugo’s work:

A strong mystery debut for poet Hugo–and for narrator-cop Al Barnes, a 17-year Seattle policeman who has opted for the quiet life as a deputy sheriff in Sanders County, Montana. All of a sudden, however, things aren’t so quiet: the accountant from the local mill is axe-murdered on a fishing trip, soon followed by the axe-murder of the mill manager. And Al himself quickly tracks down the homicidal maniac–a beautiful 6’6″” woman who hates men and is responsible for the first death. . . but not the second (she’s got an alibi)! So, clearly, someone is trying to pass off the death of mill manager Robin Tingley as one of the maniac’s series–and Al thinks he’s found the motive: lingering revenge stemming from a murder case some years back, when high-schooler Robin testified against one of his classmates. So it’s off to Oregon to interview all those old classmates (a divertingly sleazy crowd) and to focus in on Robin’s estranged (and strange) wife.

As Alice Bolin said of Hugo in the Paris Review speaking of his graves poems, tells us ” It is hard not to think of the pictures of Hugo that are ubiquitous in Missoula, of him grasping a gigantic fish and cackling or standing stoic, holding a whiskey and a cigarette in the same hand. Living here and seeing him so often, you can feel like you know him. But any photo fades, and these pictures of Hugo are less reminders of him than reminders that no photo can convey what he was really like—in fact we are getting farther away all the time.” So it goes with words, no matter how we try to divine the past, to bring alive the natural which is already seeping into the dark we seem to always be tracing the pattern on the shores of oblivion that will exceed our linguistic prowess, and yet it is in that very temptation that has brought us the great poetry from Homer to Shakespeare and beyond. For in the end poetry is not so much a revelation, as it is a desperate cry in the wilderness of time that humanity existed even if only for a moment in the darkness of the scattered light that is this universe. That will have to be enough.

Yet, not all is rosy with Hugo, either. A lifelong alcoholic like his friend James Wright, Hugo seemed to allow a certain sentimentalism into his poetry that mars an otherwise powerful poet from attaining a certain excellence. Hugo married Barbara Williams in 1952, a marriage that ended unhappily when she left him in 1964; they were divorced in 1966. Many of his poems seem to reflect a bitterness and failure at the heart of his life and thought that pervade many of his unmemorable poems.  In 1963, Hugo and his wife Barbara traveled to Italy. This trip would provide inspiration for his 1969 book, Good Luck in Cracked Italian. Upon returning, he took a position as visiting lecturer at the University of Montana in Missoula. After his wife left him, Hugo endured a very tumultuous and emotionally unstable period. He had never taught before and feared that he couldn’t do it. Frequently, he took refuge in the country at the Milltown Union Bar. Many of his poems deal with this seamy side of his life, as he wallows in self-pity and misery so that he’ll catalogue a litany of waste and self-destruction in others that for the most part expose his own heart rather than the outer form of the world. As he says in The Milltown Union Bar:

You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks,
crossed swords above the bar, three men hung
in the bad painting, others riding off
on the phony green horizon.

This sense that most of us are those painted figures on a phony world that has us hooked into such errors and illusions of a two-dimensional artificiality that we think we’re somehow the exception, when in fact we are the most blinded to our own drunk stupors and delusions. As he’ll say in self-accusatory tones of judgment at the end of that poem: “When the mills shut down, when the worst drunk / says finally I’m stone, three men still hang painted badly from a leafless tree, you one of them, brains tied behind your back, swinging for your sin.” One thinks of a badly tied in reminder of the ancient Christ hanging between the two thieves, and Hugo impaling himself not as Christ but as thief of life whose brains fried on alcoholic escape plans is bound and delivered to his own inner judges who will show no mercy nor salvation. As he ends it: “Or you swing / with goats and elk. Doors of orphanages / finally swing out and here you open in.” This sense that one cannot escape the self like the orphaned thoughts of freedom, but is forever closed off in one’s solitude and solipsistic narcissism bewailing one’s fate. For Hugo there would be no escape.

And, yet he would persist,  and in a poem or Last Words to James Wright who died of cancer Hugo will say: “This time, the branch is broke. In early work / you urged the criminal, derelict, / the dispossessed to run between the stars. / You wanted words to sing the suffering on / and every time you asked the words came willing.” Like many poets Wright and Hugo spoke for the dammed and forgotten, the weak and broken souls of the world for whom existence had brought neither joy nor glory, but rather much pain and affliction. As he’ll admonish his friend: “Those saints in solitary where the dirty river rolls, / they know each life clicks off and on, the off darker than a shabby habit.” This sense of the machinic aspect of process and reality, of a life that is just part of the inertia of the universe without meaning or purpose. Except that we as humans have attained something, a illusion of purpose and meaning, our poetry which is an addition rather than a subtraction from the destitution; an illusion that holds the world at bay if only for a moment. As Hugo says in the end of this poem: “Be glad of the green wall you climbed across one day. / Be glad as me. / What’s a lie between Eds? What’s one more dirty river?” If nothing saves us in the end, then at least we have those moments of remembrance, the attainment of those singular sparks of momentary existence that hover and remain even if they are those sweet lies we know as lies yet keep as remembrances of the actual and fulfilled.

In his final poem Making Certain It Goes On Hugo attains a grace and resilience that passes on if not wisdom then a spark of the flame of poetic power: “This brings us to us, and our set lines / set deep on the bottom. We’re going all out for the big ones.” In this poem that celebrates the passing of things, of change and the future, the past as a falling away that cannot be recaptured in words but is like the weary stone of a dead and “unknown fisherman” something erased and effaced in time; a fisherman who will remain anonymous after all, never having entered the social world of language and memory. Here “[t]he stone will bear / no inscription and that deliberate anonymity / will start enough rumors to keep / the mill operating, big trout nosing the surface, / the church reforming white frame / into handsome blue stone, and the community / going strong another hundred years.” The poet, too, will go under, become mere rumor and passion, mere words to be passed on and over in time as others take up the struggle, persist, an make certain it goes on. Maybe in the end it is all rumor and innuendo, a passing of words among strangers, a stone slab that no longer holds a name or answerable history, but rather keeps us guessing, keeps us striving against the age, the currents of life like fools and scoundrels, jokers and madmen; or maybe just common people of a community going on with their lives, doing what people do and have done in anonymity from the beginning. Maybe this is enough, that the rumor of an intent and a passage, an anonymous folding of thought and speech from lip to lip is all that keeps it and us going. And, of course, the disquieting question is: Is this enough? For Hugo this was the little lie between friends, the one that we pretend to pretend is true enough to keep us and hold the darkness at bay.

Short Bio

Richard Hugo was born on December 21, 1923, in White Center, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. His father, Richard Franklin Hogan, left the family shortly after Hugo’s birth; Hugo was raised by his mother’s parents. He attended public school and from a very early age took an interest in books, fishing, and baseball. In 1942, he legally changed his name to Hugo, the name of his stepfather. He volunteered for World War II, where he served as a bombardier in the Mediterranean. Hugo flew thirty-five combat missions and reached the rank of first lieutenant before leaving the service in 1945. Like other World War II poets such as James Dickey and Randall Jarrell, he would later recount his experiences in his poetry.

After the War, Hugo entered the University of Washington where he majored in Creative Writing. He studied with Theodore Roethke and completed a B.A. in 1948 and an M.A. in 1952. In 1952, he married Barbara Williams and began to work as a technical writer for Boeing, where he was employed for nearly thirteen years. A Run of Jacks, his first book of poems, appeared in 1961. Hugo was thirty-seven years old at that time. Soon thereafter, he began to teach English and Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. His wife returned to Seattle in 1964, and they soon divorced.

Hugo taught at Montana for nearly eighteen years. Rather than becoming more academic, however, his poems often celebrate the abandoned towns, landscapes, and people of the Pacific Northwest. In one of his best-known and often-anthologized poems from this time, “Degrees of Gray at Philipsburg,” he opens with the lines “You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.”

In 1974, Hugo married Ripley Schemm Hansen and helped to raise her children, Matthew and Melissa. In 1977 he was named the editor of the Yale Younger Poets Series. Among his most well-known books are Death of the Kapowsin Tavern (1965), Good Luck in Cracked Italian (1969), What Thou Lovest Well, Remains American (1975), 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977), and The Right Madness on Skye (1980). He also authored the small but influential book on creative writing, The Triggering Town. Among other advice, he suggests that a poet should “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.” Richard Hugo died on October 22, 1982, at the age of fifty-eight. (from


The Icelandic Sagas


Every year during the holidays I begin rereading the Icelandic Saga’s. Jane Smiley’s translations (along with others in this version) seem appropriate and since I do not know the language, her works have opened my eyes to this ancient world view better than most earlier translations I read as a child. Magnus Magnusson’s translations are keener, and thereby more brutal, but need a little more knowledge of the rhythms of the land and peoples.

The first of many Saga’s is Egil Skallagrim’s which is something like a must in my reflections, since it above many of the others incarnates the obstinancy and anti-authoritarian spirit of my own upbringing and stance. If there was a Batman or Superman before such superheroes were invented, we have Egil – who is no superhero, but a man living in a brutal world of elemental justice and indifference; yet, a man who discovers his own truth and ways within this brutal order of things. Above all it’s his sense of justice, not some high-minded sense of social justice, but that of an inner voice or guide to his own sense of ethical notions that shapes the pattern of his life, the force of his mind and spirit. I guess I’ll always be a rotgut believer and defender of the poor, the innocent, and the disenfranchised and expulsed, who seem forever to be cast down and out of our supposed financial paradises due to bad luck, bad choices, or just plain indifference within our social systems due to disease, finances, corruption or whatever…. As Smiley says:

“Egil’s enemies are motivated by treachery, self-interest and malice, and he confronts them as his forebears did, with the family traits of obstinacy, ruthlessness, animal strength and an instinctive inability to accept authority. To his friend and advocate Arinbjorn in Norway, however, and to others whose favour he wins, Egil shows loyalty and unswerving devotion, and he heroically adheres to a brutal but not entirely unappealing sense of justice.”

When one wants to discover the roots of American noir and the hard-boiled world view one could do no better than to return to the realism and stark impersonalism of the Sagas. The Sagas, although showing forth the various underpinnings of the life of men in these northern climes, it is the drama of the land, sky, and sea that is not only the backdrop but the main character of all these tales. What Lovecraft saw as metaphysical horror, the Scandinavians just took in stride as the way of things in the natural world of which humans were just one among other brutal things to be dealt with through struggle and confrontation as part of the agon of existence. In some ways civilization, which is a defense system against the brutality of existence, has become itself the very epitome of the natural brutal order which in our time seems to be no longer a defense against nature, but the very monstrous beast that is destroying its children. One could do no better than returning to the harsh worlds of the ancestral realms of these brutal Vikings to learn how to survive the coming ruins of civilization.  In fact the heroic today is simply this: to join neither the brutality of society nor that of the elements, but to stand in-between within the integrity of one’s own sense of elemental justice and integrity.