Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Now the smiling starts

Groggy commuters thread their way out from underground, heading east toward Lexington Avenue, not yet up for the battle for taxis. In the meantime, of the seven hundred faces she has seen this morning, almost all have been forgotten. Now the smiling starts.

She has learned to do it. Only rarely is she still startled by the smile that every morning instantaneously shows up on, slips aside from, and crashes down off the face of the girl at the department reception desk. She feels she is too slow for the elaborate, unvarying exchange: the hello, the inquiry into how it's going, the answer, the counterquestion, the counteranswer, the goodbye. She has trouble making it to the end of the script within the four strides of a hallway encounter. She hasn't learned that. Still, she feels that her smile covers her and she ramps it up to the point of downright merriment.
— from Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (Volume 1, August 1967 – April 1968), by Uwe Johnson.

I don't know why I'm reading this. Why am I reading this? How did I hear about it? Why did I order it? When I started, I had doubts about liking it. But before I knew it, I was zipping along — I like it quite a bit.

It reminds me of when I discovered Patrick Hamilton, quite by accident, the breathlessness, the urban rush, the outpourings of humanity, only here is the New York City Subway instead of the London Underground.

What's it about? I'm 150 pages in, and I don't know yet. Racism and fascism, Vietnam and the Holocaust, hippies and Negroes, immigrants and expats, entitlement and injustice. Possibly marriage and motherhood, family and hard choices.

It's about how the New York Times reports the news ("it helped us and taught us to accept reality with the expectations and judgments our parents had tried to inculcate" — I read this the same day the Times prints "I'm fucked" on its front page).

The novel consists of dated entries. Gesine's mother had kept a book of complaints (when she was a newlywed German immigrant to England). Now her daughter asks Gesine to make something like that for her. "Not complaints about me. What you're thinking now, things I won't understand until later. Complaints are okay too." Although set over 50 years ago, it may be everything I hoped this blog to be.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

It's we who are walking

The ice palace is a formation that builds up around the waterfall during the long, hard period of cold in rural Norway. It's ever changing and growing as water spurts are diverted, creating new ice forms: "alcoves and passages and alleyway, and domes of ice above them." The school children have been planning a visit.

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas, is a slim novel, entirely opaque. There's so much I don't understand about this book. Everything remains unsaid.

(I was prompted to search out this book immediately after reading this review.)

Two eleven-year-old girls are about to become friends. Siss is popular. Unn is new to the school, having recently come to live with her aunt after her mother died. Unn is shy, but when she's invited to join in the group, she says she can't, and "Don't ask me about it anymore." Despite this, the girls are clearly intrigued by each other, even drawn to each other. One day, in a flurry of notes passed across the classroom, Unn invites Siss to her house after school.

They gaze into a mirror together and are lost in their reflections as they seem to become each other.
They let the mirror fall, looked at each other with flushed faces, stunned. They shone towards each other, were one with each other; it was an incredible moment.

Siss asked: "Unn, did you know about this?"

Unn asked: "Did you see it too?"

At once things were awkward. Unn shook herself. They had to sit for a while and come to their senses after this strange event.

In a little while one of them said: "I don't suppose it was anything."

"No, I don't suppose it was."

"But it was strange.

Of course it was something, it had not gone, they were only trying to push it away.
What did they see?

Then Unn suggests they undress, and they do, but it's cold so they dress again. Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but then can't tell her. She admits only that she's not sure she'll go to heaven.

The next day, Unn doesn't feel ready to face Siss, so instead of going to school, she sets off for the ice palace, and fails to return.

A search party mobilizes that night, and Siss is subject to questions about what Unn might've said that evening they spent together, but Siss has nothing to tell. Unn is never found. Siss is ill for a time, and then grieving. Having promised to never forget Unn, she as good as becomes Unn, taking on the role of quiet outsider at school.

Doris Lessing in her review wrote:
The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency.
But it's like there's some community code, that Unn failed to crack. And now Siss is failing to abide by it.

The thaw finally comes to wash away the ice palace and all its secrets. Siss also thaws.
Beside them glided the increasingly confused pattern of trees, houses and rock; and occasionally soot-black patches. When the latter came gliding into sight, it went straight to the heart — what's that! — in this unbearable moment; but it was imagination each time, and her heart started up again, full of the coursing blood. It's we who are walking; the pattern doesn't move.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine

Between emerging from the métro and disappearing again into the darkness of a movie theater, I would see women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine. They made a point of giving off an air of eroticism, for the very possibility of appearing prudish would have been enough to render them suspect, even antisocial. The length of their skirts was chosen with diplomatic precision: two centimeters longer than might count as indecent, and two centimeters too short to risk the stigma of prudishness. When the evening sun chanced to shined down on a round white table in a café, turning it into a dazzling mirror, even one of these upstanding bourgeois ladies might get swallowed up by the mirror, never to return. In this looking-glass world, such a lady might eat pears with legs and hairy skin, gigantic Adam's apples and calluses on their heels. In return, she would receive payment from her customers in a currency that no longer existed. While the bill was being settled, her labia would flush as red as the flag that used to stand on the podium during Party meetings. Neither her husband nor her lover would have the slightest idea.
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

I want to watch all of Catherine Deneuve's movies. I've see only very few of them. Repulsion. Belle de Jour. 8 Women. So many others I think I've seen, but I may not have seen. (Did I or did I not see Indochine?)

[Look at that. That's Catherine Deneuve in the pupil of the eye!]

The book is often noted for being something of a linguistic curiosity, having been written in two languages — German and Japanese — and translated back and forth between each other to develop a full text in each language (it's not clear to me how faithful they are to each other, or whether they are in any way distinct). The English version was translated from German.

There's something beautifully naïve about Tawada's writing; that is, the naïveté of her characters (she's pulled this off before). It takes a sophisticated mastery of language to convey this simplicity so effortlessly.

We see everything through the eyes of a young communist-raised Vietnamese woman, whose name may or may not be Anh. When she arrives at a youth conference in East Berlin, understandably everything feels foreign — German and at least Occidental — but slightly familiar — Russian and communist.
I always got good grades in Russian, but there was one grammatical rule to which I had a physical aversion: the genitive of negation. A person who was absent was no longer allowed to exist in the nominative case, as though he were no longer a subject.
As she moves west, and forward in time (the Wall falls), the sense of alienation increases and she belongs nowhere.

The language, the politics, the economic system, womanhood, a western way of thinking, basic human codes of conduct are all foreign to her.
This is a study in identity, of infiltrating humanity, to try to pass as human.

It's funny and tragic when Anh is trying to figure out how to get herself a room for the night. She observes someone conduct such a transaction, she thinks, but we know it's a john negotiating with a prostitute.

Then there's this description of an interview in a magazine:
Between the pages of photographs there were other pages with a text in two voices. The voice printed in boldface said little, and almost always ended with a question mark, so this person must have been filled with despair during the conversations. The other voice never asked a a question and spoke in larger blocks of text.
Not much has been written about this slim novel, but this review in Transit sums up the themes:
"The gaze of the nameless lens licks the floor like a detective without grammar." The first paragraph of Yōko Tawada's The Naked Eye is a blueprint for the novel's itinerancy, mapping out the difficulties of constructing a story that is caught in flux, between countries, between media, between languages, between political systems, between adolescence and adulthood, and between sexualities.
Anh is mesemerized by Catherine Deneuve. She's seen all her movies. She lives to see her movies. They are the highlight of her life. Much of the novel is addressed directly to Catherine, as Anh feels she knows her, despite them speaking different languages. The chapters are named for key works, progressing chronologically, and reference many of the films. Anh views Deneuve's filmography as a continuous story, populated by disparate ensembles of bit players in the story of her life, with Deneueve deftly changing names and identities. (Such is Anh's disjointed life!) Anh wonders, for example, how the Deneuve of Les Voleurs doesn't recognize the bathtub where the Deneuve of Repulsion lay the corpse of the man she murdered.
Every time we went to a movie together, he would take me out for coffee afterward and would tirelessly ask me questions that I didn't understand right away. He wouldn't give up until I'd answered them. Sometimes he was completely satisfied with my reply even though I hadn't understood his question and had just blurted something out. Perhaps not understanding or misunderstanding a question is something that often happens to other people. No one notices, though, since the answers one gives generally happen to fit the questions anyhow.

Monday, April 08, 2019

This is the era of first kisses

These emails took away her peace of mind. They evidently awoke that dormant section of her brain where those years had been stored, parcelled up into images, scraps of dialogues, shreds of smells. Now, on a daily basis, when she drove to work, as soon as she turned on the engine these tapes came on, too, these recordings filmed with whatever camera had been at hand, with faded colours or even black and white, generic scenes, moments, with no logic to them, scattered, out of order, and she had no idea what to do with them. That for instance they walk outside the city limits — the limits of the little town, more like — into the hills, to where the high voltage line runs, and from then on their words are accompanied ceaselessly by a buzzing, like a chord to underscore the significance of this walk, a low monotone, a tension that neither increases nor decreases. They hold hands; this is the era of first kisses, which couldn't possibly be called anything other than strange.
— from Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk.

I know those memories, those memories that come unbidden (emails, notes, reminders unbidden) and fill you with longing and nostalgia and wonderment and wondering what might've been, what happened, when did I diverge from that path, how did I get here? There's a fuzziness to them, and the feeling of them takes over the smell and the sound and it blurs all the edges. What do I do with them?

Sunday, April 07, 2019

To all the polyamorists I ever loved

"It's not a cult, but the victory of reason over myth. It's not a movement of the senses, it's an exercise of the mind. It's not an excess of pleasure, but the pleasure of excess. It's not a license, but a rule. And it's a morality."
Eroticism. This is not the dirty book I expected it to be.

Yes, Emmanuelle spends the early pages having adventures with men on airplanes and with women in squash courts and other places.

She has great sexual appetite and, for the most part, celebrates it. But she also thinks about it more than she acts on it.

Then she meets Mario.

And suddenly, that great classic of erotic literature, Emmanuelle, by Emmanuelle Arsan, reveals itself to be a philosophical treatise on sensual pleasure.
"Eroticism is not a handbook of recipes for amusing yourself in society. It's a concept of human destiny, a gauge, a canon, a code, a ceremony, an art, a school. It's also a science — or rather the choice fruit, the last fruit, of science. Its laws are based on reason, not on credulity... on confidence, instead of fear... and on a taste for life, rather than on the mystique of death. Eroticism is not a product of decadence, but a progress. Because it helps to desanctify sex, it's an instrument of mental and social health. And I maintain that it's an element of spiritual elevation, because it presupposes character training and renunciation of the passions of illusion in favor of the passions of lucidity."
Mario lectures Emmanuelle on not giving herself too freely while also encouraging her to indulge herself.

He exalts beauty because it is a man-made construct. Since the reproductive act itself is so absurd, he exalts sexual acts which are against nature. Sex grounded in impulse, habit, or duty cannot be erotic.

To be erotic, sex must have an aesthetic, not a biological, purpose. Eroticism, Mario claims, demands a systematic mind.

Eroticism then is not about love or pleasure, it's about freedom from the constraints of nature, of the body, from aging and gravity. It's an exercise of the mind and of consciousness. (But how, I wonder, can you remove the body from sex? Mario's philosophy is frustratingly paradoxical at times.)

What's erotic is what's unexpected, and therefore always shifting. What's erotic is not a matter of positions, but of situations. What's erotic is the journey, not the end (a tenet of tantra).

This is where it gets complicated: there's a difference between sensuousness and eroticism. Eroticism is rational, it's what separates us from animals. But in the end I fail to see the difference between a sensuous and an erotic act. Maybe the only difference is in intent? Sensual is primal, but erotic is elevated, evolutionarily advanced.

Monogamous attachment, not unexpectedly within the code that is being laid out, is learned behaviour. Adultery is erotic because a third party is always present (in the relationship).

Over the past year, I've chatted with several men, met some of them. They label themselves variously: polyamorous, ethically nonmonogamous, sensualist, hedonist, eroticist. "Open-minded." These terms are used flexibly, to mean what they want them to mean, but by naming their outlook, they feel they have established a framework for their behaviour. They are like Mario, strong in their beliefs, but occasionally faltering in contradiction. Perhaps they are nothing more than selfish, armed with words. (Coincidentally, I have not seen the film adaptation of this book, but it seems every teenage boy of my generation has.)

Emmanuelle wonders why she can't simply do as she pleases, sexually speaking, without having to devise a moral code around her behaviour. Why should a morality founded in eroticism be better than no morality at all? (I ask myself this every day.)

And then [SPOILER] Emmanuelle and Mario smoke opium and have a threesome with the driver.

Where is love in all this? I don't know.