Improvisational Session at Emory University


Friday, April 23, 2003, 1-4 pm.




Simon Kress

Elizabeth Milewicz

Brian Croxall

Carla Gober

Melissa Sexton

Ajaya Bhadra Khanal

Christopher Hays

Walter Reed

Mikhail Epstein


Topics Suggested:





spring (all meanings)

media as extensions of nerves

the underworld




Selected by Majority:



Duration of writing: 1 hour

Duration of entire session: 3 hours (1-4 pm.)


Texts (in the order of readings):



Found on the floor, near the refrigerated section


by Brian Croxall


I’m not sure how to say this:  “I’ve made some modifications to a resource”?  No, that doesn’t quite do it.  Too nebulous.  Too academic.  “You might notice something different in your lunch today”?  Well…that’s true.  But they’d probably think it was the lettuce.  I noticed it was wilted on my way through last night.  What makes them think anyone wants iceberg anyway?  Aren’t we beyond that now?  It’s kind of 1980s—you know, what you get on one half of the McDLT (“The hot stays hot and the cool stays cool”).  C’mon, we’re more conscious of our bodies today—we eat red and green leaf, Boston.  Spinach is a nice substitute.  Then there’s assorted greens, dandelion greens, argula.  A-ru-gu-la.  Hmm.  Is that something for a salad?  I don’t know.  Anyway, there’s sprouts and water cress.  Parsley.  Witlof.  Okay, I’m getting Whitmanesque: “I sing the salad electric!”  No more lists.  They’re distracting.  And probably not even funny.  So what was that for anyway?  Oh…right, iceberg lettuce.  No, I wouldn’t touch the stuff with a 10-foot Pole.  Not that I’ve ever seen a Wachowski that long before.  Not, it’s not your lettuce.  I don’t know, maybe this confessional thing is a bit too hard.  You’ll all figure it out eventually.  How?  Will there be something in the paper tomorrow?  Doubtful.  Will there be a spot on the news?  No.  I’ve taken care of that.  You’re getting tired of this, aren’t you?  Well, so it goes, as Vonnegut says.  No, no one will publish these tidings on the rooftops.  Where it’s really going to stick out like a sore thumb is at the gym.  The World of Coke, too.  At the neighborhood lemonade stand.  People will pause whatever it is they’re doing, shrug, … and?  Well, I’m not sure.  I mean what can you do?  Do you know it when you taste it?  Can you smell it?  Am I talking about iocaine powder?  (“It’s tasteless, has no odor, and dissolves instantly in liquid.”  Prince Humperdinck picks up the vial, sniffs: “Iocaine.  I’d bet my life on it.”)  No, that’d be too convenient.  This is the real world.  Here we have things that leave all too strong a trace.  Too much too young.  Anyway.  Sure, it will make people pause, but can you recognize that which you’ve never had before?  Like, say I blindfold you and feed you a dachshund?  Would you know it?  What if it was your dachshund?  Definitely not then.  So…yeah.  People might notice, but they probably won’t be able to say what’s in there.


What will this do to global stability?  Not much, I’m afraid.  I don’t know.  Maybe it will.  Maybe someone will notice they’re the same now.  Someone will set down their fix, try out the old source.  Maybe, but not likely.  How does one guy compete with multinational conglomerates?  Sure, Pynchon did it, but when’s the last time you saw him?  How can you stop crass, conspicuous consumption?  Literally consumption.  Why slap a label on “a celebration of what’s most natural about Florida”?  Doesn’t the labeling process de-naturalize it?  Maybe that’s why she always used to peel the labels off everything.  But does that help?  I mean, you’ve still got all that reverse osmosis in there.  And that bottle.  Can you believe they care about the shape enough to copyright it?  Well, not anymore.  Sure, the interaction with the plastic gives it that special something extra.  The bang for your buck.  Bang.  Buck.  Bang.  Buck.  No.  Nonsense, won’t help, you won’t believe me if I start saying stuff like “Ob-li-di, Ob-lah-dah.”  Well…I don’t care.  Life goes on…at least until now.


Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  How do I say it?  Do I call the grocery stores and say, “You might want to advise your customers…”?  No.  Who’d believe me?  No one, despite my credentials.  I’m utterly capable of doing what I’ve done.  The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.


If only you’d listened when I told you how ridiculous you look paying for it.  If only you’d…I don’t know.  No one cares if they’re a walking billboard, if what’s inside your skin continue to mark you as a consumer of deception.  All I’ve done is pushed the deception a little further.  It’s not just you being fooled.  It’s them too.


Huh.  This is something like the Unabomber’s rant.  There’s another Pole I wouldn’t mess with.  But I don’t care what you think.  Coke, Pepsi, Evian, Spa, Fiji.  None of them ever did either.  Well, we’re all together now.


No, it’s crazy but true.  Euphemism won’t change things.  Look, here’s the score: I unscrewed the lid.  I filled it up.  I put it back and did the next.  It’s the same stuff, isn’t it?  It’s got the same H and the same O.  In the same proportion.  But it’s not the same.  Finally.


It happened.  Right under their noses.  But can you come right out and say it?  Do you brag?  Why didn’t I think of this first? 


Anyway, here goes: “I poisoned the water supply.”




Justice Like Waters


by Christopher  Hays


“Let justice roll down like waters/ and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”

–Amos 5:24


Quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, this verse from the prophet Amos has become so well known that it may have lost its ability to function as a literary image and become pure meaning—pure social justice. I would like to point out that it is interesting as an image.

         It is part of Amos’ warning, written in the 8th century bce. It follows imagery of God’s judgment on the unrighteousness of Israel, those for whom religious propriety was more important than justice for the poor and oppressed. Previously, Amos has warned that those who have gotten wealth and houses unjustly will never enjoy them, because Yahweh’s wrath is coming in a day that is “darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it.” (5:20) It will be “as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear” (5:19), and “in all the squares there shall be wailing” (5:18).

         But the image of justice “like waters” is rather different, is it not? This is not lex talionis, “an eye for an eye”—Israel’s violence and injustice will not be answered with the same in this case.

         The image of waters may have its roots in the primordial watery chaos that predates Israelite literature and is found in ancient Mesopotamian myth, where the sea-god Tiamat is slain by Marduk and split to create the earth and the heavens. That image is reflected in the “formless void” of Genesis 1, in which God separates the waters to make room for the land, and for life. God’s threat through Amos is that he will cease to hold back the watery chaos so that it will again overwhelm the earth and its people.

         For an ancient Israelite, the image of a thorough dousing might have evoked the miqveh, or ceremonial bath that one took to pass from a state of impurity to a state of purity, often so that one could enter the temple, “in the presence of the Lord,” and participate in worship practices. Leviticus 19:2 reads: “You shall (or “should”) be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” So one way to think of this justice “like waters” is that it images the necessary cleansing for a sinful nation to be restored to God’s presence.

         When Judah[1] actually experienced God’s judgment (for so it was interpreted by the prophets) in the destruction of Jerusalem and the entry into exile in Babylon, they experienced the costly nature of this cleansing. The laments of the exiles are captured or reflected in various parts of the Hebrew Bible, including vividly in Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.” It seems, based on this and other passages that the exiled community actually lived by the river Chebar, in or near the ancient city.  The waters of God’s judgment became the waters of exile: the foreign river in a foreign country, where they asked, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4) Their tears, too, are waters of judgment.

         After fifty years of exile, the Judahites returned from exile to rebuild their city and their culture. The Psalms, many of which would have been written before the exile, continued to be used in the temple. The Psalter begins with a psalm that describes those who live within God’s blessings “like trees/ planted by streams of water.” Surely a statement like that never sounded quite the same to Israel once they had been washed in God’s waters of justice and lived by the waters of exile. Psalm 23 seems to reflect this experience of loss and return:

         “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want

                  He makes me lie down in green pastures;

         He leads me besides still waters (“waters of rest”),

                  He restores my soul (or “life”).

The life that was nearly washed away in judgment was restored in waters of restoration. Amos’ promise of water is therefore an evocative one; in the midst of judgment God holds out the promise of life. If we expect human kind of judgment, we may be astonished and ask, like John’s woman at the well, “Sir, where do you get that living water?”





  by Walter Reed



“Like a bridge over troubled water,/ I will lay me down.”  Thus the Simon and Garfunkel song you can still hear from time to time on the ‘oldies’ stations.  In the healing story in one of the gospels, we are told that a certain pool only had healing powers when an angel came down and troubled the waters.  I was listening recently to a spiritual based on that story, “The Lord Troubled the Waters.”  So besides the opposition between troubled waters and still waters (“He leadeth me beside the still waters,” the 23rd Psalmist says) there seems to be a distinction between troubled waters that bring trouble—division, separation, breaking and keeping apart—and troubled waters that bring healing.  (Although in the gospel story the man who needs healing gets it directly from Jesus; he doesn’t need to get carried down to the angelically turbo-charged pool by his friends.)


Are these simply random metaphors—figures of speech that may not even translate of out English--or is there some deeper (a dead water-metaphor!) meaning?  As Melville’s Ishmael, who identifies himself as an inveterate “water-gazer” says in that Great American Water Novel Moby-Dick, “Surely all these things are not without meaning.”  Maybe not as much ontological profundity as Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist claims in his book Water and Dreams (companion volume to The Psychoanalysis of Fire).  But the idea that water is one of four foundational elements, instead of a molecular combination of two of them from the Period Table that I last saw swimming before my eyes in the high-school chemistry class that inspired me to become a professional student of the humanities, is persistent.


“Like a bridge over troubled water(s)” might be taken as a description of metaphor itself—a metaphor for metaphor.  But is metaphor figured in the solid, reassuring bridge or the fluid and disturbed waters underneath?  The reversibility of figure and ground.  “Put your hand in the hand of the man who walked the water,/ Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the sea.”  (I may be improving on James Taylor’s lyrics here, back-filling, as biblical scholars call it.)  What is the trouble with water?  That we are so dependent on it (though lack of air will do us in much quicker than lack of water)?  That it constitutes so much of us (ninety-something percent of our bodies, if I’m remembering those Amazing Science Facts correctly)?  Or that it keeps breaking into history and myth, the real world and the imagined world, in the form of floods, tidal waves, monsoons and perfect storms, sweeping everyone and everything before it into a vast watery grave?  (Ask whether water or fire is more prevalent in the underworlds of world mythology.)


But in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” by the Cohen brothers, that impertinent cinematic parody of the Odyssey, the Great Greek Water Epic, the flood comes bursting in just in time to save Ulysses whatever-his-name-is and his two fellow escaped convicts from a cruel and certain death by hanging.  The flood as deus ex machina, wiping the slate clean for salvation history and homecoming.  Which may be the way we are supposed to understand the flood in the Book of Genesis—at least from the point of view of Noah and his ecologically and historically extended family.  Or from the point of view of Christian baptism.


“The sky is crying,” wails Elmore James in a classic case of the pathetic fallacy.  “Full fathom five thy father lies,” croons Ariel in Shakespeare’s Tempest in a classic case of fallacious pathos.  (Ferdinand’s father, the King of Naples, has actually been delivered from the storm conjured up by the bookish magician Prospero and his spirit servant.)


The notes of this paradoxicalist continue, but we may end this fluid and troublesome mediation here.




[1] It should be noted that Amos’ words were addressed to the northern kingdom, Israel, which fell at the end of the 8th century. The southern kingdom, Judah, survived until 587 bce; later prophets, however, cast its faults in similar terms to those of Amos.