Letter from the Editor: Between a Hammer and a Retort

Christopher Bernard

Christopher Bernard: Falling

I’ve often thought of myself as a European. That’s ridiculous, of course. I’m American as apple pie, which I usually chow down when in a pie-eating mood, though I admit I rarely find an edible example outside my mother’s kitchen. But that’s another matter….

Yet my real homeland is not the vistas and sublimities, the plastic and titanium, plasma screen and microchip cosmopolis of perpetually changing but unchangeable America, but a shadowy geography somewhere between Paris and St. Petersburg, the Hebrides and the Golden Horn. I can dance badly enough in an industrial DJ club to hammering spasms of sample punk, but an accordion and an afternoon on the Seine to will make me soft as a rose and sweet as honey.

Of course there’s no such thing as a “European”—there are only Frenchmen and Germans and Italians and Danes, etc. And Nietzsche was probably the last “good European,” as he called himself, before his false followers and deluded epigones tried, first, to do in Europe for good, and now are too busy pillaging the planet to notice they have no future. But still the illusion persists: whenever I deplane on the continent, I have a bizarrely comforting feeling that I’m coming back home; whenever the plane roars westward over the storm-flecked Atlantic, I have a paradoxical “sinking sensation” that I am being abducted to a hostile country.

Strange, because I never feel more “American,” Augie March–like, than when I am, in fact, “over there,” un américain à Paris, un’americano in Italia, ein Amerikaner in Oesterreich, u.s.w.

Well: if sexual identity can be as fluid as it seems to be, why not national identity as well? Are we anything more than whatever it is we think we are? (But that would be too good to be true!) Are we “really” what others think we are, and only that? (Too terrible to be true—though one’s shrink might disagree.) Are we merely what we can prove through our official documentation—birth certificates, school records, tax returns, pay stubs, all that stuff that embarrasses us on Facebook? (Too “fascist”!) What geography, genes, politics, circumstance force upon us? (Too … reality-based?)

But what, then, is my identity? What is “human identity”?

The thing seems so malleable, manipulable, docile, mutable, that it can seem completely “virtual”—imaginary, contrived, designed, even without our willing it so. It can seem unnatural, anti-natural, unreal—a more or less shared illusion. A legal fiction! (After all, if a corporation is, legally, a person, why can’t a human being be construed as … a jar of marmalade!)
Maybe I am no more than my own illusion—but if that is my reality, then there is nothing for the illusion to be of. My body? There is no “illusion” where there is no “reality.”

So we’re back to where we started, with a question without an answer—though it won’t stop being asked for all that.

Some of the work appearing in this issue led to these irritable scratches at speculation: Donna Pucciani’s poems in particular, of travel and return, Gumbs’ poem from the Caribbean, D.G. Zorich’s restless meditation on the “painted lake,” Rockman’s lament after the Japanese earthquake last year, Clara Hsu’s brilliantly fractured evocation of a rainstorm, and Buxton’s lyric about the knifeblade of distance that can vanish, if only for a moment, between us. Even my own brief slipping into the identity of a suicidal gay teenage girl in the short play we have included. (Speak of being far away from my “self-identity”!)

But then a writer doesn’t just “reflect his or her personal experience” or seek “personal authenticity”—the writer can seek another form of truth (now that postmodernism is officially dead, it’s nice to be able to use that word again—after all, if art is not, in some sense, about the truth, is it even interesting? After all, what makes lies interesting is their insistence they are true; the mistake of much postmodern fiction was to forget that elementary fact about lies – and fiction), by using language as a tool, a scalpel, a hammer, a rock blaster in a coal mine, a probe (“we think through language, then language thinks through us”), and the imagination as a laboratory where the test tubes are black from Bunser burner flames and the retorts are kept ever–ready, quick and hot….)

Christopher Bernard is the co-founder and co-editor of Caveat Lector. His works include the novel A Spy in the Ruins.