Saturday, December 29, 2018

A person is a composite of the times they live through

A person is a composite of the times they live through — a combination of the events they have witnessed or taken part in, whether willingly or not; a collection of dreams and thoughts, whether their own or strangers'; a concoction of deeds done by themselves and others, whether friends or enemies; a compilation of stories remembered or forgotten, from distant parts or the next room — and every time an event or idea touches them, affects their existence, rocks their little world and the wider one too, a stone is added to the structure that they are destined to become [...] They will only be complete when there is nothing left of them but ruins.
I started reading CoDex 1962, by Sjón, as I was flying to Iceland, anticipating a quintessentially Icelandic epic. Imagine my disorientation to find myself in an "old-world" German village.

The first book of this trilogy is a fairy-tale love story, and it won me over entirely. A young woman nurses back to health an unexpected guest at the guesthouse where she works — Leo, a Jew fleeing from Nazis. Together they mould a baby out of clay.

The second book proclaims itself a crime story, but while the events are driven by a couple of crimes, it didn't convey the tone of crime genre at all. It did introduce a host of new characters, and felt a bit madcap. Leo has kept his lump of clay moist with goat's milk. He emigrates to Iceland, learns Icelandic, and gains citizenship after much debate over a state-approved name. He enlists the aid of a Russian spy and an American boxer to regain possession of the gold in a werewolf stamp dealer's tooth required to complete the alchemy of the golem. His son Josef will finally be born in 1962.

The third book is allegedly a science fiction story, but I struggle to find sci-fi elements in it beyond the genetics factor. It's a bit fantastical, and there's something like a Greek chorus happening.

I managed to finish this novel just hours before my library copy expired. I regret that I didn't have time to review the passages I'd noted. I loved sections of this book, many of the seemingly incidental anecdotes. Parts of it failed to keep my attention from wandering (I'm pretty sure it's not you, CoDex 1962, it's me — I have a lot going on in my head these days). And I'm still having trouble making sense of the novel as a whole.

I liked it well enough that I want to read it again. I liked its weirdness.

Reviews invoke Kafka, Borges, Bulgakov, Bruno Schulz, Günter Grass, Laurence Sterne. "Bosch meets Chagall, with touches of Tarantino." I say, Schulz yes, Grass probably.

I'm thinking Bolaño via Wim Wenders.

The third part is redolent of the fourth part of Bolaño's 2666. Minus the horror. It's the litany of deaths it recounts. (And some of the conceptions and deaths are a bit gruesome.) It's numbing. It lists birth and death dates for every girl and boy born in 1962. Many of the deaths occur within days of birth. The number of people who make it through adolescence into full adulthood dwindles. Most of this book consists of interviews with adults born in 1962.

There are plenty of angels throughout the trilogy, including most prominently the Archangel Gabriel (charged with heralding the Apocalypse), which have a very Wings of Desire vibe — their role is to observe, bear witness (and in so doing possibly ease suffering or at least the pain of existence?).

I'm not sure what the overall takeaway is. The book is narrated by (mostly?) Josef with frequent interruptions (I'm not sure by whom), and meta commentary on the nature of storytelling and narrative structure. We all have a story to tell, and every story is the story of everything.

Full Stop: CoDex 1962 – Sjón
For Sjón, one man’s story is more than the story of his own life. It is the story of Iceland, heaven and hell, or even the entire world. And in creating such a convoluted narrative, he weaves more subtle threads throughout the work that tie the novels together, around more elusive ideas than plot and genre: the nature of the soul, the purpose of storytelling, and the place of the generation born in 1962, the year that Sjón and Jósef were born.
Guardian: CoDex 1962 by Sjón review – a wild odyssey from the Icelandic trickster
Sjón is also instructing the reader, and this authorial awareness of the art of storytelling is evident throughout, not as a flaw but rather as a consolidation of his weirdly cohesive attention to detail. The reader will also require patience.
Los Angeles Review of Books: The Whole Human Tapestry: Sjón's Sprawling CoDex 1962 Trilogy
CoDex 1962 records many genres, modes of feeling, and personal histories. It splits its attentions unevenly between Leo, Jósef, and a handful of other characters, and it does not resolve many of its conflicts. However, the sprawl of the trilogy, the messiness, the tonal contradictions, the storytelling that often confuses and occasionally bores — all these qualities offer a window into the broader human story that a novel coloring strictly inside the lines could never achieve. It's a risky, funny, sexy, entirely unique book, and its odd corners make it easier to love.
New York Times: An Epic From Iceland, Complete With Unicorns, Angels and a Stamp-Collecting Werewolf
This book is a Norse Arabian Nights. Each section is a honeycomb. Stories are nested in stories and crack open to reveal rumor and anecdote, prose poems, tendrils of myth. This abundance isn’t an empty show of virtuosity but rooted in Sjon’s belief in the power and obligation of old-fashioned storytelling.
Interview (CBC: Writers and Company)


Monday, December 24, 2018

Nineteen litres of sperm

This ushered in the time of mass copulation, the conception of the 4,711 children — 2,410 boys and 2,301 girls — who were born alive in 1962: night and day, morning and evening, on weekdays and holidays, in lunch hours and coffee breaks, smoking breaks and school breaks, during mountain hikes and country dances; in the upper echelons of society as in the lower, and not least in between; outside in the open air — where the mountain's high and the valley's deep, on tender nights beside the silvery sea, when the stars begin to fall, in that good old mountain dew, when skies are grey, where skies are blue, in that twilight time, with the Northern Lights a runnin' wild, when snow falls all around, by the old dirt road, where the Hagi bus stops and goes — and inside, in garages and apartment blocks, office buildings and shops, factories and sheds, ski huts and carpenters' workshops, art galleries and warehouses, country cabins and boarding schools, fish factories and petrol stations, fishermen's huts and cinemas, net sheds and dairies, clothes shops and school buildings, knitting factories and mail-boats, reclining on teacher's desks and in grassy dells, on the floors of cloakrooms, bathrooms and pantries, on sandy beaches, living-room sofas and rag rugs, in bathtubs, hot tubs and swimming pools, under shop counters, billiard tables and birch shrubs; sitting in armchairs and dentists' chairs, on stony beaches, church pews, garden furniture and apple crates; standing against car doors, front doors and washing machines, bookcases, kitchen shelves and churchyard walls, there met in long, wet kisses the lips of electricians and schoolmistresses, air hostesses and cobblers, journalists and doctors' receptionists, actresses and milk-lorry drivers, vicars and schoolgirls, fish-factory women and paediatricians; there clothes were stripped off by fortune tellers, deckhands, bakery girls, barbers, seamstresses, joiners, midwives, bank clerks, hairdressers, warehouse managers, waitresses, foremen, cook-housekeepers and draughtsmen;while, with hesitant fumbling fingers, farmers, engineers, plumbers, bus drivers and watchmakers groped for the hooks on the bras of switchboard operators, hired hands, housewives and nannies prior to fondling their warm, soft, oval breasts; the members of 4,661 men stiffened and vulvas of 4,661 women (there were fifty pairs of twins) grew wet; husbands lay with wives, lovers with mistresses, husbands with mistresses, husbands with mistresses, lovers with wives — and also wives with mistresses, lovers with husbands, mistresses with mistresses, lovers with lovers, though these unions produced no offspring other than enduring memories of the coupling; rapists assaulted their victims; finger, lips and tongues stroked erogenous zones; penises were rubbed, licked and sucked; buttocks were gripped; backs were clawed; wet pussies enclosed hard cocks, hymens tore; ejaculations were premature; orgasms were achieved, and women took on board the nineteen litres of sperm that were required to produce the 4,711 children to which they were to give birth in 1962.
— from CoDex 1962, by Sjón. (Chapter 3 of Part 3 of the Leo Löwe Trilogy)

I love long sentences. I love lists. I love and, and, and.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


I have been experimenting with flash fiction of different lengths. Some stories simply aren't suited to 150 characters, or even 150 words. But 1,500 words can be long-winded. I've settle on an in-between but can't decide if it says too little or too much. Maybe I cut the wrong bits.

One key to effective flash fiction is the order of things. I think I've tried each sentence in every position. The conventional formula is end, beginning, middle. My beginning hints at the end, but still starts more or less at the beginning. I'm not convinced the beginning is strong enough.

Related to chronology is the issue of verb tense. I've been deliberate in my choice of past and present, but perhaps I've made the wrong choices.

Think of this as a character portrait, one of a series.

Feedback welcome.


#21. Mike.
In business sharp practice sometimes succeeds, but in art honesty is not only the best but the only policy.
The Razor's Edge, W Somerset Maugham

“Atypical businessman,” his profile stated. “What’s so atypical?” I texted. “The average person sets a pretty low bar these days!” (I’m still not sure what he meant.)

I agreed to meet him at the hotel bar. We mock our surroundings. He’s… nice. I’m not uncomfortable (it’s hard work sometimes to not be shy).

I expected a note the morning after, some kind of acknowledgement. In return I would politely, wittily, thank him for a terrifically sordid evening.

[He was beer, I was wine.]

He’d gone to university in New Hampshire. English degree. Wanted to be a journalist. Ended up in IT. Everyone’s in IT. We’re knowledge workers.

He tells me about Thanksgiving dinner at a private club in Manhattan (was it the Colony Club?). He must’ve meant last week (or maybe some recent year past?). Thousands of dollars per plate. “How did you come to be there?” He glosses over long-standing ties to a moneyed family (college girlfriend, I surmise). Kissinger was there. I don’t know why he told me this story.

I comment on the absurdity of our meeting, how I don’t like how judgemental dating apps make me feel, how I don’t think I could ever date a vegetarian (or, you know, a heroin addict). It’s not that I don’t like judging people, it’s that I don’t like to admit to it.

“You know, for some years in New Hampshire I was enamored of W Somerset Maugham’s books,” he segues cryptically.

“Oh, I read all his books!” All of them. Before I was 18.

“…and I had this thing regarding The Razor’s Edge…”

“I love The Razor’s Edge! Larry! Poor Sophie! Gawd, it’s so much better than Of Human Bondage!”

“…and I would judge girls according to whether they were familiar with the book and how they ranked it among his works.” His voice trails off and his left eyebrow arches.

Maybe the algorithm knows more than we do.

Three beers, two glasses of wine. We giggle.

We touch on the standard taboo subjects, for the sheer hell of it. Politics: He read What Happened; I have a white supremacist cousin who voted for Trump. Religion: I’m fascinated by cults; he pays Sunday devotion to Costco. [Single men don’t shop at Costco.]

I go with him to his room. We sit on the sofa and kiss. Kissing is pleasant enough, but no sparks. The whole evening seems a little duller for that. Sex will probably be a disappointment, I think. He says he feels like a teenager. He’s grinning like a mischievous boy. And I think about my friend’s boyfriend, in a hospital in Costa Rica, who was lying in a hammock when a palm tree fell on him (five surgeries and counting). And I think, what if a palm tree falls on me on my way home in the snowstorm, I may never have sex again, maybe it won’t be so bad, I should just do it, I may be pleasantly surprised, and it’ll make him so happy.

It was fine.

He’ll be coming to Montreal more eagerly from now on, he says. (He’s a little uglier now than he was before the drinks.)

No morning message, but he was working, he’d find time on the afternoon train ride. The hours wore on. Surely he was crafting a perfect love letter.

This user disabled their account.

For the man who in the throes of passion repeats quietly like a rosary oh goodness, my goodness — in the name of mediocrity, I absolve thee.
When passion seizes the heart it invents reasons that seem not only plausible but conclusive to prove that the world is well lost for love. It convinces you that honor is well sacrificed and that shame is a cheap price to pay.

Monday, December 03, 2018

The possibility of a way of being

Here in the Piazza della Rotonda, like everywhere else, it's the older women I see first. I think I'm searching in them for a sign of what I might become. I was doing this aged fifteen and I haven't found it yet. The older women on the streets don't look like the thin, tan women on the billboards I saw from the train, or like the solid, white women who have held up Roman porticos for so many years without a sigh. Because they are not answered in the architecture I know that the women walking through the square are not real women — or maybe they are real women, but the fake women on the statues and the billboards are more important. In any case I look at them slyly, knowing there's something shameful in my looking. I'm trying to catch something I recognize — the girl in the woman, how she got there, her story — but I'm also looking for something more, the possibility of a way of being. Maybe I'll only recognize it when it's my turn.
— from Break.up, by Joanna Walsh.

Am I real or not real? Less important or more important? Am I sly? Shameful? What is it I recognize? Is it my turn? What am I becoming?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Homeless rifle dumpsters

"Homeless rifle dumpsters..."

How do you parse that?

Homeless can be an adjective or a noun. Rifle can be a noun or a verb. Dumpsters is a plural noun (like hipsters), but when preceded by nouns one might be tricked into believing the -s suffix signifies a verb in the third-person present tense.

But here's the full sentence:

"Homeless rifle dumpsters but so slowly, so leisurely, that poverty might be a pastime."

It's from Break-up, by Joanna Walsh, which disappoints me in exactly the way Sludge Utopia didn't. (Expectations.)

It's so fucking writerly. (Pretentious.)

Is it beautiful? Maybe. I'm just past the novel's half-way mark, and I find the prose almost unbearable. (Thematically, however, the novel is compelling. Required reading in the context of my year of love and loss.)

Subject, collective noun = "homeless." Typically an adjective, it's been nouned by abbreviating "homeless people." No article. (You couldn't substitute just any collective noun and achieve the same effect.)

Verb = "rifle." In the greater context — an urban post-Soviet landscape — the noun may be more expected.

But my brain doesn't yet categorize these words as subject and verb. My brain is still exploring the potential of the adjective-noun reading and wondering what qualifies as a "homeless rifle," until it realizes that "dumpsters" can't function as a verb. Try "rifle dumpsters" (dumpsters reserved exclusively for rifles?) that are homeless only to be left hanging verbless. Start over.

My psycholinguistic faculties take many milliseconds to understand that homeless people are rifling through dumpsters.

It may be beautiful, but it's unnecessarily demanding. The payoff isn't worth the effort. It's the kind of sentence I might have aspired to write myself some 20 years ago, for its gymnastic economy. Today when I read it I roll my eyes and scribble profanities in the margin.

Break.up in my head sounds like it was written to be the sort of thing writers read at readings, as performance, all pompous and breathy, even though it could be more satisfyingly and meaningfully read in an easy, natural manner. I wish I could find another tone in which to read Break.up; nothing about it sounds real. (Is literature performance?)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Things are surprising and mysterious

I have been feeling better, alive, and moved this week. There is a returned pleasure. There is a returned tone of pleasure that in depression I forget the feeling of. It is: that things are surprising and mysterious, and that I could happen to come upon some new or fascinating thing at any time. Sensual pleasures are of extreme value to me. I love soft lighting. I love psychedelic and strangely patterned music. I love being on the brink of focus. and I can feel it coming. I really can feel it! I don't know how to get this state back when I am unhappy, but you know what? I won't worry.

I don't have a desire to be dulled any longer like I did. I can return to a productive state without feeling as though I'm overbrimming or losing control of myself. I am changing what relationships I put my trust in, and who I'm willing to love. I am losing my desire to be with people to whom I cannot truly explain myself. Or I've lost it. I trust myself in ever a different way and my internal life has changed. Now it is a matter of rebuilding my external life to match it.
Sludge Utopia, by Catherine Fatima, is a weirdly compelling book with a fabulous title and very little plot to speak of.

In some ways it reminds me of Elif Batuman's The Idiot, only without the structure of the academic year, a much vaguer backdrop (making it therefore a more theoretical experience?). The narrator has her own Ivan and a summer abroad. She is more sexually experienced than the eponymous idiot, and for that perhaps she is more frustrated. From my more experienced perspective they are equally naive, and while I empathized with Selin, I desperately want to shake Catherine out of her own head.

I could almost write a book in response to this book, paragraph by paragraph (which in fact I was doing for a couple days, but I won't share that here). [Wouldn't that be awesome? Has anyone done that? A book-length response on a relatively micro level to a book that makes you want to scream at it and throw it across the room. Yes.]

It's about being in relation to an other, especially sexually. And being in relation to one's own sexuality. It's about confusing sensual pleasure with sexual pleasure. It also touches on the role of porn. The narrator (a 25-year-old woman) masturbates regularly (at some point, daily), and uses porn as an aid.

This fascinates me because it's been claimed that women are generally not visually stimulated (I fall into this category; porn movies don't turn me on — what's erotic is the imagination, and what's left to it), certainly not to the same extent as men, but I suspect that the advent of the internet and accessibility of porn has changed that, at least in the sense that it has for women normalized behaviours and established expectations of them. Women try to own it, be empowered by it, but I think it just reinforces patriarchical notions.

I have the sense that sex is rarer and less "natural" than it used to be. Certainly sexlessness seems to be a thing in Japan, and Western civilization's sexual satisfaction is increasingly virtual. Even while polyamory and nonmonogamy flourish, I suspect in part those behaviours have developed in an attempt to compensate for the decrease in quantity and maybe even quality of encounters. I should research this (how would I go about doing that?).

I guess that has nothing to do with the book ("auto-fictional novel" it's described as) per se. One blurb calls Fatima a female 21st-century Henry Miller. Definitely there's a similar frankness and an overlap in subject matter. It's been a while since I read Miller, but I think Fatima intellectualizes more than Miller does (both psychoanalyzing and philosophizing).

It's at times a frustrating read — 25-year-old Catherine is just plain wrong about so many things, says the 49-year-old — but it's unputdownable and both emotionally and intellectually provocative.
I suspect, as one grows, the need to bring everything to its climax recedes, and along with it the need to give yourself up and have it filled with someone else's self-offering. There are quieter, softer, and less certain ways of being with others.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

You die for being available

In 1836, while rabbit-hunting on Arthur's Seat, a group of boys discovered 17 miniature coffins, each about 10 cm long, containing carved wooden dolls wearing custom clothes. The most reasonable theory behind their existence is that someone wanted to lay to rest the victims of Burke and Hare (who supplied the university with cadavers for dissection, by making their own), who without a proper burial would be denied entrance to heaven.

We saw eight of the coffins, with dolls, on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

The coffins are tiny and creepy and weird.

Stare at them long enough and you want to read a novel about them.

Thank goodness Ian Rankin wrote one.

Ian Rankin's The Falls is the twelfth Inspector Rebus novel. I'd read only one of them previously, the very first one. I'd absolutely wanted to read a Rebus novel before heading to Edinburgh. But having been, I needed to read The Falls, which incorporates the coffins of Arthur's Seat.

A new coffin doll has turned up near Edinburgh, clearly connected to a woman recently reported missing. The investigation follows unconventional paths, just under the radar of the official police authority, and turns to history as a key. The last few decades have in fact seen several more dolls and bodies, never connected until now.

Another line of inquiry goes online when it's discovered the missing person was in communication with Quizmaster, who led her on a kind of treasure hunt with cryptic crossword-like clues. Rankin notes in the introduction,
Cyberspace is the perfect haunt of creeps, charlatans and hunters. It's a place full of shape-shifters.
I thoroughly enjoyed reliving Edinburgh's fascinating gloom within these pages. I also really appreciated the mystery's resolution, landing solidly in that surprisingly difficult-to-achieve zone between eye-rollingly obvious and unfairly out of the blue.
"Interesting poem, this," he said, waving the book. It was more of a pamphlet really, pink cover with a line-drawing illustration. Then he recited a couple of lines:

'You do not die for being bad, you die
For being available.'

Rebus closed the book, put it down."I'd never thought of it like that before," he said, "but it's true."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Joy is an admirable goal

Canadian cover
"Joy is an admirable goal." Juliet said. "Completely unobtainable, of course."
I was so looking forward to a new Kate Atkinson book! Transcription satisfied. It bears her trademark sense of humour: dark, unfiltered, and self-reflective.
"Do you like art?" he asked abruptly, taking her off her guard.

"Art?" What did he mean by that? She had come under the wing of an enthusiastic art teacher at school, Miss Gillies. ("You have an eye," Miss Gillies told her. I have two, she thought.) She used to visit the National Gallery before her mother died. She disliked Fragonard and Watteau and all that pretty French stuff that would make any self-respecting sans-culottes want to chop someone's head off. Similarly Gainsborough and his affluent aristocrats posing smugly with their grand perspectives. And Rembrandt, for whom she had a particular disregard. What was so wonderful about an ugly old man who kept painting himself all the time?

Perhaps she didn't like art, in fact she felt quite opinionated about it. "Of course I like art," she said. "Doesn't everyone?"

"You'd be surprised. Anyone in particular?"

"Rembrandt," she said, placing her hand on her heart in a gesture of devotion. She liked Vermeer, but she wasn't going to share that with a stranger. "I revere Vermeer," she had once told Miss Gillies. It seemed a lifetime ago now.
US cover
Juliet thinks one thing, but says the opposite. She's perfectly suited to being a spy. And so she is recruited to MI5, initially to transcribe recordings of Nazi sympathizers reporting to their informant, but later she's awarded a mission of her own. When Juliet is first being interviewed, she's asked to choose whether she'd be a Communist or a Fascist (you know, if a gun were held to her head). I annoyed a lot of people while reading this book by asking them exactly that. (Funny, no one admits to choosing to be a Fascist.) So much depends, as Juliet notes, on who's holding the gun.
Choice, it seemed, was one of the first casualties of war.
One thing Transcription got me thinking about was personas and how we manage (or don't) to keep multiple personas straight. Juliet is coached to stick as close to the truth as possible; it's very easy — and dangerous — how one lie leads to another.

(How well do we really know anyone? We only know them insofar as they let us know them. Are we the same person to everyone? Surely my neighbour, my coworker, my friend from university would describe me in completely different terms. [And what do I make of my neighbours' visitors? I have concocted their stories from what I've seen and what I've heard.] To what extent do I manipulate their perceptions of me?)

Although the story is told in the third person, it takes the point of view of Juliet throughout the novel. We are treated to the running commentary inside Juliet's head, not anyone else's head. As noted in Slate:
She notices everything, judges most of it, says little, and is listened to even less. In this sense, Atkinson suggests, all women are spies; they appear to be what others need them to be and contain a secret world all their own.
UK cover
I like Juliet; she questions everything, she thinks things she's not supposed to think.
She fingered the strand of pearls at her neck. Inside each pearl there was little piece of grit. That was the true self of the pearl, wasn't it? The beauty of the pearl was just the poor oyster trying to protect itself. From the grit. From the truth.
One could say it's an unreliable narrator, and it's thanks to this that Atkinson pulls off the plot twists.
Somewhere along the line in her own past life she must have taken a wrong turning, Juliet thought. Why else would she be sitting here? Giselle came into Juliet's mind. Despite dying at the hands of the Nazis, she had never merited the soubriquet "poor." You had to ask yourself, which was better — to have sex with any number of interesting (albeit possibly evil) men (and some women too, apparently), to be glamorously decadent, to ingest excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol and die a horrible but heroic death at a relatively young age, or to end up in Schools Broadcasting at the BBC?

It was a relief when five o'clock came around.
Juliet never obtains joy, of course.

[The covers are so different! I like the Canadian one best; the title font wins it. The flamingo is a reference to a codename late in the story.]

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Your eloquence was boring in the end

But You are not without fault, O Season. I shall tell You wherein lay Your fault. You did not wish, O Season, to confine Yourself to the boundaries of reality. No reality satisfied You. You looked beyond every realization. Not finding satisfaction in reality, You created superstructures out of metaphors and poetic figures. You moved about in the associations, allusions, imponderabilia between things. Every thing alluded to some other thing, and that one appealed another farther off, and so on, without end. Your eloquence was boring in the end. People became fed up with that coming and going on waves of endless phraseology. That's right, phraseology — pardon the word. This became clear when, here and there, a yearning for relevance began to awaken in many souls. At that moment You were already defeated. The boundaries of Your universality became visible, and Your great style, Your beautiful baroque, which was appropriate for reality during Your good times, now turned out to be a mannerism. Your sweetness and Your pensiveness bore the mark of youthful exaltation. Your nights were immense and endless, like the megalomaniacal sighs of lovers, but they were swarms of apparitions, like the ravings of hallucinators. Your fragrances were excessive and beyond the capacity of humans for rapture. Under the magic of Your touch everything dematerialized and grew toward its more distant, always higher, forms. Your apples were eaten while dreaming about the fruits of heavenly landscapes, and near Your peach trees people thought about ethereal fruits that could be consumed by the sense of smell alone. You had on Your palette only the highest registers of colours; you did not know the satiey and firmness of dark, earthy, rich brown. Autumn is the yearning of the human soul for materiality, for relevance, for boundaries. When for obscure reasons people's metaphors, projects, dreams begin yearning for realization, the time of autumn arrives.
— from "Autumn" in Collected Stories, by Bruno Schulz.

Summer's really over now; it did feel like wave upon wave, like megalomaniacal sighs of lovers. It was too much. "Autumn is the yearning of the human soul for materiality, for relevance, for boundaries." Is that what I crave now?

I am rereading Schulz's Street of Crocodiles (aka Cinnamon Shops). It's a book club selection, so I thought I'd give the new translation a go. This volume includes The Sanatorium Under the Hourglass and few other stories.

Like this past summer, it's overwhelmingly lush.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The terror of exposing herself

Julie wanted eternal reincarnation; she wanted to experience all kinds of existences, and from time to time enjoy a luxurious and beautiful life.
Here's a book I didn't much care for: Little Reunions, by Eileen Chang. I'd been trying to read this since March, and kept failing to find the right headspace for it. But now it's done. It bored me.

Too many characters I didn't care anything about — I had trouble keeping them straight. And I could never quite figure out the tone with which to read it. Is it funny or melancholic? Is the awkwardness in the translation (from Chinese) or in the characters, or is it a function of being a world completely foreign to me.
Julie, however, devoted little time to revisiting the past and so such thoughts about her family were fleeting. Memories, happy or not, always embodied a doleful note, which, no matter how faint, Julie felt a strong aversion to. She never sought out melancholy, but life unavoidably overflowed with it. Just thinking along these lines made her feel liked she was standing in the portal of an ancient edifice, peering through the moonlight and dark shadows that permeated the ruins of a once noble and illustrious household, which was now nothing more that scattered shards of roof tiles and piles of rubble from collapsed walls. That instant of knowing what once existed there.
The first half of the book deals with Julie's upbringing and extended family. There's a complicated family hierarchy of wives and concubines that's tricky to navigate. There are secrets and scandals — many of them not so secret at all. But for the most part, these secrets are only obliquely referenced.

Much of this novel reads like a gossip column, with all its tangents of who visited whom wearing what under what pretences. Julie's mother has a string of lovers; she is emotionally and often geographically distant from Julie. (Julie's father, meanwhile, is an opium addict — I would love to read a novel about the women that fell into his world.)

It's not until the second half of the novel that Julie falls in love (kind of) and gets married (kind of). I had to read between the lines not only to figure out what Julie felt, but also to piece together what actually happened.

At one point, in a seemingly complete disconnect, the story jumps for a few pages to New York City a decade into the future, Julie bathing while waiting for the abortionist.

At another point, there's this sex scene:
"Hey! What are you doing?" she asked, terrified. His hair brushed against her thigh — the head of a wild beast.

The beast sips at the eternal springs of a dark cavern in the netherworld, slurping with his curled tongue. She is a bat hanging upside down at the mouth of a cave. Like a hermit hidden withing the bowels of the mountain being explored, encroached upon, she felt helpless and hopeless. Now the small beast sips at her innermost core, small mouthfuls one at a time. The terror of exposing herself mingled with a burning desire: She wants him back, now! Back to her arms, back to where she can see him.
This is such a strange metaphorical paragraph that is completely out of keeping with the rest of the text. But! "The terror of exposing herself" — how telling is that?!

Maybe that's the thing, and the source of awkwardness, the terror of exposing oneself. Clearly Julie is brimming with feelings, with regard to her mother, her aunt, her husband, as well as lesser characters like her father and her brother, but is never given rein to express them.

So, as with many "young socialite"-type stories, it moves from comedy to tragedy in a flip of the hair.


The following reviews gave me some context (Little Reunions is a thinly veiled fictionalization of Chang's life story), but very little insight...

The endless network of cousins and concubines is less a loving family than a complicated business concern filled with unpaid accounts and threatened lawsuits.
Harvard Review:
Indeed, this is a novel about the varied independence of three women, and all the contingent thrills, sacrifices, and dangers of trying to live a life beyond a culture of submission.
Los Angeles Review of Books:
Chang, through her writing, was teaching me how to be seen in a large urban center, instructing me in the ways a person can come to be viewed among many, and how one’s individualism allows that person to become a part of the vast world around her.
See also "Before the Revolution" in The New York Review of Books:
Chang's equitable worldview, made possible by her bicultural background, does much to explain why Little Reunions sold so well when it appeared in 2009. Many middle-class Chinese readers, wealthier and better-informed than their predecessors but feeling morally adrift, hoped for a vision of enlightened forgiveness and dignified equality with the West. Such a prospect was a bracing alternative to the draining tantrums about national humiliation and payback that suffused the Internet and continued to appear in state-approved books like Unhappy China, another best seller in 2009.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Sad girl

The latest issue of Sad Girl Review is out! It's the handwritten issue, I think it's wildly beautiful and heart-wrenching, and I am so happy, humbled, and inspired to be a part of it.

I contributed a list poem that draws on my recent adventures in online dating.

I'm not one, a sad girl. I'm not sad, and "girl" sure doesn't fit as well as it used to. But I'm all for "reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives."

(If you're not aware of the sad girl aesthetic, and I suspect my audience demographic might not be, this article may enlighten you, although it suggests that maybe it's time we were angry girls instead.)

Friday, October 26, 2018

I read to think

Book acquired: Sludge Utopia, by Catherine Fatima.
Our focus in writing is writing itself: writing as a predictive act; different forms of it: "impressionistic" vs. "structural"; trust and seduction; the point of capture; how confusion or dislocation can be used to a writer's advantage; writing in silences, and how a reader can be provoked to complement a piece, fill in empty spaces.
All my reading is research. I'm researching the book I intend to write. I am researching how to write a book, by reading books that have been written and reverse engineering them. I am researching what it means to be me reading a book, as material for my book.

It is a novel, but it is a little bit not a novel. It is a little bit like the essays I've read, which are more like memoirs. Or like memoir-like novels. A first-person confessional, although I have nothing to confess, I've done nothing wrong.

All the books are trying to tell me something. It's as if I need to reread them, or read more of them, and maybe one day I'll hear their message clearly. In the meantime, they're talking amongst themselves, mocking me gently. They are all thought-provoking, my book will be thought-provoking. (Although, if you think about it, all books are thought-provoking if you think about them the right way.)

I've been gestating a book since spring. Will it be fiction or poetry or a speculative memoir? Yes it will.
I need to consult others regarding matters to which I am too fearful to attest. I read to think: thank goodness someone else feels this way! Thank goodness someone recognizes this. Thank goodness someone else sees value in what I see value in. I seek authority to evade authority. I need explanations for the world because I think my own do not suffice.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bureaucratic vandalism in the service of interior decoration

"And anyway," Juliet said, unable to suppress her irritation with Merton, "this isn't a Rembrandt, it's a copy by Gerrit Lundens. 'The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, after Rembrandt'. It says so."

"Exactly. I thought there was a rather delightful irony in that. The original's in the Rijksmuseum, of course. It is massive — much bigger than the Lundens copy. Did you know that early on in its life, Rembrandt's painting was cut down to fit a particular spot in the Town Hall in Amsterdam? Bureaucratic vandalism in the service of interior decoration. Wonderful!" he murmured, seemingly amused by the idea.

Juliet placed her copy of The Times between them, on the seat. She preferred to have some space between herself and Merton nowadays.

"But perhaps what you don't know," he continued, "is that in another even more delicious layer of irony, Lundens's copy was painted before the original was pruned by the good burghers of Amsterdam. And so now it is our only evidence of The Night Watch as it was actually painted — as Rembrandt intended. The counterfeit, although no deception was intended by Lundens, is in some ways truer than the real Night Watch."
— from Transcription, by Kate Atkinson.

The counterfeit truer than the original. Fancy that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

I've never confessed anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The light picks everything out of the void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

So plausibly finite

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anwar goes bowling. And something weird happens.

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

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

I don't know what it's about.

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

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

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

Saturday, October 06, 2018

The mothers of all calamities: screw Paradise anyway

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

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

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

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

We need to tell each other different stories.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Remember to breathe

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

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

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

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

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

This is potentially dangerous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 24, 2018

This petal-based idea

The bodies are fundamentally similar, no mystery there.

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

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

Indeed, people are like fingerprints.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Painting is not thinking, it is the exterioration of thinking

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

"So do I," mumbled Lisa.

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

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

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

Listen to Opałka counting off.

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

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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Summer is so curiously absent-minded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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