March 29, 2013
Medea, by George Romney
Hey there, how have you been? I kind of got eaten by the new issue of Bookslut, which is something that happens sometimes. Plus, we're working on a secret. Which we'll be able to announce next week, but this week if we'd try to announce it, we're so tired we would basically be like, your gift is over there, I didn't wrap it, I just kind of put a sheet over it. I hope you like it, I'm taking my whiskey bottle to bed now don't wake me for five days kind of thing.
Also, I'm supposed to be getting on a plane? Fucking bullshit if you ask me.
What you/I/we all need is a good story, and so here is "The New Mother" by Lucy Clifford for us. And it is bad form to psychoanalyze a writer by the works that they create, but "The New Mother" will make you wonder what in the world happened to Lucy Clifford as a child. The story starts here:
The children were always called Blue-Eyes and the Turkey, and they came by the names in this manner. The elder one was like her dear father who was far away at sea, and when the mother looked up she would often say, “Child, you have taken the pattern of your father’s eyes,” for the father had the bluest of Blue-Eyes, and so gradually his little girl came to be called after them. The younger one had once, while she was still almost a baby, cried bitterly because a turkey that lived near to the cottage, and sometimes wandered into the forest, suddenly vanished in the middle of the winter; and to console her she had been called by its name.
Now the mother and Blue-Eyes and the Turkey and the baby all lived in a lonely cottage on the edge of the forest. The forest was so near that the garden at the back seemed a part of it, and the tall fir-trees were so close that their big black arms stretched over the little thatched roof, and when the moon shone upon them their tangled shadows were all over the white-washed walls.
March 28, 2013
The Poetry Society's 2013 National Poetry Competition (UK) has awarded the 1st prize to Patricia McCarthy's 'Clothes that escaped the Great War'. You can read it here at the Guardian; you may need to explain to your co-workers that it's suddenly got very dusty in the area of your face.
Fellow semi-literate Canadianphiles take note: the CBC Bookie Awards wants you to give your favourite authors a Golden Beaver.
March 27, 2013
Book of the Week: Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki, an Excerpt
At the threshold of modernism Paula Modersohn-Becker risked everything in order to become “something.” Who she became was a daring innovator of gender imagery — the first modern woman artist to challenge centuries of traditional representations of the female body in art.
Before Modersohn-Becker (1876–1907), no woman artist painted herself nude, or mothers nude, or girls nude. Not only did she reconfigure the nude, but she also resituated still-life painting. She arranged it in the kitchen as a site of domestic practice and the tasks of meal preparation. Given her originality, her long friendship with the great lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and her reputation among contemporary artists, it is surprising that she is not better known in the United States.
One reason may be her untimely death. In 1907, not long after painting her revolutionary nudes and giving birth to her first and only child, Modersohn-Becker died, age thirty-one, unknown, and ahead of her time. There would be no more of her work to put in perspective pictures never before seen. Another reason may be that until recently only part of her story was available. Even for those who know her work well, her artistic struggles and personal anguish — years in an unconsummated marriage, racking irresolution about motherhood, a disappointing affair, ongoing financial difficulties, and vulnerable isolation — come as a surprise.Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta, Rosemarie Trockel, Rineke Dijkstra, and VALIE EXPORT, among others) to recognize fully what Modersohn-Becker pioneered. The time is here for a new look at this groundbreaking artist.
Part 1, “Beginning and End,” presents two families: one the biological family that raised Paula Becker, and the other a circle with elective affinities that, after her untimely death, promoted her work. Her ancestry is bourgeois (Becker) and noble (von Bültzingslöwen), somewhat troubled and somewhat adventurous. (A horrific death that Paula witnessed when she was a child marked her “first glimmer of self-awareness” and her artistic imagination.) The other “family” — artists, gallerists, museum directors, and collectors — furthered her reputation posthumously in print and in exhibition.
Within a year of her death in 1907, Rilke wrote his moving Requiem for a Friend. In 1911 the first feature article appeared in the feminist literary monthly Frauen-Zukunft (Women Tomorrow). Among its contributors were Thomas Mann, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and George Bernard Shaw. But it was not until after World War I that Modersohn-Becker attracted a large and loyal readership, specifically with the publication of her letters and journals. Meanwhile, memorial exhibitions of her work, which were organized by friends as earlyas 1908, moved on from local venues to galleries, art fairs, and exhibition spaces throughout Germany — and made contradictory claims about her art. Nineteenth-century or modern? Provincial or international? Juvenile or genius? A favorite daughter or a great artist?
Part 2, “Mittel (Middle, Means, Medium),” begins answering these questions by returning the reader to her life story. Paula Becker grew up in a rapidly modernizing Dresden and in the historically independent Hansa city of Bremen; she trained at professional art schools in London (co-educational) and Berlin (girls only), and privately in Worpswede. Thereafter, she was back and forth between Worpswede and Paris, between a rural art colony on the north German moors and the teeming capital of the avant-garde with its competitive heat. This was a period of close friendships with the sculptor Clara Westhoff and with Rilke (who were married), and of courtship and marriage to the landscape painter Otto Modersohn. Eleven years her senior and a recent widower with a two-yearold daughter, Modersohn was a founder of the Worpswede art colony. He was also, she was soon to discover, threatened by the art scene in Paris.
Part 3, “I Painted This,” details the risks Modersohn-Becker took. Rapidly absorbing Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, and van Gogh, she defied expectations,explored imagery, scrambled genres, and ran the course of all young Turks in Paris in the early twentieth century. For models the painter chose unlikely females — those without fashion or sexual currency — the young and the old.
Under her brush, blood-and-soil peasants were the bodies of existential awareness. “She was,” her husband admitted, “understood — by no one.”
At age thirty — her self-imposed deadline for “becoming something” — Modersohn-Becker experienced a crisis. Stifled in the art colony and frustrated by five years in an unconsummated marriage, the artist had a brief affair and then fled to Paris in the dead of a cold February night, without a word to anyone but the Rilkes (although she did consult a lawyer about divorce). The mounting tension is documented in a succession of iconic portraits: the best friend; the poet-confidante; the electrifying advocate of free love; the judgmental younger sister; the liberating new model; and, not least of all, herself nude, goddess and creatrix. Once settled in Paris, she forsook her married name and painted feverishly, while simultaneously weighing her options for single motherhood.Through Rilke, who at the time was Auguste Rodin’s secretary, she was crisscrossing paths with radical thinkers and artists, Pablo Picasso among them. She had her eye on the Salon des Indépendants and on the careers of other women artists, particularly Berthe Morisot.
Girl Portrait, Paula Modersohn-Becker
Modersohn-Becker painted the life she was living as a woman and artist. She experimented with her medium and her working methods, and photographed herself nude, bust and full figure. The breakthrough came when she transformed the genre of the nude. Over a century later, it remains startling,even shocking, to see paintings of mothers and self-portraits as full frontal nudes. Her majestic and monumental Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude is the body of maternity mapped onto the bodies of fecundity and spectacle. Her manifesto, Self-Portrait, Age 30, 6th Wedding Day, is the nude body of the woman artist as subject and object. A life-size, three-quarters portrait of herself nude, it is as astonishing today as it was when she painted it in 1906. Modern female body imagery begins here, with Modersohn-Becker. Its next famous practitioner, Frida Kahlo, was not born until the year Modersohn-Becker died.
Part 4, “Beginning and End Continued,” parallels Part 1 and concludes her story twice: first, with the end of claims on her work as unfinished and provincial, even as she continued to elude categorization; and, second, with the end of her mortal life. Whereas for the pre–World War I art world her painting was puzzling and divisive, in the postwar tumult of the Weimar era — of mavericks, iconoclasts, and social critics, as well as of German women’s enfranchisement — her work looked stunningly prescient. She was taken up in 1919 by two astute dealers on the postwar scene in Berlin and Düsseldorf — the young J. B. Neumann and the seasoned Alfred Flechtheim — and from that point her fame grew steadily. In Bremen the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum, the first museum devoted to a woman artist, opened in 1927. Neumann and Flechtheim brought her to the attention of Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1931. Paris and London followed next.
In Germany, however, the avant-garde was finished. As proof, in 1937 the National Socialists organized their massive exhibition of banned modern art, which held up for derision, among others, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, E. L. Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, and Modersohn-Becker, a rare woman in the temple of degenerates. The Führer was infuriated not only by her transgressive imagery, but also by the claim, carved in stone at the entrance to the Modersohn-Becker Museum, of a woman artist’s immortality.
The final chapter returns to the last year of her life and the dark side of independence: identity crises, poverty, and isolation. After six months of anxious highs and lows, as well as relentless pressure exerted by family and friends, the impecunious Modersohn-Becker agreed to let her importuning husband join her in Paris. She became pregnant and they returned to Worpswede, where she painted the first self-portrait pregnant in the history of art. The woman artist looks straight out at the viewer and brandishes her twin flowers of creativity and procreativity. Deal with it, she challenges us. She died three weeks after giving birth, from complications that arose from the pregnancy.
The artist who died in 1907 had a different story after her death than she has today. By 1936 The Letters and Journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker had introduced well over forty-five thousand German book buyers to a charming daughter, wife, artist, and mother — indeed, so relentlessly charming was her story that Rilke argued against its publication. As he explained to her family, he and his wife found the personal and artistic struggles of their friend missing in the writings selected for the general public. Lost for generations to come would be the First Modern Woman Artist, the story that is told here. This story is the missing piece in the history of twentieth-century modernism.
Printed, and slightly condensed, with permission by Yale University Press
March 26, 2013
Book of the Week: Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist by Diane Radycki
Paula Modersohn-Becker was a contemporary of Matisse, of Kirchner and Picasso, of the great modernist painters working in Berlin and in Paris. And yet for a very long time she has remained obscure. She was not recognized in her own time -- she died in her early 30s after giving birth to her first child -- but what she did paint in her short life was radical and new. She painted women's bodies. Not in the way that her male contemporaries did, but in the way women like Frida Kahlo would, and she created art in the way that Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta and Claude Cahun would, by exploring the self and the female figure and using her own image to examine the place of women in the world and in society.
Her life story, explored in a volume of her letters published in German in the years after her death, also illuminates the role of the woman as artist, as mother, as wife, and as creator. She was married to a painter, but she left him and his daughter to move to Paris to make a go of being a painter full time. She longed for a child of her own, but she was strongly ambivalent about the role of the mother and how it would interrupt her work. Her letters explore these ambivalences and ambiguities in a bright and alert manner. Her charm comes through, and her story remains highly relatable to women trying to decide between ambition and motherhood, or trying to gain respect and reputation in a critical establishment that denigrates, or ignores, women's work.
Diane Radycki's Paula Modersohn-Becker explores all of these pressures on the female artist's life at the turn of the century, and the way modernism has been defined as masculine. She also brings Modersohn-Becker more fully to life, adding a darker tone to the relentlessly cheerful letters she sent home to worried parents. And the paintings and sketches are all beautifully reproduced, introducing us all to this important and beautiful painter.
I spoke with Radycki over the phone about her subject, and what Modersohn-Becker has to say to the female creator of today.
My first exposure to Paula Modersohn-Becker wasn't with her artwork, but with her journals and her letters, which you edited and translated. It's rare to read an artist who can write coherently and expressively about her work, and about the particular frustrations with the artist's life. What was your first exposure to her work?
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Selfbildnis mit Modell
It was an in undergraduate art history class. At the time, back at the University of Illinois, the class was being taught by a painter who had seen her work in Germany and was himself surprised by it, taken by it, moved by it, and brought it into the class. What he told us was that there was nothing in English about her, and as he couldn't read German there was nothing he could tell us about it except that chronologically she fit in with the German Expressionists. Everything I saw of her, any pictures, looked so different from German Expressionism that it just didn't work. It left me with a lot of questions about her, what was she doing? She seemed to be stuck in a place where she didn't belong. Later, I was very surprised there was nothing more done on her. I translated those letters and diaries, thinking it might jump start some work on her. It did, but more in England than in the States. I thought when it was time to do a PhD thesis that I would do that -- the criticism of her, but it kept misplacing her. If she had no true place, no authentic place in art history, that might account for the fact that she remains unknown or resistant to any understanding of her place in art history.
What I was shown, the Self-Portrait Nude with Amber Necklace, and I think the slide that came up right before was that Kirchner self-portrait, where he's got that incredibly bold striped robe on, and the model is cowering in the back, and he's looking very lascivious. And I was thinking, "What was that? If that defines German Expressionism, what does that have to do with her?" How do you put those two things together? Well, you don't. It took the 20th century and the rise of women's artists exploring their bodies, their lives, the female nude from an entirely different perspective, for me to understand exactly what she did and what she had pioneered. It was something no one could understand at the time.
Do you think part of the reason she remained obscure is because she didn't fit in with her time, or what has come to define that era for us?
I think the second is really true. In the end, I think I have to say she was so in advance with what would happen with female imagery and the challenge to traditional imagery. Turn of the century and everyone is so excited about making modernism. But what we're really looking at is male interpretations, formal interpretations. What she hit on wouldn't really be understood or advanced in any way for generations to come. The next woman to use her body in any meaningful way was Frida Kahlo, and Frida Kahlo was born the year Modersohn-Becker dies. The women we look at in art history, none of them took on the female body as a subject matter. The wonderful women of the '20s, Jeanne Mammen and Sonia Delaunay, they did not explore that imagery either. After World War I, that was when her reputation began to rise in Germany. When the war so affected everybody that there was a really different audience, no one would have been able to see what was to come after her, but when they looked at her, when they really were war weary and very skeptical of authority, here she is, challenging authority, traditions, conventions. They saw it. In Germany at least, that's the beginning of her reputation. And the Paula Modersohn-Becker Museum in Bremen, that is the first museum dedicated to a woman artist. I honestly think her time is coming now. But it did take the women's movement and women's imagery.
The diaries and letters that have become a way to introduce her to the public, because they are so lively and they are so charismatic, you write that they give a very skewed view of her life. And even her friends the Rilkes objected to the publication of her letters, because they leave out all of the hardship and suffering.
Jeanne Mammen, Langweilige Puppen (Boring Dolls)
All you need to do is put yourself in her place, because most of these letters were letters home. What are you writing your mom and dad about your life? You're telling them about your real struggles? Mom and dad and brothers and sisters and people in Bremen. They were the ones who wanted to advance her reputation for her, they were the ones who promoted the publication of her letters and diaries. But it was from materials they had, and it was a dutiful wife and mother and daughter that they knew. But they didn't know all of her. And that's what Rilke objected to. Later Rilke does say in a letter in the '20s that he reread that volume and said maybe he was wrong. Maybe the charm of her has its own worth. It's true, a woman wanting to respond to the love and expectations of family, besides an internal struggle. That too up until the 1920s, that too kind of crimped what our idea was of her.
In a lot of ways, the struggles she goes through are these universal struggles women creators still go through: wanting to have children but knowing what that can do to your career, the establishment of teacher and critics are still dominated by men. One doesn't want to turn her into a feminist archetype, but the fact that she was so torn about having children and that is ultimately what kills her, giving birth, it's a very feminist narrative she played out.
I wouldn't say giving birth killed her, it was state of medicine at the turn of the century that killed her. This idea of sequestering pregnant women so they shouldn't go out and you shouldn't see them. Pregnancy was a kind of illness. Don't exercise! Don't move around! That killed her. She wouldn't have died now. She was 31, first child at 31, and that was very dangerous at the turn of the century. Today, you could have your first child at 41, we know other things about the female body.
I really wanted to respect her, from where she was coming. She knew about feminism, obviously there were feminist movements there in Germany. One of her aunts was active in feminism. Her real focus was on art and creativity. Certainly she realized how difficult it was being on her own, without financial wherewithal when she went to Paris. Virginia Woolf says "money and a room of one's own," and she says money first. Most of us just look at the title, A Room of One's Own. I really believe it was money and loneliness that undid her. There wasn't anybody, she didn't have a female friend in Paris who understood what she was doing. Some of the men could see they were looking at things they hadn't seen before. But they weren't feminists, and they couldn't offer her the kind of friendship that we now all have created for ourselves. Those things weighed on her.
The loneliness really came through. She was there, by herself, she had left her husband, and that was a daring thing to do. What was the art scene in Paris like for women artists? What was the support system for a woman like her?
Marie Laurencin, Bacante
It's 1906, it's 1907, it's Picasso. In Germany it is Kirchner and in Paris it's Matisse. 1905 is going to be the Fauves. But can you name a woman? Marie Laurencin? She does remarkable things, but she has yet to be taken with any seriousness. I found exhibition catalogues for her that included images that we don't associate with her. Lesbian flirtations and there's an image of women behind the veils of contemporary fashion. Fashionable hats that she's labeling The Cage. The Prison. Everyone's looking at the prettiness of her, and the titles have somehow disappeared. There's a wonderful image she does, perhaps the only one I've seen in the early 20th century, and there's a woman with a black eye. A beautiful woman who has been abused, and hit.
As far as I know, Paula had no female support. Her friend Clara Westhoff happened to be in Germany at the time. Rilke was there and then not there. There is her sister, for a while, but as you come to read what her sister's correspondence with other family members is, you can see she's on the side of the family. "I've lost a sister, I've lost a daughter. Here stands a painter willing to turn her back on all of us." She loves her still, but her sister is conflicted, and her sister is not an artist and so there's no understanding there. She took advantage of a husband who loved her and missed her and said, "Send me money." Every other letter to him she says, well, if you really do care, send money. She came to marriage with money, but the money goes to him. When she left she was so desperate she would not allow that reality to interfere. She just escaped, and then she had to deal with it.
Another thing we don't know is why she went back to her husband. There's that blank spot. Do you have any ideas of what that decision was, other than exhaustion from trying to make it on her own?
It's hard to know when one's not inside a marriage. She leaves it in desperation and frustration. When she does the turn-about and goes back home, she's looking for relief from the poverty and loneliness in Paris. Why she would think the marriage would work now when it didn't work for her before, that's always a good question. The little bit of facts that we know, she's conflicted, she's writing her older sister who's married, she writes about how she does not want to go back to him. What the family knows that she seems not to know, is that her one confidante, the sculptor Bernard Hoetger, and she thinks he's totally on her side, and it's revealed that through the younger sister, he gets put in touch with [Paula's] husband. So when she approaches the Hoetgers with her problems, she doesn't know that he's already aware of them. She's expecting support for going forward as an artist, because he's been very supportive. And she's ecstatic that someone finally sees what she's doing. What she doesn't realize is that he has dual loyalties. He's got loyalties to his art and to his manhood. And he identifies with the husband. A German woman, a German wife does not leave a husband and a step-child. What we do know is that she spent a long evening with her, and her word is that he "preached" at her, or "harangued" her. And he really threw her off base.
I would guess, and do not record this at all as fact, but I would guess that he was sensitive to how devoted she was to her art, and I would put money on the belief that he thought she could go forward with her art in the way she wanted to, in terms of needing support herself. And here was this husband who loved her and missed her and through it all was sending money. And he was saying, I would guess, this is the best way to go forward. This is Plan B. The next letter to that sister in Frankfurt said, well, I'm going back. And her letters to her husband never explained. She said, well, I spent the evening with Hoetger and he talked me into this, so, okay, you can come. That's it. She didn't explain to anyone. Boy, the beauty of her! Women still feel they have to go through life apologizing. Not her!
You know, let's give it to her. Let's not end that story there with her defeat. She looked at what her options were, and she decided on that one. There was no indication that she wasn't thinking about how to make it work. There's a letter to Rilke after she's returned to her husband, saying, I'm thinking about going to Italy. She is going to make this work for her. If I were strategic, I would say to you, she realizes how much she means to him. She's not coming back with her tail between her legs. If you want me back, these are my terms. And he wants her back. He was of a different aesthetic, but he was talented and he recognized that she was a genius. He thought he was marrying an art student, a bit of an adoring fan, and son of a gun, he married a genius. He was up for it! He didn't want Paris, but he loved her.
She did have supportive men, around her. Her father treated her like she was not an idiot. He was supportive in his way. And the husband saw her talent. Her male friends saw her talent. It's heartening, reading about that.
The Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Woolf has that artist haunted by that phrase, "Women can't write, women can't paint." One can only assume that's what Woolf felt, too. Never did Modersohn-Becker feel that. Never did she feel she couldn't paint. She could paint. It just took the world a lot of time to catch up with her.
March 25, 2013
Over at Architect Magazine, I review Maria Semple's novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette, about a reclusive and Salinger-esque architect. And while the non-stop whimsy and stylistic trickery grated, at its heart I was really taken with its story of a woman who stepped away from her creative life, after a series of shattering rejections and disappointments wrecked her.
The elusive house and the elusive architect became stuff of legend; Fox retreated to Seattle when her husband’s tech company was sold to Microsoft. She never built another house and allowed the fixer-upper they moved into to fall apart around her. Her husband, Elgin Branch, a genius of his own sort, plays an interesting contrast to Fox. His creations are constantly used up and spat out by Microsoft. The tech he created for veterans with catastrophic injuries becomes just another video game toy at the company, and yet he still gets up every day, goes to work, and tries again. His frustration at the separation between the two of them spills out at one point. “What you went through with the Twenty Mile House—I go through shit like that ten times a day at Microsoft,” Branch yells at her. “People get over things. It’s called bouncing back ... Do you realize how selfish and self-pitying that is?”
It’s easy to join Branch in wondering why Fox can’t just get over the disappointment of a project gone wrong and start again. Or, it would be, if Semple didn’t do such an insightful job in her book at showing how failure has a tendency to compound. When one setback follows another—a fall breaks a woman's leg, and another a week later snaps her crutch in half—a person of a certain temperament might take it as a sign that the gods didn't want her walking in the first place.
So, how did you spend yesterday's Day of Blood?
Yesterday was the sacred day of Cybele, and it was traditionally celebrated by going into a frenzied state and castrating yourself. From Words as Eggs:
Cybele fell in love with Attis, selected him as her priest, and demanded of him the vow of chastity. When Attis broke his vow, she brought on him a frenzy during which he castrated himself. Subsequently, in the celebrated cults of Cybele, the Galli, or her priests, would flagellate and castrate themselves. This was popularly known as "The Day of Blood." Cybele is often pictured with a whip and a towered crown as emblems of her power.
Strangely, I spent yesterday reading a novel about a man with a castration anxiety that he talks about a lot. (Also, I had dumplings for lunch, which kind of look like... I wasn't reminded of the Day of Blood until this morning, and now all of yesterday seems like an unintentional day of devotion to Cybele.) Actually, I'm hoping Lucy Ellmann will agree to talk about her book, Mimi, because while I enjoyed the book a great deal, she outlines a solution to the problem of gender relations that is silly at best. (Give women all of the power.) I do not believe that women are inherently peaceful and men are inherently violent, but Mimi quite baldly puts forth this thesis. (And by constantly bringing up the man's castration complex, and then by showing him happy when his ambitions and career are destroyed, Ellmann seems to suggest that he is happier after he submits to his castration. I find this wildly problematic.) And yet there are parts of the book that are very, very good. I think it would make for an interesting conversation.
But in the meantime, let's celebrate the (day after the) Day of Blood with the upside of castration! Castrati. And the sex and opera romp Farinelli.
March 22, 2013
I am forever bothering my friends, asking them what they're reading. But as interesting to me as that is what people are not reading. What they refuse to read. What words in the description on the back make them drop the book as quickly as if they had read the words WE COATED THIS BOOK IN A TOXIN THAT IS SLOWLY NOW BEING ABSORBED THROUGH YOUR SKIN.
Someone emailed, recommending a book to me, using the words "experimental," "600 pages," "Brooklyn," and "postmodern" while listing a dude's name as the author, and I wrote back: You could not have used any worse words to describe that book to me. I can take one or two of those elements in a book, but I am thoroughly allergic to the combination.
Recently I gave up on two books: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Secrecy by Rupert Thomson. I have heard both are excellent. Thomson's Divided Kingdom is great, as is his The Book of Revelation. I got about three pages into Life After Life and suddenly Hitler is there and I just couldn't do it. And there were urgent messages being delivered on horseback in the Thomson. And I just cannot do historical fiction. My throat closes up when I get near a copy of Wolf Hall, and the whole world got together to just hand over shiny things to Hilary Mantel the other day, telling her she is the queen of all the writers of ever. It's great, right? Objectively it is great. I don't have to read it to say it is great, it is great, don't make me read it if there are people on horses and men in castles.
History, nonfiction, yes, please, give me that. I am reading Joan of Arc and in love with that. But when you start fictionalizing things and putting hopes and dreams in people's heads, I don't know why I just don't want anything to do with it.
Historical Fiction Anne Boleyn
In the last issue of Bookslut, the wickedly smart Batya Ungar-Sargon reviewed The Autobiography of Us, a novel about the 1950s. Except not really the 1950s, it is the 2013 version of the 1950s, which is different from the 1982 version of the 1950s.
We cannot accept that even as Mad Men is our fantasy of the 1950s (with residual effects in the 1960s and even the 1970s), so too was it their fantasy of themselves, rather than a reality. For every Leave it to Beaver, there was an Auntie Mame or a Revolutionary Road (1961) or The Bell Jar (1963); for every movie or novel dictating the standards of the correct, there was another exposing the myth of the American family as corrosive, destructive, the tool of PR campaigns for vacuum cleaners and briefcases. To understand The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966) as representative of some kind of 1950s reality would be the equivalent of someone going to our theaters and concluding that vampires walk the streets of Seattle. While it seems that both Auntie Mame and The Donna Reed Show were fantasies -- representative of a culture flexing its ideological muscles -- our remakes of the 1950s seem incapable of imagining people back then as, well, imagining. This category error -- of mistaking a culture's fantasies for its reality -- represents only the conservatism of our own cultural moment (there's a reason the 1980s didn't produce Mad Men; when the '80s tried to make a film about the '50s, they ended up with Mommie Dearest).
And over at the Smart Set, Nathaniel Popkin also has some issues with the way novelists imagine the past in historical fiction.
In the first page of the earlier A Time for Everything, translated by James Anderson, Knausgaard presents a fictional 16th century Italian writer and theologian, Antinous, about whom little is known. (A real life Antinous was a lover of Hadrian — little is otherwise is known about his life outside what Margerite Yourcenar presented in her exquisite historical fiction Memoirs of Hadrian. More recently he has been repurposed as “the gay god.”) “But if one is to attempt to understand Antinous, it isn’t to the inner man one must turn,” writes Knausgaard. “For even if one succeeded in charting his inner landscape as it actually was, right down to the smallest fissure and groove in the massif of his character… Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we could understand and recognize, we would still come no closer to him. Antinous was, first and foremost, of his time, and to understand who he was, that is what must be mapped.”
And there are exceptions that I will make for historical fiction, but not many. We all have our specific allergies. I've made peace with mine.
March 21, 2013
When James Joyce was nearly blind and working on the first draft of Finnegans Wake, the book he permitted himself during his daily reading window was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a best-selling satire by Anita Loos.
The book has the interest of biographical color rather than any usefulness for explaining the Wake. But Loos uses language in an interesting way; her book is a prime example of modernist techniques seeping into popular use. And the dialect humor is close to what Joyce worked for in certain chapters of his earlier books.
And without Loos we also would not have Irmgard Keun's divine Artificial Silk Girl, which was directly and obviously influenced by Loos. Keun gets at something nastier than Loos, though, working as she does with the poverty and instability and creeping atmosphere of violence in Weimar Berlin.
15th Century Portrait of Joan of Arc, Artist Unknown
Joan of Arc was presented as an Amazon, or a knight of old, or a personification of virtue, because the history of individual women and of women's roles has been so thin. In the writing of female biography, it is easy to revert unconsciously to known stereotypes. Joan of Arc is a pre-eminent heroine because she belongs to the sphere of action, while so many feminine figures or models are assigned and confined to the sphere of contemplation. She is anomalous in our culture, a woman renowned for doing something on her own, not by birthright. She has extended the taxonomy of female types; she makes evident the dimension of women's dynamism. It is urgent that this taxonomy be expanded further and that the multifarious duties that women have historically undertaken be recognized, researched, and named. Like Eskimos, who enjoy a lexicon of many different words for snow, we must develop a richer vocabulary for female activity than we use at present, with our restrictions of wife, mother, mistress, muse. Joan of Arc, in all her brightness, illuminates the operation of our present classification system, its rigidity on the one hand, its potential on the other.
-- Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism
March 20, 2013
It is BF Skinner's birthday today. Let's celebrate by fucking with some pigeons.*
The Behaviorists are perhaps best known for the Little Albert experiment, wherein they made a young child afraid of fluffy white bunnies, or, as Tom Barlett sums it up, "terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason." But that wasn't Skinner, despite it often being attributed to him, it was Watson.
Like any great thinker, and he was, people used his experiments to justify a lot of strange beliefs, like people who wrote parenting advice guides that said you should touch your child as little as possible. Or Richard Dawkins, who links the superstitious pigeon experiments directly to Islam belief systems. But the behaviorists were great fun, even if only because their experiments had all the charisma.
In honor of Skinner's birthday, then, a reading list:
Opening Skinner's Box by Lauren Slater
I recommend this book with a heap of caveats. A) A lot of it Slater made up. B) A lot of it -- I mean, a lot -- is just about Slater herself, who finds herself fascinating. C) She gets some facts wrong. Which is why I wish we could do cover versions of books, and that someone would just rewrite this book in their own voice and that would be grand.
Since that hasn't happened, we do with it what we can. It has long been rumored that Skinner's daughter (or son, the rumor varies) committed suicide after being raised in one of his "heir conditioners," or baby boxes. Slater tracks down Skinner's real daughter, who is alive and well and not suicidal at all, and really defensive about her father. Slater also sums up how we've rejected some of what the behaviorists were on about, and how they really changed the way we think about human behavior and beliefs.
Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection by Deborah Blum
There is no better book about the Harlow experiments. Harlow was alarmed at the way child rearing was headed, as those parenting book writers mentioned above gained authority. He believed mothers are not just milk providers, that babies need something else. Dare we get so sappy as to call it love? He did, and his experiments on attachment theory are some of the most important psychology experiments of the 20th century.
Those experiments involved a lot of emotionally torturing monkeys -- separating them from their mothers, putting them in bare cages without any social contact, giving them wire monkey mothers that bit, shocked, tossed the baby monkeys about. And Blum is very good at handling this tricky subject. On the one hand, this kind of experimentation is inhumane. And yet, where would we be without it?
BF Skinner: A Life by Daniel Bjork
BF Skinner was a complicated man, as you might guess about a person who wanted to put babies and animals in boxes.
Forty Studies that Changed Psychology by Roger R Hock
I can read books like this all day long. Superstitious pigeons, the power dynamic of guard and prisoner, people trying to isolate the smallest quirks of human psychology and then testing it in a laboratory setting. It's not Freud's beautiful and literary case studies, it's shoving people into bizarre situations and then taking notes. And I like to watch.
Because the behaviorists had all the best experiments, they're a little over-represented in this volume. But then they've become over-represented in our current thoughts about psychology and psychiatry today, too. (No one wants twenty years of analysis anymore, no matter how mysterious and rich Louise Bourgeois makes it look. We want ten quick sessions, to fix that one little issue that is going to make our lives so much better. We want life coaches, not analysts.) And if you, continuing yesterday's conversation, believe you are more than just neuro-processing and reinforced behaviors, the behaviorists (and the atheists) can sound a little insulting. But they are great fun to read about.
* Don't fuck with pigeons. It's not kind. People who throw things at pigeons and defend themselves with "What? They're just rats with wings!" need to have things thrown at them.
Book of the Week: One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea by Dana Becker, an Excerpt
Merely fact-minded sciences make merely fact-minded people.
It is clear to me that what is at stake in our understanding of “health” are the broadest issues of the survival and death of the social order itself.
Scientific ideas and terms like stress have such a broad—though often indirect and unacknowledged—influence on our day-to-day ideas about ourselves and the world that many of us have come to view ourselves, to describe ourselves, in light of those ideas and in those terms; they have become part of our very makeup. We often don’t feel the need to look under the skin of what passes for science, because it is assumed that science is natural and objective, that it “speaks for itself.”
Once an idea is established as scientific fact, even evidence that flies squarely in the face of it often can’t dislodge it. We’ve certainly seen this with a variety of food scares that have come along (scares about the dangers of coffee and eggs spring to mind). Since we tend to absorb whatever reinforces the knowledge and beliefs we already have, what we find is often what we had hoped and expected to find in the first place, leading to what biologist Ludwik Fleck has called a “harmony of illusions.” What’s more, once questions have been asked and answered in predictable ways, future explorations of a problem tend to travel along well-worn “thought tracks” that have already been laid down. The harmony of illusions about health and health risks determines the questions that are asked—and answered—about the relationship between stress and illness, and those questions train our gaze on the person and the body rather than on society and its institutions.
In this chapter I’ll be looking at how the stress concept helps conceal the social causes of many of the risks we face and spares us the turmoil of social change by keeping us focused on personal health and health maintenance. I’ll look at how both academic and popular discussions of stress overemphasize individual psychological and physiological factors (judgments, emotions, hormones), highlighting the links between stress and health and underemphasizing the direct effects of stressful social conditions (poverty, inequality, discrimination) on health.
The following example from an article in the 2005 Annual Review of Clinical Psychology includes many elements common to academic discussions of stress. In this excerpt, the authors explain why they think it’s important to understand the connection between stress and health:
Our future as individuals and as a species depends on our ability to adapt to potent stressors. At a societal level, we face a lack of institutional resources (e.g., inadequate health insurance), pestilence (e.g., HIV/AIDS), war, and international terrorism. . . . At an individual level, we live with the insecurities of our daily existence including job stress, marital stress, and unsafe schools and neighborhoods. . . . It is clear that all of us are exposed to stressful situations at the societal, community, and interpersonal level. How we meet these challenges will tell us about the health of our society and ourselves . . . if stressors are too strong and too persistent in individuals who are biologically vulnerable . . . , stressors may lead to disease. This is particularly the case if the person has few psychosocial resources and poor coping skills. . . . There is much we do not yet know about the relationship between stress and health, but scientific findings being made in the areas of cognitive-emotional psychology, molecular biology, neuroscience, clinical psychology, and medicine will undoubtedly lead to improved health outcomes (italics added).
Here the authors talk about the “societal level,” but when they say that people need to adapt to stressful conditions, they’re not advocating changing those conditions. They’re saying that people have a clear choice: either adapt to stressful conditions and environments or accept biomedical or psychological interventions in order to ease the stress that these conditions and/or environments may create. When the authors talk about people having “psychosocial resources,” resources that include social support, they give the impression that those resources belong to individuals rather than to the environments in which they live. This is why the researchers’ division of “stressors” into two categories, individual stressors and stressors outside the individual, is so confusing. De facto segregation, crumbling schools, and neighborhood-threatening violence are not personal problems. So describing unsafe neighborhoods as “individual” stressors removes the element of social responsibility from the equation.
Scores of researchers who have examined the relationship between stress and disease have begun and ended their work by examining individuals—their hormones, their psyches, their personalities, their social networks, their lifestyles. But the association between stress and ill health is tied to social, cultural, economic, and political processes in ways that many contemporary perspectives rarely touch. This failure has a great deal to do with our society’s long-standing faith in science and medicine, as well as our belief in the notion that people can, in the end, surmount all obstacles; what stands in our way we can prevent or fix. Medical science finds the causes and cures of illnesses inside the body and then looks to treat the effects of environmental conditions—or our perceptions of them—on the body. It is no surprise, then, to find that funding for disease prevention research that focuses on individuals is much more plentiful than funding for research focusing on society and its institutions.
Many of the problems we used to consider social or moral are now considered medical problems. Some children who might have been labeled “bad kids” not very long ago are now diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Criminals may be thought of as bad men or women, but they may also be diagnosed as having Antisocial Personality Disorder. The boundary between what belongs in the medical domain and what doesn’t has become more and more elastic. Sociologists refer to this kind of transformation of social problems into disease as medicalization.
And now, in the twenty-first century, by virtue of technological advancements, we can say that biomedicalization that has further extended medicine’s reach. As we’ve seen, the connection between stress and illness has a long history; the list of things that are considered “stressful” often seems unending; and researchers insist ever more forcefully that they can explain how a diverse array of stressors affects the immune system. The medicalization of stress has been underway for a long time.
Printed with permission by Oxford University Press
March 19, 2013
In this month's issue of Bookslut, Mary Helen Sprecht writes about her decision to move to Ibadan, Nigeria, based on her love for the city's literature:
In Robert M. Wren's Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature At Ibadan: 1948-1966, he avers that no other university town in the world has "produced a similar cluster of distinguished authors." There are dozens of renowned writers (Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Remi Raji, and many more) who at one time or another have made their way through Ibadan, but the four heavyweights to whom Wren alludes are: Wole Soyinka (playwright-poet-novelist-biographer Nobel Laureate), Chinua Achebe (whose Things Fall Apart adorns high school and university reading lists everywhere), Christopher Okigbo (the modernist poet who died tragically in the Nigerian civil war), and J.P. Clark (known primarily as a poet, although he wrote a number of plays, one of which was first directed by Soyinka and involved the live sacrifice of a goat). Even two of the biggest names in African literary criticism had come out of Ibadan: Harvard's Biodun Jeyifo and Abiola Irele.
As an anthropologist passing through town on research told me once: "In the Ibadan of the sixties and seventies, everywhere you went, literature was in the air."
I asked Specht to write out a recommended reading list to go along with her wonderful essay. So below are her five recommended books from the Ibadan scene.
Flora Nwapa, author of Efuru and Women are Different
Efuru by Flora Nwapa
The first novel by a Nigerian woman to be translated and published in English, Efuru is set in a tribal village, but its exploration of the role of women (and of the supernatural) feels contemporary and, dare I say it, universal.
Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe
If you've read only one Nigerian novel, it was probably Achebe's classroom-favorite Things Fall Apart, which is a great book. That said, my favorite Achebe novel is Anthills of the Savannah, which is edgier and more complex. Set in a contemporary unnamed African state, the educated protagonists must confront the question of whether or not it's possible to live good lives in a country where corruption and oppression are the norm.
You Must Set Forth at Dawn by Wole Soyinka
This Nobel Prize winner has written in almost every genre, but check out his most recent memoir. Revel as this very public intellectual holds up an Ibadan radio station (at gunpoint) for not broadcasting correct election results and runs into the daughter of Nigeria's most infamous dictator at Wimbledon, among other adventures.
Pages from the Book of the Sun: New and Selected Poems by Niyi Osundare
There are so many wonderful poets from the pre-Biafran era in Nigeria, most notably Christopher Okigbo. But Osundare is among the generation of "unfortunate children of fortunate parents" and attended and taught at the University of Ibadan after Biafra. Among other things, his poems explore the difficulties of living under the dictatorships that came next.
Political Spider and Other Stories edited by Ulli Beier
Reading this collection of stories culled from the pages of famed Ibadan literary magazine Black Orpheus, you will begin to understand the true range of anglophone Nigerian writing. This book is no longer so easy to find, unfortunately, but the stories are by many of the best writers who filtered through the Ibadan of the golden era, including Amos Tutuola and Ama At Aidoo. Get your hands on it if you can. You won't regret it.
Book of the Week: One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea by Dana Becker
Are you stressed out? It would be difficult not to be, what with the constant economic despair, the precarious employment status we all live with, the overwork and the declining living conditions and the breaking down of community ties. Also maybe stressing you out is this thing we keep hearing about, that stress, if you don't figure out a way to "manage" it, and cope with it, will give you cancer or heart disease or diabetes or a stroke or any number of other terrifying things. What are you going to do, though, when a hot bath and some scented candles won't cut it?
Dana Becker points out the obvious in her new book One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, that if we are all dying internally from stress related issues -- and that is debatable, as stress as a health problem is a relatively new, and scientifically unsupported, idea -- the thing that is going to save us is not yoga classes and mindfulness. It's actual societal change. It's re-stablizing the middle class. It's changing the economic system so that the wealthy few cannot destroy the lives of everyone else with a few reckless years. It's building supportive communities that are not plagued with gun violence and systemic poverty. It's creating environments where women are not saddled with raising their children without subsidized day care, or partners who leave them to do all of the housework, and where women do not have to choose between family and work. And yet when we talk about stress, we still talk about coping and adjusting and juggling things on a personal level.
Too many of our real societal problems, from obesity to poverty to epidemic depression rates to violence, are blamed on the individual. And all of that pressure to maintain some sort of homeostasis of health and wealth and fulfillment keeps the individual herself from seeing the unfair pressures put upon her. It also prevents real revolution or change, when you spend all of your time trying to manage the stress of living in a crazy-making society.
I spoke with Becker on the phone about why we focus on the individual rather than on society, and how women have shouldered an unfair share of the burden and the policing of their behaviors.
The thing I was most struck by when reading your book was just how much pressure there is on the individual in contemporary society. Whatever happens to you, it is your fault. It’s your fault if you can’t adapt to the absolute insanity around you. Sometimes it can be so difficult to notice that is going on because of the constant pressure, so when was the moment you stepped back and said no, wait, actually this is nonsense.
When I started really looking at women and the process of psychiatric diagnosis. I worked at a psychiatric hospital and I’d been a psychotherapist for thirty-some years. I wrote my doctorate, and at the hospital I kept noticing that all these women were being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Probably the most pejorative diagnosis in the DSM. There weren’t many men given this diagnosis. I thought, I really think there’s some bias in the way this diagnosis is constructed. As I wrote this book about women and borderline personality disorder [Through the Looking Glass], I had to take a really larger cultural perspective. I started to look at the relationship between women and the psychiatric profession, I started to think about this idea of how feminist psychotherapy is allegedly “empowering.” I was a feminist therapist, and I thought, no, we can’t be empowering one person at a time, what does that mean? I was reading medical anthropology, I was reading history of psychiatry, and I really found a niche for myself as far as my own interest and own thinking, in critical cultural psychology.
I have a doctorate in psychology and a masters in sociology. I worried about how social work was emulating psychiatrists by getting on the neuroscience bandwagon. We were leaving our roots of the contextual. And most of the psychologists were so ahistorical in the way they look at things. I couldn’t bear the idea that this thinking was so narrow. I think as a culture, because so many problems are getting medicalized, we’re starting to lose touch with the larger view, and that disturbs me.
When I wrote this book about women [The Myth of Empowerment: Women and the Therapeutic Culture in America], I did write a chapter on women and the discourse of stress. Why are we always saying women are frazzled? And why are working mothers always talked about as being stressed and harried and juggling? What are we really saying? It seemed to fit with this larger cultural problem of the medicalization of human problems, which just interested me more and more.
Right. Because not only are our problems medicalized, but personality disorders are how we describe people. "Oh, he's being so OCD right now." "She's just a narcissist." "Oh, she's being a little borderline."
Oh yes. "Get control of your ADHD" when someone is being a little jumpy. It's terrible!
It does seem to be related to this pop science of relating everything back to neuroscience now. This is because of this hormone, or this section of your brain "lights up," whatever that means.
And people start talking about their brains as if they're having some kind of intimate relationship with them. "Oh, my brain told me..." No. No! Your brain did not tell you. What happened to the mind? Freud was a genius. A lot of Freud's ideas are quite outdated, but we still believe in the unconscious. So why are we still talking about the brain as if it's disembodied? As impulses? Neurochemical impulses.
Odilon Redon, The Bell
I find the disconnect really interesting. The disconnect between our belief that we have something bigger than neuroprocessing and hormones and the brain as a computer. We believe we have something bigger than that, but we love these reductive explanations.
Emily Martin, I don't know if you've read any of her work, but she is a medical anthropologist. She calls it neuro-reductionism, which is exactly what you're talking about. She says, what happened to meaning? There's another guy not really heralded, but I read quite a bit of his stuff, Robert Crawford. Who really talked about a phenomenon burgeoning in the 1980s and he called "healthism." He saw this middle class preoccupation with our health. He was really interested in what it meant.
When I was reading the book, I also kept thinking about the obesity epidemic, and how the fault and the shame for that lies with the individual as well. It's not that half of our food supply is poison, it's that you as an individual have no self-control.
That's right. When we have these public health campaigns, and a lot of them are aimed at the poor, and Michelle Obama has talked about food deserts and these things, and why people who are living in impoverished neighborhoods can't get ahold of fresh fruits and vegetables. It's not just putting fresh fruit in a neighborhood. I want to go beyond that. It's: what the fuck is this neighborhood? I worked in north Philadelphia. I worked in Chester, which used to be the poorest city in the United States. What are we talking about? Are we talking about eradicating poverty? Nobody wants to talk about poverty anymore. The poor are nobody's constituency. What you're indicating is this kind of crazy-making.
We just absorb these cultural discourses, we imbibe it. How did American individualism -- there are so many wonderful things about American individualism -- but what does it mean now? What has the individual come to mean? There used to be a time when virtue was not just about the private self but about the public self as well. De Tocqueville worried that we would end up in the "solitude of our own hearts" eventually. He came to America and he said, I just worried that every man was going to just tuck in with friends and family in his own home, in his own world. Trapped in a way. That that is where democracy and individualism would take Americans. It's taken us a while to get there! But we're pretty locked in.
Last week I was talking with this Irish historian about the Famine. We were also talking about de Tocqueville because he came to Ireland around the time of the Famine, and he saw how the British were blaming the Irish for their own starvation, because it was Providence. It was God's punishment for the lazy Papists. But it seems similar, this idea that you are to blame for your own situation, and so whatever happens to you, happens to you. It's not our problem. What you have is a reflection of who you are.
It's part of what's fallacious in the American dream. It's not that the American dream is corrupt, it's just what it has become. You could do it with just a sharp little tug on your bootstrap. If you're born into poverty with terrible schools and terrible food, you just need to tug on your bootstrap and you can join us, and you can enjoy success. And of course in America that success is going to be economic. You'll join the middle class. It's a really American thing. It's Self-Reliance, and how it's become "working on yourself." The idea that there's nothing you can't do if you just work hard on yourself. That's a very middle class idea. That's about self-actualization.
I'm the daughter of an historian, so I really believe in setting things back. We can't free ourselves of our culture and our own biases, but we can at least examine them.
Odilon Redon, Frau Mit Schleier
I found the angle on women and stress so interesting. The way that we police each other's behavior through these ideas about stress and health, where if you're sort of wandering off into the weeds and having a difficult time, you can shame a person back into conformity.
We're not supposed to be angry anymore. We were allowed to be angry, a certain group of us, in the '60s and '70s. We should just work on ourselves, and take that bath, write that to-do list, juggle our priorities better. And this eviscerates a lot of the anger that one might otherwise feel for being in a predicament. Things have changed for middle-class women, but the world hasn't changed. People are talking about Sheryl Sandberg, and there are things about that that drive me absolutely crazy. Some of this stuff that's being written now. I think there are some things that are helpful and important and some things that are total baloney.
Have you read the book, Lean In?
I have heard her interviewed, and I've read excerpts, and I do think some of what she's doing can be really helpful. I don't know if I can stand to read it! She says things for instance like, you've got to find a man who is going to split work 50/50 and support your career and so on. But what she doesn't talk about is culturally what that means. Men are not expecting this of themselves, and we are not expecting this of them. This caregiving is a de-valued activity. And as long as it is de-valued and unpaid, men are not going to be quite as interested as all that. Where are we going to find these men? She doesn't talk about power. She doesn't talk about how we take in ideas about what it means to be a good man or a good woman from our culture. I don't disagree with her about women being self-defeating. But she's not addressing the fact that it's the way we do gender. The way we do gender has to change.
I had a class that I taught years ago about gender and clinical work. There were only women in the class. The women in the class a number of them were married, and they'd say, oh, I can't have these discussions because it would be a fight. I can't tell my husband to do more, because it'll be a fight. If we can't work that out even on the one-to-one level because of the way things are set up, we can't expect women to do this one family at a time. Change your behavior, but society wants what society wants. We're doing an unpaid social service to do most of the caretaking.
And there seems to have been such a step backwards in the 10, 15 years, and maybe it's part of the individualism thing, too. This idea that whatever choice you make is the right choice, because it's yours. It doesn't matter if you're making it harder for everyone else. If it's your choice then we have to all accept that.
We have an idea that choice is autonomous. That you have a smorgasbord in front of you. Rather than, you're stuck with only three dishes in front of you. It's choice with constraint, and we don't see what the constraint is. We only can choose from the options available to us, and if you only put three things on that table... And I feel, I've chosen meatloaf, and that's my choice. But I don't know there's crème brûlée or something. I don't know where I'm going with this food metaphor. It's troublesome to me, all this business about choice. We like to believe that we're making these very free choices when in fact we're not as free as we like to believe we are. This whole opt out thing. Were they choosing to opt-out? No, a lot of them were saying they would have loved to have stayed if they could have. It was feeling that their choices were constrained, so they opted for the meatloaf. Get me out of here with this food.
Even just in this conversation, I get this overwhelming feeling of, it would be easier if I could just fix the stuff in me and not have to change society or wait for society to change.
It's scary to think about needing the kind of social change that we need. I know that is really tough. Thinking, well, personal change is a lot easier and societal change is hard. Political change is hard. It's fascinating, such a vicious cycle. We're too busy. That's not necessarily true, either. That people can't collectively come together. We don't have to start from scratch. There was a woman's movement, there was a civil rights movement. Right? There are time honored ways, we do have a political system. I think if women got more fed up, even at their local level, even in the household. It isn't about one husband at a time. It's about understanding this problem differently and talking. Why are we taking it on the chin here? What do we need to do? I don't have answers. It's not, how can we fix it right now, easily? I'm not going to achieve social change through writing books, even if Sheryl Sandberg thinks she will. But what I find myself saying in the book, before we can do anything, we need to recognize there's actually a problem here.
March 18, 2013
Publishing is tremendously susceptible to the availability heuristic for two significant reasons. First, prior to recent innovations, manuscripts not published were unavailable for analysis. So the universe of knowledge we have about books, literature, and publishing excludes that universe of books that were never published. It also mostly excludes those books that were commercial or critical failures. One doesn't see books that don't sell, not on store bookshelves or in friends' houses, not on Top Ten lists, not on Twitter, not in the Times (London, New York, Irish), and so on.
There are books in the data set now, such as Leaves of Grass, that were self-published, and others, such as Moby-Dick, that were ignored in their time but reappeared through good luck. The novelist Paula Fox published, vanished, published again. Her reappearance is a triumph of publishing. But what about all the unrediscovered Paula Foxes? Or, for that matter, what about all the books I published at Soft Skull in the 2000s that had been rejected by ten, twenty, thirty, sixty publishers? And what about the manuscripts I rejected at Soft Skull that I would subsequently see published by prestigious publishers large and small? Is this proof of the effectiveness of the existing system for the production and dissemination of literature? It's quite clear that while we do our best, our output is as much proof of the awfulness of the system as it is of its strengths. Much like Patty Hearst, we cannot bear to consider the alternative.
Richard Nash, being totally essential as always, on the business and history of publishing.
Let's talk about money this week, since Cyprus is about to take the whole Euro down (probably). (And all this aggression against people who save their money? Zero interest rates have been bad enough, but now taxing savers after the bad behavior of the investors? It's enough to drive you insane, trying to make sense out of it. Or, it's enough to drive you to Georg Simmel's The Philosophy of Money, which will give you a headache.)
Now. Writers and artists are notoriously sketchy about money. In public, at least. Anyone who has delved into the letters or diaries of the same will have noticed that a lot of their brain space is spent on tracking who owes them money, who is delinquent on their payments, where the next paycheck will be coming from... But no one speaks in real numbers -- real numbers of books bought, exact figures of advances unless it's outrageously huge, and how the influence of money spoils things.
(I was speaking to a friend who writes hit books and gets money thrown at him, and he was relaying the fights back and forth between agent and publisher, the demands made on him by his publisher, and the conversations around his books but never actually about his books, and it was the first time I felt really glad that no one expects me to make them a shitload of money. It sounds awful.)
On Twitter, I linked to this Neal Pollack interview wherein he talks about advances, sales, hype, and the pressure for "branding" and "platform." It's worth linking here, too, in case someone missed it:
I spent a lot of years trying to turn myself into a brand because they told us self-branding is a way to success. And I kind of believed the hype. It’s just not true. To this day, I see writers publishing their first book or their second book and I can just see them going overboard with the marketing and getting all hyped up about it. You just have to write. If something good happens for you, post it on Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or wherever you make your social-media home, but don’t overdo it. Enough with the marketing! Enough with the goddamn marketing already! I’m sick of it.
I just noticed we interviewed Neal Pollack so long ago it didn't make the archive conversions into our new design! Whatever, I'm too lazy to fix it now. But he's always been a brash, honest voice. Even when stuck in branding cycles. And I'm glad he's speaking about what it's like trying to make a living as a novelist.
And lord knows it's never been easy, but the pressure to perform financially has never quite been so thick. (It's been kind of fun to read the reports about the German publisher Suhrkamp and the battle between those who want the publisher to make money and those who want the publisher to make art. But it's also distressing to watch economics become the only language for the conversation about art and value.) David Priestland argues this is partly because of the dominance in the last 30 years or so of the merchants of society. Priestland, author of Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes has an essay about the fall of the "merchant caste," which is how he sees the current economic crisis. Which sounds nice, but with no one going to jail and with toothless economic reforms thus far, his opening line "As we struggle to emerge from the 2008 financial crisis, we may now have enough distance to understand its real significance" can seem a little naive. Probably we are not emerging out of the 2008 financial crisis. Probably we have just emerged out of Round 1. But Priestland is very clear about one thing: if you are not part of the merchant class, you are essentially powerless in contemporary society.
And in the middle of all of this, we are told it is our own fault if we perform badly financially. It's insanity. (We'll talk more about this personal responsibility bullshit tomorrow.) From a Billfold interview with Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.
Then there’s a turnaround where you blame people for the fact that the financial world changed on them. It strikes me as delusional at best, and outright wrong at worst. The banks had this idea that they’d invented all this stuff and gave people all these goodies, and we’re going to educate everyone on how to use them, and I actually don’t believe that. I think they know they’re not educating people on how to use their products. It’s not possible. And it became more complex, and at the same time, we needed the stuff, and by the stuff I mean yeah, people felt they needed to buy a house because they were toldwell, they weren’t told not to buy a house beyond their means. Do you remember anyone saying that 10 years ago? Because I sure don’t. What I remember was, “If you don’t buy today, prices are going to go up tomorrow and you’re not going to be able to afford it, so here get this mortgage, and don’t worry, you’ll be able to refinance because housing goes up.” And this is what people were told over and over again: Housing doesn’t go down. You can go back and look at the literature. People weren’t saying, “You know, housing could go down, and it could go down by 40 percent. That nationwide crash? It can happen.” So, there’s this kind of obliviousness out there, and I think it’s in a lot of people’s interest for that obliviousness to exist.
Fuck, it's complicated. Better go back to that Simmel after all.
March 14, 2013
Blow up your own personal VIDA score with the Women's Prize for Fiction - yes, that's what they're calling it, post-Orange. Now stripped of the mobile phone company's sponsorship, the WPfF has a new brown and green website (not pink? Pink's a nice colour for a website) and a twenty-book strong longlist. No idea what the trophy will look like, but bet it won't be as cool as the tentacle Nick Harkaway won for Angelmaker.
Being nominated for a major book award against Hilary Mantel must be like being a sports team in the final up against...and I finally regret not knowing anything about sports. Full list under cut:
Kitty Aldridge - A Trick I Learned From Dead Men
Kate Atkinson - Life After Life
Ros Barber - The Marlowe Papers
Shani Boianjiu - The People of Forever are Not Afraid
Gillian Flynn - Gone Girl
Sheila Heti - How Should A Person Be?
AM Homes - May We Be Forgiven
Barbara Kingsolver - Flight Behaviour
Deborah Copaken Kogan - The Red Book
Hilary Mantel - Bring Up the Bodies
Bonnie Nadzam - Lamb
Emily Perkins - The Forrests
Michèle Roberts - Ignorance
Francesca Segal - The Innocents
Maria Semple - Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
Elif Shafak - Honour
Zadie Smith - NW
ML Stedman - The Light Between Oceans
Carrie Tiffany - Mateship with Birds
G. Willow Wilson - Alif the Unseen
Lady Byron, portrait by Charles Hayter
Last year, when I was 33, people kept mentioning that it was my "Jesus year," the age Jesus was when he died. As in, I guess, if I hadn't saved mankind by the time I was 34, I could pretty much be counted as a failure. I'm much more concerned about my "Byron year" of 36. As in, if I haven't committed incestuous acts, gone to war, scandalized an entire nation, driven past lovers insane with jealousy, and written a few half-good manuscripts, then what the hell am I even doing with my life?
(I will know I have succeeded when a man dresses like a woman to sneak into my chambers to get a chance to be alone with me, so very Caroline Lamb.)
Anyway, Byron is great fun, isn't he? Less fun is his marriage, to a kind of insane woman, but even if you were totally sane at the start, probably being married to Byron would tip you over. Not so much the infidelity, or the knocking up his sister, but just maneuvering around that ego. Making tea for his ego. Answering the fan mail of his ego. It sounds dreadful. Wives are on my mind lately, and Isabel Burton -- also in love with a demonic slut -- really thrived in her marriage while Lady Byron seemingly wanted to die the entire time.
One of the smartest things I've read about the Byrons' marriage is from one of the smartest biographies I've ever read full stop: The Late Lord Byron by Doris Langley Moore. (Much can be said about the paucity of quality modern literary biography, but it'll keep.) Moore's book was rescued by Melville House, and they deserve great credit for that act. But anyway, the smart thing:
That "clean break" by which young and inexperienced lovers hope to abolish their problems does such violence to nature that it cannot result in anything but weak recantation or lasting embitterment. For most ill-assorted couples there are many capitulations, many groping efforts of adjustment, before, with comparatively mild pangs at last, the bonds are loosened and dropped. Not yet 24 years old, brought up by worshiping parents to believe herself infallible, sustained by a large circle of bosom friends before whom she dared not avow her desire to return to a husband whose wickedness she had unstintingly disclosed, and having in her temperament a decided vein of what we now term sado-masochism, Annabella was under a compulsion to take the way hardest for both.
That book is also a must-read for the letters between Annabella -- Byron's wife -- and Augusta -- the half-sister he impregnated. I mean, Jesus Christ, why were those two pen pals? But anyway, Annabella had an idea about Byron and when it turned out to be total delusion, as strong a delusion as the one that drove Caroline Lamb to stalk him, she went on destroy-mode and never really came out of it, becoming an incredibly bitter person.
Anyway, the reason I'm rambling on about this is because of this story of Byron's death and the strange afterlife of his body.
The doctors who “hacked” Byron’s body with an autopsy found a congested brain, a flabby heart, and a diseased liver (no surprise, given that Byron lived on alcohol). Before stitching him back up, the doctors removed his heart, brain, and other internal organs, placing them in four urns. A mistranslated funeral oration has led to a story that the heart stayed in Greece, but in fact the Greeks got a different set of organs: his lungs and larynx. Pietro Capsali, the man in whose house Byron died, said “we wished to have his lungs and larynx because he had used his breath and voice for Greece.” But the urn with Byron’s lungs disappeared when Missolonghi fell in a Turkish siege two years after the poet’s death.
You know what? Somebody has that urn! Look in your attics, people.
There was a news story last week about Mikhail Shishkin's refusal to participate in Book Expo as part of the official Russian delegation, but I was having a hard time finding the full text of his open letter explaining his reasoning. Rather than reading tired, hurried journalists' explanations for his reasoning, I thought I'd ask if I could reprint his letter in full. Shishkin kindly agreed.
Shishkin is the author of Maidenhair, a book I admired greatly, and a book we reviewed positively here at Bookslut.
February 27, 2013
Thank you for your invitation to take part in the activities of the official Russian delegation at BookExpo America 2013, the international book fair in New York being held from May 30 to June 1 of this year.
I understand how important participation in this kind of book fair is for a writer and for promoting his books in America and other countries. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with American publishers and readers, since the English-language book market remains virtually closed to writers from countries like Russia. Especially since all expenses for traveling to and staying in the United States (and this is no small sum) are taken on by the official Russian side.
Nonetheless, I am declining. Not because “my schedule doesn’t permit it,” but out of ethical considerations.
I have accepted similar proposals from you several times in the past and have participated in international book fairs as part of the Russian writers delegation, but in the last year the situation has changed.
In any self-respecting country, the state, through various foundations and organizations, supports the advancement of its writers abroad, pays for translations, invites writers to participate in international book fairs, and so on. For example, in Norway this is done by Norla; in Switzerland, Pro Helvetia. Naturally, by taking part in an official delegation, the writers represents not only himself personally and his books but also his country, his state.
Russia’s political development, and the events of last year in particular, have created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture. What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed. By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.
A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.
I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, a country free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends the right of the individual, not the right to corruption, a country with a free media, free elections, and free people.
Naturally, this is my personal decision and has not been made in consultation with other writers invited to New York; each is free to act in accordance with his or her own notions of ethics and reasonability.
March 13, 2013
Book of the Week: From a Polish Country House Kitchen by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden, an Excerpt
Beet, Cherry, and Garlic Salad
Serves 4 to 6
This recipe calls for sour cherries, which set off the sweetness of the beets perfectly. Sweet cherries can also be used here if sour are not available, although the taste is not the same. Fresh sour cherries are sometimes available in summer at farmers’ markets, but it is possible to use frozen (defrosted) or canned sour cherries (drained) if fresh are not available. Anne has sour cherry trees in her garden, and she has happily used homemade cherry preserves for this salad in the winter. Like a chutney, it can be eaten alongside pork or chicken dishes all year-round.
2⁄3 lb/310 g smallish red beets
for the dressing
Zest and juice of ½ lemon
2 tsp grapeseed or other very light oil
¼ tsp dried thyme
¼ tsp dried tarragon
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄3 lb/155 g sour cherries, halved and pitted
1 small red onion, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/gas 6.
Wash and trim the beets and wrap them in foil. (Depending on the size of the beets, you can put three or four together in foil packages.) Place them in a shallow roasting pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until they feel soft when pierced through the foil, but are still firm enough to be grated or sliced. Remove from the oven, open up the foil packets, and let cool. Slip off the skins (they should rub off easily). Cut the beets into thin strips, or else grate coarsely.
To make the dressing: Mix all the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl.
Put the beets, cherries, onion, and garlic in a medium bowl and toss with the dressing. Serve at room temperature.
Printed with permission by Chronicle Books
March 12, 2013
Last year I taught a class on bad people who wrote good books, and how the reader can, or if the reader should, try to separate the writer from the book. Apparently, though, I did not really figure it out for myself, because for some reason, I waited until last week to start reading E.M. Cioran.
When I thought of Cioran before this week, I mostly thought about how he was totally yay, fascists. I mean, he wrote some nice things about Hitler ("There is no politician in today's world who instills more sympathy in me than Hitler ...The Führer mysticism in Germany is utterly justifiable.") and that generally gets you shuffled to the side, or at least causes a lot of embarrassed looking at the floor when your name comes up. There was that book that came out a couple years back, An Infamous Past: E.M. Cioran and the Rise of Fascism in Romania, and that was pretty much how I knew of him. As the Romanian philosopher who saw the rise of the fascists in Romania and had an okay time with it.
Then I picked up The Temptation to Exist a few days ago, and holy fuck it is good. The first essay in the collection rails against Tao philosophy and the idea of detachment, and it feels completely fresh, as if he's fighting against yoga studio philosophers, prattling about inner wisdom and mindfulness:
Almost all our discoveries are due to our violences, to the exacerbation of our instability. Even God, insofar as He interests us -- it is not in our innermost selves that we discern God, but at the extreme limits of our fever.
So then it becomes a matter of, trying to reconcile Cioran as a man and a fascist and Cioran as a great writer. It's not a new act, of course. Every reader of Celine, of Ezra Pound, every fan of Roman Polanski and Coco Chanel, hopefully goes through this act. In On the Road to Babadag, one of my favorite travel books, Andrzej Stasiuk stays in Cioran's hometown and tries to find the roots of these problems in the roots of his life.
I reflected that he would now be 89 and could be sitting where I sat. This house, after all, belonged to his family. Our host was Petru Cioran. He had Emil's books on his shelf, though I doubt he ever opened them. They were in French and English. He and his wife showed us washed-out photographs: this is Emil when he was eight, and this is Relu, his younger brother. The stock 50 year old man was proud, but every day he ran his store. He got up early, put crates in the van, drove to town for merchandise. At breakfast, we had a shot of slivovitz. It smelled like moonshine, was as strong as pure alcohol, and went well with smoked pork, goat cheese, and paprika.
So Emil could have been sitting here instead of me, could have been watching the rain wet the sacks of cement piled on the platform of the van parked in the street. The pavement shines, the smoke from the chimneys disappears in the gray haze, the water in the gutters swells and gathers trash, and he has returned, as if he never left, and is merely an old man alone with his thoughts. He no longer has the strength to walk in the mountains, nor the wish to chat with the shepherds. He looks, he listens. Philosophy gradually assumes physical shape. It enters his body and destroys it. Paris and traveling were a waste. Without them, things would have gone on a little longer, and boredom would have taken a less sophisticated form.
And in Die Welt, Fritz Raddatz tries to make Cioran's defense of Nazism understandable.
How I had it out with Cioran over these mental pirouettes, laughing over a good wine, once even offering to become his servant, which I did gladly. No one would have imagined that he was wading through the sludgy thinking of blood and soil and myth and mission, of national destiny, least of all himself.
But my favorite sentence on the subject comes from Cioran himself: "The only minds which seduce us are the minds that have destroyed themselves trying to give their lives a meaning."
Book of the Week: From a Polish Country House Kitchen by Anne Applebaum and Danielle Crittenden
Probably this is going to sound like a weird thing to say, but here you are: I love Central European food. Known mostly for, as I say below, large slabs of meat boiled endlessly, Central European food does not inspire many MFK Fishers or Elizabeth Davids. No one has ever written a nine volume novel inspired by a bite of German Kuchen. But the stews, the roasts, the goulashes and the dumplings, those large slabs of meat marinated in vinegar and drowning in gravy, that is what I dream of.
You probably know Anne Applebaum better from her Pulitzer Prize winning book Gulag, and Danielle Crittenden better from her books about feminism. But they set aside the heavy stuff for a while to focus on writing a cookbook together. It makes sense, given their chosen topics, that they'd produce a book full of comfort food, the kinds of things you leave bubbling on your stovetop for hours. Convenient when your reading material leaves you having to lie on the floor for hours at a time. Or so I imagine.
I wrote to Applebaum and Crittenden about their adventures in pierogis, and why they thought Polish food needed to be reintroduced to the American palate.
Polish food, like much of Central European food, is much maligned. It has gone through its rough times. (A friend has a story from the communist era about a carp kept alive in a Warsaw bathtub in the week leading up to Christmas, only to be served tastelessly and horribly on the day of.) So, what makes two people -- and two non-cookbook writers who are very active in other fields -- decide to make a cookbook for Polish food?
ANNE: There are two questions here - one is about maligned Polish food, and the other is about "why we did it" - but in fact they are related.
Like all stereotypes, the "bad central European food" stereotype is simply outdated: The "carp in the bathtub" cliche belongs to the 1970s. In fact, a real food revolution has taken place over the past two decades. There has been an explosion of restaurants, high-end food production companies, cookbooks and cooks. A lot of what was always great about Polish food -- the proliferation of fresh vegetables, the chickens that were organic because they lived in someone's garden, the real dedication to home-cooked and the absence of processed food -- is now recognized and celebrated. I knew this because I lived in Poland for some of that time. and Danielle figured it out because she came to visit. She stood in my kitchen and declared that the revolution had happened, and now it was time to record it. We wanted very much to change the way outsiders thought about Polish cooking because it was so unfair.
DANIELLE: And also so delicious! My own interest in the cuisine derived from my husband's Polish-Jewish ancestry. In fact, much of North American Jewish cuisine has roots in Polish food, as so many of the immigrants who came here during the last century were from that part of the world: Kosher dill pickles, herring, gefilte fish (the latter being a poor man's quenelles). Exploring the new Polish cuisine was a way for me to reconnect with the food of his ancestors -- and also to update it for modern, North American palates.
Anne lives part of the time in Poland, so she might be the intended subject of this question, but pretty much everywhere in North America and Europe there is this revival of regional cuisine and rehabilitating national dishes that used to be just big slabs of meat boiled endlessly. I am living in Berlin, so I have eaten a lot of "reworked" sauerbraten. Did you find that a lot of these dishes had to be modified for that type of palate, or was it just a matter of hunting down original recipes?
ANNE: There is a good deal of interest in the revival of regional cuisine, and there are many national dishes that have indeed been rehabilitated. We did do some experimenting ourselves - we made cabbage rolls with ground chicken instead of pork, and used wild mushroom sauce instead of tomato, for example. But some of the dishes just had to be made properly, with good ingredients. Bigos, for example, or hunter's stew, is fantastic if you make it the way it was always supposed to be made, with venison and game sausage, instead of with pork fat or whatever cheap restaurants used to use as a substitute.
Another trend is "haute cuisine" out of traditional foods. Haute sauerbraten or whatever. What would haute Polish food be like?
DANIELLE: We have a few recipes that represent the new "haute" Polish cuisine: For example, we created a pierogi filled with duck and red cabbage, served with a Cointreau butter sauce. We have two wild mushroom soups, one we call a "boozier" with the addition of Madeira and garnished with a dollop of creme fraiche; and of course there are the modified cabbage rolls, as Anne mentioned, which are light and delicious. I would add, though, that even many of the traditional Polish dishes we included could qualify as "haute" cuisine. Some of these are simply unknown outside Poland (and which, through Anne, I had great fun discovering for the first time). So I have served at dinner parties our beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms and dill pickle -- a very tasty, exotic take on what is often a bland and overpriced cut of meat; venison stew with dates; pork loin stuffed with prunes; duck breast with a pear ragout; and a roast loin of wild boar with sour cherry sauce. One of the other things I learned is that Poles eat game -- venison, boar, duck -- as commonly as we eat beef and chicken. And, as these recipes suggest, they are not afraid to mix fruit up with meat, a fabulous combo.
You mention in the introduction some of the recipes that didn't make it in, something about duck blood soup? Were there favorites you rooted for but maybe your co-writer vetoed to prevent readers' revulsion? I mean, I was expecting more organ meats. Also, did anyone try the duck blood soup?
DANIELLE: I was definitely the more squeamish cook. Anne loves herring and calf liver -- I can't abide either -- and left to me I probably wouldn't have included them. Fortunately it wasn't left to me. We have great recipes for those who DO love them. We offer herring two ways: one with sour cream and apples, the other with lime and raspberries. The liver is done with caramelized onions and a Madeira sauce.
I had friends over to test out the recipes. We cannot even discuss what happened to the pierogi. I am helpless with pierogi, dumplings, wontons, ravioli, anything that has to be stuffed and sealed. Bad things happen. Any tips?
DANIELLE: I'm surprised you found the pierogis difficult. I am a hopeless baker (thank goodness we had very good friends who are whiz bakers and helped us out with the cake recipes). Thus what I liked about the pierogis was that the dough recipe was pretty bullet-proof, even for someone like me. Key was letting it sit for an hour to rise and then kneading it for the full 7 or so minutes. Also, you have to be careful not to overstuff the pierogis. I used a standard drinking glass to cut out the circles, and found this size could only manage about a tablespoon or less of stuffing. Plop it in the center, and you should be able to fold the circle of dough over neatly and crimp the edges with your fingers or a fork, without the stuffing leaking into the seal. If the stuffing gets into the seal, it becomes hard to close and will likely fall apart while boiling.
Both of you have written about pretty heavy subjects -- human rights violations and feminism. Was it a relief to be able to write lengthy prose about mushrooms for a while?
ANNE: It was a huge relief. I wrote this book more or less at the same time as I wrote Iron Curtain, the history of the Stalinization of Eastern Europe after the war, and it was very nice to be able to think about something else some of the time. In fact, by its very nature, Polish cooking combines perfectly with the life of a writer. There are a lot of roasts, or soups, or other things that have to be cooked slowly over long periods of time. You can put them on in the morning, write for an hour, get up, take a break, add some salt, and then go back to work for another hour. By lunchtime, everything is ready.
DANIELLE: I loved the diversion, and so did my family. They miss being what I called "Polish food crash test dummies." My kids still beg me to make their favorite dishes from the book -- poached chicken, many of the soups, and of course pierogis. It was fun to do work that perfectly complemented the schedules and appetites of my family. I also loved the aesthetic side of it: Anne and I had never done any professional food photography, obviously. We worked with a marvelous Polish photographer and his wife -- Bogdan and Dorota Bialy -- on location at Anne's country house for two weeks one August. With their help -- and also with Anne's mother-in-law and a friend -- we cooked, prepped and styled all the food ourselves, and photographed it mostly in natural light. Once we were finished with any given dish, we'd eat it for lunch or save it to reheat for dinner. It was a magical and memorable experience, and I think the photographs capture it well.
March 11, 2013
Writers are winning awards. Mostly though it's just Hilary Mantel and Junot Diaz, as Shalom Auslander mentions in his acceptance speech for the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize, awarded for his book Hope: A Tragedy. They are winning pretty much all of the awards. And yes, mostly the wrong things win the awards, as we have already rambled on about.
More interesting, then, is probably the way so many look at awards or money or success as proof of a person's value. It's the same impulse we were discussing with Tim Pat Coogan and the response to the Irish Famine. That somewhere in our brains we think that if a person is poor and in need of assistance, they must have done something to get that way. If you were just a poor potato farmer who is now starving to death, probably you were a lazy layabout and now you want a handout. It can be transferred to, oh, this book sold 20 copies, it must be crap. It wasn't even nominated for such-and-such, how good can it be? If a book or writer is marginalized, there must be a reason for it.
(See also: justifications for why women win fewer awards than men, why books by minorities don't show up in the Best Books of the Century lists, etc.)
So! Where does the delusion of the meritocracy come from? The Caravan Magazine has a very good piece about a weird little book called The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033 that has been used to justify some of this.
Power is the differentiator. Parity is the illusion. Meritocracy is the haze that hides the difference and builds the illusion. For 55 years, this concept has hurtled through the dullest minds and highest offices on the planet like a crazy-ball strapped with dynamite, setting off explosions, leaving deep craters in its wake, and virtually defining the terms of utopia—never mind that it began life as a marker of dystopia in a futuristic work of fiction that has been ignored, misinterpreted and distorted ever since it was published.
March 8, 2013
I have only imitated intelligence. And along with him millions of men were copying with great effort the idea of what it is to be a man, along with him thousands of women were copying with great care the idea of what it was to be a woman, and along with him hundreds of people of good will were copying with superhuman effort the very face and idea of existence with the anguished concentration with which acts of good and evil are imitated, the daily fear of committing an act that is true, and therefore incomparable, and therefore inimitable, and therefore disconcerting. And all the while there was something old and rotten in some unidentifiable place in the house, and people slept restlessly -- discomfort is the only warning that we copy, and we listen to ourselves attentively between the sheets. But we have been carried so far away by imitation that the thing we hear comes to us with such slight sound that it could be a vision, just as invisible as if it were in the darkness that is so deep that hands are useless. Because a person will even imitate comprehension -- comprehension which never would have been invented except for the speech of others and words.
But there was still disobedience.
-- from Clarice Lispector's The Apple in the Dark
“Two million died. It is two million by the way because modern scholarship shows that the loss to the birth rate was more than just a million. Whole families perished and there’s no records. The fevers were devastating and then there were all the diverted births, of children born on ships or born in America,” Coogan explains.
This week's Book of the Week was Tim Pat Coogan's The Famine Plot, and it's been disappointing how little the book has been covered elsewhere, as important as the book is. It corrects the notion that the Famine was an unavoidable natural event, and it collects the evidence into one place that the British criminally mismanaged Ireland and stood by because they knew they would profit mightily when the land was cleared of its people.
But some of the coverage that does exist:
A review on the Economist's blog
A review in the Washington Post
A strange review in the Spectator, which seems to be confused about the famine in the Punjab having being managed well
Bookslut's review and my Q&A with Coogan
People have been talking this week about creative work, and the scraping-by existence of freelance workers, although not really very helpfully. Freelancers make accusations against the publications exploiting them, and the editors blame the advertisers for putting pressure on page views, making the only content that makes money these days either complaints about not being paid enough as a freelancer or pictures of bunnies sleeping next to dogs.
There, I just solidified my financial future.
I'm disappointed that the conversation hasn't expanded to acknowledge that the entire eco-system is a little toxic. When resources get scarce, everyone tries to protect their own, and that's fair, but it doesn't really help figure out what's needed to fix the problem. Writers are on their own. Publications struggle to find advertising money, and advertisers can end up dictating content. As in, if bunnies are what gets clicks and therefore money, it's bunnies you're probably going to eventually, when exhausted, start to provide. Writing that is quirky, complicated, nuanced, can only be placed on sites that do not pay, unless the writer has an extremely devoted following. And if the publication refuses to play along with advertisers' demands, then the site's owner ends up not making any money or having to spend their own money to keep things going.
There are a lot of points in his very dismal mess that need attention and fixing. But the conversation seems to have stalled out in the throwing accusations stage, and that is disappointing.
And in the name of clarity, I can tell you that last month Bookslut took in, I think it was, $74 from Blogads revenue. It was in the double digits. I've been spending my own money on this site for years, and that is why Bookslut cannot pay its contributors. Does that fact fucking kill me every month? Yes, yes it does. Also, being broke every month personally is pretty deadly in and of itself. Do I think Bookslut has value beyond the money that brings? I wouldn't be doing this every day if I did not.
Someone eventually is going to have to figure this out -- micropayments for subscriptions? annual fund drive? nonprofit grants? swag and hastily written ebooks? I see websites experimenting with these things, and they only seem to work in very specific circumstances, not to be replicated freely.
But! For those of you out there struggling, trying to make sense of this new way of working, I can recommend two books:
Pricing Beauty by Ashley Mears
It's actually about the working life of a model, but it's depressingly relatable for writers, too. The way you're supposed to bring your entire being to the job now, your life is your material, and it is impossible to set boundaries between yourself and your employers. (Also: models and writers are also asked to work for free for "exposure" an awful lot.)
The Soul at Work by Franco Berardi
"We can reach every point in the world but, more importantly, we can be reached from any point in the world. Privacy and its possibilities are abolished. Attention is under siege everywhere. Not silence but uninterrupted noise, not the red desert, but a cognitive space overcharged with nervous incentives to act: this is the alienation of our times...." Also a very good book from an Italian philosopher, on the new meanings of the word "work."
March 7, 2013
Dorothy Arnold, socialite who disappeared in New York in 1910 after buying a book
I guess I thought I was doing something different, playing with the trope by making my missing woman a bit older and rougher around the edges than the Natalee Holloways or the Laci Petersons who dominate the news. But she's still a white woman. Her disappearance still matters to the public in a way it might not have if the victim were, say, black.
The cultural obsession is probably with the unfair theft of promise, beauty, youth. All of the things we're taught to value. Sully the victim a little, and the narrative changes. There are insinuations about the woman's share of the blame.
The cases that get chosen for media coverage—the ones that really capture the public's interest—are all very similar. The cases don't tend to revolve around people on the fringe of society. They're usually middle class, because that's what fascinates us: How did someone who could be our next-door neighbor, or ourselves, end up dead?
It gives us the blessing to nose around in other people's lives, because we can hide our nosiness under the guise of concern. It escalates from there. The more interested we get, the more coverage there is, and when a case drags on and nothing breaks, that's when that righteousness sets in—if the police won't give us someone to blame, the media will. But we're usually happy to have a target.
Isabel Burton, wife of Sir Richard Francis Burton, who is still a much-hated figure for her decision to burn the manuscript her husband was working on at his death
I was wife, and mother, and comrade, and secretary, and aide-de-camp, and agent to him; I was proud and happy to do it all, and never tired... I would rather have had a crust of bread with him, than be a Queen elsewhere. At the moment of his death I had done all I could for his body, and then I tried to follow his soul. I am following his soul and shall reach it before long. Agnostics! 'Burnt manuscript' readers! Where were you all then? Hail-fellow-well-met, when the world went well; running away when it pursed its stupid lips... He said always, "I am gone, Pay, Pack, and follow." I am waiting to join his Caravan. I am waiting for a welcome sound. The tinkling of his Camel-Bell.
- Isabel Burton, defending her decision to burn his manuscript, quoted in Mary S. Lovell's excellent biography of the couple, A Rage to Live
The wives are tricky figures in biography, as you'll know if you've ever read any Great Man biographies from before the feminist second wave. In Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, Nora is an illiterate bore. AN Wilson is not exactly sympathetic to Sophia in his biography of Leo Tolstoy. She's mostly been considered a nag and a hindrance. Which is how Frieda, wife of DH Lawrence, was portrayed in most biographies, particularly Priest of Love. I wrote in a column a few years back:
Everyone hates the wife. The mistress is adored by the artist, the circle of friends, the biographer. She is allowed to be airy and inspiring and delightful. The mistress takes away the burdens of reality to unloose the artist’s imagination while the wife is earthy and anchors his creativity with responsibility and daily life. She hems in, she restricts, she requires money and attention.
Previous biographers of Cézanne accused his wife Hortense of neglecting his death bed because she did not want to miss a dressmaker’s appointment. She’s been referred to as a gold digger and an intellectual lightweight who didn’t understand her husband’s art. Camille Monet was, for a while, completely erased from the record altogether. Her portrait “Camille” — which caused a sensation when it debuted — was renamed “The Woman in the Green Dress.” It’s not just painters. I read Anthony Daniels in the New Criterion accuse John Stuart Mill’s wife Harriet Taylor — who Mill credited with much of the inspiration and logic behind The Subjection of Women — of being a “dominatrix,” “repellent,” and “reptilian.” He claimed she abused Mill, that she controlled him and broke his will. Sofia Tolstoy, before the recent publication of her diaries and the rehabilitation of her image that followed, endured decades of being thought a fool and a drain on Leo’s resources. Because so few of these women were able to leave much behind — an account of their suffering, a description of a life tethered to a genius who would spend the grocery money on paint or give away their children’s inheritance — those who idolize their husbands feel free to create their own reality for them
We feel possessive towards those writers and artists that we love. The intimacy of a marriage is an intimacy we cannot reach with that person, and we are jealous lovers. Many biographers fell into this dynamic as well, and their dislike of the wives bleeds through the pages.
Everyone asks: ‘But why should a worthless woman like you need an intellectual life or artistic life?' To this question I can only reply: ‘I don't know, but eternally suppressing it to serve a genius is a great misfortune.' - Sophia Tolstoy, My Life
Sophia Tolstoy, self-portrait with Anna Maslova, July 13, 1898
Alexandra Popoff wrote a biography of Sophia Tolstoy a few years back, showing her to be a strong, intelligent, and long suffering partner to her genius husband (he raped her on their wedding night, and it was not I guess the only time that happened). Her diaries were published around the same time, which only reinforced the idea that she was getting a bad rap with Tolstoy's acolytes. Now Popoff has written The Wives: The Women behind Russia's Literary Giants, and she's interviewed at The Moscow News.
Such relationships tended to be all-consuming. As Nabokov would put it, he and Vera were "a single shadow." Dostoevsky, Mandelstam and Nabokov all said they couldn't write without their wives nearby. Anna Akhmatova, for one, was astounded.
"He wouldn't let her out of his sight, didn't let her work, was insanely jealous, and asked her advice on every word in his poems," she said after seeing Mandelstam with Nadezhda. "In general, I have never seen anything like it."
Sometimes this dependence was even physical. Both Nadezhda Mandelstam and Vera Nabokov could be seen lugging heavy cases, while their husbands strolled around unencumbered.
March 6, 2013
Book of the Week: The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan, an Excerpt
The land of Ireland was dangerously overburdened by the weight of human stock. What was needed to avert an inevitable disaster was a humane system of assisted emigration in combination with a sustained effort at reforming the land system, developing fisheries, and building Irish infrastructure such as roads, bridges, harbors, and canals. The facts of the situation were well known in London. Throughout the nineteenth century there had been a series of inquiries into conditions in Ireland in which the facts had been clearly set forth. Mention has already been made of the Select Committee on Ireland of the House of Commons before which Daniel O'Connell and Bishop Doyle gave evidence. This issued not one but three comprehensive reports in 1830. There were also separate governmental inquiries into topics such as "Irish distress," and of course there was a constant flow of information on the state of the country from Dublin Castle to Whitehall, the seat of British administration. A comprehensive report on "Scarcity in Ireland" was laid before both houses of parliament as the effects of the blight began to be felt, detailing the many occasions that relief had had to be administered between 1822 and 1839. The various counties mentioned, Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, and many others, would all become places of horror during the Famine. On the very eve of the Famine itself the prestigious Devon Commission sat gathering evidence on the failings of the Irish land system. The public hearings were attended by knowledgeable people from all over the country, and anyone reading their findings can have been left in doubt as to what the problems of Ireland were and how they should be addressed.
However, Ireland instead went on the back burner for most of the pre-Famine decade. With the growth of English industrialization sizeable areas of urban poverty were created as people flooded into towns. The traditional dispensers of poor relief, the aristocracy, found their pockets increasingly under pressure. Social welfare, or poor relief as it was known at the time, became the topic du jour.
Throughout the 1830s, there was a major theoretical debate among political economists, but this involved Ireland only in a peripheral and ultimately extremely harmful fashion. The major focus of controversy centered on how the English poor should be dealt with. Once a solution to English welfare problems had been decided on, attention then turned to Ireland, where a variation of the English system of welfare was applied. The finding that was decided on was irrelevant to the land situation and, when the Famine did strike, the introduction of what was known as the Poor Law to Ireland helped to worsen the horrors of famine. England had had a social welfare system since Elizabethan times, but Ireland had none and the plan imposed on Ireland had no roots in history and was largely irrelevant to Ireland's needs.
The English debate discussed not merely how or whether to assist the poor but laissez-faire, the prevailing doctrine of non-interference with trade. The debate was influenced by widespread Victorian attitudes that poverty was a self-inflicted wound, incurred through bad habits.
Political economists debated earnestly on the morality of aiding the poor because of the consequent risk of stultifying initiative and self-help among the lower orders. The real problem of course was cost, but the protagonists couched their arguments in moralistic terms. More and more as the debate progressed, one finds that the authorities cited by protagonists tended to lace their arguments with a dose of providentialism.
Providence, the divine will, was declared to have a large bearing on the subject, as it generally does when the rich debate the poor, or the strong confront the weak. It was the era in which in America the indigenous Americans were going down before a similar doctrine: Manifest Destiny.
A central figure in the debate was a classical economist. Nassau William Senior, the first professor of political economy at Oxford University, preached, among other things, that it was not the duty of the State to alleviate poverty that came about through the fault of the individual. English poor law owed a great deal to his theories and, during the Famine, Whig apologists would see to it that the idea of Irish culpability for Irish poverty would become widespread among the British public. "Lazy beds" was used as a term of derision to indicate that the Irish even brought their laziness to bear on their potato cultivation. Nassau Senior criticized Irish landlords for neglecting "the duty for the performance of which Providence created [them,] the keeping down population."
A Royal Commission, of which Nassau Senior was a member, issued a report in 1834, which became the New Poor Law Act of 1834. He was a confidant of the prime minister's and cabinet members and through his writings in such journals as The Edinburgh Review became one of the most influential voices raised in the great debate concerning how Irish poverty should be tackled. In England, Nassau Senior is remembered as being a very pleasant man who became a lifelong friend of, among others, Alexis de Tocqueville, who was deeply sympathetic and insightful concerning Irish problems.
In Ireland, however, he is chiefly remembered for a comment passed by the great English educationalist Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol, who said that he had no time for political economists since he overheard Nassau Senior say that even if one million people were to die in the Irish famine it would do no good.
Since the days of the Famine people have debated as to whether Nassau Senior's comments were either taken out of context, or whether they should be regarded as epitomizing official England's lack of feeling for Irish suffering. The latter would appear to be the case. We have the evidence of the prime minister responsible for dealing with the Irish catastrophe, Lord John Russell, to indicate that the million-deaths view was not confined to Nassau Senior but was widespread among his associates.
Many years after the Famine had ended, Prime Minster Russell wrote to his friend Chichester Fortescue MP on the improved state of Ireland at that time, 1868. He said:
The remedies have been due partly to the divine Providence and partly to human exertions. Many years ago the Political Economy Club of London came, as I was told, to a resolution that the emigration of two million of the population of Ireland would be the best cure for her social evils. Famine and emigration have accomplished a task beyond the reach of legislation or government; and Providence has justly afflicted us by the spectacle of the results of the entire dependence on potato cultivation, and by the old fires of disaffection which had been lighted in the hearts of Irishmen, and are now burning with such freshness on the bank of the Hudson and the Potomac.
Russell's comment sheds an important light on British governmental approaches to tackling Irish poverty. The potato was the cause of the Irish disaster, not misgovernment. None of the theorizing economists are remembered for addressing themselves to the ultimately fatal question: What happens if the potato fails? A mountain of corpses was of course the answer, but the public view of them was obscured by the quite obscene use of the concept of providentialism -- divine Providence intervening in Irish affairs to take care of problems created by deficiencies in the Irish character. At the time of the Famine Victorian self-confidence was understandably at a high level. It was the era of the Great Exhibition, that showcase of Victorian advancement.
The African emperor Theodorus exclaimed despairingly but truly: "First come the missionaries then the traders and then the cannon. I prefer to go directly to the cannon." He did, and he died for it. Britain's Navy and Army, often in the wake of her missionaries, were adding fresh territories to the British Empire by the hour, and Victorian accomplishments in agriculture, engineering, and science caused many Britons to see themselves as standing at the apex of the civilized world. The contrast with shabby, inefficient, run-down, Catholic Ireland was stark. The inclination of Protestant England to take a share of blame for this contrast was almost nil.
Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot, published 2012 Palgrave Macmillan reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan
I decided to start doing this Book of the Week feature on the blog after a long period of dissatisfaction with trying to find coverage of the books I was reading and liking. When I was merely linking to other content I found here and there, I was depending on other people to do the work, basically. (Not that running Bookslut isn't enough work already. My lord.) But if no one was really talking about a book I liked, then it didn't get much mention on the blog.
So I decided to pick one good book a week, to talk to the writer, to run an excerpt, to talk a little more about material related to the book. And I've been having a much better time with the blog lately. And while I'm still reluctant to open up comments on here, because you know I have seen the Internet a little bit, I am enjoying the interaction and conversation in my inbox that the Book of the Week interviews have sparked.
I got an email from Adriana Chickesh, after my post about Tim Pat Coogan and Anne Applebaum, about nations being reluctant to look at and deal with the darker parts of their history. She gave me permission to reprint her email below:
The above just resonated so much with me, living in South Africa as we constantly reference the past days of apartheid. This topic has not gone underground and hardly a day will go by without someone mentioning the dark days either through articles or on radio talk shows. South Africa is still a nation hugely affected and haunted by the past. We had the 1994 Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which alleviated the traumas somewhat as it allowed people to openly discuss the brutality of the past and our writers continue to churn out loads on the topic.
If you want to read an interesting book, try Antjie Krog, poet, writer and astute observer. Her book on the TRC is so powerful -– Country of My Skull. Absolutely adore her writing as she manages to get into the skin of the nation, capturing its very essence. A few years back I went to listen to her doing some readings of San poetry which she’d discovered and translated, complete with tongue clicks - you could’ve heard a pin drop in that auditorium as she read.
And so, I totally agree with your statement that nations who deal with their dark pasts seem to be able to move forward; we’re not at that stage yet but when you do actually sit down and listen to the stories being told/written, it dawns on one how cathartic it is to deal with these issues, accept that what was done was both evil and wrong and rather than sweep the facts under the carpet, you begin to look for the truth. And slowly but surely, it dawns on you the vile terror of all that happened, and you see through the Machiavellian distortions of history as promulgated by one race against another; you start to put events into context which you were never able to do so before as there were so few points of reference. It actually comes down to the old saying that the truth will set you free but it’s a long walk to freedom in so many ways…
Amazing isn’t it, that nothing exists in total isolation, and here I am in South Africa, just to totally able to understand exactly what it is Anne Applebaum and yourself are saying. Thank you.
March 5, 2013
Book of the Week: The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy by Tim Pat Coogan
It's happened maybe a dozen times. After a few drinks on trips back home, someone will say, "How can you bear to live in Germany? After what they did?" And my answer never changes. Every nation, when it's gotten a little power, has committed atrocities. America killed off the natives and participated in slavery. Russia effectively had slavery with its peasants right up until the Revolution. Belgium fucked up the Congo, France did horrible things in Algeria. The Turks, the Japanese, the friggin Danes. Anyone who ever looked at a piece of land and thought, "Oh, that looks nice," they most likely committed atrocities to get it.
And I would have more trouble living in a nation that does not talk honestly and openly about the darker moments of its history than somewhere in Germany, where it's entirely reflexive at this point. (Austria, I am looking at you.)
England, it seems to me as someone who has never lived there, has not maintained a dialogue about its colonial horrors. And, in fact, when someone raises their hand to say anything about conditions in Ireland under British rule, the eyes start rolling and people are accused of ingratitude. England's participation in the atrocities of the Amazon during the rubber trade, the Punjab famine, the partition of India, the economic stranglehold in Singapore and Hong Kong... all of this somehow gets a pass. (Not that the States is much better. I'm not sure there will ever be a reckoning there for its hideous involvement in Latin and South America, let alone Iran or a dozen other places.) But there has to be a discussion, or else things stagnate. The same mistakes get made over and over again. And the countries that are forced to carry the burdens of their own history are cripped by the effort.
So talking to Tim Pat Coogan, and the very complicated response he has gotten from his book The Famine Plot has been eye-opening. Coogan takes as his target the direct involvement England had in the catastrophic deaths across Ireland as the potato crop failed in the mid-19th century. From England's decision to remove other food sources, cut off food aid, and then profit from the deaths by reclaiming the land that was vacated, contributed to the deaths or emigration of millions of people. He uses the word "genocide," and he compares the event to the Holocaust. And he has been accused of stirring up bad blood, and of exaggerating the ill intent of the British government. Below we discuss the history he studied for his book, and why the Famine is still causing controversy on the island.
You write in the introduction that there has been some reluctance, even from historians, to really document and acknowledge England’s involvement in Ireland’s famine. There is worry that dredging up the history now will somehow cause tension between Ireland and the Britain, or that it will reawaken the violence from the era of the IRA.
To me, it’s the same as Holocaust deniers. First of all, the historians are somehow inflicted or infected, both, with colonial cringe. That there’s an atmosphere or environment of the Irish peasant, of the agriculture, of the backwards looking religion, lack of education, whatever. The bulk of them are educated in English universities. And they’ll either take their tone of those around them or the conventional wisdom, or they’ll keep their heads down, knowing that in order to advance in the system, preaching Fenianism, or revolution, isn’t the way to go about it.
For a lot of the last century there was a war on in the North, and bad feelings would be reignited in England, and there was a definite effort by the British not to have us talk in any inflammatory effort. They didn’t want to equate it with the Holocaust in any way, and there was a very big controversy in New York about that, when the British ambassador took a stand against the governor of New York, Pataki, because he wanted to introduce it as part of Holocaust Studies in the schools. His wife is apparently from a family that left Ireland during the Famine and very nearly lost members of the family during the transportation. She had the old feelings about it. As a result, they produced a rather sanitized curriculum for the schools. It’s quite adequate, but it’s slightly feet off the ground. There’s no great empathy with the people in it. There’s no feeling that these people were not statistics, they were human beings, and that what happened to them deserves to be told and it should be.
Far from actually stirring up animosity, my findings is that with my English friends... this is my first book in a long time that hasn’t been published by a British publisher, and I’ve been working closely with English society for the last 50 years, so I have a fair idea what they feel, and they really feel knowing about the Famine has helped, because it gives them an idea about why there was extreme feeling and the need to be tolerant and understanding to sort this problem of Ireland out, rather than view them as some politicians did during the time, as just very troublesome people as a troublesome part of their empire, who needed to be suppressed by any means they could get away with. They shouldn’t just be shoveled into mass graves anonymously, but neither should they be used to create other graves, from great hatred. I think you tell the story, if you make the statement of fact, you show where you got it, and you let people decide whether it’s a proper quotation, whether it’s an authentic fact, whether it’s a fair judgment based on the quotation, etc.
It’s not all, by the way, how it might resonate in England. You’ve got to remember that a lot of problem was caused because England had taken away our government at the time. In our lifetime, in the last few years only, due to the prolifigacy of our government, and our bankers, and the corrupt civil servants who didn’t monitor what was happening or didn’t do anything about if they did, we’ve again lost our sovereignty. Ireland can’t spend a dime without the say-so of the IMF. We have legislation, insolvency legislation, and it lays down criteria for what you can spend on the family. There are lessons to be learned from the Famine. This thing, too, that was developed during the Famine and continues, “learned helplessness.” There’s nothing you can do, so you just submit. Well, the combination of the effects of the Famine and the authoritarian religion we had, two colonial structures we had, Mother England and Mother Church, it’s left us subject to authority. And very reluctant to take stands or have self-belief. As a result, no one is doing anything about the terrible crisis. No banker has gone to jail yet in the six years, and that says a lot.
Do you think there are links between the crises then and now?
Ireland has always been a bit iffy about suicide statistics, knowing the Church’s attitude to suicide, they always underplay the statistics. It was always fairly high. Now we know, or I know through the largest cemetery in Dublin, Irish suicides currently are 50% over what they were a few years ago. There are actual suicide patrols on the banks of the River Shannon, and if they see someone who looks a bit down they have a chat and see if there’s anything they can do for them. Talk them out of it. There’s huge unemployment, and there’s dreadful emigration, of the brightest and the best. I’m all in favor of emigration, I think especially when you live on a small island, go abroad for a few years to better yourself, but come back if you want to. The Irish have a great pull to the homeland, akin to the Israelis and Palestine. But they’re being shoved out of the country after years of investment by the state from schools and universities. The Famine has some relevance to that. I think the bell doesn’t only toll for Anglo-Irish relationships, it tolls for relations between Ireland and the world.
But to go back to your earlier thing, with the historians, one of the great, I don’t know how you’d define it, pro-British? Or would never say the British were to blame or that it was in any way deliberate, her name is Mary Daly, she’s professor emeritus at the moment, University College Dublin. I was debating with her on a radio program lately, and the issue of Tony Blair apologizing [for Britain’s involvement in the Famine] came up, and she said she was opposed to it, she didn’t think he should have apologized. I found that rather shocking. She said, they’re all dead. It’s one thing to apologize for Bloody Sunday, when the relatives were all still alive and it would give them some satisfaction, and I don’t think it’s genocide. In her own writings, remember the potato first failed in 1845, and the first government under Robert Peel managed to deal with it without any dead because they imported corn. The corn laws were in law then. And Peel fought one of the greatest legislative battles to get it done. There wasn’t starvation. After that, you start dating the Famine from ‘46 on, and people were dying from hunger well into the next decade. This woman, Daly, said in one of her books, that after 1847 the British washed their hands of Famine relief. And yet having said that, she would then argue that it wasn’t deliberate, that it wasn’t genocide. Some of the biggest landlords of the time were in the Cabinet, and they thought this was a perfect way to clear their land. And there are quotations from the civil servants in charge of it was that the thing to do was to make the holdings bigger so you could have cattle on the land, and not just a few acres to farm potatoes and father more children, because that was the only form of recreation they had.
The thing is as clear as a pikestaff, but they take the most extraordinary efforts to deny that. Peter Gray says in his book that the proof it was not genocide lay in the fact that neither de Valera nor Charles Wood show any evidence of a troubled conscience. And if they’d done wrong, they would have been troubled. Cromwell! He was never troubled in his conscious. He used to thank God if he could bump off a few hundred Papists in the course of his day.
There is a modern attempt being made... Fordham University is holding a tribunal to try the issues, and you vote what you think, pro or con. The tribune will be comprised of actual judges from our high court here. It’s a serious thing, you know? But they don’t like it being investigated. This fella Gray is at Ulster Queens University called it a stunt. Somehow this was a judgment of God against the Papists for their laziness. This was Providence!
It seems like in the news there’s more about the Magdalene laundries and the worst doings of the Catholic Church and the Christian Brothers. Do you think Ireland is becoming more willing to examine the darker parts of its past?
By the way, I think that’s a great word you used there, “darker,” because who profited from the larger holdings [after the Famine]? The Irish. Who bought the land? They did. There was that Holocaust guilt. The survivors don’t talk about it. There’s a good bit of that in Ireland, it’s hard to get at the facts. I think they’re slowly coming around. I touched a nerve with the book, there’s no doubt about it. The Unionists have been absolutely intemperate and ad hominem in their criticism of the book.
I was at a program with the Unionists a while ago, and his point of attack on me was for the myth of the coffin ships. He said there were no coffin ships. And yet’s accepted even by the most obliging people that the deaths on those ships from fever... The ships were designed for the timber trade, and they were sent over to Ireland from the New World to England with the timber. And they suddenly discovered they had a very profitable form of ballast on the way home. These starving Irish. They hadn’t much to pay, but it added up. A lot of money was made. The ships had never been designed to carry people, so the deaths from disease and lack of hygiene was awful. People came aboard with cholera or typhus. The essence of those diseases is that you keep people apart, but if you cram a few hundred of them into the hold of a ship never designed to carry people, you’re lucky if you get half of them alive when you get home. And they sank! And it’s all documented. And this guy, who’s actually a lecturer and teaches history, he solemnly said there were no coffin ships. When you’re in that kind of debate, it’s not even right to call it a debate, you just state your case and leave it. You’re not going to get the other guy to come around to your position, and you’re not going to agree with him.
There is something about England that it hasn’t really dealt with its colonial past, and as a former colony, you are not allowed to lodge a complaint, right? There’s something of an eye roll in the reaction, that you’re whining. And yet if you look at the state that England left Africa, that it left India, that it left Ireland, and you’re not allowed to accuse them of anything in regular discourse or debate, it’s baffling.
You made an excellent comparison there. Some wonderful books about India. Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer deals with the partition of India.
In any event, there was the assassination of Louis Mountbatten, when he was on vacation in Ireland. He used to come there and holiday every year. When he was blown up, the IRA justified it in the statement they issued, as, “We remembered the Famine.” Empire came home to roost in that case. Not that you couldn’t be sympathetic about Mountbatten, though, at that age it was a terrible thing to do. And the old ladies were blown up as well. It was a bad show as the English would say.
And Indian Summer is a wonderful thing. The Famine in the Punjab, nobody should talk about the Irish famine without seeing what they did in the Punjab. Just around the time as the other famine, the 1850s. It was the same colonial mindset. Wogs, lesser breeds without the law, as Kipling said. We’re all wogs.
March 4, 2013
There are still institutions that exist from the past. The way the prison system works; the way the judicial system works; the role of the political police, which is in some ways unchanged for the last 30-40 years. Its power goes up and down but it is always there. And the fact that Russians don't feel more sensitive about these institutions, that they don't feel a deeper desire to reform them and change them, I think, is partly because they haven’t dwelled on, thought about, or absorbed the lessons of Soviet history.
Anne Applebaum: still basically the best.
Did you know she wrote a cookbook? She did. From a Polish Country House Kitchen, and when I saw it I was pretty sure it was a different Anne Applebaum, but it's the same person. The same person who wrote Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. And that means she is to blame for my apartment currently smelling like sauerkraut, after I made her Hunter's Stew, which required boiling sauerkraut for like five days, and no amount of airing out the apartment or pouring baking soda on things will clean that up, that smell pervades.
It seems like the running theme in my conversations these days is, how to deal with countries' dark pasts? In reading Tim Pat Coogan's The Famine Plot, it was surprising how reluctant historians have been to mention England's involvement in the slaughterhouse that was Ireland in the 19th century. And when I talked to Coogan about this, and he compared the lack of famine relief, the plunder of land and resources from the suddenly depopulated land, the systematic way England allowed the Irish to die off in huge numbers, to the Holocaust, I had a moment of resistance. (More on this conversation soon.) But the more we talked, the more appropriate it seemed, and I wondered if the only reason I resisted the comparison is because England has never really been fully shamed for its colonial horrors. And has never seemed to really come to terms with it themselves.
Versus living in Germany, where all they do these days is talk about the Holocaust. (I've written about this before.) But nations that have dealt with their dark pasts seem to have an easier time with moving forward. It almost seems to work on a psychological level.
And so Applebaum's interview about Russia's inability to fully deal with the Stalin years is very interesting. And reading it, I'm reminded why she must have done the Polish cookbook. Reading and studying all of those horrors, it would so quickly send someone to the pierogi stash. I imagine writing about pierogi, rather than genocide for once, must have been a treat.
Maria Luisa Bombal, around the time she was killing it with "House of Mist"
In the course of Josh Zajdman's "Forgotten Twentieth Century" column, he's re-introduced us to Djuna Barnes, defended the sexual privacy of Henry James, reminded us that Tolkien was not the undefeated champion of high fantasy, and, frankly, hurt my bank account a little as I was tempted again and again by the authors he dug up.
Sadly, Zajdman will be ending the column with this new issue. He'll be continuing as a contributor, but not as the writer of this specific column.
Which is not to say the work of the column is finished. There are so many great writers of the 20th century who have been lost to time, to jealous guarding of the canon, to political and racial and sexual boundaries. Who's going to write about the great Hungarians, writing while trapped behind the Iron Curtain, their books only leaking out in the last few decades? Who's going to write about the gay writers, so unfashionable for a while and having to disguise their writing and the objects of affection? Who's going to write about the female Beats who yes absolutely did exist?
Oh right, that is going to have to be you.
We are now taking applications for our new Forgotten Twentieth Century columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your dreamy wishlist of subjects, along with a writing sample.
And, as a reminder: We are always, always open to hearing column pitches. If you have an idea, related to the 20th century or not, please write to me and let me know.
March 1, 2013
Diana Vreeland, looking shockingly better than I ever do when I travel
I have some travel left to do to finish up the book. Which means it is time to shutter the Berlin apartment for a while.
Unless a kind reader out there is interested in heading to Berlin for a jaunt, a research trip, or perhaps a New York Times opinion piece about how there is so much partying to do in this city you can't possibly get any work done? Be a part of history by helping me with my book! And by history I of course mean that it will be something that will one day have happened in the past. Not that it was terribly important.
I am also available for an apartment swap, if you happen to own property in the places I need to be:
St. Petersburg, Russia
and in April, for personal reasons, either a place in Chicago or in New York would be amazing.
Anyway, email me if interested, and I can send you the details. My books could use a guardian while I'm out doing... things. Who knows what I am doing.