The World Coming at Us Backward

By Richard KearneyMay 17, 2017

The World Coming at Us Backward

The Needle’s Eye by Fanny Howe

FANNY HOWE’S THE NEEDLE’S EYE is a crossing of her best prose writing with her most mystical verse. It is a strange witch’s brew of multiple styles and voices, all in the service of a kind of mercy that is hard to come by. On one page, you will find a tale of wonder, on another, one of horror. The author mixes legends of the Muslim Tamerlane and Christian Saint Francis of the 12th and 13th century with contemporary figures from Boston or the Bowery. There are lyrical musings on the lives of Brigid of Murroe and Clare of Assisi and meditations on the Boston Marathon bombers whose family went mad together.

The scenes of this slim and alluring volume — her 31st — unfold like a film shot in black and white and shown backward. Howe proposes that the past comes to meet us from the future in a sort of ana-chronology: memory conflates with imagination as real and fictive characters entwine arms and legs, lovers in a darkened cinema. Movie time is the key to this maze of overlapping flashbacks.

Unsurprisingly, Fanny Howe is a film buff, and her book teems with allusions to her favorite filmmakers: Pasolini, Rossellini, and Uzbek director Ali Kharmaev, with whose film, Man Follows Bird, her story begins. The logic of the narratives is essentially filmic. The author, at one point, confesses how through the years she has sheltered in cinemas, leading to the discovery that films are similar to hallucinations; physiologically, they are the same experience. We are deep down, she writes, “inversions,” seeing the world as if in a mirror, backward, coming at us. Movies can be better than life providing us with a story told in retrospect, and in safety, composed by directors, actors, and editors, “from multiple directions, but always finally from the eye at the end.”

Filmic images subvert the chronological logic of existence as a progressive march forward. “They enter from all sides of the screen and move sideways like a boat leaving harbor.” Human existence, Howe suggests, is reflected in the logic of a film with slippages from left to right, punctuated by invisible gaps between each frame of celluloid. Some of these may be the scenes that outlive us, save us. Are we the resurrected? “We see everything backwards, even when we project archetypal postures onto moving pictures.” The chronic is redeemed by the ana-chronic.

The prefix ana- means “back, up, again, in time and space,” which makes Howe an anatheist. Her holy ones — Francis, Brigid, Clare, Simone Weil, Michel de Certeau — are those who brush history against the grain and arrive too early or too late. They are mystics who wager and waver between dark nights and daily epiphanies. Those who let go and come back again in ever different shapes and sizes. In the final section of the book, “The Child’s Child” — a fragmented, floating narrative based loosely on the life of Brigid of Murroe, but who is not named — the author offers this anatheist credo:

God kept dying and rising again, just as the sun does. God died on a stick with sunset colors trapped in its bark, and on the fields of Europe and Asia, Africa and Georgia. The wine of God became a sacrament that lasted for centuries. It was dye, a hen’s feather, and the hair of a brown donkey. God was a body made of matter in space and on earth. It burnt its own light like a camera and floated on a Hindu ghat.

In Howe’s world, God is a someone who does unselfish things, as impersonal as an animal. Which is why Howe’s world — like Francis and Clare’s — is full of animals. The anatheist poet is someone who takes nothing for granted, who perpetually wonders that what is is: “I have to say I never got over my shock that there is a world and it is living.” Howe’s anatheism involves a constant wager between faith and non-faith, divinity and humanity, hospitality and hostility. When it comes to gods and mortals, we are forever wondering which is which: “We say the gods died. But what if we are the ones who died and this narrative is only repeating our dying, our rising, and our shame?” Howe’s spirituality permits no cheap grace. Her experimental tales, mixing poetry and prose, offer little miracles of meaning growing from the darkest detritus of our planet. If there are epiphanies here, they are matches struck in the dark, wonders shining through wounds, intimacies of the banal.

The micro-narratives that make up this volume are tacitly guided by what Howe calls the “eye at the end,” the hidden camera obscura or blind spot from which the scattered tales are illuminated. But Howe knows that not all visions are holy. The ravings of the “possessed nuns” of Loudun, and many other “false spectacles” and “delusions” pepper these stories. And like her soul mate, Michel de Certeau, Howe does not shy from the risk of dark optics. Between ancient underground frescoes — “the first cinema out of nowhere” — to downtown malls, there is a twilight dance between divination and dementia. Just as there is a thin line, she startlingly suggests, between Saint Francis and the young bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Either could go either way. And did. One to impossible love, the other to impossible hate. Howe tells both tales, showing how the “turning points” are primal and topical, as true today as yesterday. “[T]he test of whether [visions] are signs of madness or grace is the behavior, afterward, of she the person who reports on her experience.” Or as she wrote elsewhere, “only through debasement and terror did mercy shine.”

To take another of her examples: When we behold a phenomenon like the Brocken Specter — where certain high mountains show the magnified form of a person woven into mists — some see a Trinitarian halo, others a monstrous ghoul. It is a matter of witness and perception. There is a contingency to history, as Howe reads it, where possibility and reality cross and great changes can happen, or not. One such instance, which especially interests Howe, was Francis of Assisi’s visit to Sultan al Kamil in Egypt during the bloody Fifth Crusade. The year was 1219 and the Christian monk stayed six months in the camp of Western Europe’s most-maligned Muslim adversary. They ate and drank together, conversing on Christian and Sufi scriptures, the wagers of war and peace. Everything seemed possible. But the mission failed and Francis went home.

There is always method in Howe’s madness. Her seemingly random ruminations are rigorously threaded throughout, guided by thinkers like Weil, Eckhart, Arendt, and Agamben. Just as her mystical musings are mapped by poets like Hölderlin, Poe, Blake, and Oppen. Howe is not alone. There are many voices, literary and historical. And if her aesthetic is indeed that of the fragmentary, it is never without the centering eye beneath the eye, the deep vision that sees behind seeing. This is not a difficult book to read, but a strong one, fatally steeped in the real.


Richard Kearney is a philosopher who teaches at Boston College.

LARB Contributor

Richard Kearney holds the Charles Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College and is author of many books on European philosophy and Irish culture, including Postnationalist Ireland, Transitions: Narratives in Irish Culture and Navigations: Collected Irish Essays (1977-2007). He is also a novelist and poet.


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