Lord Franklin's Voyage Franklin set out to track the Arctic. He was a man who dreamed, and the improvidence of his dream undid him, or transcended him. His intentions were sensible, naval and mercantile, the northwest passage a profitable goal, a lacuna between oceans that the Empire sought but his dream was more grandiose, a pathway to the map itself, a civilisation of connections in the ice. He disdained impossibility, equipment. Took instead twelve-hundred volumes of his library, an organ, china, cut glass, a dinner service of sterling silver flatware. Coal for only twelve days, he trusted to the sails. Each man his naval uniform, and only that, addressed the sea. Firm, in his blue and gold upon the freezing decks. All died. The ships froze in their flight, the search parties wandered, improbably, in the shifting snow. Years later, ten years, twenty years, the Innuit, surprised, would come upon them in the drifts, stiff in their stripes, their thin silk scarves, clutching their frosted collars. In their pockets Shakespeare bound in calf, some silver spoons.
Landfall The soil of Europe is black. It is rich, but it has swallowed too much death -- or remembered it too much. The plague is in its bones, epidemics of centuries, cities buried beneath cities, books whose leaves turn thin and brittle as the skulls of birds. The Indians claim that they forget everything their grandfathers forgot to tell them. They kill each other and have done with it. Even the ground is only sacred for a while. Smoke in the air, the grease from cooking fires, ochre and seed-corn. They learn memory from missionaries' sons. The bitterness of farms that robs their mountains, tall ships upon the sea. The ash of Pompeii's ruin in their mouths.
Columbus Columbus sails down the coast. He does not understand that he is becoming a metaphor. He has enough problems. Nothing is any use unless he brings it back. Europe is still the truth and these wild lands are a garbled fiction, not fit to die in. He studies the place with an intelligence as fierce as the iguana -- small enough to interrogate the ants but large enough to bite a human finger off. He is not a god. He is an accident. And the Indians are the encounters of his dream. They belong to a reality he can't return with, the humdrum polish of their custom that he dives through like a fist.
Brebeuf There is no shortage of martyrs, gristle and fire are plentiful, but most are like a song without words - their agony is not didactic, history forgets it. Even the birds in this land need converting, they are too proud by half. They have no Christian names. In blue and silver imperviousness they batter the innumerable trees. Stuff them. Name them in Latin. Return them to France. We build a church of wood. It is not adequate, but it has to be. The sap will not twist to the syllables. The grain and bark adhere to the forest's strangeness, its boneless shape. The architecture opens and no sound comes out, like a mouth trying to speak under water. A knife interpreting an arm. A sheet of flame.
The Revolution Betrayed Being the last words of Lev Davidovich Trotsky, spoken before his death in Mexico City, 1940 Incompetent butchers! The reach of the shark has indeed grown long. Hovering in the dark he feels the whole world through his skin, and sends his little fishes out to kill in the gutters and the lavatories of all the fallen cities of the globe. Oh glorious Revolution! And in Moscow they still sing, in Paris, I can hear them singing: 'L'Internationale sera le genre humain.' But then in a way my murderer is my friend, in a way, this has to be. Having killed me, he has removed the last suspicion that remained between us, we are united in a deadly camaraderie. All this blood is mine, this pit of flesh. Gregori is dead. Kamenev is dead. -- He never could make up his mind: too much conscience and too much caution. They threw me to the shark, but they couldn't swim close enough under his belly. Now me. History will say I died quickly, but history has no sense of the absurd. Those who are not intimate with death prefer it neutered in their fictions. But worlds are shaped by this nonsense, this ridiculous squalor. The eternity after the ice-pick hits the skull is the only eternity I believe in. ii Now I can speak, what shall I say? Every ear in this hiatus is bought or twisted by the shark. These doctors will not heal me -- they know their place in this charade of nations. And the shark believes in nations -- they are the weeds in which his dark mind moves, the boxes he hides truth in. To hell with nations! was what I said -- the windy earth is the only truth you need, the salt flats that we march in, the factories, the black smoke on the horizon, the bled shoot in the ground: the means of production and the wheels of change. The Revolution is permanent and the horizon is the only frontier in a war. But I will believe in these boxes, I will believe in this world the shark has made me see. I am bloody in a white room set on a bright and visceral plateau. With my legs I became an army and the shark has stopped me with a kitchen tool. Well, the kitchen is as good a choice as any. Words, words. -- What do these jokers know? Even Vladimir Ilyich was used, and who will ever know who used him, what rode back with him, in his shuttered monumental train? Small things are enormous. The Revolution happens in a very tiny place. It is a pity that so many have to die like this, or worse, to learn how things can change. iii And some survive, with their decorum, their belief in laws intact, and all the old lies of the doors of time. Kerensky, the advocate, in Europe, wears his hat. Kerensky will outlive us all (though he lost every contest) -- even the fat shark himself, who swims in too much blood to see the joke that gets him in the end. You can't kill all of them. And finally enough will catch the madness at one time, so that you drown in the laughter that you taught us. We killed in the Revolution, yes, and killed for years, but killed from hope. Joseph Vissarionovich Dzugeshvili will be killed, as he has killed, at bay, by madmen, from despair.
Atahualpa Atahualpa could not fathom the hunger of the yellow men for guilt, their way of counting triumph. Not that he was kind. The sun tortured his mountain kingdom, and he had learned to love it. But out of gold he had made gardens, monuments, because they shone, beat flowers and birds that would not fade, a glittering plastic laugh. They crushed it back into the earth, gouged dungeons for it, deformed it to a ball of weight. 'How much' was all their language. It had no word for the metal throat of petals, for the cruelty of the air. It lied to him, as to themselves, of the ransoming of men. When they choked him in his prison, he had already guessed their end. He could see death in their eyes, grown mad in the crags and blind with numbers, like a dog in a slaughterhouse.
Canada (an Indian word whose meaning is obscure) - Kenneth McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada p. 21 We assume some early travellers far from home, seeking to translate this land into the language of their king, pressed for an answer from men they could not interpret, savages whose tongue and colour changed them like a metal mirror badly made, words flowing like an unmapped river without the barriers of books. And the answer they got, or thought they got, was 'Canada', or became 'Canada' when they wrote it, sent it back to Europe. But what did it mean? How large are the things for which we need names? How long do they stay? With whom do they hold in space? in time? Was 'Canada' the name of a village, the name of season -- the colour of the trees? Or the word for "village" or for the place where one is between the earth and the changing sky? Or was it perhaps, what they wrote, what they took for their use, the phrase for "we do not know" "we cannot understand you"?
The Death of Marat Time is formed by the written word. Prose is a frozen segment, a sculptured equivalence -- without the alphabet nothing can grasp the river of language, it flows through the fingers which close and are left wet, holding nothing. Men try to stop it, chanting numbers, over and over, teaching rhymes to their children as though they could arrest by this clutching repetition the inevitable slide to the sea. Or they teach techniques -- ways of juggling the tongue to please a crowd, as though by learning the weight and uses of water they could control the rain. Time is a heap of millet, an endless pile of moments, growing and growing (Zeno -- I know that Zeno said this). Only as words build prose and prose builds history do we come to force a map on it, to interpret the place where we stand on the rippling bank in terms of a geography we own, orderly fictions of climate and destination. (Not a blink of light between the tunnel from whose darkness we emerge and the tunnel into which we vanish knowing nothing.) The knife in the hands of the shuddering girl is endlessly interpretable -- but not by me: see how the pen slips from my fingers, down by the bath that eased that vicious itch, my body, washed and naked, rushes to join the ocean of the dead.
Philip II The one thing that can save us is the power of the Church. You do not understand. I have never crossed the water. I would never cross the water. To dream of it is enough. The sun is reflected in it like a great gold coin -- but hot, burning. It opens to swallow a ship like the mouth of a hungry lion, wet and deep, and full of teeth whose shape is hidden in the dark. Look at these hands. They tremble. Their weapon is the escritoire, not the sword. It is very late. The floor of the world is littered with small, and apparently unconnected deaths. We must make an act of contrition of our polity. An act of faith. The ink is black and dries up quickly, just as blood is brown and dries quickly. The colour of earth. Holy Mother, pray for us sinners. Your Name is an invincible engine of Love. There comes a time when only Anger is Love. The maps fix in place the nails of the cross. The letters that I send fix in place the maps. We must not relent. I saw him leave with his armour and his horses from the shade of the orange grove under the hill. There, where he goes armour and horses are a foreign language. It is not what he says but the tongue in which he says it. The forests are dark and the mountains high and empty. Darkness and emptiness, our souls that we must conquer. Listen! Even paranoids have real enemies. Even inquisitors find real heretics. Do you think I do not count the deaths, the broken fingers, the fractured jaws declaiming upon a bleeding rock? Like the Word these can only have one meaning. If there are two then there is none, the saints are only broken teeth, America engulfs us.
The Return of Martin Guerre The gears slip in the wheels of the mind -- this is the way it should be, Bertrande. You know (what do you know?). You know I will not plead with you. You know I never did. Nor did I ever accuse your being mad. Though all these months you testified against me, and all I brought you was a little happiness. You have set the inhuman machine of Law in motion and it will, of course, destroy us both. This is natural. I have spent eight years at war, and have learnt compassion from arbitrary beasts. Between the savagery and the mechanism we find a little peace. This is all. To be human is a sickness, and we must cure ourselves as best we can. But you must learn to understand the rules of circumstantial evidence, that the wealth of details tells us nothing, but is everything. Do you remember how I held Sanxi's hand, as he dismounted from the horse, and you said to yourself (sitting under the eave, with the sun in your eyes, cherries in your lap) 'No, this is not Martin, he was not so', hardened your heart against me, turning it to its old cold comfort, the preciousness of truth. Now it is all over. Now you know what truth is. In a way, of course, you were right. Happiness cannot be trusted. If you do not find a knife for your side you will sleep too long, forget the name of morning (as the dreamer pinches herself, the witch clenches her knuckles). But this love is not truth, no more than the young girl's for a horse, for blood, the boy's for his dog. We wake to strange bedfellows every day, and never vanquish time, or pain. This fellow with the straw hair, the wooden leg, is no more Martin Guerre than I am. Bertrande, my wife, my daughter, you were right. I am a fraud. And Christ have mercy on our souls. Amen.
1984 / 1498 Columbus: The Third Voyage The trouble with artists is they are overly concerned with the doings of free men. Philosophers too. What is this freedom? Freedom is an aberrant condition, at last an illusion. Brutality and constraint are the norms of history, its currency -- and what we are finally paid in, whatever we thought we were promised. I have not had much to do with those who sustained the illusion of being free -- shit-poor peasants, pressed sailors, soldiers living under threat of the lash know there is not much they can believe, not much between them and what they fear. -- The two gypsies, Catalina, Maria, glad to be unpaid whores on a creaking hulk full of roughnecks. They know their blood, their skin mean nothing to events they're caught in, the judge on the bench, the gaoler; pure chance, not mercy, spilled them here, not broken, back in Spain. Does a rat think it's free, when I hold it by the tail and smash it on a cask? Men who think, mostly, operate under curious delusions. Art is merely the continuation of war by other means, the way things speak. Our images will subjugate the continent we populate, and break it. I can foresee it now. The halberd in the gut and the shout, in Spanish, under the bright, alien sun are much the same thing. Those who most readily recognise the irrelevance of freedom can best control it, knowing it is not theirs -- the club in the paw of the beast. All palaces of gold and silver light were built by slaves. Ah Nina, my little girl, my wooden cockle shell, you speak me over the ocean, but I am afraid now of what we are saying, I did not mean these truths.
Exile The Master comes down to the black rocks to pray when he thinks no one is looking. He kneels amongst them, his cloak over his head, the wind blowing the sea-spray in, blurring his outline. Perhaps he does not think no one is looking, is not afraid. Heresy. Does he feel my eyes upon him? Does he know who I work for? Do I? Demented by pain, or the fear of pain, a man will say anything. What does he pray for, I wonder? His eyes appear to stray out, over the grey waves, as though he were looking for something, searching for some pattern in their movements. He is fascinated by proof, science, what is experimentally demonstrable. The language that things speak, words that they utter, the tongue of the inanimate, circumstance, moving under the fingers of the mind that advances, deaf and blind, in its cell. And the mind, itself, as well, can be trapped, like a fluid in a still, made to yield truths about itself, by the way it turns in the dark, the images that drop from it, evidence, dust in a vial, C that can ineluctably be deduced from A and B. Why must he listen to these voices? Why do I listen to him? Does he not realise how dangerous this siren is, this illusion of knowing things? God did not mean man to be sure of anything. I will write my masters, furl the fine ribbon on the pigeon's bony, tensing leg, pray not to meet them soon. See -- he rises, climbs back, stiffly towards the gate. The night is thick with mist, that hangs like thought, like the possibility of thought. Blue spirals, rising out of the whiteness. A terrible ignorance is thrust upon me. Does he think I love him?
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