Here is a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—it’s a sentence, actually, a long, wonderfully crafted sentence, whose beauty highlights the very ugliness of what is about to happen when a group of Indians catches up with a band of American scalp hunters:
A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
I heard recently that a film adaptation of the novel is in the works. I’ve always thought this book was unfilmable, but perhaps Todd Field (who has directed good adaptations of In the Bedroom and Little Children) is up to the task.
The passage below is from Percival Everett’s Erasure, from the scene in which Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison, a writer and professor, visits a bookstore in Washington, DC and doesn’t find his books where he expects them to be.
While Lisa wandered off to the garden book section, I stood in the middle of Border’s thinking how much I hated the chain and chains like it. I’d talked to too many owners of little, real bookstores who were being driven to the poorhouse by what they called the Wal-Mart of books. I decided to see if the store had any of my books, firm in my belief that even if they did, my opinion about them would be unchanged. I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing. Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section. Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section. The result in either case, no sale. That fucking store was taking food from my table.
Of course, it’s at this point that he comes across a poster advertising a reading by newcomer Juanita Mae Jenkins, author of We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, whose first line is My fahvre be gone since time I’s borned and it be just me an’ my momma an’ my baby brover Juneboy. There’s only one thing for poor Thelonious to do: write his own ‘ghetto novel,’ which he calls My Pafology. (He later changes the title to an expletive, and the publisher gets even more excited about potential sales.) Some time ago, I was joking with some friends online that I should try to write something like My Pafology, but for ‘my people.’ You know, cash in, while I can. After all, there are dozens of books purporting to diagnose what is wrong with Arabs and Muslims, so one more couldn’t hurt. It would be called Killer Instinct and it would give insight into how we (every single one of us) are raised to kill the infidel. But it seems that irony doesn’t really travel well online.
The passage below is the closing paragraph of “Harem,” by the Egyptian writer and academic Leila Ahmed. The essay is part of her magnificent memoir, Border Passage, and is about three generations of women in her family. It discusses the changes in their lives over a period of a century and a half.
If the women of my family were guilty of silence and acquiescence out of their inability to see past their own conditioning, I, too, have fallen in with notions instilled in me by my conditioning—and in ways that I did not even recognize until now, when, thinking about my foremothers, I suddenly saw in what I had myself just written my own unthinking collusion with the attitudes of the society in which I was raised. Writing of Aunt Farida and of how aggrieved and miserable she was when her husband took a second wife, I reproduced here without thinking the stories I’d heard as a youngster about how foolish Aunt Farida was, resorting to magic to bring back her husband. But I see now how those stories in effect rationalized and excused his conduct, implying that even though taking a second wife wasn’t a nice way for a man to behave, perhaps he had had some excuse, Aunt Farida being so foolish.
“The mind is so near itself,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “it cannot see distinctly.” Sometimes even the stories we ourselves tell dissolve before us as if a mist were momentarily lifting, and we glimpse in that instant our own participation in the myths and constructions of our societies.
The last time I used this essay in a class, a couple of my students appeared stunned to discover that there were feminists in Egypt, much less in 19th-century Egypt. Feminism (by which I mean simply the belief that men and women are and should be equal) had seemed to some of them, I think, primarily and uniquely a Western movement.
Photo: Harvard Gazette.
By sheer coincidence, three of the five most recent books I’ve read were set in Vietnam or featured Vietnamese characters. One of these was Monique Truong’s debut novel, The Book of Salt, in which the main character, Binh, works as a cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (The idea for the novel came to the author when she learned, from reading Toklas’s famous cookbook, that Stein and Toklas had employed “Indochinese cooks.”) In the passage below, Binh describes the interviews he has to submit to in order to find a job and during which he has to explain what he has been doing between his departure from Vietnam and his arrival in Paris.
Three years unaccounted for! you could almost hear them thinking. Most Parisians can ignore and even forgive me for not having the refinement to be born amidst the ringing bells of their cathedrals, especially since I was born instead amidst the ringing bells of the replicas of their cathedrals, erected in a far off colony to remind them of the majesty, the piety, of home. As long as Monsieur and Madame can account for my whereabouts in their city or in one of their colonies, then they can trust that the République and the Catholic Church have had their watchful eyes on me. But when I expose myself as a subject who may have strayed, who may have lived a life unchecked, ungoverned, undocumented, and unrepentant, I become, for them, suspect.
What struck me about this passage is how easily it could apply to another employee (a chauffeur, say) from another of France’s former colonies (Morocco, for instance.) The relationship between servant and master seems to be colored in similar hues, and it made me wonder if that was because of the similarities in the two colonial relationships.