Friday, February 26, 2021

The intimate and the stranger

(Passion must hurl itself against time. Lovers fuck time together so that it opens, advances, withdraws upon itself and bends backwards. Time which their hearts pump. Time whose vagina is moist with timelessness. Time which spends itself when it ejaculates generations.)

John Berger is perhaps better known as an art critic than as a novelist. His essays have given me food for thought. However, I am not particularly inclined to read another of his novels. 

I recently came across Berger's novel G. listed among underrated erotic writings. I'm not one for bodice rippers, or any of the infinite shades of grey, but I do appreciate a subversively sensual story. I hoped the title was a clever allusion to the Gräfenberg spot (but it's merely the protagonist's initial, with perhaps a hopeful nod to Garibaldi). Although praised for its experimental nature, I found G. to be pretentious and boring.  

His privilege is more important to him than his life, not because he could not survive without his American mistress, four servants at home, a fountain in his garden, hand-made silk shirts, or his wife's dinner parties, but because implicit in his privilege are the values and judgement by which he must make sense of his lived life. All values stem from his belief — that his privileges are deserved.

Berger clearly writes from a place of privilege, but he is transparent about it, and if I understand his Ways of Seeing, then his awareness of it, without fully excusing it, is the point — it's the friction, the thing that makes art spark.

Most men when they stare at an unknown woman who attracts them, have already begun in their imagination the process of seducing and undressing her; they already see her in certain positions with certain expressions on her face; they are already beginning to dream about her. 

Experimental means something like a hodgepodge of lovesick poems, history lessons, and philosophical treatises on the nature of love and sexual attraction. And drawings! Giovanni's adventures are set across the backdrop of the triumph of Garibaldi, the Boer war, the first airplane crossing of the Alps, the outbreak of World War I and the plight of Slovenians at that time. Experimental also means that occasionally a first-person narrator intrudes upon the story reflecting upon anecdotes from his own life.

Despite being a Booker Prize winner, the novel has very few reviews. It seems it spoke to a critical mindset of the time but had limited mass appeal.

He bends his head to kiss her breast and take the nipple in his mouth. His awareness of what he is doing certifies the death of his childhood.

The New York Times review of 1972 summarizes G.'s behaviour this way:

G. is not a victimizer but a willing victim whose nature is a release for the nature of others. He has the ability to evoke more reaction in others than he feels in himself, but always on the sexual basis of a one‐to‐one encounter, not on the grandiose scale of previous standards of heroism.

That critic also notes that this novel, to which sexuality is central, is colder and more impersonal than many of Berger's art essays. It occurred to me more than once that what I was reading sounded more like an outtake from Ways of Seeing (published the same year) — too much of a digression into Berger's (likely) personal experience, however deliberately detached to disguise the singularity of it and pronounce a generality.  

Beatrice plays a large role in G.'s upbringing and his experience of her is formative.

Beatrice is a woman without morality or ambition because she is incapable of surprising herself. She can propose nothing unfamiliar to herself. This self-knowledge is not the result of prolonged introspection but, rather, of having always been familiar, like an animal, with the patterns of action and reaction necessary to satisfy her own unquestioned needs. It is possible that I make her sound like an idiot. If so, I do her an injustice.

This description of self-knowledge sounds like confidence and certainty, which to my mind would reinforce morality and ambition. But I'm not particularly interested in untangling Berger's rhetorical gymnastics. 

To follow her look, we enter her state of being. There, desire is its satisfaction, or, perhaps, neither desire not satisfaction can be said to exist since there is no antinomy between them: every experience becomes the experience of freedom there: freedom there precludes all that is not itself.

The look in her eyes is an expression of freedom which he receives as such, but which we, in order to locate it in our world of third persons, must call a look of simultaneous appeal and gratitude.

But it is striking that he has so much insight into the woman's look, whereas the male viewer is essentially a blank canvas. (I wonder what kind of lover Berger would be. He has looked at women, watched women, and considered what they mean to him, sexually and perhaps socially, as he stands at the center of his own universe. But has he entered into honest and intimate dialogue with women, and stood truly naked before them?)

When Zeus, in order to approach a woman he had fallen in love with, disguised himself as a bull, a satyr, an eagle, a swan, it was not only to gain the advantage of surprise: it was to encounter her (within the terms of those strange myths) as a stranger. The stranger who desires you and convinces you that it is truly you in all your particularity whom he desires, brings a message from all that you might be, to you as you actually are. Impatience to receive that message will be almost as strong as your sense of life itself. The desire to know oneself surpasses curiosity. But he must be a stranger, for the better you, as you actually are, know him, and likewise the better he knows you, the less he can reveal to you of your unknown but possible self. He must be a stranger. But equally he must be mysteriously intimate with you, for otherwise instead of revealing your unknown self, he simply represents all those who are unknowable to you and for whom you are unknowable. The intimate and the stranger. From this contradiction in terms, this dream, is born the great erotic god which every woman in her imagination either feeds or starves to death.

Here's a review that expands my understanding of the book. G. is a historical curiosity, but I didn't enjoy reading it.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Sometimes it's a hydra writhing

The creative energy seems to be related to that gushing of emotional force slightly diverted by a soothing hand. reassurance of the right kind. That reassurance which transforms the hate into work, may come from a certain amount of past success, or a "certitude" of attaining some may be a form of being wanted,

Sometimes it's a hydra writhing and sometimes it is a sea of lava

In the mornings when I wake up it is right under my fingers if I touch my heart, tense in a angry silence. Any fear as tiny or unjustified as can be open the dam. Pouring of aggressive reproaches, 

—  from The Return of the Repressed: Psychoanalytic Writings, by Louise Bourgeois.

I'm struggling to finish reading a novel I don't like. Everything I read these days starts off as a good idea, until it bores me. Lately I'd arrived at some self-realization, with the further aim to better see myself, know myself — reading no longer provides the access to myself it once did. Instead, finally, I strive to engage in acts of creation, but I struggle to do so.

This is what my days consist of:

  • One lost right mitten, one hyper-insulated left mitten repurposed as a phone case.
  • One 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, a landscape in Croatia that radiates a calm, cool, entirely imaginary warmth.
  • One broken fine-crystal champagne flute. I'm devastated for about an hour, and am truly surprised that a possession of this sort, of mine, lasted 30 years (enduring regular usage over the last 5).
  • One 352-day streak of language-app German lessons. Aber ich verstehe nicht.
  • One-third of a 5-pound bag of beets found moldering away in the depths of my refrigerator.
  • Too much work.
  • One box of company swag. Scarf and toque, among other things, but no mittens (or champagne flutes).
  • The occasional respite with a lover and a flask of single malt on a park bench or in a hotel room, violating the spirit of curfew and limitations on social gatherings.
  • One dead houseplant, succumbed to a draft. Two other plants struggling with hydration issues, or possibly fatigue.
  • Three sculptures in progress (two clay, one soapstone). This is the part of the process where I lay down my tools for several weeks or even months and think about what I'm trying to achieve.
  • Contact info for a psychotherapist. Just sitting with it for now.

By chance, while looking for inspiration or guidance, I discovered the art of Louise Bourgeois (how did I not know her name before now?). It speaks to me. It's organic, visceral, and weirdly erotic. I ordered a book, for a more coherent retrospective, and insight, than internet can give me. What I see as "intestinal" may be that internal writhing hydra.

[I want to sculpt bodies, my body, bodies I know, maybe the bodies of insects (see Maman, only think Clarice Lispector). I want to turn bodies inside out. How do you turn stone into pillowy flesh?]

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

To look is an act of choice

So much profundity:

"To look is an act of choice." "To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it."

"Fear of the present leads to mystification of the past." (This one needs unpacking.)

"The uniqueness of the original now lies in its being the original of a reproduction."

John Berger in Ways of Seeing aims to demystify and democratize art. In essay #1, he shows that technology (reproduction) has made art free, but the masses fail to recognize this because the prevailing elite imbue original art with a bogus religiosity. 

The visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally this preserve was magical or sacred. But it was also physical: it was the place, the cave, the building, in which, or for which, the work was made. The experience of art, which at first was the experience of ritual, was set apart from the rest of life — precisely in order to be able to exercise power over it. Later the preserve of art became a social one. It entered the culture of the ruling class, whilst physically it was set apart and isolated in their palaces and houses. During all this history the authority of art was inseparable from the particular authority of the preserve.

What the modem means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it — or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce — from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.

Yet very few people are aware of what has happened because the means of reproduction are used nearly all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did. Understandably, the masses remain uninterested and sceptical.

(Half a century later, is this still true? Has the world changed? Are we more artistically literate? Has social media made us all artists? Or have I become one of the cultured minority and lost touch with the masses? Art is everywhere, art is free — glorious and free.)

Stay tuned for Berger's mansplanation of the male gaze, and his demonstration of it in his Booker Prize-winning fictional account of the erotic adventures of G., published the same year (1972).

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

There would be time for this

"Gawd, mom," says the girl. "You're such a nerd." She's wide-eyed as I giddily skim the hardcopy course notes she just picked up at the college bookstore. The Hollow Men!, I exclaim, and off I go on a Doctor Who tangent. (It seems I've done this before.)

She's enrolled in a course that's a poetry face-off, Eliot vs Larkin, and I'm jealous. Maybe I should've studied literature. But maybe I'm relieved I didn't ruin my joy of reading.

Here's something I wrote for an assignment in high school a very long time ago. (I found it!)

For the Love of God 
[A response to J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us pour the tea 
While from the day's tedium we're freed,
Teas steams my pores and stains my skin,
Like he did.

(They know their art.)

A question twines itself about the steam,
Rising and spreading as all questions do.
Crashed to the floor, sparking, igniting, teeming with smoke.
There would be time for this.
But the tea is growing cold.

Does he dare? How dare he!
Lighting their cigarettes. In holders so long  —
Precariously balanced, flicking ashes on my dress.

In the room they speak as though
Only they know Michelangelo

He should have known
To crawl back to his hovel
Where no women go...

Time crosses legs, swings his foot, 
Fingers drumming on the table at his side.
Beside himself. "Besides, you never could
Take our relationship seriously!"

You know what I mean,
Do I have to spell it out for you?
It would have been worth while
If we tried and cried awhile;
Starry nights, and snow angels...
No. After sunset there's only twilight.
You know what I mean.

No! I am not Eve, no giver of life;
Am she who takes,
And preys on innocents,
Savouring life better than knowledge.
Living, not knowing.
Hunter of the hunted.

You grow old,
Ssooo oollldd.

I would sing for you, 
But I know the voices of mermaids 
Would disturb the guests.

I would've written you one for ten bucks, but I handed this one in myself. Top marks, of course, and seriously not bad for a 17-year-old, although I see myriad ways to improve upon it (particularly the title). 

What strikes me now:

  • That I had any notion of romantic love, or failed romantic love
  • That I referenced Lilith mythology, that even then I railed against intellect, that I argued (academically, ironically) that heart should trump brain
  • That I thought I understood Prufrock

Saturday, January 30, 2021

A kind of secretly ruined beauty

For an entire year I spent my allowance on expensive medical books, while my friends all spent theirs on drugs. Nothing brought me as much happiness as those books. All those beautiful medical terms that didn't mean anything, all that hard jargon — that was pornography. [...]

It was clear what I liked, where I fell on the map, and once I'd clarified the specialty, I dedicated myself to it alone: I liked pulmonary illnesses (certainly reminiscent of Helen, Ippolit, and the other tubercular patients), and cardiac patients. These latter had their tawdry side, but only if they were elderly (or over fifty, when frightful things like cholesterol started to intervene). If they were young... what elegance. Because, in general, it was a kind of secretly ruined beauty. All the other illnesses tended to have a timeline, but this one was different. A person could die at any moment. Once, I bought a CD in a medical bookstore (where all the employees though I was a student — I'd been sure to slip that in, as a precaution) that was called Cardiac Sounds. Nothing had ever brought me so much joy. I guess that what normal men and women feel when they hear their preferred gender moaning in pleasure, I felt when I heard those ruined hearts beat. Such variety! So may different rhythms, all meaning something different, all of them beautiful! Other illnesses could be heard. Plus, many of them could be smelled, which I found unpleasant. If I took my MP3 player out on a bike ride, I'd have to stop because I was too turned on. So I listened to it at night, at home, and during that time I got worried because I wasn't interested in real sex. The audio tracks of heartbeats took he place of everything. [...]

After a while I decided to get rid of the recorded heartbeats. They were going to drive me crazy. From then on, one of the first things I did with a man was lay my head on his chest, to see if there was any arrhythmia, or a murmur, an irregular beat, a third heart sound, or an atrial flutter, or anything else. I always wondered when I would find someone who was an unbeatable combination of elements. I remember that longing now, and I smile bitterly.

— from "Where Are You, Dear Heart?" in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enríquez.

It's weirdly beautiful and erotic, a powerful story of perversion, persuading me nothing could be more intimate than massaging my lover's heart, feeling it pulse against the palm of my hand. Truly fleshly, visceral love. 

Following in the tradition of Argentinian fabulists, the reviews of this story collection invoke global masters, from Shirley Jackson, Borges, and Cortázar (I see why) and Ocampo (I must read her) to Bioy Casares, Bolaño, and Schweblin (yes).

Most of Enríquez's stories have a paranormal element, either vaguely or outright horrific, where the horrors of life — of the body, of stolen children, of the disappeared — carry over beyond death. These fables are not for the fainthearted; they might inspire nightmares or teenage girls to become witches.

As with the best short stories, most of the events are ambiguous in nature, with no clear resolution. I wish some of them could go on forever.

The Intoxicated Years (from Things We Lost in the Fire
Back When We Talked to the Dead (from The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
On a French Love Affair and a Man Lost to Time

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level

We are so schooled, he said, in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.

I don't know what it is about Rachel Cusk's Transit that made me want to write about love. I jotted down a reference to page 110 in my initial notes, as if something important had struck me, but it's hard for me now to find any connection between what I see on that page and the inspired outpouring I drafted. Maybe something about symbiosis, an inexplicable connection. But it must also be something about universality, a word I'd highlighted. 

In fact, when I check through the passages of Transit that I'd marked, there's very little about love at all. She retells anecdotes various characters share with her in confidence and in passing. I can't tell if there is a theme that threads them together. Perhaps they are all checkpoints on someone's road to awareness.

Without having much of a plot, Transit gives me a feeling, it puts me in a state of sharing the narrator's "post-divorce mind." It's the in-between of then — the kind of life I once led and was always vaguely dissatisfied with — and now — the life I am still growing into. 

I didn't see why, I said, I shouldn't take my share of blame for what had happened; I had never regarded the things that had occurred, however terrible, as anything other than what I myself — whether consciously or not — had provoked. It wasn't a question of seeing my femaleness as interchangeable with fate: what mattered far more was to learn how to read that fate, to see the forms and patterns in the the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity, let alone in personal concepts like justice and honour and revenge, just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. 

I'd been hurt, but I coped, and healed. (Had I been loved and betrayed? That sounds so dramatic.) Finally in my late forties I was coming to some minimal awareness, foundational for the exploration to come, of what I was actually feeling and actually thinking — where my thoughts come from, and where my emotions live in my body. I was finding some bodily emotional truth.

Love, I had come to understand, or my experience of one version of it (first post-divorce love), the kind that ends in sudden inexplicable heartbreak after a few weeks of walking on air, carried along by butterflies, does not happen between two people. It happens inside one's own head.

This was borne out by my ability to cope. Recreating the feeling of someone, of being in love with someone, simply by immersing myself in the same stimuli — the music we listened to together, the food and drinks we ate and drank together, the paths we walked, repeating the same rhythms of the day. When it was over, everything was the same, except for his absence, and it felt pretty much the same, I was still happy and in love, albeit with no one in particular, and I realized it didn't matter.

If you're lucky, however you may define luck, you meet someone who is experiencing a sense of love inside their own head/body that is compatible with yours, at the same time, and together you wallow in the universality of a very individual experience.

This may sound sad and lonely to some, that love is solitary. But I find it comforting — that love is not imposed from outside, that this chemical explosion is generated within me, that I can generate it myself — and transcendent. 

They were hunting dogs, the student continued, who ran in packs behind a falcon or hawk, the bird guiding them towards their prey. In each pack there were two principal dogs whose role it was to watch the hawk as they ran. The complexity and speed of this process, he said, could not be overestimated: the pack flowed silently over the landscape, light and inexorable as death itself, encroaching unseen and unheard on it target. To follow the subtlety of the hawk's signals overhead while running at speed was a demanding and exhausting feat: the two principal dogs worked in concert, the one taking over while the other rested its concentration and then back again. This idea, of the two dogs sharing the work of reading the hawk, was one he found very appealing. It suggested that the ultimate fulfilment of a conscious being lay not in solitude but in a shared state so intricate and cooperative it might almost be said to represent the entwining of two selves. This notion, of the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one's own perceptions but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level — well, like the German trainer before him, he was both seduced by the idea and willing to do the hard work involved in executing it.

It's just over a year ago that I read the first book of this trilogy, Outline. My opinion of this second book is similar: it is quiet and somehow beautiful, giving me not a story but a way into myself. 

Transit reveals its narrator only through the people she encounters, not how they see her so much as how she processes life through them. She is lukewarm and unmoored. There's not much love in Transit; it's post-love and pre-potential-love. It's transition.

I had seemed to see in it a portent whose meaning penetrated me like a skewer in my chest. I could see it, in fact, still, the turbulent whiteness massing and gathering, the wave whose inability to stop itself rising and breaking formed its inescapable destiny. It was perfectly possible to become the prisoner of an artist's vision, I said. Like love, I said, being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again.

The Cut: Choose Your Own Rachel Cusk


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The suprasensual fool

I approached the beautiful woman, who had never looked so seductive as today in her cruelty, in her scorn.

"Another step," Wanda ordered. "Kneel down and kiss my foot."

She stretched her foot out from under the white satin hem, and I, the suprasensual fool, pressed my lips on her foot.

Last summer I met a man who, after we'd met for a drink and parted ways, offered — rather, begged that I grace him who was not worthy with the divine privilege — to be my slave. I asked him what he meant by this and he told me it meant anything I wanted it to mean, it didn't have to mean anything at all, so long as I treated him like the dog he was.

He may as well have sent over a copy of Venus in Furs.

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is such an unassuming little book, yet it is considered "the blueprint of masochistic aesthetics" in describing the condition named for its author: masochism. The book was published in 1870. The diagnostic term was coined in 1890, alongside sadism.

I found Venus in Furs listed among overlooked erotic classics; however, it's not likely to inspire one-handed reading. At most it may elicit a fascination with a certain kind of mind.

In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze notes:

But whether the descriptions are rosy or somber, they always bear the stamp of decency. We never see the naked body of the woman torturer; it is always wrapped in furs. The body of the victim remains in a strange state of indeterminacy except where it receives the blows. 

(I admit, I did not read the essay in its entirety. Why would I do that to myself? I just skimmed it for the juicy bits.)

A review of Roman Polanski's film version of a stage adaptation of the novel boldly claims that "A masochist is a power-freak disguised as a slave. Perhaps this is why we speak of sadists and masochists in the same breath."

While in popular culture we tend to think of sadism as masochism as complementary flipsides of the same coin, they require a very different mindset — a sadist would never choose a masochist as the object of their torture, and vice versa. Deleuze goes on to explain how Sacher-Masoch was "in search of a peculiar and extremely rare feminine 'nature.' The subject in masochism needs a certain 'essence' of masochism embodied in the nature of a woman who renounces her own subjective masochism." That is, it's a little more complex than meets the eye.

"It's no longer a whim!" she cried.

"What is it then?" I asked, terrified.

"It must have been latent in me," she murmured, lost in thought. "Perhaps it would never have seen the light of day, but you awoke it, developed it, and now that it has become a powerful drive, now that it fills me entirely, now that I enjoy it, now that I can't and won't help it — now you want to back out. You — are you a man?"

[I wonder sometimes what is latent in me, what do others recognize in me that I fail to see for myself. (Also, I cannot deny the glorious feeling of luxurious fur against my bare skin.)]

The relationship between Severin (an obvious stand-in for Sacher-Masoch) and the object of his devotion, Wanda, may not represent conventional love, but it's not trivial. The story is relayed from Severin's point of view, but Wanda's role is never dismissed — they are, after all, symbiotic.

According to Wanda, "I believe that you love me, and I love you too, and, even more important, we interest one another." They discuss the nature of their potential marriage "in order to see whether we can find ourselves in one another."

On the surface, Severin's motivation seems straightforward: "Give me a woman who's honest enough to tell me: 'I'm a Pompadour, a Lucretia Borgia,' and I'll worship her." (Though, the psychologists hint that something more manipulative is going on, consciously or not.)

"Because she's a hypocrite," I said. "I can respect a woman only if she is truly virtuous or openly lives for pleasure."

"Like me," Wanda countered jokingly. "But look, my child, a woman can do so only in the rarest cases. She can be neither as cheerfully sensual nor as spiritually free as a man. Her love is always a blend of sensuality and spiritual attachment. Her heart longs to captivate the man permanently, while she herself is prey to shame. And so, usually against her will, a dichotomy, a pack of lies and deception comes into her conduct, into her being, and corrupts her character."


"Make a point of remembering what I'm about to tell you: Never feel safe with the woman you love, for a woman's nature conceals more dangers than you think. Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be. A woman's character is her lack of character. The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feeling, actions. Despite all progress of civilization, women have remained exactly as they emerged from the hand of Nature. A woman has the character of a savage, who acts loyal or disloyal, generous or gruesome, depending on whatever impulse happens to rule him at the moment. In all times, only deep and earnest formation has created the moral character. Thus, a man, no matter how selfish, how malevolent he may be, always follows principles, while a woman always follows only impulses. Never forget this and never feel safe with the woman you love."

Venus in Furs is a short novel of great historical and psychosexual interest, but it's also loaded with drama: romance, intrigue, exotic locales. It should also be noted that it tries to engage in social commentary. It ends jarringly on this note:

The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work. 

This is open to debate. I'm not convinced that the novel as a whole supports Severin's final argument; it strikes me as a last-ditch effort to rationalize his behaviour. And I'm not sure Wanda would agree with him either.