Tuesday, May 26, 2020

They got on with it

Well, here was my first lesson: it had almost nothing to do with computers, the modernity I was trying to understand. Computers were the bones, but imagination, ambitions and possibility were the blood. These kids, they simply did not accept that the world as it is has any special gravity, any hold upon us. If something was wrong, if it was bad, then that something was to be fixed, not endured. Where my generation reached for philosophy and the virtue of suffering, they reached instead for science and technology and they actually did something about the beggar in the street, the woman in the wheelchair. They got on with it. It wasn't that they had no sense of spirit of depth. Rather they reserved it for the truly wondrous, and for everything else they made tools.
— from Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway.

What is it I'm trying to understand? What modernity am I too old to grasp? It's true, they get on with things. Some things. But in other regards they're clueless, not even aware that there are things to be got on with.

Time moves differently when you're swimming in it.

I think twice before popping into a shop just to pick up the cocktail tomatoes that will satisfy a craving (and then I don't do it, because I shouldn't do groceries for another week, I'll manage without). Elsewhere, I line up and wait and sanitize before I'm allowed to ask for batteries. Yet I can have exotic mango salads delivered in time for lunch. How is it that I can refurnish by balcony on a whim, but I cannot stock up on household paper products? A strange blend of excess and shortage. How difficult it is to understand what it is I need, and what I want.

My government has exceeded the pace of bureaucracy to effect change, hopefully lasting change. Something approaching a universal basic income. Recognition of the the fact that no one should ever go without food or shelter. Sick leave.

But the mood outside is chaotic. Everybody is living in their own world, some oblivious, some nothing-left-to-lose reckless, some simply testing the theory of their immortality. (The fearful are staying home.)

I am loving Gnomon. It's big and surprising, rich with allusion, playful. I imagine it as a video game through which I'm leveling up. (I'm more than 200 pages in, almost a third of the way through.) I needed this book, I needed it now.

It's awakening a sense of creativity within me, how I use words, how I look at art, how I relate to technology, where I fit in society, how I want to shape my life.

Very unexpectedly, this book is strengthening my relationship to my work and my workplace, at times echoing the mission statement and values of the company I work for. When it talks about reshaping the world and taking on hard problems — not only technical ones but challenges with a moral component — it clarifies for me what a very cool company I work for, with an admirable ethos, valuing what everyone has to contribute — everyone's perspective informs the whole. We just do things.

It makes me want to do things again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Close-packed human chaos

Writing, I'm convinced, is often nothing but revenge — a way of twirling one's mustache, donning buckler and sword and feathery hat, shaking one's gauntleted fist at the gods.
I thought I could use some laughter in dark times; Geoff Dyer's recommendations of funny books came just when needed. He reminded me that I've been meaning to read Eve Babitz, but of all the books he listed, the library had only Terry Castle.

I got off to a rocky start with The Professor and Other Writings. This collection of essays opens with a piece on World War I, which I found neither funny nor particularly interesting, so I was a little wary of what I'd gotten myself into.

While I wouldn't call these essays funny exactly (certainly not in an uproariously side-splitting way), Castle certainly knows how to tell a story.

There's a piece on Susan Sontag, about whom I know shamefully little, and pieces about Agnes Martin and Art Pepper, about whom I'd known nothing at all (and now want to know more).
I realize there may be a few lost souls who've never heard of him. Forget the overrated (and vapid-looking) Chet Baker. Art Pepper (1925-1982) was an authentic American genius. One of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time, Charlie Parker included. A deliriously handsome lover boy in the glory days of his youth. A lifelong dope addict of truly Satanic fuck-it-all grandeur. A natural writer of brazen, comic, commanding virtuosity. A proud long-term denizen of the California prison system. And now, no doubt, a tranquil if desiccated corpse.
In "Home Alone," Castle shares her "shelter mag obsession" and highlights how the industry was traumatized by 9/11, when the idea of "home" was attacked and our sense of "sanctuary" threatened. She later turns a bit morbid considering the furnishings of death and evokes the avian-flu epidemic of 1918-19, noting that bird-to-human influenza viruses were much in the news at the time of writing in 2006. It was somewhat eerie to be reading this against the backdrop of quarantine. In 2020, with virus on all the airwaves, home is our only safespace — it is our office and our entertainment and it circumscribes our whole life. Remind me to check out a home decor magazine next time I pass the newsstand.

Ostensibly the star of the show, is "The Professor," about Castle's relationship with a teacher when she was in grad school. Perhaps because this essay is the longest and most personal, my feelings toward it are ambivalent. It's got some great lines: "Cathy and Heathcliff were like old acquaintances — my weird second cousins or something." But it is also self-indulgent — Castle's old journals are a springboard to the 70s, an emotionally juvenile time. The drama of the affair feels out of proportion, despite the morally questionable behaviour (a student-teacher relationship of this sort today might be judged much more harshly).

Castle's lesbianism is a constant presence, and if not central, then certainly significant to some stories. It made me wonder to what extent is my sexuality present in my writing, even when not the subject of it. Castle's references throughout to therapy also has me reconsidering whether I should give psychotherapy another try. (Why should I? What is it that fascinates me? Why do I feel I'm not good at it? Why do some people get so much from it, and why can't I be one of them?)

All in all, this is the kind of book I'd prefer to have in print, to pick up and browse at my leisure. A bookful of Castle is a lot of Castle. Were this not a library book with a due date, I'd've approached it differently. I'd rather take an essay at a time now and then.
Sometimes in raucous old bebop recordings from the late forties — the grotty straight-ahead bootleg ones with murky nightclub sound, people talking and glasses clinking in the background — the music doesn't end properly, with the usual reprise and nail-it-down final chord. It just breaks off abruptly in the middle of a solo or chorus as if someone had knocked over the mike. You're left with the sense of a close-packed human chaos, now terminated. Art Pepper is a kind of mannequin or decoy, I guess, the sort of mummified icon that even a person as terrified by mortality and other people as I am can latch onto and worship. It's true: I love his deftness and valor and craziness, and the exorbitant beauty of his playing. I love the quick, creamy sound he gets out of his alto. I love his shame-free storytelling. I love his handsome young male face.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Kissing is inadvisable

Some days are better than others. I am walking more.

It seems to me that, in my neighbourhood, vehicular traffic has increased, while foot traffic has decreased. The parks are full, however. People are sitting and enjoying, but too many of them, too close. After drinking or smoking, they walk recklessly. Traversing green space feels more like a high-stakes video game than a pleasant stroll.

The concrete ping-pong tables are wrapped in yellow police tape, with signage that makes them completely unplayable.

Already it feels like the cleaner air of the last weeks has been reversed. Construction and roadwork have resumed. People are driving. Where are they driving to? There is so much dust in the air, parts of city look to be suffering some post-apocalyptic neglect.

The downstairs neighbours have regular visitors this week; they sit outside, drinking and smoking, about a metre apart. The single schoolteacher at the end of my floor brought two mask-wearing people into her home today.

Along with masks, I think everyone should be issued a measuring tape. This is the real problem: people are shitty at estimating lengths. People have no idea how far two metres is. Signage with arrows implying a certain distance is inadequate; you need to show people exactly.

Another dead bumblebee on the walkway approaching my door the other day. I meant to collect it as a specimen, to use as a model for a sculpture. I looked out later, but didn't see it in the dark, in the rain. The following morning, it was still there, looking somewhat bedraggled but potentially still useful to me. I began to scoop it up, but a leg twitched. I brought it a pinch of sugar, watched it feed itself, and flip itself, and turn hobbled in clockwise circles, and ejaculate some liquid or maybe just wring the wet from its body. It turned to lie on its back, and revved its wings in 10-second spurts. Later it was gone.

I am puzzled by the many men who have turned to meeting people on dating sites. Why would they think lockdown is a good time to meet people? Do they suddenly find themselves confronted by their own unbearable loneliness? Or are they bored? What were they so busy doing just months ago that they didn't realize they were alone? What do they think happens next?

Quarantine Fatigue Is Real:
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and physicians at Harvard Medical School each created guidance on sexual health during the coronavirus pandemic that could provide a road map for a harm-reduction approach to socializing, work environments, schools, and other settings. They communicated the urgent need for physical distancing and the idea that, as the New York document puts it, "you are your safest sex partner." At the same time, the New York and Harvard guidelines implicitly acknowledge that some people may choose to have sex within or outside of their households and offer tips to reduce harm in different potential scenarios, making the risk continuum clear.
Still No Plan:
These days, the safest way to go on a first date is to pick an outdoor activity and to stay at least six feet apart — sadly, one public-health expert I spoke with recently said that kissing someone new would be "inadvisable." If you go on a bunch of dates with someone and feel like the relationship could have some longevity, that's when you could have a candid conversation about who else each of you is exposed to in the course of a day. The question then becomes whether you like each other enough to take on the serious risks of increasing your number of close contacts during a pandemic.
Last night I had a work dream. I'd edited an article on paper(!); the developer who wrote it reviewed my changes, correcting me like a teacher would, in green pen, docking me points for neglecting to fill in the vast swaths of code he'd left out. He graded me 1 out of 6. I woke up when I noticed how dirty my fingernails were (a clear symbol of poor self-worth, or self-neglect).

My eyes are tired. My whole face is tired. I need to get my eyes checked; I'm overdue for an exam, and the ergonomics of my work setup are causing a lot of eyestrain. I need more sleep. I need to decrease my screentime.

This weekend is better. More walking, more napping. Planting. More reading and resting. Yesterday we saw a massive hawk gliding overhead.

No ping-pong. No kissing.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Life was rotting or regenerating itself

You can't help but take walks in the Appenzell. If you look at the small white-framed windows and the busy, fiery flowers on the sills, you get this sense of tropical stagnation, a thwarted luxuriance, you have the feeling that inside something serenely gloomy and a little sick is going on. It's an Arcadia of sickness. Inside, it seems, in the brightness in there, is the peace and perfection of death, a rejoicing of whitewash and flowers. Outside the windows, the landscape beckons; it isn't a mirage, it's a Zwang, as we use to say in school, a duty.
Sweet Days of Discipline, by Fleur Jaeggy, is cold, controlled, and very Catholic. It is tough to extract any sweetness from this bleak and barren novella.

There's a weird tension about this book. We have a few glimpses into the day-to-day goings on of the Swiss boarding school, just enough to suggest the hierarchies of the social structure and the politics of friendships, the suppression of any real emotion, a submission to the greater order of things.
The school was cloaked in a subterranean wind, life was rotting or regenerating itself.
The narrator, a nameless fourteen-year-old girl who has lived her life at boarding schools is under the spell of the new girl, Frédérique. "I wanted to conquer her," "I had to conquer her," "I must conquer her, she must admire me." She wants to consume her, to be her, and it starts by mimicking her affected handwriting style.
Her handwriting slept as if on a stone in this paper wall. Practising patiently, I had learnt to copy her handwriting, I had perfected perfection itself, with the discipline of falsehood.
There's something vaguely erotic about the intimacy of a girls' boarding school and their desires. But also something ethereal, in denying the body. In the tension between obeying the rules and the will to defy them. In the deference shown the headmistress or mother superior, according to the school she was at for the year.
Though holding her hand between thumb and index finger, my lips did not touch the skin; a sort of repugnance at our shared carnality crept over me.
For the narrator, the bulk of life has to do with going through the motions. The diaries girls keep are houses of the dead, unfinished and lacking — these most intimate repositories are future hazy memories, insubstantial, for an idea of a future self, empty.
I liked German expressionism and the thought of the life, the crimes I hadn't yet experienced.
She goes for morning walks at Lake Constance, in the cold air.
The universe seemed mute. [...] Up on the hill I was in a state you might describe as "ill-happiness." A state that required solitude, a state of exhilaration and quiet selfishness, a cheerful vendetta. I had the impression that this exhilaration was an initiation, that the sickness in the happiness was due to a magical novitiate, a rite. Then it went wrong. I didn't feel anything particular any more. Every landscape constructed its own niche and shut itself away there.
One paradox follows another, the pleasure she takes in sadness and disappointment, "idyllic, desperate adolescence," the sweet days of discipline, and around her the dreary cheerfulness, girls saving themselves up for a future life, nostalgic for death.

Everything is restrained, and once it is free, it stands still.

She meets Frédérique by chance years later, age twenty or so.
I thought of this destitution of hers as some spiritual or aesthetic exercise. Only an aesthete can give up everything. I wasn't surprised so much by her poverty as by her grandeur. That room was a concept. Though of what I didn't know. Once again she had gone beyond me.
What kind of idea of a life is she still struggling to become?
We hadn't been educated to live like this.
See also
New Yorker: The Austere Fiction of Fleur Jaeggy
LARB: The Single Most Pristine Certainty: Fleur Jaeggy, Thomas Bernhard, and the Fact of Death
Literary Hub: About the cover design

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mutating like a virus

It's Mother's Day, quiet outside except for the wind. Delicious breakfast in bed — I'm so lucky. My mother will have to leave her bed to collect delivery at the front door.

It's day 60 at home, and I'm on a 68-day streak of German lessons on Duolingo. Es hilft nichts.

The workweek was long. Apart from the usual stresses — underestimating the time required for one project, misreading the deadline on another — I made a great mistake in judgment. We had a townhall meeting, over the lunch hour, and for some reason I thought I'd like to leave my workspace, such as it is, at the end of the kitchen counter, to curl up in bed with a blanket to watch it on my laptop. So I did. And at some point I found myself monitoring communications on a particular project. And I looked around me and started crying. Not only has my job invaded my home, it managed to infiltrate my bed and made me think it was my idea.

Last night I dreamt about work, a rush project handed to me in a physical file. The editing work was simple, but the instructions for transmission were byzantine — changes needed to be described according to a precise formulation, handwritten into the boxes on the form in triplicate (ensuring the carbon copies were legible) and delivered by fax. I had to take a bus (the 125 past the university — meaningless to me in real life) and I waited in a parking lot for a very long time. The work was done just before deadline, but the form took several more hours to complete and it jeopardized my employment.

In another dream this morning I went to the spa but everyone was breaking the rules, bringing food and drink and their pet dogs. I had a key (I'd taken it from someone) but no one would help me find the locker it belonged to. The neighbourhood was still in lockdown but the spa was crowded, and I was appalled by the lineup for the public toilets (it looked a little like the cloister in Marrakech). I couldn't understand why the authorities would've shut off the beautifully sculpted water fountain.

Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over.
What does it mean to be worth something? Or worth enough? Or worthless? What does it mean to earn a living? What does it mean to be hired? What does it mean to be let go? [...]

And maybe the bread, as I've always understood it, really is over. The new world order is rearranging itself on the planet and settling in. Our touchstone is changing color. Our criteria for earning a life, a living, is mutating like a virus that wants badly to stay alive. I text a friend, "I can't find bread flour." She lives in Iowa. "I can see the wheat," she says, "growing in the field from outside my window." I watch a video on how to harvest wheat. I can't believe I have no machete. I can't believe I spent so many hours begging universities to hire me, I forgot to learn how to separate the chaff from the wheat and gently grind.
I participated in a research study that aims to understand the psychological impact of the current pandemic. Asked to respond to "My life has meaning and purpose," I replied, not at all. I firmly believe my life, all life, has no purpose, but this is no bad thing. I find this beautifully liberating in fact. If there is no purpose, one cannot fail to achieve it.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

The apparent triviality of it is unnerving

I walk to the lodging.

The key to the front door has slid inside the deadbolt. But I have no recollection of this action ever taking place. Though banal, the apparent triviality of it is unnerving. I'm holding the key between my thumb and index finger. I didn't realize I was holding it with such a tight grip, not until I thought about it. The unexpected frustration leaves me standing, weighing whether or not to give the key a turn — a simple enough decision, which has strangely taken on a much weightier mental process.
Billed as a mystery, The Transaction, by Guglielmo D'Izzia, certainly is that. I don't know what it is that I read.

This book is heavy on atmosphere, which I usually adore. It just didn't seem to be in service of anything.

De Angelis is on his way to the far outreaches of Sicily to close a real estate deal, but the party whom he's to meet has been murdered. He finally reaches his destination, but is treated with scorn and suspicion — a real outsider.

I found the plot, such as it was, hard to follow. The inscrutability of the characters and the environment make the mystery seem impenetrable. As a reader, I also felt like an outsider; if it's a deliberate effect, it was taken too far. De Angelis's behavior and motives are also mysterious — he never invites me into the novel.

Commendably, the sense of heat and nausea are overwhelming. Our protagonist faints from the sun, and the discomfort is palpable. He focuses obsessively on food but has no appetite.
The two men men waste no time and throw themselves at the food, as if famished. They practically inhale it and pick through the bones like scavengers. They don't even bother wiping their mouths, which have reddened with sauce and collected bits of shredded meat. They are almost through with their food, and I haven't even started with mine yet. I gaze down at my plate — trying not to think about the barbaric, bordering on nauseating, scene unfolding before my eyes — and take a stab at it.

The meat itself is pretty tender, but the tomato sauce is so thick and oily that it has turned orange. A few bites and I can already feel my intestinal walls getting coated with grease, and no amount of water can wash it off. I have no choice but to resort to wine; its acidity is the only thing that cuts through it. By the end of the meal, I am inebriated.
I read this book a couple months ago, but I think it was the wrong time, the wrong place for me.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Vibrating on the retina

On Agnes Martin:
Making art seems to have been a kind of meditations for her: she meant her paintings as aids to contemplation — "floating abstractions" akin to the art of the ancient Chinese. And it's true, though they are built up line by line, by almost imperceptible increments, that after a while her pictures begin vibrating on the retina with strange energy, flipping gently back and forth between metaphysical registers like one of Wittgenstein's playful visual paradoxes. The sense of calm they evoke in the viewer is similar to the liturgical mood Rothko's wok can produce, but Martin is less morbid, theatrical, and self-consciously "profound." Facing down the void, Rothko can at times be downright bombastic. Martin is more humane and in some way stronger: smaller in scale, indifferent to sublimity (though her paintings achieve it), uninterested in making statements. It's the difference, perhaps, between Lowell and Bishop.

Yet there is no doubt that Martin's work will always be caviar — the very palest of pale fish roe — to the general. [...] Martin is the sort of artist show-offs show off about, know-it-alls know about. I think I like her — the whole chaste package — because she was so obviously unlike me, so seemingly unencumbered by envy or the need to strategize. Thinking about her has a soothing effect, like imagining myself reincarnated as a smooth and shiny pebble glinting in sunlight at the bottom of a cold, clear mountain stream.
— from "Travels with My Mother," in The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle.

Monday, May 04, 2020

We all carry our lives in us

Still in the process of becoming, the soul makes room.
Here's another meditative, highly interior novel that I find difficult to write about: Indelicacy, by Amina Cain. (I love the cover of this book, though possibly I like the US edition a little bit more.)

It's narrated by Vitória, formerly of the cleaning staff at the art museum where one day she met her wealthy husband-to-be. Vitória has always had ambitions to write, specifically to write about herself looking at paintings.

It's impossible then to not draw comparisons to Maria Gainza's Optic Nerve, which, while it didn't resonate with me emotionally, poked at something much deeper in me that I want to explore further. Ganza's narrator approaches art quite academically from the particular viewpoint that her educated privilege affords her. That is, she wants to write about paintings, and in so doing we learn something about the character, the life, that informs her understanding of art, but Optic Nerve to me was more about the art. Cain's narrator is the opposite — she comes to art cold (so in this way maybe she's more relatable). For her, art is a doorway into herself (in Gainza, even though it's a window onto the self, it's an escape from the self?). Vitória uses art to find — to create — her own story.
I am always fooled by these suggestions of other rooms we might go into, but never can, never will. Another space, but it is closed to us, even if it feels open. Thought of in a different way, if it is all suggestion, what is in the rooms is ours.
Cain describes and even names some paintings, but don't expect to learn about art here. This is not that book.
"You don't have to prove anything," he said over dinner, some kind of fancy stew. "You've been working since you were twelve. Try to enjoy yourself."

The sound of my fork on my plate was loud. I made it louder. Now I was eating a salad. "I am trying to enjoy myself."

"Well, then try to relax."

"I'm afraid I'll get bored."

"Then get bored. You deserve it."

I had never felt I deserved anything, and if I was to begin, I couldn't start here. Still, I ate my stew. I ate my salad. In a way no one would have predicted, I began to consume my husband, but it would a long time before either of us understood any of that."
Vitória spends time adjusting to her new life, reveling in it, but it's not long before she finds it unfulfilling and even distasteful, and eventually she turns her back on it.
If I'm bored, at least it's not coming from outside my own life. I chose the boredom I'm a part of.
When the novel opens, Vitória is alone, but we don't know the circumstances that brought her there. That would be the indelicacy in question — revealed late, it pervades the mood from the start. Is it to do with class boundaries? Is it how the writer intrudes on others' space, or the lengths a writer will go to for a story? Is it sexual?

The epigraph, from Clarice Lispector's The Apple in the Dark, begins "It's as if something that should happen is waiting for me..." Lispector's novel also features a Vitoria who lives alone in the country, as Cain's Vitória finally does. I've read only two of Lispector's books and some short stories, but they've had a profound effect on me. I can see a clear influence here. The relationship between the narrator and the maid, for example, is similar to that in The Passion According to G.H. The way Cain describes space and time also evokes The Passion, along with the presence of "plump insects."
It's strange being alone again. In the afternoons there's a spaciousness larger than I've ever wanted.
In Agua Viva Lispector's narrator wants to write the way a musician composes, guided by instinct and emotion; in Indelicacy, Cain's Vitória aspires to write like a painter.
I didn't want someone to wait on me. I wanted to walk on the beach. I wanted to look at things in the distance, be faced with the water; I wanted to swim. I had never spent time at the ocean before. Finally I saw it at night when I closed my eyes to sleep.
I find it curious that she sees things when she closes her eyes, after it's happened, after it's been considered and resolved. That's when you see something as it is, and in peace.
She's carrying with her that other time. We all carry our lives in us, not just our problems or nightmares, but something of what we were before.
Excerpt:the opening scene
Excerpt: a scene with Antonietta
Interview: The Paris Review
Review: The Soul Makes Room in LARB