Feature • Maud Casey
The way of Saint James, a pilgrimage route culminating at the tomb of Saint James in Santiago Compostela in Spain, passed through Bordeaux during the Middle Ages. If Albert Dadas had arrived then at Bordeaux’s Saint-André Hospital he might have been considered a spiritual seeker. But he arrived in 1886, in anguish, and so he became a patient.
Dadas had spent years walking in a semitrance state throughout much of Europe, sometimes seventy kilometers in a day, often without sleeping or eating. He would wake up—find himself, discover himself were the phrases he often used—in this public square or that one, countries away from home, not knowing how he got there.
His doctor, Philippe Tissié, created a diagnosis for him: fugueur. If diagnoses are a variety of story, and I think they are, then the doctor offered him, among other things, a narrative for his pain. Here, Albert, a story just for you. Dadas was the first of his kind. Originally from the Latin fuga, the word fugue first appeared in the sixteenth-century. It was an odd combination of fugere (to flee) and fugare (to chase). Or maybe not so odd. One usually flees from something, but might one also, contemporaneously, flee toward something?
In the transcripts of Dr. Tissié’s sessions with Dadas, sessions of hypnosis, the medical intervention du jour, Dadas’s voice is an appealing mixture of bemusement and bafflement; it is as if he is recounting the delightful and amazing story of someone else: “One fine day I awoke on the train,” he says. “I was at Puyoo. ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘yet another escape. What a calamity!’ ”1 When he arrived in Moscow soon after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, he was mistaken for a wanted nihilist and imprisoned. “Some fifty [prisoners] were called to be sent to Siberia. Let’s go, I said to myself, laughing when I saw that I no longer need fear the rope. Having learned of my taste for voyages, the Russian government is going to send me on a trip out there, far, far away!”
Dadas’s accounts of his travels appear at first to be oddly innocent. The innocence reads as befuddlement, a kind of obliviousness. But as you continue to read, as he walks and walks and walks, something else begins to show through: a stubborn desire to attain a state of innocence that clears a space, makes room, for more. One of the words Dr. Tissié uses again and again to describe Dadas’s affect is astonished.
After Dadas was diagnosed, there would be an epidemic of fugueurs, working men with homes, with families, who traveled extraordinary distances with no memory of how they got there—a blacksmith from Brive, say, who woke up in Danzig; or, perhaps, a fisherman from Marseille who woke up in Bougie; or maybe a wheelwright in Nérac who woke up in Budweis. For twelve years, a rash of men with homes and families and employment who wandered away, who walked off the stage of their lives, for reasons mysterious even—especially?—to themselves.
The hospital courtyard, which had been a garden when the hospital was an asylum, is paved over with asphalt. In the hospital’s bustling hallway, it quickly became apparent that my curiosity and my bodily self were getting in the way of nurses and doctors. I walked back out into the city where Dadas lived and worked as a gas fitter between his wanderings.
In the small stone church of Saint Eulalie across from the hospital, I thought, maybe I will learn something—perhaps Dadas wandered in one day? Perhaps his doctor did? But more than anything it was the darkness that lay just beyond the church’s open door that drew me. Cavelike, it was like the inside of a mind. That’s where I wanted to be, inside Dadas’s mind. The messy realm of feelings and experience.
There is no question: Dadas was ill; he was in pain; he needed help. And. Still. But. Though. He kept setting out, again and again, walking himself into astonishment.
Thick incense burned on the altar as I read the tiles covering the walls of the church: Merci à sainte Thérèse, Merci à Jésus, Merci à Dieu. As I laid my hand on each tile, smooth from other hands, I wished, not for the first time, that I were religious. Whenever I have this wish, I hear a variation on Lily Tomlin’s self-mocking riff, “All my life, I wanted to be somebody. Now I see I should have been more specific.” The few other people in the church in the middle of the day genuflected and bowed their heads in the dark. I wanted to light a candle for a man who walked himself into a kind of oblivion but also, I think, into a state of receptiveness to—to what exactly?—to something beyond himself.
Wonder, like religion, is difficult to pin down and hard to talk about. “The expression of wonder stands for all that cannot be understood, that can scarcely be believed,” Stephen Greenblatt writes in his book Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, on the subject of how objects from the so-called New World exhibited in late fifteenth-century and early sixteenth-century cabinets of wonder blew the minds of Europe. “It calls attention to the problem of credibility and at the same time insists upon the undeniability, the exigency of the experience.”
The state of wonder shares some essential qualities with the mystical experiences William James describes in the famous lectures he delivered in 1901 and 1902, which became The Varieties of Religious Experience. In them, he lays out four characteristics of the mystical experience: ineffability, a noetic quality (“insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect”), transiency (“impossible to sustain”), and what he describes as passivity (an initial effort must be made but then “the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”). In the end, his project is not to minimize or dismiss conceptual processes or rational ones but to give value and credence to individual experience, feeling—“Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message.” He was a guy who practiced what he preached at a moment in psychiatric history when the concept of the subconscious had only just been articulated.
For me, the most moving parts of James’s lectures are the personal testimony—and he quotes amply and generously—of people struggling to give voice to moments in which they were shaken free from the cage of self. Who doesn’t want to be let out on a perch for just a little while? Here are a few snippets: “But the more I seek words to express this intimate intercourse, the more I feel the impossibility of describing the thing by any of our usual images”; “As I sat there thinking, I seemed to feel some great and mighty presence”; “I only felt myself changed and believed myself another me; I looked for myself in myself and did not find myself”; “I am undone.”
Dadas was undone and undone and undone again. He arrived at the Saint-André Hospital in tears because he didn’t want to disappear anymore. And. But. Still. He was compelled to set out time and time again, fleeing to. In his Creative Credo of 1920, Paul Klee writes, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” I wanted to write a story about Dadas different than the story of his diagnosis. I wanted to make the perplexing, bewildering, inexplicable aspects of Dadas visible.
The individual experience of mystical states—idiosyncratic, deeply private, invisible, and wondrous—says James, should not be discounted; in fact, it’s how “we become profound.” I’m not suggesting Dadas was trying to become profound, but in the cool stone cave of that church, I confess I was. Just for a moment, I wanted to be shaken loose, unselved. I wanted to walk my mind to another country and, one fine day, discover myself there. “We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility,” James writes. It is that mystical susceptibility that is at the heart of art, and at the heart of making art. But there is another element in the mix: will. It’s a strange way of thinking about wonder—the will to wonder—and yet there is Dadas’s stubborn desire to walk his way into innocence and there I was in the church, trying to create the conditions for astonishment.
Werner Herzog, I think it’s safe to say, has never been embarrassed by the staging of innocence, by its construction, for the sake of wonder. His recent documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for which the French government granted him exclusive access to the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, reminded me of what I may have been up to in that cavelike church. Herzog plunges right in, telescoping into the mystical, magnifying the head of the paradoxical pin of wonder where incredulity and stubborn belief do their peculiar dance. The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc contains thirty-two-thousand-year-old cave paintings, the oldest in the world according to radiocarbon analysis, and Herzog’s camera pans over the rough-hewn horses, reindeer, rhinos, and bison. The animals appear to be galloping, thanks in part to their creators’ ingenious use of the undulations of the cave walls to create the illusion of movement, as well as Herzog’s ingenious use of 3-D. The paintings are magnificent. That there are layers of these creatures, painted by Paleolithic nomads over the course of some two thousand years, makes them all the more breathtaking. You are looking at art; you are looking at time; you are looking at something difficult to apprehend from your fixed position in the twenty-first century. Herzog is manipulating you and, still, but, though, the experience decenters and disorients you.
With his trademark goofy gusto, Herzog interviews lab-coated scientists in a room filled with computers that provide stratigraphic analyses and laser scans to map every inch of the cave. He is fascinated by the scientists’ scrutiny of the layers of paint that has allowed them to determine which of the paintings were done by the cave artist missing one finger (he was prolific) and which of the paintings were done thousands of years later. But he’s just as interested in hearing about the dreams of one of these scientists, in which he wakes up inside the cave with the bones of saber-toothed tigers. He’s also interested in this particular scientist’s former career as a unicyclist (and encourages, one might even say incites, digressions in his interviews). Scientific facts? Yes, absolutely, up to a point, but he’s not an expert and that nonexpert vantage point is the one from which he wants the audience to regard these cave paintings. He wants you to wander off with him to consult the former president of the French Society of Perfumers who roves around mountainsides, sniffing for cave vapors—this passionate sniffing is part of the experience of the cave paintings too.
Herzog insists on a childlike stance in the midst of knowledge, a stance that stubbornly resists infiltration by expertise. Because Herzog protects the cave from an avalanche of scientific data, there is room for questions. This opens up a possibility space at the center of the cave and that possibility space is where wonder lives. “What constitutes humanness?” he asks a group of archeologists. As Herzog’s camera waltzes you around the cave (to eye-rollingly melodramatic music but, whatever, it’s all part of the Herzogian experience), you follow his lead and you find yourself thinking, What does constitute humanness? Who were those cave painters? Who am I? What is the soul? What is art? Herzog dances you into this state of awe; dances you into a state of innocence in which knowing less allows room for, is a means to, a certain kind of knowing more.
In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes about a different set of cave paintings—those at Altamira and Lascaux, which, like Chauvet, require great effort to access. “Pilgrims had to crawl through dank and dangerous underground tunnels before they reached the grottoes, burrowing ever more deeply into the heart of darkness until they finally came face to face with the painted beasts… there was a journey to another world that began with a descent into the depths of the earth; and there was communion with animals in a magical dimension, set apart from the mundane, fallen world.”
Dadas existed in a kind of doubleness that cast a shadow. One of his amazing feet was in one world—an invisible, much of it unverifiable, and extraordinary world—while the other kicked down everything around him in the mundane, fallen world, which happened to include his home, his family, his job, his mental health. The philosopher and historian Michel de Certeau wrote, “An absence of meaning opens a rift in time.”2 That rift is a portal to a magical dimension. And, but, still, though, a rift requires the thing that is riven; it is only possible for us to be undone because we were done in the first place.
The Construction of Innocence
The work of Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi is not a 3-D affair, nor does it require you to crawl through underground tunnels. There is no spectacular “descent into the depths of the earth” necessary to enter his magical dimension. The journey is not seventy kilometers a day without eating or sleeping, but it is a useful study in the way the construction of innocence leads to wonder and the way wonder thrives on the sort of innocence that creates mystical susceptibility and allows for receptivity to states of wonder. The journey in his novel Skylark,3 instead, has a lovely and deceptive simplicity, which hinges on its characters staying put in Sárszeg, a small town they’ve lived in their entire lives, a town based on Kosztolányi’s own hometown of Szabadka.
Even before the events of the novel begin to unfold, Kosztolányi has sealed the entire novel in a shimmering soap bubble of historical innocence by setting it in the retrospectively portentous year of 1899. Kosztolányi, who was born in 1885 and died in 1936, happily enjoying some literary celebrity during his relatively short lifetime, began writing Skylark in 1923; it was published in 1924. A lot had happened between 1899 and 1924—among other things, the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I, a number of Hungarian revolutions. But the events of Skylark predate all of this tumult, before the world clicked over into the new century. And so the glossy, delicate bubble of the fictional Sárszeg floats in blissful ignorance of the giant pin of history (as blissful as a town full of hard drinkers and funerals can be); it doesn’t understand that the world is about to fall. It is an artificial construction Kosztolányi is well aware of, and he wants us to be aware of it too, including fleeting instances of outside perspectives—“haughty Budapesters” who deign to peek out of the windows of trains passing through. These outsiders only serve to make the bubble even more delicate.
This delicate innocence creates a fairy-tale effect, beginning with the subtitle of chapter 1, “in which the reader is introduced to an elderly couple and their daughter, the apple of their eye, and hears of complicated preparations for a trip to the plains.” It is a simple premise with a neat, uncomplicated structure: a woman named Skylark, the aforementioned apple, who has never left home, never been away from her elderly parents, goes away to spend a week with cousins on the Hungarian plains. Her parents, the Vajkays, referred to mostly as Mother and Father, are left alone for the first time. Their world—Sárszeg—which until now has been all “silence and solitude,” becomes as glorious a discovery as a cave painting filmed in 3-D.
But first, a bit more about that apple, Skylark. Here’s the rub: the apple of Mother and Father’s eye is not beautiful. In fact, she is ugly. Not ugly as in duckling, not ugly as in beautiful on the inside, not ugly as in possessing a heightened sense of morality or deeper wisdom than the rest of the world. She is ugly ugly. Obviously, ugly is as subjective a term as beauty, and Kosztolányi knows this.
In his book Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man,4 the Swiss scholar of fairy tales Max Lüthi describes a phenomenon called “beauty shock.” The idea is that, in fairy tales, beauty is abstract, its actual form never specified; the lack of specification is part of its power. “Beauty is more perfect in the representation, engendered by the word than in the actual world.” The word beauty creates a vista for the imagination. Beauty is meant to be mysterious and its effect baffling. In fairy tales, after all, beauty causes people to faint dead away and, on occasion, to drop dead.
Skylark’s ugliness is without qualification and it is rendered with the same lack of specificity as the beauty described by Lüthi’s beauty shock. We are told Skylark waddles like a duck, that her face is pudgy, her eyes watery, but these are broad strokes in the same way Sleeping Beauty’s porcelain skin and ruby red lips are broad strokes. Ugly is the bald word Kosztolányi uses and he means for it to be shocking. It’s what her parents secretly think of her but would never say out loud: she is an ugly old maid whose stifling presence all these years has kept them under a kind of spell.
Until Skylark leaves, we are told Father has spent his days looking backward, studying genealogies; he prefers his ancestors to his own future, which holds not much except his own death. Until Skylark leaves, Mother and Father have always woken promptly at seven, which is when Skylark begins cleaning. Until she leaves, they use only one of four lightbulbs in the living room chandelier to save money on electricity. Until she leaves, they eat only the bland food she cooks for them, never eating out. There are no sensual pleasures when Skylark’s around and there are no pleasures of the imagination either. In the days before Skylark left, Father was so occupied with “stimulating, edifying books which elucidated some moral truth” that he “wouldn’t even look at a work on which imagination had left its magic mark.” Skylark, we are told, could never go to the theater because the crowds overwhelmed her and she had anxiety attacks.
But once she’s gone, the spell lifts. For the first time since they can remember, the couple oversleeps! They screw in those other three lightbulbs! Mother plays the piano that has remained untouched for years! Though the couple remains uninterested in not-yet-historical events looming on the political horizon (the Dreyfus affair, yawn), the newspaper has a sudden, unfamiliar appeal! “Foreign news items flashed up before them, charging the air they breathed with a buzz of electricity, connecting the couple to the burning, bitter, but not entirely ignominious, or worthless, affairs of the outside world. They didn’t understand much of what they read, but felt none the less that they were not entirely alone.” And in fact, they aren’t as alone as they were. They eat out at the King of Hungary, the local restaurant, every night, where they not only contemplate eating vanilla noodles (“What exactly can they be? I’ve never tried them, never even seen them,” thinks Father), they eat vanilla noodles! They dine with the A-list of Sárszeg—the commander in chief of the fire brigade and actors with whom Father smokes a cigar! This week without Skylark is a week of bedazzlement.
The pinnacle of this week is their trip to the theater to see The Geisha, a musical comedy set in a country almost as foreign to the Vajkays as its subject—romantic love. Here, in this parallel universe, in this fairy-tale town teetering on the brink of the war-torn twentieth century, the couple is led to the well of imagination where they eagerly drink. They are made drunk by it, and it is mystifying. Neither Father nor Mother recognizes the actors they’ve dined with at the King of Hungary, so transformed are they, so transported are Father and Mother. Father is filled with “unfamiliar sensations,” so “utterly bewitched” he shocks himself by stuttering with praise and awe in front of the leading lady at the end of the play. They have been seduced into the innocence art conjures, and we along with them because Kosztolányi has created this liminal space in the form of this wondrous week, free of constraints. It’s a razor’s edge kind of innocence which relies on a willingness to be duped for the sake of transcending ordinary experience for the sake of astonishment.
But the extraordinary relies on the ordinary for its existence. It cannot last forever; if it did, it wouldn’t be extraordinary. The week must end and Skylark must return in the same way 1899 will eventually click over into the new century. And, but, still, though, as a result of the startling experiences they’ve had in the world that’s been there all along, a kind of knowledge is born from wonder, shining a fierce light on the thing that has remained in the shadows. Father says the word that neither he nor his wife has ever, ever uttered: ugly. Skylark is ugly. Mother does the only thing she can do: she denies it. She sews the rent fabric of their lives back up, sewing even as she does not believe her own argument, even as her sewing reveals the haphazard seams. And when Skylark returns and asks what happened while she was gone, her mother says, “We were waiting for you, that’s all.”
And, but, still, though, once you have beheld the cave paintings, you are altered. What you see cannot be unseen. What is undone cannot ever, truly, be done back up again—the stitches of that haphazard seam show. This couple will never be the same again. Wonder is transformative on a deep, cellular level. It changes us. Kosztolányi performs a narrative sleight of hand at the end of his novel that at once reveals this and breaks our hearts. Once Skylark is safely ensconced at home again, once Father has declared the food at the King of Hungary restaurant wretched and Skylark has promised to cook something very bland to restore everyone to good health, there is an unexpected shift into Skylark’s perspective: “But during her week away, far from her parents, something had changed inside her, something she only became aware of now…. ‘I,’ she began in her thoughts, as we all do when thinking of ourselves. But this I was her, something, someone whose life she really lived. She was this I, in body and in soul, one with its very flesh, its memories, its past, present and future, all of which we seal into a single destiny each time we face ourselves and utter that tiny, unalterable word: ‘I.’ ”
Now it is Skylark’s turn to marvel. With this, Kosztolányi throws open a window in the house of his novel and the view we have is of ourselves. Who am I? What is the soul? What constitutes humanness? As Stephen Greenblatt writes in relation to those early cabinets of wonder, “Someone witnesses something amazing, but what matters most takes place not ‘out there’ or along the receptive surfaces of the body where the self encounters the world, but deep within, at the vital emotional center of the witness.” The wonder of those early cabinets of wonder, after all, was predicated on the willful ignorance of the beholder, the suppression of pesky questions such as From whose hands were these objects plucked? At what cost the so-called New World?
At the end of the novel, Skylark sobs into her pillow so her parents in the adjacent room won’t hear her; meanwhile on the other side of the wall, Father and Mother chatter in an attempt to fill the silence of the abyss. “Our little bird has finally flown home,” Father says. Kosztolányi leaves us in the hollow inside the wall that separates these characters. It is an echo chamber of feeling in which the poignancy of the foolhardy bravery required to answer E. M. Forster’s call to “only connect” resounds, and we are left to contemplate the mystery of the human condition.
Nathalie Babel, Isaac Babel’s daughter who last saw her father when she was ten, wrote of her fantasies of someday seeing him after his disappearance. “Well, here you are at last,” she would say, “we’ve been puzzled about you for so long. You left behind much love and devotion, but very few facts.”5
Babel was his own hidden human fact. So much about Babel was a puzzle, a question. Part of this was political—he was a writer living in the midst of a fascist regime, serving, and being censored, at the pleasure of Stalin, protected only because of his connection to the writer Maksim Gorky. There was the mystery of his death, only resolved in the 1990s when it was possible to gain access to the KGB archives that said, yes, Stalin had Babel executed soon after his arrest in 1939. For years people claimed they’d met Babel in the gulags.
Part of the mystery surrounding him was that he was a fiction writer who perpetuated fictions about himself—yes, he grew up in Odessa though he was not the son of a poor merchant but the son of a more prosperous man who sold agricultural machinery; yes, he experienced pogroms in Eastern Europe (it was impossible not to), but he did not witness his father on his knees before a Cossack. People too readily took his early stories for fact, and he let them. He cultivated his elusiveness. He was a shimmer always on the verge of taking shape, and he liked it that way. His work reveals a fascination with things that don’t quite make sense, with unlikely, unexpected, paradoxical intersections—the Jewish narrator of his famous story cycle set during the Polish-Soviet war, Red Cavalry, for example, riding as a correspondent with the brutal and brutally anti-Semitic Cossacks.
In the introduction to the 1955 edition of Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories, the first edition published in English, long after his death, Lionel Trilling described Babel’s approach to fiction. The reader “ought not be given what he can recognize as ‘a certified true copy of life’ ” because “the human fact does not dominate the scene of our existence—for something to ‘show forth,’ it must first be hidden, and the human fact is submerged in and subordinated to a world of circumstance.” Perhaps it was Babel’s cuspy state that lent itself to the production of wonder in his writing. In his group of self-proclaimed “Autobiographical Stories,” stories very much about becoming a writer, he begins to carve out his ars poetica, which is reliant not on what we can know but on what we can feel.
“Awakening” is one such coming-of-age-as-a-writer stories, set in the Odessa of Babel’s childhood, in which coming-of-age traditionally meant taking up the mantle of musical genius expected of every Jewish kid and entering into the “Wunderkind factory, a factory of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent-leather shoes”6 (Babel, to the end, had a wicked sense of humor). Mr. Zagursky is the violin teacher (based on Babel’s own famous violin teacher) who has been sending these wunderkinds into the world as virtuosos for decades. The first-person narrator, a fourteen-year-old boy who would rather be reading Turgenev and Dumas, starts cutting class and heading to the Odessa port, far from the wunderkind factory, where glamorously knowing, macho teenage boys loitered. The narrator yearns to slip the traces of his Jewish community and its scholarly traditions in order to fit in, but stronger still is the desire to make these cool boys who “dived under the barges, stole coconuts for dinner and awaited the time when the steamerfuls of water-melon would drift slowly in from Kherson and Kamenka, and those water-melon could be split open on the moorings of the port” vivid to an audience through these deftly chosen words. They are material!
An older man, a proofreader who lives by the port, takes it upon himself to teach the boys to swim. He takes a particular interest in the narrator, who is a terrible swimmer. When the proofreader/mentor reads one of the narrator’s “scribblings,” he recognizes “a spark of the divine.” But, he cautions the boy, in order to become a writer, you must know the name of everything in nature—the names of birds and trees, for example! The narrator is left baffled by this. He has grown up in a scholarly, text-centric culture; nature was not a big part of the conversation. How is he meant to become a writer if a language he has not yet learned constricts him?
At the end of the story, the narrator dreams of “escape”—escape from Odessa, for sure, but also an escape into the world of his imagination where he might chisel stories out of sentences. “The moonlight froze on unknown bushes, on trees that had no name. An invisible bird gave a peep and was silent—perhaps it had fallen asleep. What kind of bird was it? What was its name? Is there dew in the evening? Where is the constellation of Great Bear situated? In what direction does the sun rise?” The narrator wants to know these things, but the moment itself is a moment of beautiful uncertainty; its beauty has to do with not knowing, with the overwhelmingly mysterious strangeness of this world this narrator is setting out to see.
In 1934, Babel was invited to speak, as a Stalin-approved writer, at the Soviet-sponsored Writers’ Congress. The speech he gave, five years before his arrest, was laced with double entendre, coded and heartbreaking. He described himself as a “master of the genre of silence.”7 He was referring to the impossibility of writing in a fascist society that forbade independent thinking, but might he also, too, have been referring to a silence cultivated in his work long before he had to be so careful? In “Awakening,” there is a silence at the end of the story where in the hands of another writer there might have been a flood of words. It might have ended quite differently. The narrator might have spoken from a place of knowledge, answering all of the questions he poses, naming everything: the Siberian pine; the great crested grebe; yes, there is dew in the evening; the Great Bear constellation is situated there; the sun rises in the east. Instead, there is a perplexed, yearning silence, full of meaning rather than definition.
It is a careful calibration, that silence. Babel’s narrator yearns to know, and the value of the knowledge on the horizon is never in question. But in making visible the wide openness of that moment before he knows, when intuition is his guide, Babel makes you understand the value of the feeling that eludes one single name, so present in that yearning silence.
The Perils of Wonder
Across the street, another ambulance whined its way into the hospital courtyard, while in the church I fished in my pockets for change to drop into the cardboard box for the prayer candles. I was haunted then, and I am haunted now, by a version of myself that is defiantly antifactual, jonesing for the next hit of wonder, willing to do anything to get it. The version of myself that is like the master miniaturist in Steven Millhauser’s story “In the Reign of Harad IV.” Millhauser’s master miniaturist begins to make replicas of his miniatures, but smaller, miniatures of miniatures, initiating a process of copying and shrinking and copying and shrinking until the actual thing disappears. He has spent his days tending to the upkeep of the mysterious King Harad IV’s splendiferous toy palace with its six hundred teeny rooms, a teeny dungeon, and teeny gardens; itty-bitty copper keys for the locks on the toy palace’s teeny dresser drawers; and a teeny basket of apples, complete with a teeny fly on the stem of one of the apples from the teeny palace’s teeny orchard. But now he has grown restless—“as if he had come to a forbidden door at the end of a private corridor and heard, as he slowly turned the key, a sound of distant music”—and so he challenges himself to make a palace the size of a thimble, so small it requires a special magnifying glass to see it. And, slowly but surely, the master miniaturist reaches for a world beyond what we can see. In a kind of willful defiance he “plunge[s] beneath the surface of the visible.”
His apprentices think he’s gone around the bend, and he has. He has submitted himself to a deep-space solitude which requires a willingness to reside in bafflement, an insistence upon it. He no longer dwells in the realm of the visible, of the concrete, in the world of agreed-upon facts. And, still, but, though, the bend around which he’s gone is the bend of the actual into something quite powerful. If realness were measured on a Richter scale of experienced feeling, then the master miniaturist’s imaginary realm might be the realest of all. And, still, but, though, at the end of Millhauser’s story, the master miniaturist has lost the respect of his apprentices. In fact, they think he’s kind of a jerk. He is very, very, very alone.
Travel, from the Old French travail, bodily or mental toil of a painful, oppressive nature. In German, “tearing free.” Travel, possibly from an unrecorded Latin word—tripalaire, to torture, from tripalium, a three-pronged stake used as an instrument of torture. Dadas may have been decentered, disoriented. He may have been unselved, but at a cost. Dadas’s wanderings trashed his life. He managed, somehow, to marry, though to say that his wife was long suffering would be a gross understatement; he managed along the way, somehow, to have a daughter, though this ended badly too. An article from a Paris daily (December 8, 1907) with the headline “Another Mystery at Montreuil. What Has Happened to Gabriel [sic]? A Victim of the White Slave Trade?”8 relates a sad coda about this daughter. She had been living with adoptive parents and working as an apprentice at a dressmaker’s when one day, while perusing posted want ads, she was approached by a woman who offered her a job, which Gabrielle accepted. The next day she set out, presumably for her new post, and never returned. There were few traces of her and the newspaper article speculates that she was the victim of the white slave trade. Dadas’s own death is reported parenthetically in this article.
Fugueur. Naming something calls it into existence. But it also leaves a great deal in the dust—the feeling of the thing, the roiling beneath the shiny surface of the name. There is “more life in our total soul than we are at any time aware of,” writes James. A kind of reverent silence is necessary in order to truly listen for that more. You cannot fill the spaces with noise; these possibility spaces need to be protected from an avalanche of data. You have to lean in to hear whatever’s there to be heard. Come closer. Closer still. Step through this portal into a land where there are questions for all your answers.
In the church that day, I lit the candle with another candle already burning there. I tilted the candle as the wax began to pool, letting it fall into one of the candelabra’s empty cups. The floating eyes of a shadowy woman watched me in the dark as I pushed the candle into the soft wax, holding it steady until it stood on its own. I stayed for a while, waiting and listening, waiting and listening. I concentrated on Dadas, his long, strange face captured in photographs taken when he was in the hospital. He remained over a century away, and, but, still, though, I felt something. In the effort to feel something, I felt more—a perplexed yearning, a beautiful uncertainty, a mysterious strangeness? No words for it, really, just the effort to explain. Then I stepped out into the city again, blinking against the brightness of the day.
1. Ian Hacking, Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness.
2. Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History.
3. Dezső Kosztolányi, Skylark. Trans. Richard Aczel.
4. Max Lüthi, Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man. Trans. Jon Erickson.
5. Nathalie Babel, Introduction to Isaac Babel: The Lonely Years, 1925–1939: Unpublished Stories and Private Correspondence. Trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew.
6. Isaac Babel: Collected Stories. Trans. David McDuff.
7. Isaac Babel, from his speech to the first Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. In Lionel Trilling’s introduction to the 1955 Collected Stories, included as an appendix in Isaac Babel: Collected Stories. Trans. David McDuff.
8. Hacking, Mad Travelers.
Maud Casey is the author of two novels, The Shape of Things to Come (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and Genealogy, and a collection of stories, Drastic (all Harper Perennial).
A Public Space is an independent nonprofit publisher of an eponymous award-winning literary, arts, and culture magazine, and APS Books. Under the direction of founding editor Brigid Hughes since 2006, it has been our mission to seek out overlooked and unclassifiable work, and to publish writing from beyond established confines. Subscribe today, and join the conversation. More
A one-year subscription to A Public Space includes three issues of the magazine as well as access to the online archive and membership in a dynamic community of readers and writers.