Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I've never confessed anything

This summer, a girlfriend asked me in hushed tones if I knew what squirting was, and do I squirt. I didn't know, and I don't (not yet, anyway).

Here's an irony: (almost) everything I know about squirting I've learned from men. I don't know one woman who squirts, but then, I haven't asked all my female friends — it's not a socially comfortable question.

And that pisses me off, like it's men's secret knowledge, in their control. It pisses me off because I'm already pressured to be the perfect lover with the perfect body and have orgasms the way they're portrayed in porn (I don't watch porn, I suspect I'm still not doing it right), and now I'm supposed to squirt too.

So Sexographies, by Gabriela Wiener, is wow. She writes about squirting.

She also writes about polygyny, dominatrix techniques, swinger clubs, Isabel Allende, egg donation, and ayahuasca. I want to go drinking with her.

This essay collection has the distinction of being one of the few books whereupon having read a review of it, I rushed out to get myself a copy.

Wiener writes from first-hand experience. You may call her adventurous, a bit of risk-taker. But she's also aware and reflective. [I wish I had the guts to live the life required to write this book.] She takes ayahuasca, she submits to a dominatrix, she lives (for a couple weeks) with a sex guru and his six wives, she finds someone to make her squirt.

In an essay on body image, she writes:
If my lovers or friends are ugly, I think they make me uglier by association. The same goes for what I write. What I write always makes me uglier. I won't go into my hatred for good writers who are also marvelously hot. I've got several of them buried in my backyard. Beauty kills, no? For Bataille, "Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it.... The greater the beauty, the more it is befouled.
[What do I think is beautiful? What am I attracted to? How do I profane it? How am I profaned?]

I love that Wiener namechecks Bataille, Bolaño, Emmanuel Carrère. I was surprised to so thoroughly enjoy reading about Isabel Allende. Once upon a time I loved her books, but I grew out of them. Allende is a popstar, somewhat disparaged in literary circles. But Wiener reminds us that her books are valuable: "Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body." Her work is belittled for being domestic. Thank god, at least she is popular.

Allende once said, "I learned how to be feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done." Maybe not every woman wants to be all three; but a woman should be able to be whatever the fuck she wants. Perhaps Wiener sees in herself some of the same qualities Allende wields — Allende played the lead role in her "adventure-reportages," a feminist gonzo journalist ahead of her time.

Wiener inserts herself into all her stories. This is her strength. This is where authenticity comes from. She does not write about a subject; she writes about her relationship to a subject. [I like to think I write the same way.]

We need to write with frankness, without excuses. We need to say, this is what matters (and this, and this, no matter how silly or small, this can matter too), this is what it means to be alive.

It's Wiener's essay on motherhood that gutted me, brought me to tears. I read this entire collection of essays against the backdrop of the senate committee hearing regarding Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the US Supreme Court. My reality was a little more ghastly thanks to this juxtaposition. How hard it is for a woman to be frank, particularly regarding sexual matters, where men still have so much power — it's men who shape the truth and the law and the value of sex.

We stress over raising our girls right, to be confident and assertive of their rights and to be whoever they need to be. The world might be a better place if we agonized half so much over how we raise our boys.
My daughter is an intelligent girl, she learns new things every day; she draws portraits of Chinese emperors, she writes three-line novels, and she also just became a fan of Elvis.

Sometimes people ask me if I'm scared of her reading the things that I've published, the things I've "confessed."

I've never confessed anything. There's something perverse in the word "confession." Within it lives the word "guilt." I usually reply that I'm not afraid because I know my daughter knows the value of truth.
LARB: I Never Got the Knack of Fidelity: On Gabriela Wiener’s “Crónicas”
L'Officiel USA: "self-taught chronicler of intimacy and sexuality"
On the Sea Wall
Underrated Reads

#Noespis (in Spanish)
The Greater the Beauty, the More It Is Befouled
Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Afterlife
On Motherliness
From This Side and from That Side

For a discussion of how do we square sexual fulfillment and freedom from unwanted sexual advances, see Why We Need Erotica (framed around a review of Pauline Réage's Story of O), which says so well what I want to say.
When we ignore or demean consensual BDSM erotica, or stories about female sexual submission, we inadvertently contribute to a cultural legacy that routinely pathologizes, demeans, or erases women’s sexual desires.
This is why you should read Gabriela Wiener. This is why women should talk about squirting.
Until we are brave enough to investigate it [female sexuality] unflinchingly — without turning it into a pathology, without pitting it against feminist movements — women will not be able to achieve sexual liberation.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The light picks everything out of the void

Poland had, in its habitual way, once again ceased to exist.
If you know anything about Polish history, that line should make you laugh. Or maybe cry.

This is the great appeal for me of reading Polish fiction. It gathers me into its fold. I may not be an insider, but I'm not an outsider. It connects me to my history. Sometimes I learn a thing or two to buttress my Polishness.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski writes crime thrillers set in contemporary Poland. It is unabashedly "genre" fiction, and as such it captures common life in a way "literary" authors don't; Olga Tokarczuk, for example, may give voice to Poland's soul, but Miłoszewski conveys the noise of its hair and clothes. Similarly, when Louise Penny writes about Montreal, I feel the comfort of recognition; when I read Miłoszewski it fosters the familiarity with Poland I wish I had.

I'm not saying that's the case on every page, but it's what I want when I reach for Miłoszewski's books, and it's what I get in just the right dose.

If I'm a Pole, it's good for me to know that this is what the Polish character is:
The average American starts off by taking everything at face value. The average Pole is convinced from day one that everyone's trying to screw him, cheat him, stab him in the back, and declare war. As a result, they never let down their defenses, which is handy at the front, but a major obstacle when you're trying to conduct a secret operation right under their noses.
Priceless, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is a standalone thriller (a departure from his series featuring State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki) about an art heist (my favourite kind of thriller*). It's one of the greatest heists in history — countless masterpieces the Nazis stole from Poland during WWII. And evidence has surfaced attesting to the fact that Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man has been preserved.

According to the Economist, the Polish ministry of foreign affairs:
maintains an inventory of approximately 60,000 works of art, listed as stolen from Poland by Nazi forces during the second world war. And this figure could be only the tip of the iceberg. Immediately after the war, Polish authorities estimated that roughly half a million works of art had been stolen or destroyed. According to a recent article in Wprost, a weekly, the 124 most sought-after stolen Polish art pieces are worth somewhere in the region of $200m.
The article confirms the approach to negotiation for the return of artwork as explained in Priceless — Poland will not pay a grosz for it, in accordance with official government policy, as the paintings are the true property the Polish state. The art should no longer be hostage.

The novel's plot concerns the mission to recover the Raphael, but the team of experts uncovers a conspiracy to keep it hidden, which points to the much deeper conspiracy behind it concerning who pulled the strings of world power in the 1930s.
"Maybe I know history too well; sometimes too much knowledge is a a curse. Put it like this: If I had a time machine and could stand by Hitler's cradle, I'd say to his parents, 'Find him a good art teacher, otherwise he'll be unhappy and nasty.' But if I could stand by Himmler's cradle, I'd wait for his parents to leave the room and strangle the baby without batting an eye."
The characters are a lot of fun, all with great backstories. One of my favourites is old granny Olga, eyewitness to political shenanigans and wartime devastation, renowned for her amorous conquests. In her room hangs a movie poster for Tarkovsky's Solaris. It must be the same one I have on my wall, though hers is signed by Lem with a dedication.

Priceless is a well-paced, original thriller full of history, humour, and grace. And art.
"Painting is light. It's simple physics. The light picks everything out of the void, and reflects off everything in various ways, and that's what produces colors. Painting is an attempt to render that fleeting moment when an infinite number of rays of light reflect off the world and land in the eye."

*I mean, who even buys stolen art? What do they do with it? And where can I get me some?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

So plausibly finite

She kisses his knuckles. One to eight. And then again, one to ten, because she forgot the thumbs. Bobby stops her there. When did these gestures become so plausibly finite? How many more kisses do they have left? How many more new moons? Paul Bowles knew the danger that comes from counting. "Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really." The Sheltering Sky. John Lehmann Limited, 1949.
This series, at a planned 27 volumes, is not so plausibly finite.

The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is another trip and a half. It picks up where A Rainy Day in May left off (May 10, 2014) and runs a little more than a month.

We learn that while the cat looks like a kitten, it may be as old as fifteen years, it may be ancient. It's also microchipped — it's identified as a deceased dog.

This volume is less chaotic structurally than its predecessor, but seemingly chaotic things happen. It is addictive. It is magnificent.

Xanther is developing some kind of symbiotic relationship with the creature — they need to be together. Yet, I feel, Xanther needs to return it to its source (or its destination) — where it truly belongs. Weird things happen at the animal shelter.

Astair is having some kind of crisis of sexual awareness. Also, her thesis has been rejected. She's to write about cats — rather, the cat. She doesn't even like cats.

Anwar goes bowling. And something weird happens.

Özgür, I like him, tormented detective type. Something called Synsnap. Three dead bodies in Long Beach. I want Özgür to have a real story.

And Luther's in some nasty shit, they (who?) want him dead. Something weird happens. But he's an asshole. Why do I feel sympathetic toward him?
Is feeling a casualty of accuracy?
Then there are the stories I don't much care about: Jingjing's missing cat, cabdriver Shnorkh, and I don't know what Isandorno's thread is about except the Mayor dropped the baby into the deep fryer.

I don't know what it's about.

I think it's about the Orb. Are they on the run, or is it some kind of cult? Does the Orb actually go off when Cas is hiding with it in the bathtub? I don't think so, but it's kind of like something's gone off. But then it does go off. It's some kind of computer, designed by the Sorceror. Anwar knows the Sorceror.

NPR: 'The Familiar Vol. 2' Is Better, Stronger ... Weirder
Danielewski is deliberately using this stone-simple through-line of a girl, a cat, a family, as a clothesline from which he can hang ten thousand freak-outs.
I was sad but also relieved to learn that this show has been cancelled. I have Volume 3 queued up, and at least now I have a hope in hell of getting to the end.

What I love most is the feeling of realizing that I hadn't known how badly I needed this. The sense that everything is connected.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The mothers of all calamities: screw Paradise anyway

"Why are they so sad?" my daughter asks at the museum in front of Adam and Eve Expelled from Paradise. Because they've been expelled from Paradise. Who expelled them? God expelled them. Why did he do it? Because Eve gave Adam a forbidden apple. And who gave it to her? A serpent who was the devil. And why did he give it to Eve and not to Adam? It's an important question. It's the question. For a moment, I am stumped. The Book of Genesis may be more far-fetched than Sleeping Beauty, but a feminist mother should still be able to answer a question of that caliber. Lena looks at me with her expectant seven-year-old eyes twinkling the way they do every time she works her implacable logic against me.

When she was only two, she stole my pads and, dying of laughter, stuck them on her back like two fragile wings before running off. She had no idea her pale wings would one bear her own blood. Now she's better informed, especially since I was foolish enough to show her a video of a natural birth. Since then she is adamant that she will not have children. I tell her that if having children ever makes any sense to her, the pain will be the least of her problems, but that if she really doesn't want to, she will absolutely be within her rights not to do it. And then I drag her to pro-choice marches or protests against gender violence, and when she gets bored of my proclamations, I remind her of our conversation in the museum in front of the painting. I remind her of the absurd story they've been telling women for generation after generation — a story that casts us as the witches, the ribs, the confused ones, the guilty ones, the weak ones, the mothers of all calamities. That's why, I say to my daughter, we need to tell each other different stories, ones that are truer, fairer, more ours; like the story where we are friends with the serpent and screw Paradise anyway.
— from "On Motherliness," in Sexographies, by Gabriela Wiener.

The painting pictured here is not the one Gabriela and her daughter looked at, but the sadness persists. It's imbued with naivete, a childlike wonder, and mystery that, to my eyes, makes it sadder.

Today the United States Senate voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as justice of the Supreme Court.

We need to tell each other different stories.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Remember to breathe

A friend of mine, male, broached the subject of practicing Tantra with me and recommended The Heart of Tantric Sex, by Diana Richardson, as a practical, no-nonsense approach.

I think few people would dismiss the concept of tantra, whether in sex or more generally in life — it calls for more awareness, a reorientation of focus on the journey as opposed to the destination.

[Indeed, the idea of tantra has interested me ever since I encountered something like it at too young an age in Trevanian's Shibumi, in which a couple make a game of attaining orgasm without touching.]

As with all things, so much of what you get out of something depends on the attitude you have going into it. I am a sceptic of what I call "yoga-speak," and I found many passages laughable:
Remember to breathe! Breathe deeply and slowly. When you really get the knack of enjoying breathing, it becomes absolutely divine.
Breath is life-enhancing. Deep breathing massages the sex centre. It activates your sex energy. "However you decide to play with the breath, make it creative and interesting for yourself." When you make love, breath may actually stop momentarily, but don't worry — "the breathing will start up again of its own accord."

A more troubling aspect of yoga-speak is how it confounds the biological heart with its metaphorical sense. Similarly, words like "center" and "polarity" are used but they have no precise definition, let alone a scientific basis. The book is not scientific at all, but sometimes it pretends to be.

This is potentially dangerous.

While I believe in the conservation of energy, and I believe mind has some effect over matter, one should not exclude scientific fact.

For example,
Most women are not aware of this, but after years of heavy sex and forced orgasm, the ovaries and lower belly area become very congested and tense. This begins to disturb the health of a woman and she may find herself having repeated vaginal infections, irritations, or discharges, and it may even affect her urinary system. The breasts, which are not understood in terms of polarity, also begin to get diseases. Her hormones and menstrual cycle are affected too, thus her whole personality is influenced. The effects of these emotions are devastating and can leave a woman and her partners exhausted and confused for days.
While menstruating, it is recommended that the woman assume a position on top of the man to support the menstrual flow by not reversing it, which can have congesting effects. […] A conventional orgasm is known to dispel the tensions of menstrual pain, but this is only a short-term measure as the pain is often a reflection of gathered sexual tensions.
No one should ever dismiss pain as a blockage of energy. Pain, infections, et cetera can be signs of serious underlying medical conditions. While you should feel free to explore sex and its contribution to your overall well-being, sex won't cure everything — for this there are medications and other treatments.

Similarly, emotional behaviours may be a sign of mental illness that merits treatment beyond adjusting one's approach to sex.
Tantra teaches us that the emotional qualities that a man finds most disturbing in a woman are something that he himself actually creates through his insistence on excitement and orgasm. A woman is kept at the lowest level of her sexual expression and obstructed from fulfilling her true female potential. For centuries she had been used as a sexual object, the source of men's gratification. This saddens and enrages her. Over time her untapped divine energies become increasingly dormant and stagnant, while a deep dissatisfaction, disappointment, and lack of love pervades every cell in her body, making her emotionally unstable. Conventional sex, hot, frenzied, and focused on self-gratification, whips up these emotions within, and this triggers sexual excitement, interfering with her ability to be receptive.
I found myself feeling sorry for the author. She seems to harbour a lot of emotional pain and resentment regarding her early, formative sexual experiences. The advice and techniques presented in this book are very common-sensical. Maybe I have a naturally tantric disposition, but I think most women on their journey toward sexual fulfilment organically come to the conclusions this book offers. (Gosh, I hope most women are sexually fulfilled!)

The sex that is promoted is very much geared toward female pleasure. Richardson reminds us that the harder you try to achieve something (orgasm), often the more elusive it becomes. Relaxation is key.

There is a great deal of pleasure to be had in relaxing into sex energy, to luxuriate in being as opposed to doing. However, I don't buy the implied case this book is making that sexual tension is bad, sexual excitement is bad, and the pursuit of the orgasm is some patriarchal conspiracy perpetuated by the porn industry. I don't understand what's wrong with conventional sex.

To bring another layer of skepticism to my reading, Richardson is a disciple of Osho (her bibliography consists of mostly his books), who is steeped in controversy regarding everything from tax evasion to bioterrorism.

Some people may benefit from this book, and it's worth reminding ourselves to relax, enjoy the journey, etc., but I found it simple and misguided, if well intentioned.

Awareness enhances everything in life. I have found this to be especially true of sex — awareness of not only what you like but why like it.
Go to a park and look at a tree. Don't just glance at it, really look. Appreciate the leaves, the green, the aliveness. Now close your eyes and relax for a while. When you open them again, imagine that you are no longer looking at the tree but the tree is looking at you, and invite it into you, through your eyes. See how deeply you can allow the green livingness to enter you. Absorb it into the cells of your body. Then try it with the open blue sky, a puffy cloud, a glorious sunset. Allow yourself to be seen and penetrated by nature. Notice how this practice intensifies your awareness, dissolves your boundaries, increases your sense of connectedness to the rest of the world.
Perhaps I am lucky to already feel a great sense of connectedness with the world.

Monday, September 24, 2018

This petal-based idea

The bodies are fundamentally similar, no mystery there.

But not the vaginas. Those are like fingerprints, in fact they could use those embarrassing organs, which the police have yet to appreciate, for identification — they are absolutely unique. Beautiful as orchids that draw in insects with their shape and colour. What a strange thought — that this botanical mechanism has been preserved somehow even into the era of humankind's development. It would be understating it to say it's been effective. It almost seems to him that nature itself so delighted in this petal-based idea that it became determined to take it further, heedless of the fact that man would wind up with a psyche that would slip out of control and conceal what had been so beautifully developed. Hide it in underwear, in insinuations, in silence.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I posit that much the same could be said for penises — they are like fingerprints (not the whole finger?) — though I haven't seen too many lately, and when I was seeing them more regularly, I wasn't paying them the attention I ought to.

Indeed, people are like fingerprints.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A book is nothing but a cube of hot, smoking conscience.

Some of the letters between Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetayeva reference Pasternak's "A Few Principles," which had been published some years earlier.

Letters: Summer 1926 summarizes and quotes some of these principles to provide background information.
2. Contemporary trends assume that art is like a fountain, when really it is like a sponge.

They have decided that art ought to gush, but it ought, rather, to suck up and absorb.

They assert that art can be divided into categories according to means of representation, when actually it is composed of organs of perception.

Art must always remain among the spectators and see things more clearly, more truthfully, more perceptively than the others, but in our day it has resorted to using face powder and dressing rooms and displaying itself on the stage. It is as if there were two forms of art and one of them, knowing that it holds the other in reserve, allows itself the luxury of perversion, which is tantamount to suicide. It makes a display of itself when it ought to get lost in the top gallery, in anonymity, and be unaware that it cannot help being discovered, that while shrinking in the corner it is afflicted with a glowing translucence, the phosphorescence that goes with certain diseases.

3. A book is nothing but a cube of hot, smoking conscience.

[…] One forgets that the only thing within our power is the ability to keep the voice of truth within us undistorted.

The inability to find and speak the truth is a failing that no talent for speaking the untruth can disguise.
Perhaps art is a fun-house mirror.

You can find some thoughts on these principles at Brain Pickings.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Painting is not thinking, it is the exterioration of thinking

"He began his 'From One to Infinity' project in 1965. In the top left corner of the first canvas, he painted the figure one, then two, then three. By the time he'd reached the bottom right corner he was at, I don't remember, somewhere around thirty thousand. And then he started the next canvas, painting several hundred figures a day like that for the next forty-five years. At first it might have been eccentricity, but after thirty-six years of daily, consistent, Sisyphean work, he'd produced the most brilliant expression of transience in the history of art. Or at least that's what I think."

"So do I," mumbled Lisa.

"Me too," said Zofia, raising a hand.
— from Priceless, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski.

Me too. I'd never heard of Roman Opałka till I read these pages in this thriller about recovering artworks stolen from Poland by Nazis. His career came later, of course, but this is why I enjoy reading Miłoszewski — the insights into both current and historical aspects of Polish culture.

Roman Opałka painted time, moving forward toward infinity. His life's work is a series of canvases, each of them a "Detail" of his magnum opus, 1–∞.

Listen to Opałka counting off.

See also:
Roman Opalka’s Numerical Destiny
He pursued this culmination on a daily basis, eight hours a day, until the process of painting led him to “white/white” — that is, white numbers on a canvas with a background painted white, the same as the numbers. After three years (1968, possibly 1969), Opalka began to add 1% white pigment to the black background. Gradually, over time, as more paintings were painted, the black surface would become gray. As he continued to count and to paint five, six, and seven digit numbers, he discreetly added 1% white to each canvas, thus making the surfaces appear increasingly lighter. In the late 1970s he declared that the background of his canvases would eventually appear white, the same white used to paint the numerals that would finally dissolve into the surface, embody the surface. Ultimately, there would be no distinction between the white numerals and the white surface; they would culminate as a form of blankness, possibly transcendent, as the numerals grew invisible within the prospect of infinity, the Samadhi or highest level of meditation.

[...] Opalka was clearly reaching for invisibility in his paintings.
Running the Numbers
A frequent misunderstanding about Opalka is that his engagement with painting was merely a convenience by which to execute the idea, and that the idea would be enacted over decades of time. In fact, painting was never ancillary; it was a central idea. For Opalka, there was no idea apart from the act of painting. This was his infinity. In this sense he could be evaluated as a dialectical painter as Hegel was understood as a dialectical philosopher. Opalka’s synthesis became an idea/painting, the result of a numerical destiny, the entire span of 233 Details at the end of his life, or, from a conceptual point of view: one vast singular epic given to a rarified existence.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Summer is so curiously absent-minded

Sometimes I think: I must exploit the chance that I am still (after all!) body.
I am forced to reconsider, again, my thoughts and feelings about love, poetry, and correspondence, or at least how I write about those things. Twice I've set down notes about this book, and for whatever cosmic quirk, my work failed to save. Obviously I wasn't getting it quite right.

Maybe I should begin this way: What makes a poet a poet? More than just words? Do poets live differently than the rest of us? Am I a poet? How do poets feel love?

By far the most interesting character of Letters: Summer 1926, is Marina Tsvetayeva, the greatest Russian poet you've never heard of. I'd never heard of her. Yet, she was central that summer in the lives and work of Rainer Maria Rilke and Boris Pasternak. This book collects the correspondence between the three of them and captures the inner workings of the creative process as well as the drama of a very strange love triangle.

Marina loves Boris, and then Rainer, she loves them both, then she is angry, but then she loves Rainer again more than ever, she loves them both, but a different ways, that is, she loves them soul, and body and soul. Boris hates his wife and loves Marina, until she gets in the way of his work; he admires Rilke and resents him and Marina for loving each other, and he loves his wife again; it wouldn't do for any poet to be considered on the same plane as himself. Rainer is meek, but wise — he has a way with words; he is somehow above matters of the body, matters of this world. He says he loves Marina, but I don't think he knows what love is — he is too much soul.

Tsvetayeva is interesting to me in part because I've never heard of her. That she is little known has little to do with the quality of her poetry, and everything to do with Soviet politics (Her husband was a spy, allegedly unbeknownst to her; and having lived in exile, she was regarded suspiciously upon her return to Moscow.) and, I think, her sex (perhaps like Teffi, simply not taken seriously).
I might have said all this to you more clearly in Russian, but I don't want to give you the trouble of reading your way into it, I would rather take the trouble of writing my way into it.
What samples of her poetry I can find online I don't actually like (that is, they don't speak to me). Her letters, on the other hand, are impassioned and sincere. They are (overly) dramatic, sometimes cryptic, sometimes downright weird.
Boris, this is not a real letter. The real ones are never committed to paper.
I hear myself in her writing. She explains, "I talked to you all the time." I see myself talking to him even though he's not there. Is that love? Talking, writing to an absence? Imagining their presence. Living with their presence in their absence. Isn't creativity is a means of wish fulfillment? You write something into existence. Tsvetayeva wrote, "I do not like life itself: for me it begins to be significant, that is, to acquire meaning and weight, when it is transformed, i.e., in art."

She made her love for Pasternak become an enduring thing, though it had no hope of being so, by writing it that way. I've done the same. And I think she wrote her love for Rilke into existence.

Love has always been mediated by the technology of communication. Today it is dating profiles and real-time text. Tsvetayeva relied on reputation, literary reviews, and gossip to filter for the object of her love and engaged in long-form correspondence with lengthy lag time and crossed wires.

There is so much innuendo in these letters, but I don't know if that's something I create by reading it with my twenty-first century (dirty) mind, or if it was intended. Surely the recipients of the letters would have a clearer idea than I do. Or would they? When they declare their love, is it for the person or for their work? Is everything a metaphor? Is everything poetry? Do these poets even have bodies anymore?

Tsvetayeva to Rilke, June 3:
Before life one is always and everything; as one lives, one is something and now (is, has — the same!).

My love for you was parceled out in days and letters, hours and lines. Hence the unrest. (That's why you asked for rest!) Letter today, letter tomorrow. You are alive, I want to see you. A transplantation from the always to the now. Hence the pain, the counting of days, each hour's worthlessness, the hour now merely a step to the letter. To be within the other person or to have the other person (or want to have, want in general — all one!). When I realized this, I fell silent.

Now it is over. It doesn't take me long to be done with wanting. What did I want from you? Nothing. Rather — around you. Perhaps, simply — to you. Being without a letter was already turning into being without you. The further, the worse. Without a letter — without you; with a letter — without you; with you — without you. Into you! Not to be. — Die!

This I how I am. This is how love is — infinite time. Thankless and self-destructive. I do not love or honor love.
Tsvetayeva was always declaring herself. I admire her for it. It takes a great deal of courage to say what you feel.

In April, Pasternak is telling Tsvetayeva he had a dream about her, a dream of "joy and endlessness," and "it was more first than first love." By June he is afraid of falling in love.

Pasternak to Tsvetayeva, July 1:
This groan is the loudest note in the universe. I am inclined to believe that outer space is filled with this sound rather than with the music of the spheres. I hear it. I cannot reproduce it, nor can I imagine myself caught up in its rushing, multitudinous unity, but I do make my contribution to the elemental groan: I complain with every muscle of my heart, I give myself up so completely to complaint that if I were to drown I would go to the bottom, carrying a three-pood weight of complaint in my upstretched hands; I complain that I could love neither my wife nor you, neither myself nor my life, if you were the only women in the world, if your sisters were not legion; I complain that I do not understand and sympathize with Adam in Genesis, that I do not know how his heart was constructed, how he felt and why he loved. Because the only reason I love, when I do love, is that, because I feel the cold of the right half of the universe on my right shoulder, and the cold of the left half on my left, my love circles around and around me in decent nakedness, like moths around city lamps in summer, cutting off sight of what lies before me and where I must go.
Pasternak has an ego, a very male ego. He's a bit of a jerk really. "The will of the poet transcends the demands of life." Come on, Boris. Who do you love? Make a fucking decision. He's a coward standing behind his talent, his luck to have a reputation.

Rilke's ego is that of an artist. It's hard to think of him as a man at all.

Rilke to Tsvetayeva, July 28:
My life is so curiously heavy in me that I often cannot stir it from its place; gravity seems to be forming a new relationship to it — not since childhood have I been in such an immovable state of soul; but back then, the world was under the pull of gravity and would press on one who himself was like a wing wrenched off somewhere, from which feather upon little feather escaped into limbo; now I myself am that mass, and the world is like a sleep all around me, and summer is so curiously absent-minded, as though it was not thinking of its own affairs....
By August, Tsvetayeva clearly declares that she loves Rilke. But she seems to resent the fact his feelings are not reciprocated with equal force. (Nor is she aware how close he is to death.) She wants desperately to sleep with him, but really to sleep. She loves the poetry, his soul; she does not even know Rilke the man as a body.
Love hates poets. [...] where soul begins, the body ends. [...] Soul is never loved so much as body; at most it is praised. With a thousand souls they love the body. Who has ever courted damnation for the sake of a soul?

Friday, September 07, 2018

Too clever by seven eighths

Skagra adjusted the controls again. "When I was born, this is what Drornid had become," he said gravely.

Romana turned her eyes back to the screen, expecting to see some hellish, blasted wilderness. Instead she saw lush, tropical beaches, and wide tree-lined boulevard though which people in shorts and sandals walked happily.

"It looks quite nice," said Romana.

"Nice?" said Skagra. "This is the sick, degenerate, purposeless world I was born into. Drornid, the so-called top holiday destination of Galactic Quadrant 5. Primary export, beachwear. Primary import, ice cream. The Planet of Fun."

"It must have been awful for you," said Romans.

Skagra searched her face. "Do you mock me?"

"Of course not," said Romana.

"Nobody was interested in the past," Skagra went on. "Nobody was interested in anything but their mindless, futile diversions. It was I who unlocked the secrets of the planet's history. I who excavated the site of the great Statue of Thorac. I who discovered the abandoned papyri in the ruins and restored them."
Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams, is a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who script resurrected by Gareth Roberts. It's a smart story that could be easily appreciated both by Douglas Adams fans who are not aware of his Doctor Who involvement and Whovians who could care less who scripted the story (though the existence of such a person strikes me as having a high improbability factor).

It's funny. It sounds like Douglas Adams. Roberts respects Adams's voice, and there are several nods to Hitchhiker along the way. And Roberts obviously respects books, as his Who credits clearly attest (he scripted the episodes in which we encounter literary icons Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, among others).

Indeed, the plot centres on a book, The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, one of the Artefacts of the Rassilon Era, hidden and misplaced.
The book was impressive. Much more impressive than the books he'd actually meant to borrow from old Chronotis, which now sat abandoned on a table top, in their disappointingly papery ordinariness.
The book is found and stolen and key to all sorts of nefarious dealings.
Skagra entered the room, and winced. He was seeking one book. Here there were many, but they had all been scattered carelessly around in no particular order, with creased and cracked spines, dog ears and — most horrifically of all — many, if not most, of them were adorned with dark brown ring-shaped stains, as if some beverage vessel ad been placed on top of them. I was a place of vile untidiness and confusion.
You can read up on the plot details elsewhere. This read was all about voice for me. And pure joy! Oh, and there's K-9!

AV Club
Games Radar


Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Misrepresenting the world

But Özgür never hangs up on Elaine because Elaine never lies like that. If she lies at all. Özgür's never caught her. Sometimes he wonders if what keeps him interested isn't the sex but the dumb suspicion that how Elaine misrepresents the world is far beyond his abilities to detect, which considering his profession both galls and entices him, especially since the implication then is that the only one misrepresenting the world is Özgür himself.

Elaine had even written on the very possibility once:

Where identity's at stake, the unconscious keeps attempting to create a blind until it succeeds in fortifying one beyond the abilities of the intellect to parse. We cannot mentally accommodate the vastness of the variables we daily inhabit. So we invent a self we believe can.

"Though none can. Not even you, Oz." Her margin note.

Which more crucially posits: it is not belief that necessitates the self, but rather the other way around. It is the creation of the self that necessitates belief.

But when Özgür asked what she meant by belief, Elaine had just smiled and before going down on him, whispered: "Let me show you."
— from The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest, by Mark Z Danielewski.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

It would break our hearts

When, in our second year, we discussed the function of defence mechanisms and found that we were humbled by the power of that portion of our psyche, we began to understand that if it weren't for rationalization, sublimation, denial — all the little tricks we let ourselves perform — if instead we simply saw the world as it was with nothing to protect us, honestly and courageously, it would break our hearts.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Braced to have my heart broken.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Benign idiopathic perambulation

Book acquired: The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris.
"There is no laboratory examination to confirm the presence or absence of the condition," he was told by a doctor named Regis, "so there is no reason to believe the disease has a defined physical cause or, I suppose, even exists at all."

Janowitz of Johns Hopkins had concluded that some compulsion was driving him to walk and suggested group therapy.

Klum dubbed it "benign idiopathic perambulation." He'd had to look up idiopathic in the dictionary. "Adj. — of unknown causes, as a disease." He thought the word, divorced of meaning, would have nicely suited Klum and her associates. Idiopaths. He also took exception to the word benign. Strictly medically speaking perhaps, but if his perambulation kept up, his life was ruined. How benign was that?

The internists made referrals. The specialists ordered scans. The clinics assembled teams.

He saw his first psychiatrist reluctantly, convinced as he was that his problem was not a mental one.
It started for me in the winter, around the time I'd decided to start dating. I don't think it's a physical problem or a mental one. It's a restless sexual energy, and it's spiritually driven. Certainly I'm not running, not running away from anything. I'm walking toward something, I don't know what. Like a quest I don't know the nature of. Like a curse. Ten kilometres a day is ideal. Most days I average 7 or 8. I'd do 15 to 20 if I could find the time.

I have a feeling this isn't the book I want it to be. It has generally neutral reviews, but I'd never heard of this novel till the other week. When I stumbled upon it, I took it for a sign. It must offer some clue, to my affliction or to its cure. It might show me some way to cope.

I have to walk, but I'm tired of walking. I want to stop, but I don't want to stop.
He released the bin at the end of the drive and continued walking. He walked past neighbours' houses, he walked barefoot down Route 22. He walked past the supermarket empty parking lot and an eerie glow. He walked pas the Korean Baptist church and the Saks-anchored mall into the dreams of late-night drivers who took home the image of some addled derelict in a cotton robe menacing the soft shoulder. He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. That was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine. It circled him around to the south entrance of the forest preserve. Five, six miles on foot after a fourteen-hour day, he came to a clearing and crashed. The sleep went as quickly as a cut in a film. Now he was standing again, in the cricket racket, forehead moist with sweat, knees rickety, feet cramped, legs aching with lactic acid. And how you walk home in a robe with any dignity?
I met a man on the internet who said he could help, by roping me, tying me down. Enforced stillness. But I find a kind of stillness in the compulsive motion.

Friday, August 17, 2018

A certain cheap value

Did you ever notice that women can seem common while men never do? You won't ever hear anyone describe a man's appearance as common. The common man means the average man, a typical man, a decent hardworking person of modest dreams and resources. A common woman is a woman who looks cheap. A woman who looks cheap doesn't have to be respected, and so she has a certain value, a certain cheap value.
The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, is devastating. The writing is also clever and laugh-out-loud funny.

("'The thing about cows is they're dressed all in leather,' he said. 'Head to toe, nothing but leather. It's badass. I mean when you really think about it.'" And there I was on my morning commute, thinking about it.)

It's about Romy Hall, in prison for murder. It tells of her life on the inside and of her previous life as a stripper. (Romy may not have been educated, but she reads a lot. She's savvy in her way, and perceptive.) It's brutal and sad.
There was a club on Columbus where feminist strippers made eleven feminist dollars an hour. It was very little for what they gave out, and took in, watching men masturbate in the little booths around the stage. Regal Show World was a regular peep show without the feminism.
She spends much of her time tying to track down her son, who seems to have been swallowed by the system after Romy's mother died.

Romy's story is punctuated with a glimpse into the lives of a couple men: a teacher at the prison (with a profound familiarity with both Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski) as well as Romy's victim, serving — as with all the men in her life — to put her life in negative relief.
A man could say every day that he wanted to change his life, was going to change it, and every day the lament became merely a part of the life he was already living, so that the desire for change was in fact a kind of stasis that allowed the unchanged life to continue, because at least the man knew to disapprove of it, which reassured him not all was lost.
It's hard to call it an enjoyable read — it's like watching a train wreck — but it's propulsive
He needed certain things to feel okay. Vanessa was among those things. He needed dark and heavy curtains, because he had a sleeping problem. He needed Klonopin, because he had a nerve problem. He needed Oxycontin because he had a pain problem. He needed liquor because he had a drinking problem. Money because he had a living problem, and show him someone who doesn't need money. He needed this girl because he had a girl problem. Problem was maybe the wrong word. He had a focus. Her name was Vanessa.
New York Review of Books: Notes from the inside
Guardian: What it means to be poor and female in America
Washington Post: If you like despair — and 'Orange Is the New Black'* — you'll love The Mars Room

*I once tried to watch Orange is the New Black. I think I made it through the whole first episode, but I didn't care. This to say: liking the show is not a prerequisite for appreciating this novel.
By their own social code, you were not supposed to ask what people had been convicted of. It was common sense not to ask. But the opprobrium on asking was so deep it seemed to also bare speculating, even privately. You weren't supposed to wonder about the facts that had determined people's lives. He had in his mind something Nietzsche said about truth. That each man is entitled to as much of it as he can bear. Maybe Gordon was not seeking truth, but seeking to learn his own limits for tolerating it.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

There's a situation vacant

Book acquired: Shada (Doctor Who: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams), by Gareth Roberts.

It starts this way:
At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. This revelation tends to make most people in the universe who have it react in one of two ways — with relief or with despair. Only Skagra responded to it by thinking, Wait a second. That means there's a situation vacant.
I had this revelation at the age of four. I was sitting in church, humming. I definitely felt relief, mostly because this meant it was merely parental authority compelling me to attend mass on a weekly basis, not anything higher. This was something I could work with.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Exactly what a young girl dreams love can be

The years I spent getting high and reading library books I do not regret. It wasn't a bad life, even if I would probably never go back. I had an income from stripping and could afford to buy what I wanted, which was drugs, and if you have never tried heroin I have news for you: It makes you feel good about yourself, especially in the beginning. It makes you feel good about other people. You want to give the whole world a break, a time-out, a tender regard. There is nothing so soothing. My first dabble in it was morphine, a pill that someone else melted in a spoon and helped me inject, a guy named Bill and I hadn't thought much about him or what the drug would be like but the careful way he tied off my arm and found my vein, the way the needle went in, so thin and delicate, the whole experience of this random guy I never saw again shooting me up in an abandoned house was exactly what a young girl dreams love can be.

"This is a pins and needles high," he'd said. "It'll grab you by the back of the neck." It grabbed me by the back of the head with its firm clench, rubber tongs, then warmth spread down through me. I broke into the most relaxing sweat of my life. I fell in love. I don't miss those years. I'm just telling you.
— from The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner.

Here we go with the heroin, again.

Monday, July 30, 2018

World cannot be grasped

World was in the face of the beloved—,
but suddenly was all poured out.
World is outside. World cannot be grasped.

Why, when I raised to my lips the full,
beloved face, did I not drink in world,
which was so near I tasted its bouquet?

Ah, I drank. Insatiably I drank.
But already I was overbrimming
with too much world, and as I drank I spilled.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)
[Another translation here.]

I'm putting this volume of poetry to bed.

It's a beautiful edition. I love having the German side by side with the English. I love pretending I can read it aloud competently. If nothing else, it gives a good sense of the rhyme and rhythm of the original.

I don't like all of Rilke's work — much of it even bores me — but that which resonates with me utterly transports me.

I much prefer his later uncollected poems, which I would characterize as more spiritual and more sensual both, less identifiably about anything.

I've been dipping into this volume for years, but gave vast sections of it a more concentrated look this summer and now I feel glutted.

Too much world.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The goby and the shrimp

"The pistol shrimp digs out a little hole to live in. But every once in a while, something else comes and sets up camp in the shrimp's hole — a little fish, called a goby. The goby isn't a freeloader, however. In exchange for a place to live, he hangs out at the entrance to the hole and wags his tail whenever enemies approach, letting the shrimp know what's coming. It's what biologists call a symbiotic relationship."
In Under the Midnight Sun, by Keigo Higashino, Detective Sasagaki has been watching the shrimp for twenty years, hoping to catch out the goby.

It starts with the murder of a pawnbroker. The shrimp is a little girl at the time, whose mother has an undefined relationship with the victim. And grim events seem to follow the girl throughout her life. She grows into an enterprising woman whose calm demands respect, or fear.
"You know how the sun rises and sets at a certain time each day? In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it's not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole lives. When people talk about being afraid, what they're afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade. That's why you're frightened, isn't it?"
It's a mostly enjoyable read that covers a lot of aspects of a changing society, from dance clubs, tea ceremonies, and matchmaking services to booming financial markets, pirated video games, and fringe sex trade operations.

This book sprawls more than the other Higashino books I've read, and has a large cast of characters. Apparently, the novel was originally published in a serialized fashion, which goes a long way toward explaining the pacing. Every chapter switches to a new scene, and for the first part of the book to a new set of players. To my mind the chapters were overly long and bogged down in stage-setting unnecessary to the main story. It makes sense for serialization but as a novel it could be tighter — it shouldn't take 200 pages to get one's bearings and feel invested in the outcome.

Still, the characters are mostly well drawn, and the at-times heavy subject matter is balanced with moral insight and good humour ("It was Akemi's stated belief that a life lived in fear of stinking like garlic wasn't worth living."). The title remains enigmatic to me.

An interesting perspective in the South China Morning Post:
Journey Under the Midnight Sun isn't a whodunnit or even a whydunnit but a what-exactly-is-being-dunnit. It is also an extraordinary work of popular fiction. You could read it as a potted history of modern Japan, an exploration of a crumbling social order (gender, class, money, obedience), a ludic literary puzzle that plays with genre expectations: Higashino's many allusions veer from mysteries to "classic girl's school story". But at no point does he forget his fundamental raison d'ecrire: to provide a tantalising mystery that keeps the pages turning.
See Contemporary Japanese Literature for a fantastic review that covers the problematic elements of this novel — notably the author's treatment of women and the detective's less-than-credible obsession with the case. While I definitely noticed these flaws, I chose to overlook them in my pursuit of entertainment.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The air itself is one vast library

What a strange chaos is this wide atmosphere we breathe! Every atom, impressed with good and with ill, retains at once the motion which philosophers and sages have imparted to it, mixed and combined in ten thousand ways with all that is worthless and base. The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest, as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will.
— from The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, by Charles Babbage.

This quotation serves as a springboard for appreciating the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The exhibit Unstable Presence is showing at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) until September 9.

In Vicious Circular Breathing, for example, the participant steps into a glass box and breathes, breathing in the air breathed by previous participants. The breath is represented by bellows which, via respiration tubes, inflate and deflate a number of brown paper bags.

Other works are more purely sound-based. You can step inside a sphere and here all of Bach's works at the same time. In another room voices are "translated" into light and layered on top of each other.

I am reminded of a couple of Wim Wenders' films — the angels that perceive everything at once (Wings of Desire); sound that is removed from its context, distilled (Lisbon Story).

All of which stands to complement my reading of Rilke...
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The mezzanine of parentheses

Rilke to Tsvetayeva, May 10, 1926:
You, poet, do you sense how you have overwhelmed me, you and your magnificent fellow reader; I'm writing like you and I descend like you the few steps down from the sentence into the mezzanine of parentheses, where the ceilings are so low and where it smells of roses past that never cease.
— from Letters: Summer 1926, by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

I am finding Rilke's correspondence more interesting than his poetry.

Most of his poetry no longer resonates with me the way it once did. Perhaps I feel the glut of it; I feel the pull of only rare scraps. Most of it feels too much like a riddle to be solved.

How my mindset has changed over the years. Today I seek clarity (even if it is parenthetical).

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What I fall in love with when I read dating profiles

[Actual lines from various profiles across several dating apps. A found poem of sorts.]

Dear future girlfriend,

Fantastically flawed human being looking for same.

Two-time winner of Monopoly beauty contest.

Spicier than vanilla. Often accused of being addictive, even in small doses.

Mostly happy with occasional spurts of go-lucky.

Passable credit.

I want a princess by day and complete submissive whore behind closed doors. Ultimately looking for long term.

Research shows the best way to know if you'll want a second date is to go on a first date.

I live on my own, and I smell nice.

Epic poet.

You agree with Socrates that the unexamined life isn't worth living, but also value life enough not to share the hemlock with him.

Life without music is pointless.

You: [this space intentionally left blank]

Please don't message me if you're a scammer who expects me to send you money. Had 2 of those already in my first 3 days here, and I wasn't born yesterday. It won't work.

Looking for friends on this planet.

Reassure me that you do, in fact, exist.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Redolent of coffee

When he got home he found in the mailbox a postcard from Claire that had been sent from Bonifacio the preceding week. The news was out of date but the thoughtfulness pleased him. In fact it was this time lag that made the card valuable, as if the words had mellowed in the space of a few days. The e-mails were precious because they provided almost instantaneous reports, but they would never have that slightly aged flavor. On a postcard, the words had been weighed while staring into space and chewing on the pen. They were laid down with care and measure, since there was limited room. The cards were redolent of coffee and fruit juice drunk on a terrace, the perfume of flowers in the shade of a public park. The e-mails smelled of a dirty keyboard and a poorly ventilated office.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored. This has got to be one of my favourite titles ever. Because cats! In summertime!

The story itself, a mystery set in Southern France, is somewhat quiet. Methodical, both in laying out the crime and investigating it. It's credible, not gratuitous in the slightest. Which makes it nice and easy. This novel succeeded in gently easing me back into reading fiction.

Inspector Gilles Sebag is a very ordinary cop who enjoys spending time with his family, lounging by the pool, eating, making love, sleeping. He is a coffee connoisseur. He finds time for work, but has the best work-life balance of any investigator I can recollect. He doubts his abilities.

And he is drawn into a game of cat and mouse. Somebody's life is at stake, and this finds the right priority amid office politics and potential marital troubles.

I am these days somewhat preoccupied with the phenomenon of the midlife crisis. "Where did adultery begin?"
When you know each other by heart, you can read your partner's body language, smiles and grimaces. You start by no longer needing to look at each other and end up not seeing each other at all. You no longer even bother to look up.
The subject is treated here in a mature and altogether French way.

There is only one actual cat in this book, belonging to Gilles' neighbour, whom he lures over to his side with bowls of milk. The other cats must be metaphorical. I guess they're bored.

I am pleased to note that Philippe Georget has written more novels, and some are available in English. I'll be watching out for them.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Something long and difficult to fathom

Navoi lived for four years in Samarkand: a city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse. But before Navoi himself transformed the Old Uzbek vernacular into a literary language, all of this poetry was written in Persian. In his Muhakamat al-lughatayn, or Judgement of Two Languages (1499), Navoi mathematically proved the superiority to Persian of Old Uzbek, a language so rich that it had words for seventy different species of duck. Persian just had duck. Impoverished Persian writers had no words with which to differentiate between a burr and a thorn; older and younger sisters; male, female, and infant boars; hunting and fowling; a beauty mark on a woman's face and a beauty mark somewhere else; deer and elands; being adorned and being really adorned; drinking something down all at once in a refined way, and drinking slowly while savouring each drop.

Persian, Dilorom told me, had only one word for crying, whereas Old Uzbek had one hundred. Old Uzbek had words for wanting to cry and not being able to, for being caused to sob by something, for loudly crying like thunder in the clouds, for crying in gasps, for weeping inwardly or secretly, for crying ceaselessly in a high voice, for crying in hiccups, and for crying while uttering the sound hay hay. Old Uzbek had special verbs for being unable to sleep, for speaking while feeding animals, for being a hypocrite, for gazing imploringly into a lover's face, for dispersing a crowd.

It was all just like a Borges story — except that Borges stories are always so short, whereas life in Samarkand kept dragging obscurely on and on. In Borges, the different peculiar languages yield up, in a matter of pages, some kind of interesting philosophical import: the languages of the northern hemisphere of Tlon have no nouns, a circumstance that immediately turns out to represent an extreme of Berkeleyan idealism whereby the world is perceived as a sequence of shifting shapes; the Chinese encyclopedia has different words for animals drawn with a fine camel's-hair brush and animals who have just broken a flower vase, which dramatizes the impossibility of devising any objective system of classifying knowledge.

By contrast, whatever it was that you learned about Uzbeks when you studied their language, it was something long and difficult to fathom. What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek has a hundred different words for crying? I wasn't sure, but it didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation.
— from The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman.

Friday, June 29, 2018

How shall I keep my soul from touching yours?

Love Song

How shall I keep my soul
from touching yours? How shall I
lift it up beyond you to other things?
Ah, I would gladly hide it
in darkness with something lost
in some silent foreign place
that doesn't tremble when your deeps stir.
Yet whatever touches you and me
blends us together the way a bow's stroke
draws one voice from two strings.
Across what instrument are we stretched taut?
And what player holds us in his hand?
O sweet song.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)
I'm reading Rilke again. Never a good sign.

Three books have come together:
So it'll be another summer of Rilke. I hope this ends better than the last one. What is wrong with me?

Writes Tsvetayeva to Rilke, inexplicably:
I know what time is and what a poem is. I also know what a letter is. So there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The feeling of only half understanding

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for?
Batuman is a joy to read. She's funny, smart, and sincere. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman, takes the reader from Stanford to Samarkand by way of Russia.

A familiarity with Russian literature is not required to appreciate this memoir, though if you understand the mindset of what it is to revel in these thick and intricate Russian worlds, so much the better.

However, for example, I've never read Babel, to whom the whole of chapter one is devoted; but I think I might want to read Babel now ("Whenever Babel meets anyone, he has to fathom what he is. Always "what," not "who."). I have no knowledge of the Uzbek language or its literature, and I'm quite convinced that it's not necessary for me to pursue the topic further. So I guess what you need to bring to this book is an openness to hearing the stories of people who pursue literature, and its more obscure aspects, as a field of study.

(The scholars seem to agree that Babel lived life as a source of material. I suppose a lot or writers are "guilty" of this.)
I became aware of a deep flaw in my understanding of the world and human knowledge. I had previously thought of knowledge as a network of connections that somehow preserved and safeguarded the memory of what they were connecting. But of course it was only people who remembered things; words and ideas themselves had no memory. The Uzbek language truly was related to both Turkish and Russian, by either genetic origin or secondary contact... but that didn't make it a reconciliation between the two. When you studied Uzbek, you weren't learning a history or a story; all you were learning was a collection of words. And the larger implication was that no geographic location, no foreign language, no pre-existing entity at all would ever reconcile "who" you were with "what" you were, or where you came from with what you liked.
What may not be obvious about The Possessed, even though Batuman states it clearly, more than once, is that it's about love. The state of being possessed has love at its core. "What is it you love, when you're in love?" This is difficult enough to answer when the object of love is a person — their body, their soul, their attributes, their worldly goods. But when love's target is more abstract, so too are its defining characteristics. What do you love when you love a language or a literature or a body of work?

Batuman exposes some of the tedium and absurdity of academia. But through it all there is love and joy!
When I came back from Samarkand, I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn't speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half understanding — a feeling that is intensified, as Tolstoy once observed, when the poetry is written in a foreign language:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind — unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

After Samarkand, the beauty of cloudy, poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words — the beauty of things that don't appear on the page — somehow lost its charm for me. From that point on I was interested only in huge novels. I started researching a dissertation on the hugeness of novels, the way they devour time and material. And although I suppose it's just coincidence that Tolstoy compared the subjective charms of half-understood poetry to the Caucasus in particular, nonetheless, I was finished with them, too — with the Caucasus, the Russian East, and the literatures of the peripheries.
Meanwhile, I have lost the ability to read fiction, I hope only temporarily. Between salving my heart, confessing my soul to paper, and walking — the endless walking — fiction has become an interference, reading an irritation. Sigh.


Review: Salon
The fact that I could never quite understand what was going on put me off of Russian novels; for Batuman, it's a prime attraction.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Inviolate to the ravages of time

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?
The White Book, by Han Kang, is a difficult book to talk about. It's billed as fiction, but it reads like something between memoir and poetry. It's less book than art. Being so experimental in form, it is difficult to synthesize.

I read it about a month ago, in one sitting. I promptly forgot its details, but the mood of it washed over me and lingered. I revisited portions of it last week in preparation for book club discussion, but again the substance of it has washed away.

It's a beautiful book as object. It's crisp, stark. French flaps. White space. Blank pages. Black and white photos (greyscale, really).

On the whole it leaves me cold (like frost). It's sterile and antiseptic (like salt).

It starts off as a formal exercise, a list of white things. I expect a meditation on whiteness and its associations (a philosophical inquiry à la William H Gass). I am relieved that there is no discussion of race, but other bookclub participants are outraged that there is no discussion of race; how could anyone call their book "The White Book" and not at least acknowledge the issue of race?

The narrator walks through a foreign city. The city is never named. The very first review of this book that I read identified the city; in fact this knowledge piqued my interest in the book. It's a city that I know, and that I don't particularly like. I wonder if I would've been able to identify the city without having been told. I think so. It's a city that was destroyed and rebuilt. It looks old, but it's brand new. It feels... disconnected.

The story, such as it is, is about the narrator's older sister, whom she never met. (Or it is about her relationship with her older sister.) The baby had lived only an hour or so. The heart and soul of the book is the narrator's imagining of her non-sister's non-life. It is a life reconstructed, resurrected; but it's not the real thing. Her sister is a kind of ghost, realized in this city of ghosts.

Whiteness tends toward innocence, purity, peace, and hope. Also blankness, a kind of neutrality. White is all colour.

The narrator has migraines. So do I. I was the only one in our discussion group who has migraines. Statistically, I thought there'd be one more. "I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time's discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones, grazing my fingertips." White pain, like white noise.
Clean, cold light that had bathed her eyes, scouring her mind of all memory.
The book's whiteness is punctuated with colour: a bead of blood, red brick wall, black earth's reflection, the blue tinge of a sluggish dawn, a gunmetal sea.

Fog: "can we really call it white? That vast soundless ululation between this world and the next, each cold water molecule formed of drenched black darkness." Is translucence white?
Blizzard: "This vanishing fragility, this oppressive weight of beauty."
Bed linen: "Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of."
Laughing whitely: "Laughter that is faint, cheerless, its cleanness easily shattered. And the face that forms it."
Bones: "That human beings are also constructed of something other than flesh and muscle seemed to her like a strange stroke of luck."

This book will not advance your understanding of whiteness. It may or may not have achieved any resolution of memory, or guilt, or writer's block.

The end inspires some hopefulness, that all will be whiteness (all will be all colours?), that the narrator will see clearly with her non-sister's eyes. It confirms connection through detachment.

This book is not a story, it's an experience.

Asian Review of Books
The Irish Times
There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The impossibility of forever

Incandescent bulb

Her desk had been swept bare. There is only the incandescent bulb above it, giving off light and heat.
All is still.
The blind has not been lowered, and headlights can be seen moving along the main road at sporadic intervals now that midnight has passed.

She is sitting at the desk, like someone who has never known suffering.
Not like someone who has just been crying, or is about to.
Like someone who has never shattered.
As though there has never been a time when the only comfort lay in the impossibility of forever.
— from The White Book, by Han Kang.