Universe of Possibilities and Absence of Wonder - Shadid Ahmed | Try.Fulfil

Universe of Possibilities and Absence of Wonder - Shadid Ahmed, Try Dot Fulfil


Writing can become a bit too tenuous at times. You want to write, but your mind keeps juggling with all sorts of ideas, so much so, that keeping track of all things and writing down exactly what you want to write becomes pointless.


The opposite of which is that an empty mind  can still render the process of writing feel like a chore: mundane and without purpose. It's called a burn out. Happens to every one in every profession out there. One must go for the bizarre then. Search out the truth and understand the vast emptiness in which we must seek wonder. 


Universe of Possibilities and Absence of Wonder - Shadid Ahmed
Universe of Possibilities and Absence of Wonder - Shadid Ahmed

Chapter: 1

In 1949, Death of a Salesman premiered on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre. Considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century; this play has a rumor or a myth around it. Here’s how it goes: The last line of the play is said, the curtain comes down...silence. The audience doesn’t clap, or boo, or even move. But there are men in their seats that are just helpless. They have handkerchiefs over their faces. And eventually someone starts clapping, and then everyone claps, and the actors bow, and things look like they should at the end of a play. But there are these men who are still crying, and they can’t stop. Doctors are called to the theater. The men are taken to the hospital. They just can’t stop crying.


Laughter is an intensely weird emotion. Sometimes we do it because we don’t quite know how to deal with the emotions in front of us. But crying is too specific. This story is really about how impactful “Death of a Salesman” was in 1949, because what else could have caused this sort of reaction? Seems like some sort of trigger was set off and these men just couldn’t stop crying. It’s a bizarre thing to imagine happening. 


Let’s talk about the play and give some context. Death of a Salesman was originally staged on roadway in 1949- it’s been revived for Broadway four times since then, most recently in 2012. Its author, Arthur Miller, is similarly one of the most influential playwrights in American history, and although he wrote over two dozen plays, Death of a Salesman is right up there at the top,


The story of Death of a Salesman follows Willy Loman, an aging...man who does sales. We never find out what he sells, nor does it really matter. Willy has these grand ideas of what a salesman is, what the profession represents- a prosperous man, well-liked, known. The problem is, of course, Willy is none of these things. It’s not that he’s achieved nothing- he’s married, owns a house, has two kids. But at 63, he can’t come to grips with the idea that he is going to continue aging and eventually die without ever achieving whatever he feels he ought to. This manifests in near-constant delusions Willy lies to his family and himself about how respected he is and how much money he makes. He keeps himself going in a vain attempt to return to “glory days” that he never really had.


And, most damaging of all, he imparts these expectations and pressure onto his son, Biff. 


Biff Loman, Willy’s favorite child, was a high school crush and football star. He did odd jobs, worked on a farm, bounced between places. None of this is particularly damning, he just wasn’t an office guy. Willy constantly tells Biff about all the business he should be succeeding in, if only  he’d put his mind to it. And Biff believes him, because Willy has been telling the same lies about himself his whole life. What Biff is left with, then, is a spiral of guilt and disappointment, never able to become the man his father wants him to be. The same spiral his father is living in his own life, fittingly enough.


In the middle of the play, we find out that Willy has been trying to kill himself. At the end of the play, he does. Just before, as delusional as he’s ever been, Willy fantasizes about all the people from all the towns that will come to the funeral, showing once and for all to his family that he was known, that his life meant something. He’s also delighted that the money from his life insurance policy can go to Biff, which he can finally use to invest in a business and really become someone. Of course, neither of these happen. Willy’s funeral is almost completely unattended, and his sons are as lost as they’ve ever been. 


Obviously, this struck a nerve in 1949. The ideas in the play, of Willy’s failure as a businessman, his sons growing up to be no greater than him, the fact that the world doesn’t care about someone who’s just “ordinary”. 


Willy is tragic as an individual, but he’s tragic as a symbol too. You can imagine the unsuspecting audiences of those first showings, dumbstruck by a representation of their unspoken, repressed fears; that the American Dream was a lie, or evolving faster than they were, or simply out of their reach. The idea that they wouldn’t be able to give a better life to their children. The characters only make sense, because we’re already familiar with the crushing expectations and callous indifference of the system we live in. 


For a 1951 film version of the play, Columbia pictures attempted to slap a pre-movie short called “Career of a Salesman” onto every showing, a short that reassured audiences that the film they’re about to see, full of tragedy and dread, has nothing to do with the modern salesman, who’s instead full of strength and vigor and presumably never faces the least bit of existential despair. It was never released, partially because Miller refused to sign off. He said

  “I was being asked to concur that Death of a Salesman was morally meaningless, a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.’’


The thing is- that story about the men crying- The sources for this information are...well, they’re mixed. The first part, about the audience's silence after the curtain came down, comes from Arthur Miller himself. He told the New Yorker magazine about that exact series of events in 1999, and is about as primary a source as you could hope for. He was an 84 year old man talking about something  that happened fifty years previous, but still- if we can’t trust his account, then we’ve got nothing. Case closed. Right? Let’s move on to our next story.


Chapter: 2


L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat( লারিভে দুনত্রেইন এন গার দেলাছিউতা ) The Arrival of a Train


The year is 1896. Film is new, like really new, and there are these hot young brothers on the scene, the Lumière brothers. Previously, their smash hit was “Workers leaving the Lumière factory,” a recording of workers walking out of a factory. Not as exciting as today’s standard but back then moving pictures on a big screen was literally the cutting edge. But in January of 1896, hey did a public showing of “L'Arrivée d'un train”, or “The arrival of a train at La Ciotat station.” And this is what becomes the stuff of legend.


So the film itself is, well it’s pretty well described by the title. There is a train and it pulls into a station, slowing to a stop, and then various people walk around and get on and off the train. It’s about 50 seconds long. We watch it now and have the appropriate reaction, which is “hey trains are pretty cool!” But in the original screening in 1896, the audience had a different reaction. The train draws closer and closer to the screen and it’s not slowing down- in fact, it’s speeding up! Someone in the audience screams. They jump to their feet. The train is going to crash into them! Suddenly the theater becomes a stampede, people running and jumping, attempting to get out of the way before the train crushes them beneath its wheels. The power of cinema!


This is an incredibly fun story for several reasons. First off, it gives us the chance to condescend

towards people a century ago, which we all love to do. If I was present at the invention of cinema, I would have simply recognized the separation between reality and pre-recorded images. But at the same time, that awe and terror the audience displays is satisfying.


But I think the primary reason this story has stuck around is it reinforces the power of film. From our position in the 21st century, when video is the predominant form of...entertainment, news, how to learn new dances, it’s clear that this technology radically changed the world. We want to hear that the arrival of film was like a bolt of lightning, earth-shaking, literally something that causes people to leap out of their seats. Which makes it all the more interesting that (you may have seen this coming), the panicked reaction to the “L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat” almost certainly never happened.


An article called “Cinema’s Founding Myth” author Martin Loiperdinger goes through, step by step, everything we know about Lumiere’s train screenings. He considers factors from the theater’s architecture to contemporaneous police reports to newspaper articles of the day. Nothing implies there was even a momentary terrified reaction. However, by highlighting passages written about the train by journalists and scholars, Loiperdinger is able to triangulate where this myth would have grown from. 

In 1896, Félix Regnault wrote: 

We repeat what has often been said about the nature and life of the scenes that Lumière presents us:..The beer foams that the waiter at the coffee-house pours, and the glasses are emptied when the men drink. The locomotive appears small at first, then immense, as if it were going to crush the audience; one has the impression of depth and relief, even though it is a single image that unfolds before our eyes.


And the same year, a Russian journalist named Maxim Gorky is maybe the most explicit of all. In July of 1896, he wrote: 

A train appears on the screen. It speeds right at you—watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice. 


A compelling description, almost 1:1 with the myth we’re familiar with. But But then he continues: 

But this, too, is but a train of shadows. Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen. The train comes to a stop, and gray figures silently emerge from the cars, soundlessly greet their friends, laugh, walk, run, bustle,and . . . are gone.”


The common link between all these descriptions isn’t an actual fear of being run down, but a turn to that language because of an inability to otherwise describe the sensation of watching this film. In a way, it’s disappointing to learn that this foundational cinematic experience was an analogy, not a literal accounting of events. But a more charitable take recognizes that it’s still pretty remarkable that many independent writers wrote about “L'Arrivée d'un train” using this same language. Despite the lack of an audience stampede, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe the experience of seeing this early film as an encounter with the fantastic, almost supernatural. Loiperdinger describes it as hyperrealism, not just a simple depiction of life. That the audience’s reaction wasn’t panic but still, in a way, a brush with something indescribable. 


There is, as with everything, also a layer of politics under all this. Running alongside the story of the magic of early film screenings is another narrative, one of the susceptibility of common (often lower-class or ordinary) people to unfamiliar technology. 

Read More: Definition of Love

Chapter: 3


The most famous instance of this isn’t on film but radio, Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play of War of the Worlds.


So, once again, let’s start with the legend: 


It’s October 30, 1938. You know, the day before Halloween. Orson Welles and a team at the Mercury theater have decided to put on a radio play, an adaptation of H.G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds. But their adaptation is a little different, a little more exciting. It’s designed to sound like a series of breaking news bulletins, urgent reports cutting off the evening’s pre-planned programming. And, it’s important to note, Welles and company did say, did clearly say, that they were presenting a play. [[In the War of the Worlds by HG Wells]].  


But it’s radio, so if you happened to get bored and switch to this station somewhere in the middle of the program, you wouldn’t have heard an announcement that you were listening to a play. You might have heard agonizing screaming of people dying and screeching at the top of their lungs. 


In the play, scientists observe explosions on mars, then a strange object falls on a farm, then aliens come out of the object and use a “heat ray” on bystanders, and then a series of news updates detail the aliens landing and wreaking havoc around the country. Announcer screams: “The military can’t stop it!,  They’re releasing poison smoke around New York!”


And then the broadcast goes silent. When it picks back up, it’s a more typical radio play, following one guy wandering around post-invasion, trying to survive until, like in the book, the aliens are eventually killed by “microbes” in the Earth’s atmosphere. 


Here’s some important context: 


This was in 1938, a somewhat hectic time in history, and one in which real news bulletins would often interrupt whatever was currently playing on the radio. Americans had been hearing these really scary “breaking news” segments from Europe, basically tracking what would become World War 2 less than a year later.


If you were listening to the radio and you heard one of these “we interrupt our program to bring you a special broadcast” type deals, you were conditioned to hear some grim stuff.


So even though War of the Worlds was a well-known entertainment property and even though they announced that it was fiction at the beginning of the show, and even though the sequence of events is improbably, hilariously condensed-from explosions on mars to a full takeover of the united states within 30 minutes, people thought it was real.


Thousands of people were calling the police department, people needed to know if they should get in bunkers or on the roof, people reported seeing smoke or even machines coming over the skyline. This panic was reported on across the country. Headline read, “Radio play terrifies nation!”, “Fake radio ‘war’ stirs terror through U.S.!”.


Newspapers really latched onto this story. It almost seems like it was some Purge-esque night, people running screaming through the streets, convinced that they were moments away from being wiped out. Weeks later, a newspaper survey would estimate that millions of people were listening to the show, and almost 1 in 12 of them thought it was real. The legend of War of the Worlds radio broadcast grows, demonstrating everything from the gullibility of the nation to the power of radio to the pre-war fears gripping America. 

So, here we go again with some exaggerated old historic tales, right? 

Some of this definitely happened. We have interviews with switchboard operators, for instance, who got many calls related to the program. But, in terms of the immediate impact on the population- well here’s an analogy Professor Michael Socolow use on Radiolab:


If you were to ask 100 Americans today, did you see a plane fly into the World Trade Center on September 11th, I think you would get an extremely high percentage of people say they saw that plane fly in. But that’s because it’s part of our national visual memory. It’s really a trauma and it’s-it’s the kind of that hysteria and panic we’re talking about. It’s that moment in time in our relationship to the media, okay? But if you were to actually find out whose TVs were on live at 9:48 in the morning that day and who was actually watching there would be a discrepancy in that number. Now, am I saying all those people are lying? All those people are confused? No, what I’m saying is that the relationship of memory to the media is extremely complex. 


There was actually also a survey done that night, the night the radio play aired. 5,000 Americans were asked, more than enough to get a statistically significant answer, and of those surveyed, only 2% said they were listening to War of the Worlds. And of that 2%, NONE said that they were listening to a news broadcast. What Socolow and many other media scholars have theorized is that the reports of panic from War of the Worlds were exaggerated by newspapers, who had an ongoing feud with the relatively new medium of radio news. By painting radio as a dangerous form of communication, newspapers could establish that they were still the true reliable sources. Again, the political layer budges in. 


The fascinating thing about the War of the Worlds broadcast is, despite the original’s inflated mythic quality, there have been re-broadcasts of the play. There was one in 1968 in Buffalo, New York that, despite repeating several times that it was fiction, still resulted in thousands of phone calls. There was a performance of it in Quito, Ecuador in 1949 that resulted in actual military deployment and deaths, although the deaths were, after listeners realized they were being also,  tricked by the radio station.


Because the legend of War of the Worlds has more obvious political influence behind it than Death of a Salesman or Train Arriving at a Station, it’s harder to unravel how people felt about it as…art.


The idea of helplessly hearing about something terrifying, something life-altering over the radio, hearing about events that will change the course of history and being unable to act on them in any way, is as frightening as it’s ever been. In 1938, the radio was reporting on sparks that would lead to World War 2, in 1968 people would have been hearing about the atrocities of Vietnam, both real and awful conflicts that America was both intimately involved in and completely detached from. 

And that’s what War of the Worlds really digs into: the bizarre double reality of being safe at home and embroiled in a conflict of life and death.


Chapter: 4


Death is one of the most dominant, maybe THE dominant, theme in Homer’s Iliad. 


Is fate set?


Are the deaths of heroes inevitable?


What is the cost of war?


The epic poem dives into all of these. But, as rich as those themes are, the moment of death makes up only flashes of the two dozen books the story is divided into. 


In a translation of the Iliad by Alice Oswald however, death is the entirety. She begins her forward by saying This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.”


Barely a hundred pages long, a fraction of the original work, her book- titled “Memorial”- is made up exclusively of death, bracketed by brief similes. The start of the book is a list of names, two hundred names, with the promise that we will watch them each die.


Oswald’s translation draws inspiration from funeral rites of the time, rituals involving poems said over the dead, but she’s not trying to simply repeat a mourner’s lament. Instead, she’s attempting to evoke a very specific feeling, one apparently felt by those who originally heard the Iliad orated, one with a name you’re probably unfamiliar with: Enargeia. It’s a feeling Oswald translates to “Bright, Unbearable Reality.”

A few lines from her book “Memorial” :

Beloved of Athene Pherecles son of Harmion

Brilliant with his hands and born of a long


line of craftsman

It was he who built the cursed fleet of Paris


Little knowing it was his own death boat

Died on his knees screaming


Meriones speared him in the buttock

And the point pierced him in the bladder


And Pedaeus the unwanted one

The mistake of his father’s mistress


Felt the hot shock in his neck of Meges’



Unswallowable sore throat of metal in his



Right through his teeth

He died biting down on the spearhead


Like suddenly it thunders

And a stormwind rushes down


And roars into the sea’s ears

And the curves of many white-patched waves


Run this way and that way


Like suddenly it thunders

And a stormwind rushes down


And roars into the sea’s ears

And the curves of many white-patched waves


Run this way and that way 


That repeated phrase is intentional, it’s one of the most striking parts of Memorial. While Oswald’s translation is nowhere near literal, it’s an attempt to represent the oral tradition, and thus the feeling of the original Iliad. In her own words: 

"This version...takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping


She’s striving for here isn’t completeness or unbiased accuracy, but that elusive concept called Enargeia. 

How do we define Enargeia? On a very base level, it’s something in a work that induces visualization. If I wanted to be boring, I could say “the room was cold and the door was blue.” But that’s not what it means really, certainly  not when used in context of these ancient oral traditions. Oswald translates it as bright, unbearable reality, and- to further impress the power of the feeling- she continues, 

“It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.”


The Iliad, and Homer’s works in general, were known for this Enargeia feeling. In an article by Rutger Allan, they describe his stories as such:

“The spell of poetry can make the hearer forget both himself and the poet and the real world about him.... The story [in Homer] seems almost to tell itself. The words which transport us to the world of the heroes come from a source so submerged from view that the heroic life seems to move of its own vitality.”


Oswald’s version specifically is drawn from what she knows of funeral and mourning rituals, an  attempt to recreate the laments for each man that were built into the larger epic. And through her words, we can try and catch a glimpse of that bright, unbearable reality they were said to experience.  Hearing poetry with a transportive effect, one that in a way lets the audience bear witness to the last moments of a person’s life.


I have used other people’s research, newspapers, eyewitness accounts to try and assess the  validity of the other claims we’ve talked about today. There is no chance of doing this with performances of The Iliad from thousands of years ago. The epic itself is oral tradition, and so too is our knowledge of what performances of it are like. If the legacy of reactions to a performance 72 or 83 or 125 years ago have been exaggerated, who knows what could have happened in the 8th century BCE. But whether the audiences of Homer and his followers were mentally swept to bloody battlefields or not, whether the sense of immersion was really as powerful as is told, I can’t shake this concept of Enargeia.


Can’t stop thinking about the bright unbearable reality. It’s the brightness of watching a screen come to life, a frozen train station animate in a way never seen or imagined. It’s the unbearable pressure of a war that might be around the corner, manifested in a fantasy on the radio. It’s the reality I imagine men saw in Willy Loman’s desperation in Death of a Salesman, their own darkest fears reflected back at them. Describing the impact art has on us is incredibly difficult. It often takes the form of feelings we’re not able to verbalize, reactions we’ll only come to recognize years later. Maybe that’s why I’m forgiving of these hyperbolized stories, drummed-up accounts of extreme behavior. Because while the men who couldn’t stop crying or the audience that leapt out of their seats maybe never happened, the myths in themselves are a form of Enargeia. Showing us, through legend, that bright unbearable reality and how these myths bring a sense of wonder to our life. We must never lose the power to imagine. To hope. To wonder  and run around aimlessly for a sense of escapism. 

~ Shadid Ahmed.

Honours in English Literature, National University, BD.

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