July 31, 2014
There are many ways to mishandle, drive swiftly and summarily into the ground, or otherwise fuck up receiving a gift. You don’t necessarily think deeply and specifically about them, these ways, until a gift is bestowed upon you, or maybe until you decide to write a novel in which a gift is bestowed upon your protagonist. However, when a friend who has been traveling and subletting her apartment for months sends you an early-morning email with the subject line “nutty idea” and the body, essentially, “I’m giving up the apartment. Do you want a month of cost- and roommate-free living in exchange for packing up and transporting to storage its contents? You can also have a ton of free books and three-quarters of a bottle of organic olive oil,” you think: “What have I done to deserve this grand fortune? I have little money, fewer books, and absolutely no organic olive oil!”
When your friend responds to your excited, grateful, can’t-believe-your-luck affirmative with a similar sentiment—“Thank you for doing this, Lauren, really”—you are confused. Why is this beautiful, generous friend of mine giving me a gift and then thanking me for it? you think, skipping across town, suitcase and money from marginally overcharged subletter in hand.
Often in these situations, it soon becomes clear that what you thought was a gift is actually more of a mutually beneficial exchange, a gift intertwined with responsibility. Sometimes the apartment is located in Germany, a land of storage and moving professionals who function in a language of which you have a tenuous grasp. Sometimes you are 23 years old and don’t even trust yourself with your own worldly possessions, much less those belonging to a friend much older and wiser than you are, whose worldly possessions have had much more time to accumulate monetary and sentimental value than yours have. Sometimes the friend is not only older and wiser, but also one of the figures you most respect, intellectually and just in terms of making difficult-but-good life decisions, in the industry into which you are trying to break as a 23-year-old owner of few worldly possessions. Sometimes the industry into which you are trying to break is the publishing industry, known for showering its participants with advanced review, hardcover, and softcover copies of the same heavy physical object, supplementing your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend’s already extensive library, from which you are tempted to sneakily pluck volumes. Sometimes your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend has journals, tucked into the usual journal hiding places, journals not literary but personal, journals you feel a pressing desire to not accidentally leave behind in your excavation of her apartment (which will be taken over by a smiling Japanese couple when you are finished with it)—journals you know you are definitely, 100% not supposed to read but instead trustworthily and ethically put, unopened, into boxes of evenly and liftably distributed weights. Always moving sucks.
And yet, as you grapple with the various and unanticipated moral and logistical issues before you—the calling of used bookstores to pick up the stacks and stacks of non-essential and non-meaningful heavy physical objects, the leaving until almost too late of the arrangement of storage unit and moving professionals, the spending of days to reassure yourself that it really would be ludicrous to wrap the refrigerated bottle of Veuve Clicquot in towels and exercise clothing and put it in a box to be kept in the almost unarranged storage unit for an unknowable stretch of time (your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend admirably and courageously prioritizing her artistic and intellectual goals over future stability)—as you deal with all of these simultaneously kind of petty and incredibly daunting tasks, you come to see the responsibility not as distinct from the gift, but as part of it. It is significant, what your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend bestowing this gift/responsibility upon you is implying, not least because one year later she will entrust you with something else that belongs to her, something much bigger and more significant than even her nicest, easily crushable Irish tweed hat and heirloom silverware. And although this bigger, more significant nutty idea will elicit in you a familiar combination of wide-eyed, can’t-believe-your-luck gratitude, confusion at your older, wiser, eminently respectable friend’s expression of reciprocal thanks when you accept, and intense, specific anxiety, you will also feel, underneath your excitement and indebtedness and fear, pretty much ready.
Weekend Recommended Reading:
- Me. I’m great!
- Nothing on the Booker longlist. Siri Hustvedt seems very interested in interdisciplinary texts.
- The Booker longlist blurbs, however, are worth a browse:
Paul O’Rourke, 40 year-old slightly curmudgeonly dentist, runs a thriving practice in New York. Yet he is discovering he needs more in his life than a steady income and the perfect mochaccino. But what?
- BUT WHAT?
- In another, they capitalize “autumn.”
- Joyelle McSweeney has published two excerpts from her libretto-in-progress, Pistorius Rex, at The White Review and Dazed Digital—you should actually read those, especially the first one.
Image: Untitled (1987) by Cy Twombly
Twelve years ago, I was sitting in at my day job in Austin, Texas, and had a why not moment. Why not just start blogging about books. Two months later, a Hungarian emailed me to say she enjoyed my website. And I thought, oh shit, if people are actually reading this, I should really try to do a better job. Feeling inadequate to the task, I decided why not. Why not just ask some people to write things with me, and we'll do a whole thing.
People occasionally ask me if I had a vision for Bookslut and what it was going to be, and I want to laugh. I was 23. I was cutting my own hair. I had dropped out of college after one year and my rural high school education was geared towards making farmers, not poets. Oh sure, I had a vision of myself as a literary tastemaker (blech) and member of the cultural elite. My actual vision for my life was that I would probably work at this pro-choice nonprofit for the rest of my life, I would spend my evenings as I had, volunteering as an abortion counselor. And I would dabble at this literary website to keep that part of my brain, the part who consumed Kathy Acker books by the dozen as a teenager trying to hold off small town despair, from atrophying.
That jump, from twelve years ago to now, it's one I still can't believe. And now, twelve years in, I am here to announce my retirement from the Bookslut blog. Not because I have some sort of vision for what comes after this, but because I have the urge to do another why not. Because the thing that I again thought I would do forever has caused some brain atrophying, and I want to see how much I can derail my life again.
Bookslut will still exist. This blog will still exist! I am passing it along to Lauren Oyler, a talented young writer living in Berlin. She'll be assisted by Corinna Pichl and Anamaria Dobinciuc, all of my lovely Central European ladies. (It was a Hungarian, after all, who really did inspire my taking all of this seriously.) And Bookslut the magazine will still exist, with Charles Blackstone as managing editor, Corinna as features editor, and myself as editor-in-chief.
Don't worry, this isn't going to go into "Follow Your Bliss" territory. I think that "Follow Your Bliss" and "The Universe Will Meet You Halfway" bullshit has ruined more lives than polio. My bliss was maybe up there, with a steady paycheck, eating cereal for two meals a day, maintaining expectations for what my life could turn out to be. That was blissful, or at least way less scary. And as far as "the universe meeting you halfway," let's just say that being the literary world's mad spinster aunt is not the most lucrative position one can establish.
As for what happens next. I'll swing by and say hi from time to time. My book, which may or may not be called The Dead Ladies Project, depending on who wins that marketing arm wrestling match, will be out from the University of Chicago in the fall of 2015. I'm collaborating on a tarot project with an incredible artist, and more will be revealed about that soon. I'm still doing tarot readings. Over at Spolia we'll continue to put out issues and chapbooks that stop my heart when I see the proofs, all of this beauty we get to put into existence. And I've been trying to take on something new, a way of writing about the world I move through, small travel pieces that will hopefully find a home somewhere. You'll be able to find me on Twitter, and probably the Spolia Tumblr. If I stop doing the Tumblr I promise I won't write up a big "After 11 months I have decided it is time to stop doing the Tumblr" thing.
In many ways, the last twelve years were not really about, hey let's talk about some books I've been reading. It was more about, how does one think through how one lives on the planet. How do you synthesize ideas, how do you follow a thought through centuries of other people's thoughts. And look: I loved it. And while that is by no means a finished thing -- hey I have figured out life, here let me blog about how to live a life -- it needs a different space.
Tomorrow Lauren will come here and introduce herself. And then that is it for me. Here, that is. I hope you'll come and find me again out there.
July 28, 2014
Image: The Alchemist by 413
Erin Lyndal Martin reviews Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder for July’s issue of Bookslut and suggests the temporal / timeless duality that characterizes this collection of poems is also expressed through the writer’s awe of science and technology. Often pitted against each other, poetry and science actually have a long common history. For more intersections between poetry and science, here are a few suggestions:
Pireeni Sundaralingam examines the forms that the interaction between poetry and science can take – from the parasite (poetry) to symbiosis.
We should note that poetry may go beyond simply describing scientific theory, however; it may also be a rich source of data. In certain cases, poetry allows scientists to cast their net wider, like the algae within the fungus, gathering in data they might otherwise have difficulty accessing. In more than a few instances, poems may provide the type of case study evidence that instigates subsequent experimental exploration by scientists. For example, field biologist Gary Nabhan argues that the historic song-poems created by the medicine men of the O’odham peoples codified the hallucinogenic properties of those chemicals naturally occurring in the datura plants, recording first-hand accounts of the effects of the drugs on both humans and other species. Eight decades after these poems were first published, neurobiologists are now systematically analyzing the psychotropic mechanisms first laid out in the poetry of the Sonoran desert.
Pireeni Sundaralingam, "Science and Poetry: Predation or Symbiosis?" | World Literature Today
Paul A. Cantor takes a close look at how Romantic poets reacted to the rise of science. He argues that the Romantics did not criticize science and scientists out of ignorance, but that they were interested in engaging in a dialogue.
Of all the Romantics, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were the ones most interested in science and most aware of new scientific developments in their age. Shelley was intrigued by chemistry as early as his student days at Oxford, and showed so much promise in the field that the great philosopher of science, Alfred North Whitehead, was led to write: “if Shelley had been born a hundred years later, the twentieth century would have seen a Newton among chemists.” Both Shelley and Byron were fascinated by what was happening in astronomy and cosmology in their day — a fascination that is reflected in the cosmic speculations that appear in poems such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Cain. Shelley and Byron took a special interest in the emerging fields of geology and paleontology, and in particular kept up with the latest theories about the prehistoric creatures that came to be known as dinosaurs. This kind of scientific development fed the religious skepticism of Shelley and Byron, and above all their tendency to question the Biblical account of creation. Well before Darwin’s time, Shelley and Byron were taking cues from modern science to suggest in their poetry that man might not have been created perfectly by a benevolent God. The evidence thus suggests that the Romantic poets, although they certainly had their doubts about certain aspects of modern science, did not condemn it out of simple ignorance or jealousy, but had instead entered into a genuine dialogue with the science of their day. If Shelley and Byron are any indication, the Romantics were not simply willing, but quite eager to listen to what contemporary scientists had to say.
Paul A. Cantor, "The Scientist and the Poet" | The New Atlantis
Over at New Scientist, Paul Collins takes a look at the Victorians. Not the poets that showed an interest in science, but the scientists who wrote poetry. Collins compiles a list of often amusing poems written by Victorian scientists. He also mentions Daniel Brown's book on the subject, The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, science and nonsense. The practice of both science and poetry, according to Brown, was "telling of, and indeed emblematic for, an historical moment of transition in British culture, in which poetry, beginning its gradual decline in power and prestige with the waning of romanticism, meets with ascendant science."
Sumana Roy's poems inspired by the elements in the periodic table, Calcium and Iron, focus on the body and the personal: "I become a living laboratory" (Calcium). From Iron:
Iron, its deficiency, makes of me
a nation without border patrol.
So the easy invasion on my margins –
fingertips, underside of eyes, lips.
Pinch-press-pull-prick. Blood should rise
like a patriarch, out to defend.
Doctors scold, nurses become teachers.
But my scores never reach the pass mark.
8 or thereabouts – my highest score.
Sumana Roy, ‘Elements in the Periodic Table’ by Sumana Roy | berfrois
Maria Popova highlights excerpts from The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass. “The poetic species” is, as Popova explains, Wilson’s description of human beings “on account of how heavily our cognitive infrastructure relies upon metaphor and associative thinking.”
July 27, 2014
Image: Circe the Enchantress by Edmund Dulac
Weekend Recommended Reading
We have a big announcement coming on Thursday, you'll want to come back to hear this.
- Arthur Koestler will remain my most tormented love, the whole having to reconcile writing one of my favorite books with being a shitty rapist person. (I have yet to see someone take this on well, with Koestler specifically, dealing with his horribleness but the appeal of his writing. Someone write that.) Here is a 1954 profile of the (shitty) man.
- Why Americans Stink at Math: Because we stink at teaching math. Let's get all of the math teachers of the country and trap them in a room with Stand and Deliver on repeat until they cave. (Is this the only inspirational school movie that doesn't have a savior white person teacher? I think maybe.)
- I am saying goodbye to Romania soon, god damn it. Here is an enormous interview with Emil Cioran, just to rub it in. He calls Nietzsche "naive" (!!!), discusses his lifelong insomnia, and gets into his tricky political beliefs (he was pro-Nazi, but only for a while). And here, so you don't do what I did, and way mispronounce Cioran's name to a Romanian, this will help you learn how to pronounce his name.
Random book recommendation: When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger. Always interesting when considering how people believe in things like the rapture or Armageddon or whatever, but also just for how beliefs become hardened and impermeable. Also interesting for the insight that mockery makes it more difficult for a person to abandon their beliefs, even after they start to question them.
July 25, 2014
What We're Reading
I picked up a paperback of Martin Amis's Experience at a local Powell's that was closing. I'd read a novel or two of his years ago but had no distinct memory of them but his name was familiar and the price couldn't be beat, so why not add another book to the teetering stack waiting by the bedside?
Everybody and their mother's written a memoir or three at this point—I should know—but I didn't want this one to end. The hulking figure at the center of Amis's story is his father, Kingsley, a monumental literary, as well as personal presence in Martin's life. The book is full of excerpts of Kingsley's prose and poems. Other writers like Philip Larkin, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens make regular appearances as well. All the while Amis comes up with one beautiful sentence after another after another. This is the rare book in which I wasn't irritated by frequent footnotes because each opened another rabbit-hole or side-path to another angle on the story he was recounting.
It doesn't hurt that one's biography is filled with noted and accomplished cultural figures but bookstores the world over are filled with half-literate tomes written (or more often, ghost-written) by the famous. Amis does much more than name-drop here. His accounts of the epic battle with his teeth and the haunting memory of his cousin Lucy Partington's murder at the hands of serial killer Frederick West are worth the cover price in and of themselves. But even if Amis hadn't lead a remarkable life, I'd recommend this book for the joy and mastery with which he handles the English language. What he does best here is to show what it actually is to take in the world through words.
July 24, 2014
"The Vivian Mire," Dmitry Samarov's essay about the tangled Vivian Maier archive from Spolia's Disappearance issue, has been popular lately:
- Maud Newton used it as the basis of her New York Times Magazine micro-column last week.
July 22, 2014
Image: The Angler by Paul Klee, marked for destruction by the Nazis for being "degenerate"
Lost or damaged artworks form the interstitial space in the Disappearance issue of Spolia. Stolen, damaged, destroyed (sometimes by the artists themselves), or simply censored -- the many ways in which works of art disappear raise questions pertaining to their place in art history. How do these lost artworks shape art history? How aware are we of their loss?
Curated by TATE, The Gallery of Lost Art was a one-year online exhibition that featured some of the most important works of art that were lost during the last century. Among the artists included in the exhibition were Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Willem De Kooning, Frida Kahlo, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. Meanwhile, The Gallery of Lost Art has been erased – now merely a ghost, just like the artworks it temporarily brought back to life. A selection of essays on the lost artworks featured in the exhibition can still be accessed online. In addition, the stories of some of these artworks have been collected in between the covers of a book: Lost Art, by Jennifer Mundy.
Similarly, Céline Delavaux reunites lost artworks in her book The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You'll Never See. Delavaux takes us through different eras – from prehistoric caves to more recent disappearances. The writer thinks the connection between the viewer and a work of art passes through language. Indeed, even though these lost or hidden works of art can no longer be seen, they still have a lot to say.
The idea that a work of art can encapsulate a certain time in history is emphasized by Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Vienna at the turn of the century, Nazis stealing a Jewish portrait and the long fight of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s relatives to recover the portrait and with it, a piece of history. On Klimt’s status during the Nazi occupation O’Connor says:
Klimt was never declared a degenerate artist. It’s not clear how his work avoided this designation. He could have qualified, with his explicitly erotic drawings; paintings suggesting bisexuality and a world without God, and his reputation as a social “philosemite”—or what the Nazis were now calling, in their most polite language, a Jew-lackey. But he had fans among the Vienna Nazis, and he could be framed in a palatable way to the arbitrators of “Germanic” culture. He was an excellent draftsman, and could draw or paint something akin to a photorealistic likeness, when he chose to. Superficially, his good lucks and legendary appeal to women fit the masculine profile of the powerful Germanic Ubermensch. Klimt was safely dead, unlike his friend Kokoschka, who was a vocal anti-Nazi. He was also one of the favorite painters of Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi governor of Vienna, who sponsored the biggest show ever of Klimt’s works, in 1943. Schirach’s tastes were broader: he got in trouble with a show of young artists that Hitler himself shut down. When some of Klimt’s works finally were burned, when the SS torched a castle after the defeat of Hitler, it was probably an accident. Though the other paintings at the castle were eventually evacuated, and the Klimts taken there by the Gestapo were not.
Anne-Marie O’Connor interviewed by Laurel Zuckerman, Anne-Marie O’Connor on the extraordinary tale of Klimt’s The Lady in Gold | laurelzuckerman.com
It's tempting to romanticize art thieves who steal purely for the love of art. But often, thieves know nothing about the artworks they steal. They do know a lot about tricking security systems. This is the case with the thieves who stole works by Monet, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. Because of contradicting statements, it is still unclear if the stolen artworks have been destroyed or if they remain hidden.
How Picassos, Matisses, Monets and other precious masterpieces may have met a fiery fate in a remote Romanian village, population 3,400, is something the police are still trying to understand. The theft has turned into a compelling and convoluted mystery that underscores the intrigues of the international criminal networks lured by high-priced art and the enormous difficulties involved in storing, selling or otherwise disposing of well-known works after they have been stolen.
Liz Alderman, "Romanian’s Tale Has Art World Fearing the Worst" | The New York Times
Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte, Mark Rothko -- modern art is incomplete without the works of art hidden in the basement of a museum in Tehran. Some of them are, however, brought to the surface. Ephemerally.
In 1994 the museum exchanged one of its many remarkable paintings – Woman III, by the Dutch-American expressionist Willem de Kooning – for a rare illuminated volume of Shahnameh, an ancient Persian poetry book, which belonged to the American art collector Arthur Houghton, because the painting had shown too much nudity in the eyes of the authorities.
The swap infuriated many, including Pahlavi. "If they were really interested in Shahnameh, couldn't they pay $6m and keep De Kooning's painting? The US businessman David Geffen, who bought the painting for some $20m, sold it for $110m few years ago. The De Kooning exchange is the sole exchange they've done so far and I hope it remains the last one."
Of the many ironies surrounding the artwork is the fact that Iran's powerful Guardian Council, a group of clerics, intervened a decade ago to forbid the selling or exchange of the works because, they said, trade in un-Islamic and pornographic works was prohibited.
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, "Tehran exhibition reveals city's hidden Warhol and Hockney treasures" | The Guardian
July 20, 2014
Image: Louise Bourgeois, À Baudelaire
Weekend Recommended Reading
This is late because I got distracted yesterday by this. I have family members who have been writing, saying, you are one country over from the Ukraine, when is your flight out, and I have to say, don't worry, I won't be flying over Russian airspace, and they say, Who even knows what is going to be labeled Russian airspace by next week anyway. So I've been watching a lot about airplane crashes, like the above, which is Errol Morris's hypnotic interview with the man who landed a plane with catastrophic hydraulics failure and saved 2/3 of the passengers onboard. Then I had to watch Fearless because of Jeff Bridges, and then I had to go read William Langewische's entire back catalog.
Plus, with that Errol Morris doc, I completely lose it when I see a Midwestern man cry. Because they don't, pretty much ever. I love a Midwestern man, but they are not forthcoming with their emotions. So when he gets choked up because he couldn't save everyone on the plane, I have to spend some time weeping. It's like there was this documentary a while back, where a Midwestern farmer is watching developers dig into some farmland to turn it into a shitty McMansion because that will make more money, and he starts talking about how you can see the soil they're building on is rich and fertile because it's so black, and he starts crying for the lost potential of the soil and so I start crying (before I remember the other thing about Midwestern men, that maybe his children have been waiting at home for some sign of love or pain or affection, something other than just perpetual disappointment, and seeing their father crying over soil makes them realize he really does love the land more than he loves them...) It's complicated.
- Are you a writer, or are you a missionary? Are you so certain of your own viewpoint when you go traveling out into the world that you don't even listen to people's stories, you're just looking for reinforcement of your own views? So good. This will come in handy for the Travel Writing Revolution I am plotting.
- Kathy Acker interviewed the Spice Girls. For Vogue Magazine.
- At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
- "We have a surplus of vaguely boring art world bad boys running around these days, but how many genuine degenerates do we have? I mean, real perverts?"
The random book recommendation this week is going to be Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy again, because it is remarkably good, she is remarkably good, and not nearly enough people even know who she is.
July 18, 2014
Image: Self-Portrait by Lee Friedlander
In “Erase & Rewind,” Tina Pisco’s short story for theDisappearence issue of Spolia, memory is identity. The loss of memory is the loss of identity. Here, temporary amnesia is a chance to escape from a past that is slowly coming back, like a bad thriller caught on TV late at night. It is a chance to take on a new identity, one that promises love and affection. The loss of memory makes one ask “Who am I?” — a question that is always there, lingering, with or without any memories. For more on various degrees of memory loss, here are a few suggestions:
David MacLean found himself (and lost his self) in a train station in India, with his memory gone. His memory / identity became a puzzle pieced together by his family and friends – all strangers to him. MacLean first told his compelling story for This American Life, and later on in his book The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia.
At that moment, staring at the monitors, I was a blank sheet that had just been rolled in the typewriter. No backstory, no motivation, no distinguishing characteristics, no real idea what I even looked like.
David MacLean, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me | This American Life
I. Fontana’s (Todd Grimson’s nom de plume) Amnesia is set in an unspecified time, in an unspecified place, giving his short story a universality that is hard to ignore (“The red of the Coca-Cola signs is the same all over the world.”). A sense of loss enveils his characters who exist separately, who seem to have forgotten how to live together.
There could be no present tense, no present, without forgetfulness. A veil must fall over reality — in order to eradicate the poisonous past. And yet the past never really dies, nor can it be killed. Reality wears a mask, and behind the mask is but a mirrored face: the mirror always lies.
I. Fontana, “Amnesia” | Pank
As Patrick Ryan has discovered, the lack of a personal narrative can be the most terrifying thing about memory loss:
‘I’m fine,’ I said. ‘I just want to go home.’
But I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a person who had legs and arms and a heart and a throbbing head, I knew my own name and the name of the President and what year it was, but I couldn’t remember my personality or anything about the recent past. And this is what very few novels or movies have ever gotten right about amnesia: it’s not exotic; it’s horrific and sad-making. I was sad because I had no story. Elizabeth McCracken, in her novel The Giant’s House, wrote, ‘Babies have no plot.’ Post-seizure, I was a plot-less baby. I ached to remember what my job was. I ached to remember if I had any preferences, any passions, any tragic flaws. I ached to remember if I was a nice person or a mean person, a criminal or a hero. There was nothing exotic about it; I was profoundly depressed because I had no sense of myself, other than as someone glued to a hospital bed.
Patrick Ryan, “Grand Mal” | Granta
In Remind Me Who I Am, Again, Linda Grant writes about living with her mother’s dementia. It’s a tender account of memory and identity. “Memory, I have come to understand, is everything, it’s life itself.”
The documentary Unknown White Male (Rupert Murray, 2005) tells the story of man who woke up on a subway train in Coney Island having no idea who or where he was. The diagnosis: retrograde amnesia. To some, this story sounds too much like a story. It sounds like a hoax. But Roger Ebert, who had interviewed the filmmakers, assured viewers it was all true. Besides, he wrote: “As we watch the film, Doug Bruce exists for us only in the sense that the film transfers him into our memories. Is that person any more or less real to us if the film is truthful or fraudulent?”
Amnesia has a dread fascination because it leaves its victims alive to experience the loss of self. Parents, lovers, photographs and old letters testify to the existence of a person who lived in the body whose inhabitant now regards them without recognition.
Roger Ebert, Unknown White Male | rogerebert.com
July 17, 2014
Coming in August:
We'll be announcing the winners of the Daphne Awards, for the best book of 1963. We'll be having a small event, details to follow. If you are a betting person, and you shouldn't, that kind of behavior is really bad for you, someone can make up the odds for the fiction category:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
In the meantime, you can refresh your memory about the rest of the nominees for nonfiction, poetry, and children's books, and do what I am going to do, which is just watch one of the best movies of 1963 over and over again, The Haunting.
July 15, 2014
Other people are still writing about 50 Shades of Grey, right? Oh thank god. I am not so terrifically behind.
It's a shame, though, that some of it is still in that "you should all be so deeply ashamed of yourselves" vein. Especially since so few writers put any time or thought into figuring out why it became such a hit. (Women feel powerless in many aspects of their lives. Here is a way for them to work through those feelings of powerlessness, in a way that gets them off on it. Why is that so hard to understand?) It seems like after all of the ink spilled over 50 Shades, we would at least have heard something interesting about it.
For the Los Angeles Review of Books I write about two responses to EL James's trilogy: the Virago anthology 50 Shades of Feminism and Eva Illouz's Hard Core Romance. I will just say that Illouz's book is, like all of her work, brilliant. That anthology.... er...
In this anthology, feminism becomes less a political philosophy and more of a justification for narcissism. Every decision that each person makes can be explained away with “because feminism.” Want an epidural and to bottle-feed? That’s feminism! Want to get married and move to the suburbs? Feminism! Do you want to make a big deal out of refusing to diet or maybe instead spend a lot of time playing around with clothes and makeup? Either way, both are feminist! Here, feminism is not used as a filter to assist with the decision-making process. The argument presented is this: your action is feminist because you are choosing for yourself. The result is a “feminism” that’s not only depoliticized but also desocialized: “feminism” becomes a word to slap onto a choice after the fact, as a way to protect a decision from any criticism.
Unless, of course, you, the reader, choose differently than the writers in the book, and then the condemnation comes down hard. Pornography, high heels, and bikini waxes, prostitution and other forms of sex work, refusing to label yourself as a feminist, plastic surgery, sexual submission, and reading 50 Shades of Grey: all these are listed as crimes against humanity, betrayals against the sisterhood.
I’ve advocated, here, collectivity. But there’s a difference between collectivity and the kind of “sisterhood” advocated in Fifty Shades of Feminism, which is simply self-interest in a social guise. Beware the woman going on and on about the sisterhood. She’s likely to be the first one to stick the knife in the moment your back is turned.
July 14, 2014
Image: from Germaine Dulac's film "The Seashell and the Clergyman"
The struggle for the recognition of women filmmakers is as old as cinema itself. In July’s issue of Bookslut, Jenny McPhee writes about Tami Williams’s biography of one of the first women filmmakers, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations:
Despite her exemplary career, during which she was compared to such cinema luminaries and innovators as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir, Dulac experienced erasure both during her life and after her death. Over a century later, women directors are still grossly underrepresented in the film industry, women's stories dismissed as unbankable by producers, and it is still unacceptable.
For more on Germaine Dulac and the question of “female authorship” in cinema, here are a few suggestions:
In her essential book on women filmmakers and feminist theory, The Woman at the Keyhole, Judith Mayne writes about the reinvention of film through cinematic narration, which is more than relevant when it comes to the representation of women and female desire. In her chapter “Revising the ‘Primitive’” Mayne writes about the different narrative modes juxtaposed in Germaine Dulac’s 1922 film La souriante Madame Beudet / The Smiling Madame Beudet.
Like the narrators of the early cinema, Mme Beudet can conjure and dream isolated images, but she cannot construct a narrative. But Dulac, of course, can. The Smiling Madame Beudet brings together a historical moment of the cinema with a particular mode of female consciousness, creating an encounter between the “primitive” cinema and the classical cinema, between a female imagination unable to break out of the duality of home versus public world, of isolated images versus complex narrative, and a more properly classical narrative which offers only the position of the obedient wife. It is in the ironic juxtaposition of these modes that female narration takes shape.
Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema
Rosanna Maule writes about how Germaine Dulac related to the concept of authorship, which only became distinctly and loudly articulated in the late 1950s, when the French New Wave reshaped the dominant film discourse.
Dulac’s preoccupation with defining the filmmaker as an auteur coincides with her effort to characterize cinema as the medium that allows a full expression of human emotions and experiences, as well as a direct rendition of reality. This view of the auteur also enables Dulac to disentangle the figure of the filmmaker-author from a system of representation and signification that identifies the auteur as an enunciative mark of subjective positions, a view that has, as Judith Mayne has remarked, distinctly patriarchal connotations. Dulac never proposed a feminist-oriented or a gender-specific model of the film auteur. However, her films and her writings propose a tactic of disengagement from the premises of the 1920s film and art contexts and offer a viable alternative to the patriarchal affiliation of auteurism with male-informed artistic practices and cultural contexts.
Rosanna Maule, "The Importance of Being a Film Author: Germaine Dulac and Female Authorship" | Senses of Cinema
Maryann De Julio takes a closer look at Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman, a rather controversial collaboration with Antonin Artaud. At the center of this film, De Julio says, “lies Dulac’s revolutionary poetics.”
In Surimpressions (2009), a DVD extra that accompanies Alain Virmaux’s revised study of The Seashell and the Clergyman, Tami Williams speaks of the rethinking of gender roles and oppositional acting styles in Dulac’s film, which she relates to the representation of a New Man and a New Woman in many of the Arts after the First World War. We can also see strong evidence of Dulac’s portrayal of women at work in The Seashell and the Clergyman, their tasks incorporated into the rhythm of the film. The scenes in which the maids sweep and dust; the governess enters, bible in hand; and the camera passes in close-up over the maids aligned with the butlers are as carefully choreographed to restore order as were the ballroom dance scenes with couples in embrace and women in décolleté, filmed in sweeping motion and crescendo, to intimate passion and sexual liberation.
Maryann De Julio, "Another Look at Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman" | Senses of Cinema
Germaine Dulac’s writing on film is an important part of her legacy as it contributed to the creation of a film discourse long before the existence of the influential Cahiers du Cinéma. In her text on “Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinégraphie,” Dulac laments the way cinema has been received by her contemporaries, which only comes to emphasize how much cinema today owes her and other innovators alike:
It is rather disturbing to recount the simplistic way in which we greeted its manifestations. At first, the cinema was for us nothing but a photographic means to reproduce the mechanical movement of life; the word “movement” evoked in our minds only the banal vision of animated people and things, going, coming, or shaking with no other concern than to let them develop within the borders of the screen, when it was instead necessary to consider movement in its mathematical and philosophical essence.
The sight of the indescribable Vincennes train arriving in the station was enough to satisfy us, and no one at that time dreamed that in it a new means for sensibility and the intellect to express themselves lay hidden. No one ventured to discover these means on the other side of the realistic images of a commonly photographed scene.
No one sought to know if within the apparatus of the Lumière brothers there lay, like an unknown and precious metal, an original aesthetic; content to domesticate it by making it a tributary of past aesthetics, we disdained any careful examination of its possibilities.
UbuWeb has archived two of Germaine Dulac’s films: La coquille et le clergyman / The Seashell and the Clergyman and L’invitation au voyage.
July 13, 2014
Image: We published an interview with Pamela Bannos about Vivian Maier. After it went up, I started to look at Bannos's own photographic work and fell in love. This is from her "Micro" series.
Weekend Recommended Reading
- Have you been wondering what to do, now that I've cooled it on all of the anti-marriage conversations with Against Marriage author Bruce Benderson? One of the things we didn't actually get around to discussing in that interview was his section on how obnoxious the "couple" is. How suddenly your newly coupled friend is no longer available for one-on-ones, how insular and self-contained couples are, often leading to a kind of apoliticism, because now all that matters is the couple's comfort. It de-radicalizes you. Well, luckily, Hannah Black is here with a very good essay on the couple, and how the couple is now how society is ordered, and that to not be in a couple is to be removed in many ways from society as a whole.
- It's John Dee's birthday. How are you going to celebrate? Wrench the horn off of a live bull (good fucking luck) to construct a magical Trumpet of Black Venus? Skrying your enemy's location? Studying up on the language of angels? Or just create a magic circle to drink inside of it, any of these are acceptable.
- Random book recommendation: I complained to Sara Kramer at NYRB Books that I had run out of things to read, and she sent me Olivia Manning. Bless her. And maybe, if things get set up this way, it was Olivia Manning who opened up the door to me heading to Bucharest with her The Balkan Trilogy. I read it on a trip that was not going as planned, and it kept me sane. Soap opera good with the painful, disillusioned marriage at its center, but also incredibly smart about politics in Central Europe in the lead up to Nazi Germany's domination. Now that I'm on another trip that is not going as planned (I was supposed to be out of here several weeks ago, but things have gone sideways and it'll be weeks still before I can go), having her sequel, The Levant Trilogy, is great comfort.
July 9, 2014
"Andrew Solomon is here in Romania."
We had been discussing the big Romanian release of The Noonday Demon, his big nonfiction book about depression, and my friend was asking me if she should read it. I told her: only if you think prescription medication for depression is the way to go. It had been a rare thing when it was released, a thoughtful book on depression, so it was easier to overlook its many flaws. Now there are many very good books about depression, it can be safely ignored.
But now today I am remembering my response to her telling me Solomon was in Bucharest: "I bet he's only here for a few days but he writes about the state of Romania anyway."
Yesterday Andrew Solomon's piece about the state of Romania went up at the New Yorker. He was in the country for six days, which, come on, isn't even enough time to get the jet lag off of you. Funnily enough, he found exactly what he expected to find: that Romania is a backwards, dirty, horrible place.
"I had hoped she might not be entirely right, that this European source of the family would be at least picturesque, that I’d have a surprising sense of identification with the place. I didn’t know how despondent it would make me to imagine being trapped in that life. I’ve reported from war zones and deprived societies for decades, but they have always been profoundly other, and this felt shockingly accessible—I could have been born here, and lived and died like this."
At first I was shocked that the New Yorker published this, as Solomon shows no historical understanding, let alone understanding of Romania's current situation. He also presents America and himself as shining beacons of hope to the poor Romanians, like some sort of Christian missionary among the savages. But then I remembered this piece the New York Times wrote about Ecuador a year ago, and I realized it wasn't surprising at all.
In it, Ecuador is also presented as squalid and backwards, although the reasoning is this:
"There are only three laptops and two desktop computers on display at the store in one of Quito’s top malls, plus two iPads, an iPad mini and a couple of iPods. The tiny shop is nowhere near the size of one of Apple’s flagship emporia in New York or other major cities."
Guys. They don't even have an Apple store. Which is obviously baseline for livability. The article did not use the term "third world" but you can hear it sneering through the text.
This isn't about shaming two travel writers, it's more that travel writing is in a very bad place. It seems to have divided into two camps, one where it's all about the self, the crazy thing that happened to me, and the exotic country is just dramatic backdrop. This camp is mostly populated by women. Then there is the colonial travel writer, who doesn't speak the language, has no real ties or sense of the history beyond a Wikipedia page, but comes back to tell people about how it is there. This camp is mostly populated by men. This is not because women are more self-involved or men are more chauvinist, it's because women writers are encouraged and groomed to write about certain things, and vice versa. Women are supposed to be self-reflective, men are supposed to be experts, that is just the way things are set up right now.
(There is an interesting variation in the self travel writing, bro writers who go off to Cambodia, who think that because they go zip-lining through the jungle and have avoided getting an office job, they are somehow living heroic lives. Timothy Ferriss is this travel writer's patron saint.)
The result is some terrible travel writing. There are travel writers working today who I think are brilliant, and I will tell anyone who will sit still long enough all the ways Stasiuk's On the Road to Babadag is amazing. But for the most part, the travel writing that I read is not only shallow but also prejudiced and chauvinist. People going to places they don't understand and don't feel they need to try to.
(Here is usually where someone says "John Jeremiah Sullivan" as an example of contemporary travel writing's greatness, but I will counter with, "Read his Ireland piece." He just lines up every cliche about Irish travel writing, one by one: James Joyce, genealogy, the Famine, small local pubs, tweed caps. Contemporary Ireland is a very interesting and complicated place, economically and culturally and politically, which is not something you would know from reading Sullivan's piece.)
What is needed is a travel writing revival, writing like Stasiuk or Geert Mak's In Europe. Thoughtful, immersive work that smashes cliches and the images we have of what certain places are like before we even go. Travel writers who if they find exactly what they expected when they go somewhere question why that might be. Travel writers who have more than six days in a country before they start telling us about how the whole thing works.
July 8, 2014
I have a new Reading the Tarot column at Ohio Edit, this time it is the Seven of Swords.
(The image to the left is from the Dali-designed tarot, and it's one of the few versions of this particular card that I like. Seven of Swords is a card that often times remains elusive, you see people on forums and so on expressing their frustration with how the card remains opaque to them, or about how those little manuals that come with tarot decks have very unsatisfying explanations for what the card means. I've been told in various readings, "oh, someone is stealing from you," when they were not. Theft is often how the card is interpreted, and yet the astrological correlation is the Moon in Aquarius: essentially making your home outside of the collective. At any rate, feel free to disagree strongly with my take on the card.)
In the Seven of Swords, we leave the group. A man runs from the town with swords thrown over his shoulder, and what he is running towards is mostly blank space. It’s empty because he hasn’t created what will be there yet. If this is his first departure, he might not know that he’ll have to do this, as he’s become accustomed to someone else creating and maintaining the world for him.
A person on the margins has to live by his or her wits, which is maybe why this card is focused on the trickster element of our hero. When there are no hands extended, you are forced to take what you can get. Mercury, the ruler of pickpockets and smugglers and border crossers. Those who, when the authority says no, do it anyway. Those who know if they wait for a handout, they’ll be here all week.
But what are you going to do with your distance? Will you use your outside perspective to get a good look at the faults and deficiencies of the system and help those left behind who might not even know that they are trapped, or are you going to just plot raids? That taking what you can get thing will only get you so far, and besides, the more you take, the more you become a taker. You fought so hard not to be defined by your surroundings, do you really want to define yourself now by that?
July 7, 2014
Here to disprove the notion that the only thing to read in the summer is books about girls having relationship problems that are wrapped up in 200 candy coated pages and I don't know, men who kill things with swords and ride on horses or whatever happens in fantasy these days, we have the July issue of Bookslut. Go read!
July 6, 2014
Image: Young Decadent After the Ball by Ramon Casas
Weekend Recommended Reading
I ran out of books to read, somehow. After I finished Jackie Wang's Against Innocence, I realized, oh shit, that's all I've got. I went to the Bucharest English language bookshop, but nothing was speaking to me except some very heavy, $80 art books, but I have a plane to get on in three weeks and I'm already approaching the weight limit, thanks to other idiotic purchases. I kept wanting things that were either unlikely (Claudio Magris books that I haven't read, books about the history of the Reformation) or don't exist at all (the unwritten books of Shirley Jackson and Jane Bowles).
I will try again at another English language bookshop this week, perhaps I'll be better motivated by increased desperation. I have three weeks left in Bucharest, and I already read the Jamie Oliver cookbook someone left here, the only book in English in this place. Ask me how to whip up a healthy meal that will please your entire family in only 20 minutes, go ahead, ask me. I fucking dare you.
- "Rape as Metaphor" by Rebecca Brown. Rebecca Brown has been one of my favorite writers for ages. This review of two opera performances in Seattle shows why I like her so much. The way she matches a poetic style with bluntness, the way her writing is beautiful while still retaining a solid philosophical and moral core. I mean: "An amoral hit man is not someone I should be drawn to, but Silvestrelli's burr was just so butterscotchy. Nadine Sierra, in her Seattle Opera debut, portrays Gilda as somehow, even after her sexual violation, innocent. Maybe Gilda is one of those women who, post–sexual trauma, constructs herself an explanation of her rape as, well, a metaphor? Or a rite of passage one must take for "love"? Maybe rape, in addition to being a physical fact always, is in some way not only an example of but also a metaphor for abuse of power?"
Will now be using "butterscotchy" in 28% of my sentences.
- Here is "Against Innocence,"(PDF) Jackie Wang's essay that I was reading in chapbook form. Wang presents our need for innocent victims of state or institutionalized brutality (Troy Davis, Trayvon Martin) before we can feel empathy for them and see how they were victimized. It argues for complication and nuance. It's pretty great.
- Speaking of Rebecca Brown, just a note about Spolia. Bookslut is often praised for giving attention to under-appreciated and obscure writers. But it can be tough to go from one review of a writer who is not being talked about elsewhere to investing $25 for their book. Which is part of the reason why I started Spolia, to give you a sampler of what is going on in the margins. Which is maybe a good way to look at it, a $5 sampler to the writers you may hear of here but are not sure if you're sold on. Rebecca Brown, for example, wrote us a wonderful poem for "Hysteria." (they and/or it desired things / they and/or it saw or not saw / they wanted deep and longed and tried and / wanted in the mouth // the thing had a mouth) Also, wonderfully, she is sending us a story for our Henry James Tribute Album.
If you want to check it out, but aren't convinced, email me and I'll send you a free copy of one of our back issues.
- Your random book recommendation for the day: All books. Remember books? When they were in English and within reach? And not in Romanian? And any would do? I miss those days. Please bring those days back. And appreciate the books in the language that you read that are within reach, all of them.
July 4, 2014
In June’s issue of Bookslut, Lightsey Darst invites us to do The Anne Carson Workout: to think about The Albertine Workout, about Proust’s work, about Proust’s life, to consider the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, and yes, even to wonder about the type of workout Anne Carson prefers.
Here’s Anne Carson reading from The Albertine Workout:
In an interview for The Paris Review, Carson’s line “I want to be unbearable” (from her poem “Stanzas, Sexes, Seduction”) leads to a brief discussion about her being in a boxing class.
Yukio Mishima famously admonished intellectuals for not taking care of their bodies, for always putting the mind first. Sun and Steel is Mishisma’s ode to muscle and action.
In the dim light of early morning I was running, one of a group. A cotton towel with the symbol of a red sun on it was tied about my forehead, and I was stripped to the waist in the freezing air. Through the common suffering, the shared cries of encouragement, the shared pace, and the chorus of voices, I felt the slow emergence, like the sweat that gradually beaded my skin, of that “tragic” quality that is the affirmation of identity. It was a flame of the flesh, flickering up faintly beneath the biting breeze—a flame, one might almost say, of nobility. The sense of surrendering one’s body to a cause gave new life to the muscles. We were united in seeking death and glory; it was not merely my personal quest.
Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel
Unlike Mishima, Haruki Murakami cherishes the alone time that running offers him:
I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Another writer who has praised the benefits of running is Joyce Carol Oates. She writes:
Running! If there's any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can't think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who's a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.
Joyce Carol Oates, "To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet" | The New York Times
July 2, 2014
An Interview with Pamela Bannos
Image by Henry Darger, another Chicago artist who was not celebrated until after death
When I wanted someone to clear up some of the questions I had about Vivian Maier's archive and the trouble I was having in piercing through this dreamy storyline of the nanny/secret photographer, sad spinster rescued by her male archivists that had been constructed, I asked Pamela Bannos. A photographer and a writer and a professor, Bannos is working on her own take on the Vivian Maier story, one that was not designed specifically to sell Maier's work at high prices.
Because while we can appreciate her work, and marvel at the story of a photographer who was hiding the brilliant art she was making in an age of self-promotion twitter feeds and "platform," it is discomforting when an artist becomes mythologized, and when that myth is baldly used to move product. Particularly when we are dealing with a female artist mythologized by men and using patronizing ideas of womanhood to do it.
Pamela Bannos is working on her own book about Vivian Maier, while also teaching at Northwestern and producing and showing her own photographic work. We spoke over email about Bannos's attempts to gain access to the full Maier archive, the rescue narrative put forth by the dealers of Maier's work, and why all of the emphasis on Maier's spinster nanny life. For more about Vivian Maier and her complicated legacy, see the "Disappearance" issue of our sister magazine, Spolia.
I was wondering if you could brief us about who owns what and who profits from what.
According to John Maloof, he owns more than 100,000 negatives; 20-30,000 color slides; many reels of motion picture footage; audio tapes; and more than 3,000 vintage prints. Jeffrey Goldstein owns around 18-20,000 negatives and slides, around 1,000 vintage prints, and multiple reels of motion picture footage. Ron Slattery owns several thousand vintage prints and an undisclosed amount of negatives and slides. John Maloof also sold around 200 Vivian Maier negatives on eBay before he understood that what he had was special; those are in the hands of individuals in several countries and a dozen states. All of this is what I call “Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive.”
All three of the major collectors have sold Maier’s vintage prints, which currently retail for upwards of several thousand dollars. Howard Greenberg Gallery, who sells Maloof’s collection, has a 5x7” print listed at $12,000.
Maloof and Goldstein both sell posthumous prints from Maier’s negatives -- and they both put their own signatures on the backs of these prints. The 12”x12” prints, originally ranging from $1,800-3,000 in an edition of fifteen, currently start at $2,200 and sell out at more than $4,000 each.
I don’t imagine that it would be easy to donate a bulk of work like this to a major institution; I’m not aware of any museums that make prints from negatives for display, they typically show vintage prints or contemporary reproductions under the guidance of the artist. Also, I haven’t heard of any institution critically weighing in on it.
The people who acquired Maier’s work were all in the business of selling; they are all acknowledged flea market pickers who have engaged in resale. This explains to me why the work has been handled the way that it has. Jeffrey Goldstein, who acquired his trove after the work gained worldwide attention, has stated that he paid a total of $90,000 in four separate acquisitions. He then acquired the URL vivianmaierprints.com.
When you say that the way the archive has been treated can be attributed in part to the fact that the men who own the prints and negatives are flea market pickers, what do you mean by that? And what would be the ideal home, in your view, for the archive?
I mean they acquired the work with the intention of selling it. Resellers also attend the sort of auction where Maier’s divided storage locker contents were sold.
I feel conflicted about Maier’s archive in general. This was a very private woman who chose not to share her personal life or her photography. That apparently is what has made her into a “mystery woman.” The selective editing of her work has perpetuated her mystery. After viewing more than 20,000 of Maier’s negatives and prints, a different photographer emerged for me than the one first presented by John Maloof. I feel intensely uncomfortable with the way that he has presented her personal belongings alongside her photographic history -- putting her shoes on display, and laying out her blouses in his movie, for example. I think he’s done a good job of transforming her into a cult figure and fetishizing her objects follows that model. I don’t know how any of that would fit into a traditional concept of an archive. From a photographic standpoint, I think that since Maloof stated that his intention was to get her work in museums, the photographic legacy should be open to study. In terms of an ideal home for the archive, in this unusual case of its scattered state, I would advocate for a digital aggregate of the negatives and vintage prints. I would argue that the two-dozen or so individuals who own her negatives should keep them, but with the images contained in one digital archive.
There's this idea that Maier was plucked from obscurity, but she seemed to have opportunities to show and sell her work during her life and she chose not to, isn't that correct? It was more like, she didn't want to for her own reasons. That seems to me to set up this rescue white-knight narrative with the men who bought her negatives and that makes me uncomfortable. Is there a better way to talk about these so-called lost artists who aren't discovered until after their deaths?
I believe that before Maier came to Chicago in 1956 she had intentions of showing her work and I think that she did get paid for some early work. Her vintage prints are overwhelmingly from her New York years. I agree that she then chose not to show or share her work from the time that she arrived in Chicago and for the rest of her life. And I agree that there is an uncomfortable hero aspect to the story of her work’s resurrection. For me, this rescuer narrative is furthered by arguments that state how lucky we are that the work was not lost or destroyed, therefore denying us of witnessing her brilliance. One writer suggested that if Maier didn’t want the work to be available for our viewing, she wouldn’t have saved it all; and she was saving it for us.
You didn't see this same storyline of "rescue" with the work of someone like, say, Henry Darger. His posthumous attention also wasn't filtered through the person who advocated for the work. And if Maier herself was the person choosing not to show her work, how would that complicate the storyline that is put forth in the documentary about her?
I think that you’re right in implying that John Maloof has presented himself alongside Vivian Maier throughout her emergence. He has chosen which of her work to share, and he is positioned as her savior. And in further mingling and switching the focus, I don’t think the movie is a documentary about Vivian Maier at all -- it is a film about John Maloof and his quest to “find” Maier. He states early on that his interest is in getting her work into museums, and then spends the bulk of the film exploring her quirky and then troublesome personality. A more fair account of Maier and her photography -- and an actual documentary film about her -- is Jill Nicholls’s movie made for the BBC television series, Imagine (Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?) It presents other collectors than Maloof (who refused to participate) and also gives voice to people who interacted with Maier in the photo world. But you’re right about the conflict of fairness in presenting the work and story of someone who deliberately chose not to share them.
Also, is it the story of Maier or the work that people are responding to? They seem to be so tied in together. One doesn't really encounter her work without encountering her story. Would the work hold as much appeal if it was not attached to this idea of the poor genius woman who died in obscurity?
Her work was first shared outside the context of her biography, but the unknown artist aspect was always attached to the images and I think that generated curiosity in the work. I do think that the first shared images held up on their own; the people who convinced Maloof to stop selling her negatives on eBay did not know her story, but they did know that there was a huge body of work. Incidentally, she was still living during this period of activity. The “reclusive nanny photographer” narrative then brought a different kind of attention to the work. I think the insatiable interest in seeing more unpublished work derives from the cultivated mystery of her story.
I've been writing a lot about spinsters lately, and I think the Maier story we've been told lines up with what we prefer to believe about unmarried women, that they were in some way helpless, that they needed this male figure to bring them into the world, and because she didn't find one in life she needs one in death to control her work. We're almost disappointed to learn they maybe preferred their lives this way, maybe they considered their lives to be full. I'm thinking about some things I've read about the idea of Emily Dickinson versus the real life of Dickinson. Does that enter into how we've chosen to discuss Maier the person?
Yes, I think that some people think Maier had a tragic life because she never married and had a family of her own. But she was not unusual within her own family circle, nor was she unique in her avocation. I have spoken of Maier’s as a woman’s story, and how she lived the legacy of the women before her: her mother was a live-in maid, and her grandmother was a live-in cook. Both left the fathers of their children and lived with others’ families. I believe that Maier’s avocation allowed her to pursue her interest in photography; or, as opposed to the nanny who was also a photographer, I consider her a photographer who also happened to be a nanny.
What is your own personal interest in this case? What made you first decide to pursue this as a subject of research?
I am an artist who is interested in how changing stories obscure history. I’ve done several web-based and site-specific projects about this, most notably, one called “Hidden Truths”. I am also a photographer that has been teaching for more than twenty years. I became involved with the Vivian Maier story in 2012 when Chicago’s public television station called my university looking for an “expert” to respond to the question of whether Vivian Maier’s work was derivative of other photographers’. I set out to answer the question by studying hundreds of photographs that were available online. I studied Maier’s shooting strategies and locations, placing her at the entrance to New York’s Museum of Modern Art while the 1952 exhibition “Five French Photographers” hung inside. I speculated that she had seen the exhibition and that it may have influenced her. After the TV program aired, Jeffrey Goldstein and Ron Slattery gave me full access to their collections. I immediately understood that the split-up archive had led to a misunderstanding of her work and motivations. John Maloof has dubbed all of his online Maier presences as “official,” leading to an illusion of definitive authority. But he is wrong about some fundamental things and other specific details because he hasn’t seen the other collections. There is a lot still missing in Maier’s story that continues to unfold.
In addition to the forensic study of Vivian Maier’s photographs, I have been chronicling the posthumous phenomenon of her discovery and recognition, which is largely traceable online. Shifting stories, inaccurate reporting, and genuine misunderstanding have led to a distortion of the timeline that reveals this process. My research is culminating in a book-length study of Maier’s life as a third generation live-in servant who saw herself first and foremost as a photographer. It is also unraveling the posthumous story, which deserves a thorough understanding to accurately honor Vivian Maier’s life and legacy.
Is the archive blocking or at least discouraging academic or other viewpoints about Maier's work and life from coming out? You said they've refused to cooperate with your own work on Maier, do you have any sense on why that might be?
Last year I visited the Lisette Model fonds at the National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa. The collection presents a coherent and cohesive archive of Model’s life and work and reveals a multi-faceted individual. The selective sharing of the multiple parts of Maier’s archive has encouraged the concept of “the Vivian Maier mystery.” Yes, it is blocking and discouraging other viewpoints of the woman and her work than those that have been perpetuated by the holders of her legacy. After my viewing of the entire Jeffrey Goldstein collection, I disagreed with assertions made about the woman and her work coming from both major collectors’ camps. Goldstein has now collaborated twice on books with Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. I’ve publicly disputed facts and interpretations of her work as presented in their first book. I’m also intent on untangling the twisted facts of Maier’s posthumous emergence; that’s apparently gotten in the way of my access to Maloof’s collection. As conflicted as I am over my own interest in learning more about this private woman who has become so public, I feel that her life and legacy deserve an accurate portrayal.
Pamela Bannos utilizes methods of research that highlight the forgotten and overlooked, exploring the links between visual representation, urban space, history and collective memory. An exhibiting artist since the 1980s, Bannos has shown her photographic works nationally and internationally, including in solo exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, England (1992), and the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York (2003). Her art practice has branched out from photographic works that incorporate found imagery to also include research projects that culminate in site-specific and/or web-based presentations. PamelaBannos has taught photography at Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice since 1993. She has a BA in Psychology & Sociology from Drake University, and an MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
July 1, 2014
Excerpt from "The Vivian Mire"
by Dmitry Samarov
There has never been a discovery quite like Vivian Maier and there may never be one quite like her again. Everyone who happens upon it can find a piece or an angle that appeals or that they can identify with. The kind of privacy she kept to do her work may never be possible again in our over-surveilled age. To make a lifetime’s body of work and not share it with anyone is anathema to our times and that makes it that much more attractive. Why didn’t she show someone what she spent every free waking moment doing?
Chicago photographer Rachel Freundt says, “She had what all photographers have, something called ‘the hungry eye.’ Sometimes feeding the hungry eye is more about eating than digesting. A photographer just has to take photos, and it’s more about the act itself than viewing or even sharing the results. Some photographers I know wait a day or two to really look at their photos, and even then they might never put them online, or whatever form they share their photos.” But doesn’t the fact that she saved and stored those hundreds of thousands of images imply that she wanted others to see them in some way?
Artists’ lives have been romanticized, mythologized and confabulated since time immemorial. They’re special, they’re crazy, they’re not like us. Whether putting them on a pedestal is an honor or simply a way not to have to share the thoroughfare or not allowing that the average person has all the same concerns, the idea that an artist is different seems sacrosanct. Throw in a proletarian day job and some secrecy and what you have are the makings of a legend. Whatever your feelings about publicity, marketing or hucksterism, most who have seen even a small sample of Maier’s output will agree that it is compelling enough to command attention. What we have thus far seen falls into two main categories: original prints (made during her lifetime) and posthumous prints (made by master printers hired by Maloof and Goldstein).
Most of the originals are small, 5x7 or 8x10 inches commonly. They were printed by Maier herself, often in the bathrooms of her residences, or by drugstores or other commercial printers. The quality varies but is rarely a master’s work. Maier’s strength was finding her subjects and shooting.
Although she made many of her pictures with a Rolleiflex, which produces a square negative, she often cropped the images she chose to print. There are thousands of examples. Usually, she would cut in as close as she could to her human subjects at the expense of the landscape or surroundings. Whether this enhanced or took away from her photos is a matter of taste, but the fact that this cropping was an aesthetic choice can’t really be argued.
The posthumous prints are larger, usually 12x12 inches; gelatin silver prints on good paper and beautifully framed, there is no denying that these are blue-chip art objects. It’s doubtful that Maier would have allowed herself to splurge this way. By all accounts, she spent every spare cent on the next roll of film, chasing the next shot rather than reveling in what she already had.
To read the rest of this essay, please see our sister magazine Spolia's "Disappearance" issue.