Sunday, November 10, 2019

I felt my own body obliterating every thought

It is written that one meeting is worth ten partings. Yet one parting is of greater consequence than ten meetings. For if lovers keep regular hours, then meeting and parting are as the comings and goings to the supermarket.
Basic Black with Pearls, by Helen Weinzweig, is one of my favourite reads of the year. It comes at the perfect time for me, resonating in three distinct pillars of my current thinking.

1. There's the whole question of what makes this a feminist landmark. From the afterword:
These novels describe women not only breaking away from conventions but filled with desire and ambition that are almost too much to bear, a secret from themselves. Weinzweig had to search out these books to counteract decades of reading male-dominated narratives, which she needed to reject to construct her own style: "One of the things I had to learn after reading all this male fiction was, what do I as a woman feel like," she said in a 1990 interview. "All the literary forms were men's, all the philosophies were men's philosophies ... I had to translate these forms into the female."
[I'm still not sure I understand. Is this the female experience? This banging around inside oneself? If men live in the world, do women live in their heads, like I do? Screaming to get out. Let me be in the world the way I need to be in the world, lovestruck and emotional and responsive to stimuli, unabashed and unafraid. Let me be in my head if I want to be in my head, without having to explain myself. Is that it?]

According to Quill & Quire, Weinzweig's publisher was hesitant about her idea for the book,
but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, "That's what I want to capture in prose."
Is that a feminist notion? Weinzweig's interpretation of the concept might be. But Snow's, I think not: "The Walking Woman was never the representation of a woman but the representation of a matrix."

Weinzweig's heroine is trying to claim some independence and adventure, turning her back on domesticity and domestic abuse. Possibly she's just flailing against a label of mental illness.

When finally she meets a new lover, he offers her some kind of heretofore unknown utopia:
There are no mirrors where I live. With me you can be whoever you are.
2. Then there's the story itself, which got under my skin in ways it may not for most readers. I find it highly relatable. [Yes, relatable; I have an imaginary lover.]
When I see that stance of Coenraad's all fears disappear: babies don't die, cars don't collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.
What matters is the way I feel, not whether the lover is real or not.

Shirley (aka Lola Montez) and Coenraad have separate families. He's a secret agent, always in disguise. We're not sure what she is, at first, always in a black dress with pearls. Their affair has lasted decades. She has collected postcards as souvenirs of their far-flung encounters. It's an unspoken rule not to bring the domesticity of marriage into their conversation or their hotel room. He has the advantage of knowing what she looks like, always in her uniform, despite using a false name.

Does he exist? She sees him, or suspects him, in tourguides and winos. But she is never sure of him.

[I have never met my lover in person. I have seen pictures, but they change in my mind. Besides, photos are manipulable. I feel sometimes that he may be watching me, even testing me in the guise of other personas. I suspect him of being not who he says he is. But to the extent that he fills me with this feeling, he is as real as any other lover.]
In the midst of it all, just as I was concluding that I would know this man's face, this body, from now on, anywhere, with or without clothes, I felt my own body obliterating every thought.
But we are clearly outside the realm of reality and mining her memories.
Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined. And were it to be a love story, the hero would be Coenraad. Therein lay another problem: since Coenraad was always in disguise, in order to authenticate him, fictionally speaking, I would have to reveal him in his essential characteristics. I was not certain I wanted to do that. It was no use pretending that I could tell anyone else's story, so I might have to tell my own. For that I must rely entirely on memory.
There is something pure in this love story, that it cannot be described by its external trappings. And it points to the wider truth that we cannot validate anything that exists outside our own minds, that our reality is constructed by our experience of memory. It does not matter what is real.

3. The search for meaning is pointless. The search is random, and the meaning is nonexistent.

The novel opens with Shirley awaiting word from Coenraad ("It takes a great deal of energy to wait."). She deciphers the coded message she uncovers to mean they are to meet in Toronto. Their code is utter nonsense. They usually rely on a National Geographic to transmit messages, but as none is available, she interprets the pamphlet she finds to be the vehicle, and repetition of the word "abdicate" is a clear indication to meet at the King Edward Hotel. (Is it a simple copyediting error that the brochure is impossibly tucked between pages 25 and 26? Or is that a clue for the reader.)

She engages in all kinds of magical thinking and waits for messages that never come. She collects tribal stories of black magic. She wants her future told by the gypsy fortune teller (Coenraad believes their love was predestined; she wants signposts for what lies ahead). She ritualizes her postcards, they are a tarot that blend memories of her husband Zbigniew into shining moments of romantic fantasy with Coenraad.
This card, recalling the night Coenraad first made his appearance, filled my mind with a clarity of detail that one sees in shock, as after a blinding explosion or during a night of labor. And even when the shock is the result of violent pleasure, then the ordinary properties of wood or plastic or paint or cloth take on strange and mysterious shapes and colors. The senses sharpen as if one's very life were in danger, even in paradise.
The baker woman reads to her a letter to the Editor, from the Jewish Daily Forward. Is it laden with secret messages about Shirley's past?

What about how art speaks to us, individually, in code? Or mythology — she's desperate to understand why Theseus abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos.


Shirley goes back to her house to find her previous role has been filled by Francesca. I wonder if she is, like Lola, another alterego from whom Shirley has dissociated. Zbigniew's life has been entirely uninterrupted by Shirley's absence. Her evening in the house takes a strangely erotic turn, but a fulfilling one for Shirley, such that she can decisively leave this household behind forever, the blank canvas of her basic black replaced by multicoloured urban abstract (like a Hundertwasser).

And she recognizes that her time with Coenraad has also ended. (Perhaps Zbigniew and Coenraad are not so separate.)
I will not miss being a stranger from whom nothing is wanted and from whom nothing is expected.
[It is liberating, sometimes, to be a stranger. I would miss it. I'm not ready to leave it behind me yet.]

You can read Sarah Weinman's afterword in its entirety in the Paris Review.

New York Journal of Books:
In the end, it could be said that the most important woman Shirley meets is herself, although Weinzweig smartly complicates that cozy theory by including Shirley's history of hospitalizations and nervous breakdowns.
New York Times: Her Lover May Not Exist, but Her Doubts About the Patriarchy Are Real
The more reasons we're given to doubt whether Coenraad even exists, the more Shirley seems implicated in her own romanticized self-abnegation. And yet there's something admirably ornery about Weinzweig's refusal to deliver a straightforward novel of empowerment, a narrative of liberation, a role model — as if insisting on a flawed heroine is itself an act of resistance.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Living life more meaningfully

I mean, people have actually said to me, "Wow, I guess having cancer so young must have given you a whole new perspective on life?" And I always nod and try to look inscrutable, but in fact, if I am completely honest with myself, I have the same old skewed perspective I've always had, except now I get to feel guilty about it. Likewise with living life more meaningfully. What the fuck does that mean anyway? How do you actually do it, in reality, besides taking up yoga?
The Bus on Thursday, by Shirley Barrett, is laugh-out-loud funny, kind of dumb and possibly offensive.

Eleanor is diagnosed with breast cancer, has a mastectomy, undergoes reconstructive surgery (but not the nipple yet). When she finally feels ready to get back to work (although it's more about avoiding support groups), she take a job as a teacher in some remote village, where the previous teacher — beloved by all (that is, Eleanor hasn't got a hope in hell of stepping into her shoes satisfactorily) — had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Weirdly, no one's really bothered enough by the event to have gone looking for her.

Meanwhile, her BFF gets married and pregnant and is generally insensitive to her situation, particularly as far as dating goes. And her ex-boyfriend — they broke up because he definitely didn't want kids, and isn't it ironic that now Eleanor possibly won't be able to have kids anyway — has been dating some busty girl who is now very pregnant.

And work is just horrible. It's a one-classroom situation and she can't live up to her predecessor, she's always saying the wrong thing, and really, some of the kids, the people in this town are just shitty.

She starts "dating" the guardian, the older brother, of her problem student. A body turns up. Townspeople continue to be incompetent. Everything seems... inappropriate.

A large number of people seem to think the cancer is her own fault, to the point where she starts thinking, "Am I so despicable a person that even my own body can't stand me?"

It's a comedy horror story, which is often the way with life with cancer — it can be a real mindfuck. And then the story gets weird.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

A kind of rough sketch of it

The sound of her voice in the empty house reassures and splits her: she's both a woman preparing for lunch and a woman watching a woman prepare for lunch, objectively observing her actions, putting down a record of their purity and triviality, her innocence. Nothing to see here.
Happy Like This, by Ashley Wurzbacher, is a collection of stories about smart, perceptive, and mostly self-aware women.

The first story, "Sickness and Health," takes the form of a dissertation by a sociology student embedded within a group of students with factitious disorders. But of course, the line between the observer and her subjects breaks down. I would happily have spend an entire novel within this sociological breakdown. At first I was disoriented by the form of this story, but I found it wholly engrossing and was disappointed that it came to an end.

I'm writing this weeks after having read this book. It's probably not fair of me. But this is how I feel. These stories have promise.

I'm turning into a woman of a certain age, the kind of woman who says, but you're so young, you don't even know what love is, you don't know what death is, you just wait and see. I'm not sure I like that about myself. I've always taken some pride in being open-minded and non-judgemental.

Some stories are definitely stronger than others. The first two are excellent. But most of them, I realize now, were fairly forgettable. They are all about women, and the different forms (un)happiness takes — what they think happiness might look like. But they are about youngish women — Wurzbacher is observant, but limited. I couldn't help but think that these stories embraced a relatively naive view of love, death, relationships, happiness.

That said, I'm not a big fan of short stories in general; I think it's hopelessly difficult to pull off a satisfactory resolution to a short story. Wurzbacher at least kept me reading, while inside I might have been stewing about how she has so much yet to learn — in life, if not about writing. I look forward to reading full-length work from her in a couple decade's time.
She brought him with her to carry the machinery, and that was where it began: the two of them twisted between flannel-lined sleeping bags. He often brought along a case of beer, and on one particular night, she had drunk too much and he just enough, and they made — not love but a kind of rough sketch of it, like a rehearsal.

Monday, October 28, 2019

This instant-now

A few weeks ago the poster in the metro caught my eye. I had to go see it. Momenta 2019, Biennale de l'image, presented works around the theme. The Life of Things. "The exhibited works testify to the different ways in which objects are experienced and what they tell us about how we think and live. Objects sometimes bear the fragments of the living, and, in other contexts, they have their own life."

Elisabeth Belliveau, Still Life with Fallen Fruit (after A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector), still, 2017-19, video, 4 min 15 s.
The image that so engrossed me was a still from a video, Still Life with Fallen Fruit, by Elisabeth Belliveau, after A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector, as it turns out. I took it as a sign. Time to read more Lispector...

I opted to order Agua Viva, I don't know why, and when I opened it and began to read, I slammed it shut, holy shit, it's so eerily perfect for my now. Am I ready for the now?
Let me tell you: I'm trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it's already gone because it's already become a new instant-now that's also already gone. Every thing has an instant in which it is. I want to grab hold of the is of the thing. These instants passing through the air I breathe: in fireworks they explode silently in space. I want to possess the atoms of time. And to capture the present, forbidden by its very nature: the present slips away and the instant too, I am this very second forever in the now. Only the act of love — the limpid star — like abstraction of feeling — captures the unknown moment, the instant hard as crystal and vibrating in the air and life is this untellable instant, larger than the event itself: during love the impersonal jewel of the moment shines in the air, the strange glory of the body, matter made feeling in the trembling of the instants — and the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body, sparkling on high, joy, joy is time's material and the essence of the instant. And in the instant is the is of the instant. I want to seize my is.
— from Agua Viva, by Clarice Lispector.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo

I'm reading The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington, and for such a slim book it's slow going. It started off riotously funny and clever but then I was stopped cold by the winking nun.
While he spoke I was able to examine a large oil painting on the wall facing me. The painting represented a nun with a very strange and malicious face. [...] The face of the nun in the oil painting was so curiously lighted that she seemed to be winking, although that was hardly possible. She must have had one blind eye and the painter had rendered her infirmity realistically. However the idea that she was winking persisted, she was winking at me with a most disconcerting mixture of mockery and malevolence.
I thought, I need to pay careful attention, so for a few days I lived my life and danced my dance and read something "light" and "escapist" (though that book turned out to be neither really), until I thought I was ready to devote some energy to understanding what Carrington had laid before me.

And I read the words and I read more words and I flipped back the pages and I carried it with me, even while I skimmed other texts about eloquence and nonmainstream sexual practices and pearls.

The early pages of the novel put me in mind of The Crying of Lot 49 — the humour, the secret society, the sense of conspiracy and paranoia, and the reference to Remedios Varo.

Once Marian arrived at the institution, I couldn't get Yoko Tawada out of my head, these people with their strange manners, these surreal images.

Where I'm at, the text is a correspondence within a secret book within the book, folding in on itself. I love these buried-treasure texts — reading becomes an archeological dig, a trip down the rabbit hole.

I thought perhaps some research might enlighten me on this section of the book before I backtracked my way through it. Most summaries of the book gloss over this episode entirely, leading me to believe that it is insignificant. Some readers confess to finding it boring. I wondered briefly if anyone had actually read it, apart from the handful of academics who wrote their thesis on obscure subjects: Carrington's surrealist treatment of space and time, gothic aesthetics in Carrington's surrealist use of myth, that surrealist women could be both muse and creator, something about gender and the divine.

Internet searches for the winking nun eventually led me to René Magritte. In the May 1933 issue of Le Surréalisme au service de révolution there appeared a drawing by René Magritte of a sexually transgressive nun, entitled Vierge retroussée (Trussed-up Virgin)
Winking beneath a halo, the robes of this "virgin" are pushed back to expose a pair of gartered black stockings and a provocative pair of pumps, indexing both her sexual transgressiveness generally and her residence within a homoerotically charged convent environment more specifically.
While my searches began to procure more and more references to his drawing, it was days before I managed to track down the image itself.

In the meantime I learned that "winking nun" might be a veiled reference to a vulva. Certainly Magritte's nun's draped robes have a certain vulvular aura about them, topped by a hooded clitoral winkle.

Carrington's nun is not obviously sexualized, at least, not on the surface. In fact, Marian surmises she has some physical affliction that contorts her face.

Confined to a patriarchal institution and not bound by societal norms, what could she possibly be winking about?
"It might be the Zurbarán school," she said, looking uncommonly thoughtful. "Probably painted in the late eighteenth century. Spanish of course, an Italian could never have done anything so enchanting sinister. A nun with a leer. Unknown master."

"Do you suppose she is really winking, or is she blind in one eye?" I asked, anxious for Georgina's opinion on a more personal aspect of the lady.

"She is definitely winking; the bawdy old bag is probably peeking at the monastery through a hole in the wall, watching the monks prancing around in their knickers." Georgiana had a one-track mind. ""It is beautiful," she added. "I wonder the Gams let it hand amongst their hideous possessions. Everything in the house ought to have been burnt long ago apart from the leering abbess."

Certainly the painting had a force all of its own.

[...]

"Yes," said Georgina, "how those Spaniards understood the painting of black drapery. So much more superbly blackly depressing than anyone else's black. The old Lady's habit had the texture of orchid petals and the colour of Limbo. It really is a wonderful painting. Her face surrounded by that white starched frill is as luminous as the full moon, and just as bewitching." Somehow I felt that Georgina understood the painting of the leering abbess better than I ever could.
I think my obsession with the winking nun is enhanced this week by my having attained some tangential psychological epiphany in a highly sexualized context. I'm learning how to be in my body and outside of my body at the same time. This is one of the magic tricks of great sex, but it's also a lesson learned from aging. I think Carrington knew it.

As for the abbess's tractate, it tells of falling into ecstasies and a witchcraft of salves; sexual acrobatics, cross-dressing, and a sinful ointment. Nocturnal restlessness, inner turbulence. Ultimately the abbess's body is bloated with death and bursts, giving birth to an angel.

As yet I can find no lay explanation of this history, but if I understand the summaries, it sets off something like a grail quest. Perhaps the body is the vessel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts

English teaching at school is, unfortunately, obsessed with what a poet thought, as though that were of any interest to anyone. Rather than being taught about how a poem is phrased, schoolchildren are asked to write essays on what William Blake thought about the Tiger; despite the fact that William Blake was a nutjob whose opinions, in a civilised society, would be of no interest to anybody apart from his parole officer. A poet is not somebody who has great thoughts. That is the menial duty of the philosopher. A poet is somebody who expresses his thoughts, however commonplace they may be, exquisitely. That is the one and only difference between the poet and everybody else.
— from The Elements of Eloquence, by Mark Forsyth.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Blessed is he who leaves

This is why tyrants of all stripes, infernal servants, have such deep-seated hatred for the nomads — this is why they persecute the Gypsies and the Jews, and why they force all free peoples to settle, assigning the addresses that serve as our sentences.

What they want is to create a frozen order, to falsify time's passage. They want for the days to repeat themselves, unchanging, they want to build a big machine where every creature will be forced to take its place and carry out false actions. Institutions and offices, stamps, newsletters, a hierarchy, and ranks, degrees, applications and rejections, passports, numbers, cards, election results, sales and amassing points, collecting, exchanging some things for others.

What they want is to pin down the world with the aid of barcodes, labelling all things, letting it be known that everything is a commodity, that this is how much it will cost you. Let this new foreign language be illegible to humans, let it be read exclusively by automatons, machines. That way by night, in their great underground shops, they can organize readings of their own barcoded poetry.

Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.
– from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

Last weekend I saw Memory Is Our Homeland, a documentary film charting the story of Polish refugees during World War II. This film covered the journey of Poles through Siberia and Iran to Africa. My mother's story is similar, though it veered east to India.



I've always known this story as part of my family history. It's a personal narrative. What this film helped me understand was its broader political significance. Most people don't know the history of the Soviet invasion of Poland and the deportation of Poles by Soviets, because the Soviet government wanted to keep it quiet. How tightly that government (no doubt with a little help from the British) controlled the release of images once Poles were allowed to mobilize. How they propagandized their involvement in the

It's still a bit puzzling to me how it was determined who left and who stayed. (Which was privilege and which was punishment?) Did some people not hear the news in the street? Did they miss the train?

Flipping through Tokarczuk's Flights in recent days reinforces my interpretation of events. They were homeless, even while the tyrants directed their trajectory. The tyrants redrew the borders. It's no wonder people chose not to return, for it would be to a different geography, land they'd never known, under the tyrants' control.

(It's eerie how Tokarczuk reflects many of the issues of home and identity and belonging and memory, as if these attitudes are embedded in the Polish psyche, the cultural subconscious.)
Far from home, at a video rental shop, rummaging around the shelves, I swear in Polish. And suddenly an average-sized woman who looks to be about fifty years old stops beside me and awkwardly says in my language:

"Is that Polish? Do you speak Polish? Hello."

Here, alas, her stock of Polish sentences is at an end.

And now she tells me in English that she came here when she was seventeen, with her parents; here she shows off with the Polish word for "mummy". Much to my dismay she then begins to cry, indicating her arm, her forearm, and talks about blood, that this is where her whole soul is, that her blood is Polish. This hapless gesture reminds me of an addict's gesture — her index finger showing veins, the place to stick a neeedle in. She says she married a Hungarian and forgot her Polish. She squeezes my shoulder and leaves, disappearing between shelves labelled "Drama" and "Action".

It's hard for me to believe that you could forget the language thanks to which the maps of the world were drawn. She must have simply mislaid it somewhere. Maybe it lies wadded up and dusty in a drawer of bras and knickers, squeezed into a corner like sexy thongs acquired once in a fit of enthusiasm that there was never really an occasion to wear.
To what extent are you your language?

If you can't speak Polish, are you still Polish? If you haven't been to Poland in 80 years, are you still Polish? If the only land you knew as Poland is no longer Polish territory, are you still Polish? Yes.