5/30/17

Wladimir Velminski wafts us to the wilder shores of Soviet experimentation: cybernetics and telepathy research aimed at controlling society by 'implanting' thoughts. The pseudoscience is extreme


Wladimir Velminski, Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny, Trans. by Erik Butler, MIT, 2017

In October 1989, as the Cold War was ending and the Berlin Wall about to crumble, television viewers in the Soviet Union tuned in to the first of a series of unusual broadcasts. “Relax, let your thoughts wander free . . .” intoned the host, the physician and clinical psychotherapist Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky. Moscow’s Channel One was attempting mass hypnosis over television, a therapeutic session aimed at reassuring citizens panicked over the ongoing political upheaval—and aimed at taking control of their responses to it. Incredibly enough, this last-ditch effort to rally the citizenry was the culmination of decades of official telepathic research, cybernetic simulations, and coded messages undertaken to reinforce ideological conformity. In Homo Sovieticus, the art and media scholar Wladimir Velminski explores these scientific and pseudoscientific efforts at mind control.
In a fascinating series of anecdotes, Velminski describes such phenomena as the conflation of mental energy and electromagnetism; the investigation of aura fields through the “Aurathron”; a laboratory that practiced mind control methods on dogs; and attempts to calibrate the thought processes of laborers. “Scientific” diagrams from the period accompany the text. In all of the experimental methods for implanting thoughts into a brain, Velminski finds political and metaphorical contaminations. These apparently technological experiments in telepathy and telekinesis were deployed for purely political purposes.


Homo Sovieticus analyzes the convergence between culture and experimental science, the point at which mental energy becomes art through a series of relays from the laboratory to the studio. The book demonstrates that the Soviet ‘New Man’ was missing a crucial limb: the brain. Its conditioning by scientists, politicians, and writers is the focus of Velminski’s study.”—Sven Spieker

Wladimir Velminski illuminates an obscure but deeply influential stratum in the history of social control. By examining a series of Soviet patents, concepts, fictions, and events he demonstrates the deep-set cultural and scientific belief that minds, souls, and ultimately entire nations might be manipulated through the combined applications of technology and telepathy.”—Mark Pilkington


This slim treatise by media scholar Wladimir Velminski wafts us to the wilder shores of Soviet experimentation: cybernetics and telepathy research aimed at controlling society by 'implanting' thoughts. The pseudoscience is extreme, not least in the work of electrical engineer Bernard Kazhinsky, who posited that humans are radio stations, and thoughts electromagnetic waves. Perhaps oddest were the 1989 mass-hypnosis sessions on Moscow television, in which clinical psychotherapist Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky attempted to shape public response to the fall of the Berlin Wall. - Barbara Kiser 


This short book examines Soviet efforts to use brain waves and mind control to create their workers utopia primarily in the first part of the 20th century. Velminski locates these efforts not at the fringe of the scientific establishment, but as closely tied to research into psychology, telecommunication, and scientific management in the first three decades of the 20th century. Soviet adaptations of Taylorism (one of my favorite topics for consideration in our contemporary society) explored the link between industrial practices, movement, and observation not as the basis for simply more efficient workers, but as a way to pool mental resources and promote invention and innovation. This research brought together physical and mental activities in ways that are strikingly modern and offered a particularly Soviet definition of inventor not as the contemplative tinkerer, but as the corporate citizen who combined keen observation and optimized physical movement to synchronize brain waves and create new ideas.
The idea that television and radio waves could be synchronized with brain waves to communicate directly to the mind developed in parallel to television technology in the 1920s and 1930s. Both scientific literature and in science fiction expected that broadcasting thoughts could serve to control and coordinate collective actions on a local and even national scale. Broadcasting television brought together the transmission of ideas, electromagnetic waves, and the physical features of broadcasting towers in the landscape in Soviet thought and located at this intersection new forms of thinking and being that characterized homo sovieticus.
Scientists interested in the electrical signature of the human nervous system used more sensitive electrical devices to detect “brain waves” that emanate from the connection between the brain and various organs. These, like the earliest forms of research grounded in particular Soviet approaches to Taylorism, recognized that the body, at its core, depended upon the same electrical modes of communication as the Soviet state. The hope was that by registering the communication within the body, one could diagnose and perhaps even heal illnesses.
The book concludes with the remarkable broadcasts by Soviet psychic Anatoly Kashpirovsky who sought to induce mass hypnosis during the tumultuous days at the end of the Soviet Union. Velminski parallels this with the work of Pavel Pepperstein and his remarkable film Hypnosis (which I’ll let you Google on your own!). Velminski returns to his initial case study of the Soviet adaptation of a kind of mental Taylorism and argues that the transmission of thought whether through parapsychological means or more conventional broadcasting relies on a kind of neural prosthesis through which we recognize, interpret, and analyze relationships between what is broadcast and what we see.
This book offers a garbled and complicated lens through which to read the current political and media climate in the U.S. Efforts to control the message pushed out via partisan outlets and to obfuscate rival recognizes idea that the media is a prosthesis to mind of the state, but, as Vilminski has shown, a deeply imperfect one. The static, disruptions, and complexities of reception and the recursive efforts to correct, improve, and synchronize the message with the ideas of the transmitter. Far from being distinct from the world of brain waves and mind control, the theories of media and broadcasting that developed over the course of the 20th and 21st century had clear parallels both in their technical dimensions, shortcomings, and goals. - Bill Caraher


In autumn 1989, when the Berlin Wall was already crumbling and the Soviet Union was in the throes of perestroika, with all the chaos and shortages it entailed, an extraordinary event could be seen on TV screens throughout the Soviet Empire. I was living in Moscow and remember only too well a composed middle-aged man with piercing eyes popping up on Channel One straight after the evening Vremia (‘Time’) news show – the prime slot. He was Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky, a licensed psychotherapist shown in the photograph above conducting a mass hypnosis ‘seance’ at around the same time. For the first time in the history of the USSR, he offered millions of disgruntled viewers a 30-minute-long session of direct TV hypnosis. “Relax and let your thoughts wander free,” he began.
The following day, Kashpirovsky was the talk of the country. Five more TV sessions were to follow during which the hypnotist, among other things, encouraged each viewer to place a glass of water in front of the TV screen and then claimed to have charged the water with his own energy, so that drinking it could provide the ultimate healing experience.
On another occasion, he ‘charged’ a copy of that day’s newspaper which made the whole nation wonder what one was supposed to do with it afterwards: put it up on the wall and stare at it or gobble it up for breakfast? The latter would have been more appropriate, for in most Soviet households, there was not much food on offer.
The main purpose of these excursions into the paranormal – which were somewhat unexpected for the rampantly atheist Soviet television – was obvious: to distract the long-suffering people of the collapsing Soviet Union from the vicissitudes of their miserable lives.
Also, as Wladimir Velminski correctly points out in this revealing and highly unusual book, “Kashpirovsky’s transmission represents the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the Communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing.” It was indeed the last of the very many efforts to mind-control the submissive Soviet crowd, efforts that began straight after the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917 and continued up to the USSR’s spectacular collapse in 1991.



‘Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control, and Telepathic Destiny’ (MIT Press, £14.95, ISBN 9780262035699) chronicles and describes the technologies behind them all. Reading this book, I remembered my Moscow 1980s neighbour Misha, a doctor of psychology, who bragged about working at a top-secret military facility developing means and methods for manipulating large crowds of people.
“The question is how to educate and control the human being,” Leon Trotsky infamously wrote. Constant fear of repression and purges was one way of such control. From the Soviet tyrants’ point of view, fear was not enough on its own. To achieve full control, they tried to mobilise science and technology.
They recruited a number of talented engineers and inventors. Some of these like Aleksei Gastev, began as idealistic believers in the construction, or ‘calibration’ as Gastev himself would put it, of ‘the New Man’. He invented and patented a device using which supposedly caused the worker “to be calibrated in such a way that he operates as part of an organic system without outside intervention”. The sketch of that peculiar appliance “for exercising the joint of the elbow or wrist in teaching work with a hammer” is reproduced in the book.
Like many of his ilk, Gastev’s story ended badly. His passion for early cybernetics and computer technologies, both declared ‘pseudo sciences’ by the Soviet officialdom, led to his arrest for ‘counter-revolutionary terrorist activities’ in 1938 and execution in 1939.
Current developments in robotics and artificial intelligence make this compact paperback, with lots of scientific, political and literary references, particularly topical now. Where do we stop before we all end up being manipulated by new financial and political tyrants? Lots to think about and to discuss.
[One small aside: The term ‘Homo Sovieticus’ was coined not by Velminski himself, but by a distinguished Russian writer and philosopher Alexander Zinoviev (1922-2006), who deserves to be credited.] -


This is a strange, unsettling and weirdly great little book about the strange and unsettlingly weird attempts of the Soviet Union to master brain waves, mind control and telepathic destiny in order to control the masses. Read this book alongside Svetlana Alexievich’s necessary books about Homo Sovieticus to further understand how the Soviets attempted to guide its people towards Utopia. Read it alongside current research and advances in Neuroscience and Artificial intelligence (AI), and see how far this pioneering work of the Soviets is now bearing fruit in the rest of the world. One example of this is at the intersection between network neuroscience and network control theory where we find work examining how network control fundamentally relates to mind control. The basic idea behind this kind of control is straightforward. Injecting energy into one part of a network should influence activity in other parts of the network. Read alongside books such as ‘Acid Dreams’ by Martin A Lee and Bruce Shlain about the CIA obsession with LSD as truth serum; Melvin Powers’ ‘Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis’ and ‘Hynoptism Revealed’; Herman Sherman and Sir Hubert Wilkins’ ‘Thoughts through Space’ first published in 1941, a “well documented” account of the Wilkins-Sherman experiment in long distance telepathy where “ Wilkins and Sherman, though 3,400 miles apart – one encamped on the snow swept Arctic Tundra, the other living in a Manhattan apartment – kept in mind-to-mind contact three nights a week for three months”; J.C. Lily’s ‘Communication Between Man and Dolphin,’ ‘Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer’ of which Timothy Leary writes: ‘ Start thinking of your brain as a biocomputer. Wet warc. Start thinking of your minds (plural) as your software. You know, sloppy disks that you use to process your thoughts and create images on the screens of your consciousness. This is the basic concept of the Cybernetic (Information) Age. I consider it the crowning achievement of post-industrial philosophy. Is not J.C. Lilly the ultimate reality hacker of our era?’; and A.R. Luria’s ‘Cognitive Development- Its Cultural and Social Foundations’, ‘Higher Cortical Functions of Man’, ‘The Making of Mind – A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology’ and the rest of Luria’s works of which Oliver Sachs writes: ‘The new science of brain/mind which Freud envisaged came into being in the Second World War, in Russia, as the joint creation of A.R. Luria (and his father, R.A. Luria), Leontev Anokhin, Bernstein and others , and was called by them ‘neuropsychology.’ The development of this immensely fruitful science was the lifework of AR Luria, and considering its revolutionary importance it was somewhat slow in reaching the West.’
What strikes anyone today about the current state of play regarding how governments seek to control societies is how ‘soft control’ in the West, as laid out by Chomsky and Herman in ‘Manufacturing Consent- The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ and by Chomsky in ‘ Necessary Illusions – Thought Control in Democratic Societies’ is being supplemented by a technological prosthetic utopianism of which the Soviet experiments presented here are eerily prescient. Dreams of wars without soldiers, cars without drivers, work without workers and minds without consciousness or willpower (just intelligence) are being presented as dreams not nightmares. What strikes the reader of ‘Homo Sovieticus’, and what makes it such a strange and weird read, is the lack of dystopian alarm bells ringing for any of its protagonists. The same sense of unease strikes me when I listen to our current technocratic apologists when they talk about the latest advance in AI: have Elon Musk and co had Frankenstein bypasses somewhere along the line – or is that deficit the price they – and the rest of us – pay for their amazing gifts? What also struck me was how the Soviet scientists, technologists and futurologists overestimated their ability to deliver on their visions for the future. Their research programmes ended up with little to show despite their grandiloquent promises and one is left wondering whether our current crop are going to similarly fall short of delivering on their promissory notes.
The Soviet experiment in mind control is therefore, among other things, a fascinating prototype of our contemporary landscape. The story is a harbinger for what is to come, but with the sad and genuinely pathetic payoff of Soviet bathetic failure. The story is about how belief in science coupled to metaphors from the cutting edge technology of its day resulted in research programmes and practices designed to support the prevailing ideology of the state. Today the metaphors that dominate research are the computer, AI and the algorithm, back then it was radio, cybernetics and electromagnetism. The climax shows the crumbling Soviets as ridiculous rather than dangerous: one wonders why anyone thought that world domination was even a remote possibility by the time we get to its final demise.
The culmination of this strange story is a series of tv broadcasts in 1989. As the Berlin Wall fell and perestroika fulfilled its aim to end the Soviet experiment Anatoly Mikhailovich Kashpirovsky broadcast six programmes on Channel 1 to millions of Soviet citizens:
‘You can leave your eyes open for a while. Have a look at your surroundings. There should be no pointed objects, and no fire. Your posture should be stable. If anyone is seriously ill – for example, suffering from epilepsy – please do not participate in our séance; simply turn off the television.’
The first of the six was broadcast at 8.30, 8th October 1989 straight after the evening news. Kashpirovsky was a licensed physician who had provided services to the national weightlifting team. This was the team that at the Seoul games of 1988 had dominated the event and won six gold medals (and the whole games had been dominated by the Soviets, which had won 132 medals overall, and his reputation was such afterwards that his psychic tunings had reached beyond mere sport.) As the society collapsed it was thought that he would be able to heal the body politic by turning citizen’s minds away from the chaos and turbulence to new goals.
After the first tv viewing Leipzig exploded and mass demonstrations broke out for the first time against the GDR. Kashpirovsky’s second session lasted twenty minutes. Between the third session on 5th November and the fourth two weeks later Channel 1 announced, on Fiday November 10th , that the Berlin Wall had been opened the previous evening. Kashpirovsky charged drinking water in people’s homes with his psychic energy and audiences continued to receive his messages in order to refocus their faltering image of the world.
‘At the end of this confrontation of two systems, East and West – which each coordinated the assembled opinions [Meinungsbilder] of the public to strategic ends – people on the Soviet side sat engrossed by a televisual spiritist session: a miracle cure, technologically induced intoxication to dam up doubts and banish secret thoughts into the “iron cage of the unconscious”. Kashpirovsky’s transmission represents the last effort of Soviet power to initiate the citizenry into the mysteries of the communist apparatus that was in the course of disappearing.’
All sorts of hokum pseudo-philosophy purports to comprehend this nonsense. Pavel Pepperstein, who made films based on his revolutionary thoughts about this involving women staring at semi erect penises, writes:
‘The energy that enables the sign to hold us in a hypnotised state steams from two sources. The first source is the functioning of the sign in the sphere of its perception (that is, the “presence” of the sign). The second source is the sign’s history, its mysterious past, which includes the highly enigmatic moment of how something is transformed into a sign that was not a sign before.’
He asks about this ‘enigmatic moment’ by asking the difference between phallus and penis. His thirty minute film ‘Hypnosis’ asserts that the penis moves from mere non-signification to signification via erection. This movement is for Pepperstein ‘one of the most mesmerizing omissions of our culture.’
There is reason to believe that Pepperstein believed what he was saying and doing. There is no reason for us to.

That the control of the masses was a central concern of the Soviets right from the start is clear: Trotsky himself writes:
‘The question of how to educate and control the human being, how to improve and perfect physical and mental construction, poses an enormous problem that can only be understood on the basis of socialism.’
This book shows just how seriously the Soviets took to investigating collective brainwashing via the controlling influence of science and technological (radio) fetish. The very first page shows us a diagram taken from work by Soviet cybernetic scientist Pavel Gulyaev in 1965 subtitled, ‘Material Foundations of Telepathy.’ (One of the great things about this book are the diagrams). The neural prosthetics that are discussed in the book are not medical implants that alter mental states from within but external prosthetics that attempt to alter the thoughts from outside. The aim of the work was to send coded messages, symbolised in the diagram as a Soviet Star, to the whole of Soviet society, and propagate and establish uniformity.

One of the key figures in the book is Gulaev. Gulaev’s work connects with Freud’s ‘prostehetic God’ but not via the ‘natural aspirations’ of a culture but rather via attempts to control, guide, switch, steer and control. Electromagnetic stimuli rather than dreams were the engine, fulfilling the Leninist slogan, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole land.” And the experimental nature of the whole state is presaged in Trotsky declaring:
‘ Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness, and economy in his work, his walk, and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, and reproduction; within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiological life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training.’
This resulted in attempts to develop higher social-biological types, blending futurist and constructivist ideas of the 1920s with cybernetics. Vladimir Bekhterev (1857-1927) transformed the labour ergonomics of Aleksei Gastev (1882-1932) into creative-dynamic-energetic circuits implemented, in a lab setting, as rhetorical-informational circuits. Television pioneer Hovannes Abromovich Adamian (1879-1932) worked on auatic-electromagnetic networks and were the basis for hypothetical-telepathic circuitry. The construction of epistemological objects was tied to ways in which they were presented and staged.
Gulaev pivoted from the work of Aleksei Kapitonovitch Gastev, futurist and propagandist for Taylorism in the USSR who wanted the dreamer to be the ‘ austere, flexible, and constructively thinking dreamer who can quickly discern the relationship between one phenomenon and another,’ who looked for the calibration of work on all levels via inventors who ‘cycle through, in a moment, all conceivable variants and remember, quick as lightening, whether the same thing has already occurred on another machine or device, in another instance.’ Contra Kazmir Malevich, who looked to end ‘further development, invention, labour and creation,’ Gastev looked to advance all of these. He combined futuristic new-machine man poetics with Taylorism’s ‘tough and hierarchical ergometry.’
Gestev was close to Lenin and wrote futuristic poetry about people and factory machines: ‘We Grow Out Of Iron’ goes:
‘Look! I stand among workbenches,
Hammers, furnaces, forges, and among a hundred
Comrades,
Overhead hammered iron space.

Fresh iron blood pours into my veins.
I have grown taller.
I too am growing shoulders of steel and arms
Immeasurably strong.
I am one with the building’s iron.’

The 1917 revolution ‘gave rise to complex interdisciplinary conditions favouring the institutional exchange of scientific practices and methods.’ He worked to regulate work and movement in sequences that were thought out in advance to engineer the fusion of man and machine via ‘training-agitation.’
‘By creating determinate sequences of settings, reconstructing them, and improving them – always in relation to laboratory experiments and the experience of production – we will advance toward exercising active influence on the organism, training it, and creating new, organised reflexes.’
So humans were to be refitted so that they overcome sluggishness and became New Men whereby ‘The whole worker has organically fused with the factory mechanism as a whole.’ By ‘setting’ Gastev meant the setting of the ‘ framework for a given machine, erecting all the parts necessary to make it operate, then adjusting the machine…’ and this evolved into an administrative function. He explicitly links this to invoking a new cultural disposition ‘It is a matter of love for labour, for the constructive ease of physical toil, for cultivated artistic work. … It concerns a sphere of work that has never existed before.’

Gastev drew parallels with life sciences. ‘In modern biology, the term setting is being employed more and more frequently. Even though its use has not yet been generally established, still it can be said that the psychological term setting has been circulating for some time now in the sciences. In German schools of psychology, the term setting is everywhere.’ Pavlov was drawn on too: setting ‘resulting from a known practice’ qualified as a conditioned reflex. Setting wasn’t merely rote learning but was a matter of combining conditioned and unconditioned reflexes to work in a living machine to optimise operations. He came up with a patented device for optimising hammer use. Sven Spieker writes:
‘… the orthopaedic apparatuses of the Russian constructivists [mark] the point of intersection between the integral body and the deficient, incomplete body, which, as castrated or potentially castrated, requires symbolic completion again and again.’
The device was not just about setting the body, however, it was for setting the mind as well. It was a device of neuroprosthesis: ‘External observation, in the sense of self-discipline, becomes integrated into self-observation.’ Labour for Gastev becomes an object of experimentation and construction using recoding and self-regulation : ‘Inspiration seizes [the inventor] just as he takes something apart, observes it precisely, and then, in an instant, with the aid of his great memory, quickly finds a similar phenomenon in other constellations and sets this phenomenon in relation to that one.’
Velminski, who has written a book that remains steely, observant, objective and fascinated throughout by his subjects (which means that readers are genuinely fascinated (and appalled at times) by these genius’s working at the cutting edge of their technologies and scientific theories) writes that ‘From the 1960’s onward, Gastev’s vision for constructive-creative processes served as a pre-cybernetic model in Russia. It provided the foundation for new control practices… and as such, factored into the design of the first computer work stations in the USSR.’ Gastev was shot in a Moscow suburb on 14th April 1939 for counterrevolutionary terrorist activities.
From this we encounter the start of telepathy work. Bekhterov writes of the famous animal trainer Vladimir Durov: after discovering the methods used to train animals Bekhterov used them on humans, seeking to instil ;’ ideas, feelings, emotions, and other psychophysical states into the psychic sphere of subjects [by] bypassing consciousness and the faculty of judgment.’ Like Freud, he thought the brain a device for processing electrical signals. Bekhterov and an electrical engineer Bernard Kazhinsky, who thought humans were radio stations and thoughts electromagnetic waves, worked together to develop technologies for telepathy. They built a ‘Faraday Cage’ to communicate thoughts to dogs. ‘ .. the nature of the phenomena accompanying the transmission of mental information at a distance is the same (electromagnetic) as in ordinary radio communication.’

In “The Radio of the Future” the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov wrote in 1921:
‘ Finally we will have learned to transmit the sense of taste – and every simple, plain but healthful meal can be transformed by means of taste-dreams carried by radio rays, creating the illusion of a totally different taste sensation. People will drink water, and imagine it to be wine. A simple, ample meal will wear the guise of a luxurious feast.’
Belaev’s novel ‘The Ruler of the World’ included research journal reflection:
‘ Two butterflies communicate with one another. Yet what energy enables them to do so? … there we have a radio message.’ And we get a glimpse of the utopian motivations of these guys, working to bring about the dreams of freedom from restraint and the past that they believed were constraining the authentic human from fulfilling herself. Yet the picture being developed of what this new human might be is itself a new and odd twist on what we might meet in Marx or precursors such as Rousseau.
‘What is revolution in general? It is liberation from all… inhibitors… It is a complete absence of restraint. There were laws, customs, and so forth. All of this has come to nought. The old is gone, the new still does not exist. Inhibition is eliminated, there remains only excitation. And this produces all possible excesses in the realm of desire, thought, and behaviour.’
Learning is understood as a process of developed reflexes. ‘More and more she is turning from a living human being into an automaton.’ Stirner is the monstrous hypnotist in the novel. There are drawings of the radio people he envisages with technical jargon. Science is transposed into the book:
‘We put a dog in front of the cage, and Dugov inside. When the cage wasn’t grounded, the dog successfully performed Dugov’s mental commands. But as soon as it was, the channels of influence no longer reached the dog.’
Radio pioneers Alexander Popov (1859-1906), Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi all figure in the ideas being developed. Popov constructed the device that led to the first wireless transmission in 1896 on 24th March at the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In June Marconi patented a device of the same design. Popov protested. In 1824 Hans Berger invented the electroencephalograph which made possible the recording of the physical energy of the brain.
In Balaev’s novel Stirner abandons his project for love of his girl and this brings about some fascinating insights into what the utopian ‘radio beings’ might be like in the future.
‘Stirner must die. I [Stirner] have given a command to my thought transfer machine. I set it to the highest capacity. At precisely one o’clock in the morning…, it will broadcast this command: from Stirner to Stirner. He will lose consciousness. He will forget everything that has occurred in his life. He will be a New Man, charged with a new consciousness. This will be Stern. Stern will go where Stirner ordered him to go. And Stern will not even suspect that Stirner, locked up in the iron cage of his unconscious, is whiling away a miserable life. It is death… the death of consciousness.’ This is the condition Baudrillard calls ‘the hallucination of reality’ where the greater mass of humankind dwindles away. The dream becomes a silence where the need to speak is redundant. What is impressive about this novel is how it grasps the strangeness of the new human condition being engineered.
‘Moscow has become a city of sublime silence. We almost no longer speak with each other, since we have learned to exchange thoughts. How unwieldly and slow the old way of talking now seems! Perhaps we’ll forget how to speak entirely over time. Soon, mail, telegraphy, and even radio will belong to the past.’
The television came late to the Soviets. Eadweard Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope in 1879. George Carey published models for effecting electrical transmissions over a distance. Hovannes Abramovich Adamian was born that same year. He researched tv in St Petersburg before dying of lung cancer in 1932. On the night from 29 to30 April 1931 the first wireless television transmission in the Soviet Union took place. But St Peterburg was home of radio transmission and it seems that radio remains a more dominant metaphor of the work regarding brain waves, mind control and telepathic destiny than tv.
The Soviets looked forward to wireless control of their masses. ‘Doctors today can treat patients long distance through hypnotic suggestion. Radio in the future will be able to act also as a doctor, healing patients without medicine.’ The electric auragram was a machine supposed to further this mind control.
Gulyaev wrote in 1969:
‘ A patient enters the treatment room. The apparatuses register the electro-auragram of his brain, heart, nerves, muscles, and internal organs; they send the information gained to an electronis diagnosis machine that, after it has determined the illness, indicates the proper treatment. All this occurs in a few seconds; the patient needn’t even undress.’
The machine was an attempt to fulfil the dream of a world of living radio stations. Velminski writes:
‘…the key aspect of the auratic field is that it does away with the need for physical contact when gathering data from internal organs. Without mechanical operations or intrusion – just from scanning the space around the body – Gulyaev obtained electroauragrams. This data, he contended, offered empirical proof that living organisms are not bounded by their bodily frames. Instead, vital functions traverse vast distances at the speed of light. Electrical auras represent bioinfrmation, signals to be exploited in the field of sensory and neural bionics.’ (82)
And with this was developed the notion of Psikhon. Psikhon was the biomagnetic medium described by Velminski as, ‘… an agent of “infection” for influencing, controlling and steering the psyche along cybernetic lines… scientific insight and aesthetic practice belonged to a political-ideological program founded on the premise that mental events could directly produce real-world effects… The flexible “mechanism” at work corresponded to the fraught mode of civil engineering that shaped the Cold War… Fittingly, the political-medical aspect of Psikhon , which Khlebnikov envisioned and Gulyaev thought he could measure by means of his Aurathron, reached its apogee when the Soviet Union was in the course of collapsing and the masses had to be “recharged with healing forces.”
Psikhon failed because the ideological,technological and scientific advances were too feeble. We might ask: is our own destiny made too visible in this, though one never perishes through anyone but oneself? Whatever. This intense little book gives further reason to ponder what the Soviet experiment tells us about ourselves, about the current geo-political situation, about current scientific and technological advancement harnessed by political forces, and about the nature of past and present utopian thinking. - Richard Marshall

5/29/17

Sophie Seita is one of a handful of brilliant ‘new’ poets and performance-enhancers who are changing and will continue to change how we receive and resist the ‘limits’ of poetic form and performative spatiality. She creates texts that are investigative and synaesthetic



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Sophie Seita, Meat, Little Red Leaves, 2015.


excerpt from Meat





In Sophie Seita’s Meat, the witty rigors of the dainty butcher and are butchered (the product of femininity both cleaver and carcass seemingly destined to be sectioned into retail-ready portions). In the racialized and gendered economy of our atmospherically fractured colonial violence, you get you a piece of meat so sweet. Or not. Seita folds us in through the discourses we’ve been eaten by." - Laura Elrick




How do you translate the sound of a slaughtered animal screaming? What can you say in response to it? It’s in the gory domain of questions like those that Sophie Seita’s remarkable MEAT arrives. By addressing itself to whatever is forbidden the justice of response, MEAT is a long song of the double wound of victimhood—an originary violence followed by the structurally denied ability to speak of one’s being wronged. With Seita’s intelligence, incredible ear, and engaged life as a reader, she distributes her sources and resources musically. This book is melancholy and in precisely the right balance, but is always filled with extraordinary care: “I want to say things and feel them / this weak attempt at telling / not a verdict / just an expanse of caress.” — Brandon Brown



Sophie Seita, Fantasias in Counting BlazeVOX, 2014.
excerpt (scribd)
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Sophie Seita’s Fantasias in Counting furthers an evolving, intense and remarkable body of work with performative textuality, spatiality and ethics of presence. Her poetry and poetics test the very limits of prosody; her theatrics work the defamiliarised into the known: a fantasia of the writer’s making defaulting into non-ownership. Rhythm and its predications and failures are central to ‘speech’. Seita writes: ‘[Begins to play a rhythm on or with scattered sounding-material—whatever is available. Ideally, this is a polyrhythm or cross-rhythm, either 4:3 or 5:3, or even better 4/4 : 4/3 or 2/5 : 2/3 or something of that kind; over the repeatedly spoken phrases: no I cannot; no you cannot (ad lib with pleasure)].’ The rhythm becomes word becomes the ‘theatre’ itself. At first experience a viewer, a reader, a fly on the wall, might undergo the epiphany of the ‘new’. But in Seita’s melding of ancient and modern performative techniques, her investing the moment of articulation with an awareness of the social and political constraints it operates within, we actually start to question what is ‘new’. Rather, we might apply to her work something akin to Stravinsky’s observation that Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was ‘absolutely contemporary’ and would remain ‘contemporary forever’. Sophie Seita is one of a handful of brilliant ‘new’ poets and performance-enhancers who are changing and will continue to change how we receive and resist the ‘limits’ of poetic form and performative spatiality. She creates texts that are investigative and synaesthetic. When we read ‘my theory is better than my praxis’, the irony ripples through the manuscript, because rarely do the metronome, the drum beat, the tones of voice resonate so strongly. The page becomes the acoustically desirable space, with all attendant ironies and wit. Character and writer are of no fixed address. Sophie Seita is a writer of genius who will never stay still, who will constantly work the boards in ways as yet unimagined. Watch, listen, and be changed. —John Kinsella


Appearing in the drag of scale exercises, wrought and precise conceptual variations, and playful improvisation, the performance scores in Sophie Seita’s Fantasias in Counting might cause their readers/audiences to wonder whether they’re clothed or nude. Yet the pleasure of these works is their refusal—tartly apropos our digital times—of such binary codings: countable v. mass nouns, wholes v. parts, the one v. multiples, original v. proxy, integer v. fraction, feigned v. felt, and, perhaps most importantly, repetition v. difference. For while Seita’s jargonate arias may instrumentalize the count of the metronome, they also “ambivalize” to reach an “acchord” or “communichord”; remaining unaccountable to a beat, they transmogrify uniform temporal divisions into the bumpy, opaque spacing of socio-linguistic relations. In Steinian tradition (“a craving so little as that like as if it (then) would be then it would be simple. simple and countable. more simply countable. a slice please. much cream.”), Fantasias in Counting effects, against the preterit, new performative grammatical modes: “cannot be counted, only done,” “practised, not counted.” Likewise, the book forges forced ways of being among languages: Seita does not just notice how “lots of words sound like other words” but stages language in states of “hyperarousal,” finding, for instance, an opera within an opera by unfolding a narrative spelled by its paratextual musical directives cum characters: “Po may be generally slow or fast at wasp-speed.” “The subversive subject has lost. Now only irrational measures,” Seita writes, but perhaps that subject is not so much lost as distributed both within and without itself, just as protagonistic or quantifiable models of action have here fissured into mischievous, disturbing agencies, even the agency of aporia. Here’s more than “A little ‘hey’ for true mathematics”: “Please take some time with this line.” —Judith Goldman






In Sophie Seita's dazzling first collection of poems, Fantasias in Counting, musical scales, lists, and instructions are transformed into theatres, dramatic monologues, and dictatorships. By creating such a provocative disconnect between form and content, Seita raises compelling questions about the preconceived expectations that we bring to literary texts: To what extent do we as readers form judgments about a literary text on the basis of its visual appearance on the page? How do these readerly expectations limit what is possible for the writer, and within the text itself, regardless of whether it is a practical instruction manual or a work of literary art? Most importantly, what can writers do to foster more open-minded reading practices, opening up new possibilities for the literary arts and everyday life as well? As Seita teases out possible answers to these ambitious and necessary questions, her work proves to be as erudite as it is entertaining, surprising the reader at every turn.
Seita's commentary on her own work proves especially witty as the book unfolds. Frequently interrupting her own poems with comments from a reader of literary works, Seita demonstrates an astute awareness of how contemporary internet culture (with its emphasis on instant gratification, short, pragmatic texts, and equally short attention spans) has altered the expectations that we bring to literary texts, foreclosing possibilities rather than promoting them. She writes, midway through her poem, "Pick a Line," "The one thing that interested me about the poem was that it was short." Here Seita aptly summarizes the contemporary reader's ideal literary text. In many ways, her work may be read as an effort to expand what is possible within this very limiting framework.
Although many of her works are concise and carefully crafted, they demand an active participation on the part of the reader, something that an audience would not suspect given the regimented forms she frequently invokes (musical scales, exercises). She writes,
The reader       says
                        even as/if painting
                        wouldn't sight the single but the total unity.

The reader       says
                        wouldn't
                        cannot sleep.

Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
Thinking about lines now
What's interesting about this passage is the way that Seita writes as though she is conforming to the reader's will, yet at the same time challenges and undermines the expectations that most readers would bring to such a text. Passages like this one, beautifully and artfully fragmented, call upon the reader to forge connections between different elements of the poem, prompting them to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the work. Fantasias in Counting is filled with thought-provoking works like this one, which show an astute awareness of readerly expectations and the consequences of the work's necessary challenges to the entrenched relationship between the artist and her audience.
Additionally, Seita's creation of a multilingual space within the book is fascinating. Frequently drifting between languages, namely English and German, the poet calls into question the reader's expectation that he or she will always encounter a monolingual text. As the book unfolds, the reader is at turns confidante and linguistic other. Seita creates a relationship between the audience and the work that is inherently unstable, subject to ongoing change, revision, and shifts in power and authority. Seita's drifting between languages serves as a source of both metacommentary and high literary humor. With that in mind, Seita's poetry collection proves to be as engaging as it is self-aware. She writes in "Diktator-Playmobil,"
[Sprecher, ohne Ironie]
Every woman with an erection plays a despot. Diktiergerat.
Ticktickjahshsgffnsaaaa. [Schriebmaschinengerausch]
[Kleiner Orgasmus, aber leise]
Alles fake da niemand mehr Schreibmaschine.
Here Seita switches between English and German, rendering the text suddenly inaccessible to the reader. In many ways, this choice calls into question the assumption that readers often bring to poetry: that it should be not only accessible, but also transparent and easily understood. I'm intrigued by Seita's efforts to parody these preconceived readerly expectations, while at the same time rendering us more aware of ourselves as readers. Indeed, Seita holds a mirror to her audience, showing them all the ways in which they have shaped the literary texts that are available to us. Reminiscent of Sarah Vap's discussion of "difficult" poetry in The End of the Sentimental Journey, and Lisa Robertson's eschewing of semantic meaning in R's Boat, Fantasias in Counting is a delightful addition to this ongoing conversation among feminist writers. Seita is a poet to watch.
- Kristina Marie Darling








‘Let’s be silly, pointless, and puerile—absurd as a kaleidoscope that shows the oozing and inarticulate colours and motifs of a situation that remains ultimately unchanged as the plunder of the state.’ (Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly)
‘A token of our star-gazing friendship.’ (Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers)
‘And so the magic lantern which surrounds them, among which they move, of which they are the substance (shadows), swirls around them, dazzlingly.’ (Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings)

Gloriously imagined and re-imagined, Sophie Seita’s textual–performance–play hybrids tickle whimsy from grandeur, opulence from bathos and a kind of melodrama from tragedy. My Little Enlightenment Plays is a project that swings between ecstatic irreverence and straight-faced reverence, the seriousness of language and its subject, language as subject, and the serious commitment to abandoning such seriousness in play and artifice. These are not indulged as postmodern tropes but instead staged as emotive and social sensations, encountered through Seita’s particular archaeology of literary history. Cartwheeling between astronomy, utopia, poetry, power, gender, the queer and the courtly, these pieces generate a disorientating experience preoccupied by its own fertile confusion. Or, in the project’s own words: they are conjured from ‘dangerous pleasings of the empire of the Vacuous Obscurity’ to present ‘the Consort of the Mighty and the Mushy’.

3:AM: Firstly, I’d like you to introduce the ideas and motivation behind this sequence of Enlightenment-inspired plays: Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly; Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers; and the play you are currently working on, Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings. Your previous works in poetry, the book Fantasias in Counting (BlazeVOX, 2014) and the stunning long poem Meat (Little Red Leaves, 2015) are both strongly guided by particular concepts and constraints, often framing the works as calculated textual performances and drawing from both art and music. How closely do the plays relate to one another and does the notion of them as part of a sequence suggest a poetics behind their composition?
Sophie Seita: My Little Enlightenment Plays began as an attempt to find a longer form for the experiments in dramatic writing and performances that I’d already done in ‘3,4’ and ‘Talk between Nudes’ (both collected in Fantasias in Counting). The way to do this, I felt, was by looking for source materials that were sufficiently old and broad and weird to keep me interested for a long time. All three pieces have a particular guiding conceit. Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly thinks of the court as a beehive (an idea that goes back to the Greeks and Romans who saw bees as an allegory for political systems—Aristotle, for example, argues that humans surpass bees and other animals because of their ability to make rational and moral judgements; but there’s also a gendered erotics to the metaphor of bees that interested me); Les Bijoux Indiscrets’s conceits are paper, the talking object (such as a book), astronomy, and geometry; and the piece I just finished, Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings, draws on the later Enlightenment’s fascination with sentiments and sentimentality (as opposed to rationality) as being able to produce morally ‘good’ feelings and actions, and throws in a little colour and plant symbolism and the charming pseudo- or para-psychology of that. The ‘poetics’ behind the project is, as you say, similar to Meat and Fantasias in Counting, in that it’s a practice of writing through reading (and by extension, looking and listening). The pieces don’t relate to one another in terms of narrative, but they are clearly ‘of a piece’ in their language, their engagement with citationality and materiality, and my approach to performance. There’s an adamantly feminist and queer angle to all of them, too. Ultimately, they may constitute ‘my little Enlightenment’—playing in my head like a mobile, a toy, or a musical instrument.
3:AM: In the preface to My Little Enlightenment it states:
In 1751 I had a fever. It was the kind to keep you up at night but without the pleasure of delirious fantasy which holds certainty at bay. Not having the implements of magic, I indulged in some old tragedies and turned them into melodramas, the best kind of supplementary medicine.
In light of this, how do you see your writing relating to its 17th– and 18th-century sources? Inspiring prompts for departure / guests at a séance / re-imagined versions, spliced tributes and lost relatives / gestures of time-travelling intervention / coveted trinkets from overlooked corners / occult coordinates of a personal mythology of influence / or absolutely none of the above?
SS: I love all of these as possible relations with my materials. I’ve referred to them as ‘star-gazing conversations’ or keenly unfaithful ‘translational tête-à-têtes’, but maybe I’ll start using some of your descriptions from now on—they’re so evocative. I would say, however, that it’s less about influence, mythologies, and tributes, and more about sharing trinkets and drinks with your girlfriends and about tracing some occult coordinates (‘occult’ in the sense of ‘hidden knowledge’)—mining them to make them mine. Practically, this means that I have adapted a plotline here and there, borrowed some character names, or played with a particular feature of the language of my materials. In other instances, I have simply been inspired by my readings and have transposed certain historical concepts and convictions into the present and into ‘my own’ language. That way of writing through reading material is how I’ve worked since at least late 2012 or early 2013. I usually need to surround myself with a lot of language in order to write. It’s just that with My Little Enlightenment Plays that engagement with other texts is more explicit; it’s more like an essay but not in the form of an essay, a thinking-through-ideas in language, a dialogue, like a musical fantasia. (Fantasias in Counting had that title for a similar reason: it was an homage to that polyphonic genre based on (quasi-)improvisation, sometimes over a set composition. But a fantasia is also a piece that distorts or exaggerates structural norms, or gives the impression of extemporisation but is actually rigorously composed.) Often when I write ‘through’ other people’s language, remixing it, grabbing bits here and there, like flicking through a dictionary looking for words that jump out at me, that’s different, the source vanishes and language becomes just material. With my Enlightenment project, the source text matters.
3:AM: Les Bijoux Indiscretes, or, Paper Tigers engages with three Enlightenment texts that blur philosophy, science fiction, and the allegorical role of vocally confessional vaginas: Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds (1686), Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (1666) and, preempting the The Vagina Monologues by around two and half centuries, Denis Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets (1748). I wanted to ask you what initially attracted you to these works?
SS: With Cavendish, it was primarily the language—that high artifice and ornamental excess and pleasure, which sounds so camp now, I just had to use it. I was drawn to Diderot because I’d recently discovered 18th- and 19th-century it-narratives (a strange genre in which objects, such as books, tell us their little life stories, how they’re handed from reader to reader, or dusted by a naughty maid). Diderot’s Les Bijoux has that aspect of the it-narrative with its talking jewels. When I came across that Fontenelle book, I immediately fell in love with the setting: two friends wandering in a garden at night, watching the stars, chatting about heliocentrism and other worlds—it’s basically a humorous and enchanting discussion of Descartes, Galileo, and Copernicus for amateurs. It’s prose but dramatic in its use of dialogue (and it has an interesting feminist history too: it was translated by Aphra Behn. Translation was one of the ways in which female intellectuals, like Behn, could participate in scientific discoveries and intellectual debates in the late seventeenth century). What I do with Fontenelle in my piece is this: the two friends do discuss the planets and stars, but the stars are poetry—turning the whole thing into an allegory of female friendship, Platonic love, poetry, philosophy, Marxism… Their star-gazing is also a self-reflexive gesture about reading: ‘There are the stars, and they who can may read them’ (Thoreau). In other words, reading is stargazing. Or, as the German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser once put it: ‘two people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars, but one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper.’
3:AM: Were there any literary models for this eclectic atmosphere? I was put in mind of Flow Chart-era Ashbery and the Surrealism of Rimbaud’s declaration (from Illuminations, 1886): ‘I loved stupid paintings, decorated transoms, stage-sets, carnival booths, signs, popular engravings; old fashion literature, church Latin, erotic books with non-existent spelling, the novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naïve rhythms’
SS: God, I also love all those things! Thanks, Rimbaud! I was and still am interested in set pieces, both in the sense of a stand-alone piece sometimes unrelated to the larger work within which it appears but also a piece of scenery supposed to work independently on the stage. In fact, Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly began as a response to an installation at Dixon Place in New York that my friends Yates Norton and Emma Stirling curated in 2014, which revolved around how a theatrical set could become the starting point for a new work (rather than the set being secondary). Someone also told me recently that my pieces reminded them of 16th-century intermezzi, with their short interruptions, choruses, recitations, dances, sometimes with an allegorical tinge. Otherwise, the figure who gave me literary ‘permission’ to do this was Kathy Acker. In her ‘novels’, Acker splices autobiography and found language, then you might suddenly encounter a few pages in French, then there’s supposedly a scene from a play, then ‘characters’ like Emily Bronte appear. Other literary models: Stein’s operas (‘plays as landscapes’), the masks of comedy and tragedy, and, lastly, the exuberance, grand and statuesque gestures and affects of opera and melodrama (prior to the 20th cent. largely). After our performance of Talk between Nudes in 2013—a piece unrelated to the Enlightenment series in topic but related in style—Corina Copp told me it reminded her of Cocteau and Apollinaire, so I went away and dutifully read some of their dramatic works, like The Wedding Party on the Eiffel Tower and The Breasts of Tiresias, which have since informed my own. (I wasn’t familiar with Ashbery’s Flow Chart, but have got a copy now—and what a gorgeously bizarre and lusciously metaphysical book it is!)
3:AM: Just on mentioning Cocteau, I was wondering whether cinema enters much into your thinking through of melodrama. At times, I was reminded of the decadently cluttered framing of Josef Von Sternberg’s films (though this is all coming indirectly as a result of my obsession with Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin) or the narcotic chocolate box of Douglas Sirk? Something in the attraction to mannered or heightened speech? You have worked with film before but seem more interested in its documentation and witnessing of performance art than in its experimentation as a medium—could you say a bit about if or how the performance of these plays ties in with that practice?
SS: Cinema doesn’t come into it at all actually—or at least not consciously so. I’ve made a few videos, and I’m hoping to make another one this summer or next year, but film is not really my medium. I’m very interested in video art or, as you say, the documentation of experimental performances. Precisely because these works are not ‘plays’ in a theatre, and don’t create an experience that is repeatable night after night, video can preserve their performative ephemerality or specificity. Through my research I’ve become keenly aware of how much work is simply forgotten or lost because it was never properly documented, and it happens disproportionately to the work of women. But I primarily document the work to help me develop a project further and to think about future projects. I’ve actually started planning an exhibition for all the props from My Little Enlightenment Plays as installation pieces, activated by audio or video work (which I’ll make specifically for that purpose, rather than simply show the recordings from previous performances). I am also currently fascinated by audio work more broadly and am recording a shorter version of Les Bijoux with Constance DeJong.
3:AM: I’m also very drawn to the possibilities between audio and textual work (thinking of David Antin, Steve McCaffery, Lisa Samuels’ recordings, Holly Pester’s looping) and how, more broadly, forms of noise might be enacted in language. Please say a bit more about your interest in audio work—does it relate to the disintegration, infidelity, or preservation of performance?
SS: It’s funny you should mention ‘disintegration’, because I recently titled a short performative piece, ‘Some Disintegrating Loops’, in which I looped and disintegrated some of my previously published texts for my friend Raphael Sbrzesny’s artist book Service Continu 7/7 (Spector Books, 2017), and which I titled after William Basinski’s incredibly beautiful minimalist music in The Disintegration Loops. As for working with recordings, my performance of 3,4 included a 9-minute recording entirely in German, so the second half of the performance was just me and the other two performers (Emma Stirling and Lanny Jordan Jackson) sitting still and listening, with the audience, to the recording. I love Holly Pester’s work—she’s fabulous and her new book Common Rest and LP simply brilliant. I think audio work, like performance and video, allows language to operate on a different sensual level in addition to the intellectual, or page-bound one. It also brings it closer to music—it’s my way of approximating musical composition without being a musician (which I actually wanted to ‘be’ as a teenager). As Jackson MacLow and the Dadaists knew, when you record something you can make things happen simultaneously, which the printed page is just not very good at.
3:AM: I love the William Basinski link—I’d forgotten we both saw him perform his last record A Shadow in Time—he really is stunning. Cosmic melancholy at its finest. Talking of witnessing that performance, for which, like your ‘3,4’, Basinski was sat listening for a lot of the set’s duration, your plays or performances in comparison take on a more obviously staged dynamic. In Les Bijoux, there are geometric paper objects and occult-like floor markings suggesting a kind of minimalist aesthetic, reminding me more of your sparse and controlled sequence in ‘just pick a line’ (in Fantasias in Counting, 2014). Perhaps you could talk about the performances of that piece.
SS: Thank you for bringing up ‘just pick a line’—an exercise in rhythm, in sequencing. Yes, it’s all about control—but so is Les Bijoux, really. There’s an excess but it’s rigorously ‘made’ (not the result of spontaneity or some crazy emotional outburst), and delivered with utter poise and intention in performance. In Les Bijoux, the affect of the performers sometimes counterbalanced and sometimes echoed the exuberance of the language. In fact, it showed me again that the humour and deliberate artifice could also be delivered and received with grace; that artifice isn’t some cheap postmodern gesture, but can become a form for affection. (That artifice can be an affective space and vivid presence in which to dwell and be held is how Constance DeJong described the performance to me afterwards, and I hope she won’t mind me repeating it here, as it captures what I’m trying to do so perfectly).
The first performance happened at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn—a gorgeous Beaux-Arts building with high ceilings and a marbled floor and pillars. Emmy Catedral, who made the set and props, works a lot with polyhedra and has an interest in astronomy (she founded The Amateur Astronomers Society of Voorhees) and she, like me, loves working with paper (as does Anna Moser, who made paper-props for the first play)—it’s such a flexible medium and very appropriate for such ‘textual’ pieces. Emmy was attracted to the language of geometry and the descriptions of objects in my stage directions, many of which are abstract and unrealisable (deliberately so). So her non-representational objects only ever resemble themselves, even when they are used ‘as’ jewels or flower pots or planets. The objects also visualise and materialise artifice and the practice of reading.
You know, I didn’t plan this but because of the low lighting at Issue, and the gridded floor (which Emmy enhanced with her taped asterisms), and also the performers wearing black, it suddenly became really witchy! There was one moment, in which four of the performers play a clapping game in a circle—which ended up looking like there was some strange and beautiful coven ritual going on! So, yes, the occult. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche suggests that it was the occult—witches, astrologers, and alchemists—whose ‘promises’ first created a ‘thirst’ for science, a desire for rationality. For him, there has to be a plethora of promises, only some of which will yield something, will produce knowledge. But this element of the occult disappeared in the second performance, which was much more sci-fi, because of the white walls and oddly shaped layout of La MaMa Galleria (and the taped constellations were now gold-metallic!). The second performance was commissioned and hosted by NYPAC (a performance collective that promotes queer and feminist work) and it was after my conversations with Sam Draxler that Emmy and I decided to incorporate her polyhedra more fully, getting the performers to interact with them to a greater extent, and we printed much more text onto the objects themselves—there’s one scene where the Marquise and Fontenelle have an argument that is visualised in their holding a polyhedral shape between them and reading from it. There’s another scene where they take paper fortune cookies out of the character Paper’s pockets, and pull out little pieces of paper from which they then read.
3:AM: There could also be something ‘occult’ in the ordering and sequencing of the pieces, do you ever envisage them all being performed in one event, and if so, would there be an order? I think the ‘really witchy’ should always be encouraged!
SS: Yes, absolutely, am very much down for bringing out the witchiness in everything! I have considered what it would be like to perform all three together eventually, but I need to think a little harder about what that would mean (what the conceptual unity of the three pieces in performance would be, which is different from what I consider to be their conceptual link in a book, say). Would all three be performed by the same cast? Maybe. I think the order would be Les Bijoux, Don Carlos, and then Emilia Galotti’s Colouring Book of Feelings. It would have to end on something quite intense (feelings!)—though Les Bijoux has this magical vibe to it which could be good for an ending (quite un-Brechtian although so much of its artifice is informed by my interest in Brecht’s ‘Musiktheater’).
3:AM: I’m curious about the unexpected appearance of ‘Karl Marx’ (or as he is endearingly referred to, ‘ma petite minette’), I was wondering, due to you being currently based in Cambridge, whether you had any stance on the permutations of Marxism and politicised theory that inflect much of the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ poetics, or its critical reception?
SS: Yes, dear Karl Marx—well, it has nothing to do with me being back in Cambridge now, but rather comes out of my poetic education as a student at Cambridge, which was very much informed by that Cambridge-y Marxist criticism and poetry and has shaped the way I think about writing and politics in so many ways, and which has given my writing and reading a particular sense of urgency. But Marx is mainly in the piece because I’m poking fun at all the Marxist poet bros of the UK/US poetry world! Marx initially appeared because I was thinking about talking objects (the it-narratives I mentioned earlier), the talking jewels, and how absurd and sexist it is for Diderot’s emperor to want the women (as objects) to reveal all their secrets, so I was reminded of that line in Marx, and in fact I quote it directly ‘If commodities could speak, they would say this’ only that Marx of course means something entirely different by that! In my piece that interjection follows a short dialogue between the gardeners, plants, and courtyards, as a microcosm for a revolutionary conundrum. And then Marx re-appears at the end as the silent interlocutor of the deus ex machina figure, who psychoanalyses him a little by quoting parts of his astrological birth chart at him.
3:AM: The previous two performances of Paper Tigers involved the collaboration of 9 other female writers and artists: Corina Copp, Lucy Ives, Wendy Lotterman, Ada Smailbegovic, Jocelyn Spaar, Bridget Talone, Cecilia Corrigan (with a short guest-appearance in the first performance), and Constance DeJong (in the second performance), with props and a set by Emmy Catedral—how important was this element of collaboration? Considering your discussion of Cavendish’s feminist utopia, was the collaborative presence of other female practitioners particularly important?
SS: Collaborating with all these amazing women extended my textual collaborations with my source materials into real-life interactions. It’s also my way of creating a small community. I also tried to do that in the first piece in the series—Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly—, which I performed with Corina Copp, Lanny Jordan Jackson, Josef Kaplan, Holly Melgard, Luke McMullan, Yates Norton, Jocelyn Spaar, and Emma Stirling, with props by Anna Moser, but in Les Bijoux that aspect of collaboration is foregrounded and feels more politically urgent. To put 7 women on the stage shouldn’t really surprise anyone anymore, but there is an incredible power in it. Someone actually said to me, why don’t we always do that, and I thought, yes, exactly, maybe I will. Cavendish’s utopia is of course still a flawed one—she’s an imperialist empress—so I improved that a little.
3:AM: We must mention the first play Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly. Its courtly setting (‘A Spanish kingdom’) and off-kilter interactions depict an increasingly—at least to me—dizzying and strange theatrics. I felt lost, but compulsively so! It begins with an epigraph taken from Lucretius and then dives into a conversation between a character called ‘Dodo’ and ‘Infant’, later introducing members of royalty, a ‘hand’, officers, inquisitors and a dialogue between ‘happy face’ and ‘pale face’. For you, what is the play about? Or, to what extent does it enact something outside of being ‘about’?
SS: Don Carlos, or, Royal Jelly is the one piece with the least aboutness about it—all three plays are ‘about’ language (its attractive ambiguities, its ability to create, warp, or bedazzle worlds and people and stimulate thought and action) but also ‘about’ all sorts of ideas and feelings too numerous to list here and, ultimately, they’re all about power (back to your earlier question, hi Marx!). And yes, they all have somewhat courtly settings because there’s something lovingly ridiculous and camp and surreal about that; it also lodges them more firmly in the realm of fantasy or an imagined past, creates some distance. And yes, that scene between the pale face and the happy face is one of my favourites!
3:AM: In both plays, the stage directions are intricately (and exuberantly) crafted passages that often become breath-taking prose poems. How do you envisage the tension between their ambivalent role, as alleged direction to be staged and poetry to be read?
SS: For me, the whole point of these very textual or literary performance pieces or what we could call ‘conceptual closet dramas’ is that you do not need to think of how feasible something is in performance. That’s why the stage directions are always read by a Narrator-figure. The stage directions aren’t really stage directions at all! They’re just lines like all the others. Their language might tell you what happens or does not happen, which is not necessarily matched (and sometimes contradicted outright) by what ‘happens’ in performance. They’re an opportunity to really exceed the performance space, which is very real, physical, and embodied, and the expected textual space of the ‘direction’. They also allow my language to be simultaneously excessive, undirected, specific and abstract. I’m just very interested in various modes of description (another 18th-century practice, e.g. in natural history, or the Encyclopédie), at the same time as I’m trying to figure out how to ‘have’ feelings in writing. How can the ornamental, the voluptuous, be productive beyond the sonority of the aphoristic, how can abstraction be other than the cooler underside of the lush particular?
3:AM: Are you looking forward to the London performance of Les Bijoux Indiscrets, or, Paper Tigers, and do you feel it is important for you to be in the performance or would you be just as happy to see the plays performed without you? Will it be staged differently from the American performances?

SS: I’m so excited about the London performance and, yes, it will be performed differently, but I don’t know how yet. There will also be a performance at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge this winter, where we’ll be able to activate the space by performing around some actual astronomical instruments. I do think it’s important for me to be in the performance, mainly as a way of distinguishing the pieces from theatre where roles are often more clearly divided, but also to make this ‘about’ me, about my body, and other non-replaceable and specific bodies, in the way a text that could be adapted by any theatre company would maybe not? That isn’t to say that no one could ever perform these pieces without me—of course they could and I’d certainly love to see that—but they would just not be performance art or collaborations in the way I think of them right now; they would become something different.
3:AM: Having previously curated the simultaneous and live-streamed ‘unAmerican Activities Transatlantic Reading Series’ how do you feel your engagement with US poetry differs from UK poetry? Are there any noticeable or concrete differences in the atmosphere of readings and venues, the sense of community or the kinds of work people are interested in? Do you consider the sociality of performance as a way to consolidate or expand a poetry community—perhaps in the same way that the NY School poets clustered around the Tibor de Nagy gallery and performed in, and supported, each other’s plays?
SS: As you know, my academic work and current book manuscript is about avant-garde communities, and how they form in and around the medium of the little magazine across the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century. So I think about sociality and community all the time, both critically and practically. My desire to create welcoming creative spaces arises both from my sense of the persistent hierarchies within the UK/US poetry and art scenes I know, but also as a reaction to the failures of such community-building and its exclusionary structures that I describe in my research.
The idea of unAmerican Activities was to connect both writers and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic who were unlikely to share a pint in a pub together in the near future or maybe did a long time ago or might do at some point, but given that it would’ve been impossible to fly people over for readings at both venues, it was a simple conceptual solution. I say conceptual because, practically, the preparation for and during the readings actually gave us headaches: having to deal with a crappy internet connection, the audio/video cutting out, then even just to have readers be available when we needed them to be. We also printed a pamphlet for each event, with short critical commentaries by other writers (except for the ‘Virtual Cabaret’ events, which included between 3 and 4 writers on each side). So, every reading usually featured an ensemble of participants. In a small way, I hope the series helped to introduce people to each other and audiences to new work, and yes, you’re right, we did try to introduce US audiences to experimental UK writers who are usually less well-known over there. As for the difference in ‘atmosphere’ or ‘engagement’ in the UK/US scenes more broadly, we might be entering the realm of gossip and I’d be in danger of generalising from my own very specific experiences, so I don’t think I can answer that adequately (and maybe no one can), but what I will say is this: moving between these two worlds over the last 4 years or so, I have learned that you have to decide which company you want to keep. And some company just has to go. My Little Enlightenment Plays as a project is all about surrounding myself with the best possible dinner guests or walking companions (i.e. one’s you can disagree with)—on paper and off. - interview by David Spittle


short extract from Talk between Nudes (2013/2014)
Little Trauma, at Intercapillary Space (2011)



5/27/17

Shirley Hazzard - 'And a sudden stripe of light split earth from sky.' Reading Hazzard is like walking in an enchanted garden. Her mastery and control are such that every leaf and petal, every path and pond, every vista is both exquisite and perilous


Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus1980.


The masterpiece of Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016), The Transit of Venus won the National Book Critic's Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book AwardThe Transit of Venus is considered Shirley Hazzard's most brilliant novel. It tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war England. What happens to these young women--seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal--becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves. Gorgeously written and intricately constructed, Hazzard's novel is a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Stockholm; of time: from the fifties to the eighties; and above all, of women and men in their passage through the displacements and absurdities of modern life.


Matthew Specktor: Shirley Hazzard, 1931–2016




Nothing gave me as much happiness as Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus.” When I first devoured the novel, after its publication in 1980, I grew increasingly melancholy—never again would I have the pleasure of reading it fresh. Yet my latest rereading was a reminder that great books travel alongside you, seeming to grow as you do. Hazzard’s characters, who meet in England in the nineteen-fifties and pursue their passions through the decades, are by now old friends I’d recognize anywhere: Paul Ivory, a playwright who manipulates his intimates like characters in a first draft; Caro and Grace, Australian sisters who see everyone else clearly yet fall for disastrous men; Christian Thrale, the rising diplomat and earthbound husband; and Ted Tice, a watchful, hopeful, but increasingly disappointed astronomer.
Nested within the dazzling first scene is this spoiler: “In fact Edmund Tice would take his own life before attaining the peak of his achievement. But that would occur in a northern city, and not for many years.” Hints of the calamity that prompts Ted’s suicide are buried throughout—the novel is a treasure map of clues—and if you don’t read carefully you can finish the book and wonder, “Wait, did what I think just happened actually…?” When you sit down with a grandmaster, you have to raise your own game.
And Hazzard’s prose is magic on the page, somehow at once surgical and symphonic: “In a blighted field a capsized merry-go-round was turning to rust; a strung-up sign had lost its introductory F, and read, in consequence, UNFAIR. A barn squatted by the roadside like an abandoned van. A bus plunged forward. At its roaring, a small car withdrew into a hedge; an animal bayed.” Or: “Grief had a painter’s eye, assigning arbitrary meaning at random—like God.” Or: “And a sudden stripe of light split earth from sky.” All the sentences are like that, small masterpieces that amount to a large one. Read it now, so you can read it again soon. - 

When I first read The Transit of Venus, I was rather underwhelmed. I was in my twenties then and recently back in Australia after a period when I had thought I would make my life in France. I came to Shirley Hazzard's third novel by way of The Bay of Noon and The Evening of the Holiday. These ravishing early novels, both set in Italy, fed my nostalgia for Europe. I identified intensely with their young female protagonists whose private dramas were lifted into grandeur by the antique backgrounds against which they played out.
The Transit of Venus, set mainly in the Anglophone world, seemed drab by comparison. The narrative revolves around two Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, who emigrate to England in the 1950s. The novel follows them into middle age, chronicling their very different experiences of love, marriage, failure, work. I finished the book, put it aside and forgot all about it for 20 years.
At the beginning of this century came Greene on Capri, Hazzard's memoir about her long friendship with Graham Greene. As I slotted it into my bookshelves, my eye fell on The Transit of Venus. I took it down and, standing there, began to read. I still remember the shock that came at once, like a blow to the breastbone: But this is brilliant.
Hazzard's great subject, already revealed in the early novels, is love. In The Transit of Venus, she brings a clarity and steeliness reminiscent of classical tragedy to her material – an extraordinary achievement. The sense of fatality and patterning in this flawlessly constructed novel is strong. Its devastating finale is prefigured in its first sentence, and seemingly trivial incidents reveal their significance as events unfold. Everything that happens seems determined by laws as inexorable as those that govern the stars. Hazzard's sentences burst on the mind like a succession of illuminations. Consider this skewering of a character: "Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned a task so she could resent it." The Transit of Venus is an almost unbearably sad book, yet Hazzard is also a wonderfully funny writer, hyper-alert to pretension and cant.
So what went wrong all those years ago? Armed with degrees in literature, I considered myself a sophisticated reader. But novels speak to us directly and personally, or not at all. Nothing had equipped me to understand what Hazzard has to say about the power of time to transform and crush. One reason I treasure The Transit of Venus is for showing me how wrong I can be. - Michelle de Kretser




I fell in love with Shirley Hazzard in 1980, when her great book Transit of Venus came out. I was completely dazzled by the beauty and authority of her writing, and by the effortless way she created this world.
The novel opens with a description of a storm. The air is charged with unthinkable violence, a sense of atmospheric threat which will recur throughout the book:
It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.
I loved the confidence of Hazzard's voice, and the way she evokes this scene so vividly and surprisingly: the crops standing upright "like hair on end," the white streaks lacerating the roadside. Her language is electrifying, like the moment she describes.
When I finished the book, at once I read all her other fiction — at the time, two novels and two collections of stories — and wished there was more. I became a fervent proselytizer ... "Have you read Shirley Hazzard?" And she became a touchstone: someone who loved her work was someone whose taste I trusted.
Transit of Venus is still my favorite of her books. Everything about the writing is elegant: the language, the moral architecture, the intellectual reach, the narrative structure. The sentences are beautiful, but they're also powerful, economical and arresting. They drive the narrative and inform the reader, while still dazzling us.
The plot is reminiscent of Henry James: Two beautiful young Australian sisters arrive in post-war London, where they encounter the men they'll know for the rest of their lives. Grace is fair, timid, conventional; Caro is dark, reserved and fiercely intelligent. Grace meets Christian Thrale, a successful and self-centered bureaucrat, whom she'll marry. Caro meets Ted Tice, a ginger-haired astronomist, awkward and brilliant, who falls in love with her. But Caro falls in love with Paul Ivory, a handsome playwright who treats her badly. None of these three marry each other: Paul marries a cold and beautiful aristocrat; Caro, a rich and distinguished American. That's not the end of the story, but it's all I'll tell you. The whole story is more complicated and more tragic, and it unfolds with calm inexorability.
It's also fun to read, thanks to Hazzard's lively, playful writing. Here's how she describes a pompous suitor: "It was hard to imagine the Major in wooing mood. One suspected he had never courted anything but disaster." When Caro's marriage elevates her social status from dubious Australian spinster to rich American wife, Hazzard explains, "Caro was now endorsed, valuable: an obscure work newly attributed to a master."
The Jamesian themes are explored — beauty and innocence, power and corruption, England and her colonies. But Hazzard has her own themes as well: sexual betrayal, international politics and gender wars. The narrative is both darker and warmer than James, and it's also a great and tragic love story.
Hazzard sets the human story against a larger and more majestic background: astronomy, with its remote celestial arcs. The transit of Venus occurs, rarely, when the planet passes across the face of the sun and appears in bold and flaming silhouette. It's a driving metaphor throughout the book as Ted Tice creates the arc of his career, succeeding brilliantly in his profession. Love itself, vast, demanding and mysterious, is the overriding presence.
Reading Hazzard is like walking in an enchanted garden. Her mastery and control are such that every leaf and petal, every path and pond, every vista is both exquisite and perilous. We know we're in the hands of a master, but we don't know what she'll do with us.
And isn't that how we want to feel when we read? Dazzled, breathless, entranced — stood upright, like hair on end? - Roxana Robinson


In June 2012, I stood on a balcony at the Sydney Observatory at seven in the morning, to watch this century’s final Transit of Venus. We huddled in coats and scarves, peering into telescopes, waiting and waiting. We watched, and waited more, and finally cheered when a small black dot appeared against the sun’s bright expanse. A tiny bead, making contact, slowly traversing the face of the sun.
Before then, I had not been more than passingly interested in astronomical matters, but I had recently read Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980), and been struck by it in ways I didn’t fully understand. Venus transits appear in pairs, each pair a hundred years apart, and 2012 was the second transit this century. The chances of seeing a perfect transit are rare, unrepeatable; I knew I had to be there that day. As the black dot made contact, I found myself in tears. It was a momentous experience. For the rest of the day, throughout the six and a half hours of the transit, I kept returning to watch it on my computer screen, the tiny dot valiantly making its way across the sun’s vast boiling surface, a small boat in an orange sea.
My presence at the observatory that day was, in some opaque way, an act of homage to Hazzard’s book. Why I felt I had to be there I am not certain, but it was something to do with the kind of cosmic heft I felt on finishing the novel. I wanted to be there, in some way, for Shirley Hazzard.
I still don’t fully understand The Transit of Venus, which I suspect is why I will keep returning to it throughout my life. It has been fascinating to observe, in other writers’ responses, how often they remark on seeing its greatness only on a second visit – often decades after first buying or reading it. Michelle de Kretser, Geoff Dyer and Michael Gorra have all written of their early resistance to the book, only to have returned to it later and been shocked by its brilliance. Even Hazzard’s husband Francis Steegmuller remarked that nobody should ever have to read this book for the first time.
It is a curious thing, this need to return. It is as if the book itself gives off a kind of anti-magnetic field at first, holding the readers off until they are ready to face up to the questions it asks of them. In her memoir Greene on Capri (2000), Hazzard writes that Graham Greene ‘regularly invited you to step on a rug, which he would then pull out from under’. While the context is different – she was referring to Greene’s antagonistic personality – this rug-pulling aptly describes the disruptive nature of The Transit of Venus’s  narrative and Hazzard’s literary technique. For it seems to me that in The Transit of Venus, a significant aspect of her artistic motive is to set up a sense of certainty – and then destroy it, capsizing the reader over and over again.

Most often described as a novel about love, The Transit of Venus is the story of two Australian sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, who emigrate to England in the 1950s. Orphaned while young by their parents’ deaths in a Sydney harbour ferry sinking, the sisters have been raised by their older half-sister Dora. On their arrival as young women in Britain, mild gentle Grace quickly marries and settles into an apparently uneventful marriage with Christian Thrale, a self-satisfied man of means. Caro, the elder sister and the novel’s main protagonist, is a different kind of woman. Gifted and beautiful, poor but willful, she spurns the lifelong love of astronomer Ted Tice, preferring the dangerous and adulterous attentions of Paul Ivory, a playwright. The book follows Caro into middle age, through devotion and betrayal, penury and prosperity, love and loss, until the final detonation of a long-held secret brings both startling enlightenment and catastrophe.
By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.
This is the opening sentence of the novel and, for the re-reader, an elegant summary of the story itself. There is a storm, and small newspaper paragraphs report on its aftermath:
unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.
A bridge was swept away. The phrase is a forceful shorthand for the provocative double-sidedness at work all through this book. Over and over again, Hazzard insists on the paradoxical nature of human experience: that two opposite things can be true at once, and that it is within this contradiction we must live and love. Like the capsized ferry, the Benbow, the swept-away bridge attests to the ever-present possibility of calamity. This sudden, massive trauma and reversal of fortune is not only one of the novel’s themes, but  a constant presence in the very tissue of the writing. There are many examples of this, but I would like to explore three of these paradoxes – these sudden collapses of hitherto sturdy-seeming facts.
The first is the novel’s exploration of Australianness, despite being set almost entirely in Europe and America. The Transit of Venus bears the scars of its author’s upbringing in the Australia of the 1940s and 1950s, that nation deplored by Patrick White in his 1958 essay ‘The Prodigal Son’, written after his own return from Europe:
In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.
It is this Australia – supposedly a historical one, though on my darker days it seems only the teeth have changed – that haunts Hazzard, as it does so many other writers of her era, from White to Amy Witting, Jessica Anderson and Elizabeth Harrower. In The Transit of Venus, this Australia is made flesh, in the grotesque portrait of Dora. As little girls, Caro and Grace may be dumbfounded by grief, yet they know Dora, with every fibre of themselves, to be suspicious, martyrish, manipulative and mean:
The girls heard it said that Dora was raising them. Yet it was more like sinking, and always trying to rise.
Dora’s moods and petulance must be appeased; her self-pity is endless, as are her threats of suicide, made to small, already orphaned girls. Anyone with a difficult friend or resentful aunt knows Dora:
Dora herself was strongest of all, in her power to accuse, to judge, to cause pain: in her sovereign power. Dora’s skilled suspicion would reach unerringly into your soul, bring out your worst thoughts and flourish them for all to see; but never brought to light the simple good.
Dora and her grievances prematurely age the little girls, who
walk home hand in hand, not so much like lovers as like an elderly couple, grave with information and responsibility. Coming home was to a Dora of outraged quiet … Grievance was statistical: ‘They only invited me once in two years.’ ‘In all that time I was there to tea exactly twice.’
And yet, Dora is all the small girls have. ‘Dora is daily life.’
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the spiritually diminished entities of Dora and Australia are established in the same chapter. They are two strands of the same coarse, constraining rope. Here is the girls’ paltry education, derided:
Australia’s history soon terminated in unsuccess. Was engulfed in a dark stench of nameless prisoners whose only apparent activity was to have built, for their own incarceration, the stone gaols, now empty monuments that little girls might tour for Sunday outings: These are the cells for solitary confinement, here is where they. Australian History dwindled into the expeditions of doomed explorers, journeys without revelation or encounter endured by fleshless men whose portraits already gloomed, beforehand, with a wasted, unlucky look – the eyes fiercely shining from sockets that were already bone.
Like Australia, Dora fears and abhors knowledge. When Caro mutinously buys a secondhand book and adds it to her pile,
Dora said: ‘You have enough books now.’ Dora knew, none better, the enemy when she saw it.
In The Transit of Venus, captivity to Dora and captivity to Australia are the same story: ‘a shrivelled chronicle – meagre, shameful, uninspired’. In ‘the true, and northern, hemisphere’ is where living – rather than waiting – is done. And though they do not escape Dora’s clutches entirely, the sisters embrace England. ‘London is our achievement,’ Caro tells Grace’s smug yet besotted suitor, Christian. ‘Having got here is an attainment, being here is an occupation.’
The shame of being Australian is not merely internalised, but a deficiency frequently impressed upon the sisters by others. The precision of Hazzard’s observations here surely attest to how often she must have been patronised, as a gifted young woman from Sydney. Even now, every Australian whose accent or ‘convict forbears’ have been mocked by some mediocre Englishman will recognise the acuity of these scenes. Here, for example, is Grace’s crusty old father-in-law to be:
Sefton Thrale would explain, ‘Christian has got himself engaged’ – implying naive bungling – ‘to an Australian girl.’ And with emphatic goodwill might add that Grace was a fine young woman and that he himself was delighted, ‘Actually.’
But then comes one of Hazzard’s bridge collapses. Being Australian is shameful, to be sure. And yet, once the sisters are free of the country itself, it bestows upon them a strange sort of authority. It is as if, free of the dun-coloured history of their own land, Caro and Grace are free of all history, and this statelessness bestows a confronting new power. It is a power that overwhelms and attracts Christian Thrale on his first visit to Grace. His first shock is that the sisters have made beauty and modernity manifest in their shabby ‘furnished rooms’:
The stairs were freshly painted white and had a scarlet carpet. There was a glass jar of yellow flowers on a landing.
This is one of the earliest indications of the central role that beauty plays in Hazzard’s moral vision. In her world, perceiving and making beauty is a mark of a civilised mind, and an inherently moral presence. But Christian’s second, more alarming jolt, comes when he realises the women are – incomprehensibly – unashamed:
He found these women uncommonly self-possessed for their situation. They seemed scarcely conscious of being Australians in a furnished flat. He would have liked them to be more impressed by his having come, and instead caught himself living up to what he thought might be their standards.

These women provided something new to Christian – a clear perception unmingled with suspiciousness. Their distinction was not only their beauty and their way with one another, their crying need of a rescue for which they made no appeal whatever; but a high humorous candour for which – he could frame it no other way – they would be willing to sacrifice.
In this way, the women’s – especially Caro’s – power is established, and so is the paradox that Australianness bestows both weakness and strength. In accepting the shame of their heritage, they are divested of it, and in its place stands something rare, something rather daunting.

But it is not only men who are provoked by this power, which brings me to my second subject: the richly variegated experience of womanhood in this novel. Aside from the main protagonists, there are many acutely drawn female characters in The Transit of Venus. I want to draw particular attention to two of those on the periphery. I have already discussed the monstrous Dora, who never entirely disappears. Like a bad penny or malaria, she keeps turning up, dragging Caro away from potential happiness towards duty – which is to say misery and penury. But if Dora has an alter-ego, it must surely be Paul Ivory’s fiancée Tertia Drage, one of the great female villains of modern fiction. Where Dora is a blunt instrument, Tertia is a finely sharpened, glinting silver needle. At the very moment Caro and Grace learn by letter that they are at last free of Dora (or so they think), Tertia is led into the room:
He had Tertia with him, the daughter of a lord. So sleekly pretty, so fair and tall that she seemed an advertisement for something very costly.
They murmured, you-do. Tertia offered fingertips in a gesture not so much exhausted as reserving strength for something more worth while.  … Having shaken hands, Tertia touched her bodice, her hair: an animal fastidiously expunging traces of contact. … Like Christian Thrale before her, she found them insufficiently conscious of their disadvantage, and would have liked to bring it home to them. She perceived that, while Grace might eventually be set straight in this fashion, Caro would be a tougher proposition.
And so the enemies become acquainted. A striking near-acknowledgement of their status as adversaries comes in a fleeting scene on the evening of Tertia and Paul’s engagement party, to be held in the Thrales’ house in the country, where the sisters are staying. In her room, Caro puts on her one good dress, a Parisian extravagance she knows displays her beauty to superb effect. She is in the scullery ironing the silken belt of the dress when Tertia appears, in her own ‘rustling, sweeping dress of silver’, ordering Caro to do something with flowers. But then Tertia stops and stares, arrested by the sight of Caro in her magnificent dress. The normally modest Caro enjoys seeing Tertia shaken and ‘on this occasion, had a taste to see the fact acknowledged’. But Tertia is an expert at this kind of contest. She recovers her composure and, after a pause, smiles at Caro’s dress and asks lightly, ‘And what are you going to wear this evening?’
It’s a master stroke, but Caro merely laughs. Then, holding Tertia’s gaze, she ‘lowered the belt and fitted it with slow care about her own waist.’ This simple but deliberate gesture – Caro drawing attention to the splendour of her own body – is an expression of sexual power as raw as anything that comes later. Caro may be merely engaged in the womanish business of frocking up, but in this scene her gesture has all the threat of a gladiator buckling his sword-belt.
Caro’s sexual allure is deep-seated, arising not so much from her beauty as from a quite masculine refusal to submit. In one of the book’s most memorable scenes, Caro’s post-coital afternoon with Paul is interrupted by the familiar noise of Tertia’s car pulling up on the gravel. Paul, an accomplished liar, leaps from the bed and throws on a shirt and tie so he is able to casually greet Tertia from his top-floor window. That is, until he understands, ‘from the fixing of Tertia’s limbs’, that Caro too has risen from the bed, and is standing silently and ‘perfectly aloof’ beside him at the window ‘wearing nothing but a small round watch’.
Caro will not lie, nor lie down. Her literal nakedness here is a manifestation of her spiritual and moral nakedness: she will not dissemble or play coquette, will neither evade nor acquiesce. She knows what she is doing, and stands to face the consequences. A lesser novelist might reward Caro for this nobility, but Hazzard is concerned with truth, and it is around this time that another bridge is wrenched away. It happens in a sentence so fleeting as to be almost invisible, and it is delivered by one of the most minor characters in the book.
Valda Fenchurch is one of Caro’s colleagues in the miserable government offices where intelligent women must simper and minister to the whims of men like the petty tyrant Mr Leadbetter. Alone of all the women, Valda is enraged by the demeaning tasks and childish power-plays inflicted on them by their all-male superiors. Valda’s is the voice of modern feminism, coming from a far distant future. She appears at a point in the narrative when Caro is still in thrall to Paul Ivory, still able to deceive herself that she holds some cards. He still comes to her in preference to Tertia, after all, and they bask in the warmth of their illicit love. The reader’s sympathies are all with Caro: with the romance of her daring, her freedom from petty morals of the day. It is Valda who coolly, astutely, lays down the unpalatable truth:
For her part, Valda considered Caro as a possibility lost. Caro might have done anything, but had preferred the common limbo of sexual love. Whoever said, ‘When you go to women, take your whip’, was on to something deep, and deeply discouraging.
When you go to women, take your whip. This is a line delivered by an old woman in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. In Valda’s mind, the aphorism is a bleak verdict on women’s passivity; and in Caro’s case, she speaks the truth. For all Caro’s veneer of independence, for all her unexpressed scorn for those, like Grace, who capitulate to unhappy marriages and mediocrity, she surrenders to the stark misogyny of Nietzsche’s image. Paul Ivory brings his whip, and Caro understands his bond with her in the way every woman of her era understands relationships with men: as domination and submission. So submit she does. She does not nobly rise, but sinks, slowly and surely, into despair and degradation. Independence of mind may have freed her from hypocritical social mores, but she is captive nonetheless: to her demeaning job, to the miserable bleatings and stupidity of Dora, and as a result to crippling poverty. Most of all, she remains captive to her own doomed devotion to Paul Ivory. There is nothing noble in it; it is awful Tertia who prevails.
What relief, then, when Caro has finally done her time in this prison of her own choosing, and Tertia’s pregnancy releases her. At last, Caro’s integrity does find reward, in a chance encounter with Adam Vail, the first man whose strength of character can match her own. Adam Vail, rich New Yorker, appreciator of beauty, human rights advocate, world traveller: in his civilised, ethical world, Caro finally has her rightful home.
Back at the office, Valda finally refuses point blank to submit to Mr Leadbetter’s trivial tea-fetching demands. And Caro stands by her, delivering Leadbetter a lacerating lecture on principled behaviour, followed by her trump card: before he can sack her for impudence, she resigns, to marry Adam Vail and move to New York.
But Hazzard won’t let Caro off without one last crack of that whip, and once again it is delivered with horrible perspicacity, by a minor player and a villain at that. When Caro brandishes her resignation to Leadbetter:
He hated her, for her liberty and her looks and her happiness, and that remark about the teapot. The Gatling jammed: words would not so much as sputter. However, since even she could only be delivered by male intervention, he eventually smiled and made his last attack. ‘I had already assumed something of the kind.’
Even as we cheer for Caro then, another little bridge – the illusion of her independence – is swept away.

Independence, the sovereignty of the self that drives all the most powerful characters in The Transit of Venus, is the third paradox I wish to explore. The search for personal freedom seems to lie beneath many of Hazzard’s statements, in interviews and elsewhere. And for me it is this – the moral exercise of ‘sovereign power’ – rather than love, that is the central theme of the novel.
It is ironic that the girls’ impoverished education provides the first flash of this theme, at the very beginning of the book, in the lines of a poem by Tennyson:
For a punishment you might, after school, write one hundred times:
Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control;
These three alone lead life to sovereign power.
The little girls licked nibs of tin and fingered pigtails, preparing for sovereign power.
Despite this mocking introduction, the idea of ‘sovereign power’ is pursued throughout the novel. The phrase recurs again and again. The Transit of Venus is ultimately an examination of this concept: what does it mean? Is it good or bad, neither or both? How is sovereign power to be expressed?
In Greene on Capri, Hazzard rebukes the meanness of spirit which saw the press sometimes criticising Greene for his material wealth. She attributes this to ‘that confusion of esteem and envy, centred on the independence in which [art] is conceived and composed’. She quotes Auden on the same matter. Fascination with artists, wrote Auden,
is not due to the nature of art itself, but to the way in which the artist works; he, and in our age almost nobody else, is his own master. The idea of being one’s own master appeals to most human beings, and this is apt to lead to the fantastic hope that the capacity for artistic creation is universal.
It follows that those who are not their own masters feel the need to punish those who are. This happens time and again throughout The Transit of Venus. A woman who appears in control of her own destiny (‘Caro would decide at which table she belonged’) must suffer most of all. Adam Vail, too, is suspected and attacked for his independence of mind:
In any group there are masters and followers. Even the right side rather dislikes a man who stands alone.
It is to do with this issue, self-sovereignty, that Hazzard allows the most devastating bridge collapse. It is impossible to discuss The Transit of Venus without examining what Hazzard is doing in its final pages. The last 75 pages, where the ‘story’ appears almost to peter out, is the section in which its meaning for me is laid down. It changes quite abruptly from a complex, beautifully written love story to an icy examination of selfhood and morality.
A more anxious writer than Hazzard might have used this section to speed up – but she does the opposite, slowing the narrative down to an almost unbearable degree, stepping away from it, dismissing major events in a single line, offstage. We already know, for example, from an almost stray line in the first pages of the novel, that Ted Tice will take his own life. The devastating news about Adam Vail is delivered third-hand, in a way that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s shattering removal of Mrs Ramsay from To the Lighthouse in a single, offhand sentence – in parentheses.
Paul Ivory’s shocking confession to Caro sweeps away her own bridge of self-delusion, to reveal Ted Tice as the supremely moral character in the novel. The revelation about Ted shows the novel to be concerned with much deeper moral courage than that required simply to love. By the novel’s end, all characters stand judged on how they exercise self-sovereignty. Dora’s comes through bullying and judgment. Paul Ivory’s by deceit and the most detestable of crimes. Grace’s failure to grasp her own destiny is contrasted with Caro’s insistence on hers – until the end. Not for Caro the fate of all yet-to-be-married women of her generation, expected to leave school and then ‘hold their breath, while accumulating linen and silver’ – her life has been achieved not by waiting but by acting, and by ‘the exaltation of her own beliefs’.
But when the struts of those beliefs are torn down – by Paul Ivory and the truth – Caro learns that the true exercise of sovereign power might require not action, but restraint. Ted Tice, patiently (some might say pathologically) adoring Caro from afar, has all the while held fast to a secret that if spoken, would inevitably drive her away from Paul, toward himself. Alone in the book, Ted preserves the moral power with which he starts out.
In a 1987 interview with Dennis Danvers in Antipodes, Hazzard said this about individual authority:
Don’t you agree that when a man or a woman has managed to refute the private temptations to malice and mockery, when they’ve made the arduous recurring decisions to renounce useless vengeance in their own life, that gives them a greater right and power to speak for us all? It gives the words a different ring. A reverberation.
This is the reverberation at the heart of this novel –- not love, but integrity. The novel is about the greater humanity that one gains by refusing glibness, resisting the cheap shot. Ted Tice rejects the accidental (and thus cheap, illusory and illegitimate) power offered by merely perceiving another’s weakness and exploiting it. The novel is a call to resist vulgar power, the type gained through reduction, through first impressions, through stereotype or quick certainty. For a person of Ted’s moral fibre, the end will never justify the means. The only advantage he will accept is that bestowed on him by his own strength of character.
When Caro is undone by this final revelation, she looks back and sees her life anew, in a pure and cold and terrible light. And still Hazzard has not finished with her demolitions. On the very final page of the book, at the pinnacle of its happy ending, comes a tragedy which doubles as a puzzle, soluble only to the properly attentive reader. An inattentive reader will miss the clue completely, and close the book bewildered.
This prompts more questions about the shape of this curiously bevelled, bejeweled book. Why would an author risk alienating a reader in this way? Why indeed take pleasure in it, as Hazzard appears to do in the same Antipodes interview, where she speaks, with what sounds like relish, of the ‘trap’ she has laid ‘for the inattentive reader’. In our contemporary publishing world, where it is assumed that readers must be comforted and coddled, and where the slightest potential for confusion amounts to a mortal sin, I cannot imagine an editor’s response to such audacity. But what is the meaning of this puzzle?
Once again, I think it is double-sided. First, the ending is an evocation of the title. The planets, not we humans, are in control. Cosmic accidents occur, our lives capsize; we have command of nothing but our capacity to love, and only in this present, fleeting moment.
The second reason reflects Hazzard’s seriousness as an artist. I said earlier that beauty – and now I would add, art itself – is central to Hazzard’s moral vision. And as Iris Murdoch said, paying attention is a moral act: only looking closely, with an unsentimental suppression of the desires of the self, makes clarity of vision possible. ‘To silence and expel self,’ wrote Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good (1967), ‘and contemplate and delineate nature with a clear eye, is not easy and demands moral discipline.’ The provocation in The Transit of Venus’s ending is a claim for this kind of attention, and a rebuke to those who turn to literature for mere entertainment, for the consolations of love stories and happy endings. Art is a serious business, the author seems to be saying, and serious attention must be paid. You have one life: take notice.

It is an exceptional achievement to create a work of art in which a second immersion is so forcefully impelled by the first. As soon as I began my first reading of The Transit of Venus, I knew instinctively that every sentence was an iceberg, hinting at greater meaning and depth than was visible on the surface. Only when I finished the novel could it change in my hands from a work of paper to one of shimmering fabric which, held up to a different light, now showed itself to be shot through with completely new colours. And so I re-read, to find it even sharper, more painful, more complex, more beautiful, but also colder, asking tougher questions: What do we expect of life? And what does it expect of us? When I finished my recent reading, I wrote to a friend: ‘I’m overwhelmed – by the book, by my response to it. I am confronted and moved and full of a feeling of wanting, somehow, to live up to it, and to Hazzard’s demands.’
I think I understand now, why I went to the observatory to see Venus that day, and why I was so moved. Both planet and book caused a profound alteration in my sense of perspective, forcing me to look again at my place in the world. It is a perspective tilt that provokes the enormous questions: as an Australian, a woman, a self-governing person, who am I? What does my life mean? These are questions that will return each time I revisit this book, and I must find a new path to them with every reading. I am grateful for this novel, for the glimpse it offers of something rare and magnificent. Like Venus returning, twice a century, to trace its small beaded way across the face of the sun. -
Charlotte Wood   sydneyreviewofbooks.com/transit-of-venus-shirley-hazzard/


As soon as I meet Shirley Hazzard, before we begin to engage in a conversation, she is quoting Hardy poetry to me. She insists that the love Thomas Hardy expressed for his first wife in his later verses is genuine, that after Emma Hardy died he somehow managed to recall all the old love and feelings.
“Not guilt, that’s too modern. He was able to recall the way he had felt when he first met her.”
We are meeting for lunch in a lower East Side restaurant near Hazzard’s New York home. What prompted the outpouring was that she had spent the morning sorting out her late husband’s papers – he was Francis Steegmuller, the writer – before sending them on to a university archive. But she had been in tears recalling their love.
It’s an intense beginning to our friendship, but I’m up for it. Then she tells me about her childhood and her slight formal education. Shirley Hazzard was born in Australia in 1931. As a child she traveled widely as her parents were diplomats. At sixteen, living in Hong Kong, she was engaged by British Intelligence, where, in 1947-48, she was involved in monitoring the civil war in China. Thereafter, she lived in New Zealand, Europe and in the United States, where she worked for the United Nations Secretariat in New York and in Italy. She has been deeply critical of the United Nations ever since. She taught herself through books, and by studying human nature. She was in her thirties by the time she married Steegmuller, a widower more than twenty years older, in 1963. “It was marvellous to be married to a writer. Sometimes I’d be staring into space searching for a word and, although he encouraged me to write, he knew this was just a necessary part of the thinking process.” Words are precious. She uses them carefully and sparingly, as anyone who has read her book, The Transit of Venus will know.
This deeply sensual novel has long been a favourite of mine and it improves on re- reading. Yet I did not adequately appreciate it when I first read it shortly after publication in 1980. I came back to it after discovering her grippingly perceptive account of Graham Greene, Greene on Capri (2000). I was older, was emerging from a Greene phase and it was evident from her observation of Greene that Hazzard had a deep understanding of how women and men, not necessarily married but in sexual thrall to each other, behave. Although I admired her more recent and highly autobiographical The Great Fire (2003), it is Transit of Venus, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, that has stayed with me, demanded to be re-read, and led to this meeting of the adoring fan worshipping at the font. Hazzard is modest but knows her worth.
From the book’s opening sentence – “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation” – you know you are in the hands of a skilled driver but that it’s going to be a bumpy ride. The book is laced with sexual tension sometimes pulled so tight it is almost suffocating. But it’s also threaded through with poetry which relaxes the tension. Poetry is an important part of who Shirley Hazzard is and the book is full of it. One key offstage character, long since dead, was a poet and the main protagonist, Caro, is constantly remembering verses or sitting with a book of poetry.
Transit of Venus is the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline (Caro) and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war England – a transit through love and life. Both sisters are beautiful. While the “fair” Grace quickly settles for a wealthy but unsatisfying married life, dark-haired Caro works (for a time as a shop girl) and soon embarks on a passionate adulterous affair. Her lover, a duplicitous but handsome playwright called Paul Ivory, newly married to a rich and boring woman, warns Caro he has never suffered greatly – “I have not felt enough. Whatever enough means.” Aware of his power to wound, he is not afraid to use it. Years later, when he learns that his son has leukemia, he rages at fate and at being so powerless. “I’ve always detested any sense of power over me.”
At the same time Edmund Tice, an astronomer, is forced to adore Caro from afar but is unable to move completely out of her orbit. Although rejected by her, he lives in hope. He continues to meet Caro, write her long letters and bring her quince blossom and tries to settle for her enduring friendship. When Caro marries a wealthy and urbane New Yorker, a widower, it seemingly dashes any hopes Ted may have for finally winning Caro’s love and he, too, marries – Margaret, the daughter of a scientist. But in Caro’s transit through life, such stability is not destined to last, and Ted is offered one last chance to grasp happiness with the woman who has seared herself onto his soul. Or else to settle for the knowledge that, at last, she reciprocates his love.
It is Ted, the scientist, who understands that love is a kind of madness. Ted, with one flawed eye, who is the most clear-eyed of all the characters when he states “…the tragedy isn’t that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is the love that lasts.” He also observes, “Even through a telescope, some people see what they choose to see. Just as they do with the unassisted eye… Nothing supplies the truth except the will for it.”Caro is from the outset described as a child of Venus and we are told in the first few pages that a Transit of Venus is when the tiny planet moves like a dot across our gigantic sun. There are other facts: In 1769, James Cook set sail in the H.M.S. Endeavor to study a Transit of Venus and found Australia. But it is Tice who explains to the young Caro how a Frenchman had travelled to India years earlier to observe a previous transit, and was delayed on the way by wars and misadventure. Having lost his original opportunity, he waited eight years in the east for the next transit of 1769. When the day came, visibility was freakishly poor; there was nothing to be seen. There would not be another such transit for a century.
Destiny – the way that people kept apart by circumstances are drawn together or, conversely, the way that people thrown together by circumstance are yet condemned to mutual isolation – is the theme of this book. That, and of course love.The Transit of Venus has been described as a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Portugal, Stockholm, as much as time. But it’s the people who linger; men but mostly women and especially Caro. In the course of the novel, which ranges from the brilliantly depicted drab fifties to the unraveling late seventies, the women face seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal. The sad tale of Dora, Grace and Caro’s pitiable half-sister, who devoted herself, martyr-like, to the young girls when their parents drowned and then, late in life, finds a handsome major who steals all her money, gives an interesting insight into the limited options open to women in the immediate post-war period. One of the book’s most intriguing historical reference points is the attitude towards women who wanted or needed to work. Paul Ivory refers with disdain to “little shop girls,” forcing Caro to remind him that she too has been a shop girl. “We are not necessarily diminutive.” Caro graduates to government work – “only recently opened to women” – which requires her to take (and pass) exams so that eventually she can afford a flat with a table and chairs of her own. She was not expected to pass the exam. But even if she did, her career prospects were limited as “it was a way of having people with languages without giving them career service.”
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The story repays slow and careful reading. Those who love it praise its voluptuous vocabulary. (Cataphract and Entelechy were new to me.) Critics call this literary pretentiousness. That’s their loss. Hazzard believes in careful use of the right word even if that slows up the pace and is never less than elegant. And what’s the rush? This is a slice of another world, a more leisurely world. Our lunch, too, is slow and leisurely. Food, like words, can be savoured if you know how.
When it’s time to go we discuss another auto-didact; Winston Churchill. Hazzard immediately laments that his power of oratory, his ability to summon up courage and leadership through words and speeches, was perfect for another era, the radio age. “Remember how the colonies relied on his broadcasts? But it would not be effective now in a television age with the inability to listen that has resulted.”
She, too, remembers waking at all hours to hear his words “and he had just the right words delivered in just the right way, derived from the basics of English literature. ”
I have loved every minute of my time with her and understand better the world from which Transit of Venus was created. I say: “I very much hope we will meet again.” Unoriginal words for a departure, but I mean them.
Taking my hand she says with her usual precision: “I depend on it.” - Anne Sebba


Image result for Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire,
Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire, Picador; Reprint edition, 2004.                                


More than twenty years after the classic The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard returns to fiction with a novel that in the words of Ann Patchett "is brilliant and dazzling..."
The Great Fire is an extraordinary love story set in the immediate aftermath of the great conflagration of the Second World War. In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the center of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier finds that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.
In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed, and of Asia's coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity. The Great Fire is a story of love in the aftermath of war by "purely and simply, one of the greatest writers working in English today." (Michael Cunningham)
The Great Fire is the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for Fiction.


Hazzard is nothing if not discriminating. Hierarchies of feeling, perception, and taste abound in her writing, and this novel—her first in more than twenty years—takes on the very notion of what it means to be civilized. The fire of the title refers primarily to the atomic bombing of Japan, but also to the possibility of transcendent passion in its aftermath. In 1947, a thirty-two-year-old English war hero visiting Hiroshima during the occupation finds himself billeted in a compound overseen by a boorish Australian brigadier and his scheming wife. He is immediately enchanted, however, by the couple's children—a brilliant, sickly young man and his adoring sister—who prove to be prisoners in a different sort of conflict. In the ensuing love story, Hazzard's moral refinement occasionally veers toward preciosity, but such lapses are counterbalanced by her bracing conviction that we either build or destroy the world we want to live in with our every word and gesture.
- The New Yorker