Sunday, November 30, 2014

A brief history of melancholy


I apologize (to the cosmos) for my recent lack of presence. I have things to write about, but no time for writing. Melancholy has little to do with it, though there's some of that today. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


"The season in which we were born is peculiarly akin to us, and we to it. [...] For really, in my experience, there is a sympathetic relation between ourselves and the season that produced us. Its return brings something that confirms and strengthens, that renews our lives."
— from The Black Swan, by Thomas Mann.

That's how I feel about November.

I have been taking German classes now for eight weeks. I have learned how to count, how to conjugate, and how to conduct a stilted and limited conversation in a very specific, unrealistic scenario.

I have learned also that German is much stranger than I'd ever imagined. For example, the verb takes second position in a sentence. Weiso? So the addition of a sentence adverb therefore changes everything.

I still cannot read Rilke.

The compounding of nouns, however, has its own kind of poetry. Like "der Kugelschreiber" — the pen, a bullet for writing. And "der Fernseher" — the television, for watching at a distance.

I love the fact of Novembernebel, that November has its own kind of fog.

The assignment in lesson 4 was to describe a scenario in a train using the vocabulary learned to date. Here is the story I wrote:
Der Zug
Robert Walser, Stefan Zweig, und Thomas Mann fahren nach Berlin. Sie spielen Karten für kurze Zeit. Robert schläft. Stefan schreibt eine Fabel. Thomas weint. Sie arbeiten zu viel.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Strange things did happen here

We took the girl out this weekend to celebrate her 12th birthday with a few friends: a movie matinee and then wood-fired pizza. Hunger games, indeed.

Yes, we saw Mockingjay, and we loved it. Only we saw it in French, so really we saw La Révolte. (I admit I dozed off a couple times, but that was just the French short-circuiting my brain.) Because: Revolution!

One of the best things about the movie is the song, the anthem for the revolution.
Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run, so we'd both be free.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree.
It sounds like an old folk song, but it's not. Turns out, Suzanne Collins wrote the lyrics, and it was set to music specifically for the film.

Not having read the books, I was particularly interested to learn how the song was woven into the story for deeper significances. (See What Is the Origin of Mockingjay’s Haunting Song, "The Hanging Tree"? for more background.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Variations on themes

I've always liked the short poem "This is Just to Say" by Williams Carlos Williams. Kenneth Koch parodied the poem in "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams."

The Art of Poetry MOOC led by Robert Pinsky this week looked at Kidding and Tribute, and it inspired me to write a variation of my own...
Variation on a Theme by Kenneth Koch

I found the poem you wrote
and left on the table
which you probably meant to send to your publisher

I put my own name on it
and mailed it out
So much better than anything I could ever write

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A series of seemingly meaningless human movements

He understood, just in time, that the best he could do was to use his memory to fend off the sinister, underhanded process of decay, trusting in the fact that since all that mason might build, carpenter might construct, woman might stitch, indeed all that men and women had brought forth with bitter tears was bound to turn to an undifferentiated, runny, underground, mysteriously ordained mush, his memory would remain lively and clear, right until his organs surrendered and "conformed to the contract whereby their business affairs were wound up," that is to say until his bones and flesh fell prey to the vultures hovering over death and decay. He decided to watch everything very carefully and to record it constantly, all with the aim of not missing the smallest detail, because he realized with a shock that to ignore the apparently insignificant was to admit that one was condemned to sit defenceless on the parapet connecting the rising and falling members of the bridge between chaos event and comprehensible order. However apparently insignificant the event, whether it be the ring of tobacco ash surrounding the table, the direction from which the wild geese first appeared, or a series of seemingly meaningless human movements, he couldn't afford to take his eyes off it and must note it all down, since only by doing so could he hope not to vanish one day and fall a silent captive to the infernal arrangement whereby the world decomposes but is at the same time constantly in the process of self-construction. It was not, however, enough to remember things conscientiously: that "was insufficient in itself," not up to the task: one had to compile and comprehend such signs as still remained in order to discover the means whereby the perfectly maintained memory's sphere of influence might be extended and sustained over a period. The best course then, thought the doctor during his visit to the mill, would be "to reduce to a minimum such events as would tend to increase the number of things I have to keep an eye on," and that very night, having told the useless Horgos girl to clear off home, informing her he longer required her services, he set up his observation post by the window and began planning the elements of a system that some people might consider insane.
— from Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai.

I'm having a difficult time with this book, not least because it doesn't have paragraph breaks and so does not lend itself to being read on one's daily commute, and I find I read the same page several times over, which contributes to the overall effect, I suppose, quite possibly just as intended. I don't entirely dislike the experience. And there are bits of this book that are strangely compelling.

Like this doctor character here. I assume these are quotes from his notebook. Very formal. He's pretty insane, just sitting there amid decay (the old estate), taking notes, indirectly recording the decay.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

All edges erased

Stories are as slippery as seasons; it's beyond my power to make either stand still. I try to tell them the same way, but each telling leads to small changes; something added to the structure, a change of pace, a tweak of testimonies, all of them make circles in our minds.
This is kind of wow. Creepy, elegant, thoughtful, feminist, weird. Unsettling.

The Beauty. Think collective noun, hive mind, like The Silence, or Borg.

The Beauty, by Aliya Whiteley, is the book I want to give all my friends for Christmas. (Except it may put a slight damper on the holiday spirit.) (But isn't that cover gorgeous?)

It starts off with a postapocalyptic scenario — a bunch of people have fled the city to return to Nature. They live communally, live off the land. Only, all the women are dying off. They are dying of the yellow fungus that grows out of them. And when they die, the same fungus grows out of their graves. Things get a bit weird from there. The Beauty arrive.
When he told me about his journey, that was how he finished it — he fitted there. I find this to be the strangest of expressions — how does one fit in to other people, all edges erased, making a seamless life from the sharp corners of discontent I don't find anything that fits in such a way. Certainly not in nature. Nothing real is meant to tessellate like a triangle, top-bottom bottom-top. The sheep will never munch the grass in straight lines.
This book is short and compelling. The sound of it is mythic and important. And it sounds gorgeous.

It's about beauty, to an extent, and what we find beautiful. And how that changes according to experience. And what we do to what we find beautiful, how we take it for our own. It's about gender roles, and how we fall into them. Also, an individual's place and role within a society. Nevermind the function that society serves. And also it's about the nature and power of storytelling.
Did my mother hum to me when I was little? Did she touch me, hold me, fill me with her noise and her thoughts? This loneliness I feel is of the womb, born by women. I was sixteen when they all died and I thought I understood this loss, but it comes to me that I didn't know what women gave to the world. It wasn't about their lips, their eyes or the gentle quality of their voices. It was about the way that all men are a part of them. And now we are part of nothing.
The Beauty do all the hard work for the men, so the men become reliant and weak. Who controls whom?

Does it depict change, or is it the same old? Is it bleak or hopeful? Feminist? Cynical? Yes, yes, yes, yes.

By Lulu with Love

See also
The Story Behind The Beauty
For the first few thousand words I worried that I couldn’t write persuasively in a male voice, but then the story kicked in and I realised that Nathan isn’t exactly a man.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Harmony between one's life and one's innate moral convictions

Harmony between body and soul is certainly a good and necessary thing, and you are proud and happy because Nature, your beloved Nature, has granted it to you in a way that is almost miraculous. But harmony between one's life and one's innate moral convictions is, in the end, even more necessary, and where it is disrupted the only result can be emotional disruption, and that means unhappiness. Don't you feel that this is true?

— from The Black Swan, by Thomas Mann.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

"Matter is made up of a whole lot of nothing"

Edge, by Koji Suzuki, is billed as quantum horror. That is, it's horror derived from quantum physics. Or maybe it's that you don't know if it's really horror till you open the book and look inside.

The story is set in our now. It has some science-y stuff going on, but also a hint of supernatural. I don't think it quite qualifies as science fiction. Also, it's not post-apocalyptic dystopia; nothing post about it — this is how the apocalypse unfolds.

It starts with people disappearing, suddenly and inexplicably, there one minute gone the next. And math starts going wrong; pi and other "constants" and equations just aren't stable anymore.

Saeko starts investigating a set of disappearances. Ever since her own father disappeared 18 years previously, she's been rather obsessed with these types of occurrences. Not to mention having all kinds of daddy issues.

Saeko's father imparted to her all sorts of knowledge, along with a general wonder about the universe. Sadly, Suzuki flashes back on their time together, and the father's speeches are used as massive info dumps. How dreadfully boring, I thought; so glad he disappeared, I wouldn't be able to stand him another day. Maybe I was a little jaded after having just read an elegant and eloquent nonfiction treatment of similar issues, but I think Suzuki could give his readers a little more credit — no need for him to talk down to his readers the way Saeko's father evidently did to her.

But there's some food for deep thought buried in there: "The odds for the string of coincidences necessary to create our universe were basically nil." And, "matter is made up of a whole lot of nothing." "The real mystery is, why does the universe have any structure at all?"

So math and physics suddenly going all wonky is, I think, a fantastic concept. And a journalistic investigation into the strange disappearances could make for a good story too. But mash them together? And throw in a handful of coincidences, some supernatural-type visions, two-dimensional characters, and an appearance by the devil? I'm kind of glad that [spoiler alert] the world ends — having it go on just wouldn't make sense. Taken on their own, there are a couple deliciously creepy scenes and other interesting setups, but the book doesn't hang together for me.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

The art of poetry

The eight-week Art of Poetry massive open online course (MOOC) conducted by former United States Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is headed into the final phases. The course is terrific. It draws on the Favorite Poem Project, a program Pinsky founded to celebrate, document, and encourage the role of poetry in people's lives.

The course material explores the difficulty, freedom, and form of poetry while considering its relationship to music, courtship, and humour, among other themes. Most of the material is presented via videos, either of Pinsky on his own or leading a discussion group. There are some supplementary readings, and discussion forums in which to continue the exploration of these and related subjects.

(This is first course I participate in that is on the edx platform. The navigation took a little getting used, and I still feel that it's easy to miss certain sections of the course material. The forums are active, but not particularly well-organized or easy to find your way around; Coursera really sets the standard for this.)

But the heart of the course is the personal anthology that each student is required to compile. By the end of the course, I will have annotated twelve poems with reflections and analysis, notes on why they speak to me.

The task was rather daunting — where do I even find poems? But it turns out I've been collecting poetry all along on this very blog.

Now I have a notebook for the poems I find. I write the poems into it by hand. This is an insanely pleasant experience. Like saying a poem out loud and letting it roll around your mouth, writing it out, guiding the pen to make the marks that mean those words, makes it something tangible, something you can feel.

I think it forces a more intense reflection on the poem, the sound and shape of it, how the pieces fit together. I will absolutely be maintaining my poetry journal beyond this course.

To date this is one of the most rewarding MOOCs I've participated in.

Monday, November 03, 2014

One of the most amazing people on Earth

I have a slight obsession with reviews of an unreliable biography about an obscure (at least to most Westerners) Russian countercultural dissident antihero with unpalatable politics written by a man who, if the other works of his I've read are any indication, examines the external world primarily as a means of examining himself.

According to Matt Taibi, "Edward Limonov is one of the most amazing people on Earth, the author of a few truly great books, a man who has lived a fuller life than any 10 of your most interesting friends combined."

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia, a fictional biography by Emmanuel Carrère.

Matt Taibi, NPR:
Carrere wonders: What could Limonov be thinking? "Does it amuse him," he writes, "the outlaw, the mad dog, to play the virtuous Democrat?" He spends the rest of the book trying to answer the question: Is this last part the act? Or was it the earlier part?

Carrere struggles with that theme throughout, and in the end toys with a horrifying surprise conclusion: Limonov is above all else a failure.
Julian Barnes, The Guardian:
The conformist loves the transgressor, the bourgeois loves the punk, the careful man the adventurer; while the Parisian intellectual (see Sartre and "Saint Genet") typically loves the intransigent despiser of all that Parisian intellectuals stand for. Some, if not all of these themes play out in Limonov. [...]

Why, then, is he interesting? Flaubert, asked to justify his interest in Nero and the Marquis de Sade, replied, "These monsters explain history to us." Limonov is not a monster, though would perhaps like to think himself one; he is a philosophical punk, a chancer, a blood-and-soil patriot who imagined himself a cleansing political force. Carrère, reflecting on his subject's escapades, decides that:

He sees himself as a hero; you might call him a scumbag; I suspend my judgment on the matter. But ... I thought to myself, his romantic, dangerous life says something. Not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about everything that's happened since the end of the second world war.
José Teodoro, National Post:
Of course a writer wants to write about a writer who, to such an extraordinary degree, writes his life into being, writing always with audacity, always for maximum drama and dynamism, always working to ensure that he’s at the nucleus of the narrative.
M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review:
Carrère doesn't see himself in Limonov, but he sees them as kindred writing spirits, obsessed with themselves and presenting themselves in their writing. Significantly, Limonov has also lived the life that was closed to Carrère, because of his ultra-bourgeois background and limited experience. Carrère has a writer-crush on this buffoon who has 'lived' so much.
Rachel Donadio in The New York Times:
Some critics have found Limonov too flattering a portrait, though Mr. Carrère says he finds Mr. Limonov's politics unpalatable. "We are not on the same side of the barricades," he said, adding that Mr. Limonov told him, "If I were in power, I would send you to the gulag."
Michael Dirda, The Washington Post:
The book interweaves a social and political history of post-Stalinist Russia, chunks of Carrère's autobiography and a hodgepodge of reflections on art, sex, ambition, the punk aesthetic, fascism, mysticism and old age.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sunday reading: Ursula K. Le Guin

Two terrific pieces in Brain Pickings, originating with Ursula K. LeGuin's The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination:
Maria Popova has selected some brilliant passages, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny. (I read a passage to my other half, and not ten seconds later I'm nudging him again, Listen to this.)

"On Being a Man" actually addresses a few topics — gender and sex, aging and spectator sports:
And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren't. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old.
"On Aging and What Beauty Really Means" also covers cats and dogs, dance and space-time.
Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat's way of maintaining a relationship.
I expect I'll have downloaded Le Guin's book of essays before the hour is out... (not to mention digging out those as yet unread novels of hers).