Photo by Kate Bernheimer
I read Brent Hendricks memoir A Long Day At the End of the World on an airplane ride, flying from the desert where I live to the swamp where I was born. And this liminal space was a fitting and somewhat eery space for musings on death and life; on the disintegration of expectations, relationships, bodies; on the apocalypse. My friend and writer Frankie Rollins once talked about how driven we are as humans to stories and to story our existence. “Look at all the post-apocalyptic novels and films,” she said. “We can’t even imagine the ending without more story.” And when we are through with these stories, we return to ones of creation. The big questions like that of our own mortality, as individuals and as a collective, jar us into story-making. I think what I appreciate most about Brent’s book is its meditative quality, returning and returning to unanswerable questions and events to try to make sense of them, to hold them to the light in an attempt at understanding. Please enjoy his interview below.
1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:
At some point in college, I think after reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoier, I decided I’d look up every word I came across that I didn’t know. This meant lugging around a dictionary in my book bag or paging through one of those giant dictionaries propped up at the library in the old days. After a while, because it took some commitment, there was a degree of ritual to the gesture and the dictionary became a kind of sacred text for me. A monkish act, in the only way I knew how.
2. What is your current favorite word?
Dark, because it feels so ancient and old-school Anglo-Saxon. You know there’s that Auden poem, “The Wanderer,” where he explicitly employs pre-Norman invasion words to create that weird (as in “fated”) Dark Age effect: “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.” Doom’s a pretty good one, too, come to think of it.
3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?
Dingle, of course, because if not connected to “sea-dingle” I automatically think of dingleberry. I doubt I’m alone in this irritation. The compound word is an Americanism that, in single conflation, reveals the essential difference between the two cultures.
4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?
Well, “berry” was one of then. Remember that terrific Robert Hass poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” ending with “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”? “Berry” is also of Old English derivation and, at the risk of revealing too much, I’d have to say I used to love eating blueberries and blackberries. However, those innocent days are all but past due to the above corruption.
5. I have been reading your new book A Long Day at the End of the World: A Story of Desecration and Revelation in the Deep South. I remember talking to you about this book at a party at the side of a pool a few years ago when it was still in draft form and many of questions and ideas you expressed then reverberate through the book now: particularly the “whys” of death and life and our attempts as humans to reconcile our own deaths and the life and death of our world. I think we all have stories from our lives we need to write our way into and out of. What was at the root of your need to write this particular story?
Money, first, which I wanted more of. And second, fame, which I also callously desired. I’m really much more famous than I used to be. Third, though obviously an ancillary cause, I truly felt the gothic nature of the Tri-State Crematory Incident — the largest mass desecration in modern American history — deserved some storyline expansion, particularly as my father’s body was one of those left abandoned at the crematory site for five long years. There were bodies piled up in pits, bodies stuffed into metal vaults, bodies scattered through thick brush of a North Georgia crematory — blackly fantastic, all of it. And fourth, less overtly significant than the first three, I was demonically captured by Giorgio Agamben’s take on Walter Benjamin’s take on Saint Paul’s take on messianic time, or “now-time,” or “the time of the now.” My thralldom, if that’s what you call it, led me to believe I could project, contemporaneously, many different histories unto the present. That I could bring past events forward onto the page. It’s a method really, a dark one, forcing me to cast onto my otherwise expiatory road trip (a terrific and rarely used narrative device) such unrelated and “shoehorned” events as the conquistador Hernando de Soto’s rampage through the South, the civil war and civil rights, environmental degradation and its consequences, the Book of Revelation, and some other botanical stuff about flowers. The causes, then, are many, involving most of the deadly sins and my own demonic possession. It’s really quite disturbing.
6. Could you define “desecration” and “revelation”?
In ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament, “apocalypse” means “revelation.” In this context, for me at least, a revelation reaches far beyond the realm of personal insight so as to suffuse a moment of “now time” with the fullest of possibility, while intimating, in relation to the horizon of that moment, some inevitable end-point. Usually happens if I have a second cup of coffee.
Desecration is just everything else — all the non-illuminating instances that exist outside the glow of that second cup of coffee.
7. Please respond to the following words* and definitions, picked exclusively at random for you:
hole (hōl), n. [ME.; AS. hol. orig. neut. Of holh, adj. hollow; hence akin to G. hohl, hollow; IE. base *qaul-, *qul-, hollow, hollowed thing, as also in L. caulis, stalk, cabbage (cf. COLE, CAULIFLOWER], 1. a hollow or hollowed-out place; cavity; specifically a) an excavation; pit: as, he dug a hole in the ground. b) a small bay or inlet; cove: often in place names. c) a poor or deep, relatively wide place in a stream: as, a swimming hole. d) an animal’s burrow or lair; den; hence 2. a small dingy, squalid place; any dirty, badly lighted room, house, etc. 3. a prison cell. 4. a) an opening in or through anything; break; gap; as, a hole in the wall. b) a tear or rent, as in a garment. 5. a flaw; fault; blemish; defect: as, we found holes in his argument. 6. [Colloq.], an embarrassing situation or position; predicament. 7. in golf, a) a small, round hollow palce into which the ball is to be hit. b) the tee, fairway, greens, etc. leading ot this: as, 18 holes of golf. v.t. [HOLED ( ), HOLING], 1. to make a hole or holes in. 2. to put, hit, or drive into a hole. 3. to create by making a hole: as, they holed a tunnel through the mountain.
Following the medieval practice of sortes biblicae — in which a person with a question randomly opens the Bible to seek God’s answer — I’ll do my best to seek guidance in these similarly plucked words. I’ll therefore use these offerings to assist with my primary existential question: Should I actually dig a hole in the backyard and climb in it? I wonder about this a lot. I am not kidding.
ha·bit (ˈhabit), n. [ME.; OFr.; L. habitus, condition, appearance, dress; pp. of habere, to have, hold], 1. costume; dress. 2. a particular costume showing rank, status, etc.; specifically, a) a distinctive religious costume; as, a monk’s habit. b) a costume worn for certain occasions: as, a woman’s riding habit. 3. habitual or characteristic condition of mind or body; disposition; as, a man of healthy habit. 4. a thing done often and hence, usually, done easily; practice, custom, act that is acquired and has become automatic; hence, 5. a tendency to perform a certain action or behave in a certain way; usual way of doing: as, he does it out of habit. 6. an addiction: as, the alcohol habit. 7. in biology, the tendency of a plant or animal to grow in a certain way; characteristic growth; as, a twining habit. v.t. 1. to put a habit on; dress; clothe. 2. [Archaic], to inhabit.
Okay, so I will dig a hole in my backyard and climb in it — because, over time and with practice, the act might be “done easily” and even lead to a certain “tendency” in the ground, “as, a twining habit.” This “twining” sounds like something pretty revelatory, too, as long at can still happen to an animate object.
ten·der·foot (ˈtendərˌfo͝ot), n. 1. a person who tends, or has charge of, something. 2. a small ship for supplying a large one. 3. a boat for carrying passengers, etc. to or from a large ship close to shore. 4. a railroad car carrying coal and water for a steam locomotive, to the rear of which it is attached.
Okay, now I’m totally confused as to the dictionary god’s will, because I thought a tenderfoot was a “novice” or “greenhorn.” Is God (or the dictionary god) telling me that I’m a greenhorn at interpreting signs and divine wishes. Are the heavens mad at me? I guess I’ll just stand out in the backyard for a while, shovel in hand, and try to think it all through.
Jute (jo͞ot), n. [AS, Iote, Yte: L. Iuta], a member of any of several Germanic tribes that lived long ago in Jutland: Jutes invading southeastern England in the 5th century A.D. spearheaded the Anglo-Saxon conquest.
Okay, back on track, right? Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — in naming the third Germanic peoples who originally invaded England and so helped to create all those Old English words in the first place, I think we have a winner. I should definitely dig that hole and lie in it. That’s exactly what a Jute would do.
Philemon (fəˈlēmən), [L.; Gr. Philemon, lit., affectionate], a masculine name. n. 1. the Epistle to Philemon, a book in the New Testament which was a message from the Apostle Paul to his convert Philemon: abbreviated Phil. 2. in Greek mythology, an old man who, with his wife, Baucis, shared what little he had with the disguised Zeus and Hermes.
Wait a second. What is Saint Paul (by way of the dictionary god) trying to tell me here … that I should free the slaves within me? Maybe he’s saying it doesn’t matter what I do. Dig or not dig. Lie or not lie. According to Paul — am I being directed to this? — the messianic vocation is to seek the revocation of every vocation (1 Cor 7:29-32) (Agamben, The Time That Remains), with my vocation being to wonder continually about my particular existential question. Forget about it, Paul seems to be saying. Remember there’s not much time left, which may or may not be self-evident, and which may or may not necessitate climbing in a hole. After all, and like always, there’s only the time that remains.
Brent Hendricks is the author of A Long Day at the End of the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013).
*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition, copyright 1955