I’m halfway through Lords of Chaos, a book about the establishment of the Black Metal music genre and its attendant subculture among Northern European youth in the 1980s and 90s. It puts particular focus on Varg Vikernes, one of the Nordic scene’s founders, and a very eager interview subject. At the time of the book’s original publication in 1998, Vikernes was a few years into a long prison sentence for burning several ancient Norwegian churches, and later stabbing to death one of his fellow foundational metalheads. The book’s authors found him quite happy to pass the time sharing his memories and experiences of the scene, right up through his own bloody exit and beyond.
Despite our obviously opposite natures, I feel an uncanny entanglement with Vikernes and his world. Born within a year of each other, he and I both experienced formative years in cold places, he in Norway and I in Maine. As a rather vanilla geek-o-nerd, I never associated with any kind of music scene, but certainly my hobbies put me in contact with inland Maine’s own thriving metal culture, which loved fantasy role-playing games as much as I did. I made friends with several long-haired, zine-reading knuckleheads who looked just like the many photographs of 20-year-old Vikernes and his colleagues found in Lords. They, too, had a tendency to dress in all black, own things like chainmail and spiked maces, and sometimes pass the time just walking into the woods with two-handed firearms and blasting away at nothing in particular.
Strangest of all, Vikernes and I share a common self-chosen name. Discarding his given name “Kristian” as that of the religion he came to despise, he initiated himself into Black Metal by renaming himself “Varg” — Swedish for “wolf”, and rich with the Nordic-heathen symbolism he treasured. In 1991, as a teenager discovering the internet, I chose the same thing for my all-important online handle, and probably right around the same time. (I Anglo-transliterated mine as “Worg”, of course, per the entry in the D&D Monster Manual.) While I shed the silly pseudonym with the delayed onset of adulthood some ten years later, it still seems a bizarre coincidence.
But for all these eerie parallels, and for the quite engaging way that authors Moynihan and Søderlind relate his story in Lords of Chaos, I find no call to kinship with Vikernes. My young friends were harmless, but the book paints the darkest parts of the early-90s Scandinavian metal scene as a nihilistic swirl of arson, murder, and suicide — rather too sensational to easily believe, but all well documented in the contemporary press and corroborated by interviews of Vikernes and others.
Beyond that, most any modern reader would quickly dismiss him and many of his colleagues as Nazis, and find strange the way the decades-old book sort of tiptoes around the fact — up to the point of spelling out “National Socialist” far more often than using the much more efficient term. I did find interesting the story of how the earliest wave of Nordic Black Metal based itself on popular notions of Satanism, but then many bands pivoted on its anti-Christian tenet and began embracing a brand of neo-Odinism instead, one that saw itself as a sort of Aryan anti-colonialist movement striving to return Scandinavian society to its pagan roots. Adopting fascist, racial-purity philosophies atop this remained optional, but bands like Varg’s own Burzum took them up gladly.
I just now chose to skip a whole chapter featuring young Vikernes ranting from prison about Nazi UFOs in order to get the the book’s next major section, which promises to examine the music itself. But before I dive back in, I had to look up how life has treated Varg in the 20 years since Lords of Chaos first hit the shops. Obviously, I found his Wikipedia entry, which links to his blog, whose most recent posts mix the same blood-and-soil talk of his younger self with excited news-links to new role-playing game materials. That discovery more than anything cemented my feeling of uncanny and unwilling connection with him, I think.
And Burzum remains on Spotify, with all the albums Vikernes produced through the length of his 21-year sentence and up through the present. The book describes his mid-career output as moody electronica, what with the artist losing access to bandmates or instruments other than his in-prison computer. I find myself interested to listen to it, the impressively flexible work of an unstoppable passion, despite my utter repulsion from the personality driving it. Spotify, too, doesn’t quite know how to host or handle this artist, straight-up calling him a racist in its own blurb — alongside photos of the now 40-something Vikernes posing gray-bearded in ridiculous Viking regalia, staring right out at my 40-something self.
I amuse myself to think that we are the world’s least effective arch-enemies, along multiple axes.
Immediately after finishing my first read-through of Wuthering Heights last month, I cursorily sought some low-hanging modern responses to the novel. I had my eye out especially for readers who, like me, had mixed feelings about Cathy and Hareton pairing off at the end. Instead, the most common immediate reaction I found came from those who read the book expecting a gothic romance, and instead got… whatever Wuthering Heights is. In the preface of the 2003 Penguin edition I read, Lucasta Miller recalls how she eagerly started into the book at age twelve, fresh from seeing the 1939 film adaptation — which veers quite a bit from its source. She ended up shocked and confused at reading not the romance she wanted but the biography of a monster.
Since that classic-Hollywood treatment elides literally half the novel’s major characters (largely by dint of nobody having any children over the course of the story), Laurence Olivier’s version of Heathcliff can manage only half as much horribleness as his textual original. He fills in the gaps with rather vanilla romantic tropes of love spurned and regained, tidily resolved within a hundred-minute runtime. Its producers chose to streamline the story by making co-protagonists of Heathcliff and Catherine, and so the movie ends when she does. The book, however, belongs solely to Heathcliff, and not only gives him a richer and deeper existence while Catherine lives, but follows his obsessed and calamatous descent into vengeance afterwards.
I’ve read references to how Brontë worked contemporary notions of gothic horror into Wuthering Heights, and assume these often refer to its surprising incorporation of the supernatural. But, as a reader, I found myself more literally horrified at Heathcliff’s personal transformation over the course of the novel. He speaks true when he proclaims that he and Catherine are one, in that her death makes his own living heart rot away. He becomes a sort of high-functioning undead, burning with hate at everything around him that dares to remain alive, seeking to punish every such life around him with a state of subjugated wretchedness.
A month ago, only about halfway through the book, I wrote this:
The novel, let us be clear, is hilarious, describing one outrage or misadventure after another befalling two little families living in the moors after a howling outsider, the earth-elemental named Heathcliff, crashes into their sleepy orbit and upsets their equilibrium for generations. I have laughed out loud with shock and joy several times so far.
I stand by this description of my experience, certainly. Early-novel Heathcliff, young and powerless in a world he didn’t make, can only sputter and fume with knee-slapping impotency about all his frustrations. This culminates in perhaps my favorite moment in the early story (and one which very much does not exist in the 1939 film), where Hindley’s drunken attempts to stab Nelly in the face makes baby Hareton go flying over the bannister. Heathcliff happened to be pacing around and grumbling downstairs at that moment, and absent-mindedly caught the baby before realizing the situation. This makes him fly into a rage at yet another lost opportunity for bloody vengeance! This may have been the point at which I had to put the book down and write a Fogknife post.
But boy, did I stop laughing once I got deep into the latter half, with a fully empowered Heathcliff meting out his long-awaited revenge on the two families’ next generation. Not satisfied with merely assuming ownership of both their estates, he completely destroys the lives of two children, and makes a game attempt on a third.
The most chilling passage in the book, to my eyes, arrives in chapter 21. Heathcliff, having played a long con to become Hareton’s foster father, gloats at length to Nelly about how he has carefully and cruelly stunted him with intellectual deprivation, teaching him to value incuriosity and dullness — and all so he can imagine how much disgust this would bring to the boy’s father, were he only alive to see. He cackles that Hareton has become “gold put to the use of paving-stones”.
In the same passage, he dismisses the similar project applied to his own son, Linton, as “tin polished to ape a service of silver”. Linton spends his short life a dissipated weakling under Heathcliff’s direction, unwittingly wasting his potential as much as Hareton does. We get the sense that Healthcliff sees him a mere tool to secure his ownership of the Grange and the erasure of its former occupants, with no value afterwards. Healthcliff ultimately lets him drop dead, literally, so he can return to his passion-project of continuing to torture his memory of Hindley via Hareton. One isn’t sure which of the two boys represents the greater tragedy.
As difficult as I found it to swallow, Heathcliff’s true monstrousness made me love this novel all the more. The fact is, I hunger for more truly horrible villains in my fiction. I feel done with comic-book bad guys who don’t even try to elicit negative feelings from their audience. Nobody really hates the Joker, or Cobra Commander, or Ernst Blofeld, despite their claims to “evil”. Sure, Darth Vader blew up a planet, but he never once boasted about how much pleasure he took from it. Nor did he stretch its destruction out over a decade, chortling as he watches each life destroyed in slow motion, and composing fanciful similes about his enjoyment.
The true “OK, this isn’t funny anymore” moment arrives when Heathcliff makes his big mistake, trying to exert control over young Cathy, the last remaining free character in the tiny world of Wuthering Heights. With her already grown into young womanhood, he can’t simply suffocate her mind as he did to the boys, so he resorts to tricking her into imprisonment, and then beating the crap out of her. He slaps our dear narrator Nelly to the floor too, and he may as well have reached out from the pages and cracked me one across the cheek.
(This comes several chapters after Isabella flees her hateful husband with little Linton. She merely intimates in her letter to Nelly the regular violence she withstood under Heathcliff’s hand, which sets up as possible this future scene with Cathy and Nelly, while keeping the full, horrifying force of it bottled until then.)
Heathcliff’s “shower of terrific slaps” jolted me the same way that The Shining’s ghosts dropping n-bombs did. “OK, it’s one thing to drive a man to axe-murder his family, but you don’t have to be racist about it” on the one hand, and “Sure, you can forcefully waste two young lives in order to show up long-dead aristocrats who pissed you off as a kid, but did you have to punch a girl” on the other. It left me shocked and unmoored and very ready for the ensuing chapters where Cathy accepted her situation, gathered up her patience, and used her undulled wits to convert Hareton and then destroy Heathcliff. I felt all too happy to have the book end with that particular unquiet sleeper finally taking his long-sought place in the cold and crumbling arms of his other half.
In the introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of Wuthering Heights that I read last month, Pauline Nestor describes the book’s world as dreamlike, limiting itself to only two locations and the stretch of moors between them. The whole rest of the world seems to exist in a fog. Characters don’t travel abroad so much as vanish uncertainly, later emerging from the mists rather than merely returning. Even the neighboring village of Gimmerton, ostensibly significant in the characters’ lives, receives only the vaguest definition.
This resonated with me because of the positively Lynchian aspects of Wuthering Heights that struck me towards its conclusion — especially when considered from the perspective of Lockwood, the narrator managing the outermost of the book’s nested frames. He reminded me, by the end, of Laura Dern’s character in Inland Empire. Both of them arrive at their respective stories as perfectly relatable and literal point-of-view characters. Within a few scenes, though, things suddenly tip into the dreamily strange, and the characters seem to lose their place amongst narrative layers; both must struggle to find a right-side-up ending that doesn’t obliterate them completely. Dern’s character may have a much more overtly surreal and unsettling journey than Lockwood does, but I can’t resist using it as a lens to re-examine Brontë’s work just the same.
As far as I can tell, we as readers end the book knowing almost nothing about Lockwood personally. He makes clear through repetition that he lives in London normally, and he tells Nelly that he leased the Grange for a year on a whim. This — along with his (comically futile) tendency to address Heathcliff as a fellow land-owning gentleman — suggests that he either leads a life of aristocratic leisure, or at the very least can afford to take a lengthy sabbatical by himself in the moors. If he does in fact carry on any business in the city, then he never expresses concern about letting it go personally unattended while he winters in the Grange.
At the start of the book, before this lack of definition can seem strange to us, Lockwood gets to relate some of its most memorable scenes. He arrives with a comic aura about him, a happy and only somewhat bumbling traveler wanting only to sight-see and meet interesting people. So he rambles up to the titular Heights, shrugs off a pack of angry dogs, and meets both cranky old Heathcliff and two grouchy young people who show him the bare minimum of required hospitality in a hilariously shocking parody of English etiquette. Lockwood does not know that the youths are the two survivors of Wuthering Heights’s core story, which can’t properly begin so long as he dilly-dallies within the frame like this.
And so he proceeds to his initiation via the unreal, sleeping for the first time inside the estate named after the book that invents him, and having at last his completely unexpected (and surprisingly violent) encounter with Catherine’s ghost. He awakens transformed: where a modern reader would expect this dream sequence to provide a bit of thoughtful foreshadowing, Lockwood will have none of it. Grasping the encounter with amazing literalness and immediacy, he accuses his hosts of setting him up in a haunted bedroom, causing a ruckus that ejects him back to the Grange filled with impatience and confusion. Awakened to the suspicion that he has managed to wander directly into someone else’s story, he summons his rental’s housekeeper to take breakfast with him and provide some expository gossip. Thus does the kind and chatty Nelly wind the clock back 30 years to properly commence the main narrative of Wuthering Heights, a layer she continues to command for almost all of the book’s remaining pages.
Throughout this truer telling, Lockwood fades into near-invisibility, but makes an effort not to disappear completely. By way of short interruptions that mark the passage of time in the outer frame (and acknowledge that Nelly’s long tale would realistically require a number of sittings to unfold thoroughly), he attaches a keep-alive ping at the start or end of the occasional chapter just to remind you, dear reader, of his continuing existence. A medieval cloister-dweller casting the shadow of his personal presence now and again in the marginalia of the other-authored work he otherwise transcribes with dutiful fidelity.
This leads us to what I found the novel’s most surreal moment, far moreso than its supernatural kick-off. Lockwood uses one of these breaks, at the end of the thirtieth chapter, to announce that Nelly has concluded her story. Then he says this (referring, at the start, to his medical excuse for lounging about in the Grange listening to Nelly’s recitation for several months):
Notwithstanding the doctor’s prophecy, I am rapidly recovering strength; and though it be only the second week in January, I propose getting out on horseback in a day or two, and riding over to Wuthering Heights, to inform my landlord that I shall spend the next six months in London; and, if he likes, he may look out for another tenant to take the place after October.
“My landlord”, of course, refers to Heathcliff, the protagonist of the story we’d just spent the last two hundred pages soaking in. So much time (and space) has passed since those initial, Lockwood-narrated scenes that we the readers have forgotten the common characters between them and Nelly’s otherwise stand-alone story, including but not limited to Heathcliff. I found this profoundly unsettling! Wuthering Heights has reached an ending, and — very much evoking Inland Empire, for me — Lockwood looks around and discovers himself on the set of the film he thought he was merely watching. And the cameras keep rolling.
But our man has had a long recuperation since his mind-bending encounter with Catherine’s howling shade, and so he not only takes this in stride but treats it as a singular opportunity to dig into the story he’s enjoyed so much. With the very next page, we find him visiting the setting of the novel that was just read to him and also within which he finds himself resident, and proceeds to interview the characters. Back into his comfortably default mode of a comical tourist, he even makes a little secret mission out of it, trying to discreetly deliver a letter from Nelly to Cathy, and of course fouling it up utterly. He similarly fudges an attempt, as the possessor of privileged information — having read the book, and all — to improve relations among the three, only goading them to peck and sting at one another further.
He leaves them in short order, frustrated, holding nothing more than an idle and knowingly ridiculous fantasy about running away with Cathy. Some might have ended it here, gone back to London and written fanfiction where they shipped themselves with whomever they wished, but that doesn’t suit our Lockwood. If it’s his lot to manage both ends of the frame-story sandwich, then he’ll do it right. And so, he arranges a reset.
Wuthering Heights’s concluding chapters form a recapitulation of its own preceding structure, in miniature. Again, in a date-stamped opening, Lockwood arrives at the Grange for flimsy reasons, and then immediately picks his way over to the Heights with a mind to say hello to Heathcliff. Again, he spies Cathy and Hareton within — but doesn’t bother trying to interact with them, knowing better than to try. Instead, he skips ahead to find Nelly, who cheerfully foregrounds herself one last time to relate the story of her former master’s end in the face of the childrens’ revolt.
And again, Lockwood experiences transformation through a ghostly visitor, but all sideways this time. He does not personally witness the final appearance of Catherine’s restless spirit; he merely hears about it, now holding hands with Heathcliff’s, as part of Nelly’s recited epilogue. And then something strange happens: Cathy and Hareton return to the Heights from their walk together, and Lockwood, seeing them again through the window, feels “irresistibly impelled to escape them again”. Lockwood and Cathy have become mutually immaterial to one another, and rather than having a bloody, screaming battle through the window as happened with Cathy’s mother, Lockwood plays it much more subtly and makes himself vanish from both that window and the whole of Wuthering Heights, now set to rights, forever.
But he holds onto Wuthering Heights for just a little longer, drifting over to the gravestones of all its fallen characters. In this very deliberate setting Lockwood accepts his own final reward, dropping the mic with his unforgettable line about sleepers in that quiet earth. Lockwood out. Only then does he let himself join the departed, dissolving with finality into the oblivion of “London”, beyond the book’s dream-gauzy perimeter. He has come a long way to get the last word in with both elegance and scenery-chewing, as befits his self-image. Even if it did take him two tries.
Following up on my last post, I finished reading Wuthering Heights over my Christmas vacation. I find myself not just with a lot to say about this book, but with the complexity of my thoughts fanning outward most pleasantly as soon as I start writing them out. Accordingly, I’ll try spreading my wandering Wuthering thoughts over a few Fogknife posts, rather than try to mash everything into a single meandering essay. (Here I take a page from Todd Alcott stepping through his Star Wars thoughts, with no promise to be that interesting.)
None of these posts will hesitate to spoil deep plot details. Yes, yes, spoiler warnings for a 170-year-old novel, o merriment. Look: I didn’t know what was going to happen, and the ancient story managed to surprise me again and again just last week. What’s more, the critical introduction of the edition I read had the good grace and modern sensibility to lead with a wonderfully British reader advisory of plot disclosures as well. Anyway: you should read this book, it’s pretty great.
I found the landing place of the younger Cathy, one of the story’s few survivors, both beautiful and troubling. I can appreciate the grace and light that she brings to the ending with via her rescues of both herself and Hareton from Heathcliff’s terrible machinations. But as a modern reader, I had difficulty finding justification for her falling in love with crude Hareton so fully and so swiftly. My brows knit when Lockwood spies the unlikely couple smooching by the window, and Nelly’s subsequent three chapters of explanation didn’t really satisfy me in this regard. It seemed to play into stereotypical expectations of the feminine obligation to fix broken boys, uncomfortable even given the period setting.
Thinking it over for the sake of this post, though, I can’t help but convince myself of this improbable romance’s plausibility. Heathcliff had essentially imprisoned both kids, after all, and Cathy acted out of canny self-preservation to turn Hareton against his foster father so that they might both go free. As a prerequisite, Cathy had to pluck out the poisoned thorns that Heathcliff had spent years squeezing into the poor boy’s heart, and this in turn required a lot of patience and a degree of intimacy. Hareton becomes Cathy’s project, then, the one thing keeping her focused and hopeful in the dungeon that Heathcliff had made of Wuthering Heights. Under those stressful circumstances, who can blame her for slipping up a bit, and letting this necessary project-passion boil over into romantic love?
Still, it seems a shame that Cathy should marry the young dope, pledging to spend the rest of her days with him when both their lives, finally free, are only just beginning. But another only-now realization comes to my rescue: it’s dear old gossipy Nelly, and not Cathy herself, who describes the kids’ friendship(-with-benefits) as altar-bound. Yes, she tells Lockwood that they’ll tie the knot on New Year’s day, and yes, every Wuthering genealogical chart I’ve seen — including the one prefacing my 2003 Penguin edition — takes Nelly at her word, drawing a horizontal marriage-line between Cathy and Hareton. But I say: Not so fast.
In the text, Lockwood tells us that he pays his final visit to the Heights, where Nelly glomps onto his ear to relate the final act, in September. That would put a New Year’s wedding more than three months beyond the conclusion of the text. Therefore, I have all the wiggle-room I desire to imagine my own epilogue: now free to move about the land a bit, Cathy visits Gimmerton village and meets literally any other human being and starts to re-examine her options a bit. Maybe it gives her a taste for travel, and she rambles on down to examine her story’s own origins in Liverpool, the mysterious city that had coughed up Heathcliff some 30 years prior.
You don’t need to rush this, Cathy! Go take a little break, stretch your legs, you’ve earned it. And don’t worry about leaving Hareton at the Heights; if it turns out that you want to come back to him after all, I have every confidence you’ll find him waiting there. It seems quite doubtful that it’d even occur to him to wander off anywhere else.
Last month my pal Melissa asked me if I’d read Wuthering Heights. As it happens, I had not. Like countless Americans of my generation, for me the book lies crusted with the patina of dread summertime required-reading lists, and I’d never found reason to update its mentally-archived status as a dodged bullet. (I think I chose Moby Dick instead that year, which at least held the promise of intriguingly seaborne violence.)
My friend, who had just herself read the book for the first time, went on to describe it as surprisingly filled with nothing but utterly reprehensible people, every one a villain. Even the characters you’d expect to elicit tragic sympathy from the reader in a gothic and sallow-cheeked novel of the period end up utterly detestable. She knew that this would prove enough to pique my interest, and I proceeded to borrow a 2003 Penguin Classics edition from the local library. Through it, have discovered such an overflowing cultural treasure chest that I felt the need to write something down before even finishing the first of the novel’s volume-breaks.
Such, of course, is the joy of reading old stuff, at one’s own pace. There is the central work, and then as much of its aurora of comment and criticism and reaction and derivation as you care to ingest, either alongside or afterwards. This edition of Wuthering Heights carries some of that within its own covers, blanketed by no fewer than five prefaces that go backwards in time as we read forwards. The deepest of them, sitting snug against the text, are introductory notes by Charlotte Brontë, she of Jane Eyre and the author’s sister. First, a eulogistic reminiscence of the exciting years when the young Brontës wrote together and saw themselves published (initially under three masculine pseudonyms), a period made shockingly brief by the younger sisters’ swift succumbing to tuberculosis. Charlotte follows this with a more businesslike editor’s note to the book’s second printing, which she oversaw after Emily’s death.
As Kate Beaton says in one of her pages of Wuthering Heights comics, Charlotte takes a surprisingly apologetic tone in her editorial, which the cartoonist summarizes as “Wuthering Heights: Sorry, Sorry, Just Give It A Chance OK?” Reading that introduction (which also contains a screed against fig-leafing the letters from printed cuss-words, amongst other surprises) succeeded in washing away my doubtful expectations for a stuffy drama of stiff aristocrats swanning about the titular manor. Charlotte makes plain that the book is about a monster who smashes a path from cover to cover, with a supporting cast of only slightly lesser goblins gnawing the pages in his wake; she describes how the novel’s earliest critics focused with a disapproving sniff on Heathcliff’s rudeness. Charlotte insists that her late sister had a gift for depicting a darker, more realistic, earthier side of human personality and relationships than one typically found in contemporary literature, and begs the audience to read past the initial shock and take in a singularly unforgettable work.
Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. Thus did my amazement with Wuthering Heights begin, before I’d even reached the first Arabic-numbered page. Needless the say, this has carried through to the story, which seems to me the clear ur-text for Snicket and Gorey and every other writer of dark comedies about terrible people published since 1850. The novel, let us be clear, is hilarious, describing one outrage or misadventure after another befalling two little families living in the moors after a howling outsider, the earth-elemental named Heathcliff, crashes into their sleepy orbit and upsets their equilibrium for generations. I have laughed out loud with shock and joy several times so far.
And the pacing! In the first chapter, the outermost narrator character (for this book lets itself get positively oniony with layered narrators) sets out to meet Heathcliff, his new landlord. He must battle a pack of dogs on his way over, and then he fights off a wailing ghost during his overnight stay. Then he gets angry at his host for setting him up in a scary haunted bedroom! And Heathcliff kicks him out, and commences to yell at the ghost! And that’s about when narrator number two insinuates herself into the telling, and all this happens before page 30. I had no idea what I was in for when I started this book; well into the middle now, I have just as little idea what will happen next, other that what misfortunes are foreshadowed by events in the frame-story before the narrative inceptions itself forty years into its own past.
Hark a Vagrant has five more pages of those wonderful cartoons about the novel, by the way: go to its archive page and perform an in-page search for “wuthering”. Beaton retired the project at around the point in the novel I currently find myself, alas, but this well illustrates just what I mean when I speak of treasure chests; just reading a little bit has pointed me at layers of culture I would have never discovered (or, anyway, never comprehended) otherwise, and it all happens alongside my read of the original text.
My reading has reminded me about the best potentials of social media too, and how sharing enthusiasm for something can lead one to a beautiful diffraction of related work. I’ve been chronicling my journey through Wuthering Heights on Twitter, and this is how one friend pointed me to magnificent illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg, and another to those Beaton comics. Meanwhile, I discovered that searching for “wuthering heights” on Twitter reveals few people mentioning the book but plenty the Kate Bush song of the same name from 1978, an apparently famous bit of culture that has somehow eluded me entirely for my whole life before now. And when I raved about that, yet another person — a complete stranger, this time — led me to find the Christmas ornaments depicting Kate Bush’s dancing her role as Cathy’s frozen shade pressed against Heathcliff’s window, and with which I decorate this post.
And given the season in which I write this, that feels full-circle enough for now; I should really get back to reading the book.
I found this sour little volume by Tom Nichols a suitable companion work to Roy Scranton’s 2015 treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. While I disagreed at the time with certain of that book’s core assumptions, it nonetheless inspired me to make room in my life for quiet reflection and study of the ancient humanities from around the world, a practice I have imperfectly pursued in the three years since. Similarly, as soon as I finished The Death of Expertise I purchased a subscription to a foreign daily newspaper — adding to the two domestic subscriptions I already had, both municipal and national, and thus implementing for myself the advice that Nichols gives his own students for broadening their daily intake of well-edited media.
This advice, granted, comes in amidst a sense of near-hopeless futility regarding its own aims. In the very paragraph containing the instruction, Nichols all but dismisses the students he delivers it to as spoiled brats who will almost certainly ignore him. This comes after an entire chapter about how higher education in the U.S. has become irredeemably broken, treating its students (whom Nichols refers to without exception as “children”) like customers paying for a rubber-stamp diploma and a good time, rather than humble initiates for genuine experts to either mould or reject.
Nichols seems aware, in writing this book, how much its tone and message slots neatly into the eternal Kids today, am I right? complaint, and how it risks dismissal on these grounds. But he persists, and I have to admit that I found it compelling. Yes, it presents a satisfyingly thorough I weep for the future argument that happens to coincide with my own allotted time on earth for middle-aged future-weeping, but it invokes some uniquely contemporary concerns in the process.
In particular, The Death of Expertise addresses the way that social media flattens all incoming messages, so that utterances from both learned experts and charismatic amateurs get presented to us as naturally equivalent. Or, increasingly, worse than equivalent, what with inscrutable algorithms always tracking our eyes and clicks and seeking to subtly emphasize more of what “drives engagement” and fires us up emotionally. This pushes into the background real news, researched opinion, and other information that that, like a salad of kale instead a scoop of ice cream, may seem harder to swallow but does us far more good. But, too late, Nichols writes: these semi-automated media platforms have a directive to keep us consuming their content, not growing as a result. And they have long since detected our affinity for soft serve.
Nichols ends the book with no advice for mitigating the great decline he perceives, or any optimism that society will pull itself from this tail-spin of stupidity. In this way, too, it resembles Scranton’s screed, smug in its surety that civilization as we know it cannot possibly survive another generation or two (though he pins the blame squarely on capitalism-accelerated climate change).
My ultimate reaction to both books, then, is similar: I extract a kernel of solid self-improvement advice from each, in defiance of their respectively nihilistic prognoses. And so I find a pleasant pairing of Nichols’ advice to improve the breadth and quality of one’s daily-news intake — turning down the noisy churn of social media and letting more vetted expertise into our lives — with Scranton’s imperative to become more conversant with deep-seated culture. I don’t do that primarily because of Scranton’s argument that this would improve human culture’s chances of memetically surviving the inevitable apocalypse. I suppose I’d have to accept that side-effect if worse came to worst, but it hasn’t yet.
Against a backdrop of despair, both authors offer compelling and complementary advice for bettering oneself through deepening one’s cultural knowledge and mindfully refining one’s intake of novelty. In the end, I can fix myself rather more effectively than I can the whole world, so I will happily recast these writers’ apocalyptic dirges as an ongoing invitation to act locally.
I requested this movie from the library some months ago after it came up in conversation with my wife, a long-time fan of both the original 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier and this Hitchcock-directed adaptation from 1940. (After my rediscovery of Watership Down, this continues my project of watching the original adaptation of some great work as a result of Netflix announcing their own impending do-over.)
This movie is fantastic, both “for a film of its age” and in general, and you really should watch it. I want you to watch it without knowing very much about it, just like I did. But because this is my blog and I can’t help myself, I shall share a non-spoilery summary of the movie’s hook and then a couple of Top Tips for better viewing before proceeding to unbounded sputtering.
After an intriguing opening narration by Joan Fontaine while the camera flies through a model of a ruined and overgrown English estate, Rebecca presents itself as a romantic comedy where Fontaine’s beautiful young protagonist and Laurence Olivier’s eccentric aristocrat, both lonely and desperate for different reasons, meet in Monte Carlo and immediately entangle. Their desire for each other burns so bright on a bed of adorably snappy dialogue that, when their time together must end abruptly, they willfully leap into a deliriously ill-advised marriage.
And so Mr. de Winter carries his new bride back to England and over the threshold into an entirely different movie. She knew she would have to make adjustments into a new life as the lady of a country estate, but she arrives utterly unprepared to recast herself from a sunny and sexy Riviera comedy into a haunted and shadow-strewn gothic drama. And here her troubles begin, and I could only watch slackjawed for the next two hours as the perplexed but resolute woman navigates a story of masked balls and lunatics and muuurrrder, never quite shedding her status of a complete category error while questing for the exit. This genre-injection brought to mind Edward Scissorhands, except inverted, and I found it simply delectable.
And here I present my strategy guide for watching this movie:
Joan Fontaine’s young protagonist is not named “Rebecca”.
Laurence Olivier’s character is named “Maxim”. (And not, like, “Reginald” or something. Look, this confused me, okay.)
While Olivier positively eats up his role, his casting still seems a bit odd. Maxim de Winter has a full decade on the thirtyish actor portraying him, making him twice his new wife’s age — a scandalous but entirely non-obvious detail. (Olivier spends the whole movie with what I take to be gray stage-coloring slathered in his hair. It doesn’t really work.)
My viewing-partner, quite familiar with the film, provided immediate answers to my voiced confusions on the above topics, and I know that I enjoyed the movie more for it. She consoled me by noting how the du Maurier’s novel had been a bestselling sensation just a couple of years before the film debuted, so audiences probably knew its gists and gimmicks going in.
And on that note, I shall free myself to gush openly about Rebecca’s greatest trick: no actor at all plays the title character, and yet she appears in every frame. She is there by Maxim’s side as he stands on the cliff at the beginning, coaxing him to look over at the jagged rocks; the breakers below provide her violent, hissing voice when Fontaine’s character unexpectedly intervenes. Subdued, she retreats to Manderley, literally stamped everywhere with her monogrammed presence. The lurking Mrs. Danvers considers herself Rebecca’s living avatar, yes, but Rebecca de Winter makes her continuing influence known separately and subtly, right up until the final frame where she burns in wrathful defiance of the THE END card.
The climax of the film, I would argue, arrives with our second visit to the little house by the beach. “The second Mrs. de Winter” — the only name that either Rebecca or Rebecca allow us to know her by — finds and confronts Maxim as his increasing caginess reaches its peak. As he spills his guts, at last, about the fate of his first wife, she reveals herself. The camera tracks her — invisible, sure, but present — as she willingly, and I imagine with a savage glee, retraces her own last living steps just as her widowed husband describes them. Like the dénouement of Fight Club, we retroactively realize Rebecca’s influence throughout every prior scene, but the film doesn’t need to flip through them in flashback; it hits the viewer all at once. And there she remains for the rest of the picture, unchanged and undaunted in her mission to harry and ruin Maxim.
One is tempted to see the end of the movie, with Rebecca’s worldly effects going up in flame, as her final defeat, outlasted by the brave and persistent Second Mrs. de Winter. But then we put the disc away and see the cover once more, and it reminds us which woman got the whole story named after them, and which woman’s name didn’t even survive the story’s telling.
I have always looked upon Apple’s most excellent presentation software, Keynote, with a sort of lingering dread. Prior to last month, opening it and starting a new slideshow meant that I had committed myself to spending the next several days building a lengthy conference talk. With delight, then, did I discover a new use for Keynote in my day job as a freelance developer. Lately, I’ll spend an hour or two every week or so to create tiny, meaningful slideshows for just a handful of people, and in such a way that it remarkably improves the confidence with which I work.
Last month I began an unusually complex project for a client. Not only does the work have to meet technical goals within a set time-and-materials budget, but its release depends on the launch of certain other projects within the client’s organization, and yet more projects await my work’s release in turn. My client must therefore put lot of faith in me to get this work accomplished on-time — but since I work remotely, the project’s managers can’t see my continuous progress, and they quite naturally feel a little on-edge about all this. It falls to me to stay in regular communication in order to keep my client appraised of my progress, and give them a chance to offer mid-stream critique and course-correction.
I’ve practiced this communication pattern with clients before, especially since reading Subramaniam and Hunt’s Practices of an Agile Developer, the book that first taught me about it. Where my clients in the past have tended to be small businesses or nonprofits, though, this one is a large company with many technically apt managers and an affinity for gathering frequently in conference rooms for presentations both local and remote. This encouraged me to think of a check-in style a little more involved than the weekly phone call or emailed report I’d grown accustomed to.
And so, when I arrive via VoIP in my client’s offices every Monday to discuss this project’s progress, I start the meeting with a very short slideshow, never more than ten slides long. (My conference talks, in comparison, invariably stretch into triple digits.) It acts as a microscopic keynote address, setting the tone for the rest of that check-in meeting, which itself gets both my client and myself caught up with the state of the project and our mutual expectations for the next leg of work.
I have found that this works really well. The slides give my client something to visually focus on in lieu of my physical presence, of course, but they also summarize recent-past work and set near-future expectations via a short, dynamically illustrated, prepared monologue that ends before it can get boring, and gets everyone looking forward to whatever comes next.
Allow me to show you one such scene-setting slideshow, exactly as I presented it to this client (but for a handful of redacted URLs and product names):
Despite these presentations’ miniscule length and tiny audience, I still apply my usual preparation techniques. As you might have detected from my tone of my voice, I really do treat the slideshow like a monologue, writing out the spoken parts beforehand and embedding them in the slideshow as “presenter notes”. Keynote displays them to me slide-by-slide on my second display — out of sight of the main display, the one broadcast to my client’s conference room — and I just read as I go. The short length lets me rehearse the talk at least a couple of times before the meeting, catching typos and establishing a flow at the cost of mere minutes.
And while I don’t lean into the frantic, flipbook-speed slide-transition style I favor when trying to keep a large audience attentive for twenty minutes, I do add a minimum of animation and illustration — even if just click-build bullet lists with a few emojis sprinkled in — to keep things interesting.
Having presented my slides, I can mix it up a bit: if I have a live demo to show, as I did with this example, I can transition into it confident that I’d adequately primed my small audience’s expectations. I might instead offer a couple more slides with annotated screenshots showing recent work. But even on weeks when all my labor went into purely backend development with nothing obvious to show off, a slideshow still gives my clients the sense of seeing progress. And in any event, the flow proceeds quite naturally from this canned presentation into live conversation about the work at hand.
And, at least as important, it gives me a reminder that I really did make enough happen over the past week to fill out at least a couple of short bullet-lists. Creating the presentation encourages me to gather these thoughts together well enough to explain them to myself, let alone to my clients, and makes me feel that much more confident in my course for the coming week. So, yes, I have found this technique a very good use of an hour or two every week, and I plan to keep making use of it whenever applicable.
As I continue to work on Plerd, the blogging software that powers this website, I increasingly find myself with news and other updates about it I want to share — but which wouldn’t fit well on Fogknife. I aim to keep my writing here of interest to a general audience, and deeply nerdy stuff about my main open-source project just doesn’t feel right for this website.
So, I last month quietly launched a new blog for Plerd, at http://plerd.jmac.org. I consider this part of the same push that saw my creating some new Plerd mailing lists a little before that, as well as committing some significant updates to the software itself — all of which you can now read about over yonder, and I can now write about all I want without worry of diluting Fogknife’s such-as-it-is brand.
I will note that one significant Plerd update lets me (and, in theory, anyone else) instantiate new Plerd-based blogs with rather less effort than previously required. I used this feature to create that new Plerd News site, in a pleasingly bootstrappish fashion. I may very well do it again sometime to pop up yet more websites for digging into topical depths too chthonic for Fogknife. Should this occur, I’ll announce these sites’ new existence here, and then speak of them no more.
Since discovering the Seven Minute Workout (7MW) several years ago, I have used a variety of timer-tools to help pace me through its drill-pattern. Just as when I wrote that article, my favorite timer has remained the one built in the Cardiio iOS app. (And when my iPad isn’t handy, I fall back to a free web-based timer.)
I power through these exercises about twice as much as I did back then, closer to six days a week than three. This increased pace, though, made me start to chafe against the ways that none of these tools exactly match up with my personal 7MW preferences. And so, inevitably, I took the opportunity of a short road trip last weekend to write my own.
Here, then, is Brickfielder, currently in the very same state that it stood after I bashed it out in a Bangor, Maine hotel room between 11 PM and 1 AM one night. It does just what it claims, calling out instructions and time-ticks using the Mac’s native text-to-speech capabilities, and throwing in a couple of twists indicative of my own personal 7MW preferences. Quoting its README file, its features include:
A minimal, speech-centered UI. Brickfielder guides you through voice alone (with a simple text transcription in its terminal window).
Shuffling the drills a bit beforehand, for variety’s sake. While you still get three rounds of aerobic, lower-body, upper-body, and core drills in that order, Brickfielder will randomize the order of the three drills within each category.
In other words, it will always start with an aerobic drill, but that drill might be step-ups, jumping jacks, or high knees. It will then move on to a lower-body drill. You will always receive all twelve drills exactly once per workout.
Breaking the side-planks drill into two sub-drills, separated by a very short pause to allow for switching sides.
Named after a hot and dusty Australian wind, Brickfielder represents the first “wind series” project I’ve released since Bise, way back from the top of the year. As such, it serves as a personal reminder how much non-business travel tends to inspire me to finally deliver highly specific software-tool projects that may have been semi-consciously gestating for months prior.
I tapped out Bise while sitting on a ocean-overlooking balcony in Tampa, Florida, and I continue to make use of it every week (via the Fogknife regular-readership summary it automatically mails me every Sunday). I have used Brickfielder every day since writing it, and plan to continue this pattern. I would love to add all sorts of fun and extremely opinionated features to it, as time allows. We’ll see what developments the upcoming holiday breaks bring; any worth noting shall find mention here.
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