Sunday, March 29, 2015

Follow The Light

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), The Annunciation (1899), Oil on Canvas, 57 x 71 1/4 inches (144.8 x 181 cm) Framed: 73 3/4 x 87 1/4 inches (187.3 x 221.6 cm)

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898) is a study of illumination and intimacy. The angel Gabriel appears as a shaft of amber light, brightening the room where a young Mary humbly sits. We take in what others have already noticed. Mary appears all too young, free of any kind of religious adornment. The light casts a noonish shadow, shortened as if at vernal equinox. Hanging carmine and burgundy tapestry protecting against pockmarked walls; unkempt floor rug barely covering the cobbled floor; lapis lazuli gown issuing over a roughly-hewn wooden chest; clay urns; an oil lamp whose flickering barely registers against the glowing visitant: these are all known, and yet what is truly striking about the painting is the way it captures a moment of intense intimacy. Mary is learning that she will give birth to the Son of God, and Tanner’s choice of warm, gilded hues seems at odds with the actual moment, an annunciation as expansive and radiating as it is hushed and secretive.

Mary does not avert her gaze. She stares at a point above the glimmering, somewhere beyond the picture frame. Her eyes remain intelligent and searching, committed to an act of seeing familiar to us across various registers. All are premised on knowing more things, more people, more insights. As we “look down” on the offensive or “look askance” at a problem, we also “look up” words and “look up to” people: expressions that associate seeing with a specific vantage point. Or, the very objects and images that capture our sights reveal something different or surprising once we orient ourselves at various angles.

William Eggleston, Untitled n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.) Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

This is one reason why I find William Eggleston’s work so arresting. His dye-transfer color photographs of supermarket aisles, car lots, hairdressing salons, and gas stations in the American South are mundane and meticulous. The subjects may be humdrum; a considered look reveals that they are everything but. For example, in Untitled (n.d.), a woman talks to a friend at a diner. At least, this is what we think is happening. Taken at eye-level, the photograph frames the back of the woman’s head, a greying bulb of symmetrical whorls restrained by clear, flower-topped combs. Her pink gingham dress reveals even more than what we think. The clasp on the necklace was once aligned on the center of the back of her neck, now only slightly off from the zipper top stops. This accentuates the difference in the angles between neckline and shoulder: the woman is shifting, perhaps in mid-sentence, or even covering her mouth as she is laughing at her companion’s joke. The woman is seated along the same axis her companion, each holds their cigarette with their left hand, a mirroring suggesting the two are familiar, comfortable. In this image, there is conversation without content, and yet the setting, dimly lit with seafoam green booths and dark, ruddy brickwork, reveals an intimate communiqué inside a Tennessee diner, on any night, at any time.

William Eggleston, "Red Ceiling," or Greenwood, Mississippi, Dye transfer print, 12.625 x 19.0625 in. (32.1 x 48.4 cm), 1973 (prints in MoMA and J. Paul Getty Collection)

William Eggleston, Untitled (Blue Ceiling) 1970-1973, Dye transfer print, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm.)

Should we elevate ever so slightly and train our eyes towards the ceiling, we may see something like Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). Featured on the album cover of Big Star’s Radio City, the blood red ceiling in the photograph is remarkable because it is, for lack of a better term, so red. The photograph signaled Eggleston’s true arrival into the art-photographic establishment, announcing a new artistic potential for high-saturated, dye transfer color photography. Like his other works, this photographs captures many details, from the unfinished mouldings to the posters showing sexual positions. Eggleston took this photograph supposedly inside a brothel, and though there is much to parse here in that regard, I am drawn to the light bulb. This is not necessarily because it appears as a kind of power node or nerve center, an object that conducts electricity and life into the room with cords and wires, but rather the opposite, for the bulb appears dark, and the only light in the room is the one coming from Eggleston’s camera. In fact, we are so close to the painted ceiling that it reflects the camera flash. A similar flashing appears in Untitled (Blue Ceiling), and yet here, the effect is wholly different. Other than the obvious difference in color—the blue paint does not appear as garish as the red ceiling in Greenwood, Mississippi—the light bulb in the blue room also radiates cords, wires, and lanyards, and yet it is lit, adding a bit of ambiance to the camera flash even if it still creates the harshest of shadows. Were we to tilt our heads downwards, we confront Eggleston’s Untitled (n.d.), a photograph of a small motel room whose only source of light comes from the fluorescent fixtures mounted above the bed. We are also drawn into the light, a soothing glow that gives this room an intimate, tranquil aspect. In these three photographs, light emanates and suffocates. Through these attenuated vantage points in cramped spaces, the light announces something previously unknown.

William Eggleston, Untitled, n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published in 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.), Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.

René Magritte, The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937)

Following the light, I note that the illumination in this last image of Eggleston’s recalls the glowing, bulb-like head in René Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle (Portrait of Edward James) (1937). And my goal is not to use this image for invoking something like “enlightenment,” a term with its own historical and intellectual baggages. Rather, I use Magritte’s curious portrait of Edward James, with its head exploding into a burst of radiating light, to remind (at least) myself, that ideas propagate outward. Like light, they are reflected back onto ourselves or refracted in other directions. I would like to think that this propagating light is a metaphor for writing, a practice that has been all too absent from my life of late, and which I embrace again.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Centerville/Interzone, or: Map Ref. 41°N 93°W

(Figure 1) “Views of Centerville” (Source: L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), n.p.)

From the root of our national psyche, an Exhibit of sorts. The evidence is probative, sure, but what other admissible facts, what other morsels of conjured truth are there to be found? To our esteemed Jury of Peers, to this coterie of readers whose only task is to take in this skein of confabulation, let me assure you that this Exhibit is real, but only in the sense that it is something that occurs in space and time. Like Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom (Virag) in the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), we levitate into air, beyond the stratosphere, holding our breaths as satellites and space junk whir by our geostationary lockstep. We peer into the cerulean and phthalo patchwork world below and there, a surface once familiar rendered now into a joining of parallel and meridians. Decumanus and cardo intersect somewhere in the glacial moraines of southern Iowa, among the hills the Sioux call paha.

Rivers of anthracite once flowed underneath this rolling, hummocky prospect like blackened veins. On the surface, railroad lines scored the land’s carboniferous circulatory system with iron spurs. Steam locomotives bear their bills of lading, emissaries of shipping lines that read like an abecedarium of Midwestern capital: Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul; Keokuk & Western; Iowa and St. Louis. Affluents of coal and iron join at the headlands of the Mystic Coal Bed, near a city founded in 1846, first as “Chaldea,” a riverine name, reminiscent of that alluvial flat where the Tigris and Euphrates once joined, now a settlement attracting a host of New Englanders, Central Europeans and Scandinavians, as well as profiteers seeking bounty from individual treaties with Sac, Fox, and Winnebago tribes in the wake of the Black Hawk War. Less than a year later, on January 18, 1847, a law issued by the first Iowa legislature proclaimed that this town, the seat of Appanoose County, be renamed Centerville (instead of “Senterville,” for the Tennessean William Tandy Senter, long admired by the city’s founder, the surveyor Jonathon F. Stratton). Stratton himself was an expert in all things Centerville, and in 1878, along with other early Iowans, became one of several sources for an oral, comprehensive history of Appanoose County.

Of these men, Colonel James Wells, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, became known as one of Iowa’s most famous homesteaders. Around 1839, he built a cabin in “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in the County, a platted quadrant near the berm where the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska railroad passed over the Indian River. And three years later, walking near a cabin owned by one “A. Kirkendall,” Wells spotted a man sitting at the base of a tree with his torso slumped forward. He approached the body and noticed a small, charred bullet hole rimmed with dried blood in the middle of the man’s forehead. He must not have been aware of the marksman sighting him from a distance before the fatal shot—Wells found a pencil and small, lined ledger book in the man’s hands with entries resembling “the notes of someone looking up lands; but as the township lines had not been laid, this seemed inexplicable.”[1] This was the county’s first recorded death, a plot line braided into a larger, malevolent act of fiction, for “It is barely possible that the man had been riding away a horse not his own, had been followed, captured and put to death, and that the entries had been made by his executioners, in order to lead possible inquiry on a false scent.”[2] Plot line is no different from plat line, as Wells’ homesteading is also a supreme act of fiction, a conjuring of something tangible from what once was a series of orthogonal lines on paper.

Such narratives could be skewed, literally. In his Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa (1913), L.L. Taylor, a former Justice of the Peace for the County, claimed that a “brief historical sketch” would suffice as a “fitting introduction to the history of the young and thriving state of Iowa.”[3] Yet the editor of the 1878 history of Appanoose County informed the reader, “In the absence of written records, it has often occurred that different individuals have given sincere, honest, but, nevertheless, somewhat conflicting, versions of the same events, and it has been a matter of great delicacy to harmonize these conflicting statements.”[4] For his own history of the County, Taylor included photographic plates (Figure 1), taken from the tops of buildings or at street level, of various locales within Centerville. Places like South Eighteenth Street and even the Shawville Mine appear devoid of people. The exception is the photograph of North Main Street, capturing a gathering of people and horses around a trolley making a slow jug-handle turn into the street, the only photograph that is not clipped or placed at an odd angle. These six “Views of Centerville” are distributed roughly into dual columns, yet some of the images are rotated and layered upon each other. It is far removed from the rough 4x4 grid of townships that give Appanoose County its fixed, quadrangular shape. These two images, map and photograph, offer competing narratives of Centerville. And yet the obsessive regularity of the Appanoose grid does not necessarily hint at any kind of veracity.

(Figure 2) Map of Appanoose County, Iowa (Source: Western Historical Society, The History of Appanoose County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Appanoose County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, &c. (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1878), n.p.

Centerville, however, is a name that hints to space, location, and orientation. It is the middle of a grid, a town in the cartographic center of Appanoose County. (Figure 2) Centerville finds its kindred, toponymical spirit in Interzone, a name given by another Midwesterner, William Seward Burroughs, as shorthand for the International Zone in Tangiers, an exotic destination in our literary imagination that, like Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria, becomes a code for something illicit. Whereas Durrell’s Alexandria became a purgatory for lovesick expatriates, Interzone was something much darker, last stop in a circuit for dead-eyed junkies craving for pyrethrum (distilled from the crushed flower heads of the Dalmatian Chrysanthemum, T. cinerariifolium), seeking night passage across the rachial divides of the Hindu Kush and into the incense-filled foyer of the Hotel Massilia on Rue Marco Polo, marking their transit across the continents as if dragging a leadened spike across a map. Two such itineraries begin their convergence, gliding between the Galeries Lafayette and storefronts advertising passage across the Strait of Gibraltar, on to the Boulevard Pasteur and intersecting at the Hotel Rembrandt in the nouvelle ville de Tanger. It was there that Burroughs saw Carnet de Voyage au Sahara, a show featuring English painter Brion Gysin’s aquarelles made in the North African dune seas, among the seif and barkhan. The two met briefly, with Gysin describing Burroughs as trailing “long vines” of peyote plant and adorned by an “odd blue light” emanating from his hat.[5] Another convergence occurred in 1960 in Paris, where Gysin introduced Burroughs to the Dadaist penchant for composition via the “cut-up” and “fold-in,” a method of writing by literally manipulating physical scraps of text to conjure sentences, paragraphs, and even entire novels. Burroughs embraced the cut-up technique only shortly after he dispatched his first and most well known novel, Naked Lunch (1959), a dense, hallucinatory journey through the belly of America, via Tangier, that ends with an augur’s instructions to the reader, a channeling from a near-future: “You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point.”[6]

In reaching this and subsequent “intersection points,” Burroughs transforms writing into a kind of autobiographical transport whose docket conveys grim spectra spanning everything from an addicts’ aphorism to a dopers’ needle. In a typical jeremiad, perhaps written under an oneiric haze of chloral hydrate, Burroughs channels his grandfather, William S. Burroughs I, founder of the American Arithmometer Company, invoking something of a junky’s notion of eternal return when he writes, “So listen to Old Uncle Bill Burroughs who invented the Burroughs Adding Machine Regulator Gimmick on the Hydraulic Jack Principle no matter how you jerk the handle result is always the same for given co-ordinates.”[7] Unlike grandfather Burroughs the First, famous for his hardline drawings, etchings, and centers rendered with sharpened styluses under the mirrored arc of a microscope, Burroughs opted for something more expansive: “In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas, […] a cosmonaut of inner space, and I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed.”[8] This mania for maps and mapmaking would continue in The Ticket That Exploded (1962), a true “cut-up” novel, a science fiction nightmare where giant crabs roam the landscape at the behest of the nefarious, intergalactic enterprise known as the Nova Mob. In this novel, the autobiographical and cartographical collapse into a single line of text, a moment when Burroughs maps his family history onto his own fictions: “Word is an array of calculating machines from Florida up to the old North Pole—Image track goes with it.”[9] Indeed, Burroughs jettisons linear narratives in favor of something more like a film unspooling to the end only to spool back to the beginning in an ouroboros-like manner. The dead man slouched in front of Kirkendall’s cabin, trepanned in order to unburden a secret of Iowa history, who finds a parallel in Burroughs shooting his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken game of “William Tell” in Mexico City on January 6, 1951—a montage connecting, compressing, and circulating images from disparate histories. Yet as critic Mary McCarthy observed in her review of Naked Lunch, Burroughs “has no use for history, which is all ‘ancient history,’” a moment reminiscent of another doper, the nefarious Wimpe, salesman for Ostarzneikunde GmbH (a subsidiary of I.G. Farben) in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), divulging to the Red Army operative Vaslav Tchitcherine that his role is not to interpret history, but rather to “Die to help History grow to its predestined shape.”[10] Like Bloom and Dedalus, Burroughs levitates into outer space, a “planetary perspective” that reveals another form, one where history is a “sloughed-off skin” that “shrivels into a mere wrinkling or furrowing of the surface as in an aerial relief-map or one of those pieced-together aerial photographs known in the trade as mosaics.”[11]

(Figure 3) Dust Jacket to Traveller’s Companion Series No. 91, William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (Paris: Olympia, 1962) (Source: TRB Booksellers, Albany, NY)

(Figure 4) William S. Burroughs, “Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning,” My Own Mag, No. 4 (1964) (Source: Reality Studio: A William S. Burroughs Community,

“[C]ut the prerecordings into air into thin air”[12]:  so concludes The Ticket That Exploded with a statement that is not of the air, but all-too-grounded, a reminder that the authorial act, the committing of words to the page, is really no different than cutting and pasting them on the flat surface of a page. Stories, characters, and fictions may be communicated from hands to paper via a keystroke on the ribbon of an Antares or Hermes Rocket typewriter (or with a microphone that commits the author’s words as magnetized particles onto cellulose acetate, spun through a Nagra recorder’s tape head), yet they are a heaped into a jumble of words, sentences, and paragraphs that become something recognizable, something readable. What is a novel but a mosaic of words, a pact between author and reader that the stochastic jumble of text, the endless non-sequiturs, the breakneck changes in rhythm and pacing, will resemble something like a story, one that makes up for a lack of resolution with a relentless direction and energy? Narrative becomes a topographical construct, a bailiwick with its own features, courses, and jurisdictions. It is a world unto itself, its essence captured on the dust cover to Book No. 91 of the Traveller’s Companion Series of Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press (Figure 3), the 1962 first edition of The Ticket That Exploded. Here, an aerial photograph, presumably of a World War One-era French countryside, reveals a silvery, hoary ground of convex, concave, and cyclic polygons stitched together randomly. It covers only half of the dust cover, with a simulated tear delimiting the border between image and text, an allusion to cutting-up, and underneath, “The Ticket That Exploded” appears in red grease pencil with Burroughs’ name typeset in all caps. Aerial photography and cut-up writing here become literary equivalents for the first time, a terrain where two modernist tropes—the aerial regard surplombant and fragmented, multiperspective writing—intersect to create their own terrain. More evidence of this appeared in 1964, when Burroughs published a small single-page cut-up entitled “Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning Warning” (Figure 4) for the experimental literary magazine My Own Mag. At the very top of the page, an admonition, also typeset in all caps, refers to aerial nuclear bombardment, while at the bottom, sentence fragments assemble into an 8x4 grid, “to be read every which way.” Yet the numbered columns point to a contradiction, one where the orthogonal arrangement of meridians and parallels results in something that is not regular, not ordered, but produced and fortuitous. This has always been the case with maps and aerial photographs, avatars for an incontestable way of looking at the world, an ironclad epistemology that is but a kind of highly-attenuated, high-altitude abstraction succumbing to all the vagaries and caprices of interpretation. As the sociologist Hans Speier noted in 1941, aerial views and maps are instances where science and technology “become subservient to the demands of effective symbol manipulation.”[13] An assembly of plats into an aerial mosaic, the identification of “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in Appanoose County—these may correspond to a cartographic reality, yet they are fictions that appease our desire to conjure order out of disorder.

(Figure 5) (Top) Wire, 154,, 33 1/3 rpm (EMI Records, 1979) (Bottom) Wire, Map Ref 41°N 93°W, 45 rpm (Harvest Records, 1970)

Buoyed above the Midwest in geosynchronous orbit, we once again peer below through our splayed feet at another series of lines, intersecting slightly north of Centerville, in Monroe County, Iowa, a point between Chariton and Ottumwa, on the asphalt surface of U.S. Highway 34, the Red Bull Highway, named after the 34th Infantry Division, the first Army unit deployed to Europe during World War II. There are even coordinates: 41°N 93°W, or simply, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” which is the fourth track of the second side of English band Wire’s 1979 album 154. (Figure 5) Recall vocalist Colin Newman’s words in the first verse, a reminder of what is underneath the North American grid:
Straining eyes try to understand
The works, incessantly in hand
The carving and paring of the land
The quarter square, the graph divides
Beneath the rule, a country hides [14]
With this evocation of the telltale Jeffersonian grid firmly in place, now listen to what is “beneath.” Now, carve and pare the Ampex tapes, cut the prerecordings into air into thin air acetate inscribed and sprinkled with magnetized particles corresponding to the peaks and valleys of an audio recording. Take out the strands of horsehair from your violin’s bow. Replace with a strip of tape, a recording of William S. Burroughs’ reading the words “LISTEN TO MY HEARTBEAT.” Replace your violin’s bridge with an amplified, magnetized tape head. (Figure 6) Push and pull the bow, collé, détaché, louré … until the author’s words become elongated and slowed down in sonic space. Now, listen as another singer, actually an artist, Laurie Anderson, also from the Midwest, enunciates, “Deep in the heart of darkest America. Home of the Brave. Ha! Ha! Ha! You've already paid for this. Listen to my heart beat.”[15] Landscapes become images. Images become words. And words recorded, cut-up, splice and reassemble to create a fictional America.

(Figure 6) Laurie Anderson, Tape-Bow Violin, from For Instants: Part 5, Amsterdam: De Appel, 1977 (Source: Museum of Modern Art, New York, Please Come to the Show: Invitations and Event Flyers from the MoMA Library, 

From Earth orbit down to the depths of “darkest America” lurking somewhere underneath its patchwork topographies, from handwritten plats and grids inscribed into the first county registers in Appanoose County, Iowa, and moving forward to a more recent past where dead authors come to life as voices bowed across electric violins, consider the lines journeyed, the paths traversed. We can use any number of devices to describe these spatial and temporal transits, from lines of longitude and latitude to timelines. These lines meet in locales recognizable because of names like Centerville or titles like “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.” We can even arrange these lines spatially, an ordered logic where lines marking changes in vertical altitude and passages from past to present to future time become vectors, and their intersecting planes form, of all things, a structure. And of this structure, let us give it a name. “Fiction” has a nice ring to it.



An earlier version of this essay appeared in Pidgin Magazine's "Fiction" issue from 2013. Many thanks to Nick Risteen for allowing this slightly odd piece of writing to see the light of day.

[1] Western Historical Society, The History of Appanoose County, Iowa: Containing a History of the County, Its Cities, Towns, &c., a Biographical Directory of Citizens, War Record of Its Volunteers in the Late Rebellion, General and Local Statistics, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest, History of Iowa, Map of Appanoose County, Constitution of the United States, Miscellaneous Matters, &c. (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1878), 334.
[2] Ibid.
[3] L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), 1.
[4] Western Historical Society, Preface to The History of Appanoose County, Iowa, n.p.
[5] Brion Gysin, Let The Mice In (New York: Something Else Press, 1973), 8.
[6] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1992 [1959]), 203.
[7] Burroughs, Introduction to Naked Lunch, xviii-xix.
[8] Burroughs, “The Future of the Novel” (1964), in Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, eds. Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 294.
[9] Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded (New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, 1994 [1962]), 147.
[10] Mary McCarthy, “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe,” The New York Review of Books, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1, 1963), n.p. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1973), 715.
[11] McCarthy, "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe," n.p.
[12] Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 217.
[13] Hans Speier, “Magic Geography”, Social Research, 8:1/4 (1941), 313.
[14] Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, and B.C. Gilbert, “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W,” by Wire, in 154, EMI, 1979, 33 rpm.
[15] Laurie Anderson, “Sharkey’s Day,” in Mister Heartbreak, Warner Bros., 1984, 33 rpm. For her performance of “Late Show,” from her concert film, Home of The Brave (1986), Anderson played a tape-bow violin with a recording of William S. Burroughs’ saying “Listen to my heartbeat.”

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thomas Pynchon's 115th Dream

Hibbing High School, Hibbing Minnesota, From The Air (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)

"I think I'll call it America" / I said as we hit land"
-Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman), Hibbing High School, Class of 1959 [1]

Dear Reader, for this inaugural excursion into the American landscape, indulge me for a moment and let me parse the above epigram. If your tastes gravitated once towards the mythical and legendary, this brief quote may cause you to recall a series of stories and images, of the Mayflower, an oaken sloop dashed upon a rocky Massachusetts coast, of Colonies of the Bay and Lost varieties, of Myles Standish standing proud, or even of the Wampanaog emissary Tisquantum planting oily mossbunker in the Plymouth loam. You may even imagine the leathery boot with rusted lachets making transition from gunwale to granite, with a weatherbeaten William Bradford in oilskin frock declaring the visto unfurling before his eyes a map made real, of meridians and parallels, hachures and rosa ventorum—all becoming trees and sand. He thinks he’ll call it America, so the epigram goes, with nary a mention of Vespucci or Vinland, at least not yet.

Here are the beginnings not of America, but of “America,” words belonging to one “Captain Arab,” the Captain of the Mayflower who is not ingrained in our historical consciousness as much as he is part of our pop cultural landscape. He is a character in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” Bob Dylan’s raucous send-up of the American originary myth from his 1965 album, Bringing it All Back Home. It is a song known as much for its false start—Dylan begins to sing “I was riding on the Mayflower/When I thought I spied some land”[2] before breaking down in laughter and having to restart the song—as for its fabulous concoction of a New World replete with French bistros (staffed by angry servers and exploding cookware), English hot dog stands, “hobo sailors,” malfunctioning telephone booths, bowling alleys, and even a cameo appearance by a jail bound Christopher Columbus. This is not the duck-jacketed Dylan we see on the hazy cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, huddled with Suze Rotolo on the corner of Jones and West 4th Streets—as idyllic an image of Greenwich Village as we will ever know. This is Electric Dylan, appearing rakish and squinty-eyed on the cover of Bringing it All Back Home, sitting on a musty couch in a cluttered living room in Woodstock, New York with a reclining Sally Grossman. They are surrounded by mid-sixties ephemera, from Robert Johnson and Françoise Hardy albums, to a Time magazine cover featuring Lyndon B. Johnson, and even a wayward Fallout Shelter sign. (Aficionados of this album will recall that the original version this photo shoot reveals a book at Dylan’s feet—the Bollingen edition of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching, the same version that inspired Philip K. Dick to write The Man in the High Castle three years before.) “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” finds our former folk revivalist about to become the Stratocaster-wielding De Tocqueville we know from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—parrying his sonic parting shot on unsuspecting ears thanks to a rollicking version of “Maggie’s Farm” (the third track from Bringing it All Back Home), barely drowning out the audience’s caterwauling.

This historical comparison is not far-fetched. Something like the booing at Newport can be found, perhaps not surprisingly, in some of the first travelogues of the American landscape. In 1709, the English explorer John Lawson wrote A New Voyage to Carolina, an account of his experiences among the Catawba and Waxhaw tribes in North and South Carolina. He took keen interest in how their warriors “have a Tune, which is allotted for that Dance; as, if it be a War-Dance, they have a warlike Song, wherein they express, with all the Passion and Vehemence imaginable, what they intend to do with their Enemies; how they will kill, roast, sculp, beat, and make Captive, such and such Numbers of them; and how many they have destroy'd before.”[3] Alexis De Tocqueville, in the first chapter of the first book of his Democracy in America (1835), would map his own interest in song to the physical “Outward Configuration of North America”—a true description of the North American landscape on par with Lawson’s. Pages of rapturous prose evoking everything from the tributaries feeding into the Great Lakes, spreading into “vast marshes, losing themselves in the watery labyrinth,” to the fertile valleys between the Alleghenies and the “godlike” Mississippi, find De Tocqueville noting how the “Indian knew how to live without needs, suffer without complaint, and die with a song on his lips.”[4] I am partial to the version of this passage appearing in the 1835 Henry Reeve translation—“The Indian could live without wants, suffer without complaint, and pour out his death-song at the stake.”[5]  In his notes, Reeve traces De Tocqueville’s knowledge of Indian death rattles to Jesuit writer Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix’s history of the French-Indian war, Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (1744). Reeve, a cautious documenter as there ever was (he was a lawyer and friend of the blind Swiss naturalist, François Huber), also noted Charlevoix’s account of French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s travels with Iroquois and Huron war parties, yet did not delve into a well-known part of this episode: while one war party was torturing its prisoners, Champlain, who refused to participate initially, resolved any moral dilemma by ending one captive’s suffering with a coup de grâce to the skull with the bloodied stock of an arquebus. Instead, Reeve gave ear to a Huron warrior berating a prisoner for “all the cruelties which he had practised upon the warriors of their nation,” who, before the violent deed, tells the prisoner “that if he had any spirit he would prove it by singing.” Thanks to Reeve, the whole incident becomes a kind of musical commentary. The Huron warrior “immediately chanted forth his death-song, and then his war-song, and all the songs he knew, ‘but in a very mournful strain,’ says Champlain, who was not then aware that all savage music has a melancholy character.”[6]  Could this be one of the earliest descriptions of the Blues? It would not be hard to imagine a Lawson or De Tocqueville, in essence musical anthropologists in disguise, transforming into an Alan Lomax, plumbing the depths of the wilderness to catalogue the distinct strains of a musical America, searching along the Mississippi for the elusive blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who would, of course, haunt Dylan’s early work.

Dylan would later craft a kind of musical theogony, casting Johnson as an Alabama Athena or Mississippi Minerva, “a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.”[7] And such talk of crazed wanderings, of lightning bolts and explosions of mad genius should remind us that Dylan’s “Arab” is a cipher for that other famous American seagoer, the mercurial, monomaniacal, “ungodly, god-like” Captain Ahab of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851). Like Leo Marx, we would declare Melville’s seaborne yarns as constituting that most American of conventions, the landscape tale, incorporating everything from a young harpoonist in Typee securing passage “across an inscrutable Pacific wilderness” to the whaleship Pequod leaving a foamy wake like “the track of a railroad crossing a continent.”[8] Now, the landscape metaphor is more deeply ingrained, literally. Ishmael, who has assumed Moby-Dick’s narrative mantle only because he has “lived to tell the tale,” considers a deep, grim significance under Ahab’s impassioned fervor: the Captain’s “full lunacy subsided not, but deepingly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge.”[9] The riverine metaphor, with its relentless directionality, suggests something of a sinister corridor raging through the mad captain’s designs, a mania perhaps best encapsulated in his tête-à-tête with Moby-Dick, “from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,”[10]  a moment punctuated by the launch of blood-tempered harpoon. “Arab” has no pretensions, and playing electric bard to Melville’s Ishmael, Dylan sings:
He said, “Let’s set up a fort
And start buying the place with beads”
Just then this cop comes down the street
Crazy as a loon
He throw us all in jail
For carryin’ harpoons.[11]
For Dylan, his 115th dream was a hallucinatory romp, part-Woody Guthrie, part-Rimbaud, echoing other famous travels. I would be remiss in not mentioning Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck, who channels Twain’s own experiences as a river pilot, drifts lazily, memorizing the landscape, using his own words to animate the world along the banks of the Mississippi. Here, explorer, folk and blues singer, and river pilot alike are allied in a kind of cultural revision with fabulist, humorist, and scholar, all sounding a course through their own personalized America, transforming its landscape into a shared memory, an “America” for all. No wonder, then, that Constance Rourke introduces her own excursus on “American Humor” with another riverine metaphor, one less glib than Ishmael’s: “In the nation, as comedy moves from a passive effervescence into the broad stream of a common possession, its bearings become singularly wide.”[12] The main device for wanderings along the internal navigable waters of the “American” consciousness is the line. Were I to share my own impressions of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” to a friend, I would say something like, “There’s this line I really like. It’s really funny. It goes like this …” Yet the line can also be quite literal, for when Huck meanders down the Mississippi, taking in the world from horizon to horizon, he “sets out” anchoring lines along the cottonwoods, notices the “pale line” marking the transition from river to sky, the “long black streaks” formed by currents in the still, morning waters. For Leo Marx, Huck’s lines are especially apposite, as “Sentences flow in perfect cadence, without strain or stilted phrase or misplaced word.”[13] In short, to mark a course through the landscape is to write the landscape. And to write the landscape, the implement of choice creates a mark, from a harpoon’s jagged scar, to a flatboat’s spumy backwash, to the groove on a 33 1/3 rpm long-player. 

Leave it to Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, astronomer and surveyor, respectively, to engage in the original act of writing the American landscape. Like their historical namesakes, the titular heroes of Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon are entrusted with creating, and more importantly, inscribing the figurative lines of demarcation that will separate Pennsylvania from Maryland, and Maryland from Delaware—the “purest of intersections mark’d so far upon America.”[14] It is Pynchon’s most linear (and in a sense, straightforward) narrative. Matching “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” in hilarity and tone (if not in subject matter), Mason & Dixon charts a different course for the founding of America. Astronomers and surveyors hobnob with familiar figures cast in comic light, such as a marijuana-growing George Washington who moonlights as a stand-up comic and a mysterious, smoke-lensed Benjamin Franklin crafting his own version of the Dutch East India Company in the Ohio Valley. The art and science of geodesy still takes center stage as Mason and Dixon travel throughout the world to first record the Transit of Venus before interacting with shadowy syndicates and marshal arts societies on the eve of the American Revolution. In the end, the novel progresses along with the line of demarcation, a fact not lost upon the narratives, weaved often into interlacing, coiled strands that in some way or form always seem to concern lines, whether figurative or literal. The act of surveying and casting meridians and parallels begins with taking the readings of stars, a process that is not unlike the writing of narratives—at least this is how in one of the novel’s manifold inspired moments, Mason describes geodesy to Dixon as “Numbers nocturnally obtain’d be set side by side, and arrang’d into Lines, like those of a Text, manipulated until a Message be reveal’d.”[15] Conversations hardly stray away from such conceits, and the link between map, landscape and writing culminates in a moment echoing De Tocqueville’s “Outward Configuration of North America” (translated by Reeve as “Exterior Form of North America”) when a fellow surveyor tells Dixon, “This ‘New World’ was ever a secret Body of Knowledge,— meant to be studied with the same dedication as the Hebrew Kabbala would demand. Forms of the Land, the flow of water, the occurrence of what us’d to be call’d Miracles, all are Text,— to be attended to, manipulated, read, remember’d.”[16] 

But to what extent is the creation of such lines fiction? As recounted by one of the novel’s main narrators, the Rev’d Wicks Cherrycoke, “The Line makes itself felt,” and yet “as long as its Distance from the Post Mark’d West remains unmeasur’d, nor is yet recorded as Fact, may it remain, a-shimmer, among the few final Pages of its Life as Fiction.”[17] The fictions in Mason & Dixon are recursive, layered upon each other and creating a dense narratological web. As in Dylan’s 115th dream, here fact also mixes with fiction, as evidenced by the epigrams from nonexistent books that appear alongside more familiar names. Those with an inclination towards Aristarchus and Hipparchus, and who have also just taken in cameo appearances by novelist Patrick O’Brian as well as colonial American analogues for Popeye and “Mister” Spock, may take some refuge in the following passage from Timothy Tox’s fake-epic poem, the epically titled Pennsylvaniad, itself another example of Mason & Dixon’s “geodesickal” imagination:
Let Judges judge, and Lawyers have their Day,
Yet soon or late, the Line will find its Way,
For Skies grow thick with aviating Swine,
Ere men pass up the chance to draw the Line.[18] 
With such talk of “aviating swine,” we remind ourselves that sometimes pigs do indeed fly—and they surely do in Mason & Dixon. Dixon is a protégé of the mathematician William Emerson, who teaches surveying as literal flight above the landscape (reducing the modernist notion of the aerial “God’s eye view” into pure technique) and claims that before surveyors “learn’d to fly, they had to learn about Maps, for Maps are the Aides-mémoires of flight.”[19] And mapmaking is “a journey onward, into a Country unknown,—an Act of Earth, irrevocable as taking Flight.”[20] 

Making maps, telling stories, writing lyrics—all these are “Acts of Earth” which not only document, but also create the American landscape. And the process is translated ninety degrees, from the orthogonal space of map to the rough surface of a wall. At least this is that the Wolf of Jesus, a Jesuit operative plotting not cartographical revenge, but true bloodlust against Colonials from a fortified monastery in Québec, reveals during one of the many fantastical passages in Mason & Dixon: “As a Wall, projected upon the Earth’s Surface, becomes a right Line, so shall we find that we may shape, with arrangements of such Lines, all we may need, be it in a Crofter’s hut or a great Mother-City,—Rules of Precedence, Routes of Approach, Lines of Sight, Flows of Power,—.”[21] To make a map is to make a wall, and to cast something on a wall is to tell a story of the land. George Rippey Stewart, that erstwhile documenter of American place-naming, wrote of this urge to project when he noted how “The frontier was not only of the land, but also in the minds of men” who “enjoyed pastoral landscapes no longer, but looked admiringly at the canvases of the Hudson River School—chasms and waterfalls and rough mountains in the mist.”[22] These canvases, hung on American walls in Stewart’s idyllic New England are not unlike those found by rock critic Greil Marcus in 2007 on a pilgrimage to Hibbing, Minnesota to see Dylan’s alma mater, Hibbing High School. Marcus lit off on this trip based on a former Hibbing resident’s testimony, “If you’d been to Hibbing, you’d know why Bob Dylan came from there. There’s poetry on the walls.”[23] Upon his arrival to Hibbing High, Marcus indeed did see something on its walls: “We gazed up at old-fashioned but still majestic murals depicting the history of Minnesota, with bold trappers surrounded by submissive Indians, huge trees and roaming animals, the forest, and the emerging towns.”[24] 

The tour of Hibbing High concludes with a dream-like vision of the very auditorium where Robert Zimmerman began his transformation into Bob Dylan. There, on the auditorium walls, “gilded paintings of muses waited; they smiled over the proscenium arch, too, over a stage that, in imitation of thousands of years of ancestors, had the weight of immortality hammered into its boards.”[25] It is a lovely image, of ghosts from time immemorial, of landscapes fading into an earlier history. Here, then, are the origins of Dream Number 115, our peregrination through the heart of the wilderness into something that is truly, deeply, ours. America. At least that’s what we think we’ll call it.



A version of this essay was first published in the first issue of Manifest: A Journal of American Architecture and Urbanism (2013). Infinite thanks are in order to the editors Anthony Acciavatti, Justin Fowler, and Dan Handel, for allowing me to be part of this issue. This essay is for them. 

[1] Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” by Bob Dylan, in Bringing it All Back Home, CBS, 1965, 33 rpm.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And A Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, &c. (London, 1709).
[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Arthur Goldhammer, trans. (New York: Library of America, 2004), 21, 28. This reads a bit less dramatic in French: “L’Indien savait vivre sans besoins, souffrir sans se plaindre, et mourir et chantant.” De Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, Volume 1 (Paris: Lévy, 1864), 37.
[5] De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book 1, Henry Reeve, trans. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862), 9.
[6] Henry Reeve, Appendix to De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2 (New York: Appleton, 1899), 833.
[7] Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Knopf, 2004), 282.
[8] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 [1964]), 196, 282.
[9] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851), 204.
[10] Ibid., 633
[11] Dylan, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” CBS, 1965, 33 rpm.
[12] Constance Rourke, American Humor: A Study of the National Character (New York: NYRB Classics, 2004 [1931]), 11.
[13] Marx, “Pilot and Passenger: Landscape Conventions and the Style of Huckleberry Finn,” American Literature, Vol. 28, No. 2 (May, 1956), 146, 131.
[14] Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (New York: Henry Holt, 1997), 469.
[15] Ibid., 479.
[16] Ibid., 487.
[17] Ibid., 650.
[18] Ibid., 257.
[19] Ibid., 504.
[20] Ibid., 531.
[21] Ibid., 522.
[22] George R. Stewart, Names in the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (New York: NYRB Classics, 2008 [1945]), 270.
[23] Greil Marcus, “A Trip to Hibbing High School,” Daedalus, Vol. 136, No. 2, On Sex (Spring, 2007), 116. A version of this essay appears in Marcus, “Hibbing High School and the ‘Mystery of Democracy,” in Colleen Josephine Sheehy and Thomas Swiss, eds. Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 3-14.
[24] Ibid., 119
[25] Ibid.