Errol Morris, Forensic Epistemologist
Public Books | Monday, Jun 18, 2012
June 18, 2012 — Earlier this year I was contacted by the editors at Zum, a new Brazilian photography quarterly, who explained how they’d lately taken an interest in the photo-philosophical musings of the celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure, etc.), as evinced both in his recent book Believing is Seeing and his ongoing New York Times blog, and wondered whether I’d be willing to undertake a conversation with Mr. Morris by way of introduction to their Brazilian readers. Since, as it happens, I’ve been having conversations with Errol for years, especially on his attitudes towards photography (and more especially about a continual tension I sense in those attitudes, between his insistence on the existence of an objective reality and the need to drill towards its expression, on the one hand, and his fascination with the bedeviling sorts of indeterminacies one encounters the deeper one drills, on the other), and, what’s more, these conversations have only become more intense the closer we come to this fall’s publication of Errol’s latest (A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald), I decided I’d be only too happy to oblige. What follows is the original English version of what the two of us came up with.
Lawrence Weschler (LW): Why don’t we start with the first chapter in your new book [Believing is Seeing], in many ways emblematic of all the rest, in which you spend over seventy pages interrogating two photographs taken by Roger Fenton in 1855 of a landscape after a battle in the Crimean War. Early on, you quote your friend Ron Rosenbaum: You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?
Errol Morris (EM): Well, actually it was two sentences. She began by claiming that many of the canonical images of early warfare photographs turn out to have been staged, or posed, whatever that might mean. And then she went on to offer, by way of example, the case of Roger Fenton, who “after reaching the much-shelled valley approaching Sebastopol… made two exposures from the same tripod position: in the first version of the celebrated photograph… the cannonballs are thick on the ground to the left of the road, but before taking the second picture—the one that is always reproduced—he oversaw the scattering of cannonballs on the road itself.”
LW: So what bothered you about that?
EM: What upsets me about a lot of writing about photography is that the writer just emotes. The photograph made me feel x, or y, or it made me feel z. Or the photographer must have intended x, y, or z. I have gotten into terrible trouble criticizing both Barthes and Sontag––the sacred cows of photographic theory—but what bothered me about those two sentences of Sontag’s is the suggestion that she knew what Fenton was thinking. I wondered, how does Sontag know that the photograph with the cannonballs on the road, which I will call “ON,” came after the one with the cannonballs off the road, which I will call “OFF”? How does she know that?
LW: And with such absolute authority.
EM: With any kind of authority. That annoyed me.
LW: The thing that’s quite striking to any reader of your book is that it didn’t just annoy you. You went positively ballistic. This question got your juices going all the way to the Crimea! Why?
EM: For a number of reasons. Let’s set ourselves a problem: How much can I learn from a photograph? For example, the issue of which came first, OFF or ON, ON or OFF. Can I establish this? Sontag’s pronouncement seemed to me almost ex cathedra. As if it is obvious. Maybe it is obvious, but it simply wasn’t obvious to me. And so the issue was, could I empirically determine the order of the photographs? I spoke with all sorts of experts, and presently decided that the key might be to go to Crimea the same time of year, find the exact location, and note the shadows at different times of the afternoon, earlier and later, on sample cannonballs I would bring along. As it turns out, my trip to the Crimea did not provide a solution. I find that funny. I mean, traipsing all the way around the world to some godforsaken place did not solve the problem. And the solution came unexpectedly.
LW: How so?
EM: From a friend in the Boston area, Dennis Purcell, who is very skillful at Adobe Photoshop. Essentially he created a flicker box upon which he was able to jump back and forth between OFF and ON.
LW: And the answer turned out not to rely on the cannonballs at all.
EM: Well, there’s the naive thought. The naive thought is that if you’re trying to learn something about the order of the photographs based on the presence or absence of cannonballs on the road, you should be studying the cannonballs. But that in fact turns out to be, I wouldn’t call it an error, but it did not turn out to be part of the solution.
LW: So he instead looks at?
EM: He looks at the rocks on the side of the road; he even gives them names: Fred, Oswald, Marmaduke, Lionel… The presumption of course being that whatever the order, the cannonballs had to be moved by someone. And that perhaps in moving the cannonballs, that person would have nudged adjacent rocks. And in fact you can see a pattern in the movement of the rocks down the slope that does determine the order of the photographs conclusively.
EM: Sontag was right.
EM: ON does occur after OFF.
LW: Which implies what in terms of what Fenton was up to?
EM: I’m not sure. I’m not sure what it ultimately tells us. There are endless possibilities as to why the balls were moved. Because they’re being recycled and collected, or because Fenton, as Susan Sontag alleges, believed that it made a better photograph having the cannonballs on the road. What I find mysterious is that Fenton preserved both of those photographs, gave them the same title, and exhibited them both, sometimes side by side. It wasn’t as if he was trying to hide the existence of a second photograph. This is not about someone posing a photograph and destroying the evidence that would suggest that the photograph might have been posed.
LW: Still, there does come a moment for your readers, around page 50 or so, where one starts to ask, who the hell cares? Or rather, why does this guy care so much? What is going on here? This guy Morris would appear to have lost his marbles, or maybe that’s them scattered across the road. Seriously, though, who cares?
EM: I make the claim that most if not all of the important issues in photography can be found in the examination of these two photographs. The question of posing––what do we mean when we say a photograph is posed? The question of truth and falsity in photography. Can a photograph be true or false? The question of a photographer’s intentions and whether those intentions are in some way captured in the photographs they take—
LW: And the question of the nobility of those intentions.
EM: Yes. The fact that there is no such thing as a true or a false photograph. Truth and falsity properly considered are properties of language, not of images. I believe that we’ve gotten into all kinds of trouble by talking about images as though they were true or false.
LW: Indeed, and such issues come up repeatedly across the book. What exactly is one to make of those Abu Ghraib photos, for example—in the book you expand on points you made in your film Standard Operating Procedure. Whether Walker Evans moved or even inserted an alarm clock in one of those Let Us Now Praise Famous Men photos. Whether, more recently, photojournalists in Beirut, at the time of the Israeli shelling of the city, moved or repositioned a Mickey Mouse doll; and what is one to make of the doll and its placement in any case, independent of its caption, or the photo’s placement in the morning newspaper.
EM: These are all very epistemic questions.
LW: I was going to say: Oliver Sacks, the great neurologist, sometimes describes himself as a clinical ontologist, someone for whom the diagnostic question is often literally “How are you?” How are you? He regularly deals with people for whom the operative question is, How do you be? What is it like to be you? An investigation into the nature, the quality, of that way of being constituting the core of his endeavor. And it strikes me that in a similar way you are a sort of forensic epistemologist.
EM: A nice thought.
LW: Or perhaps an epistemological pathologist.
EM: Also a nice thought.
LW: That you take these photos and subject them to an investigation—a sort of CSI: Kodak—into how it is that we come to believe things, to know things, to what extent it is possible to know anything—the extent to which things can be faked or posed, or to which all things are in a sense posed. How and whether it is possible to arrive at the truth of anything.
EM: It seems to me that we’ve forgotten a very important fact about photography. That photographs are physically connected to the world. And part of the study of photography has to be recapturing, recovering, that physical connection with the world in which they were taken. Something which has rarely been part of the enterprise of studying photographs. Take a photograph of Einstein, for instance. The point is, it doesn’t matter who I think it’s a photograph of. What matters is, was Einstein in front of the lens of the camera? That man. Was that man in front of the lens of the camera? Is there a physical connection between the image on that photographic plate or the digital device, whatever, and the man standing there? It doesn’t matter what’s in my head. It matters what that physical connection is.
LW: What actually happened. But the question remains, why do you care? Or rather, why do you care so much? Because I think you really do care.
EM: Ultimately, why do people care about reference? Because… let’s put it this way. If you care what our connection is to the world around us, then you care about basic questions. Questions of truth. Questions of reference. Questions of identity. Basic philosophical questions. So go back to the Fenton photographs for a moment. I want to know what I’m looking at. I think photographs have a kind of subversive character. They make us think we know what we’re looking at. I may not know what I’m looking at, even under the best of circumstances here and now. But I have all this context available to me. I know you’re Ren Weschler. I’ve met you before. We actually are friends. And I have this whole context of the world around me. But photographs do something tricky. They decontextualize things. They rip images out of the world and as a result we are free to think whatever we want about them.
LW: We think that we know them as well as our friends.
EM: Yes, that we have some deep knowledge just because we’re looking at them. I have a line that someone asked me to remove at one point from one of these essays. And I said, No, I can’t remove it, it’s one of my favorite lines. Here’s the line: False ideas adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper. And I believe it to be true. I think that there is something about the nature of photography that invites the specious, the spurious. It’s an open invitation to think whatever you want.
LW: All of which would explain why you went on to become a poet. Which you didn’t. Why did you become a filmmaker?
EM: I don’t know. I became a filmmaker because I couldn’t write. I became a documentary filmmaker because I couldn’t write. And it was all that was open to me for artistic expression.
LW: But you can’t write? Tell that to the readers of these exhaustive and sometimes exhausting recent writings of yours.
LW: Let’s suspend this line of discussion for a minute and maybe come back to it. Because I’d now like to try a biographical theory out on you. I want to suggest that your having effectively become blinded in one eye as a child is the core event of your life. First off, can you just tell what happened?
EM: Well, my father died when I was two, nearly three years old. I have no memory of him. And as it happens, shortly thereafter my eyes were operated upon by a family friend doctor, because I was cross-eyed.
LW: And it didn’t work.
EM: It didn’t work. Often these operations don’t work. Very little was known in the 1950s. There’s strabismus and amblyopia. Strabismus, if I understand this correctly, is just the physical character of the eyes being improperly aligned. Wall-eyed or cross-eyed, as was the case with me. Whereas amblyopia is the brain’s attempt to deal with this. If the brain can’t bring the images from the two eyes into alignment, the brain suppresses one of the images because the alternative would be double vision. So the argument goes. The remedy in those days was to put a patch over the good eye and force the use of the bad eye. Now, granted, I would always rip the patch off. But, as a result, my left eye, my lazy eye, never developed full vision. I can see out of it, there’s nothing wrong with that eye, basically it’s the brain’s attempt to cope with the inability to bring the eyes into alignment.
LW: At any rate, years later your mother ended up marrying this family friend, the opthamalogist. And in terms of your own life, your wife has the joke about…
EM: Well, my wife Julie has said that it’s the Oedipus story in reverse: the guy blinds me and marries my mother.
LW: On top of which it’s just after your own father died, so it is kind of mythic.
EM: I should emphasize that my stepfather was a good man.
LW: Still, I’d suggest that the resultant monocularity has proven fundamental to you. It’s not that you lack depth perception, but you do lack stereoscopy, the standard way most bifocal people achieve their depth perception. You have to use all sorts of other cues. And that has allowed you, maybe even forced you to become hypersensitive to the constitution of your depth perception. In other words, you’re continually having to question what you’re seeing, how you’re seeing.
EM: I tend to agree with that. It has made me hypersensitive to the nature of vision.
LW: To how vision is constructed.
EM: I believe that’s true. But I’d go so far as to say it’s better to be skeptical about the nature of vision than to accept it uncritically. I once came up with this line that I still like very much: “Better to be a Humean than a human.” And by that I simply express my enthusiasm for David Hume who was one of the great skeptics about the nature of experience.
LW: When you were talking earlier about how you think about posing a lot, I myself took to thinking about another connotation of the word, as in the phrase “posing a riddle.” We talk about posing, or about somebody or something having been posed. But skeptics are people for whom everything is a riddle. Or is subject to becoming a riddle.
EM: Posing has always bothered me. Susan Sontag is right in one sense. That many of the most famous war photographs, the ones that have become iconic, people have questioned the circumstances of how they were produced. Not just Fenton. Rosenthal’s raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, Robert Capa’s famous photograph of the fallen Spanish Civil War soldier, the very famous Alexander Gardner photograph of a rebel sharpshooter at Gettysburg. There have been allegations made about all of these photographs––that these photographs were all posed to a degree. But what do we mean by that? Let’s say that Fenton moved those balls onto the road because he wanted a more graphic picture. I don’t know this, but let’s assume that he moved the cannonballs. In what sense is the resultant photograph really posed? Are we saying that this isn’t 1855? That this isn’t the Crimean War? That it isn’t the Valley of the Shadow of Death? That this area wasn’t subject to intense Russian bombardment and so forth?
LW: Doubtless the cannonballs had been on the road at one point, maybe they’d been cleared off for one reason or another and he just put them back on.
EM: Yes. The point is, it’s dangerous just to look at a photograph and assume we know what we’re looking at. Chances are we have no idea.
LW: It seems to me that your monocularity, in the way that we were talking about it, the way in which it has made you unusually sensitized to what constitutes vision, that it’s also imbued you with a kind of monomania.
EM: Monomania? I beg your pardon.
LW: Well, there you go. I’m going to contend that that’s the word. But that it is a bifurcated monomania. On the one hand you seem to say that this whole discussion about whether things are posed or not—Fenton, Rosenthal at Iwo Jima, and so forth—can get a little ridiculous. That there was a war, there had been a bombardment, children had been killed in the bombing of Beirut, and so forth. But at the same time you want to say that it matters, and matters crucially, what was actually happening in front of the camera.
EM: It all does matter.
LW: But can you say both those things?
EM: The thing is that people have come up with all these rules. Because they realize, maybe somehow unconsciously, how easy it is to be tricked by a photograph. And so they construct these rules to protect us, all the familiar rules: You will move nothing. You will touch nothing. You will observe the scene as it is. You will be the proverbial fly on the wall. You will inspect but not change. You will use available light. You will not try to enhance the scene. And on and on and on it goes. The end result, the claim goes, is that you get something truthful. That you observe these rules and somehow truth pops out. Well this, of course, is wrong. Because there are all these other kinds of assumptions and problems and confusions. The fact that the frame exists at all and that we don’t see beyond it to either side or up and down…
LW: And not just the spatial frame, but the temporal frame as well—the fact that things were taking place before and after, and that in any case one chooses only a single shot out of the hundreds one might have taken.
EM: Exactly. And then as well the entire context in which the photo appears. The block of text, or the caption that might be written underneath it, actually is far more influential than that decision of whether or not to move a cannonball. What we’re really asking in all of this is about the relationship between our images and the world.
LW: Which indeed is your consuming preoccupation. You know Isaiah Berlin’s old distinction between the hedgehog and the fox. He in turn got it from the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: how the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing. For all the variety of your subject matter, I think you are essentially a hedgehog—and in fact a turbo-hedgehog, a pneumatic drill of a hedgehog. You just dig and dig and dig. You are like an archeologist of photography, not so much of the history of the medium as about the deep structure and the character of the significance of any given photograph. But the funny thing is, the deeper you dig into, shall we say, the truth of any given photo, the odder things become, and often the more doubtful.
EM: Doubtful about some things, less about others. Thanks to Dennis Purcell, I know for sure that ON came after OFF. But, yes, I am less confident about other things.
LW: Let’s talk about other things. For example: The Umbrella Man. For those who haven’t yet seen it on the New York Times website, we’re talking about a seven-minute short film of Errol’s—maybe you should just describe it.
EM: Well, I’ve started many films that are unfinished. Usually in the form of an interview. And in this case the interview was with an extraordinary character: Josiah Thompson, known as Tink Thompson. He was a Yale PhD in philosophy who wrote his thesis on Kierkegaard, a tenured professor of philosophy at Haverford, a job he left because of his obsession with the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination. He went to work for Time Life and eventually became a private detective in Northern California. A very odd career.
LW: This was a time when there were a lot of people obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. And he was one of those.
EM: People still are. But he was one of many. And his book, Six Seconds in Dallas, is still one of the best books written on the assassination, certainly on the Zapruder film. There’s that famous line from that anti-Semitic Argentinian general who said that the Jews were successively responsible for destroying the Christian idea of the family: Freud. The Christian idea of the state: Marx. And the Christian idea of the universe: Einstein. To which I would like to add, the Christian idea of America: Abraham Zapruder.
LW: So, anyway, Tink wrote this great book. Now let’s go to the Umbrella Man.
EM: Yes, the Umbrella Man was an obsession of many people. Because in the Zapruder film and a number of the photographs taken in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, there’s a man standing alone under an open black umbrella he then immediately furled after the assassination.
LW: This on an otherwise completely clear day.
EM: An absolutely beautiful day.
LW: The only umbrella in Dallas that day. And he was standing right there, on the sloping lawn by the curb, a few yards from where the assassination took place.
EM: That’s correct. He was standing right there where the bullets are fired. So the question for many people was like, what the hell is this? What is the meaning of this? Who is the Umbrella Man?
LW: It had to have some dark meaning.
EM: It had to have some truly, truly dark meaning. That, as Tink describes it, the umbrella itself is either a signal to coordinate the assassination from a number of independent gunmen. Or that the umbrella was a disguised weapon of some sort.
LW: A weaponized umbrella.
EM: That was responsible for what appears to be the throat injury at the critical moment in the Zapruder film. But yes, it’s a story about conspiracy theories and our attempt to explain historical events, given a paucity of evidence, and how we can come up with the craziest kinds of conspiracy theories.
LW: But none crazier than what was actually going on.
EM: None crazier than the actual story itself.
LW: Which was?
EM: That the Umbrella Man—when he revealed himself many years later in response to Congressional calls that he do so—actually turned out to be protesting the policies of Kennedy’s father Joseph P. Kennedy, who’d encouraged appeasement and accommodation with Hitler during his days as FDR’s ambassador to Britain in the years leading up to the Second World War. It was a reference to Neville Chamberlain who has become the goat of history. Neville Chamberlain with his furled umbrella.
LW: Which in turn leads Tink to cite John Updike and his quantum theory of truth.
EM: Well, what he talks about in the beginning is whether there is such a thing as truth. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who believes in truth. I’m a realist at heart. I truly believe there’s a real world out there.
LW: Before you describe that, describe what Updike says.
EM: Updike wrote about the Umbrella Man in a New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece. And he suggested that maybe the universe is so weird that there are things that we can never ever possibly explain. Things that become more and more uncertain.
LW: In fact he makes the analogy to physics, suggesting that in broad terms, history follows what we might refer to as Newtonian rules, but the deeper you dig into any single event, the deeper you go, the more quantum and odd and random things begin to appear.
EM: Yes, you end up in a strange landscape that is really truly foreign to us all.
LW: And that when you burrow and burrow and burrow, you fall clear through the truth and into this…
EM: No man’s land.
LW: And it seems to me that, for all your aforementioned devotion to the reality of the world, the findable truth as to whether things did or didn’t happen, at least part of your work too goes in that other direction.
EM: I think that’s true. I think it’s a smart thing to say.
LW: The deeper you dig, the crazier it gets.
EM: It’s crazy all the way down. There’s some kind of fiendish absurdity to the world.
LW: So maybe the Hegelian synthesis is that it gets crazier and crazier and crazier, and that is the truth. That there is a real world and the real world is crazy.
EM: There are just so many details that when you start to mine the details of anything, you don’t know what details are relevant and what aren’t. I’m writing a book now called A Wilderness of Error, about the Doctor Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, the one Janet Malcolm wrote about. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to write a book about an investigation where the investigation devolves into uncertainty. And in the book I note that there’s some evidence—Carlo Ginzburg wrote a whole book on this—Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method––that the whole idea of detective work was created by writers of fiction, and then adopted by the police. So you have this great canon of detective literature, from Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle and Émile Gaboriau. And there’s a line that I really love in Gaboriau, where he has his detective, Monsieur Lecoq, survey the landscape around this crime scene, covered with snow, these scattered footprints; he looks around and he says to his compatriot, “Now, I know everything.”
And that’s the dream. It’s the dream of detective fiction that the world provides evidence of itself. And by scrutinizing the world, you can learn all you need to know. It’s an optimistic 19th-century thesis. That there are no limits. But history is weird. I gave this commencement speech at the Journalism School of the University of California–Berkeley, and I expressed my annoyance with that saying to the effect that journalism is the first draft of history. I said that sometimes journalism is the only draft of history. Because historical evidence is perishable. It can vanish. If someone doesn’t record it, if someone doesn’t observe it, it can go away forever. If we lose all of the historical evidence—and we have lost most of the historical evidence—what can we really say about it? What can we really know about it?
LW: I described you earlier as a forensic epistemologist. But it occurs to me that what you bring to the field is specifically this intersection of knowing and seeing. In other words, Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq says, “Now I know everything”—another way of saying which is “Oh, I see!” Oh. I see: I get it. For that matter, the title of your book, Believing is Seeing, with its play on the old cliché “Seeing is Believing,” is an epistemological riddle if ever there was one.
EM: It all comes back to Poe, as usual. My entire “wilderness of error” idea comes from Poe. Poe understood it on some deep level. In his “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which to me is still one of the great triumphs of Western literature, Poe tells us two things which you might think to be diametrically opposed. One, he tells you that, like Gaboriau, you can know everything. You can look at the nail that’s missing a head, you can look at the ravaged body stuffed up the chimney, you can look at the purse filled with gold. And make those essential deductions and determine what really happened. And this is where I think Poe’s genius and craziness enter. Because you learn that these crime scenes were created by some savage, mysterious, arcane, recondite force that ultimately can never be explained. You can know everything, and you can know nothing.
LW: I think you just summed up your attitude towards photographs.
EM: Did I?
LW: It’s essentially the dialectic I was talking to you about before, that you can burrow and burrow to a real world….
EM: …and you end up with a mean-spirited orangutan. Is basically the end result. You end up with a mean-spirited orangutan. And then where are you?
LW: And that’s where you live.
EM: Sort of, yes.
LW: Let’s begin to wrap this up, but I wanted to try out a few last things. In the context of somebody who drills and bores and bores, who digs and delves and delves, there’s of course Keats’s notion of negative capability. Which he defines as that quality “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable itching after fact and reason.” You strike me as somebody who itches like crazy after fact and reason. And yet I think there is a kind of negative capability to you as well. You are capable of being in uncertainties and mysteries and doubts. But only after you’ve itched and itched and dug and dug and scoured to get to the point where you achieve this sense of mystery and doubt, at which point you finally get calm and feel centered. Does that make sense to you?
EM: A little bit.
LW: You don’t strike me as somebody who has much negative capability at the outset. Do you see yourself as someone with innate negative capability? I mean, after all, you are somebody who just itches and itches and digs and digs for 75 pages about a couple of cannonballs.
EM: One of the things I worry about about the Believing book is that people are left unsatisfied somehow. That I do all this stuff and they think, Whoa, it’s unresolved. I’m not sure what people want. Will it really depress people to learn that the photographs are neither true nor false? That there’s nothing you can do to make a photograph more true? Or less true. It’s just a photograph. That all photographs are posed? And yet people do endeavor to trick us with photographs because people endeavor to trick us with almost anything they can find at hand. The desire to trick another person is probably the deepest and most heartfelt desire of mankind.
LW: Some people think that that was the reason for the invention of language, so you could trick people.
EM: That was one of my lines: We invented language so we could lie more effectively. “The wildebeest went that way.” “I thought he went the other direction.” “No no no, he went that way.”
LW: In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein goes on, for almost the same number of pages that you go on about the damn ON and OFF cannonball pictures, numerical point by point about the nature of the relationship between the world and language, finally arriving, at the end, at his point number 7. Which in the Creation is the day God takes his rest. And famously he declares, simply, confoundingly, “Of that which you cannot speak, of that you must be silent.” I’ve always felt, though, that when people say glibly, for example, “What can you say about the Holocaust, or human evil, or whatever—you just have to be silent,” that the genius of Wittgenstein’s point is that you have to earn your silence. You have to arrive at an honest silence. And in a way, what’s striking to me about your work, your hedgehoggery, is that you turbo dig and dig and dig till you fall through to real profound doubt, marvel, wonder: you get there. Does that make sense?
EM: Yeah, it does. It’s a nice thing to say.
LW: Well, consider it said.
EM: It’s the pursuit of the ineffable…
LW: Or the earning of the ineffable. By the way, when we were discussing pose, I realize we have a third sense of pose: P-o-e apostrophe-s. Poe’s pose. Poe’s posers.
EM: And don’t forget the quote I’m using for that next book of mine; the title comes from my favorite quotation ever. And it’s apropos of what you were talking about. Poe gives it to his character William Wilson, how he is seeking “an oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error.”
LW: Is it an oasis of fatality? Or an oasis of facticity?
EM: In Poe, it’s fatality. But you know, I’m not sure what he means by… that’s another thing… I always took it to mean, and quite possibly I’m wrong, that it’s an oasis of certainty. An oasis of something that you know for certain.
LW: Which, by the way, for Poe would be death.
EM: Yes. The certainty of death. An oasis of fatality: what an amazing line. I had this Belknap edition of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe and at the very end they have a facsimile of his very last story. You know the story “The Lighthouse”?
EM: It’s worth looking at the story and the facsimile, because the story never ends. Maybe it could never end. But it’s appropriate. It’s the last thing that Poe ever wrote. And he talks about this lighthouse. And in Poe’s supremely pedantic way, he goes on about this lighthouse at enormous length: that it is positioned in some area of the sea, ferociously battered by waves and wind. But not to worry, the lighthouse is built on an indestructible, unassailable foundation of bedrock and iron anchors. There’s no way that such a structure could ever fail despite whatever is thrown against it. And he goes on and on. There’ll be one paragraph about the indestructibility of the lighthouse and another paragraph about the ferocity of the ocean currents and storms around the lighthouse. And there’s lots of ellipses in it. The writing is quite beautiful. And he goes back and forth like that—the incredible foundation, the terrible sea. And then, just as he starts with another celebration of the foundation, there’s a second sentence which reads, “Although, as it turns out, the foundation might be of chalk.” And then there are ellipses. That’s the end.
LW: Now that’s a fatality in the wilderness of errors.
EM: Could anything be better?
LW: You know what’s also funny about that? Is that a lighthouse is monocular…
EM: Good lord.