In Our Magazines
- Dangerous Books: From Banning Ulysses to Challenging Huck Finn
- An Interview with Ariel Schrag
- An Interview with Shannon Sullivan
- It's Not Dark Here Yet
- An Interview with Amitava Kumar
- Spirited Noise 'Round Town: Listening to the Futurists
- An Interview with Marion Meade
- An Interview with Warren Adler
- An Interview with Lydia Netzer
July 22, 2014
Image: The Angler by Paul Klee, marked for destruction by the Nazis for being "degenerate"
Lost or damaged artworks form the interstitial space in the Disappearance issue of Spolia. Stolen, damaged, destroyed (sometimes by the artists themselves), or simply censored -- the many ways in which works of art disappear raise questions pertaining to their place in art history. How do these lost artworks shape art history? How aware are we of their loss?
Curated by TATE, The Gallery of Lost Art was a one-year online exhibition that featured some of the most important works of art that were lost during the last century. Among the artists included in the exhibition were Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Willem De Kooning, Frida Kahlo, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. Meanwhile, The Gallery of Lost Art has been erased – now merely a ghost, just like the artworks it temporarily brought back to life. A selection of essays on the lost artworks featured in the exhibition can still be accessed online. In addition, the stories of some of these artworks have been collected in between the covers of a book: Lost Art, by Jennifer Mundy.
Similarly, Céline Delavaux reunites lost artworks in her book The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You'll Never See. Delavaux takes us through different eras – from prehistoric caves to more recent disappearances. The writer thinks the connection between the viewer and a work of art passes through language. Indeed, even though these lost or hidden works of art can no longer be seen, they still have a lot to say.
The idea that a work of art can encapsulate a certain time in history is emphasized by Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Vienna at the turn of the century, Nazis stealing a Jewish portrait and the long fight of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s relatives to recover the portrait and with it, a piece of history. On Klimt’s status during the Nazi occupation O’Connor says:
Klimt was never declared a degenerate artist. It’s not clear how his work avoided this designation. He could have qualified, with his explicitly erotic drawings; paintings suggesting bisexuality and a world without God, and his reputation as a social “philosemite”—or what the Nazis were now calling, in their most polite language, a Jew-lackey. But he had fans among the Vienna Nazis, and he could be framed in a palatable way to the arbitrators of “Germanic” culture. He was an excellent draftsman, and could draw or paint something akin to a photorealistic likeness, when he chose to. Superficially, his good lucks and legendary appeal to women fit the masculine profile of the powerful Germanic Ubermensch. Klimt was safely dead, unlike his friend Kokoschka, who was a vocal anti-Nazi. He was also one of the favorite painters of Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi governor of Vienna, who sponsored the biggest show ever of Klimt’s works, in 1943. Schirach’s tastes were broader: he got in trouble with a show of young artists that Hitler himself shut down. When some of Klimt’s works finally were burned, when the SS torched a castle after the defeat of Hitler, it was probably an accident. Though the other paintings at the castle were eventually evacuated, and the Klimts taken there by the Gestapo were not.
Anne-Marie O’Connor interviewed by Laurel Zuckerman, Anne-Marie O’Connor on the extraordinary tale of Klimt’s The Lady in Gold | laurelzuckerman.com
It's tempting to romanticize art thieves who steal purely for the love of art. But often, thieves know nothing about the artworks they steal. They do know a lot about tricking security systems. This is the case with the thieves who stole works by Monet, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Because of contradicting statements, it is still unclear if the stolen artworks have been destroyed or if they remain hidden.
How Picassos, Matisses, Monets and other precious masterpieces may have met a fiery fate in a remote Romanian village, population 3,400, is something the police are still trying to understand. The theft has turned into a compelling and convoluted mystery that underscores the intrigues of the international criminal networks lured by high-priced art and the enormous difficulties involved in storing, selling or otherwise disposing of well-known works after they have been stolen.
Liz Alderman, "Romanian’s Tale Has Art World Fearing the Worst" | The New York Times
Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte, Mark Rothko -- modern art is incomplete without the works of art hidden in the basement of a museum in Tehran. Some of them are, however, brought to the surface. Ephemerally.
In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.
The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."
Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, "Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures" | The Guardian
July 20, 2014
Image: Louise Bourgeois, À Baudelaire
Weekend Recommended Reading
This is late because I got distracted yesterday by this. I have family members who have been writing, saying, you are one country over from the Ukraine, when is your flight out, and I have to say, don't worry, I won't be flying over Russian airspace, and they say, Who even knows what is going to be labeled Russian airspace by next week anyway. So I've been watching a lot about airplane crashes, like the above, which is Errol Morris's hypnotic interview with the man who landed a plane with catastrophic hydraulics failure and saved 2/3 of the passengers onboard. Then I had to watch Fearless because of Jeff Bridges, and then I had to go read William Langewische's entire back catalog.
Plus, with that Errol Morris doc, I completely lose it when I see a Midwestern man cry. Because they don't, pretty much ever. I love a Midwestern man, but they are not forthcoming with their emotions. So when he gets choked up because he couldn't save everyone on the plane, I have to spend some time weeping. It's like there was this documentary a while back, where a Midwestern farmer is watching developers dig into some farmland to turn it into a shitty McMansion because that will make more money, and he starts talking about how you can see the soil they're building on is rich and fertile because it's so black, and he starts crying for the lost potential of the soil and so I start crying (before I remember the other thing about Midwestern men, that maybe his children have been waiting at home for some sign of love or pain or affection, something other than just perpetual disappointment, and seeing their father crying over soil makes them realize he really does love the land more than he loves them...) It's complicated.
- Are you a writer, or are you a missionary? Are you so certain of your own viewpoint when you go traveling out into the world that you don't even listen to people's stories, you're just looking for reinforcement of your own views? So good. This will come in handy for the Travel Writing Revolution I am plotting.
- Kathy Acker interviewed the Spice Girls. For Vogue Magazine.
- At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
- "We have a surplus of vaguely boring art world bad boys running around these days, but how many genuine degenerates do we have? I mean, real perverts?"
The random book recommendation this week is going to be Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy again, because it is remarkably good, she is remarkably good, and not nearly enough people even know who she is.
July 18, 2014
Image: Self-Portrait by Lee Friedlander
In “Erase & Rewind,” Tina Pisco’s short story for theDisappearence issue of Spolia, memory is identity. The loss of memory is the loss of identity. Here, temporary amnesia is a chance to escape from a past that is slowly coming back, like a bad thriller caught on TV late at night. It is a chance to take on a new identity, one that promises love and affection. The loss of memory makes one ask “Who am I?” — a question that is always there, lingering, with or without any memories. For more on various degrees of memory loss, here are a few suggestions:
David MacLean found himself (and lost his self) in a train station in India, with his memory gone. His memory / identity became a puzzle pieced together by his family and friends – all strangers to him. MacLean first told his compelling story for This American Life, and later on in his book The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia.
At that moment, staring at the monitors, I was a blank sheet that had just been rolled in the typewriter. No backstory, no motivation, no distinguishing characteristics, no real idea what I even looked like.
David MacLean, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me | This American Life
I. Fontana’s (Todd Grimson’s nom de plume) Amnesia is set in an unspecified time, in an unspecified place, giving his short story a universality that is hard to ignore (“The red of the Coca-Cola signs is the same all over the world.”). A sense of loss enveils his characters who exist separately, who seem to have forgotten how to live together.
There could be no present tense, no present, without forgetfulness. A veil must fall over reality — in order to eradicate the poisonous past. And yet the past never really dies, nor can it be killed. Reality wears a mask, and behind the mask is but a mirrored face: the mirror always lies.
I. Fontana, “Amnesia” | Pank
As Patrick Ryan has discovered, the lack of a personal narrative can be the most terrifying thing about memory loss:
‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I just want to go home.’
But I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a person who had legs and arms and a heart and a throbbing head, I knew my own name and the name of the President and what year it was, but I couldn’t remember my personality or anything about the recent past. And this is what very few novels or movies have ever gotten right about amnesia: it’s not exotic; it’s horrific and sad-making. I was sad because I had no story. Elizabeth McCracken, in her novel The Giant’s House, wrote, ‘Babies have no plot.’ Post-seizure, I was a plot-less baby. I ached to remember what my job was. I ached to remember if I had any preferences, any passions, any tragic flaws. I ached to remember if I was a nice person or a mean person, a criminal or a hero. There was nothing exotic about it; I was profoundly depressed because I had no sense of myself, other than as someone glued to a hospital bed.
Patrick Ryan, “Grand Mal” | Granta
In Remind Me Who I Am, Again, Linda Grant writes about living with her mother’s dementia. It’s a tender account of memory and identity. “Memory, I have come to understand, is everything, it’s life itself.”
The documentary Unknown White Male (Rupert Murray, 2005) tells the story of man who woke up on a subway train in Coney Island having no idea who or where he was. The diagnosis: retrograde amnesia. To some, this story sounds too much like a story. It sounds like a hoax. But Roger Ebert, who had interviewed the filmmakers, assured viewers it was all true. Besides, he wrote: “As we watch the film, Doug Bruce exists for us only in the sense that the film transfers him into our memories. Is that person any more or less real to us if the film is truthful or fraudulent?”
Amnesia has a dread fascination because it leaves its victims alive to experience the loss of self. Parents, lovers, photographs and old letters testify to the existence of a person who lived in the body whose inhabitant now regards them without recognition.
Roger Ebert, Unknown White Male | rogerebert.com
July 17, 2014
Coming in August:
We'll be announcing the winners of the Daphne Awards, for the best book of 1963. We'll be having a small event, details to follow. If you are a betting person, and you shouldn't, that kind of behavior is really bad for you, someone can make up the odds for the fiction category:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
In the meantime, you can refresh your memory about the rest of the nominees for nonfiction, poetry, and children's books, and do what I am going to do, which is just watch one of the best movies of 1963 over and over again, The Haunting.
July 15, 2014
Other people are still writing about 50 Shades of Grey, right? Oh thank god. I am not so terrifically behind.
It's a shame, though, that some of it is still in that "you should all be so deeply ashamed of yourselves" vein. Especially since so few writers put any time or thought into figuring out why it became such a hit. (Women feel powerless in many aspects of their lives. Here is a way for them to work through those feelings of powerlessness, in a way that gets them off on it. Why is that so hard to understand?) It seems like after all of the ink spilled over 50 Shades, we would at least have heard something interesting about it.
For the Los Angeles Review of Books I write about two responses to EL James's trilogy: the Virago anthology 50 Shades of Feminism and Eva Illouz's Hard Core Romance. I will just say that Illouz's book is, like all of her work, brilliant. That anthology.... er...
In this anthology, feminism becomes less a political philosophy and more of a justification for narcissism. Every decision that each person makes can be explained away with “because feminism.” Want an epidural and to bottle-feed? That’s feminism! Want to get married and move to the suburbs? Feminism! Do you want to make a big deal out of refusing to diet or maybe instead spend a lot of time playing around with clothes and makeup? Either way, both are feminist! Here, feminism is not used as a filter to assist with the decision-making process. The argument presented is this: your action is feminist because you are choosing for yourself. The result is a “feminism” that’s not only depoliticized but also desocialized: “feminism” becomes a word to slap onto a choice after the fact, as a way to protect a decision from any criticism.
Unless, of course, you, the reader, choose differently than the writers in the book, and then the condemnation comes down hard. Pornography, high heels, and bikini waxes, prostitution and other forms of sex work, refusing to label yourself as a feminist, plastic surgery, sexual submission, and reading 50 Shades of Grey: all these are listed as crimes against humanity, betrayals against the sisterhood.
I’ve advocated, here, collectivity. But there’s a difference between collectivity and the kind of “sisterhood” advocated in Fifty Shades of Feminism, which is simply self-interest in a social guise. Beware the woman going on and on about the sisterhood. She’s likely to be the first one to stick the knife in the moment your back is turned.
July 14, 2014
Image: from Germaine Dulac's film "The Seashell and the Clergyman"
The struggle for the recognition of women filmmakers is as old as cinema itself. In July’s issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee writes about Tami Williams’s biography of one of the first women filmmakers, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations:
Despite her exemplary career, during which she was compared to such cinema luminaries and innovators as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir, Dulac experienced erasure both during her life and after her death. Over a century later, women directors are still grossly underrepresented in the film industry, women's stories dismissed as unbankable by producers, and it is still unacceptable.
For more on Germaine Dulac and the question of “female authorship” in cinema, here are a few suggestions:
In her essential book on women filmmakers and feminist theory, The Woman at the Keyhole, Judith Mayne writes about the reinvention of film through cinematic narration, which is more than relevant when it comes to the representation of women and female desire. In her chapter “Revising the ‘Primitive’” Mayne writes about the different narrative modes juxtaposed in Germaine Dulac’s 1922 film La souriante Madame Beudet / The Smiling Madame Beudet.
Like the narrators of the early cinema, Mme Beudet can conjure and dream isolated images, but she cannot construct a narrative. But Dulac, of course, can. The Smiling Madame Beudet brings together a historical moment of the cinema with a particular mode of female consciousness, creating an encounter between the “primitive” cinema and the classical cinema, between a female imagination unable to break out of the duality of home versus public world, of isolated images versus complex narrative, and a more properly classical narrative which offers only the position of the obedient wife. It is in the ironic juxtaposition of these modes that female narration takes shape.
Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema
Rosanna Maule writes about how Germaine Dulac related to the concept of authorship, which only became distinctly and loudly articulated in the late 1950s, when the French New Wave reshaped the dominant film discourse.
Dulac’s preoccupation with defining the filmmaker as an auteur coincides with her effort to characterize cinema as the medium that allows a full expression of human emotions and experiences, as well as a direct rendition of reality. This view of the auteur also enables Dulac to disentangle the figure of the filmmaker-author from a system of representation and signification that identifies the auteur as an enunciative mark of subjective positions, a view that has, as Judith Mayne has remarked, distinctly patriarchal connotations. Dulac never proposed a feminist-oriented or a gender-specific model of the film auteur. However, her films and her writings propose a tactic of disengagement from the premises of the 1920s film and art contexts and offer a viable alternative to the patriarchal affiliation of auteurism with male-informed artistic practices and cultural contexts.
Rosanna Maule, "The Importance of Being a Film Author: Germaine Dulac and Female Authorship" | Senses of Cinema
Maryann De Julio takes a closer look at Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman, a rather controversial collaboration with Antonin Artaud. At the center of this film, De Julio says, “lies Dulac’s revolutionary poetics.”
In Surimpressions (2009), a DVD extra that accompanies Alain Virmaux’s revised study of The Seashell and the Clergyman, Tami Williams speaks of the rethinking of gender roles and oppositional acting styles in Dulac’s film, which she relates to the representation of a New Man and a New Woman in many of the Arts after the First World War. We can also see strong evidence of Dulac’s portrayal of women at work in The Seashell and the Clergyman, their tasks incorporated into the rhythm of the film. The scenes in which the maids sweep and dust; the governess enters, bible in hand; and the camera passes in close-up over the maids aligned with the butlers are as carefully choreographed to restore order as were the ballroom dance scenes with couples in embrace and women in décolleté, filmed in sweeping motion and crescendo, to intimate passion and sexual liberation.
Maryann De Julio, "Another Look at Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman" | Senses of Cinema
Germaine Dulac’s writing on film is an important part of her legacy as it contributed to the creation of a film discourse long before the existence of the influential Cahiers du Cinéma. In her text on “Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinégraphie,” Dulac laments the way cinema has been received by her contemporaries, which only comes to emphasize how much cinema today owes her and other innovators alike:
It is rather disturbing to recount the simplistic way in which we greeted its manifestations. At first, the cinema was for us nothing but a photographic means to reproduce the mechanical movement of life; the word “movement” evoked in our minds only the banal vision of animated people and things, going, coming, or shaking with no other concern than to let them develop within the borders of the screen, when it was instead necessary to consider movement in its mathematical and philosophical essence.
The sight of the indescribable Vincennes train arriving in the station was enough to satisfy us, and no one at that time dreamed that in it a new means for sensibility and the intellect to express themselves lay hidden. No one ventured to discover these means on the other side of the realistic images of a commonly photographed scene.
No one sought to know if within the apparatus of the Lumière brothers there lay, like an unknown and precious metal, an original aesthetic; content to domesticate it by making it a tributary of past aesthetics, we disdained any careful examination of its possibilities.
UbuWeb has archived two of Germaine Dulac’s films: La coquille et le clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman and L’invitation au voyage.
July 13, 2014
Image: We published an interview with Pamela Bannos about Vivian Maier. After it went up, I started to look at Bannos's own photographic work and fell in love. This is from her "Micro" series.
Weekend Recommended Reading
- Have you been wondering what to do, now that I've cooled it on all of the anti-marriage conversations with Against Marriage author Bruce Benderson? One of the things we didn't actually get around to discussing in that interview was his section on how obnoxious the "couple" is. How suddenly your newly coupled friend is no longer available for one-on-ones, how insular and self-contained couples are, often leading to a kind of apoliticism, because now all that matters is the couple's comfort. It de-radicalizes you. Well, luckily, Hannah Black is here with a very good essay on the couple, and how the couple is now how society is ordered, and that to not be in a couple is to be removed in many ways from society as a whole.
- It's John Dee's birthday. How are you going to celebrate? Wrench the horn off of a live bull (good fucking luck) to construct a magical Trumpet of Black Venus? Skrying your enemy's location? Studying up on the language of angels? Or just create a magic circle to drink inside of it, any of these are acceptable.
- Random book recommendation: I complained to Sara Kramer at NYRB Books that I had run out of things to read, and she sent me Olivia Manning. Bless her. And maybe, if things get set up this way, it was Olivia Manning who opened up the door to me heading to Bucharest with her The Balkan Trilogy. I read it on a trip that was not going as planned, and it kept me sane. Soap opera good with the painful, disillusioned marriage at its center, but also incredibly smart about politics in Central Europe in the lead up to Nazi Germany's domination. Now that I'm on another trip that is not going as planned (I was supposed to be out of here several weeks ago, but things have gone sideways and it'll be weeks still before I can go), having her sequel, The Levant Trilogy, is great comfort.
July 9, 2014
"Andrew Solomon is here in Romania."
We had been discussing the big Romanian release of The Noonday Demon, his big nonfiction book about depression, and my friend was asking me if she should read it. I told her: only if you think prescription medication for depression is the way to go. It had been a rare thing when it was released, a thoughtful book on depression, so it was easier to overlook its many flaws. Now there are many very good books about depression, it can be safely ignored.
But now today I am remembering my response to her telling me Solomon was in Bucharest: "I bet he's only here for a few days but he writes about the state of Romania anyway."
Yesterday Andrew Solomon's piece about the state of Romania went up at the New Yorker. He was in the country for six days, which, come on, isn't even enough time to get the jet lag off of you. Funnily enough, he found exactly what he expected to find: that Romania is a backwards, dirty, horrible place.
"I had hoped she might not be entirely right, that this European source of the family would be at least picturesque, that I’d have a surprising sense of identification with the place. I didn’t know how despondent it would make me to imagine being trapped in that life. I’ve reported from war zones and deprived societies for decades, but they have always been profoundly other, and this felt shockingly accessible—I could have been born here, and lived and died like this."
At first I was shocked that the New Yorker published this, as Solomon shows no historical understanding, let alone understanding of Romania's current situation. He also presents America and himself as shining beacons of hope to the poor Romanians, like some sort of Christian missionary among the savages. But then I remembered this piece the New York Times wrote about Ecuador a year ago, and I realized it wasn't surprising at all.
In it, Ecuador is also presented as squalid and backwards, although the reasoning is this:
"There are only three laptops and two desktop computers on display at the store in one of Quito’s top malls, plus two iPads, an iPad mini and a couple of iPods. The tiny shop is nowhere near the size of one of Apple’s flagship emporia in New York or other major cities."
Guys. They don't even have an Apple store. Which is obviously baseline for livability. The article did not use the term "third world" but you can hear it sneering through the text.
This isn't about shaming two travel writers, it's more that travel writing is in a very bad place. It seems to have divided into two camps, one where it's all about the self, the crazy thing that happened to me, and the exotic country is just dramatic backdrop. This camp is mostly populated by women. Then there is the colonial travel writer, who doesn't speak the language, has no real ties or sense of the history beyond a Wikipedia page, but comes back to tell people about how it is there. This camp is mostly populated by men. This is not because women are more self-involved or men are more chauvinist, it's because women writers are encouraged and groomed to write about certain things, and vice versa. Women are supposed to be self-reflective, men are supposed to be experts, that is just the way things are set up right now.
(There is an interesting variation in the self travel writing, bro writers who go off to Cambodia, who think that because they go zip-lining through the jungle and have avoided getting an office job, they are somehow living heroic lives. Timothy Ferriss is this travel writer's patron saint.)
The result is some terrible travel writing. There are travel writers working today who I think are brilliant, and I will tell anyone who will sit still long enough all the ways Stasiuk's On the Road to Babadag is amazing. But for the most part, the travel writing that I read is not only shallow but also prejudiced and chauvinist. People going to places they don't understand and don't feel they need to try to.
(Here is usually where someone says "John Jeremiah Sullivan" as an example of contemporary travel writing's greatness, but I will counter with, "Read his Ireland piece." He just lines up every cliche about Irish travel writing, one by one: James Joyce, genealogy, the Famine, small local pubs, tweed caps. Contemporary Ireland is a very interesting and complicated place, economically and culturally and politically, which is not something you would know from reading Sullivan's piece.)
What is needed is a travel writing revival, writing like Stasiuk or Geert Mak's In Europe. Thoughtful, immersive work that smashes cliches and the images we have of what certain places are like before we even go. Travel writers who if they find exactly what they expected when they go somewhere question why that might be. Travel writers who have more than six days in a country before they start telling us about how the whole thing works.
July 8, 2014
I have a new Reading the Tarot column at Ohio Edit, this time it is the Seven of Swords.
(The image to the left is from the Dali-designed tarot, and it's one of the few versions of this particular card that I like. Seven of Swords is a card that often times remains elusive, you see people on forums and so on expressing their frustration with how the card remains opaque to them, or about how those little manuals that come with tarot decks have very unsatisfying explanations for what the card means. I've been told in various readings, "oh, someone is stealing from you," when they were not. Theft is often how the card is interpreted, and yet the astrological correlation is the Moon in Aquarius: essentially making your home outside of the collective. At any rate, feel free to disagree strongly with my take on the card.)
In the Seven of Swords, we leave the group. A man runs from the town with swords thrown over his shoulder, and what he is running towards is mostly blank space. It’s empty because he hasn’t created what will be there yet. If this is his first departure, he might not know that he’ll have to do this, as he’s become accustomed to someone else creating and maintaining the world for him.
A person on the margins has to live by his or her wits, which is maybe why this card is focused on the trickster element of our hero. When there are no hands extended, you are forced to take what you can get. Mercury, the ruler of pickpockets and smugglers and border crossers. Those who, when the authority says no, do it anyway. Those who know if they wait for a handout, they’ll be here all week.
But what are you going to do with your distance? Will you use your outside perspective to get a good look at the faults and deficiencies of the system and help those left behind who might not even know that they are trapped, or are you going to just plot raids? That taking what you can get thing will only get you so far, and besides, the more you take, the more you become a taker. You fought so hard not to be defined by your surroundings, do you really want to define yourself now by that?
July 7, 2014
Here to disprove the notion that the only thing to read in the summer is books about girls having relationship problems that are wrapped up in 200 candy coated pages and I don't know, men who kill things with swords and ride on horses or whatever happens in fantasy these days, we have the July issue of Bookslut. Go read!
July 6, 2014
Image: Young Decadent After the Ball by Ramon Casas
Weekend Recommended Reading
I ran out of books to read, somehow. After I finished Jackie Wang's Against Innocence, I realized, oh shit, that's all I've got. I went to the Bucharest English language bookshop, but nothing was speaking to me except some very heavy, $80 art books, but I have a plane to get on in three weeks and I'm already approaching the weight limit, thanks to other idiotic purchases. I kept wanting things that were either unlikely (Claudio Magris books that I haven't read, books about the history of the Reformation) or don't exist at all (the unwritten books of Shirley Jackson and Jane Bowles).
I will try again at another English language bookshop this week, perhaps I'll be better motivated by increased desperation. I have three weeks left in Bucharest, and I already read the Jamie Oliver cookbook someone left here, the only book in English in this place. Ask me how to whip up a healthy meal that will please your entire family in only 20 minutes, go ahead, ask me. I fucking dare you.
- "Rape as Metaphor" by Rebecca Brown. Rebecca Brown has been one of my favorite writers for ages. This review of two opera performances in Seattle shows why I like her so much. The way she matches a poetic style with bluntness, the way her writing is beautiful while still retaining a solid philosophical and moral core. I mean: "An amoral hit man is not someone I should be drawn to, but Silvestrelli's burr was just so butterscotchy. Nadine Sierra, in her Seattle Opera debut, portrays Gilda as somehow, even after her sexual violation, innocent. Maybe Gilda is one of those women who, post–sexual trauma, constructs herself an explanation of her rape as, well, a metaphor? Or a rite of passage one must take for "love"? Maybe rape, in addition to being a physical fact always, is in some way not only an example of but also a metaphor for abuse of power?"
Will now be using "butterscotchy" in 28% of my sentences.
- Here is "Against Innocence,"(PDF) Jackie Wang's essay that I was reading in chapbook form. Wang presents our need for innocent victims of state or institutionalized brutality (Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin) before we can feel empathy for them and see how they were victimized. It argues for complication and nuance. It's pretty great.
- Speaking of Rebecca Brown, just a note about Spolia. Bookslut is often praised for giving attention to under-appreciated and obscure writers. But it can be tough to go from one review of a writer who is not being talked about elsewhere to investing $25 for their book. Which is part of the reason why I started Spolia, to give you a sampler of what is going on in the margins. Which is maybe a good way to look at it, a $5 sampler to the writers you may hear of here but are not sure if you're sold on. Rebecca Brown, for example, wrote us a wonderful poem for "Hysteria." (they and/or it desired things / they and/or it saw or not saw / they wanted deep and longed and tried and / wanted in the mouth // the thing had a mouth) Also, wonderfully, she is sending us a story for our Henry James Tribute Album.
If you want to check it out, but aren't convinced, email me and I'll send you a free copy of one of our back issues.
- Your random book recommendation for the day: All books. Remember books? When they were in English and within reach? And not in Romanian? And any would do? I miss those days. Please bring those days back. And appreciate the books in the language that you read that are within reach, all of them.
July 4, 2014
In June’s issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst invites us to do The Anne Carson Workout: to think about The Albertine Workout, about Proust’s work, about Proust’s life, to consider the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, and yes, even to wonder about the type of workout Anne Carson prefers.
Here’s Anne Carson reading from The Albertine Workout:
In an interview for The Paris Review, Carson’s line “I want to be unbearable” (from her poem “Stanzas, Sexes, Seduction”) leads to a brief discussion about her being in a boxing class.
Yukio Mishima famously admonished intellectuals for not taking care of their bodies, for always putting the mind first. Sun and Steel is Mishisma’s ode to muscle and action.
In the dim light of early morning I was running, one of a group. A cotton towel with the symbol of a red sun on it was tied about my forehead, and I was stripped to the waist in the freezing air. Through the common suffering, the shared cries of encouragement, the shared pace, and the chorus of voices, I felt the slow emergence, like the sweat that gradually beaded my skin, of that “tragic” quality that is the affirmation of identity. It was a flame of the flesh, flickering up faintly beneath the biting breeze—a flame, one might almost say, of nobility. The sense of surrendering one’s body to a cause gave new life to the muscles. We were united in seeking death and glory; it was not merely my personal quest.
Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel
Unlike Mishima, Haruki Murakami cherishes the alone time that running offers him:
I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Another writer who has praised the benefits of running is Joyce Carol Oates. She writes:
Running! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can't think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.
Joyce Carol Oates, "To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet" | The New York Times
July 2, 2014
An Interview with Pamela Bannos
Image by Henry Darger, another Chicago artist who was not celebrated until after death
When I wanted someone to clear up some of the questions I had about Vivian Maier's archive and the trouble I was having in piercing through this dreamy storyline of the nanny/secret photographer, sad spinster rescued by her male archivists that had been constructed, I asked Pamela Bannos. A photographer and a writer and a professor, Bannos is working on her own take on the Vivian Maier story, one that was not designed specifically to sell Maier's work at high prices.
Because while we can appreciate her work, and marvel at the story of a photographer who was hiding the brilliant art she was making in an age of self-promotion twitter feeds and "platform," it is discomforting when an artist becomes mythologized, and when that myth is baldly used to move product. Particularly when we are dealing with a female artist mythologized by men and using patronizing ideas of womanhood to do it.
Pamela Bannos is working on her own book about Vivian Maier, while also teaching at Northwestern and producing and showing her own photographic work. We spoke over email about Bannos's attempts to gain access to the full Maier archive, the rescue narrative put forth by the dealers of Maier's work, and why all of the emphasis on Maier's spinster nanny life. For more about Vivian Maier and her complicated legacy, see the "Disappearance" issue of our sister magazine, Spolia.
I was wondering if you could brief us about who owns what and who profits from what.
According to John Maloof, he owns more than 100,000 negatives; 20-30,000 color slides; many reels of motion picture footage; audio tapes; and more than 3,000 vintage prints. Jeffrey Goldstein owns around 18-20,000 negatives and slides, around 1,000 vintage prints, and multiple reels of motion picture footage. Ron Slattery owns several thousand vintage prints and an undisclosed amount of negatives and slides. John Maloof also sold around 200 Vivian Maier negatives on eBay before he understood that what he had was special; those are in the hands of individuals in several countries and a dozen states. All of this is what I call “Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive.”
All three of the major collectors have sold Maier’s vintage prints, which currently retail for upwards of several thousand dollars. Howard Greenberg Gallery, who sells Maloof’s collection, has a 5x7” print listed at $12,000.
Maloof and Goldstein both sell posthumous prints from Maier’s negatives -- and they both put their own signatures on the backs of these prints. The 12”x12” prints, originally ranging from $1,800-3,000 in an edition of fifteen, currently start at $2,200 and sell out at more than $4,000 each.
I don’t imagine that it would be easy to donate a bulk of work like this to a major institution; I’m not aware of any museums that make prints from negatives for display, they typically show vintage prints or contemporary reproductions under the guidance of the artist. Also, I haven’t heard of any institution critically weighing in on it.
The people who acquired Maier’s work were all in the business of selling; they are all acknowledged flea market pickers who have engaged in resale. This explains to me why the work has been handled the way that it has. Jeffrey Goldstein, who acquired his trove after the work gained worldwide attention, has stated that he paid a total of $90,000 in four separate acquisitions. He then acquired the URL vivianmaierprints.com.
When you say that the way the archive has been treated can be attributed in part to the fact that the men who own the prints and negatives are flea market pickers, what do you mean by that? And what would be the ideal home, in your view, for the archive?
I mean they acquired the work with the intention of selling it. Resellers also attend the sort of auction where Maier’s divided storage locker contents were sold.
I feel conflicted about Maier’s archive in general. This was a very private woman who chose not to share her personal life or her photography. That apparently is what has made her into a “mystery woman.” The selective editing of her work has perpetuated her mystery. After viewing more than 20,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, a different photographer emerged for me than the one first presented by John Maloof. I feel intensely uncomfortable with the way that he has presented her personal belongings alongside her photographic history -- putting her shoes on display, and laying out her blouses in his movie, for example. I think he’s done a good job of transforming her into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows that model. I don’t know how any of that would fit into a traditional concept of an archive. From a photographic standpoint, I think that since Maloof stated that his intention was to get her work in museums, the photographic legacy should be open to study. In terms of an ideal home for the archive, in this unusual case of its scattered state, I would advocate for a digital aggregate of the negatives and vintage prints. I would argue that the two-dozen or so individuals who own her negatives should keep them, but with the images contained in one digital archive.
There's this idea that Maier was plucked from obscurity, but she seemed to have opportunities to show and sell her work during her life and she chose not to, isn't that correct? It was more like, she didn't want to for her own reasons. That seems to me to set up this rescue white-knight narrative with the men who bought her negatives and that makes me uncomfortable. Is there a better way to talk about these so-called lost artists who aren't discovered until after their deaths?
I believe that before Maier came to Chicago in 1956 she had intentions of showing her work and I think that she did get paid for some early work. Her vintage prints are overwhelmingly from her New York years. I agree that she then chose not to show or share her work from the time that she arrived in Chicago and for the rest of her life. And I agree that there is an uncomfortable hero aspect to the story of her work’s resurrection. For me, this rescuer narrative is furthered by arguments that state how lucky we are that the work was not lost or destroyed, therefore denying us of witnessing her brilliance. One writer suggested that if Maier didn’t want the work to be available for our viewing, she wouldn’t have saved it all; and she was saving it for us.
You didn't see this same storyline of "rescue" with the work of someone like, say, Henry Darger. His posthumous attention also wasn't filtered through the person who advocated for the work. And if Maier herself was the person choosing not to show her work, how would that complicate the storyline that is put forth in the documentary about her?
I think that you’re right in implying that John Maloof has presented himself alongside Vivian Maier throughout her emergence. He has chosen which of her work to share, and he is positioned as her savior. And in further mingling and switching the focus, I don’t think the movie is a documentary about Vivian Maier at all -- it is a film about John Maloof and his quest to “find” Maier. He states early on that his interest is in getting her work into museums, and then spends the bulk of the film exploring her quirky and then troublesome personality. A more fair account of Maier and her photography -- and an actual documentary film about her -- is Jill Nicholls’s movie made for the BBC television series, Imagine (Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?) It presents other collectors than Maloof (who refused to participate) and also gives voice to people who interacted with Maier in the photo world. But you’re right about the conflict of fairness in presenting the work and story of someone who deliberately chose not to share them.
Also, is it the story of Maier or the work that people are responding to? They seem to be so tied in together. One doesn't really encounter her work without encountering her story. Would the work hold as much appeal if it was not attached to this idea of the poor genius woman who died in obscurity?
Her work was first shared outside the context of her biography, but the unknown artist aspect was always attached to the images and I think that generated curiosity in the work. I do think that the first shared images held up on their own; the people who convinced Maloof to stop selling her negatives on eBay did not know her story, but they did know that there was a huge body of work. Incidentally, she was still living during this period of activity. The “reclusive nanny photographer” narrative then brought a different kind of attention to the work. I think the insatiable interest in seeing more unpublished work derives from the cultivated mystery of her story.
I've been writing a lot about spinsters lately, and I think the Maier story we've been told lines up with what we prefer to believe about unmarried women, that they were in some way helpless, that they needed this male figure to bring them into the world, and because she didn't find one in life she needs one in death to control her work. We're almost disappointed to learn they maybe preferred their lives this way, maybe they considered their lives to be full. I'm thinking about some things I've read about the idea of Emily Dickinson versus the real life of Dickinson. Does that enter into how we've chosen to discuss Maier the person?
Yes, I think that some people think Maier had a tragic life because she never married and had a family of her own. But she was not unusual within her own family circle, nor was she unique in her avocation. I have spoken of Maier’s as a woman’s story, and how she lived the legacy of the women before her: her mother was a live-in maid, and her grandmother was a live-in cook. Both left the fathers of their children and lived with others’ families. I believe that Maier’s avocation allowed her to pursue her interest in photography; or, as opposed to the nanny who was also a photographer, I consider her a photographer who also happened to be a nanny.
What is your own personal interest in this case? What made you first decide to pursue this as a subject of research?
I am an artist who is interested in how changing stories obscure history. I’ve done several web-based and site-specific projects about this, most notably, one called “Hidden Truths”. I am also a photographer that has been teaching for more than twenty years. I became involved with the Vivian Maier story in 2012 when Chicago’s public television station called my university looking for an “expert” to respond to the question of whether Vivian Maier’s work was derivative of other photographers’. I set out to answer the question by studying hundreds of photographs that were available online. I studied Maier’s shooting strategies and locations, placing her at the entrance to New York’s Museum of Modern Art while the 1952 exhibition “Five French Photographers” hung inside. I speculated that she had seen the exhibition and that it may have influenced her. After the TV program aired, Jeffrey Goldstein and Ron Slattery gave me full access to their collections. I immediately understood that the split-up archive had led to a misunderstanding of her work and motivations. John Maloof has dubbed all of his online Maier presences as “official,” leading to an illusion of definitive authority. But he is wrong about some fundamental things and other specific details because he hasn’t seen the other collections. There is a lot still missing in Maier’s story that continues to unfold.
In addition to the forensic study of Vivian Maier’s photographs, I have been chronicling the posthumous phenomenon of her discovery and recognition, which is largely traceable online. Shifting stories, inaccurate reporting, and genuine misunderstanding have led to a distortion of the timeline that reveals this process. My research is culminating in a book-length study of Maier’s life as a third generation live-in servant who saw herself first and foremost as a photographer. It is also unraveling the posthumous story, which deserves a thorough understanding to accurately honor Vivian Maier’s life and legacy.
Is the archive blocking or at least discouraging academic or other viewpoints about Maier's work and life from coming out? You said they've refused to cooperate with your own work on Maier, do you have any sense on why that might be?
Last year I visited the Lisette Model fonds at the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa. The collection presents a coherent and cohesive archive of Model’s life and work and reveals a multi-faceted individual. The selective sharing of the multiple parts of Maier’s archive has encouraged the concept of “the Vivian Maier mystery.” Yes, it is blocking and discouraging other viewpoints of the woman and her work than those that have been perpetuated by the holders of her legacy. After my viewing of the entire Jeffrey Goldstein collection, I disagreed with assertions made about the woman and her work coming from both major collectors’ camps. Goldstein has now collaborated twice on books with Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. I’ve publicly disputed facts and interpretations of her work as presented in their first book. I’m also intent on untangling the twisted facts of Maier’s posthumous emergence; that’s apparently gotten in the way of my access to Maloof’s collection. As conflicted as I am over my own interest in learning more about this private woman who has become so public, I feel that her life and legacy deserve an accurate portrayal.
Pamela Bannos utilizes methods of research that highlight the forgotten and overlooked, exploring the links between visual representation, urban space, history and collective memory. An exhibiting artist since the 1980s, Bannos has shown her photographic works nationally and internationally, including in solo exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, England (1992), and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York (2003). Her art practice has branched out from photographic works that incorporate found imagery to also include research projects that culminate in site-specific and/or web-based presentations. PamelaBannos has taught photography at Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice since 1993. She has a BA in Psychology & Sociology from Drake University, and an MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
July 1, 2014
Excerpt from "The Vivian Mire"
by Dmitry Samarov
There has never been a discovery quite like Vivian Maier and there may never be one quite like her again. Everyone who happens upon it can find a piece or an angle that appeals or that they can identify with. The kind of privacy she kept to do her work may never be possible again in our over-surveilled age. To make a lifetime’s body of work and not share it with anyone is anathema to our times and that makes it that much more attractive. Why didn’t she show someone what she spent every free waking moment doing?
Chicago photographer Rachel Freundt says, “She had what all photographers have, something called ‘the hungry eye.’ Sometimes feeding the hungry eye is more about eating than digesting. A photographer just has to take photos, and it’s more about the act itself than viewing or even sharing the results. Some photographers I know wait a day or two to really look at their photos, and even then they might never put them online, or whatever form they share their photos.” But doesn’t the fact that she saved and stored those hundreds of thousands of images imply that she wanted others to see them in some way?
Artists’ lives have been romanticized, mythologized and confabulated since time immemorial. They’re special, they’re crazy, they’re not like us. Whether putting them on a pedestal is an honor or simply a way not to have to share the thoroughfare or not allowing that the average person has all the same concerns, the idea that an artist is different seems sacrosanct. Throw in a proletarian day job and some secrecy and what you have are the makings of a legend. Whatever your feelings about publicity, marketing or hucksterism, most who have seen even a small sample of Maier’s output will agree that it is compelling enough to command attention. What we have thus far seen falls into two main categories: original prints (made during her lifetime) and posthumous prints (made by master printers hired by Maloof and Goldstein).
Most of the originals are small, 5x7 or 8x10 inches commonly. They were printed by Maier herself, often in the bathrooms of her residences, or by drugstores or other commercial printers. The quality varies but is rarely a master’s work. Maier’s strength was finding her subjects and shooting.
Although she made many of her pictures with a Rolleiflex, which produces a square negative, she often cropped the images she chose to print. There are thousands of examples. Usually, she would cut in as close as she could to her human subjects at the expense of the landscape or surroundings. Whether this enhanced or took away from her photos is a matter of taste, but the fact that this cropping was an aesthetic choice can’t really be argued.
The posthumous prints are larger, usually 12x12 inches; gelatin silver prints on good paper and beautifully framed, there is no denying that these are blue-chip art objects. It’s doubtful that Maier would have allowed herself to splurge this way. By all accounts, she spent every spare cent on the next roll of film, chasing the next shot rather than reveling in what she already had.
To read the rest of this essay, please see our sister magazine Spolia's "Disappearance" issue.
June 30, 2014
Image: Self Portrait by Vivian Maier
Editor's Note: This week we'll be posting supplementary material to "The Vivian Mire," Dmitry Samarov's essay for The Disappearance issue of Spolia regarding the problematic state of the photographer's estate.
The story of women told by men is a story we know too well. For the Disappearance issue of Spolia, Dmitry Samarov looks at the entanglement around Vivian Maier’s legacy: the problems that arise from her work being owned by different men and from her story having such a visible narrator in the person of John Maloof.
Rose Lichter-Marck does a wonderful job explaining why the question at the heart of Finding Vivian Maier – “Why would a nanny be taking all these pictures?” – is problematic, to say the least.
“Finding Vivian Maier” shows that stories of difficult women can be unflattering even when they are told in praise. The unconventional choices of women are explained in the language of mental illness, trauma, or sexual repression, as symptoms of pathology rather than as an active response to structural challenges or mere preference. Biographers often treat iconoclastic women like Yoko Ono, Marie Curie, Emily Dickinson, and Vivian Maier as problems that need solving. They’re problems as in “How do you solve a problem like Maria,” to borrow an allusion from an Ariana Reines’s essay about another often simplified woman photographer, Francesca Woodman.
Rose Lichter-Marck, Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women | The New Yorker
In her review of Finding Vivian Maier, Manohla Dargis makes this astute observation:
So, it’s a solid if finally thin introduction to Maier. It’s also, to state the obvious, a feature-length advertisement for Mr. Maloof’s commercial venture as the principal owner of her work; his name is on the stamp that authenticates the photographs. Vivian Maier is a find but she’s also now a business, and the documentary would be stronger if it had dug into the complexities of what it means when one person assumes ownership of another’s art. There are times when Mr. Maloof — particularly when he’s defensively speaking about the work’s artistic merit — feels as if he were delivering a sales pitch.
Manohla Dargis, The Nanny as Sphinx, Weaving Enigmatic Magic on the Sly | The New York Times
Over at Indiewire, Anthony Kaufman is a lot harsher:
"Every time a film is shot, privacy is violated," the famous cinema verite filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch once said.
Never is this more apparent than with "Finding Vivian Maier," an acclaimed new documentary directed by first-time filmmakers John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. While a fascinating investigative portrait of a reclusive female street photographer, who began taking pictures in the 1950s on par with such greats as Robert Frank and Weegee, the film is also one of the most brazenly exploitive documentaries of an individual to come along in a long while.
Anthony Kaufman, Reality Checks: Does This New Documentary Exploit the Life of Vivian Maier? | Indiewire
As Nathan Jurgenson shows in his essay Permission Slips, the exploitation of Vivian Maier’s life and work needs to be placed in the larger context of street photography and consent. What are the ethical guidelines a street photographer should follow? Does anyone still take ethic and privacy / personal space seriously in this age of smartphones and Google Glass and surveillance?
Vivian Maier was a street photographer, but Maloof’s film best exemplifies this larger street photographer ethic, one that goes beyond any film but is informed by a general social media ethos of see, take, and score — visual possessiveness in the name of attention. When people call some of the worst technologies that plop out of Silicon Valley “creepy,” this is what they mean: They are referring to the street photographer ethos of looking at people and the world as images for the taking to be reused for their own purposes.
Nathan Jurgenson, Permission Slips | The New Inquiry
“I’ll be the first to honor the quality of the work,” says photographer Joel Meyerowitz in the BBC documentary (he’s one of the few people interviewed for both films). “I’m concerned because we only see what the people who bought the suitcases decided to edit, and what kind of editors are they? What would she have edited out of this work and what would she have printed? How do any of us know who the real Vivian Maier is?”
Malcolm Jones, Vivian Maier: Still Missing | The Daily Beast
The BBC documentary is Jill Nicholls’s The Vivian Maier Mystery, which – as Malcolm Jones suggests – answers questions that Finding Vivian Maier does not. While the BBC documentary does acknowledge the various owners and researchers that have become characters in the Vivian Maier story, it falls victim to the same traps that Maloof’s documentary is criticized for: speculation about Maier’s mental sanity, framing her story as a detective story – a mystery that needs to be solved. Ultimately, what both documentaries reveal is that, in our culture, a woman who dares to wander on her own – in the seedy part of the town or in the world – is still met with anxiety and suspicion.
June 29, 2014
Image: Catena by Walton Ford
Weekend Recommended Reading
Yesterday I saw a dog bite a woman. The dog had no tags, and without any provocation it ran up to a woman on the street barking and bit her leg, hard. She started screaming, the dog retreated a little and then advanced towards her again. The dog was not large, maybe just up to the woman's calf, but suddenly this tiny thing was terrifying. I was right next to the woman when it happened, the dog passed me to get to her. People came running from across the street and out of the market to chase off the dog and protect the woman. I ran in the opposite direction. I had just come out of the market and bought a bottle of wine, and now I jammed my hand in my bag to grab the neck of the bottle, in case I needed to quickly bash in the dog's head to protect myself. But I dodged around traffic to get to the other side of the street as quickly as possible. My reasoning for running away was, enough people are helping, plus I am bare-legged and she had on jeans, and no I just can't I have to go. I don't know what happened next.
You can take this as a metaphor if you like.
- Henry Miller was a Capricorn and consulted astrologers. There are people in the comments who feel sorry for him, which is nice of them. (For the believing in astrology, not for being a Capricorn.)(via)
- "Small Town Noir," an Appendix piece by Diarmid Mogg (god, what a wonderful name). It's a riff on Mark Michaelson's Least Wanted, mug shots, and how easy it is for a life to distill itself down to a picture and list of criminal actions in one bad night.
- Jacqueline Rose is writing about mothers in literature and in life and in science and you should have already left this page at "Jacqueline Rose"
- Fucking great piece on Clare Booth Luce: writer, actress, ambassador. Thanks to Jim for sending it over.
- Your completely random book recommendation for the week: I miss Julie Doucet. I miss comics. A friend had an internal organ removed surgically and so I sent over a big stack of radical feminist comics. And it made me really nostalgic for my old comic collection. (It went to a Craigslist man wearing a nice hat when I moved overseas. He may have told me his name, but Charles Blackstone had come over with a bottle of vodka and so I was probably lying facedown on the floor when he said it.) My New York Diary by Doucet is kind of as good as it got.
Come back to us, Julie Doucet.
June 27, 2014
You know how Europe decided embarrassing stuff about you on the Internet could finally be deleted? Do you think they would agree to it if I wanted them to take down my own blog from like 2003 - 2012?
I accidentally ran into my own 2003 blog on a duckduckgo tear, and Jesus. I was kind of an idiot back then. I mean, I had my moments. But I was under-educated, I basically forgot to read any nonfiction for five years in a row and that can make a person a little dull-witted, and I was ready to pick a fight with anyone just because I was bored and I didn't think it really mattered.
(God: remember when literary blogging mattered? What were we all thinking?)
It's fine. I had a good time. It's embarrassing in the same way it's embarrassing to see pictures of myself from back then, back when I was cutting my own hair and wearing mostly men's clothing. And I had the good sense to invite a lot of other people to write for the site, so at least I had a little self-awareness of my inadequacies. Also, I'll forever be grateful for the Smart Set giving me a nonfiction review column for so many years. Realizing that I was having trouble thinking through some of the topics on the page made me really expand my book choices. A writer friend of mine called that column my writing boot camp, and she was not kidding. Grateful.
This is nostalgia brought on by a death in the family, sorta. Family adjacent.
So may you look back at your 2003 self with just a little bit of oh my god what are you even doing, because if you do, you also get to look at how far you've come.
June 25, 2014
Image: Je ne crois pas aux paysages by Melanie Delattre-Vogt
I've been irked a lot lately by a certain conversational line through the Not All Men/Yes All Women stuff, which is that women can get laid any time they want to. (I'm a little behind on reading this stuff, but then no one expects me (I hope) to have any idea what is going on in the world at large. I just recently saw the video for "Pretty Hurts" and had no outlet for my outrage because everyone else watched that eight years ago and already had the conversation, I was going to get frothy and red faced and stompy while everyone else looked away embarrassed. But still! Outraged.)
If we're going to keep talking about spinsters, we should also talk about the ugly girls. The Unfuckable Girls. Two essential books in the ugly girl library: King Kong Theory and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.
I am going to quote myself, which is obnoxious, but I've written on this subject before.
There are many lies you will hear when you're newly single. Your girlfriends — the ones that have been married since they were in their early 20s and can't have dinner without their husbands, meaning you are forever making reservations for three — will tell you that you'll find someone the minute you stop thinking about it. Of course they don't mean once you give up. The difference is the frequency with which you shave your legs, how long your ''Buy Ten Pedicures & Get One Free!'' card goes unpunched, and whether you allow yourself to be approachable on the subway or just bury your face in a book. Your (loving, well meaning) friends are setting up a Zeno-like paradox in which you are supposed to care enough to "turn on your inner light!" and actually brush your hair every day, and at the same time not care on a conscious level or be aware of the indifference of the male sex. After six months of Not Caring, if you lash out at their bullshit, well, that's is just proof that you do care and are thereby not following the rules. The other lie, which you will hear from your male friends, is that a woman can get laid whenever she wants. This is meant to be comforting, I think. A woman permits and denies access to sex, and all she has to do is want it bad enough. Bad enough to make the effort, of course. One can't just have a line of men appear on your doorstep just by trying to attract them all The Secret-like, although Craigslist can come in handy for that. But it, too, is a lie. There is such a thing as being unfuckable and female, whether because of weight or lack of femininity or age or poverty or that desperation you start to emit in waves after a few years without anyone trying to get into a dark corner. Because if you are unfuckable — and let's use the right word here — if you are a hag, you have no voice.
And speaking of being really out of date, coming soon: an essay I wrote about 50 Shades of Grey, holy shit I am not being sarcastic, that is a thing I did. I'll post here when it is published.
June 24, 2014
Image: Jessa Crispin's father, who now runs a pharmacy museum in Lincoln, KS based on his own personal collection of medical and medicinal antiques and rarities
Rebecca Silber reviews Taste by Daisy Rockwell for June’s issue of Bookslut. “As a connoisseur, Daniel [the main character] possesses an innate need to collect things. When he was younger, he started to collect tastes.” Passion and obsession are the driving forces behind collecting – for further reading on collectors who went too far, on necessary collections and cabinets of curiosities, here are a few suggestions:
His lack of personal smell has rendered him invisible. It has also given him a unique sense of smell. In Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the genius and the monstrous are intertwined as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of young girls and creating an orgiastic perfume.
John Laroche is The Orchid Thief in Susan Orlean's book based on her New Yorker story. With Laroche as her guide, Susan Orlean is introduced to the eccentric, bewitching world of orchid collectors:
Orchid collecting began in Victorian England as a hobby for the very rich--people with enough land for greenhouses and enough money to sponsor expeditions to where the rarest species could be found. The hobby grew so consuming that it was known in Victorian times as orchidelirium, because a sort of mania seized collectors. Many seemingly normal people, once smitten with orchids, become less like normal people and more like John Laroche. At an orchid show in New York last year, I heard the same story over and over--how one orchid in the kitchen led to a dozen, and then to a back-yard greenhouse, and then, in some cases, to multiple greenhouses and collecting trips to Asia and Africa and an ever-expanding budget to service this desire. I walked around the show with a collector from Guatemala. He said, "The bug hits you. You can join A.A. to quit drinking, but once you get into orchids you can't do anything to kick." Collecting can be a sort of lovesickness. If you begin collecting living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, and even if you manage to find them and then possess them, there is no guarantee they won't die or change. The botanical complexity of orchids and their mutability makes them perhaps the most compelling and maddening of all collectible living things. There are nearly twenty thousand named species of orchids--it is the largest flowering-plant family on earth. New orchids are being created in laboratories or discovered every day, and others exist only in tiny numbers in remote places. To desire orchids is to have a desire that can never be fully requited. A collector who wants one of every orchid species will die before even coming close.
Susan Orlean, "Orchid Fever" | The New Yorker
In a white, male-dominated art world, outsiders collecting outsiders are vital. Inspired by the feminist movement, of which she was a part of, Louise Rosenfield Noun made it her mission to collect works of art by women:
What has she proven by assembling this collection of art by women? It was never her intention to take a position and then find works that demonstrated her philosophy. In a 1990 lecture at the Des Moines Art Center, she described her goal:
The primary purpose of my collection is to gather a limited number of works that make a strong feminist statement about the quality of art produced by women. I do not aim to be historically inclusive, but I try to find works that can hold their own in any company.
Lea Rosson DeLong, "Louise Noun: A Pioneer Collector of Women’s Art" | Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2
In her essay on Jan Švankmajer’s Alice, a film that makes use of the director’s collection of odd objects, Tina-Louise Reid also talks about the alchemical nature of the wunderkammer:
Roger Cardinal indicates that 'the Romantic world-view envisions any given object as the threshold to the whole cosmos: the single modest thing represents a magical microcosm of the entirety of things, and as such sheds its anonymity and assumes a revelatory distinctiveness'. This view certainly existed as encapsulated by the wunderkammern of Rudolfine Prague. As the philosopher's stone serves as a microcosm of the world, the wunderkammer assumes an alchemical extension as it yields not only a sense of the world but also the connection of one object to another. The advent of wunderkammern marks the merge of society and science as well as featuring the fluid mix of fantasy with reality:
In containing both man-made and natural objects, the Habsburg collections of the second part of the sixteenth century, like other Kunstkammern, thus reflected the contents of the universe in all its variety... In containing samples of all that was to be found in the macrocosm, the greater world, the Kunstkammer can be thought to represent the world in microcosm.
Švankmajer is an avid collector of all kinds of objects that possess potentialities for his art. His cinematic power lies in arranging objects through a provocative juxtaposition that prods them to communicate their inner stories. The mundane can become magical through inspired groupings as Švankmajer reveals life in objects believed to be dead, inert or outmoded. Since children instil[l] toys and other objects with life through imagination, childhood serves as a potent setting for Švankmajer's object resurrections, with Carroll's Wonderland as the most advantageous backdrop.
Tina-Louise Reid, "Nĕco z Alenky / Alice" in The Cinema of Central Europe
Collecting implies organizing knowledge, and the wunderkammer was an expression of that. Horst Bredekamp looks at the history of collections and cabinets of curiosities in The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art and Technology.
June 23, 2014
"If I've understood you,the fact that you travel depends only on yourself, not on anything else?"
"I don't think I have ever quite known how such things are decided. I have no particular attachments. In fact I am a rather solitary person and unless some great piece of luck came my way I cannot really see how I could change my work. And somehow I can't imagine where any luck would come from: there doesn't seem much about my life which would attract it... And so you are waiting for something to happen?"
"Yes. I can see no reason why I should not get married one day like everybody else. As I told you."
"You're quite right. There is no reason at all why you should not get married, too."
"Of course with a job like mine -- one which is so looked down upon -- you could say that the opposite would be more true and that there is no reason at all why anyone should want to marry me. And so somehow I think that to make it seem quite ordinary and natural, I must want it with all my might. And that is how I want it."
"I am sure nothing is impossible. People say so at least."
"I have thought about it a great deal: here I am, young, healthy, and truthful just like any woman you see anywhere whom some man has settled for. And surely it would be surprising if somewhere there isn't a man who won't see that I am just as good as anyone else and settle for me. I am full of hope."
"I am sure it will happen to you. But if you were suggesting that I make the same sort of change, I can only ask what I would do with a wife? I have nothing in the world but my suitcase and it is all I can do to keep myself."
"Oh no, I did not mean to say that you need this particular change. I was talking of change in general. For me marriage is the only possible change, but for you it could be something else."
"I expect you are right, but you seem to forget that people are different. You see, however much I wanted to change, even if I wanted it with all my might, I could never manage to want it as much as you do. You seem to want it at all costs."
"Perhaps that is because for you a change would be less great than it would for me. As far as I am concerned I feel I want the greatest change there could be. I might be mistaken but still it seems to me that all the changes I see in other people are simple and easy beside the one I want for myself."
"But don't you think that even if everyone needed to change, and needed it very badly indeed, that even so they would feel differently about it according to their own particular circumstances?"
"I am sorry but I must explain that I am quite uninterested in particular circumstances. As I told you I am full of hope and what is more I do everything possible to make my hopes come true. For instance every Saturday I go to the local Dance Hall and dance with anyone who asks me. They say that the truth will out and I believe that one day someone will take me for what I am, a perfectly marriageable young woman who would make just as good a wife as anyone else."
From Marguerite Duras, The Square
June 22, 2014
Image: Study for a Pie Fight #2 by Adrian Ghenie
Weekend Reading Recommendations
Landed hard in Bucharest. Is there any other way to arrive in Bucharest? Then to feel like you've been dropped from a great height onto concrete? Probably not. Probably we should just be grateful for our uncracked ribs.
- Every week will just be a link to another Olivia Laing essay. Maybe. This week: In Loneliness in New York, Laing remembers the great artist David Wojnarowicz.
- Speaking of Wojnarowicz, here's an interview with him about his beautiful collection of essays, Close to the Knives. And yes to this: "I don't see anything wrong with anger. I think it's a healthy and transitory emotion."
- I talked a little last week about male protagonists in video games, how men don't like to play female video game characters, men don't like to read female protagonists in fiction, etc. And what a limited worldview, to just want to put yourself in a person who shoots other people all day long. It made me think of Roberto Calasso, from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony:
"In the beginning, the hero's intelligence is intermittent and limited to his role as a slayer of monsters. But when he manages to break the frame of his role, without abandoning it, when he learns to be a traitor, a liar, a seducer, a traveler, a castaway, a narrator, then the hero becomes Odysseus, and then, to his first vocation of slaying everything, he can add a new one: understanding everything."
Fuck you Calasso how you are always so good.
- The use of the phone in horror writing. Better than you think.
- And because I'm in Romania, we should pay attention to some Romanian writers. Here is Ted Anton's original piece on the murder of Ioan Culianu. He later expanded it into the remarkably good book Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu.
(When I ask Romanians about Romanian writers I should read, I get this face. This, it is best not to talk about this face. Almost nothing is in English anyway. Someone please give us a satisfying number of Eliade translations, thank you in advance.
Your random book recommendation of the week has to be Seven Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz. It was reissued by Fantagraphics recently, and it's all lush and beautiful, but I couldn't betray my beat-up Vertigo paperback like that. But if you haven't read it, his memoir-ish graphic novel about hustling on the streets, you really should.
June 19, 2014
Image: St. Gallen Library by Candida Höfer
Any place where one is surrounded by books can become a place of refuge. In June’s issue of Bookslut, Mairead Case beautifully conveys this feeling of comfort and safety offered by spaces like libraries and bookstores. For further reading on libraries and bookstores, here are some suggestions:
Famous for housing writers among its books, the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company in Paris needs no introduction. Jeanette Winterson met the owner, George Whitman, in 2007 and later on told his story – which is also the story of Shakespeare and Company – for The Guardian.
George took in the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Henry Miller ate from the stewpot, but was too grand to sleep in the tiny writers' room. Anaïs Nin left her will under George's bed. There are signed photos from Rudolf Nureyev and Jackie Kennedy, signed copies of Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.
Jeanette Winterson, Down and out in Paris | The Guardian
In France, there are still many bookstores that can pride themselves on not having succumbed to what Jeanette Winterson calls the “pay-n-go Anglo-Saxon business model.” The TV show La Grande Librairie has a weekly segment, “Le choix des libraires,” meant to highlight independent bookstores as well as one book recommended by the owner. For example, one of their latest discoveries is Transboréal, a bookstore that specializes in travel books.
Libraries can be much more than simply places to store books. Throughout the ages, the design of the greatest library buildings has celebrated the act of reading and the importance of learning. They have become emblems of culture, whether it be for an individual, an institution, or even a whole nation. This book tells for the first time the complete story of the development of library buildings from the first libraries, in ancient Mesopotamia, through the lost libraries of the classical civilizations, the monastic libraries of the Middle Ages and the lavish libraries of the Rococo, to the monumental libraries of the modern world. It shows how the development of library buildings illustrates the changing relationship of mankind with the written word and that across the world libraries have always been not just dusty repositories for documents but active symbols of culture and civilization.
From the Introduction to The Library: A World History by James W. P. Campbell (text) and Will Pryce (photographs)
The silence commanded by a library is captured by Candida Höfer in her photographs of libraries. Accompanied by an introductory essay by Umberto Eco, her arresting photographs of library interiors are collected under a simple title: Libraries.
One of the most famous libraries is a fictional one. Naturally, Borges’s infinite library from his Library of Babel remains timeless.
When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon. The universe was justified, the universe suddenly usurped the unlimited dimensions of hope. […]
At that time it was also hoped that a clarification of humanity's basic mysteries - the origin of the Library and of time - might be found. It is verisimilar that these grave mysteries could be explained in words: if the language of philosophers is not sufficient, the multiform Library will have produced the unprecedented language required, with its vocabularies and grammars. For four centuries now men have exhausted the hexagons... There are official searchers, inquisitors. I have seen them in the performance of their function: they always arrive extremely tired from their journeys; they speak of a broken stairway which almost killed them; they talk with the librarian of galleries and stairs; sometimes they pick up the nearest volume and leaf through it, looking for infamous words. Obviously, no one expects to discover anything.
Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel
June 18, 2014
Excerpt from Alastair Bonnett's Unruly Places
Between Border Posts (Guinea and Senegal)
Most border posts face each other. A change of signage, a different flag, a line on the road, all combine to signal that no sooner have you stepped out of one country than you have arrived in another. But what happens if you keep on opening up that space? A few years ago, with the help of hours spent blinking at the tiny fonts favored on traveler’s Internet chat forums, I found what I was looking for. Along the road between Senegal and Guinea in West Africa the distance between border posts is 27 kilometers. It is not the only unattenuated border area. The Sani Pass, which runs up to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho from South Africa, is the most famous. It’s a rough road, although much visited by tourists in 4x4s seeking out the highest pub in Africa, which sits near the top of the pass. The drama of the trip is heightened by the thrill that comes from learning that this is no man’s land. The South Africa border control, complete with “Welcome to South Africa” signs, is 5.6 kilometers away from the Lesotho border office. Another specimen is to be found in the mountainous zone between border posts on the Torugart Pass that connects China and Kyrgyzstan. Central America also has a nice example in Paso Canoas, a town that can appear to be between Panama and Costa Rica. It is habitually described as no man’s land because, having left through one border post, you can go into the town without passing through immigration to enter the other country. Some visitors relish the impress that the town around them is beyond borders. Partly as a result, Paso Canoas has developed a darkly carnival atmosphere, as if it were some kind of escaped or twilight place.
What these gaps reflect back at us is our own desires, especially the wish to step outside, if only for a short time, the claustrophobic grid of nations. We probably already suspect that it’s an illusion. Shuffling forward in a queue and making it past the passport officer does not mean you are, at that exact moment, leaving or entering a country. Such points of control exist to verify that you are allowed to enter or leave. Their proximity to the borderline is a legal irrelevance. Yet this legal interpretation fails to grasp either the symbolic importance of the border point or the pent-up urge to enter ungoverned territory. The fact that Paso Canoas is split by the Panama-Costa Rica border rather than actually being between borders doesn’t stop people from describing it as an “escaped zone.” Similarly, the steep valley up the Sami Pass is nearly all in South Africa, and the road down from Senegal into Guinea is always in one nation or another, but that isn’t how travelers experience it or even what they want.
June 17, 2014
Image: Smiling Mother with Sober Faced Child (Unfinished) by Mary Cassatt
We are pleased to announce the release of "Disappearance," our ninth issue of Spolia. It is available at our store for $5.
Table of Contents
Crime of Omission
by Ander Monson
The Lady, Vanishing
by Mia Gallagher
The Vivian Mire
by Dmitry Samarov
by Phil Sorenson
The Slow Forgetting of Your Dreams
by Oscar Collazos, translated by Jesse Tangen-Mills
The Truth A and the Falsehood B:
The Old Stage Set Coming Apart at the Seams
by Gary Amdahl
from The Sun & the Moon
by Kristina Marie Darling
Where the Dark is
by Geraldine Mills
by Breanne Fahs
by Olivia Cronk
by Kurt Hartwig
by Gus Iversen
Erase & Rewind
by Tina Pisco
by Michelle Bailat-Jones
by Clare Pollard
We will be posting excerpts and supplementary material on our Tumblr in the coming days and weeks. I think it is maybe our best issue yet, so we hope you enjoy it, too.
June 15, 2014
Weekend Reading Recommendations
Image: Toyen, After the Performance
- Hoa Nguyen wrote a series of posts about astrology and poetry, how each sign expresses itself in poetry. It's clever and interesting. It is not that nonsensical "Which Star Sign Should You Really Be?" stuff. (Really, Buzzfeed quiz that I spent 45 seconds taking? I should be a Gemini? Are you fucking nuts?)
Anyway, Nguyen's piece is so good, I thought about doing Reading Recommendations for Your Astrological Sign because I don't know why. Maybe I'll do it. You can write me and let me know if I should. Or, you can just hire me to read your tarot cards and chart and I'll help you with your writing project (or love life) and give personalized reading recommendations.
- This is a little old, but this story of discovering that an antique book they had bought was actually Nazi loot taken from the library of a pre-War Jewish home, and then trying to track down the rightful heirs, is pretty great.
- Joanna Bourke and Eva Illouz have new books out, we should be celebrating: The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers and Hard Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Bestsellers, and Society, respectively.
- Olivia Laing's great essay on women writers who drink too much, why are you even looking at me like that.
Random Book Recommendation, book you should know exists, book you should seek out: Poems Under Saturn by Paul Verlaine
Action and Dream have broken, nowadays,
Their primitive pact worn down by the centuries,
And some have found it disastrous, this divorce
Between immense blue harmony and Force.
Force, that once upon a time the poet bridled,
White-winged steed that dazzled,
Force, now, Force, it is the ferocious
Mad bounding Beast, and always
Ready for any carnage, for any devastation,
From this end of the world to the other one!
Action, once measured by the song of the lyre,
Drunken, disrupts, prey to the hundred thousand obscure
Deliriums of a boiling century,
Action, just now -- Action -- o pity! --
It is the hurricane, the tempest, the surging tide
In the starless night that will unroll and spread
Amid dull sounds, the red and green terror
Of its lightning bolts through a sky ajar!
June 14, 2014
Image: Taurus by Remedios Varo
I have some friends who work in video games, and so I read a lot and hear a lot about the debate over the predominance of male protagonists. (I don't really play video games, but I enjoy reading about them. I like the worlds, I like the imagery, I like walking around the rooms and looking at stuff and interacting with pretend people, but don't ask me to do anything in that world. Kill a guy or put together a puzzle? Yuck. No. I get anxious and irritated and hand the controls over to someone else and say, "Do that for me, will you?" I remember getting Myst with my PC when I bought my first computer [OLD] and whenever I actually had to do something that was a little bit complicated, I'd call in my little sister from down the hall to do it for me. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and, us both being sleepless folk, she'd be there, unlocking some new level for me or tracking down the thing I need before I can move on.)
I got really off track here.
Okay, so, there's this debate because all of the protagonists of video games are men, and if you try to create a video game with a female protagonist, you are going to have a hard time selling it. Why? Because dudes don't want to play as women, they can't relate. And a lot of the misogynist blame gets pointed at nerd culture right not because it's a little rabid over there. Look at the comments section on something like this, for example. It's a terrifying world. But come on. The literary world has the same problems, just played through at a different volume.
Working with Corinna Pichl, our new features editor here at Bookslut and managing editor over at Spolia, has been fun because she has sort of shaken up my complacency. I handed over an interview to her to approve, and her first comment was, when the author is asked to list all of his favorite writers and his influences, he only lists men. Which is a thing that happens everywhere. Read an interview with a male writer, his influences are almost always exclusively men. Maybe there will be a token lady in there, but for the most part, men read men. It was Corinna who said, Make the interviewer go back and ask him about women writers. It hadn't occurred to me to do that, I'm a little ashamed to say. I hadn't really realized, when we run one of those interviews with male writers listing other male writers, talking about other male writers and reading books with male protagonists, we're kind of perpetuating this idea that men read men because men are the universal, and women writers are for women. It's tiered. So now, when we see an interview like this, we send it back. Ask about women. If he says he doesn't have any women writer influences, ask him why the fuck not.
There are all of these statistics about men not reading women writers and trying to figure out why that is. About how women have to use initials or androgynous or masculine pen names to be taken seriously. That the cover art for women's book are just flowery, script writing nightmares that could easily be used to sell vaginal douches, because publicity teams have given up on trying to sell a female writer to a male audience.
This is boring. This is a boring conversation to have. Because it's idiotic but everyone is deeply entrenched and men have excuses and women have complaints. Also, I'm aware that I'm preaching to the choir. The men who read my website obviously read women writers or they wouldn't be here. Bookslut is a nice safe environment, and the male readers I do hear from are, you know, enlightened. Conscious. Hooray for that. I appreciate you guys.
I don't believe in hierarchy. Nor in page views. We cover what we are passionate about, and so we give the lead feature to the writer we find most important each month. This month it's a Mexican woman. We review the books we think are the best, or most worthy of attention, and this month that is six women and two men in fiction, three out of three women in poetry, and a bunch of men in nonfiction.
Same in Spolia. We seek out the best writers we know, and a lot of the time we are publishing more women than men. And men subscribe, they read the magazine. They read Bookslut, they read the books we cover on Bookslut. To me, it's not that hard, you read what is good, what is innovative, what shakes your world up. Sometimes that's writing by women. Sometimes that is writing by men.
And there are men who are entrenched, who refuse to read books by women or play video games with female protagonists, but for the most part, there are just men and women who don't think about it, who are told by the culture and by the literary establishment that the most important books are written by men, and so oh okay I will just read that. And literary magazines and publishers and book critics all reinforce that. It's part of the reason why I hate the VIDA statistics time of the year, because you see a lot of book critics making excuses, or pointing fingers at other publications or saying yesssss it's so terrible what ever can we do and then going immediately back to reviewing a disproportionate number of men. Or a publication that looked bad will do a special Woman's Issue! and then immediately go back to publishing mostly men in their "normal" issues. But because they put on the display of caring about this, no one looks at their behavior, their unconscious beliefs about male writing and female writing.
There was a time when I read predominantly male writers. And so what did I do, I started writing down every book I read, title and author, so I could see the patterns. And I started thinking, okay, so I really like the modernists, who are the female modernists who get left out of those definitive lists of the great modernist writers. Okay, Mina Loy? HD? Djuna Barnes? Etc.
I'll stop now, but I will say that I read an article that listed the greats of Surrealism, and there was not a single woman on that list. So over on the Spolia tumblr, I'm posting great female Surrealist artists, just in case you need a little direction on where to find them. That is the responsibility of those of us with an audience. To know and seek out and then display the people who are being ignored and forgotten. If you're just propping up those already in power, what the fuck are you doing with your life?
June 11, 2014
For June’s issue of Bookslut, Brendan Riley interviews Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel about her two books, Natural Histories and El matrimonio de los peces rojos (The Marriage of the Red Fish). With fossils as a metaphor for herself and animals as characters, Nettel continues the long tradition of personification, of using animals and plants as metaphors for the human condition. Here’s some further reading with (traces of) animals and plants:
John Mullan lists the best books in which fossils turn up. Among them: Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, which alongside Shelley Emling’s The Fossil Hunter, tells the story of Mary Anning. Katherine Bouton writes about these two books (that might be added to the Spinster Library) and asks why Mary Anning, an accomplished paleontologist who made important fossil discoveries, did not get the recognition she deserved. Predictably, the answer can be linked to her gender.
Katherine Bouton, "Tale of an Unsung Fossil Finder, in Fact and Fiction" | The New York Times
Ms. Emling cites numerous instances throughout Anning’s life of a scientist’s or an institution’s failing to acknowledge her role. As a contemporary wrote, “Men of learning have sucked her brains and made a great deal by publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”
A rigorous autodidact, Anning taught herself comparative anatomy by dissecting marine animals. She read as much scientific literature as she could find, at one point asking the British Museum for a complete list of its holdings. She cleaned and prepared her specimens so professionally that when a prominent scientist brought her ichthyosaur to public attention, he praised the preparation -- but credited the collector, apparently unable or unwilling to grasp that a girl could have been responsible. She documented her finds with skillful scientific drawings.
In an interview in Spanish, Guadalupe Nettel mentions J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip as an interesting predecessor to her El matrimonio de los peces rojos. Writing about his life and work, Joan Acocella focuses on Ackerley’s long-lasting passion for Queenie, the inspiration for My Dog Tulip.
Something that is hard to explain is why Ackerley fell in love with a female dog. He was decidedly misogynist, and yet he not only chose a girl; he stressed her girlishness. In his books, he speaks of Queenie’s coquetry, and of her jealousy, which he regards as a female characteristic. He describes her sexual anatomy in embarrassing (to me) detail. P. N. Furbank offers the theory that she was a needed substitute, in disguised, furry form, for what Ackerley really wanted: a woman. I don’t believe that. I think it’s more likely that what he wanted was just a piece of the feckless, date-cancelling boyfriend, Freddie Doyle (the incarcerated Johnny of “We Think the World”), who was Queenie’s owner when Ackerley met her. She was a female, and so Ackerley, in buying her from Freddie, acquired a female. Only when he learned to love her did he love her femininity.
Joan Acocella, A Dog’s Life | The New Yorker
This year at Cannes, Godard has revealed his long-awaited Adieu au langage (Goodbye To Language). A man and a woman, their inability to communicate, and a dog. From the synopsis:
From the human race we pass to metaphor.
This ends in barking
and a baby's cries.
Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014), Synopsis | Festival de Cannes
In Filip Florian’s The Days of the King, the cat Siegfried is a storyteller in his own right. Translations of his scratches on the furniture complete the tableau of personal and collective histories in a fictionalized 19th century Romania.
Going back to Guadalupe Nettel: in her short story titled Bonsai, plants become the double of humans, a mirror in which characters can recognize themselves.
One day, for example, I noticed that the gardener never paid any attention to the cacti. There they were, forgotten in their dry, coppery earth. Some standing upright like sentinels, others shaped like little balls, hugging the ground, assuming the circumspect position of a hedgehog. I approached their pot and stood observing them for a few minutes. There didn’t seem to be any movement among them, besides this rigid attitude as if on the defensive. […] They were so different from the other plants, like the expansive ferns or the palm trees. The more I looked at them, the more I understood the cacti. They must have felt lonely in this big greenhouse, without even the possibility of communicating with each other. The cacti were the outsiders of the greenhouse, outsiders who shared nothing with each other apart from that status and, because of this, their defensive attitude. “If I had been born a plant,” I realized, “I could only have belonged to this family.”
Guadalupe Nettel, Bonsai (translated by Rosalind Harvey) | Words Without Borders
June 10, 2014
Image: Two Sisters by Marguerite Zorach
I have just discovered Ulli Lust's Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life. It's a comic about her time spent hitchhiking around Italy when she was 17, and you can download an excerpt from the book here.
It reminded me of why it's important to have female travel writers, and why it's important not to just read the men. I was talking with a Romanian woman who, like me, has a lot of trouble standing still. And the first thing anyone will tell you when you're a woman heading out on your own is, that is so dangerous! Neither one of us wants to think of ourselves as a walking victim-in-waiting, but you can't entirely deny your vulnerability. And it is a different vulnerability than a male travel writer, men tend not to be at all aware of what a different world women travel through. (Because men don't read books by women? Just a thought.)
In Lust's book, it's not, oh, this is so dangerous, it's learning. Learning how to trust, how to dismiss fear, and when to filter your world down through this unwilling female vulnerability and when you don't have to. But also, how to hitchhike, how to have an adventure, how to get by on nothing, how to deal with a traveling companion who freaks out on you. And hearing those stories from other women -- and I'm dismissing yoga-style travel here, as well as those "I traveled when I was younger and immature and foolish but now I am a serious woman who is married and I own property like a good grown up" -- who have learned this stuff is not just helpful, but exciting and inspiring.
I was thinking about this, because I got a weird email. I was never so great with trusting my intuition in certain situations, but running around the world with your suitcase for a couple years, that is something you pick up. I met a guy in a bar eight months prior, and there were no red flags. There were a few light warnings -- is there an appropriate sports metaphor here? yellow cards? is that what those are? no fucking idea -- but nothing that made me concerned. They were so vague and minor that now I can't even think of what they were. And so I agreed to meet him for dinner later in the week.
But there was something in the email he sent to confirm dinner. Again, something just kind of minor, but it all added up to something heavy enough to set off my intuitive ping. (And I imagine that ping is exactly like this.) That ping said: don't fucking meet up with him, make your excuse and get out. And this was about a year after being on the road, and I had had enough weird shit happen to listen to that. I made my excuses and got out.
Only to be greeted this week with an email, calling me a "stuck up cunt" and "Who the hell do you think you are?" Eight months later. After a one hour conversation in a bar. And you know what? It cheered me up, so much. I responded to him:
"I'm glad to hear from you. A) Because I had completely forgotten you existed, and B) because I had felt a little weird canceling on you, that maybe I was just freaking out and I should have gone through with dinner. But actually, what you just did, it confirmed that my intuition was completely right! I was totally right to cancel on you and not go anywhere near you. I'm sorry that you are the person that you are, sending these types of emails, but I hope you manage to pull it together."
I have not heard back.
It's not helpful, to travel while being afraid just because you are a woman. It's not helpful to put your gender first in every decision, every scenario. But the only thing that safely replaces that is by listening to your intuition and then doing exactly what it fucking says, don't try to reason with it or ignore it for the sake of being nice or not seeming like a freak. But also by not listening only to your fear. You shouldn't be afraid of every man you meet in... I was about to type "Romania" but actually, I met that aforementioned motherfucker in Chicago, so there you go. The men in Romania have been nothing but lovely and kind, after I was told by many travel guides and websites and acquaintances that they'd all be trying to rape and rob and murder me, like all day long. Also that the dogs would want to give me rabies, but mostly they just want some of my sausage.
And so we need more women travel writers (in print), to write about this stuff and give their versions of being on the road. I'm excited to add Ulli Lust to the shelf and can't wait to track down her other work.
June 9, 2014
Image: Memorial in the former Yugoslavia
While waiting for a text, I mindlessly browsed through my inbox, a necropolis of mummified wants and despair. Most of them read, “Be there in a sec/five/ten,” in response to the perennial burning question of mine that is fueled by an endless supply of anxieties, “Where you at?”
Sure I’d go all Freudian and blame my upbringing for this borderline control freak streak. My mother is not your typical helicopter parent; she is a GPS satellite parent, The Drone before drones were a thing. It is ingrained in me that I shall know the whereabouts of my beloveds at all times, real-time as well as in advance, like the back of my hand, the veins on which coalesce into a landscape of muted desires.
Alastair Bonnett enunciates such desires in Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. In 200-plus pages, he encounters again and again the dynamics of and the interplay between place and space that, both physically and in our mind’s construction, is as complex as the human relationship to both.
And the search remains, well, wanting. As Bonnett readily admits in the Conclusion, “[The] paradox that emerges from the forty-seven disorientating places gathered in this book is humanity’s need for both mobility and roots… a dilemma that can never be neatly or completely resolved. The lure of escape and wanderlust is just as deeply implanted as its polar opposite, the desire to anchor oneself in a particular place, to know and care for somewhere that isn’t just anywhere.”
For this is the fundamental irony of the human condition: the consummation of the journey, namely the moment of the arrival, immediately renders the much-coveted destination the here and now that we cannot wait to leave behind. So we find ourselves forever on the road chasing a future, a desire that never gets fulfilled, only replenished.
Yet we persist. As we make headway, the vast, undistinguished, homogenous space coagulates into places. Fixed but not necessarily foundational, these coordinates frame our movement like grammar facilitates the exchange of meaning; they come to punctuate the epic of our own becoming. Opines Bonnett, “Place is the fabric of our lives; memory and identity are stitched through it... Place isn’t a stage, a backdrop against which we act out our lives. It is part of what we are.”
Place clothes us like a physical extension; the extent to our movement within an architectural structure or is largely delineated by its parameter. Hence the importance of border, the outline of our identity; which, as fluid as it is, becomes manifest in geopolitics. Bir Tawil, a 795-square-mile desert between Sudan and Egypt, is a natural barrier over which the two nations have struggled ever since the beginning of last century. By now its original inhabitants, the Ababda nomads, have already left the region, but the dispute over this no-man’s-land continues in heated terms. As Bonnett puts it, “Bir Tawil is one of the few places on earth where one of the key paradoxes of border-making is being explicitly played out. Borders are about claims to land, but as soon as you draw one you limit yourself. Every border is also an act of denial, an acknowledgement of another’s rights.”
We, a species of judgment, are keen to define things as well as ourselves in opposition to a contrived Other, the enemies that live amongst us, the devil under the bed. There are nearly two hundred Chitmahals, enclaves and “counter-enclaves (an enclave inside en enclave)” tucked in the border zone between India and Bangladesh. These enclaves are entirely left on their own devices to build and maintain their own infrastructure, if the local governments could afford to enforce regulations at all, which is rarely the case in those bubbles of poverty. Residents of Chitmahals are often treated worse than second-class citizens, constantly denied welfare and state assistance. They are made refugees at home because they incarnate the border that separates man’s self-interest from the rest of the world.
And then there are separatists who are conscious foreigners in their native land, insisting upon their difference. Quilombos, free territories established by runaway slaves, dot throughout Brazil, whose government recognized the legitimacy of such townships in a 1998 constitution. Ostensibly a celebration of historical heritage, “by referring to the quilombos as ‘remnants,’ the constitution was making appoint: it was recognizing their history but also dispatching them to the past. When does a place stop being a quilombo? When does it stop being defined by its past?”
All borders are palimpsests, and their authorship often disputable. After all, whether space is or isn’t a place depends on the context. Lined with rental RVs, Lot E of the LAX parking lot is known as the makeshift residence for pilots, mechanics and flight attendants between shifts. “One pilot with a house in Texas says it is just ‘a place to come and get ready for work.’ Yet like so many others, he is geographically trapped, a long way from work and a long way from home.” This temporary lodgment, started out as merely the space between two places, has gradually become an establishment in and of itself.
What is home, really, if not the place in which we are so firmly grounded and long for a distant destination, an alternative existence? Thus our fervor to explore and to succumb terra incognita: “as our information sources improve and become ever more complete, the need to create and conjure new places that are defiantly off the map also grows.” Disillusionment ensues when we find out that a faraway place that we have long held near and dear has never existed, as in the case of Sandy Island, a body of water seven hundred miles east of Queensland, Australia that has been erroneously labeled as an islet for centuries. For it delegitimizes fantasy and our right to dream: we need a future in order to ensconce in the present; we live off promises and potentialities of escape.
It is truly a privilege by planetary standard to reconcile these two antithetical desires, the assurance of a home base and the access to the unknown just below the horizon. The World, a luxury ferry that enables its residents to “tour the planet in private and isolated splendor.” With 130 $2-7 million apartments on board, it is “both the ultimate adventure and the ultimate secure community, catering to the two seemingly incompatible desires of the ultra-wealthy: to live in pampered seclusion and to drink deep of the very best the earth has to offer.” The rich on The World really have the best of both worlds.
But most of us cannot, literally, afford the freedom. As scathing as it is melodramatic, our humdrum domestic life can feel not much different from that of the inmates in Bright Light, a CIA safe house located in Bucharest, where “a basement with six specially designed cells, each one built on springs. The idea appears to have been that a permanent sense of imbalance would disorient inmates, though ironically the cells also had an arrow painted on the floor to indicate the direction of Mecca.” Here we find ourselves trapped in perpetual darkness, the unstable footing as our immediate vicinity, clinging to a faith grounded in a distant, unattainable direction.
June 6, 2014
Image: Office at Night by Edward Hopper
Editor's Note: I am still sick as fuck, and so I am cross posting this from Spolia
In the “Mind” issue of Spolia, Joanna Kavenna’s poetry captures the mundanity, the anonymity, the claustrophobia of office work. As well as the necessary wandering of the mind in such a context.
Office work can be stifling and mind-numbing. But in an effort to escape from that, it can also lead to some interesting creative projects. Or it can be the very source of inspiration for a book.
For Arthur Jones, one of the most ubiquitous office supplies – the post-it note – became his sketchbook during work hours. Eventually, that led to The Post-It Note Diaries, a collection of stories about the everyday from a diverse group of writers, illustrated by Jones’s drawings on post-it notes. Arthur Jones explains the origin of this collection:
The origin of Post-it Note Diaries starts a few years ago when I was working at painfully boring office. I was hired to design banner ads and supermarket coupons but the company was over-staffed so I spent most of my time pretending to be busy. To fend off the boredom, I started covertly writing stories in Microsoft Excel documents and illustrating them on Post-its. I found 3 inch yellow pads of Post-its to be perfect little sketchbooks and I could swipe hundreds of them at a time from the supply closet without anyone noticing.
Arthur Jones | Post-It Note Stories
In 2010, when the consequences of the Crisis were still very visible, Jennifer Schuessler was writing about the place of work in literature, from early 20th century novels to more recent ones, like Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End (2007) and Ed Parks’s Personal Days (2008), about which she writes:
In reality, these satires of late-capitalist office life have less to say about actual work than about the bureaucratic rituals and distractions surrounding it: the joke PowerPoint presentations, the endless forwarding of stupid YouTube videos, the proliferation of Orwellian corporate jargon. In this vision, a job may provide a kind of grim life-boat camaraderie, along with a paycheck, but the work itself is meaningless unto mendacious: a metaphor for the lies and illusions that underlie our economy, if not our civilization.
Jennifer Schuessler, Take This Job and Write It | The New York Times
The epigraph that opens Cubed is taken from Robert Walser’s The Job Application:
I am a poor, young, unemployed person in the business field, my name is Wenzel, I am seeking a suitable position, and I take the liberty of asking you, nicely and politely, if perhaps in your airy, bright, amiable rooms such a position might be free. I know that your good firm is large, proud, old, and rich, thus I may yield to the pleasing supposition that a nice, easy, pretty little place would be available, into which, as into a kind of warm cubbyhole, I can slip…
Robert Walser, The Job Application
In Marge Piercy’s The Secretary Chant, office work is the loss of identity. It is becoming one with the surrounding inanimate objects.
My hips are a desk,
From my ears hang
chains of paper clips.
Rubber bands form my hair.
My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink.
My feet bear casters.
My head is a badly organized file.
My head is a switchboard
where crossed lines crackle.
Press my fingers
and in my eyes appear
credit and debit.
My navel is a reject button.
From my mouth issue canceled reams.
Swollen, heavy, rectangular
I am about to be delivered
of a baby
File me under W
because I wonce
Marge Piercy, “The Secretary Chant” in Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)
June 4, 2014
Conversationally we keep wandering back to spinsters. Spinsters in my inbox, spinsters along the river, spinsters male and female wandering in and out of my life. We need a spinster library. A library of women who are able to fuck off at a moment's notice and go do her own thing. A spinster who is not afraid to travel alone because she knows which cities you can squat in, which cities you can get luxury hotels for the cheap, which cities has a lover she can call on, no matter what his or her relationship status. We have to remove this idea that it's all sad and lonely and rigid and dried up.
The making of the spinster: Washington Square by Henry James
First we have to puncture all of these silly ideas we have about love and relationships and how they are necessary to make an interesting life. That often requires getting knocked on your ass. But getting knocked on your ass can be a wonderful antidote to putting your faith in fairy tales again. I love in the adaptation of Washington Square, The Heiress, which is super good to have on repeat after a bad breakup, you should play it as you sleep so it goes subliminal, the breakup makes her give up on the chance of a relationship again, but it gives her magnificence. She might not be getting married any time soon, but she can take herself to Paris, you know? Once you can take yourself to Paris, the other stuff stops being as important.
What are you going to do with all of your new freedom?: Coco Chanel by Edmonde Charles-Roux, The Strange Necessity by Margaret Anderson, The Cruel Way by Ella Maillart
Why not build an empire out of hats? Why not have a torrid love affair with Stravinsky? (I mean, Stravinsky definitely did not look like this movie version, but still, why not?) Why not make a shit load of money and rule the world?
Why not change the written word forever? Why not seduce straight women? Why not move from Nowheresville, Indiana to Chicago to New York to the South of France? Why not befriend anarchists like Emma Goldman, wackos like Ezra Pound, why not call all of the greatest minds of your age your friends?
Why not buy a car and drive it from Switzerland to Afghanistan with your favorite female friend? Why not travel across China by train, by foot, by camelback, while it's forbidden? Why not go to India to study with the mystics and then go to Russia to report on the war with Japan? Why not compete in the Olympics while you're doing all of this other stuff?
Spinsters are the crones and hags, the ones who can see all. In Mrs Craddock, it's the spinster aunt who knows a bad match when she sees it, she travels the world on her own schedule and knows that marriage means the relinquishing of freedom. Also of her bank account.
In What the Bee Knows, Travers spills out decades of careful study, of mythology and fairy tales, of history and religion, in tiny little parables and essays. It's a remarkable book.
It doesn't mean there won't be children: Auntie Mame
And finally, a couple paragraphs on the subject from my upcoming book, which doesn't yet have a title because we are fighting it out.
In Celtic fairy tales, there are two roles for women: the bride, and the hag. The bride, she is so very beautiful that men give her what she needs. She moves directly from the protection of the father to the protection of the husband. She wants not. But god, is she boring.
The hag is the rejected, ugly creature. The woman who has to make herself wise, or just passively die on the side of the road waiting for someone to offer aid. She works for what she acquires, she seeks and finds wisdom through struggle. And she may know all of the secrets and understand everything that goes on around her, including the movement of the heavens and the language of the fish in the river and which god you need to talk to for which problem, she will always be physically repulsive.
No wonder the hag is forever trying to mess with the bride. No wonder she says, "Fuck you little girl, here have a poisoned apple." To just have the world on offer, rather than fighting and kicking and biting for it. And then to take it for granted, to just sit there waiting for it to come to you, for disrespecting it in that way, fuck that girl. Poison her, put her in a tower, pull her beautiful hair.
June 3, 2014
I am sick in Romania. It happens, I guess. Sometimes you go to Romania. Sometimes you get sick. I just can't help but think that my life would be better if these two things did not coincide.
Fun fact: Romania has the highest concentration of active Bookslut contributors as any other nation, except for the United States. I don't know why this is, but Romania has now surpassed the UK and Canada and Ireland and other places where you would assume our contributors would come from.
While I talk to myself in a feverish state and hallucinate just a little bit, you should catch up on our new June issue. No Romanians in this particular issue, but we do have a Bulgarian, so at least the Balkans are accounted for. (Is Bulgaria technically Balkan? Where the fuck am I anyway. There is often Guns N Roses playing, so I'm assuming we're in the Balkans. The Balkans or we have slipped through time and we are in my 1991 Kansas teenage bedroom.)
There are writers in this issue you need to know about, including Guadalupe Nettel, the amazing Mexican writer making her English language debut, Elvira Dones who writes about gender fluidity and is from Albania, and Gwendolyn Brooks who is from Kansas.
Also there is a piece called the Anne Carson Workout and it is maybe one of my favorite pieces we have published. Lightsey Darst, she is a delight.
And if you need me, I'll just be here on the floor. No really, it's fine, I'm sure it'll be fine.
May 30, 2014
In May’s issue of Bookslut, Sessily Watt pairs Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, suggesting we should think of these two novels not in terms of genre, but in terms of mode. The unreal mode. A mode that “plays with our accepted ideas of reality.”
The work of Shirley Jackson has lived for too long in the shadow of her -- at the time -- controversial short story, “The Lottery,” published in The New Yorker in 1948. We Have Always Lived in the Castle has lived for too long in a tiny box put on a shelf labeled “horror & fantasy.” For more on Shirley Jackson’s writing beyond “The Lottery,” here are some sources that bring her work to the surface, that make her work visible.
Joyce Carol Oates writes about the witchcraft of Shirley Jackson, with a focus on We Have Always Lived in the Castle and its (“wicked”) witch, Merricat, whose unique witchcraft becomes an expression of her marginal living:
Like other similarly isolated and estranged hypersensitive young-woman protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s fiction—Natalie of Hangsaman (1951), Elizabeth of The Bird’s Nest (1954), Eleanor of The Haunting of Hill House (1959)—Merricat is socially maladroit, highly self-conscious, and disdainful of others. She is “special”—her witchery appears to be self-invented, an expression of desperation and a yearning to stop time with no connection to satanic practices, still less to Satan. (Merricat is too willful a witch to align herself with a putative higher power, especially a masculine power.)
Elements from Oates’s essay are mirrored in Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to Castle: the absence of sexuality that only emphasizes the presence of an erotic subtext; Jackson’s own tendencies towards reclusiveness. In contrast to Oates, Lethem is more interested in looking past the witchcraft and any other paranormal elements:
Though she teased at explanations of sorcery in both her life and in her art (an early dust-flap biography called her “a practicing amateur witch,” and she seems never to have shaken the effects of this debatable publicity strategy), Jackson’s great subject was precisely the opposite of paranormality. The relentless, undeniable core of her writing – her six completed novels and the twenty-odd fiercest of her stories – conveys a vast intimacy with everyday evil, with the pathological undertones of prosaic human configurations: a village, a family, a self. She disinterred the wickedness in normality, cataloguing the ways conformity and repression tip into psychosis, persecution, and paranoia, into cruelty and its masochistic, injury-cherishing twin.
The New Yorker has published a couple of Shirley Jackson’s newly discovered short stories, “The Man in the Woods” and “Paranoia,” and has an interview with the writer’s son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, who speaks of plans for a new collection of her work, Garlic in Fiction. The interview focuses on Shirley Jackson’s interest in mythology and magic:
Shirley wrote in a wide variety of styles and voices. In “The Man in the Woods” she has created a story grounded in mythology, told like a fairy tale, with her typical hanging ending, though in this case the clues suggest pretty clearly how it will end. Shirley was very interested in mythology, and she was naturally drawn into the study of myth and ritual, which my father, Stanley Edgar Hyman, became so passionate about, refining his theories with Kenneth Burke and others at Bennington College, in the forties and fifties. In the midst of that, of course, Shirley wrote “The Lottery,” in 1948, bringing ancient ritual shockingly into the modern day. Burke often pointed out that, while Stanley was a serious scholar of myth and ritual, Shirley’s work embodied it.
Nicholas Rombes writes about the strange, unsettling darkness of Jackson’s novel The Hangsaman:
Reading Hangsaman is like entering a dark labyrinth, only to discover that you have always been [in] it, and that the novel has merely awakened you to this fact, something you have tried all your life to forget. How and why is this so? How does a book whose ostensible plot is as simple as young-woman-goes-to-college-and-awakens-to-herself assume gigantic, monstrous proportions in your mind? It’s impossible to say, of course; that’s the weird magic of the book.
It might be “the weird magic of the book,” or simply the good writing of Shirley Jackson. In her introduction to The Hangsaman, Francine Prose writes:
She’s an elegant prose stylist who expands and compresses language into complex, cadenced sentences, occasionally reminiscent of Henry James, of whom Jackson was apparently a fan.
Shirley Jackson, “the master stylist,” is celebrated by Nicholas Vajifdar, who writes about the eeriness of her prose and how that effect is created in The Bird’s Nest:
At first glance, she seems to be writing in a flat style, with a Strunk and White sobriety and forbearance. But then you hear the frenzy congealing underneath like a sustained, broken chord that, with its last note, makes your heart chambers expand like parachutes.
May 28, 2014
Image: Abstraction by Natalia Dumitresco
Another reason to go to Romania is of course Emil Cioran. I'm carrying A Short History of Decay along with me, it is maybe the 8th country I've carried it into. It is good for late night "what am I even doing?" moments. Actually, it's so horrible for those moments, so just inappropriate and diminishing that it somehow then comes around to being good again.
"What am I even doing, Emil Cioran?"
(Opens to random page, slams fingers down randomly onto a sentence.)
"Courage and fear, two poles of the same disease, which consists in granting an abusive sense and seriousness to life... it is the lack of nonchalant bitterness which makes men into sectarian beasts; the subtlest and the crudest crimes are perpetuated by those who take things seriously."
"Ok, thanks, Emil."
But one of my favorite travel books of the recent past was On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk, and he travels to Cioran's hometown. I love this book so much. The Cioran section is below:
"Infested with lice and placid, we should seek the company of animals, squat beside them for a thousand years, breathe the air of the stable not the laboratory, die from disease not medicine, keep within the borders of our wild and sink mildly into it."
All day, it blew from the south. Under the sky's blue glaze, the dry light etched black outlines on objects. On such days, the world is as delineated as a cutout. Look too long in one place and you could go blind. The air carries a dazzle we are unaccustomed to here. The African, Mediterranean light flows over the Carpathian range and descends on the village. The landscape is stripped, transparent. In the leafless branches you can see abandoned nests. High up, along the edge of a meadow burned to bronze, a herd of cattle. Then they have vanished in the woods, where it's still, dark, and where green brambles spread. The animals retreat a few thousand years, leave our company, return to themselves, until in a day or two someone finds them and drives them home.
"We should seek the company of animals, squat beside them." I read this in July. In August, I went to the village where Emil Cioran was born. Never able to accept that an idea is an abstract thing, I had to go to Rasinari. Across the gorgons, across the Ukrainian and Romanian Bukovina, past Cluj and Sibiu, I reached the southern border of Transylvania. Right after the last houses of the village, the Carpathians began. Literally. The way was flat, then immediately you climbed by cattle path, stopping to catch your breath every several steps. To the north, in a gray mist, lay Transylvania. The steep, warmed meadows about Rasinari smelled of cow dung. It hadn't rained for many days, and the earth exuded its accumulated odors.
A few days later we witnessed the evening return from the pastures. Along the road from Paltinis, in the red rays of the sun, came hundreds of cows and goats. Over the herds rose heat and stink, grizzled, wide-horned cows led the way. People stood in the open gates of the paddocks and waited. All this took place in silence, without yelling, without pushing. The animals separated themselves from the herd and entered their pens. They disappeared in the twilight of shaded yards, and the carved stable doors closed after them in a very civilized way. Enormous buffalo shone like black metal. Two steps of their equaled a cow's three. They were monsters, demons. The wet, quilled muzzles brought to mind some distant, sensual mythology. In a jerky trot, the goats came last. Piebald went best with motion. Goat reek hung over the herd. The asphalt shone from the cow slobber.
This was Rasinari, the town in which Emil Cioran was born and spent his first ten years. The sun fell vertically on the paved little streets, on the pastel houses, on the red husk of the roofs, and brought out the oldest smells. At first I didn't know what it was that hung in the air, that penetrated the walls, the bodies of passersby, the chassis of old vehicles. Only after a couple of days did I realize that it was the mix of animal effluvia. From locked yards came pig shit; the soil between the cobblestones had collected a century of horse piss; wisps of the stable rose from innumerable harnesses; from the fields came the choking air of pasture, from the gutters the cesspool seep of barns and sties; and one day in the river I saw entrails floating. The current was carrying the opalescent, flickering red in the direction of Sibiu. From the mountains the wind brought the sharp, acrid smell of pens -- a melange of trampled herbs, sticky, fat fleece, and dried green balls of excrement like stones. And occasionally a thread of hickory smoke in the air, a whiff of fried onions, a puff of gasoline fumes.
"It would have been better for me had I never left this village. I'll never forget the day my parents put me on the cart that took me to the lyceum in town. That was the end of my beautiful dream, the destruction of my world."
Now a tram goes from Rasinari to Sibiu. The line loops at the edge of the village. You sit on the steps between the bar and the cobbler. In the bar they sell vodka that tastes of yeast; it's thirty-six percent and cheap. Before the tram arrives, several men down a glass or two. Like that gypsy we kept meeting for a few days in different places. Once he was waiting for a bus to Paltinis; another time he was hanging around the station in Sibiu. A black felt hat on his head, a folded scythe and handle in his hands, an old knapsack on his back. It was August, hay-making time, and it's possible he was simply looking for work but couldn't find any or didn't want to, so he killed time, waiting for this to pass so he could go back to wherever he came from.
Mornings and evening we went to the pub on Nicolae Balcescu Road. You enter down a few steps. Inside, the flies flit and the men sit. We drank coffee and brandy. You could take the same steps to the barber, where there was an antique barber's chair. The place was open late, to ten, eleven, someone was always in the chair. We also drank beer, Ursus or Silva. From the street came the steady clop of horses. Sometimes, in the dark, you saw sparks from a horseshoe. Every drawn cart had a license plate. The shops worked late into the night. We purchased salami, wine, bread, paprika, watermelon. When the sun set, the shops glowed like warm caves. Our pockets were full of thousand-lei banknotes with Mihai Eminescu on them and hundred-lei coins with Michael the Valiant on them.
"Now at this moment, I should feel myself a European, a man of the West. But none of that; in my declining years, after a life in which I saw many nations and read many books, I reached the conclusion that the one who is right is the Romanian peasant. Who believes in nothing, who thinks that man is lost, can do nothing, that history will crush him. This ideology of the victim is my idea as well, my philosophy of history."
One evening we went down the mountain to the village. Rasinari lay in a valley filled to the brim with heat. I felt its animal proximity. The village gave off a golden blaze, but in the tangle of its side streets there was almost no light at all. The blinds, which during the day kept out the sun, now sealed the homes. It was once that way, I thought. Unnecessary things were not made; fire and food were not wasted. Excess was for kings only, their duty and privilege. In the square before the Church of St. Paraskeva, young people had gathered. In the dark, the gleam of chrome from their bicycles. Eighty years ago, little Emil spent the last of his vacation in the shadow of this very shrine. It was August then too, evening, and the boys teased the girls. There weren't as many bicycles, and the Hungarian rule still hung in the air, and a few people kept using the name Resinar or Stadterdorf. He would be leaving the next day and would never return.
Today, across from my house, four men gather wood. They pull to the forest edge stumps of spruce, stump by stump. When they have three or four, they load them onto a court. They work like animals -- slowly, monotonously, performing the same movements and gestures performed one hundred, two hundred years ago. The downhill road is long and steep. They used stakes to stop the cart. Even braked, the wheels slide on the wet clay. Wrapped in their torn quilted jackets and cloaks, the men seem fashioned from the earth. It's raining. Among the few things that distinguish them from their fathers and forefathers are a chain saw (Swedish) and disposable lighters. Well, and the cart is on tires. All the rest has remained unchanged for two hundred, three hundred years. Their smell, effort, groans, existence, follow a form that has endured since unrecorded time. These men are as primeval as the two bay horses in harness. Around them spreads a present as old as the world. At dusk, they finish and leave, their clothes steaming like the backs of animals.
I went to the veranda to look south again. A truly November dark there, but I was looking back, to last August, and my sight stretched across Bardejov, Sarospatak, Nagykallo, the Bihor Mountains, Sibiu, to reach Rasinari on that day at three in the afternoon, when we descended, the black-blue clouds thickening behind us. We went down and down, finally to that mercilessly beshitted field on which stood and lay dozens of red, gray, and spotted cows. Below the field the village began. The first houses were makeshift, scattered, resembling more a camp than a settlement. Over the road and river rose a cliff with young birches; they clung to the vertical rock with the aid of some miracle. Several dozen meters over our heads, a solitary man felled saplings with an ax. Then he tied them together in a knot and let them fall. These sliding bundles knocked stones loose, and the rattling plummet echoed through the valley. At the bottom, women and children waited to pull all this across the river and pile it into wheelbarrows. They were in no hurry. Along the road lay blankets, a campfire, a mangled doll. Their home was not far, yet they had set up another shelter here. Near the fire lay the remains of a meal, plastic bottles, mugs, other things, but we didn't want to pry. One clump of saplings caught halfway down the cliff, and the man slowly lowered himself to free it.
Rain began to fall after we were back inside. I sat at an open window in the attic, listening to the patter on the roof and on the leaves of the grapevine that filled the yard below. The pale mountains in the south darkened like a soaked fabric. A herd of white goats took cover in a thicket. I reflected that he would now be 89 and could be sitting where I sat. This house, after all, belonged to his family. Our host was Petru Cioran. He had Emil's books on his shelf, though I doubt he ever opened them. They were in French and English. He and his wife showed us washed-out photographs: this is Emil when he was eight, and this is Relu, his younger brother. The stock 50 year old man was proud, but every day he ran his store. He got up early, put crates in the van, drove to town for merchandise. At breakfast, we had a shot of slivovitz. It smelled like moonshine, was as strong as pure alcohol, and went well with smoked pork, goat cheese, and paprika.
So Emil could have been sitting here instead of me, could have been watching the rain wet the sacks of cement piled on the platform of the van parked in the street. The pavement shines, the smoke from the chimneys disappears in the gray haze, the water in the gutters swells and gathers trash, and he has returned, as if he never left, and is merely an old man alone with his thoughts. He no longer has the strength to walk in the mountains, nor the wish to chat with the shepherds. He looks, he listens. Philosophy gradually assumes physical shape. It enters his body and destroys is. Paris and traveling were a waste. Without them, things would have gone on a little longer, and boredom would have taken a less sophisticated form. From the kitchen on the ground floor comes the smell of heated fat and the voices of the women. The grapevines gleam and rustle in the rain. Then, from the east, dusk arrives, and the men assemble in the shed by the store. After the long day, they will be tired and dirty. They'll want a bottle of yeast vodka. The woman selling it will give them a thick glass, and they'll finish off the bottle in fifteen minutes. He will hear their talk, which becomes louder and faster, and smell the smell of their bodies through the foliage. The first man will give off tar, the second smoke, the third goats in a stable at the threshold of spring, when the animals begin to reek of urine, musk, and rut. The third will get drunk the quickest, and his friends will hold him up, prop him against a wall, with no interruption in the talk. A path of Carpaty cigarettes will be empty in an hour, and by then they will be drinking yellow beer from green bottles.
"My country! At all cost I desired to connect with it -- but there was nothing to connect with. Neither in its present nor in its past did I find anything genuine... My mad lover's rage had no object, you could say, because my country crumbled under the force of my gaze. I wished it were as powerful, immoderate, and wild as an evil power, a doom to shake the world, but it was small, modest, and without the qualities that make destiny." So wrote Emil Cioran in 1949, returning to his mind to his adventures in the Iron Guard.
The cows have disappeared into the woods. They moo in the December dimness. Romania Mare, greater Serbia, Poland from sea to sea... The incredibly stupid fictions of those countries. A hopeless yearning for what never was, for what can never be, and an adolescent sulk over what is.
Last year in Stara L'ubovna, at the foot of a castle, I overheard the jabber of a Polish tour group. The leader was a 40 year old moron in gore-tex and sunglasses. He knocked at the gate of the museum, which was closed at that hour. Finally he kicked the gate and told those assembled, "It should be ours again, or Hungarian. Then there would be some order!" Indeed. In this part of the world, everything should be other than it is. The discovery of maps came here too early, or too late.
I drink strong coffee and think constantly about Emil Cioran's broken heart in the 1930s. About his insanity, his Romanian dostoyevskyianism. "Codreanu was in reality a Slav, a kind of Ukrainian hetman" he would say after forty years. Ah, these cruel thoughts. First they devastate the world like a fire or earthquake, and when everything has been consumed and dashed into tiny pieces of shit, when there is nothing around them but desert, wilderness, and the abyss before creation, they throw away their self-won freedom and submit to a passionate faith in things that are hopeless and causes that are lost. Exactly as if trying to redeem doubt with disinterested love. The loneliness of a liberated mind is as great as the sky over Transylvania. Such a mind wanders like cattle in search of shade or a watering place.
I did finally return to Rasinari. Before the house in which he was born stands a bust. The house is the color of a faded rose. The wall facing the street has two windows with shutters. The facade is done with a cornice and pilasters. The bust itself is on a low pedestal, Cioran's face rendered realistically and unskillfully. A folk artist might have done it, imitating refined art. The work is "small, modest, and without qualities" aside from its resemblance to the original, but it suits this village square. Every day, herds of cows and sheep pass it, leaving behind their warmth and smell. Neither the wide world nor Paris left any mark on that face. It is sad and tired. Such men sit in the pub next to the barber and in the store-shed under the grapevine. As if someone made his dream come true, granted his final wish.
- Copyright, Andrzej Stasiuk, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
May 27, 2014
In a wonderful little coincidence, I'm on my way to Bran's Castle (the inspiration for Dracula's castle) just as it's going up for sale.
The lawyer handling the sale said, "If someone comes in with a reasonable offer, we will look at who they are, what they are proposing, and will seriously entertain the idea." Well, then! My proposal will be something along the lines of the Literaturhaus of Sex and Death (won't even have to change the name despite the change of venue). You'll all come to Romania, yes? I mean, I know that when I told friends I was going to spend some time in Bucharest they all said the same thing: "Rabies." Bucharest has dogs. The dogs bite you. The dogs maybe have rabies who knows, you have to get the rabies shots. This is maybe the best publicized thing about Bucharest tourism ever. But otherwise it's pretty nice over there.
(Plus, have you ever heard someone speaking Romanian? It's deeply sexy, I don't know why, they could be telling me the price of eggs, and I'd be like, "Do you want me to take my pants off now or later, either way I'm up for it.")
So let me see what I can make as an offer. I have like $200 in foreign change, easy, I also have a 5 Swiss Franc coin, that has to be worth about $1,000,000 in the current exchange rate. That could at least be a down payment. I've got a jar of Hungarian honey and some herbal liqueurs made by Bavarian nuns. I'm kind of running low on everything else as I'm traveling. But once they look at who I am, I'm sure they'll be swayed. And by "who I am" I of course mean that I am a person with absolutely no qualities that would make me attractive to a real estate seller, but surely these are men of letters, and they are not going to hand over the property to anyone who can pull out $135 million and turn it into some sort of tourist freakshow right? Right.
May 25, 2014
Image: Nijinsky by Leon Bakst
You take a risk, when you write about travel, about mixing things up. About experiencing something new and saying, look, this is how they do things here, isn't that weird, when in fact it's just a weird thing that happened once here and then never again. You can mistake coincidence for characteristic.
But it's happened in front of me four times, all right? So it has to be a thing.
I've been going to a lot of dance performances here in Budapest. I used to want to be a dancer, and was deeply serious about it as a child, so I will go see just about any dance performance when I'm traveling. I'm less likely to go see ballet, although that was and remains my dance practice of choice. But I think I chose ballet because I am secretly a masochist, not for any aesthetic value. Ballet, classical ballet, I find so dull, as I'm uninterested in ballerinas. It's the fragility, the otherworldliness, I get bored. I know how difficult it is to do what the ballerinas are doing, and I know the deformity of the body it causes, but maybe that's why I can't appreciate it. I can't think, oh, how gracefully she floats, I think about her big toenail coming off, I think about the way your bones throw off spurs from the pressure, I think about the discipline and the pain. It's hard to see past that and see grace.
I go to see dance to see the men. Men are frequently not given much to do in classical ballet. Here, I will present the woman, I will lift her up, maybe I can get in a few nice leaps across the stage before the girl squad comes in prancing. But when I was a kid, I had a Baryshnikov VHS tape when I was a kid, I kind of imprinted on male dancers, or maybe just on him, that contradiction of strength and fragility, grace and brutality. One doesn't want to see that reigned in with something like La Syphilde. One wants it to fucking go.
So I bought tickets to pretty much every performance during a dance festival I could find where male dancers were on the promotional posters. And there was this night, at a contemporary filtered through Hungarian folk dance performance, that took my breath away. Folk dance does not deny that you are a body, or try to disguise that the way ballet does. Ballet always seemed like an attempt to transcend the body, somehow expressing divinity. But sometimes you need mud and flesh.
And oh, men are wonderful, aren't they? The strength and the power when it is combined with that openness, the way they would power themselves across the stage and then drop to the floor, their chests pulsating with their heavy breaths and their racing hearts, like the breasts of frightened birds. And the way they were there for the women, and the bravery of those women. The women fell face first, they were caught. They flew across the stage, they were caught. The women dropped from heights without hesitation or fear and why would they, they knew they would be caught.
But then the Budapest thing, the thing I will claim is a Budapest thing, because it happened all four nights. And the nights when I was here before. The audiences of Budapest do not applaud like um normal people do. It is scattered at first and then they clap in time with each other. Until it becomes a thunderous beat, everyone at the same tempo. Not in an "encore" kind of way, this is during regular curtain call. Everyone finds a common beat, and it slowly increases in speed, until suddenly the clapping halves its speed and everyone complies and slows down, and then the tempo increases until it drops back again, a rise and fall. And you can stomp your feet along with it, or you can think I am just going to clap like a normal person, this is madness, but it's infectious, you soon match your clapping to the audience's.
It has a word, vastaps, the Iron Clap. Why is this a thing? What does it say about the culture? Who knows.
I do wish there were better writing about dance. I read a theory that the reason good dance and good writing doesn't coincide because there is something about a person who needs an audience there as they perform, they can't sustain a long writing spree, off in a room for so long by themselves. I suppose that is why actors are also such terrible writers. (For the most part.) But Nijinsky, and his loony diary, will always have my love. Nijinsky and his beautiful thighs.
And for more men, there's always our Masculinity issue, which includes writing by Friend of Nijinsky, Leon Bakst. I thought about the men in that issue as I was watching the dance, the strength, the power, the openness. It made me dizzy for the love of men.
May 23, 2014
A piece of mine about ghost writers has gone up at the Smart Set.
Since the nation's beginning, American politicians have looked to others to give a written form to their ideas, and since the beginning the writers have had a complicated time letting their words go. Alexander Hamilton wrote for George Washington, and when his audience praised Washington as being so thoughtful, so erudite, Hamilton's wife fought for years for her husband to be credited. It was so shocking, so hurtful for early Americans to learn Washington did not write every word he spoke. Now, however, we come to every publication, every speech and press release knowing that every celebrity and politician has a team to manage and control the public perception. President Obama may have written his own books, but the second, written in campaign mode, may as well have been ghostwritten, as managed and bloodless as it feels. The Audacity of Hope lacks the passion and bite of Dreams from My Father. But then maybe the politician Obama was ghosting for the man the second time around.
May 22, 2014
Image: At Kranzler's by Jeanne Mammen
"But in terms of what you ask, in terms of interviewing people, I always start from the position that the person I'm interviewing is more interesting than I am. It seems like a daft thing to say -- of course David Bowie is more interesting than you are -- but some interviewers just can't manage to properly adopt that position. And if you are the sort of person who thinks yourself cleverer than Seamus Heaney, say, or Paul Auster and you'd like to attempt to prove your theory on TV or radio, then you're in the wrong job.
"Now, I appreciate that I'm in quite a unique position. I'm not working in print these days and I was never a critic so I do enjoy a rather different role. A print journalist might get ten pages out of someone like Lou Reed not cooperating, but my job is to make sure the person talks -- and so I'm lucky. In many ways, I'm a facilitator as much as an investigator and I'm certainly not there to showboat and be a wise-ass. Again, simply because my role doesn't call for aggro. I'm not, after all, grilling politicians or world leaders. I'm talking to artists and I genuinely want to hear what they have to say about the work, about the creative process. So I just talk, try to extract the wisdom and, with any luck, we all might learn something."
That's from last month's interview with John Kelly, conducted by Jesse Kohn. I had commented a few months before that we were having trouble finding good interviewers, and Kelly's comment seems to be the key. Humility and genuine interest.
Which is maybe the problem of writers interviewing writers, it can be a very competitive industry, and there's always that potential problem of, I'm going to show you how smart I am. You're more successful than me? I'll show you why you don't deserve it. And I can do a good interview, but only in very limited circumstances. People who are really good at the art of the interview, kind of no matter who their subject is, they possess a gift.
It's funny because the thing that writers complain to me about the most is not a bad review, it's a bad interview. The interviewer who clearly didn't read the book, the interviewer who is doing all of these gymnastics to one-up them, the interviewers with agendas, the ones that make you feel like you're at a bar, trapped in a terrible conversation and cannot get away and you feel your lifeforce draining from your body. And yet the magic of conversation, of chemistry between two people, that's really wonderful when it's done well.
After I posted about the difficulty of finding great interviews, we found some great interviewers, I'm happy to say. This month is particularly strong in that area, with Coco Papy's interview with Breanne Fahs, author of the new Valerie Solanas biography, which ranges from this kind of inspiring tirade about contemporary feminism's inability to tolerate radicals to a really compassionate conversation about alienation and mental illness, and Tom Andes's talk with Moira Crone, author of The Not Yet, as they talk about how American betrayed New Orleans and environmental devastation and political fiction writing, are particularly strong.
Reading tarot cards has, weirdly, made me a better interviewer, I think, although there is still room for improvement. But it's about slowing down, letting other people's stories come out, rather than trying to be witty or trying to steer the conversation in a direction you decided on in advance. It's the moments that surprise you that are the strongest in an interview.
May 20, 2014
In May’s issue of Bookslut, Coco Papy interviews Breanne Fahs about Fahs’s biography of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto and subject of the film I Shot Andy Warhol. Decades ahead of her time, Solanas paid dearly for her radicalism, but her incendiary thinking and uncompromising attitude helped lay the groundwork for radical feminists in her wake. The SCUM Manifesto, which advocated for the destruction of men, continues to shock and delight (as well as enrage) readers to this day; AK Press last year issued a new edition of the manifesto with an introduction by Michelle Tea.
For more on the life and legacy of this incendiary activist, here’s some further reading:
“Feminists who want feminism to be respectable are afraid the ‘radicals’ will go ‘too far.’ That is, manhating gives the show away -- we aren't merely liberals; our complaints are drastic; we're demanding, not asking; we're breaking the mold in the most thorough way possible; we really mean it.”
-- Joanne Ross, “The New Misandry” | The Village Voice
Feminist science fiction author Joanne Ross wrote this essay in defense of misandry in 1972, arguing for misandry as a way of reacting to and exposing the normalized oppression of women by men.
“But my attraction to misandry not only had to do with being a young woman who has been used, abused, and in some ways destroyed by men but also a frustration with what seems to be a faddish feminism, whose tenets seem to propose that the only thing you need to do to be a feminist, or participate in feminist activism, is reblog a picture of an unshaven vulva on your blog and embellish your jean jacket with a pin that says ‘Consent is sexy!’”
-- Madeleine Alpert, “Where’s Valerie Solanas When You Need Her?” | xojane.com
Madeleine Alpert reflects on the value of rage and man-hating in an age where feminism has become increasingly commodified and compliant.
“Firestone’s recollection of Solanas in Airless Spaces -- a book categorized as fiction but widely considered to be a memoir -- is haunting, in no small part because of Firestone’s own sad demise, 24 years later. Hers contained eerily similar elements: an unpaid rent bill leading to a grisly discovery by a building superintendent.”
-- Barbara Spindel, “They Got Angry--And Then They Went Mad” | Dame
Barbara Spindel draws parallels between the lives of Shulamith Firestone and Valerie Solanas, both radical feminists ahead of their time who suffered from mental illness and fell victim to social defeat.
Last but not least, cartoonist Gabrielle Bell has a highly enjoyable four-part comic, “Manifestation,” on adapting the SCUM Manifesto and the influence Valerie Solanas has had, in some ways unwittingly, on her life.
May 19, 2014
Ami Tian has been writing wonderful blog entries this past year, giving us context and supplementary reading for the items in our new issues. But with new work obligations, she has to step down. We'll miss her and her smarts.
But that means we're looking for a replacement. Someone who can compile some links to essays, interviews, videos and other etc, relating to what we're discussing in the issues or with one of our side projects. Like so.
May 18, 2014
Image: Krakow Monster by Pierre Boaistuau
I met a young woman at the Katowice train station. I was trying to find the platform for the bus to Krakow, but it was eluding me. People assured me it existed, but I couldn't seem to find it. I asked at information, she waved her arm in the direction of where I just had looked. As I took out my ticket to stare at it once again, hoping some lost bit of wisdom would reveal itself this time, I heard a woman at the information counter ask the exact same question I had just asked and receive the same arm gesture.
I approached. "Are you looking for the bus to Krakow, too?" She nodded. "Maybe we will have more luck if we look together?"
I don't normally talk to people when in transit, I prefer my head in a book and a go fuck yourself growl if someone tries to sit next to me, but I try to keep my eye out for women traveling solo. There are so few of us. We have to help one another, when two of us exist in the same space coincidentally.
Finally. We sat on the bus together, she was German, traveling for the first time on her own. She works at a kindergarten. She asked, did I want to go on this walking tour of Krakow with her? It's for Polish food, you eat a lot and walk around and see the city. Sure, I said.
She canceled at the last minute, texting from a broken down tram that would keep her from making it back to the city center in time. I decided to go anyway, I had nothing else to do that afternoon.
But here's the thing about Krakow: a lot of its tourism draw is Holocaust tourism. From Krakow you can take the bus to Auschwitz, and so a lot of tourists come to Krakow for that reason. There's also a tram tour of Krakow, a Schindler's List tour. Spielberg filmed that here, and so follow along as we show you the sights of a Holocaust film! And Schindler's List is already kind of Holocaust tourism, smeared as it is with sentimental gunk in many places. So, a shallow Holocaust tour of a shallow Holocaust film... I was having trouble not barking at the trams all painted up in bright colors, TAKE THE SCHINDLER TOUR it blared. I am sorry to be a terrible snob, but I am, so let's all just accept that reality and move on.
I was waiting in the square, watching these trams go by, waiting for the food tour to begin, and an older American gentleman just starts talking at me. These men exist everywhere, the men who Tell You Things. I met one in Budapest who was not a writer but started telling me About Writing. (Then he tried to lean in for a kiss and so I shoved him away from me, it was a weird night.) So this man starts telling me about the Holocaust.
In a desire to get him off subject, I asked him, "What brings you to Krakow?"
"Auschwitz. I always wanted to see the sights of the massacre of the Jews." (These are his exact words, I wrote them down they were so strange.)
"So are you going to Germany?"
"No. I still have not forgiven the Germans."
"Oh, are you Jewish?"
All right then. I abandoned the tour during the pierogi stop because this man would not stop "correcting" the tour guide. She was talking about borscht, and he said, "Which is served cold." "No, we eat it hot." "But it is a cold soup." "No, it is traditionally hot." "Well, in AMERICA..." I felt like I was going to set him on fire if I didn't get away from him, so I ditched.
Some Polish writers you should be reading:
May 16, 2014
We are putting together the new issue of Spolia, debating the Daphne Award winners, conducting and transcribing interviews, and so perhaps we can direct your attention elsewhere for today?
Perhaps these are of interest to you:
You will lose your whole day after reading Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy to videos about Reptilians and Illuminati on Youtube, it is inevitable.
Sinclair Lewis and his Minnesota hometown have made up after that whole hate-hate Main Street relationship. Well, "made up" except that his ghost still throws glasses in the hotel bar.
And your totally random book recommendation for the day: The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis. Fairy tales, murder, opera, international romance, it is magic from start to finish.
May 14, 2014
People maximize the trait brought into play by the polarity on which the schismogenic interaction takes place, developing a sort of hyper-specialization. If the dimension in question is, for example, "strength/weakness," some will learn how to become stronger, while others will become skilled in weakness. As Bateson and systemic psychotherapy have shown, this is a risky process in terms of individual and social adaptation. Those who position themselves inside the culturally approved extreme of a relevant semantic dimension will develop a genuine excellence, because they will maximize a socially valued quality: courtesy, generosity, beauty, etc. They run the risk, however, of being one-dimensional. Every excellence is accompanied by some deficiency. In order to maximize certain qualities, a person has to neglect others. Hyper-specialization in one conversational context makes people unsuitable to take part in other types of conversation. As a result, participation in "specialized" forms of conversation that processes of polarization lead to, reduces their capacity to deal with changing circumstances and situations in life. Suffice it to consider those situations that maximize semantic dimensions that can only be fully achieved in youth, such as beauty or physical fitness. The very passing of time may become problematic. All languages are in fact multidimensional from the semantic point of view and the individual who tries to reach fulfillment in a single dimension -- the "pure type," to use Guardini's terminology -- ends up over the edge in disaster. It is what we learn from many myths in various cultures and from the experience of daily life itself.
The dangers are obviously even clearer for those who find themselves in a position with a negative cultural connotation. These people also externalize clearly defined qualities. Their position demands a considerable outlay of energy and much specialized learning. One learns to be passive in the same way one learns to be active. Being bad can be just as hard as being good. It takes a certain determination to be ugly in the same way it does to be pretty. But if a person positions himself at the negatively viewed extreme, as well as being exposed to the same risks as his polar opposite he also receives a negative self-valuation: his excellence has a negative value. Nature obviously helps to produce differences but it leaves the game open.
Nicholas Vajifdar was right. Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family is amazing, and should be read even despite that terrible title.
May 12, 2014
Daphnee Nominee Spotlight: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Ninety years after James Baldwin’s birth, this New York Times article chronicles the attempts by high schools to bring Baldwin back into the curriculum, where his work has made fewer appearances in recent years. In competition with other seminal works by Black authors, Baldwin’s frank and at times inflammatory perspectives on race may have made him unpopular at a time which many people prefer to think of as postracial, and in which Black classics must fight for the few token slots available on a whitewashed reading list. But although Baldwin may have fallen out of favor in the classroom, from Tumblr to Buzzfeed James Baldwin’s words continue to resonate with young people today. So we’re turning the Daphne Nominee Spotlight on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which collected two essays on black-white race relations in America: “My Dungeon Shook -- Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” and “Down At The Cross -- Letter from a Region of My Mind.” The latter essay, which comprises most of the book, sparked controversy across the nation when it was originally published in The New Yorker.
Baldwin would later come under attack from all directions for his politics (too radical, not radical enough, too capitulatory, too stubborn), his sexuality (Eldridge Cleaver accused him, by virtue of his homosexuality, of possessing a “racial death-wish”), as well as the quality and content of his later writing, but complexity, nuance and self-assurance that made The Fire Next Time unattractive to its critics at the time have secured its relevance today.
For more on James Baldwin’s legacy and the resounding impact of his writing, here are a handful of perspectives from critics, and an interview with Baldwin himself:
“Was this man the author, I wondered to myself, this man with a closely cropped ‘natural,’ brown skin, splayed nostrils, and wide lips, so very Negro, so comfortable to be so? This was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country.”
-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Fire Last Time” | The New Republic
Published in 1992, this essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines Baldwin’s trajectory as a spokesperson for civil rights advocacy and how his work and opinions, as well as their reception, have fared over time.
“Baldwin laced his writings with explicit warnings against the chill of self-exposure. However, it is not just because of his self-restraint that he remains a powerful tutelary presence in the uses of the first person. Though he found in his writing a permanence of self that the insecurity of his social condition could not threaten, his own experience interested him mostly for what it told him about the larger world.”
-- Darryl Pinckney, “The Magic of James Baldwin” | The New York Review of Books
In his in-depth criticism of James Baldwin’s collected essays, Darryl Pinckney examines the political tensions within Baldwin’s writing, the admiration and derision he received from his contemporaries, as well as Baldwin’s roles as a both preeminent literary figure and cultural thinker of his time.
In 2013 at the 50th anniversary of The New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney delivered this speech telling the story of how his personal views of Baldwin evolved throughout his lifetime.
“These essays are amazing acts of intellectual and emotional courage. I got off the plane here in Greenville and called my agent (who knew ‘Jimmy’ as she called him) and asked, ‘Does anyone still write like this?’ The question was rhetorical. No one does. No one had. No one will.”
-- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Is James Baldwin America’s Greatest Essayist?” | The Atlantic
Forty years after the book’s initial publication, Ta-Neheisi Coates reflects on his exhilarating experience reading The Fire Next Time.
“An essay is not simpler, though it may seem so. An essay is essentially an argument. The writer’s point of view in an essay is always absolutely clear. The writer is trying to make the readers see something, trying to convince them of something. In a novel or a play you’re trying to show them something. The risks, in any case, are exactly the same.”
-- James Baldwin interviewed in The Paris Review | The Art of Fiction No. 78
James Baldwin sits down with The Paris Review to discuss his craft, the considerations specific to writing fiction and nonfiction, race and literature, and much more.
May 11, 2014
Speaking of spinsters and women's hotels:
On the floor above the dormitory were the rooms of the staff and the shared bedrooms of those who could afford shared bedrooms rather than a cubicle. Those who shared, four or two to a room, tended to be young women in transit, or temporary members looking for flats and bed-sitting rooms. Here, on the second floor, two of the elder spinsters, Collie and Jarvie, shared a room as they had done for eight years, since they were saving money now for their old age.
But on the floor above that, there seemed to have congregated, by instinctive consent, most of the celibates, the old maids of settled character and various ages, those who had decided on a spinster's life, and those who would one day do so but had not yet discerned the fact for themselves.
This third-floor landing had contained five large bedrooms, now partitioned by builders into ten small ones. The occupants ranged from prim and pretty young virgins who would never become fully-wakened women, to bossy ones in their late twenties who were too wide-awake ever to surrender to any man. Greggie, the third of the elder spinsters, had her room on this floor. She was the least prim and the kindest of women there.
On this floor was the room of a mad girl, Pauline Fox, who was wont to dress carefully on certain evenings in the long dresses which were swiftly and temporarily reverted to in the years immediately following the war. She also wore long white gloves, and her hair was long, curling over her shoulders. On these evenings she said she was going to dine with the famous actor, Jack Buchanan. No one disbelieved her outright, and her madness was undetected.
At the top of the house, on the fourth floor, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls had their rooms. They were filled with deeper and deeper social longings of various kinds, as peace-time crept over everyone. Five girls occupied the five top rooms. Three of them had lovers in addition to men-friends with whom they did not sleep but whom they cultivated with a view to marriage. Of the remaining two, one was almost engaged to be married, and the other was Jane Wright, fat but intellectually glamorous by virtue of the fact that she worked for a publisher. She was on the look-out for a husband, meanwhile being mixed up with young intellectuals.
From Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means, set in the May of Teck Club, house for young ladies
May 9, 2014
Image: Piero Nanin, La dama e il cicisbeo
Do you remember that book Sex at Dawn? That book was weirdly misogynistic and kind of empty, despite my agreeing with its general premise. The premise was: lifelong monogamy is not only difficult, but should probably not be the standard for a good relationship. Their reasoning came from a not great understanding of evolution and anthropology, though, and there were a few weird statements about how women were probably happier in traditional societies where they could have sex with a lot of men, not somehow understanding that women were often considered communal property, and were not allowed to choose who they slept with. A woman was expected to sleep with not just her man, but also his brothers and so on. Also, there was a very strange, deeply sexist section saying women requiring sexual fidelity were hurting the health of their men and potentially killing them. There was no equivalent impassioned plea for men to allow their women to have sexual freedom as well, no guilt tripping or flat out bullying.
The point being: we are deeply socialized creatures, and even when we think we are being iconoclasts and breaking with the past, our ideas about men and women are deeply clouded by our upbringing and culture.
In the last installment of our conversation about Against Marriage, Bruce Benderson and I discuss the hormonal and evolutionary justification for male promiscuity, the attempts to control women's sexuality, love triangles and we hatch a business scheme. (Part one, part two.)
When I was reading Against Marriage, I was reminded about all of those books set in New York City, beginning of the century and later, set at women's hotels and apartment buildings specifically for single women, places like that. And there's no infrastructure in our largest cities anymore for single people. You have to be cohabitating to be able to afford New York City or London. It is a shame that young energy is being drained from our cities because they're too expensive to experiment, you have to work hard to be able to afford it, and there are no cheaper alternatives for single people.
I couldn't agree more. I think there's one more women's hotel left in New York City. They were always associated with strict morality, a man couldn't come up to your room, all that. But it's just what you said: it was an inexpensive, safe place for single women when they came to the city. But what I mourn is the bachelor hotel. In which unmarried men could live in these buildings, which are all now SROs [single room occupancy]. They were always clean, there was a restaurant on the first floor and they would deliver meals to you if you needed them to, someone would come in and change the sheets and vacuum once a week. For the entire time I was growing up and the early part of my young manhood, I assumed I was going to end up as a writer in a bachelor hotel. I'm not very domestic, and there's all kind of adventure associated with the bachelor hotel. It's often the setting of a noir, detective novels. I always assumed I'd either spend my bachelorhood that way or somehow exploit the post-colonial atmosphere and go to Morroco like Paul Bowles did, be well taken care of and also learn about a new culture. That's a contaminated desire. I see the fault in it now. But when I was growing up I assumed I would be able to do one of those two things and both of them are gone now.
In W Somerset Maugham novels, he wrote about being a struggling writer in his youth, and the guest houses in London he lived in. Just a tiny room in a house, with a desk and a chair and an overbearing but kind landlady who made his meals. It sounded wonderful! Why did we get rid of that?
I don't know why. I wrote a very acerbic novel that is partly about that subject. It's called Pacific Agony. It's a faux travel guide about the Pacific Northwest by a very acerbic narrator who wants to live in a bachelor hotel, and that's portrayed against the ultimate in futuristic America. All of those things are gone and family values are everywhere and the white population triumphed over everything, and there's a Protestant ethic to everything. My theory is that civilization used to be oriented towards the sun, like all the Latin cultures, Rome and Greece and all that. The moment the Northern tribes, which is Western Europe and North America, it was all of those sensual comforts and all of those rule-breaking possibilities went away with the Protestant mentality.
I think that's why it's gone. Suburban, Protestant American culture has infiltrated the entire world. Either oppressed it or taught it how to imitate its culture. When the world was controlled by the Catholic mentality -- I know these are gross generalizations -- there were all kinds of opportunities for rule breaking because you weren't in direct contact with God. You could dance on the table and have affairs and then hand it over to your priest and he would negotiate over it with God. But the Protestant believed that his confessor was attached to his back and he would confess to things he did as he did them. That doesn't create a very sensual environment or free behavior. I think that's why all those places disappeared. They created too much opportunity for breaking the rules and creating your own identity. A lot of those people in bachelor hotels and women's hotels were very eccentric. Like Marianne Moore, the poet who remained a maiden all her life by choice. That's just not going to cut it in a uniform society where everything is controlled by the same culture. And the gays are helping with that.
So are the feminists. It's also that we have such a shallow base of history, for whatever reason, we think marriage is just the way we organize society. There's a lack of imagination about the way these things can work.
That's now the only formula. Gays were the last hold out. Especially gay men who had such trouble maintaining stable relationships. Lesbians were better at it. Why were they better at it?
Are they? Well, women are still raised to believe their value is relational, rather than singular. Women are still indoctrinated with this idea of who is around you defines you, rather than I define myself.
You don't think there's a hormonal element?
I think it's possible, but the socialization is so thick with women. The part of your book that said, hold on, I'm about to say something potentially offensive about women, it's true, I was offended! With what you said about women policing and controlling male sexuality [in relationships, particularly in marriage].
Do you not think that's true?
I do think that's true! Often, at least. But I think it's because of several different factors that weren't given room. I felt you were being accusatory rather than understanding why that might be.
You want to know something? I'm not just saying this to be nice, I stand corrected. I only gave an evolutionary explanation. This idea that, it makes sense for men to have impulses to be more promiscuous, to preserve the species. And that's a conservative argument, about biological imperative, and you're right, I didn't talk about society.
My idea of this is that we have no idea what the so-called "natural" state of female sexuality is, because it's the most repressed thing in culture. All of Western civilization has been built around controlling women's sexuality. We think we have gotten rid of some of those bonds, but obviously we haven't. As I was arguing with the book as I was reading it, I was thinking about how women are raised to believe that their value comes from the man who loves them and wants them, but also growing up in this fear of male sexuality. Because a quarter of women have been sexually assaulted. Even if it wasn't you, everyone has a sister or a friend. That kind of fear makes you want to control and manipulate the source of that fear. I think that plays out in marriage, too, the fear of male sexuality.
Controlling male promiscuity isn't going to protect you. Probably if we looked at statistics there would be just as many female infidelities and male and my entire argument would collapse. It is possible. It's refreshing to agree with criticism, all I've been doing is defending myself against stupid criticism. I see your point. What I like best about what you say is that conditioning is so deep, we'll never get to what the biological imperative is. How could we possibly know? We'd have to raise someone in a closet.
I want to know what else bothered you!
Going back to the freedom of the Latin culture, or the Latin view of marriage. The idea of having emotional prostitutes. I want to bring that back.
I'm all for it!
Another feminist argument that bothers me is that all prostitution is wrong, that it exploits all women and turns woman into a consumable object. But I'm like, everyone needs to be touched and listened to. My problem is that there aren't men for hire. Certainly there were times in my life when I probably could have benefited from having someone on call.
God, I think it should be part of social security. As you get older, it's less likely that you'll be touched. It should be someone's job to touch you. Even if it's just to caress you. And social security should pay for it.
Now that you said that, I agree with you.
Oh, Latin cultures, that the freedom was mostly male, I'm guessing that's what you disagreed with.
Yes. I understand why your book was tilted towards men and their freedoms, but I wanted the other chapter about women's freedoms as well.
I do know that my best friend in France, she claims that just as many women have affairs in marriages as French men do. That's what she claims. But other than that, I'm very unaware of what female sexuality in France is like. I don't like French machismo. I don't like their idea of what an appealing woman is. And I've gone to many dinner parties with people from my generation where the woman actually did act like a '50s housewife, served the meal and was standing up and walking back and forth the whole time we were having a discussion with the men. It blew my mind. I hadn't seen it since the late '50s. But in general, there are sexual freedoms in Latin cultures for both genders that don't exist here. Mitterand's wife didn't seem to mind the mistress standing next to her at her husband's funeral was that because she knew she had to do it, or because it allowed her a certain freedom? Maybe the freedom it gives women is the freedom from sexual contact sometimes.
I shared a man with another woman for a while. It was a nice relief, oh, your emotional needs are going to be met by someone else for now, and I can have this space for my own needs, to work or travel or whatever. It's an arrangement we should be more open to in America, because infidelity is it, it's over. It's so shocking that somebody would dare to stray.
Those scenes, they're all the same. In films, you'd think they were written by the same scriptwriter. The moment when one spouse catches the other out in infidelity, it's the biggest thing. It outweighs the life they've had together, the children they have, everything. And there's absolutely no way to come back from it without being incredibly sorry about what you did. What I want to know is, have you ever had two men taking care of you?
How did that work?
It was more of an ego problem, it hurt their ego when I went between them. In our culture, we expect our spouse or romantic partner to supply everything for us, to be the source for all comfort, all emotional attachment, and it is exhausting and it is unfair. To have that possibility to take that pressure off, we should be able to consider it.
I'm involved in a relationship with a much younger person, because he's so much younger I give him total permission for free sexuality because I'm realistic and I knew that I couldn't have sex that many times a week, it'd kill me. So it's a relief for that. But I'm a little disgruntled that I don't have the same right. Even though I don't want it, I want someone to say, you can have the same freedom that I have. He doesn't say that, he said if he ever saw me with anybody else he'd throw a wine bottle at their head. He's intensely jealous, even though he has all that freedom. That bothers me theoretically. I should be more practical about it. If I had total fidelity, I couldn't satisfy it.
I thought you were a lesbian, in wanting to be the cicisbeo, wanting to be that for women.
Oh sure. I mean, I wouldn't have sex with them, but I'm totally willing to get into a tux and talk dirty to them, take them to the opera and then get a pizza, I can do that. I like women, I like paying attention to them.
We should do a tour together of the watering spots of Europe, we can make this profitable.
May 7, 2014
Image: Spinster Sisters by Rochelle Weiner
One of the most wonderful little bits of Bruce Benderson's Against Marriage is his introducing us to the cicisbeo, the emotional male prostitute. A woman, locked in a marriage with a man not of her choosing, would then hire a male prostitute of sorts. Not necessarily for sex, although that did sometimes happen, but for going to the opera with. For emotional attention. For conversation and art. He was called a cicisbeo, and his account of the cicisbeo's history was just another reminder that it's only very recently that we expected our spouse to fulfill all of our needs, emotional, sexual, financial, and so on.
We forget there are other ways to do things. We forget our own histories so very easily.
In part two of our conversation, we talk about the dangers of assimilation, the crimes of marriage, and ever more about spinsters. (Part one begins here.)
Bruce Benderson: I loved your wanting to be a cicisbeo [in a previous blog post]. A cicisbea!
I am so attracted to that idea. I will either do that or I will hire one for my own use, or I can do both at the same time.
I'm going to try to fix you up.
Where did you discover that history?
It just came along when I started researching marriage. There are academics who have written whole books on it. It's a specifically Italian phenomenon. The Germans and the British when they witnessed it were so disgusted by it, thought it was so immoral and an insult to masculinity. I didn't know about it until I started researching marriage. And I researched marriage the way someone collects ammunition.
Let's go through the crimes of marriage. Just the history of woman as property, who is passed from father to husband. Then there's legal manipulation of a person's sexuality. What else should we put on this list?
I know a good one! It's oneupmanship between nations, often leading to the battlefield. When one heir to the throne is fianced to another, it has nothing to do with love it is to form an alliance. Those alliances often led to war. It's a political tool.
I think if there are going to be marriages, they should be arranged. As I pointed out, this whole love marriage thing has only been associated for a tiny fraction of its history. When marriages were arranged, my grandparents came from that context, you didn't expect that your main source of happiness was going to be your husband or your wife. It was a practical thing, and it's going to help you survive better, and there will be an extra hand for tasks around the house, and families would be strengthened by it. Isn't it funny that there were so few divorces from arranged marriages and the second you can choose people are constantly tossing them over as if they have no value at all? Even my parents couldn't imagine divorce, they're scandalized by it. Because their parents had had arranged marriages. They come from an immigrant background. Russian Jewish.
At what point did the love aspect of marriage take over from arranged?
In a couple of books I read, marriage for love has only existed since the middle of the 19th century. It blooms with the Romantic age. And it starts to decline really dramatically after World War II, that's when the divorces start.
That's the strange thing about the switch over to love and passion. We all know now that marriage doesn't last a lifetime, but we all go through the big production anyway, and then we act surprised when it doesn't work out. It seems like this really illogical spiral people get stuck in.
Here's another thing I wonder: Jews in Germany, right before World War II, a lot of the more sophisticated, intellectual urban Jews said, I feel much more German than I feel Jewish. I'm an equal member of the society and I'm accepted by it. Now let's take some gay men, who have a high chance of being promiscuous men, because I think men are hormonally promiscuous and the only thing that stabilizes them is the presence of women. If a man is married, he still has these urges but he doesn't do it because he wants to be a good person, doesn't want to hurt his family, or hurt his wife. When two men are left together, quite often it becomes a promiscuous situation. What happens when two men get married and adopt some children and continue that promiscuous lifestyle? And their neighbors who thought they were being so generous and wonderful to let them into the marriage equation, see that they're not upholding some of the conventional rules. Like, don't sleep with anyone else. What happens when a neighbor sees John on his way to pick up little Billy from school stop on his way at a sex shop? And then add a little economic strain, add a few scandals, and they're going to start suspecting them in ways they used to suspect them. Are they going to corrupt my children? Should they be around children? What are they doing to their own when sexuality is such a big part of their lives? Let's put up a big fence. Or, worse, it could lead in the direction of the way Jews were exiled from German society. I know that's overdramatic. But I worry about the fate of gay men. The moment you kiss the heel of the boot of your oppressor, even if that oppressor accepts you and makes you part of the crowd, you're always going to be a second class citizen. That's the culture that did horrible things to you, and now you're joining it.
The other thing that makes me nervous is that the single people will become the old maids and mama's boys and the Peter Pans and spinsters of the future, and now we even have our homosexual brothers to look at us that way.
To take your first point, I think that was why it was so frustrating on the feminist front, how could these women not see that "family values" are not feminist values? You can have a child without becoming a fucking monster, but for whatever reason, assimilation became the goal rather than changing the mainstream. As long as I get my place at the table, even if the table is covered in shit...
I know! That's what I can't understand! They hypnotize themselves. I have not seen "family values" mentioned in the same paragraph as gay marriage in any same sex text, it's almost as if, well, marriage has nothing to do with family values, that's those people on the far right. I think they're repressing those associations. What do you think of after marriage? You think of family. What do you think of after family? You think of family values. Not here. Marriage is a blank license for them that will award them these rights, and it has absolutely no affect on them beyond that, on their lifestyle, that is what most people will say now. It's almost like mass hypnosis.
It's the same from the feminist angle. I don't understand, having read the last 200 years of feminist theory, and I don't understand how we got to this point, where we are just commenting on the culture, blogging about the television shows we like and don't like, rather than hacking away at the structure with a fucking axe.
The beginning of that was when the women's bank opened in the 1970s in New York. I immediately opened an account because I wanted to support the feminist movement. But that's exactly the same trajectory, they joined their enemies, hoping to change their enemies' attitudes in some way. There are other less visible things that happened with feminism, which goes back to my idea for my book Old Dames. What kind of image of woman came out from the feminist effort? Someone who is attractive and athletic and always looked young. And they all remain sexual until they're put into coffins. That's the idea. The whole idea of vitality got lost as feminist input gained attention.
We all do yoga and talk about our orgasms. That's feminism.
I assume you're not married.
No, not married.
And no children?
I am a spinster aunt, I have two nephews.
Are you close to them?
No. They're young and I don't find young children interesting. Which is a terrible thing to say! But I told their mother, when they hit 13, 15, send them to me in Europe, I'll take care of it.
How wonderful! That'll be like Charley's Aunt and all those old films. You'll be their Auntie Mame! That kind of happened to me, on a mild level. I never went to visit my nieces, maybe once every five years. The suburban culture they lived in made me uneasy. As children grow up, and even those who aren't close to them, if they're useful to their identity they absorb some of it. One of my nieces sort of started to become like me, alienated like me. As a young adult, I started to hear from her more and more. That was my strongest effect on her, growing up. We're still close.
What did you learn from your spinster aunt?
My spinster aunt was protective and I was a kind of sissy. She was the one I would run to for comfort. My mother was deeply involved in politics and community work, and I adored her but she wasn't home a lot. My parents had a feminist marriage. My father was a lawyer, and my mother would leave after many meals and my father would do the dishes and put them all away so she could go to a meeting. She was always coming home later from a meeting than she said she would, which gave me great anxiety. It was always my aunt who comforted me. My aunt was so ridiculously sweet that I remember I identified her with Melanie from Gone with the Wind. She was someone who never criticized anyone, who never had an argument with anyone. I idealized her, as almost a madonna figure. Someone who at their core was generous, sweet, and you could run to in any circumstance.
But what happened was all the sisters lived to be real old, one of them lived to over 100, my mother lived to 98, and my favorite aunt lived to 93. When she was dying, my mother would forbid me to spend more than a few minutes with my aunt. She was getting decrepit. Essentially my aunt died, almost alone. There were visits almost daily from my mother and her niece, but I was never able to give her back what she gave me. I still feel guilty about it.
She wasn't a clever or witty person, she was an infinitely kind person. I know that's not fascinating.
May 6, 2014
Image: Sleeping Juno by Karl Bryullov
Marriage is problematic. That is not a controversial statement to make. Its long history is mostly a history of oppression and treating women like they are property. It was a business deal and a way to manage money and inheritance, and it was not a decision made by the participants, it was a contract arranged by the parents. Only in the last 150 years or so has marriage had anything to do with love and passion, and yet redefining a marriage as an emotional bond rather than a legal one has not fundamentally changed its nature. The rules remain the same (if you give me your sexual fidelity I will give you access to my bank account), the legal arrangement remains the same, and the institution drags its ugly history behind it like a diseased tail.
My first thought when reading Bruce Benderson's chapbook Against Marriage was, FINALLY. Finally someone is clearly and passionately attacking this arrangement, from an historical, political, and philosophical angle, as a gay rights activist and a feminist. Because marriage, despite looking for a while like it might be tossed aside to let in new ways of arranging families, participating in romance, raising children, has actually gained power in the last few decades. The pressure to marry is enormous, especially for women. And then the whole self-help culture wants to make sure your relationship is arranged exactly like everyone else's -- any deviation (polyamory, triangles, communal living, even long distance relationships) are seen as expressions of childhood trauma or low self esteem or some other form of madness.
(I am in a long distance relationship, it is wonderful. But when I tell someone that for the first time, 80% respond with either "You know he's probably fucking other women, right?" or "God, that sounds miserable." It's amazing the horrible things people will say to you when you do something differently than they do it. See also.)
I've been writing and thinking a lot about spinsters lately, including this recent essay. So I wanted to talk to Benderson about why he's against marriage, what the response to his book has been, and what the alternatives are. And also: how great are spinsters? Spinsters are great. The first part of our conversation is below, another installment will run tomorrow.
I was reading about this book I was really interested in, about a woman who spent a decade or whatever being single, without being in a relationship. And she wrote this book for women, as a counter to all of this pressure women receive from the culture, that we must be in relationships, we must get married. But then I saw in her bio that she was married now, and I lost all interest in it. The goal is still marriage, no matter what.
Bruce Benderson: You should have seen that in my generation. If you weren't married with two kids by 28 you were a major failure. You're an old maid already! Everyone got married between 18 and 22 when I was growing up.
But shouldn't that experience radicalize you? I guess it can go either way, radicalize you so that you understand that this institution of marriage and the pressure to get into it is a bullshit construct, or it can make you desperate to get yourself locked away into a marriage.
That's the traditional attitude. I had an aunt who was the only sister who wasn't married. She was just one of my favorite relatives. I really loved her. It was like, she was always extra baggage. This summer, who's going to take her? Is she going to sleep on our fold-out couch or your fold-out couch? Not grudgingly, but it was like, if the building was burning I would be saved before her. She came last. Oh, we forgot about Aunt Lil!
It always bothered me, because I thought she had so much value. Then she got married at 47 and suddenly she had an identity and a household and someone to appear at things with. I don't think it would have ever occurred to her that there was any other option.
The spinster aunt is a great literary figure, but a great person to have in your life, I think.
I think so, too. Especially if you're different.
Actually, that brings up an idea I had. I'm like a big film nut. For years I've been thinking of writing a book called Old Dames. Before World War II, in 80% of films there were major grandmother and maiden aunt characters. The films were not centered around the person, they were asexual, obviously. It would have taken hours to get the corset off. But they were the wisest, quite often. They were the ones who would give the heroine advice, or they were the ones who would remain calm in a crisis.
What happened to that character? Shouldn't feminism have made that character more interesting rather than making her disappear? Now it's Jane Fonda, who can still compete for her son with his wife. That's what happened. All of that wisdom and step back from society so that you can value it disappeared from film. I have some very evil ideas about why that happened.
I would love to read that book. When I was reading Against Marriage, I kept thinking about feminism. You wrote about how the gay movement stopped thinking about anything other than marriage equality, every thing else was a distraction, I kept thinking about feminism.
Oh me too.
How did that happen with feminism? Instead of dismantling marriage, all the feminists got married. Oh, but it's different now! Except, it's the same.
Isn't it amazing they both went in a conservative direction? Feminists said, "Now we can be the evil people who oppress others, we can be lawyers and judges and bankers." Instead of saying, how do we convince men to become softer, all the women just became harder. It really bothered me.
What bothers me horribly, I just had the misfortune of writing a blog for the Huffington Post, and there are over a hundred comments saying I betrayed the gay movement and I am a dangerous presence. Their arguments over and over again are the same thing: Although I don't think that marriage is a good institution and it has a checkered past, it will immediately get us rights. Suppose the Tea Party said, "We are going to stay exactly the same, but we're going to give you full gay rights, would you please all join the Tea Party?" Does that mean they would? I think they would!
It's so out of the culture, out of the conversation, the idea that there is another way to live, other than marriage. I was trying to think, after I read your book, who else had written about this? All I could think of was the Laura Kipnis book, Against Love. That was it as far as a political view about this institution. It's not that marriage is still around, it's that marriage has gained power in the last couple decades.
I know! It's reversing, and gays are helping. I can't predict what's going to happen, but I'm glad I'm not going to be around that many decades to see it.
Why do you think it's so far out of the conversation at this point?
I'm not sure. I'm absolutely amazed by it. What they all said in response to my article was that it was the quickest, easiest way to guarantee equal rights. When I asked, what about domestic partnership? Their answer was, separate but equal has never worked. And I said, but maybe it would be one more standard, if people chose domestic partnership and refused to get married.
In France, at a certain point, more straights were going for domestic partnership than marriage, and they were far ahead of gays for domestic partnership. 90% of applications for domestic partnership were heterosexual. And still, half the population today are not married. All these well known politicians are having children out of wedlock. So what's the problem?
I live in Germany, and it's the same thing, no one gets married anymore. And the politicians realized, oh, it doesn't matter, it's not a crisis, we don't need to try to encourage marriage, it's fine.
All they needed to do is provide inheritance rights and the rights to visit the dying and take responsibility for estates and all of these rights that are protected by marriage. And then it could have been done in a much more objective way without all of these horrible associations. I believe that the symbolic is more powerful than the factual. The minute you participate in something that has a certain historical meaning, you're not going to be strong enough not to be affected by that meaning. Symbol is insidious. It affects your subconscious.
May 5, 2014
Image by Vali Myers
I am in Prague, eating dumplings and reading Graham Greene. That is an obvious sentence because, what else would one be doing in Prague and also, one should always be reading Graham Greene, so. I am aware, though, that I am in Prague 19 years too late for that to be interesting.
(Not only do the wonderful people at Deutsche Bahn get you to and from places in Europe cleanly and efficiently, their staff includes people who will sit next to you on the bus and tell you things about the Kingdom of Bohemia, which is pretty special.)
While I'm here, Bookslut is brand new, and it's a pretty great issue. We have a piece on the artist Vali Myers, alongside a call for a radical wing of feminism, by Valerie Solanas's biographer Breanne Fahs:
Something has to radicalize you; something has to push you toward that as a political solution or identity. Valerie Solanas didn't want to be a feminist, I think, because the early feminist movement was plagued with liberal sentiments and ideologies. Early NOW did not want to deal with 'the personal is political' (a phrase which came later in relationship to radical feminism) and issues of sex, marriage, the money system, and so on; they wanted to petition and lobby and make incremental change. They were liberals, and Valerie despised liberalism. As Valerie wrote, 'If SCUM ever marches, it will be over the President's stupid, sickening face; if SCUM ever strikes, it will be in the dark with a six-inch blade.' We can read this as literal, or as a sort of mentality, a position from which she is arguing that we can't just preserve the status quo by asking for 'equality'; we have to destroy the foundations of inequality. There's a difference, and it's something we as feminists today still don't deal well with. We are very interested in what I call 'PR feminism,' a sanitized, nice, friendly, happy version of feminism that relies upon assimilation, liberalism, and openness. Valerie called it a 'civil disobedience lunch club.' While I do believe that principles of connection, friendship, and even love have a place in the feminist movement, I also believe that radical social change requires us to question everything, down to the level of how and why we connect with others, how we understand the category 'women' at all, how we imagine a place for outrageousness.
And as the Daphne Award deliberations continue, The Forgotten Twentieth Century column talks to itself about The Sailor Who Fell with Grace from the Sea. (I'd be most likely to be found under the "Skeptic" half of that conversation.)
As always, there's lots more.
May 2, 2014
In this month’s issue of Bookslut, Mary Mann writes about the diaries of Alice Dunbar-Nelson and the value, both personal and political, of keeping a diary. Mann notes that Dunbar-Nelson, as well as her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin, “all set aside precious time to write about themselves, for themselves -- a bold declaration of self-value in an era when society's value of women was effectively nil.”
For further reading on the art of writing about one’s self, here are some reflections on autobiography:
“For the woman autobiographer the major question becomes how to see one's life whole when one has been taught to see it as expressed through family and bonds with others. How can she convey its authenticity when linguistic convention subsumes the female within the male? How can she construct the life history of someone other than a sex object whose story ends when soundly mated?”
-- Jill Ker Conway, “Memory’s Plots” | The New York Times
Jill Ker Conway provides a brief background of women’s autobiography in the West and writes about the genre’s appeal to readers, as well as its challenges, in the first chapter of When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography.
“Which has the greater claim to liveliness, reality, truth? The ‘disorderly’ narrative or the ‘highly toned artificial’ one? Are the well-wrought and the truthful opposites, or can they be allies? And is apparent disorderliness (the escape from others’ narratives into one’s own unnarratable truth) as politically or personally liberatory as it claims to be?”
-- Emily Cooke, “The Semiautobiographers” | The New Inquiry
Emily Cooke’s fantastic essay on the “new semiautobiographers” (who include Dodie Bellamy, Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus, Sheila Heti, and in certain ways, Alison Bechdel) poses an array of thought-provoking questions on what qualifies as “bad” writing, the limitations of conventional narrative form, and the relationship between truth and self-reflection, among other topics.
“Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader.”
-- Janet Malcolm, “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography” | The New York Review of Books
Janet Malcolm writes on the difficulties of reconciling journalistic writing (which makes one wary of using the first person and distrustful of memory as a source) with autobiographical writing, as a journalist attempting to write an autobiography.