My latest podcast with The NetFlakes Podcast is about a movie that I'm writing on for my PhD dissertation.
I received another question from the student who I'm corresponding with regarding editing and writing jobs:
Is it true that like a writer, editors should not quit their day jobs for a very long time (low, inconsistent pay)?
Here's my answer:
This is question is a Really Big One. I’m also really sad that it needs to be asked, but I totally understand why you’re asking it! I’ve felt the same way many times since I began my undergrad in 2006. I’m going to try to answer in a way that remains genuine but that doesn’t sound too pessimistic.
The short answer is probably that yes, you gotta pay the bills. The long answer begins: yes, you gotta pay the bills, but whatever you devote the most time to in your life should be what you really want to do. Most people, except the very fortunate, need to continue in some job they don’t love in order to make ends meet until they can hopefully move onto something more fulfilling. The problem with this, especially for our generation and especially for creative projects, is that creativity is so often devalued in our society as not being lucrative enough, that often people will never break free of the mindset that they can’t possibly make a living doing what they love.
I’m not an idiot, or even an idealist, and I understand that not everyone’s circumstances are such that they can devote themselves to work that they find meaningful instead of work that keeps them alive. Capitalism works by making it necessary that people need to continue doing work they hate to survive.
That said, and while acknowledging my own bias and privilege, I have seen how a focus on my creative pursuits as Legitimate Career Options has helped me to not only ameliorate those skills and become more successful, but has also made me a happier person. I’ve been really lucky in that I have often found employment that has at least tangentially fulfilled some aspect of my creative interests, but I’ve also been in situations where I’ve worked jobs I absolutely hated, where I was treated badly, making minimum wage, with no creative or intellectual stimulation whatsoever. I worked these jobs because I had to. I was in a terrible financial situation where I was reliant on a partner who resented having to support me. I hated that whole situation, and it made me hate myself. My point to this overshare is that there are those who say that they can work at their “day jobs” and then work on their own fulfilling creative work on the side. In my experience, I was so incredibly beaten down by how much I hated my job that it sucked all creativity out of me, anyway. Instead of spending the evenings and weekends on my own fun work, I spent it dreading going back to my day job, and became very depressed.
So what’s the alternative? I shared your question with a friend of mine whose response more succinctly sums mine up: “Make it your day job. Well, your day jobs. Three of your six day jobs.” That’s basically how I’ve operated. While I need multiple gigs to stay afloat, and I’m really busy as a result, I’m way happier than 9-5 Mon-Fri in retail would ever make me. The only insight I can offer here is something you’ve mentioned before: the value of building a portfolio (or CV). I’m not saying the work you find will be fulfilling. I’ve written way too many smarmily flattering words about jewelry boxes and bikinis for search engine optimization that I know that nobody will ever actually read. But they’re all part of a portfolio of writing, that show me practicing my skills. Of course, these types of gigs can be inconsistent, but the pay typically isn’t “low” – not nearly as low as soul-crushing retail where men sexually harassed me on the regular. Friends of mine who are creative writers work at career counseling companies editing cover letters, or at newspapers writing copy for ads, as their “day job,” while they shop their writing around and work on their own projects. These “entry-level” writing & editing jobs require skills and degrees and experience, but they can be stepping stones as they help you hone these skills, get new experience, and make connections in the field.
I’m also not saying that this method is a sure-fire path to success. If I wasn’t a PhD student full-time, I’d have to be hustling a lot harder trying to find jobs to pay the bills (which is, by the way, another reason why I recommended considering grad programs that offer entrance scholarships rather than ones you have to pay for). In a way, the PhD is my “day job” – but it’s something that specifically ties into writing and editing. And as long as (you’re lucky enough that) your “day job” is in service of your passion jobs and eventual dream job, I think you can hit that medium between “happy” and “fed” (maybe even both!?).
I hope this answer provided some insight without coming across as narrow-minded or naïve. I really do have faith in creative careers and the people who seek them out. And I believe that the only way we can change the system that precipitates your ubiquitous question is by relentlessly and courageously turning the jobs we actually want into our “day jobs.”
Last week, I attended an English department meeting on behalf of the Graduate English Society about incorporating "teaching creativity" into courses. You can see the live tweets from the department account here. Near the end of the meeting, a professor I had in my fourth year of undergrad warned of the danger of turning "creativity" into a buzzword, and reminded us that research papers are creative endeavours, too.
I agree entirely. I let the room know that once I realized that my research papers could and should be written creatively, my writing improved immensely (and so did my grades). The only way that I was able to recognize this was by reading scholarship by established academics -- e.g., published journal articles.
Very few courses in my undergrad career had journal articles on the syllabuses. Though papers in my second and third year required "secondary sources," it wasn't until my fourth-year seminar -- the one taught by the aforementioned prof -- that I was assigned entire journal articles to read for class.
I remember trying to read these for homework and the language and structure seeming impenetrable. My reading skills, even in the last year of an honours specialization degree in English, were not at the level required to parse an academic article easily. (Part-way through my Master's, I remembered this initial reaction as I asked myself if the articles I was reading now were just overall easier, or if my reading level had improved. I assume that it was the latter -- hopefully!)
But aside from elevating my reading comprehension, these articles showed me that academic writing could be eloquent and full of personality, while still being concise and insightful. Once I realized that I could have fun and flex my creativity while I write these papers, I understood how to make my argument more nuanced and my writing more engaging.
As a teaching assistant in the English department, I spend a lot of time going over writing skills in my tutorials. This helps me in the end, because it makes the papers I ultimately have to grade better. But it's also knowledge that I find exciting to impart, now that I've grasped it for myself. We throw a lot of words like "controversial" around when trying to motivate students to develop better thesis statements, but students don't often grasp what we really mean by this. And I think the reason for this is that they, like me, don't realize how they can get creative with their essays.
We ask students to write good essays, but seldom give them a model to follow. It'd be ridiculous for a creative writing class to not stress the importance of reading fiction in order to ameliorate the students' own writing. I think it's equally important for students in literature classes to have models to follow. One option, aside from academic journals which I've already described can be daunting for fourth-year students, let alone first-years, would be for professors to encourage students to read the papers published by the Arts and Humanities Student Council. As a former editor-in-chief of the AHSC, I know how much work goes into these fantastic publications every year. They have a pedagogical use in class, because each paper had to have received an "A" grade to be considered for publication, and then they get blind-vetted by a team of professors. As the person who hand-picked these essays, I can attest to the edge the more "creative" ones had over the other highly-graded submissions. I use these publications when I teach essay writing to my students to show them what an excellent paper can look like. This is often the first time they've read a literature essay. They're often very impressed by their peers' writing, and newly motivated because they finally understand what it is we're trying to get them to do -- structurally, yes, but creatively more so.
It's my opinion, based on my own experience and the good return on investment I've seen with my own students, that stressing creativity in essay-writing is an effective way to improve the quality of the writing, grades, and overall attitude toward English literature as a discipline. Let's remember this when we plan to make our lessons or syllabuses more creative, too.
My proposal was accepted to the Death, Art, and Anatomy conference at the University of Winchester in southern England. Here's the proposal I sent:
“To tell the todus theropon with tung were ful tere:”
Transi Tombs, Toads, and Luxuria in Medieval Poetry
Unlike English transi tombs, that of François de la Sarraz in Switzerland (late 14th century), and later German examples (1450-), feature the decaying corpses of the men they memorialize crawling with snakes and toads. The description of the ghost of Guenevere’s dead mother in The Anturs off Arthure (late 14th century) as having exposed bones, tattered clothing, and being covered in toads and snakes, is uncannily similar to this particularly gruesome type of transi tomb. Similarly, the Disputacioun Betwyx the Body and Wormes depicts a dream vision of a conversation between a woman’s body and the worms eating it within the grave (vividly depicted in an illumination accompanying a Northern England version (ca. 1435-40).
I intend to argue that the unusual representations of dead noblemen in continental transi tombs and descriptions of dead noblewomen in English alliterative poetry both have their roots in traditional images of luxuria. Transi tomb imagery and epitaphs that condemn a luxurious lifestyle specifically include toads, changing the message from a simple memento mori to a commentary on luxuria. When allegorized, Luxuria is often depicted as a woman devoured by toads and snakes as punishment for her sin. The Anturs and the Disputacioun, therefore, present a specifically feminized iteration of the transi tomb imagery. Their appearance draws on the memento mori tradition of the transi tomb, but combines it with the more specific representation of Luxuria, who is not just licentious but also vain and covetous.
I received an email from an undergraduate student who wanted to pick my brain about how to get into editing and publishing as a career. Though my current career is "grad student," I've worked extensively as an editor since 2006. I thought my response could be useful to others, too. I've changed some details for the sake of privacy, but I think the info here could be widely applicable. Moreover, whenever I spend a while writing something, I feel like it's worthwhile to put it on my blog, too. Maybe that's another piece of advice I want to share. Or maybe it's weird.
Finally, this doubles as a mini-bio when it comes to publications/editing experience, which I think is kind of cool in and of itself.
~ Hi S.! Nice to meet you.
It's so great that you've found your passion. I'm happy to give you whatever information I have based on my experience.
I'll try to answer your questions in order:
1) How do I get started in the editing and publishing industry/get my foot in the door?
2) To become a proofreader or an editor, do I need to have extensive experience as a published writer first?
The answer to these depends on the type of editing you are looking to do in the future. You could edit magazines/blogs, news, books, journals, etc., and all of these types of editing require different skill sets and have different style guides. No worries if you don't know which type of editing you want to do right now, but if you know you'd rather work for, say, an academic publishing house than a newspaper, let me know, and I'll tailor my answers in the future.
The most important thing you can do is get experience editing rather than publishing your own writing (though that's rad and helpful, too!).
First, have you spoken with the Arts and Humanities Student Council on campus? They have a publications team that publishes essays and fiction written by students multiple times a year. I just went and spoke with the Editor-in-Chief (their office is next to mine) to see if she needed volunteers for editing, and she said yes, and that she'd email me to get in touch. Once I hear from her, I'll forward it to you. I highly recommend getting involved with them because it's fun and it looks great on your CV. I was the Editor-in-Chief in my fourth year here at Western, and though you won't be able to take over as EIC since you're graduating, it would be great to get that experience before you leave Western.
I also volunteered for campus newsletters when I was in undergrad. I didn't work for the Gazette, but it might be worthwhile checking out if they're looking for proofreaders. Here's the volunteer page. It seems that they have a dedicated person answering emails about copyediting, so there's probably a good chance that you can get some work there. I realize that doing both of these things in the last semester of your university career could be a bit much, but the lines on your resume or CV will be helpful, in my opinion.
Back in undergrad, I sent an email to a blog I really like letting them know that I love their work but the writing could use some help. I said I'd volunteer, just for the experience. The publisher wrote me back saying thanks but no thanks, and then six months later wrote me again saying "Actually, if you're still free, we could really use someone to copyedit -- and we'll pay you." I ended up working there for five years, all remotely over the internet. I acknowledge that this was a huge stroke of luck, but I encourage you to try the same thing. If there's something you enjoy reading that produces content daily or weekly, it can't hurt to get in touch with the editorial board and volunteer your services.
As far as publishing your writing, like I said, that won't hurt. If you want to do that, you should totally look into the aforementioned Arts and Humanities publications, the Gazette, and any websites you like to read that accept submissions. Let me know if that's something you're interested in and we can talk more about that, too!
Finally, if you feel like you'd like to start your own publication, I can provide info for that, too. Running your own publication is its own special type of madness, but it provides extensive experience and shows a lot of initiative. I started a graduate student journal during my MA that mirrored and continued the work I did for the Arts and Humanities undergrad journal, and the experience I've gained has been invaluable. Plus, it's really fun to do it your way, for once!
3) Do I need an additional degree or certificate in editing in publishing? If so, is there a specific school/institution that has a good reputation in this area?
As far as a degree in editing/publishing goes, I actually don't have a lot of info on this, because I didn't take that path myself. But I've put my feelers out to see if I know anyone who did, so I'll let you know. I see based on a Google search that Ryerson offers a program in Publishing. It seems pretty comprehensive: http://ce-online.ryerson.ca/ce/default.aspx?id=2000
But like I said, I don't know anything about it when it comes to its practical use, or its value for tuition money. I don't know if it would provide funding (but I can make a good guess that it won't), and in my opinion, if you're going to do post-grad degrees, you should do a program where your degree is covered by the school. For example, if Ryerson doesn't offer any funding for this program, it would mean that you're going into a considerable amount of debt (factoring living in Toronto into the picture!) for a degree that might not actually be necessary or even helpful for working in your chosen field. But if you were to attend Western for your MA in English instead, your funding package would cover your tuition, and you're guaranteed a TAship where you'd be grading student papers. Obviously, grad school in English isn't a good idea if you don't love literature as much as you love perfect punctuation, so don't choose an MA in English just because; but I do think it's a viable option for someone looking to go into publishing.
An undergrad degree seems to be the new high school diploma, so an MA might really distinguish you from the crowd of applicants when you go for publishing jobs. What's more is that there are plenty of opportunities to work for publications on campus and elsewhere while you're in grad school. For example, the English department has a publication called Word Hoard that has a rigorous reviewing process and needs keen editors. Once again, I admit my bias toward grad programs that fund you, and that I don't know anything about Ryerson's program, but I think that an MA in English could help you be as competitive in the job market (if not more?). I also think that it would be a better use of your money and time to do something that calls itself a degree -- whether that be at Ryerson or similar or a Master's -- rather than a college certificate. Maybe you should shop around and see what each program could offer? Admissions to grad programs are usually due in January, so you have some time to really do your research (and I'm available to answer questions on this front, too).
4) Does it help to have a web presence? Is it too late to start now?
In general, my response to this question regarding almost any career is yes -- a web presence always helps! Especially if/when you start proofreading and editing for web publications (which are the majority when it comes to editing jobs these days I'm sure). It goes without saying that a web presence needs to be a thoughtful one when it comes to searching for a career. But if you're interested in writing anyway, starting a blog and a Twitter account shouldn't feel too uncomfortable. It's good to have a body of work to point to even if it's a "personal" blog and Twitter. I have my CV online (I call it my portfolio) so you can check that out if you like.
It's DEFINITELY not too late to start! I realize that I come across as a super-keener when it comes to this because I was doing it starting in second year, but I know based on my peers in the PhD now that I'm in the minority there. Most people don't figure out what they want to do until later, and get their feet wet with it in grad school. So you're in good shape!
Sorry this email is so long. Let me know if you have any questions! I'm happy to talk shop anytime.
They're all part of the paper I'll be giving in Edinburgh at the 16th Triennial Conference of the International Society for the Study of Time. Here's the proposal I sent:
Nostalgia in the Post-Apocalypse:
the Anthropocene in Whitehead’s Zone One and Hurston’s “Zombies”
“First he is carried past the house where he lived. This is always done. Must be. If the victim were not taken past his former house, later on he would recognize it and return. But once he is taken past, it is gone from his consciousness forever. It is as if it never existed for him.” -Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston
“The last time he saw his childhood home was on Last Night. It, too, had looked normal from the outside, in that new meaning of normal that signified resemblance to the time before the flood. Normal meant ‘the past.’ Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before.” -Zone One by Colson Whitehead
In Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, humans are forced to confront the unhuman zombies who cannot return to a human (or “normal”) way of life. In turn, the zombies in each text must confront their home or a familiar place as part of becoming or being a zombie. In this conference paper, I intend to examine two types of nostalgia as defined by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia emphasizes rebuilding the lost home and memory gaps, while reflective nostalgia focusses on the longing and loss of remembrance. I propose that Whitehead’s Zone One is an example of restorative nostalgia, while Hurston’s chapter “Zombies” in Tell My Horse is an example of reflective nostalgia – but that both together are an example of how nostalgia in the post-apocalypse (and post-anthropocene) is a longing for a temporal and psychological place. Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia complicates reflective nostalgia further. Boym explains: “Reflective nostalgia is a form of deep mourning that performs a labor of grief both through pondering pain and through play that points to the future” (55). Whitehead and Hurston’s texts are examples of mourning and melancholia pushed past the limit of human experience to that of the post-apocalyptic zombie and survivor. How does this change in psychoanalytic circumstances complicate nostalgia? What happens when the “play that points to the future” is a post-apocalyptic future?
A pitch I sent to The New Inquiry for their GOODNIGHT issue that wasn't accepted, but that I think would still be a neat essay.
In Greek mythology, Hypnos, the god of sleep, lives in a cave beyond a field of poppies in the underworld with his brother Thanatos, the god of death. But the pharmacist who first isolated the poppy’s morphine (a drug capable of inducing sleep, prolonging life, and causing death) named it after Hypnos’ son Morpheus, the daemon-god of dreams. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Morpheus enters the dreams of a worried Queen Alcyone to inform her that her missing husband King Ceyx has drowned at sea. An expert shape-shifter, Morpheus appears to her in the form of the dead king, pale, withered, and sopping wet – and, speaking as the king, explains that he is dead:
Then he bends over her pillow, with tears streaming down his face, and says: “My poor wife, do you know your Ceyx, or has my face altered in death? Look at me: you will recognise me, and find for a husband, a husband’s shade! Your prayers have brought me no help, Alcyone! I am dead! Do not hold out false hopes of my return! […] Get up, act, shed tears, wear mourning: do not let me go down unwept to Tartarus’s void.”
When Chaucer takes up the story in The Book of the Duchess, he makes some changes. Specifically, when Morpheus is sent to relay the message in Alcyone’s dream, he doesn’t shape-shift into the king. Instead, he dredges the sea for the corpse, stands at the foot of Alcyone’s bed, and like a sadistic puppeteer operating a zombie marionette, ventriloquizes the king’s death to a terrified Alcyone:
he took up the drowned body and bore it forth to Alcyone […] and stood at the foot of her bed. And he called her by her very name and said, "My sweet wife, Awake! Leave your sorrowful life, for in your sorrow there lies no remedy; for, surely, sweet, I am surely dead. You shall never see me alive. […] Farewell, sweet, my world's bliss! I pray to God to lessen your sorrow. Our bliss lasts for so short a time!"
In the first, Morpheus implores the Queen to move from denial to mourning, tears streaming down his face. In the second, he grotesquely steers the corpse to tell the Queen to stop mourning and move to acceptance. I’m interested in these different interpretations of Morpheus performing what psychologists have named “visitation dreams,” what they say about sleep being a liminal state between life and death, and what they say about the stages of grief. A crucial difference between Morpheus’ visits and typical visitation dreams is that Morpheus adopts a state of after-death or even undead-like decay, whereas visitation dreams typically present the dead at their most vital, sometimes decades younger than when they died. What do Morpheus and these literary visitation dreams have to say about how psychologists interpret grief and dreaming today?
“Visitation dreams in grieving individuals: A phenomenological inquiry into the relationship between dreams and the grieving process.” By Jennifer E. Shorter. http://gradworks.umi.com/33/97/3397063.html
“Winding Through ‘Big Dreams’ Are the Threads of Our Lives.” By Rebecca Cathcart. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/03/health/psychology/03dream.html
The Book of the Duchess: A Modern English Translation by Geoffrey Chaucer. http://ummutility.umm.maine.edu/necastro/chaucer/translation/bd/bd.html
Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by A. Kline. http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph11.htm
A paper I wrote in April 2015 for my American Secular class.
The incense and the candles and the colors on the wall Your image stands reflected as a princess come to call Your suspicions I'm confirming as you find them all quite true And the kingdom of heaven is within you
At the conclusion of “Seeing Things,” the second episode of True Detective, the song “Kingdom of Heaven” begins to play when the detectives find the incriminating occult painting on the burnt-out church. The song’s subject matter and appearance at this particular point underscores the series’ intertwining of the occult, the secular, and the religious. The song’s title and chorus comes from Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you,” and the no doubt more rhythmically pleasing syllables of “heaven” are just as remarkable as the original bible verse. The idea that access to God’s kingdom of heaven and therefore his grace and salvation is within us rather than through religious practice is at odds with many Christian sects’ interpretations and iterations. Unlike Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” Luke’s verse is not eschatological; instead, it means to inspire introspection and self-reflection. Essentially, that which will save you is already inside you, if, and only if, you will recognize it. This is not a popular sentiment among church leaders who would rather have people come to them for guidance, which provides the basis for the dogmatic aspects of religion that so often become the counterpoints to secular arguments. Detectives Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey respectively, seem to weave back and forth across the line separating belief and skepticism, self-reflection and superficiality, and religion and secularity. But because they each occupy a different side of these binaries throughout the series, it is more likely that these are not binary opposites at all. Indeed, Hart and Cohle represent a Janus-like figure, simultaneously looking outward in opposite directions on various issues, but grounded in similarity. What makes True Detective a more compelling series than a typical odd-couple buddy-cop pairing would yield, though, is the show’s examination of religion, philosophy, and occultism, and its insistence upon the self-reflection each detective does or does not do (and often, the self-reflection he thinks he’s done). In order to underscore the theme of outward perception and self-perception, mirrors and reflective surfaces are significant parts of the mise-en-scène. Jacques Lacan identified the self-recognition stage of development, the time when an infant recognizes itself in a mirror, as the initial establishment of an “I” and an “other.” Cohle is figured as self-reflexive and intuitive, a non-believer, and reflections help his character and define him. Hart is in denial of his double-life, is a believer of some kind, and his lies define him. He is incapable and unwilling to examine his own actions, and pretends to everyone, including himself, that he is living a morally virtuous Christian life. Mirrors constantly appear in scenes with Hart, but do not provide any reflection for him. The title of the series becomes another clue, as the real investigation is into what is “true” about each detective.
Religiosity in southern Louisiana is a given in True Detective. A mix of French Catholicism and Pentecostal tent revival influences meld with Voudon and Santeria in a unique way, but “every person within a thousand miles of here is ‘religious in some kinda way,’ except [Cohle].” The first episode establishes the dichotomy between the detectives in their systems of belief. Hart, the self-described “regular guy,” already finds Cohle to be somewhat of a strange loner. During this scene, driving along the desolate stretches of bayou backwoods and industrial detritus, the landscape appears reflected in the windows of the car, sliding across each character’s head. Rather than have the camera seem to be positioned inside the car, the viewer is purposely removed from the scene, looking in to a closed space and aware of the foreboding landscape that surrounds. This jarring effect distances the viewer and reminds them that they too are “bearing witness” to something rather than fully immersing themselves. The reflections on the car windows, then, serve to make the viewer reflect on the different vantage points at play: that of the secular nihilist and the religious optimist. Prompted by his visceral reaction to seeing Dora Lange’s corpse, Hart asks Cohle about his religious beliefs:
Today, that scene, that is the most fucked up thing I ever caught. Can I ask you something? You’re Christian, yeah?
Then why you got the cross for in your apartment?
That’s a form of meditation.
I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.
But you’re not a Christian. So what do you believe?
I believe that people should talk about this type of shit at work.
Hold on, hold on. Three months we been together, I get nothing from you. And today, what we’re into, now... do me a courtesy, okay? I’m not trying to convert you.
I’d consider myself a realist, alright, but in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.
Um, okay. What’s that mean?
Means I’m bad at parties.
Let me tell you, you ain’t great outside of parties either.
I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.
Huh. That sounds god-fucking-awful, Rust.
We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact, everybody’s nobody.
I wouldn’t go around spouting that shit, I was you. People ‘round here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.
I think the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
So what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?
I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.
My luck, I picked today to get to know you. Three months, I don’t hear a word from you and then—
Yeah. And now I’m begging for you to shut the fuck up.
Hart assumes Cohle is religious partly because everyone Hart knows in the area is religious, and partly, as he says, because the only decoration in Cohle’s apartment is a crucifix, a signifier of belief. Cohle explains that instead of it signifying that he accepts Christ as his saviour, he has re-defined its significance for himself. Cohle says he meditates on the “moment in the garden,” that is, the Agony in the Garden, when Jesus prayed to God for the chance to not have to endure the crucifixion. Jesus “allowed his own crucifixion” by adding that if God will not let him escape it, He will nevertheless do God’s will. Hart does not understand how meditating on biblical texts can be exclusive of being Christian. He cannot separate the religious bible from the secular bible, like Cohle seems to, and demands to know what Cohle does believe, because everyone must believe something. For Hart, belief in something, anything, is more likely and more palatable than Cohle’s introspective “pessimism,” as Cohle calls it. In fact, Cohle blames his pessimism on the very introspection that separates him from Hart. He believes that the tragedy of humanity is that humans became too self-aware – like humanity hit Lacan’s mirror stage and can no longer be content with a passive, pluralist existence. As such, nihilism is a better description of Cohle’s particular brand of pessimism. Not only does Cohle feel that our world is as bad as it could be (“It’s all one ghetto, man”) and that evil will triumph, but he also has a specific rejection for religion, and a belief that nothing on Earth has real existence. He is so sure of this belief that he considers himself to be a realist above all. He maintains that the understanding of a self, the Lacanian “I,” is false and illusory. In a particularly unbearable scene in the 2012 timeline, the compellingly insufferable Cohle frustrates Detectives Papania and Gilbough when he rambles, imitating a religious devotee, “Surely this is all for me. Me? Me! Me! I! I! I’m so fucking important! I’m so fucking important, right?!” This is essentially the same monologue as the one in the car, but seventeen years coupled with alcohol have amplified its insistence and antagonism. Cohle understands, in 2012, that his belief in non-belief is as fervent as the religious examples he dismisses during the series. For Cohle, the narrative of his understanding is the important part – not the secularity.
Meanwhile, back in 1995, Hart is disturbed by Cohle’s explanation of his non-belief system, and claims that he does not feel the same way – though the viewer never gets a clear definition of Hart’s belief system. While Hart rejects Cohle’s nihilism, it is Hart who lives with disregard of the human moral and religious code rather than Cohle. His taking the Lord’s name in egregious vain is just one of his transgressions against the Ten Commandments. Numerous references to Hart’s apparent intellectual deficit come up over the course of the series, but instead of painting him as incompetent, they underscore his surface-level thought process. Unlike Cohle who intuits and “gets a read” on people, Hart is better at talking to people to get the facts. Just as he has never taken the time to consider himself and his actions more deeply, he has not had to think about what a philosophical pessimist could be, so he asks for a definition. Later, Hart explains the difference between the two detectives’ viewpoints: “The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now, that sounds like denial to me,” to which Cohle replies, “I doubt that.” Hart is summing up their different detective strategies, but also their outlooks on religion and secularity. In the 2002 timeline, Hart has lost patience for Cohle’s intuition entirely. Cohle is spinning a narrative as he is wont to do: “The alligators are swimming all around us and we don’t even know whether they’re there. And you know why? Cause we don’t see ‘em.” Hart dismisses it entirely: “I caught zero logic in all that, and that last bit? Pure gibberish.” For Hart, the facts are the only important thing, and narrative is “pure gibberish.” What he cannot see, he does not care to know or parse, because it has “zero logic.” Hart does not see anything below the surface – especially not the alligators.
Having established the seemingly opposite viewpoints of the detectives, the series goes on to interweave the strengths and weaknesses that these viewpoints hold. The symbol of the Janus is, however, more useful than a binary opposite, because it elucidates the inseparability of each view from the other. Like religiosity and secularity, Hart’s belief in religion and skepticism coupled with his need for factual evidence in the case are not contradictory elements, but grounded together. Similarly, Cohle’s skepticism toward religion and intuitive investigative style are not contradictory, either. But the series does want to establish a disconnect between the ways the main characters describes themselves and their real selves, and to do that, it uses mirrors.
The most obvious mirror in the series is Cohle’s strange, tiny, circular mirror hanging in his bare apartment. Incidentally, it was McConaughey who suggested this detail to the writer and director, which speaks to the collaborative influence actors and others working on a performance have on the text. Cohle can only look at one eye at a time, and he cannot see anything else in the mirror. Over and over again in the series, Cohle says he can read people, even corpses, by their eyes, so looking himself in the eye is all he needs to do to read himself. There are only two other times in the series when he is reflected: once in the bar in 2012, the viewer sees him through his reflection, though he does not look at himself; and during the last episode, in the hospital bed while he is recovering, his Christ-like reflection appears in the window – but his eyes are all but closed-over by swelling. There is evidence that these examples go beyond any coincidence and represent a real aversion for Cohle when he describes the fate worse than death: the torture the cartels are known for. The cartel men augment the horror of the torture by positioning a mirror in front of their victims to make them watch the whole ordeal. His inability to face himself, literally, could be grounded in his grief and trauma from losing his daughter. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he and other characters describe him as knowing himself well, he never looks at himself. His figurative self-reflection is more obvious given his lack of literal self-reflection.
The tiny mirror in Cohle’s apartment confuses Hart when he goes to stay with him, once he has been kicked out by his wife Maggie: “You supposed to see both eyes in this one?” This is the only time Hart looks into a mirror dead-on in the series, except for an implied look while he is mindlessly brushing his teeth. The tiny mirror forces Hart to look himself in the eye, and that fact, which is purposefully designed for Cohle, is unsettling for Hart. In contrast to Cohle, mirrors surround Hart many times throughout the series, but he also never looks into them. To highlight the distance between Hart and his wife, their interactions often happen through reflections. When he argues with Maggie in the bedroom, she is framed in the vanity mirror. Later when she is living with her new husband, Hart is framed in her mantle mirror. The mirrors haunt Hart when he is cheating on Maggie, too. When he begins the affair with Beth, she projects the image Hart wants to see of himself when she says, “You’re a good man. Anybody can see that.” The two are reflected in two mirrors when they first have sex. The last time she calls, she stands in front of a mirror while she convinces him to come over again, as if she understands the power reflections seem to have in his life. Even Lisa, the woman he first commits adultery with, reflects him when she role-plays a police officer during their sex (he even says he had intended to play that role instead). Hart is constantly near mirrors and reflections of himself, but unlike Cohle, he never self-reflects. Talking about Hart, Maggie tells Cohle “Some people, no matter where they look, they see themselves.” Hart does not feel the need to self-reflect, because he is in denial that anything about him could need changing.
In this still, Marty’s Division Bell Pink Floyd tee highlights through paradox the character’s inability to look inward, and also the division between the two characters’ viewpoints. So the Janus of Cohle and Hart look outwardly in opposite directions, but they are joined together, in partnership and in goal. Moreover, each has a complicated relationship with their own reflection – the reverse image of their selves that forces them to confront the reality of their selves. I argue that the Janus is a metaphor for religion and secularity looking outwardly from the same point, because secularity, as a unique concept, has its origin is religion. So to, religion and secularity are each a reflection of the other, and like a reflection, each is reversed. Cohle tells Hart, “Without me, there is no ‘you.’” A reflection in a mirror needs an “I” to be present or it doesn’t exist, just as secularity needs religion to exist because it is defined in opposition to and not independently of religion. Therefore Hart and Cohle are not binary opposites, either. It is certainly counter-intuitive that Hart does not look below the surface of religious belief, yet wants the cold hard facts, while Cohle is a vocal non-believer but is also intuitive and concerned most with narrative. This tension between the two men, as well as the inner tension each of them holds, plays out most acutely when the detectives go to watch the tent revival sermon by Minister Theriot. The sermon itself – one that Cohle dismisses and Hart compliments –introduces the idea of self-reflection when Theriot says “You are a stranger to yourself, and yet He knows you.” Surveying the crowd of transfixed worshippers that make up the reverand’s congregation, Cohle asks:
What do you think the average IQ of this group is, huh?
Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?
Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity. Poverty. A yen for fairy tales. Folks puttin' what few bucks they do have into a little wicker basket being passed around. I think it's safe to say nobody here's gonna be splitting the atom, Marty.
You see that. Your fucking attitude. Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room beating off to murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community. A common good.
Yeah, well if the common good's gotta make up fairy tales then it's not good for anybody.
Here, Cohle and Hart reveal more explicit definitions of their respective opinions on religion – but a contradictory pattern emerges. Despite Cohle’s vehement disregard for “fairy tales” and the story that “the preacher sells,” as he tells Papania and Gilbough in 2012, it is entirely the same type of narrative that he himself seeks and employs. It is the same tactic he employs in the interrogation room, which makes him so successful at getting confessions. What is more is that he uses the empirical tactics that Hart is more likely to use – “observation and deduction” – to draw these conclusions about the congregation. Conversely, Hart reveals that his respect for Christianity comes most from its community-building aspect. But later in the same scene, Hart goes a step further to assign a moral superiority to religiosity:
I mean, can you imagine if people didn't believe, what things they'd get up to?
Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.
Bullshit. It'd be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.
If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.
Well, I guess your judgment is infallible, piece-of-shit-wise. You think that notebook is a stone tablet?
What's it say about life, hmm? You gotta get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day. Nah. What's that say about your reality, Marty?
Hart is hiding his double life, and his reaction to Cohle saying that immoral deeds would be out in the open foreshadows when he asks Cohle if he has ever considered himself a bad person because his guilty conscience is weighing heavier. Hart accuses Cohle of being just as dogmatic about his non-belief as any religious person when he facetiously asks him if his ledger is a stone tablet. In a way it is: like the Ten Commandments, the ledger is a list of sins. Cohle is more concerned with the idea that lying to oneself in order to be happy and safe is not as important as understanding the sad and desperate truth of the universe, as he sees it. He is accusing Hart and all other religious believers of “bending the narrative to support” their belief, which is exactly what Hart accuses Cohle of when they first see Dora Lange and Cohle intuits that she was a prostitute. Of course, Cohle was correct about Lange. By the end of the series, after his near-death experience and feeling as though he met the spirits of his daughter and father past the physical realm, Cohle may feel that Hart is correct about this, too.
Winding through the maze of Carcosa, Errol Childress beckons to Cohle, calling him “little priest” – something Cohle never would have avowed of himself. Whether it is “drug insanity” or a calculated misidentification to further antagonize Cohle, it reminds the viewer that religion, of some kind, has been ever-present, whether Cohle thought it was “God-bothering shit” or not. Throughout the series, Hart and Cohle attempt to justify to themselves and others who they are as true detectives, and in doing so, they break their own definitions and redefine. Their “I” definitions change over the course of the series, as do their interpretations of their own beliefs in transcendence. The last line of the song “Kingdom of Heaven” before the last chorus is “Then it bathes you in its glory and you begin life anew,” evoking the light pouring down from the open ceiling of Carcosa where each detective rises from the dead. Resurrected, his ex-wife and children’s visit move Hart to tears, and Cohle’s nihilism seems all but eradicated. Each seems to have taken a new perspective on life, and on themselves. By the end of True Detective, each detective has mainlined the secret truth of the universe: the one that was within him.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Given at Zurich, 1949. Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.
True Detective. Writ. Nic Pizzolatto. Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga. HBO, 2014. Digital.
My proposal to the 11th Biennial Conference of the American Society of Literature of the Environment was accepted. Here's what I sent:
In 1930, Union Carbide discovered a large deposit of silica during a tunnel-building project near Hawks Nest, and began to mine it illegally using a workforce made up of 75% black migrant workers. A West Virginia historical maker at the site reads:
"Construction of nearby tunnel, diverting waters of New River through Gauley Mt for hydroelectric power, resulted in state's worst industrial disaster. Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35.”
Rukeyser's “modernist poem as radical documentary” (Robert Shulman) about the Hawks Nest mining disaster is a polyphonic text incorporating government reports, correspondence, and her own interviews with the black migrant workers exposed to incredibly dangerous conditions in the illegal silica mine in West Virginia. I posit that there is a social ecological link between the “objectification of people as mere instruments of production” and “the objectification of nature as mere ‘natural resources’” (Murray Bookchin) but in the case of Hawks Nest and Rukeyser’s poem, this link is further complicated by the history of American racism. Because the lungs of the workers filled with silica and the dead were buried unceremoniously in nearby cornfields to cover up the tragedy, the disaster evokes rhetoric surrounding slaves as being legally “part of the landscape” (Michael Bennett). From the 1936 report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor: “one hundred and sixty-nine […] workers were buried in a field at Summerville, West Virginia, with cornstalks as their only gravestones and with no other means of identification.” Rukeyser’s text shows how Union Carbide kept their illegal environmental actions, wanton disregard for safety, racism, and the death toll underground.