January 30, 2014
Image: And We Are Trying by Nicholas Roerich
"I would say that behind all of my ideas... is the freedom of choice. I feel that the freedom of choice is the very essence of life. We have one great gift from God and this is to choose. And we always indulge in choosing. If we pay attention to one thing, we have chosen to pay attention to it. If we love somebody, we have chosen this person for love. This is in every act of humanity. To me, God is freedom. And nature, to me, is necessity... When people leave free choice, the demons appear. The demons are in a way the dark side of nature which we choose. If we stop completely believing in our power, then other powers can come upon us. In other words, the demon to me is a negative side of free choice. Demons come when people resign themselves, when people say to themselves, "I'm not going to make any choices anymore. I will just let the powers work for themselves." It is then that the demon is bound to appear. The danger is always there -- like a medical doctor who will tell you that the microbes are always there in your mouth and in your stomach, and if you become weak, they begin to multiply and become very strong... Just as we are medically surrounded by dangerous microbes, so our spirit has always to fight melancholy and disbelief and viciousness and cruelty and all kinds of things."
Interviewer: "Why melancholy?"
"Oh, but the very essence of demons is melancholy. Because it's the very opposite of hope. I have sympathy for everyone who suffers and lives. Because we are all living in a great, great struggle, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we realize it. This is a very difficult thing -- we very often say how difficult life is... We have to go through this kind of struggle. In a way, the hope is that life does not last forever, the crisis does not last forever, and behind all this crisis, behind all this darkness, there is a great light. We have to struggle, but we are not lost."
-- Isaac Beshevis Singer, in an interview with Parabola Magazine
January 29, 2014
What We're Reading
Aegypt by John Crowley
I’m reading John Crowley’s 1987 novel Aegypt, which was later reissued under Crowley’s preferred title, The Solitudes. I don’t know how many references it takes to get me to track down a book, but over the past few years Aegypt hit the magic number, coming up in nearly every book of contemporary fantasy criticism I picked up.
The novel, and the series of which it is the first volume, is the story of a question: what if there was another history of the world? Our protagonist and guide is Pierce Moffett, an out-of-work historian who has been haunted by this question since childhood. Storylines following Pierce and friends in the 1970s alternate with storylines following historical figures such as John Dee, an Elizabethan alchemist, and Giordano Bruno, a Dominican monk. Pierce thinks that these historical figures may have lived at a cusp in history, when the world ceased to be one way and became another, just as the novel hints that he, too, might be living at such a turning point.
Ultimately, this is a novel of possibility rather than certainty, in which magic may or may not exist, or may or may not have existed once upon a time. The pages flicker between yes and no, engaging with questions of history, knowledge, and the stories we tell. It’s a heady book and will leave you drunk on ideas. Read it with a glass of your favorite liquid.
January 28, 2014
Image: Solar Megalomania by Leonora Carrington
Some notes on The Daphne Award:
- We've received emails about including Salinger's Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, An Introduction and The Feminine Mystique on our longlist, but we've already considered and rejected both. I will let the chair of our fiction prize talk about the Salinger exclusion when he has a chance, but the basic idea is that it's mediocre Salinger. As for The Feminine Mystique -- one could go on at length about this particular topic. Maybe the short version would be, this book is Solidarity Is For White Upper Middle Class Women. There were some reappraisals for the anniversary last year, when a lot of people got embarrassed and remembered it's actually pretty racist and classist and clueless that there are women who are not, say, the equivalent of the wives of John Updike characters. Plus, it's pretty horridly written. So. It has been considered, I am the chair of the nonfiction prize, and I am rejecting it.
-- There are some men who are having a hard time. There are some men who feel like dealing with the entry of minorities and women into their consciousness is enough, it's a lot to ask for, even that, and so having women rewrite the historical record and say that maybe the white men who won all of the awards weren't actually the best and brightest the literary world had to offer, that is just a step too far. Let us have that, that for a while we were the best at everything, they write to me. I read some of these emails to my father over the phone and he laughed and laughed.
-- Because I had just gotten through dealing with some of those emails, when I received interview questions from Moby Lives, I did not quite notice that the first question was meant to be tongue in cheek: "The Updike novel is about American male frustration. As an American male I have to say, that sounds pretty great, and definitely something we don’t see celebrated enough in our literature. Why do you think it’s undeserving?" I mean, Jesus Christ. But Moby Lives has a nice little piece about the Daphne Awards, and I explain myself a bit more:
"We revisit the prizes because as writers, prizes matter. I know we are all supposed to be just doing our good work, totally divorced from outside reinforcement like sales rankings and prizes and grants, but we like a little reinforcement. We like a little recognition. Otherwise, you know, despair, alcohol, suicide, or we start writing listicles for some aggregate website because at least then we can get paid."
-- Yes, we are doing this again next year, if all goes well, because I checked out the books published in 1964 and thought, look at all the wonderful books I'll have an excuse to read!
-- We'll be throwing a party in Chicago next month, to announce the short list, introduce the judges, read from the nominees, and get very 1960s with food and cocktails. Stay tuned for details.
-- The Daphne because Daphne = Laurel. Also a secret reason. It's a secret.
January 27, 2014
Image: Bernini's Apollo & Daphne
If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book. Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren't that good.
Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards, which ugh, decided that John Updike's The Centaur was totally the best book of that year.
[One of our Founding Members (we need to call it that for the historians of the future that will look back on this important moment) has nicknamed the award The Corrections, which is funny to me on so many levels. We must take back the word "Corrections" from our oppressor, Jonathan Franzen! Reclaim its use!]
We need your help, though, to flesh out the nominees for the Best Books of 1963. We have been frustrated in our efforts to find a comprehensive list of books published in 1963, most of the online lists have listed only or mostly American and British books, and there have been some conflicting publishing dates on some of our books. We are asking for fact-checkers and submissions for nominees. Nominate the best books of 1963 by emailing me.
Our list so far:
updated to add:
Frost by Thomas Bernhard
The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Boll
Iron Earth, Copper Sky by Yasar Kemal
Passport to Eternity by JG Ballard
Golden Fruits by Nathalie Sarraute
Divided Heaven by Christa Wolf
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Who Are You? by Anna Kavan
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
City of Night by John Rechy
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre
The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung
The Words by Jean Paul Sartre
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford
Six Easy Pieces by Richard P. Feynman
Destruction of Dresden by David Irving
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
updated to add:
Flight to Africa by Austin Clarke
Burning Perch by Louis MacNeice
Reality Sandwiches by Allen Ginsburg
73 Poems by e e cummings
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Updated to add:
Email us to let us know what we are forgetting.
January 23, 2014Image: Crescent Moon by Uche Okeke
Most of my tarot clients are writers, and the same quandary has been coming up again and again: they feel like failures. Despite the very good writing they are doing, despite their ability to build a loyal audience. All of the external markers a contemporary writer is supposed to acquire to display success -- the advance, the flashy agent, the New York publisher -- that's not there, and so they don't know how to look at what they have and feel good about it.
And you would think this would be an easy problem to solve, but it's not. If you accidentally give birth to a baby tiger instead of a baby human, you'd maybe love it and care for it, but probably you would scream and run around yelling TIGER and trip on something and fall down and hit your head. If you are collecting things that are suitable to you and good for you, but the rest of the world -- in the form of your peers, the literary community, the people on your television and in your music -- is saying, these are not things of value, it's so much more difficult than you would think to say, actually, my baby tiger is fierce, let's fuck some shit up.
It requires a change of consciousness. It requires altering your entire value system. It requires an ability to shut out other people's invasive ideas about what you should be doing. And that is the part of Blood of the Earth that I connected with most deeply, this idea that there are other ways to live one's life, but the biggest barrier to that is this very narrow cultural idea of what makes a life successful or good. And that is what has to change in order to make lasting changes, to really confront the ugliness of the way we are living now with our wastefulness and "well, we're going down anyway, may as well enjoy the ride" attitude. It's not a change of politicians that we need, and it's not another shocking expose of the evil being done in the name of oil.
I mentioned to a group of people that I was interviewing you, and I said the words "peak oil" and a guy there just reflexively spat out the word "fusion." I don't think he even knows what the word might mean entirely, but it was such a strange illustration of what you write about in the book, the irrational belief that something is going to take the place of oil, or that we will never run out of oil.
Utterly typical. It's basically an incantation; he's invoking the fusion spirits to take away the evil influence of the accursed words "peak oil." There are plenty of incantations like that -- the one problem being that peak oil isn't a supernatural force and can't be made to flee back to the underworld by the right set of magic words.
Anyway, somewhat related to that, is this idea you present that we have imbued things like a big house in the suburbs with magical qualities, that it is a symbol of success without being really a good thing to achieve, because it's inconveniently located and separates you out from the rest of humanity. I have talked to a lot of women writers lately who are needing to redefine "success" for themselves and are lost about how to do it. They are very skilled, intelligent writers, they have a small, passionate following, but they do not get those external markers of success (the big book advance, the New York Times style section feature) and so they feel like failures. So, how does one go about emptying out these cultured ideas of success and reinstall it with something more authentic, or how does one provide an example of that to others?
That's an explosive question, because it requires grappling with the ways that our society has taught us to anchor our sense of self and self-worth on how enthusiastically we cooperate in our own exploitation.
The exterior marks of success you've named -- the big advance, the NYT book review, etc. -- are the exact equivalent of the little light bulbs that go on when the rat in the Skinner box pushes down the little lever. The rat has been conditioned to react to the light, and so it keeps on pushing the lever over and over again. If the psychologist knows his stuff, the light only goes on now and then, at random -- that makes the rat frantic, and keeps it pushing the lever all the more, to the point that it doesn't even notice whether the door to the cage is open or not.
If the rat's ever going to do anything more useful than pressing frantically on a lever, and feeling like a failure because the light just won't go on, it needs to stop and think: what am I actually trying to achieve? What does it actually mean when the light goes on, and how does that relate to the things that matter to me? Those are also the questions that people need to ask these days when it comes to the flashing lights of "success" as defined for us by the conventional wisdom -- that is to say, by the media and the people who pay the media's bills.
This is especially hard for women these days, because of the way that the feminist movement was derailed into harmlessness in the 1970s and 1980s. Before then, some of the more thoughtful feminists were asking hard questions about the broader system of which social and economic biases against women played a part. I'm sorry to say that their voices were marginalized in favor of a simplistic view that identified "what men have" as liberation, and focused on getting that without asking any questions about it. As a result, a great many American women gave up a life in which their worth was defined by husbands, children, and domestic culture, in order to embrace a life in which their worth is defined by bosses, coworkers, and corporate culture -- which is arguably not much of an improvement.
The crucial point I'd encourage those writers to consider is this: the system doles out its favors to those who advance its interests and support its agenda. That's what the big advances and the NYT reviews are: payoffs for those who do as they're told.
So what's the alternative? The usual option, and it's quite a workable one, is for a group of people who are tired of the manipulative nature of "success" as defined by their society to redefine it themselves, for their own benefit. That's what normally happens in a creative subculture -- a group of people who want to do something the mainstream doesn't support do it anyway, and give each other the personal and emotional support they need to keep going. Read up on the history of any avant-garde movement in any of the arts that wasn't just a marketing scheme, and that's how it gets going -- and if it's doing something worthwhile, the mainstream eventually has to come to terms with it.
There's another alternative, but it's a good deal harder. That's the alternative of learning how to take conscious control over the little internal buttons that keep us, like all other social primates, dependent for our emotional well-being on the responses of others. Social animals need those buttons; it's by way of them that the herd, the flock, or the avant-garde literary movement maintain the ability to work together for common goals and against common dangers. The issue here is simply that people and institutions that don't have our best interests in mind have gotten very good at manipulating those buttons, and so there's much to be gained by learning how to shut them off or redirect them at need.
That's vastly more difficult, though, than finding or creating a congenial subculture in which those buttons can get pushed in constructive ways. It requires the ability to cause change in consciousness in accordance with will -- that is to say, magic.
January 22, 2014
Image: Pythia by Michelangelo
In the 1950s, a Chicago housewife had a vision of a coming flood. It would be devastating, it would destroy all that we knew of Earth. And yet, there was hope. Aliens from another world would come down and save the chosen few, and you could become one if you followed her instructions from the messages she was receiving. She even set a date for the coming. The end was nigh.
When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter is a still amazing book about the cult, why people would believe in and cheer on the end of the world, and what happens when the end of the world does not come. When things get difficult, when change and adaptation is required, and certainly the post-WWII world required adaptation and change, some people would feel more comfortable with the entire world just coming to a close.
So here we are in another state of change and adaptation, and here we are, cheering on the end of the world. And here we are, continuing our conversation with John Michael Greer, author of The Blood of the Earth, discussing end days, the idea of progress used as a religion, and the intellectual "purity" of atheism. You can read the beginning of our conversation here.
The cynical counter-argument is that people insisting we stay with fossil fuels know (either unconsciously or not) that we are in the end days for oil, but they believe in the coming apocalypse or don't really care about future generations. When liberals talk about it, it is often under the heading of, well, they are trying to bring about the end of the world anyway, that's why they're messing around in the Middle East. And you talk about that, too, with the UFO cult in the 1950s who thought that aliens were going to save a select few. So we have either blind adherence to something that's not working, or wild jumps to "we are going to make jet fuel out of recycled styrofoam cups and we'll have a smooth transition, with no inconveniences whatsoever." Where did this blind belief in progress come from?
It's a complicated thing. The event that Nietzsche called "the death of God" -- less metaphorically, the collapse of Christian faith as a living factor in the lives and psyches of most people in Europe and the European diaspora -- left an immense void in our collective life, and a great many people went looking for some secular equivalent of religion in order to fill that void. Over the last century or so, faith in progress has become the most popular replacement for religion, and believers in progress cling to it as unquestioningly as believers in other religions cling to the dogmas of their faiths.
The irony, and it's as rich as it is bitter, is that the popular faith in progress has become all the more passionate and unquestioning as progress itself has slowed to a crawl and, in many contexts, shifted into reverse. A growing number of studies have shown that, despite all the current rhetoric about endlessly accelerating technological progress, the rate at which really significant new discoveries are being made and implemented has been declining steadily since the 1880s, and let's not even talk about the rhetoric of moral progress that used to feature so heavily in the rhetoric of believers in progress back in the day. These days, progress in a handful of fields is used to cover up the steady decline in most others; it's indicative that the media is full of glib chatter about the latest steps toward space tourism for the very rich at a time when many rural counties in the US are letting their road systems go back to gravel because they can't afford asphalt for repaving any more.
That hard reality, though, is nowhere acknowledged in the public rhetoric of our time. In fact, the more intense the cognitive dissonance that surrounds the mythology of progress, the more dogmatically people insist on the inevitability and beneficence of progress. It's a phenomenon much studied by social psychologists: it's when a belief system is being challenged by events that its believers become most rigid about their belief, most fixated on the insistence that their beliefs must be absolutely true. There's always an emotional cost in admitting that you're wrong; if the wrong belief has motivated bad decisions, the emotional cost goes up; if those bad decisions amount to flushing your future down the drain, and your children's and grandchildren's future along with it, letting go of the belief system can be unbearable even if the alternative is imminent disaster.
Regarding the myth of progress and the death of religion, now we're getting into
the space that really drew me in with your book, which is another mistaken idea
we have in contemporary society that atheism is somehow intellectual purity. That
we can conquer these unrational or pre-rational or I don't know what term to use
here, parts of ourselves, through logic and that is just fine. All we need is science!
But if you read these atheist evangelicals, the logic and the intelligence is very
shallow. And as you said, they are still proselytizing.
Indeed they are, and the fact that they're doing so shows that they're still subservient to the religious consciousness they think they've thrown off. What's the most basic framing belief of modern Christianity? That your personal opinions about the existence and nature of God are the most important thing in the world.
That framing belief isn't that common among the world's religions. In many faiths, what matters is not what opinions you hold, but what ceremonies you practice or have taken part in, what taboos and customs you practice as part of your daily life, or what have you. Classical Pagan spirituality is a good example: of twenty people who took part in a sacrifice to Jupiter in ancient Rome, no two of them might have had the same opinion about what Jupiter was, what his relationship was to the offering, and so on -- but they would have agreed that the sacrificial ritual had to be done just so!
Contemporary atheism remains stuck in a Christian mindset, in which proclaiming the gospel of No God, convincing everyone else that they have to believe the same thing you do, and denouncing those who disagree with you as the source of all evil in the world all seem to make sense. It seems like intellectual purity to so many people these days because it plays along with these firmly established religious modes of thought and action.
And what you argue in your book is that the point of magic or religion or ritual practice is helping to separate or give space to these two different realms. And not confuse an emotional or symbolic reaction with a logical one. Or not go after one with the wrong tool. I am explaining it poorly. Because mostly what we see these days is this mixing -- people bringing their religion into their logic, their politics, their thought process, or people insisting they are being logical when actually they are treating science like a god. I'm not sure I have a question here, just something I wanted to acknowledge, because I have not necessarily seen such a clear explanation of this particular issue before.
Thank you! One of the great achievements of the Enlightenment is precisely the recognition that human life falls more or less naturally into several different and incommensurable spheres, which have -- and need to be allowed to have -- their own standards and their own measures of authority. Politics is one of those spheres; science is another; religion is another; the arts are another, and so on. The point that so many people are doing their level best to forget these days is that expertise in one of these spheres does not grant authority in a different sphere.
Many of us have figured out, for example, that when a political official tries to tell us what art and music we ought to enjoy, that's an abuse of authority, because it crosses the boundary between the sphere of politics and that of the arts. Many of us -- though not all -- have grasped, similarly, that a religious leader who tries to tell people how to vote, or makes pronouncements about scientific questions, is also abusing his authority. One of these days we may even figure out that when a distinguished scientist tries to make blanket statements about religion, that, too, is an abuse of authority.
Those separate spheres all intersect in one place, which is the individual. You yourself have every right to decide whether you're going to let one of those spheres influence another, but it's central to the heritage of the Enlightenment that nobody, anywhere, has the right to make that decision for you. That freedom -- the freedom to bring the many separate spheres of human life into a unity that makes sense to you, whether it makes sense to anyone else -- is the thing that ideologues by and large can't stand; one result of that is that you can judge just how abusive an ideology is likely to be by seeing just how often it attempts to use criteria from one sphere to impose a uniform order on a different sphere.
That's also why ideologues of every kind tend to froth at the mouth whenever magic enters the picture. Magic is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will; put another way, it's the art and science of opening up an inner space where you can choose your own states and conditions of consciousness, rather than having them forced on you by culture, religion, government, or what have you; and those who practice it seriously rarely have any time for fist-pounding zealots of any stripe who try to claim the right to tell everybody else what to do.
January 20, 2014
Image: Das neue Strahlen from Jugend 1896
Bookslut’s interview with Kelley Osgood on her book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, provides some fascinating, intelligent viewpoints on anorexia and the confessional memoir. Says Osgood:
"I went out for drinks with this psychologist recently who treats young women with eating disorders. She was saying that she has really shied away from the "eating disorder specialist" label and that community -- because there is a community built around it. People make their living off of it. I asked her the same thing: so what's the alternative? She felt that it is better to focus more on the fact that it's a coping mechanism, the same way that alcoholism and narcotics abuse are coping mechanisms. The difference is to take this idea off the pedestal -- that you're special and different because you've developed this particular problem. You're really not."
For further related reading, here are a few essays:
“Feast of Burden” - Jessica Hester | Bitch Magazine
In this brief look at the “feeding porn” phenomenon, Jessica Hester examines the links between food and sexuality, and female desire and transgression.
“Some girls want out” - Hilary Mantel | London Review of Books
Hilary Mantel, looking at historical examples of saintly female masochism, draws connections between holy and contemporary anorexia.
“But Enough About Me” - Daniel Mendelsohn | The New Yorker
Daniel Mendelsohn reflects on the memoir form in this brief history of the genre.
January 17, 2014
A bunch of people got into a big room and led by a perky woman they all chanted "Drill Baby Drill." And what political commentators heard as campaign slogans, what liberals heard as cynical disregard for the environment, John Michael Greer heard as incantation. An incantation to ward off fear, to ward off the knowledge that our days of endless cheap energy is coming to an end. This is magical thinking, this belief that demand will somehow create supply.
The Blood of the Earth is not your typical We Must Save the Planet greenie book that brings out all of your hopelessness and despair, and then tells you you can save the earth and all of its animals by bringing your own bag to the grocery store and swapping out your light bulbs. It is not an expose into the workings of the oil companies, with all of their scheming and corruption, that will horrify you and then you can put aside and go along with your day as usual. It is not thinly veiled propaganda for wind turbines or sea algae farms or solar panneling the Sahara. It is about how our belief in the myth of progress has brought us to this point, and how only with a change of consciousness can we hope to transition to what Greer refers to as the deindustrial age.
Which means that it is inspiring rather than depressing, and it is provocative rather than reinforcing what you already know about the men who run our economy.
This is the first part of my conversation with John Michael Greer, and the whole of it covers topics like how to redefine success, the sources of the myth of progress, and the irrationality of rational and economic thought.
Can you quickly define "peak oil" for those who might not be familiar?
It's shorthand for "peak rate of global conventional petroleum production." From the beginning of commercial petroleum production until 2005, annual production of ordinary crude oil trended upwards most of the time, with brief exceptions due to wars, economic crises, and most recently the oil crises of the 1970s.
Since 2005, production of ordinary crude has trended down, and the oil industry has struggled to make up the difference with tar sand extractives, natural gas liquids, ethanol, biodiesel: you name it, if it can be poured into a tank and burnt, they're using it. What makes this a problem is that all these substitutes for ordinary crude oil cost much more to extract and process -- more money, and far more critically, more energy. An increasing fraction of world energy production is having to be rolled back into producing energy, leaving less energy for all other purposes.
This is what peak oil analysts call the "net energy crunch." Net energy? That's to energy what profit is to a business: you take the total output of energy production, subtract the amount of energy you have to roll back into producing the energy in the first place, and what's left is your net energy. Ordinary crude oil has a net energy yield of up to 200 times input; most of the substitutes have net energy in single digits, and some proposed alternatives take more energy to extract than you get from burning them. Net energy, not total output, is what runs an industrial economy -- and the total net energy from all sources is dropping fast.
Your section on the irrational "economic thinking" reminded me of these experiments they did with people who had catastrophic injuries to the right hemisphere of their brain, leaving them with only the left, rational and logical to be reductive, hemisphere. They presented them with a logic puzzle:
a. Porcupines live in trees
b. Monkeys live in trees
c. Porcupines are a kind of monkey
and the patient could not work a way around it. The logical part of the brain can fixate, and they said the final statement had to be true if the first two lines were facts. (Porcupines don't live in trees, but whatever.) Do you think these logical loops, this is what is going on with the economists and Drill Baby Drill people? If they have already accepted that infinite progress is possible, then it has to follow that an infinite supply of oil is available?
Well, I don't think that economists and Sarah Palin supporters all suffer from brain damage, but it's true that the kind of thinking you've outlined is embarrassingly close to the reasoning that guides the energy policy of the world's major industrial nations these days! I think, though, that what drives people to insist that there's got to be limitless energy resources because we want them so badly is a belief system so deeply ingrained in today's society, and so completely taken on faith, that we might as well call it a religion.
That belief system is faith in progress. Most people in the industrial world believe in progress the way that peasants in the Middle Ages believed in the wonder-working bones of the local saint. It's an unquestioned truism in contemporary culture that newer technologies are by definition better than older ones, that old beliefs are disproved by the mere passage of time, and that the future ahead of us will inevitably be like the present, but even more so. For all practical purposes, belief in progress is the established religion of the modern world, with its own mythology -- think of all the stories you got in school about brilliant thinkers single-handedly overturning the superstitious nonsense of the past -- and its own lab-coated priesthood.
Most people these days literally can't think outside the box of progress. That's why the only alternative to the endless continuation of business as usual that has any kind of public presence these days is apocalypse -- some sudden catastrophe gaudy enough to overwhelm the otherwise unstoppable force of progress. The faith in apocalypse is simply the flipside of the faith in progress -- instead of a bigger, better, brighter future, we get a bigger, better, brighter cataclysm. Suggest that the future ahead of us might not be either of those hackneyed stereotypes, and you can count on hearing the echoing bang of minds slamming shut.
January 16, 2014
Charles and I were asked to participate in a What's On Your Nightstand? feature for a website that will go unnamed. They declined to use our submissions. Lots of soul searching about why went on. Too much Romanian philosophy? Were our nightstands not stylish enough? Could it possibly be that they figured out we completely staged the whole thing, neither of us keeping books on our nightstands? (My books are in my bed, thank you very much. Unless there's a gentleman in there, in which case then they go onto the floor.)
But our nightstands will not be denied! Or something. Below here are the rejected submissions for What Is On Your Nightstand (Now Totally Outdated).
from the warring factions by Ammiel Alcalav
I like having a lot of books I can dip in and out of, without needing to remember exactly where I am in the book, where I can sort of flip around and move from book to book. This is a work of prose poetry, by a brilliant and often overlooked poet.
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro
But as much as I like small fragmented books, it's nice to have something very gripping and propulsive and engaging. This is a very strange Argentine novel, sort of about the Maldives and Falkland Island battles, but with a lot of Philip K. Dick-inflected SF touches and absurdity. It is good for late night insomnia, you don't painfully notice every minute ticking by that you're not sleeping soundly.
A Short History of Decay by EM Cioran
Cioran is a Romanian philosopher who believes that the greatest tragedy to befall man is to exist at all. His writing draws blood. You can read one small section and then need to put it down for a week to recover. But he is perhaps the philosopher I turn to the most, barring William James. Cioran's negativity balances James's positivity very nicely.
Gilgi by Irmgard Keun
Just came in the mail, a novel by one of my favorite novelists. She lived in Germany before (and during and after) the war, and set her novels in these madcap Weimar spaces. But instead of all being glamour and darkness, it's incredibly politically insightful. I haven't started this one yet, something to look forward to after The Islands.
The Stinging Fly issue 23
Irish literary journal. They are essential.
Vintage Attraction by Charles Blackstone
xoxo -- I like to have it close as I'm writing my own book, to remember that I can do whatever I want with it.
The Blood of the Earth by John Michael Greer
Scarlet Imprint is a beautiful little publisher in London, they make the most incredible books. This is nonfiction, about living in a work with "peak oil," meaning of course that the world is essentially going to have to change, and quickly. It's kind of shattering, about what it's like to live at the end of one particular world, unsure what comes next. I've only just dipped into this, but I was stunned at how furious and immediate it is.
Memos by Diana Vreeland
Diana Vreeland is my spirit animal.
If There Is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova is at the top of my stack. I'm not a big poetry reader, but the pug likes to listen to poems sometimes. They're not long—one hundred poems in the same number of pages—and very accessible. Each conjures a fully realized world.
Then there's Couples by John Updike. I mean, come on, where else but the bedroom? Seriously, though, if I want to get inspired for a day of writing (and writing intelligently and beautifully), there's no better stylistic catalyst than an Updike novel.
The Atheist's Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg is useful for analyzing dreams, in a metaphoric sense. (Is that meta-dream analysis?) I've not read this entire book (is that bad to admit?), but I do like to go into it from time to time.
A clip-on-book reading light since the built-in bedside lamp never worked, and since I have yet to read anything in bed that illuminates itself (literally).
"I Speak for Roma" sherry ad. Roma was the Yellowtail of the 1940s through the 70s, but their manufacturer, Schenley, was actually a huge innovator. At one point they offered 34 different kinds of wine, including some that are even relatively obscure today, like Hungarian Tokai. I framed this ad to hang in my kitchen at one point, but have since replaced it with a promotional piece from a coffee roaster here in Chicago I love.
Coffee mug. Coffee is the essential reading companion, regardless of temperature. (I begin with hot coffee in the morning, but will still drink whatever's leftover in the mug if I'm reading at night.)
Details magazine with Luke Perry on the cover from 1992. This is a copy I bought recently on eBay, but I actually had an original issue I bought when it was published. I reread the profile story from time to time. The journalist, Jeff Giles, also wrote a memoir that came out around the same time, which I read a decade later and liked a lot. I wish I could drink beer and smoke cigarettes with Luke Perry in 1992, and this magazine brings me pretty close. There's also a very funny essayish sort of column about all the reasons to smoke cigarettes, which I still find amusing. I can recall lines from it, more or less accurately, such as: "They say a dog is man's best friend, but you can go on a walk with a cigarette and not have to clean up after it." The fashion tips include a clothing essentials for men, which at the time I first read the article seemed completely out of reach, but now I can check off at least a handful of the items.
January 15, 2014
This is the moment in The Blood of the Earth: An Essay on Magic and Peak Oil when I knew I wanted to have a conversation with John Michael Greer:
The reasons why the modern industrial world backed itself into the blind corner called peak oil have a great deal to do with magic. Somewhere behind the bland emotionless labels favored by contemporary culture lies a tangled realm of unmentionable motives and murky passions, where petroleum -- the black blood of the earth, as shamans and loremasters in a surprisingly large number of cultures call it -- has become an anchor for fantasies of omnipotence and dreams of destiny, and that realm must be confronted directly in order to make sense of where our civilization is headed.
And this is on page four, you see.
Because we all know we are fucked, as far as energy sources and climate change and species die offs are concerned. And yet inaction is the default mode. And Greer lays it out more clearly than I had ever seen it before: the solution is not simply a new technology, something that will be engineered by one brilliant mind that will save us all and we don't really have to think about it until it happens. This change our world and our culture is going through has to be a change of consciousness. A change in what we think our lives are made of, what we think is possible, what we think is good and useful and pleasurable.
We've been living in one story, the Monoculture as F. S. Michaels brilliantly calls it in her wonderful book. And it is the economic story, and it is the story of infinite progress and expansion. Despite the fact that everything is telling us infinite progress and expansion is folly. This story that we tell ourselves about how there are no limits, no restraints on what we can do, that we do not have to deny ourselves everything. Our bodies, as we fill them with food that is not food and ripe tomatoes in January and whatever in that moment we desire no matter how toxic, have been trying to teach us this lesson for decades. And our planet is trying to get this message across, that we can't just take whatever we want out and dump whatever we don't want back in and be fine. There have to be limits.
And yet holy shit do you sound like an Al Gore goodygoody or a hippie quack if you try to have this conversation. It's because this conversation does not go along with the story of our culture.
So this next week I'll be posting my conversation with John Michael Greer about his explosive little book and excerpts from his book, as we talk about how to tell ourselves a different story. About what life is, what our limits are, what happiness and success is.
You can find an ebook copy of his Blood of the Earth here.
January 13, 2014
Image: Student by F Hodler
I was talking to a gentleman in a bar, and when I was explaining what it is exactly that I do -- a mystery most of the time even to myself -- I mentioned that the theme of the latest issue of the literary magazine I edit was rethinking masculinity.
He was taken aback. "What in the world does that mean?" He was Australian.
Oh you know, femininity in a lot of ways has become incredibly flexible, you can define it in any way you wish. But the roles of masculinity seem to me to be rather rigid.
"What are you talking about? Guys can be jocks, they can be nerds..."
"Nerds? You mean that category of guy whose story intake is these beefed up, super masculine dudes who save the world and also the girl? Look, I'm not saying being masculine is wrong, right? I'm not saying men are bad. I'm saying that we haven't really questioned it the way we have femininity. Feminism helped redefine what it is to be a woman, but there hasn't been anything major like that for men."
He did not, you know, give me his phone number.
So here we are, with the Masculinity issue of Spolia. And we are not being pseudo-intellectual, super-cynical End of Men about it. We have some questions for the culture, and that is what this issue is. Questions in the form of poetry, artwork, essay, journalism, and fiction.
Chicago writer Zak Mucha, a tough guy if there ever was one, for a long time had the day job of taking care of schizophrenics and psychotics. His essay, "The Trick is Not Minding That It Hurts" is a meditation on the role of the super-masculine fantasy, what those Bruce Willis and Steven Seagal stories are telling us, and how they get absorbed, and one particular client whose entire inner world was built around this guns-and-martial arts fantasy.
Daphne Gottlieb's "Domestic Partnership" is the story of two men Alpha and Omega, together and how the world changes around them. In one relationship is the history of how our view of men has, and has not, changed through the years.
And there is desire for the man, in Anne Boyer's "Erotology 1-3" and Joanna Walsh's "Notre Dame." John E. Bowlt translates the reflections and philosophical notes of one of our favorite men, the artist and designer Leon Bakst. (Our debut issue's cover was a Leon Bakst work, because it had to be.) There are men that are dangerous, men that are kind. Leonora Carrington, the great surrealist painter and writer, presents just about every variation of man available in "As They Rode Along the Edge," and we are so very pleased to be able to publish her mind-bending work.
We have some questions. We hope you enjoy answering them for yourself.
January 10, 2014
I am having a very difficult time finishing up the book that I am under deadline for and running the blog. Every time I think I have figured out how to divvy up my day between Bookslut, Spolia, social media, and the book, it goes badly all over again. At least the thing that I am choosing over the sake of all of the others is the book, that always seems like the right decision.
(So, new Spolia was supposed to be up Wednesday. Did not happen. Rescheduled for Monday, this is a sure thing this time.)
The thing I've never understood, though, and certainly understand less now that I am trying to finish the book, is that common line of thought, that one should not read other books while you are in the process of writing. The anxiety of influence, or the anxiety of unintentional plagiarism maybe. Maybe my voice is not singular or distinctive enough that it would need protection, but I can't imagine not reading right now.
But then if you don't read while you are writing, what are you doing? I understand the intention of keeping your voice pure and avoiding picking up someone else's flourishes, but unless you shut out absolutely everything, all television and internet, you're going to be absorbing something. (A friend confessed he had been binge-watching Scandal, until he noticed all of his characters started speaking in strident, nonsensical monologues. He had to delete the rest of the episodes from his hard drive.)
So I'm grateful to the books that have been showing up, Kathryn Davis's Duplex and a large stack from Seagull Press (Hedi Kaddour and Francois Morin and Friedrich Duerrenmatt and Giorgio Agamben hooray) to drown out that Internet style of writing that has become so universal. Because all of a sudden my book was taking on the tone of the This One Time This Bad Thing Happened And Here Are All Of The Totally Predictable Lessons I Learned From This essays.
And I look forward to this process being over and getting back to normal, whatever the fuck that is.
This month’s Bookslut features Rebecca Silber’s thoughts on The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang, recently translated into English by Chi-Young Kim. The review includes a brief consideration of the American cover’s design -- a feature often overlooked in book reviews, despite the book cover’s integral role in influencing sales. For more on the importance of the a book’s presentation, here are some links:
“Chip Kidd: Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is.” | TED talks
Illustrious graphic designer Chip Kidd talks about his own introduction to book cover design and provides a glimpse into his process, which has produced some of the most iconic book covers of the last twenty years. Kidd’s outfit alone makes this TED talk worth watching.
“The Subconscious Shelf” by Leah Price | NY Times
Scholar Leah Price, author of Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, explores the idea of books as objets d’arte, physical markers of taste significant not so much for what they contain but what their presence conveys. Price notes, “To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self. “ The idea that one’s reading tastes reveal one’s personality is also behind shelfie projects such as the tumblr Share Your Shelf and the book My Ideal Bookshelf.
“The Gender Coverup” by Maureen Johnson | Huffington Post
Author Maureen Johnson discusses how books are gendered by their covers, which indicate not only the gender of their target audiences, but also to what standards the books should be held as a result. Her coverflip experiment, which asked the twittersphere to design new, gender-reversed covers of popular books, produced fascinating results.
On a similar note, this post by blogger Rachel Stark examines the implications of the “dead girl” cover trend in young adult literature.
And if you’re looking for some eye candy, these gorgeous websites are dedicated to celebrating the art of the book jacket:
January 7, 2014
Image: Nikolay Aleksomanty, The Dawn
Our January issue is now live, and if you need some post-holiday post-trauma family understanding, we have you covered. Can we give a small bit of thanks to Routledge for existing? I have no idea who has placed Routledge books in all of the English language bookstores in Central Europe, but bless them for it. All you can find is Harry Potter Ken Follett Dan Brown and then finally fucking Helene Cixous shows up out of nowhere. Also, that Marion Milner collection they brought back into print, particularly On Not Being Able to Paint about creative blocks is essential.
Anyway, I got off track, but Routledge published On Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family: Permitted and Forbidden Stories by Valeria Ugazio, and it's the subject of our lead feature this month. It fits in with what I've been thinking about lately, about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves:
Ugazio trains her gaze on four disorders of the mind and the respective semantics in which they took root. "The central thesis of the book," she writes, "is that people with phobic, obsessive and depressive organizations and eating disorders have grown up and are still part of conversational (usually family) contexts where specific meanings predominate." Phobics have acquired a "semantics of freedom," in which their family heroes take risks and travel the globe with their heads held high, while others cower at home, unable even to advance their own concerns. The obsessive is associated with a "semantics of goodness" -- the pole here running between selfish hedonists and those who deny their will like nuns. Eating disorders occur within a semantics of power, in which the world and, more to the point, the family, is split between those who have control and those who lack it. And depressives participate in a semantics of belonging, oscillating between community and schism, wanting to go to the party and at the same time desperate to leave. This précis doesn't do justice to the subtlety of Ugazio's distinctions, which gain drama from her frequent narrative illustrations. Furthermore, it's unlikely that any introspective person reading these chapters could resist analyzing their own semantic situation or the situations of everyone else they know. The effect is of watching some long buried artifact getting expertly excavated, or of watching the guests at a costume party get unmasked one by one. For Ugazio, conversation, of all things, is the great, glowing foundry in which we come to terms with being born. Simply running your yap sends out ripples that strike all listeners deeper than they know, and this is especially true for children, the subspecies who (haven't you noticed?) most adults don't care to credit with the faculty of hearing.
The whole thing is quite dense but lovely.
But if that is like way too much or you are one of those horrible people with completely functional and supportive relationships with your families (yuck), we have some other stuff too. Our former contributor Kelsey Osgood has a new book out, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, and so we sent Coco Papy out to talk to her about anorexia memoirs and how they are basically just instruction manuals on how to take yourself apart.
We also have nuns, drug smugglers, recluses, and revolutionaries. Lightsey Darst has a very smart piece on murder mysteries and how the dead women are always just metaphors, unless we are talking about Muriel Spark.
And, as always, there's more here.
January 3, 2014
"Just let me talk, you'll catch on soon enough, catch on to what I mean. You know that I've had boyfriends -- two --- three... we liked each other, we had fun together, and our skins said Yes to each other. That was natural and comprehensible, it caused absolutely no pangs of conscience and no unease. I always felt clean and clear, I was sure of myself and knew what I wanted and the limits I had set, which made good sense that you didn't need to think about them. And now -- that I love someone -- really love someone, for the first time in my life, so that I feel good and honest and capable of anything -- everything should be fine -- and right and -- but..." Gilgi's head falls forward, she grabs Pit's wrists with both hands -- her mouth a garish narrow line, her words -- falling slowly, unemphatically, mechanically: "I don't know what my limits are anymore or what I want, I can't be responsible anymore for what I might do from one day to the next. I thought that my love had made me infinitely safe and protected -- now it's made me defenseless, completely exposed -- how is that possible, Pit??? I'm at the mercy of everyone and everything -- of a hand which brushes the back of my neck as it's helping me into my coat -- of a glance, a voice... I had no idea that I could be like this -- I'm burning up -- I have an agonizing physical connection to everything -- when I close my hand around the edge of this table, when I see a flower -- when I stroke this fur coat... I find myself unspeakably disgusting. Nothing is clean and clear and simple anymore, not even my previous life. Maybe everything the previous Gilgi did and wanted was just a means of running away from -- from her own desire. Maybe nothing has value in itself, maybe everything is untrue, and everything is driven purely by that running away... Where will it end? What's happening with me? It's stretching on into eternity -- I'm scared, Pit."
Pit's face is distorted, his voice hoarse and broken: "Why are you telling me this -- you! That's why you came to me -- that's why... just to tell me..."
Gilgi looks at him. "I see, Pit!" Dull mockery appears at the corners of her mouth. "Well, you're right -- every man for himself... neighter of us can complain of a shortage of egotism. And thank you, Pit -- maybe the best way for you to help me is by showing me -- another glass of port, Fraulein, quickly... by showing me that each one of us can rely only, only, only on himself." Gilgi jumps up, stands behind Pit, grips him firmly by the back of the neck. "I believed in you, young man -- in your capacity for fairness. -- To hell with you and all your Socialism and your schemes for improving the world if you're one of those men who hold it against a woman if, by God knows what accident of biology, she doesn't want to sleep with the. You guys know exactly how to make a woman furious!" Gilgi's hand moves slowly and angrily over Pit's ear, creeps into his hair -- "don't flinch, young man -- I've known for ages that men and women are animals by nature, I also know that we have a sacred duty to make something different of ourselves, and I still believe that we have the strength and the chance to be more than we are. Through ourselves? Despite ourselves? Doesn't matter, I still believe..."
-- From Irmgard Keun's Gilgi, 1931
Image: Pompeii Fresco of Mercury
There was an article or a roundtable or something going around, and it kept coming up in conversation. I never searched the thing out, but it apparently was asking whether American women writers were working in the shadow of the supposed 20th century greats, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, etc. "So, are you?" asked the fella at some point.
"How could I be? I never read them."
Enter several moments of sputtering disbelief. I walked it back a bit, remembering that I have read two Roth novels, Goodbye Columbus, which I found boring and self-involved, and then The Plot Against America, which I liked briefly but then, when I started to think about it, thought nonsensical and with that awful, lazy ending that Saves the Day! because why bother thinking that through at all. But no, definitely no Updike and definitely no Mailer, unless you count the first chapter of a couple of his books, which never made me want to keep reading.
What on earth have you been reading, then? he asked. Well, by 18 I had read every book by Kathy Acker, starting with Pussycat Fever. I did read Infinite Jest and found it emotionally and intellectually empty. I read all of the Brontes and the Hardys and Ulysses and the female modernists like Barnes and HD and the others who have been forgotten over their male counterparts. I went on a South American writer spree, mostly revolving around Cortazar. I read a huge amount of science fiction, but not fantasy, because of elves and whatever. I read Lanark, that was pretty great. It's not like if you decide not to read any John Updike, because it just sounds like being trapped in a car with a narcissist with his dick out, it's not like you run out of books.
For a while I thought I should read everything, back when I was trying to be a book critic. So I read that dreadful Franzen, I read that dreadful Messud. I had opinions about Dale Peck reviews! God help me, why did I do that. And then I remembered again, that one could decide not to read things. It meant your hire-ability as a critic would be limited, if you were outright refusing to read certain things, but one could do things like read tarot cards for money instead, which is way more fulfilling. And I'm beginning to think that this stance of non-participation might be a more important one than, you know, this bores me I don't want to read it.
As Charles and I mentioned in this interview, you are only as good a writer as the books you are reading. The stuff you put in your brain, that is what is used to make out what comes out of it, like ideas and thoughts and prose. And that's important. (Is this why there are no really good regular dayjob critics turned novelists? I mean, we all agree that James Wood thing was not so good, right? We can say that without being afraid of his wrath?) But now I'm reading Ioan Culianu's Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, and allow me for a second to be wildly simplistic. But we live in magical states, despite our post-Enlightenment belief that we are rational creatures. Our society sets up certain ideas and loads them with magical thinking, like success means XY&Z, that these are the things that will make you happy, that these are things you absolutely cannot live without. Take the suburbs as an example very quickly, this idea that this is what you work towards, to live in an environmentally unsustainable, physically lonely, transportationally (not a word!) inconvenient, and you have to drive two miles in your privately owned automobile to go get milk. It is the story we have told ourselves about success and families, about what we need. Single unit families all snug and married and separated out from everyone else, is also a story we tell ourselves about what will make us happy. It's how advertising works, it's The Century of the Self.
And yet it's also in every story we tell. We reinforce these ideas and objects in the novels we read, the television we watch, the music we listen to. And just by being around it, we absorb it and get snagged on it. And the only way to tell other stories is by getting those other stories out of our heads by staying the hell away from them. Which sounds paranoid! And if you start talking about this, like I am now, you sound like a nutter. And yet when I slip, when I self-indulgently pick up Elle magazine or try to watch Pretty Little Liars or Bunheads because people -- grown adults! -- swear it is a good show, I start to feel that weird, gross pull.
The role of the writer is to be the outsider. Writing is under the domain of Mercury, the trickster. And yet I increasingly see American writers deep in this pull, with the MFA culture and the snug domesticity and the atheism and the insularity and the dismissal of radical voices and the nostalgia and the lack of any deep philosophical or emotional or historical views. It's all rooted in the Self, and pretending like that Self is not in the grips of these unconscious, magically-loaded stories that go unquestioned. And we get so caught up in words, the importance of using exactly the right words and not using the wrong words, without looking at the stories we are telling with those words.
So I've given up trying to be a book critic in that traditional mode. I have always liked that Bookslut tries to uncover neglected stories, provide an alternative canon, and use its power to ignore Franzen, to be the one place you can pretend he doesn't exist. And we'll be unveiling new issues of Bookslut and Spolia next week, doing our best to find other stories to tell.
January 2, 2014
What We're Reading
Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me
A friend stayed over last week and left Jessica Treadway's Please Come Back to Me on the nightstand. I'd loved the collection when it first appeared as a Flannery O'Connor Prize-winner a couple of years ago but hadn't looked at it since. I picked it up and instinctively gravitated to one of the shorter stories, "Deprivation." It begins, "The baby had been crying for nine hours." That opening reminded me why I'd loved the book when I first read it: deadpan humor leavened with dark domesticity. In "Deprivation," a weekend-long crying jag leads a young husband to fantasize about burying his bawling son in a snowbank. He tells his wife, "I know this sounds terrible," only to be met with hesitant silence. She'd had a similar thought but refuses to reveal it. Instead, she responds to him with "What kind of a mother would I be?" To which he replies, "A normal one, I think." This is the kind of great stuff that echoes throughout the collection.
Stories start out innocently. We feel as though we're driving into a gated community in south Florida -- safe among the protected, predictable houses. But, open the front door and trouble begins. I've always felt that writers like Treadway, who are almost exclusively women, get shortchanged and tagged as "domestic" as if to imply narrower. In Treadway's subtle stories, the stakes are very high and the "revelation" factor resonates as alarmingly as any we get in self-consciously novels. In fact, they echo more profoundly: we're all products of families, no matter how dysfunctional and, in the end, what do we brood about? Treadway's collection will force you to wonder what really happened when you were a kid and, just maybe, make you realize that you didn't see what you thought you saw.