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.
Reviews
Asymptote
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

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

Related
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."
Review.
Excerpt.

*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.
Also,
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.