Delmore Schwartz’s Screamatorium

August 12, 2021   •   By Askold Melnyczuk

ONE OF THE unforgettable moments in American fiction occurs when the narrator of Delmore Schwartz’s 1937 story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” who has been sitting in a movie theater inexplicably watching a film that chronicles his parents’ courtship, sees his father propose to his mother. Unable to restrain his anguish, the narrator leaps up and screams at the screen: “Don’t do it! It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” The story’s 24-year-old author could not have known he had composed a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Few writers launch their careers with first books containing two masterpieces in different genres. Published in 1938 by New Directions, a two-year-old small press founded by a Harvard undergraduate, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities marked one of the most storied debuts in American letters. It contained both the title story and Schwartz’s poem “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave.” With this book, Schwartz joined the rarefied company of Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Crane, and a tiny handful of other writers whose work surfaces regularly in both poetry and fiction anthologies.

Schwartz’s first book was the kind of literary miscellany newly in vogue today under the rubric “hybrid”: the collection contained one story, 35 lyric poems, a long narrative poem, and a play in verse. A decade would pass before New Directions brought out his first volume dedicated solely to stories, The World Is a Wedding (1948), in which “In Dreams” reappears. More than 80 years after its first publication, that story remains fresh, and disturbing. For better or worse, its singular celebrity has eclipsed a body of work whose strangeness and neurotic vitality merit a closer look. Many of the issues haunting Schwartz — sexuality, antisemitism, racism, class-consciousness, the dubious virtues of family life — remain at the forefront of our American conversation.

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“Someone quoted the Talmud to me several weeks ago,” Schwartz wrote in a letter to Mark Van Doren in 1943,

under the impression apparently then that I knew it well, so that in order not to be caught napping again, I took a volume of selections from the library, and amid much trash, protocol, and mere intellectual ingenuity, found this sentence all by itself without context or commentary “The world is a wedding.”

Schwartz revels in the epigram’s teasing implications: “[T]he world is a misalliance, a marriage of convenience, a royal mating, a shotgun affair, and all the other kinds of marriages.” He used the line as a working title for a 400-page novel, a roman à clef about his friend Paul Goodman and his circle. The prototypes for its characters include the literary critic and co-founder of The Partisan Review, F. W. Dupee, as well as Dupee’s former pupil Mary McCarthy (whom Delmore once tried — and failed — to seduce). In the end, he abandoned the novel, distilling it into the title story of his 1948 collection.

“A recklessly penetrating psychology,” wrote an admiring Hannah Arendt about the tales gathered in the volume, claiming that they revealed “the inner and social life of individuals who have been separated by modern society from all authentic community.” Uprooted by immigration, battered by poverty, disrupted by one world war with another on the way, and compelled to work within a ruthlessly competitive economic system during a worldwide Depression, what else could one expect? A critique of the American project lies at the heart of Schwartz’s fictive enterprise.

The stories here fall into three categories. The first, which includes the title story along with “New Year’s Eve” and “A Bitter Farce,” offers an acid chronicle of the thwarted lives of young bohemian intellectuals coming of age in New York during the Great Depression. (A forgotten story, “An Argument in 1934,” recently unearthed by poet Ben Mazer, stylistically and thematically belongs to this cycle, and its omission here — given that it was first published in The Kenyon Review in 1943 and later reprinted in Martha Foley’s Best American Stories annual — is a mystery.) “America! America!” forms a bridge to the two family-centered tales, “The Child Is the Meaning of this Life” and “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” Finally, in a category all its own stands “The Statues,” a moody, ethereal fable about the transformative power of art.

The title story, which opens the collection, has, unsurprisingly given its origins, the ambition and feel of a much longer work. The action, such as it is, takes place in the first years of the Great Depression. Much of it consists of the sort of badinage one might find in a 19th-century Russian novel about the disaffected intelligentsia — and indeed, Turgenev was one of Schwartz’s literary heroes. The story is loosely centered around the arrogant, ambitious, oddly entitled, and scrupulously self-sabotaging figure of Rudyard Bell, “the leader and captain of all hearts.” He had been “the infant prodigy, class orator, laureate, and best student” who was accustomed to being regarded as a genius.

Intellectual life for Schwartz’s generation was a form of mortal combat. In his magisterial 1977 biography of the poet, James Atlas describes a fist fight breaking out between Schwartz and a fellow student during Sidney Hook’s class at Columbia University, which the philosopher himself was compelled to break up. Schwartz’s portrait of his frustrated dreamers and Algonquin Circle wannabes is both harsh and poignant. His cerebral characters are mercilessly acerbic. Friends sabotage each other’s relationships, strive to one-up each other in conversation, criticize each other’s Latin, and quote Samuel Johnson: “It is as Doctor Johnson said, the Irish are a fair people; they do not speak well of anyone.”

These caustic brooders are hampered by both their class status and their own progressive values, which set them at odds with their families and mainstream society. In “The World Is a Wedding,” for example, Francis French’s native brilliance marks him as likeliest to succeed since he has “impressed the official middle class most of all.” Exceptionally handsome, he speaks English “with a perfect Oxonian accent which he had acquired without departing from the state of New York.” Immediately on graduating college, Francis secures a plum position teaching English at a university, which he soon loses because he is unashamedly homosexual. Defiant, Francis tells a friend “that no one knew what sexual pleasure was until he became homosexual. He said also that everyone was really homosexual. Only fear, ignorance, foolishness, and shame kept all human beings from being aware of true passion and satisfaction.”

And yet, for all the mockery, there’s a poignancy here, too. The characters’ pretensions are aspirational. Trapped by limitations imposed by the Depression, without supportive social contacts, and forced to negotiate the prejudices of their fellow citizens, they strive to achieve. As the Depression wanes, most members of the group eventually find employment. Even Rudyard, who refuses to join the WPA, finds work teaching theater arts at a girls’ high school. Yet the story ends on a dour note from Rudyard’s embittered sister, Laura: “[T]he world is a funeral. We’re all going to the grave no matter what you say. Let me give you all one good piece of advice: let your conscience be your bride.”

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It’s hard to imagine a story like “New Year’s Eve” being published, or even written, today. Here, a climactic moment involves a young writer, at a party, grabbing a copy of Edmund Wilson’s 1931 book Axel’s Castle off a shelf and reading a paragraph on Proust aloud to the other guests. The young writer’s subsequent critique of a passage rife with noble sentiment leaves his companions “offended by his facile cynicism.”

The others in attendance are all similarly literary and afflicted by intellectual pretentions that serve to mask their bewilderment about their place in a world indifferent to their passions. Leon Berg, who is “detested or disliked by everyone at the party because his chief activity was to explain to all authors that they were without talent,” gets off one of the story’s most memorable lines when he observes that what was missing at the World’s Fair “was a screamatorium: a place where everyone who wished might go to scream because of the quality of life in this period.”

The guests are so busy arguing that they lose track of the time and fail to register the arrival of the new year. Just as the beleaguered reader, who has enjoyed the party about as much as its guests, eagerly prepares to decamp, Schwartz springs his quietly devastating surprise. It is now 1938, the year of the “Munich Pact.” Everyone in the room knows “that soon there would be a new World War because only a few unimportant or powerless people believed in God or the in necessity of a just society sufficiently to be willing to give anything dear for it.” The group’s contentious frivolity now stands in stark relief to the necessities that entomb them, and one is left muttering about “some life where the nobility we admire is lived.” Yet this lofty sentiment is allowed to burn for only a few sentences before being extinguished by a consuming cynicism: “But he knew well enough he was chiefly sorry for himself.”

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In the summer of 1943, with war raging in Europe, the 30-year-old Schwartz, then a composition instructor at Harvard as well as one of the most lauded writers of his generation, was assigned to teach writing courses to sailors on leave from the Navy. The experience found its way into the story “A Bitter Farce,” which takes place during the summer of that year, on the heels of a “race riot” in Detroit.

Discussing an assigned essay on “the immigrant in America” with his sailor students, authorial surrogate Shenandoah Fish criticizes the anthology piece, saying that “if America has always been the land of liberty, it has also been the land of the witch-hunt and the lynching party, the land of persecution and the land were everyone feared that he was a stranger or was conscious of a fear of the stranger.” This emboldens one of the sailors, a Mr. Murphy, to observe that “there is something wrong with a lot of Jews. Some of them are all right. But a lot them are not.” Mr. Murphy then goes on to suggest that Jews are traitorous by nature. Fish doesn’t duck the slur: “Do you know what is said of the Irish very often in this city? It is said that the Irish are drunken and truculent.” Flustered, he gets personal:

I myself […] am of Russian-Jewish distraction. I mean detraction. […] My ancestors […] were scholars, poets, prophets, and students of God when most Europe worshipped sticks and stones: not that I hold it against any of you, for it is not your fault if your forebears were barbarians groveling and groping about for peat or something.

The students relish the exchange. After class, the provocateur approaches his professor and suggests that the essay should not have been included in their book, that the text itself was the troublemaker. Fish returns home “to await the arrival of innumerable anxiety feelings which had their source in events which had occurred for the past five thousand years.”

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In the story “America! America!” Schwartz offers perhaps his most direct dissection of the standard American Dream (a.k.a. SAD), examining the meaning of success and failure in American terms. All unhappy families may not be alike, but in Schwartz’s fiction they’re pretty similar: fathers pursue a chimerical ultimate payday while mothers play favorites and spoil their children. In the end, everyone loses.

Unable to find work upon returning from Europe in 1936, Shenandoah Fish moves back in with his mother. His father, who had abandoned the family some years before, is dead. Every morning, Shenandoah listens to his mother’s monologues. One story in particular, the tale of the Baumann clan, offers rich material for reflection.

Mr. Baumann, a family friend and former business partner, a man born to sell insurance, was perfectly suited by temperament to the sort of confident glad-handing and requisite socializing needed to succeed in the business. The Baumanns marvel at American pragmatism and the success with which the country assimilates them: “When the toilet-bowl flushed like Niagara, when a suburban homeowner killed his wife and children, and when a Jew was made a member of President Roosevelt’s cabinet, the excited exclamation was ‘America! America!’” Growing up privileged, the Baumann children, on the other hand, lack the drive to succeed. They fail at business and gradually grow estranged from their parents. “The sons had followed the father and yet for some unclear cause or causes, the way of life which had helped him to prosper prevented them from prospering.”

As he listens to his mother, Shenandoah’s feelings of estrangement from these acquaintances of his youth gradually shift to a recognition of “how closely bound he was to these people. […] [T]he life he breathed in was full of these lives and the age in which they had acted and suffered.” The story ends with Shenandoah’s glimpse of humanity’s interdependence: “No one truly exists in the real world because no one knows all that he is to other human beings, all that they say behind his back, and all the foolishness which the future will bring him.”

Tracking the Hart family across three generations, “The Child Is the Meaning of This Life” further explores the changing fortunes of another Depression-era family caught up in the dream. When the senior Hart dies of overwork, “of trying with too much passion and intensity to become rich,” his wife Ruth becomes head of the household. “Money is the reason for all the trouble in the world,” she says, watching her children struggle in their marriages and chosen professions. Paradoxically, World War II has a salutary effect on some members of the clan. Ruth’s youngest son, Seymour, had been a spoiled ne’er-do-well until his stint in bootcamp: “My whole life would have been different […] if I had only been drafted in the last war! I would have learned to take care of myself.” Discharged because of a poor knee, he returns to his profession as a bookmaker where, thanks to the wartime economy, he prospers, to his mother’s approval.

Over the years, familial alliances are forged and dissolved, and siblings’ feuds flare and fizzle. At one point, Ruth’s daughter Rebecca remarks to her nephew: “That’s what had been wrong with all of us, […] we expect too much from our children. Everyone knows that we expect everything from them which we never had anywhere else.” Lesson learned?

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Published over a decade after The World Is a Wedding, Schwartz’s second full collection, Successful Love and Other Stories (1961), features tales that satirize the changing mores of the post–World War II generation. Done with chronicling the hardscrabble lives of his ambitious bohemians, Schwartz now turns his gaze elsewhere. Grumbling rebels railing bitterly against a tone-deaf world are supplanted by the sort of New Yorker–reading upper-middle-class WASPs and tenured professors one associates more often with the fiction of John Cheever. Those seeking updates on the lives of gray-haired Shenandoah Fish and his friends could not but be disappointed. Debates about great ideas have given way to get-rich-quick schemes and similar mundane concerns. But, despite Ruth Hart’s counsel to her grandson, prosperity isn’t the panacea it appeared to be when the characters were poor and striving.

During the ’50s, casting shade on the viability of the American Dream became a growth industry for America’s intelligentsia. Schwartz’s title story is something of a sex comedy, as American families respond to the first twitches of the coming sexual revolution. More than one paterfamilias finds himself “equally disturbed by the New Deal and the dalliance of his daughters.” Thanks to Kinsey, the female orgasm is a hot topic among the ’burbanites. Well-to-do families are forced to wrestle with an evolving set of postwar values: “[E]arly in the 20th century, there had been nice girls and bad girls: now the double standard had been succeeded by open house.”

“The Track Meet,” on the other hand, delivers us to a curious dreamscape in which Frank Lawrence is visited by an Englishman named Reginald Law. Law invites Frank to the eponymous event at a venue reminiscent of New York’s fabled Polo Grounds. There, Frank is shocked to see his five brothers taking part in the race. The afternoon becomes an occasion for a series of intriguing if dissociated observations. Seeing a poster for a small radio, Frank observes, “The radio draws upon the empyrean just like the oversoul.” He then delivers, unbidden, a brief lecture on Kierkegaard’s three modes of existence: “[T]he aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.”

The Englishman responds by reading a series of gruesome stories from that day’s newspaper: a housewife kills her adulterous husband, a man murders his new bride because she comes home late, a girl commits suicide because she has no date for the weekend. He then punctuates this litany of horrors by pulling out The Book of Common Prayer and reading: “[M]ine enemies compass me round about, to take away my soul…”

When Frank protests to Law that this must all be a dream, Law answers: “You don’t escape from nightmare by waking up.” While the reality reported by the papers is indeed nightmarish, “the evil that has terrified you is rooted in your own mind and heart.” If dreams engender responsibilities, to what do nightmares give rise?

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“The Hartford Innocents,” which rounds out the collection, is a broadly told novella with a timely subject. One cold December morning, a child is left on the doorstep of the Mannings’ brownstone mansion in “a large mid-western city.” Dr. Manning is a minister “of unconventional views” who had recently preached that Christianity was a religion willing to challenge “propriety, respectability, and middle-class morality.” The discovery of the child leads to a roller coaster of consequences, and we quickly see that the baby is just a MacGuffin for exposing the racial hypocrisy of liberal, white, Christian America during the McCarthy era.

After first enthusiastically embracing the chance to give the baby a future, the Mannings discover that the infant is biracial, making it impossible for them to keep it, no matter what their daughter Candida may want. But before they can send the infant to an orphanage, Candida runs off with it back to Hartford College, where its presence causes a national scandal and brings down the wrath of the McCarthy-like figure of Senator Cobb.

The tale’s final chapter is written in the form of a long letter by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Hartford College, who is forced to adjudicate between the impetuous and righteous Candida Manning’s insistence that she be allowed to raise the child on campus and the equally righteous and much louder indignation of Senator Cobb. “To support Senator Cobb,” Howe writes, “is to support fascism: to support Candida Manning is to support boundless and uncontrollable freedom.” I leave it to readers to guess which path the good Chairman pursues.

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While none of Schwartz’s other stories emblazon themselves in memory with the force of “In Dreams” (or IDBR, as he himself referred to it), a writer need compose only one masterpiece to retain a durable claim on our attention. And, more than half a century after their publication, Schwartz’s stories, while uneven, remain timely, unsettling, and relevant.

His narrators make no special plea for the reader’s sympathy; if anything, the opposite is true. The omniscient narrator behind the stories can sound almost too familiar with his creations. As a result, there’s a slightly attenuated feel about them. They’re not as fully on the page, not as vivid, one imagines, as their prototypes must have been. Schwartz’s “criticism of life,” which was what his sometime hero T. S. Eliot suggested poetry ought to be, differs in tone from the exuberant prose of his one-time friend Saul Bellow. While Bellow’s characters don’t shy away from indicting many aspects of their society, their voracious appetite for experience, for life, more life (“I want, I want!” cries Henderson’s inner voice), permits an accommodation that Schwartz’s self-lacerating characters won’t allow. “I dislike, I dislike,” is nearer their mantra. One could say something similar about Kafka’s characters, though Schwartz doesn’t share the Czech’s laconic detachment.

Wallace Stevens claimed that Schwartz’s “thoughtful and apparently simple pages” effectively captured a specific period in American life. William Carlos Williams, meanwhile, noted that the stories’ surface quiet is deceptive. While they occasionally sound like exercises in Socialist Realism, Schwartz was above all a philosophical writer who vibrated to ideas in a way that reflected his Eastern European forebears. “In my late adolescence life seemed to me to be Shakespearean,” says one of his characters. “But now as I get older I see that life really resembles the stories of Dostoyevsky.” For Schwartz, fiction wasn’t merely documentary: it was a way of thinking. And what he thought a lot about was thinking itself. Schwartz was interested in what humans were and what they might, under other circumstances, become. His characters suffer chronic underemployment. They’re capable of so much more, and they know it. They deserve better. Gatsby’s heartbeat echoes in their dreams: “It would be hard to overestimate the amount of unhappiness in America.”

Unlike the later stories, which are primarily narrated by an omniscient authorial voice, IDBR is a first-person, present-tense narrative. The voice is direct, immediate, urgent, and unadorned, yet capable of the most exacting evocation: “I feel as if I were in a motion picture theatre, the long arm of light crossing the darkness and spinning, my eyes fixed on the screen.”

The period is precisely noted: Sunday, June 12, 1909, “the quiet streets of Brooklyn.” The camera is narrowly focused: “His clothes are newly pressed and his tie is too tight in his high collar.” While the conceit calls for a silent picture, full of dots and rays and bad light, we hear — mirabile dictu! — the jingling of “coins in his pockets,” and we even zoom into the character’s thoughts as he rehearses “witty things he will say.” It’s as though the players had stepped off the screen into our world — or, more to the point, as if Schwartz has cunningly lured us into participating in his fictive one.

At the same time, we’re regularly reminded of the framing device: “I feel as if I had by now relaxed entirely in the soft darkness of the theatre; the organist peals out the obvious and approximate emotions on which the audience rocks unknowingly.” And so, the writer further blurs the line between dream and reality without quite acknowledging that the story itself is already nothing other than a “vivid and continuous dream” (as John Gardner famously described it). Dreaming inside a dream creates a sense of enfoldment: comfortably cocooned in several layers of imagination, we are open to the possibility that, in this zone, anything might happen. Yet one of the more remarkable aspects of the experience is that the dream feels all too much like life.

The conceit of being able to observe one’s parents’ lives before one’s birth is startling, original, and endlessly resonant, as it keys into what we might call the pre-primal moment. We observe the courtship up close, and in the process, we begin rooting for the characters: “My father arrives at my mother’s house. He has come too early and so is suddenly embarrassed.” By staying close to the father’s fluctuating emotions, Schwartz invites us to join the character in his project, to share in his confusion, his hopes, and his fears. At the same time, the writer ratchets up the tension by planting seeds of concern: “My grandfather […] is worried; he is afraid that my father will not make a good husband for his oldest daughter.”

By this point, something else is working on the reader’s psyche. The idea of watching one’s own parents’ courtship triggers a host of private associations and anxieties. The narrator’s unnerving act of witness is likely to unfold against the pentimento of projections drawn from the reader’s own life.

Every scene is vividly drawn, though we’ve abandoned the conceit that the film is black-and-white and silent: “They walk along the boardwalk as the afternoon descends by imperceptible degrees into the incredible violet of dusk. Everything fades into a relaxed glow, even the ceaseless murmuring from the beach, and the revolutions of the merry-go-round.” The affectionate lyricism of the setting is contrasted against the excitement with which the narrator’s father imagines the future:

My father becomes exultant. He is lifted up by the waltz that is being played, and his own future begins to intoxicate him. My father tells my mother that he is going to expand his business, for there is a great deal of money to be made. […] [A]nd then, as the waltz reaches the moment when all the dancers swing madly, then, with awful daring, then he asks my mother to marry him.

At that point, the narrator leans up and shouts at the screen, “Nothing good will come of it…”

“The irreversibility of time,” writes Adorno, “constitutes an objective moral criterion.” Causality has always been one of the great subjects of fiction. Every moment bears the next, along with all that preceded it; our judgment of what happens is distinctly colored by what we know led up to an event. Proposing chains of causality may well be fiction’s main contribution both to psychology and to the individual human psyche. Every fictive proposition reveals how our imagination functions. The anxiety “In Dreams” generates in the reader arises in part because, by so intensely imagining the impossible, we are momentarily placed in a space of haunted possibility: if only the narrator’s parents had heeded his cry, if only they had been able to hear him screaming at the screen, how differently things might have gone. If only they had listened to him, Delmore might not have wound up dead of a heart attack in New York’s Chelsea Hotel at the age of 52.

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What did Schwartz hope for from his fiction? The Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdayev, writing about Dostoyevsky, observed that all art was symbolic, “a bridge built between two worlds, a sign that expresses a deep, authentic reality. […] [R]eality is the ideas by which man lives.” The apparent unrealities of the imagination, with its endless cast of specters and landscapes, and the spaces these create within us, are central to our understanding of ourselves. By breaking our bondage to necessity, works of the imagination make life more capacious. Stories and novels constitute portals in consciousness, inviting us to enter another dimension. At the same time, the imagination’s boundlessness can unsettle those unaccustomed to its infinitely malleable terrain. It is, after all, the native habitat of every zombie, vampire, and extraterrestrial that stalks across a page, a film, a dream.

The imagination becomes the focus of Schwartz’s early story, “The Statues,” whose singularity and integrity invite further consideration on the grounds of strangeness alone. The story is dedicated to Schwartz’s friend, the art historian and fellow contributor to the Partisan Review, Meyer Schapiro. Faber Gottschalk, a dentist, is hurrying to meet a patient when the snow begins to fall. Faber so hates staring into people’s mouths all day that he’s developed a habit of evading whatever reality presents itself to him, and so he hardly notices the snow. The next morning, the entire city can’t help seeing what the snow has done: formed strange designs, some of which are “very human”; moreover, the snow has turned hard as rock and refuses to melt. The papers are full of photographs of snow sculptures that immediately transform the city: “The stillness which comes with any great snow […] seemed to have entered into the very being of the citizens.”

Like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, these otherworldly works of art reorient and change all who encounter them. When the mayor promises to remove the snow sculptures, the citizens rise up as one in protest: “Ministers of the various organized religions rewrote their sermons […] adopting the view that the curious snowfall might be regarded as a literary allegory.” Sure enough, the sight of the sculptures compels Faber to revisit his major life choices, including the recognition that he’d never be a great athlete and would have to settle for spectatorship: “To be truly a spectator […] is a great deal, for it involves the most intense partisanship, a life of the emotions which is at the mercy of success and defeat every day.” This is a posture that Schwartz, the writer and lover of art, knew well — as, of course, did the story’s dedicatee, Meyer Schapiro; indeed, the story can also be read as a sly, comic allegory about the travails of criticism and connoisseurship.

For a week, nature’s mysterious artwork makes spectators of the entire city. Every borough exults in the variety of statues gracing its neighborhoods. Even strikers on a picket line lose themselves in contemplation: “[A]n absorption which seemed to rise above the habits and acts of daily existence, but not to destroy them.” And isn’t this the sanction and blessing we hope for from art? Citizens are inspired to name the statues: “Caliban,” “Sestina,” “Shelley.” Their presence soon gives rise to theories of origin and meaning; the new art temporarily displaces all attention to the classics. But the boom seems ready to drop after one of the statues is deemed obscene. When a call goes out to dynamite the offending image, the good dentist Gottschalk rises to its defense, ultimately pleading that a new work of art often speaks a language the world is slow to learn: “Who knows what relationship they may not have to our lives? What natural or supernatural powers may not, through them, be signing to us?”

When at last a rain comes and washes away the snow sculptures, the world quickly returns to business as usual: a brutal murder is committed in Brooklyn; a 17-year-old boy disappears, only to be found weeks later in Iceland; and as for Faber Gottschalk … But, for a brief while, all was still as the world stood rapt in the ecstasy that is art.

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Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI. A book of stories, The Man Who Would Not Bow, will be appear from Grand Iota in October.