In Our Magazines
- AN INTERVIEW WITH Robert Damon Schneck
- An Interview with Peter Bebergal
- An Interview with Paula Young Lee
- Coming In from the Cold: Outsider Art in Literature
March 25, 2015
Minor national bodies of literary works can only become relevant if they're largely translated into English. It's pointless to resist this reality. Delusional even.
"You say that the fall of language occurs when people start taking their own culture - e.g. books written in their own language - less seriously than what is imported from the English-speaking world." – Corinna Pichl in her interview with Japanese writer Minae Mizumura on her book The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Translations do dominate the book market here in Romania and that is indeed a sign that we don’t take our culture seriously enough, but I'm interested in how that might also be a comment on the value (or lack thereof) of local contemporary literature. And the fact that so very few Romanian books get translated into English – can we really chalk it all up to a disinterest from the English-speaking publishers / audience or is it that not that many books are worthy of the effort involved in getting such a book translated and published?
Japanese literature, on the other hand, has a privileged position on the international book market. (It would be interesting to see some numbers: in non-English-speaking countries, how many Japanese books are translated directly from Japanese and how many are translated from English, as it is sometimes the case with other languages?)
For more on the influence of English on the Japanese language, but also on the difficulties of translating Japanese, here are a few suggestions:
In Japanese English: Language and Culture Contact, James Stanlaw explores the use of English in Japan both from a historical and from a modern perspective.
Twenty years later, John Dougill revisited his 1987 text "English as a decorative language:"
The content of decorative language, as the original article identified, is full of dreamy thoughts and the yearning for individualism. This goes together with the national cult of the cute. ‘Nature’s wind: I feel like relax’, says a shopping-bag. ‘It’s warmth and gentleness to relieve one’s mind’, replies a toilet seat cover. ‘Hello Tomorrow. I only wish to provide you with strength’, adds a photo album. ‘Natural high: I feel like relax’, responds a bag. The dialogue is filled with pleasantries, as is Japan’s daily life. Harmony is the guiding principle. The concern is with associations.
The emphasis on mood rather than meaning, I now realise, is characteristic of the culture as a whole. You see it in television dramas, and it is a keynote of Japanese literature where writers like Kawabata spend whole novels in the creation of atmosphere. It is evident too in film, where a director like Mizoguchi is concerned to evoke a sense of pathos. It is this emotional element which distinguishes Japanese advertising from its Western equivalent, where the emphasis is on informing. It makes me think decorative English should be treasured as a form of national expression.
John Dougill, Japan and English as an alien language | English Today (Vol. 24, Issue 1, March 2008)
Considering that Haruki Murakami's books have been so widely translated, his work might be the perfect case study for the particularities of translating from Japanese.
You've mentioned that the nuances of Japanese food are sometimes obscured in translation. What else gets lost or warped?
I hope nothing important gets obscured in translation, of course, though in 1Q84 even the title itself presents a challenge since in Japanese the number 9 is pronounced "kyuu." Also some day-to-day things that Japanese take for granted were difficult--the nuances of how one addresses another person, the suffixes (-san and -kun in particular) that are affixed to names, and the level of intimacy they convey. Not to mention plays on words.
Jay Rubin, in Making Sense of Japanese, broaches the stereotype that Japanese is more imprecise and mysterious than English.
There's a generalization out there that Japanese is somehow imprecise or vague compared to English. I don't buy it. Japanese communicate as well as anyone, and a writer like Murakami—though the overall atmosphere of his work may be dreamlike or surreal at times—lays out his ideas clearly.
Philip Gabriel interviewed by Alex Hoyt, How Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’ Was Translated Into English | The Atlantic
Still, I can’t help but wonder if the translation of literature, where the strengths and even personality of the original are embedded in the language, is futile, however heroic. “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time,” Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s longtime translators, told me in Tokyo last month, explaining what he says to American readers, most of whom prefer to believe otherwise. “Murakami wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine.” Murakami once told me that he never reads his books in translation because he doesn’t need to. While he can speak and read English with great sensitivity, reading his own work in another language could be disappointing—or worse. “My books exist in their original Japanese. That’s what’s most important, because that’s how I wrote them.”
Roland Kelts, Lost In Translation? | The New Yorker
And if you’re sick and tired of Haruki Murakami, the latest issue of Words without Borders is dedicated to new writing from Japan: “On Memory.”
March 6, 2015
Image by Ferdinand Hodler
Despite last year's visible progress concerning transgender issues, we can’t pretend we live in a post-gender society / culture. Not when we’re still expected to perform our assigned gender, not when a phrase like “battle of the sexes” (which I thought we left somewhere in the ‘90s, in the pages of women’s magazines) is making a comeback. And definitely not when masculine anxieties are reaching new heights (or new lows - depending on how the anxiety is expressed). It's especially this anxiety around masculinity that makes Laura Kipnis's Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation relevant and necessary even as we're trying to do away with the gender binary. John Wilmes has interviewed Kipnis for February's issue of Bookslut.
Before Men, Laura Kipnis had already given us The Female Thing, in which she argues the social progress of women is blocked by women themselves. By our incapability to decolonize our minds.
Obviously, social progress is always a stop-start sort of affair. For one thing, the inner lives of the protagonists aren’t always on the advance team, so to speak; social change goes whizzing past your ears, with the backwardish psyche – not always quite so amenable to change – bringing up the rear. It’s sometimes been said that a colonized mentality far outlasted the political conditions of colonialism; Soviet Communism crumbled virtually overnight, but the inner apparatchik lives on. So too with female progress, it appears.
In other words, feminism came up against an unanticipated opponent: the inner woman. If something remains a little obdurate about female inequality after the last forty years or so of activism and protesting, obviously there’s no shortage of external culprits to hold accountable: the Media, the Old Boys’ Club, the Double Shift. And then we have the culprits closer to home. No, not men (though that’s pleasantly self-exonerating) – I’m speaking of the collaborator within. Not to point fingers, but without substantial female compliance, wouldn’t masculine privilege pretty soon find itself crammed in with all the other debris in the trash can of history? When it comes to male power or female subjection, or whatever you want to call the current arrangement between the sexes, the complicity on the part of women themselves is… well, let’s just say it’s “complicated.”
Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability
One of the earliest articles that made me aware of what is now the toxic MRA discussed the difference between men’s studies and male studies:
But ultimately the differences have to do with radically different notions of what it means to be a man in the first place.
The people in men’s studies, like those in women’s studies, take a mostly sociological perspective and believe that masculinity is essentially a cultural construct and that gender differences in general are fluid and variable. To Professor Kimmel, we live in a world that is increasingly gender-neutral and gender integrated and that this is a good thing for men and women both. “That ship has sailed — it’s a done deal,” he said recently, dismissing the idea that men and women are as different as Martians and Venutians.
The male studies people, on the other had, are what their critics call “essentialists” and believe that male behavior is in large part biologically determined. Men think and act differently from how women think and act because that’s how evolution shaped them. In the most extreme formulations of essentialism, men are basically still Neanderthals: violent, clannish, sexually voracious and in need of female domestication.
Charles McGrath, The Study of Man (or Males) | The New York Times
(Michael S. Kimmel’s work, mentioned in this article seems worth checking out.)
Women are often stereotyped as the emotional ones, and men as rational. But, after the 2008 crash, the picture looked different, as Hanna Rosin wrote in an article in the Atlantic titled “The End of Men”:
Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and level-headed.
Grayson Perry, The rise and fall of Default Man | New Statesman
In a review of Why Men Fake It, Jonathan M. Metzl wrote:
It’s hard to be a man these days. For years, men enjoyed the trappings of hegemony unencumbered by guilt, reproach, or self-loathing. Men smoked like Don Draper, drank like Foster Brooks, and drove like Jimmy Dean. The world was theirs, and they paved American roads as pathways to their enjoyment. Men worked hard and dallied even harder. A plate of meatloaf, Lassie, and a chipper nuclear family waited dutifully at home until they returned.
Now, however, it takes a lot of work to keep things in order. This is not to say that the system is not set up for male privilege—indeed, the system slants in men’s favor like never before. But a growing group of men apparently feel persistent anxiety that things are not as they were, that a golden age is lost. These men are being encroached upon by politics, public health, and a society that wants what they have.
Jonathan M. Metzl, Sequester This!: The Perils of Masculinity and the Truth About Sex | Public Books
It’s always worth it to revisit Tony Porter’s Call to Men.
The Mansplainer could be part of the gender typology mapped by Laura Kipnis. But such a chapter would have probably been redundant considering there’s already Rebecca Solnit’s excellent, often-cited Men Explain Things to Me.
February 26, 2015
Introducing Spolia's Newest Issue: Nemesis
Your nemesis is not your enemy.
Your enemy is a brutalizing force, a bulldozer that flattens you before you have enough time even to think about what is happening. Your enemy is indiscriminate, it cares nothing for you, only what you represent, or what you have, or what stands behind you. To an enemy, you are merely a nameless, faceless obstacle. The thing standing in the way of his victory.
Your nemesis, though, knows you. Holds you close with one arm while it undoes you with the other. Her poison is intimate. It was designed specially for you. Her hatred burns bright in her breast, and only your downfall, your complete annihilation, will please her.
And so with this new issue of Spolia, we explore this loving violence, and we start with the true story of the French artist Claude Cahun. While on occupied Jersey Island with her lover Marcel Moore, she became the Nazis’ nemesis. She did not resist their infiltration with bombs and guns. She and Marcel got up close. They slipped notes into their pockets, they psychologically dismantled them. It wasn’t the Nazis’ deaths they wanted, but their defection, the breakdown of their entire religion and philosophy. For the first time, her prison letters appear here in English.
In Amelia Gray’s “On the Lives of Ghosts,” the ones we love and have passed on return to maintain their grip on our lives and psyches, keeping us from moving on and living our lives. And in Carolyn Son’s “The Sound of Wings,” it is a friend who finds artistic success while the narrator languishes that causes him to become so frail and brittle.
For our art portfolio this month, we have gone with society’s nemesis, the feared yet compelling witch. The woman with total freedom (and magical powers) who can terrorize the straight-laced with just a glance. From Dürer to Carrington, the witch has been the artists’ muse, and we present some of our favorites here.
As always, we hope you enjoy.
Just like Lucia Cowles – who reviews Yasmina Reza’s Happy Are the Happy for February’s issue of Bookslut – my first encounter with Reza’s work was at the local theater. The play was Art. I remember finding it refreshingly funny and intellectually stimulating. It made me think of Bourdieu and his Rules of Art (even though I never did finish reading that book). My next encounter with her work was the film adaptation of God of Carnage, which meant breaking my no-Polanski rule and getting over my disgust with anyone who still chooses to collaborate with him. But it’s been worth it – because as Lucia Cowles writes: “Reza is an exacting architect. Constraint, character depth, and specificity of language are the hallmarks of her work.” And finally, thanks to this review, my next encounter with Reza’s work will be Happy Are the Happy.
On the disconnect between our social lives, our interior lives and our private lives, Yasmina Reza says:
These are my three writing tools, my three inks, and not just in this book. I make a genuine difference between the private and this appendix that’s the interior, this fold where we sometimes think the contrary of what we are experiencing, that place that is not shared and that we do not see in others. It’s the place of solitude. That ontological solitude that means that we die alone, no matter what, despite the distracting strategies that are love, speed, staying busy. But it’s also, in the weaving of writing, the place of withdrawal and of laughter.
Yasmina Reza interviewed by Christophe Barbier, Yasmina Reza: "J'écris en français, je suis de France" | L’Express (my translation)
On working with Polanski on the script for Carnage:
We worked together, in a small office in his Swiss chalet. We wrote the script very quickly, but that was all we focused on. When we had a disagreement, we would play out the roles to convince each other (we both have experience as actors). I loved those moments. There were not many drafts. We quickly came up with a version that satisfied both of us. Then there were some refinements of course. We added elements that didn’t make it in the film later on (dialogue of people of the other end of phone calls) and then some touch ups after the translation (the script was written in French). The play was written to proceed in real time and Roman wanted to keep that principle. That obliged us to keep a strict framework. Even if there were a lot of changes, they remained within this framework.
God of Carnage is the only play of mine that I agreed to change the location of the story. And only for the US version! In my view, characters are conditioned, body and soul, by their place of origin. But James Gandolfini, who was preparing to play the role of Michael on Broadway, wanted to see if we could try a New York version. I like this actor a lot, so I accepted to try to transpose it to Brooklyn – a place that has a similar spirit to Paris. The result was positive and didn’t betray the play. There were actually not a lot of changes other that the names of the places and a few marks.
Roman Polanski wanted to shoot the film with English-speaking actors. Since I had already had that experience with Broadway, I didn’t object. That being said, I would not have had the same resistance to changes with a film, since films are inherently adaptations.
Yasmina Reza interviewed by Ray Morton, Carnage: An Interview with Yasmina Reza | Script
Wondering about the success of Art, Micheal Billington goes beyond the obvious explanation (“The obvious answer would be that it raises a whole series of unresolved questions about modern art.”):
But I’ve long suspected the popularity of Art has to do with something else. It raises one of drama’s eternal questions: how much truth and honesty human beings can stand. The play starts with Marc bluntly spitting out his views: it ends with Serge telling a necessary lie in order to preserve their relationship. Just like Molière in The Misanthrope, though without the same virtuosity, Reza is examining whether private relationships and public affairs depend upon a certain skilful hypocrisy. “Sincerity in society,” Somerset Maugham once wrote, “is like an iron girder in a house of cards.” And Reza’s point, not unlike Molière’s, is that we only continue to function as social beings by playing the accepted rules of the game.
Michael Billington, Blank canvas: the enduring appeal of Yasmina Reza’s Art | The Guardian
In France, they call her humour Anglo-Saxon. She calls it Jewish. Others have described it as incisive, cruel, bitter, furious, narcissistic, compact, vicious and stinging. She does what her compatriots do best: she dissects the bourgeoisie with the playfulness and insouciance of a child discovering life by dismembering insects. She then crucifies her characters as a lepidopterist pins butterflies to a board. Anouilh carried out a similarly ruthless study of the French bourgeoisie only with more depth, as did French cinema through the pen and eye of Renoir, Chabrol, Truffaut and, more recently, Agnès Jaoui, whose work shares Reza's cruel sophistication.
Agnes Poirier, Yasmina Reza: ‘Please stop laughing at me’ | The Independent
Elaine Sciolino wrote for The New York Times about Yasmina Reza’s complicated relationship with the press and the public: “’The interview is a game,’ she said. ‘I try to structure interviews in such a way that I say nothing. It’s better for me to be mysterious.’”
January 27, 2015
I've been waiting almost two months to be timely in my whole-hearted recommendation of Yasmina Reza's new novel from Other Press, Happy Are the Happy. It's SO GOOD—like French Lorrie Moore: replace simmering angst and resentment in current romantic situation with affairs. Plus, it's short! Easy opportunity to finish a whole book for once in your life!
January 26, 2015
Matt Hartman writes for the January issue of Bookslut:
With the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests, and now the protests surrounding the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the idea (and the censure of the idea) of resisting structural inequality, oppression, and the abuse of political power is central to popular political discourse. It's in this light that John Merriman's recent book, Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune, begs to be read.
And now, merely two weeks after, how can one not read this book in the wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo? Understanding the French context has become necessary and urgent. And if you think you’ve read enough “Je suis Charlie” / “Je ne suis pas Charlie” opinion pieces, maybe this is a good time to dive into history in order to better understand those very French traditions embodied by the principle of laïcité. The following is an eclectic set of links—it reflects my general confusion about both yesterday’s France and today’s France (in spite of years of following the French media).
For more on The Paris Commune, watch this Yale lecture, and listen to this BBC program about the feminist anarchist Louise Michel and her role in the Commune. (Carolyn J. Eichner is the author of Surmounting the Barricades: Women in the Paris Commune, but for a faster read, I recommend her essay: "'Vive la Commune!' Feminism, Socialism, and Revolutionary Revival in the Aftermath of the 1871 Paris Commune".
(It’s also important to note that by separating the Church from the nation, the short-lived Paris Commune was a sure sign that a secular state was a possibility—and in 1905 it was finally a reality.)
Voltaire’s name has been invoked over and over again in the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and his Treatise on Tolerance seems relevant here.
When trying to find that one essential book on laïcité and issues like immigration and Islam, the main issue is that today’s French public discourse is mostly dominated by pseudo-intellectuals. So, are we supposed to flagellate ourselves (to borrow a word from Pascal Bruckner, who likes to talk of “l’auto-flagellation des Européens,” as in: “Stop reminding us of our colonial past! Collective amnesia FTW!”) and read something like Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide Français? Perhaps. For a genuine understanding, perhaps we do need to go through books written by men whose public personae could only elicit contempt. I particularly like this confrontation (no subtitles, unfortunately) between Zemmour and another writer described as controversial by the French media, Tariq Ramadan (his book on the Arab Spring, Islam and the Arab Awakening, is worth checking out).
The question that remains is: at what point does the principle of laïcité become an ideological weapon used against already marginalized citizens, citizens it’s supposed to serve equally? More specifically: does a too rigid laïcité contribute to an even greater marginalization of French Muslims? Because if today’s France is all about submission, and not negotiation, as Zemmour says, what hope is there for a progressive France that remains faithful to its foundation: liberté, égalité, fraternité?
January 23, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
-This week in Smart Peter: he introduced me to Agnès Varda. Here's a Believer interview with (essentially) her from 2009:
Six journalists sit around, drinking tea and coffee, all poised to interview her at once. She asks a newspaperman, “Did you get the press kit? It is full of information. You could even invent that you met me. Say, ‘We were in a little room. She had the light behind her because her eyes fear the light. And we had tea and coffee.’”
This interview is invented; many of the questions are made up. Of the questions that are asked here, I did not ask them all, but the answers are always Varda’s own. She was not interested in speaking to each reporter individually, and since her latest films, in particular, are more interested in the feeling of truth than the truth, there is no reason for me to argue with her method. I hope this interview conveys at least the feeling of the truth of speaking with Agnès Varda, if not the literal truth of the situation.
The feeling of truth is better than the truth! This is what Ben Lerner keeps saying, by which I mean: don't forget how much I love Ben Lerner.
-Also in untimely interviews I happened to read this week: Kathy Acker in BOMB: you MUST:
20. How often do you bathe? (circle one) Daily 5 4 3 2 1 times per week.
No one’s allowed in my house.
21. Do you brush your teeth after every meal?
-Here's a brief philosophical survey of lying. It includes the matter-of-factly passive-aggressive sentence, "One failing of much of the current work is that it is largely uninformed by the 2,000-plus years of writing on deception that has already been done by many of our greatest thinkers," which thankfully doesn't refer to the subject in question and thus is delightfully applicable to all current work.
-"A Modern History of Thirst"—the Awl, months ago—is also good.
-Oh, God! I almost forgot to link the Pitchfork interview with lovelorn Björk. READ IT!!!!!!!!!!
B: When I say that, it might come across that I’m incredibly wise. But it’s the other way around. I’m fucked and I’m trying to talk myself into it, like, "Go, girl! You can do it!" It’s me advising myself. It’s not me knowing it all—not at all. It’s just a certain route you just have to go; I went through it.
It’s really hard for me to talk about it. It really is in the lyrics. I’ve never really done lyrics like this, because they’re so teenage, so simple. I wrote them really quickly. But I also spent a long time on them to get them just right. It’s so hard to talk about the subject matter; it’s impossible—I’m sorry. [tears up] There’s so many songs about [heartbreak] that exist this in the world, because music is somehow the perfect medium to express something like this. When I did the interviews about Biophilia, I could talk for four hours about tech and education and science and instruments and pendulums—all the things we did. This one, I couldn’t put any of that stuff on top of it, because it has to be what it is. And I can’t talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want to, I’m not trying to be difficult. It really is all in there.
January 22, 2015
January 20, 2015
Very excited for several things forthcoming from New Directions, including early short stories from Rachel Kushner and Adventures in Immediate Irreality, which the White Review excerpted in its translation issue!:
I can picture myself as a small child wearing a nightshirt that comes down to my heels. I am weeping desperately, sitting on a doorstep that leads into a sun-drenched courtyard with an open gate and an empty square beyond, a hot, sad, noonday square with dogs sleeping on their stomachs and men stretched out in the shade of their vegetable stalls. The air is rife with the stench of rotten produce, and large purple flies are buzzing loudly in my vicinity, lighting on my hands to sip the tears that have fallen there, then circling frenetically in the dense, scorching light of the courtyard. I stand and urinate in the dust. I watch the earth avidly drink up the liquid. It leaves a dark spot, like the shadow of a non-existent object. I wipe my face with the nightshirt and lick the tears from the corner of my lips, savouring their salty flavour. I resume my seat on the threshold, feeling very unhappy: I have been spanked.
Psychosexual childhood memories are very trendy right now! Thanks Knausgaard.
January 19, 2015
Reading Outline by Rachel Cusk is like talking to your wise but ANNOYING friend who often does that thing: hinting very pointedly at deep, dark secrets and then refusing to tell you what they are or changing the subject to something possibly interesting but still not what you want to be talking about. It is simultaneously very boring and compelling, formally, especially, and not my favorite. There are great passages, though:
My argument with Angeliki [who's written a novel about a painter], he says, concerns her substitution of painting for writing, as if the two were interchangeable. The book is obviously about herself, he says, and yet she knows nothing at all about painting. In my experience painters are far less conventional than writers. Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal's fur: the deeper they're buried the better. I don't believe in her painter, he says, making the children's packed lunches in her state-of-the-art German kitchen while fantasising about sex with a young muscled androgyne in a leather jacket.
January 16, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
-The next installment in NY Mag's series of horrifying interviews from which you can't look away: you've seen it, you've felt deeply unsettled by it, you've proclaimed its deeply unsettling nature to all of the people you gchat: "What It's Like to Date Your Dad"
-More in particular, vaguely scientific human situations: "Meet the man who spent 12 years trapped inside his body watching 'Barney' reruns"
-An interview with "the artist and astrologer who we will [t]here know as The Jeane Dixon Effect" at the New Inquiry, focusing on LOVE, the best of all topics, as well as about how traditional astrology is gender-normative:
Astrology is not trying to trap you. It’s really more about holes, and all your ways out.
-Interview with Mark Danielewski at Bomb; haven't read it, don't know if it's good
-Interview with the Catalan writer Jaume Cabré at Guernica, about LANGUAGE; also haven't read it, also don't know if it's good!
January 14, 2015
In the January issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst writes about reading difficult works by women. Among them: Clarice Lispector with The Passion According to G. H., her book for those “whose souls are already formed.”
(Clarice Lispector was translated for the very first time into my native language (Romanian) recently—last year. I keep my fingers crossed and hope this translation of Near To the Wild Heart will be the beginning of a cult—especially since she's promoted as "the great witch of Brazilian literature.")
Lispector's work is no longer a secret discovered by a few in the know, but it has yet to reach the mainstream recognition of the writers she's often compared to (Kafka, Virginia Woolf).
Critics have found Lispector difficult to pin down. “Unclassifiable”, says Edmund White. “As though no one had ever written before”, says Colm Tóibín. Comparisons are invoked with Proust, Kafka, Joyce and, for the introspection, with Virginia Woolf. For Hélène Cixous, she is the very epitome of “écriture féminine” with her assault on binary logic and patriarchal logocentrism. Other parallels may be drawn with Emil Cioran, Amelia Rosselli, or possibly Paul Celan—each of them writers damaged by the tragedies of the 1930s and 40s. All were noted for the unremitting bleakness of their vision, the embrace of ignorance, the questioning of language, the feeling (to quote Peter Hainsworth, reviewing Rosselli’s Locomotrix in the TLS of June 29), “that sense is hovering at the edge of what can seem to make no sense at all”. But in Lispector’s case, each of these four books [Near to the Wild Heart, The Passion According to G.H., Agua Viva, A Breath of Life] ends by embracing a mysticism, part Catholic, part Jewish, that is also obscurely but rapturously cabalistic.
-Landeg White, “Unclassifiable Clarice Lispector” | Times Literary Supplement
In their praise of Clarice Lispector, most people have the rather off-putting tendency of leading with an emphasis on her looks. So does Benjamin Moser, the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. Even the covers for the new translations published by New Directions and edited by Moser are designed so that together they form her face. In a way, this is more than just the average sexist obsession with the looks of female writers. Clarice Lispector's face is indeed entrancing. It's one of those faces that can inspire essays like Barthes's "The Face of Garbo" from his Mythologies.
“Her eyes,” a friend of Clarice Lispector’s wrote, “had the dull dazzle of the mystic.” “I am a mystic,” she told an interviewer. “I have no religion, because I don’t like liturgy, ritual. A critic for Le Monde, in Paris, once said that I recalled Saint Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross – authors, incidentally, I never read. Alceu Amoroso Lima… I once called, asking to see him. He said: I know, you want to talk about God.”
Such was the fascination of Clarice Lispector’s mysterious figure, and so little known about her origins, that in her lifetime a whole body of legend sprang up around her. In this she resembled the Jewish saints of her homeland, the Hasidic zaddikim, “bearers of that irrational something,” mythic figures in their own day, about whom an “overwhelming wealth of tales” indissolubly mix “triviality and profundity, traditional or borrowed ideas and true originality.”
-Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
For Bookslut, Jenny McPhee wrote that Moser’s biography “struggles, and wonderfully fails, to bring us closer to the writer he describes as, ‘weird, mysterious, and difficult, an unknowable mystical genius far above, and outside, the common run of humanity.’” She further discusses the writing of Lispector in the framework of “écriture feminine.”
Rachel Kushner delved into the work of Lispector in her essay for Bookforum and tried to explain the myth surrounding the Brazilian writer.
I suspect the reason Lispector’s philosophical fiction has inspired such dramatic devotion is that people feel she is talking to them, about the most basic but complex human experience: consciousness, the alienating strangeness of what it is to be alive. She attempts to capture what it is to think our existence as we are in it—in the “marvelous scandal,” as Lispector puts it, of life. We are not a plain is, but an awareness of this is, which is to say totally cut off from the world by the human capacity to conceive our part in it.
Like Lacan, I blame language for this problem. Probably Lispector would too. But both of them, Lispector and Lacan, would agree it’s our only recourse, and both called upon the capacities of language to an extreme degree, one building a set of psychoanalytic theories based on language, the other flexing language and punctuation in the interest of ephemeral and barely graspable truths, not because she was part of any experimental movement, but out of something more like solitary and desperate need. “This is not a message of ideas that I am transmitting to you,” she declares in Água Viva, “but an instinctive ecstasy of whatever is hidden in nature and that I foretell.” And elsewhere, “The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself?”
-Rachel Kushner, “Lipstick Traces” | Bookforum
In her only TV interview, Lispector appears elusive as ever, giving answers that would be frustrating to any interviewer (“I don’t remember.”; “Sorry, I’m not going to answer.”) (via the Paris Review):
January 13, 2015
LOOK WHAT I GOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
OMG how is this not at the top of every “Most Anticipated for 2015” list?
There is, tangentially, however, a "10 Must-Read Academic Books for 2015" list at Flavorwire, by which I think they mean "10 Must-Read Books Published by University Presses for 2015," which is exciting, although they missed Jessa's.
January 12, 2015
Today's American Reader Day in Lettres entry is a good one, and that is not always true of American Reader Day in Lettres entries, so I'm flagging it for you. You might have missed how perfectly Henry Miller describes leaving the reality of somewhere you've traveled/particularly Greece, unless you're like every other pseudo-intellectual swooner and have the book of letters (he's sending this to Anaïs Nin, obviously):
Two weeks at sea, and it seems as though a curtain had fallen over the recent past. Greece has fallen back into the well of experience. Something happened to me there, but what it was I can’t formulate now. I am not on the high seas—I am in America already. America began at Piraeus, the moment I set foot on the boat. Greece is fading out rapidly, dying right before my eyes.
January 9, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
-No snark, I am sad. I have not read anything good about Charlie Hebdo, except possibly this sidestepping Freddie deBoer post, about sidestepping. Everyone is pre-emptive to the point of parody, or not particularly artfully avoiding live moral questions, "the ones that might lead us to a different place than the celebration of our own liberal righteousness." Max Read's explainer is informational, if not as historical as a Charlie Hebdo explainer should be. Here's an abrupt tonal shift.
-Marion Cotillard is astounding as a beautiful lower middle class French depressive with her lower middle class bra straps showing in Two Days, One Night; at one point she does not fall or wilt but spontaneously collapses to the floor, and you must watch her do it.
-I'm reading Zeno's Conscience/Confessions of Zeno, and it is great.
-Danielle Sherrod's interview with Galia Ackerman, the journalist who worked with FEMEN to write the book FEMEN, in the new issue of Bookslut is a frank and almost disturbingly unbiased-seeming conversation about the effects of the media on the group's activities:
The media everywhere look always for something new. So the girls were in a way obliged to go always further, to be more and more spectacular in order to continue to be newsmakers. A part of their radicalism can be explained this way. But they do not try to make themselves sexy. When a half-naked woman is entirely covered with graffiti, is there really a sex appeal?
-Cool-named Naomi Skwarna has an essay on Lorrie Moore as a literary mother figure in Hazlitt, and it's pretty fucking on point at times:
More than any other writer, Lorrie Moore conjures the maternal to me. Earth Mother, Joni Mitchell-loving, dancing-on-the-beach-at-sunset-with-hair-in-your-eyes, half-price-Luna-Bar-don’t-mind-if-I-do mother. A mother only becomes a mother when she has you—and in some ways, to read Lorrie Moore is to be reborn, if only as a person who has now read a Lorrie Moore story. They are stories that inform observations, joke algorithms, and personal syntax as much as any parent can.
January 8, 2015
And was this, we say, later, when it's over, really us? But it's impossible! How could that fool, that impossible actor, ever have been us? How could we have been that posturing clown? Who put that false laughter into our mouths? Who drew those insincere tears from our eyes? Who taught us all that artifice of suffering? We have been hiding all the time; the events, that once were so real, happened to other people, who resemble us, imitators using our name, registering in hotels we stayed at, declaiming verses we kept in private scrapbooks; but not us, surely not us, we wince thinking that it could ever have possibly been us.
And I suppose that she, too, in some obscure and difficult way, experienced, in spite of everything, the feeling over her own unreality. She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; everything may have been for her, too, somehow suspect. And yet, by all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love. We looked as much like lovers as lovers can look; and if I insist now that somehow, somewhere, a lie of a kind existed, a pretense of a kind, that somewhere within us our most violent protestations echoed a bit ironically, and that, full fathoms five, another motive lay for all we did and all we said, it may be only that like a woman after child birth we can never restore for ourselves the reality of pain, it is impossible to believe that it was we who screamed so in the ward or clawed so at the bedsheets or such sweats were ever on our foreheads, and that too much feeling, finally, makes us experience a sensation of unreality as acute as never having felt at all.
--Alfred Hayes, In Love; ditch your failing relationship and spend date night reading this little masterpiece
January 7, 2015
There's a cool event tonight at McNally Jackson for those of you who have fallen to the tyranny of New York: Laura Kipnis talking to Adelle Waldman about men. I would go—know thy enemy, amirite?—but I have plans to gallivant elsewhere.
I read Men (Kipnis's newest essay collection, organized loosely by type) fairly recently and Nathaniel P. last spring, and while I find everyone who classified the latter as "too real" because "it really spoke to their experience" insufferably boring, I acknowledge that's part of the point, that it's a book about how insufferable the people who would like it are. They're going to make a great pairing, and probably some jokes.
January 6, 2015
This month's New Yorker fiction podcast is not grindingly nasal or strangely breathy but rather pleasantly British. Good job not being annoying, Joseph O'Neill! Double good job on picking a Muriel Spark story, because not only is she great in being deeply unsettling in her subtle evocations of resentment, bitterness, and other types of negativity, but she is also in the January issue of Bookslut! Though I'm a little confused about JP Poole's review of Spark's essay collection on the Brontës there, because Poole seems to take some kind of issue with Muriel Spark's best negative qualities. Surely nonfiction is where we get to evoke negativity less subtly?
[Spark] is not interested in perpetuating the mythology or romance of the Brontës, her goal is to capture the core of their characters, warts and all. Unfortunately, her tactics don't make for a pleasurable reading experience. She plays the role of detective more so than critic, and, based on her essays, seems remarkably assured that her conclusions regarding the Brontës solve the case. Charlotte is overly dramatic and a "bitter" complainer. Anne is kind but talentless and "morosely religious." And Emily is a sort of sexless celibate, "chilled with melancholy." As Boyd Tonkin writes in his introduction, "Spark may love the Brontës and their work, but that does not mean she likes them very much."
Sounds like a very pleasurable reading experience to me. For more on Spark and her "extensive shit list," read this LRB review of another one of her essay collections, The Golden Fleece.
January 5, 2015
Image: Aoife Duffin in Annie Ryan's adaptation of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing for the 2014 Dublin Theatre Festival.
It's a book included on a lot of Best Of 2014 lists (those that do not include it are obviously irrelevant): A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. Charlotte Freeman reviews Girl for Bookslut: "an odd and dark book, a headlong rush through a painful and damp and unredeemed short life, a life narrated with such energy and fervor that the very structure of the sentence, of grammar and paragraph must be shoved out of the way in order for this voice to emerge."
I'll make use of the "not a native speaker" defense for the rather embarrassing, puzzling readerly state I found myself in when the first lines of Girl raised the question: how am I supposed to read this? And suddenly it was clear: the answer was in Billie Whitelaw's interpretation of Beckett's Not I. Or a more straightforward answer: just listen to McBride herself reading from Girl.
Whenever I come across a book like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing—a rare thing indeed—my first concern is that no publisher is going to touch it. Or worse: that the smart translators will stay away from it while the one brave enough to tackle such a difficult translation will butcher the entire book. It's no wonder reviewers and interviewers have fixated so much on the story of getting Girl published. It's one those great books that veered too close to remaining in a drawer while others that should have stayed there got published all too easily. The White Review interview focuses on the novel's incubation. On form:
THE WHITE REVIEW Your spare, highly focused approach puts me in mind of Robert Bresson in particular, an austere Catholic filmmaker.
I wouldn't say I particularly align myself with Bresson's aesthetic and I don't think it could be argued that my work is comparably austere, but the underlying aim of stripping away layers of artifice is one I identify with, not accepting the accepted impurities of form. That may be about the unshieldable nature of the Catholic conscience but I doubt it. Irish Catholicism is all about accepting impurities of form.
THE WHITE REVIEW
Impurities of form? Is purity always something to aim for? And to what extent does purity mean 'less' rather than 'more'?
I suppose the impurity in this instance refers to traditionally accepted drawbacks in any given form. For Bresson, one of those was the theatrical style of acting expected in films at the time. He dealt with it by stripping the actor out, almost completely, and the effect is powerful. So, yes, I do think purity is something to aim for and I can't think of an instance when it means more rather than less.
-Eimear McBride interviewed by David Collard, Interview with Eimear McBride | the White Review
This conversation at the 2014 Sydney Writers' Festival covers pretty much the same ground as the White Review interview, but it's worth listening just for the book excerpts that McBride reads.
Speaking of paying tribute, a reminder that McBride has contributed to Spolia's Henry James tribute:
First you are, she thinks. First. And then. Maybe fall down through. Dress slide mirror lens until sweet-mouthed go out into the world. Sweet and offer foam.
Nature pin shifts rain through the air. Lead street of lead city, she makes in there-rapped down hair mapping worlds on her skin. Coffee? Please. Milk? Please again. Quick working versions of her lateness for him. Thanks and. Hot! Hand hot ascend.
Hot in his hand so. Hello. Nice to meet have a seat. Am I late? Not, no. Plump in his proffered -sinus chubby with cigs- low flat seat ahead.
Do you mind if I? No, not a bit. Click and turn. Dictaphone. Can I say at the outset that I think what you've done is not like anything else. Thanks. But grilled flesh, she thinks she can smell it and it soon might be her own.
-Eimear McBride, "After 'The Private Life'" | Spolia
[Ed. note: I also loved it.]
January 2, 2015
Weekend Recommended Reading
I am hungover, so really the only thing I can think to tell you to read ("read," she says) is this old Tumblr, which I discovered because a stroke of pure genius spurred me to Google "writers and cats photos." I don't really like cats, by which I mean: they're OK, sometimes indeed delightful, but still just fucking cats, and you shouldn't let taking countless pictures of them distract you from ACTUAL INTELLECTUAL AND/OR POLITICAL CONCERNS. Nevertheless, there is pleasure in seeing ACTUAL INTELLECTUALS with their feline friends, probably because of the earned contrast. And the captions, especially the earlier ones, are the line-straddling kind of bizarre that makes you wonder whether they are genius or stupid. Repetition of "kitty" very funny.
December 31, 2014
Mr. Farebrother was aware that Lydgate was a proud man, but having very little corresponding fibre in himself, and perhaps too little care about personal dignity, except the dignity of not being mean or foolish, he could hardly allow enough for the way in which Lydgate shrank, as from a burn, from the utterance of any word about his private affairs. And soon after that conversation at Mr. Toller's, the vicar learned something which made him watch the more eagerly for an opportunity of indirectly letting Lydgate know that if he wanted to open himself about any difficulty there was a friendly ear ready.
The opportunity came at Mr. Vincy's, where, on New Year's Day, there was a party, to which Mr. Farebrother was irresistibly invited, on the plea that he must not forsake his old friends on the first new year of his being a greater man, and rector as well as vicar. And this party was thoroughly friendly: all the ladies of the Farebrother family were present; the Vincy children all dined at the table, and Fred had persuaded his mother that if she did not invite Mary Garth, the Farebrothers would regard it as a slight to themselve, Mary being their particular friend. Mary came, and Fred was in high spirits, though his enjoyment was of a checkered kind—triumph that his mother should see Mary's importance with the chief personages in the party being much streaked with jealousy when Mr. Farebrother sat down by her. Fred used to be much more easy about his own accomplishments in the days when he had not begun to dread being "bowled out by Farebrother," and this terror was still before him. VMrs. Vincy, in her fullest matronly bloom, looked at Mary's little figure, rough wavy hair, and visage quite without lilies and rose, and wondered; trying unsuccessfully to fancy herself caring about Mary's appearance in wedding clothes, or feeling complacency in grandchildren who would "feature" the Garths. However, the party was a merry one, and Mary was particularly bright; being glad, for Fred's sake, that his friends were getting kinder to her, and being also quite willing that they should see how much she was valued by others whom they must admit to be judges.
Mr. Farebrother noticed that Lydgate seemed bored, and that Mr. Vincy spoke as little as possible to his son-in-law. Rosamond was perfectly graceful and calm, and only a subtle observation such as the vicar had not been roused to bestow on her would have perceived the total absence of that interest in her husband's presence which a loving wife is sure to betray, even if etiquette keeps her aloof from him. When Lydgate was taking part in the conversation, she never looked toward him any more than if she had been a sculptured Psyche modeled to look another way: and when, after being called out for an hour or two, he re-entered the room, she seemed unconscious of the fact, which eighteen months before would have had the effect of a numeral before ciphers. In reality, however, she was intensely aware of Lydgate's voice and movements; and her pretty good-tempered air of unconsciousness was a studied negation by which she satisfied her inward opposition to him without compromise of propriety.
--The Middlemarch gang wishes you a New Year in which you never have to compromise your propriety in efforts to satisfy your inward oppositions.
December 30, 2014
Image: "L'Indifferent" (1717) by Jean-Antoine Watteau.
I have been struggling to envision my end-of-year CONTENT STRATEGY because of the pressure to holiday theme; I am (I think, though it's hard to tell because SUBJECTIVITY IS A BOBBING RAFT ON THE RIVER OF TIME) even more anxious than usual about WHAT TO BLOG ABOUT because I feel whatever I blog about must be related somehow to the season, which is thank-God-ending on the day after tomorrow so that we may all get back to hating normal things about our lives instead of hating abnormal ones. There are two ways one can go with the New Year's content, forwards or backwards, and neither is appealing, the light up ahead shining a little painfully brightly, the darkness behind being such because my life notes are sporadic and indecipherable and interspersed with elaborate code words for passwords to websites I can't remember, at best. A friend asked me if I "did" resolutions or "believed" in them, and I said I neither disbelieved in them nor did them because the New Year is arbitrary and besides I lived my life always resolving to "be great," "make enough money," "not embarrass myself in front of professional contacts," "never, if I achieve any of these things, espouse that insecure self-satisfaction that leads people to detail their weekly bulk preparation of semi-liquid foodstuffs to promote health and cost consciousness, 'First, I get a can of chickpeas, and then I drain them but keep the juice in a separate—'" etc. This is a strategy that allows me to disappoint myself more than if I actually said I was going to, I don't know, read 1.5-2 books a week or write not-blog stuff for at least one hour per day (obviously) or reply to emails at time of receipt instead of 18 days later. (The implication being that these are all things I would like to do and would resolve to do if I were more convinced of my cold, candy-eating winter self's ability to do anything but complain and eat candy.) (Emily Gould's here is also something I've thought about.) Anyway, the point is I don't want to go either way, backwards or forwards, thinking-wise, but I also don't want to stay here. Luckily, SUBJECTIVITY IS A BOBBING RAFT ON THE RIVER OF TIME, and we are very close to January, whose theme I designated last year as FEMALE SEXUAL AWAKENING MONTH, and the content for that can go in just so many more DIRECTIONS.
Anyway, in sum: YOU HAVE A BIT MORE THAN 24 HOURS TO SUBMIT TO THE SPOLIA NEMESIS ISSUE. And Jessa is actually talking about books over at the Spolia blog, too.
December 29, 2014
I've made a variation of this joke before, but 'tis the season for revisiting: if I make t-shirts that read KEEP IT IN YOUR JOURNAL, PAL, would anyone buy them?
December 23, 2014
Smart Peter has sent me a tangential email about yesterday's already tangential post about paying writers. I agree with him; this is not really what I was talking about, so I agree even more:
yes, all of these debates are tiring. because we never get anywhere. still: the point is not that anyone deserves to get paid for what they enjoy doing, but that society relies on a bunch of people pursuing things that aren't the profit motive and exploits them. and that is wrong and destructive. because it feeds into the myth that capitalism is, like, A–OK because it's generating all of this wonderful stuff and people can make meaningful lives in it. no! no! no! no! people are making more money than ever on writing. facebook and google and twitter are all essentially publishers. the value is only very marginally in the platform–it's in the content. but the people who own the platform get rich while the people who own the content do not. like, increasingly, i don't give a shit if literature as we know it continues to exist. it's rotten to the core, anyway. but that fuckwad venture capitalists not get to think that they're "job creators" because they are taking ways people create meaning in life and using them to get obscenely wealthy? that i care about.
December 22, 2014
I am sitting on a Bolt Bus to Washington DC thinking about the situation of our delicate publishing industry and eating "nature's perfect snack," i.e., beet chips. People keep talking to me about the travesty of the non-payment of writers, assuming, I assume, that I will climb to the top of my platform and lament louder than but nevertheless still ultimately with them, and let's be real: I wouldn't be on this Bolt Bus to Washington DC, from which point I will embark on a subsequent six-hour car journey, if I and my family weren't totally unable to shell out $400+ for me to fly to West Virginia to see them. The Bolt Bus isn't so bad, no, but planes are so much better, even the Bolt Bus-esque ones that rattle into Charleston's Yeager Airport; also, I just broke my nice headphones by standing up to stretch and yanking the cord connecting them to my lifeblood/computer, such that the whatever-is-the-word-for-the-opposite-of-the-headphone-jack bent sharply, cutting off all future sound to my right or left ear, depending. Nevertheless, despite being in this want of money, I'm very tired of talking about how writers deserve to be paid, especially because I feel that much of this discussion is off, somehow, self-righteous and weird. Not only does it make me/writers out to be victims when we have made conscious choices—usually fraught choices, but conscious ones—to be poor. But also: what is "deserving"? Do people "deserve" to be able to do what they love and make money for, usually, being not that great at it? It doesn't help that many of the complainers seem to me particularly undeserving, if that concept is valid at all. They also don't seem to realize that sometimes you have to copyedit some bullshit, or that you don't have to just take any opportunity to publish something for the sake of publishing something, especially if you're only getting paid $50 for it, from an outlet that is done many favors by the frequent conflation of "popular" and "good."
Anyway, here is something either tangentially or not even at all related: last night I got my Shklovsky back, and in it is a beautiful passage that may or may not have some parallels to certain aspects of the "content" situation, as well as very effectively convey the way I have stopped caring about a lot of things because the forces of annoyance within them are absurd or petty:
When I was not yet thirty and did not yet know loneliness and did not know that the Spree is narrower than the Neva and did not sit in the Pension Marzahn, whose landlady did not permit me to sing at night while I worked, and did not tremble at the sound of a telephone—when life had not yet slammed the door to Russia shut on my fingers, when I thought that I could break history on my knee, when I loved to run after streetcars . . .
"When a poem was best of all
Better even than a well-aimed ball"—
(something like that)
. . . I disliked Grzhebin immensely. [...] I thought Grzhebin cruel for having gulped down so much Russian literature.
Now, when I know that the Spree is thirty times narrower than the Neva, when I too am thirty, when I wait for the telephone to ring—though I've been told not to expect a call—when life has slammed the door on my fingers and history is too busy to even write letters, when I ride on streetcars without wanting to capsize them, when my feet lack the unseeing boots they once wore and I no longer know how to launch an offensive . . .
. . . now I know that Grzhebin is a valuable product. [...]
But, Alya, don't you know who Grzhebin is? Grzhebin's a publisher; he published the almanac Sweetbriar, he published Pantheon and now he seems to have the most important publishing house in Berlin.
In Russia, between 1918 and 1920, Grzhebin was buying manuscripts hysterically. It was a disease—like nymphomania.
He was not publishing books then. And I frequently called on him in my unseeing boots and I shouted in a voice thirty times louder than any other voice in Berlin. And in the evening I drank tea at his place. [...]
I hereby give the following testimony: Grzhebin is no businessman.
Grzhebin is a Soviet-type bourgeois, complete with delirium and frenzy.
Now he publishes, publishes, publishes! The books come running, one after another; they want to run away to Russia, but are denied entry.
They all bear the trademark: Zinovy Grzhebin.
Two hundred, three hundred, four hundred–soon there may be a thousand titles. The books pile on top of each other; pyramids are created and torrents, but they flow into Russia drop by drop.
Yet here in the middle of nowhere, in Berlin, this Soviet bourgeois raves on an international scale and continues to publish new books.
Books as such. Books for their own sake. Books to assert the name of his publishing house.
This is a passion for property, a passion for collecting around his name the greatest possible quantity of things. This incredible Soviet bourgeois responds to Soviet ration cards and numbers by throwing all his energy into the creation of a multitude of things that bear his name.
"Let them deny my books entry into Russia," says he—like a rejected suitor who ruins himself buying flowers to turn the room of his unresponsive beloved into a flower shop and who admires this absurdity.
An absurdity quite beautiful and persuasive. So Grzhebin, spurned by his beloved Russia and feeling that he has a right to live, keeps publishing, publishing, publishing [...]
When you sell Grzhebin manuscripts, he drives a hard bargain, but more out of propriety than greed.
He wants to demonstrate to himself that he and his business are real.
December 19, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
I haven't read this (about, what else, realism vs. reality in, where else, the LRB) yet, but I'm going to, later. I have left another book in a drinking establishment; this time it was ZOO, or Letters Not About Love by Viktor Shklovsky, which I didn't pick up because of this Year in Reading column but was pleasantly surprised to see there, though I wouldn't say it "may be the perfect book." It has some really beautiful parts, and I think I would appreciate it more if I knew really anything about Russian futurism, but we could say that of so many things in this life, couldn't we?
-At Vice, I interviewed Erin Gee, an artist and composer who just finished a years-long project orchestrating robots that respond to human emotion. She is incredibly smart, a quality she graciously lent to my questions about the robot takeover. I wanted to call it "Feels on Wheels" (!), but oh well:
Some people will see this as utopic, others terrifying—I think if technological work is too comfortable, it becomes a technocratic pat on the back for a smug audience that wants to feel good about a comfortable, naturalized future where everything is the same except that it is Plexiglas and backlit and more convenient. I am not sure that I succeed in making this work creepy enough, actually. I hope to make it creepier in the future.
-Here's a great essay at the Verso Books blog about "Xmas" and the fallacy of hating it because it represents excessive consumption. Also, paganism, childhood, etc.; I would like to quote the whole thing, but I won't:
That the critique of Xmas as 'consumerism' is a pseudo-critique is easily seen. What is supposedly wrong is the 'excessive' consumption of Xmas. This lets supposedly normal consumption off the hook. Genuine critique would of course start from the reverse premise: Only excessive consumption is of any interest because it is outside the realm of calculation. So-called 'normal' consumption is what calls for critique. The purely excessive, aesthetic consumption, the gift from nowhere, is the only defensible form, and not only of consumption, but also of the gift.
-And do you know what? I read this review of The Dog by Joseph O'Neill (at The Nation) and thought I found it unremarkable, but actually I'm still thinking about it, so here we are:
Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog is a study in paralysis and its close cousin, inertia. The novel’s narrator, who we know only by his first initial, X., is a lawyer: highly employable, well paid and free to roam through the world as he pleases. Yet he feels himself imprisoned by his own mental habits and obsessions. Two of these are intertwined: the fear of doing something wrong, and the belief that unimpeachably correct decisions are impossible. Because he can’t know what effect his actions will have—“one always goes forward in error”—X. tries to keep his decisions as inconsequential as possible. Even the private act of thinking is suspect because, as X. sees it, “to interpret is to misinterpret.” Gossip, the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of others behind their backs, disgusts him. “One should not entertain rumors about others,” he tells us, “not even for the purpose of dismissing them, because to do otherwise is silently to accept the premise of the rumors, which is that people have a right to call balls and strikes about how other people lead their private lives.” Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the person X. is most concerned with protecting is X., and his altruistic theories are, at least in part, the elaborate expression of a guilty conscience.
December 18, 2014
Image: Aleister Crowley in your next Halloween costume.
In the November issue of Bookslut, Coco Papy interviews Peter Bebergal, whose new book Season Of The Witch delves into the darker side of rock'n'roll – its flirtation with the occult. Peter Bebergal: "rebelling spiritually by way of devilish imagery and occult symbols is a perfect complement to music that is attempting to push up against the mainstream, to carve out something new, and to quickly inform your fans and the media that you are dangerous, or in on something secret." The occult contributed to the creation of a richer mythology around groups like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and others but it did more than that: it permeated the entire culture of the decades that gave us these musicians. For more on the influence of the occult on music and pop culture, I suggest we take a look at the writings of Gary Lachman – the musician (a founding member of Blondie) turned prolific writer on all things occult.
One of his earliest books relevant to this context is Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, in which Lachman traces the origins of the occult revival in the '60s and charts its influence on literature and music. One of the key moments in the occult revival, according to Lachman, was the publication of The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, which was soon followed by their magazine Planète.
As Mircea Eliade, historian of religion, said of this 'dawn of magic', 'what was new and exhilarating... was the optimistic and holistic outlook... in which human life again became meaningful and promised an endless perfectibility'. Man was called to 'conquer his physical universe and to unravel the other, enigmatic universes revealed by occultists and gnostics'. He was also called on to create a new world, a better civilization, free of the prejudices and superstitions of the past. As Eliade recalls, the book made a reader feel that the most exciting moment in history was happening right then, and that he or she was part of it. Pauwels and Bergier brought together the future and the past, science and mysticism, philosophy and the occult, with a powerful, inspiring optimism and a new vision of human society - just about everything the sixties were about. When, in 1969, the first man set foot on the moon, and half a million love children 'set their souls free' at the tribal gathering at Woodstock – the two events happened within weeks of each other – the occult decade came to an end as it had started, with Pauwels and Bergier's vision of futuristic science and ancient wisdom.
-Gary Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius
In the 60s the occult was merely fashion
People like Jagger might have temporarily had an interest in the occult but he's much like Bowie in the sense that he picked up on lots of different things; he was a real tactician and he had a sense that by the end of the 60s it was heading to some kind of bang-up thing. Kenneth Anger was one of the most influential because he came over from San Fransisco in Haight Ashbury. He came at the right time because there was a magazine called The International Times and they had done a spread on Crowley and Anger was deep into Crowley's works. He got close to the Stones and I think Jagger picked up on it. A lot of it was fashion and fun and naive in an innocent way. Now I think you would find people who are much more acutely aware and correct about occult references in rock albums. It's not the same as in the late 60s/early 70s where it was this strange thing that just came in. There was Black Sabbath once and now there's 25 different Black Sabbath types of bands all with their own iconography. It all becomes these subcultures and they're no doubt arguing with each other.-David Moats, "Magick and Me: Blondie’s Gary 'Valentine' Lachman on the Occult | The Quietus
In the same Quietus feature, Gary Lachman talks about Aleister Crowley not being the best way to introduce people to the occult despite his undeniable role in the revival of the occult. Aleister Crowley is the subject of one of Lachman’s latest books, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World.
Gary Lachman in dialogue with Tobias Churton, the author of another book on Crowley, Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin: Art, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic:
My favourite bit of Crowley is his early “Scientific Illuminism” phase, when he was much more focused on consciousness – my own central interest – and less so on magick. Much of him from this time can be read with great profit; he writes clearly, vigorously, and more times than not to the point. But all the rebel stuff can be learned from other writers and thinkers, without all the collateral damage that accompanies Crowley. Anything on that point that we can learn from Crowley I believe we can learn from, say, Blake – who, as you know, said “do what thou wilt” a century or so earlier. But Blake, as all good self-transformers do, knew his limits: “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” and more apt “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”-Gary Lachman and Tobias Churton, "The Lore and Lure of Aleister Crowley: A Dialog" | Reality Sandwich
Since we’re already at Reality Sandwich, let’s go back to Season of the Witch:
Page’s willingness to discuss his fascination with Crowley and magick ebbed and flowed. But over many years of interviewing Page, Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski was able to gain confidence with the reticent guitarist, and in their conversations a clearer picture emerged. With Tolinski, Page admits that his esoteric inquisitiveness was not limited to Crowley, but took in the whole spectrum of “Eastern and Western traditions of magick and tantra.” But the media found Crowley an easy mark for referencing a sinister figure par excellence, and he made for more interesting interview questions than, say, an obscure grimoire. Nevertheless, Crowley did represent for Page the very best example of “personal liberation.” As a young man with unlimited money and access to drugs, Page took it literally: “By the time we hit New York in 1973 for the filming of The Song Remains the Same, I didn’t sleep for five days!”
But the cultural truth is much more important than even how Page talks about the occult at different stages in his life. Culture is where the story of the occult and rock is created, not in coy interviews with musicians. Along the trajectory of a band’s life, the facts are akin to mythology, a grand narrative that as is as much about how the myth gets transmitted as it is about the how the myth gets made. But for Led Zeppelin, their mystique was grounded in something intentional, something that was as much a part of what they conceived and gave birth to as it was the frenzied media and fan speculation. Page tells Tolinski, “I was living it. That’s all there is to it. It was my life—that fusion of music and magick.”
-Peter Bebergal, "Led Zeppelin’s Dance with the Occult" | Reality Sandwich
December 16, 2014
Some notes on our call for submissions to the Nemesis issue of Spolia:
1) You should submit to the Nemesis issue of Spolia.
2) Spolia is our sister literary magazine published as a PDF at some interval; they take fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork. The last issue featured a new story from Eimear McBride. This is the manifesto denouncing "self-expression" and other misguided motivations in the current literary climate.
3) Spolia pays contributors, which I did not know until Friday.
4) Word limit: 5,000.
5) THAT'S 5,000 WORDS MAXIMUM.
6) Submissions go to CORINNA: corinnapichl [at] googlemail.com
7) AS A .DOC FILE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No PDFS!!!! Corinna is like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest except that instead of wire hangers she does not want PDFS!!!!
8) On that .DOC FILE!!!!!!!!!!!!: include your name. Ideally, also put your name in the file name. "LaurenOyler_WroteThisGreatStory.doc" is what it should look like.
9) In case you are lazy and do not want to look at the original call for submissions, know that if you are a man, you have to submit with a woman; we only got submissions from dudes last time we had an open call, so we are trying to fix that this time by requiring all males to bring a female-created work (babies don't count) with theirs.
December 15, 2014
Man-on-the-NYU Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House Interview
LO: What are you doing right now?
MFA student 1: Me? What am I doing right now?
LO: Yes, you. I need something to blog about.
MFA1: I'm doing an erasure project of Dracula.
Distinguished visiting poet: You're erasing Dracula?
MFA1: Yes, I'm erasing all of it.
DVP: That's fantastic! That's exactly what the book is about! Sucking the blood out of it!
MFA1: If you wanna blog about me, that would be kinda awesome.
MFA student 2: Alright, I should go to class now.
Epilogue: turns out distinguished visiting poet used to "smoke dope" with MFA student 1's uncle.
December 13, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Sorry it's Saturday! I am very tired and everyone around me is talking about real estate. It's funny that people care so much about this, about massive two-bedrooms at prices unheard of around here, because nothing matters! And you would think that humans of such discernment would know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, but whatever. Whatever, I say! I'm pissed off.
-I just read that very long New York Magazine interview with a man who "date[s]" horses. "I feel like my sexual development was bang on." I quote a pun because most of the piece is VERY uncomfortable.
-Also in New York Magazine, an extremely tired personal essay in which the writer is unsettled by her ex-boyfriend's novel because it has a character based on her in it. Read 10:04; it is about fictionalizing and illustrates why this is a sentiment unworthy of a lackluster personal essay. "Perhaps, I thought, if I had had more affairs, I would have more inspiration"—yes, this is almost certainly true. There is, however, a hilarious comment:
Dearest Chloe your writing conveys to me you do not fully accept yourself--likely because you've never taken steps to understand who you really are. Let me express a secret that will amaze most NY'ers. Let this sink deep into your consciousnesses! your not your creation..your the creating. You can call it zen or mindfulness titles are irrelevant what is relevant though is dropping self delusions and surrendering to the creative process. You've given into a fickle ego in constant concern with societal appearances always judging "this looks good" or "oo this is ugly". It is beneficial in your current position that you've found a mate that you feel creatively superior over--you obviously saw the author as competition(and still do) this stance makes all unions hell. If you've ever been with child and suckled them you'll have a deep root in creative energy. Draw on this. The breasts are the positive poles of the female body and the creative centers that nourish life. A simple and very powerful technique well over 5,000+ years old--bring your awareness to both nips simultaneously(if this is difficult you can visualize them as two small blue spheres) that's it! very unappealing to the mind because it so simple. Soon with little effort you will see vivid geometrical patterns being created akin to a kaleidoscope. The same tantra can be done by males by focusing on the groin(root of penis). Likely your too prideful to play with this but maybe someone will :)
-My friend Peter, the smart one I'm often talking about, published a blog post about how reading about what other people have read online is like watching porn online. But worse! (Hi, Peter.)
-Smart Peter also showed me Five Books, which is a website with tons of interviews with smart people about five books—get it—they recommend on topics of their expertise. It's kind of like In Our Time but actually interesting. I'm reading, under "How to be good," about lying right now. Up next is either "Chick Lit" or "Espionage," depending on how my run goes.
December 11, 2014
Top 10 Things I Wanted to Read in 2014 but Didn't
1. Anna Karenina
2. Literally anything the New Yorker unlocked during its summer-long redesign celebration
3. Something about science
4. A third Ben Lerner novel
5. A fourth Ben Lerner novel
7. New Tab by Guillaume Morissette
8. Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
9. A satisfying description of who Amanda Palmer is
10. Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns by David Margolick
December 10, 2014
Hello from Drunk Town! Since Susan Sontag is even more trendy than usual this week—the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag came out on the 8th—I'm going to remind you that I did a long interview with Daniel Schreiber, who wrote Susan Sontag: A Biography. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same. They don’t have this...
DS: Glamour—that’s the way Sontag did it. That’s the way Sontag was able to have this position for that long, because she brought a new sensibility to it—staging and creating this person. And that’s why she became this media persona.
LO: Do you think her being that way affected the decline of intellectualism?
DS: No. That’s just a cultural movement, you see it everywhere. In Europe it happened a bit later than in the US. People in general are not interested in smart people anymore.
Also, Emily St. John Mandel's review of the documentary is good.
December 9, 2014
I went to the Franklin Park reading series last night. I keep thinking I want to go to readings when what I actually want is to be among a humanity likely to have something to talk to me about, the choice between leaning against the bar looking skeptical and actually plausibly engaging with a stranger. In reality, I spend the majority of readings waiting for the readings to be over, at which point I spend a needlessly long and needlessly stressing several minutes wondering if I should talk to the people who have read, despite having nothing to say to them, just wanting to ingratiate my annoying, attention-seeking self into the sphere of literature in some way. Readings are almost always better for the writers than for the listeners. (Indeed, I like doing readings; I'm in one tonight.) Time flies if you're reading because you have adrenaline and a legitimate task to occupy your existence for 5-15/longer (God) minutes; time drags if you're listening because shitty writing often sounds decent, fuller, when read aloud, but it's still shitty writing so it's not that captivating, and you get the sense that if you were reading this on the page it would seem like the font were too big and the line spacing too wide. And even really good writing read aloud is rarely captivating enough to hold attention, unless the writer is also a good reader, which rarely happens, even when Flavorwire says otherwise. Either way, you always stop paying attention long enough to miss the jokes, the brief releases from having to sit nicely and quietly and respectfully like a nice and quiet and respectful little girl. This is not what I go to bars for!
My nail-in-coffin justification for showing up is that I can write about them for the blog, but what do I have to say? "Rivka Galchen was good; she is a master of conveying interrupted dialogue and generally confidently understated. Her kid cried a few times throughout. The crowd was mainly comprised of stylish glasses and hidden resentments. Everyone wanted to go to the bathroom but felt bad about walking in front of the readers to do so; some did anyway, others waited until the breaks." It already happened, so my recommending it—and it is a good reading series, as far as reading series go!—is relatively meaningless. Books are not indie bands; I think we need to recognize and accept that.
December 8, 2014
WE WANT: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews, True Love Unconstrained by Conventionally Limited Understandings of Intimacy
Now, a word from our Jessa:
The last time we had an open call for submission to Spolia [ed: it's our sister literary magazine], we received work only from men. Don't get us wrong—we love men. I know we publish disproportionately, more women than men, so maybe you have a hard time believing us when we say that, but it's true. Some of my best friends are men. But having 100% men, that's just too many men.
So we are opening up submissions for our next issue of Spolia, "Nemesis." And let's do this like a group sex party. If you are a man and you'd like to submit something, you also have to bring us a submission by a woman. A piece by a woman that you translated, a piece by a woman who is probably better than you but usually unconcerned with publishing her genius, a co-signed email by a woman friend or romantic partner or daughter or lady off the street—all work as double submissions.
Which is to say, also: Women, we would like you to submit work to us. Ladies get in free. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art. Something that relates to the theme of Nemesis. (And I know you women out there know a thing or two about nemeses, so get to it.) By the end of the year.
Email Corinna Pichl (corinnapichl [at] googlemail.com] with your submission; we'd be glad to have you.
And while we're on the subject, Bookslut is also in need of contributors. We have no gender-based rules here. You can be a dude and write us, we're okay with that. But also women are encouraged.
We are especially in need of: an arts columnist and nonfiction reviewers. Those are our primary concerns at the moment. But: if you have a genius idea for a column, we are always open to hearing those. And if you have I don't know, essays! interviews! feature ideas! we are also open to those. Did you write 8000 words on French Freudian Julia Kristeva and you think no one will ever want to see that? We want to see that! Etc.
You will be wanting to email Corinna for these, too. But everyone should always be wanting to email Corinna because she is a light in my otherwise dreary life, she is so good. But probably stick to business for now; let her warm up to you.
December 5, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Everything is shit! But
-2014 was the year of the lame Kafka fanboy essay; Rivka Galchen's review of volumes 2 and 3 of Reiner Stach's Kafka biography (1 having been saved for last in hopes that "the papers in the Max Brod estate—a mysterious suitcase full of documents—would exit the apartment of the septuagenarian daughter of Max Brod’s presumed lover, but the destiny of those papers remains in legal dispute") is not that. Rather, it is brilliant. (It starts slow—persevere. The LRB is not for click monsters.)
What emerges from this pattern of Kafka’s behaviour is a sense not just of a character who can never commit – the comic character who commits ends the series – but also of how powerful he is, and how ambivalent he is about being powerful. With both women and men, Kafka fairly effortlessly elicits their love. ‘You belong to me,’ he writes to Milena Jesenskà after she has inquired about translating his work; though sceptical at first, Jesenskà quickly responds to him, as nearly everyone does. A Hungarian doctor, Robert Klopstock, whom Kafka meets at a sanatorium, is similarly enamoured, and he seems to move to Prague mostly to be nearer to Kafka, who then disappoints him with his reclusiveness. Kafka seems unable to refrain from inciting affection, which he then finds overwhelming and retreats from. In a letter to Else Bergman, who along with her husband had emigrated to Jerusalem, and who is asking Kafka about his plans to move, Kafka writes: ‘That the voyage would have been undertaken with you would have greatly increased the spiritual criminality of the case. No, I could not go that way, even if I had been able – I repeat, and “all berths are taken,” you add.’ Kafka does not come across as a very sexual person in this biography – not at all, really – but he understands the power involved in sexuality. He pursues positions of seeming inferiority, as he tries to both exercise and abdicate his magnetism.
-Also in the LRB, Christian Lorentzen's review of George W. Bush's 41: A Portrait of My Father (and its reviews) is good, by which I mean: very mean. "I confess to a bit of nostalgia for the nihilism that came with being governed by George W. Bush."
-Speaking of Kafka, though: remember when Zadie Smith was working on a Kafka musical? Alternatively: Zadie Smith was working on a Kafka musical!
-At aeon, a couple of weeks ago, Nina Strohminger wrote on the link between identity (yay I am special) and morality (ugh other people are also special). See also: souls (what are they?), memory (probably not inextricably bound to our senses of self, as Locke thought), and Breaking Bad (which I never watched but think I get the gist of):
The danger of befriending psychologists is they will use you as their test subjects: I inquired what kind of change would render her unrecognisable. My friend responded without hesitation: ‘If she stopped being kind. I would leave her immediately.’ He considered the question a few moments more. ‘And I don’t mean, if she’s in a bad mood or going through a rough time. I’m saying if she turned into a permanent bitch with no explanation. Her soul would be different.’
This encounter is instructive for a few reasons (not least of which is the intriguing term ‘permanent bitch’) but let’s start with my friend’s invocation of the soul. He is not religious and, I suspect, does not endorse the existence of a ghost in the machine. But souls are a useful construct, one we can make sense of in fiction and fantasy, and as a shorthand for describing everyday experience. The soul is an indestructible wisp of ether, present from birth and surviving our bodies after death. And each soul is one of a kind and unreplicable: it bestows upon us our unique identity. Souls are, in short, a placeholder notion for the self.
-If nothing else: the Wikipedia entry for "Futurist meals".
December 4, 2014
Image: From the "Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, & The Order of Things" exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art.
In the November issue of Bookslut, Micah McCrary reviews The Missing Pieces (Les unités perdues) by Henri Lefebvre (the other Henri Lefebvre). The book is an inventory of things forgotten, lost or never materialized. For more lists and inventories in literature, here are a few suggestions:
The Missing Pieces is interesting, though not good—it is frustratingly selective, sometimes objectively inaccurate, and awkwardly variegated in syntax, tense, and curatorial attitude—and it might, at best, be considered grist for the ouroboric corpus of what Spanish pseudo-novelist Enrique Vila-Matas calls "the literature of the No." But Lefebvre's thrall to the muse of inexistence serves a worthy purpose here, for in it we can glimpse the empty spaces in both Levé's hermetic echo chamber and Perec's ceaseless search for wholeness: we see that the once-was and the never-been are unified by the manipulation of what is lost in both space and time, propelled by the search for something beyond the present—both in the sense whose opposite is past or future, and in the sense whose opposite is absence.
-Daniel Levin Becker, "Beaux Absents: On Inventorying What Does Not Exist" | Music & Literature
Recognizing that the list of literary listers could go on and on, Belknap narrows his focus to examples from Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. He finds both stylistic and philosophical reasons for Emerson's uses of lists. Stylistically they echo Biblical passages, and, more importantly, lists allow Emerson to philosophically articulate and enact his trailblazing transcendental philosophies of correspondence and unity in diversity. By itemizing what appear as random units of the natural world in an indiscriminate nominal list—as when in Nature he enumerates a "leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time"—Emerson shows that everything is equal, is "related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole." No one item is more significant than the next; each "is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world."
-Tim Kindseth, The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing by Robert E. Belknap | Bookslut
In 2009 Elissa Bassist wrote about Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and the list of phobias that challenges readers' expectations about what a novel should look like. Some of the phobias Bassist cites:
The weirder fears:
Clinophobia: "fear of beds" (how to deal with the problem: ?sleeping on the floor and never going into a bedroom?)
Tricophobia: "fear of hair" (where some "cases end in suicide")
Verbophobia: "fear of words" (Verbophobia is more than not speaking "because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence." Another name for fear is Logophobia.)
Vestiphobia: "fear of clothes" (which is "more widespread than you'd expect")
Gynophobia: "fear of women" (this "naturally afflicts only men" and is "very widespread in Mexico . . . almost all Mexican men are afraid of women")
-Elissa Bassist, "Verbophobia: About the Phobias in Roberto Bolaño's 2666" | The Rumpus
For even more literary lists, here's a 15-item one from Flavorwire: "15 of the Greatest Lists in Literature".
December 3, 2014
December 2, 2014
Well, it's not like I can talk about the books I'm reading, can I? But I also don't want to talk about my Bad Feminist piece, because I've been talking about that piece for months and because I haven't really read what has been expressed to me, directly and indirectly, through various media, as the "wagon circling," "the brigade," "outrage Twitter," etc. I know that makes me sound like a douchey pointed highground-taker, or it makes me sound like I have a douchey amount of self-control that I swear I have never had before in my life, or it could be misconstrued as me being "uninterested in discourse." But, actually, Twitter just seems stupid! Are there even response pieces? I don't know! I have always frowned in frustrated disbelief when people use the "¯\_(ツ)_/¯" guy in response to concerns that appear powerful in terms of popular opinion or ultimate Truth, but now: I feel liberated from the chains of popular opinion! The original Dolly Parton version of "I Will Always Love You" just came on in this cafe! I spilled a glass of water earlier, but none of it got on my computer! Read the interview with Caren Beilin we published!
December 1, 2014
The December issue of Bookslut is up, and it's particularly great, and I'm not just saying that because I have a huge critique of Bad Feminist in it, though I'm not not saying it because I have a huge critique of Bad Feminist in it, either. You should read that—it's about the fallacy of contemporary feminist discourse as a team effort, artistic accountability, the Internet (per usual), rape, why quality of writing is actually really fucking important you lazy assholes, FEELINGS, etc.
As Gay writes of the anger gaslighting in Hannah Rosin’s book, The End of Men, this is a “clever rhetorical move”; her rejection of “having a consistent position” allows her to deflect any potential criticism with a shield of feelings. This strategy has been construed as empowering, a sort of Fuck you! Feminism means I do what I want!, but it’s empowerment for the sake of empowerment rather than for any kind of progress. I don’t want to suggest that feelings -- which are traditionally relegated to the lesser realm of the female but are actually great -- are insignificant material for thoughtful, incisive, and/or valuable essays. Zadie Smith always writes about emotions in her New York Review of Books column; Kathy Acker is full of feelings; Doris Lessing is always brilliantly, lucidly fraught; it could be argued that Elizabeth Hardwick’s critical career is rooted in conflicts among what she thinks should be and what she experiences and what she feels about both. These feelings, examined critically as evidence or counterevidence of larger psychological or sociological or societal or artistic (which is really the same as the previous three) trends, are something very different from the feelings in Bad Feminist. The feelings in Bad Feminist are a series of sometimes-related statements, tossed into the world with only the author to connect them to it.
The body is running (get it???) through this issue. This month's Forgotten Twentieth Century column by Nicholas Vajifdar—on whom I made a regrettably terrible impression at the Daphne Awards; I love his stuff—is about "Introduction to These Paintings," an "ultra-weird, ultra-charismatic piece of writing" by D.H. Lawrence:
The English, begins Lawrence, are generally much worse at painting than other nations, especially in the last few centuries. (He excludes Blake from this judgment.) And this failure stems from their horror of the human body; they depict flesh as something shameful, and you would hardly guess that we are sexual creatures underneath these petticoats and smoking jackets. But why do the English fear the body? After all, he says, Chaucer is so bawdy and uninhibited. Something must have gone wrong to make the Anglo-Saxons so fearful. And Lawrence has a very tidy answer: syphilis. Think of Queen Elizabeth with her bald eyebrows and rotting teeth and infertility, he says; think of Hamlet with his obsession with female sexuality ("in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed"); after the Columbian exchange, we're a long way from the sexual ease of "The Miller's Tale." Lawrence says that syphilis has poisoned the most fundamental urge in the world with a fear and a horror so unspeakable that the English collective psyche never recovered and, through some mental mechanism, fled into a world of over-intellectual abstraction where our intuitive selves could never thrive. And, as a result, the English couldn't paint people correctly; their attempts were dead on arrival.
Whatever you think of this argument on its face, it's hard to avoid the obvious counterargument. He singles out the English, and later all the "northern races." The next question almost asks itself. Namely, did the English suffer more from syphilis than other nations, more than the French did, or the Italians? Lawrence briefly alludes to this huge potential error and then indicates that he has basically no interest in it. He knows in his marrow that the English are a race of prudes; he likes his syphilis idea; and that's all there is to it. No statistical comparisons of infection rates, please.
You've got a little feelings vs. fact in there, too. Nina Gibb also talked to Viv Albertine (!) about how the human body is a fucking prison. Lena Dunham has said something similar, but I'm going to not quote her, because Viv Albertine is very better.
I hate physicality, really. I am very reluctant to do anything physical, a bit like eating fish and vegetables, I do it because it's good for me or it's a means to an end. I have very little confidence in my physical abilities, that my fingers can do what they need to do to make a chord, that my right hand can keep a steady rhythm to strum, that my legs and my lungs have the capacity -- or my mind has the will -- to propel me around a park. I don't like being in water. Heights, skiing, jumping out of planes, and potholing or deep sea diving feel totally alien to me, I don't think humans were meant to do it (except the pearl fishers). My body is extremely sensitive to speed. Even sex intrigues me intellectually more than physically. On the other hand, I will take massive risks emotionally and creatively, go on stage in front of thousands of people even though I can't play or sing, fall in love with difficult people, keep trying to make relationships work, spend years alone making a small piece of work. Those are the areas in which I push myself, I just do the physical stuff to stay alive or as a conduit to get a thought out there. The effort it took for me to start and continue running or playing guitar was huge and alien to me, but paid off massively.
November 28, 2014
Image: "Untitled" (1950) by Willem de Kooning.
I left the book I was very enthusiastically and emotionally reading at a bar and I don't know what to do with myself. Also, my Shockwave Flash keeps crashing. Will existence never abate?
-Speaking of, but not a joke: if nothing else, you need to read the interview Jia Tolentino did with a woman who was, per verdict language, "sexually misconducted" at UVA in 2005. (Jia does great work consistently.) It is very detailed and lends a much-needed specificity to the now somewhat common—and thus somewhat taken for granted as merely vaguely "awful," "harrowing," etc.—campus rape narrative, which I know people who haven't experienced rape or something like it probably have a hard time really, truly getting.
Yeah. So you wake up super sick. Had you been feeling sick at all the night before?
I'd felt completely fine the night before. So my boots are off, my dress is on, but it's twisted. I have no underwear. I look around and see my underwear on the end of the couch, on the other side of the room. I tried to get out of bed but I literally couldn't move. I couldn't even crawl.
I lie there for a while. No one is in the room with me. And then I hear voices in the hallway. One is the guy in question, and there are two other guys talking to him. I hear one of them say, "[This guy] is a necrophiliac, he likes to fuck dead girls."
I realized they were talking about me. They keep joking, like, "What are we gonna do, there's a dead girl in your bed."
I went into immediate survival mode. I start thinking, I need to play this smart. I can't confront them and say, "You motherfucker, what the fuck happened." So he comes back in the room, like, "You're awake? I was really worried about you."
I was like, "Oh yeah?" I ask him what happened. I tell him the last thing I remember was sitting in his room drinking. He says, "We did some shit, we hooked up, and then you got sick."
That was the end of my emotional bandwidth. I stopped asking questions.
-Going to pause here for a second.
-Seems stupid to link anything else, but this is the nature of online: you'll read a 6000-word interview on rape (well, you probably won't, but it will hover in your consciousness piecemeal and in gist) and then click over to a slideshow of aestheticized photos of the filth of the Gowanus Canal. Not entirely aestheticized, because I think that's impossible without not actually saying what the photographs are, but at least in intention and indeed in practice.
-The interview with the Polish poet Ewa Lipska I posted yesterday without comment (except to say, somewhat obliquely, that it was good) is still very worth reading, e.g.:
EL: I am linked with my generation through history, birth certificates and friendships, but I have never belonged to any literary group simply because I have never liked them. A rebellion? It has always been part of my life. But it is also typical of young people. I remember when we read Jean-Paul Sartre and were fascinated by the philosophy of existentialism and we wanted to be different. Now you can dye your hair green, but then there was no such possibility. I started to smoke a pipe. Back then, it was something really astonishing.
LW: With tobacco?
EL: Oh that was awful! It was called Najprzedniejszy ("Excellent"), but it was impossible to smoke it so I quickly gave it up. Today, a rebellion is different because the society is different. There are different material goods and we live in a different reality. Young people leave the country, smoke joints and find shelter in the virtual world. I often talk to them about these things. I support rebellion, although I do not like all of its "shades".
-Brad Listi's interview with Meghan Daum is also great, though if you want to skip the platitudinous American geography small talk and get to the nitty-gritty ways being born in Lincoln, Nebraska, actually does affect one's essence, I'd advise starting in the middle-ish. Meghan also shuts down on the "But the depth of this love is profoundly unlike anything one could ever access via spouse or dog!" response to why she just didn't/doesn't want to have fucking kids, okay.
-And head's up for people who buy things: Melville House has a 40% off sale on their entire catalogue all weekend.
November 27, 2014
I am thankful for Ewa Lipska.
November 26, 2014
Go blind today already:-"Erblinde"/"Go Blind" by Paul Celan, whose Collected Later Poetry you must buy on December 2 and read every day after that
eternity too is full of eyes—
drowns, what helped the images
over the path they came,
expires, what took you too out of
language with a gesture
that you let happen like
the dance of two words of just
autumn and silk and nothingness.
November 25, 2014
It is not shocking at all, and that is what is shocking: to be back in America after two years, reading the stories and watching the news and thinking about donating to various campaigns from essentially the same safe vantage point behind my computer and feeling essentially the same combination of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion among similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion connected through expressions of similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion yet at the same time also feeling entirely different because of this essential sameness, this persistence, sensing that the difference in distance or time has done nothing to fatten up my paltry conclusions as I had been led as a child to believe distance and time would, that it's still totally and just awful, still horrible, still an actual tragedy, still saying I do think that, God, really, I do.
November 24, 2014
Image: From Goya's series Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-1820).
Being myself "bitchy," as well as cognizant of Elaine Showalter after reading her for a seminar class on Virginia Woolf in which I gave it a try so apparently desperately college that my professor apologized to me before saying she could not give me an A, which not even Yale's grade inflation could pretend I deserved, I was passingly interested in Showalter's review of Richard Bradford's Literary Rivals: Feuds and Antagonisms in the World of Books, from which the takeaway is, say it with me now, "But where are the women?" Or, rather, that's what the takeaway should be, or seems like it's going to be; a fun breakdown of the Wordsworth/Coleridge relationship moves into a list of the rivalries featured in the book, and the latter is mostly male in the red-flag-waving way that almost always signals a criticism of that quality will follow (if the reviewer is female, that is). That criticism does follow, sort of: "Above all, Bradford doesn’t notice that his literary feuds seem to be 'fight clubs,' forms of competitive male bonding. His only example of feuding women writers is the well-known legal case of Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman." This, however, serves mainly to introduce an opportunity for Showalter to calmly go through some examples of female writers feuding, and the piece concludes with the coiner of gynocritics shying away into a "nevertheless," as in
Nevertheless, writers today are less likely to engage in open antagonism because the political risks are too great. Between trolls on Twitter, libel law and the pressures of political correctness, writers no longer dare to insult their rivals in the hyperbolically abusive terms that Mailer and Vidal favoured. Richard Bradford might see this as a loss to letters. It’s certainly a demystification of the cult of the warrior artist. But in the absence of slashing rivalries in the present, there’s a vacancy for a compendium of the most entertaining feuds of the past. And Bradford has stepped up to fill it.
Am I naive to wish this were not so aggressively passive? I mean, the point about political correctness and the Internet might be true—there seems to be a "vacancy" for criticism that falls between pussyfooting around and 11,000-word misogynistic absurdities, and there definitely exists an amount of nostalgia for the days of asshole critics past. But Bradford's exclusion of female writers seems like it should put the book in the territory of the egregious, the Okay. Now do it again, but this time, better category. To transition to her calm examples, Showalter uses another lame construction: "If Bradford knew more about women writers, he could cite many more precedents." I mean, if you're writing a nonfiction book, is research not part of your job? The point here should be the lack of women featuring in Bradford's supposed survey, no? Once you train yourself to recognize that kind of thing, you can't not see it. I'm trying to think of a fun comparison to illustrate this phenomenon, but the closest thing I'm coming up with is something to do with deal-breakers in sexual partners—e.g., when they don't seem to care if you get off, or "about female pleasure" if you want to pussyfoot around. That comparison probably works, because just as I often "nevertheless" away men who obviously don't care about female writers, I always find myself making excuses for that sex shit, too, mostly founded on "He has strong hands and buys me pizzas!" NEVERTHELESS, I shouldn't do those things, so I'm just going to make the hypothetical comparison without actually making it.
Contrast with Jessa's review of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, in which she acknowledges that the book's author has done an admirable job in many ways before deeming the book an italicized, unequivocal failure for "insist[ing] that this is the history of homosexuality without including the stories of women."
November 21, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading (or Not)
Awards are stupid, but sometimes this truth is obscured by 1) the fun of awards shows, the first-world+late-capitalist necessity of constructing anticipation and something to do; see also: Christmas; 2) the fantasy that we will one day be the recipients of the stupid awards; and 3) the frequent goodness of the people winning the awards. I mean, Louise Glück—what a genius! She is a genius. Still, it's kind of absurd that our feeble human brains cannot go on functioning without the crutch conception of the world as a potato-sack race, but you know, capitalism. I'm all for some people being more talented and/or better writers and/or more in possession of an ineffable something special than other people—I really hate lameness! It needs to be stopped!—but it just seems that perhaps vaguely defined LEVELS, rather than INDIVIDUALS, provide a more productive framework for this need to classify and categorize merit. Honor is important, because how else will we go on if not for the hope of being differentiated from the idiots that plague us (see below), but can we try to cultivate honors that do not have such needlessly severe consequences, by which I mean both positive and negative ones? You all know this—is it not why everyone is much happier to bleed content about Ursula's hazier and (somewhat, thus) more deserved "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" than on the books/writers that/who won the ridiculous right to say they published the BEST book last year? I mean, she is also potentially on ANOTHER LEVEL, but I think the point stands even ignoring the disparity in yearly vs. lifetime achievements.
This is not unrelated to Jennifer Weiner's insistence on Jonathan Franzen's hegemonic grip on the New York Times as being so strong that to read her work you'd think they printed something about the guy every single day. Her focus on the New York Times as the "paper of record," despite attempts to dismiss its possible status as such by including that bitterly sarcastic quotation-marked distinction alongside her criticism of its misuse of power—that focus is both valid and not, given that getting with the times (OR NOT, amirite?)—and trying to value cultural capital over actual capital—means knowing that there are many publications that earn more respect and exert a stronger gravitational pull, at least for, ahem, liter-a-toor, than the New York Times does. I'm not denying the power of Institutions, because 1) that would be naive; 2) they do have the money and influence much of the money they don't have; and 3) indeed I exploit my association with them—not ruthlessly, but moderately, and I probably can't not. NEVERTHELESS (and ignoring that this focus of Jennifer Weiner's belies the not-so-literary aspects of her work that she is so quick to blame on patriarchal/institutional perception, because not ignoring it would require me to delve deeper into my idea of LEVELS so as not to contradict my point about the problems of hierarchies, which I don't want to do right now): no one important actually cares—by which I mean cares about something beyond their money/influence—about the National Book Awards or the New York Times. They are placeholders that sometimes do good things. There is a reason intellectuals and otherwise literary types sequester themselves in a small and cliquish industry that is largely irrelevant to anyone outside it, so it's stupid that we then persist in recreating the tedious categorical imperatives of the wider world.
Also, like, YA guy, really? Why are you an idiot? You have all of life's advantages, and still you are an idiot. IT'S NOT THAT HARD.
There are probably many obscure news and thought topics I could bring to your attention from this lofty vantage point as a loosely employed 24-year-old book blogger, but there are SO MANY OTHER Link Roundups! that I will just save my links! for another day. Read the Melville House blog if you're bitchy but ultimately right and Asymptote's if you fancy yourself a cosmopolitan sophisticate.
November 20, 2014
The affliction I'm speaking of is moral relativism, and you can imagine the catastrophic effects on a critic's career if the thing were left to run its course unfettered or I had to rely on my own inner compass alone. To be honest, calling it moral relativism may dignify it too much; it's more like moral wishy-washiness. [Ahem!] Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things, be ready to pronounce on or condemn other people's foibles and failures at a moment's notice whenever an editor emails requesting twelve hundred words by the day after tomorrow. The severity of your condemnation is the measure of your intellectual seriousness (especially when it comes to other people's literary or aesthetic failures, which, for our best critics, register as nothing short of moral turpitude in itself). That's how critics make their reputations: having take-no-prisoners convictions and expressing them in brutal mots justes. You'd better be right there with that verdict or you'd better just shut the fuck up.
-From "Juicers," in Laura Kipnis's *~*new*~* Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
November 19, 2014
Literary and historical heroines on Grindr. So far, my favorites are Molly Bloom and the Titanic.
November 18, 2014
In this part of The Thing Where We Watch All of the Henry James Adaptations and Slowly Die from the Inside but At Least Get Content Out of It (I am so good at branding), Gary Amdahl and Jessa Crispin watch 90 adaptations of Turn of the Screw, and slowly go mad from all of the off-screen whispering and spooky music. Also, you should buy our Henry James Tribute Album, because it is very good. (I am also so good at subtle salesmanship.)
“Is that how you like to appear? Dark and cold as if you are about to be evil?” Stephanie Beacham to Marlon Brando, playing—so the cast list insists—“Miss Jessel” and “Quint” in Michael Winner’s prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The Nightcomers. Much may be learned from this hilariously flawed and brutally pornographic variation on the timeless allure of appearing dark and cold as if about to be evil.
Assertion #1: we all like very much to appear dark and cold as if about to be evil. But not all the time. I have a speciality in this regard: I give the impression I am on an ice floe that has just calved away from its parent-ice, and the only thing that is saving my near and dear ones from unspeakable wrath is the gradually widening gap of icy water between us. But even I get bored with this. If only Frank Frazetta could have painted me, I could be done with this once and for all, leaving it where it should be, in B movies with billion-dollar budgets.
James was susceptible to this common urge, just as he was to the common tale of the plain woman who inherits a fortune and learns to fend off assholes and idiots at the expense of her sweetness. But he suggested, with crazy literary swagger, that appearance is only one small shiver of a reality that is neither good nor evil—nor beyond good and evil, at least not the way Nietzsche had it.
Assertion #2: we can learn more from bad adaptations of James than good. But who wants to do that? You and I are trying to be rigorously complete in our survey, but why should anybody else have to do this? If Miles and Flora had been forced to watch The Nightcomers, they could not but be traumatized, and not just because it’s poorly directed and acted, but because it caters to and decries at once the desire to watch one person being hurt by another.
Though James trades on psychological pain, he does not participate in the catering and decrying. His Demons are temptations of mind, not flesh. His tortures are constrictions of mind, not flesh. All the while is telling a ghost story, a horror story, he allows the reader’s mind to not simply remain unbound but to expand. That is to say: he writes about the torment of mind from the viewpoint of a free, capacious, healthy mind. He writes about fear and pain with the calm acceptance of an artist who does not ignore evil but who does not seek to profit from it. His profit depends on his ability to “make life,” as he put it. Fear and hatred and pain and violence are inherent in the life he made out of The Turn of the Screw, but they are not the focus, not the point, not the reason it exists. Movie-makers have been drawn to the characters and plot of Screw, its scenes and tableaux for all the wrong reasons: they make absorption in dread and violence the only way for a viewer’s interest to be gratified. It’s a kind of commodified catharsis, pseudo-catharsis, a cheap thrill in place of harrowed understanding. We are the People of the Cheap Thrill, and we get what we pay for. To expect Hollywood to “faithfully adapt” James is misbegotten.
Assertion #3: The Buddhist monk and writer Jack Kornfield wrote that one can be freed from the past through forgiveness. “Forgiveness is giving up hope for a better past.” Something like that. No act of forgiveness is dramatized or referred to in Screw—that’s part of how his ambiguity serves to intensify the already taut strings of the created life: it’s there but tragically never realized—but James’s art is all about living in a present that has given up hope for a better past, not to mention knee-jerk hopes for a better future; art that looks backward and forward with equanimity. Movies would rather die than do that. I think movies would die if they tried to do it. Even the best adaptations of Screw fail miserably because they cannot dramatize the open strong mind that presents the story to us. They can only animate characters.
Assertion #4: It’s too easy to beat up on the actors in these adaptations. It wasn’t Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fault in Washington Square: it was Agnieszka Holland’s fault. And if Brando was calling the shots in Last Tango with The Governess, he didn’t write script, the prequel that is doomed before it starts because “the story” must be told without it.
More on what the other two hundred people do to make a movie good or bad when we consider The Innocents, the 1999 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jodhi May, Redgrave’s 1974 production, the BBC of 2009, and Britten’s opera.
Yours in the loosened bonds of art,
On the night before Halloween, I was going through my regular ritual of reading and watching things that would freak me out so badly I would have to lie on the bed, eyes wide open, constantly checking my thought processes for hallucination and delusion. It's not really stories of murder and abduction that freak me out. I mean, whatever, someone can break in and kill me while I sleep, there's nothing I can really do to prevent that so I'm not going to be freaked out worried about it all the time. I've lived alone and traveled alone for too long, I know it's a giant waste of energy to freak out at every shadow and every strange sound. It's the stories of inexplicable madness and unexplained ends that freak me the fuck out. All of these women left in a dot dot dot -- Joyce Carol Vincent, Elisa Lam, and then the countless others who packed their bags one night and, without any sign of a struggle, checked out. What scares me is losing myself to myself, if that makes any sense. Of my mind just wandering off beyond my ability to bring it back.
It's like when I was a kid and all of those UFO stories were really big, and I used to read big volumes of abduction and experimentation because why not. At that age it is fun to experiment with darkness. And I was never afraid of being taken by aliens, but I was seriously scared that I might one day believe that I had been. Because then you would never get back to yourself, would you? You would have to haunt conferences and talk madness to people and insist on a reality that is totally at odds with everyone else's reality.
That's how I felt when I read Turn of the Screw for the first time, this terror of maybe losing myself inside a belief or an idea. I read it, by the way, hopped up on pain pills because I had fucked up my back and so that didn't help the feeling of slipping into something. But the terror of that is far greater, and far more difficult to convey, than the easy and boring sexual sadism of The Nightcomers. That whole opening metaphor of the toad and the cigarette -- "he likes it so much he'll kill himself not to stop" or whatever, I'm not rewatching the scene to get the line perfect -- is wearying. Just because you notice something, that there are women who sometimes like it when you hurt them, doesn't mean you have anything to say about it.
Did the Turn of the Screw need a prequel? Not this one, obviously, but even then. I hadn't thought, until watching The Innocents, how traumatized those kids must have been. They lose their parents, their new caregiver doesn't care about them, their governess dies horribly, the boy stumbles upon the dead body of the only adult who cares about him. When the little girl starts screaming in The Innocents and finds she can't stop, I was only wondering why she hadn't been doing that the whole time.
It's a different kind of trauma than the one the Governess was terrified would take them over. But there's that thing that kids do, performing this kind of chirpiness even though they are not okay, because it's expected, all the while keeping your reptilian secrets under your apron.
I can see why people want to expand on the tale, those few sentences about Jessel and Quint's relationship are provocative, and all of those off-screen deaths are tempting to put on screen, because instant drama. But the real terror isn't in, dead body on the floor. The terror is in what follows. It's the way your brain tries to recover and can't, it's the way you are left forever vulnerable after and the way people either dance around or take full advantage of that vulnerability.
That line at the beginning of The Innocents, the employer asks the governess, "Do you have an imagination?" Jesus, yes, she does. And the imagination is as destructive as it its creative. Certainly all of us know the wrong turns out imagination has taken us on. And "The Innocents" is the best at conveying that, but I have found myself resisting writing about what a good film it is. Let's talk about the lighting, I guess? Deborah Kerr's nightgowns? Those preternaturally adorable and so obviously some sort of monstrous fairykind children? It is a brilliant film, but it tells us little about James.
So you are right that the bad adaptations do more to show us what James does brilliantly. But I suppose I feel the best adaptation of Turn of the Screw would have been no adaptation of Turn of the Screw. Unlike Washington Square, which I believe could and should live in a thousand different forms, from films to ballets to paintings and whatever the fuck else (please no sequels, though), it seems a really great director would have looked at Turn and said, "Yeah, there's nothing to add here." It's one of his intricately built spider webs, trying to take one down off the wall and rebuild it in another area would necessarily left it with large gaping holes in some areas and tangled messes in others.
See? I can't somehow make myself write about the adaptations at all, although I will have something to say about Colin Firth the next time we converse.
I thought I saw someone in the window, I'll be right back I have to check,
This is where the prequels and sequels properly belong: in letters of friendly criticism. And by friendly I don't mean only letters between friends with a common interest that calls out for the kind of thinking that comes only of writing, I mean criticism like Emerson said it ought to be written: to the unknown friend.
You're right about the nature of fear and demonstrations of pseudo-violence. (No, wait, let's call it faux violence, because it is consumed in terms of fashion, not as the sharp stark meaningful opposite of truth.) Blood and brutality and pain and screaming are just disgusting, and if, for some reason, a watcher continues to wade through it, it becomes boring. It becomes so boring the boredom itself is disgusting. (The only way out is through comedy, which is why I briefly held some hope for the 1996 Kensit "Screw.") Anybody who's experienced real fear and real violence will confirm this.
Which brings me to trauma. I have witnessed and participated in trauma that is stretched out over a wide spectrum: my friend the motorcycle-riding drug-dealer who crashed his Harley and messed his brain up to the point where he could walk only after years of therapy, using a walker, and whose conversation was limited to:
ME: "How are you, Gerard?"
GERARD (thick CT accent, on bad days): Faih.
GERARD (on good days): Spahk-uh-ling.
And the Green Beret, suffering with PTSD before they were able to brand it, who murdered my uncle. ("Narrow Road to the Deep North," if anybody wants to read about that.)
Then there's the stuff that I feel is personally traumatic and which I keep to myself precisely because it is traumatic.
I am inclined, probably to your dismay, to not think of what happened to Miles and Flora as traumatic. I mean: I, the observer/reader, am inclined to see the events of the story as possibly something they felt to be what we now (specifically us and now) call traumatic, but which James presents as something else altogether.
Well, no, not altogether different: directly related but effectively different, emphasis on effect. And I would like to point to the weird etymology of "trauma." Now I'm no philologist, I just play one on the Internet, but...the word comes from the Greek for wound, but makes a mysterious detour in Old German before it arrives in English: daydream. There are wounds enough in daydreams to satisfy any sadist, any masochist, any unwell person of any sort. I used to have a saying (in fact it might be in "Narrow Road"): "Every daydream crests in a fistfight. And there was a time, a long time, in which I depended on my daydreams to propel me into daydreamy action in the non-dreaming world, just because I loved that sense of bifurcation: white figure on black background, suddenly black figure on white background...but the sharpest contrasts always blurred into gray. People, in other words, can take anything. What is the greatest miracle of all? That horribly wounded, degraded, brutalized people do not destroy themselves, do not hurl themselves into the abyss, don't overdose, blow their heads off when they know it will end the misery!
Of course some people do just that: wounded, they wound, and depart in flames. But the percentage is unbelievably small. Most of us learn to pin our misery on the fear of freaking out, just as you say. We hear about atrocity and it stands out in the clearest horror. We shrink back in fear, our imaginations run wild, and the fear becomes so magnified it paralyzes us. Sometimes this is a good restraint! Sometimes it is a bad restraint.
Back to James and particularly The Innocents. Screw is about A) the sad and wounding things that happen to children; and B) the exponentially more sad and wounding things that we can imagine happening to children. To the children that we are, the children that we have, the children that we do not have. I say "exponentially" because the imagination is rhizomatic in possibility and instantaneous in its choice of path at every fork.
Very briefly, because I am rattling on as usual: there are two kinds of Screw. One solidifies or manifests the qualities of fear, the other leaves them in ambiguity, in suggestion, below the surface. Johdi May's (beautiful) eyes must be widened in fear or fear of fear from the get-go. Pam Ferris (a lovely woman and terrific actor) must confine herself to one of her best bits: stern regard blanking into malevolence. Virtually all the boys playing Miles must be preternaturally predatory in their precocious charm. And all the Floras...! She cannot be bookish, or introspective, or god forbid sercretive, or even outright mysterious in an imagination she owns wholly, with all the good and bad that implies, no, she must be the receptacle for our imaginations. How else can the innocent become terrifying?
Here come the Buddhists again, and the non-dualists. (I should say I enjoy inquiries guided by these "not-two" philosophies, but am in no way a follower or practicer.) They say that evil and good are one, that fear and calm are one, that violence and...what is the opposite of violence? That they all come and go in the mind, shit happens, worse shit happens--no one knows what will come and no one can control what comes, and it is therefore in our imaginations only that the worst happens, because there we can hold it in place, run and re-run it, make prequels and sequels. Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself. That is how this miracle of "enduring" occurs.
James always gives us the tranquility of art to bear our imaginings. No movie can do that. The Innocents comes closest because its efforts are towards making that world seem as ordinary as possible, so as to show us something, rather than subjecting us to it.
yours in the surly bonds of imagination,
"Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself." Gary! Stop saying perfect things!
How many adaptations did the BBC do of Screw? Because I feel like I watched eight of them. There was the one with Colin Firth as the children's guardian, the one with Michelle Dockery as the governess... There was a lot of whispering. So much whispering. One would think that the BBC would know what to do with James. One would think there is some sort of reliquary at the BBC headquarters with chipped off bits of James's bones and perhaps one of his fingers. And yet neither of the productions really understood what to do with the material.
It was that weird two minutes with Julian Sands in the 1992 version with Marianne Faithful that really got the children's guardian and his disinterest in their well being. Nothing else in that movie worked, but that two-minute scene was perhaps the best adaptation of the bunch, barring The Innocents. Because that figure is so cold, the whole "Do not bother me with this" written on the letter forwarded from the boy's school, the "my London lifestyle is just not suitable for children." Colin Firth plays that character like Colin Firth and he's not believable for a second. Colin Firth totally wants kids, he wants to gaze into your eyes and hold your hand while the two of you walk through the park, Colin Firth wants to read you poetry as you lie in the bathtub. Julian Sands doesn't want the children to interfere with his opium addiction. (I miss Julian Sands. Julian Sands, come back to us. He's always so dangerous on the screen, I can't look away.)
But when the BBC versions were playing, I kept getting up to do the dishes, to check the mail, to sort through books, especially in the most recent Colin Firth-less version. I felt no dread, and not only because I had just watched five other versions of this film and knew exactly what was going to happen. But I do find it interesting that the BBC produced two entirely different and wholly unsatisfying productions of Turn of the Screw ten years apart. We are set for another in five years if they keep up the schedule.
I don't know. I feel like I've hit a dead end here, numbed by too many bad Turns of the Screw. Too much whispering and shadowy figures. I watched something horrid with Leelee Sobieski and that's just part of my brain I'm not going to have access to ever again.
Any last thoughts before we move on?
You're absolutely right about too many bad Screws! It's dispiriting! In a way I did not see coming, which makes the lack of spirit embarrassing. But never fear. I have another thought or two.
I temp-teach workshops in non-fiction and non-non-fiction. They are less workshops than sermons. I could not care less about the quality of their craftsmanship if it's in the service of stories of inconvenience while flying or the mass rape of debutantes at a cotillion ball by an army of robots. Oh, wait, sorry: that last gets you a Guggenheim and a Lannan. (Oh, when I think of all the great writers laboring in sci-fi hell, churning out much better stories in the 60s and 70s for a penny a page...) The sermons all have as a central theme my belief that there is only one story that has ever been told, that ever will be told -- what it's like to observe that you are alive -- and that of the countless variations of that one story there are good stories and bad stories. The bad stories are about a single suffering martyr of a hero trapped in a world of other people who have no existence outside their hatred of the hero. They are narrow-minded. The good stories are open-minded and cultivate the idea that other people are just like us, and cannot believe that their lives have to come to "this," just as we cannot believe it.
Two nights ago, we considered a story about a student's unhappiness at the hands of a step-mother, who was carelessly washing the student's clothes and would not allow interference. There were other grievances. The father appeared to be an asshole and an idiot. The mother was a refuge, but had only limited custody. The class went berserk with enthusiasm for the nastiness of the step-mother, and equally berserk with sympathy for their fellow-student. It was an unprecedented show: the heretofore silent class could not be quieted.
It is not surprising that marriages can be destroyed and even lives lost over issues like improper laundering, but it was very surprising that no one had the slightest interest in the unspoken story. One student shyly asked how, if the mother was so good and the father/step-mother so bad, they got custody. The writer said, "My mother made some bad choices. She accused my father of sexually abusing my brother and me, but he was proved innocent."
Back they surged, possibly in a kind of fear, to the laundry, and the character of the e-mail exchange between the step-mother and the student: the colors chosen to highlight text, the spelling of "socks" as "sox," and so on.
The One True Story includes everything and everybody, implicitly and explicitly. There is sympathy and acknowledgement and, finally, an acceptance: everything and everybody. The Countless Bad Stories are antipathetic and acknowledge nothing that runs counter to the version the Self tells and re-tells. The One True Story evokes all of existence with sympathy; the Countless Bad Stories seek to control existence, that of teller-writer and listener/reader alike.
James's art was precisely controlled but always in the service of the sympathetic imagination. The narrating Self was always in the service of the narrated other. He gave space for the observers of trauma to deal and heal, even when--especially when--his characters were nasty, vicious, weak. His adaptors do just the opposite: they confine and restrict so as to inflict trauma. They do so because most of the people watching enjoy safe trauma. They clamor for it. They want to see that the Improper Laundress is truly and sensationally depraved. This allows the (sometimes genuinely) traumatized and day-dreaming 14-year-old that we incontrovertibly remain to keep the Story of the Self free from danger or even interference as it loops endlessly from synapse to synapse around our three pounds of electrified Jell-O.
November 17, 2014
I won't have to pay money for it, but nevertheless: I'm going to read that Jonathan Franzen book, and I'm probably going to like it or be disappointed because I thought I would like it. ("Not strict realism," eh, I don't know—as long as there aren't any ghosts, please.) Either way, I will feel compelled to write a long and guilty/defensive justification of why it is not dismissable outright, because I am young and insecure about my position as heir to the blog of a vocal Jonathan Franzen hater, so this is just a head's up that you can start preparing your intrusively concerned, older, wiser, you'll-grow-out-of-your-Jonathan-Franzen-phase-sweetie reader emails now! I think perhaps the attention lavished (not so much anymore, though, at least not within "the scene," as I heard to it referred at baby's first publishing party last night) on Jonathan Franzen and thus directed away from other writers is, you know, not problematic but a problem. But at the same time, I think a lot of writers suck and that Jonathan Franzen doesn't, even keeping in mind his get-off-my-lawn-like uncoolness, and this is one of the great questions that keeps me up as my two-night-stands snore lightly and pointlessly beside me, what is merit and why does it matter?
I will concede, though, that, regardless of the sentimental position The Corrections holds for me as the novel that made me feel like I wanted to write fiction, or rather like I wanted to and could, Purity sounds fairly ridiculous, title-wise.
November 14, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Image: "Crossroads" by Alex Roulette, which has nothing to do with anything except that I discovered him via It's Nice That and really like him.
-More in great titles: "Bonfire of the Inanities," Jacqui Shine's history of the New York Times Styles section
Bohemia, said Flaubert, was “the fatherland of my breed.” If so, his breed, at least in America, is becoming extinct. The most exciting periods of American intellectual life tend to coincide with the rise of bohemia, with the tragic yet liberating rhythm of the break from the small town into the literary roominess of the city, or from the provincial immigrant family into the centers of intellectual experiment. Given the nature of contemporary life, bohemia ﬂourishes in the city—but that has not always been so. Concord too was a kind of bohemia, sedate, subversive, and transcendental all at once. Today, however, the idea of bohemia, which was a strategy for bringing artists and writers together in their struggle with and for the world—this idea has become disreputable, being rather nastily associated with kinds of exhibitionism that have only an incidental relationship to bohemia. Nonetheless, it is the disintegration of bohemia that is a major cause for the way intellectuals feel, as distinct from and far more important than what they say or think. Those feelings of loneliness one ﬁnds among so many American intellectuals, feelings of damp dispirited isolation which undercut the ideology of liberal optimism, are partly due to the breakup of bohemia. Where young writers would once face the world together, they now sink into suburbs, country homes, and college towns. And the price they pay for this rise in social status is to be measured in more than an increase in rent.
-Speaking of intellectuals, Europe still has some! The LARB has a great interview with the Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (who is also greatly titled):
Be they military or civilian, life experiences cannot but imprint themselves — the more heavily the more acute they are — on life’s trajectory, on the way we perceive the world, respond to it and pick the paths to walk through it. They combine into a matrix of which one’s life’s itinerary is one of the possible permutations. The point, though, is that they do their work silently, stealthily so to speak, and surreptitiously — by prodding rather than spurring, and through sets of options they circumscribe rather than through conscious, deliberate choices....
And so a word of warning is in order: retrospectively reconstructing causes and motives of choices carries a danger of imputing structure to a flow, and logic — even predetermination — to what was in fact a series of faits accomplis poorly if at all reflected upon at the time of their happening. Contrary to the popular phrase, “hindsight” and “benefit” do not always come in pairs — particularly in autobiographic undertakings.
I recall here these mundane and rather trivial truths to warn you that what I am going to say in reply to your question needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.