Thursday, March 28, 2013


Igor Morsk

Because -- answered the foreigner, staring through half-closed eyes at the sky, against which black birds, anticipating the evening cool, were silently silhouetted -- because Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil, and has not only bought it, but has already spilled it. So the meeting will not take place  ~ Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

How do great writers create such compelling scenes and characters? Their secret is vivid details (Gustave Flaubert:“Le bon Dieu est dans le detail” -- “God is in the details”) Anton Chekhov put it this way: “Don't tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Why does Bulgakov’s passage seem so “real”? Because of what one is tempted to dismiss as “irrelevant details”: the half-closed eyes, the sky, the silhouettes of blackbirds, the anticipated coolness of the evening. These serve not only to delay the humorous passage that follows, making it all the more funny, but also to ground it in the world -- or maybe to create a world we can see in our minds and believe in. 

Anna Goryacheva, Bulgakov’s communal apartment neighbor, alleged to have inspired the character of Annushka


In “Entrance,” Rilke shows that it takes very few details to create the world!


Whoever you are: when evening comes,
walk out of your room
where everything is known.

Your house is the last one before the infinite:
whoever you are.

With your eyes, which in their weariness

barely free themselves
from the worn-out threshold,

you lift very slowly one black tree

and place it against the sky: slender, alone.

And you have made the world.
And it is huge

and like a word ripening in silence.

And as you seize its meaning with your will,

tenderly your eyes let go. . . .

~ Rainer Maria Rilke (The Book of Images, trans. by Edward Snow)

Place one slender black tree against the sky -- “and you have made the world.”

(Shameless confession: I’m so reluctant to leave my study that actually I’d like to try Kafka’s advice instead: just sit there and wait for the world to come to me and roll in ecstasy in my feet.)


Typically, though, poets and writers aren’t as minimalist as Rilke in their creation of the world. Most like to bestow on the reader a proverbial “wealth of details.” Let’s take a look at how Philip Levine uses details to create:


When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?"
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
"wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up
late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if "their booth" is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, We keep you clean
Muscatine, on the woman emptying
his waste basket.
. . .
“And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?

~ Philip Levine

I love the sudden switch to F. Scott Fitzgerald and "no second acts in America." Bringing in a real person, a famous writer, a colorful and tragic figure, lends further reality to the poem.

I also love

The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.

These are exactly the “irrelevant details” (but note how charged with symbolism; note “heaven” rather than “sky”) that create a sense of reality.

The ending feels inevitable (I mean this as a high compliment): these two are now more real than you or me. Anna Karenina is certainly more real, Gatsby is more real, Huck Finn is more real, Jean Valjean is more real . . . the list could go on.

It's done with details. And by letting us into someone else’s mind. In this case, Levine lets us into the woman’s mind. He tells us what she thinks, and we are hooked: she becomes real. She’s now more real, this “second act” Norma Jean (let’s name her after a glamorous, tragic actress; why not) than Levine himself.


Demanding Reader, do I hear you protest, But Oriana, you still haven’t told us where those “vivid details” come from.

I think the best answer was given by Carl Gustav Jung over a century ago, during a time when most mental illness was labeled “hysteria” and mental patients were treated with cold baths, an improvement on the cruelties of the past. (Those who saw “The Dangerous Method” may remember that the special cold-water bathtub had straps so the patient couldn’t escape.) Amazingly, Jung explained hidden, appropriated, false and fragmentary memories in a way that makes sense in the light of modern neuroscience. His explanation also accords with Freud’s position, now validated, that cognitive processing is unconscious.

Let me quote from one of my own blog post, a great favorite of mine: what pleasure it was to research the material and write it!

In 1902, Jung published his doctoral dissertation, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.” He diagnosed his cousin Helly (disguised as “S.W”) as suffering from hysteria, a broad term used to explain a great variety of unusual symptoms -- in this case trances, fainting spells, and changes of voice and personality meant to represent different spirits. The medium, however, was not an actress consciously putting on a performance. The “spirits” emerged from her unconscious, which had absorbed and transformed material found in books, but no longer consciously remembered.

Jung cited an analogous case described by Théodore Fluornoy. Fluornoy’s medium described her past lives on earth as a member of a noble family in India, as well as her past lives on Mars. She even spoke “Martian,” which Fluornoy recognized as glossolalia (“speaking in tongues” -- ululations which do not correspond to any known language). The French psychiatrist was able to demonstrate that his medium’s tales could be traced to what she’d read, but later apparently forgot.

In 1905, Jung wrote an essay on cryptomnesia as a source of creativity. Works of art did not arise out of nothing; they were novel transformations of previously absorbed information or memories of actual events. In Richard Noll’s words, “new combinations of memories . . . or previously learned material are the wellspring of creativity.”


Cryptomnesia also accounts for cases of unconscious plagiarism. Jung found Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to be strikingly similar in places to passages by Justinius Kerner. Jung contacted Nietzsche’s sister to find out if the philosopher had read Kerner; she confirmed that Nietzsche had read Kerner in his youth. I don’t suppose anyone really cares if a giant like Nietzsche unconsciously (or even consciously) plagiarized an obscure spiritualist author, but I was pretty stunned when I read about it. True, ideas do not arise out of nowhere, but are a collective creation more than we like to admit. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants may have stood on the shoulders of dwarfs. 

These days we are aware of the related phenomenon of “false memories.” In a sense, most of our memories are false, if they were to be compared to a videotape recording. No one is shocked anymore if a psychologist states that most things we remember never really happened, or at least they didn’t happen the way we say they did. Memories are only partly based on actual events and partly on what we have absorbed from books and movies and the stories told to us by others. The unreliability of court witnesses is legendary. Human memory is continually constructed rather than recorded in an unchanging form. We don’t necessarily consciously lie about our past; we select, embellish, and “confabulate,” according to the meaning that particular events have for us now.

(end of quotation from Jung in the Land of the Dead)

Memory is excitingly corrupt in its effort to make a coherent story. ~ Patricia Hampl



But let me get back to the critical importance of DETAILS. When I was a beginning poet, a late bloomer at 26, I gave a sheaf of poems to a young man I was dating. The next time he saw me, he said, “Those poems were a revelation to me: you come from another culture.”

I glory in the fact that I didn’t say what seemed obvious: “I thought you already knew that.” I was beginning to grasp the reason why those who knew me still didn’t quite “get it” that I came from another culture. People tended to assume that my childhood was just like theirs, complete with Mr. Rogers and the Howdy-Doody and the rest of the alien (to me) universe of the American popular culture. My poems supplied the missing details of a different childhood. Now that other world from which I came could become more real.

But another smart young man at the Beyond Baroque workshop took me to task for those “magical Polish poems.” “You present an unreal, folkloric country,” he said. John Guzlowski later called this a “golden memory,” citing his mother’s tales of the woods near Lvov as a lost paradise, their purity a contrast to the fallenness of America.

Compassionate Reader, please imagine several pages of response to this which I ended up deleting. Let me just say that there are many reasons why recall is selective, and recall after a great loss is particularly so. Childhood memories are bittersweet at best, and we keep that diffuse gold of forest sunlight just in order to survive. And details that get repeated become easier and easier to access.

Eric Kandel

Forgetting does not mean that the brain erases memories. It means that the access to them is difficult, sometimes impossible. For instance, I never manged to recall the name of an abandoned village in Mazuria, a name that I vowed to remember all my life, a magic word would allow me to enter the imagined past.

Mazury region, former East Prussia

In the forest near the lake we found,
half-buried in white sand,
a weather-scarred plaque
with the name of a German village.

We stared at the steep fence
of the Gothic alphabet.
Around, like a prayer for the dead,

the long shush of wind in the pines.

I repeated the name of the vanished
village like a spell. 

I thought we’d always find

that greenest of all the lakes,

crowned with the tallest pine
where we sheltered from rain.
He put his jacket around me.

The needles shone with drops,

a forest of crystal. But I forgot
the spell – the lake nameless 

among a thousand lakes,

the evenings hyphenated

with golden dashes of the fireflies.
The village weathered into silence – 

a memory of a forgetting

I would remember all my life.

The name started with an A,

as in always, and ended
with an N, as in never.
In between, forest and wind –

the dead keening for the dead
in the amber forgetting of pines.

~ Oriana, April Snow, © 2011

Yes, the motorcycle rider existed, and the lake, the pines, the plaque, the rain. Not that they had to exist. Nor can I name that place, but that doesn’t matter either. It turned out that I didn’t need that password. Out of the great nowhere of the trillions of bits of information in my brain, one day I thought about that Mazurian summer. I remembered the rain, the bleached wooden plaque, the whiteness of the fine sand in a ribbon of beach (isn’t it mysterious how memories, like  thoughts, arise?). Detail by detail, I created a world. 

Vladimir Kush, The Walnut of Eden

Special thanks to Mikhail Iossel for the opening quotations.

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