Violet Hair: A Heideggerian Tragedy by William T. Vollmann

BOMB 27 Spring 1989
027 Spring 1989

A Heideggerian Tragedy

“… the reader will find a totally new table of Martyrdoms, in alphabetical order, so that pictures of saints undergoing torture, or being executed, may be immediately understood …”

Major Arthur de Bles, in the Foreword to How to Distinguish the Saints in Art by Their CostumesSymbols and Attributes (1925)New York: Art Culture Publications.


Saint Catherine of Siena

They say she was broken on spiked wheels, and then, since she remained miraculously alive, they decapitated her with an axe. When I see her in the paintings, studying at her Book of Devotions with such sweet concentration, it is hard for me to understand why anybody would have wanted to interrupt her. Of course I cannot ask her; nor can I ask her persecutors, since they died in the desert long ago and thorns have grown up on their graves. Therefore I have chosen to record the tale of Catherine O’Day, who is also a martyr; and if I fail to achieve my purpose may God have mercy upon my soul.


Saint Catherine of San Diego

Catherine had violet hair. The sun wanted to tell Catherine something golden, but since she had such violet hair she could not hear any other color even in the might of summer when dark green tree-shadows cooled the emerald grass, and other women wore white summer dresses because they knew the meaning of summer which even the dogs knew in their tongue-lolling ambles and waggy-tailed sprints which made music with the clinking of their identification tags like ice in cocktail glasses, and everyone else under the sun was caught in summer immensities which made their morning shadows strong and faithful as the shadows ran at their heels and swerved through enormous angles unimpeded by houses or walls or the scorching gleam of silver mica stars in the sidewalks, because summertime is above all immunity from pain. Summer was in the Berkeley T-shirts with clouds and colored music-notes on them, and it was in the tanned milky-smooth faces of the lovers skipping down the sidewalk hand in hand, and summer could be perceived (in its deficient mode of Being)For a glossary of Heideggerian antifications see page 000. in the prances of the gawky freckled girls who wore shorts and had big round glasses that made them resemble summer owls trying to be happy and forgetting the cruel needs of moonlit nights when they had to swoop down onto desperate mice and bear them high and devour them in their horrible beaks while watching them with their big expressionless eyes, which were painted on their feather-masked faces out of the same evil trickery that makes cosmic rays shoot across the sun’s face like the bars of a visor so that summer is dimmed and confused by entities which want to keep the sun’s true nature hidden—except to the Elect, which included Catherine, and that was why the sun was trying to reach out to her, but Catherine would have none of it because she was not a summer person. Summer people did not know that pretty soon they would turn their backs on everything that they now thought was so important. It was not that they were hypocritical; it was simply that someday summer would be over. Meanwhile the new Berkeley students streamed across the concrete, offering each other string cheese, turning their class schedules round and round in their hands, saying “Okay okay okay,” and the freshman boys told the freshman girls how primordially they needed them at their parties, and the freshmen girls said they would see what they could do, and Asian girls sat cliquishly on the steps, tapping the toes of their silver shoes, and Catherine in San Diego lay on the bed reading Heidegger as she had been doing for almost seven years.


Her Earthly Unearthliness

Much of her life, Catherine had been reading, sometimes taking her book to visit me in Heaven where it is cold and foggy and she must lie on the couch wrapped in a thick Canadian-Indian sweater and a reindeer skin. Sometimes she rested her temple against two fingers and stared straight ahead at her book or manuscript with the same strenuous fixation of gaze as a competition shooter; in truth her thought traveled like bullets along the violet beams of her gaze, exploding every concept she met into a plasma of minute distinctions, and her silky hair seemed to be three different colors of violet. The strands of Catherine’s violet hair lived together in beautiful braids or beautiful tangles, as Catherine dictated, and they visited each other when the wind blew; and although her lips were pinkly lovely, like the customary pink-streaked rose-petals to which so many other describers of lips have rightly resorted, her hair was even holier than her lips, being violet, since violet light will cause potassium metal to fling its electrons out in worshipful offerings, which no amount of red light can ever do. (Violet has the highest frequency in the visible spectrum.) Catherine’s hair was a violet meadow that laughed at the rigid violet bars of mercury’s and cadmium’s emission spectra; in this violet place Catherine’s spirit waved like a searing wind which made hearts ache. Her hair was almost translucent in the sunlight. It was persistent and inescapable.


The Boundaries of the Catherine-Horizon

It is known that holiness is localized. Thus, a weaker ectoplasmic field is reported to exist on automated ranches, whose green alfalfa-beds are enlightened only by the random rainbow dews of sprinklers, than in desert ghost towns where tall thin phantoms hoot in chimneys like apes of justice, laboriously attempting to imitate their mentors and masters, the summer owls of whom I have already spoken, and although they scarcely possess the resonance of flesh, which would be of value to them in achieving their dark-livered endeavors (actually they do not have livers either), their reedy efforts are indulgently applauded by the owls in feathery wing-beats; thus encouraged, fat ghosts now roll tumbleweeds back and forth on Main Street with translucent smiles of vacuous delight; if the owls are amused then they will clap their claws together in mid-air with the savage elegance of clashing antlers, in the process, perhaps, letting slip some squeaking dying rodent-ball whose bloody dews the ghosts can inhale, but since this happens no more than every hundred years, if at all, it is fortunate for these freeze-dried souls that they have no tibial collateral ligaments to shrink or spasm, and can therefore flex their shimmering knees all night in the pursuit of their summer sport, vainly hoping to incite the owls’ beaked praise. The truth is that they cannot propel a real thing a single inch, nor could ten thousand ghosts united (be happy that you are not yet a ghost!); it is only wind that blows the tumbleweeds about, whistling through their weed-bones while the stagnant ghosts swirl in the night-dust behind, indefatigably pretending to push them, not only to propitiate the owls, but also to keep from considering themselves even more superannuated than they already do when, knowing the outcome and hence snarling in such despair that they expose their clacking teeth, which resemble those icicle-like fangs of the deep sea-fishes, these revenants lay their heads upon each other’s breasts and listen for a heartbeat, as is customary at the termination of a deathbed scene; if even one soul were to have within his chest the pulpy mechanism which emits those dull and bloody thuds, they would be soothed, just as a puppy taken from his mother will stop whimpering when a loudly ticking clock is placed against his belly; but of course the ghosts hear nothing and furiously rake each other’s non-existent chests with their non-existent fingernails, and then, afraid of the owls, return with increased anxiety to their delusional project of the tumbleweeds; meanwhile, more mathematically-minded sprites play “Musical Chairs” between the tombstones, trying once and for all to solve the problem which eluded Leibniz: how do you put ten bodies in nine graves while adhering to that monodist doctrine of one body, one grave?—for they want privacy when they rest their cool cheeks against the cool cheek of the earth; and meanwhile young ghosts creak doors beautifully, ingeniously, as they are expected to do. Thus every spirit does its part—But turn your back and walk over the dunes for two dozen steps, and the night is depopulated.

So the holy presence of Catherine could be felt only from Tijuana, half an hour south of her, to Mount Shasta, 13 hours north of her. This point having been clarified like ectoplasmic butter, we will now enter the Catherine-horizon and begin the story.


A State of Grace

I am the Holy Ghost. As I descended from Heaven, I presently reached that violet-black sea of storm-tossed mortality, and at the bottom of the ocean was a little blue bubble, and I shrank my form into a discrete particularity in order to make myself available to the people there on a one-to-one basis, believing as I did in the religion of good manners, the trajectories of which are usually as carelessly plotted as those of champagne corks. As I continued to fall, the ontic world loomed bigger and bigger. It sparkled with cities and airplanes and fireflies. Presently it took up my entire field of view, and continued to enlarge, the horizon becoming less and less curved until at last it was the standard Being-horizon in its average every-nightness that we experience in our freeway relatedness, speeding southward toward Catherine in San Diego (or rather, to be more concrete, Solana Beach); and the smoggy moon got bigger and bigger every hour until it was like a beautiful yellow ball of super-processed glow-in-the-dark cheese. The air pollution smelled like coconut macaroons. The following morning, continuing south through Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seal Beach, Leisure World and other points upon this continuum, I found that the smell was like smoke, rusty metal, asphalt, and rotten eggs, in that order. This part of southern California was defined by its four-lane gas stations, its speeding blondes, and above all by its grey-white sky through which the desert mountains were hardly visible. Once I completed my journey through those low sea-passes, Catherine was attained.



Half an hour south of Catherine, in Tijuana, Beelzebub (whom we will see again) was buying a stiletto.—“How much?” he said.—“Twelve dollars.” said the man gently.—“How about ten?” said Beelzebub.—The man spread his hands sadly. “Okay,” he said. “I wrap it up for you.”


My Materialization

“I actually have this peculiar feeling that something in the air is trying to talk to me,” Catherine said.

“I’ve never been afraid of spirits, but I know that potentially you can be,” said her sister Stephanie. “For American Indians, fear’s a big thing. But one finds that the spirits are usually very strong and guiding.”

“Well, let me see,” Catherine said, hiding her mouth behind her hair.

“What comes to mind is that I’m very skittish about spirits. Extremely.”

“In the Ghost Dance religion it’s almost universal that people resist,” explained Stephanie. “They don’t want to go in to where the spirit takes them. It’s often the Elders that convince them to open themselves. The skepticism and resistance are really a part of the process.”

Catherine didn’t say anything.

“When you close your eyes, what does it look like?” asked Stephanie.

“I immediately got an image,” Catherine retorted, “but I don’t know if it’s a good one. It could be improved. Well, for some reason I just see a face—well, let me try to get a second one and then I’ll describe them both.”—She was still for a time.—“Well, okay,” she said finally. “I have two images now, and they’re very different. The first one … I was hesitant because I had a feeling that it’s from some memory of some painting that I’ve seen, so it’s a little suspect … I just see a face, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this face somewhere. It’s yellowish. No, the hair is yellowish. Pale yellow. Long face, long hair, sort of high cheekbones with …” She paused to think again. “Large features. Let’s see. I wouldn’t say … Sort of sad and somber. Okay, that was the first image. But again, I think that came from a painting I saw once.—The second one was very different, and … young, handsome, smiling.” She laughed a little embarrassedly. “Sort of sensual, and colorfully dressed, very colorfully dressed.—But it’s difficult to concentrate.”

“Do you think they’re two approximations of the same thing?” said Stephanie interestedly.

“Of the same thing?” said Catherine. “I think one’s the true one, and one’s the false one. I think the true one is the second one.”

“Just because it came later, or because it’s happier?” Stephanie said.

“Because it’s happier.”

“My first image of myself,” I announced, “was this sort of green clammy thing, a bunch of vapors with these two black eye-holes full of greyish fog. I’m the Holy Ghost, you see. I’m kind of a sad thing, but I’m not an evil thing.”

“Mmm hmm,” said Catherine cautiously. She had already begun to withdraw from the conversation. There were days when she was very very tense.

“How about you, Stephanie?” I said. “How do you see me?”

“Well, you know,” she said, “from the first time I became aware of you, I always got a visual image, and it was the same one. It’s grey smoke, in a sort of thick column that ripples the way water ripples if you toss a pebble in a lake. So you’re this sort of ripply column of grey vapor that I can’t quite see through. In my peripheral vision I can see what’s behind you, but if I look at any one spot I just see opaque smoke. But it’s funny; sometimes your image fades out, and there’s just this black shreddy raggedy tophat and a black cane appears below and beside it, and it doesn’t occur to me why that happens.”

“Do you want to talk to me, or are you afraid of me?” I said.

“As I said, I’ve never been afraid of spirits,” said Stephanie. “I personally have never experienced that. You spirits have always been a lot more powerful than I am, but you’re stronger and guiding, and it’s always very light and uplifting.”

“How about you, Cathy?”

“Am I afraid of you? Well, let me see. What comes to mind is no, I’m not afraid. However, I know I’m still a bit skittish. But if you want to stay over for a few days and it’s all right with Stephanie, I would certainly love to have you.”


At the Dinner Table

“Well,” said Stephanie, “I don’t think Beelzebub is all negative, but he has his quirks. Cathy, you have such different friends, like night and day. The Holy Ghost, for instance, would never exploit you, but the Devil has always exploited you.”

“What do you think about all that, Catherine?” I said.

After a long silence, Catherine hung her head and said, “Well, I don’t think the Holy Ghost would exploit me.”

“Cathy and Beelzebub operate hand in glove,” said Stephanie to me brightly. “She really goes for it. There’s something so vulnerable inside her. Somewhere inside her there’s this passive, insecure creature.”

Catherine smiled tremulously, looking definitely the younger sister.

“Does the Holy Ghost know about Magog?” said Stephanie.

“Yes,” said Catherine.

“Does the Holy Ghost know about Beelzebub?” said Stephanie.

“No,” said Catherine, smiling and clenching her hands.


Authentic or Not?

Stephanie took the wishbone out of the duck. “Why don’t you two break it,” she said, “since you know each other so well.”

Catherine and I began to pull at the bone. I wished that Catherine would love me and that I would love her, so that we could go to Heaven together.—The wishbone snapped.

“I think you won,” Catherine said.

“I hope so,” I said.

Stephanie looked at the two halves. “Never have I seen a wishbone in two such equal halves,” she said, smiling at us.


What the TV Said

“You know, I still don’t believe this,” said the TV.


A Summer Night

That night it was too hot to sleep. Putting on my grave-clothes at 3:23, I crept past the open door of Catherine’s room and went out toward the beach. The moon was so bright that I could see for miles. As I walked along the sidewalks, I saw nobody except one long black car in the final block, and when the black car saw me it turned around very discreetly, so that I was alone. There was one house with its light on at the top of the Solana Vista stairs, but as I began to descend those steps it winked out its light, and as I approached the pale lavender ocean my worst fear was that there was Someone standing and looking at me from the top of the stairs, and that the Someone would presently come after me. But no one did. I sat on the deck of a lifeguard station to get my bearings. Above me, the California houses extruded their wide black roofs over the edge of the precipice.

It was low tide. Low waves crawled back and forth along the shallow beach. Directly below the moon (which was too bright to look at), each final wave-crest was gold, but the rest of the sea was featureless, excepting only those long hummocks that spanned it in regular monotonous parallels, like rolls of cloth. It was terrifying to walk upon the white white sand, especially where the cliff curved back into a sort of amphitheater, because the night was so bright that I, the Holy Ghost, could not hide.


Next Morning

“Cathy,” smiled Stephanie over morning coffee, “your horoscope says that a visit from fascinating friends will prove invaluable.”—But Catherine said nothing.


My Fundamental Being

My reason for seeing Catherine was to persuade her by my example to become a martyr so that she could live in Heaven with me forever and I would get her pregnant with spirit-children by immaculate conception and take her for long walks in the icicle-woods. It was my purpose to leap ahead of her in my solicitude (H. 122)I.e., Heidegger, first edition of Sein und Zeit (1931), See Glossary in order to help her authenticate her cares; thus I had materialized as a ghostly example of divine wonder; but she suspected me, perhaps rightly, of leaping in for her instead, so that she was displaced by whatever she needed to do, and no matter how well I did it for her by being perfect for her I could not be helping her.

The Cathedral of Saint Catherine

The curtains were always drawn in Catherine and Stephanie’s living room. They were printed with buttercups, bluebells, and red poppies; and where the daylight came in and superimposed its luminous window-squares upon the curtains, the flowers were lit as if they were lantern-slides. I sometimes wished that Catherine and I, instead of having to go to Heaven, could simply be flowers together in this illusory world. Ferns waved in the lower left hand quadrant of the screen door (the street door was generally left open in hopes of some factic breeze); next there was a wall of cool green leaves; and the upper half of the door was backed by high flowers—white flowers on the left tree, and full pink blossoms on the right. Catherine could probably see them from her bedroom window, but she never talked about them.—The living room was hot and dim and sleepily sloppy. Here no one died or came to life, even in the burning mornings when anyone could feel a thrilling quality in the sunlight, deriving from Mexico as did vanilla extract. The living room remained quiet. Its quiet was in fact a buffer against the profane world (remember that the boundary of the Catherine-horizon was not very far away)—after all, the ghost never gets you as soon as you open the door of the haunted house; he waits until you have come inside and looked around and shivered, and you mount the creaking stairs, nervously playing with your violet hair, and there are goosebumps between your shoulder blades and the proverbial chills run up your spine, for there is something rather unpleasant about being alone when it is cold and dark and suspecting that something is preparing to hurt you; and it is getting darker and colder the farther you go up the stairs (you are closer to Heaven; that is why); and the rotten banister begins to glow like long cold comb-teeth, and then suddenly the front door slams inexplicably behind you and you see the Holy Ghost smiling and shimmering like foxfire at the top of the stairs … For similar reasons, Catherine lurked cautiously in the house whenever possible, aware that someone or something wicked could always rush in from Mexico to destroy her in a harsh clap of sunlight. This did not prohibit her from going out in the sun, because Catherine was an exercise fiend and she supposed that she always would be; but when the sunlight was strongest she preferred to lie indoors. There was a Navajo rug on the floor, and a brown Tongan tapa print subdivided into squares, some of which were filled by intersecting lines, others bearing suns at their centers, stripes at the periphery; but the squares containing individual figures were always separated by squares of dense crisscross patterns, so that the tapa seemed to comprise all subspecies of everything, which of course it did, as I did.

The TV lorded it over us from its throne at the end of a reception hall formed on one side by Stephanie’s work table, which rose high against the window thanks to its stacks of notes and journals, and on the other side by a grinning piano. Seen from the floors, as the sisters saw it, this corridor seemed a monument to towering constriction, with the flower-curtains a sunny uncertain escape and the TV at the end of it, the one sure thing. Here every day Catherine and Stephanie spent an hour of their lives. Every afternoon, when the TV came on, barefoot Catherine leaned against the pillows, in her striped shirt and sweatpants, with her hair tucked back, and Stephanie lay on her side on the mattress, clutching her shoulders, two feet away from the loud bright screen. From this corridor, the TV’s revealed truths departed with the speed of sound. (Just as Mount Shasta is heralded first by manzanita and snowy cherry, so the discourses of the TV were announced by colors so effusive as to be almost fragrant.)—As for Catherine and Stephanie, those two had their innumerable secrets, which thrilled me because I could never know them any more than I could keep up with the TV’s astonishing reversals, so that their persons and characters seemed strangely and distantly colored, as if in some fresco from the 14th century. Occasionally the TV would let them in on some new ontic twist which they had never suspected. At such times Catherine sat very still, almost smiling, her dark eyes peering wide beneath her lovely curved brows.

They sometimes spent the day in their nightgowns, watching TV and discussing the new tax law and foreign aid and other comparative religions. They munched animal crackers and drank booze and cooked diet TV dinners and were happy.


What the TV Said

“You weren’t supposed to make me feel desperate, because you weren’t supposed to love me,” said the TV.

“Now, he’s said that before,” explained Stephanie, “but this time it might be a hint. I think he knows he’s going to die.”

“It’s conceivable, yes,” said Catherine skeptically.

“Our favorite character got killed,” sighed Stephanie.

“Yes, he did,” Catherine said. “At least when those things happen, they happen tranquilly.”

“You always hated me,” said the TV.

“Is that true, Catherine?” I asked.

Catherine didn’t answer for a moment. “Not completely,” she said, spreading her hands.



The not-yet of the sun setting cast a sinister shimmer over the steadiest heat of any average afternoon at Catherine’s house; this could have been concealed and tranquilized beyond the Catherine-horizon because north of Mount Shasta Catherine was already gone and was therefore merely present-at-hand with the leaden listlessness of her absence; but in Solana Beach, where I existed in relation to Catherine, the not-yet of darkness possessed its own horror, like the black pages of a black book slowly turning as burnt pages turn in the fire.


The Overheard-Being of Catherine

“I don’t think the Holy Ghost is very direct,” I heard Catherine say to her sister after supper when they both thought that my omnipotence had slipped.

“Somehow It can’t say what It thinks very directly, and I find that very oppressive. I would normally deal with that either by removing myself or by feeling angry, but because It’s come all the way over here I don’t feel like I have the whole range of feelings available—which I don’t appreciate.”

“I’m sorry you’re feeling upset,” said Stephanie.

“Well,” said Catherine, “it isn’t so good, but it isn’t that bad.”

“Because before, I couldn’t have felt anything that hurt this much,” said the TV.

“Well, that’s sound,” said Catherine.


Complications of the Second Night

At dinner, passing to refill her wine glass,“Nature has provided the female with an adequate storeroom in her liver,” says R. H. Smythe, M.R.C.V.S., The Female of the Species (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. 1960) (p. 62). “where she can accumulate fats, sugars, and vitamins, but before she can fill the storeroom, she, herself, will require extra food.” Catherine put her arm around me. But after dinner, she said, “Well, I’m going to go to bed early. What are you going to do? Are you going to stay up, or … ?” “Well,” I said, “what do you suggest?”—“I’m not suggesting anything,” she said.—“Well, I guess I had better go to bed,” I said.


Stephanie’s Morning Meditation

“I’m just waiting to get used to the kitchen,” Stephanie said. “Now that the refrigerator’s been moved, I have this feeling—which is probably erroneous—that the space has been changed in some way which is small but not insignificant.”

“I feel things now that I never used to feel before,” said the TV.


Another Meditation

“So what the reader is asked to do, after considering all the available clues, is merely to decide what the role of the female really is in the scheme of the Universe. It is simply a matter of deduction.

“I don’t know,” Catherine said. “Well, I think that’s mainly when you make a certain choice.”


How to Study Heidegger

Catherine lay on her bed, ankles crossed, white arms behind her neck, and her long hair hanging down. She seemed imprisoned in some summer reverie about whether sunlight is essentially present-at-hand because it is there in itself or whether it is ready-to-hand“Anyone may dream in the sunlight which is so ready-to-hand,” says Heidegger (H. 71). because Catherine discovered it and felt it on her through the window and related it to her on her bedspread; and meanwhile the morning and the afternoon passed in such pleasure that the sunlight itself, the proximal cause of Catherine’s pleasure, became subordinated to that pleasure, because Catherine had been existentially thrown into the sunlight and could take it for granted, so that for her it became present at hand simply by creating the climate for her to have this idle argument with herself; so the poor sunlight lost out. And Catherine’s summer mornings rushed into those summer afternoons, rushing, rushing into the violet as the earth turned away from the sun.

“The organization is there,” said Catherine to herself, “but it’s not something you want to schematize.”


Spirit Stuff

Meanwhile Stephanie transcribed her field notes and taped interviews. Through the open door of the study, I could hear her tape recorder telling me exactly what she had said.—“If all Indians were terminated, would you continue to dance?” asked taped Stephanie.—“Yeah,” the taped Indian said. “I would.”


What the TV Said

Catherine shut the door that afternoon when the soap opera came on, because, she said, she wanted to make the living room look like a movie house where nothing but the image was real. Coolly she settled herself against a mabel and lit a cigarette. She had spent all morning in a panic about Heidegger. (Partly it was that southern California always laid her low.)

“I’m going to ask you a question,” said the TV. “Will you be honest with me?”

Catherine looked round equivocally.

“I’ll have everything that used to be mine, and everything that’s still coming to me,” the TV warned her.

Catherine smiled and laughed, with her cigarette cocked at a 45-degree angle. Her head was cocked against her hair. She was wearing a stunning black top and red shorts. I wanted to kneel before her and kiss her knees, even though I knew that that would not be appropriate since she was only a saint and I was the Holy Ghost.

“Well,” said the TV, “once again you’ve allowed yourself to become seduced by the promise of feminine favors. When are you going to learn that your body is a temple?”

This was clearly directed at me, and I resented it, so that I turned away from the TV and looked Catherine full in the face.

“Well,” said the TV somberly, “I understand the temptation of the flesh all too well.”

Catherine raised her beautiful bare arms above her head. I patted her shoulder, and she peeked at me with an inquiring smile, as if she were gently perplexed that I had bothered her. The smoke of her cigarette blew horizontally past my face in bluish-white helices and corkscrews, like the ocean’s golden ovals translucently interleaving with each other upon the purple wave-billows of sunset—purple like her violet hair, which flowed around her sweet pink ears in motion no less real for its motionlessness, for the following eye saw that it moved; and her hair framed her head and shoulders like an arch inset in the top of an arch; and violet shone in her hair, which had lines of motion like mahogany-grain.

“I don’t care what either of you say,” announced the TV sourly. “I’m calling the shots, and I won’t take any chances.”


The Third Night

At that time I still believed that authenticity and fulfillment must be the same. When one’s circumstances and opportunities diminished, for instance, one’s upper limits of authenticity must diminish, too, for the sake of consistency. I advanced this thesis to Catherine, but she said, “Well, suppose that, um, an innocent girl marries a deceiver. And he takes her away with him and makes her very unhappy. That would be authentic for her at the time but it wouldn’t actually be fulfilling, would it?”—so I countered with a metaphor of a bowstring being drawn back infinitely, in infinite time, so that from moment to moment it was increasing in taut authenticity, but could it fulfill itself before the never-to-come moment of release?—Yes, by my definition it would have to, so I said to her that if an innocent girl married the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost really was a slimy ghosty sort of thing and not the man in bright colors that she had imagined, then the marriage would be not only authentic but also fulfilling, because I had defined it so, and I was the Holy Ghost and had unlimited powers at my discretion, so everything would work out, but Catherine only hung her head at the kitchen table while Stephanie’s black dog Jessica cried softly in the portion of hot night that had been allotted to the back yard, and there was an oval of white light beneath Catherine’s right eye and the bridge of her nose was illuminated with light.

“I’m not talking about that kind of love!” cried the TV.


Mount Shasta Again

“It’s so hot in here,” Catherine said.

“You can cool me off,” said Job, who paid most of the rent. “Just use your goddess powers to chill me.”

“Well,” said Catherine with nervous amiability, “think of icebergs, Job.”

“I’d rather think of mountains,” said Job. “Icebergs are too dessicated.”


Assessment of Holy Progress

In the morning I asked Catherine whether I was being good.—“Of course you are,” she said. She considered. “Although ghosts … well, they make their presence indirectly felt. So I would think, but then it’s hard to say what would motivate a ghost to do anything. They’re existing, but in an obsolete way, going on in a certain inertia.”

“Like a commuter,” I said to her.

“I think we’re all ghosts in our daily lives,” said Catherine tactfully. “At least we’re carried along.”


What the TV Said

“I don’t need help,” said the TV that afternoon, and at this Catherine lit up a cigarette, and a lovely violet-black corkscrew ringlet dangled below her ear.

“Well, I think it’s very sad that they separated the two of them,” said Stephanie.

“The last I saw,” Catherine explained to me, “she was at a plaque at this church and suddenly got dragged away by a Ghost in white high heels. Then these owls swooped down. You almost think that she may be … being written out.”—Catherine said this with real sadness.

“You could plead diminished capacity,” said Stephanie.

“Facticity’s going to get involved in her defense,” Catherine said, and she brought her ashtray beside her and stretched out in her red shorts and her striped shirt. “That’s why I wonder if they’re going to bring Guilt back today.”

“They have to,” said Stephanie in surprise. I mean, they haven’t killed him off.”

“Are you ready for that, sweetheart?” said the TV.


The Smile

After the soap opera, Catherine went back into her bedroom to work on Heidegger, and I sat in a rocking chair facing the blank green depths of the TV, watching the unmoving blade of the fan, the exercise bicycle, the quadrilateral of sunlight by the dining room table. Presently I heard Catherine talking in the shower to some unknown inner interlocutor, and then she returned to her room, and every quarter-hour I heard the soft sound of a page turning, and in the golden quadrilateral on the rug a tree’s shadow flickered, and I saw the young smooth oval of my face in the mirror, though my features seemed to be far underwater, and the aching feeling which I had in two perpendicular zones of my torso did not go away, and some object was now shifted in Catherine’s room, where she had one of my pictures on her wall and one of her second sister’s pictures wrapped up by the closet door; she had shown me the picture; it was of a man holding a woman’s likeness in his hand, staring at it; meanwhile children played across the street, and in another house someone was vacuuming, and it was almost cool inside the living room: the temperature was in fact very pleasant, and Stephanie’s file cabinet stood by the door in a rather supercilious stance, each drawer smiling a silver unenthusiastic smile with its handle, and looking at nothing through its cyclopean rectangle just above, where a label could be inserted; and just then I heard Catherine moving inside her room, and she want past me into the kitchen; she had put on blue trousers with white stars, and she stayed in the kitchen for a moment; and from the filing cabinet I got the idea of the smile. If I were to smile at her, a smile of love and friendship and reverence perfectly conceived, then that smile would eventually draw Catherine out of the kitchen and across the quadrilateral of sunlight, which had by now become a definite diamond, trapping one side of one leg of the china cabinet in its field; and Cathy would next walk across the carpet itself and then she would take her first step upon Stephanie’s Indian rug (upon which the exercise bicycle and the fan were standing), and she would cross the Indian rug’s white border, which was V-marked by black and some faded color; and then Catherine would step over two intermediate zones, and onto the central region of the rug, which was essentially a rectangle with a beak on the top and the bottom; and she would cross this zone, whose mere perimeter I have failed to satisfactorily describe, much less the patterns inside it; it is only a black box of finitude to me, whereas Catherine in her spiritual power would see the glorious and indescribable patterns within as they are, and not care about what they should be or whether they are good or bad; and she would be able to name every shape by its true Being-name which I do not know and could never keep straight, can barely even wonder at, as Catherine does not because she wonders at nothing and says nothing and thereby does not hurt the Forms which truth has woven for its own reasons, and we must make our own reasons which Catherine cannot communicate to anyone except in the most elusive terms, or maybe it just seems that she cannot communicate them because we have not read the Source Book carefully enough to understand her fine hesitations, her laughs and silences—yet sometimes she does speak in ways that I can understand, so then I think it must be that they are things which she does not choose to say.

Anyhow, my smile would bring Catherine closer and closer across the rug; that was my intention, and so I theorized, wanting them to believe in sympathetic magic. But I stopped smiling, I think now too soon, and dared to speak to her as she came out of the kitchen.

“Catherine, is there anything I can do to help you with your work?”

“Oh, not now but perhaps later,” she said, and I cannot even remember anymore whether or not she smiled.

An hour later she went to the kitchen again, but this time I did not dare to speak to her. What had been delicacy on my part was now timidity. And meanwhile the golden quadrilateral continued to narrow as it grew southward.

The Fourth Night

I had begun to suspect by now that Catherine did not want to become a martyr and go to Heaven, but I was too polite to say so. The issue of unredeemed suffering did, however, arise.

“It’s my belief,” Catherine began, laughing, “that you will not feel guilty over suffering which you encounter and over which you have no control, if you have learned by experience—by experience I mean, having given your all to compensate for the suffering over which you have no control. After you experience that for a long number of years, you realize that it’s an aspect of finitude.”

“Hmmm,” I said foggily. “I mean, what can you affect? What can’t you affect? I mean, if you can’t affect something—it has nothing to do with willingness to sacrifice—it becomes a different issue, and when it becomes a different issue, guilt is just an indulgence.”

“Would you sacrifice yourself if you thought it might bring about utility?” I pursued.

“Yes,” said Catherine.

“Would you?” I said.

Well, I think I’ve done that,” said Catherine angrily, “and I’ve seen it hasn’t brought about utility, and it frees me from feeling guilty.”

“What’s giving your all? Would giving your all be giving your life?”

“I think life is less than all,’’ said Catherine.



“What’s your all then?”

“It’s much worse,” said Catherine simply.


Friendly Advice

“If I wanted to lure someone into martyrdom,” said Stephanie at the table, “I would lie to them.”


The Long View

At night, clouds seen through an airplane window can be either black or white or violet, depending on whether or not Catherine is beneath them. Often, however, they shine sullenly even when they are violet; it is the cities seen through them which overpower Catherine’s presence. These moonlit battlements become more sullen still when seen from Heaven, because then we must deal with additional secret factors. But the violet emanations of Catherine’s hair still register on my celestial oscilloscopes.


What Heidegger Said

“There’s this quote from Heidegger: ‘You are what you do,’” said Catherine the next morning, “although I don’t think he wants to talk about explicit intentions.


What the Great Soviet Encyclopedia Said

“As a whole, Heidegger’s irrational philosophy is one of the acute manifestations of the crises of modern bourgeois social consciousness.”


What the TV Said

“Take off your clothes,” said the TV.

“That’s our least favorite character,” scolded Catherine.

“I’ve always been ashamed of you, too, daughter,” said the TV.

This stymied or neutralized poor Catherine for a moment, and the TV gathered up its irresistible blue rays, and chilly blue laughter gurgled out of it like a creek running down from the snowfields of Mount Shasta in the spring. “Well, now that we’re alone,” said the TV, “let me ask you that burning question. Did you sleep with her?”

Yes!” cried Stephanie.

“That’s it,” said the TV. “The one I want to take off you.”

“I told you it was racy,” said Catherine.

“And my breasts” said the TV.

Catherine inhaled cigarette smoke in a nervous laugh, jerking herself back and shaking her head.


The Fifth Night

“Do you idealize women?” Catherine said to me very softly.

“I try to,” I said.

She was like a gracious tree shading some clear pool in which her own reflection was almost unvaried, and she was perfect in every part, even to bearing her hard green fruit which sustained my ontological expectation by virtue of ontically disappointing me from moment to moment, never refreshing me, never decaying—and it was not until I had known Catherine for years that I realized that refreshment must always be vulgar; only in the not-yet which Catherine exemplified could I hope to give witness to a purity far less fragile than anyone who did not know her might have suspected, because her green fruit had a thick waxy rind which kept disease at a distance for years; it was as durable as if coated in polyurethane; thus her betrayals served not only to nourish the continual evasions which she required, but also as nervous stitches in the tapestry of a larger fidelity which she wove—not necessarily for me; it was completely incidental whether there were anyone in particular whom she wanted to be pure for (a flower does not care which bee pollinates her)—a tapestry depicting a birch tree with a trunk as slender as a girl’s waist, and fragrant white arms more slender still, growing upward in a rich fragrant ray, showered by its own green leaves between which, in a thousand tiny windows, the blue sky and white clouds changed, and the leaves changed and the tree grew taller and greener from summer to summer—but this was a Canadian birch which I once saw, existing beyond the Catherine-horizon, which rendered the image still more appropriate because Catherine alone existed by projecting herself beyond her own horizon of damaged violet hair (which would someday be grey), her demeanour of worn velvet,How did I feel about her growing old? To tell the truth, the thought of those high Seminole cheekbones becoming more prominent, skull-like; her violet hair going grey once and for all, her eyes becoming moist and weak, her skin ashen-grey as indeed it already was on her bad days—these things concerned me very little. It was chiefly the thought of her reduced mobility in her eventual grandmotherly state that chilled me. She would no longer be able to flee. But compensating for that would be her inevitable retreat into death or vacancy; thus there was some hope that her distance would always be maintained, so that my presence would never shatter the mirror of her perfection. none of which would ever matter because Catherine did not live where she was, not even being a birch tree, for instance, but a fruit tree whose fruit would never Be-there, making her wonderful in the mystery of what she was, so much more beautiful than a woman who kept her promises; the only danger, the point of entry for the termites of doom who must eventually destroy her sweet trunk, was that she made promises at all; even at the San Francisco Center for Perfect Enlightenment, where she had been a saint for 11 years, she would have had to promise things; if she lived on her own island or existed somehow in the violet sunset of outer space she would not have to make promises but then I imagine that Catherine would have gone mad; her perfumed sap would have become more and more acid-eaten through her from her heartwood to her rusty bark; so perhaps she was best as she was, although the severe requirement placed upon her of projecting herself beyond herself left her strained and weakened, particularly at night, when her eyes sometimes looked weak and hunted, while for longer and longer periods of time her hair gave up being violet at all and was simply black or reddish-gold as the light struck it, and Catherine put her hand to her throat and smiled in a rather forced way because any smile was as beyond as birch-fruit, which I have been looking for all my life but never saw, and that is why in photographs of Catherine’s smile it seems as if the corners of her mouth are continually trembling on the glossy paper and the smile is contracting, contracting, without actually getting any smaller; in one picture she was smiling with her head cocked and raised, her white hands clasped before her neck in a praying blur like the blur of her violet hair through which the green leaves behind her could be seen; and when I took this photograph and burned it the blue sky turned violet and then diminished behind an advancing border of black ash; and the flames next played among the foliage in such a living way that for the first time I could imagine a Tree of Flame growing higher and higher above the black cinder-plains, its trunk and branches black, its leaves orange and red and changeable, consuming itself and offering the ashes of itself as its fruit; so the flames lived among the leaves over Catherine’s head without seeming to hurt them, but then I looked at the leaves where the flames had been and there was nothing but black ash; and Catherine’s white face seemed to flush in the flames as if she were finally in love, and the flames came closer and closer to her; at last her violet hair took the first flame and her head was suddenly crowned with the flames but her face was still untouched, and then first flame reached her forehead; immediately the flames destroyed her eyes and nose, and only her smile was left unchanged but since its context had changed it did not seem to be a smile anymore but rather a grimace of unendurable hapless pain.—I did not tell Catherine any of this.


The Courtship of Catherine

Over dinner (steak, mushrooms, champagne, beer, and brandy) we discussed the afterlife. I maintained that there was no such thing, because I could not remember what had happened to me before I existed, and so had no reason to think that anything would happen to me after I stopped existing. (Of course I was being sly here, since, being the Holy Ghost, I knew that I would never stop existing.) Both Catherine and Stephanie (who sincerely loved Catherine) were both surprised at me. Pragmatic Catherine believed in some sort of continuity of vitality but not of self or memory—which struck me as no proper afterlife at all; and Stephanie believed in the unity of all things, which unity (so I construed her) must be like a pie composed of infinite slices of all dead, living, lost, and hypothetical particularities; because this was necessarily conceptualized timelessly, every possible thing would always be. (But what if Beelzebub ate a slice of the pie? Why should that ontological goodness just sit out on the stove forever to cool while the sun shone through the kitchen window and outside I ran endlessly in a sunny chasing game with Stephanie’s dog?)—Stephanie said that it was not like this at all. Unity was not a pie; she considered me a poseur who insisted on my little dichotomies, such as life versus death, when in fact everything was one. Because language necessarily expressed itself in particularities, it was impossible to talk usefully about what she meant. “Only when death is conceived in its full ontological essence,” said Heidegger (H. 248), “can we have any methodological assurance in even asking what may be after death; only then can we do so with meaning and justification. Whether such a question is a possible theoretical question at all will not be decided here. The this-worldly ontological Interpretation of death takes precedence” (sneered Heidegger) “over any ontical other-worldly speculation.”

Stephanie and Catherine had cooked dinner for me in their negligees; both of them were transparent dinner bundles of marvelous things, and now Catherine came and stood behind me and began rubbing my shoulders as I reached behind me to embrace her. She kissed my arm. Catherine stood behind me still, and Stephanie said she must be an angel whispering into my ear, and at this Catherine breathed very gently into my ear. She had never done that before.—“Cathy’s standing on your right,” said Stephanie, “that means she’s your good angel.”—She and Stephanie began to sing the song “Froggie Would A-Courting Go,” and they wanted me to make up some verses about Miss Mouse or Miss Bluejay or Froggie’s other women, but I did not want to because I was as shy as a ghost (“I think it would be upsetting to a ghost to have a person there,” said Catherine) and also because I wondered what if they really were frogs?, and Catherine began to play songs from her favorite old 1960s records, sitting very severely on the floor by the piano, smoking and drinking wine; and I put my arm around her; and she leaned against my shoulder (she had already said that she hoped she was not making a mistake); and then I kissed each of her fingers one by one, at which she laughed a little and kissed me on the lips, very quickly and very lightly, and I started kissing her until she pulled her head away; then I stroked her back while she sat there so seriously, changing the record after every song and leaning forward to read the lyrics on the covers, her features a little more sharpened than when I first knew her, at which I felt for her even more, and I lay beside her holding her small light hand, and she said nothing, so I kissed her knee, and played with her toe—“Catherine,” I said, “I’ll never do anything bad to you.”—“I’m depending on that,” she replied.—The songs were all in a major key; they were from that ancient time before Catherine had entered the Center for Perfect Enlightenment when everyone zapped each other with super-love, and mocha-chip octopi kissed raspberry octopi in the gardens beneath violet oceans, and every octopus was in love, and every tentacle could taste and supply its own peculiar pleasure; as to what happened to that loving Octopus’s Garden in the end, my friends, the answer is blowing in the wind.—Catherine’s hair trailed behind her like the violet trail of a meteor. I was undone by her hair. “If you want to describe an indescribable thing,” said Stephanie, “my avenue would be to feel the thing and then describe my experience of feelings,” so I felt Catherine’s hair and hid my face inside it and kissed it, drinking violet from it because no matter how much I drank there was always more, and I kissed Catherine’s face and nervous mouth. I gave her honey-kisses, sugar-kisses, fire-kisses, flame-kisses, bride-kisses, ghost-kisses, and other displays of ontology. Catherine was my violet summer. (To Beelzebub, watching from underneath the floor, the sight must have brought inexpressible grief; he cried hoarsely, and his tears fed the thirsty moles.) I kept hugging her, and occasionally she kissed me or stroked my arm, but mainly she just smoked and listened to her songs.—Earlier that day Catherine had said, “In the ready-to-hand Heidegger’s talking about behavior at a level you’re not aware of. When you reach for the pen, you’re not aware of reaching for the pen. What you’re thinking of is writing with it. Although in his prescriptive mode I think he thinks choice is very important.”—So now I found myself unaware of inclining my face toward Catherine’s lips; what I was thinking of was kissing her; her pale freckled face was always a fresh surprise for me.—Finally she said she would tuck me into bed. She turned down the corners of her bed for me. I started to close the door, but she said, “Don’t touch anything,” and so I didn’t, and she commanded, “Now, lie down,” and she said, “You’ll neverbe more comfortable than this,” and she patted the covers over me and said goodnight, but I asked her to sit with me, so she kissed me, but then I still would not let her go; poor Catherine was being possessed by a Spirit; she had to kiss me three more times.


A Heideggerian Glossary

*Authenticity*—Living rightly and appropriately. The Holy Ghost sees authenticity as fulfillment, whereas Catherine sees it as responsibility.

Being-towards-death—The orientation of Dasein towards its own finitude in time.

*Dasein*—Literally, “Being-there.” The human subject (you and me), defined in terms of its finitude, temporality, and thrownness into the World.

Das Man—The “They.” As a fish must swim through water, so Dasein must swim through the “They,” the ontic neighbors who tranquilize Dasein with idle talk on the porch on long summer evenings while Dasein drinks too much and forgets that it is primordially guilty and must die.

*Deficient*—A shabby mock-up of what you should be doing.

*Factic*—A fancy way for saying “factual”; or (factically) “in fact.”

*Hiddenness*—The natural state of an entity. Dasein must wrest (Heidegger’s word) things from their hiddenness in order to make them disclose themselves to Dasein’s understanding.

*Horizon*—The limiting compass of knowledge and vision.

Leaping-in-ahead—The authentic way of caring for someone. Showing a possibility, example or method which the other person can act upon. An example would be encouraging the other to become a martyr.

Leaping-in-for—The deficient version in which the Dasein who cares appropriates the other person’s way of Being. An example would be torturing the other to death to force her to be a martyr.

*Ontic*—Particular, specific, random. In Being and Time this adjective seems on occasion to be contemptuous.

*Ontological*—Universally inherent, which I sometimes interpret (as Heidegger would not) to mean divine.

Potentiality-for-Being—The various exits on the Dasein Freeway. You can put the cruise control on and just continue on, faktisch and praktisch, or else you can turn off at the Existential Hotel, the Existentiell Motel, or any of a variety of seedy ontic resorts, or end up on Deficient Drive, or you can despair of becoming authentic and project your potentiality-for-Being into space when you drive over a cliff and see the cold grey ocean coming up at you in your last towards-which …

Present-at-hand—The ontological state of an entity which merely is, without being foranything. An example would be the dead body that was once a Dasein.

Ready-to-hand—The ontological state of an entity which exists in relation to Dasein. An example would be a Mexican stiletto which Beelzebub is about to use.

*Relatedness*—One of Dasein’s most integral characteristics. Dasein does not exist as an isolated quantity, but as an entity in relation to the constellation of ontic flotsam and jetsam in the World.

*Thrownness*—The condition of finding oneself in a pre-existing ontic situation, the random elements of which (culture, topography, etc.) one has no control over.

Towards-which—The goal or direction for which something is ready-to-hand.

The World—The external Being and possibilities that Dasein encounters in its relatedness. I once read that the earth is so rich in roundworms that if everything else were taken away they could still form a ghostly outline of every mountain and steeple and skull. It is something like this roundwordm-portrait which Heidegger attempts to draw, subtracting every particularity to see what is left.


Excerpted from The Rainbow Stories by William T. Vollman, to be published by Atheneum Publishers, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Company in July 1989. All rights reserved.

William T. Vollman is the author of You Bright and Risen Angels and The Rainbow Stories from which this portion of “Violet Hair” is excerpted, both are published by Atheneum.

Donald Antrim by Thomas Bolt
Atrim 01 Body
Moment to Moment: Cameron Dezen Hammon Interviewed by Sarah Hepola
This Is My Body

The writer on her memoir about complications with the church, navigating romantic longing, and doing things on her terms.

Sarah Ruden by Eric Banks
Chan Paul 01 Bomb 134

Hippias Minor is such a handy introduction to Socrates as a personality, to this method of argumentation, to the culture of Athens where you have all these hot-shot foreign speakers like Hippias coming in and making the intellectual fermentation even stronger.”

Portfolio by Rita Sobral Campos

Frederik: A story in film, sculpture, and works on paper.

Originally published in

BOMB 27, Spring 1989

Salman Rushdie, Polly Apfelbaum, Dennis Cooper, James Nares, Penny Arcade, Mats, Alexander Kluge, Robert Greene, Nancy Shaver, Abbijane, Terry Kinney, Michael Tetherow, Bill Barrette, and Carmelo Pomodoro.

Read the issue
027 Spring 1989