In Our Magazines
- AN INTERVIEW WITH Robert Damon Schneck
- An Interview with Peter Bebergal
- An Interview with Paula Young Lee
- Coming In from the Cold: Outsider Art in Literature
December 18, 2014
Image: Aleister Crowley in your next Halloween costume.
In the November issue of Bookslut, Coco Papy interviews Peter Bebergal, whose new book Season Of The Witch delves into the darker side of rock'n'roll – its flirtation with the occult. Peter Bebergal: "rebelling spiritually by way of devilish imagery and occult symbols is a perfect complement to music that is attempting to push up against the mainstream, to carve out something new, and to quickly inform your fans and the media that you are dangerous, or in on something secret." The occult contributed to the creation of a richer mythology around groups like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and others but it did more than that: it permeated the entire culture of the decades that gave us these musicians. For more on the influence of the occult on music and pop culture, I suggest we take a look at the writings of Gary Lachman – the musician (a founding member of Blondie) turned prolific writer on all things occult.
One of his earliest books relevant to this context is Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, in which Lachman traces the origins of the occult revival in the '60s and charts its influence on literature and music. One of the key moments in the occult revival, according to Lachman, was the publication of The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, which was soon followed by their magazine Planète.
As Mircea Eliade, historian of religion, said of this 'dawn of magic', 'what was new and exhilarating... was the optimistic and holistic outlook... in which human life again became meaningful and promised an endless perfectibility'. Man was called to 'conquer his physical universe and to unravel the other, enigmatic universes revealed by occultists and gnostics'. He was also called on to create a new world, a better civilization, free of the prejudices and superstitions of the past. As Eliade recalls, the book made a reader feel that the most exciting moment in history was happening right then, and that he or she was part of it. Pauwels and Bergier brought together the future and the past, science and mysticism, philosophy and the occult, with a powerful, inspiring optimism and a new vision of human society - just about everything the sixties were about. When, in 1969, the first man set foot on the moon, and half a million love children 'set their souls free' at the tribal gathering at Woodstock – the two events happened within weeks of each other – the occult decade came to an end as it had started, with Pauwels and Bergier's vision of futuristic science and ancient wisdom.
-Gary Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius
In the 60s the occult was merely fashion
People like Jagger might have temporarily had an interest in the occult but he's much like Bowie in the sense that he picked up on lots of different things; he was a real tactician and he had a sense that by the end of the 60s it was heading to some kind of bang-up thing. Kenneth Anger was one of the most influential because he came over from San Fransisco in Haight Ashbury. He came at the right time because there was a magazine called The International Times and they had done a spread on Crowley and Anger was deep into Crowley's works. He got close to the Stones and I think Jagger picked up on it. A lot of it was fashion and fun and naive in an innocent way. Now I think you would find people who are much more acutely aware and correct about occult references in rock albums. It's not the same as in the late 60s/early 70s where it was this strange thing that just came in. There was Black Sabbath once and now there's 25 different Black Sabbath types of bands all with their own iconography. It all becomes these subcultures and they're no doubt arguing with each other.-David Moats, "Magick and Me: Blondie’s Gary 'Valentine' Lachman on the Occult | The Quietus
In the same Quietus feature, Gary Lachman talks about Aleister Crowley not being the best way to introduce people to the occult despite his undeniable role in the revival of the occult. Aleister Crowley is the subject of one of Lachman’s latest books, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World.
Gary Lachman in dialogue with Tobias Churton, the author of another book on Crowley, Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin: Art, Sex, and Magick in the Weimar Republic:
My favourite bit of Crowley is his early “Scientific Illuminism” phase, when he was much more focused on consciousness – my own central interest – and less so on magick. Much of him from this time can be read with great profit; he writes clearly, vigorously, and more times than not to the point. But all the rebel stuff can be learned from other writers and thinkers, without all the collateral damage that accompanies Crowley. Anything on that point that we can learn from Crowley I believe we can learn from, say, Blake – who, as you know, said “do what thou wilt” a century or so earlier. But Blake, as all good self-transformers do, knew his limits: “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” and more apt “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”-Gary Lachman and Tobias Churton, "The Lore and Lure of Aleister Crowley: A Dialog" | Reality Sandwich
Since we’re already at Reality Sandwich, let’s go back to Season of the Witch:
Page’s willingness to discuss his fascination with Crowley and magick ebbed and flowed. But over many years of interviewing Page, Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski was able to gain confidence with the reticent guitarist, and in their conversations a clearer picture emerged. With Tolinski, Page admits that his esoteric inquisitiveness was not limited to Crowley, but took in the whole spectrum of “Eastern and Western traditions of magick and tantra.” But the media found Crowley an easy mark for referencing a sinister figure par excellence, and he made for more interesting interview questions than, say, an obscure grimoire. Nevertheless, Crowley did represent for Page the very best example of “personal liberation.” As a young man with unlimited money and access to drugs, Page took it literally: “By the time we hit New York in 1973 for the filming of The Song Remains the Same, I didn’t sleep for five days!”
But the cultural truth is much more important than even how Page talks about the occult at different stages in his life. Culture is where the story of the occult and rock is created, not in coy interviews with musicians. Along the trajectory of a band’s life, the facts are akin to mythology, a grand narrative that as is as much about how the myth gets transmitted as it is about the how the myth gets made. But for Led Zeppelin, their mystique was grounded in something intentional, something that was as much a part of what they conceived and gave birth to as it was the frenzied media and fan speculation. Page tells Tolinski, “I was living it. That’s all there is to it. It was my life—that fusion of music and magick.”
-Peter Bebergal, "Led Zeppelin’s Dance with the Occult" | Reality Sandwich
December 16, 2014
Some notes on our call for submissions to the Nemesis issue of Spolia:
1) You should submit to the Nemesis issue of Spolia.
2) Spolia is our sister literary magazine published as a PDF at some interval; they take fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and artwork. The last issue featured a new story from Eimear McBride. This is the manifesto denouncing "self-expression" and other misguided motivations in the current literary climate.
3) Spolia pays contributors, which I did not know until Friday.
4) Word limit: 5,000.
5) THAT'S 5,000 WORDS MAXIMUM.
6) Submissions go to CORINNA: corinnapichl [at] googlemail.com
7) AS A .DOC FILE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No PDFS!!!! Corinna is like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest except that instead of wire hangers she does not want PDFS!!!!
8) On that .DOC FILE!!!!!!!!!!!!: include your name. Ideally, also put your name in the file name. "LaurenOyler_WroteThisGreatStory.doc" is what it should look like.
9) In case you are lazy and do not want to look at the original call for submissions, know that if you are a man, you have to submit with a woman; we only got submissions from dudes last time we had an open call, so we are trying to fix that this time by requiring all males to bring a female-created work (babies don't count) with theirs.
December 15, 2014
Man-on-the-NYU Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House Interview
LO: What are you doing right now?
MFA student 1: Me? What am I doing right now?
LO: Yes, you. I need something to blog about.
MFA1: I'm doing an erasure project of Dracula.
Distinguished visiting poet: You're erasing Dracula?
MFA1: Yes, I'm erasing all of it.
DVP: That's fantastic! That's exactly what the book is about! Sucking the blood out of it!
MFA1: If you wanna blog about me, that would be kinda awesome.
MFA student 2: Alright, I should go to class now.
Epilogue: turns out distinguished visiting poet used to "smoke dope" with MFA student 1's uncle.
December 13, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Sorry it's Saturday! I am very tired and everyone around me is talking about real estate. It's funny that people care so much about this, about massive two-bedrooms at prices unheard of around here, because nothing matters! And you would think that humans of such discernment would know the difference between a cappuccino and a latte, but whatever. Whatever, I say! I'm pissed off.
-I just read that very long New York Magazine interview with a man who "date[s]" horses. "I feel like my sexual development was bang on." I quote a pun because most of the piece is VERY uncomfortable.
-Also in New York Magazine, an extremely tired personal essay in which the writer is unsettled by her ex-boyfriend's novel because it has a character based on her in it. Read 10:04; it is about fictionalizing and illustrates why this is a sentiment unworthy of a lackluster personal essay. "Perhaps, I thought, if I had had more affairs, I would have more inspiration"—yes, this is almost certainly true. There is, however, a hilarious comment:
Dearest Chloe your writing conveys to me you do not fully accept yourself--likely because you've never taken steps to understand who you really are. Let me express a secret that will amaze most NY'ers. Let this sink deep into your consciousnesses! your not your creation..your the creating. You can call it zen or mindfulness titles are irrelevant what is relevant though is dropping self delusions and surrendering to the creative process. You've given into a fickle ego in constant concern with societal appearances always judging "this looks good" or "oo this is ugly". It is beneficial in your current position that you've found a mate that you feel creatively superior over--you obviously saw the author as competition(and still do) this stance makes all unions hell. If you've ever been with child and suckled them you'll have a deep root in creative energy. Draw on this. The breasts are the positive poles of the female body and the creative centers that nourish life. A simple and very powerful technique well over 5,000+ years old--bring your awareness to both nips simultaneously(if this is difficult you can visualize them as two small blue spheres) that's it! very unappealing to the mind because it so simple. Soon with little effort you will see vivid geometrical patterns being created akin to a kaleidoscope. The same tantra can be done by males by focusing on the groin(root of penis). Likely your too prideful to play with this but maybe someone will :)
-My friend Peter, the smart one I'm often talking about, published a blog post about how reading about what other people have read online is like watching porn online. But worse! (Hi, Peter.)
-Smart Peter also showed me Five Books, which is a website with tons of interviews with smart people about five books—get it—they recommend on topics of their expertise. It's kind of like In Our Time but actually interesting. I'm reading, under "How to be good," about lying right now. Up next is either "Chick Lit" or "Espionage," depending on how my run goes.
December 11, 2014
Top 10 Things I Wanted to Read in 2014 but Didn't
1. Anna Karenina
2. Literally anything the New Yorker unlocked during its summer-long redesign celebration
3. Something about science
4. A third Ben Lerner novel
5. A fourth Ben Lerner novel
7. New Tab by Guillaume Morissette
8. Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
9. A satisfying description of who Amanda Palmer is
10. Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns by David Margolick
December 10, 2014
Hello from Drunk Town! Since Susan Sontag is even more trendy than usual this week—the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag came out on the 8th—I'm going to remind you that I did a long interview with Daniel Schreiber, who wrote Susan Sontag: A Biography. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here.
LO: So you think there’s no room for intellectuals anymore?
DS: Not in the sense that Sontag managed to do it. By that I mean she really was at the tail end of a cultural movement where culture valued smart people and gave them the opportunity to actually be listened to and be read. Someone like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would be unimaginable today. There are some French intellectuals, there are smart people in Germany, there smart people in the US, but it’s not the same. They don’t have this...
DS: Glamour—that’s the way Sontag did it. That’s the way Sontag was able to have this position for that long, because she brought a new sensibility to it—staging and creating this person. And that’s why she became this media persona.
LO: Do you think her being that way affected the decline of intellectualism?
DS: No. That’s just a cultural movement, you see it everywhere. In Europe it happened a bit later than in the US. People in general are not interested in smart people anymore.
Also, Emily St. John Mandel's review of the documentary is good.
December 9, 2014
I went to the Franklin Park reading series last night. I keep thinking I want to go to readings when what I actually want is to be among a humanity likely to have something to talk to me about, the choice between leaning against the bar looking skeptical and actually plausibly engaging with a stranger. In reality, I spend the majority of readings waiting for the readings to be over, at which point I spend a needlessly long and needlessly stressing several minutes wondering if I should talk to the people who have read, despite having nothing to say to them, just wanting to ingratiate my annoying, attention-seeking self into the sphere of literature in some way. Readings are almost always better for the writers than for the listeners. (Indeed, I like doing readings; I'm in one tonight.) Time flies if you're reading because you have adrenaline and a legitimate task to occupy your existence for 5-15/longer (God) minutes; time drags if you're listening because shitty writing often sounds decent, fuller, when read aloud, but it's still shitty writing so it's not that captivating, and you get the sense that if you were reading this on the page it would seem like the font were too big and the line spacing too wide. And even really good writing read aloud is rarely captivating enough to hold attention, unless the writer is also a good reader, which rarely happens, even when Flavorwire says otherwise. Either way, you always stop paying attention long enough to miss the jokes, the brief releases from having to sit nicely and quietly and respectfully like a nice and quiet and respectful little girl. This is not what I go to bars for!
My nail-in-coffin justification for showing up is that I can write about them for the blog, but what do I have to say? "Rivka Galchen was good; she is a master of conveying interrupted dialogue and generally confidently understated. Her kid cried a few times throughout. The crowd was mainly comprised of stylish glasses and hidden resentments. Everyone wanted to go to the bathroom but felt bad about walking in front of the readers to do so; some did anyway, others waited until the breaks." It already happened, so my recommending it—and it is a good reading series, as far as reading series go!—is relatively meaningless. Books are not indie bands; I think we need to recognize and accept that.
December 8, 2014
WE WANT: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews, True Love Unconstrained by Conventionally Limited Understandings of Intimacy
Now, a word from our Jessa:
The last time we had an open call for submission to Spolia [ed: it's our sister literary magazine], we received work only from men. Don't get us wrong—we love men. I know we publish disproportionately, more women than men, so maybe you have a hard time believing us when we say that, but it's true. Some of my best friends are men. But having 100% men, that's just too many men.
So we are opening up submissions for our next issue of Spolia, "Nemesis." And let's do this like a group sex party. If you are a man and you'd like to submit something, you also have to bring us a submission by a woman. A piece by a woman that you translated, a piece by a woman who is probably better than you but usually unconcerned with publishing her genius, a co-signed email by a woman friend or romantic partner or daughter or lady off the street—all work as double submissions.
Which is to say, also: Women, we would like you to submit work to us. Ladies get in free. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art. Something that relates to the theme of Nemesis. (And I know you women out there know a thing or two about nemeses, so get to it.) By the end of the year.
Email Corinna Pichl (corinnapichl [at] googlemail.com] with your submission; we'd be glad to have you.
And while we're on the subject, Bookslut is also in need of contributors. We have no gender-based rules here. You can be a dude and write us, we're okay with that. But also women are encouraged.
We are especially in need of: an arts columnist and nonfiction reviewers. Those are our primary concerns at the moment. But: if you have a genius idea for a column, we are always open to hearing those. And if you have I don't know, essays! interviews! feature ideas! we are also open to those. Did you write 8000 words on French Freudian Julia Kristeva and you think no one will ever want to see that? We want to see that! Etc.
You will be wanting to email Corinna for these, too. But everyone should always be wanting to email Corinna because she is a light in my otherwise dreary life, she is so good. But probably stick to business for now; let her warm up to you.
December 5, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Everything is shit! But
-2014 was the year of the lame Kafka fanboy essay; Rivka Galchen's review of volumes 2 and 3 of Reiner Stach's Kafka biography (1 having been saved for last in hopes that "the papers in the Max Brod estate—a mysterious suitcase full of documents—would exit the apartment of the septuagenarian daughter of Max Brod’s presumed lover, but the destiny of those papers remains in legal dispute") is not that. Rather, it is brilliant. (It starts slow—persevere. The LRB is not for click monsters.)
What emerges from this pattern of Kafka’s behaviour is a sense not just of a character who can never commit – the comic character who commits ends the series – but also of how powerful he is, and how ambivalent he is about being powerful. With both women and men, Kafka fairly effortlessly elicits their love. ‘You belong to me,’ he writes to Milena Jesenskà after she has inquired about translating his work; though sceptical at first, Jesenskà quickly responds to him, as nearly everyone does. A Hungarian doctor, Robert Klopstock, whom Kafka meets at a sanatorium, is similarly enamoured, and he seems to move to Prague mostly to be nearer to Kafka, who then disappoints him with his reclusiveness. Kafka seems unable to refrain from inciting affection, which he then finds overwhelming and retreats from. In a letter to Else Bergman, who along with her husband had emigrated to Jerusalem, and who is asking Kafka about his plans to move, Kafka writes: ‘That the voyage would have been undertaken with you would have greatly increased the spiritual criminality of the case. No, I could not go that way, even if I had been able – I repeat, and “all berths are taken,” you add.’ Kafka does not come across as a very sexual person in this biography – not at all, really – but he understands the power involved in sexuality. He pursues positions of seeming inferiority, as he tries to both exercise and abdicate his magnetism.
-Also in the LRB, Christian Lorentzen's review of George W. Bush's 41: A Portrait of My Father (and its reviews) is good, by which I mean: very mean. "I confess to a bit of nostalgia for the nihilism that came with being governed by George W. Bush."
-Speaking of Kafka, though: remember when Zadie Smith was working on a Kafka musical? Alternatively: Zadie Smith was working on a Kafka musical!
-At aeon, a couple of weeks ago, Nina Strohminger wrote on the link between identity (yay I am special) and morality (ugh other people are also special). See also: souls (what are they?), memory (probably not inextricably bound to our senses of self, as Locke thought), and Breaking Bad (which I never watched but think I get the gist of):
The danger of befriending psychologists is they will use you as their test subjects: I inquired what kind of change would render her unrecognisable. My friend responded without hesitation: ‘If she stopped being kind. I would leave her immediately.’ He considered the question a few moments more. ‘And I don’t mean, if she’s in a bad mood or going through a rough time. I’m saying if she turned into a permanent bitch with no explanation. Her soul would be different.’
This encounter is instructive for a few reasons (not least of which is the intriguing term ‘permanent bitch’) but let’s start with my friend’s invocation of the soul. He is not religious and, I suspect, does not endorse the existence of a ghost in the machine. But souls are a useful construct, one we can make sense of in fiction and fantasy, and as a shorthand for describing everyday experience. The soul is an indestructible wisp of ether, present from birth and surviving our bodies after death. And each soul is one of a kind and unreplicable: it bestows upon us our unique identity. Souls are, in short, a placeholder notion for the self.
-If nothing else: the Wikipedia entry for "Futurist meals".
December 4, 2014
Image: From the "Promiscuous Assemblage, Friendship, & The Order of Things" exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art.
In the November issue of Bookslut, Micah McCrary reviews The Missing Pieces (Les unités perdues) by Henri Lefebvre (the other Henri Lefebvre). The book is an inventory of things forgotten, lost or never materialized. For more lists and inventories in literature, here are a few suggestions:
The Missing Pieces is interesting, though not good—it is frustratingly selective, sometimes objectively inaccurate, and awkwardly variegated in syntax, tense, and curatorial attitude—and it might, at best, be considered grist for the ouroboric corpus of what Spanish pseudo-novelist Enrique Vila-Matas calls "the literature of the No." But Lefebvre's thrall to the muse of inexistence serves a worthy purpose here, for in it we can glimpse the empty spaces in both Levé's hermetic echo chamber and Perec's ceaseless search for wholeness: we see that the once-was and the never-been are unified by the manipulation of what is lost in both space and time, propelled by the search for something beyond the present—both in the sense whose opposite is past or future, and in the sense whose opposite is absence.
-Daniel Levin Becker, "Beaux Absents: On Inventorying What Does Not Exist" | Music & Literature
Recognizing that the list of literary listers could go on and on, Belknap narrows his focus to examples from Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. He finds both stylistic and philosophical reasons for Emerson's uses of lists. Stylistically they echo Biblical passages, and, more importantly, lists allow Emerson to philosophically articulate and enact his trailblazing transcendental philosophies of correspondence and unity in diversity. By itemizing what appear as random units of the natural world in an indiscriminate nominal list—as when in Nature he enumerates a "leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time"—Emerson shows that everything is equal, is "related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole." No one item is more significant than the next; each "is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world."
-Tim Kindseth, The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing by Robert E. Belknap | Bookslut
In 2009 Elissa Bassist wrote about Roberto Bolaño's 2666 and the list of phobias that challenges readers' expectations about what a novel should look like. Some of the phobias Bassist cites:
The weirder fears:
Clinophobia: "fear of beds" (how to deal with the problem: ?sleeping on the floor and never going into a bedroom?)
Tricophobia: "fear of hair" (where some "cases end in suicide")
Verbophobia: "fear of words" (Verbophobia is more than not speaking "because words are everywhere, even in silence, which is never complete silence." Another name for fear is Logophobia.)
Vestiphobia: "fear of clothes" (which is "more widespread than you'd expect")
Gynophobia: "fear of women" (this "naturally afflicts only men" and is "very widespread in Mexico . . . almost all Mexican men are afraid of women")
-Elissa Bassist, "Verbophobia: About the Phobias in Roberto Bolaño's 2666" | The Rumpus
For even more literary lists, here's a 15-item one from Flavorwire: "15 of the Greatest Lists in Literature".
December 3, 2014
December 2, 2014
Well, it's not like I can talk about the books I'm reading, can I? But I also don't want to talk about my Bad Feminist piece, because I've been talking about that piece for months and because I haven't really read what has been expressed to me, directly and indirectly, through various media, as the "wagon circling," "the brigade," "outrage Twitter," etc. I know that makes me sound like a douchey pointed highground-taker, or it makes me sound like I have a douchey amount of self-control that I swear I have never had before in my life, or it could be misconstrued as me being "uninterested in discourse." But, actually, Twitter just seems stupid! Are there even response pieces? I don't know! I have always frowned in frustrated disbelief when people use the "¯\_(ツ)_/¯" guy in response to concerns that appear powerful in terms of popular opinion or ultimate Truth, but now: I feel liberated from the chains of popular opinion! The original Dolly Parton version of "I Will Always Love You" just came on in this cafe! I spilled a glass of water earlier, but none of it got on my computer! Read the interview with Caren Beilin we published!
December 1, 2014
The December issue of Bookslut is up, and it's particularly great, and I'm not just saying that because I have a huge critique of Bad Feminist in it, though I'm not not saying it because I have a huge critique of Bad Feminist in it, either. You should read that—it's about the fallacy of contemporary feminist discourse as a team effort, artistic accountability, the Internet (per usual), rape, why quality of writing is actually really fucking important you lazy assholes, FEELINGS, etc.
As Gay writes of the anger gaslighting in Hannah Rosin’s book, The End of Men, this is a “clever rhetorical move”; her rejection of “having a consistent position” allows her to deflect any potential criticism with a shield of feelings. This strategy has been construed as empowering, a sort of Fuck you! Feminism means I do what I want!, but it’s empowerment for the sake of empowerment rather than for any kind of progress. I don’t want to suggest that feelings -- which are traditionally relegated to the lesser realm of the female but are actually great -- are insignificant material for thoughtful, incisive, and/or valuable essays. Zadie Smith always writes about emotions in her New York Review of Books column; Kathy Acker is full of feelings; Doris Lessing is always brilliantly, lucidly fraught; it could be argued that Elizabeth Hardwick’s critical career is rooted in conflicts among what she thinks should be and what she experiences and what she feels about both. These feelings, examined critically as evidence or counterevidence of larger psychological or sociological or societal or artistic (which is really the same as the previous three) trends, are something very different from the feelings in Bad Feminist. The feelings in Bad Feminist are a series of sometimes-related statements, tossed into the world with only the author to connect them to it.
The body is running (get it???) through this issue. This month's Forgotten Twentieth Century column by Nicholas Vajifdar—on whom I made a regrettably terrible impression at the Daphne Awards; I love his stuff—is about "Introduction to These Paintings," an "ultra-weird, ultra-charismatic piece of writing" by D.H. Lawrence:
The English, begins Lawrence, are generally much worse at painting than other nations, especially in the last few centuries. (He excludes Blake from this judgment.) And this failure stems from their horror of the human body; they depict flesh as something shameful, and you would hardly guess that we are sexual creatures underneath these petticoats and smoking jackets. But why do the English fear the body? After all, he says, Chaucer is so bawdy and uninhibited. Something must have gone wrong to make the Anglo-Saxons so fearful. And Lawrence has a very tidy answer: syphilis. Think of Queen Elizabeth with her bald eyebrows and rotting teeth and infertility, he says; think of Hamlet with his obsession with female sexuality ("in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed"); after the Columbian exchange, we're a long way from the sexual ease of "The Miller's Tale." Lawrence says that syphilis has poisoned the most fundamental urge in the world with a fear and a horror so unspeakable that the English collective psyche never recovered and, through some mental mechanism, fled into a world of over-intellectual abstraction where our intuitive selves could never thrive. And, as a result, the English couldn't paint people correctly; their attempts were dead on arrival.
Whatever you think of this argument on its face, it's hard to avoid the obvious counterargument. He singles out the English, and later all the "northern races." The next question almost asks itself. Namely, did the English suffer more from syphilis than other nations, more than the French did, or the Italians? Lawrence briefly alludes to this huge potential error and then indicates that he has basically no interest in it. He knows in his marrow that the English are a race of prudes; he likes his syphilis idea; and that's all there is to it. No statistical comparisons of infection rates, please.
You've got a little feelings vs. fact in there, too. Nina Gibb also talked to Viv Albertine (!) about how the human body is a fucking prison. Lena Dunham has said something similar, but I'm going to not quote her, because Viv Albertine is very better.
I hate physicality, really. I am very reluctant to do anything physical, a bit like eating fish and vegetables, I do it because it's good for me or it's a means to an end. I have very little confidence in my physical abilities, that my fingers can do what they need to do to make a chord, that my right hand can keep a steady rhythm to strum, that my legs and my lungs have the capacity -- or my mind has the will -- to propel me around a park. I don't like being in water. Heights, skiing, jumping out of planes, and potholing or deep sea diving feel totally alien to me, I don't think humans were meant to do it (except the pearl fishers). My body is extremely sensitive to speed. Even sex intrigues me intellectually more than physically. On the other hand, I will take massive risks emotionally and creatively, go on stage in front of thousands of people even though I can't play or sing, fall in love with difficult people, keep trying to make relationships work, spend years alone making a small piece of work. Those are the areas in which I push myself, I just do the physical stuff to stay alive or as a conduit to get a thought out there. The effort it took for me to start and continue running or playing guitar was huge and alien to me, but paid off massively.
November 28, 2014
Image: "Untitled" (1950) by Willem de Kooning.
I left the book I was very enthusiastically and emotionally reading at a bar and I don't know what to do with myself. Also, my Shockwave Flash keeps crashing. Will existence never abate?
-Speaking of, but not a joke: if nothing else, you need to read the interview Jia Tolentino did with a woman who was, per verdict language, "sexually misconducted" at UVA in 2005. (Jia does great work consistently.) It is very detailed and lends a much-needed specificity to the now somewhat common—and thus somewhat taken for granted as merely vaguely "awful," "harrowing," etc.—campus rape narrative, which I know people who haven't experienced rape or something like it probably have a hard time really, truly getting.
Yeah. So you wake up super sick. Had you been feeling sick at all the night before?
I'd felt completely fine the night before. So my boots are off, my dress is on, but it's twisted. I have no underwear. I look around and see my underwear on the end of the couch, on the other side of the room. I tried to get out of bed but I literally couldn't move. I couldn't even crawl.
I lie there for a while. No one is in the room with me. And then I hear voices in the hallway. One is the guy in question, and there are two other guys talking to him. I hear one of them say, "[This guy] is a necrophiliac, he likes to fuck dead girls."
I realized they were talking about me. They keep joking, like, "What are we gonna do, there's a dead girl in your bed."
I went into immediate survival mode. I start thinking, I need to play this smart. I can't confront them and say, "You motherfucker, what the fuck happened." So he comes back in the room, like, "You're awake? I was really worried about you."
I was like, "Oh yeah?" I ask him what happened. I tell him the last thing I remember was sitting in his room drinking. He says, "We did some shit, we hooked up, and then you got sick."
That was the end of my emotional bandwidth. I stopped asking questions.
-Going to pause here for a second.
-Seems stupid to link anything else, but this is the nature of online: you'll read a 6000-word interview on rape (well, you probably won't, but it will hover in your consciousness piecemeal and in gist) and then click over to a slideshow of aestheticized photos of the filth of the Gowanus Canal. Not entirely aestheticized, because I think that's impossible without not actually saying what the photographs are, but at least in intention and indeed in practice.
-The interview with the Polish poet Ewa Lipska I posted yesterday without comment (except to say, somewhat obliquely, that it was good) is still very worth reading, e.g.:
EL: I am linked with my generation through history, birth certificates and friendships, but I have never belonged to any literary group simply because I have never liked them. A rebellion? It has always been part of my life. But it is also typical of young people. I remember when we read Jean-Paul Sartre and were fascinated by the philosophy of existentialism and we wanted to be different. Now you can dye your hair green, but then there was no such possibility. I started to smoke a pipe. Back then, it was something really astonishing.
LW: With tobacco?
EL: Oh that was awful! It was called Najprzedniejszy ("Excellent"), but it was impossible to smoke it so I quickly gave it up. Today, a rebellion is different because the society is different. There are different material goods and we live in a different reality. Young people leave the country, smoke joints and find shelter in the virtual world. I often talk to them about these things. I support rebellion, although I do not like all of its "shades".
-Brad Listi's interview with Meghan Daum is also great, though if you want to skip the platitudinous American geography small talk and get to the nitty-gritty ways being born in Lincoln, Nebraska, actually does affect one's essence, I'd advise starting in the middle-ish. Meghan also shuts down on the "But the depth of this love is profoundly unlike anything one could ever access via spouse or dog!" response to why she just didn't/doesn't want to have fucking kids, okay.
-And head's up for people who buy things: Melville House has a 40% off sale on their entire catalogue all weekend.
November 27, 2014
I am thankful for Ewa Lipska.
November 26, 2014
Go blind today already:-"Erblinde"/"Go Blind" by Paul Celan, whose Collected Later Poetry you must buy on December 2 and read every day after that
eternity too is full of eyes—
drowns, what helped the images
over the path they came,
expires, what took you too out of
language with a gesture
that you let happen like
the dance of two words of just
autumn and silk and nothingness.
November 25, 2014
It is not shocking at all, and that is what is shocking: to be back in America after two years, reading the stories and watching the news and thinking about donating to various campaigns from essentially the same safe vantage point behind my computer and feeling essentially the same combination of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion among similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion connected through expressions of similar combinations of sadness, cynicism, guilt, helplessness, impulse, anger, and exhaustion yet at the same time also feeling entirely different because of this essential sameness, this persistence, sensing that the difference in distance or time has done nothing to fatten up my paltry conclusions as I had been led as a child to believe distance and time would, that it's still totally and just awful, still horrible, still an actual tragedy, still saying I do think that, God, really, I do.
November 24, 2014
Image: From Goya's series Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-1820).
Being myself "bitchy," as well as cognizant of Elaine Showalter after reading her for a seminar class on Virginia Woolf in which I gave it a try so apparently desperately college that my professor apologized to me before saying she could not give me an A, which not even Yale's grade inflation could pretend I deserved, I was passingly interested in Showalter's review of Richard Bradford's Literary Rivals: Feuds and Antagonisms in the World of Books, from which the takeaway is, say it with me now, "But where are the women?" Or, rather, that's what the takeaway should be, or seems like it's going to be; a fun breakdown of the Wordsworth/Coleridge relationship moves into a list of the rivalries featured in the book, and the latter is mostly male in the red-flag-waving way that almost always signals a criticism of that quality will follow (if the reviewer is female, that is). That criticism does follow, sort of: "Above all, Bradford doesn’t notice that his literary feuds seem to be 'fight clubs,' forms of competitive male bonding. His only example of feuding women writers is the well-known legal case of Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman." This, however, serves mainly to introduce an opportunity for Showalter to calmly go through some examples of female writers feuding, and the piece concludes with the coiner of gynocritics shying away into a "nevertheless," as in
Nevertheless, writers today are less likely to engage in open antagonism because the political risks are too great. Between trolls on Twitter, libel law and the pressures of political correctness, writers no longer dare to insult their rivals in the hyperbolically abusive terms that Mailer and Vidal favoured. Richard Bradford might see this as a loss to letters. It’s certainly a demystification of the cult of the warrior artist. But in the absence of slashing rivalries in the present, there’s a vacancy for a compendium of the most entertaining feuds of the past. And Bradford has stepped up to fill it.
Am I naive to wish this were not so aggressively passive? I mean, the point about political correctness and the Internet might be true—there seems to be a "vacancy" for criticism that falls between pussyfooting around and 11,000-word misogynistic absurdities, and there definitely exists an amount of nostalgia for the days of asshole critics past. But Bradford's exclusion of female writers seems like it should put the book in the territory of the egregious, the Okay. Now do it again, but this time, better category. To transition to her calm examples, Showalter uses another lame construction: "If Bradford knew more about women writers, he could cite many more precedents." I mean, if you're writing a nonfiction book, is research not part of your job? The point here should be the lack of women featuring in Bradford's supposed survey, no? Once you train yourself to recognize that kind of thing, you can't not see it. I'm trying to think of a fun comparison to illustrate this phenomenon, but the closest thing I'm coming up with is something to do with deal-breakers in sexual partners—e.g., when they don't seem to care if you get off, or "about female pleasure" if you want to pussyfoot around. That comparison probably works, because just as I often "nevertheless" away men who obviously don't care about female writers, I always find myself making excuses for that sex shit, too, mostly founded on "He has strong hands and buys me pizzas!" NEVERTHELESS, I shouldn't do those things, so I'm just going to make the hypothetical comparison without actually making it.
Contrast with Jessa's review of Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, in which she acknowledges that the book's author has done an admirable job in many ways before deeming the book an italicized, unequivocal failure for "insist[ing] that this is the history of homosexuality without including the stories of women."
November 21, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading (or Not)
Awards are stupid, but sometimes this truth is obscured by 1) the fun of awards shows, the first-world+late-capitalist necessity of constructing anticipation and something to do; see also: Christmas; 2) the fantasy that we will one day be the recipients of the stupid awards; and 3) the frequent goodness of the people winning the awards. I mean, Louise Glück—what a genius! She is a genius. Still, it's kind of absurd that our feeble human brains cannot go on functioning without the crutch conception of the world as a potato-sack race, but you know, capitalism. I'm all for some people being more talented and/or better writers and/or more in possession of an ineffable something special than other people—I really hate lameness! It needs to be stopped!—but it just seems that perhaps vaguely defined LEVELS, rather than INDIVIDUALS, provide a more productive framework for this need to classify and categorize merit. Honor is important, because how else will we go on if not for the hope of being differentiated from the idiots that plague us (see below), but can we try to cultivate honors that do not have such needlessly severe consequences, by which I mean both positive and negative ones? You all know this—is it not why everyone is much happier to bleed content about Ursula's hazier and (somewhat, thus) more deserved "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" than on the books/writers that/who won the ridiculous right to say they published the BEST book last year? I mean, she is also potentially on ANOTHER LEVEL, but I think the point stands even ignoring the disparity in yearly vs. lifetime achievements.
This is not unrelated to Jennifer Weiner's insistence on Jonathan Franzen's hegemonic grip on the New York Times as being so strong that to read her work you'd think they printed something about the guy every single day. Her focus on the New York Times as the "paper of record," despite attempts to dismiss its possible status as such by including that bitterly sarcastic quotation-marked distinction alongside her criticism of its misuse of power—that focus is both valid and not, given that getting with the times (OR NOT, amirite?)—and trying to value cultural capital over actual capital—means knowing that there are many publications that earn more respect and exert a stronger gravitational pull, at least for, ahem, liter-a-toor, than the New York Times does. I'm not denying the power of Institutions, because 1) that would be naive; 2) they do have the money and influence much of the money they don't have; and 3) indeed I exploit my association with them—not ruthlessly, but moderately, and I probably can't not. NEVERTHELESS (and ignoring that this focus of Jennifer Weiner's belies the not-so-literary aspects of her work that she is so quick to blame on patriarchal/institutional perception, because not ignoring it would require me to delve deeper into my idea of LEVELS so as not to contradict my point about the problems of hierarchies, which I don't want to do right now): no one important actually cares—by which I mean cares about something beyond their money/influence—about the National Book Awards or the New York Times. They are placeholders that sometimes do good things. There is a reason intellectuals and otherwise literary types sequester themselves in a small and cliquish industry that is largely irrelevant to anyone outside it, so it's stupid that we then persist in recreating the tedious categorical imperatives of the wider world.
Also, like, YA guy, really? Why are you an idiot? You have all of life's advantages, and still you are an idiot. IT'S NOT THAT HARD.
There are probably many obscure news and thought topics I could bring to your attention from this lofty vantage point as a loosely employed 24-year-old book blogger, but there are SO MANY OTHER Link Roundups! that I will just save my links! for another day. Read the Melville House blog if you're bitchy but ultimately right and Asymptote's if you fancy yourself a cosmopolitan sophisticate.
November 20, 2014
The affliction I'm speaking of is moral relativism, and you can imagine the catastrophic effects on a critic's career if the thing were left to run its course unfettered or I had to rely on my own inner compass alone. To be honest, calling it moral relativism may dignify it too much; it's more like moral wishy-washiness. [Ahem!] Critics are supposed to have deeply felt moral outrage about things, be ready to pronounce on or condemn other people's foibles and failures at a moment's notice whenever an editor emails requesting twelve hundred words by the day after tomorrow. The severity of your condemnation is the measure of your intellectual seriousness (especially when it comes to other people's literary or aesthetic failures, which, for our best critics, register as nothing short of moral turpitude in itself). That's how critics make their reputations: having take-no-prisoners convictions and expressing them in brutal mots justes. You'd better be right there with that verdict or you'd better just shut the fuck up.
-From "Juicers," in Laura Kipnis's *~*new*~* Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation
November 19, 2014
Literary and historical heroines on Grindr. So far, my favorites are Molly Bloom and the Titanic.
November 18, 2014
In this part of The Thing Where We Watch All of the Henry James Adaptations and Slowly Die from the Inside but At Least Get Content Out of It (I am so good at branding), Gary Amdahl and Jessa Crispin watch 90 adaptations of Turn of the Screw, and slowly go mad from all of the off-screen whispering and spooky music. Also, you should buy our Henry James Tribute Album, because it is very good. (I am also so good at subtle salesmanship.)
“Is that how you like to appear? Dark and cold as if you are about to be evil?” Stephanie Beacham to Marlon Brando, playing—so the cast list insists—“Miss Jessel” and “Quint” in Michael Winner’s prequel to The Turn of the Screw, The Nightcomers. Much may be learned from this hilariously flawed and brutally pornographic variation on the timeless allure of appearing dark and cold as if about to be evil.
Assertion #1: we all like very much to appear dark and cold as if about to be evil. But not all the time. I have a speciality in this regard: I give the impression I am on an ice floe that has just calved away from its parent-ice, and the only thing that is saving my near and dear ones from unspeakable wrath is the gradually widening gap of icy water between us. But even I get bored with this. If only Frank Frazetta could have painted me, I could be done with this once and for all, leaving it where it should be, in B movies with billion-dollar budgets.
James was susceptible to this common urge, just as he was to the common tale of the plain woman who inherits a fortune and learns to fend off assholes and idiots at the expense of her sweetness. But he suggested, with crazy literary swagger, that appearance is only one small shiver of a reality that is neither good nor evil—nor beyond good and evil, at least not the way Nietzsche had it.
Assertion #2: we can learn more from bad adaptations of James than good. But who wants to do that? You and I are trying to be rigorously complete in our survey, but why should anybody else have to do this? If Miles and Flora had been forced to watch The Nightcomers, they could not but be traumatized, and not just because it’s poorly directed and acted, but because it caters to and decries at once the desire to watch one person being hurt by another.
Though James trades on psychological pain, he does not participate in the catering and decrying. His Demons are temptations of mind, not flesh. His tortures are constrictions of mind, not flesh. All the while is telling a ghost story, a horror story, he allows the reader’s mind to not simply remain unbound but to expand. That is to say: he writes about the torment of mind from the viewpoint of a free, capacious, healthy mind. He writes about fear and pain with the calm acceptance of an artist who does not ignore evil but who does not seek to profit from it. His profit depends on his ability to “make life,” as he put it. Fear and hatred and pain and violence are inherent in the life he made out of The Turn of the Screw, but they are not the focus, not the point, not the reason it exists. Movie-makers have been drawn to the characters and plot of Screw, its scenes and tableaux for all the wrong reasons: they make absorption in dread and violence the only way for a viewer’s interest to be gratified. It’s a kind of commodified catharsis, pseudo-catharsis, a cheap thrill in place of harrowed understanding. We are the People of the Cheap Thrill, and we get what we pay for. To expect Hollywood to “faithfully adapt” James is misbegotten.
Assertion #3: The Buddhist monk and writer Jack Kornfield wrote that one can be freed from the past through forgiveness. “Forgiveness is giving up hope for a better past.” Something like that. No act of forgiveness is dramatized or referred to in Screw—that’s part of how his ambiguity serves to intensify the already taut strings of the created life: it’s there but tragically never realized—but James’s art is all about living in a present that has given up hope for a better past, not to mention knee-jerk hopes for a better future; art that looks backward and forward with equanimity. Movies would rather die than do that. I think movies would die if they tried to do it. Even the best adaptations of Screw fail miserably because they cannot dramatize the open strong mind that presents the story to us. They can only animate characters.
Assertion #4: It’s too easy to beat up on the actors in these adaptations. It wasn’t Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fault in Washington Square: it was Agnieszka Holland’s fault. And if Brando was calling the shots in Last Tango with The Governess, he didn’t write script, the prequel that is doomed before it starts because “the story” must be told without it.
More on what the other two hundred people do to make a movie good or bad when we consider The Innocents, the 1999 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jodhi May, Redgrave’s 1974 production, the BBC of 2009, and Britten’s opera.
Yours in the loosened bonds of art,
On the night before Halloween, I was going through my regular ritual of reading and watching things that would freak me out so badly I would have to lie on the bed, eyes wide open, constantly checking my thought processes for hallucination and delusion. It's not really stories of murder and abduction that freak me out. I mean, whatever, someone can break in and kill me while I sleep, there's nothing I can really do to prevent that so I'm not going to be freaked out worried about it all the time. I've lived alone and traveled alone for too long, I know it's a giant waste of energy to freak out at every shadow and every strange sound. It's the stories of inexplicable madness and unexplained ends that freak me the fuck out. All of these women left in a dot dot dot -- Joyce Carol Vincent, Elisa Lam, and then the countless others who packed their bags one night and, without any sign of a struggle, checked out. What scares me is losing myself to myself, if that makes any sense. Of my mind just wandering off beyond my ability to bring it back.
It's like when I was a kid and all of those UFO stories were really big, and I used to read big volumes of abduction and experimentation because why not. At that age it is fun to experiment with darkness. And I was never afraid of being taken by aliens, but I was seriously scared that I might one day believe that I had been. Because then you would never get back to yourself, would you? You would have to haunt conferences and talk madness to people and insist on a reality that is totally at odds with everyone else's reality.
That's how I felt when I read Turn of the Screw for the first time, this terror of maybe losing myself inside a belief or an idea. I read it, by the way, hopped up on pain pills because I had fucked up my back and so that didn't help the feeling of slipping into something. But the terror of that is far greater, and far more difficult to convey, than the easy and boring sexual sadism of The Nightcomers. That whole opening metaphor of the toad and the cigarette -- "he likes it so much he'll kill himself not to stop" or whatever, I'm not rewatching the scene to get the line perfect -- is wearying. Just because you notice something, that there are women who sometimes like it when you hurt them, doesn't mean you have anything to say about it.
Did the Turn of the Screw need a prequel? Not this one, obviously, but even then. I hadn't thought, until watching The Innocents, how traumatized those kids must have been. They lose their parents, their new caregiver doesn't care about them, their governess dies horribly, the boy stumbles upon the dead body of the only adult who cares about him. When the little girl starts screaming in The Innocents and finds she can't stop, I was only wondering why she hadn't been doing that the whole time.
It's a different kind of trauma than the one the Governess was terrified would take them over. But there's that thing that kids do, performing this kind of chirpiness even though they are not okay, because it's expected, all the while keeping your reptilian secrets under your apron.
I can see why people want to expand on the tale, those few sentences about Jessel and Quint's relationship are provocative, and all of those off-screen deaths are tempting to put on screen, because instant drama. But the real terror isn't in, dead body on the floor. The terror is in what follows. It's the way your brain tries to recover and can't, it's the way you are left forever vulnerable after and the way people either dance around or take full advantage of that vulnerability.
That line at the beginning of The Innocents, the employer asks the governess, "Do you have an imagination?" Jesus, yes, she does. And the imagination is as destructive as it its creative. Certainly all of us know the wrong turns out imagination has taken us on. And "The Innocents" is the best at conveying that, but I have found myself resisting writing about what a good film it is. Let's talk about the lighting, I guess? Deborah Kerr's nightgowns? Those preternaturally adorable and so obviously some sort of monstrous fairykind children? It is a brilliant film, but it tells us little about James.
So you are right that the bad adaptations do more to show us what James does brilliantly. But I suppose I feel the best adaptation of Turn of the Screw would have been no adaptation of Turn of the Screw. Unlike Washington Square, which I believe could and should live in a thousand different forms, from films to ballets to paintings and whatever the fuck else (please no sequels, though), it seems a really great director would have looked at Turn and said, "Yeah, there's nothing to add here." It's one of his intricately built spider webs, trying to take one down off the wall and rebuild it in another area would necessarily left it with large gaping holes in some areas and tangled messes in others.
See? I can't somehow make myself write about the adaptations at all, although I will have something to say about Colin Firth the next time we converse.
I thought I saw someone in the window, I'll be right back I have to check,
This is where the prequels and sequels properly belong: in letters of friendly criticism. And by friendly I don't mean only letters between friends with a common interest that calls out for the kind of thinking that comes only of writing, I mean criticism like Emerson said it ought to be written: to the unknown friend.
You're right about the nature of fear and demonstrations of pseudo-violence. (No, wait, let's call it faux violence, because it is consumed in terms of fashion, not as the sharp stark meaningful opposite of truth.) Blood and brutality and pain and screaming are just disgusting, and if, for some reason, a watcher continues to wade through it, it becomes boring. It becomes so boring the boredom itself is disgusting. (The only way out is through comedy, which is why I briefly held some hope for the 1996 Kensit "Screw.") Anybody who's experienced real fear and real violence will confirm this.
Which brings me to trauma. I have witnessed and participated in trauma that is stretched out over a wide spectrum: my friend the motorcycle-riding drug-dealer who crashed his Harley and messed his brain up to the point where he could walk only after years of therapy, using a walker, and whose conversation was limited to:
ME: "How are you, Gerard?"
GERARD (thick CT accent, on bad days): Faih.
GERARD (on good days): Spahk-uh-ling.
And the Green Beret, suffering with PTSD before they were able to brand it, who murdered my uncle. ("Narrow Road to the Deep North," if anybody wants to read about that.)
Then there's the stuff that I feel is personally traumatic and which I keep to myself precisely because it is traumatic.
I am inclined, probably to your dismay, to not think of what happened to Miles and Flora as traumatic. I mean: I, the observer/reader, am inclined to see the events of the story as possibly something they felt to be what we now (specifically us and now) call traumatic, but which James presents as something else altogether.
Well, no, not altogether different: directly related but effectively different, emphasis on effect. And I would like to point to the weird etymology of "trauma." Now I'm no philologist, I just play one on the Internet, but...the word comes from the Greek for wound, but makes a mysterious detour in Old German before it arrives in English: daydream. There are wounds enough in daydreams to satisfy any sadist, any masochist, any unwell person of any sort. I used to have a saying (in fact it might be in "Narrow Road"): "Every daydream crests in a fistfight. And there was a time, a long time, in which I depended on my daydreams to propel me into daydreamy action in the non-dreaming world, just because I loved that sense of bifurcation: white figure on black background, suddenly black figure on white background...but the sharpest contrasts always blurred into gray. People, in other words, can take anything. What is the greatest miracle of all? That horribly wounded, degraded, brutalized people do not destroy themselves, do not hurl themselves into the abyss, don't overdose, blow their heads off when they know it will end the misery!
Of course some people do just that: wounded, they wound, and depart in flames. But the percentage is unbelievably small. Most of us learn to pin our misery on the fear of freaking out, just as you say. We hear about atrocity and it stands out in the clearest horror. We shrink back in fear, our imaginations run wild, and the fear becomes so magnified it paralyzes us. Sometimes this is a good restraint! Sometimes it is a bad restraint.
Back to James and particularly The Innocents. Screw is about A) the sad and wounding things that happen to children; and B) the exponentially more sad and wounding things that we can imagine happening to children. To the children that we are, the children that we have, the children that we do not have. I say "exponentially" because the imagination is rhizomatic in possibility and instantaneous in its choice of path at every fork.
Very briefly, because I am rattling on as usual: there are two kinds of Screw. One solidifies or manifests the qualities of fear, the other leaves them in ambiguity, in suggestion, below the surface. Johdi May's (beautiful) eyes must be widened in fear or fear of fear from the get-go. Pam Ferris (a lovely woman and terrific actor) must confine herself to one of her best bits: stern regard blanking into malevolence. Virtually all the boys playing Miles must be preternaturally predatory in their precocious charm. And all the Floras...! She cannot be bookish, or introspective, or god forbid sercretive, or even outright mysterious in an imagination she owns wholly, with all the good and bad that implies, no, she must be the receptacle for our imaginations. How else can the innocent become terrifying?
Here come the Buddhists again, and the non-dualists. (I should say I enjoy inquiries guided by these "not-two" philosophies, but am in no way a follower or practicer.) They say that evil and good are one, that fear and calm are one, that violence and...what is the opposite of violence? That they all come and go in the mind, shit happens, worse shit happens--no one knows what will come and no one can control what comes, and it is therefore in our imaginations only that the worst happens, because there we can hold it in place, run and re-run it, make prequels and sequels. Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself. That is how this miracle of "enduring" occurs.
James always gives us the tranquility of art to bear our imaginings. No movie can do that. The Innocents comes closest because its efforts are towards making that world seem as ordinary as possible, so as to show us something, rather than subjecting us to it.
yours in the surly bonds of imagination,
"Fearing a thing is almost always harder to bear than the thing itself." Gary! Stop saying perfect things!
How many adaptations did the BBC do of Screw? Because I feel like I watched eight of them. There was the one with Colin Firth as the children's guardian, the one with Michelle Dockery as the governess... There was a lot of whispering. So much whispering. One would think that the BBC would know what to do with James. One would think there is some sort of reliquary at the BBC headquarters with chipped off bits of James's bones and perhaps one of his fingers. And yet neither of the productions really understood what to do with the material.
It was that weird two minutes with Julian Sands in the 1992 version with Marianne Faithful that really got the children's guardian and his disinterest in their well being. Nothing else in that movie worked, but that two-minute scene was perhaps the best adaptation of the bunch, barring The Innocents. Because that figure is so cold, the whole "Do not bother me with this" written on the letter forwarded from the boy's school, the "my London lifestyle is just not suitable for children." Colin Firth plays that character like Colin Firth and he's not believable for a second. Colin Firth totally wants kids, he wants to gaze into your eyes and hold your hand while the two of you walk through the park, Colin Firth wants to read you poetry as you lie in the bathtub. Julian Sands doesn't want the children to interfere with his opium addiction. (I miss Julian Sands. Julian Sands, come back to us. He's always so dangerous on the screen, I can't look away.)
But when the BBC versions were playing, I kept getting up to do the dishes, to check the mail, to sort through books, especially in the most recent Colin Firth-less version. I felt no dread, and not only because I had just watched five other versions of this film and knew exactly what was going to happen. But I do find it interesting that the BBC produced two entirely different and wholly unsatisfying productions of Turn of the Screw ten years apart. We are set for another in five years if they keep up the schedule.
I don't know. I feel like I've hit a dead end here, numbed by too many bad Turns of the Screw. Too much whispering and shadowy figures. I watched something horrid with Leelee Sobieski and that's just part of my brain I'm not going to have access to ever again.
Any last thoughts before we move on?
You're absolutely right about too many bad Screws! It's dispiriting! In a way I did not see coming, which makes the lack of spirit embarrassing. But never fear. I have another thought or two.
I temp-teach workshops in non-fiction and non-non-fiction. They are less workshops than sermons. I could not care less about the quality of their craftsmanship if it's in the service of stories of inconvenience while flying or the mass rape of debutantes at a cotillion ball by an army of robots. Oh, wait, sorry: that last gets you a Guggenheim and a Lannan. (Oh, when I think of all the great writers laboring in sci-fi hell, churning out much better stories in the 60s and 70s for a penny a page...) The sermons all have as a central theme my belief that there is only one story that has ever been told, that ever will be told -- what it's like to observe that you are alive -- and that of the countless variations of that one story there are good stories and bad stories. The bad stories are about a single suffering martyr of a hero trapped in a world of other people who have no existence outside their hatred of the hero. They are narrow-minded. The good stories are open-minded and cultivate the idea that other people are just like us, and cannot believe that their lives have to come to "this," just as we cannot believe it.
Two nights ago, we considered a story about a student's unhappiness at the hands of a step-mother, who was carelessly washing the student's clothes and would not allow interference. There were other grievances. The father appeared to be an asshole and an idiot. The mother was a refuge, but had only limited custody. The class went berserk with enthusiasm for the nastiness of the step-mother, and equally berserk with sympathy for their fellow-student. It was an unprecedented show: the heretofore silent class could not be quieted.
It is not surprising that marriages can be destroyed and even lives lost over issues like improper laundering, but it was very surprising that no one had the slightest interest in the unspoken story. One student shyly asked how, if the mother was so good and the father/step-mother so bad, they got custody. The writer said, "My mother made some bad choices. She accused my father of sexually abusing my brother and me, but he was proved innocent."
Back they surged, possibly in a kind of fear, to the laundry, and the character of the e-mail exchange between the step-mother and the student: the colors chosen to highlight text, the spelling of "socks" as "sox," and so on.
The One True Story includes everything and everybody, implicitly and explicitly. There is sympathy and acknowledgement and, finally, an acceptance: everything and everybody. The Countless Bad Stories are antipathetic and acknowledge nothing that runs counter to the version the Self tells and re-tells. The One True Story evokes all of existence with sympathy; the Countless Bad Stories seek to control existence, that of teller-writer and listener/reader alike.
James's art was precisely controlled but always in the service of the sympathetic imagination. The narrating Self was always in the service of the narrated other. He gave space for the observers of trauma to deal and heal, even when--especially when--his characters were nasty, vicious, weak. His adaptors do just the opposite: they confine and restrict so as to inflict trauma. They do so because most of the people watching enjoy safe trauma. They clamor for it. They want to see that the Improper Laundress is truly and sensationally depraved. This allows the (sometimes genuinely) traumatized and day-dreaming 14-year-old that we incontrovertibly remain to keep the Story of the Self free from danger or even interference as it loops endlessly from synapse to synapse around our three pounds of electrified Jell-O.
November 17, 2014
I won't have to pay money for it, but nevertheless: I'm going to read that Jonathan Franzen book, and I'm probably going to like it or be disappointed because I thought I would like it. ("Not strict realism," eh, I don't know—as long as there aren't any ghosts, please.) Either way, I will feel compelled to write a long and guilty/defensive justification of why it is not dismissable outright, because I am young and insecure about my position as heir to the blog of a vocal Jonathan Franzen hater, so this is just a head's up that you can start preparing your intrusively concerned, older, wiser, you'll-grow-out-of-your-Jonathan-Franzen-phase-sweetie reader emails now! I think perhaps the attention lavished (not so much anymore, though, at least not within "the scene," as I heard to it referred at baby's first publishing party last night) on Jonathan Franzen and thus directed away from other writers is, you know, not problematic but a problem. But at the same time, I think a lot of writers suck and that Jonathan Franzen doesn't, even keeping in mind his get-off-my-lawn-like uncoolness, and this is one of the great questions that keeps me up as my two-night-stands snore lightly and pointlessly beside me, what is merit and why does it matter?
I will concede, though, that, regardless of the sentimental position The Corrections holds for me as the novel that made me feel like I wanted to write fiction, or rather like I wanted to and could, Purity sounds fairly ridiculous, title-wise.
November 14, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Image: "Crossroads" by Alex Roulette, which has nothing to do with anything except that I discovered him via It's Nice That and really like him.
-More in great titles: "Bonfire of the Inanities," Jacqui Shine's history of the New York Times Styles section
Bohemia, said Flaubert, was “the fatherland of my breed.” If so, his breed, at least in America, is becoming extinct. The most exciting periods of American intellectual life tend to coincide with the rise of bohemia, with the tragic yet liberating rhythm of the break from the small town into the literary roominess of the city, or from the provincial immigrant family into the centers of intellectual experiment. Given the nature of contemporary life, bohemia ﬂourishes in the city—but that has not always been so. Concord too was a kind of bohemia, sedate, subversive, and transcendental all at once. Today, however, the idea of bohemia, which was a strategy for bringing artists and writers together in their struggle with and for the world—this idea has become disreputable, being rather nastily associated with kinds of exhibitionism that have only an incidental relationship to bohemia. Nonetheless, it is the disintegration of bohemia that is a major cause for the way intellectuals feel, as distinct from and far more important than what they say or think. Those feelings of loneliness one ﬁnds among so many American intellectuals, feelings of damp dispirited isolation which undercut the ideology of liberal optimism, are partly due to the breakup of bohemia. Where young writers would once face the world together, they now sink into suburbs, country homes, and college towns. And the price they pay for this rise in social status is to be measured in more than an increase in rent.
-Speaking of intellectuals, Europe still has some! The LARB has a great interview with the Polish social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (who is also greatly titled):
Be they military or civilian, life experiences cannot but imprint themselves — the more heavily the more acute they are — on life’s trajectory, on the way we perceive the world, respond to it and pick the paths to walk through it. They combine into a matrix of which one’s life’s itinerary is one of the possible permutations. The point, though, is that they do their work silently, stealthily so to speak, and surreptitiously — by prodding rather than spurring, and through sets of options they circumscribe rather than through conscious, deliberate choices....
And so a word of warning is in order: retrospectively reconstructing causes and motives of choices carries a danger of imputing structure to a flow, and logic — even predetermination — to what was in fact a series of faits accomplis poorly if at all reflected upon at the time of their happening. Contrary to the popular phrase, “hindsight” and “benefit” do not always come in pairs — particularly in autobiographic undertakings.
I recall here these mundane and rather trivial truths to warn you that what I am going to say in reply to your question needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
November 13, 2014
I got a copy of Chéri in the street the other day, because it was Sunday and Sundays often involve purchasing items in the street, as well as thoughts of affairs. It (the copy of Chéri) has an author bio for which I am so grateful that I am tempted to "close-read" it for you here:
Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, twentieth-century France's greatest woman writer, was born in 1873. At first a music-hall dancer and mime, she began writing only when her husband, a literary hack whom she soon divorced, locked her in a room and ordered her to produce novels for him to sign. Madame Colette went on to write some eighty books that are as much admired for their dazzling style as for their unerring psychology. She died in Paris in 1954. Her last years were spent in an apartment in the Palais Royal. There, on a garden wall, a plaque now reads, "Here lived, here died Colette, whose work is a window wide-open on life."
I won't close-read it, because that's obnoxious, but I will say that I think this is the kind of copywriting we need, we as a people.
November 11, 2014
In the November issue of Bookslut, Ravi Mangla wonders why literature hasn't given us the outsiders that visual arts have given us and suggests language as the main culprit – more exactly, the high prestige dialects specific to literature.
Among the outsider artists mentioned by Ravi Mangla is also Henry Darger. While it's true his written work hasn't enjoyed the same attention as his illustrations, perhaps the very fact that his writing hasn't been edited and published (yet) guarantees his status as an outsider writer. For more on Henry Darger, here are a few suggestions:
A quick and accessible entry point into Henry Darger's world is the PBS documentary In The Realms of the Unreal (Jessica Yu, 2005). The documentary manages to seamlessly highlight the way Darger's Catholic faith (as well as his struggles with it) is (are) echoed throughout his 15,000-page novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.
Jillian Steinhauer recounts a visit to the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) to see the Darger archives:
It turns out the novel [In the Realms of the Unreal] wasn’t the only thing Darger wrote. There’s also a second novel, called Crazy House; an autobiography that apparently contains only a small amount of autobiographical information before turning — on a simple phrase along the lines of, “Oh yeah, there’s one thing I forgot to mention … ” says Miller — into another fantastical story; and, my favorite, a series of weather journals, in which Darger wrote on one side the predicted weather forecast for a given day, and on the other, what the weather actually was.
Jillian Steinhauer, On Henry Darger's 15,000-Page Novel | Hyperallergic
(Kevin Miller, a former Darger fellow at AFAM: “anybody that wrote a 15,000-page novel probably needs a good editor." What to make of this remark? It certainly raises the same question Vivian Maier's photography has raised: who has the right to edit the work of an outsider author who is already gone, who hasn't left any instructions regarding their entire life’s work?)
The weather journals ("book of weather reports on temperatures, fair cloudy to clear skies, snow, rain, or summer storms, and winter snows and big blizzards—also the low temperatures of severe cold waves and hot spells of summer") Jillian Steinhauer mentions are analyzed in detail by Lytle Shaw, in conjunction with the weather descriptions from In the Realms of the Unreal.
For Darger, moral anchoring points pop up now and again amid hundred-page descriptions of hurricanes, land battles and sweeping conflagrations: "Beautiful is the sun, which because of its wonderful splendor and radiance, was adored as a divine being by so many pagan nations. But more beautiful is the form of the Vivian Girls." Realms is full of descriptions of characters breaking down when meeting, or even hearing about, the Vivian Girls. For most readers and viewers, though, it is this very gap between the simplistic moral rhetoric, a rhetoric of pathos and obligation, and the multivalent, pathological detail that makes Darger's work so fascinating, and so disturbing. In "illustrating" his claims (I'm thinking here of his drawings, but one might make a related argument about his text), Darger invents a world whose psychotically proliferating detail—wearing outright its fascination with inventing new ways for grown-men marauders dressed in Civil War outfits to dismember little girls' bodies—renders those very same claims intensely inadequate as an explanation of what one is presented with. This patient rendering of carnage is made all the more unsettling and bizarre by its placement within highly elaborated atmospheric and horticultural settings, which demonstrate Darger's pleasure in cloud formations, lightning patterns, overflowing garden plots, happy diagrammatic houses, and verdant storybook hillsides.
Lytle Shaw, The Moral Storm: Henry Darger's Book of Weather Reports | Cabinet Magazine
(Concerning language and editing, the note that accompanies this essay is rather significant: "All Darger quotes are verbatim, including grammatical and typographical idiosyncracies.")
For a more in-depth look at Henry Darger's life and work, there's Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge, recommended here at Bookslut by Coco Papy:
Elledge seeks to destroy the mythologies that have haunted Darger and his work, giving a radical new view that is equal parts empathetic and explanatory. As a society, we have a fetish for troubled artists, often romanticizing the all too real aspects of poverty, mental illness, and the costs of existing on the frays of society. It is equal parts naïveté and popular opinion, one that comes all too easily in death, an aggrandizing view that takes away the trauma of the actual lived life and co-opts what it means to be an artist.
Coco Papy, Henry Darger, Throw Away Boy: The Tragic Life of an Outsider Artist by Jim Elledge | Bookslut
Michael Leddy writes about the influence of Darger’s work on John Ashbery, an essay that doubles as an attempt to find the connecting thread between Darger and other outsider artists who could be counted among Ashbery’s influences. Ultimately, the message we’re getting is that for an outsider’s work to matter it needs to be co-opted by insiders. By the mainstream culture.
The identification of insider with outsider becomes particularly poignant when we think further about Darger and Ashbery. Certainly there are artistic affinities between them — most notably their shared fascination with the primal reading-matter of comics and their collaging of found material. But I think that a deeper, more personal identification helps to account for Darger’s claim on Ashbery’s imagination. Girls on the Run signals such an identification early on:
Write it now, Tidbit said,
before they get back. And, quivering, I took the pen.
Drink the beautiful tea
before you slop sewage over the horizon, the Principal directed.
OK, it’s calm now, but it wasn’t two minutes ago. What do you want me to do,
I am no longer your serf,
and if I was I wouldn’t do your bidding. (1–2)
Michael Leddy, Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger | Jacket Magazine
November 10, 2014
Everyone published their Berlin Wall content and their "amazing, rare photographs" today and this weekend (last night was the 25th anniversary of the Wall coming down), and it's unfortunate that it all falls (eh? eh?) under the umbrella of "content" because on one hand you see one set of photos of people with huge hair and jackets expressing obvious and genuine joy at their "freedom," you've seen them all. But on the other hand—and maybe this is the Lauren Who Just Left Berlin After Two Years There talking—it's a very singular and fucking amazing historical event that is very cheesily heartwarming even despite or because of its not-wholly-goodness. I would say "problematic" here, but you've read that essay!
I put "freedom" in quotation marks not to be snarky or make some kind of confusing political point that I'm not entitled or knowledgable enough to make, but because Jenny Erpenbeck's discussion of it in the Paris Review—their Berlin Wall content—rightly questions the conventional wholly goodness of the concept. And the essay has a great title!
What was I doing the night the Wall fell?
I spent the evening with friends just a few blocks from the spot where history was being made, and then: I went to bed. I slept right through it. And while I slept the pot wasn’t just stirred, it was knocked over and smashed to bits. The next morning, I was told we wouldn’t need pots anymore.
There was a lot of talk of freedom, but I didn’t know what to do with this concept, which was suddenly drifting about in all sorts of different sentences. The freedom to travel. (But what if you couldn’t afford to?) Or the freedom of expression. (What if no one was interested in my opinion?) The freedom to shop. (But what comes after the shopping trip?) Freedom wasn’t just a gift, it was something you paid for, and the price of freedom turned out to have been my entire life up till then. Everyday life was no longer everyday life: it was an adventure that had been survived. Our customs were now a sideshow attraction. Everything that had been self-evident forfeited its self-evidence within the span of a few weeks. A door that opened only once every hundred years was now standing ajar, but the hundred years were gone forever. From this point on, my childhood became a museum exhibit.
November 9, 2014
Image: Albrecht Dürer, Christus als Schmerzensmann
On a personal note about the Daphne Awards…
The post-1945 era in literature is perhaps the spottiest in my literary history. The names that we associate most strongly with that era — Mailer, Roth, Updike, etc — are all of this macho pose, this high masculinity. They dominate our view of what the post-war novel is supposed to be, and everything else kind of hides in their shadow.
But long ago I decided I did not want to read literature where women were not women but just kind of walking around vaginas. And so that rules out all books by those macho guys.
(By the way, it’s okay to do this. People will freak out at you, oh my god how can you not have read Philip Roth he is like so important he is like a living god but you can just dismiss them, it is allowed.)
Reading through the nominees for the first ever Daphne Award, books published in 1963, was like an instant little history lesson. There were writers I already knew and loved, like Heinrich Böll and Hannah Arendt, and then there were writers I had never heard of, like Tarjei Vesaas.
It was a weird era. Coming out of World War II, so in some ways dominated by the voices of those who had fought in the war, and yet this younger generation who was merely raised during it scrambling to be heard. And coming in this still very stuck in the ’50s conservative era, the revolution of 1968 still to come. So things are shifting, things are seething. You have a lot of books about the war, trying to come to terms with it, and a lot of books about aftermath, and then some that are just like, oh my god can we talk about something else please?
Lots of bombast, and some big swinging dicks, but the novel that enchanted us all was Vesaas’s The Ice Palace, a book about surviving tragedy. And a nonfiction book, Primo Levi’s Reawakening, about surviving tragedy. And the poetry book, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, about surviving tragedy. (And then the children’s book, about a lion who is almost shot and killed until he gets a gun is about…) We were all on different panels, it was an accidental theme for what we were all looking for, I guess.
And The Ice Palace is exquisite. It’s about two young girls who bond deeply and then tragedy strikes. It is weirdly able to capture the thought processes of young girls, their rhythms and their inner monologues. At first everyone on the panel complained, I think this is a weird translation. It’s so start and stop, so brittle. But no, that’s just what happens to your brain when the world takes from you what you love, things go start and stop, you can only take in so much at a time.
Our list of winners is not macho. There are no walking around vaginas, there’s no display of bravado. It’s a list of compassion and humanity and witnessing.
I can’t wait to do this again.
November 7, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
In case you missed our Day of the Literary Dead celebration last night, this weekend's recommendations come in the form of the first Daphne Award winners, the best books of 50 years ago in
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein
Thanks to all who turned up—see you next year.
November 6, 2014
The sooner you come to our Day of the Literary Dead/Daphne Awards celebration tonight at Melville House, the sooner I start writing about actual books again. Catch up on the nominees here, and remember that AbeBooks will be gifting someone at tonight's festivities copies of all the winners. Come! See you there! At 7:30!
November 5, 2014
What We're Reading
Necropolitics, Racialization, and Global Capitalism: Historicization of Biopolitics and Forensics of Politics, Art, and Life by Marina Gržinić and Šefik Tatlić
Once the Berlin Wall fell, everything changed for the Eastern Europe now proudly called former Eastern Europe. But what happened next seemed more like an occupation than the unification that was advertised. Subtle at first and quite “shameless” later, the occupation took the form of massive privatization, aggressive immigration laws against the Other (freshly represented as second/third grade citizens and non-citizens), and the shinning brand of individualism in which the self is autonomous only as long as it’s an efficient and productive self that competes successfully against others. And this is precisely the starting point for Marina Gržinić’s book, a book that focuses on the structural racialization that had already been internalized in former Eastern Europe and its current policies of death—the let live and make die line of the war state that tries to erase those who are undesirable, those who do not conform and are not interested in doing so. It addresses the issue of Balkan nationalism and the revival of fascism both in disguise and in plain sight in former Eastern Europe, while also pointing to the ways art, culture, and its institutions have become just another system of production of goods for the global elite. Necropolitics, or using death to produce more and more profit: necropolitics as a version of contemporary racism; necropolitics as the perfect tool for dehumanization, for creating and enforcing the social differentiations and exclusion of the Other; necropolitics as an invisible lubricant for the current unrestrained advancement of globalization. Necropolitics in all its forms leads to the normalization of the current social reality and the erasure of the structural connections between that reality and neoliberal and global capitalism.
Today the EU as the fortress Europe is a regime that produces an accelerated legally sanctioned system of restrictions, discriminations and economic dispossessions; a space of intensified racialization that has at its core racism. Racialization refers to a process by which certain groups of people are singled out for unique treatment on the basis of real or imagined physical characteristics. Mostly it targets activities of those termed as (ethnic) minorities. It transforms societies into racialized societies. This process is today going so far that we have a process of racialization being imputed, without any “race” prerogatives but serving as a measure of class discrimination, subjugation and finally dispossession. We have today “different types of racisms’ that are “more vicious and more deadly” than ever. The EU is providing the grounds for not only a state of exception but for a racial-State, giving a free hand to detention, segregation and discrimination under the veil of the protection of nation-State citizens and even the protection of refugees from “themselves”, from their “drive” to try to illegally enter fortress Europe and therefore probably being in a situation to die.
November 4, 2014
Our Day of the Literary Dead party approaches. Not only does it offer you the opportunity to meet me in a weird outfit—grammar there intentionally vague—but it will also feature a talk called "So your favorite dead writer is a Nazi/rapist/murderer?" and an altar, which I'm sure I've spelled wrong at least once in trying to hype. PLEASE COME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And thanks to Volume 1 Brooklyn for mentioning us.
RSVP to the Facebook event here.
November 3, 2014
Gary Amdahl and I (Jessa Crispin) are going through all of the Henry James film adaptations to declare one the best of them all. So join us for corsets, emotional repression, and arch wit.
First up: we go through three adaptations of Washington Square:
The Heiress, the 1949 adaptation of the stage play adaptation of Washington Square, starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson.
Washington Square, the 1997 adaptation starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, and Albert Finney.
"Catherine," a BBC short adaptation from their Affairs of the Heart series
Catherine Sloper is a problem. Not only to her father, to whom she is so unbearably embarrassing, but also to the actresses asked to portray her. How does one do ugly and awkward? How does one inhabit the body of a woman who is loved by none, even her father, and is abandoned by all at the end of the film?
Well. If you’re Jennifer Jason Leigh (an actress I feel I should declare I have a great deal of love for), you portray her as mentally challenged. Leigh as Catherine frowns and squints and trips over things and falls down over and over again and leaves her mouth hanging open and does all but drool on herself. For a brief time she has a lisp, but then she drops it later on. She looks at all times as if she has just or is about to wet herself. Near the end, when he has left her, she runs chasing after his carriage in the rain, falls in the mud, and rolls around in her corset in the mud and horseshit wailing.
Which to me says, look, don’t worry, there’s a reason why Catherine will spend the rest of her days alone. I mean, look at her, she’s a mess, you wouldn’t fuck her either. Not even for her massive inheritance.
I should just say I take this shit personally. I identify with Catherine and all her abandonment issues, all of her ugly awkward weirdness to an insane degree, so I can’t be partial. And James may portray Catherine as the girl without any virtues that I love and treasure, but he doesn’t give her a goddamn lisp.
Which is the problem with Hollywood trying to do “ugly” at all. Just put a beautiful actress in bad lighting and no makeup and it’s fine. Of course Lynn Farleigh in Affairs of the Heart's adaptation is not great, either. She just mumbles and looks down at her shoes a lot, she is a beautiful woman pretending to be shy.
But then beautiful women have no conception of what ugly women’s experiences are like. What it’s like to go years without anyone even so much as flirting with you, of watching men fall over themselves for your prettier friend when you go out to bars together while you just silently down your drink, of even your parents preferring and doting on your prettier sisters. There are a lot of social graces ugly girls don’t ever learn, because we are not initiated into them. You learn how to interact smoothly by others by being invited into conversation, not by watching it from across the room. And so you hold your body weird and you’re never sure what to do with your face and your elbows get in the way of things and you’re not always great at modulating your voice or laugh or conversation.
Which is why I think Olivia de Havilland’s Catherine is remarkable, especially considering how beautiful and seductive she is in every other film she made. De Havilland’s Catherine has no idea what to do with her face, she moves her body a bit too fast and jerkily (without it ever drifting into the over the top stuff Leigh was doing), and all of her emotions are based on what is happening this very second, there is no potential future where things might improve, where another man might come along, where her feelings might lessen and become more bearable. It’s all just NOW NOW NOW, finally someone is paying attention to me, I need to lock that shit down. That openness of her face, trying to take in every moment of affection from her suitor, trying to convey her panic and desperation to her father, it is undignified in exactly the way it would be.
Obviously there is more to talk about then just, who is the best Catherine, but that is where I have to start.
I had not thought to bring myself into this, hoping that for once I could leave the tiresome asshole to wallow in self-pity to his heart’s content, but the door is wide-open and I do see the point, the value of letting him traipse in with his vaudeville gestures and profound comedy, because Catherine Sloper’s problem is his problem as well. Your problem is to Catherine’s problem as my problem is to yours. I will leave the elucidation of those ratios unwritten.
It is a common problem, and James picked it up precisely because he wanted a common problem. He says he heard it as an anecdote, implying he’d never heard such a thing before, but there must have been ten thousand such anecdotes floating around. A common problem and an old one. I don’t quite understand why, having picked it up and used it so admirably, he set it aside with apparent distaste, why felt the need of disavowal. Perhaps he found the problem as he worked it out to be much closer to his own problem than he had at first guessed it to be—and, being human, felt humiliated by the association.
I have never known if I was handsome or not. My social-sexual history could be characterized in very much the same way you characterized your own: you are the sophisticated, urban champion of an intriguing party in the court of world literature, while I am a gaping Jennifer Jason Leigh, a bumpkin autodidact privately assured that my references to Robert Klein routines will win me friends if only I can get a word in edgewise, somewhere, anywhere. Where I think you have really hit the target is in your description of de Havilland’s face, the demands made on it theatrically and cinematically, because that is exactly how I made up for the crippling ambivalence I felt when marketing myself socially-sexually, and which I still do feel, doubly so, triply, with my writing! As far as everybody around me—outside my brain—was concerned, I was the elf of the moment, acting with reckless improvisatory skill in response to whatever happened, with only a memory of weird but safe rehearsals in the past, and in the future only the imagination of applause as the curtain falls: your NOW, NOW, NOW!
This, as you say, the terrifying and humiliating present, is the problem of all the Catherines, not beauty or absence of beauty. In James’s story, it does not matter how beautiful or ugly she is. Dr. Sloper dislikes all women, probably because none of them are his dead wife. He says the reason is that they lack reason, that reason is beauty, making it impossible for any woman to be beautiful! But no one else in the story buys that—except maybe Catherine herself. Who wants to believe more what the father says than the daughter. But all the while she believes that, she is living another life, a Jamesian life beneath the surface, a life it is all but impossible to convey on stage and screen. And that is why all three of the adaptations (four if you count the original Broadway “Heiress” and its revivals) we are considering hold my attention only so long as they are moving swiftly from scene to scene…of the story on the surface.
There was stupefying pressure on Leigh and de Havilland and Farleigh to make non-entities of themselves when all they had to work with overwhelming entity! No wonder that the estimable Leigh was driven to drool and to idiocy, the even more estimable de Havilland to sweet blankness, and (in my opinion) the most estimable Farleigh to that spectrum that starts at demure and ends in bitterness. Their performances were perforce centered on the id, all possible cultural reference spiraling into the self because there was nowhere else to go.
Hollywood does not operate in a vacuum. They operate in a super-saturated medium that claims what is able to void as its product. Hollywood and Hollywood-like movies, 99% of all the movies that have ever been and will ever be in the world, can entertain adults only when they abandon interest in everything but the story they are telling. All the other elements of filmed stories will be present, but they will be in the service of the story.
There is your fidelity to James. There is your true Catherine: everything you and I and the actors and the directors bring to her is abandoned in our service to the story. Everything you and I bring to James our Literary Hero is abandoned in service to a story that is less and less “his” the more and more it becomes a good play or movie or TV show.
The idea is that anybody could play her, and they could play her under a 60 watt bulb in some damp basement with a Super 8 movie camera. The pared-down story does not become generic, it becomes essential. It is no longer Washington Square, the novel, but it satisfies. There was a moment in British television, in the 70s, when they had a mandate to tell stories, but no time and no money.
This has become too long. I look forward to your response, and remain
"Who wants to believe more what the father says than the daughter." All of my problems, summed up in one sentence. I feel like I owe you a big therapist bill for that.
No one wants to write about the sexually unwanted because there is not a huge audience that is going to be willing to project themselves into that, or even have empathy for that. We project our fears of abandonment and rejection, our fears that perhaps we are deep down disgusting and repulsive, onto the unwanted. We can laugh at them, we can delight when they are punished, because we want to annihilate that part of ourselves. Look at all of the reality programs about sad, lonely women desperately competing for husbands, and the way we laugh and laugh and laugh at them. So it is not surprising to me that James distanced himself from the book. He had enough empathy to write it, enough connection (the poor dear), and then wanted Catherine out of his sight. But then I am projecting, too, now.
And what of Morris Townsend, her penniless suitor? Conman slash romantic hero. Can anyone really compete with Montgomery Clift’s magnificent brow?
Although to me all three actors’ performances rather blend into one another, none delve into pathetic slapstick. But then maybe men have more practice at feigning interest to get what they want. All three men rather look alike, too, just dreamboat dreaminess, all that has been dreamed of and longed for manifested. One wants to shout at Catherine to gird her loins, but at the same time, that fall is so lovely. Even if it ends badly, one would not want to deny her, it might never happen again. But I like that all three men come with their own fog special effects, the audience is never clear what is their percentage of scoundrel and what is their percentage of genuine. Would he murder her on their wedding night, seizing all her assets and heading off to the Continent? Or would he be satisfied to do his spousal diligence at pretending the loving husband. Knock her up, talk down to her patronizingly from behind a newspaper. She has a thornbush for a father, it’s not like she’s going to expect much in the way of affection.
But we have not yet solved the problem of which Washington Square is the winner, and part of that I think has to do with where each Catherine ends up. In “Washington Square,” Leigh is still kind of drooly but at least knows what to do with her hair now. In “Catherine,” yes, that tone of bitterness. And in “The Heiress,” that magnificence. Like the nun who closes herself off inside of her veil. Do I prefer “The Heiress” because I want to believe I have attained some sort of magnificence in my loneliness? Like I said, I have no distance. And I am probably more drooly than I would like to admit.
I do not mind when a movie takes a hatchet to the novel it springs from, a movie cannot move like a novel does. And perhaps that is why the unfaithful “Heiress” does more for me than the other, more loyal, two. By making the end of the engagement a more definite, shocking moment than a kind of disappearance and the slow leak of hope until all that is left is its deflated rubbery shell, only really works in prose. And Montgomery Clift banging on the door as she carries her light away from him and back into the recesses of the house, it stops my heart, every time.
It is up to you to illuminate the father. I can see no real father, just the Patriarch. Saturn devouring his child. For me it gets mythological too fast.
Montgomery Clift is far and away the best Morris Townsend. He made me realize how hapless Morris is, how stupid, and how much I see in him of myself. This is the problem in the ratio I declined to elucidate: I am Morris. The other Morrises are merely functional cads. Clift is handsome with just a hint of rogue and dash that he is oblivious of, owner and proprietor of a single trick: sincere charm. It is “charming” by luck, as are the good-looks, and “sincere” by nature: so natural that the dumb cluck really doesn’t see it as a trick. (If he were better-read, he’d be able to sit back and spot all the gambits.) This is why I think Catherine never really fell for him: we can accept that she is plain, but not that she is stupid. the beautiful Morris is nothing but a talking bouquet of flowers that delights her while it is still fresh, but which she sees wither before her very eyes—precisely because she is intelligent: she understands the nature of things.
Dr. Sloper is something else altogether: he is formidable. Albert Finney is not formidable. He was best as Geoffrey Firmin, Malcolm Lowry’s “consul.” In “WS” he is merely a partner in a physical comedy team: Hardy to Catherine’s Laurel. I just rewatched Affairs of the Heart’s “Catherine,” and I’ve already forgotten who played Sloper. Ralph Richardson was one of the very best actors of the 20th century. (If we judged by the work of the actors alone, “The Heiress” would win easily. Clift, Richardson, de Havilland? It wouldn’t even be a contest.) RR does something in the first scenes that is crucial: he appears to like Catherine well enough to be friendly towards her! I warmed to him instantly, in just the way Catherine herself does.
I do not see him devouring his child. I do not see him as mythic. This may be a stretch that snaps in two, but I see him as the brilliant and erratic William James, who, cast by his little brother in a role he had no idea he was playing, is struck a nearly fatal blow by the death of a young and beautiful wife, and becomes, as a direct consequence, austere and arrogant about everything else—not just Catherine, who, like all emotionally abused children, is simply the only other person in the room. Just to be clear: I am not saying WJ was anything like this. I’m suggesting HJ took certain qualities in WJ and made them monstrous. Sloper is brilliant and might very well have been as erratic as WJ had his wife lived and allowed him that special audience erratic people find in loved ones. Denied that audience, he trades the erratic brilliance in for a steady scalpel. Sloper is paradoxically as popular a man as he is forbidding, as brilliant as he is austere.
He does not devour his child because she is long dead. Everybody is long dead. His wife was everybody and she is gone, gone, gone. He can only be Dr. Austin Sloper, the brilliant and wealthy man of medicine so long as he marks himself off from everything else—from everything else in the scene or on the stage. That is perhaps Richardson’s particular gift: to draw his audience near and yet hold them off: a winning smile and then the eyes go dead.
"The Heiress" is an excellent film, no question. The only reason I cling to "Affairs of the Heart" is that it is like community theater, for which I have a very large soft spot, with truly great work-a-day actors in the major roles. If Grotowski had been a TV producer, his "poor theater" would have found expression in the BBC’s "Play of the Week."
Well, isn’t that what Catherine is doing, too? Putting all one’s hope into one person, until they become not a human but life itself? The sins of the father and all that. The potential of the person looms so large that you can no longer see their human qualities. If only Catherine could see Morris, before the break that shocked her back into herself, I mean. And she, in the end, has more potential than her father, because the spell for her breaks. Even if love for her is a broken thing, she gets clear eyes with which she can plan the rest of her long life.
We have to move on at some point, but I will only say this final thing about the film versions of “Washington Square”: did you notice there’s a moment when each Catherine finds her beauty? In “Washington Square,” Leigh blooms under the attention of Ben Chaplin, she starts doing her hair normally, her dress becomes simpler and more flattering, etc. But with “The Heiress,” it is only after the betrayal that she becomes comfortable in her body. To me, that says a lot about each film. “Washington Square” still thinks love solves things. (Deluded.) “The Heiress” knows it’s only when you regain your sanity that true growth can take place.
From here we go to even more sexual repression, in our “Turn of the Screw” adaptations. It gets dark here in New England so early. I hope I don’t start seeing specters in my big empty apartment.
"I had nothing to gain,"
Yes, it is time to move on, but I plumb fergot to say how much I disliked everything about Holland’s “Washington Square.” It was as bad as “The Heiress” is good. I will save this rant, however, for other stories and other movies, equally awful. Let’s Screw.
October 30, 2014
Image: Woman Writing in the Court of Shah Abbas
Taylor's most known book remains Angel, which was adapted by François Ozon in 2007. I still remember the one note I've made after having seen Angel (it went something along the lines: “Angel might be about a woman who writes romance novels but does it really have to be as cheesy and predictable as those novels?”) and in retrospect, I guess the biggest flaw of the movie is that it hasn't made me curious enough to find out more about the book it's based upon or about the book's author. So maybe we do need those recurring articles deploring the fact that her work is underrated.
François Ozon on adapting Angel (spoiler alert: his main concern was making Angel likeable):
My main challenge was to make Angel likeable. In Elizabeth Taylor's book, the character is often grotesque. The author takes a rather sardonic view of Angel, her books and her behavior. Taylor acknowledges her ability to write and her drive to become famous, but ridicules her constantly, describing her as bizarre and unattractive. I didn't think we'd want to spend two hours with such an utterly negative character on screen, whereas in the book the cruelty works. I felt it was important that Angel be charming and endearing despite her more obnoxious, even nasty, characteristics. Scarlett O'Hara immediately came to mind. She is truly a character you love and hate at the same time. I wanted Angel to be aware of her powers of seduction and use them, particularly with her publisher and Nora. My Angel is more manipulative than Elizabeth Taylor's. But in a playful, amusing way, not perverse. In the beginning, everyone criticizes her: her teacher, her mother, her aunt, the publisher's wife. We can deduce that Angel and her work are misunderstood. This inspires sympathy for her and piques our curiosity, especially when she's writing. I wanted to draw the audience in before revealing, later in the film, that what's she writing might not actually be great literature.
As Will Mawhood writes, Taylor has a rather uninteresting biography. However, that did not stop Nicola Beauman from digging deeper in hopes of finding something more sensational for her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.
Nicola Beauman must, then, have come to Taylor's life hoping against hope there was more to it than met the eye, for all that she is a diehard fan of the novels. After all, Taylor had instructed that her letters be destroyed after her death; perhaps she had something to hide. As it turns out, she was right to hope. In her later years, her subject was certainly the very model of middle-class conformity, a rope of pearls always at her neck.
But her early life was strange and muddled to a degree that, reading about it, one's hunch about propriety hardens into belief: routine didn't only help her work, it helped her. There was something rebellious and disordered in Taylor, something that, though Beauman never states this explicitly, it is possible she rather feared.
Rachel Cooke, The original Elizabeth Taylor | The Guardian
Yet another reason for which we need to be reminded Taylor's work has been underrated is her dismissal as a women's writer. The origins of the concept of écriture feminine sound like the stuff of myths -- now it's used merely to deny the value of a writer. Ecriture feminine is now delicate, flowery writing, not gender neutral, and definitely not universal. Unlike masculine writing, which is always universal. "She writes like a man" is still considered by some critics as the highest compliment they can bestow on a female writer. These are usually the same critics who claim they don't see gender, that they only care about good writing. But those of us who insist upon the inclusion of more female writers in literary publications, lists, etc. also care about good writing. That's the whole point. We discover a good female writer and at the same time discover her work is underrated or entirely overlooked. So we start compiling lists devoted exclusively to female writers - which is great for discovering writers we haven't heard of. What's not so great is that these lists still keep female writers in the margins. "Will #readwomen2014 change our sexist reading habits?" Not if in 2015 one goes back to worshiping His Masculine Holiness Philip Roth and the like.
It all goes back to critics writing for mainstream publications. It’s up to them to take a close look at their reading habits and make the necessary adjustments. Inclusion, though, is only the first step. There are definitely some (male) critics who need to learn how not to write about female writers. Mallory Ortberg at The Toast offers some advice for such critics.
To file under “how not to write about female writers” as well: a Washington Post review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. (In the August issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee talks about the book in “These Artful Jezebels”: On American Spies.) The review is deconstructed at Jezebel and what stands out is how easy it is to discredit a woman’s work. Just question her credibility. The lack of credibility / expertise must be one the most common and toxic accusations thrown at women who write nonfiction. And as Karen Abbott points out in her Letter to the Editor (as republished by Jezebel), the same standards don’t seem to apply to male writers.
Finally, we can’t talk about écriture feminine and its reception in recent years without at least mentioning Kate Zambreno’s Heroines.
“Much has been said lately about how women are reviewed less in the big literary sections,” Zambreno writes in Heroines, “but not about HOW they are reviewed.” I’m not sure that the “how” has not been addressed, but nevertheless, point taken. Because this hybrid work of nonfiction—call it a critical memoir, if you like—is about the way we talk about women who write, it seems as important, in a critical examination of the book, to look at its reception as it is to look at the text itself. And because some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses.
Elisa Gabbert, The Madwoman and The Critic | Open Letters Monthly
October 29, 2014
Poems to Quote to Express Vindictive Ambiguity, Explicit Cruelty, and/or Some Sense of Bitterness, Resentment, and/or Ill Will Towards or In the General Direction of a (Former) Lover. Excluding Those by Sylvia Plath but not Anne Sexton
1. "I am trying to break your heart" by Kevin Young
2. "I think I should have loved you presently" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
3. "A Song: Strephon, Your Breach of Faith and Trust" by Laetitia Pilkington
4. "The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator" by Anne Sexton
5. "In Paris With You" by James Fenton
6. "The Reservoir" by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
7. "For My Lover, Returning to his Wife" by Anne Sexton
8. "The Old Playhouse" by Kamala Das
October 28, 2014
An Anecdote About Reading, Courtship Display
Image: Marx, from here.
Over the weekend, I went to a pie party, which was unfortunately not sexual at all but rather a party at which less figurative pies, sweet and savory (still literal), were baked and offered graciously to a small group of expat masters ('?) students studying English literature in Berlin and friends of expat masters ('?) students studying English literature in Berlin. If not a particularly relevant location to the works of Beckett, at least a city known for the wide range of themed potlucks lighting the windows in its affordable, high-ceilinged housing. People started talking about Marx—well, it was Heidegger conjunct Marx—because they always start talking about Marx, or Heidegger, but Party Heidegger is not a surefire assertion of the intellectual superiority of all involved in a conversation about him; Party Marx requires less large-scale stance taking, so any interpretation of his work can more easily serve as a signifier of One Who Lends A Nuanced Appreciation To The Great Theories of History, at least for people like the ones at this party, who have only sort of known what they were talking about for 2-3 years, if that. Heidegger is more fun because the stakes are higher, shouting and declaiming more likely, while with Marx it's all detail-oriented nitpickery, once you get past the "Do you think, basically, the right things?" (Or: "Are you an idiot?") In other words, to say the pie party wasn't sexual at all is incorrect, because at one point there was a circle jerk.
Until someone tried to take a large-scale stance, that is. Don't worry: I'm not going to comment specifically on the Marxism they were discussing, because as this anecdote will show, such an endeavor is folly, by which I mean to be sarcastically dismissive of a certain kind of educated twentysomething dick-measuring contest but not sarcastically dismissive of everything the educated twentysomething dick-measurers were saying/espousing. (Besides I wasn't paying attention until people stopped being polite and started getting real.) Rather: I'm just going to describe an uncomfortable portion of the evening, because it's somewhat related to both 1) the French minister of culture saying she hasn't read a book in two years and 2) the current debate over YA literature, on which my short takes are: 1) Make time, and 2) Omg, really? Still? With the time you people spend talking about those books you could be reading fucking Proust, or skimming Proust, or reading or skimming the fucking Wikipedia entry for In Search of Lost Time or À la recherche du temps perdu, depending on who you're talking to and how pretentious/smart you want to sound when talking to that relative person, and developing a counterargument beyond or at least a nuanced version of "Well I've read 'grown-up' stuff, too!" If I read one more fucking puerile headline—though admittedly probably written by a lame likely-former-classmate-of-mine intern—employ the word "grown-up", I don't know—the point is not the independent clause there. (In other words, "2) Make time.")
ANYWAY, the scene: dim lighting, some kind of music, casual references to German philosophers flurrying above unfinished slices of apple ginger tart, wine that is not great. Into a conversation about Marx/ism between one young literary dude and another young literary dude bursts a third young literary dude with a bold declaration, possibly at least partially to assert sexual viability: Marx/ism is a failure, an egregious, murderous, demonstrated failure, and we should not be wasting our time discussing him/it because what is important is forging ahead with the new. Third young literary dude does not have a startup (yet), but his assertion gave first and second young literary dudes a concerned pause similar to that which follows the sentence "I'm an entrepreneur." First and second young literary dudes make skeptical eye contact, perhaps one or both of them a small noise of displeasure; perhaps one or both of them glances in the direction of the female witness in order to assert sexual viability, establish some team-like feelings that may earn him a more private literal dick-figurative measuring session. "Can you believe that guy?" etc. Nevertheless, third young literary dude is extended some frowning peace offerings: "Oh, we're just talking about the [whatever—something specific in whatever text]. Have you read it?"
"No," says third young literary dude, a look of fear flashing through his eyes before squaring his shoulders and deepening his voice. "I don't see the point."
The takeaway: everyone is stupid, including me, for I didn't have the good sense to leave before people stopped being interesting and started playing video games, though I will say I slept with none of them.
October 27, 2014
Not only am I going to say, "Don't forget that the Daphne Awards party is next week at Melville House!" but I am also going to give you some new and exciting news: AbeBooks is sponsoring a giveaway of the winning books on on the night of.
In the meantime, RSVP to the Facebook event or just mentally prepare or something.
October 24, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
My beautiful friend in Philadelphia sent me an email with a beautiful line in it. Re: "Ben Lerner isn't terrible":
"Most everything today is anxious, and so little beauty finds its way into anxiety."
-The NYT Magazine piece about trans men at Wellesley and other women's colleges is a something I enjoyed reading because it was very uncertain and in-depth and has a cracking good ending, of which creative nonfiction teachers could take note. It's a spotlight on the difficulties of determining what should be included in an inherently exclusive system (that is also appreciated because it is in some ways inclusive), and the focus on Wellesley and women's colleges magnifies the potential conflict of interests between feminism and trans activism in a way that doesn't immediately make you think, "Fuck, are these feminists fucking serious?" the way that New Yorker piece about "the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism" did. (Is "transgenderism" a word? Sounds offensive, or at least stupid.) It's strange to read pieces like these in mainstream publications if you're used to reading about them on relatively obscure feminist websites/forums/etc., where the tone is (necessarily?) one of furious, indignant confidence.
-You know how models from Eastern Europe are seduced and shuttled to America with promises of fame and glamorously earned fortune? Now they're being seduced and shuttled to China, too. I haven't watched the documentary, but maybe it's something to (hate?-)watch. (The article itself is whatever; I'm just into the possibly nuanced take it's possibly exposing to its audience.)
"I didn’t get the sense they were being exploited, except in the fact that the implied promise is so great and it clearly isn’t being delivered. When you’re told you’re going to go abroard [sic] and be a model, what springs to mind is not being jammed in a big bus and being driven around to have mysterious people make remarks about your body in a language you don’t understand. That doesn’t seem to be what it says on the tin."
-I think the conclusions the writer comes to are a bit point-missing, but this essay about Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace and the will to keep going is an affirmation of my love for both of them.
-An essay about the "cult of personality" and the misconceptions it creates in development work, emphasis on Cambodia and sex slavery. The writer, Laura Agustín, has a great blog ("The Naked Anthropologist") about "migration, sex work, trafficking, and the rescue industry." Spoiler alert: she does not like Nick Kristof.
October 23, 2014
October 22, 2014
The new issue of Spolia is the long-planned and -awaited Henry James tribute. Have you guys heard of Henry James? To be introduced through this would be to introduced in reverse, and I think it would work. It costs $5; it comes in a PDF and other kind of e-form that I don't understand how to use. Regardless: it's fucking impressive. Buy it here.
-Eimear McBride (yeah) with short fiction after "The Private Life"; it's so good, says the girl who loves Ben Lerner:
Hot in his hand so. Hello. Nice to meet have a seat. Am I late? Not, no. Plump in his proffered -sinus chubby with cigs- low flat seat ahead.
Do you mind if I? No, not a bit. Click and turn. Dictaphone. Can I say at the outset that I think what you’ve done is not like anything else. Thanks. But grilled flesh, she thinks she can smell it and it soon might be her own.
To forestall, vivid up she into seen and smiles at his eggish pingueculae flirting away to the roots of her eyes. She lights to it. Must. Gives as if in his cavern of questions she’ll sprawl in the nip dishing toes through private pools. And does intend she? Does she? Well. Sales will wait and see.
-Poems by Jenny McPhee
-Some male writers
-Jessa Crispin on Washington Square, "the only book that James chose not to include in his collected work":
There is a certain type of spinster life that is represented in novels and movies, the glamorous life of the unattached. There is Paris, there is society, there is the freedom to decide what to do with one’s own wallet. There is a steadfast wisdom, born from watching others fling themselves to and fro in the name of love, seeing the madness from the outside. But there is also the sad, bitter, turned-inwards old women, the women who never overcame their disappointments or resentments and now their faces are pinched into a permanent scowl.
But James abandons Catherine on the brink of her becoming. She’s gone from this un- to a creature with the potential for something. We see the things she has said no to, we have not yet seen the things she will say yes to. We do not know the type of life she will choose to have.
But we also do not know if a life alone would be better than a life with the scoundrel.
October 21, 2014
What We're Reading
by Will Mawhood
Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus by Oliver Bullough
I picked up Let Our Fame Be Great in a rather wonderful bookshop in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the hope of getting a sharp perspective on the wonderful, weird place I had found myself in. I was initially disappointed to find that the "Caucasus" in the subtitle referred not to the independent states of the South Caucasus, but the land on the other side of the mountains: Russia’s troubled, and predominantly Muslim, North Caucasus region (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia…). This was not somewhere I had even considered going, or knew anything about, apart from being vaguely aware that horrific things happened there on a near-daily basis.
As I found out, this is possibly one of the world’s most staggeringly complex places: a predominantly mountainous and inaccessible region, so remote as to be fortress-like, where almost every valley seems to have its own language and culture. Bullough is an excellent guide, able to unpick the differences between the many, many groups residing in these mountains, and always ready to detail, with an enthralled eye, their customs and peculiarities. (We learn, for example, that the Circassians are very big on firing into the air at weddings, despite the occasional fatality resulting from bullets falling back to earth.)
The North Caucasus’s recent history has, though, mainly been defined by its relationship with its sprawling neighbor to the north. Russia has traditionally viewed its inhabitants in a way that will be very familiar from Western colonialism: seeing them at best as charmingly free-spirited and uninhibited, at worst as savages deserving only of brutality.
Bullough’s greatest achievement is to tell stories that have hitherto been muffled, both as a result of the region’s inaccessibility, and due to the deliberate silencing policy of the Soviet regime—and, increasingly, of Putin’s bullish modern Russia. So we learn about the Circassians, the original inhabitants of the eastern coast of the Black Sea, almost completely wiped out by the Russian army in the mid-19th century, their descendants scattered far and wide; the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus mountains, deported en masse to Kazakhstan by Stalin in the 1940s on trumped-up charges of banditry; and the endless, horrible cycle of violence that is Chechnya. Bullough is clearly passionate about the subject, and is at times unashamedly partisan—at one point comparing Russia’s decision to send troops into Chechnya to contemporary Germany doing the same thing to western Poland—but he clearly knows Russian culture and literature inside-out and appreciates the best of what it has taken from and brought to the region. A fine book (so far), and a profoundly alive one considering how desperate much of the contents are.
October 20, 2014
October 17, 2014
Image: "Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist" by Lucas Cranach the Elder. No reason.
Weekend Recommended Reading
-Maybe it's because I'm in the melodramatic throes of radical relocation (Jessa says it's because of Pluto; the perks of working for Bookslut are hypothetical astrological sources for anything that might be happening in your life), but the Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable Love for New York run-up campaign seems to be speaking to me, even though the essays have seemed to come down on the side of "New York—terrible, but I just do!" Jon-Jon Goulian's essay about Transient Wade from Columbia is a good personal essay; don't write personal essays unless they're good, OK?
-I read some pieces from the Lena Dunham book because some paperbacks showed up at the bookstore, to be prominently displayed for immediate purchase. Sounds like a memoir written by someone whose parents kept the house stocked with New Yorkers while driving home the importance of individuality. I don't understand how she integrates so many incredibly specific (and often funny and insightful, don't get me wrong) anecdotes and still manages to remain voiceless, but here we are, earning back that advance. Why is everything just, like, so acceptable? For the record, I do not think "people are buying it, so..." is an appropriate conclusion to come to in realms outside, say, shades of lipstick. Blue lipstick never hurt anyone. Except when it contains carcinogens or was tested on animals.
-Here's a little thing about the weird death mask of Chopin's hand. Spoiler alert: there's also one of his face, but it was very disappointing.
-An analysis of the public apology at Aeon, through a legal lens but definitely applicable to, say, male literary figures espousing oblivious misogyny. By which I mean a legitimate question: what do we want them to do after they do something stupid? E.g., Grisham, who just seems pathetic.
-Oh, I'm supposed to give you something long and multifaceted to savor in your sun-drenched weekend breakfast nook. I think this weekend you should reread something you didn't really "get" because it has difficult language.
-Tom Whalen's "Why I Hate the Prose Poem," from Twitter.
October 16, 2014
I was not really in love; I simply enjoyed the company of women during my lonely travels in the South. Although Flannery was both conventional and religious, we eventually became so close that she, while the car was parked, allowed me to kiss her. At that moment, her disease revealed itself in a new way: there was no strength in her lips. I hit her teeth with my kiss, and since then I've thought of it as a kiss of death.
October 15, 2014
Image by Chang Chao-Tang
In the October issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst writes about Last Words from Montmartre by the (queer) Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin. Reading this conjured up a mental image – a memory actually – of Shiang-chyi in What Time Is It There? / Ni na bian ji dian, wandering through the streets of Paris, ending up in the bed of a woman but failing to connect. It might be just a statement about the lasting impression that Tsai Ming-liang cinema can leave or it could be an alarming sign that I have paid no attention to Taiwanese literature. As a first step toward giving Taiwanese writers the due attention, let’s take a closer look at the work of Qiu Miaojin.
Over at Guernica, there’s an excerpt from Last Words from Montmartre. It is the twentieth letter, from June 17 and it recounts the day the narrator and her lover Xu bought their pet Bunny: “Xu sat down in an open seat next to me and played with the rabbit in his little paper box….Watching the two of them, I resolved that they were my companions for life and that I would fight for them on the treacherous journey of life, until death.” Those “[h]ints of the meta” that Lightsey Darst mentions are also visible in this excerpt: “Oh…if one were to call this book an unintelligible collection of hieroglyphics with no words and a plot that had long since disappeared, one would be right. I am confused about whether it’s a matter of our love trying to capture me, or to capture her, or of us trying to capture our love.”
The sense of love that the narrator from Last Words exhibits seems to be shared, to a certain extent, by Meng-Sheng in Notes of a Crocodile, who is involved in a gay relationship that would best be described as cruel. The intensity, the obsession, the temptation to self-destruct from Last Words – it’s all there, in Notes of a Crocodile as well.
“The second you see each other, you start to fight. Would you call that love or vengeance?”
“Didn’t Hsia Yü have a poem called ‘Sweet Revenge’? I only mention it because I thought you might have heard of it. It’s like the title of the poem. Because mutual love means vengeance, and because it’s vengeance, you’re going to fight, and because you’re fighting, it’s mutual love. It’s a combination of those three things. It’s like if the intensity of lust reaches a certain level of frustration, and the fixation of that lust isn’t cast off by release or eradication, the void of nothingness isn’t removed, and it never attains the lightness of air. Much the opposite, it only increases suicidal despair and attachment to the object of lust. At that point, the body thoroughly assimilates it through the death wish. In the very beginning, I was self-destructive. My lust was simply assimilated, and never found its way out. That’s the scariest thing. There was one day when it suddenly flared up, and I grabbed a pair of scissors and began stabbing myself. That was something that happened before Meng-Sheng and I broke up. Before that, I learned to lower the scissors and give part of my destructiveness to Meng-Sheng. There was no cure. I still longed to be with him. The love I had stored burned away, and all that remained was a fire that he could put out. It brought about all kinds of connections.”
Qiu Miaojin, Excerpt: Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile (translated by Bonnie Huie) | Asian American Writers’ Workshop
Eileen Myles on Last Words from Montmartre:
I’d put Last Words in a category that includes much of Kathy Acker and Henry Miller. Stein, too. Their goals were very different, but what they made was art with a demonstration in mind more than narrative pleasure. These writers confound some readers (and all readers sometimes) because theirs are not really modern texts at all, but ritual ones. And as Musil proposed, in his own struggle to understand the relationship between modern art and magic, ritual songs and poems arise differently:“The form of the ritual text is the same as the ritual act.” In Last Words, from page 1 till the end of Qiu’s book (and life), it’s all being. Even being being ended. Having felt “the juices” of an eternal love for a brief time, Qiu chose to only engage that eternal love (not the lover). She’s existing in a heightened once. Is this even a book, I wondered at one point. Not because it was unreadable but because its flowery will is so very hard to bear. It’s a deeply personal text. Yet it bears reading and rereading an abundance of times. That’s the effect of ritual art. Of cult. Always again. Like spring. Having failed in the attempt to have an eternal love, she now only addresses the eternal, thus revealing herself. It’s a little divine. These are not letters she mails to “Xu,” because, as she explains, that would only incur further wounding. She sends them to us.
Eileen Myles, Missive Impossible | Bookforum
In Stigmatic Bodies: The Corporeal Qiu Miaojin, Fran Martin focuses on Qiu’s early writing (the two short stories “Platonic Hair” and “Zero Degree”) and offers a wider context – how Qiu’s writing was reflective of the shifts in views on gender and sexuality in the late '80s / early '90s Taiwan.
October 14, 2014
Random Unrelated (Though Is Anything? Etc.) Recommendations
-Choire Sicha's Bookforum review of the Rich Kids of Instagram book, which I am NOT linking for purchase or even italicizing. Thanks to the Rich Kids for putting it on the Internet even though that is not the nature of paywalled content. What is paywall to Rich Kids.
-Not that Guardian piece in which Will Self walks along the Berlin Wall. He's pompous and wields his vocabulary ineffectively, which is NOT to say all vocabulary is bad, Jesus. Also, why was he even there? A very tenuous linking of public figure and timely historical event. Can we get Choire instead?
-Cool-named Rainbow Chan's cool mix for The Lifted Brow, which is a great magazine you should read and I don't just say that because they published me once. Australia! They also have good coffee.
October 13, 2014
At the bookstore yesterday, my friend was working on a paper. I asked her what it was about.
"Globalization," she said. She is Swedish.
"What about it?" I asked.
...So now she stood, with Ahmed beside her, and listened to how if she went to bed early having taken this medicine, she would be less nervous in the morning.
Kate thought that this would not be true: what was waiting for her, the moment she gave it a chance, was not going to be patted and pushed out of sight by sedatives. She was going to have to return to London, to be alone somewhere for two months, and to look, in solitude, at her life. Of course, she had been invited to various countries by various men and women whose good friend she had become—friendship in the style of this way of living, casual, non-demanding, tolerant, friendship that was in fact all negation. It did not criticize. It did not make demands. It took no notice of national or racial differences, which, inside these enchanted circles, seemed only for the purpose of agreeable titillation. And it was, sexually, democratic. Hearts did not get broken. Of course not, careers were more important than love, or sex: probably this was the sexuality of the future; romantic love, yearning, desperation of any kind would be banished into a neurotic past. Such friends, such past or future lovers, could part in Buenos Aires after intensive daily contact, not exchange another word for months or years, or even think of each other; and meet again in Reykjavik with discreet and carefully measured pleasure for another bout of adjusted intimacy. Rather like actors and actresses in a play, who suffer or enjoy such intense closeness for a short time, and then scatter, to meet again, wearing different costumes, ten years later.
-From The Summer Before the Dark, Our Lady of Excellent Passages, Doris Lessing
October 10, 2014
Weekend Recommended Reading
Someone came in to the bookstore where I work today and asked if we had "Capital by Thomas Piketty." Remember when everyone was frantic about that? The good old days. We didn't have it.
-How many Prousts of our time are there? Modiano sounds a bit more whimsical, though still very French.
The Nobel academy was unable to reach Mr. Modiano before the announcement. During a halting, nearly hourlong news conference at Gallimard’s headquarters, Mr. Modiano said he learned he had won when his daughter called him as he was walking in the street. “I was a bit surprised, so I continued walking,” he said. He said winning the prize felt “unreal” and that he vividly remembered when Camus won the Nobel for literature in 1957. (Sartre won in 1964.) He also expressed puzzlement over being chosen. “I would like to know how they explained their choice,” he said.
-Bijan Stephen has "A Brief History of the Personal" [Ad] at Hazlitt.
It’s the self, commodified in yet another way: a personal is a meticulously crafted self-portrait that, like any good painting, reveals the future as much as it does the present—we’re seeing ourselves as we are while we reveal who we want to become, what we want to be seen as.
-I hate the trend against "feminist scrutiny" (ahem, cough), and bell hooks agrees with me. Kat Stoeffel is being vaguely snippily doubtful here: "Unoriginality, it seems, is still a greater artistic crime than deference to the patriarchy." But I think making shitty art is much easier to avoid—and thus more annoying—than deferring to the patriarchy, though at this point I think we can hold public figures to standards in both. One could argue that women making original (/good) art is fighting the patriarchy in itself, and if there are no standards—how can anything good happen?
-Here's a paragraph from an essay I'm working on:
I’ve already mentioned Gay’s inconsistencies regarding being an "example." She does not want "to be placed on a Feminist Pedestal" because "[p]eople who are placed on pedestals are expected to pose" and "get knocked off when they fuck it up. I regularly fuck it up." This is another thing I want to agree with, but I don’t know if it’s avoidable; in espousing a kind of Fuck you! I do what I want! feminism, Bad Feminist has placed Gay on the very "Feminist Pedestal" she rejects. Her philosophy is a seductively permissive one—which is why, I imagine, so many people love the book.
-I also have an essay about the alt lit rape scandal up at Dazed Digital; if the title "Ten essential thoughts on rape in Alt Lit" sounds insensitive to you, it's a riff on the fact that I used to do a top-ten column for them. I don't know why people capitalize "alt lit," but whatever. I link to a hilarious and mostly irrelevant Camille Paglia article.
Words seem to bestow a lot of the power here, which makes sense in a literary community. I mean, they don’t work so well IRL – Katz said she was not consenting to sex in several ways, and Dierks didn’t listen to her. But online: we praise "conversation" and are "inspired" by "responses". Sure, no one really takes the Internet seriously, since we can just delete or ignore whatever we want on it. Like what we do to "make him finish faster", it’s our "at least", a compromise: men continue to do what they want with us, and after it’s already "happened", we get to feel like we’re making a difference by publishing many furious editorials about the injustices we face, because what else can we do, realistically, with what we’ve got to work with? Sarah Jean Alexander’s outing on Facebook suggests that words (or "GOSSIP", even) – rather than real-life actions: in-the-moment screaming, in-the-moment repeated and firm refusals, going to the hospital for a rape kit, or taking immediate legal action – are the best weapons women feel we have against the power structures we’re up against. This is, again, unfathomable to some people, but those people usually don’t know what it’s like to be a teenage girl, or they are willfully forgetting what that’s like.
October 9, 2014
"Anything that knows it is being watched changes its behavior." This is St. Vincent's Annie Clark on the lyrics of "Digital Witness." She continues: "We are now so accustomed to documenting ourselves and so aware that we are being watched and I think psychologically that takes a strange toll, which is going to show itself more and more as we progress."
After having reviewed their book for the August issue of Bookslut, in the September issue, James Orbesen talks to one half of the Gold brothers, whose book Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness returns upon what is now known as the Truman Show Delusion. Last week I mentioned the Japanese reality TV show Susunu! Denpa Shonen, whose first contestant, Nasubi, wasn't even aware that his struggle for survival wasn't watched just by the show's producers but also by an entire nation. On This American Life, the interview with Nasubi had as a prologue a short interview with Dr. Joel Gold. And what better way to introduce an episode about our culture's obsession with watching / being watched than a discussion on the Truman Show Delusion?
What The Truman Show had to say about broadcasting your life to a network of viewers was strangely prescient: Six years before Facebook existed, the movie told us we were as drawn to the idea of being the center of attention as we were horrified by the same prospect. In 1998, we may have been more concerned with the film’s commentary on what it meant to be a voyeur looking in on a captive, a person who had been purchased for entertainment purposes before being born and was then held in his meticulously crafted cage for more than 30 years. We used to worry about the Truman Burbanks, but now we worry we are the Truman Burbanks.
Tess Lynch, Reimagining 'The Truman Show' for Our Current-Day Delusions | Grantland
But before Truman Burbank, there was Ragle Gumm. Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint (a reference to Hamlet which points to a shift in perception) presents a constructed reality built to accommodate Ragle Gumm's fantasy. It is meant to protect him but also to exploit him, and ultimately, to keep him trapped.
In his essay on reality and paranoid delusions, Mike Jay, the author of A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, gives a historical background to the (obviously unconscious) practice of incorporating modern technologies and modern fears into one’s delusions.
In their instinctive grasp of technology’s implicit powers and threats, influencing machines can be convincingly futuristic and even astonishingly prescient. The very first recorded case, from 1810, was a Bedlam inmate named James Tilly Matthews who drew exquisite technical drawings of the machine that was controlling his mind. The ‘Air Loom’, as he called it, used the advanced science of his day — artificial gases and mesmeric rays — to direct invisible currents into his brain, where a magnet had been implanted to receive them. Matthews’s world of electrically charged beams and currents, sheer lunacy to his contemporaries, is now part of our cultural furniture.
Jay also offers this insight:
Rather than being estranged from the culture around them, psychotic subjects can be seen as consumed by it: unable to establish the boundaries of the self, they are at the mercy of their often heightened sensitivity to social threats.
Mike Jay, The Reality Show | Aeon
To come full circle on the links for the September issue of Bookslut, let's go back to Vanessa Manko's The Invention of Exile and its character’s “suspicious mind:”
[...] Austin never gives up his desperate attempts to reunite with Julia and his children. Fourteen years pass by and Austin becomes more and more preoccupied with becoming a US citizen, eventually driven to a sort of obsessive madness. His inventions and his letters become a self-made barrier between the rest of the world and him; they take over all of his thoughts and actions. Austin's mental preoccupation reaches a head shaking extreme when the reader first realizes that an FBI agent who at first seems like someone who actually is following Austin, is really an image conjured up by his own madness. In regards to his inventions and drawings, the "agent" tells Austin "it's like building a fortress only to realize you aren't protecting yourself from anything, you've simply locked yourself inside." Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and red tape that prevent him from returning to America continue to make it impossible for Austin to feel complete. A bartender refers to him as "the inventor who cannot invent himself out of Mexico."
Rebecca Silber, The Invention of Exile by Vanessa Manko | Bookslut
There's a fashion blog for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Germans are looking consistently sharp, unsurprisingly. If I had known it would be a chance to incorporate my vanity into my publishing endeavors, I might have gone.