Hackable Book References and the Madwomen in Our Attics

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It removed my veil from its gaunt head, rent it in two parts, and, flinging both on the floor, trampled on them. — From the second edition of Jane Eyre

By Diane Mehta

We have passwords because we have secrets. It stands to reason that the longer the password, the deeper the secret. (“Secrets always generate shame. Unfortunately, shame is often really, really hot,” says Helena Fitzgerald.) As we scramble to mask our identities, whether we’re stalking others, surfing for porn, or scoring drugs and Googling the predicaments we find ourselves in, we wonder: Can we keep a secret?

Last month, a cryptic-sounding cracker software called oclHashcat-plus released a new version that cracks your code at the warp speed of 8 million guesses per second and can handle passcodes up to 55 characters. Fifty-five characters would be a cinch for Joseph Brodsky, who deftly memorized hundreds of poems, and for the experimental theater company The Wooster Group’s Scott Shepherd, whose eight-hour monologue for the Public Theater’s Gatz required that he memorize all 49,000 words in “The Great Gatsby.” The rest of us are not so skilled.

All my passwords are literary references followed by random numbers. I use 19th century Russian authors whose long, multisyllabic names with consonants smushed together in ways that occasionally prove impossible to pronounce, would flummox the best of them. It now appears that oclHashcat-plus can crack P. Lovecraft’s phrase from The Call of Cthulhu, “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn1” in minutes.

I emailed Jens “Atom” Steube, the author of oclHashcat-plus. The program culls passphrases from Wikimedia (which lets you download all of Wikipedia in every language) and from Project Gutenberg’s ebooks. When they crack hashes (“a cryptographic function that turns any arbitrary data into a number”), he says, “We store it for later statistical analysis in a big database.”

So much literature is public domain. And when it’s not, we blog and write about it in tweets, reviews, and essays that span out across our digital universe.

And that of oclHashcat-plus. Their database started with dictionaries. That wasn’t enough. So they wrote a new program that combines two dictionaries into one so every word from one dictionary is appended to every word from the second, plus a space. Which gives them a whole bunch of nonsensical words and phrases, along with valid ones. Then they ran those against “hashes” they couldn’t crack, and found that the stuff that made sense got cracked. They took those phrases, dumped them back into the database, and repeated the process. That generates exponentially more and more nonsensical passphrases, so the process just digs and digs until it takes all your complicated 55-character Dostoevskian passphrases and other literary riffs and blows them apart.

Dictionaries and books have turned against us. I taunted Jens with some phrases, starting with “The ostent evanescent” from Eidolons in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I even mushed the letters together and stuck a few numbers at the end (ostentevanescent938). Easy to crack, he said, though no one’s used it before. So I can forget about protecting my documents with the phrase, “now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal” from Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein (talk about secrets). Maybe John Clare’s “The mower’s stubbling scythe clogs to his foot” from his poem Autumn. What nut would come up with that combination of letters to guess that particular bulbous-y, bumbling phrase and break out all of my, um, draft poems and expose them to the world? oclHashcat-plus of course.

At first Jens said, “This phrase has too many words.” Safe! I reveled in the coup of 19th century diction. Apparently cracking a passcode gets difficult if you use more than five words. And “mower’s” wasn’t in Jens’ dictionary. Moments later, he emailed back to say, “Actually, that’s in an ebook, so I can crack that in seconds.”

The more Jens was able to crack my codes, the more I felt a compulsion to create and have something he couldn’t get to the end of, something that was mine. I wanted to protect intimacy in my life; the cat-and-mouse game of hacking and cryptography felt like a metaphor for ways to cling to the secrets we care about. In daily life, we encounter and put out a daily striptease of information—confessional writing, flip tweets about our lives and likes, articles we click on. But thinking about literature, and about literary passwords, as hackable because they existed in the public domain was something that made me uncomfortable. Public access to literature is a grand thing. But the secrets you carry around with you, after absorbing them from the books you love, is a deeply personal thing. The idea that literature was there to fill a database, that that the passwords I take from literature—passwords that mean something personal to me—made me think twice about what exactly it is I loved and how certain literary references feel more secretive simply because they mean so much.

Dark, diabolical secrets are easy to get hung up on. Riffing on the gothic is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with madwoman Bertha locked away up in the attic by Rochester who’s determined to marry Jane (how many cheaters’ secrets are embedded in emails now), and Jean Rhys’ reimagining of Bertha as the Creole downward-spiraling Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. What I loved most in the Brontë and the Rhys was the shame—the pulsing ugliness of it. Although our worlds are filled with secrets, it’s how we experience the secret that matters more than the secret itself. So each experience becomes a kind of cabinet you unlock, a Pandora’s Box or a coffin that contains fear and possibilities.

In some ways, the surreal experience of seeing into someone else’s intimate imaginings, through literature, is a way of figuring out who you are, and your own history, based on the kinds of phrases, rhythms, and tales you like. Literature is a lens through which you figure out the secret of your existence. I think of Osip Mandelstam writing about his parents’ bookshelves, whose books and the disorderly way in which they were stacked reflected back the entire history of the Jews: oppressed, wandering, earnest, uncertain, crushed. It revealed their life in Russia, their bearing as people who walk with the tacit understanding that they live in a country that is only partially theirs, because as a Jew, you fit in nowhere.

That in turn reminds me of the way I kept Alfred Kazin’s New York Jew with its giant white letters that composed virtually the entire cover design, face down on my lap when I read it on the subway in my twenties. I had been told, by my own parents and grandparents, not to advertise being Jewish on the subway. Kazin’s sense of feeling distinctly, intellectually Jewish as he made his way in the world made tremendous sense to me; it enthralled me. While reading Kazin, it felt exciting to be Jewish. Yet I too assimilated, just as Mandelstam and his parents tried to assimilate, in Russia.

Their books, and that bookshelf, exposed them. Secrets and Judaism seemed to go together, and so I read, into Mandelstam’s Noise of Time passage about those disorderly bookshelves, a chaos that threatened to expose or crush me. Bookshelves, and the languages and the way those books were positioned, embodied his family’s intellectual history and helped him define who he would become. On the lower shelf a five-volume Russian history of the Jews lay in ruins, on its side (“This was the Judaic chaos thrown into the dust.”) Beside it was a Hebrew primer. One shelf up, “above these Jewish ruins began the orderly arrangement of books.” These were the Germans (Schiller, Goethe, Kerner, and Shakespeare in German), which represented his father “fighting his way as an autodidact into the Germany world out of the Talmudic wilds.” And above all those were his mother’s Russian books: Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and the white-hot book of poems by the poet Semyon Nadson.

There is no literature that doesn’t have a secret. “We all have our Smerdyakovs,” said Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, referring to the illegitimate son of Fyodor by a mute street woman. Over time, people cannot conduct their lives without shame and personality. So we sink into the lives of fictional characters and try to understand their complexities in order to be more human. To enter the intimate workings of someone’s mind literally changes us because, fictional or not, they become part of our experience. We also see our own flaws, quirks, and sensibilities refracted through them, albeit through other circumstances, and that is a new angle on experience that we simply can’t get ourselves. Books unravel our variably false, semi-true, or half-inaccurate moments, and that compels us to keep reading.

In Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, a childhood tragedy emerges in the reflections of the protagonist Trond, along with his father’s wartime secrets. But mostly we wander through his days with him, winching at the pain that lingers, steeped in the reality of being an old man, and wait for the little revelations. There’s the thudding pain and shock of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, when only we, readers, find out that Eddie’s, aka Filth’s (“Failed in London Try Hong Kong”) wife Betty had conducted an affair with her husband’s rival, Veneering, long after we grow to adore Filth. As the friendship Filth develops with his former enemy and his dead wife’s lover deepens, the betrayal becomes that much more unsettling. The impact an affair might have on someone else is much more problematic than the slings and arrows of the affair itself. As readers, we are stuck feeling betrayed.

Another skeleton-in-the-closet book whose mystery still drives me nuts is Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, because you never know if the protagonist John Wade, a Vietnam vet and a candidate for Senate, killed his wife or if she just walked off. Wade is haunted by “the secret of Thuan Yen, so secret that he sometimes kept it from himself.” The hamlet was the scene of a cold-blooded massacre by the Americans: “He found someone stabbing people with a big silver knife. Hutto was shooting corpses. T’Souvas was shooting children. Doherty and Terry were finishing off the wounded.” The mystery of his wife’s disappearance becomes excruciating because of all the possibilities: collective revenge (if she leaves), payback via his grief (if she drowns or is killed or kidnapped), getting away with murder (hers and the people of Thuan Yen). What remains is the hard, real fact that having someone love you does not fix a thing. This book has no password. It throbs with the uncertainty that encapsulates all relationships—how feelings are unreliable and how they can be one thing or utterly their opposite. It depends, until some truth emerges, on perspective. Literature is a dark and illuminating suspension of disbelief, except that we wholly believe in it.

Diane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn. Follow her @DianeMehta