February 28, 2013
Oh! So we are still doing that thing? That thing where we pretend like the reason young women might not want to identify with feminism is because it's not sexy enough? So we're writing books called Sexy Feminism and putting creepy disembodied lips on the cover because that is never problematic.
We did this a while back, when Third Wavers ran around for a while talking about what great sex the feminists were having. (Remember Full Frontal Feminism? Yikes.) That was weird. But I guess everyone was concerned that the stereotype of the hairy legged harridan was in play and we had to really focus our attention on breaking that down.
Now our main concern is, I guess, can you still get Brazilian waxes if you're a feminist? You can! So say the ladies of Sexy Feminism. I mean, it's not exactly rabbinical studies over there. The website is also a lot of fun. Hadley Freeman reviews the whole situation over at the New Republic, but it's not as insightful as, say, Jenny Turner's ambivalence. Or Laura Kipnis's frustration that feminism has moved away from its theoretical framework and gone strictly into pop culture commentary.
Perhaps my problem with it has more to do with no longer finding feminism to be a useful filter through which to look at the world. The Fourth Wave of feminism (apparently it is a thing, yes) looks exactly like the Third Wave of feminism, and endlessly recapping Girls doesn't seem to be making the world a safer place for women. The two "feminist" works I liked the most recently actually didn't have that much to do with outright feminism: Depression by Ann Cvetkovich and Why Love Hurts by Eva Illouz. (Also: Monoculture by FS Michaels.) They were more about, how do we live within this structure -- or outside this structure -- that was built by the patriarchy without losing our minds. This is the way things are set up, by capitalism and by that whole white male thing, and let's write about what that does to a person. Not just women, which is an important part of it. It has nothing to do with the rejection of feminism, and Brazilian waxes never come up for debate at all! It's about feminism just being one weapon in your arsenal. Your mighty, mighty arsenal.
February 27, 2013
Book of the Week: The Dinner by Herman Koch, an Excerpt
We were going out to dinner. I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there. Serge made the reservation. He's always the one who arranges it, the reservation. This particular restaurant is one where you have to call three months in advance -- or six, or eight, don't ask me. Personally, I'd never want to know three months in advance where I'm going to eat on any given evening, but apparently some people don't mind. A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they'll have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called "top" restaurants. That information is kept on file -- I happen to know that. If Mr. L. was prepared to wait three months for a window seat last time, then this time he'll wait five months for a table beside the men's room -- that's what restaurants call "customer relations management."
Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself -- he says he thinks of it as a sport. You have restaurants that reserve a table for people like Serge Lohman, and this restaurant happens to be one of them. One of many, I should say. It makes you wonder whether there isn't one restaurant in the whole country where they don't faint right away when they hear the name Serge Lohman on the phone. He doesn't make the call himself, of course; he lets his secretary or one of his assistants do that. "Don't worry about it," he told me when I talked to him a few days ago. "They know me there; I can get us a table." All I'd asked was whether it wasn't a good idea to call, in case they were full, and where we would go if they were. At the other end of the line, I thought I heard something like pity in his voice. I could almost see him shake his head. It was a sport.
There was one thing I didn't feel like that evening. I didn't feel like being there when the owner or on-duty manager greeted Serge Lohman as though he were an old friend. Like seeing how the waitress would lead him to the nicest table on the side facing the garden, or how Serge would act as though he had it all coming to him -- that deep down he was still an ordinary guy, and that was why he felt entirely comfortable among other ordinary people.
Which was precisely why I'd told him we would meet in the restaurant itself and not, as he'd suggested, at the cafe around the corner. It was a cafe where a lot of ordinary people went. How Serge Lohman would walk in there like a regular guy, with a grin that said that all those ordinary people should above all go on talking and act as though he wasn't there -- I didn't feel like that, either.
Reprinted from THE DINNER by Herman Koch. Copyright (c) February 2012. Published by Hogarth, a division of Random House, Inc.
February 26, 2013
Book of the Week: The Dinner by Herman Koch
As I was reading about Paul, the narrator of Herman Koch's The Dinner, I kept thinking of Walter White from Breaking Bad. While the anti-hero has been embraced and perfected on television, it's a harder trick to pull off in the span of one novel. The writers of Breaking Bad have had 60-some hours, so far, to force the viewers into allegiance with Walter, a down-on-his-luck but relatable in all of his impotent rage chemistry teacher, and then slowly, slyly, force the viewer to rethink their opinion on the man, and start rooting against him, as Walt becomes ferociously potent, and reveals his sociopathic side. Harder to do something like that, then, in a short and quickly paced novel that takes place over the course of one long dinner.
And yet Koch pulls it off. He wins us over to Paul's side in very traditional anti-hero fashion, by presenting a man who refuses to participate in the social niceties that help polite civilization run. He is not a man to bite his tongue. His target is primarily foodie culture -- they are at a restaurant, after all. His targets are the exorbitant prices we are all asked to pay to eat an animal that wasn't tortured throughout its short, miserable life, and the fetishization of this wildly expensive, self-righteous organic food movement. His other primary target is his brother Serge, a pretty boy politician in line to become the next prime minister of the Netherlands. Paul even wins our sympathy when we learn the sinister reasons for the dinner: his son, and his brother's son, set a homeless woman on fire and were caught on film doing so. It's not easy to raise a sociopath. After all, it happens. Kind parents begat horrible monsters. But there's also the more traditional route towards violence, the kind that is hereditary by nature or by nurture.
As Koch slowly reveals Paul's true nature, the whole tone of the book shifts. It gets under your skin, this book. And it comes barbed.
I wrote to Herman Koch about this nasty little novel, and all the societal issues it plucks at. And also, the important question: when was the first moment your protagonist started to scare the shit out of you?
Reading your book, I was reminded that The Netherlands, like a lot of European countries, has been having trouble with its immigrant population and with movements against outsiders. Politically, we seem to have great troubles with the Other these days. Was that political climate a contributing factor to writing your book?
Yes, I think it was, although not that consciously. More so in that the restaurant with its organic food and the politician with his adopted son from Africa stand for a certain kind of political correctness. When this political correctness is exaggerated, it might become a weak spot or easy target in society against which these movements can easily rebel. Some critic here in the Netherlands suggested that Paul might even vote for one of these [racist] movements or political parties. Personally I think he is too intelligent to do that, but I perfectly understood the critic's point.
It's interesting how you build the animosity towards the narrator. The reader starts on his side, because everyone likes someone who calls b.s. when he sees it, from the wildly expensive organic restaurant and the fetishizing of the baby lettuces. We're kind of rooting for him until it becomes clear there's something really wrong going on. When does it switch for you with the narrator, from 'this guy is on to something' to 'whoa'?
It is difficult for me to say where exactly. I knew from the beginning that he had something to hide, and I only later realized that this was his bad temper. There was a point though where he was still only fantasizing about using violence (like we all might do at a certain stage), and then it occurred to me that he should cross the line and act on it as well. From that point on we, the readers, start to lose him. Although I receive mail from time to time from readers who say: "Finally a protagonist who actually does what we are all thinking!" They belong to a minority, I can assure you, but still...
I was reading Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree, and he has a chapter about the parents of children who committed murder. And he talks about the tricky decision the parents have to make, to counter the instinct to protect your child at any cost and allow them to face the consequences. But by protecting, they're doing harm, and Serge seems to be the only person who understands this, is that the case?
I am quite sure myself that you are not protecting your child when you let him live for the rest of his life with a secret like that (of killing someone). But I think that Serge, although he might seem to have "sensible" opinions, is more interested in his own agenda. This story would have been completely different if all four parents would have been "private persons." Part of the conflict between them is about protecting your private life, but with a famous politician as a relative, this is almost impossible.
Would you consider Paul and Michel to be evil? Evil is such a loaded word, obviously, and it means different things to everyone. But when a heinous crime like the one in your book is committed, it is often quickly trotted out in the media.
I think it is more a kind of indifference to human suffering (but "evil" persons are indifferent to that as well of course). What Paul and Michel have in common is that they try to forget what happened, in order to protect their privacy and happiness. They simply want to go on with their lives, and in not being responsible maybe their "evilness" shows. But I think the real evil people are those who premeditate everything. Paul just loses control from time to time. Michel at some point has started making "funny home videos," that go from bad to worse.
The hereditary elements of The Dinner are quite interesting, whether this is a hereditary, neurological disorder coming into play, and whether Michel has simply absorbed the delusions of his father. The conversation with the doctor, about recommending abortion for children with Downs or spina bifida strays into that grey ethical territory, as some people consider that itself evil and approaching eugenics. But I'm wondering, if Michel inherited this psychosis from his father, then what did he inherit from his mother, Claire, who remains a rather unknown figure.
It is only suggested that Michel has inherited this disorder, what was more important for me is that Paul fears his son has inherited it. In that respect he feels even more "biologically" responsible for his son than a "normal" parent. Even more important than if he has inherited this disorder is for Michel that he has seen his father losing control on more than one occasion, and from a very early age. It is mentioned nowhere in the book, but for me personally Michel feels he has to protect his father against his own temper/disorder. In this, he sides with his mother. I am not sure that he has inherited something from her, but she is the kind of mother who unconditionally supports everything her son does. A bit like my mother actually.
February 25, 2013
If today's theme is going to be "meritocracy," we should probably at least mention Dan Rhodes. Because I have never understood why his books -- delightful, all of them, and fucked up, all of them -- have not been more popular.
He has a new one out, Marry Me, an extension perhaps of his first collection of very short fiction, Anthropology. Anthropology was remarkable, in that it had an immensely dry wit and a jokey structure (101 stories of 101 words each) that actually retained an emotional center. Some of them are quite cutting. "Hobbies":
My girlfriend had been unemployed for ages, so I was delighted when she finally applied for a job. She filled in the form in her best handwriting, but got stuck when they asked her to list all her hobbies. "I've put smoking," she said, "but I can't think of anything else." I racked my brains, but couldn't think of anything either.
"Well," I said eventually, "I suppose you could put sex. You enjoy making love to me, don't you?"
"No," she said, chewing her pen. "Not anymore. I'll put hiking. It's not as if they're going to check up on me."
His last book This is Life takes a strange premise -- an art student ends up having to look after a baby for a week after she accidentally-on-purpose hits the baby in the face with a rock as part of her final project -- and creates something so surprisingly beautiful that I burst into tears over the ending. Emma Garman describes it well in her review:
So initially, it seems as if we’re in for an amusing satire of the modern art world. But as the many quirky characters and interconnecting storylines that surround Aurélie and Le Machine are introduced, it becomes clear that Rhodes’ intentions are far less cynical and far more ambitious: he means to conjure a utopia where people and relationships are pure and lovely, and to do so without being irritating, or saccharin, or overly sentimental. Incredibly, he pulls it off, mainly thanks to the delightful originality of his approach and the humorous way he conveys simple generosity. Aurélie’s best friend Sylvie, who is so beautiful that her spurned exes never recover, works one day a week with Down’s syndrome children and wants to train as a special needs teacher, but ‘her primary misgiving was that such a decision would be a terrible blow to her exes, many of whom, as a survival mechanism, told themselves over and over again that she was a bitch.’ Le Machine’s gay doctor contemplates coming out to her father, who owns the ailing erotic cinema where ‘Life’ is taking place, but she hesitates, not because she thinks he’ll disapprove, but because ‘she knew how much he enjoyed girl on girl porn, and she didn’t want to do anything that might risk spoiling it for him.’
And that was never released in the States, except as an ebook.
So far, it doesn't look like there are plans to release Marry Me in the States in any physical version, but you can at least read a selection of his very short stories, which ran recently in the Telegraph.
Shirley Jackson, never won a major award, now has a minor award named after her
I woke up this morning to Oscars coverage -- as my friend Andrew put it on Twitter, being an expat turns "US events like elections and Oscars into Christmas: I go to sleep, and have presents to open in the morning." I woke up, I checked all the winners, I tried to find video clips, and I scrolled through my Twitter timeline. There were equal amounts of "The Oscars are bullshit!" and "Argo? Are you fucking kidding me?!" indignation, often coming from the same people.
And me too! I really didn't like Argo, and yet, despite knowing that this is an Academy that gave an award to Dances with Wolves over Ghost -- fuck, I'm sorry, I meant Goodfellas or something -- I was kind of upset about it. And here there is still anger about Crash winning over Brokeback Mountain, and they feel obligated to mention they know this is all arbitrary and the academy has terrible taste, etc etc.
And then someone trots out a list of people who have never won Oscars, to soothe everyone's spirits, to remind them that genius is not always (kind of rarely?) rewarded.
If you ever want to lose a day of your life, you could spend it reading similar commentary about all of the major literature prizes -- the Nobel, the Booker, the NBA, the Pulitzer. It follows the template of the commentary about the film prizes, acknowledging that prizes are ultimately meaningless and then getting outraged anyway. Or starting their whole other award! So many awards are being created because of the unsatisfactory award-giving of the majors. Everyone has their pet list of these-people-didn't-win-thereby-proving-the-award-meaningless, and I have my own, too (Shirley Jackson, Kathryn Davis, Isak Dinesen, Elizabeth Bowen, even people who were never eligible because of being dead when the award was created or whatever lightly piss me off for being excluded).
And so today we are all coming down after the reminder yet again that the world is not fair and mediocrity can be celebrated, and this is going to be one of those years we will remember for its injustice against whomever we were rooting for. The only antidote being, maybe, remembering that even though Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier unjustly never won the Pulitzer (the Britishness of the author really should not have stood in its way) doesn't mean it isn't still one of the greatest things ever. And while there was absolutely no way Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy would ever win anything, that doesn't mean it wasn't my favorite novel of last year.
And on a personal note, I am currently judging a book award and dude, this shit weighs on me. Like when I bullied the Tiptree judging panel a few years back, at one point just turning into GUYS WE ARE GIVING THIS TO DUBRAVKA UGRESIC'S BABA YAGA LAID AN EGG I DON'T WANT TO FUCKING HEAR IT. They should stop asking me to help judge these things.
February 23, 2013
This thorough-bred wanderer's idiosyncrasy I presume to be a composition of what phrenologists call "inhabitiveness" and "locality" equally and largely developed. After a long and toilsome march, weary of the way, he drops into the nearest place of rest to become the most domestic of men. For a while he smokes the "pipe of permanence" with an infinite zest, he delights in various siestas during the day, relishing withal a long sleep at night; he enjoys dining at a fixed dinner-hour, and wonders at the demoralisation of the mind which cannot find excitement in chit-chat or small talk, in a novel or a newspaper. But soon the passive fit has passed away; again a paroxysm of ennui coming on by slow degrees, Viator loses appetite, he walks around his room all night, he yawns at conversation, and a book acts upon him as a narcotic. The man wants to wander, and he must do so or he shall die.
- Richard Francis Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah
February 22, 2013
Margaret Anderson made you a mix tape.
Margaret Anderson is something of a strange bird. She was the creator of Little Review, the modernist magazine that employed Ezra Pound, published James Joyce's Ulysses, and introduced America to some of the greatest Modernists of Europe. She was a small town, Midwestern girl, who first went to Chicago before discovering what Chicagoans still have to deal with: the city's lack of interest in funding the arts.
For a while, during that time, she lived in a tent on the beach of Lake Michigan, because she spent all of her money publishing the Little Review. From her memoir The Strange Necessity:
The camping plan was a great emotion -- literally out of this world; and, finally convinced of my sobriety, the family accepted the plan and we began our exodus.
I don't remember how we left Lake Bluff, but I remember the pleasure I took in our possession of five small oriental rugs, one of which would give each tent the necessary beauty. We had bought five soldier's cots, five camp chairs -- with what money? As to where we were to keep our clothes, I've not the faintest memory. But I have a clear picture from our moving... One tent was for Deansie, one for me, one for a kitchen, and one for "Caesar," who called himself the Little Review office boy and who would guard the camp on days when Deansie and I stayed overnight in Chicago to bring out the magazine...
The things I clearly remember are sunrises and sunsets, camp fires, potatoes baked in ashes and corn roasted over embers; dishes cleaned in sand and rinsed in the lake; hours of observing nature as if I had never seen it before; swimming at sunrise and midnight; grandiose plans for the Little Review's future; and hours of leisure for reading poetry and listening to music on our handworked victrola. I remember arriving at the beach one evening and finding that Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim had left poems pinned on my tent. And I remember the day when reporters from the Chicago Tribune came to interview me about the camp, the Little Review, and my future plans. I enjoyed talking with them and must have given them a great deal of material I didn't intend to, because the next Sunday we were surprised to find our pictures on a full front page of the book section, and a startling article about our "Nietzsche colony."
Anderson wrote three memoirs, as well as a novel, and they are very strange. They are made up of lists, interviews with herself, scattered thoughts, and instructions on how to live a life of beauty and art.
In The Strange Necessity, she gives a kind of playlist for a mix tape. She writes about her favorite records and her favorite piano pieces, and then lists them out in the order that she plays them for her friends when they come over to visit. I spent a little time creating a playlist for Spotify, all of Margaret Anderson's favorite piano pieces.
And if you're still in the mood, you can read through the Little Review archives at the Modernist Journals Project.
February 21, 2013
When we were talking about Jamaica Kincaid's book See Now Then, it was difficult to ignore the strange reception the book was getting. The little gossipmongers Dwight Garner and Sam Sacks just couldn't bear not dredging up Kincaid's personal life, speculating that the divorce in the novel was identical to her divorce in real life, and telling her she should have kept the book in a drawer somewhere.
Not liking See Now Then is a legitimate response to a book. It's a weird book, and prickly, and there were times I was convinced I didn't like it either, although I warmed to it. But there was something a little gross about those reviews. But it's so boring and trite to just call out Sexism!, isn't it? Because we know all the pathways that saying someone is being sexist opens up. They are narrow and limited and none of them end in good places. And it's hard to prove unconscious motivations.
But I got a very interesting email from a reader, who would like to remain anonymous, but gave me permission to reprint.
I’m enjoying your coverage of Jamaica Kincaid’s book and the attending, in my opinion, biased sexist press. It’s interesting that Junot Diaz's recent mediocre to poor story collection was a depiction of his relationships etc... (he’s copped to it in interviews) and the press/reviews mostly praised it as art, and nominated it for awards... The New York Times book reviewer even called the narrator Díaz’s alter ego! The narcissism and self-indulgence of those stories is epic...
Whereas Kincaid is being called out for being self-indulgent, vindictive etc and her reviews have been terrible to mixed. I also wonder whether Diaz’s position as a Pulitzer judge has influenced his books’ reception by reviewers and the vitriol towards Kincaid more weighted because Kincaid’s ex is a public figure (vs. the relative anonymity--and their deafening silence in the stories--of Díaz's women).
I love this email. And I thank its sender for allowing me to reprint it.
I was having dinner with a writer friend -- or maybe not dinner, I remember being at the bar, so it was probably just booze -- and talking about a series of essays I was interested in writing. I started listing the artists, writers, musicians, while complaining that I wasn't sure how to unify them all into one project, when my friend, who actually is a genius, interrupted to say, "Have you noticed all of these people are expats? Go to their cities, live where they lived, write about them that way."
That conversation was a while back. And yesterday it was announced in Publishers Marketplace that my book about expats and ex-countries and ex-selves has been sold to the University of Chicago.
The purpose of the book is to figure out the relationship between city and person, the feeling of displacement, and why you feel like a space alien in France but feel like yourself in Russia. The way a city rubs up against its humans, either causing friction or pleasure. And also what to do about the people that just don't feel at home anywhere. (Maybe exploring that last bit for my own selfish purposes.) As I put it a while ago, regarding Berlin:
Let's say, for a moment, that the character of a city has an effect on its inhabitants, and that it sets the frequency on which it calls out to the migratory. People who are tuned a certain way will heed the call almost without knowing why. Thinking that they've chosen this city, they'll never know that the city chose them. Let's say, for a moment, that the literal situation of a city can leak out into the metaphorical realm. That the city is the vessel and we are all merely beings of differing viscosity, slowly taking on the shape of that into which we are poured.
And so of course William James is going to show up. And Maud Gonne (pictured). And Margaret Anderson. Sir Richard Francis Burton was not invited, but he just fucking crashed, as he is bound to do. It is travelogue, it is history, it is biography, it is personal essay, and so of course Publishers Marketplace classified it under "OTHER."
Anyway, I'm excited and thrilled, and grateful to the University of Chicago, and more news as things progress.
February 20, 2013
Book of the Week: Border Vigils by Jeremy Harding, an Excerpt
Phoenix lay under a dull sky. It was early morning, with few signs of life, when we left. We picked up State Route 85 at Buckeye and headed south through a magnificent valley strewn with saguaro and palo verde; after an hour or more we passed the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, a test site for dummy ordnance. I was making for the borderlands again and before long my companions would be putting out water supplies on desert routes where migrants were known to travel and known to have died. Liana Rowe took a hand off the wheel and gestured at the bombing range. There were no water stations there, she said, because the military had refused permission. "Really," one of the volunteers in the back said with deadpan sarcasm. "But we know people come through there," Rowe went on. Another hour and we were on the outskirts of Ajo, an old copper settlement, where the pale terraced workings rose in the near distance like the remains of an abstruse civilisation. When the mines opened during World War One they generated a surge of Mexican migrant labour, but extraction ended in the 1980s and now the place is solemn and still, though the area is part of the regular beat for Border Patrol.
In May 2001, among dozens of crossings, a group of twenty-six migrants entered the Tucson Sector from Mexico. During a vigorous pursuit by Border Patrol, fourteen lost their bearings, including three guides, ending up in a stretch of desert known as the Devil’s Highway, where they died. They were not the first casualties since Operation Gatekeeper but this was the highest number of recorded deaths in a single incident and pointed up the human consequences of the security drive at the border, where undocumented migrants had been moving back and forth in relative safety for decades.
The deaths were a scandal on both sides of the frontier. By then a group of activists in Tucson had already formed Humane Borders, an NGO seeking to "reduce the number of migrants dying in the desert" and advocating secure legal status for undocumented immigrants. Rowe, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, is the Phoenix co-ordinator of the organisation, one of many support and solidarity groups that sprang up in Arizona as a result of tightened border policy. Her work, she explained, was a legacy of the Sanctuary movement of the early 1980s, when churches in the US brought refugees from the wars in El Salvador and Guatemala to safety north of the border, in a modern version of the nineteenth-century Underground Railroad. Arizona had played a prominent part in this movement. "Sanctuary activists could see what was going to happen as the urban crossings were sealed off," Rowe said, referring to San Diego and El Paso, and events confirmed their misgivings.
Humane Borders and others have compiled a painstaking log of migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert, with information from the medical examiners’ offices, Border Patrol and the Mexican Consulate. Geographers have taken the data and expressed them as a map of the frontier area, studded with red dots, each representing at least one death inside the US. The dots are so densely grouped in places that you might be looking at lumpfish caviar. A ten-year retrospective "deaths map," covering the period 1999–2009, charts 1,755 deaths. "They were wrong," Rowe said as she ran through the figures, "about the desert putting people off." The primary purpose of the deaths map is not to alert the world to the fate of desperate or adventurous people, but to give Rowe and her colleagues an idea where to set out water: after careful extrapolations from the map and tough negotiations with landowners, private and public, Humane Borders has established water stations in dozens of locations in the middle of nowhere.
At a depot in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a Unesco "biosphere reserve," Rowe switched the car for a flatbed truck loaded with five-gallon bottles, a large container of water and two wheelbarrows, drove it out to the first water station, parked the truck, filled the bottles and had us wheel them to the station, a distance from the road, where we topped up a barrel. She checked the tap and ran a chlorine test. The volunteers, probation officers in the Phoenix area who were bitterly opposed to the crackdown on undocumented migrants, picked up a bit of litter – someone had been here – and we moved on to the next station to repeat the process. Litter dumped in nature reserves by exhausted migrants counts against them in the eyes of hard-line environmentalists, and their bodies are only slightly more acceptable. Some people say Humane Borders is complicit in illegal migration, Rowe remarked. "Because we put out water. That’s a refusal to see what drives them across in the first place."
We secured the wheelbarrows and bottles on the tailboard, drove to the depot and put away the truck. On the way back in Rowe’s car, she spoke at length about the harsh new conditions facing migrants. She evoked an earlier age, when clandestine migration was mostly "a mom, pop and donkey operation"; you could almost glimpse the Flight into Egypt, restaged with plaster figurines in the crypt of a Mexican church – for a long moment I’d forgotten Rowe was a devout Christian. Border vigilance had raised the stakes, she went on, attracting new, high-powered Mexican smugglers who looked for wide profit margins (the going rate for a crossing that starts in Guatemala is around $7,000). A cottage industry has been transformed into a lucrative business whose clients are forced to part with far more money than previous generations paid, for a far more dangerous crossing. Homeland Security, Rowe argued, has burnished the dollar signs in the eyes of the drug cartels, driven up the costs for migrants and introduced a death penalty clause into their ordeal by forcing them through remote desert. "If you’re going to quote me, please don’t refer to me as Reverend Rowe. Or Reverend anything." The skies had cleared, the sun was behind us, and the desert city of Phoenix, where she would preach the next morning, rose ahead like a landlocked Dubai.
On the morning of 11 August 2010, Angélica Martínez was working in a restaurant in Phoenix when police raided it, searching for undocumented migrants. She was removed to a detention facility outside town and appeared in court in the evening. She raised the money for a bond and was released the following day. In September she was sentenced and spent three weeks in Estrella Women’s Jail in Phoenix, under the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County sheriff, going from there into the charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), at a federal detention centre where she spent another three and a half months. This is normally the prelude to deportation, but Angélica was able to remain by filing a lawsuit whose outcome, when I met her early in 2011, looked uncertain. She has been in the US since 1999: "I came in a car with my daughter and another family. My son was born here." She has worked for most of that time in the service sector.
It’s not clear that the family is a net loss to the state of Arizona, as Russell Pearce ’s version has it: what Angélica parts with in sales taxes in a year outstrips what she might have paid in income tax, always assuming she was paid off the books, in cash (but, to repeat, millions of working "illegals" make tax and social security contributions). Her children will eventually become able-bodied adults, who can launder the clothes, tend the lawns and flip the burgers of their fellow Arizonans at competitive rates. Angélica’s son is a US citizen but his mother has no papers; neither does his sister.
Angélica is typical of the new, urban offender invented by the culture of pursuit and prosecution in cities a good distance from the frontier, where people of different ethnic and national origins, one group with the power to drive legislation, the other with the impertinence to resist, are increasingly at odds. This conflict has been building for a while: Latino activists identify a key moment in 2000, when Arizona passed a law ending bilingual teaching in schools in favour of segregated classes with special English immersion for Spanish-speakers. Opponents of the legislation claimed that it was wrong – and prejudicial to their chances – to stream immigrant pupils into language learning when they should be mastering the curriculum. Border discipline in the state had already hardened and there was a growing suspicion of Hispanics, who read the law as a deliberate affront. Then, in 2004, the state legislature made it a crime for public service employees to fail to report undocumented migrants and obliged anyone handling social security benefits to verify the legal status of applicants. Raids on workplaces increased and traffic offences soon spiralled into "illegal alien" cases. Looking back over the legislation, a Hispanic activist in Phoenix told me, people felt they should have seen it coming. Whites, he thought, were better at anticipating trouble: when it was clear that Hispanic children might shortly be a majority in kindergarten and primary schools – they’re currently 42 per cent and rising – the threatened majority, already concerned about Hispanics taking too many jobs, had reacted fast. The 2004 legislation, in his eyes, was proof of their alacrity.
In 2008 the Legal Arizona Workers Act increased pressure on companies to hire within the law and check the status of potential employees on E-Verify, a Homeland Security system on the Internet. More than 90,000 Latinos left the state in the following two years; the number of waged Hispanic employees fell by about 56,000 and the number of ‘self-employed’ rose by 25,000. The Public Policy Institute of California, which crunched the numbers, argued convincingly that these trends were not driven by recession. But it was legislation in 2010 that felt to Hispanics like a declaration of war. Senate Bill 1070, as it was known, proposed a federal responsibility for local law enforcers, who would now be able to check the papers of anyone they had already stopped for a separate offence, typically a traffic infringement. In essence, the law formalised the growing reality of workplace raids and selective vehicle checks. It made the federal offence of unauthorised immigration into a state crime: Arizona was about to become a stop-and-detain jurisdiction.
Like the "no bilingualism in schools" ruling, SB1070 brought many legal residents and US citizens of Hispanic origin across the stepped divide that normally separates "legals" and ‘illegals’ in migrant communities everywhere: it seemed to both to have a punitive, ethnic edge. Migrant rights groups call it "hate legislation." The spirit of the law drew fire from Washington and cursory criticism from Obama; the letter of the law met with opposition from the federal courts – and injunctions on four counts. Through 2012, as the Supreme Court deliberated the larger question of whether Arizona’s new legislation was not pre-empted by federal law, the provision in SB1070 allowing a local police inquiry on a specific offence to evolve into a demand for documents was blocked. But in June, the court decided not to strike it down even while ruling against three other provisions. Pearce was delighted and felt the "most compelling piece" of his legislation had been upheld. In theory there is no mission creep when a migrant is pulled over for running a red light. Local law enforcement sets little store by theory, however, and Arizona is now officially a "papers please" culture, rolling inexorably towards racial profiling in the view of its critics: a rogue state at the margins of the Union.
The bill had met with stiff resistance from the outset. In 2010 opponents across the country decided on a boycott, which had been their riposte in the late 1980s when Arizona baulked at the Martin Luther King holiday. After SB1070, a group of California truckers refused to work in the state, the mayor of San Francisco advised his employees to avoid visiting and by 2011, dozens of valuable conference bookings had been stood down. Money and contracts have been veering away ever since and many businesspeople who oppose the laws admit that it’s difficult to separate the mounting damage done by the boycott from the lingering effects of the financial crisis in 2008, which dealt a shattering blow to the construction industry where many Hispanics work. The de facto boycott remained in place, as Latinos continued leaving the state for other parts of the US: many families are still eyeing up the possibility. Others, separated by a deportation, have already opted for upheaval and poverty – reunion in any case – by moving to Mexico (not ‘back’ to Mexico, because often this is their first journey outside the US). If Angélica’s luck runs out, she and her children will have to consider this possibility.
The latest bill, the one Reza had disparaged at the state capitol, is even more incendiary in the eyes of Hispanics, which made it seem odd that this forceful character, often accused of anti-white prejudice by his enemies, hadn’t played up the race angle on the steps of the 4th Avenue jail on the night of his release. Most activists and many Latinos are convinced that Arizona is in the grip of race hysteria: an idea hotly denied by Pearce and Governor Brewer. Alfredo Gutiérrez, a radical of Reza’s generation who held a state senate seat in Arizona for nearly fifteen years, is outspoken about what he takes to be the racial component in this bitter struggle. Gutiérrez argues that "Arizona is for immigration what Mississippi was for civil rights," that "the term 'illegal immigration' stands for hatred of Mexicans" and that "somewhere in this country the immigration debate may be about immigration, but not in Arizona."
February 19, 2013
Book of the Week: Jeremy Harding's Border Vigils: Keeping Migrants Out of the Rich World
As the debate around immigration policy heats back up in the United States, and the problem of What To Do With The Roma? continues throughout Europe, Jeremy Harding's journalistic travelogue of forticated borders, Border Vigils, has perfect timing. Harding tags along on a patrol of Italy's coastline, talks to asylum seekers from Albania, questions the racist policies of Arizona, and questions his own open-mindedness as children with little to no English skills join his child's classroom.
Scattered throughout is the almost shocking rhetoric of the newspapers and politicians, playing off of people's fears and sense of instability by demonizing the immigrant and the asylum seeker. A newspaper in Dover calls migrants from the former Yugoslavia "human sewage." Others accuse asylum seekers of lying and playing up their history of persecution in order to "win the lottery" of British residency. (As I was reading Harding's book, I came across a recent news article about Britain's advertising campaign in Central Europe, depicting Britain as a place of poverty and unemployment, trying to discourage immigration.) They reminded me of the anti-Irish political cartoons of the 19th century, just as blatantly racist and fearful of how the outsider was going to warp the homeland, and the images in the piece are all American cartoons from that era.
I spoke with Harding about the role of the media in shaping anti-immigration sentiment, and how to counter that irrational and illogical fear with the real facts of how immigration affects -- and improves -- a nation.
It seems like the tabloids in the UK and Fox News in the US play a large role in the anti-immigration feeling among the populace, but from your book, it also seems like the newspapers have always played a role in depicting immigrants and refugees as human sewage, as criminals and as a drain on resources. Is there any way to counteract this for the masses? Or is there just never going to be enough context to change the minds of people who are hearing the stories they want to hear?
Yes, in parts of the UK with high levels of unauthorized migration -- mostly by asylum seekers -- journalists have said some rough things about migrants. We're talking here about coastal towns like Dover, where the term “human sewage” was used in the local paper. But you're right, too, that national newspapers take very few hostages. This has a history. More than a century ago, a boatload of Jewish refugees set out for the UK from South Africa -- it was the time of the Anglo-Boer war -- and the Daily Mail took up the case. The paper was a broadsheet at the time, half the price of its rivals, with a circulation of half a million. There were about 350 refugees on that boat from South Africa and when they disembarked at Southampton, a reporter was there to meet them. They appeared in the article like figures in an anti-Semitic propaganda leaflet, gambling as they settled in the trains and “hiding their gold” so that they could beg train tickets when the Relief Committee came through the carriages.
A century later the Daily Mail -- by now a tabloid, circulation nearing 2 million -- was no better on the refugees from the war in Kosovo, or the Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. The paper thought they were bums who'd made up a plausible tale of woe and persecution to qualify for “the good life on Asylum Alley,” getting handouts from the government and screwing the British taxpayer. This suspicion is never far away. Another British tabloid, the News of the World, went to town on asylum seekers in 2009. It was the same complaint. “All you have to do to get everything Britain has to offer is to turn up illegally with some sob story of how your own country is too dangerous or that you’re a lesbian who’ll be shot if you stay there and Hey Presto, it’s like you won the lottery! And, in effect, they HAVE.”
The News of the World, which was forced to close in 2011 after the phone hacking scandal, was owned by Rupert Murdoch and there's an intriguing issue here with regard to Fox News, another of his gruesome properties. The refugee question has never really been central to the migration debate in the US, as it's been in the UK, and there's no mileage for Fox in scapegoating asylum seekers, but the channel can make a fuss about unauthorized economic migrants and object to the “path to citizenship” for millions of undocumented people that's now on offer from Obama. But will Fox really go on the offensive against the plan?
True, it came out hard against immigration reform a few years back. Fox was one of the voices that did for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. But that was in 2007. In 2010 Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg launched “Partnership for a New American Economy,” an influencing-machine designed to bring about the kind of reform that Bush and his partners in Congress envisioned last time around. Murdoch is a full-blooded advocate of free movement, for money, goods, services and people: this is what distinguishes him from many free-market ideologues who are happy to see money and goods in global circulation but want to draw the line when it comes to the movement of human beings. He says he wants to attract "the brightest and the best" -- a kind of immigrant elite -- but I suspect it's broader than that, and market-driven, with "competition" as the co-pilot. Who says there aren't markets in construction and agricultural labor?
The question is: will he try to push his own views to editors at Fox or will he decide that this would drive a wedge between the channel and its audience? It would be a gamble, but I'm not sure he would change a lot of minds. As you hint in your question, people tend to have a fixed position on immigration and it's hard to inflect. The best antidote to careless media depictions of the lawless outsider is to live and work among migrants. That way you get a clearer picture and you get it at first hand.
I ask that because you state and restate the fact that undocumented migrants actually do pay into the system with taxes, and once you even say it in a tired parenthetical, just to be clear, once again, that most immigrants... There seems to be a growing hostility, both in politics and in the media, against immigrants and asylum seekers. Which comes first -- does the hostility in the media cause the anti-immigration sentiment, or are the media and politicians just giving the audience what it wants?
It's important not to blame the media for everything. And besides it's getting harder, since so many of us now customize our intake as media consumers, drawing on a vast number of sources on the Internet. With or without mass media, communities make assumptions about themselves and other people: the identity of a village or a nation is shaped as much by the people who don't belong as those that do. That's why the term “assimilation” is so important in the migration debate in Europe now. Europeans want all newcomers to “identify” with host values. This originates in a growing mistrust of Islam, and it signals an end to the long experiment that Europeans -- UK included -- began in the 1970s. They called it multiculturalism. Nowadays you must do as we do or you should leave. The media have played a part in this shift, but the phenomenon of the outsider -- the ambivalence this person gives rise to in host communities -- predates the TV talk show. So there's plenty of latent hostility to migrants for the media to go to work on. If they could turn a profit by talking up unrestricted freedom of movement, that's what they'd be doing.
You talk of “growing hostility.” I agree. It is growing. And it's at moments of international crisis, like the long moment that began with 9/11, persisted through two wars and now drags on beyond the banking meltdown, that animosity tends to harden, along with definitions of outsiders. Claude Lévi-Strauss experienced this when he fled on a boat in 1941 after Hitler defeated the French. In Marseilles, as he left, he was treated as a “Jewish freemason” by customs and immigration and on arriving in Puerto Rico he was told that his documents could no longer get him into the US: he was assumed to be working for the Germans. In times of generalized anxiety, migrants and asylum seekers are among the first to take the hit.
This thing about tax is troubling. In the end opponents of immigration can't really say “I don't like migrants because they're different,” but they can say: “They're not pulling their weight.” Even so it's hard to show that migrants aren't net contributors in developed economies. The work that's been done on this in the UK suggests that a migrant is likely to make a marginally higher contribution to the treasury, through tax, than an indigenous Briton. Then again, migrants begin their life in a new country with a dependency on public resources -- health, education, welfare -- that they may not be in a position to redeem for many years. That's the part we hear from people opposed to immigration -- and it's a story, by and large, about documented migrants. But even undocumented migrants pay contributions to the state. It’s not clear that a family of undocumented Mexicans in Arizona is a net loss to the state. What they pay in sales tax could well outstrip what one family earner might have paid in income tax, and in any case, a lot of undocumented migrants make tax and social security contributions. Some file tax returns and many more have social security payments deducted at source, under a false social security number, or someone else’s, which means that they pay in but will never be able to claim. But if all available research showed conclusively that migrants brought a net gain to developed economies and public treasuries, would the hostility they arouse end overnight?
You mention briefly your own prejudice, when considering the others at your children's school. Can you talk a little more about that? What is the effect of having non-English speakers in an English school, and are the fears of, for example, the families in Arizona who wanted an end to bilingual education, justified somewhat?
I find the issue of language in Arizona schools puzzling. Around 30 per cent of the population is Hispanic, the history of the state is intimately connected with that of Mexico and its location means that it's perfectly placed as a bilingual community, which you might if you were smart consider an advantage. The move against instruction in Spanish has been followed by a spate of legislation that rings alarm bells among Hispanics. It's not driven by budgetary considerations, it raises practical problems in the classroom and its detractors are quick to point out that it's a drawback for students who spend time away from the core curriculum as they perfect their English. In European schools there are not just a couple but dozens of different language groups whose needs have to be addressed, the priority being, of course, to master the host language. In a place like Arizona, where two languages predominate (the third of any size is Navajo), a decision to rule out one of them can only be political. And that's how it's been read -- as part of a long strategy to change the culture and eventually the demographic of the state. You could call it a "racial" agenda.
Anxiety accompanies migration like a fussy escort. It's always at the elbow of migrants and bending the ear of hosts. To talk about schools, as I did in Border Vigils, and about my narcissistic fears for my kids, was an attempt to say: “Look, don't think that this anti-immigration sentiment is something you can externalize, as though you were a patron saint of global human movement, welcoming all migrants under all circumstances.” The worry in a school with an intake of kids who don't speak the language of the curriculum is that those who do may become casualties in a resource war. This goes back to the point about migrants -- but especially asylum seekers -- relying disproportionately on public resources when they first get a foothold in a host country. The children of refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s were present in many London schools, along with other groups, from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and money and time had to be found to deal with language learning for Swahili and Somali-speakers, Serbo-Croat and Albanian speakers, Russians, Iraqis, Tamils, Pakistanis, you name it. (Imagine if it were just a matter of a migrant intake who mostly spoke one language, say Spanish: in some inner city schools you'd have had bilingual schooling in short order.)
Parents and local authorities worry about this kind of thing: it's part of both jobs. But if you accept that immigration is a fundamental human activity (I don't say “right” because rights for most people on the planet are unenforceable) and you believe in the principle of asylum, you have to consider what disadvantages would arise from closing down your borders or withdrawing from the Refugee Convention. And it pays to remember that over the long-term migrants tend to invigorate host communities, not only as earners but as bearers of difference and change. But if I could find no resemblance between the way I think and react and the way opponents of immigration think and react, I'd end up by demonizing them. Anyone who knows a little about immigration knows a lot about demonization. The point is how to deal with the anxiety that schooling for low-income migrants-- or housing, or public health -- always involves. Would the answer be to militarize the frontier and choke off asylum seekers? That seems to be the way we're going. And then what?
Most citizens, like governments, believe that the outer edges of their states should be reinforced. Yet in the wider context it isn't consensus within communities that matters, but consensus across them. The members of a rich nation, or a federation, may respect its borders, yet if enough people beyond those borders see them as an arbitrary barrier to safety or prosperity, then they're no longer a matter of consensus, but a matter of dispute. This is what's happening on the US/Mexico border and around the borders of the European Union. The new dispute sets the desire of individuals to move freely against the will of states to impede that movement. It isn't a war so much as a war game, but it puts developed states on a war footing, as they go about the task of entrenching their frontiers -- and posting watchmen beyond the gates to shore up their integrity. It's expensive and it doesn't always make a lot of sense.
Militarizing the border and cutting off asylum seekers only seems to increase the amount of illegal immigration into the EU and into the US. You talk a bit in your book about what would happen if borders were open -- some people advocate for that, and yet no one really has any idea what would happen if a nation like the US just opened their borders. Is there a middle ground that you would advocate for, or do you think the political environment right now is simply too hostile to consider loosening regulation?
If the US announced open borders tomorrow a lot of people would be heading in. I guess it would be unmanageable, at least in the first instance. But open borders aren't an option in the foreseeable future. That's a full-on libertarian agenda, and just as uncompromising as the highly militarized, fortified border. What gets lost in this polarization is the civilian-style border marking the outer limit of a nation's sovereignty: a threshold with written rules and symbolic markers separating an “us” and a “them.” The crucial point about this kind of border, with regard to your question, is that it doesn't operate at 100 per cent efficiency. People come and go even though they're not supposed to. This is how it is, or used to be, along the Mexican/US border. From time to time a violent reaction to unauthorised entry sets in. Operation Wetback in the early 1950s is an example. But unauthorised entry into a country with a developed economy is a fact of life. Parts of the US economy depend on it. The wish to eradicate this fact of life, as though it were a fatal condition -- to make border control 100 per cent efficient -- is perverse. It undermines the values of liberal democratic host nations and the economies of migrant-sending nations like Mexico. And it creates a fortress culture. Go down to the southern border and see for yourself.
A lot of advocates of freer immigration -- i.e. of more migrants -- are committed to the idea of militarized borders. Bloomberg and Murdoch are typical. Give us liberal authorized immigration and a path to citizenship, they say, and we'll back the idea of watertight security. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, all in favor of “amnesty” for unauthorized migrants living in the US, have poured tax-dollars into border security. This looks like smart politics but in reality the leaky, non-militarized border, with its rules and rituals, is a better guarantee of freer movement between sovereign states. And it can co-exist with another fact of life, which is that from time to time places like the US or the EU member states can run documentation campaigns (“amnesties”) to create legal residents out of people who are off the books. This is the “middle ground” I'd like to see recovered and that means drawdown at the border, a return to the civilian frontier. I agree it isn't perfect: laws and immigration procedures are meant to be enforceable. But it's preferable to a multi-billion-dollar warrior deployment that turns unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers into the enemy, complete with deportation campaigns and fast-track removals.
February 18, 2013
Imre Kertesz, Distortion 40, Paris
I am reading Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, and it has very Barbara Kingsolver problems. (Characters who speak in lectures rather than dialogue, those tidy little endings that knit up every dangling thread, the ridiculously metaphorical names of the characters, that feeling that Kingsolver thinks she is more highly evolved than you and is doing you a favor by writing you this book. Hillary Kelly's review at The New Republic comments on this further.) But it also has those moments that you don't really get anywhere else.
In Flight Behavior, it's a few chapters wherein small town woman who never went to college Dellarobia (I warned you about the names) is intimidated by the scientists and grad students who flock to town to study the effect of global warming on migratory butterflies. That exchange is nicely done, the way she regrets every word that comes out of her mouth, the way she questions every fact she thinks she knows. It's an interesting exchange, between the educated and the not, and one that doesn't show up in literature that often anymore. (Maybe because our shelves are choking on the books of MFA students?)
And please note I said educated not intelligent. It's a different strata. Because even if you do decide then to autodidact yourself, there's this strange anxiety among the Ivy League whatever, or at least there is sometimes with me. When I'm writing about a new topic, I dread making an ass of myself, and I can blame my decision to leave college after one year for that. (Not to mention, the fact that what preceded that education-wise was a rural education, one focused on turning its students into farmers, because that is what they were going to be, and not poets.) I read a lot of books on the subject before I dare to write about it, but what if they are the wrong books? What if someone in college told everyone else what the right books are, and everyone knows I read the wrong ones? It's a strange dynamic, to work in an intellectual field without the intellectual background.
There's something about being an autodidact. One is, there's the classic autodidact who has very little subtlety. He's come to his ideas by himself and really clings to them. There's the other side of the autodidact, which is, what you've learned you really own, because you came to it by yourself. You can develop your own sensibility, and it's less derivative. It's less predictable. I think that made me stronger as a writer, going at it that way.
And that's always what I liked about Greenberg's essays, they kind of make these loony connections that actually work. And you can tell he's read everything. In Hurry Down Sunshine, he's telling stories about Bertrand Russell, pulling information from psychiatric textbooks, delving into the history of psychosis. To me, that magpie sensibility only comes from the chaotic learning of an autodidact.
(Hilariously, there are online courses about how to become an autodidact. I'll tell you for free: just start somewhere.)
February 15, 2013
Aftermath, wrote Long last March, "is crammed with mad, flowery metaphors and hifalutin creative-writing experiments", including "hectic passages on Greek tragedy" in which she compares herself with Clytemnestra and Oedipus. But, points out Long, despite her mention that she "got into Oxford", Cusk manages repeatedly to give the wrong name for Antigone's brother: he is Polynices, not Polylectes.
Ooh, classical burn. There's a fun interview with Long in Nouse where she talks about stumbling in to Imelda Marcos's shoe closet.
February 14, 2013
In this week's conversation with Jamaica Kincaid, we discussed Shirley Jackson's reputation, which, while it seems to be on the rise, has been more along the lines of 'weirdo horror writer' than 'one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century,' which I honestly believe she was. She had a way of capturing dread, the menacing fear of the Other, and the blurry line between private and public that I've never seen done quite so well. Do I think it is only sexism that keeps Jackson from being recognized for being a brilliant writer? No. I think it's any number of factors, from her working in genre to that weird act of fate that lights up some posthumous careers and buries others with the bodies, plus a little dose of sexism. She wrote about ghosts and houses. It was going to be a tough climb to respectability either way.
When we talk about the almost total silence that greeted AM Homes's great novel May We Be Forgiven, or the indifference that keeps Shirley Jackson off of those Best Books of the 20th Century lists (silly endeavors as those may be), and we use the word "sexism" or "misogyny," it is really just shorthand for the unfairness of the world not being a meritocracy. Because sexism plays a part in that, but so do a lot of other vague and diffuse factors that resist definition and also resist resistance.
So this poem by Adrian Piper (excerpted below) seemed appropriate, for the discussion about Kincaid's book and also Shirley Jackson and AM Homes:
Please don’t call me a black artist.
Please don’t call me a black philosopher.
Please don’t call me an African American artist.
Please don’t call me an African American philosopher.
Please don’t call me a woman artist.
Please don’t call me a woman philosopher.
Please don’t call me a female artist.
Please don’t call me a female philosopher.
And Jackson, with her pulpy covers with heaving breasts and shadowy figures clutching one another in a passionate embrace, are a good antidote to any Valentine's Day cynicism that may be lingering in your hearts this year. From her story "The Daemon Lover," which you can read here:
There was a policeman on the corner, and she thought, Why don't I go to the police -- you go to the police for a missing person. And then thought, What a fool I'd look like. She had a quick picture of herself standing in a police station, saying, "Yes, we were going to be married today, but he didn't come," and the policemen, three or four of them standing around listening, looking at her, at the print dress, at her too-bright make-up, smiling at one another. She couldn't tell them any more than that, could not say, "Yes, it looks silly, doesn't it, me all dressed up and trying to find the young man who promised to marry me, but what about all of it you don't know? I have more than this, more than you can see: talent, perhaps, and humor of a sort, and I'm a lady and I have pride and affection and delicacy and a certain clear view of life that might make a man satisfied and productive and happy; there's more than you think when you look at me."
I was having martinis with a former lover, and explaining why "The Daemon Lover" was one of my favorite short stories. The role of the Daemon Lover, the guy who you didn't even like or want to be with in the first place, but he slowly breaks down your resistance, seduces you, woos you, and then as soon as you are vulnerable and hooked, leaves you broken in half on the floor.
HIM: I would like to think of myself as your daemon lover.
ME: Except I wasn't broken when it ended.
HIM: And you didn't put up much resistance at the beginning.
And as a bonus, here's Shirley Jackson reading from that story, "The Daemon Lover."
February 13, 2013
The Guardian has a piece about The Rite of Spring turning 100 this year.
The creation of The Rite of Spring is something a lot of people have written about, and being a little obsessed with the Ballet Russes and with that era, it's something I've read many versions of. Sjeng Scheijen published a biography of Diaghilev, the man who commissioned Rite for the Ballet Russes, a couple years ago, but it wasn't very good. How you make the life story of someone who traveled all over Europe and brought together Picasso, Chanel, Stravinsky, Bakst, Nijinsky, Debussy, and countless others I'll never understand. (Plus he gives Diaghilev a lot of shit for firing his lover Nijinsky from the ballet company after a secret marriage, but come on. If my lesbian lover ran away to South America and secretly married a dude, I would fucking fire her, too, even if it was Elizabeth Bachner.)
But there was one wonderful moment in that book, where he writes about Stravinsky playing Rite on the piano for Diaghilev for the first time, in his shirt sleeves, sweating, banging the shit out the piano while stomping on the floor to recreate the rhythm and vocalizing all of the missing parts, while Diaghilev sits there silently, taking it all in. It's a wonderful image. And if you can't imagine Rite as a piano piece, there is this performance of Rite of Spring for Two Pianos -- essentially the music that Stravinsky adapted for ballet rehearsals.
But of course what everyone remembers about Rite of Spring is the riot it caused at its debut. My favorite account is from one of my favorite books, William R. Everdell's The First Moderns:
On May 29, opening night, the buzz was strong and "all Paris" was there. Indeed, "all Paris," could not be quieted down, even by the dimming of the house lights. It seemed to have decided that the judgment on the Rite's artistic merit would have to be made there and then, in the theater, before the wrong side could default. The muttering grew to a grumbling and the grumbling to a mighty rumbling until soon little could be heard of Stravinsky's music beyond the rhythmic undercurrent in the bass. That, of course, was weird enough, since the rhythm signature changed from bar to bar. Indeed, after the opening bassoon solo in what might have been the key of C, it seemed as though the instruments were all coming in a different tempi, one or two at a time, until everyone in the orchestra was playing his own ballet and the key seemed more and more uncertain. A little over three minutes into the performance, the women dancers entered, dressed like Pocahontases in red, and began to move in stiff little hops, while another insistent beat with another odd and changing rhythm signature began in the lower strings. What ought to have been a trumpet fanfare appeared out of nowhere and stopped without a cadence. The antis began to hoot and whistle, the pros to cry "bravo." The New York critic Carl Van Vechten remembered not noticing for the longest time that the man seated behind him was trying to beat time on his head. Nijinsky's mother fainted. Camille Saint-Saens, composer of Carnival of the Animals, left the hall. Another composer shouted, "Genius!" It was Maurice Ravel, who had worked alongside Stravinsky in Switzerland when the Rite was being orchestrated. Someone shouted, "Where were these pigs brought up?" and catcalls so much worse that even Arnold Schoenberg had yet to hear them from an audience. Would the performance have to be stopped, like the new music concert in Vienna back in March? From his seat in the fourth row Stravinsky watched the imperturbable back of the conductor, Pierre Monteux, and realized that Monteux was going to play on no matter what the audience might do. He got up and went into the wings where Nijinsky was trying to keep his dancers on beat by shouting numbers at them in Russian. Several times, Stravinsky remembered later, he had to lay hold of Nijinsky to stop him from going on the stage itself and shouting directly to his dancers -- or at the audience. Diaghilev loudly ordered the show to go on, and began signaling his electricians to switch the house lights off and on to see if that would quiet anyone down. It didn't. Not until the prima, Maria Piltz, began her solo dance of death in the last tableau did the Parisians show any respect at all for what they had actually come to see.
"Exactly what I wanted," said Diaghilev to Stravinsky as they sat in the restaurant after the performance.
Around the time of Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was involved with Coco Chanel, and it was not going to end well. Chanel, in her memoirs as relayed to Paul Morand, The Allure of Chanel, tries to convince the world she has no emotions whatsoever. But it's the obvious con of a woman who must have had serious abandonment issues. (Dead mother, absent father, raised by abusive nuns and aunts, love of her life killed in a tragic accident.) At any rate, her account of her affair with Stravinsky is hilarious, ending as it does with, "This affair, which I laugh about today, changed Igor's life entirely." I can see how easily one could fall into Chanel's life and world. What I don't necessarily see after reading so much about her is how one ever survived the experience.
And because I'm always looking for an excuse, let's just insert here my favorite piece of music, Stravinsky's Petrushka.
Book of the Week: See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid, an Excerpt
See now then, the dear Mrs. Sweet who lived with her husband Mr. Sweet and their two children, the beautiful Persephone and the young Heracles in the Shirley Jackson house, which was in a small village in New England. The house, the Shirley Jackson house, sat on a knoll, and from a window Mrs. Sweet could look down on the roaring waters of the Paran River as it fell furiously and swiftly out of the lake also named Paran; and looking up, she could see surrounding her, the mountains named Bald and Hale and Anthony, all part of the Green mountain Range; and she could see the firehouse where sometimes she could attend a civic gathering and hear her government representative say something that might seriously affect her and the well- being of her family or see the firemen take out the fire trucks and dismantle various parts of them and put the parts back together and then polish all the trucks and then drive them around the village with a lot of commotion before putting them away again in the fire house and they reminded Mrs. Sweet of the young Heracles, for he often did such things with his toy fire trucks; but just now when Mrs. Sweet was looking out from a window in the Shirley Jackson house, her son no longer did that. From that window again, she could see the house where the man who invented timelapse photography lived but he was dead now; and she could see the house, the Yellow House, that Homer had restored so carefully and lovingly, polishing the floors, painting the walls, replacing the pipes, all this in the summer before that awful fall, when he went hunting and after felling the largest deer he had ever shot, he dropped down dead while trying load it onto the back of his truck. And Mrs. Sweet did see him lying in his coffin in the Mahar funeral home, and she thought then, why does a funeral home always seem so welcoming, so inviting from the outside, so comfortable are the chairs inside, the beautiful golden glow of the lamp light softly embracing every object in the room, the main object being the dead, why is this so, Mrs. Sweet said to herself as she saw Homer, lying all alone and snug in his coffin, and he was all dressed up in brand-new hunting clothes, a red and black plaid jacket made of boiled wool and a red knitted hat, all clothing made by Woolrich or Johnson Bros. or some out door clothing outfitters like that; and Mrs. Sweet wanted to speak to him, for he looked so much like himself, to ask him if he would come to paint her house, the Shirley Jackson house, or could he come and do something, anything, fix the pipes, clean the gutters of the roof, check to see if water had leaked into the basement, because he appeared to be so like himself, but his wife said, Homer shot the biggest deer of his life and he died while trying to put in the back of his truck; and Mrs. Sweet was sympathetic to the worldly-ness of the dead, for she could make herself see the army of worms, parasites, who had, without malice aforethought, begun to feed on Homer and would soon reduce him to the realm of wonder and disillusion so sad, so sad all of this that Mrs. Sweet could see then, while standing at the window of the house in which Shirley Jackson had lived and across the way was the house in which old Mrs. McGovern had died and she had lived in it for many years before she became old, she had lived in her house, built in a neo-something style that harkened back from another era, long ago, long before Mrs. McGovern had been born and then a grown-up woman who married and lived with her husband in the Yellow House and made a garden of only peonies, big white ones that were streaked with a wine dark red on the petals nearest the stamens, like an imagined night crossing an imagined day, so had been those peonies in Mrs. McGovern’s garden and she had grown other things but no one could remember what they were, only her peonies were committed to memory and when Mrs. McGovern had died and so therefore vanished from the face of the earth, Mrs. Sweet had dug up those peonies from that garden, “Festiva Maxima” was their name, and planted them in her own garden, a place Mr. Sweet and the beautiful Persephone and even the young Heracles hated. The Pembrokes, father and son, mowed the lawn, though sometimes the father went off to Montpelier, the capital, to cast votes for or against, as he felt to be in the best interest of the people who lived in that village in New England, which even now is situated on the banks of the river Paran; and the other people in that village, the Woolmingtons lived always in their house, and the Atlases too, and so also were the Georges, the Lloyds, the Perrys; the library was full of books but no one went into it, only parents with their children, parents who wanted their children to read books, as if reading books were a form of love that was a mystery to them, a mystery that must remain just that. The small village in New England held all that and much more and all that and much was then and now, time and space intermingling, becoming one thing, all in the mind of Mrs. Sweet.
Excerpted from SEE NOW THEN by Jamaica Kincaid, published in February 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2013 by Jamaica Kincaid. All rights reserved.
February 12, 2013
A few housekeeping things:
- I have to be in Ireland soon for work, and I need a place to stay. If anyone needs a subletter, or wants to swap for Berlin, email me. I am flexible about location. I kind of have to be in a couple different places, and just need a place to travel to and from.
- We'll be doing a larger bit about this soon, but my literary advice column will be returning. You can read the archives here, to see what that is all about. Which means I need questions! What is on your mind over there? I'll find a book that matches up, like a little bit of homeopathy. But you know, without being hooey. Email me your questions, concerns, quandaries.
- We are in need of one or two new poetry reviewers. Send a writing sample to the email address linked above.
Mr. and Mrs. Sweet live together with their two children Heracles and Persephone in the Shirley Jackson House. Anyone who has read even the high school required story "The Lottery" by Jackson knows what is cuing up instinctively: Things are not what they seem.
It's not merely that Mr. Sweet wishes Mrs. Sweet dead, or that the children are stuck in some sort of ageless loop, perhaps cursed by their archetypal names. What looks like a quiet domestic novel is an investigation into the nature of time. How one quiet realization -- that your husband pictures your murder every night -- changes your entire past and your vision of the future. How a state of crisis warps maybe not only the perception of time but actual linearity. The novel seemed like a natural choice for our second Book of the Week, and so we'll be running a Q&A, an excerpt, and some other material this week.
I spoke with Jamaica Kincaid on the phone about her seriously strange little novel See Now Then about two weeks ago, and since then I've seen that her concerns about how the book would be received have come true. It's mostly being billed as some autobiographical confessional about her famous marriage (you'll have to get your gossip elsewhere), rather than the serious work that it so obviously is. I had our conversation running through my head as I read bitchy profile after bitchy profile of Kincaid, and her little rant about overlooked women writers and women writers not being taken seriously seemed even more poignant. But mostly we discussed her writing, and music, and why she is so interested in exploring the notion of time.
I wanted to start by speaking about the Shirley Jackson connection in this novel. What was your first exposure to the work of Shirley Jackson?
Not in school. I think just as a general reader. Many years ago I came to American writing as an adult. When I was a child, I only knew British literature. When I came to America I read a lot of things. “The Lottery” everybody reads, but I read it voluntarily. I don’t have a particular connection or passion or influence... she’s not a particular influence on me. I think she is a great writer, but there were a lot of reasons [to use her house]. The book is in New England, she’s in New England. The location I have the family in is the same location she was in, and in fact in the village that the family lives in the book, she actually lived in that village. There are at least three houses people will say, “Oh, that’s the house where Shirley Jackson lived,” but apparently she only lived in one for sure.
Another writer lived in the same vicinity as that family, Robert Frost. But the house he lived in, his son killed himself in that house, shot himself, so I didn’t want to put his name in it. But also, most important was the way the name sounded. There are many reasons I used I kept saying The Shirley Jackson House. I don’t need to say the house at all. But it becomes symbolic, especially because I use it over and over and over again, but it resonates because of the weight of the syllables. The Shir Ley Jack Son House. It has a weight to it, sort of like a liquid that collects and in collecting you begin to examine the content. The things that make up the elements, the constituency of the liquid. It was as well thought out as that. It wasn’t just something I just said carelessly. Everything in the book, believe it or not, it took a long time to write, because everything is carefully, carefully weighed.
It reads as if that were the case. It reads as if every word needs to be paid attention to. Then how long did it take for you to write altogether?
Maybe five or six years, let me see. I think maybe I started it in 2004, so if I finished it last year it was 8 years. And it’s a tiny book. I write very slowly, but that’s just me.
The connection that I felt with the Shirley Jackson name as well, in so many of her books home is either the fortress that keeps out whatever is menacing you, or if it’s the incredibly unsafe place. The place that is ultimately trying to destroy you. And I felt that too with your book, that the domestic scene is unsafe.
I never thought of her work in such detail, but the thing that amazes me is the way the unconscious works. Writing about things that can’t really be seen, I think it’s perfect that I didn’t understand that. If it makes people want to go and examine her work, I’m really grateful. I’m really glad I could do that. I think that it’s not that she’s not known, but she’s not given the serious place in American literature that she deserves. The writing and the language is very simple -- and that’s something they say about my writing, too, that it’s very simple -- but it’s the most profound thing that she’s saying. What you just said about the home being the citadel, that would be wonderful if people really examined and gave her credit. She’s a lovely writer, in my memory.
When I think of American women, I think, they’re not given enough credit. A.M. Homes has just written a rather big book [May We Be Forgiven] -- people always say we women don’t write enough big books -- but it didn’t really get enough attention and reception that it deserved when you compare it to Freedom or one of those big books written by men. Once again American women... not to beat a dead horse. But I think Shirley Jackson deserves not only to be forced on high school children. She’s really a major person, quite like Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children. There are wonderful women who just fall off the radar, but I suppose men must feel that way, too. Anyway, I’m not a man.
I loved that AM Homes book. I thought it was fantastic.
Do you see what I mean? That was a great example of something really wrong. If I were her, I would be quite enraged. I don’t have any expectations about the reception of my book, being not only a woman, but black! And foreign!
All sorts of things contributed to being a memorialization. Every time there was a chance to say “The Shirley Jackson House” I was so thrilled. The weight of it was perfect. There were things when I was writing the book that coalesced, they contributed. The thing I often want to do in writing, rather than making this tiresome explanation, you know, “the room had three windows in it.” If you can say something that makes it clear there are three windows in the room and the light comes in a certain way, if you can just do that, that’s what is interesting. I found that with The Shirley Jackson House, whether you know Shirley Jackson or not, you know there’s just something about such a house.
There were a couple things that were repeated in that way, like the phrase “banana boat.” Which is...
What about the “shy Myrmidons”? When I came up with the shy Myrmidons, I was so happy. I thought, will anyone know? Does anyone remember? And why are they shy? Oh, I loved that. [laughs]
Tell me a little a bit about the central relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. What was the kernel of that relationship?
I think when the husband Mr. Sweet writes many musical forms, all of them titled “This Marriage is Dead,” and then she has never really understood music, European arrangement of sounds and classifications of sounds. When he presents it in this way, she understands her present life, and it leads her to understand her past life, and it leads her to contemplate a life to come. The kernel is that they are essentially mismatched. One would write a symphony, the other would begin from a banana boat. A portrayal of mutiny. Captain Bligh transporting breadfruit to a slave society. The kernel is a discordant note. They don’t really hear each other. The book has a lot of music in it and it’s sort of arranged, as much as I can understand, arranged as music.
Do you have a background in music?
I don’t. I love music, but I was asked to leave my piano lessons by an old English woman because I stole one plum from her bowl of plums. But I have always loved music. I used to go hear rehearsals of the Philharmonic, and in fact a lot of my first book was written as I was sitting in the audience listening to them rehearse. And I write to a lot of music.
What music do you write to?
Classical, Glenn Gould. Or listening to operas in languages I do not understand. Or very difficult music, like Erwartung, by Schoenberg. I like to listen to things I don’t understand, and my mind struggles to think, if it sounds like that it must mean this. But of course I’m usually very, very wrong. The thing about being very wrong in that way is that it doesn’t have any consequence for anybody. It’s not as if you invade a country and you’re wrong. If you listen to a piece of music and misinterpret it, nothing happens. It’s really one of those wonderful wrong things.
Mr. Sweet’s relationship to music, I thought the way it was written about was so beautiful and also musical in its own way. It seemed flowing in a more musical way than in a prose kind of way.
It is true that for years I was married to a composer, for a long, long time. And loved hearing him talk about a quartet or a this or a that, but I myself my training. My son produces and writes music, so there’s always music in the house. I’m quite well versed in Jay-Z and Kanye, so there’s that. I lived with someone who knew a lot about all sorts of music, so I love music. When I was growing up, we didn’t have a radio or electricity or running water, but other people around us did. Every Sunday afternoon the BBC would have a broadcast of classical music. It’s really kind of impossible to grow up in the West Indies and not love music. Everyone is quite geared towards music. Even the way they talk or the way they quarrel with each other has the rhythm, the ebb and flow of a piece of music.
And Mr. Sweet and Mrs. Sweet are just Mr. Sweet and Mrs. Sweet, but the children have these very, very weighty names. Mythologically I can’t think of two more weighty names than Heracles and Persephone. What made you decide to be that direct with their names?
What to call them? Ken and Barbie? No. Just to think of myths. I think if you look at the origins of those names, and if you notice their names are the original, not the Roman, they’re Greek. So they are static, they are the stilled. I wanted to keep them, they are the young Heracles, the beautiful Persephone, they don’t change. I wanted to keep them in a kind of present, a kind of now, now, now state, so that they could remain not only archetype, I could continually say things about them, and the things I could say would change but the characters themselves were a kind of scaffold. The four characters are scaffolding that I hang things on. Perhaps the main character is the thing we call time. Which is something I don’t understand and I am trying to understand. It’s not only a domestic novel, it is a philosophical contemplation, an existential contemplation. Which I think is an unusual thing to do in an American consciousness.
I would agree with you on that. Going then, to the question of the reception of a novel by a woman... The argument is that women write too much domestic fiction, right? That is the criticism laid upon the woman.
Is Freedom not a domestic novel?
It is totally a domestic novel.
Is The Marriage Plot not a domestic novel?
It’s amazing how the definition changes.
If being a woman weren’t enough to make you crazy, you would be crazy from this shit that is done. Go on, sorry.
You said earlier you have no expectations have for reception. Is that true, or are you preparing yourself?
Oh no, it’s completely true. I expect all sorts of silly things to be said. Oh, are you sure it’s not autobiographical because you really were married to a composer and you really did live in Vermont and you really did get a divorce. I expect that, and it’s already happened. You just shrug your shoulders. You can write about Martians, but it doesn’t interest me to write about Martians. Even if the circumstances are autobiographical, isn’t there something more going on here? If I wanted to write about my autobiography, I would sit down and write People Magazine.
The easiest thing to say is that this is autobiographical because it parallels your life. Well, actually, it doesn’t parallel my life so much. I don’t sit in the state that that novel is in every day. If I did I wouldn’t be able to eat food or change my clothes or do any of the things we do. The main state of it is an emotional crisis about what happens to everything, where does it come from? Where does it go? How is it contained? In a way it started long ago, this obsession I have with collapsing and expanding time, but if you really look at it, the first story I wrote called "Girl," which is 300 words in one sentence, and it traces the life of a girl, a female, from the time she’s very small to the time she’s on the brink of fertile, she’s woman-like, she’s about to have girl children herself. It seems to me I’ve always be interested in, how does it work? How does existence work? What is time? Does it really exist or is it a kind of gravity? The thing that keeps us on the face of the earth, but keeps us able to build a road, build a house on the road, walk to the other houses on the road. Is that what time is? I don’t know. I just always ask things like that. To ask a question like that, that’s the foundation of something, and then that’s what I mean about scaffolding.
See also: Last week's Book of the Week
February 11, 2013
Half of my book budget these days has been going to out of print books. Can someone please explain to me why M. F. K. Fisher's novel Not Now But Now is out of print? Or Balthus's autobiography Vanished Splendors? Are we not living in the digital age? What good is it doing us exactly?
At any rate, my weekend reading was Russell A. Lockhart's Words as Eggs. Which, hm, was out of print when I bought it but it looks like it was just reprinted. Dash it all, I had a theme going today, of rescuing writers from the out of print abyss. Fuck it, let's just keep going. Anyway! It's one of those batty Jungian books, where maybe it doesn't have to mean what the author says it means in order to be kind of wonderful. The Jungians are nuts, but they say amazing things. Like this:
Even now I must interrupt myself to tell you something about this word 'consider' because, if we are to consider something, the image carried behind the shell of this word out to have its say and not be left sleeping. The 'sider' part of this word is the root word for 'star' -- the same etymon we see in such words as 'sidereal,' meaning 'in reference to star time,' and 'siderite,' the iron from meteorites -- that is, 'what falls to earth from the stars.' In earlier times a 'sidus' was one who observed the stars. That required care and time -- one could not hurry the heavens. And in watching the stars in this slow and attentive way, the psyche was stirred, began to move, and projected itself into the starry lights. In such careful looking, the psyche began to see itself, and man perceived the relationship between himself and the stars. In such con-sideration, being 'with' the stars, the psyche gave birth to astrology.
Now, whatever you might think of astrology -- and I have a Virgo moon perfectly conjunct the Circe asteroid, so I am interested -- that little passage lights up the brain, yes? Less so: his explanation that 'mastodon' means 'breast tooth' because of the nipple-like projections on their teeth. That knowledge is not going to help anyone live their lives.
I got this email over the summer. Did I know anyone who would be interested in writing the introduction to an Ella Maillart reissue? The University of Chicago was reprinting her "novel" (really a travelogue with one of the names changed) The Cruel Way, about the time she and a friend bought a Ford and drove it from Geneva to Afghanistan. In 1939. I am pretty sure I was supposed to pass this assignment along to someone appropriate, but I didn't. I wrote back immediately, I am writing this introduction.
Everything Ella Maillart did was more impressive than anything you have done. She is just one of those women. She participated in the Olympics, in sailing. She walked across Turkestan. She walked from Peking to Kashmir. She was a stuntwoman. She sat out the war in India, learning from the yogis, pre-every white woman ever who did that. She was a spectacular photographer.
I was thinking about Maillart the other day when discussing Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons. It's his book about moving to Cyprus, buying a house, restoring the house, getting involved in local politics kind of by accident. And in the book, he presents himself as very stoic, very wandering off into the wilds by himself to deal with the locals and the strangeness. Alone.
But of course he took his wife with him, as it turns out. I found this out only after finishing the book. She does not come up. Maybe it is one of those spousal agreements: just don't ever write about me and we'll be fine. Or maybe traveling with a wife just didn't fit in with the image of the self-made man he was trying to project. Wives and lovers come in handy when you're off on the road alone. As someone who does 98% of her travel alone, I secretly judge those who travel with their significant other. Because, I guess, if there is not loneliness and despair involved, it doesn't count? I wonder, though, how many of these other male travel writers we've idolized for their bravery had wives have been off to the side somewhere, providing companionship and taking notes and smoothing things out with the locals when their husband got into another bar fight.
In the new issue of Bookslut, Daniel Shvartsman discusses three Swiss travel writers, including Maillart, who have mostly fallen out of print. It is like we are not entirely sure what to do with female travel writers. Their shelf lives are not terribly long. Two of the writers he mentions, Anne Schwartzenbach's and Isabelle Eberhardt's lives altogether were not very long either. When Anne and Ella weren't traveling together all three usually traveled solo, no wives in tow. And Eberhardt even survived an assassination attempt by an Algerian gang:
Suddenly, I received a violent blow on the head followed by two others on the left arm. I re-lifted my head and saw in front of me a poorly dressed individual, a stranger to the group, who brandished a weapon above my head that I took for a club. I got up quickly and jumped towards the far wall to grab a saber of Si Lachmi. But the first blow had fallen on the top of my head and dazed me. So, I fell on a trunk, feeling a violent pain in my left arm.
So Ella Maillart isn't the only woman who is more hardcore than you. The edition of The Cruel Way with my introduction is being released in May, and I couldn't be more proud to be associated with her, even in the smallest of ways. Even if while she is conquering mountains I am mostly drinking wine in the bathtub, and when she is walking across Kashmir I am talking to cows in the Irish countryside. It does not quite add up, but it's an honor to help bring her back to readers' attention.
February 8, 2013
It is time for an Olivia Manning comeback, please. NYRB published The Balkan Trilogy a while back, and hopefully they have plans to also publish The Levant Trilogy, because I have to know what happens to that marriage. The books are set during WWII, a young bride and her charming but not exactly devoted husband landing in Romania of all places, then fleeing to the Levant, trying to get ahead of the Nazis. It's a soap opera that takes its political setting as seriously as the troubled marriage and love triangles and overwrought emotions. Or, as the Irish Times describes the books:
The surface often suggests a comedy of manners: rarely have the English abroad been skewered so deftly, and she had a mordant eye for the grotesque. But as the world darkens we sense the atmosphere of cities as they crack apart, the way inadequate people behave under pressure, the survival of the seedy and self-seeking, the little details of hard-won food and shelter, the insecurity, uncertainty and occasional heroism of humanity at war. “You are watching a country die,” Harriet is told by a Romanian friend.
I am having a delayed reaction to a book.
There was a line in Kate Zambreno's Heroines that irked me, even more than her calling Gertrude Stein a patriarch. It was her statement that Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was institutionalized because "she threw a chair."
First off, she does not even finish that sentence, because a complete version of that statement would include "...at her mother." And that was not the only reason she was institutionalized. From Brenda Maddox's biography of Lucia's mother and wife of James Joyce, Nora:
During her several months in Bray, Lucia's behavior turned from the bizarre to the dangerous. Her cousins simply coped with each event as it happened... She had a predilection for turning the gas jets on; they opened the windows. She swallowed a bottle of aspirin; Bozena gave her a glass of mustard water to make her sick. Lucia lit a fire in the middle of the room; the girls decided that the landlady, to whom she had already given a ring, had encouraged her to claim a new rug from Joyce...
Joyce asked Constantine Curran, with his wife and daughter, to drive down to Bray to see what was going on. It did not take them long to see that Lucia was living in squalor and was incapable of looking after herself. Mrs. Curran and Elizabeth sorted out Lucia's beautiful clothes, which were in a terrible heap. Even as Lucia, who was a heavy smoker, watched them, her tweed jacket caught fire from a box of matches in her pocket.
Lucia Joyce is a complicated figure, and she has been intensely complicated by people who want to tell her story for her. Because, as I have written in the past, we are living in the age of the Post-Feminist Anonymous Woman Reclamation Project. I wrote then:
For centuries, it was men who defined women. Male painters showed us what women look like. Male poets and novelists told us how they feel, what they think, what they desire. Some of it, of course, was a more successful ventriloquist act than others. But now that women have a voice and an audience, and access to writing utensils and art supplies and their own bank accounts and their own rooms, it’s not enough simply to tell the story of what women now think and feel, what they look like, what they desire. From novels narrated by Captain Ahab’s wife to investigations into unrecognized and uncredited female lab assistants, women writers and scholars feel they have to go back in time, revise the written record, re-feminize all of those male voices coming out of female mouths.
The problem is, we so very often are not respectful to that actual woman's voice, and we feel fine stuffing our own nonsense and our own problems into the mouths of women with other things going on.
Carol Shloss's Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake did a lot of damage to the idea of Lucia Joyce. She became not a human being who was troubled and had a history of violence against her family and herself and was quite possibly schizophrenic, she became a victim. A genius silenced by people not ready to accept her gift. Because of the patriarchy or what have you. From her book:
There are two artists in this room, and both of them are working. Joyce is watching and learning. The two communicate with a secret, unarticulated voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counterperforming, the pen, the limbs writing away. The father notices the dances autonomous eloquence. He understands the body to be the hieroglyphic of a mysterious writing, the dancers steps to be an alphabet of the inexpressible... The place where she meets her father is not in consciousness but in some more primitive place before consciousness. They understand each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words and concepts but a language nevertheless, founded on the communicative body. In the room are flows, intensities.
Except, as Sheila O'Malley points out, Shloss wasn't there and has absolutely no idea what that dynamic was like, because Lucia did not leave behind much of a record. And besides, I have problems with the romanticization of mental illness. I come somewhere between RD Laing and our current "drug a person until they are compliant" approach, but I detest this idea that madness is a true expression, a purity. Obviously women have been locked up and oppressed for deviating from the norm, but then you should tell their stories. Factually. And not turn a real human being into an idea.
Genius needs a vessel to contain it, a sane structure, in order to accomplish anything. Perhaps her family is partially to blame for her lack of a vessel -- her parents dragged her from place to place, and when they did have money (not often), they spent it on fancy dinners and beautiful hats, rather than creating a stable home for themselves and their children. But whatever the cause, Lucia Joyce was not institutionalized because she threw a chair. Was a deeply troubled, violent and unstable woman who was deeply loved by her father, to the point where he delayed treatment until she was flailing. Her real story is more interesting and complicated than "silenced genius."
February 7, 2013
One of the great things about academic books is that they wear their influences on their sleeves. They are in direct conversation with other books, and so if you are unsatisfied or if your interest is stimulated and you'd like to continue reading and thinking about the subject, you have a readymade reading list.
I wanted to create a list of supplementary material for Ann Cvetkovich's Depression: A Public Feeling, because it is kind of a radical way of looking at a problem most of the world thinks is solved. She mentions a great number of really great books throughout Depression, from Jeffrey Smith's Where the Roots Reach for Water, Lauren Gail Berlant's Cruel Optimism, and Saidiya V. Hartman's Lose Your Mother. And those works branch out to others, like the work of James Hillman.
But in case you are not ready to go book shopping, there is plenty to read on the subject online as well. Here is a list of some of my favorites:
My Melancholia by Jenny Diski
60 Minutes's segment on the placebo effect and SSRIs
"The Orange Bottle" by Joshua Mehigan
The Anatomy of Melancholy, the definitive work on the subject by Robert Burton, available as a free ebook
"The Sick Soul" by William James
And if you're interested in a copy of Depression: A Public Feeling, we are giving away copies here.
February 6, 2013
Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich, an Excerpt
I’d like to be able to write about depression in a way that simultaneously captures how it feels and provides an analysis of why and how its feelings are produced by social forces. I’m interested in how, for many of us (an “us” that includes a range of social positions and identities in need of specification), everyday life produces feelings of despair and anxiety, sometimes extreme, sometimes throbbing along at a low level, and hence barely discernible from just the way things are, feelings that get internalized and named, for better or for worse, as depression. It is customary, within our therapeutic culture, to attribute these feelings to bad things that happened to us when we were children, to primal scenes that have not yet been fully remembered or articulated or worked through. It’s also common to explain them as the result of a biochemical disorder, a genetic mishap for which we shouldn’t blame ourselves. I tend to see such master narratives as problematic displacements that cast a social problem as a personal problem in one case and as a medical problem in the other, but moving to an even larger master narrative of depression as socially produced often provides little specific illumination and even less comfort because it’s an analysis that frequently admits of no solution. Saying that capitalism (or colonialism or racism) is the problem does not help me get up in the morning.
Thus I’ve been looking for forms of testimony that can mediate between the personal and the social, that can explain why we live in a culture whose violence takes the form of systematically making us feel bad. Ideally, I’d like those forms of testimony to offer some clues about how to survive those conditions and even to change them, but I’d also settle for a compelling description, one that doesn’t reduce lived experience to a list of symptoms and one that provides a forum for feelings that, despite a widespread therapeutic culture, still haven’t gone public enough. It’s a task that calls for performative writing, and I’m not sure I know what that would look like or, even if I did, whether I’m up to the task of producing it. Some years ago I began this project with the following statement, a rant about the inadequacies of both pharmaceutical cures and the available public discourse, including memoirs, that cast depression as either utterly mysterious or a manageable, if chronic, medical problem. It’s a call to memoir that I’m still trying to answer.
This is my version of a Prozac memoir, bad connotations included. But I want to write it precisely because I don’t believe in Prozac. No, I think it’s a scam, even if that makes me one of those quacks, like the people who don’t believe that the HIV virus causes AIDS. Discussions about the biochemical causes of depression might be plausible, but I find them trivial. I want to know what environmental, social, and familial factors trigger those biological responses—that’s where things get interesting. A drug that masks the symptoms of a response to a fucked-up world or a fucked-up life doesn’t tell me anything. I want to hear about the people like me who’ve decided not to take drugs.
But in addition to writing a polemic against drugs, I also want to write about depression because my own experiences of it have been so unexpected and so intense, the sensations so invisible and yet so spectacular, that I feel compelled to honor them with description. I want to know how it was that not just my mind but my body experienced such excruciatingly bad feelings. But also such excruciatingly ordinary bad feelings insofar as during the most extreme bouts I was overwhelmed by a sense of how easy it was to get there—the slide into numbness was brought on by such common events as moving, breaking up with someone, trying to finish a book, starting a new job. Huge life transitions, yes, but also ones that, in my culture at least, are an inevitable part of growing up, of learning to take care of oneself, of facing the fear of being alone. I want to say something about that state that satisfies me in a way that all those bestsellers don’t because they make depression seem so clinical, so extreme, so pathological, so alien. Why do these accounts not call my name? What name am I trying to call?
I think I can only know why I want to talk about depression by describing it. What before why. My own experience is the antidote to all of those other descriptions I’ve read, whether in theory, or pop psychology, or memoirs. Have I read anything that I liked? That moved me? That seemed true enough to haunt me? No. Then I’ll have to make it up myself.
Over the course of a number of years, I wrote, although often with a sense of secrecy and writerly inadequacy. My desire to write a depression memoir has been fraught with ambivalence because of the problematic place of memoir within therapeutic culture, where it has a tendency to circulate in sensationalizing and personalizing ways that don’t lend themselves to the social and political analysis that I’m looking for. Equally controversial is memoir’s place in academia, where its developing status as a forum for new kinds of criticism has also been met with skepticism about its scholarly value. At the same time, memoir has allowed me to circumvent the resistance I’ve often encountered to a critique of antidepressants, which some people take very personally—I can simply speak for myself by offering my own case history. Although for the sake of manifesto or emotional outburst it might seem otherwise, I’m not against pharmaceuticals for those who find they work. I myself don’t find medical explanations of depression’s causes satisfying, but I do understand that many people find them helpful either for themselves or for family members because it relieves them of debilitating forms of responsibility and self-blame. I do, though, want to complicate biology as the endpoint for both explanations and solutions, causes and effects.
The book that grew out of this initial writing and ongoing experiment with process combines memoir and criticism in order to explore what each genre can offer to public discourse about depression. I found that neither on its own was satisfactory. Although the critical essay, the genre with which I have the most familiarity and skill, had much to offer, it also felt like it had some limits. If I wrote about depression in the third person without saying anything about my personal experience of it, it felt like a key source of my thinking was missing. Memoir became one of my research methods, a starting point and crucible for exploring my ideas about depression, an opportunity to figure out what kind of case history might have the richness and nuance I was looking for by actually creating one, and a way of presenting my understanding of depression as emerging from my ongoing daily experience.
At the same time, I couldn’t accomplish everything I wanted to do in the genre of the memoir. There were too many other things I wanted to say, too much context that could not have been incorporated without breaking the frame of the memoir itself. Some readers suggested that I might want to combine the two in order to represent them as mutually constitutive. As attractive as that idea was, I ultimately decided to let the memoir stand alone in order to reflect its status as the first phase of my thinking and because it ended up telling a story that I wanted readers to have access to as a single coherent piece of writing. The end result, then, is a diptych, a narrative that uses two different strategies for writing about depression, with the aim of reflecting on which forms of writing and public discourse are best suited to that task.
On Being Stuck
The first part of this book, and the starting point for my subsequent thinking about depression, is a memoir about the place where I live on a daily basis, academia, where the pressure to succeed and the desire to find space for creative thinking bump up against the harsh conditions of a ruthlessly competitive job market, the shrinking power of the humanities, and the corporatization of the university. For those who are fortunate enough to imagine that their careers and other life projects can be meaningfully shaped by their own desires, depression in the form of thwarted ambition can be the frequent fallout of the dreams that are bred by capitalist culture—the pressure to be a successful professional, to have a meaningful job, to juggle the conflicting demands of work and leisure, or to have a “personal life” in the form of a sense of self that lies outside the circuits of capital. Although academics often like to imagine that they are crafting alternatives to the socially sanctioned versions of these goals, that aspiration also creates its own set of pressures.
I turned to memoir in order to track what it’s like to move through the day, focusing in particular on the crucial years in which I was writing a dissertation, starting a job, and then finishing a book for tenure. My episodic narrative tells the story of how academia seemed to be killing me, a statement that seems very melodramatic given the privileged nature of my professional status and the specialized task of writing a dissertation or book, the stakes of which are often ultimately only personal. But to feel that your work doesn’t matter is to feel dead inside, a condition that is normalized for so many. Academia breeds particular forms of panic and anxiety leading to what gets called depression—the fear that you have nothing to say, or that you can’t say what you want to say, or that you have something to say but it’s not important enough or smart enough. In this particular enclave of the professional managerial class, there is an epidemic of anxiety- induced depression that is widely acknowledged informally but not always shared publicly or seen as worthy of investigation. In its own way, this book adds to a body of work on the current state of the academy, especially the humanities, where ongoing versions of the culture wars are one site of struggle in efforts to preserve forms of creative living and thinking in a market culture. It contributes to discussions of the role of the corporate university in neoliberal policies that shape (so-called) private and affective life. In this context, depression takes the shape of an anxiety to be managed, a failure of productivity that is then addressed by a lucrative pharmaceutical industry and a set of accompanying discourses that encourage particular ways of thinking about the self and its failures.
For this local account of life in academia that is not just individual but available for systemic analysis, one of my target audiences is graduate students and untenured and adjunct faculty, especially those in the humanities, whose relation to these conditions is often a very palpable sense of fear, anxiety, and, very frequently, diagnoses of depression. Why is a position of relative privilege, the pursuit of creative thinking and teaching, lived as though it were impossible? What would make it easier to live with these sometimes impossible conditions? Calling it impossible might seem presumptuous, but I’m willing to take that risk. Academics too often struggle with long- term projects such as dissertations and books while squeezed on the one hand by an intensely competitive job market and meritocratic promotion and reward system and driven on the other by a commitment to social justice that often leaves us feeling like we’re never doing enough to make a difference. I see this fear creep up on graduate students all the time, perfectly capable people who fall apart in the process of writing a first chapter or who wallow in partial dissertation drafts unable to put it all together. This form of nonproductivity may seem very specialized and almost phantasmatic in nature—how could people be so incapacitated by the relatively nonurgent task of doing some cultural readings? But my aim is to take seriously the forms of unhappiness and hopelessness produced even by these relatively privileged and specialized projects and ambitions. The forms of productivity demanded by the academic sphere of the professional managerial class can tell us something more general about corporate cultures that demand deliverables and measurable outcomes and that say you are only as good as what you produce. (In this context, it can be especially hard to justify creative or individualized intellectual work, and teaching or administration may feel more concrete than pursuing creative thought.) What would it mean to make thinking easier? Or to make its difficulties and impasses more acceptable? What is going on when you can’t write?
One of the most important turning points in my depression memoir is the moment of a major conceptual breakthrough in completing my first book, Mixed Feelings, about the politics of affect in the Victorian sensation novel. While writing my introduction, I got stuck, torn between my desire to find evidence of feminist subversion in these lurid stories of women’s bigamy and adultery but schooled in Foucauldian paradigms that emphasized the containment and management of resistance. Although conceptual blockage can come in many forms, I don’t think it’s accidental that what had me caught was the sense that my Foucauldian reading of the management of affect in the sensation novel allowed for no escape. My friend Lora Romero’s essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ingeniously suggested that Foucault could be used in ways that didn’t lead to this impasse, provided the opening I was looking for and encouraged me to find a way of reading the sensation novel that was more open-ended and flexible, or what we have come to call “reparative.” I needed an intellectual framework that allowed me to believe in the possibility of sensationalism as productive, even as I also needed to insist on critique. Had I been able to see in 1984, when I first discovered and wrote on Lady Audley’s Secret, then an obscure Dover Press publication, that the sensation novel would be important enough to become Penguin and World’s Classics editions and the subject of multiple scholarly works, I might have approached my work differently. How can we make room for crazy thoughts to become intellectual projects and communities and movements?
While there is an especially neat convergence here between the content of my intellectual impasse and the experience of it—both were about hopelessness—connecting depression to hopelessness or frustration also suggests that it has solutions, however difficult they may be to conceptualize or achieve. Indeed, I was delighted when I discovered that impasse was one of the keywords being explored by Feel Tank Chicago, and their thinking has encouraged me to take impasse seriously as a concept and an experience. I’ve benefited from being able to think alongside elaborations such as the following by Berlant: “An impasse is a holding station that doesn’t hold but opens out into anxiety, that dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure. An impasse is decompositional—in the unbound temporality of the lag one hopes to have been experiencing all along (otherwise it’s the end), it marks a delay.” For Berlant, an object of knowledge becomes a (productive) impasse when it slows us down, preventing easy recourse to critique or prescription for action and instead inviting us to see it as “a singular place that’s a cluster of noncoherent but proximate attachments that can only be approached awkwardly, described around, shifted.".
With its spatial connotations of being at a “dead end” or “no exit,” impasse captures the notion of depression as a state of being “stuck,” of not being able to figure out what to do or why to do it. The material dimensions of being stuck or at an impasse are important to its more conceptual meanings and suggest the phenomenological and sensory dimensions of depression, which can literally shut down or inhibit movement. As a theoretical concept, impasse imports its spatial or literal sense into conceptual and social circumstances; it suggests that things will not move forward due to circumstance—not that they can’t, but that the world is not designed to make it happen or there has been a failure of imagination. As a political category, impasse can be used to describe moments when disagreements and schisms occur within a group or when it is impossible to imagine how to get to a better future—conditions, for example, of political depression or left melancholy. It can describe intellectual blockages, such as those produced by forms of critique that get stuck in the formulaic repetition of the failure of cultural texts to be progressive. It can also describe the experience of everyday life when we don’t know what to do. And, in ways that will be relevant to the discussions ahead, it is related to the category of spiritual crisis as well, those moments when a system of belief or belonging loses meaning and faith is in question. Public Feelings approaches the impasse as a state of both stuckness and potential, maintaining a hopefulness about the possibility that slowing down or not moving forward might not be a sign of failure and might instead be worth exploring. Impasse is an important category for Public Feelings because it wants to work with and connect blockages created by critique, by desperate political circumstances, and by an everyday life that doesn’t change.
If depression is conceived of as blockage or impasse or being stuck, then its cure might lie in forms of flexibility or creativity more so than in pills or a different genetic structure. Creativity is thus another keyword for this project. Defined in relation to notions of blockage or impasse, creativity can be thought of as a form of movement, movement that maneuvers the mind inside or around an impasse, even if that movement sometimes seems backward or like a form of retreat. Spatialized in this way, creativity can describe forms of agency that take the form of literal movement and are thus more emotional or sensational or tactile. Indeed, my memoir focuses on the body at rest, unable to get out of bed, for example, as well as many efforts to keep it moving, whether through exercise, such as yoga or swimming, or through ordinary daily activities ranging from washing the dishes to sitting at a desk. This notion of creativity as movement can also benefit from queer phenomenologies, as well as queer ways of thinking about temporalities that move backward and sideways rather than just forward. Creativity encompasses different ways of being able to move: to solve problems, have ideas, be joyful about the present, make things. Conceived of in this way, it is embedded in everyday life, not something that belongs only to artists or to transcendent forms of experience.
Although academics frequently try to justify the significance of their work by appeal to scientific notions of progress or contributions to society, one of the most important aspects of the humanities may be the way they provide room for creativity. Sedgwick has notably defined queerness in relation to creativity, suggesting the powerfully non-normative implications of focusing on creative thought that doesn’t have an immediate outcome.
Millions of people today struggle to carve out—barely, at great cost to themselves—the time, permission, and resources, “after work” or instead of decently-paying work, for creativity and thought that will not be in the service of corporate profit, nor structured by its rhythms. Many, many more are scarred by the prohibitive difficulty of doing so. No two people, no two groups would make the same use of these resources, furthermore, so that no one can really pretend to be utilizing them “for” another. I see that some find enraging the spectacle of people for whom such possibilities are, to a degree, built into the structure of our regular paid labor. Another way to understand that spectacle, though, would be as one remaining form of insistence that it is not inevitable—it is not a simple fact of nature—for the facilities of creativity and thought to represent rare or exorbitant privilege. Their economy should not and need not be one of scarcity.
In making this statement, Sedgwick neatly bypasses the way progressive or left cultural studies often tries to justify itself by appealing to political and social justice. As important as such work is, and indeed my own career is steeped in it, the experience of “impasse” has to be acknowledged—it occurs at moments when the social relevance of what we’re doing and thinking is not clear. At such moments, a commitment to creativity, or to pursuing one’s own ways of thinking and being, can be salutary; it is certainly the impulse that enabled me to imagine that writing a memoir could be a useful part of my academic projects, even without the laminated or flamboyant style that Sedgwick describes as one of the pleasures of writing for her (although imagining that self narration might be meaningful even when not justified by style is its own form of flaunting).
My goal in exploring the relation between depression and academic careers is thus to create more space for creative thought, for whatever it is that provides more pleasure or happiness, even if its immediate professional or social gains are not obvious. More space for “creativity” also means a higher tolerance for “impasse,” which is sometimes the only route to new thinking and to the creation of stronger, more resilient communities that can do work in the world. I have found my work with various Public Feelings groups sustaining because they have been able to make me feel that work that didn’t make sense actually did. If we can come to know each other through our depression, then perhaps we can use it to make forms of sociability that not only move us forward past our moments of impasse but understand impasse itself to be a state that has productive potential.
"What's the essence of Love? But that was a question for Mr. Sweet, for he grew up in the atmosphere of questions of life and death: Hiroshima, Nagasaki; the Holocaust."
(Happy fucking Valentine's Day everyone!) So last week I talked to Jamaica Kincaid about her new book See Now Then, where the above line comes from. It is a marvelously fucked up book, and the whole thing is set in Shirley Jackson's old house. Kincaid was a delight to talk to. Over at Kirkus, I profile Kincaid and her latest novel.
Kincaid has set Mr. and Mrs. Sweet to live in the house that Jackson herself wrote in, the one that Shirley Jackson practiced witchcraft in. The house from which she suspected her neighbors of harboring ill will towards her and her family. The house that she eventually refused to leave, becoming a shut-in who wrote nasty little stories of great power. It's fitting because Mr. Sweet is introduced to the reader as he is imagining coming home to discover his wife's severed head. So if we are in Shirley Jackson territory, we are in one of the stories where the house confines you with your antagonist, the house in which no good is allowed in.
February 5, 2013
I was 21 when I first went on antidepressants. I did not have health insurance, and so like any self-respecting broke girl living in a town with a massive university hospital, I joined a pharmaceutical trial. After about a week, I noticed an uptick in mood. Things just didn't ever get quite as low as they had been. After two weeks, I had more energy and I was spending more time out of the bathtub than in. By four weeks, I was a fully functioning adult, almost. And then at six weeks, at the end of the trial, I learned that all along I had been on the placebo.
Since then, I have had doctors try to prescribe me SSRIs, but I have never taken them. If I could get better on sugar pills that gave me no side effects, why risk the suicidal ideation, sinus trouble, weight gain, loss of libido, manic states, that weird chemical taste at the back of the throat, and all of other totally lovely possibilities. But it was stronger than that. I resisted the idea that this was a medical problem I was having, despite the increasingly medical framework being put around depression. But once you go down that road, as Ann Cvetkovich writes in her new book Depression: A Public Feeling, if you start to say that depression is not a disease, you come off in this climate about the same as an AIDS denialist.
Cvetkovich also resists the medical model for depression, and in her book she investigates other possible causes and other possible treatments. She dissects the way living in a capitalist, totally wired society creates great stores of anxiety, and also the ways in which failures at work and in creativity can create despair. She advocates understanding these feelings rather than simply medicating and numbing them, and also allowing for a conversation about depression that is bigger than rote copy about how it's a "chemical imbalance."
So Depression: A Public Feeling was an obvious choice to kick off our new feature here at Bookslut, the Book of the Week. We'll be featuring content from the book and supplementary materials, starting with an interview with Cvetkovich today. Duke University Press has generously donated a few copies of her book for a giveaway (more on that in a bit.) First up, I interviewed Cvetkovich about Depression, whether one should be ashamed of their spiritual practice, and the destructive force of capitalism.
You write in your introduction that being skeptical about the medical origins and treatments for depression is a bit like being an AIDS denialist. And this is despite all of the evidence that SSRIs are about on the level of placebos for effectiveness. And this comes back around every time there is a high profile suicide, like the suicide of Aaron Swartz recently. Suddenly there are all of these op-eds and blog posts all saying depression is a disease, take your medicine. Your own experiences, that you write about in the memoir section of your book, came before the string of depression memoirs, from Prozac Nation onward. Do you think that helped you resist the medical definition of your own experience of depression?
I think you are noting that the period that I document in my memoir, 1986-91, is just on the cusp of the time when Prozac, the first of the big SSRIs hit the scene medically and then, in an equally huge way, culturally. I can still remember the issue of Newsweek with the Prozac capsule on the cover and realizing that, as someone who had taken Prozac, I was part of a historic trend within medical and popular culture. And many of the most important popular books on depression were driven by the appearance of SSRIs and specifically Prozac -- Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, of course, as well as Lauren Slater (Prozac Diary) and Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation). Both Slater and Wurtzel describe having had many failed treatments and then experiencing transformation and well-being when treated with Prozac.
I could easily be part of that same generation but for the fact that I didn’t experience Prozac as a cure all. Part of this may indeed be biochemical -- that is, I do have a hunch that as someone whose experience of “clinical depression” (although I resist that diagnosis) emerges from anxiety, I may belong to that class of people who don’t need the stimulant qualities of Prozac and is made more agitated by it. But, more importantly, I also have conceptual resistance to medical models of depression and their accompanying forms of treatment -- which pre-existed Prozac,whether in the form of biochemical models that underpin the use of the anti-depressants that preceded Prozac or in the form of more psychodynamic models in which people were treated as sick and in need of therapy (although I think therapy can be good as a tool of self-exploration).
So to address your question more directly, I think my skepticism about the medical model and pharmaceutical treatment is deeply rooted and has a variety of sources, and I tend to think I would have been skeptical regardless of when I first experienced difficulties.
On a similar thread: is this the only way we can take depression seriously in our society, if it's a disease, like alcoholism?
This is a really good connection to make -- I fear that this is the case but hope that it is not. I don’t like the disease model, but I have also had to acknowledge that many people find it enormously helpful because it relieves them of the burden of responsibility or self-blame for their addictions or mental suffering. But I think there are many other ways to do this, and saying that addictions like alcoholism and depression are socially and cultural produced is also a way of taking the blame off the individual. I would love to see this idea become more common, and commonsense, in popular accounts of depression -- would that my book could make a contribution here! In my view, saying that capitalism causes depression is a really good way to take it seriously.
There’s an analogy here also with sexual/LGBTQ identities -- “homosexuality” was once seen as a disease, and fortunately, that paradigm now seems rather primitive. But we see that the idea that gay people are “born that way” remains very powerful (and not just thanks to Lady Gaga!) in part because it provides such a convenient response to the idea that gay people could (and should) become straight or that they are responsible for their sexual identities. However, I am one of those lesbian feminists who is very proud to have chosen my lesbianism as one way (although not the only way, and unfortunately not a fully successful way) to escape sexism. So that accounts in part for my “queer perspective” on the disease model of mental illness and addiction.
When people write about situational depression, they tend to mean if you're in a bad job or a bad relationship or unemployed, and yet you go further to, what is this system that we're all living in that is causing an epidemic of depression and anxiety. And speaking of the despair of capitalism, I was last month forced to undergo an audit by two different agencies to prove my worth to the German government, so they could decide whether or not to renew my visa. And as a writer, having to prove my worth through a dollar (sorry -- Euro) figure was utterly sick-making. What is the artist or writer to do to stave off depression in an age when a) you are expected to bring your whole self to the medium you work in, becoming a publicity-generating, socially accessible machine, and b) there is so much emphasis in our capitalist society on income? Both seem antithetical to the role of the artist.
Well, you’ve just put your finger on one of the key arguments of my book, and it sounds like your own case history would be a good way to exemplify that argument! Indeed, there are so many aspects of ordinary life under capitalism, including both work life and personal life, that are depression inducing. This is not just true for artists, but for everyone trying to eke out not just a living wage but to do so via work that is creative and life-affirming. Capitalism sucks the life blood out of people in a range of class positions -- high-flying professionals who are stressed out and over-worked, working class people who do society’s shit work, and, yes, the artists who are trying to figure out how to either live on less or turn their creative work into a revenue stream. And there’s much to be said about how social media are upping the ante on creating a “persona” who is successful, likable, upbeat, etc. although the problems were there before Facebook and email came along.
In certain circles, just mentioning spirituality is going to be greeted with that same skepticism that greets anyone who resists a medical definition of depression. Does that make the spiritual practices you talk about in the book difficult to discuss? And you write in the book about your conversion to the Virgin Mary -- had you been conscious before that point of having a lack in that part of your daily life? And if so, did you have to "come out" (sorry for the expression) in that awkward way to the people around you about your spiritual changes?
I’m glad you asked about this because it’s been one of the most unexpected aspects of the project for me as both writer and thinker, and I’m still gauging the reception, especially because I’ve been anticipating that the mention of spiritual practice would be a tough sell for some readers, especially academics, who tend to be hard-core secularists and/or to study theology and organized religion rather than spirituality. But I wanted to take the risk of including this category in part because it is important and meaningful for lots of people and I wanted to see if I could bring these often divided constituencies together. You mention metaphors of “coming out” and the “closet” -- more so than an analogy with sexual identity, I was thinking of connections between therapy and spirituality and the ways that many academics criticize therapeutic culture even though they also participate in it. I wanted to press people into a discussion of what kinds of practices they turn to for solace… not with the aim of conversion but with the aim of conversation.
On the question of “conversion,” -- I don’t know that I would describe my “turn” to the Virgen of Guadalupe as a “conversion.” It wasn’t a sudden shift, in that sense, or a change of identity. I see it instead as another manifestation of a sensibility that was already there, an attunement to places where the material and spiritual converge and also to my own Catholic upbringing (although I would describe myself as a cultural Catholic, not as someone who was raised with a very devout or consistent membership in the church). My narrative about this is an effort to describe the turn to spirituality and religion in terms that are different from the usual narrative of conversion and I suppose that is also consistent with my resistance to conventional narratives of “coming out” that assume a dramatic shift from one kind of stable identity (heterosexual) to another kind of stable or fixed identity (homosexual) as opposed to a conception of sexual identities as unstable, shifting, and multiple.
And just a question about the publication of the book... Depression was published with an academic publisher, and you are a professor, and there are certain expectations for an academic work. Part of that was the expectation that your own memoir section shouldn't be in there. It seemed throughout the book that there was this frustration with the guidelines of academic publishing. Was that a conscious problem for you? And did you meet with resistance when you presented the book to your academic publisher?
I’m happy to report that my editor at Duke University Press, Ken Wissoker, was very supportive of my project and I was lucky to work under the assumption that Duke, which has been at the forefront of work in cultural studies and gender and sexuality studies, would publish the book. I am also fortunate to have the model of a generation of feminist academics, among others, who have incorporated memoir into their scholarly work. Publishing with an academic press also gave me the freedom to write the book I wanted to write -- if I had aimed for a trade publisher, I would likely have had to adapt my ideas to a more general audience.
That said, there were challenges for me -- perhaps because of the stigma that still attaches to admissions of mental health problems or, more generally, vulnerability. And I felt myself to be pressing up against the limits of disciplinary boundaries that are still deeply embedded in scholarly practice and institutions despite challenges from gender studies and ethnic studies among others. I was trying to craft forms of scholarly argument that draw upon traditions of the essay (that we are seeing now under the rubric of “creative non-fiction”) in order to present ideas that are provocative and intelligent but not necessarily based in deep forms of research. There’s certainly an honorable tradition of the “essay” form both inside and outside the academy, but I think we are seeing a new generation of writers trying to graft the essay back onto professional scholarly research so as to produce new kinds of public intellectual work. That you are interested in interviewing me about this book published by an academic press is itself testimony of the possibilities for academic work to reach wide audiences.
February 4, 2013
It is the first Monday of February, and so that means we have a new issue for you. It's particularly international this month. It looks like all of our writers are dealing with the lingering winter by fantasizing of escape.
Daniel Shvartsman profiles three forgotten travel writers, all Swiss women who fled the mountains for warmer climes. Two of them bought a Ford in 1939 and drove from Geneva to Afghanistan, traveling through Central Europe as Hitler ate it up. Then Greer Mansfield writes about Basil Bunting, another white dude who fled to the Middle East. Bunting went to Persia and began translating their poetry. In Jesse Tangen Mills's interview with Guillermo Parra, he discusses traveling to Venezuela to translate the work of the poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre, finally introducing him to an English speaking audience.
In Sarah Hall's The Beautiful Indifference, travel leads to all sorts of tragedies and despairs, just in case you were getting a little too eager to pack your bag. Charlotte Freeman's winter cooking is inspired by Japanese and Hakka dining. Christopher Merkel revisits his old expat home of Japan, and Manil Suri takes us to a pre-apocalyptic Mumbai.
As always, there is plenty more where those came from. Happy armchair travels.
And yet, if that suggests art is ultimately a futile gesture, it is also the only gesture we can make. It may be true, as William Burroughs once wrote, that we are “here to go,” but it is equally the case that we are here.
David Ulin revisits David Wojnarowicz's Seven Miles a Second, a Vertigo* autobiographical comic. That comic was my first introduction to Wojnarowicz, and began a bit of an obsession. From there it was Close to the Knives, and then Memories That Smell Like Gasoline. When you're a strange teen stranded in Kansas, books are easier to get access to than visual art. I knew his words years before I knew his films or visual work.
When I first read David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives in 1992 (or maybe 1993), it was like I had found my rage in print, a sense of maybe a little bit of hope in a world of loss. I was 19 (or maybe 20). I had recently moved to San Francisco, and was finally finding queers like myself: broken and betrayed, vicious and vibrant, filled with the possibility of no tomorrow. I had fled the elite East Coast university I’d spent my whole life working towards, in search of radical queer visions of lust and love, direct action and accountability, models for taking care of one another in a culture that wanted us dead. I was escaping a childhood of upwardly mobile suffocation for the possibilities of the imagination.
I had always reached for books to save me, had devoured them, had fled into their pages to illuminate the world around me, to illuminate me: but I hadn’t looked for myself in those pages, it had never entered my mind to think that would be possible. So when I read Close to the Knives I felt a shock of recognition both grounding and immediate. I knew that David Wojnarowicz had died soon after the publication of the book; in the early-‘90s, it seemed like whenever I discovered a new queer male artist he was either dying or on the verge. It felt like everyone was dying -- of AIDS or drug addiction or suicide, and this wasn’t shocking because I had only known death, internally or externally it felt like the same thing. Except that the internal death you could refuse, and that's what Close to the Knives meant to me.
It is perhaps strange that a straight girl from rural Kansas like me found her virginal solace in queer books and zines, but that is what happened. Being able to think about desire and lust in a context outside of the (pretty scary) male/female dynamic was important to me. All of those writers -- Burroughs, Wojnarowicz, Tea, hell even Jeanette Winterson, etc etc -- were vital.
* It is seriously sad to think that in today's Vertigo, there is no way in hell a book like Seven Miles a Second would get published there. Bring back the 90s, yar.
February 1, 2013
In conversation with San Francisco poet David Meltzer, di Prima once described these early years, and her relationship to the male dominated communities of New York. Her roots growing up in a conservative Italian-American family newly immigrated to the States informs many aspects of her outlook. “I decided I didn’t want to live with a man,” she said. “My family experience of growing up made me think that living with men wasn’t a nice idea. I had lots of lovers, and I asked people if they wanted to father a kid, and everybody thought I was insane, and finally I didn’t ask — I just got pregnant and had Jeanne.” Recollections of My Life as a Woman (2001), an inquiry into the radically transformed social landscape in America after World War II, chronicles a life of adventure and vulnerability, and articulates the stakes she faced as an unwed mother in the 1950s. “Can I be a single mom and be a poet?” she wondered, inquiring into the relationships of motherhood, art, and forms of cultural activism. She didn’t accuse institutions of patriarchy, however, in her efforts to re-invent herself, instead observing that women have colluded with forms of male suppression “in exchange for the dubious goodies of civilization.”
Her memoir Recollections of My Life as a Woman is a wonderful book. There are not that many books that give you the story about how to be functional in a male society without just doing things the way men do them. How to take all those nonsense stories about women "having it all!" (which always means striving to the top of male dominated industries, plus still giving awesome blow jobs and having perfectly activity-curated children) and telling them to go fuck themselves: there is another way to do things. It is essential to hear stories about how to live a life on the periphery without feeling marginalized.
when you break thru
a poet here
not quite what one would choose...
And considering that today and tomorrow (the 1st and 2nd) are linked to St. Brigid, patron saint of poets and also the triple goddess, Di Prima's Loba, a poetic investigation into aspects of the divine feminine, might be essential reading. You can read a few excerpts here.