[NetBehaviour] book question and exits -- additional impressions

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Fri Feb 21 21:40:23 CET 2020

Doors are transits, and are themselves transitory.

For Lucretius and Ovid, the nature of the universe and hence of consciousness is of the nature of transition through time, transition which is multiple and results in complex network phenomena within time.  If true, time can be even more powerful and fundamental than space.  A good reminder for me to meditate!  🙂

Also wondering now about the title Exit West.  Titles can be imperatives: "You should exit, and to the west."  They can also be nouns:  "That exit or exiting which we label 'the west exit.'"  Perhaps another imperative with a reversed connotation: "the west should exit," or noun "the exit of the west or the idea of the west."  Or possibly, "the west should exit from itself as it now is, and into something better which it can and should become."

I believe that such interpretations of the title are all hinted at by Six Memos, and this book and discussions overall have reminded me fondly of DH Lawrence's poem "The Ship of Death," which is perhaps an imperfect poem but I like much that it says:

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

The Ship of Death

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.


Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

The grim frost is at hand, when the apples will fall
thick, almost thundrous, on the hardened earth.

And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
Ah! can’t you smell it?

And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
that blows upon it through the orifices.


And can a man his own quietus make
with a bare bodkin?

With daggers, bodkins, bullets, man can make
a bruise or break of exit for his life;
but is that a quietus, O tell me, is it quietus?

Surely not so! for how could murder, even self-murder
ever a quietus make?


O let us talk of quiet that we know,
that we can know, the deep and lovely quiet
of a strong heart at peace!

How can we this, our own quietus, make?


Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, to oblivion.

And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.

Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised,
already our souls are oozing through the exit
of the cruel bruise.

Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us.

Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.


Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul
has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

We are dying, we are dying, we are all of us dying
and nothing will stay the death-flood rising within us
and soon it will rise on the world, on the outside world.

We are dying, we are dying, piecemeal our bodies are dying
and our strength leaves us,
and our soul cowers naked in the dark rain over the flood,
cowering in the last branches of the tree of our life.


We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship
of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.

A little ship, with oars and food
and little dishes, and all accoutrements
fitting and ready for the departing soul.

Now launch the small ship, now as the body dies
and life departs, launch out, the fragile soul
in the fragile ship of courage, the ark of faith
with its store of food and little cooking pans
and change of clothes,
upon the flood’s black waste
upon the waters of the end
upon the sea of death, where still we sail
darkly, for we cannot steer, and have no port.

There is no port, there is nowhere to go
only the deepening black darkening still
blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction any more
and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.


And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone, entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.

It is the end, it is oblivion.


And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.

Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.

Wait, wait, the little ship
drifting, beneath the deathly ashy grey
of a flood-dawn.

Wait, wait! even so, a flush of yellow
and strangely, O chilled wan soul, a flush of rose.

A flush of rose, and the whole thing starts again.


The flood subsides, and the body, like a worn sea-shell
emerges strange and lovely.
And the little ship wings home, faltering and lapsing
on the pink flood,
and the frail soul steps out, into the house again
filling the heart with peace.

Swings the heart renewed with peace
even of oblivion.

Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.

From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: Thursday, February 20, 2020 12:03 PM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Cc: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Subject: [NetBehaviour] Fw: book question and exits

Forgot to reply all.  Also now wondering if a book is a door, a door a book?  Both person-shaped, both networks and in time's network.  Network/book/door/person/time?
From: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Sent: Thursday, February 20, 2020 10:23 AM
To: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Subject: Re: book question and exits

Hi Johannes,

Sorry for this delayed reply but my laptop wasn't working for a couple of days.

The idea about past acquaintance is an interesting one.  I had that sense in 2017 about Calvino when I first read Six Memos, as if he had been a longtime colleague, even though I had never read any Calvino before then.  I also recently experienced this about Leonardo da Vinci, after visiting Florence last summer.  In both cases, there was something about mystery giving way to familiarity that characterized the change.  Once I felt like I "got" what they were trying to communicate, there was a sense that this connection "had been there all along."

I might venture to call this "the ambiguous benevolence of time," a phrase that occurred to me regarding Exit West.  Time's passing destroys opportunities -- doors that disappear forever, as in what is perhaps the most devastating line in Exit West "when we migrate we murder people from our lives."  However time can also bring new doors (a cliche) or allow a return to memory as Saeed's father did after his mother was killed.  Yet this pro/con aspect of new events is only the forward roll so to speak.

What if there is some kind of complexity that proliferates backward so to speak in time, not just forward, as time proceeds in complex network systems (like history, cities, people, a person)?  I don't mean this at all supernaturally.  As time goes forward, our map of the past -- an individual's or a group's -- might evolve in a way that reclaims, retains, or even in a sense creates the experience of past events.  Proust is the main example of this but I think there is more to it than just recollection plain and simple.  Perhaps I ought not even mention something I am so unclear about.  However vaguely it points for me to the nature of consciousness as temporal mapping, perhaps an example of what biologists sometimes call "anticipatory systems," and of a network sort.  History as the evolution of network intelligence.

My copy of Exit West just said Exit West, but the cover with the door seems a bit like a Magritte, with perhaps a mideast interior room about to exited into a European metropolis.  This could be read on different levels -- a consciousness moving from one library to another say, or "both sides of the coin" of the several transitions suggested.  For Calvino, cities and libraries were cognates, both encyclopedic, as he indeed argued each person is -- a net.  He argues that the novel form itself is a net, and by implication all of science, art, and history as influenced by literature.  I hope to convince my book club that part of the value of Six Memos is its relevance to fiction like Exit West and the material it addresses.

This does merge with an idea of net-behavior so to speak.  Long ago it occurred to me to think of art as a behavior, not so much objects, abstract processes, concepts, and the like.  This still makes sense to me though I more often then not forget it (hence my ongoing but flawed practice of meditation).  And if each person is a net, then what is human art but netbehavior with a small N?

The darkness quote that I read as something of a blazon is from page 8:

"The door to her closet was open.  Her room was bathed in the glow of her computer charger and wireless router, but the closet doorway was dark, darker than night, a rectangle of complete darkness--the heart of darkness.  And out of this darkness, a man was emerging."

Which brings me to the question, given the difficult state of the planet does it make any sense to try to formulate a new theory and practice of the aesthetic to help compensate or ameliorate the crises, as has sometimes occurred for humanity in times of drastic change?  Or, would such attempts at "theories," "practices," "formulations," and "newness" all be ill-advised meddling in the natural flow of things and lives?  I can see the argument for both sides so I try to listen to the two dialogue somewhat even if quietly, internally, indeed at times with an element of necessary dormancy.

Best regards,


From: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Tuesday, February 18, 2020 12:50 PM
To: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: book question and exits

Hallo Max and all:

sometimes a conversation like this evolves, or jumps out perhaps, I am not sure whether others would read what might appear like a duologue about some book; yet I feel something strangely beautiful in the memory you evoked about the pit, the dark hole into which you threw these paper missives to be buried with, well with what? trampled under foot, unnoticed perhaps or not realized, your responses to the doors as transit ways, gifts, temporal shifts (the destinations i had recalled from the book were all wrong, i think the protagonists slip away to Mykonos, then London, and then "Marin" in California, I think Amsterdam is mentioned as well, and a dream of seeing the deserts in Chile........)  well the way in which you speculated on what we might have read or how these various black or otherwise doors figured in "Exit West" -- and then your references to other paintings and color landscapes -- all this made me feel as if I knew you and we had been acquainted for a long time.

so this also can be netbehavior, to dream and reflect sharing something that perhaps is very personal (seeking refuge perhaps, not wanting to be shared), and yet resonates with others. I mentioned last Thursday, badly mooded, on my facebook page that I recommend lovers to see Pina Bausch's "Bluebeard - While Listening to a Tape Recording of Béla Bartók’s 'Duke Bluebeard’s Castle'" (if they happen to be in London, and London before as Hamid frighteningly visualizes the island becoming under operational control of nativists reclaiming Britain for Britain [p./ 132]) -- an early Bausch dance from 1977 which is quite brutal in its exploration of the small, and larger cruelties exchanged between men and women, and amongst men, and amongst women, and in the stage set for Blaubart there are doors (7) but they do never open and if you were to force them open them you'd find corpses of the murdered -- And a dark passage way, I now realize, also stands in the threshold space to the underground, the lower depths of Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite"  - out from it emerges a "ghost", someone who had been hiding below. The ghost causes trauma and is trauma.

The migrants through time motif also struck me as a cruel one if I think of black doors and red lights as deadly, now that I just finished reading a an article about the refugee crisis by Cole Moreton, a writer/broadcaster apparently in residence in a lighthouse in East Sussex, and he reports on the hundreds of refugees who'd come across the Channel over the last year, their perilous journey in tiny boats, or a sinking dinghy, to be fished out of the water and delivered to Border Force holding pens.  Apparently those migrants who set off on their journey in France were told by the smugglers to look ahead to the other side, the white cliffs and a red light (on a high UHF mast at Church Hougham near Dover)..... The tiny red light implies a crossing under cover of night, in the dark, and when the storm comes you probably won't make it.

so that dark light is not Rothko's sublime meditative color field. and fiction or fantasy, how important is it or does it remain? (I don;t know the Six Memos, but Calvino's "Invisible Cities" was my fictional blueprint for my first dance piece I choreographed upon arriving in Houston, way back. I had no real idea of Texas, and so had to invent it, as best as one can arriving on a different shore, and after a less perilous journey than made by those who migrate across Texas borders at night from the south.

what did you think of he odd door image on the cover of the book?

Johannes Birringer

 Max Herman schreibt
Sent: 17 February 2020 16:56

Hi Johannes,
These are great images, and congrats on getting the right access for the under-construction photos!  Such moments are very helpful to have in one's internal collection I think.

It reminds me of a time some years ago when they were building a new addition to the local modern art museum, which was to be very contemporary and innovative.  There was a large open pit at one point as they dug out the foundation, which I liked a lot.  Just a large pit surrounded by a chain link fence.  Not being much of a photographer I wasn't sure how to "note" this in a way that would preserve my thoughts, impressions, associations, and the visual memory; say, which is perhaps to say, the story and image?  I knew the pit would soon fill in.  To somehow capture the transience of the moment, my own ambiguous emotional state (which was was what it was at the time for myriad reasons both utterly and completely separate from the pit and somehow reflective of it), and to articulate the "stage setting" as it were, I opted to try for a gesture or partially vague action.  This was to throw a lot of small pieces of marked paper into the pit from outside the chain link fence.  These would just be rained on and trod into mud within days to be sure.  They were to have been small pieces, about a half inch square, and on heavy paper so that they could be thrown over and ideally about 20 feet past the chain link barrier.  The marking on each paper would be a black circle with a slight x-y axis to mark each paper's planar location and rotation during flight, only on one side of course, and because a black dot is kind of like a mote of soil which the pit was.  I wasn't sure if I would take a photo or not, leaning toward not partly because of my aforesaid incapacity to see a good photo to be had.  The "documentation" would just be whether or not any worker in the pit or some passersby saw the papers, also necessarily inexplicable.  I never got around to doing this in time so it never happened other than as a story and image of sorts in my head, a personal parable about not really anything, occasionally related to others.

I've never seen the Rothko Chapel but it came up recently in my reading, in relation to what I'm not sure.  I do see the correlation with portals or passage-spaces to the infinite, or unknown, or uncertain, objects for contemplation thereof, in the black paintings.  I wonder if the Rothkos are landscape, portrait, or both?  The black square by Malevich has many references (not my favorite painting but maybe relevant) but feels almost antipodal to the Rothkos (which I haven't seen) in tone.  I'll have to re-read Exit West to find the mentions of doors as darkness but I'm sure there were a couple so I will track them down.

A door or doorway is an interesting thing.  It's not really a space to reside in, so it symbolises transit in a way.  It doesn't really correspond to a theatrical or painted space such as portrait, landscape, or proscenium.  There is an element of agency or choice (go through or don't go through), the "binary on/off switch" in your quotation, and aspects of time sequence (departing, returning).  Unlike the mentions of windows you cite, which are mainly to look through and allow in or keep out atmosphere (sound, temperature, surveilling eyes, and who knows, maybe even personal computing and internet content), doors are designed for human bodies to walk through -- they have the shape of a person walking.  Darkness can just be opaqueness, uncertainty, or emptiness of a highly spatially charged non-space.  As the book states, "We are all migrants of time."

Having finished the book now I see that some of the doors are definitely magical and benevolent, like the old man's shed in his backyard in Paris through which he follows the stranger to his art studio in Buenos Aires.  Hence doors of imagination and emotion perhaps are also invoked.  Might there also be references here to art itself, aesthetic existence itself, which cannot be merely a given set of circumstances but always involves an ingredient of translation, transportation, uncertainty, choice, and irrevocability?  Many of the doors in Exit West are indeed light or less dire, less unknown; daily habits or garments even, like Nadia's robe, which she used (some in my book group said) as a way to screen people out and gain an element of camouflage for her daily escapes -- not a door keeping her locked in but one screening others out and allowing her to move about more freely, literally and figuratively, just as Saeed had to wear the robe in order to enter Nadia's apartment as her sister, and hence without danger of death from the militants.  Some doors such as those of return to the memory of those lost are on the contrary glowing with color, detail, and light.  But there is also always the dire, the absolute darkness, finality, and inevitability of mortality, or what Saeed understood as "the inability to protect that which you love."

In any case I most certainly need to re-read the book and will keep an eye open for door references and, what I am hoping moreso to find, any architectural themes.  I can't recall any literary references off hand in Exit West which could be a conscious design decision.  There is a flat and elemental, yet mass-cultural, tenor to the life world in this book.  Perhaps Hamid is suggesting that nowhere is actually really anywhere, at least as it thinks it is, when you get right down to it?  Or maybe everywhere is at once everywhere and nowhere.  A kaleidoscopic panopticon shifting and refracting, never fully the same, and with no actual center or at least nothing much one could consider to be a seer at the center, something more like gravity or a clockwork, as easily rancid or putrid as noble or revelatory.  Personally I believe there is something other than the kaleidoscope, the something which is not it but moves through it, not wholly it even while wholly related to it.  I might at times try to call this "that which perceives the network lattice of the carpet but is not in it as anything that is not it, while remaining nonetheless something more and other than the carpet and even what the carpet represents."

Part of my motive (beyond curiosity and confusion) for reflecting so much on this book is that I did not pick it -- one of the happier accidents of the book club variety for this particular book club -- and part is that our next book is Calvino's Six Memos, which I did pick, and which is a book that to me makes superabundant and simple common sense but has been found by all the friends I've asked to read it to be dense, obtuse, and "about nothing."

Perhaps these two strange characters, Six Memos and Exit West, might have some kind of dialogue when next the book club meets or at least in my own jottings.

It would be interesting to hear what your students wrote or thought about the book!

Best regards,


From: Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Sunday, February 16, 2020 5:27 PM
To: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: book question

hello Max and all:

thanks for response. your beautiful reflections, on the metaphor of the doors, made me go back and wonder about what i had read.
and why I mentioned the "black doors".

I now reread reread the sections I had marked for myself and my theatre students,. And the doors are not black.
what happened?  when I went back to Mohsim Hamid's Exit West, i figured that i was probably confused, in my memory, by the black plastic bags
at the windows, hung up by Nadia (see my transcription below); but more interestingly, Hamid refers to contemporary art, and I may well have associated the
'black' doors with Rothko's black paintings.  In January, back in Houston, I went to the Rothko Chapel, as I do every year (on its walls are fourteen black color-hued paintings by Mark Rothko, the shape of the building is an octagon) – except that this time it was hollowed out, gutted, under renovation, all paintings gone.

 I sneaked in and photographed the empty walls.....

Please read the excerpt below. .

Black doors                                              [Exit West, by Moshin Hamid, pp.68ff]

One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.

Many windows were broken already, and the prudent thing would have been to remove those that remained, but it was winter and the nights were cold, and without gas and electricity, both of which were in increasingly short supply, windows served to take some of the edge off the chill, and so people left them in place.

Saeed and his family rearranged their furniture instead.  They placed bookshelves full of books flush against the windows in their bedrooms, blocking the glass from sight but allowing light to creep in around the edges, and they leaned Saeed’s bed over the tall windows in their sitting room, mattress and all, upright, at an angle, so that the bed’s feet rested on the lintel. Saeed slept on three rugs on the floor, which he told his parents suited his back.

Nadia taped the inside of her windows with beige packing tape, the sort normally used to seal cardboard boxes, and hammered heavy-duty rubbish bags into place over them, pounding nails into the window frames. When she had had enough electricity to charge her backup battery, she would lounge around and listen to her records in the light of a single bare bulb. The harsh sounds of the fighting muffled somewhat by her music, and she would then glance at her windows and think that they looked a bit like amorphous black works of contemporary art.

The effect doors had on people altered as well. Rumours had begun to circulate that doors could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumours to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless.

Nadia and Saeed, too, discussed these rumours and dismissed them. But every morning, when she woke, Nadia looked over at the front door, and at the doors of her bathroom, her closet, her terrace. Every morning, in his room, Saeed did much the same. All their doors remained simple doors, on/off switches in the flow between two adjacent places, binarily either open or closed, but each of their doors, regarded thus with a twinge of irrational possibility, became partially animate as well, an object with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desires of those who desired to go far away, whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.

Without work there was no impediment to Saeed and Nadia meeting during the day except for the fighting, but that impediment was a serious one. The few remaining local channels still on the air were saying that the war was going well but the international ones were saying that it was going badly indeed, adding to an unprecedented flow of migrants that was hitting the rich countries, who were building walls and fences and strengthening their borders, but seemingly to unsatisfactory effect.

The militants had their own pirate radio station, featuring a smooth-voiced announcer with a deep and unnervingly sexy voice, who spoke slowly and deliberately, and claimed in a decelerated but almost rap-like cadence that the fall of the city was imminent.


funerals were smaller and more rushed affairs in those days, because of the fighting. Some families had no choice but to bury their dead in a courtyard or at the sheltered margin of a road, it being impossible to reach a proper graveyard, and so impromptu burial grounds grew up, one extinguished body attracting others, in much the same way that the arrival of one squatter on a disused patch of government land can give rise to an entire slum.


From: Max Herman <maxnmherman at hotmail.com>
Sent: 16 February 2020 00:54
To: Johannes Birringer; NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
Subject: Re: book question

Hi Johannes,

My book club was also very intrigued by the door image, which at one point in the novel was described as pure darkness, "the heart of darkness." Then somehow we morphed into a discussion of whether Nadia's robe was a door.  After some wrangling a few said yes, it too was a door.

I had an image of nested spheres rotating on various axes, doors alinging to open briefly then closing, leading to others a la the garden of forking paths.  The group was talking over a rather marvelous carpet at the time, of Persian design it seemed to me and very delicate, filigreed, such involutions of tracery.

It made me wonder, is the book a door, even a labyrinth?  Is the world, language, time?  So many choices, some forward some back, but time still irrevocable in what occurred to me as its "ambiguous benevolence."

I haven't read the second half of the book yet, looking forward!

All best,


From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Johannes Birringer <Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk>
Sent: Saturday, February 15, 2020 4:45 PM
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Subject: Re: [NetBehaviour] book question


Ahmed Saadawi’s hallucinatory novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Mohsim Hamid's Exit West,
i have to say I was impressed and mesmerized reading these novels
The "Exit West" intrigued me much, as I started to read it during what was called the "refugee crisis" in Europe,
basically a large wave of migration, partly caused by the sectarian and military conflict in Syria, well, refugees
were all over, and when I tried to imagine what it must be like to live in a war torn land, or city, i got captivated by Hamid's story of
the two young people who come to imagine fleeing. the image that I told my theatre students to explore and work with
was Hamid's metaphor of the black door.  This door idea is wonderful, a rumor spreads in the city that people are seeing black doors
, or door frames, and when you walk through them, you exit, so to speak, and you end up in a very different place, california,
miami, stockholm, berlin.......  What a strange and interesting magical realist image.

Johannes Birringer

From: NetBehaviour <netbehaviour-bounces at lists.netbehaviour.org> on behalf of Max Herman via NetBehaviour <netbehaviour at lists.netbehaviour.org>
Sent: 13 February 2020 18:02
To: NetBehaviour for networked distributed creativity
Cc: Max Herman
Subject: [NetBehaviour] book question

Has anyone read Exit West?  It was the last selection in my local book club and pretty interesting from the standpoint of networks I think.

I've only read half of it so far though.  🙂
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