In Our Magazines
- Dangerous Books: From Banning Ulysses to Challenging Huck Finn
- An Interview with Ariel Schrag
- An Interview with Shannon Sullivan
- It's Not Dark Here Yet
- An Interview with Amitava Kumar
- Spirited Noise 'Round Town: Listening to the Futurists
- An Interview with Marion Meade
- An Interview with Warren Adler
- An Interview with Lydia Netzer
August 19, 2014
We posted yesterday's interview with Catherine Lacey at a weird time, mostly because I'm a procrastinator and there are secret and mysterious server issues to which you are not privy, so today I'm just going to underline that you should read it. Hi, hello? You should read it, and you should do so knowing that it was conducted and published before I knew the New Yorker had glowingly reviewed Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine's debut novel, around which the interview centers. Sure, this glowing New Yorker review took place last Thursday, so maybe I should have caught it, but what do you think this is? I'm not a slave to the New Yorker, except sometimes. (To be fair, the review is also about 60% plot summary, which, I don't know, come on, guys.)
More importantly: read the brilliant Grantland piece about the Ferguson race riots—this is 2014—and then possibly read the Vanity Fair unique-perspective post about the "paramilitary posturing" there.
August 18, 2014
What We're Reading
This novel takes the setting of a pancake house as an occasion to ruminate on pancakes, their place in the heart of a man, and how the comfort they promise gives way to the disgusting way they feel in a gut before they're digested. This logic gets followed, in the mind of a psychologist narrator undergoing a breakdown, and as the book does not stop for chapter breaks I followed along with every step and felt the same insane and giddy out-of-body experience being described, as these feelings that seem so rooted in the body's urges were deconstructed. I laughed out loud in delight and in the end felt older, as the stuff of childhood was made to seem deeply unappealing so as to necessitate major life changes.
Image: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland.
An Interview with Catherine Lacey
I first heard (about) Catherine Lacey when she was on Brad Listi's Otherppl (née Other People) podcast, and I guess I sort of developed a crush on her. She talked about the sort of things that give people (the media) pause (being from Mississippi, selling her eggs, moving to New Zealand to work on a farm somewhat randomly), but she talked about them as if they were no big deal—as if she didn't necessarily consider her life and the choices she's made in it potential click bait—or even just material—and that was, I'm sad/weirded out to say, refreshing. She seemed to strike a balance between examining the ambiguity of the world and reacting to it, in particularly click-baity issues of gender (which we talk about) and in issues of art (which we also talk about); it made me want to read her debut novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing. I won't retread ground covered in the review in the August issue of Bookslut, but I thought the book was challenging and exciting and original, which felt like a great excuse for me to talk to her about female travel narratives, nervous breakdowns, and the aforementioned ambiguity.
One of the things I thought was most interesting about the book was the way you dealt with gender. It's certainly a factor in Elyria's interactions—the lone female hitchhiker warnings are the most obvious example of this—but I think a lot of (feminist) writers would have made a lot more of that angle. Did you set out to do anything particular with gender, or was this a byproduct? Had/Have you read the periodic calls for more (and less cliché) female road/travel literature, and do you feel like you're contributing to fixing that, whether you're actively trying to or not?
Catherine Lacey: I didn't intend to write specifically about gender or to contribute a female protagonist to the road trip narrative; however, I am very much aware of how women are hyper-perceived, misrepresented, and manipulated every goddamn day, and I can't leave that part of myself in bed while I get up to write. So now that I'm long past writing Nobody and I can back up and have a good look at it, I do hope it can adequately answer what Vanessa Veselka calls for in that American Reader essay, though it's not for me to decide.
Also, I didn't read the Veselka essay until after I'd gone on many-a solo trip and written this book, but this paragraph in particular feels ultra-relevant:
...my choice to leave home and hitchhike was certainly no stupider or more dangerous than signing onto a whaling ship in the 1850s, 'stealing' a slave and taking him across state lines, burning through relationships following some sketchy dude around the US, or accepting rides from drunk people while on hallucinogens. These tales are fictions, yes, but they deeply affect how we see people on the road. And the shadow cast by these narratives—one that valorizes existential curiosity, adventure, individuality, and surliness—does not fall over women. In a country with the richest road narratives in the modern world, women have none. Sure, there is the crazy she-murderer and the occasional Daisy Duke, but beyond that, zip.
Elyria's being female doesn't feel fundamental, though, even as the people she meets are trying to file her under gender-normative labels, most frequently "potential rape victim" or "wife."
I did an interview with Sasha Frere-Jones a few weeks ago, and he said he thought the character could have been a 50-year-old man instead of a 28-year-old woman and the story wouldn't even have to change much. This wasn't a goal while I was writing it, but I tend to agree. I don't really know if this helps, hurts, or does nothing to the role gender plays in the story.
I don't really know, either. When the people Elyria meets stereotype her, she tends to go along with it, or silently accept it and just move on; it's like it just rolls off her, the hey-you're-a-woman stuff, which highlights another thing I really liked: the intense interiority, the disconnect between the subject and the people around her trying to get her to share that interiority with them. Um...what am I getting at? I think: Was it hard to resist conclusiveness, decision, definition? Is ambiguity a priority for you?
Books that lack ambiguity or mystery bore me. People who avoid confronting ambiguity are even worse and are to be avoided at all costs or challenged relentlessly. Unless a person has deluded herself with one of the many worldviews that preach hard realities and absolutes, then she best get comfortable with ambiguity. For some, the concept of ambiguity is something they want to avoid in literature or film or music or their relationships or their day-to-day existence—I emphatically do not write for those people, unless they are open to challenging their relationship to ambiguity.
This reminds me of your piece for BuzzFeed about being psychologized through your characters—you try to delineate which parts of Elyria are you and which parts are her and end up concluding that it's impossible to do. It's all ambiguous boths and neithers, and with Elyria that's so frustrating; everyone wants to crack her code, and she's like, "There's no code!"
Elyria seems to believe that no one can oppress or categorize her more than she can oppress and categorize herself. She has an independence that has grown to the point of hermetically sealing her off from the rest of the world. In a way, this has led her into a struggle with the amount of instability in her life. No one has a code that can be cracked for someone else to understand them, yet we still attempt to understand others and be understood by others. Writing a character that rails against this idea is a good way to explore that concept.
I've read you (and reviewers) describe Nobody as a "story about a woman's mental dissolve," but do you see her as "crazy"? She makes a lot of sense to me. Well, she both makes a lot of sense and doesn't make sense. The desire for her husband to shoot her with a "microscopic bullet that would make [her] make sense again, a bullet that could send the proper wants through her body"—that makes sense.
I don't believe Elyria is crazy, but I do think it's clear she's going through a kind of dissolve, which isn't quite the same thing. The word "crazy" [would] separate her from the everyday person, and I don't think [hers is] such a rare experience—to feel completely adrift, to want more solitude than is actually healthy. Though Elyria is resourceful and scrappy and fearless in a deeply fearful way, she lacks the ability to take care of herself or console herself or loosen her strong hold on dread. She doesn't really know how to turn off the faucet of dread that we all sometimes wash our hands in.
I know plenty of intelligent people with irrational fears. Or smart people with deep anxieties. Probably everyone knows people like that. I think Elyria is kind of like this. Recognizable, but missing something.
The Veselka essay, again, makes an interesting point:
A man on the road is caught in the act of a becoming. A woman on the road has something seriously wrong with her.
I think Elyria is actually in the act of becoming, though we don't see her fully transform.
She's also always drawing a distinction between what is "regular" or "usual" and something else, so she ends up defining herself by what she's not—it's very slippery. Do you find the sense of there being a "normal" or "regular" way to be valid at all, or is it a (dangerous) delusion? Does Elyria believe that's where "meaning" is, in the "normal" she can't access?
I’m not entirely sure, but at some point in the narrative Elyria notices or wonders if other people might not experience the world in the feverish, unbearable way that she does. She thinks that makes her different or weird—which is a state that I think we all slip into sometimes. We wonder, Am I wrong? Am I doing life correctly? I think lots of people have moments (or long moments) during which we ask ourselves these questions. Most of us come back to the realization that everyone goes through times like these, despite the fact that we can't confirm for 100% sure that other people are sharing our experiences. But I wasn't trying to show the complete arc of this very human experience. I just wanted to dig into the uncomfortable part, to break down that state as fully as possible so I could better understand it.
Did you find yourself looking to other books for examples or help?
The one book that probably had the biggest effect on the structure was Alice in Wonderland. I read it on a solo camping trip while a tropical storm walloped my tent. I was writing the first draft and it was as if someone had just handed me the structure to the book I was already writing. Woman goes on journey, meets a lot of people, is kind of changed and kind of just the same. I used it like a map.
I read Leaving the Atocha Station after I was done writing Nobody, and I loved it so much and saw why it had been recommended to me. The same thing happened with Renata Adler's Pitch Dark and Speedboat.
I don't know about these emphatic non-Lerner women. I see a lot of similarities between Lerner and Adler and Jenny Offill and Thomas Bernhard and Plath—all writers I love. States of unravelment (I may have made this word up) are somewhat ungendered (maybe this one, too). If you're having a hard time with the frailty of existence (and in some ways all breakdowns, "dissolves," or unravelments are about exactly that), then it doesn't matter what gender you identify with. It may change the experience a little, but the bone of it is the same.
August 15, 2014
Image: The caption on this one reads: "'Guernica' is a painting by Pablo Picasso depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Here I have made it a happy birthday party complete with pony rides!" No.
It's my birthday today! I was going to write a poem called "It's my birthday today" and post it here, but then I didn't want to anymore, so I didn't. It's my birthday today, and I do not have to share my grapes with anyone.
That was going to be in the poem.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-If your girlfriend's birthday is also today, but she isn't Sylvia Plath, you could get her Birthday Stories (edited by *~*~*Murakami*~*~*), either as a standalone, we-haven't-been-dating-that-long gesture or as a cute thematic extra to go with the KitchenAid mixer or cashmere sweater or whatever it is people get each other. People like getting books because it makes them think you think they're smart. I have gotten this book before; "The Birthday Present" by Andrea Lee is in it:
Flavio hadn’t meant to inspire action when he suggested that Ariel give her husband Roberto una fanciulla—a young girl—for his fifty-fifth birthday. He’d meant only to irritate, as usual. Flavio is Roberto’s best friend, a sixty-year-old Calabrian film producer who five or six years ago gave up trying to seduce Ariel, and settled for the alternative intimacy of tormenting her subtly whenever they meet. Ariel is a tall, fresh-faced woman of thirty-seven, an officer’s child who grew up on Army based around the world, and whose classic American beauty has an air of crisp serviceability that—she is well aware—is a major flaw. […]
-Do not get your girlfriend "a young girl." Even if she asks!
-Today is also Napoleon's birthday. Don't forget that, in addition to being a short megalomaniacal tyrant, he also wrote a romance novel:
Hicks, a historian at the Fondation Napoleon in Paris, spent years trying to piece together the manuscript and says some of the leaves were wrongly identified because Napoleon's handwriting, rich in blots and crossings out, was so diabolical.
In "diabolical" handwriting.
August 14, 2014
Image: "Glass and Reflections" (1929) by Jaromír Funke
Today's theme is self-reflexive and calmly disorienting short pieces featuring Czech characters and meditations on storytelling, w/r/t memory and the passage of time. As with the inexorable crumble from present to memory to oblivion, there is nothing you can do about it. I've just read two:
1) "The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping" by the German writer Francis Nenik is what I would call "formally innovative" if language weren't being slowly co-opted by meaninglessness. What I will say is that this is a confounding little book that humanizes the fade into artistic obscurity in a way that is both heart-breaking and very smart, and bonus points for a) smudging the distinction between fiction and non-, b) what seems like a tricky bit of translation magic (see: "formally innovative") by Katy Derbyshire, and c) design-wise, a balance of beauty and cuteness. It's pocket-sized, 64 pages, and published by the Berlin-based company Readux, who make great-looking little books of individual stories/essays/novellas/uncategorizables, often in translation. You can find them in bookstores in New York and Chicago (and the LRB Bookshop, and other places), on the Readux website, or as eBooks.
2) In the Australian journal Seizure today, "The Record" by Vijay Khurana:
Grygory Vrevca was dead for three years, from when Mina was four until she entered school. Ana Vrevca waited until she thought her daughter was old enough to understand the concept of death, then told her that Grygory had exsanguinated after falling through a window. She did this not because she thought it would be better for the child to have an image of a dead and honest father than of a living criminal one, but because she had read it in so many stories that she assumed it was expected of prisoners’ wives to kill off their husbands. On Mina’s first day of school, however, Grygory came suddenly and violently back to life. Within hours, Mina had achieved notoriety as the daughter of one of her country’s most infamous criminals. ‘Your father,’ her teacher asked or perhaps stated as he read the roll, ‘is the famous bank robber?’ Mina didn’t know if it had been a question or not. She had an instinctive feeling that this was the first test of her school life, and whether or not she passed would set a precedent more powerful than any adult could explain. She nodded.
Sometimes, when you're writing about things like this, it's easy to forget that they have a lot of humor in them, in addition to weighty and significant thematic concerns, and that is, in fact, part of what the story's about, memory being an unstable platform on which to base things. There's some formal innovation in there, too.
August 13, 2014
Image: I've been there! The postcard is from this Etsy store.
There's a new writer's residency in Fayetteville, West Virginia, which is, as we say, "just up the road" from the scenic New River Gorge Bridge, which is what's depicted on this here postcard and the West Virginia state quarter. (I mention that because yesterday I was talking to my Australian boyfriend about the bridge and tried to use its being on the state quarter as shorthand for its relevance; I soon realized that meant nothing to him, had to explain what the state quarter program was, and then had to explain what a quarter was. Do not take it for granted that the state quarter program is really bizarre. Also that not many countries have 25-cent coins.) I would not do this writer's residency because I am from West Virginia and don't care to participate in initiatives designed to make me appreciate it—you don't tell me!, etc.—and because I cannot recall a time when I have yearned for the "natural beauty" and fresh-aired calm of the out-of-doors, which would be its chief draws. However, I could see someone really doing great work there; it really is beautiful and not distracting, and I do agree that West Virginia is underrepresented in literature, though I think the issue is much more complicated than "The stereotypes are tired," which is what the people who started the residency ultimately want to espouse with the project.
(Scott McClanahan, also from West Virginia, gets it right a lot of the time; I did an interview with him a few weeks ago for Dazed Digital.)
Anyway, you can decide for yourselves! Check it out; it's free room and no steaks, but that will give you more opportunity to sample the local cuisine. And there's a fucking great pizza place in that town.
August 12, 2014
In August's issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee writes about Dangerous Women, an anthology of original fiction edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. The women in Martin’s Game of Thrones certainly need a lot of strength to navigate a world that works against them. But in their search for power, they either resort to manipulation or to male patterns. It is rather unfortunate that the demand for more heroines, for more strong female characters in movies, TV shows and books has resulted in characters that are all about showing that women can be just as ruthless as their male counterparts. Ideally, fictional or non-fictional “dangerous women” would translate into “women who disrupt the status quo, the patriarchy.”
When I was first invited into the anthology entitled Dangerous Women it was then known by a different title — Femme Fatales. Which has a particular and rather negative connotation. Various dictionaries describe such a person as a seductive woman who will ultimately bring disaster to any man who gets involved with her or a woman who lures men into dangerous or compromising situations. It’s a very noir attitude summed up by generations of male detectives stating — “From the minute she walked in I could tell the dame was trouble.” And I confess I wrote that story though the woman in question is a revolutionary and a freedom fighter so she damages the man in pursuit of a good cause.
Melinda Snodgrass, "Deadlier Than the Male" | Tor/Forge Blog
It’s not surprising that the first choice for a title was Femmes Fatales. For a long time, la femme fatale was the only type of woman who would spell out “danger.” Not just for one man, as the narrow view of the men writing them might suggest, but also for traditional gender roles and therefore, for what’s at the heart of the patriarchal, heteronormative system: the nuclear family.
Of the three types of noir women, the femme fatale represents the most direct attack on traditional womanhood and the nuclear family. She refuses to play the role of devoted wife and loving mother that mainstream society prescribes for women. She finds marriage to be confining, loveless, sexless, and dull, and she uses all of her cunning and sexual attractiveness to gain her independence. As Janey Place points out, "She is not often won over and pacified by love for the hero, as is the strong heroine of the forties who is significantly less sexual than the film noir woman." She remains fiercely independent even when faced with her own destruction. And in spite of her inevitable death, she leaves behind the image of a strong, exciting, and unrepentant woman who defies the control of men and rejects the institution of the family.
John Blaser, “The Femme Fatale” in No Place For a Woman: The Family in Film Noir | Film Noir Studies
Among the writers featured in Dangerous Women is also Megan Abbott, who is no stranger to such characters. In the Black Magic issue of Spolia, the “queenpin of noir,” as Jenny McPhee calls her, writes about a 17th century witch trial that creates fertile ground for questions on female power. An excerpt from Sometimes My Arms Bend Back can be read here, and here Megan Abbott talks about her relation to the supernatural.
Watching the HBO documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, one could not shake off the feeling that the trial of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich was a modern witch trial. One expected words like “Devil worshippers” to be uttered at any moment. Catechism: Poems For Pussy Riot is a collection of poems in honor of the group. For more on Pussy Riot, in their own words, there’s also Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer for Freedom, published by The Feminist Press.
For a reminder that all the privileges (fragile as they are) girls and women enjoy today have been the result of girls and women before them causing trouble, we should take a journey back into history with Carol Dyhouse and her Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.
Girl Trouble should be accompanied by Warriors Don’t Cry, the memoir of Melba Patillo Beals and by I Am Malala, the story of Malala Yousafzai. As Carol Dyhouse says, “education is the ground-rock for progress for women.”
August 11, 2014
I tell whoever will listen that problem is capitalism and white men and that incrementalism is a crock: all the problems of our society are constitutive and that nothing short of total systemic overhaul—revolutionary change—will remedy them, so isn’t now the time to buy a gun, to take up arms against an oppressive government, because that’s what Karl Marx said, after all, to rally the proletariat so we can rise to the historical inevitably that will be the total destruction of class?
And then, like you, the next day, I hop in my used Honda Civic Hybrid, drive to Whole Foods to buy the good Chilean organic blueberries and donate—as we do every year—$5 to public radio, stopping to complain about how the arts are still under attack in America, thanks to the goddamn Republicans in Congress. Though neither of us really likes Obama. Or party politics at all. Mostly we’re just prone to screeds that elicit laughter and raised eyebrows. And then we go home. Even though we deeply believe what we believe...
I write this to you because I wonder if we can ever overcome what we are: prototypical comfortable liberals with radical pretensions. Or, as David Brooks called your generation after it settled down and had kids: bourgeois bohemians. I want to be a revolutionary, but I love Amazon Prime.
—Rachel Wilkinson on feeling radical and acting not, for Identity Theory.
Image: "Jolie Madame" (1973) by Audrey Flack
I read a book as a PDF on my computer this weekend, which is a very unpleasant experience that I don't recommend. I've been waffling on the issue of eReader purchase for awhile; I've read one book on a Kindle, and it (the Kindle, not the book) was intoxicatingly good. So fast! So light! So not inspiring of any to-underline-or-not-to-underline dilemma!
I feel guilty about this—yes, there are other eReaders, but they are more expensive, and I don't know how to buy electronics, someone help me. To be fair (and transparent), I mostly want one so that I can read for free—out-of-copyrights and review copies—so it's not necessarily a gateway purchase to more monetary support for anyone, Amazon or mainstream publishing houses or already-very-wealthy authors or struggling self-published authors or totally worthy independent presses/bookstores. That's right—screw all of you! I'm hoarding my money so that I can one day buy a bicycle that doesn't have a mud-guard attached to it with packing tape! And, like, pay my student loans!
I think the reason people are getting so defensive about that letter from Amazon is that, amidst what the New York Times very sassily pointed out was "fresh" and a creepily Orwellian misinterpretation of Orwell, it also pokes at some valid points. There are huge benefits to eBooks, the main ones being ease of access and cost-effectiveness of production and consumption. It's great when a poor person can afford to buy a new book that all the smart-ass reviewers (who got it for free) are raving about. It's one thing to lecture upper-middle class douchebags about parting with their precious pennies to support publishing via $25 for a new hardcover; it's another to be like, "Hey, I know you're eating toast for dinner AGAIN...but that's why you need to treat yourself! With my $25 hardcover! If you buy it for $9.99 from Amazon, I mean, thanks so much, like, I really appreciate it, but did you know publishing is dying? Love ya, mean it!" $25 is a lot of money. $19.99 is a lot of money. $14.99 is a lot of money. Conscious consumerism is good, but it's also sometimes unrealistic to pressure individuals with it when there are large entities who should be feeling way more fucking pressure. I mean, Walmart, blah blah blah. I don't mean to sound like someone who lives in Europe, but maybe the government could help.
ANYWAY: I'm sorry, I buried the lede. The book I read this weekend was a novella called Family Heirlooms by a Brazilian writer, Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares.
1) This woman's name is Zulmira. Hi?
2) The book is great, even if you have to read it on your computer, and it inspires no dilemmas, because it only comes as an eBook that you can buy directly from Frisch & Co. for $2.99. (Frisch & Co, in case you're wondering, is a very cool eBook company that does English-language translations of contemporary literature, founded by one of the co-founders of Open Letter.)
3) Zulmira is a bad ass.
At this point in her growing intimacy with LIFE...Maria Bráulia Munhoz was naturally no longer the silly little twit she had been as a newly-wed. And so when [her husband] said to her (increasingly about everything and nothing) that a judge passes judgment secundum aequitatem, according to what he feels is right, she would lower her head modestly as usual—but not as a sign of respect, as her husband presumed, rather of dissembling—because the Latin sounded to her (despite the care the judge took each time to translate it straight away, for his wife's enlightenment) to have a strangely lascivious quality to it; because around that time the curtain of Maria Bráulia's tar-black nights was already beginning to crackle with what would soon be the great fire that was spreading across hours and hours of her existence, in which it was already possible to make out, lit up in the bright and joyful colours of those flames, the delightful person of the jeweller, Marcel de Souza Armand.
I mean, what a paragraph. The whole thing is like that. So cutting! So funny! So timely with a recurring metaphor! Portuguese->English translators, posthaste!
August 8, 2014
What We're Reading
The book I give the most, regardless the occasion or the recipient, is The House on Mango Street. After a recent count, I know that I have given it to five people, once insisting that the intended reader take it straight from my own shelf. To endorse a book with such zeal, as if it were my own, makes me sometimes feel like a middle school English teacher whose unabated enthusiasm leaves listeners skeptical or picking at their hangnails. I don’t make rapturous claims, but simply say that in the summer, in the shade of a porch or next to a body of water, this enchanting novel can make an afternoon pass exactly as you want. It’s hard to determine in which genre Sandra Cisneros’s collection of fortyfive vignettes belongs—an ineffability I find wholly appealing. As her first publication out of graduate school, Cisneros wrote an accessible text, full of saturated images and a strong central narrator, Esperanza, who captures all of characters that make up her Chicago neighborhood. The innocence of Esperanza’s voice might make The House on Mango Street seem like a lowbrow or juvenile choice for anyone committed to literature; however, I have yet to hear of any complaints.
Image: Still from "Die Bewerbung" ("The Interview") by Harun Farocki (1996)
Weekend Recommended Reading
-This morning I found A Dictionary of Superstitions abandoned on a table in the bookstore where I work. While you should keep in mind that it is merely a dictionary of superstitions, not the dictionary of superstitions, nothing in life being certain, unfortunately, I doubt very seriously that the person who left it is living in such a way that she couldn’t use a bit of extra guidance.
Regarding Fridays, the general consensus seems to be to never do anything on them:
FRIDAY, born on 1846 Denham Proverbs II n. A child born on a Friday is doomed to misfortune.
FRIDAY butter and eggs
1923 [Trowbridge, Wilts.] Harm will come to the child if you put Friday churned butter, or Friday laid eggs into its christening cake.
FRIDAY, courting on
1851 [Lancs.] A man must never ‘go a courting’ on a Friday. If an unlucky fellow is caught...he is followed home by a band of musicians playing on pokers, tongs, pan-lids, &c. 1890 T.C. Smith & J. Shortt History of Ribchester [Lancs.] No 'chap' might meet his 'woman' on a Friday evening. That was 'jinglin neet'. If he did, he would be sure to set all the old frying pans and kettles in motion, as if a thousand bees were aswarm.
If someone could email me and explain how Friday went from no-"chaps"-allowed to hey-do-you-want-to-go-to-a-bar-or-something-I-guess-if-you-want, that would be interesting. And speaking of bees, they "dislike bad behavior." According to Pliny (AD 77), "it is particularly recommended...that the person who takes the honey should be well washed and clean: bees have a particular aversion, too, to a thief and a menstruous woman." Updates as they're made available.
-The German filmmaker and political/media theorist Harun Farocki died last week, and The New Inquiry has posted a long interview with him that's good whether you know a lot or nothing about him. I asked my smart friend who has a PhD in German film/literature/I’m-not-totally-sure-but-he-knows-a-lot to recommend a clip or two, and he said you should watch this and/or this.
-Josephine Livingstone, a hip, young medievalist (!!!), has a great review of the new(ly released) Tolkein translation of Beowulf in Prospect, about how "Tolkien’s oeuvre has become a cipher for the look and feel of 'medievalness'," how he "loved medieval poetry so much that he swallowed it up."
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. This is the final in that series.
Now that most magazines seem to have a blog for every staff writer, and a lot of magazines started as blogs, and now that every book publisher feels obligated to have a blog, it’s perhaps worthwhile to remember how rare blogs were in the early ‘00s, and how dismissed they were at the time.
When literary and/or cultural blogs were mentioned at all by mainstream media, they were dismissed. These blogs were too “undisciplined,” because neither the length nor subjects of the posts were uniform; they sometimes incorporated sound clips and pictures. These sites were too “obscure,” because they dared to discuss books, writers, and modes not currently in the headlines. Litblogs were too “idiosyncratic,” which basically meant they weren’t beholden to standard AP style nor did they aspire to be New Yorker essays.
All of this boiled down to this: Litblogs were too personal. The prose was often conversational, experimental, wild, or a combination thereof. Litblogs admitted to the bias inherent in all criticism, and did not pretend to a false objectivity. As a result of being honest, as a result of engaging culture on the terms of life as lived by the critic engaging it, litblogs were dismissed when they weren’t being ignored.
This was the world Jessa Crispin entered into, just a few months after 9/11. A friend, living in Austin at the time, urged me to read Bookslut. Jessa hooked me in immediately. For a while, it was practically just Jessa. Blunt, acerbic, impassioned, often furious, sometimes unfair, and always committed, Jessa’s voice rang out. She cared deeply about books, and she wanted her readers to care about what she cared about.
What she cared about was life itself and its larger questions: How do we live compassionately in the world? How can we be true to our best desires while also belonging to something larger than ourselves? How can books help us survive, and how do they—and language itself—fail us? What do we do when a book’s beautiful language clashes with its abhorrent politics? Jessa puzzled through these questions, using as filters her heart, brain, concerns, and shifting tastes. In short, she was the undisciplined, idiosyncratic, and obscure blogger that print media took her for.
Funny thing is, print media and lit-crit are now trying to catch up to Jessa’s vision, even as Jessa’s plowing forward. Her interests, always wide-ranging, have become even more so over the years. She globe-hops literally—seriously, how many countries has she lived in?—but also internally. Eastern European culture, mysticism, feminism, reimaginations of love and marriage, the pleasures and pains of Sassy Magazine, long-term travel, William James—it’s all there in Jessa’s writing.
She lays herself bare, bravely. Her lit-blogging compatriots have increasingly clothed themselves, folded themselves up into the mainstream program, compartmentalized, professionalized. Lizzie Skurnick now runs a reprint press; Maud Newton writes regularly for the New York Times; Mark Sarvas published a novel, and Laila Lalami published two; none of them blog much anymore. Scott Esposito’s keeping it going but even he runs a bonafide literary journal now.
Jessa’s tried that route. Well, sort of. Her “Kind Reader” advice column offered “lessons” from books to her letter writers but those lessons were often ambiguous and open-ended, reaching out into the world instead of to just more books. Her “Reading the Tarot” column branches into memoir and mysticism more than monographs. Spolia, the magazine Jessa started last year, is as weird, conflicted, mysterious, and necessary as her blogging is.
That’s the thing—after 12 years of this, Jessa’s still blogging regularly, still spilling her reading life into her actual life on the page for us. That’s amazing. Now that she seems to be giving it up for greener—or at least different—pastures, it’s high time we praise her for fighting the good fight, for remaining undisciplined, obscure, and idiosyncratic in an online lit world that, increasingly, seems anything but that. I owe her my deepest gratitude, and my awe. We all do.
August 7, 2014
I've been trawling the Bookslut blog archives for inspiration (and/or reassurance) and continue to be simultaneously struck/not-at-all surprised/guiltily relieved that we're talking about basically the same things we (they—I'm too young to have been a participant in the Golden Age of online literary culture, but if you want to have the Death Cab for Cutie conversation...) were talking about in 2003. On October 10 (of that year), Jessa linked to this ArtsJournal post by Terry Teachout about how the common middlebrow culture of his mid-century youth has died out at the hands of "information-age capitalism." Complete with quaint reference to "the rise of digital information technology"!:
Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice.
If you read last Friday's New York Times article about Capital and how increasing economic inequality has translated to an increasingly polarized, turn-of-the-century-esque high/low culture (but without the consolation of actual masterpieces; see also: Teachout's discussion of intellectuals denouncing "high art" as "cultural imperialism"), this will sound familiar.
But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away...
In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.
Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. The highbrows were co-opted or killed off by the middle, and the elitism they championed has been replaced by another kind, the kind that measures all value, cultural and otherwise, in money. It may be time to build a new ladder.
Somewhat tangential: The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism looks like something to read.
August 6, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog.
Jessa’s blog has been for over a decade the best of its kind and a goddamn vindication of the medium. I don’t remember precisely when I first began reading her stuff, but I remember the general mood informing my discovery: racing through the internet like a dope fiend looking for something good, something to pierce my youthful stupor and make me stand up and cry hail. It’s hard to remember now, but the internet circa 2003 seemed so full of promise, pregnant with infinity even, as the blogs marched up from the primeval ooze. Suddenly, for the first time in history anyone could write anything and anyone could read it —- if only people stumbled upon it. Deep waters! Heavy vibes! The din of history ringing in everyone’s ears!
Some even speculated that someday a real writer might emerge from this chaos -— the idea was wonderfully preposterous, it had a thrilling audacity to it, like a coup d’état or starting a rock band or getting a phone number from a beautiful stranger. And then, like the dumb protagonist of some realist novel, I realized how little gold there was in the midst of all this freedom. “When people are free to do as we please,” Eric Hoffer wrote, “they usually imitate each other.” Quality, I had thought at first, would be tough to spot, would take observation and time; the opposite was true.
And so when I found Jessa’s blog I became, like so many others, a daily reader, a thirsty one. A little oasis, a little clearing. Her devotion to the foreign, the dead, the weird, and the queer was so refreshing in a medium that seemed hell-bent on discussing only what others were already discussing. She was also a master proselytizer. The Master and His Emissary, Why Love Hurts, William James—these were just some of the conversions she effected in me with her clear and sympathetic prose. Finally, I should note my admiration for how she never made the specious choice between the personal and the world-historical; her writing has always been characterized not by the “balance of thinking and feeling” but by the knowledge that the two are one and the same. Long may she type.
Image: Fashion Cartoon: Two Parrots (1911) by Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel
Instead of reading another review of Bad Feminist, consider the new issue of Bookslut, which will make you want to go to Amsterdam:
Activists spread rumors that the water supply had been laced with LSD, and smoke bombs obscured the royal parade route, producing a police over-reaction and public relations disaster. The Provos went on to propose various new ideas for the city, including a plan to supply free bicycles and another to give women free contraceptives, both to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to further the idea that it was irresponsible to enter marriage as a virgin.
I doubt I’m alone in finding “human” puzzling as a term of approbation. “He came across as very human,” for example. Human beings have, no doubt, produced some admirable things, like the music of Bach and, well, I can’t really think of anything else at the moment. But whenever human beings behave in undeniably human ways, by engaging in mob violence or inventing wildly elaborate ideas to justify any sort of petty, mean act, we are told that these people are acting like -- animals. Apparently all that’s necessary to earn the epithet “human” is to have the placidity of a cow or a whale.
August 5, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. If you'd like to contribute something, email Charles.
All day long at work, I have a tab on my computer open on the Bookslut blog page. I do it because I just need to know it’s there, my secret security blanket. It reminds me that there is a community out there that challenges me to care about worthy things in complex and compassionate ways. It saves me from shutting down.
When Jessa wrote so beautifully about her admiration for Marion Milner, I felt immediately that A Life of One’s Own was exactly what I needed to read at that moment. How did our dear Bookslut know that I was desperately trying to find some kind of space that could reasonably be identified as my self? (And don’t even get me started on the magical timing of my Bookslut-induced Marina Warner phase.)
And then there was that time in her Bibliomancer column when Jessa gave a reader permission to be angry with her alcoholic boyfriend, and then told her to get down and do some self-excavation. It was such an accepting, nuanced, and softly demanding reply. What I was hearing was, “It’s ok, directing negative feelings outwards is helpful and human, just be aware of what you’re doing and I trust that you will get through it.” I am not sure that I have ever heard another person say such a thing. It was a massive relief.
And that just really sums up what this blog has meant to me: that it’s all ok, so let’s get through this together. The writers constantly force me, in this really smart, precise, and often hilarious way, to open up and be hopeful. I am deeply grateful. Thank you so much, Bookslut. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Image: Brassaï: Lesbian couple at The Monocle, c.1932
Especially since actress Laverne Cox made the cover of TIME magazine, there seems to have been a flood of trans-related stories in the media and for once, we’re hearing their voices -- loud and clear -- instead of the same straight cis male voices telling us what a transgender person is or looks like. Here is some suggested reading on trans-issues:
Michelle Goldberg examines the tensions between trans-exclusionary radical feminists, on one side, and transgender people and their trans-inclusive feminist allies, on the other side.
Of the radical feminists’ position, she [Sandy Stone, author of The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto] says, “It’s my personal belief, from speaking to some of these people at length, that it comes from having been subject to serious trauma at the hands of some man, or multiple men.” She adds, “You have to respect that. That’s their experience of the world.” But the pain of radical feminists, she insists, can’t trump trans rights. “If it were a perfect world, we would find ways to reach out and find ways of mutual healing,” she says.
Michelle Goldberg, "What Is a Woman?" | The New Yorker
Feminist activist and writer Laurie Penny rightly argues that trans-rights concern everybody. "If gender identity is fluid," she says, "then we have to question every assumption about gender and sex role we've had drummed into us since the moment the doctors handed us to our panting mothers and declared us a boy or a girl." She further proves that radical feminism can take different shapes:
A great many cis people experience gender dysphoria to some degree, and a great many women, in particular, experience the socially-imposed category of "womanhood" as oppressive. I'm one of them, and that's why I believe trans rights are so important to feminism - and why it's so dispiriting that some feminists have been actively fighting the inclusion of trans people in anti-patriarchal and LGBT politics. The notion that biology is not destiny has always been at the heart of radical feminism. Trans activists and feminists should be natural allies.
Laurie Penny, "What the 'transgender tipping point' really means" | New Statesman
Beatriz Preciado takes the universality of trans-issues even further in her book Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era.
I actually continue taking it [testosterone]. What I think is interesting about any molecule, not just testosterone, is that everything is a question of dosage. With this same molecule, some of my friends have become something very close to what looks like a cis male. In my case, I take very low doses, so that I may continue the way that I am for a little bit, maybe not much longer. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do next. Some people ask me, Do you want a gender reassignment? I don’t know -- probably, if I keep taking testosterone, there will be a point where I will probably say yes, but that’s not exactly my aim. I also thought about the project as a kind of collective adventure, in a sense, because I’m thinking about the body, not even just my own, as this kind of a living political fiction. That’s how I see the body, as a living political archive. You already have this archive. It’s not like you choose things that are more or less outside of yourself to add onto it. You realize that your body is really dense, stratified, and huge. There are connections and relationships that are already there. If you carefully look at it, you realize that your body archive is connected to the history of the city, the history of design, technologies, and goes back to the invention of agriculture like eighty thousand years ago. Your body is the body of the planet. When I add a few molecules of testosterone, in a huge living archive, well that’s just a minor detail. It’s a way of intensification in terms of a cognitive experience -- suddenly you are intensifying processes that are already going on in your body.
Beatriz Preciado interviewed by Ricky Tucker, "Pharmacopornography: An Interview with Beatriz Preciado" | The Paris Review
"Female Masculinity" emerged for me as a term that was implicit in many different discussions of gender, gender performativity, constructivism and so on but was never named as such. In my book I actually argue that despite an almost universal concurrence that femaleness does not automatically produce femininity and maleness does not produce masculinity, very few people seemed to be noticing or thinking through the material effects of disassociating sex and gender and this has been particularly true in the sphere of masculinity. Since femininity signifies in general as the effect of artifice, as the essence of "performativity" (if performativity can be said to have an essence), we have an easier time understanding it as transferable, mobile, fluid. But masculinity has an altogether different relation to performance, the real and the natural and it appears to be far more difficult to pry masculinity and maleness apart than femininity and femaleness.
Judith Halberstam interviewed by Annamarie Jagose, "Masculinity Without Men" | Genders
There is so much optimism surrounding trans-issues these days that it’s easy to forget that trans-people still face a lot of discrimination that endangers their lives. In a talk on violence against trans-people, Sass Rogando Sasot shows how the beliefs of our society and culture as to what makes a woman or a man hurt and even kill people who do not fit within the limits of their ascribed gender.
I identify and live my life as a woman, I look at myself in the mirror and I see a penis and a flat chest. How do I convince you that I am a woman? By feeling wrong about it? By hating the genitals I was born with as well as the body my puberty sculpted? By feeling trapped in this body? By transforming this body so that it can resemble the form of your woman? But is this body really wrong? What made it wrong? Who made it wrong? God? Scientists? Politicians? Theorists? Or me?
August 4, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. If you'd like to contribute something, email Charles.
It seems churlish to complain
For we perceived no Jessa rut;
Each Gimlet sentence sculpted clean
As dud blogs chased the chaste bookslut.
Reviews and apercus
Assaults on author's puffed up pride,
We cringed and gasped and laughed
And hoped to find you on our side.
When you loved the books we loved
Our taste seemed reinforced;
When you differed -- how you differed!
We felt twinges of remorse.
You made obscure examples seem
As though we knew them too,
The clubbable yet fierce repast
From an erudite ingénue.
Ok Crispin, walk through the door.
We will make our way somehow.
(Play taps) -- the endless internet
Lowers its collective brow.
Having read you many years I know
--Teasing, wry, maudlin or mad--
Never before this last blogging day
Would you publish verse this bad.
Now you'll depart with doggerel.
Time to recharge and restart.
Bookslut echoes on the web forever,
And ever in our hearts.
Mazel Tov, Jessa -- and thank you.
Image: Sarah Jessica Parker (2012?) by Danny Evans
On Friday Rebecca Mead outed Ira Glass as absurd for his tweet claiming King Lear is "not relatable," and she was right, but it was kind of an obvious rightness:
"But to demand that a work be "relatable" expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism."
Earlier, she compares Ira to "a resentful millennial filling out a teacher evaluation," and it’s a valid point—demanding relatability is lazy at best and insidious at worst. (I mean, sometimes you want it, and that’s fine—the problem is more the "demanding.")
What I think is more interesting/bad, though, is the presumptuous, poseur-y populism* that someone like Ira Glass is espousing when he uses the word "relatable" as the "yardstick by which he [judges] the merit of Shakespeare’s work." I like Ira Glass, generally; in fact, I like him in kind of the same way I like Shakespeare: he’s kind of boring but nevertheless important, and if I make an effort to not be bored by him then I can get something out of what he’s making, not least because historical precedent lends him a certain sparkle. (See also: The New Yorker.) But who is he kidding—to whom is Shakespeare not relatable? To Ira Glass? Ira Glass majored in semiotics at Brown and is the poster boy for a bourgeois pseudo-intellectualism that’s based on the idea that anyone can have an engaging, tellable story; he’s more than capable of understanding freshman-year English, and of cultivating empathy for narratives that differ from his own. (I’d argue that understanding is basically the same as relating, which is not what Mead is taking it to mean, but whatever: you wouldn’t say something is “relatable” if you found it at all challenging to understand, and that’s why she argues the word is so detrimental: it’s "hopelessly reductive...to reject any work because...it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy.") He can’t possibly mean Shakespeare isn’t relatable to him—because it is, as much as it can be to anyone (except Frederik)—and he can’t seriously just be acting like a brat. It seems more like he’s trying to act like a "regular guy," or speak on behalf of some image of a "regular guy" whose eyes glaze over as soon as the word "thou" gets thrown(e) around(e). Stars—they're just like us! No—I just can't relate to that.
*10 points for me.
August 3, 2014
We asked contributors, colleagues, and friends to say a little something to send Jessa Crispin off as she retires from the blog. If you'd like to contribute something, email Charles.
I had read, in a tiny paragraph buried in the back of Q Magazine, about 'blogs'. Short for web logs, they collected various bits of the internet together so you didn't have to find them yourself. I was 20 and had just started University where I received my first-ever email address, and this bewildering internet thing was suddenly open to me like it hadn't ever been before. I went to Google, probably cocked my head to one side and thought, what do I want to find blogs on? I liked books. I put 'book blog' into the skinny search bar and clicked on the one with the best name. I've read Bookslut every week since, usually every weekday once my internet access firmed up. I emailed Jessa about the death of Paula Danzinger, and she got back to me - and even put it on the blog. My eyes bugged out on stalks.
Turns out this internet doodad might be actually fucking interesting. Jessa and Bookslut would turn out to be pages in my passport, the ragtag document that got me out of the dank corridors of higher ed and the Sarlacc pit of my hometown and the general turmoil of being around and often sentient on this particular plane of existence. Cheers for that. I'll be hanging around seeing what's up next for her and wishing all these surrounding pixels all the very best.
Frankly, I don’t know how to do this – to write a thankful piece and make it feel as warm and sincere as possible. Usually but also seldom, I simplify things and stick to hugging people I’m thankful to as long a they are alive and also not some total strangers. And in this particular case, I would simply like to thank Jessa for the amazing job she did, creating and keeping a literary webzine and blog that embraces the “underdogs” of literature too and not only, those kind of “underdogs” who make you question the things as they are and make you feel uncomfortable with your own ideas the minute you start reading their stuff. Better yet, Bookslut and its blog keep on messing with the unmapped territories of our common imaginarium but without mapping them as an intended result or unwanted consequence. And I think this is its genuine charm, or at least it is to me. There was nothing instructional or didactical about Jessa’s Bookslut blog – just stingy hints, mercilessly and accurately delivered, hints that maybe, just maybe there are other books deserving your time and attention, apart from the ones delivered on the conveyor belt on a daily basis. I guess that making people curious, making them want to find out more and even understand things far beyond their comfort zone is a great start for any literary blog and it is even more important to manage to do this without imposing one’s taste, without designating one’s literary choices as being so far better than other’s. And this is precisely the touchy point where Bookslut blog played its cards right. And for all this I say: kudos Jessa!
August 1, 2014
by Maud Newton
Bookslut was the first book blog I discovered, and the first I obsessively reloaded throughout the day. It's impossible to overstate how new and vital Jessa Crispin's voice felt in 2002, or the enormity of her influence on the writing about books and culture that followed. I can't wait for her book, and we'll still have Spolia, and I know she's made sure to leave the blog in good hands, so I support her retirement, as long as we're all clear on where she belongs in the history books.
July 31, 2014
There are many ways to mishandle, drive swiftly and summarily into the ground, or otherwise fuck up receiving a gift. You don’t necessarily think deeply and specifically about them, these ways, until a gift is bestowed upon you, or maybe until you decide to write a novel in which a gift is bestowed upon your protagonist. However, when a friend who has been traveling and subletting her apartment for months sends you an early-morning email with the subject line “nutty idea” and the body, essentially, “I’m giving up the apartment. Do you want a month of cost- and roommate-free living in exchange for packing up and transporting to storage its contents? You can also have a ton of free books and three-quarters of a bottle of organic olive oil,” you think: “What have I done to deserve this grand fortune? I have little money, fewer books, and absolutely no organic olive oil!”
When your friend responds to your excited, grateful, can’t-believe-your-luck affirmative with a similar sentiment—“Thank you for doing this, Lauren, really”—you are confused. Why is this beautiful, generous friend of mine giving me a gift and then thanking me for it? you think, skipping across town, suitcase and money from marginally overcharged subletter in hand.
Often in these situations, it soon becomes clear that what you thought was a gift is actually more of a mutually beneficial exchange, a gift intertwined with responsibility. Sometimes the apartment is located in Germany, a land of storage and moving professionals who function in a language of which you have a tenuous grasp. Sometimes you are 23 years old and don’t even trust yourself with your own worldly possessions, much less those belonging to a friend much older and wiser than you are, whose worldly possessions have had much more time to accumulate monetary and sentimental value than yours have. Sometimes the friend is not only older and wiser, but also one of the figures you most respect, intellectually and just in terms of making difficult-but-good life decisions, in the industry into which you are trying to break as a 23-year-old owner of few worldly possessions. Sometimes the industry into which you are trying to break is the publishing industry, known for showering its participants with advanced review, hardcover, and softcover copies of the same heavy physical object, supplementing your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend’s already extensive library, from which you are tempted to sneakily pluck volumes. Sometimes your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend has journals, tucked into the usual journal hiding places, journals not literary but personal, journals you feel a pressing desire to not accidentally leave behind in your excavation of her apartment (which will be taken over by a smiling Japanese couple when you are finished with it)—journals you know you are definitely, 100% not supposed to read but instead trustworthily and ethically put, unopened, into boxes of evenly and liftably distributed weights. Always moving sucks.
And yet, as you grapple with the various and unanticipated moral and logistical issues before you—the calling of used bookstores to pick up the stacks and stacks of non-essential and non-meaningful heavy physical objects, the leaving until almost too late of the arrangement of storage unit and moving professionals, the spending of days to reassure yourself that it really would be ludicrous to wrap the refrigerated bottle of Veuve Clicquot in towels and exercise clothing and put it in a box to be kept in the almost unarranged storage unit for an unknowable stretch of time (your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend admirably and courageously prioritizing her artistic and intellectual goals over future stability)—as you deal with all of these simultaneously kind of petty and incredibly daunting tasks, you come to see the responsibility not as distinct from the gift, but as part of it. It is significant, what your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend bestowing this gift/responsibility upon you is implying, not least because one year later she will entrust you with something else that belongs to her, something much bigger and more significant than even her nicest, easily crushable Irish tweed hat and heirloom silverware. And although this bigger, more significant nutty idea will elicit in you a familiar combination of wide-eyed, can’t-believe-your-luck gratitude, confusion at your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend’s expression of reciprocal thanks when you accept, and intense, specific anxiety, you will also feel, underneath your excitement and indebtedness and fear, pretty much ready.
Weekend Recommended Reading:
- Me. I’m great!
- Nothing on the Booker longlist. Siri Hustvedt seems very interested in interdisciplinary texts.
- The Booker longlist blurbs, however, are worth a browse:
Paul O’Rourke, 40 year-old slightly curmudgeonly dentist, runs a thriving practice in New York. Yet he is discovering he needs more in his life than a steady income and the perfect mochaccino. But what?
- BUT WHAT?
- In another, they capitalize “autumn.”
- Joyelle McSweeney has published two excerpts from her libretto-in-progress, Pistorius Rex, at The White Review and Dazed Digital—you should actually read those, especially the first one.
Image: Untitled (1987) by Cy Twombly
Twelve years ago, I was sitting in at my day job in Austin, Texas, and had a why not moment. Why not just start blogging about books. Two months later, a Hungarian emailed me to say she enjoyed my website. And I thought, oh shit, if people are actually reading this, I should really try to do a better job. Feeling inadequate to the task, I decided why not. Why not just ask some people to write things with me, and we'll do a whole thing.
People occasionally ask me if I had a vision for Bookslut and what it was going to be, and I want to laugh. I was 23. I was cutting my own hair. I had dropped out of college after one year and my rural high school education was geared towards making farmers, not poets. Oh sure, I had a vision of myself as a literary tastemaker (blech) and member of the cultural elite. My actual vision for my life was that I would probably work at this pro-choice nonprofit for the rest of my life, I would spend my evenings as I had, volunteering as an abortion counselor. And I would dabble at this literary website to keep that part of my brain, the part who consumed Kathy Acker books by the dozen as a teenager trying to hold off small town despair, from atrophying.
That jump, from twelve years ago to now, it's one I still can't believe. And now, twelve years in, I am here to announce my retirement from the Bookslut blog. Not because I have some sort of vision for what comes after this, but because I have the urge to do another why not. Because the thing that I again thought I would do forever has caused some brain atrophying, and I want to see how much I can derail my life again.
Bookslut will still exist. This blog will still exist! I am passing it along to Lauren Oyler, a talented young writer living in Berlin. She'll be assisted by Corinna Pichl and Anamaria Dobinciuc, all of my lovely Central European ladies. (It was a Hungarian, after all, who really did inspire my taking all of this seriously.) And Bookslut the magazine will still exist, with Charles Blackstone as managing editor, Corinna as features editor, and myself as editor-in-chief.
Don't worry, this isn't going to go into "Follow Your Bliss" territory. I think that "Follow Your Bliss" and "The Universe Will Meet You Halfway" bullshit has ruined more lives than polio. My bliss was maybe up there, with a steady paycheck, eating cereal for two meals a day, maintaining expectations for what my life could turn out to be. That was blissful, or at least way less scary. And as far as "the universe meeting you halfway," let's just say that being the literary world's mad spinster aunt is not the most lucrative position one can establish.
As for what happens next. I'll swing by and say hi from time to time. My book, which may or may not be called The Dead Ladies Project, depending on who wins that marketing arm wrestling match, will be out from the University of Chicago in the fall of 2015. I'm collaborating on a tarot project with an incredible artist, and more will be revealed about that soon. I'm still doing tarot readings. Over at Spolia we'll continue to put out issues and chapbooks that stop my heart when I see the proofs, all of this beauty we get to put into existence. And I've been trying to take on something new, a way of writing about the world I move through, small travel pieces that will hopefully find a home somewhere. You'll be able to find me on Twitter, and probably the Spolia Tumblr. If I stop doing the Tumblr I promise I won't write up a big "After 11 months I have decided it is time to stop doing the Tumblr" thing.
In many ways, the last twelve years were not really about, hey let's talk about some books I've been reading. It was more about, how does one think through how one lives on the planet. How do you synthesize ideas, how do you follow a thought through centuries of other people's thoughts. And look: I loved it. And while that is by no means a finished thing -- hey I have figured out life, here let me blog about how to live a life -- it needs a different space.
Tomorrow Lauren will come here and introduce herself. And then that is it for me. Here, that is. I hope you'll come and find me again out there.
July 28, 2014
Image: The Alchemist by 413
Erin Lyndal Martin reviews Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder for July’s issue of Bookslut and suggests the temporal / timeless duality that characterizes this collection of poems is also expressed through the writer’s awe of science and technology. Often pitted against each other, poetry and science actually have a long common history. For more intersections between poetry and science, here are a few suggestions:
Pireeni Sundaralingam examines the forms that the interaction between poetry and science can take – from the parasite (poetry) to symbiosis.
We should note that poetry may go beyond simply describing scientific theory, however; it may also be a rich source of data. In certain cases, poetry allows scientists to cast their net wider, like the algae within the fungus, gathering in data they might otherwise have difficulty accessing. In more than a few instances, poems may provide the type of case study evidence that instigates subsequent experimental exploration by scientists. For example, field biologist Gary Nabhan argues that the historic song-poems created by the medicine men of the O’odham peoples codified the hallucinogenic properties of those chemicals naturally occurring in the datura plants, recording first-hand accounts of the effects of the drugs on both humans and other species. Eight decades after these poems were first published, neurobiologists are now systematically analyzing the psychotropic mechanisms first laid out in the poetry of the Sonoran desert.
Pireeni Sundaralingam, "Science and Poetry: Predation or Symbiosis?" | World Literature Today
Paul A. Cantor takes a close look at how Romantic poets reacted to the rise of science. He argues that the Romantics did not criticize science and scientists out of ignorance, but that they were interested in engaging in a dialogue.
Of all the Romantics, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were the ones most interested in science and most aware of new scientific developments in their age. Shelley was intrigued by chemistry as early as his student days at Oxford, and showed so much promise in the field that the great philosopher of science, Alfred North Whitehead, was led to write: “if Shelley had been born a hundred years later, the twentieth century would have seen a Newton among chemists.” Both Shelley and Byron were fascinated by what was happening in astronomy and cosmology in their day — a fascination that is reflected in the cosmic speculations that appear in poems such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Cain. Shelley and Byron took a special interest in the emerging fields of geology and paleontology, and in particular kept up with the latest theories about the prehistoric creatures that came to be known as dinosaurs. This kind of scientific development fed the religious skepticism of Shelley and Byron, and above all their tendency to question the Biblical account of creation. Well before Darwin’s time, Shelley and Byron were taking cues from modern science to suggest in their poetry that man might not have been created perfectly by a benevolent God. The evidence thus suggests that the Romantic poets, although they certainly had their doubts about certain aspects of modern science, did not condemn it out of simple ignorance or jealousy, but had instead entered into a genuine dialogue with the science of their day. If Shelley and Byron are any indication, the Romantics were not simply willing, but quite eager to listen to what contemporary scientists had to say.
Paul A. Cantor, "The Scientist and the Poet" | The New Atlantis
Over at New Scientist, Paul Collins takes a look at the Victorians. Not the poets that showed an interest in science, but the scientists who wrote poetry. Collins compiles a list of often amusing poems written by Victorian scientists. He also mentions Daniel Brown's book on the subject, The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, science and nonsense. The practice of both science and poetry, according to Brown, was "telling of, and indeed emblematic for, an historical moment of transition in British culture, in which poetry, beginning its gradual decline in power and prestige with the waning of romanticism, meets with ascendant science."
Sumana Roy's poems inspired by the elements in the periodic table, Calcium and Iron, focus on the body and the personal: "I become a living laboratory" (Calcium). From Iron:
Iron, its deficiency, makes of me
a nation without border patrol.
So the easy invasion on my margins –
fingertips, underside of eyes, lips.
Pinch-press-pull-prick. Blood should rise
like a patriarch, out to defend.
Doctors scold, nurses become teachers.
But my scores never reach the pass mark.
8 or thereabouts – my highest score.
Sumana Roy, ‘Elements in the Periodic Table’ by Sumana Roy | berfrois
Maria Popova highlights excerpts from The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass. “The poetic species” is, as Popova explains, Wilson’s description of human beings “on account of how heavily our cognitive infrastructure relies upon metaphor and associative thinking.”
July 27, 2014
Image: Circe the Enchantress by Edmund Dulac
Weekend Recommended Reading
We have a big announcement coming on Thursday, you'll want to come back to hear this.
- Arthur Koestler will remain my most tormented love, the whole having to reconcile writing one of my favorite books with being a shitty rapist person. (I have yet to see someone take this on well, with Koestler specifically, dealing with his horribleness but the appeal of his writing. Someone write that.) Here is a 1954 profile of the (shitty) man.
- Why Americans Stink at Math: Because we stink at teaching math. Let's get all of the math teachers of the country and trap them in a room with Stand and Deliver on repeat until they cave. (Is this the only inspirational school movie that doesn't have a savior white person teacher? I think maybe.)
- I am saying goodbye to Romania soon, god damn it. Here is an enormous interview with Emil Cioran, just to rub it in. He calls Nietzsche "naive" (!!!), discusses his lifelong insomnia, and gets into his tricky political beliefs (he was pro-Nazi, but only for a while). And here, so you don't do what I did, and way mispronounce Cioran's name to a Romanian, this will help you learn how to pronounce his name.
Random book recommendation: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger. Always interesting when considering how people believe in things like the rapture or Armageddon or whatever, but also just for how beliefs become hardened and impermeable. Also interesting for the insight that mockery makes it more difficult for a person to abandon their beliefs, even after they start to question them.
July 25, 2014
What We're Reading
I picked up a paperback of Martin Amis's Experience at a local Powell's that was closing. I'd read a novel or two of his years ago but had no distinct memory of them but his name was familiar and the price couldn't be beat, so why not add another book to the teetering stack waiting by the bedside?
Everybody and their mother's written a memoir or three at this point—I should know—but I didn't want this one to end. The hulking figure at the center of Amis's story is his father, Kingsley, a monumental literary, as well as personal presence in Martin's life. The book is full of excerpts of Kingsley's prose and poems. Other writers like Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens make regular appearances as well. All the while Amis comes up with one beautiful sentence after another after another. This is the rare book in which I wasn't irritated by frequent footnotes because each opened another rabbit-hole or side-path to another angle on the story he was recounting.
It doesn't hurt that one's biography is filled with noted and accomplished cultural figures but bookstores the world over are filled with half-literate tomes written (or more often, ghost-written) by the famous. Amis does much more than name-drop here. His accounts of the epic battle with his teeth and the haunting memory of his cousin Lucy Partington's murder at the hands of serial killer Frederick West are worth the cover price in and of themselves. But even if Amis hadn't lead a remarkable life, I'd recommend this book for the joy and mastery with which he handles the English language. What he does best here is to show what it actually is to take in the world through words.
July 24, 2014
"The Vivian Mire," Dmitry Samarov's essay about the tangled Vivian Maier archive from Spolia's Disappearance issue, has been popular lately:
- Maud Newton used it as the basis of her New York Times Magazine micro-column last week.
July 22, 2014
Image: The Angler by Paul Klee, marked for destruction by the Nazis for being "degenerate"
Lost or damaged artworks form the interstitial space in the Disappearance issue of Spolia. Stolen, damaged, destroyed (sometimes by the artists themselves), or simply censored -- the many ways in which works of art disappear raise questions pertaining to their place in art history. How do these lost artworks shape art history? How aware are we of their loss?
Curated by TATE, The Gallery of Lost Art was a one-year online exhibition that featured some of the most important works of art that were lost during the last century. Among the artists included in the exhibition were Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Willem De Kooning, Frida Kahlo, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. Meanwhile, The Gallery of Lost Art has been erased – now merely a ghost, just like the artworks it temporarily brought back to life. A selection of essays on the lost artworks featured in the exhibition can still be accessed online. In addition, the stories of some of these artworks have been collected in between the covers of a book: Lost Art, by Jennifer Mundy.
Similarly, Céline Delavaux reunites lost artworks in her book The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You'll Never See. Delavaux takes us through different eras – from prehistoric caves to more recent disappearances. The writer thinks the connection between the viewer and a work of art passes through language. Indeed, even though these lost or hidden works of art can no longer be seen, they still have a lot to say.
The idea that a work of art can encapsulate a certain time in history is emphasized by Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Vienna at the turn of the century, Nazis stealing a Jewish portrait and the long fight of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s relatives to recover the portrait and with it, a piece of history. On Klimt’s status during the Nazi occupation O’Connor says:
Klimt was never declared a degenerate artist. It’s not clear how his work avoided this designation. He could have qualified, with his explicitly erotic drawings; paintings suggesting bisexuality and a world without God, and his reputation as a social “philosemite”—or what the Nazis were now calling, in their most polite language, a Jew-lackey. But he had fans among the Vienna Nazis, and he could be framed in a palatable way to the arbitrators of “Germanic” culture. He was an excellent draftsman, and could draw or paint something akin to a photorealistic likeness, when he chose to. Superficially, his good lucks and legendary appeal to women fit the masculine profile of the powerful Germanic Ubermensch. Klimt was safely dead, unlike his friend Kokoschka, who was a vocal anti-Nazi. He was also one of the favorite painters of Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi governor of Vienna, who sponsored the biggest show ever of Klimt’s works, in 1943. Schirach’s tastes were broader: he got in trouble with a show of young artists that Hitler himself shut down. When some of Klimt’s works finally were burned, when the SS torched a castle after the defeat of Hitler, it was probably an accident. Though the other paintings at the castle were eventually evacuated, and the Klimts taken there by the Gestapo were not.
Anne-Marie O’Connor interviewed by Laurel Zuckerman, Anne-Marie O’Connor on the extraordinary tale of Klimt’s The Lady in Gold | laurelzuckerman.com
It's tempting to romanticize art thieves who steal purely for the love of art. But often, thieves know nothing about the artworks they steal. They do know a lot about tricking security systems. This is the case with the thieves who stole works by Monet, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Because of contradicting statements, it is still unclear if the stolen artworks have been destroyed or if they remain hidden.
How Picassos, Matisses, Monets and other precious masterpieces may have met a fiery fate in a remote Romanian village, population 3,400, is something the police are still trying to understand. The theft has turned into a compelling and convoluted mystery that underscores the intrigues of the international criminal networks lured by high-priced art and the enormous difficulties involved in storing, selling or otherwise disposing of well-known works after they have been stolen.
Liz Alderman, "Romanian’s Tale Has Art World Fearing the Worst" | The New York Times
Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte, Mark Rothko -- modern art is incomplete without the works of art hidden in the basement of a museum in Tehran. Some of them are, however, brought to the surface. Ephemerally.
In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.
The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."
Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, "Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures" | The Guardian
July 20, 2014
Image: Louise Bourgeois, À Baudelaire
Weekend Recommended Reading
This is late because I got distracted yesterday by this. I have family members who have been writing, saying, you are one country over from the Ukraine, when is your flight out, and I have to say, don't worry, I won't be flying over Russian airspace, and they say, Who even knows what is going to be labeled Russian airspace by next week anyway. So I've been watching a lot about airplane crashes, like the above, which is Errol Morris's hypnotic interview with the man who landed a plane with catastrophic hydraulics failure and saved 2/3 of the passengers onboard. Then I had to watch Fearless because of Jeff Bridges, and then I had to go read William Langewische's entire back catalog.
Plus, with that Errol Morris doc, I completely lose it when I see a Midwestern man cry. Because they don't, pretty much ever. I love a Midwestern man, but they are not forthcoming with their emotions. So when he gets choked up because he couldn't save everyone on the plane, I have to spend some time weeping. It's like there was this documentary a while back, where a Midwestern farmer is watching developers dig into some farmland to turn it into a shitty McMansion because that will make more money, and he starts talking about how you can see the soil they're building on is rich and fertile because it's so black, and he starts crying for the lost potential of the soil and so I start crying (before I remember the other thing about Midwestern men, that maybe his children have been waiting at home for some sign of love or pain or affection, something other than just perpetual disappointment, and seeing their father crying over soil makes them realize he really does love the land more than he loves them...) It's complicated.
- Are you a writer, or are you a missionary? Are you so certain of your own viewpoint when you go traveling out into the world that you don't even listen to people's stories, you're just looking for reinforcement of your own views? So good. This will come in handy for the Travel Writing Revolution I am plotting.
- Kathy Acker interviewed the Spice Girls. For Vogue Magazine.
- At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
- "We have a surplus of vaguely boring art world bad boys running around these days, but how many genuine degenerates do we have? I mean, real perverts?"
The random book recommendation this week is going to be Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy again, because it is remarkably good, she is remarkably good, and not nearly enough people even know who she is.
July 18, 2014
Image: Self-Portrait by Lee Friedlander
In “Erase & Rewind,” Tina Pisco’s short story for theDisappearence issue of Spolia, memory is identity. The loss of memory is the loss of identity. Here, temporary amnesia is a chance to escape from a past that is slowly coming back, like a bad thriller caught on TV late at night. It is a chance to take on a new identity, one that promises love and affection. The loss of memory makes one ask “Who am I?” — a question that is always there, lingering, with or without any memories. For more on various degrees of memory loss, here are a few suggestions:
David MacLean found himself (and lost his self) in a train station in India, with his memory gone. His memory / identity became a puzzle pieced together by his family and friends – all strangers to him. MacLean first told his compelling story for This American Life, and later on in his book The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia.
At that moment, staring at the monitors, I was a blank sheet that had just been rolled in the typewriter. No backstory, no motivation, no distinguishing characteristics, no real idea what I even looked like.
David MacLean, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me | This American Life
I. Fontana’s (Todd Grimson’s nom de plume) Amnesia is set in an unspecified time, in an unspecified place, giving his short story a universality that is hard to ignore (“The red of the Coca-Cola signs is the same all over the world.”). A sense of loss enveils his characters who exist separately, who seem to have forgotten how to live together.
There could be no present tense, no present, without forgetfulness. A veil must fall over reality — in order to eradicate the poisonous past. And yet the past never really dies, nor can it be killed. Reality wears a mask, and behind the mask is but a mirrored face: the mirror always lies.
I. Fontana, “Amnesia” | Pank
As Patrick Ryan has discovered, the lack of a personal narrative can be the most terrifying thing about memory loss:
‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I just want to go home.’
But I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a person who had legs and arms and a heart and a throbbing head, I knew my own name and the name of the President and what year it was, but I couldn’t remember my personality or anything about the recent past. And this is what very few novels or movies have ever gotten right about amnesia: it’s not exotic; it’s horrific and sad-making. I was sad because I had no story. Elizabeth McCracken, in her novel The Giant’s House, wrote, ‘Babies have no plot.’ Post-seizure, I was a plot-less baby. I ached to remember what my job was. I ached to remember if I had any preferences, any passions, any tragic flaws. I ached to remember if I was a nice person or a mean person, a criminal or a hero. There was nothing exotic about it; I was profoundly depressed because I had no sense of myself, other than as someone glued to a hospital bed.
Patrick Ryan, “Grand Mal” | Granta
In Remind Me Who I Am, Again, Linda Grant writes about living with her mother’s dementia. It’s a tender account of memory and identity. “Memory, I have come to understand, is everything, it’s life itself.”
The documentary Unknown White Male (Rupert Murray, 2005) tells the story of man who woke up on a subway train in Coney Island having no idea who or where he was. The diagnosis: retrograde amnesia. To some, this story sounds too much like a story. It sounds like a hoax. But Roger Ebert, who had interviewed the filmmakers, assured viewers it was all true. Besides, he wrote: “As we watch the film, Doug Bruce exists for us only in the sense that the film transfers him into our memories. Is that person any more or less real to us if the film is truthful or fraudulent?”
Amnesia has a dread fascination because it leaves its victims alive to experience the loss of self. Parents, lovers, photographs and old letters testify to the existence of a person who lived in the body whose inhabitant now regards them without recognition.
Roger Ebert, Unknown White Male | rogerebert.com
July 17, 2014
Coming in August:
We'll be announcing the winners of the Daphne Awards, for the best book of 1963. We'll be having a small event, details to follow. If you are a betting person, and you shouldn't, that kind of behavior is really bad for you, someone can make up the odds for the fiction category:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
In the meantime, you can refresh your memory about the rest of the nominees for nonfiction, poetry, and children's books, and do what I am going to do, which is just watch one of the best movies of 1963 over and over again, The Haunting.
July 15, 2014
Other people are still writing about 50 Shades of Grey, right? Oh thank god. I am not so terrifically behind.
It's a shame, though, that some of it is still in that "you should all be so deeply ashamed of yourselves" vein. Especially since so few writers put any time or thought into figuring out why it became such a hit. (Women feel powerless in many aspects of their lives. Here is a way for them to work through those feelings of powerlessness, in a way that gets them off on it. Why is that so hard to understand?) It seems like after all of the ink spilled over 50 Shades, we would at least have heard something interesting about it.
For the Los Angeles Review of Books I write about two responses to EL James's trilogy: the Virago anthology 50 Shades of Feminism and Eva Illouz's Hard Core Romance. I will just say that Illouz's book is, like all of her work, brilliant. That anthology.... er...
In this anthology, feminism becomes less a political philosophy and more of a justification for narcissism. Every decision that each person makes can be explained away with “because feminism.” Want an epidural and to bottle-feed? That’s feminism! Want to get married and move to the suburbs? Feminism! Do you want to make a big deal out of refusing to diet or maybe instead spend a lot of time playing around with clothes and makeup? Either way, both are feminist! Here, feminism is not used as a filter to assist with the decision-making process. The argument presented is this: your action is feminist because you are choosing for yourself. The result is a “feminism” that’s not only depoliticized but also desocialized: “feminism” becomes a word to slap onto a choice after the fact, as a way to protect a decision from any criticism.
Unless, of course, you, the reader, choose differently than the writers in the book, and then the condemnation comes down hard. Pornography, high heels, and bikini waxes, prostitution and other forms of sex work, refusing to label yourself as a feminist, plastic surgery, sexual submission, and reading 50 Shades of Grey: all these are listed as crimes against humanity, betrayals against the sisterhood.
I’ve advocated, here, collectivity. But there’s a difference between collectivity and the kind of “sisterhood” advocated in Fifty Shades of Feminism, which is simply self-interest in a social guise. Beware the woman going on and on about the sisterhood. She’s likely to be the first one to stick the knife in the moment your back is turned.
July 14, 2014
Image: from Germaine Dulac's film "The Seashell and the Clergyman"
The struggle for the recognition of women filmmakers is as old as cinema itself. In July’s issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee writes about Tami Williams’s biography of one of the first women filmmakers, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations:
Despite her exemplary career, during which she was compared to such cinema luminaries and innovators as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir, Dulac experienced erasure both during her life and after her death. Over a century later, women directors are still grossly underrepresented in the film industry, women's stories dismissed as unbankable by producers, and it is still unacceptable.
For more on Germaine Dulac and the question of “female authorship” in cinema, here are a few suggestions:
In her essential book on women filmmakers and feminist theory, The Woman at the Keyhole, Judith Mayne writes about the reinvention of film through cinematic narration, which is more than relevant when it comes to the representation of women and female desire. In her chapter “Revising the ‘Primitive’” Mayne writes about the different narrative modes juxtaposed in Germaine Dulac’s 1922 film La souriante Madame Beudet / The Smiling Madame Beudet.
Like the narrators of the early cinema, Mme Beudet can conjure and dream isolated images, but she cannot construct a narrative. But Dulac, of course, can. The Smiling Madame Beudet brings together a historical moment of the cinema with a particular mode of female consciousness, creating an encounter between the “primitive” cinema and the classical cinema, between a female imagination unable to break out of the duality of home versus public world, of isolated images versus complex narrative, and a more properly classical narrative which offers only the position of the obedient wife. It is in the ironic juxtaposition of these modes that female narration takes shape.
Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema
Rosanna Maule writes about how Germaine Dulac related to the concept of authorship, which only became distinctly and loudly articulated in the late 1950s, when the French New Wave reshaped the dominant film discourse.
Dulac’s preoccupation with defining the filmmaker as an auteur coincides with her effort to characterize cinema as the medium that allows a full expression of human emotions and experiences, as well as a direct rendition of reality. This view of the auteur also enables Dulac to disentangle the figure of the filmmaker-author from a system of representation and signification that identifies the auteur as an enunciative mark of subjective positions, a view that has, as Judith Mayne has remarked, distinctly patriarchal connotations. Dulac never proposed a feminist-oriented or a gender-specific model of the film auteur. However, her films and her writings propose a tactic of disengagement from the premises of the 1920s film and art contexts and offer a viable alternative to the patriarchal affiliation of auteurism with male-informed artistic practices and cultural contexts.
Rosanna Maule, "The Importance of Being a Film Author: Germaine Dulac and Female Authorship" | Senses of Cinema
Maryann De Julio takes a closer look at Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman, a rather controversial collaboration with Antonin Artaud. At the center of this film, De Julio says, “lies Dulac’s revolutionary poetics.”
In Surimpressions (2009), a DVD extra that accompanies Alain Virmaux’s revised study of The Seashell and the Clergyman, Tami Williams speaks of the rethinking of gender roles and oppositional acting styles in Dulac’s film, which she relates to the representation of a New Man and a New Woman in many of the Arts after the First World War. We can also see strong evidence of Dulac’s portrayal of women at work in The Seashell and the Clergyman, their tasks incorporated into the rhythm of the film. The scenes in which the maids sweep and dust; the governess enters, bible in hand; and the camera passes in close-up over the maids aligned with the butlers are as carefully choreographed to restore order as were the ballroom dance scenes with couples in embrace and women in décolleté, filmed in sweeping motion and crescendo, to intimate passion and sexual liberation.
Maryann De Julio, "Another Look at Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman" | Senses of Cinema
Germaine Dulac’s writing on film is an important part of her legacy as it contributed to the creation of a film discourse long before the existence of the influential Cahiers du Cinéma. In her text on “Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinégraphie,” Dulac laments the way cinema has been received by her contemporaries, which only comes to emphasize how much cinema today owes her and other innovators alike:
It is rather disturbing to recount the simplistic way in which we greeted its manifestations. At first, the cinema was for us nothing but a photographic means to reproduce the mechanical movement of life; the word “movement” evoked in our minds only the banal vision of animated people and things, going, coming, or shaking with no other concern than to let them develop within the borders of the screen, when it was instead necessary to consider movement in its mathematical and philosophical essence.
The sight of the indescribable Vincennes train arriving in the station was enough to satisfy us, and no one at that time dreamed that in it a new means for sensibility and the intellect to express themselves lay hidden. No one ventured to discover these means on the other side of the realistic images of a commonly photographed scene.
No one sought to know if within the apparatus of the Lumière brothers there lay, like an unknown and precious metal, an original aesthetic; content to domesticate it by making it a tributary of past aesthetics, we disdained any careful examination of its possibilities.
UbuWeb has archived two of Germaine Dulac’s films: La coquille et le clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman and L’invitation au voyage.
July 13, 2014
Image: We published an interview with Pamela Bannos about Vivian Maier. After it went up, I started to look at Bannos's own photographic work and fell in love. This is from her "Micro" series.
Weekend Recommended Reading
- Have you been wondering what to do, now that I've cooled it on all of the anti-marriage conversations with Against Marriage author Bruce Benderson? One of the things we didn't actually get around to discussing in that interview was his section on how obnoxious the "couple" is. How suddenly your newly coupled friend is no longer available for one-on-ones, how insular and self-contained couples are, often leading to a kind of apoliticism, because now all that matters is the couple's comfort. It de-radicalizes you. Well, luckily, Hannah Black is here with a very good essay on the couple, and how the couple is now how society is ordered, and that to not be in a couple is to be removed in many ways from society as a whole.
- It's John Dee's birthday. How are you going to celebrate? Wrench the horn off of a live bull (good fucking luck) to construct a magical Trumpet of Black Venus? Skrying your enemy's location? Studying up on the language of angels? Or just create a magic circle to drink inside of it, any of these are acceptable.
- Random book recommendation: I complained to Sara Kramer at NYRB Books that I had run out of things to read, and she sent me Olivia Manning. Bless her. And maybe, if things get set up this way, it was Olivia Manning who opened up the door to me heading to Bucharest with her The Balkan Trilogy. I read it on a trip that was not going as planned, and it kept me sane. Soap opera good with the painful, disillusioned marriage at its center, but also incredibly smart about politics in Central Europe in the lead up to Nazi Germany's domination. Now that I'm on another trip that is not going as planned (I was supposed to be out of here several weeks ago, but things have gone sideways and it'll be weeks still before I can go), having her sequel, The Levant Trilogy, is great comfort.
July 9, 2014
"Andrew Solomon is here in Romania."
We had been discussing the big Romanian release of The Noonday Demon, his big nonfiction book about depression, and my friend was asking me if she should read it. I told her: only if you think prescription medication for depression is the way to go. It had been a rare thing when it was released, a thoughtful book on depression, so it was easier to overlook its many flaws. Now there are many very good books about depression, it can be safely ignored.
But now today I am remembering my response to her telling me Solomon was in Bucharest: "I bet he's only here for a few days but he writes about the state of Romania anyway."
Yesterday Andrew Solomon's piece about the state of Romania went up at the New Yorker. He was in the country for six days, which, come on, isn't even enough time to get the jet lag off of you. Funnily enough, he found exactly what he expected to find: that Romania is a backwards, dirty, horrible place.
"I had hoped she might not be entirely right, that this European source of the family would be at least picturesque, that I’d have a surprising sense of identification with the place. I didn’t know how despondent it would make me to imagine being trapped in that life. I’ve reported from war zones and deprived societies for decades, but they have always been profoundly other, and this felt shockingly accessible—I could have been born here, and lived and died like this."
At first I was shocked that the New Yorker published this, as Solomon shows no historical understanding, let alone understanding of Romania's current situation. He also presents America and himself as shining beacons of hope to the poor Romanians, like some sort of Christian missionary among the savages. But then I remembered this piece the New York Times wrote about Ecuador a year ago, and I realized it wasn't surprising at all.
In it, Ecuador is also presented as squalid and backwards, although the reasoning is this:
"There are only three laptops and two desktop computers on display at the store in one of Quito’s top malls, plus two iPads, an iPad mini and a couple of iPods. The tiny shop is nowhere near the size of one of Apple’s flagship emporia in New York or other major cities."
Guys. They don't even have an Apple store. Which is obviously baseline for livability. The article did not use the term "third world" but you can hear it sneering through the text.
This isn't about shaming two travel writers, it's more that travel writing is in a very bad place. It seems to have divided into two camps, one where it's all about the self, the crazy thing that happened to me, and the exotic country is just dramatic backdrop. This camp is mostly populated by women. Then there is the colonial travel writer, who doesn't speak the language, has no real ties or sense of the history beyond a Wikipedia page, but comes back to tell people about how it is there. This camp is mostly populated by men. This is not because women are more self-involved or men are more chauvinist, it's because women writers are encouraged and groomed to write about certain things, and vice versa. Women are supposed to be self-reflective, men are supposed to be experts, that is just the way things are set up right now.
(There is an interesting variation in the self travel writing, bro writers who go off to Cambodia, who think that because they go zip-lining through the jungle and have avoided getting an office job, they are somehow living heroic lives. Timothy Ferriss is this travel writer's patron saint.)
The result is some terrible travel writing. There are travel writers working today who I think are brilliant, and I will tell anyone who will sit still long enough all the ways Stasiuk's On the Road to Babadag is amazing. But for the most part, the travel writing that I read is not only shallow but also prejudiced and chauvinist. People going to places they don't understand and don't feel they need to try to.
(Here is usually where someone says "John Jeremiah Sullivan" as an example of contemporary travel writing's greatness, but I will counter with, "Read his Ireland piece." He just lines up every cliche about Irish travel writing, one by one: James Joyce, genealogy, the Famine, small local pubs, tweed caps. Contemporary Ireland is a very interesting and complicated place, economically and culturally and politically, which is not something you would know from reading Sullivan's piece.)
What is needed is a travel writing revival, writing like Stasiuk or Geert Mak's In Europe. Thoughtful, immersive work that smashes cliches and the images we have of what certain places are like before we even go. Travel writers who if they find exactly what they expected when they go somewhere question why that might be. Travel writers who have more than six days in a country before they start telling us about how the whole thing works.
July 8, 2014
I have a new Reading the Tarot column at Ohio Edit, this time it is the Seven of Swords.
(The image to the left is from the Dali-designed tarot, and it's one of the few versions of this particular card that I like. Seven of Swords is a card that often times remains elusive, you see people on forums and so on expressing their frustration with how the card remains opaque to them, or about how those little manuals that come with tarot decks have very unsatisfying explanations for what the card means. I've been told in various readings, "oh, someone is stealing from you," when they were not. Theft is often how the card is interpreted, and yet the astrological correlation is the Moon in Aquarius: essentially making your home outside of the collective. At any rate, feel free to disagree strongly with my take on the card.)
In the Seven of Swords, we leave the group. A man runs from the town with swords thrown over his shoulder, and what he is running towards is mostly blank space. It’s empty because he hasn’t created what will be there yet. If this is his first departure, he might not know that he’ll have to do this, as he’s become accustomed to someone else creating and maintaining the world for him.
A person on the margins has to live by his or her wits, which is maybe why this card is focused on the trickster element of our hero. When there are no hands extended, you are forced to take what you can get. Mercury, the ruler of pickpockets and smugglers and border crossers. Those who, when the authority says no, do it anyway. Those who know if they wait for a handout, they’ll be here all week.
But what are you going to do with your distance? Will you use your outside perspective to get a good look at the faults and deficiencies of the system and help those left behind who might not even know that they are trapped, or are you going to just plot raids? That taking what you can get thing will only get you so far, and besides, the more you take, the more you become a taker. You fought so hard not to be defined by your surroundings, do you really want to define yourself now by that?
July 7, 2014
Here to disprove the notion that the only thing to read in the summer is books about girls having relationship problems that are wrapped up in 200 candy coated pages and I don't know, men who kill things with swords and ride on horses or whatever happens in fantasy these days, we have the July issue of Bookslut. Go read!
July 6, 2014
Image: Young Decadent After the Ball by Ramon Casas
Weekend Recommended Reading
I ran out of books to read, somehow. After I finished Jackie Wang's Against Innocence, I realized, oh shit, that's all I've got. I went to the Bucharest English language bookshop, but nothing was speaking to me except some very heavy, $80 art books, but I have a plane to get on in three weeks and I'm already approaching the weight limit, thanks to other idiotic purchases. I kept wanting things that were either unlikely (Claudio Magris books that I haven't read, books about the history of the Reformation) or don't exist at all (the unwritten books of Shirley Jackson and Jane Bowles).
I will try again at another English language bookshop this week, perhaps I'll be better motivated by increased desperation. I have three weeks left in Bucharest, and I already read the Jamie Oliver cookbook someone left here, the only book in English in this place. Ask me how to whip up a healthy meal that will please your entire family in only 20 minutes, go ahead, ask me. I fucking dare you.
- "Rape as Metaphor" by Rebecca Brown. Rebecca Brown has been one of my favorite writers for ages. This review of two opera performances in Seattle shows why I like her so much. The way she matches a poetic style with bluntness, the way her writing is beautiful while still retaining a solid philosophical and moral core. I mean: "An amoral hit man is not someone I should be drawn to, but Silvestrelli's burr was just so butterscotchy. Nadine Sierra, in her Seattle Opera debut, portrays Gilda as somehow, even after her sexual violation, innocent. Maybe Gilda is one of those women who, post–sexual trauma, constructs herself an explanation of her rape as, well, a metaphor? Or a rite of passage one must take for "love"? Maybe rape, in addition to being a physical fact always, is in some way not only an example of but also a metaphor for abuse of power?"
Will now be using "butterscotchy" in 28% of my sentences.
- Here is "Against Innocence,"(PDF) Jackie Wang's essay that I was reading in chapbook form. Wang presents our need for innocent victims of state or institutionalized brutality (Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin) before we can feel empathy for them and see how they were victimized. It argues for complication and nuance. It's pretty great.
- Speaking of Rebecca Brown, just a note about Spolia. Bookslut is often praised for giving attention to under-appreciated and obscure writers. But it can be tough to go from one review of a writer who is not being talked about elsewhere to investing $25 for their book. Which is part of the reason why I started Spolia, to give you a sampler of what is going on in the margins. Which is maybe a good way to look at it, a $5 sampler to the writers you may hear of here but are not sure if you're sold on. Rebecca Brown, for example, wrote us a wonderful poem for "Hysteria." (they and/or it desired things / they and/or it saw or not saw / they wanted deep and longed and tried and / wanted in the mouth // the thing had a mouth) Also, wonderfully, she is sending us a story for our Henry James Tribute Album.
If you want to check it out, but aren't convinced, email me and I'll send you a free copy of one of our back issues.
- Your random book recommendation for the day: All books. Remember books? When they were in English and within reach? And not in Romanian? And any would do? I miss those days. Please bring those days back. And appreciate the books in the language that you read that are within reach, all of them.
July 4, 2014
In June’s issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst invites us to do The Anne Carson Workout: to think about The Albertine Workout, about Proust’s work, about Proust’s life, to consider the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, and yes, even to wonder about the type of workout Anne Carson prefers.
Here’s Anne Carson reading from The Albertine Workout:
In an interview for The Paris Review, Carson’s line “I want to be unbearable” (from her poem “Stanzas, Sexes, Seduction”) leads to a brief discussion about her being in a boxing class.
Yukio Mishima famously admonished intellectuals for not taking care of their bodies, for always putting the mind first. Sun and Steel is Mishisma’s ode to muscle and action.
In the dim light of early morning I was running, one of a group. A cotton towel with the symbol of a red sun on it was tied about my forehead, and I was stripped to the waist in the freezing air. Through the common suffering, the shared cries of encouragement, the shared pace, and the chorus of voices, I felt the slow emergence, like the sweat that gradually beaded my skin, of that “tragic” quality that is the affirmation of identity. It was a flame of the flesh, flickering up faintly beneath the biting breeze—a flame, one might almost say, of nobility. The sense of surrendering one’s body to a cause gave new life to the muscles. We were united in seeking death and glory; it was not merely my personal quest.
Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel
Unlike Mishima, Haruki Murakami cherishes the alone time that running offers him:
I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Another writer who has praised the benefits of running is Joyce Carol Oates. She writes:
Running! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can't think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.
Joyce Carol Oates, "To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet" | The New York Times
July 2, 2014
An Interview with Pamela Bannos
Image by Henry Darger, another Chicago artist who was not celebrated until after death
When I wanted someone to clear up some of the questions I had about Vivian Maier's archive and the trouble I was having in piercing through this dreamy storyline of the nanny/secret photographer, sad spinster rescued by her male archivists that had been constructed, I asked Pamela Bannos. A photographer and a writer and a professor, Bannos is working on her own take on the Vivian Maier story, one that was not designed specifically to sell Maier's work at high prices.
Because while we can appreciate her work, and marvel at the story of a photographer who was hiding the brilliant art she was making in an age of self-promotion twitter feeds and "platform," it is discomforting when an artist becomes mythologized, and when that myth is baldly used to move product. Particularly when we are dealing with a female artist mythologized by men and using patronizing ideas of womanhood to do it.
Pamela Bannos is working on her own book about Vivian Maier, while also teaching at Northwestern and producing and showing her own photographic work. We spoke over email about Bannos's attempts to gain access to the full Maier archive, the rescue narrative put forth by the dealers of Maier's work, and why all of the emphasis on Maier's spinster nanny life. For more about Vivian Maier and her complicated legacy, see the "Disappearance" issue of our sister magazine, Spolia.
I was wondering if you could brief us about who owns what and who profits from what.
According to John Maloof, he owns more than 100,000 negatives; 20-30,000 color slides; many reels of motion picture footage; audio tapes; and more than 3,000 vintage prints. Jeffrey Goldstein owns around 18-20,000 negatives and slides, around 1,000 vintage prints, and multiple reels of motion picture footage. Ron Slattery owns several thousand vintage prints and an undisclosed amount of negatives and slides. John Maloof also sold around 200 Vivian Maier negatives on eBay before he understood that what he had was special; those are in the hands of individuals in several countries and a dozen states. All of this is what I call “Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive.”
All three of the major collectors have sold Maier’s vintage prints, which currently retail for upwards of several thousand dollars. Howard Greenberg Gallery, who sells Maloof’s collection, has a 5x7” print listed at $12,000.
Maloof and Goldstein both sell posthumous prints from Maier’s negatives -- and they both put their own signatures on the backs of these prints. The 12”x12” prints, originally ranging from $1,800-3,000 in an edition of fifteen, currently start at $2,200 and sell out at more than $4,000 each.
I don’t imagine that it would be easy to donate a bulk of work like this to a major institution; I’m not aware of any museums that make prints from negatives for display, they typically show vintage prints or contemporary reproductions under the guidance of the artist. Also, I haven’t heard of any institution critically weighing in on it.
The people who acquired Maier’s work were all in the business of selling; they are all acknowledged flea market pickers who have engaged in resale. This explains to me why the work has been handled the way that it has. Jeffrey Goldstein, who acquired his trove after the work gained worldwide attention, has stated that he paid a total of $90,000 in four separate acquisitions. He then acquired the URL vivianmaierprints.com.
When you say that the way the archive has been treated can be attributed in part to the fact that the men who own the prints and negatives are flea market pickers, what do you mean by that? And what would be the ideal home, in your view, for the archive?
I mean they acquired the work with the intention of selling it. Resellers also attend the sort of auction where Maier’s divided storage locker contents were sold.
I feel conflicted about Maier’s archive in general. This was a very private woman who chose not to share her personal life or her photography. That apparently is what has made her into a “mystery woman.” The selective editing of her work has perpetuated her mystery. After viewing more than 20,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, a different photographer emerged for me than the one first presented by John Maloof. I feel intensely uncomfortable with the way that he has presented her personal belongings alongside her photographic history -- putting her shoes on display, and laying out her blouses in his movie, for example. I think he’s done a good job of transforming her into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows that model. I don’t know how any of that would fit into a traditional concept of an archive. From a photographic standpoint, I think that since Maloof stated that his intention was to get her work in museums, the photographic legacy should be open to study. In terms of an ideal home for the archive, in this unusual case of its scattered state, I would advocate for a digital aggregate of the negatives and vintage prints. I would argue that the two-dozen or so individuals who own her negatives should keep them, but with the images contained in one digital archive.
There's this idea that Maier was plucked from obscurity, but she seemed to have opportunities to show and sell her work during her life and she chose not to, isn't that correct? It was more like, she didn't want to for her own reasons. That seems to me to set up this rescue white-knight narrative with the men who bought her negatives and that makes me uncomfortable. Is there a better way to talk about these so-called lost artists who aren't discovered until after their deaths?
I believe that before Maier came to Chicago in 1956 she had intentions of showing her work and I think that she did get paid for some early work. Her vintage prints are overwhelmingly from her New York years. I agree that she then chose not to show or share her work from the time that she arrived in Chicago and for the rest of her life. And I agree that there is an uncomfortable hero aspect to the story of her work’s resurrection. For me, this rescuer narrative is furthered by arguments that state how lucky we are that the work was not lost or destroyed, therefore denying us of witnessing her brilliance. One writer suggested that if Maier didn’t want the work to be available for our viewing, she wouldn’t have saved it all; and she was saving it for us.
You didn't see this same storyline of "rescue" with the work of someone like, say, Henry Darger. His posthumous attention also wasn't filtered through the person who advocated for the work. And if Maier herself was the person choosing not to show her work, how would that complicate the storyline that is put forth in the documentary about her?
I think that you’re right in implying that John Maloof has presented himself alongside Vivian Maier throughout her emergence. He has chosen which of her work to share, and he is positioned as her savior. And in further mingling and switching the focus, I don’t think the movie is a documentary about Vivian Maier at all -- it is a film about John Maloof and his quest to “find” Maier. He states early on that his interest is in getting her work into museums, and then spends the bulk of the film exploring her quirky and then troublesome personality. A more fair account of Maier and her photography -- and an actual documentary film about her -- is Jill Nicholls’s movie made for the BBC television series, Imagine (Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?) It presents other collectors than Maloof (who refused to participate) and also gives voice to people who interacted with Maier in the photo world. But you’re right about the conflict of fairness in presenting the work and story of someone who deliberately chose not to share them.
Also, is it the story of Maier or the work that people are responding to? They seem to be so tied in together. One doesn't really encounter her work without encountering her story. Would the work hold as much appeal if it was not attached to this idea of the poor genius woman who died in obscurity?
Her work was first shared outside the context of her biography, but the unknown artist aspect was always attached to the images and I think that generated curiosity in the work. I do think that the first shared images held up on their own; the people who convinced Maloof to stop selling her negatives on eBay did not know her story, but they did know that there was a huge body of work. Incidentally, she was still living during this period of activity. The “reclusive nanny photographer” narrative then brought a different kind of attention to the work. I think the insatiable interest in seeing more unpublished work derives from the cultivated mystery of her story.
I've been writing a lot about spinsters lately, and I think the Maier story we've been told lines up with what we prefer to believe about unmarried women, that they were in some way helpless, that they needed this male figure to bring them into the world, and because she didn't find one in life she needs one in death to control her work. We're almost disappointed to learn they maybe preferred their lives this way, maybe they considered their lives to be full. I'm thinking about some things I've read about the idea of Emily Dickinson versus the real life of Dickinson. Does that enter into how we've chosen to discuss Maier the person?
Yes, I think that some people think Maier had a tragic life because she never married and had a family of her own. But she was not unusual within her own family circle, nor was she unique in her avocation. I have spoken of Maier’s as a woman’s story, and how she lived the legacy of the women before her: her mother was a live-in maid, and her grandmother was a live-in cook. Both left the fathers of their children and lived with others’ families. I believe that Maier’s avocation allowed her to pursue her interest in photography; or, as opposed to the nanny who was also a photographer, I consider her a photographer who also happened to be a nanny.
What is your own personal interest in this case? What made you first decide to pursue this as a subject of research?
I am an artist who is interested in how changing stories obscure history. I’ve done several web-based and site-specific projects about this, most notably, one called “Hidden Truths”. I am also a photographer that has been teaching for more than twenty years. I became involved with the Vivian Maier story in 2012 when Chicago’s public television station called my university looking for an “expert” to respond to the question of whether Vivian Maier’s work was derivative of other photographers’. I set out to answer the question by studying hundreds of photographs that were available online. I studied Maier’s shooting strategies and locations, placing her at the entrance to New York’s Museum of Modern Art while the 1952 exhibition “Five French Photographers” hung inside. I speculated that she had seen the exhibition and that it may have influenced her. After the TV program aired, Jeffrey Goldstein and Ron Slattery gave me full access to their collections. I immediately understood that the split-up archive had led to a misunderstanding of her work and motivations. John Maloof has dubbed all of his online Maier presences as “official,” leading to an illusion of definitive authority. But he is wrong about some fundamental things and other specific details because he hasn’t seen the other collections. There is a lot still missing in Maier’s story that continues to unfold.
In addition to the forensic study of Vivian Maier’s photographs, I have been chronicling the posthumous phenomenon of her discovery and recognition, which is largely traceable online. Shifting stories, inaccurate reporting, and genuine misunderstanding have led to a distortion of the timeline that reveals this process. My research is culminating in a book-length study of Maier’s life as a third generation live-in servant who saw herself first and foremost as a photographer. It is also unraveling the posthumous story, which deserves a thorough understanding to accurately honor Vivian Maier’s life and legacy.
Is the archive blocking or at least discouraging academic or other viewpoints about Maier's work and life from coming out? You said they've refused to cooperate with your own work on Maier, do you have any sense on why that might be?
Last year I visited the Lisette Model fonds at the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa. The collection presents a coherent and cohesive archive of Model’s life and work and reveals a multi-faceted individual. The selective sharing of the multiple parts of Maier’s archive has encouraged the concept of “the Vivian Maier mystery.” Yes, it is blocking and discouraging other viewpoints of the woman and her work than those that have been perpetuated by the holders of her legacy. After my viewing of the entire Jeffrey Goldstein collection, I disagreed with assertions made about the woman and her work coming from both major collectors’ camps. Goldstein has now collaborated twice on books with Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. I’ve publicly disputed facts and interpretations of her work as presented in their first book. I’m also intent on untangling the twisted facts of Maier’s posthumous emergence; that’s apparently gotten in the way of my access to Maloof’s collection. As conflicted as I am over my own interest in learning more about this private woman who has become so public, I feel that her life and legacy deserve an accurate portrayal.
Pamela Bannos utilizes methods of research that highlight the forgotten and overlooked, exploring the links between visual representation, urban space, history and collective memory. An exhibiting artist since the 1980s, Bannos has shown her photographic works nationally and internationally, including in solo exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, England (1992), and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York (2003). Her art practice has branched out from photographic works that incorporate found imagery to also include research projects that culminate in site-specific and/or web-based presentations. PamelaBannos has taught photography at Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice since 1993. She has a BA in Psychology & Sociology from Drake University, and an MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
July 1, 2014
Excerpt from "The Vivian Mire"
by Dmitry Samarov
There has never been a discovery quite like Vivian Maier and there may never be one quite like her again. Everyone who happens upon it can find a piece or an angle that appeals or that they can identify with. The kind of privacy she kept to do her work may never be possible again in our over-surveilled age. To make a lifetime’s body of work and not share it with anyone is anathema to our times and that makes it that much more attractive. Why didn’t she show someone what she spent every free waking moment doing?
Chicago photographer Rachel Freundt says, “She had what all photographers have, something called ‘the hungry eye.’ Sometimes feeding the hungry eye is more about eating than digesting. A photographer just has to take photos, and it’s more about the act itself than viewing or even sharing the results. Some photographers I know wait a day or two to really look at their photos, and even then they might never put them online, or whatever form they share their photos.” But doesn’t the fact that she saved and stored those hundreds of thousands of images imply that she wanted others to see them in some way?
Artists’ lives have been romanticized, mythologized and confabulated since time immemorial. They’re special, they’re crazy, they’re not like us. Whether putting them on a pedestal is an honor or simply a way not to have to share the thoroughfare or not allowing that the average person has all the same concerns, the idea that an artist is different seems sacrosanct. Throw in a proletarian day job and some secrecy and what you have are the makings of a legend. Whatever your feelings about publicity, marketing or hucksterism, most who have seen even a small sample of Maier’s output will agree that it is compelling enough to command attention. What we have thus far seen falls into two main categories: original prints (made during her lifetime) and posthumous prints (made by master printers hired by Maloof and Goldstein).
Most of the originals are small, 5x7 or 8x10 inches commonly. They were printed by Maier herself, often in the bathrooms of her residences, or by drugstores or other commercial printers. The quality varies but is rarely a master’s work. Maier’s strength was finding her subjects and shooting.
Although she made many of her pictures with a Rolleiflex, which produces a square negative, she often cropped the images she chose to print. There are thousands of examples. Usually, she would cut in as close as she could to her human subjects at the expense of the landscape or surroundings. Whether this enhanced or took away from her photos is a matter of taste, but the fact that this cropping was an aesthetic choice can’t really be argued.
The posthumous prints are larger, usually 12x12 inches; gelatin silver prints on good paper and beautifully framed, there is no denying that these are blue-chip art objects. It’s doubtful that Maier would have allowed herself to splurge this way. By all accounts, she spent every spare cent on the next roll of film, chasing the next shot rather than reveling in what she already had.
To read the rest of this essay, please see our sister magazine Spolia's "Disappearance" issue.
June 30, 2014
Image: Self Portrait by Vivian Maier
Editor's Note: This week we'll be posting supplementary material to "The Vivian Mire," Dmitry Samarov's essay for The Disappearance issue of Spolia regarding the problematic state of the photographer's estate.
The story of women told by men is a story we know too well. For the Disappearance issue of Spolia, Dmitry Samarov looks at the entanglement around Vivian Maier’s legacy: the problems that arise from her work being owned by different men and from her story having such a visible narrator in the person of John Maloof.
Rose Lichter-Marck does a wonderful job explaining why the question at the heart of Finding Vivian Maier – “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” – is problematic, to say the least.
“Finding Vivian Maier” shows that stories of difficult women can be unflattering even when they are told in praise. The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference. Biographers often treat iconoclastic women like Yoko Ono, Marie Curie, Emily Dickinson, and Vivian Maier as problems that need solving. They’re problems as in “How do you solve a problem like Maria,” to borrow an allusion from an Ariana Reines’s essay about another often simplified woman photographer, Francesca Woodman.
Rose Lichter-Marck, Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women | The New Yorker
In her review of Finding Vivian Maier, Manohla Dargis makes this astute observation:
So, it’s a solid if finally thin introduction to Maier. It’s also, to state the obvious, a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work; his name is on the stamp that authenticates the photographs. Vivian Maier is a find but she’s also now a business, and the documentary would be stronger if it had dug into the complexities of what it means when one person assumes ownership of another’s art. There are times when Mr. Maloof — particularly when he’s defensively speaking about the work’s artistic merit — feels as if he were delivering a sales pitch.
Manohla Dargis, The Nanny as Sphinx, Weaving Enigmatic Magic on the Sly | The New York Times
Over at Indiewire, Anthony Kaufman is a lot harsher:
"Every time a film is shot, privacy is violated," the famous cinema verite filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch once said.
Never is this more apparent than with "Finding Vivian Maier," an acclaimed new documentary directed by first-time filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. While a fascinating investigative portrait of a reclusive female street photographer, who began taking pictures in the 1950s on par with such greats as Robert Frank and Weegee, the film is also one of the most brazenly exploitive documentaries of an individual to come along in a long while.
Anthony Kaufman, Reality Checks: Does This New Documentary Exploit the Life of Vivian Maier? | Indiewire
As Nathan Jurgenson shows in his essay Permission Slips, the exploitation of Vivian Maier’s life and work needs to be placed in the larger context of street photography and consent. What are the ethical guidelines a street photographer should follow? Does anyone still take ethic and privacy / personal space seriously in this age of smartphones and Google Glass and surveillance?
Vivian Maier was a street photographer, but Maloof’s film best exemplifies this larger street photographer ethic, one that goes beyond any film but is informed by a general social media ethos of see, take, and score — visual possessiveness in the name of attention. When people call some of the worst technologies that plop out of Silicon Valley “creepy,” this is what they mean: They are referring to the street photographer ethos of looking at people and the world as images for the taking to be reused for their own purposes.
Nathan Jurgenson, Permission Slips | The New Inquiry
“I’ll be the first to honor the quality of the work,” says photographer Joel Meyerowitz in the BBC documentary (he’s one of the few people interviewed for both films). “I’m concerned because we only see what the people who bought the suitcases decided to edit, and what kind of editors are they? What would she have edited out of this work and what would she have printed? How do any of us know who the real Vivian Maier is?”
Malcolm Jones, Vivian Maier: Still Missing | The Daily Beast
The BBC documentary is Jill Nicholls’s The Vivian Maier Mystery, which – as Malcolm Jones suggests – answers questions that Finding Vivian Maier does not. While the BBC documentary does acknowledge the various owners and researchers that have become characters in the Vivian Maier story, it falls victim to the same traps that Maloof’s documentary is criticized for: speculation about Maier’s mental sanity, framing her story as a detective story – a mystery that needs to be solved. Ultimately, what both documentaries reveal is that, in our culture, a woman who dares to wander on her own – in the seedy part of the town or in the world – is still met with anxiety and suspicion.
June 29, 2014
Image: Catena by Walton Ford
Weekend Recommended Reading
Yesterday I saw a dog bite a woman. The dog had no tags, and without any provocation it ran up to a woman on the street barking and bit her leg, hard. She started screaming, the dog retreated a little and then advanced towards her again. The dog was not large, maybe just up to the woman's calf, but suddenly this tiny thing was terrifying. I was right next to the woman when it happened, the dog passed me to get to her. People came running from across the street and out of the market to chase off the dog and protect the woman. I ran in the opposite direction. I had just come out of the market and bought a bottle of wine, and now I jammed my hand in my bag to grab the neck of the bottle, in case I needed to quickly bash in the dog's head to protect myself. But I dodged around traffic to get to the other side of the street as quickly as possible. My reasoning for running away was, enough people are helping, plus I am bare-legged and she had on jeans, and no I just can't I have to go. I don't know what happened next.
You can take this as a metaphor if you like.
- Henry Miller was a Capricorn and consulted astrologers. There are people in the comments who feel sorry for him, which is nice of them. (For the believing in astrology, not for being a Capricorn.)(via)
- "Small Town Noir," an Appendix piece by Diarmid Mogg (god, what a wonderful name). It's a riff on Mark Michaelson's Least Wanted, mug shots, and how easy it is for a life to distill itself down to a picture and list of criminal actions in one bad night.
- Jacqueline Rose is writing about mothers in literature and in life and in science and you should have already left this page at "Jacqueline Rose"
- Fucking great piece on Clare Booth Luce: writer, actress, ambassador. Thanks to Jim for sending it over.
- Your completely random book recommendation for the week: I miss Julie Doucet. I miss comics. A friend had an internal organ removed surgically and so I sent over a big stack of radical feminist comics. And it made me really nostalgic for my old comic collection. (It went to a Craigslist man wearing a nice hat when I moved overseas. He may have told me his name, but Charles Blackstone had come over with a bottle of vodka and so I was probably lying facedown on the floor when he said it.) My New York Diary by Doucet is kind of as good as it got.
Come back to us, Julie Doucet.
June 27, 2014
You know how Europe decided embarrassing stuff about you on the Internet could finally be deleted? Do you think they would agree to it if I wanted them to take down my own blog from like 2003 - 2012?
I accidentally ran into my own 2003 blog on a duckduckgo tear, and Jesus. I was kind of an idiot back then. I mean, I had my moments. But I was under-educated, I basically forgot to read any nonfiction for five years in a row and that can make a person a little dull-witted, and I was ready to pick a fight with anyone just because I was bored and I didn't think it really mattered.
(God: remember when literary blogging mattered? What were we all thinking?)
It's fine. I had a good time. It's embarrassing in the same way it's embarrassing to see pictures of myself from back then, back when I was cutting my own hair and wearing mostly men's clothing. And I had the good sense to invite a lot of other people to write for the site, so at least I had a little self-awareness of my inadequacies. Also, I'll forever be grateful for the Smart Set giving me a nonfiction review column for so many years. Realizing that I was having trouble thinking through some of the topics on the page made me really expand my book choices. A writer friend of mine called that column my writing boot camp, and she was not kidding. Grateful.
This is nostalgia brought on by a death in the family, sorta. Family adjacent.
So may you look back at your 2003 self with just a little bit of oh my god what are you even doing, because if you do, you also get to look at how far you've come.
June 25, 2014
Image: Je ne crois pas aux paysages by Melanie Delattre-Vogt
I've been irked a lot lately by a certain conversational line through the Not All Men/Yes All Women stuff, which is that women can get laid any time they want to. (I'm a little behind on reading this stuff, but then no one expects me (I hope) to have any idea what is going on in the world at large. I just recently saw the video for "Pretty Hurts" and had no outlet for my outrage because everyone else watched that eight years ago and already had the conversation, I was going to get frothy and red faced and stompy while everyone else looked away embarrassed. But still! Outraged.)
If we're going to keep talking about spinsters, we should also talk about the ugly girls. The Unfuckable Girls. Two essential books in the ugly girl library: King Kong Theory and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.
I am going to quote myself, which is obnoxious, but I've written on this subject before.
There are many lies you will hear when you're newly single. Your girlfriends — the ones that have been married since they were in their early 20s and can't have dinner without their husbands, meaning you are forever making reservations for three — will tell you that you'll find someone the minute you stop thinking about it. Of course they don't mean once you give up. The difference is the frequency with which you shave your legs, how long your ''Buy Ten Pedicures & Get One Free!'' card goes unpunched, and whether you allow yourself to be approachable on the subway or just bury your face in a book. Your (loving, well meaning) friends are setting up a Zeno-like paradox in which you are supposed to care enough to "turn on your inner light!" and actually brush your hair every day, and at the same time not care on a conscious level or be aware of the indifference of the male sex. After six months of Not Caring, if you lash out at their bullshit, well, that's is just proof that you do care and are thereby not following the rules. The other lie, which you will hear from your male friends, is that a woman can get laid whenever she wants. This is meant to be comforting, I think. A woman permits and denies access to sex, and all she has to do is want it bad enough. Bad enough to make the effort, of course. One can't just have a line of men appear on your doorstep just by trying to attract them all The Secret-like, although Craigslist can come in handy for that. But it, too, is a lie. There is such a thing as being unfuckable and female, whether because of weight or lack of femininity or age or poverty or that desperation you start to emit in waves after a few years without anyone trying to get into a dark corner. Because if you are unfuckable — and let's use the right word here — if you are a hag, you have no voice.
And speaking of being really out of date, coming soon: an essay I wrote about 50 Shades of Grey, holy shit I am not being sarcastic, that is a thing I did. I'll post here when it is published.
June 24, 2014
Image: Jessa Crispin's father, who now runs a pharmacy museum in Lincoln, KS based on his own personal collection of medical and medicinal antiques and rarities
Rebecca Silber reviews Taste by Daisy Rockwell for June’s issue of Bookslut. “As a connoisseur, Daniel [the main character] possesses an innate need to collect things. When he was younger, he started to collect tastes.” Passion and obsession are the driving forces behind collecting – for further reading on collectors who went too far, on necessary collections and cabinets of curiosities, here are a few suggestions:
His lack of personal smell has rendered him invisible. It has also given him a unique sense of smell. In Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the genius and the monstrous are intertwined as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of young girls and creating an orgiastic perfume.
John Laroche is The Orchid Thief in Susan Orlean's book based on her New Yorker story. With Laroche as her guide, Susan Orlean is introduced to the eccentric, bewitching world of orchid collectors:
Orchid collecting began in Victorian England as a hobby for the very rich--people with enough land for greenhouses and enough money to sponsor expeditions to where the rarest species could be found. The hobby grew so consuming that it was known in Victorian times as orchidelirium, because a sort of mania seized collectors. Many seemingly normal people, once smitten with orchids, become less like normal people and more like John Laroche. At an orchid show in New York last year, I heard the same story over and over--how one orchid in the kitchen led to a dozen, and then to a back-yard greenhouse, and then, in some cases, to multiple greenhouses and collecting trips to Asia and Africa and an ever-expanding budget to service this desire. I walked around the show with a collector from Guatemala. He said, "The bug hits you. You can join A.A. to quit drinking, but once you get into orchids you can't do anything to kick." Collecting can be a sort of lovesickness. If you begin collecting living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, and even if you manage to find them and then possess them, there is no guarantee they won't die or change. The botanical complexity of orchids and their mutability makes them perhaps the most compelling and maddening of all collectible living things. There are nearly twenty thousand named species of orchids--it is the largest flowering-plant family on earth. New orchids are being created in laboratories or discovered every day, and others exist only in tiny numbers in remote places. To desire orchids is to have a desire that can never be fully requited. A collector who wants one of every orchid species will die before even coming close.
Susan Orlean, "Orchid Fever" | The New Yorker
In a white, male-dominated art world, outsiders collecting outsiders are vital. Inspired by the feminist movement, of which she was a part of, Louise Rosenfield Noun made it her mission to collect works of art by women:
What has she proven by assembling this collection of art by women? It was never her intention to take a position and then find works that demonstrated her philosophy. In a 1990 lecture at the Des Moines Art Center, she described her goal:
The primary purpose of my collection is to gather a limited number of works that make a strong feminist statement about the quality of art produced by women. I do not aim to be historically inclusive, but I try to find works that can hold their own in any company.
Lea Rosson DeLong, "Louise Noun: A Pioneer Collector of Women’s Art" | Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2
In her essay on Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, a film that makes use of the director’s collection of odd objects, Tina-Louise Reid also talks about the alchemical nature of the wunderkammer:
Roger Cardinal indicates that 'the Romantic world-view envisions any given object as the threshold to the whole cosmos: the single modest thing represents a magical microcosm of the entirety of things, and as such sheds its anonymity and assumes a revelatory distinctiveness'. This view certainly existed as encapsulated by the wunderkammern of Rudolfine Prague. As the philosopher's stone serves as a microcosm of the world, the wunderkammer assumes an alchemical extension as it yields not only a sense of the world but also the connection of one object to another. The advent of wunderkammern marks the merge of society and science as well as featuring the fluid mix of fantasy with reality:
In containing both man-made and natural objects, the Habsburg collections of the second part of the sixteenth century, like other Kunstkammern, thus reflected the contents of the universe in all its variety... In containing samples of all that was to be found in the macrocosm, the greater world, the Kunstkammer can be thought to represent the world in microcosm.
Švankmajer is an avid collector of all kinds of objects that possess potentialities for his art. His cinematic power lies in arranging objects through a provocative juxtaposition that prods them to communicate their inner stories. The mundane can become magical through inspired groupings as Švankmajer reveals life in objects believed to be dead, inert or outmoded. Since children instil[l] toys and other objects with life through imagination, childhood serves as a potent setting for Švankmajer's object resurrections, with Carroll's Wonderland as the most advantageous backdrop.
Tina-Louise Reid, "Nĕco z Alenky / Alice" in The Cinema of Central Europe
Collecting implies organizing knowledge, and the wunderkammer was an expression of that. Horst Bredekamp looks at the history of collections and cabinets of curiosities in The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art and Technology.
June 23, 2014
"If I've understood you,the fact that you travel depends only on yourself, not on anything else?"
"I don't think I have ever quite known how such things are decided. I have no particular attachments. In fact I am a rather solitary person and unless some great piece of luck came my way I cannot really see how I could change my work. And somehow I can't imagine where any luck would come from: there doesn't seem much about my life which would attract it... And so you are waiting for something to happen?"
"Yes. I can see no reason why I should not get married one day like everybody else. As I told you."
"You're quite right. There is no reason at all why you should not get married, too."
"Of course with a job like mine -- one which is so looked down upon -- you could say that the opposite would be more true and that there is no reason at all why anyone should want to marry me. And so somehow I think that to make it seem quite ordinary and natural, I must want it with all my might. And that is how I want it."
"I am sure nothing is impossible. People say so at least."
"I have thought about it a great deal: here I am, young, healthy, and truthful just like any woman you see anywhere whom some man has settled for. And surely it would be surprising if somewhere there isn't a man who won't see that I am just as good as anyone else and settle for me. I am full of hope."
"I am sure it will happen to you. But if you were suggesting that I make the same sort of change, I can only ask what I would do with a wife? I have nothing in the world but my suitcase and it is all I can do to keep myself."
"Oh no, I did not mean to say that you need this particular change. I was talking of change in general. For me marriage is the only possible change, but for you it could be something else."
"I expect you are right, but you seem to forget that people are different. You see, however much I wanted to change, even if I wanted it with all my might, I could never manage to want it as much as you do. You seem to want it at all costs."
"Perhaps that is because for you a change would be less great than it would for me. As far as I am concerned I feel I want the greatest change there could be. I might be mistaken but still it seems to me that all the changes I see in other people are simple and easy beside the one I want for myself."
"But don't you think that even if everyone needed to change, and needed it very badly indeed, that even so they would feel differently about it according to their own particular circumstances?"
"I am sorry but I must explain that I am quite uninterested in particular circumstances. As I told you I am full of hope and what is more I do everything possible to make my hopes come true. For instance every Saturday I go to the local Dance Hall and dance with anyone who asks me. They say that the truth will out and I believe that one day someone will take me for what I am, a perfectly marriageable young woman who would make just as good a wife as anyone else."
From Marguerite Duras, The Square
June 22, 2014
Image: Study for a Pie Fight #2 by Adrian Ghenie
Weekend Reading Recommendations
Landed hard in Bucharest. Is there any other way to arrive in Bucharest? Then to feel like you've been dropped from a great height onto concrete? Probably not. Probably we should just be grateful for our uncracked ribs.
- Every week will just be a link to another Olivia Laing essay. Maybe. This week: In Loneliness in New York, Laing remembers the great artist David Wojnarowicz.
- Speaking of Wojnarowicz, here's an interview with him about his beautiful collection of essays, Close to the Knives. And yes to this: "I don't see anything wrong with anger. I think it's a healthy and transitory emotion."
- I talked a little last week about male protagonists in video games, how men don't like to play female video game characters, men don't like to read female protagonists in fiction, etc. And what a limited worldview, to just want to put yourself in a person who shoots other people all day long. It made me think of Roberto Calasso, from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony:
"In the beginning, the hero's intelligence is intermittent and limited to his role as a slayer of monsters. But when he manages to break the frame of his role, without abandoning it, when he learns to be a traitor, a liar, a seducer, a traveler, a castaway, a narrator, then the hero becomes Odysseus, and then, to his first vocation of slaying everything, he can add a new one: understanding everything."
Fuck you Calasso how you are always so good.
- The use of the phone in horror writing. Better than you think.
- And because I'm in Romania, we should pay attention to some Romanian writers. Here is Ted Anton's original piece on the murder of Ioan Culianu. He later expanded it into the remarkably good book Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu.
(When I ask Romanians about Romanian writers I should read, I get this face. This, it is best not to talk about this face. Almost nothing is in English anyway. Someone please give us a satisfying number of Eliade translations, thank you in advance.
Your random book recommendation of the week has to be Seven Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz. It was reissued by Fantagraphics recently, and it's all lush and beautiful, but I couldn't betray my beat-up Vertigo paperback like that. But if you haven't read it, his memoir-ish graphic novel about hustling on the streets, you really should.
June 19, 2014
Image: St. Gallen Library by Candida Höfer
Any place where one is surrounded by books can become a place of refuge. In June’s issue of Bookslut, Mairead Case beautifully conveys this feeling of comfort and safety offered by spaces like libraries and bookstores. For further reading on libraries and bookstores, here are some suggestions:
Famous for housing writers among its books, the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris needs no introduction. Jeanette Winterson met the owner, George Whitman, in 2007 and later on told his story – which is also the story of Shakespeare and Company – for The Guardian.
George took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Henry Miller ate from the stewpot, but was too grand to sleep in the tiny writers' room. Anaïs Nin left her will under George's bed. There are signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
Jeanette Winterson, Down and out in Paris | The Guardian
In France, there are still many bookstores that can pride themselves on not having succumbed to what Jeanette Winterson calls the “pay-n-go Anglo-Saxon business model.” The TV show La Grande Librairie has a weekly segment, “Le choix des libraires,” meant to highlight independent bookstores as well as one book recommended by the owner. For example, one of their latest discoveries is Transboréal, a bookstore that specializes in travel books.
Libraries can be much more than simply places to store books. Throughout the ages, the design of the greatest library buildings has celebrated the act of reading and the importance of learning. They have become emblems of culture, whether it be for an individual, an institution, or even a whole nation. This book tells for the first time the complete story of the development of library buildings from the first libraries, in ancient Mesopotamia, through the lost libraries of the classical civilizations, the monastic libraries of the Middle Ages and the lavish libraries of the Rococo, to the monumental libraries of the modern world. It shows how the development of library buildings illustrates the changing relationship of mankind with the written word and that across the world libraries have always been not just dusty repositories for documents but active symbols of culture and civilization.
From the Introduction to The Library: A World History by James W. P. Campbell (text) and Will Pryce (photographs)
The silence commanded by a library is captured by Candida Höfer in her photographs of libraries. Accompanied by an introductory essay by Umberto Eco, her arresting photographs of library interiors are collected under a simple title: Libraries.
One of the most famous libraries is a fictional one. Naturally, Borges’s infinite library from his Library of Babel remains timeless.
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. […]
At that time it was also hoped that a clarification of humanity's basic mysteries - the origin of the Library and of time - might be found. It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries could be explained in words: if the language of philosophers is not sufficient, the multiform Library will have produced the unprecedented language required, with its vocabularies and grammars. For four centuries now men have exhausted the hexagons... There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel
June 18, 2014
Excerpt from Alastair Bonnett's Unruly Places
Between Border Posts (Guinea and Senegal)
Most border posts face each other. A change of signage, a different flag, a line on the road, all combine to signal that no sooner have you stepped out of one country than you have arrived in another. But what happens if you keep on opening up that space? A few years ago, with the help of hours spent blinking at the tiny fonts favored on traveler’s Internet chat forums, I found what I was looking for. Along the road between Senegal and Guinea in West Africa the distance between border posts is 27 kilometers. It is not the only unattenuated border area. The Sani Pass, which runs up to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho from South Africa, is the most famous. It’s a rough road, although much visited by tourists in 4x4s seeking out the highest pub in Africa, which sits near the top of the pass. The drama of the trip is heightened by the thrill that comes from learning that this is no man’s land. The South Africa border control, complete with “Welcome to South Africa” signs, is 5.6 kilometers away from the Lesotho border office. Another specimen is to be found in the mountainous zone between border posts on the Torugart Pass that connects China and Kyrgyzstan. Central America also has a nice example in Paso Canoas, a town that can appear to be between Panama and Costa Rica. It is habitually described as no man’s land because, having left through one border post, you can go into the town without passing through immigration to enter the other country. Some visitors relish the impress that the town around them is beyond borders. Partly as a result, Paso Canoas has developed a darkly carnival atmosphere, as if it were some kind of escaped or twilight place.
What these gaps reflect back at us is our own desires, especially the wish to step outside, if only for a short time, the claustrophobic grid of nations. We probably already suspect that it’s an illusion. Shuffling forward in a queue and making it past the passport officer does not mean you are, at that exact moment, leaving or entering a country. Such points of control exist to verify that you are allowed to enter or leave. Their proximity to the borderline is a legal irrelevance. Yet this legal interpretation fails to grasp either the symbolic importance of the border point or the pent-up urge to enter ungoverned territory. The fact that Paso Canoas is split by the Panama-Costa Rica border rather than actually being between borders doesn’t stop people from describing it as an “escaped zone.” Similarly, the steep valley up the Sami Pass is nearly all in South Africa, and the road down from Senegal into Guinea is always in one nation or another, but that isn’t how travelers experience it or even what they want.