Snapshot 2012-09-27 12-23-47

Sister

By

Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream …

– Our nameless narrator, who proceeds to examine the house more narrowly …

1.

Emily Dickinson is upstairs in her father’s house, fourteen, reading an illicit copy of “The Raven.”  In the Pioneer Valley, where one-hundred and fifty years later Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore will raise their daughter and then abruptly (at least to fans), in 2011, announce a divorce, simultaneously ending the most important rock band of the millennial era, Sonic Youth.

It is as if a great house has fallen―sunk into the mire which seethes around the ancestral manor, amid an unrecognizable, Martian landscape.  The narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” has no name, no real structural substance beyond his vague association with this other guy, an old friend of his.  He’s not the protagonist; he’s practically an outsider.  He has to read stories to the wan Roderick Usher to keep him from going insane.  Usher’s developed an intolerance to any sort of music except light string arrangements.  He gets these headaches.  Takes drugs.  Something is happening to him.

Then his sister comes over.

2.

I ask my class to name one book written in the first-person voice wherein the protagonist is not the narrator.  Then I hold up a copy of The Great Gatsby, if someone doesn’t say “The Fall of the House of Usher” first, which pretty much never happens.

I like to joke with them that the class―American Literature―should instead be called A Literary History of American Sexual Guilt.  I say, consider: The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, plus Poe … well, Poe …  That gets them going, especially if we’ve already studied Poe.  Married his cousin.  Pedophile, necrophile, etc.  Out of his mind, etc.

Emily Dickinson was not out of her mind but too much in it.  I teach her truncated bio and a handful of poems for this same class.  I show an American Masters bio-pic video, and this woman who is the Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum says that of all the Dickinson children, Emily was “by far the smartest,” but that Emily’s brother Austin was, as the oldest male child, “the center of the family’s attention.”

It is incredible, to me, to think that there was ever a point in history when you might refer to her as Austin Dickinson’s sister.

Poe’s nameless narrator, on Madeline Usher’s condition: “A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character were the unusual diagnosis.”

3.

Over three decades, Philip K. Dick cranked out more than forty books, many of which are best understood as philosophical meditations—on paranoia, ecstatic religious experience, and the subjectivity of perception and sanity—in the guise of pulpy sci-fi novels.

Sonic Youth’s incomparable record Sister (1987) is, among other things, a thematic homage to Dick’s visionary breadth.  References to his life and work abound: the song “White Cross” refers to the X-shape on Dick’s white amphetamine tablets, and the cover’s photo of a satellite recalls Dick’s obsession with the mythical VALIS, an extra-terrestrial spacecraft he believed was beaming knowledge into his brain via a concentrated pink laser beam.

Most tellingly, the title of the album invokes the paradigm that preoccupied Dick throughout his life: his two source cosmogony, inspired by the real-life death of Phil’s dizygotic twin sister, Jane, in infancy.  The two source cosmogony formulates the essential defection of the feminine (yin) principle.  “Form II,” Dick writes of the dark twin in his Exegesis, “continued to languish toward illness, madness and disorder.  These aspects she projected onto our universe.”

Dickinson: variously described as sullen, brooding, darkly romantic, opaque.  A mourner walked among the children.  The death of her father, the end of social intercourse, the long weird legacy of seclusion.  It is as if a great house has fallen.  Emily is left darkly dreaming in the garden.

Our nameless narrator notices, among other Gothic conventions and sinister aspects, that the house has a discernible crack running down the center of its face.  Poe never was a subtle author, and he has the dual advantage of living as a Romantic and as a lunatic toward his exploitation of symbolism.  Whether Dickinson was a Romantic or not is the sort of question that demonstrates the plasticity of movements, fallacy of delineation.  For example, my class’s textbook drops her name in the Romanticism unit, but she gets her own double-feature with Walt Whitman in a unit titled “American Masters” between Romanticism and Realism.  Some of my kids come away from the reading with the idea that Dickinson is a Dark Romantic, a notion I make no attempt to adjust.

Philip Glass, interviewed in the videotape I show my class (gloriously entitled Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul), draws attention to the curious detail of Madeline’s burial (to which our anonymous narrator is witness): the increasingly creepy Roderick Usher screws down the lids of his sister’s coffin.  You don’t screw down the lids, Glass notes, unless you are afraid something is going to get out.  Which she does, of course.  Get out.  Breaks through with supernatural strength, first the lid and then the door of our narrator’s quarters, effecting the climax of the story.

Dickinson: “Then―close the Valves of her attention― / Like Stone―”

4.

There is something uncanny about twins.  Questions arise concerning identity.  Volition.  Power dynamics.  Twin languages that only the twins can understand, like improv jazz performers or people who’ve been in a band for a long time together.  Aren’t all preeminent girl/boy rock combos really dizygotic twins, at least symbolically?  The Mamas and the Papas, Jack and Meg White, Moore and Gordon.  That sexual tension that makes an androgynous band so palpable, two principles spinning in opposite directions.  It’s like good sex: so finely strung it could snap, blossom into orgasm or violence any second.

Or violence any second.  Nightmarishly, one of Phil Dick’s five wives reports he turned Wagner way up on the phonograph so that no one would hear the sound of him beating her with a bar of soap in a sock.  Mental illness, he writes in Valis, is not funny.

There is no peremptory indication in the text of “The Fall of the House of Usher” of the Usher siblings’ incest, but critics have inferred one.  Neither sibling is married or has, despite apparent ancestral pressures, produced an heir; they have been alone in the mind- and time-bending house a long time together; they suffer from similar and seemingly congenital degenerative diseases of the mind and flesh; strikingly, Roderick’s manifest guilt and terror seem products not only of his untimely internment of his sister’s body, but of the secret shame that perhaps compelled such haste.

Phil Dick suffered a similar guilt and shame his whole life, derived from the sense that he survived on the maternal nourishment denied his dizygotic twin sister, his other half, his deficient shadow, anima, what have you.  Jane Dick died, her brother thought throughout his life, so that he might live.  The spirit of Jane Dick circles the world, now, like the photographed satellite on the cover of Sonic Youth’s Sister.  Like the VALIS spacecraft that beamed whole encyclopedias into Phil Dick’s head via a pink beam of light while he lay buzzed on speed in his bed, his radio burbling hideous noises.

5.

All Sonic Youth shows end in a din of ultra-processed guitar feedback and loops and reverberating tones and squeals.  I wouldn’t know, I’ve only seen them once, and I’m glad I got to see them before Kim and Thurston, the iconic heads of the band, split up.  But that’s how the show I saw ended, anyway: not with a bang but cacophony.  I was taking notes, writing the names of the songs in the set, and when the guy behind me who had obviously seen them many times caught onto what I was doing, he asked me if I could email him the list later and I said sure, and then he started telling me at the beginning of each song what each one was before I could figure it out, and when they played “Schizophrenia” he said “this is ‘Sister.’”  I thought he was wrong, but it turns out the song was alternately released as “Sister.”

“Schizophrenia” (or “Sister”) is the title of the first song on the Sonic Youth album called Sister.  The lyrical content: a nameless narrator goes away to see an old friend of his.  His sister comes over; she is out of her mind.  She speaks to him of Jesus’ twin, “who knew nothing about sin.”  She commences to laugh like crazy at the trouble he’s in.  There is some more action: her eyes dance, she reveals herself to be insane, her brother (the old friend of the narrator) “says she’s just a bitch / with a golden chain.”  What is never entirely clear is who the real schizophrenic is.  Maybe they are all schizophrenic.  In Thurston’s eighth stanza (right before Kim takes over lyrical duty for the rest of the song), he sings, “Schizophrenia is takin’ me home.”  I have often heard this as “Her schizophrenia is takin’ me home,” but I don’t know.

But where is home?  The Pioneer Valley?  New York City?  Some ancestral manor amid the tarn, amid a vast alien landscape?  We arrive as listeners, readers, visitors.  We put the record on the phonograph, we open the book, we wander into the narrative as nameless narrators, transcending our place in space, transgressing the boundaries of our position in the American culture.

“You see, my son, here time turns into space,” says Gurnemanz to Parsifal in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which I have never seen, heard, or read, but which is explicated rather liberally in Philip K. Dick’s cumulative-feeling book Valis, to wit:

There is no route out of the maze.  The maze shifts as you move through it, because it is alive [ ... ] The whole landscape becomes indistinct.  A forest ebbs out and a wall of rough rock ebbs in, through which can be seen a gateway.  The two men pass through the gateway.  What happened to the forest?  The two men did not really move; they did not go anywhere, and yet they are not now where they originally were.  Here time turns into space.

6.

Among Roderick Usher’s various schizophrenic fancies, as recorded by our unnamed and unstable narrator, is the theory that plant life is sentient; fungi, too.  He fears it, the vegetable life of and around his ancestral manor, but surrenders to its historical influence over his whole clan.

Dickinson, after she’d become the recognizable recluse of national yarns and American literature textbooks, spent most of her time in the garden of her ancestral manor.  So goes the myth.  In her poetry, she imbues the garden and its various flora with psychic import.  This is another great defense for Dickinson-as-Romantic, I tell my students.  She renders nature―flowers, grasses, fungi―human, emotive.  Gives it things she denies herself, even.

7.

Kim Gordon is like my mom’s age―that is, almost sixty―and yet I still think of her and Thurston Moore as the Romeo and Juliet of the nineties.  I still think of this as the nineties, I guess.  I’m in that Parsifalian forest, that Martian time-slip.  Philip Kindred Dick thought he was living in both California, 1974 and Rome, during the age of the Acts of the Apostles.  Sometimes we wander into the narrative an amnesiac.  We do not apprehend that we are the narrator.

From “Schizophrenia”/“Sister”:  Jesus had a twin / who knew nothing about sin.  This is probably Didymos Judas Thomas of the Gospel of Thomas, an apocryphal Christian text said to be the work of Jesus’s twin brother.  Both Thomas and Didymos mean “the twin.”

The proto-orthodox Christian establishment would eventually deem this work pseudepigraphy: that is, a work written under the pseudonym of Didymos Judas Thomas, a character who, they furthermore claimed, didn’t even exist.

And they strangled the so-called Gnostic shoot of Christianity until it languished, fell off.

Except some codices persisted in clay jars buried within desert caves, not to reemerge until the mid-20th century.  So goes the myth.  Philip K. Dick’s book Valis is essentially a schizophrenic response to their discovery, study, and publication.  He believed the logos of these secret texts constituted a plasmate: a life form that could bond with the human mind and facilitate its evolution toward something like Christ-consciousness.  An anti-virus, an antidote.

8.

“What is our narrator’s name?” I ask my class, and they try to remember; they flip the textbook back to the first page of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” back to that “singularly dreary tract of country” under which “the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens,” but they can’t find it.  All they find is this blighted landscape of amnesia, followed by a psychic description of the ancestral House of Usher: bleak, unredeemed dreariness, “an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium―the bitter lapse into every-day life―the hideous dropping off of the veil.”

There’s that damned veil: the phantom itch of the Romantics.  Hawthorne has “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and Melville has his Ahab, who wants to penetrate the mask of reality that is the physical whale and stab God himself.  Or take for example our American Literature textbook, which tells us Poe isn’t just trying to shock and offend but to “pierce the veil of reality” and expose the dark under-rigging of the psyche.  Transcendence.  I use a whole bunch of examples to bury this most basic attribute of Romanticism in my students’ brains: meditation, prayer, music, having a really high fever, etc.  But of course the example that works best is drugs.

“White Cross” is Sister’s blistering final track; its title references the street-name of Philip K. Dick’s pet brand of speed, so named for the cross imprint on each white tablet.  I don’t have a bead on the drug-usage of Sonic Youth, but lyrical signs point toward hallucinogenics and of course beer and weed.  Poe was an alcoholic; or, as the apologists would say (as in … Terror if the Soul), he was “allergic to alcohol.”  His nameless narrator observes in his old friend behavior “alternately vivacious and sullen,” comparable to that of the “irreclaimable eater of opium.”

The moss of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, archetypal opium-addicted Romantic poet, is everywhere: in Poe’s language, in his manifestation of psychic states through setting, of the pre-orgasmic, pre-menstrual, pre-millennial tension of the polar principles: rational and romantic, male and female, sane and -in.

There is a crack in the wall.

9.

“I had a dream / and it split the scene,” sings Kim Gordon in the bridge of “Schizophrenia”/“Sister.”

10.

America is born from Poe, I might hyperbolically declaim to my Literary History of American Sexual Guilt class―and not that axiomatic animus-literature of the mainstream, but the seething pit, the dark tarn, the undead America, the hallucinatory America of Philip K. Dick and Lovecraft and Burroughs and the cacophonous America of Sonic Youth, the subconscious, drug-addled, schizophrenic America of the sixties and the terrible now.  Poe blew the lid off all that back in the 1840s. A wild light.  A gleam so unusual.  Maybe it took the French Symbolists to see to his keeping, in the crypt of tradition, after his expiration a couple of months before Emily Dickinson’s nineteenth birthday.

When Phil Dick dies, he is buried beside his infant sister, Jane, under twin headstones.  When Roderick dies, the deep, dark tarn swallows him, along with his dizygotic zombie sister and the symbolic bower of their earthly manifestation, the House of Usher, and digests them all in a nameless grave.  Our narrator flees.

***

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John F. Kersey is a writer, musician, and high school English teacher. He lives in Vermont with his family. More from this author →