e n d n o t e s 




Memo to William Shawn

April 5, 1948

Mr. Shawn:

Forrestal in Washington told me a couple of odd things: I told him I was astonished at a sentence in a recent story ([Daniel] Lang) that the principal activity of the atomic commission is the manufacture of weapons; that I’d thought it would develop the atom for peace use. He says that the weapon use is all there is to it at present – that the peacetime use is visionary and very far off.

He also said that when Roosevelt and the rest of them were debating whether to drop the bomb on Hiroshima or not (which was flatly unnecessary militarily) one of the powerful groups in favor of dropping the bomb were [sic] the scientists, and exactly the same scientists who, after the bomb was dropped, started wringing their hands. They had made the bomb and they wanted it to be dropped. Also, Forrestal says, there would have been one hell of a congressional investigation if the bomb hadn’t been dropped, to find out what happened to the two million dollars.

                                                                  H.W. Ross

                                                          LETTERS FROM THE EDITOR, The New Yorker’s Harold Ross
Thomas Kunkel
                                                                            Modern Library, 2000




The Czechs and Slovaks have a folk tradition of the marionette theater, and puppets on strings are sold in all the tourist locations. In Prague I bought a marionette that is also a sort of doll, and a sort of double, or a shadow. It, she, is a sturdy little girl about two feet high, carved of wood, with muddy feet (made of darker wood finely joined), and a sooty red dress, and a smear of grime on her rosy cheek; but she is not rosy. She is determined. She has dark hair cut in a bob with cowlicked bangs, unblinking green eyes, a pretty little unsmiling mouth. She doesn’t care for other peoples’ opinions. She is dreamy, but not fooled. She has a mind of her own and accepts no nonsense! I entered a state-owned tourist shop offering hand-made objects, saw her sitting on a high shelf (she saw me at the same time, though she gave no sign of it), and knew she would come with me. The young girl clerks couldn’t find the name of the artist, although an insignia was carved on her back, which was left deliberately unfinished. This creature, this fairy-tale girl, emerges from the wood. An iron ring was set into her head, as the oldest marionettes were operated by using a rod or stick attached to the ring, rather than by strings. I felt as if I could read her mind, which was alert and lively with observations and little stories and conversations with herself. I felt she was going to set off on a quest, initiated by a bird’s message.


Kleist wrote a beautiful essay on the Marionette Theatre. “One evening in the winter of 1801, I met an old friend in a public park,” it begins. “He had recently been appointed principal dancer at the local theatre and was enjoying immense popularity with the audiences. I told him I had been surprised to see him more than once at the marionette theatre which had been put up in the market-place to entertain the public with dramatic burlesques interspersed with song and dance. He assured me that the gestures of these puppets gave him much satisfaction and told me bluntly that any dancer who wished to perfect his art could learn a lot from them.”

The perfect balance of dancers bewilders me; it is so elusive. The little muddy-foot girl: can she dance, creature of the barnyard? She will plod, unswerving, I thought to myself; even if Kleist’s old friend proposed not. He observed, rather, that the puppet’s limbs aren’t positioned by the operator, but follow gracefully from their mechanical movement.

“Each movement, he told me, has its centre of gravity; it is enough to control this within the puppet. The limbs, which are only pendulums, then follow mechanically of their own accord, without further help. He added that this movement is very simple. When the centre of gravity is moved in a straight line, the limbs describe curves. Often, shaken in a purely haphazard way, the puppet falls into a kind of rhythm which resembles dance….

“I asked him if he thought the operator who controls these puppets should himself be a dancer or at least have some idea of beauty in the dance. He replied that if a job is technically easy it doesn’t follow that it can be done entirely without sensitivity. The line the centre of gravity has to follow is indeed very simple, and in most cases, he believed, straight. When it is curved, the law of its curvature seems to be at the least of the first and at the most of the second order. Even in the latter case the line is only elliptical, a form of movement natural to the human body because of the joints, so this hardly demands any great skill from the operator. But, seen from another point of view, this line could be something very mysterious. It is nothing other than the path taken by the soul of the dancer. He doubted if this should be found unless the operator can transpose himself into the centre of the gravity of the marionette. In other words, the operator dances.

“I said the operator’s part in the business had been represented to me as something which can be done entirely without feeling – rather like turning the handle of a barrel-organ.

“‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘In fact, there’s a subtle relationship between the movements of his fingers and the movements of the puppets attached to them, something like the relationship between numbers and their logarithms or between asymptote and hyperbola.’ Yet he did believe this last trace of human volition could be removed from the marionettes and their dance transferred entirely to the realm of mechanical forces, even produced, as I had suggested, by turning a handle.”

Oh, my heart sank at these words, despite their beauty and suggestion of mystery. What if the dancer – the operator – had no soul? What if he were without feeling? What if the relationship between his fingers and the puppets’ strings really were logarithmic? What then was it that I had so loved in their movement?

Kleist’s essay progresses simply, to a sublime, aristocratic conclusion; but, downhearted, I could not follow. The image of the calculating puppet-operator insisted on its metaphorical power. The little mud-foot girl was no dancer, she was a wily-yet-innocent peasant, and she would not be fooled. (“He asked me if I hadn’t in fact found some of the dance movements of the puppets [and particularly of the smaller ones] very graceful. This I couldn’t deny. A group of four peasants dancing the rondo in quick time couldn’t have been painted more delicately by Teniers.”) I noticed that, if not handled correctly, that is, with grace, she simply would not move. Her face was set in resistance.


Suppose I am being operated as a marionette. Suppose I click into the Amazon-maze, looking for a book title. (I don’t intend to buy; I want to check a publication date and find out what other books the author has written.) Because in an earlier, experimental mode I bought several books from Amazon, when it presented itself as a ‘virtual’ bookseller, not a bazaar, it now pretends to greet me. It ‘knows’ my name. (I so dislike being greeted familiarly by something with which I am unacquainted.) It presumes to suggest other books (and also music!) which it ‘thinks’ I would like. (It is wrong.) It wants to ‘set cookies.’ I refuse them. I’ve learned that to ‘accept’ a ‘cookie’ means my computer is being identified; that my mouse-movement makes tracks across the site, watched by Amazon’s cat-computer. What is it learning? What does it want to know? It wants to know how to sell me something. “Yet he did believe this last trace of human volition could be removed from the marionettes and their dance transferred entirely to the realm of mechanical forces, even produced, as I had suggested, by turning a handle.”


In the Devil’s Dictionary I am compiling, the American national verb is “to sell.” It has displaced “to persuade,” as in: “President Clinton tried to sell his bill to Congress.” “To offer” is done away with: “The writer sold her book to the conglomerate publisher.” As a verb, it seems to have reorganized our older notions about commerce, and its variation, “to market,” has subverted human dignity, to wit: “He has learned how to market himself to possible employers.” I’ve also recorded a new noun: “dot com” as, var., analog. to to sell in the new economy.

An illustration comes to mind. A few months ago, Bart Schneider, the good editor of what was a decent quarterly called The Hungry Mind Review, wrote this in an editorial:

I took the final issue of the Hungry Mind Review to the printer on Friday. As many of you know, Hungry Mind recently sold its name to an on-line cyberuniversity called hungryminds.com. A requirement of the sale is that the magazine, along with the bookstore and press, banish the words “hungry” and “mind” from our realm and come up with a new name by April 1, 2000. This is not an April Fool’s joke.

Thus far the whole business has been amusing. Those of us charged with inventing the new name have visited several public relations firms that specialize in “identity.” Their process, we’re told, works a lot more quickly than psychoanalysis.

Initially, there was fear that some bookstore customers would feel betrayed at the loss of the fabled name, but the Twin Cities community has adopted the naming of the bookstore and its satellites as a favorite project. In-store suggestion boxes fill up quickly. Media Web sites offer opportunities for renaming the Hungry Mind. Classes of elementary school kids are racking their brains for the right name. My father, a man who likes a puzzle, calls periodically from his retirement community near Sonoma, California. He offers not only his suggestions, but those of his buddies, a bunch of well-read seniors, never short of ideas. “How about the Intellectual Rabbit?” he says.

Now, after editing all fifty-two issues of the Hungry Mind Review, I feel some trepidation about the magazine changing its name. Whereas the bookstore remains at the same address on Grand Avenue, and the press has a sales group representing its titles, a magazine, without the financial resources of Talk or Doubletake, goes out into the world a bit like an orphan. And now, an orphan with a new name. If you have any ideas, please send them our way.

The orphan’s new name is Ruminator Review (and R. Bookstore, and R. Press). The logotype has a cow on it. Rightly. The owner of Ruminator, who is not the editor of the review but someone else, has a lot to chew on, considering what he has sold. He has sold what was once called his good name.

I read The Hungry Mind Review. The Hungry Mind was independent and determined to review and publish books appealing to its mid-western (and wider) readership. It enjoyed the protection of a good liberal arts college. That customers and friends had adopted the retitling project as if undismayed by the “loss of the fabled name” puzzled me. Had no one spoken of the loss of integrity? Surely (I hoped); privately (no doubt); while in public all kinds of folk pitched in to help.

On reflection, I wondered if their response might not have had to do with recent history. After 1989, when the Soviet empire gave way before what is now an unrestricted hyper- or turbo-charged capitalism, working people – I meant the salaried American middle class – suffered a series of profound shocks. In those years (have we forgotten?) hundreds of thousands of employees were separated from their jobs, no matter how long their service, because of corporate calculations like stock ratings and price/earnings ratios. Under a rain of blows, American employees absorbed perhaps the first lesson of the new century: not that everyone, but that anyone, is expendable.

That lesson settled deep into their bones, it seemed to me, and because of it they had decided that they must be inventive to survive. And, I supposed, they were much like those loyal customers who might have seen the Hungry Mind – bookstore, press, review – as their own and rallied around it.

Some time later, I received an e-mail from Bart Schneider saying he had read a piece I had written about Lee Goerner, who died a few years ago, and who had been the last book editor and publisher of Atheneum, a literary imprint shut down in 1994 by its new conglomerate owner. Bart Schneider recalled having met Lee several times. He said Lee had turned down his first novel, “with the grace of making it seem his shortcoming not mine,” and wished he had been able to send him his next one, which was published last year. He mentioned editing a quarterly magazine about books, and said he had started an e-mail column and that he was going to write about Lee in the next one, which he would send me. He closed by thanking me for my “fine piece and for [my] devotion to literature.”

The message touched me, for I had followed the Hungry Mind’s travail, and I was glad to hear from anyone who knew Lee Goerner. But I was still troubled by the business of the change of name. I wrote back:

Thanks for your note, with apologies for this slow reply. Of course I know the Hungry Mind Review, very well, though may I say I find the new title less than inviting? The association with cows’ stomachs is awfully close, even for this urban reader; but of course I wish you all continued luck and grace.

May I ask, privately and off the record, what you think about the title having been sold to an on-line ‘university’? More and more, I myself worry about the erosion of barriers between commerce (turbo-capitalism, actually) and everything else in life, not the least, literature. Amazon is sponsoring (with PEN) a short-story contest, and Cynthia Ozick, saying that Amazon didn’t have a presence in her life, thought it just fine as a way of welcoming new writers. I wonder.

About ten years ago, when Gayfrid Steinberg (wife of a NY financier of some sort) was underwriting the annual PEN dinner, one of the board members, Ken Auletta [who now covers business for The New Yorker, not wholly uncritically], criticized PEN and Ms. Steinberg for the relationship, saying she was treating PEN as a ‘pet,’ and disapproving of their association with the rich. Naturally, she was miffed and at once withdrew her support, leaving PEN hopping about on one leg looking for more dough. Since then, everyone has shut up and fawned gratefully over whatever dollars come their way, from whatever source. No thought, any more, of contamination by association!

No doubt you’ve examined this issue down to the ground; but doesn’t it affect all of us, very closely?

Bart Schneider wrote a nice piece about Lee Goerner and Archipelago, in which he drew attention to an incident. A year or so before Atheneum was closed, Lee and Thomas Pynchon had lunched together and were saying goodbye, when Pynchon shook him lightly by the lapels and half-growled, “Only publish good books!” Lee was silent. When, later, I defended Pynchon, Lee exclaimed, perhaps in despair, “That’s easy for him to say.”

That wasn’t easy for Pynchon to say. He had earned the right to say it. But nor was it easy for Lee Goerner to publish good books. When Atheneum, which he took into the black, did not make enough return on investment to suit its new owners, they shut down the imprint and fired its editor-publisher.

I wonder what we we mean when we say that we support literature. That we read books and journals; that we buy them in independent bookstores? Perhaps, that what we read informs our mind and discourse? Don’t we expect the highest work of the imagination from writers? The Hungry Mind Review lost its appealing name to an economic necessity, it seems. Yes, but can a literary publication survive without the patronage of wealth, even as an entertainment rag like Talk arrives with immense backing? Is the dissemination of thoughtful, serious writing, in any form, to be left to what is called fancifully “the market”? These are old, old questions. The economics of responsible publishing have not changed; the margin is always low. What price literature?

In his piece, Bart Schneider wrote our URL as www.archipelago.com. It’s an understandable mistake, made often enough, but Archipelago isn’t a dot com; we’ve nothing to sell.


We know, don’t we, that we can’t recover lost innocence? (That we would not?) I look at the muddy-foot girl and my heart softens and cheers for her, and also is wary of her. She is stronger than I am. Her gaze is unnerving. She is practical and doesn’t suffer fools at all.

“My reply was that, no matter how cleverly he might present his paradoxes, he would never make me believe a mechanical puppet can be more graceful than a living human body. He countered this by saying that, where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a puppet. Only a god can equal inanimate matter in this respect. This is the point where the two ends of the circular world meet.

“I was absolutely astonished. I didn’t know what to say to such extraordinary assertions…. I told him I was aware how consciousness can disturb natural grace. A young acquaintance of mine had as it were lost his innocence before my very eyes, and all because of a chance remark. He had never found his way back to that paradise of innocence, in spite of all conceivable efforts. ‘But what inferences,’ I added, ‘can you draw from that?’”

My conceit, the marionette theater, is limited. We humans are fallible and I’ve erred on the side of bad taste, I feel, speaking of Kleist and Amazon and to sell in the same discourse. I could buy “On the Marionette Theatre” from Amazon’s catalog on-line; but I won’t. When, earlier, I ordered books there, someone at the warehouse had carefully wrapped them, as they do in a real bookstore, but then had included advertising which had nothing to do with reading. The company (not the person who wrapped books) treated me as a likely prospect for buying things from the mazy tangle that the site Amazon.com has become. I would rather buy a copy in an independent bookstore. I would rather borrow it from a library. Yet, I’ve been told that Amazon, selling books, does some good for small publishers and similar casualties of the chains and conglomerates. If it does little for me except as a reference service, that is because I am not a consumer but a reader of books, and I recognize persiflage when I hear it. – No, I am curious about the unfinished child: what has the bird whispered in her ear? Her eyes have widened. She knows so little, and is very curious. The world rolls away, far, far beyond the fence around her small field. The gate opens.

“‘Now, my excellent friend,’ said my companion, ‘you are in possession of all you need to know to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image of a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.’

“‘Does that mean,’ I said in some bewilderment, ‘we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’

“‘Of course,’ he said, ‘but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.’”

See also:

Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theatre,” tr. Idris Parry. Syrens (Penguin) 1994

A Conversation with Odile Hellier, this issue

Reminiscence: Lee Goerner, Archipelago Vol. 3, No. 3

The Ruminator Review


The Double, Vol. 3, No. 4 A Flea, Vol. 2, No. 4
Folly, Love, St. Augustine, Vol. 3, No. 3 On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
On Memory, Vol. 3, No. 2 Fantastic Design, with Nooses, Vol. 2, No. 1
Passion, Vol. 3, No. 1 Kundera’s Music Teacher, Vol. 1, No. 4



next page


contents download subscribe archive