Our boredom, like our zest, can only be as great as our lives
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“The Twelve Images of Sorrow are: the autumn moon behind three black branches, a mirror when it does not reflect a face, a single white plum-petal hanging from a bough, the eyes of a beautiful lady at dusk, a garden in summer rain, frosty breath on an autumn night, an old man gazing at a river, a faded fan, a dead sparrow in the snow, a lover leaving his mistress at dawn, an old abandoned hourglass, the black form of the wild duck against the red setting sun. These are the sorrows known to all men, but there is a sorrow that is only of Cathay. Our sorrow is the sorrow hidden in the depths of rich, deep-blue summer afternoons, the sorrow of sunshine on the blossoming plum tree, the sorrow that lies like a faint purple shadow in the iris of a beautiful, laughing girl.”
— From “Cathay” by Steven Millhauser
Editor’s Note — Aimee Bender:
The story first strikes with its beauty. When I read it for the first time (small spoiler alert), I was enraptured by those painted eyelids. First, the delicacy of the image, and then the perfect progression to the more private canvas of the areola. From one level of elegant seduction to another. And maybe that’s a microcosm of the story’s skillfulness right there — these mini-paintings appear to be just image, just beauty, but a subtle movement takes place and storytelling kicks in. Something shifts when a careful blink across a room leads to the discovery one lover makes of another when clothes come off in a secluded chamber.
And when the Emperor walks those Corridors of Insomnia, corridors “so long that a man galloping on horseback would fail to reach the end of either in the space of a night,” it’s so stunningly exact in its mystery. Millhauser nails down something elusive about what it’s like to be awake all night, as the whole story nails down something fleeting about who we are, and how we live. We need our metaphors to survive, he reminds us, and perhaps we can find our way to transcendence through artifice. These questions seem ever more relevant in our current world, thirty years after the story was published, which happened before internet, and virtual realities, and the big birth of our computer selves.
This is a story that uplifts, and saddens, and bewilders, and shimmers.
Nothing quite like it.
About Recommended Reading:
Great authors inspire us. But what about the stories that inspire them? Recommended Reading, a magazine by Electric Literature, publishes one story a week, each chosen by today’s best authors or editors.
— Lucy Goss is an intern for Electric Literature. She majors in English at Cornell University. You can follow her here.