Thursday, July 27, 2017

Remember Soup, Poop, and Climate Change: Veering with Game of Thrones

Image: HBO


Like the plot of Game of Thrones, memory resists standing still. And Game of Thrones is all about memory. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries based major cultural, political, and scientific strides on the memory of an imagined, idyllic Middle Ages. One that moderns at times resisted as primitive and at others vaunted as desirable.

Memory persists.

The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medieval revival remains with us, and it has found a new and extremely popular form in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Like any popular medievalist narrative, GoT reflects the modern concerns of its writers and readers such as race, which I have written about here, and Helen Young has written about here. But in this post I want to take up another of the show’s major concerns: memory and how the show uses it to explore the idea that we live in an epoch characterized by human impact on the earth and its climate, otherwise known as the Anthropocene.

Image: HBO

Game of Thrones’ Westeros and Essos (the West and the East) are populated by characters who are motivated by memories—hazy memories of their families’ former rule and all-too-vivid memories of more recent injury, murder, and exile. Characters seek rule and revenge. They are also locked in a larger battle for control of the world between humans and the non-human White Walkers. The characters strive to perpetuate—or at least continue—the Anthropocene by keeping the White Walkers at bay. Clearer in A Song of Ice and Fire than in Game of Thrones is that remembering a loved one who has been killed by a White Walker is a deadly mistake. Their human victims are reanimated—literally re-membered—as wights, undead who attack and kill the living. Several characters make the mistake of bringing home the bodies of fallen fellow defenders of humanity only to have them rise and kill more fellow defenders. Memory is a dangerous game.

In “Remember,” my chapter in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s forthcoming Veer Ecology (Minnesota 2017), I have written about remembering and wanting to return home. It is a common theme in medieval romance, modern novels, and even popular music, and it is usually motivated by love. Love is a dual-edged sword: “cancerous love consumes its subject until nothing remains. But love also gives life.” The vivifying and destructive natures of remembering and loving are inextricable: “love leads to grief and mourning only when it has been lost and is fondly remembered.” Major settings and characters in Chaucer’s works—the classical city of Thebes and Anelida, the jilted lover and queen of Armenia, for instance—live out the internal contradiction of intergenerational memory. They are “always dying but never dead.” Thebes is known in classical and medieval literature as a city founded on a cycle of death and rebirth. Anelida is known for a mourning so profound that she calls it “deadly adversity” and exclaims “I am so distraught that I die.” Each figure, and similarly fraught settings and characters, are deployed over and over again in literature. But what do these actual medieval stories teach us about how to understand the pseudo-medieval story in Game of Thrones?

Let’s take the Soup-Poop montage. It has quickly become one of the most discussed scenes in GoT’s Season 7, episode 1. Samwell “Sam” Tarly, a rather bumbling but sweet character who has a fascination with manuscripts befitting a scholar of medieval literature, has come to the Citadel in order to become the maester (think doctor, philosopher, and head librarian all rolled into one) at Castle Black. As with all scholarly orders, a trainee must start at the bottom. And so Sam does. He pours the soup into dining pots, and he empties the shit from chamberpots. Over and over, and over again. The scene’s tempo is out of step with the show’s usual pace. It speeds up to at least quadruple time as Samwell’s monotonous days of soup and poop are shown in time-lapse fashion. As Aaron Bady points out, if the maesters are going to do the slow scholarly work of inquiry, investigation, and book production then “someone has to live life in the sequence of increasingly short and fast cuts in which soup after soup becomes poop after poop.” Sam has to work in real-time, and against the background of the Citadel’s scholarly pace, real-time is fast-forward.

Sam lives out memory’s veering path: the same hands that bring life (soup) also take away death (poop). Even the soup-pots and the poop-pots look the same. (Let’s hope the Citadel has some system for keeping them separate.) The contrasting-yet-bound pair of Remember’s vivifying and destructive powers are on display in the scene.

Image: HBO

The life-and-death pairing are not confined to episode 1. In episode 2, the show offers it the other way around. While soup came before poop in the first installment, now deadly infection comes before soup. George R.R. Martin is obsessed with soup. Jorah Mormont, the Mother-of-Dragons Daenerys Targaryen’s loyal on-again off-again knight, suffers from a deadly disease known as greyscale. Once infected, stony grey scales spread across the sufferer’s skin, slowly turning the victim into stone. Jorah has come to the Citadel on his journey to find a cure. When Samwell confirms that a previous Archmaester had found a potential cure (before dying of the disease himself), he defies the current Archmaester and secretly begins to perform surgery on Jorah—reading the manual as he goes! First things first, he must cut off all the infected skin, which covers at least half of Jorah’s body. If the flaying is hard to watch—and it is—imagine how much harder it must be for Jorah, who has only a bottle of rum for anesthetic. Samwell cuts deep into the stony flesh until he reaches a layer of yellow-green pus that screams deadly infection. He digs his surgical instrument down into the gooey pathogen stew until what comes up is a spoon of creamy soup that goes directly into the mouth of one of the barons of King’s Landing.

We are reminded that one man’s death is another’s life, and that one man’s life is another’s death. It is a lesson the show offers, relentlessly. It is also a lesson that should be central to climate change. Well-to-do dwellers of wealthy nations that consume most of the world’s resources in order to maintain a high standard of living regularly thrust less wealthy humans into the throes of immediate climate disaster. One man’s rich soup, filled with processed dairy products and unsustainably farmed meat and delivered to the door of his highly air-conditioned home by a driver who was called by means of an app, is another man’s loss of home and livelihood by unexpected torrential rains or by war for control of the rare earth minerals that power smartphones. How is one to short-circuit the death-and-life, life-and-death cycle? By consuming less? By developing newer, greener technologies?

Maybe all it takes is a little remembering. Remembering bygone ways of doing things. Remembering how to use resources that have fallen out of fashion but remain plentiful. Remembering that overuse of anything: soup, chivalry, experimental surgeries, power—and even love—can become cancerous and lead to disastrous results.

In fact, remembering seems to be Season 7’s organizing ethos. Daenerys’s dragons have helped her conquer much of the world, as they did for her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror, but by the end of episode 2 it appears that using the dragons to take King’s Landing would be overuse. At the same time, we have also learned that Daenerys’s home-castle Dragonstone sits atop a mountain of Dragonglass, the only known way to kill White Walkers. Remembering this forgotten resource will surely be beneficial in slowing or stopping the advance of the White Walkers and, with them, the wintry death that thinly veils our impending climate disaster.

Cord J. Whitaker teaches and researches on medieval literature and the development of racial ideology at Wellesley College. Whitaker’s work has appeared in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, the Yearbook of Langland Studies, and postmedieval, where his special issue “Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages” has achieved critical acclaim. He blogs at,, and The Spoke: the blog of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley.

Whitaker is a contributor to Veer Ecology, coming in November 2017.

Monday, July 24, 2017

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Minnesota State Fair's tunnel of love.


When my friend and co-author Jack Koblas began doing research on F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1970s, quite a few of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul acquaintances were still alive. In response to Koblas’s inquiries about Fitzgerald, several of these friends replied that they couldn’t believe anyone wanted to do another book on Fitzgerald, implying that everything that could possibly be known had already been written. On the contrary, new information about the author of The Great Gatsby continues to be uncovered, and every year a few new books about Fitzgerald are released. In fact, between the publication of the 1996 F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota (by Koblas and myself) and my 2017 F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota, recently released diaries, better online research tools, and some old-fashioned sleuthing led to my discovery of several errors in the original manuscript. No doubt mistakes could be found in the latest text. While I hope none of these is due to poor scholarship, I welcome any new revelations about the time Fitzgerald spent in Minnesota, even if they lead to changes in interpretation or “fact.” Indeed, some additional information has already come to my attention that may or may not have made it into the book had I known about it before.

In addition, space considerations meant that some addresses and some anecdotes simply did not make the cut. The University of Minnesota Press and I have decided to publish some of those items here, and will update from time to time.

I welcome comments and suggestions at

Falcon Heights

Underwood Street, Ye Old Mill (1915)

The Kennan Family began to build the Minnesota State Fair’s tunnel of love in 1913 and opened it to the public in 1915. The original 1910, 40-horsepower electric motor still powers the paddlewheel that creates the current to propel the wood boats through the four-minute ride. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1928 Basil Duke Lee story, “A Night at the Fair,” Ye Old Mill plays a significant role. Basil and his friends go the state fair hoping to find female companionship. They meet up with a couple candidates, and the group heads off for “the Old Mill.” Basil, in his short pants, feels left out, and when the others decide to “go around again,” he demurs.

The central conflict in the story, Basil’s lack of long pants, was naturally a topic of concern to the young Fitzgerald, who was very careful about his clothes, according to many of his friends.

In this story, Fitzgerald’s nemesis Reuben Warner is tangentially represented by Speed Paxton, who is at the fair in his Blatz Wildcat, an obvious reference to the Stutz Bearcat, which made its first appearance in 1912. According to Richard Washington, Fitzgerald’s friend and neighbor, Reuben Warner drove a Stutz.

Although the climactic “Battle of Gettysburg” in the story made its last appearance at the fair in 1909, “A Night at the Fair” provides a vivid glimpse into the world of the Minnesota State Fair almost exactly a century ago.


F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar and historian Dave Page has been writing about Fitzgerald for years, focusing on his youth and early career in St. Paul. He is author of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: The Writer and His Friends at Home; he is also coauthor of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: Toward the Summit and coeditor of The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, both of which were nominated for Minnesota Book Awards. He is editor of The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Minnesota, 2013).


Recent press: City Pages  |  Star Tribune

Monday, July 17, 2017

"In the United States . . . where such events are always now."

An excerpt from Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent by Thomas Glave (2005).
Chapter: "(Re-)Recalling Essex Hemphill: Words to Our Now."

It has been said, and we recall: we were never meant to survive. Not here. No, not then or now. Not in the gorge of a grasping empire poisoned by the recurring venoms of its own antihumanity. Here, now, we can never forget that, as you did not survive, others still are falling. Falling beneath the policeman's baton, or raped by it; expiring in the electric chair, decaying along lonely roads after the body has been chained behind a truck and dragged—the body historically and contemporarily fetishized, sodomized, demonized . . . Such horrors should occur only in the "inner city," someone will say, has said. Not "here." Not in this now.

"But we're in the United States," you doubtless would have said; your seer's most mordant irony confronting misconception, sweeping aside revisionist muddyings of present and past. "In the United States, where these sorts of things always happen. But yes, believe it," you surely would have said, "they always happen here.

"In the United States," you might have said, "where such events are always now. Yes. And always here."


Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Book of the Dead: Longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award in Prose

The first complete English translation of Orikuchi Shinobu’s masterwork, The Book of the Dead is a sweeping historical romance telling a gothic tale of love between a noblewoman and a ghost in eighth-century Japan. Orikuchi is often considered one of the fathers of Japanese folklore studies, and this is the most important novel of his career—and it is a book like no other. We are honored that The Book of the Dead, translated by Jeffrey Angles, appears on the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award in Prose.

An excerpt follows below.


In the shade of the hills to the north of the temple of Manhōzō-in was a hutlike hermitage that had been there for a long time—or at least that is what all of the people in the village believed. Several times it had fallen into ruin, and several times the villagers had fixed it up. There, inside the uninhabited hermitage, stood a statue of Kujaku Myōō. There were villagers in Tagima who occasionally identified the building as Yamadadera, “the temple of mountains and fields.” According to them, it was the oldest of the temple buildings, and early on, when it fell into disrepair, a
high-ranking prince had ordered Manhōzō-in to take over the site, and thus the grand monastery was constructed. Some said the order came from the palace in Asuka, whereas others said that the prince had made the decision on his own accord. In any case, the old, dilapidated building was relocated to the northern corner of the temple complex, where it was rebuilt on a smaller scale.

There was a belief among the yamabushi of Yoshino and Katsuragi that the hermitage was the place where Enokimi Ozunu had founded mountain Buddhism. Whether that is true or not, after the grand monastery of Manhōzō-in burned, the wild, overgrown place was used for religious practice over the next century until the monastery was rebuilt. It was amazing that such an ancient building remained right there in front of everyone’s noses.

The night had already grown deep. The vigorous splashing of the stream in the valley had grown loud in the silence. The water flowed down from between the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami.

It was dark inside the hermitage. In that area, it was uncommon for people to burn wood in a hearth, so when night fell, the local farmers would sleep or stay up and sit in pitch-blackness. But there was a deity housed in the hermitage. Lamps were lit in front of the statue throughout the night to keep the darkness at bay.

Still, the light that glimmered off the statue of Kujaku Myōō was so faint that it was hard to tell if the statue was even there.

A maiden was seated there as if she had forgotten all about sleep.

The high-ranking abbots of Manhōzō-in thought the first order of business was to send a messenger to the city of Nara. They were worried about what her father, Fujiwara no Toyonari, and his family must be feeling. Next, they had to atone for the sin that the young noblewoman had committed by entering the monastery grounds. Women were strictly prohibited from entering, and she had broken that cardinal rule. The temple had been reconstructed only recently, and so not long before, there were so many monks there that the whole place appeared to turn bluish black with the pates of their freshly shaven heads. It was natural for men to be there, but a woman should not be trespassing on purified ground. A simple donation of wealth or property couldn’t possibly atone for her actions. The abbots came to the conclusion that she would have to stay nearby and do quiet penance for an extended period of time. That very day, during the midday hours, the abbots had ordered a messenger to rush to Nara and deliver the news that the young woman had suddenly shown up and violated the sanctity of the monastic grounds.

Meanwhile, the maiden was told to stay in the hermitage. She was told that even if someone came from the capital to get her, she would have to stay there for days while she atoned for breaking the prohibition.

The floor was near the ground, but at least there was one—it wasn’t just dirt. On the other hand, the roof was extremely high and made of simple, ragged thatching. On one side where the wind had torn away the edge of the roof, the sky was visible, offering a view of the stars above. No sooner had she thought the wind had stopped than another gust blew in from the hole in the roof. Something fell, scattering around her—probably accumulated soot spilling from the thatching. For a brief moment, the light in front of the Buddhist statue burned more brightly.

The miserably unkempt space where she was seated was not the only thing the light illuminated. Two mats of woven rice straw were layered on the floor of rough-hewn boards—those mats were for her—but sitting across from her on the wooden floor against the far wall was an old woman.

Calling it a “wall” is perhaps less accurate than identifying it as what it really was—a hanging partition. Someone had hung an odd assortment of multiple layers of rice-straw matting from the rafters, and somehow they managed to block most of the wind. The old woman sat against the hanging partition as if affixed to it. For some time, she had been completely quiet. Not even a single cough left her lips.

The maiden, who was from a noble family, was accustomed to silence; she could go an entire day without speaking and still not feel lonely. Even if she had to stay there in the tiny hermitage in the shadow of the mountains, she could handle it—she wouldn’t let out even a single sigh. When she had been sent there to stay earlier in the day, she knew the old lady had followed her. Still, the old lady had been so quiet that the maiden had forgotten she was there. Right then, when the light flared up, it illuminated the old lady in the same color as the lamplight, and the maiden took in her appearance in a single glance, everything from her body to her face. The maiden had the feeling that she had seen her somewhere before. In fact, she felt warm, sociable feelings well up inside her. She had not met a single other woman since leaving home the previous night. It wasn’t impossible that at some point somewhere she had encountered the old lady seated in front of her. Still, the hunch that she had seen her before wasn’t the only reason the maiden was drawn to her.

——My lady.

When the old lady finally broke the silence, her voice wasn’t what the maiden had expected. It sounded sad and hoarse.

——My lady, you probably don’t know me. Still, would you like to hear what I have to say? I could tell you about things that happened before you were ever born. I’m an old lady, and I know such things.

Once the old lady had opened her mouth, she started speaking as if she might go on forever. It began to dawn on the maiden why she felt she might have seen the old lady before. There were always old women, around the same age as the one seated there, who came and went from her home—the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara clan. There was one, the old woman Nakatomi no Shii, who had come to the ladies’ room where the maiden lived; she entered the room unceremoniously and proceeded without any hesitation to regale them with old stories. The old lady seated there with her had the same countenance. It all made sense. The old woman Shii was one of the clan storytellers in charge of remembering and reciting history, one of only a small handful of storytellers left. Perhaps she was a storyteller for the Fujiwara clan or maybe for the descendants of Tagima no Mahito in the neighboring village of Tagima.

——The Fujiwara clan is now divided into four branches. But that was not the case back in the days of Kamatari. Even during the era of his son Fuhito, the clan was still unified. It was not long afterward that the clan separated from the Nakatomis. Members of the Nakatomi clan were still honored in the Fujiwara villages, but part of the family began to identify with the Fujiwara name.

——Over time, the Fujiwara lineage became involved with the court nobles and the regency. The Nakatomi lineage became associated with Shintō rites. For generations, they have been entrusted with protecting and maintaining shrines. But now is now; back then was back then. I want to tell you the story of a distant ancestor of the Fujiwaras, namely Ame no Oshikumone—the clan god of the Nakatomi family.

——Now the Child of the Sun is in the palace in Nara. Before that, the Child of the Sun was in the palace in Fujiwara, and before that in the palaces in Asuka. (*) Generations of rulers moved the palace within the province of Yamato, deciding upon a new location each time. Long ago, a miracle took place. It involved the Nakatomi clan god and his support, which has benefited generations and generations of rulers. Now, my lady, listen to what I have to say.

——This story took place ages ago in a generation far removed from us. Now, pay attention. As I said, Oshikumone was the distant ancestor of both the Nakatomi and Fujiwara clans. He searched throughout the entire province of Yamato, leaving no stone unturned in his search for the best water to prepare food, rice, and sake for the Child of the Sun. Back in those days, the water throughout the province smelled of minerals and was clouded with dirt, so it wasn’t worthy of being used in the sovereign’s food. Oshikumone prayed to the ancestral gods in the heavens above to teach him where he could find fresh water, but the province lay far below, and the gods couldn’t hear his prayers. Even the mountains were too far below the heavens for the gods to hear. But in the Aogaki Mountains, which border the province of Yamato, there stand the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami. Oshikumone climbed the mountain and stood on top among the clouds—a passageway into the heavens—and prayed. In response, the ancestral gods in the heavens above showed him eight places where the Water of Heaven flows out of Mt. Futakami. Ever since then, the Nakatomis have been coming here for years and years, generation upon generation, to gather the water that has been used to prepare the sovereign’s food. Now, listen carefully . . . .

This tale was part of the history of Tagima no Mahito’s clan. The storyteller spoke as if she were engaged in an ordinary conversation, but when she reached the part of the story about the miracle involving the ancestral god, she stopped abruptly.

The gurgling of the river outside seemed to have grown louder. Most likely, that was the sound of the distant ancestor of the Nakatomis and Fujiwaras as he gathered the water from the eight wells high on the mountain and sent it flowing down the slopes, crashing, swelling, and cascading over rocks. The maiden turned in the direction of the gurgling river and placed her palms together in prayer.

A few moments later, she turned back around. The old woman had drawn closer. When the maiden saw her in the dim light, she was filled with a fear that left her speechless. At the same moment, she also felt a special urgency, thinking the woman was pressing her for something.

A certain look had appeared on the old woman’s face—it was the same look that the old woman Nakatomi no Shii would get as she was about to launch into one of her tales. A spirit seemed to have possessed the elderly storyteller from Tagima, and she began to tremble slightly.

——Up high                       On the twin peaks
I climb                               And look
There is Asuka                   Where birds fly**
Sacred hills                        Where home lies
So many homes                  In sight
Rich roofs                          And gardens
And behold                        In the cluster of homes
The lodgings                      Of the Fujiwara minister

                   What I see                          So far in the distance
                   What I await                      With so much anticipation

Is it the virgin                      Who comes and goes?
Can I make                          Her noble ears hear me?
Mimimo no Toji                  With her bluish horse

                   I call to her                          And her younger sisters
                   So that just one                    Of her children
                   Her children’s children        Just one maiden
                   Will come                            To be my wife

Up high                                On the twin peaks
In the shaded fields               Of Futakami
Where the plants grow          The thickets flower
Child scented                        Of ashibi

                   I cannot                                Quite grasp you

Stomping my feet                  Of ashibi***

                   I yearn for you                      Oh, Fujiwara maiden

When the old woman finished singing, she took a deep breath and slumped over as if exhausted. For some time, the only sounds came from the rustling trees and gurgling river.



* “Child of the Sun” (hi no miko) is an old-fashioned honorific phrase indicating the emperor. Before the imperial family established the capital in the city of Nara, in the year 710, the imperial family had moved its residence multiple times following the death of an emperor. It was believed that the death of an important figure brought about ritual impurities in a place, and continuing to reside in the place where a previous emperor had lived and died would result in an inauspicious reign.

** The name Asuka can be written with the characters meaning “flying bird”; hence the poetic description “Asuka, where birds fly.”

*** The first two syllables of the plant name ashibi (Pieris japonica) are a homonym for the word meaning “feet”; hence the association between feet and this shrub, which produces small white flowers in the spring.


Excerpt from The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu, translated by Jeffrey Angles.

Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953) was a Japanese ethnologist, linguist, folklorist, novelist, and poet. As one of the foremost early twentieth-century experts on Japanese folklore and Shinto, he has vast influence over modern intellectual discourse and many of his novels and collections of poetry are classics of Japanese literature.

Jeffrey Angles is professor of Japanese and translation at Western Michigan University. He is author of Writing the Love of Boys (Minnesota, 2011) and is an award-winning translator of dozens of Japan’s most important writers.

"Jeffrey Angles has given us a smooth, supple translation of this remarkable book, and thanks to him, Orikuchi's glorious evocation of the distant past will live on in our contemporary world. The sounds of the ancient Japanese language may have disappeared, but in this translation, the text has been reborn with all the strength and grandeur of ancient societies everywhere."—Hiromi Ito, author of Killing Kanoko and Wild Grass on the Riverbank