Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking off the Mask

Prehispanic Mask

God has given you one face, and you make yourself another. ~William Shakespeare

It seems I haven't written a personal essay in a very long time.
My life has changed in subtle ways since my year-long essay-writing binge on this blog. I am consumed more than ever by my activities on the internet, with less time to let my mind "go blank" or empty itself.

Mostly, I am preoccupied with Escape into Life, the online arts journal I founded about a year ago. Working with programmers and designers, attracting writers and readers, and editing submissions on an almost daily basis wears me down. Some days I would just like to disappear from the online world.

Being connected to a vast network of people online is both a blessing and a curse. One day you realize there are hundreds, maybe thousands, expecting something from you. And this is what I've always wanted, I've always wanted an audience. Because it is my nature to write for an audience, and nothing appeals to me more than having those readers.

My participation in the online world has given rise to a persona, a mask I wear. I am constantly promoting Escape into Life on Twitter, and always hoping to gain more readers and more followers. At the same time, I feel my energy is being drained as a writer. The most important thing for me is to have a certain amount of silence, or emptiness inside. Too often in the last several months that emptiness has been crowded with fears and concerns.

When I first read the novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, I became fascinated with Jose Donoso's philosophy of masks and disguises. At the time, I was using drugs and my parents were getting a divorce. If you want to know the truth, I was actually in a psychiatric ward when revelations about the novel were becoming a kind of fixation for me. You have to understand that I had a very cynical view of things, I was being "locked up" in some hospital, and my family life was broken. But I seemed to find a lot of empowerment in the idea that we all wear masks, and beneath each of those masks is yet another mask.

This frightening premise ignited my adolescent imagination. Jose Donoso was influenced by the works of Carl Jung, specifically his alchemical studies in psychology. The meaning that Donoso ultimately came to, which his novel puts into dramatic form, is that beneath all of those masks is nothing. The human identity is made up of layers of masks, and underneath those layers is a vast emptiness.

The artist, the writer, deals intimately with both masks and emptiness. We feel constrained as writers when we bind ourselves to what we feel we ought to write, rather than responding to what arises naturally in our changing interests. The result of writing what you feel like you should write is simply putting on another mask, and the consequences can be disastrous, like pretending to be someone you aren't . . .

I admire writers, and all artists, for the courage they have to continually take off the mask. You are not truly creating anything until you are revealing a layer of yourself you didn't know was there. While the ideal of shedding the mask remains important, along the unexpected course of life, I find myself strongly gravitating to its opposite. I want to be someone. When I look at my small accomplishments thus far, and see I've not earned myself a single title in anything, I despair. I am still unknown. I am still without an identity.

This may be my greatest advantage, however. Because if the work of a writer is to take off the mask, again and again, not being anyone is actually a better starting point for creating art. Listen to this passage in The Obscene Bird of Night:
There are so many of us who go around collecting, here and there, whatever castoff enables us to disguise ourselves and feel we're somebody, be somebody--a well-known person, a picture in the papers with your name underneath; we all know one another here, in fact we're almost all blood relations . . . to be someone, Humberto, that's the important thing, and the lamplight flickers and the table wobbles under my sister's elbows as she holds her face in her hands like in Las Bertini's latest postcard photograph . . . my sister's too is a mask, La Bertini's mask, because her own face wasn't enough; as one goes along he learn the advantages of the disguises being improvised, their mobility, how the last one covered the one before it.
I am a character in my Novel of Life, and I am also a character playing many roles in this life. How is it then that I feel I am not aligned, and at other times, more aligned with my true self?

I strive so hard to cement my reputation in everything I do; but ultimately, this leads me to betray myself. I've lost touch with the current of my natural instinct. I become fixated on a social role, playing up to the expectations of the audience. I've been reduced to a puppet.

It seems we are driven by these social masks. First we seek to attain them, striving for a distinguished role, a podium on which we can stand out; and then, somewhere in the process, we begin to question who we really are, if this is really me, this role, this persona, this mask.

The sociologist Erving Goffman studied human behavior from the "dramaturgical" perspective. He saw each human's action as a performance, as a theatrical effect, in order to preserve social survival. Goffman wrote that the self
is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited (qtd. Glenn Ward).
Glenn Ward further explains that Goffman
writes of the self as a series of facades erected before different audiences. These facades only appear to emanate from some intrinsic self inside the social performer. In fact, the self is an effect, not a cause, of the facade. It is also not something you individually own. It arises from interaction with other actors on the social stage.
There seems to be a lot of truth to Goffman's discoveries. I can see how I would be writing for my social survival. Perhaps long ago I deceived myself into thinking that I was a writer by destiny, and instead I conditioned myself to become a writer because it was a social role I knew I could act out. It was someone I knew I could be.

Our histrionic natures have long been documented in literature and art. Read Shakespeare who says, "All the world's a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." We know we wear social masks, we know we play roles. In contemporary times, an index of reality TV shows will give you the full evidence of our histrionic natures.

Yet as writers and artists we are compelled to uncover the truth, not obscure it. Life is confusing enough as it is. At least in art, we can effect some level of control, create some kind of meaning in the world. And so, we learn to write by repeatedly taking off the mask, by giving it up, and finding something deeper and more powerful beneath the surface. It is by reaching into our innermost selves that we are able to constantly transform and improvise.

I know I am performing when I write, but I also know that I am honestly searching. And the search, the mystery, cannot be faked. I love what I do because it has an unknown factor. Any project I take up in my writing is with a destination unknown. This gives me faith that I am not only pretending to be someone, but also deeply trying to find myself.

More Essays . . .


Monday, February 22, 2010

Escape into Life: Issue no. 12

Pierre Bonnard, The French Window (Morning at Le Cannet) 1932

We've decided to publish new content to Escape into Life on an ongoing basis. This way you should be able to check the site every day or so and always see new poetry, essays or reviews. In addition we publish 6 new artists a day to Escape into Life, which you can always find on our Artist Watch page.

We have another marvelous issue for our readers this week. Here are some of the highlights:

Pierre Bonnard: The Intimiste . . . Read Tony Thomas's superbly written account of the life and work of French painter, Pierre Bonnard.

Poetry by Kathleen Kirk . . . These poems come from Living on the Earth, Kathleen Kirk’s forthcoming poetry chapbook.

Interview with Julian Duron: Art, Humor, Enlightenment . . . Escape writer, Chip Schwartz, gives an outstanding interview with New York city artist Julian Duron.

The Talented Miss Highsmith . . . Gretta Barclay reviews Joan Schenekar's biography of crime writer, Patricia Highsmith.

Art and Poetry by Ernest Williamson III . . . Ernest Williamson III is both a poet and a visual artist. Enjoy his creations!

What is Escape into Life?

EIL is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.

More information here


Friday, February 19, 2010

A Noise from Lethe's Room

Ceiling Fan

Donte and the Senora were engrossed in watching NASCAR. The lights were off, the Senora always watched TV with the lights off, and the television screen glowed in the center of the room. Donte sat with his hands in his lap, as if he were praying. He kept his back straight out of habit, and never sunk into the cushions. The Senora perched on the edge of the couch, hunched over an ash tray that was gradually accumulating a small tower of ash. Her night robe hung loosely off her shoulders as she poised a cigarette between her two fingers, hovering close to her mouth. When her cigarette was finished, she lit another one.

It was a tense race. Donte never cared much for car racing, but watching it with the Senora seemed to change his opinion. He enjoyed her enthusiasm for the sport, she was the last person he would expect to be a NASCAR fan, and the whole thing was now mildly entertaining to him. The longer he watched the cars go in circles around the track, the more he began to appreciate the sport. It seemed like such a masculine activity, cars, engines, men driving, but the crashes were unexpected and exhilarating. The Senora said she looked forward to a “good crash.”

And then, suddenly, the Senora asked, “Where’s Lethe?”

Donte checked his wrist watch, an old Timex. “I think he’s in his bedroom.”

“Tell him to come in here and watch the races with us.” Her attention went back to the TV screen.

Donte didn’t exactly like to meddle in Lethe’s business, but he could see that the Senora wanted him to do her this favor so he stood up abruptly, with purpose.

“I’m worried about him. He hides himself in his room too much. We need to keep an eye on him.”

Donte walked to the end of the hallway. His footsteps were audible throughout the entire apartment. It was an old, creaky floor.

Before knocking, he heard some sounds coming from inside of Lethe’s room. It sounded like furniture was being pushed against the walls. Donte tried to regain his composure by straitening his back and shoulders, then he waited a moment longer, and knocked.

“BUSY,” Lethe said.

“Maria Angeles wants you to watch TV with us.”

Whatever noise had been coming from the other side of the door, stopped.

“I don’t know why she watches that ridiculous sport. It’s like an obsession with her.”

“Maybe she just wants you to sit with us.”


The shouting startled Donte and he stood by the door uncertain what to do next. Then the sounds began again, except louder. There was thump and a bang which caused Donte to jump and let go of the door knob he’d been holding.

Finally he said, “What’s going on in there?”


“But what about the Senora? Does she know about this?”


Donte sighed heavily, leaning his weight against the door. “The Senora’s coming to see what’s wrong. She heard the noises. Are you okay in there?”

What followed was a long silence and no immediate answer from Lethe. The Senora’s presence was approaching in the hallway, but then she turned and went into the kitchen.


Then the door opened slightly and Lethe’s figure appeared toward the back of the room. “I tried to hang myself tonight.”

“What?” Donte looked up in astonishment and saw a bedsheet tied around a fan. The fan was turning wildly and the sheet was flapping against the ceiling.

Donte's shoulders sagged forward, and his mouth hung out. “The Senora can’t know about this Lethe. She’s on the phone with her daughter right now. If she finds out, you might have to leave.” And he shut the door behind him, as if that would seal things, as if that would keep it a secret.

They stood face to face in Lethe’s bedroom. Donte’s forehead showed a line of sweat dripping down the edge of his cheek. He was clearly shaken up by Lethe’s antics, and there was a sort of self-pity in his eyes. But Lethe hardly noticed, he looked like he had no emotions. He was pure steel.

“I’m not going to tell the Senora.” Donte said, reassuringly.

“Why are you trying to protect me?” Lethe shouted.

“I’m not trying to protect you. I just can’t believe you tried to kill yourself tonight. She’s an old woman, Lethe! You’ll give her a heart attack.”

Lethe was so out of touch with reality at this moment that all he could do was turn around and walk out to his balcony. He stood overlooking his balcony for about five minutes, without a word or a sign that he was even there. Donte collected the debris on the floor, which had fallen from the ceiling.

The balcony doors were pushed open by the gentle night breeze. Lethe lingered in the open air, smoking. "I’m worthless,” he said. “I can’t even kill myself properly.”

Scenes from the Novel of Life


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Most Popular Artists on Escape into Life

1. Kipling West

2. Denis Ichitovkin

3. Rodney Smith

4. Dmitry Ligay

5. Nick Brandt

6. Anna Plavinskaya

7. Xue Jiye

8. Betsy Walton

9. Matt Duquette

The works of these artists are viewed in the tens of thousands on Escape into Life. Please enjoy their extraordinary creations and visit their websites as well.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac

5. Lost Illusions, by Honore de Balzac

What I love most about Balzac's novels, and there's much to love, is that you are grounded in the specific details of time and place. The fictional world is created in full, and you can easily enter that world. We are talking about France in the 19th century. Every aspect of society is penetrated by Balzac's historical realist style, and unlike the novels of Charles Dickens, good and evil are not so neatly separated. We find shades of grey in Balzac's world, and we also find characters who are deftly interwoven into a historical and cultural tapestry.

If you've never read anything by Balzac, read this novel. Lost Illusions tells the story of a young provincial poet making his way in Parisian society during the 19th century. It records with precise historical detail the gritty environs of Paris and the upper class drawing rooms. Lucien and his adventures will pull at your heartstrings. As one reviewer puts it, "Endlessly fascinating, but what a painful experience it is to read this book."

Balzac's contribution to the history of literature is immense. As the grandfather of French Realism, he wrote 92 novels for a project he called The Human Comedy, which charts the lives of recurring characters in self-contained fictional universe. He compared himself to a scientist in this project, or what today we would call a "social scientist," documenting the customs, politics, and mores of Parisian society.

Balzac's Human Comedy greatly influenced future writers, and his realist style continues to pervade literary conventions despite the many schools that have come and gone. A generation after Balzac, in France, Emile Zola followed a similar method of introducing recurring characters into a grand opus, except he would pay more specific attention to genealogies. In America in the 1930s and later, William Faulkner staged many of his novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, employing a similar motif.

The social-historical style of Balzac aims to provide every detail about a character, their family background, appearance, dress, behaviors, as well as their thoughts. This can sometimes be challenging to a modern reader who may have little patience for the gradual development of a story. These stories are in fact "histories," however, and reading them you learn just as much about Paris in the 19th century as if you were reading a historical account. Balzac aims to fill in this universe in all its facets, and this feat alone places his fiction on another scale.

For example, at the beginning of Lost Illusions, we learn about Jerome-Nicolas Sechard, the father of David Sechard, who is Lucian's best friend. While David Sechard is a major character of the novel, his father is not. Nevertheless, we get a detailed report of his father's life in the printing trade, with all sorts of facts about the press industry in the 19th century. We also learn about his character, which is similar to many characters you will read in Balzac's novels; he is what may be called the Balzac prototype; a greedy, miserly old man who is obsessively preoccupied with money. Balzac had so much insight into this type of obsessive character that it seems at times the animal nature of man is revealed. Balzac himself may have reflected this kind of character in his extraordinary literary output, the obsessive quality is also the author's.

At any rate, Jerome-Nicolas Sechard pressures his son, David, who is studying to be a chemist, to buy his printing press. This is a clear loss for David because the printing press no longer earns any profits, is run down and poorly managed. But David acquiesces to his father, and buys the printing press at a loss.
David saw that it was no use arguing with his father. He must take it or leave it--it was a question of yes or no. The old bear had included in his inventory the very cords on the ceiling. The smallest job-chases, wetting boards, paste-pots, rinsing-trough and brushes, were valued with miserly exactitude. The total amounted to thirty thousand francs, including the printer's license and the good-will. David wondered whether the thing was feasible or not. Seeing that his son remained silent about the total, old Sechard grew uneasy, for he preferred a violent argument to a silent acceptance. In dealings of this sort, bargaining proves that a customer is capable of looking after his interests. "A man who agrees to everything will pay you nothing," old Sechard was thinking. While he was trying to fathom his son's mind he went over all sorts of worthless odds and ends needed for running a country printing-house. He led David now to a glazing-press, now to a cutting-press used for the work of the town, pointing out its usefulness and good condition.
The irony is that even though David agrees to buy the printing press, his father still doesn't trust him. Lucian, meanwhile, David's best friend, and the central character of the novel, is a poet. He has literary ambitions and a dreamy, idealistic nature. After receiving some attention in Paris for his poetry, Lucian convinces David to steal away with him to the metropolis.

What follows is Lucian's mostly inept attempts at becoming well-known, famous, or fashionable in Parisian high society. For awhile he entertains the drawing room of wealthy patron, Mme de Bargeton, and then falls in love with her.

There is a rhythm in Lost Illusions that makes the book hard to put down, mounting hopes and aspirations, and sudden free-falls. Provincial life is contrasted with city life, and here Balzac paints an indelible portrait of Paris with the main character lusting for the attention of the upper class, all the trappings and illusions of fortune. But instead Lucian finds himself at the other end of the spectrum, not among the aristocracy, but among beggars and prostitutes.

This post is part of the series 25 Profound Works of Literary Genius


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Escape into Life: Issue no. 11

Tino Sehgal's live sculptures at the Guggenheim challenge our notions of "object-based" art. Sehgal's actors respond to museum-goers, and remain in the exhibit the entire time the museum is open. What is even more far-fetched is that the artist sells these works. Writer and artist Fraser MacIver, with editorial work done by Tony Thomas, covers Sehgal in our latest issue of Escape into Life.

Also in this issue, you'll find poems by Alane Rollings, a Chicago poet who has mentored me in writing for over ten years. I hope you enjoy the new issue.

Tino Sehgal's Living Sculptures . . . Documentation of Tino Sehgal's exhibits is banned but we found a picture on the Internet along with a video to accompany this outstanding review of Sehgal's work.

Poetry by Alane Rollings . . . These heartbreakingly beautiful poems are taken from Rollings's collection, In Your Own Sweet Time.

Figuring Out the Abstract: Gender, Politics, and Art . . . Writer Stephen Pain shows how art critics and patrons have marginalized women in art, and how male artists have painted women. He focuses his discussion on the work of female artists Eva Hesse and Carolee Schneemann.

Poetry by Graham Nunn . . . With his well-wrought verse, Graham Nunn has the power to situate us right beside the river he is describing.

What is Escape into Life?

EIL is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.

More information here

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Spanish Bread

Around two o’clock Lethe and Donte came home from school and the Senora served lunch. Her sister, Juanita, lived on the floor above them. It was a mystery exactly where on the upper floor she lived; Lethe had never visited her apartment.

Juanita came for lunch nearly every day. Donte said that Lethe liked to hide in his room, but to Lethe it was simply the most comfortable place in the apartment. He smoked in his bedroom, he had his own ashtray, and he sat at a small writing desk with the balcony doors left open. It felt as though he were working on something.

The notebook he bought at the little store on the street outside the Senora's building, took up lots of his attention. He wrote a couple pages in this notebook, a description of the suburb where he grew up, and the story filled him great pride. Soon he was thinking of himself as a writer, and all sorts of connotations began to arise. Also, an idea was slowly forming in his mind, a sketchy outline about himself and who he intended to be.

Usually there was a book next to him on the desk, and today it was the book by Cervantes the Senora had recommended the night before. He turned through the pages, which were written in Spanish, and when Juanita arrived for lunch he was copying an illustration from the novel into his notebook.

The two sisters were nothing alike, and this contrast irritated Lethe. He wanted Juanita to be more like her sister, who Lethe was beginning to admire. It would have even been nice if she were more outgoing and more lovely than Maria Angeles. Some levity from a third person, or fourth, counting Donte, could have brightened up the apartment.

Juanita was about ten years older than her sister, maybe more, and she carried herself with a rigid formality. As far as her appearance, she had a small, elderly person’s body and a large, egg-shaped head with puffy gray hair. Her right eye had some sort of problem; it no longer opened. For this reason, the old woman squinted a lot and was constantly twitching. At times, she seemed to leer at Lethe in the most obnoxious manner possible.

From the moment that Lethe met Juanita, he could tell that she didn’t care much for him. At first he thought that maybe she was like this to everyone, that it was her natural self. But then he noticed how Juanita acted towards Donte. She was especially cordial with him, her rigid formality melted away and it was replaced by a sudden lively interest, as if she were speaking to a very worthy person.

Lethe tried to be friendly, many times he started conversations with Juanita, but she never seemed to take him seriously. After all, he couldn't speak Spanish all that well, and to an unsympathetic Spaniard he probably sounded like an excitedly barking dog.

Despite the fact that every sign Juanita gave Lethe insinuated to him that she didn't like him, she insisted on sitting next to him at the table. This proved to be confusing for Lethe in the first couple weeks of living in the Senora's apartment. But eventually he realized that Juanita wanted to sit next to him because of the bread basket.

She guarded the bread basket with all her life. Bread was an essential part of every meal in Spain, and it was always fresh, crusty, and delicious. The old woman, however, had lived through the dictatorship of Francisco Franco when bread was scarce, and her odd habit of watching the bread basket verged on the clinically obsessive. She constantly watched over it with her one, functional eye.

In secret, the Senora thought her sister’s frugality was amusing, but during meals she was silent on the matter and allowed her sister to act out this incredibly ridiculous preoccupation. Juanita's behavior irritated Lethe so much that he wanted the Senora to tell her sister to leave him alone and let him have two pieces of bread, or three, God forbid, even one right after the other (he pictured himself stuffing the bread into his face in front of Juanita). But it was the Senora's second nature to restrain herself. She looked at everything with a detached self-possession, which also gave her an aura of hidden power.

And so, eating lunch with Juanita regularly felt to Lethe like the four of them were prisoners sharing a meal. Of course, he exaggerated everything in his mind, which was another one of the reasons that made him think he was a writer. His imagination frightened him at times, such as when he walked to the International Institute every morning and felt he was lost in an abyss. Right now, just thinking of the four of them as prisoners sharing a meal could make it seem real.

“Nino, have some more food.” The Senora said.

Lethe then glanced at Juanita, who sat extremely close to him at the table, like she was always right there, looking over his shoulder, seeing how much he had eaten and whether he could have another piece of bread.

“No, really, I’m fine. I’m not that hungry today.” Lethe shook his head with casual indifference.

“Is that why you rummage through my refrigerator late at night? You don’t think I can hear you. I hear your stomach growling too!” The Senora said, half-jokingly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Juanita squinting and twitching.

“I don’t rummage through the refrigerator at night." Lethe protested.

The Senora bowed her head, as if the words were only meant to promote his good health. Moreover, she never argued with anyone, other than in a detached manner, with an air of humorous fun.

Donte wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin. He had been sitting there the entire meal but Lethe barely noticed. It was because Lethe had been thinking of so many things that the presence of Donte completely evaporated.

“I’ll have another helping of the rice. Muchas gracias, por favor.” Donte said.

In all her years of housing students, the Senora never had a boarder who refused to eat her meals. It was practically a criminal offense in the Spanish culture for a guest not to eat the food offered to them. But Lethe seemed to contradict these rules, and many other rules as well. His entire way of being was a kind of insistence on him being different, and not needing to tuck away his bad behaviors.

So today he wasn't finishing his food. The issue completely dropped from the Senora's mind, her expression revealed that she was onto the next thing, the next topic of discussion. Donte considered Lethe's unusualness for a brief moment. And last was Juanita, the Senora's sister, who responded to the eccentric behaviors of a foreign exchange student with the utmost caution and wariness.

--Scenes from The Novel of Life


Saturday, February 6, 2010

In the Classroom


The next day at the International Institute Lethe sat in the back of a sweltering classroom. There were twenty-four desks crammed into a room that would comfortably fit about fifteen. Several students went up to the windows to try to open them. Without luck, they stood by the wall complaining. The room remained between 23 and 25 degrees Celsius.

Next the professora marched into the room with a certain look of confidence, and the students sat down at once. She wore a narrow cut black dress and had a don’t-mess-with-me, lawyerly aspect to her. In crisp, declarative sentences, she spoke of deadlines, duties, tasks, and assignments. There were no introductions. The class could barely write everything down–they were writing furiously under the fire of her sharp Spanish declarations. Point-by-point she gave the guidelines for the end-of-the-semester project. Something about interviews. Something about “the Spanish culture.” Did the other students know what she was talking about? Because none of it made any sense to Lethe. And there was no sign that she would stop her constant fire of Spanish syllables.

He sat tense in his chair, with exagerated awareness of those around him. There was a knot of emotion located somewhere above his midriff that grew more ellusive and also harder to surpress, now paralyzed fear, now anger, now the desire to run straight out of the room. Lethe was familiar with these symptoms of madness and he tried his best to ignore them, but there was always the sense that the enemy inside was much bigger and stronger than him. His first impulse was to run, but he couldn’t. It would cause too much attention; the students were barricaded all around.

It was not a choice, a voluntary decision, to completely shut out the classroom, but in the next moment, that’s exactly what happened. As if a curtain had been thrown over the twenty-four desks and the professora at her podium, all Lethe could see was pitch black. He realized that he was no longer sitting in the classrom but instead, as he opened his eyes, in the plaza he had been just a few days earlier with the old Spanish gentlemen.

“What a life! What a life!” That’s what the old man was saying about the dog. He was saying, “What a life the dog has! All the dog has to do is eat, sleep and shit. But us, we’re workers, slaves, always working on something, aiming for some high goal in the mind.” The old man was speaking plain English, or at least Lethe could understand him.

“But are we allowed to opt out of it?” Lethe asked the old man. “Do we have to slave away? Are we free?”

“Of course we’re free but that doesn’t stop us from working ourselves to death. Listen, I’m retired now but I used to work 7 days a week. I owned my own shoe store.”

“Stores are closed in Madrid on Sundays. Even Saturdays, right?”

“Not el Corte Engles. It depends on the store. But I left mine open because I wanted to sell shoes to the parents who at the last minute realized their children need shoes for church. And even when I wasn’t in the store, I was working. I was balancing my numbers on a ledger and figuring out how to keep from going broke. I tell you there is no end to work! But look at that dog–look at how content it is to just sit there on its maw and drool.”

The dog wasn’t drolling, per say, but Lethe understood what he meant.

“So then, do you suggest that I don’t go to class today?” He asked, raising his arm to the back of the old man’s chair.

“Well, what they teach you kids in school is important. But if you don’t want to go to school then you don’t have to. See what happens when you stop attending classes. You never know, it could be enlightening.”

Lethe came out of his daydream and the vaguest memory of the old man who he had been conversing with for the last ten minutes disappeared. The faces of the students in the classroom revealed a shared, common expression–a sort of serene befuddlement.

“Estas cosas son las materiales de sus expediciones. Son importantes, son necessario para el projecto. Entiendes? Hay preguntas?” The professora’s loud, aggressive voice reminded him of all of the commotion in the city on his way to school. The blaring jackhammers, the throngs of pedestrians, the traffic, all of it was inside her voice.

The professora called out: “Todo esta bien alli?” And then she continued, “La cultura Espanola tiene una riqueza de personalidades y tradiciones. No hay un trabajo a encontrarlos . . .”

--Scenes from the Novel of Life


Thursday, February 4, 2010

22 Masterpieces of Medieval and Renaissance Art


Titles of paintings, artist names and dates

World Art: The Essential Illustrated History


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dinner with the Senora

Thorsten Becker

The Senora cooked a delicious meal that night. The three of them sat down together at nine o’clock.

The basket of fresh bread went around the table. The bread in Spain was baked just right. Lethe lingered over the crust in his mouth as if he’d never tasted bread before. Steam rose from the soupy bowl of creamed broccoli. The thick potato-and-egg tortilla shimmered with blotches of oil. The Senora had left open the balcony door and cool air was coming in, mingling with the heat from the oven.

“I’m reading a wonderful book right now. It’s called The Alchemist.” The Senora’s voice boomed across the table. There was a curio cabinet standing behind her that trembled and the little copper plates inside made a tinkering sound.

“A young man goes to seek a buried treasure in Egypt. I would imagine he’s the same age as the two of you–” The Senora spoke with an incredible passion, a passion that came out of nowhere. Her eyes shut tightly and creases formed across her dark forehead. “Have you ever dreamed of making a quest in your life?” She asked with a kind of fierce curiosity.

Lethe felt the force of her enthusiasm. And he thought he understood what she was saying. He liked the idea of a quest, it sounded like a brilliant idea, and he thought he should make one sometime soon. “Este es una aventura con todos, aqui, en Espana,” Lethe uttered to his own astonishment.

The Senora nodded her head in mutual understanding. “Claro que si, hombre. Para tu. Si.”

“Pero–” Having gained this tiny bit of encouragement, Lethe continued to speak Spanish. “La vida is pobre. Demasiado pena. Quiero vivir sin preocupacion. Mis aventuras son puertas, como puertas . . ..”

“Puertas de que?” Donte asked suddenly.

“Puertas de–, no se, no se. Lo siento.”

Nobody knew what he was saying anymore. He peered into his potato omelet, waiting for the moment to pass over.

After that, Lethe watched the Senora and Donte exchanging Spanish sentences effortlessly. He desperately wished he could take part in the discussion they were having. How nice it would be to communicate like that in another language! He envied Donte for his practiced speech, his eloquent manner. Donte was merely an exuberantly cheerful person, not a show-off as Lethe had imagined him. It was wrong of Lethe to judge people so quickly. He told himself he should give Donte another chance. Of course, there was a bit of envy for Donte’s natural charisma, his intelligence. And Donte’s hair bothered Lethe, the way it bounced, but one learned to overlook these things. He decided to give Donte another chance. Perhaps he had false judged him.

“The true Spanish bible!” The Senora exclaimed. They were talking about Don Quixote by Cervantes.

“My favorite part, Chapter 26, I’ve read it hundreds of times, when the Sorrowful Knight kills the puppets because he thinks they’re real people!”

“Master Peter’s Puppet Show. Master Peter’s Puppet Show . . .”

“Don Quixote wants to save the damsel, that’s why he destroys the puppet theater. He’s gone completely mad!”

Donte’s jet-black hair bounced relentlessly but Lethe chose to ignore it.

“Ingenio, ingenio . . . Que linda! Que linda!”

“I can tell you haven’t read it,” the Senora said to Lethe conspiratorially. “Here, use my copy.” She shoved the big book in front of him.

Lethe pushed apart the dry, yellow pages. The little black sketches helped him recall a couple scenes from the book he hadn’t read, only skimmed.

“There’s a bookstore on la calle de Felipe. Go buy yourself a copy in English. Nobody can figure out exactly what the novel is about. They all say it’s about Don Quixote’s idealism. Well, that he’s crazy for seeing giants instead of windmills. But when you really get down to it– Oh, just read the book Lethe, you’ll learn so much . . . ”

She brushed some crumbs into her hand and smiled at her two boarders. “Now it’s time to go to bed.”

--Scenes from the Novel of Life


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Escape into Life: Issue no. 10

Carl Jung's Red Book has been infinitely fascinating to me ever since I read an article about it in The New York Times magazine, and then received the actual book as a gift for Christmas. In this issue of Escape into Life, our newest writer, Julie Andrijeski, walks us through the first part of the book entitled "Liber Primus".

In Julie's essay, as with every full length essay we publish, I attempt to create a visual context. While nothing could compare to seeing the actual book, I still wanted to capture the spirit. Here are the highlights of this issue:

Journey into the Red Book: Liber Primus . . . Julie breaks down the entire first section of Jung's book, and introduces us to its major themes.

Poetry by santrose . . . The poems of satnrose, a well-known antiquarian bookseller, burst forth with a frantic, myth-infused poetic language.

How the Murder of a Poet Has Become a Hero in Hungary . . . Foreign correspondent and poet, Thomas Ország-Land, tells the chilling tale of the Holocaust poet, Miklós Radnóti, with his own translations of Radnóti's poetry.

The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang . . . Escape into Life's seasoned book reviewer, Gretta Barclay, takes a look at one of the 20th century's spiritual classics.

What is Escape into Life?

EIL is a publication based on the concept of citizen journalism. The goal is to create a journal of poetry, essays, and art from writers who are already publishing on the Web and who would like to gain more exposure to their blogs. The artists we feature are the very best we can find, and the writers have a background in writing and a passion for the arts.

More information here


Monday, February 1, 2010



Lethe met Donte at the airport where they split a taxi to get into the city. They were dropped off on a street with several residential buildings divided by small shops and a grocery. After climbing eight flights of stairs because the elevator wasn’t working, a woman in her late sixties answered the door.

Donte was smiling graciously and looking very happy to be here. His suitcase immediately dropped to the floor. A younger woman, maybe thirty years old, rushed over to help Lethe. She reached for his suitcase and carried it into another room.

You had to follow her around when she was talking. She talked fast, in a string of adjectives and nouns and participles. Lethe was trying to make out her sentences, and translate them quickly, but each time he had a sentence figured out, there was another he didn’t understand. The Senora stood off to the side, content to watch her daughter take care of things. The older woman had a solemn, but not unfriendly expression, and she was mostly silent.

In the kitchen, there was a skylight and a compact European laundry machine. A clothing line stretched from the top of the stove to behind the laundry machine, with plants in the window next to it. Donte explained to Lethe that the Senora’s daughter had just gotten married. This caused some embarrassment for Lethe, as if Donte could tell he was confused. “One of you will have my bedroom,” the Senora’s daughter said. This Lethe understood.

“There’s coffee here,” the daughter pointed in the direction of the counter.

“Much gusto, gracias.” Lethe replied. Later he wondered whether the coffee had been offered to him.

The Senora’s apartment was thoroughly grey. The blankets on the couches were grey. The curtains, while not grey, filtered the light so that the center of the room was a pool of bluish grey. And the little metal ashtrays had heaps of grey ash standing in them. The Senora went around to pick up these ashtrays and she emptied them in the trash while her daughter brought the coffee into the living room.

Lethe didn’t even pretend to follow the conversation after the first ten minutes. He just looked about the room in a half-daze, wondering when he would get to see his bedroom. All the syllables and accents blended together; the back and forth of Spanish words grew indistinct. But then the Senora took out a cigarette from her shirt pocket and lit it in front of him. He looked at her intently. She puckered her lips on the cigarette, taking deep drags each time and her face seemed to glow with an extraordinary kind of pleasure. After making these gestures a couple times, Lethe was struck with the impression that he had known the Senora for many years. She seemed familiar to him.

Lethe reached for his cigarettes in his pocket, and Donte turned away, as if averting himself from some terrible thing. But Lethe looked again, and Donte was smiling graciously just as he had smiled when they arrived at the apartment. Now Lethe decided that Donte’s smile was a fake one, a buoyant fake smile which almost never went away.

The Senora and Donte were sitting on the couch, facing each other, and the daughter had stopped talking and was writing something down on a piece of paper. It was apparent that she had lost her energy as a host. Meanwhile, Donte continued a conversation with the Senora, who at this point, only seemed to be half-listening to him. Lethe couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but he imagined Donte giving the Senora all sorts of good-natured reports, about his old schools, his family, his brother in Cuba. This was fine because Lethe wanted to sit on the couch and smoke his cigarette. A general pleasant feeling came over him, thinking about living here in this apartment.

The Senora nodded her head to show she was listening to Donte. Occasionally she added to the conversation, but mostly it was Donte speaking. While the two of them were more or less occupied, Lethe took the opportunity to steal another glance at the Senora. Her short grey hair appealed to him, close-cropped, even stylish for an older woman. She had a trait of masculinity too, or maybe it was androgyny. She was not feminine, but she was also an older woman, so perhaps women stopped being feminine when they grew older.

And then Lethe reflected on Donte, whose perfect mold of jet-black hair brushed his forehead lightly as he engaged himself in conversation. His skin was a rich carmel-color, like what the carmel looked like when it was in your mouth with the saliva on it, and he resembled a Spaniard even though he was not one.

Afterwards, the Senora’s daughter showed Lethe and Donte to their separate rooms. The rooms were also grey, but clean. Each of them had a balcony. Lethe quickly stepped outside onto the balcony.

The pastel stucco buildings that covered the horizon of the city had an artificial quaintness. Lethe puzzled over the beauty for awhile. The mountains in the far distance possessed an undeniable charm. The patios were flower-filled and had shiny white railings. The drapes of the apartments were white lace. The whole Spanish world seemed like a picture of perfection to Lethe, with heightened beauty all around.

Donte knocked on his door and suddenly broke this spell. He wore a hemp purse slung around his right shoulder. “Do you want to go for a walk?”

Inside the souvenir shops that lined the street, there was a dank smell. The vendors looked up in a mood of semi-irritation and mumbled incoherently into cellphones. Real gypsies reposed on heaps of fabrics with their scrawny, green-eyed children offering trinkets and begging for change.

The city itself was in a hurry. To Lethe, it seemed like everyone was rehearsing for a large theatre production. Chic, well-dressed Spaniards darted at his sides, and businessmen carried brown briefcases with determined faces.

The city had a gothic aspect; stone buildings with grille windows, and narrow, labyrinthine streets. In the air was the smell of fried pastries and the occasional whiff of trash bags.

There were signs, all of them in Spanish. National banks, telephone companies, lottery tickets, fresh vegetables, cigarettes. Lethe studied the letters, but he was unable to decode their meanings. The strong presence of foreign words, words that couldn't be ignored, words that appeared in big and small lettering everywhere you looked, added to the strangeness of his first experience in the city.

Spanish women wore provocative clothing. Lethe saw one woman in a black, elegant summer dress without any underwear. He walked behind her for a long while. Then he declared, “I’m in love.”

“With whom?” Donte looked around.

“I’m in love with this fucking place.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“Not that bad. It’s incredible. I can’t believe we’re actually here. Now, what are we going to do?"

--Scenes from the Novel of Life

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