Thursday, July 22, 2021

Habita tecum

The last day of summer is misty and smells like fermented blackberry juice, and it sticks to me and makes me gag. I sit in my room in the attic and try to read what I've been assigned. Briefly I wonder whether the non-believing daughter of a Catholic woman and a Volunteer Reserve Militiaman might still be able to join the oblates and spend a few year living in the Congregation of the Sisters in Christ's Heart, like Sister Anna or Sister Łucja, in the world of old women, where all things are determined by Mother Stanisława or a Sister Zyta, where reality intermingles with dreams, present with past, sacred with profane and the mundane with the supernatural, asceticism with eroticism, sin with saintliness; I could really learn Latin, habita tecum, delve into the mysteries of my own heart, and write, and read big books as soon as the Mother Superior gets me those entry cards she promised me for the Old Library and the one in Jasna Góra.

Sometimes I wonder. I wondered when I visited the monastery earlier this summer. I wonder when I walk past the convent on my way to Mile End. I wondered when I booked a plane ticket for my daughter; I wonder what I'll do with this time to myself, where would I go? I start checking into artist retreats in Ireland. Wherever you go, there you are, as I like to remind people whose impulse it is to run away. Where would I like to find myself? I've changed in the last year; I need to habita mecum all over again. 

Accommodations, by Wioletta Greg, is the follow-up to Swallowing Mercury. It recounts Wiola's ordeals in Częstochowa, where she's going to university, staying initially at a hostel and then in a convent. It's a big city by comparison with the shithole of a village she grew up in, and she's ill-equipped for independence. But she gets on with things. (I'm coming to believe this is a Polish trait; we get on with things.)

This novel feels like a reckoning: with the outside world — through the thuglike lives of the Russians at the rooming house; with the past — as Mother Stanisława's mind rewinds to a state of Nazi occupation; with love — when Wiola surrenders to the brutal realities of the heart.

I walk intent upon the rhythm of our steps, watching our shadows as they shamelessly slide into one another on the sidewalks.

While her village life was bathed in a kind of wonder, city life is dirtier, lonelier, more grim. One can feel Wiola's romantic notions being stripped away. Many of the episodes recounted are disjointed, as is her sense of identity; her place in the world keeps shifting. The novel ends with her screaming; I hope it is the pain of rebirth, as she shakes of the tattered chrysalis. 

Now I take a look around the city. Small balloons knocked around by the wind rock over the pavement. Older people doze off under parasols. Tipsy bandaged pilgrims in straw hats, looking preposterous with neckerchiefs affixed to their heads, trail around the monastery, the baths at the Pilgrim House and the stations of the cross. In the underground passageways volunteers give out water and condoms; pickpockets, religious fanatics and prostitutes divvy up their beats. Jehovah's Witnesses, carrying old issues of The Watchtower, announcing the latest upcoming apocalypse. Younger pilgrims, clustered in and around the pavilions, gazebos and places to grab a bite like Prasowa or Wakans or Alex, hum "Abba Father" and peruse the twenty-four-hour liquor stores and the drug dealers, who come to Jasna Góra in droves during pilgrimage season. I sit atop a low wall and, without taking off my sunglasses, I stealthily touch the hot concrete with my palm. The city swells with the cacophony of guitars, harmonicas and drums, but beneath that surface rest layers of silence, pulse underground rivers, only barely making themselves known, as though the ground were a kind of forgetting.

Excerpt.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Condemned to a dream of romantic love

The fragrance in the room has four hearts. None of these hearts is human, and that's why I'm drawn towards them. At the base of this fragrance is soil and oakmoss, incense, and the smell of an insect captured in amber. A brown scent. Pungent and abiding. It can remain on the skin, in the nostrils, for up to a week. I know the smell of oakmoss, because you've planted it inside me, just as you've planted the idea that I should love one man only, be loyal to one man only, and that I should allow myself to be courted. All of us here are condemned to a dream of romantic love, even though no one I know loves in that way, or lives that kind of a life. Yet these are the dreams you've given us. I know the smell of oakmoss, but I don't know what it feels like to the touch. Still, my hand bears the faint perception of me standing at the edge of a wood and staring out at the sea as my palm smoothes this moss on the trunk of the oak. Tell me, did you plant this perception in me? Is it a part of the programme? Or did the image come up from inside me, of its own accord?

— from "Statement 011" in The Employees: A workplace novel of the 22nd century, by Olga Ravn.

This book is a work of art. It opens with a note of gratitude for the sculptures and installations of Lea Guldditte Hestelund. I reconsider what it is I want to sculpt. I redouble my efforts to procure marble scraps. I reconsider what it is I want to write.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Travelling through unfathomable interiors

"A computer is only human," he used to say. "It, too, can break down."

He cancels our meeting at the eleventh hour. I am unlikely to sit on a terrasse in the midday sun drinking orange beer, as was our plan, on my own. So suddenly I have the afternoon free. I find myself walking and making up errands as I go along, things to do, things to accomplish, amid the now nothing of the day. 

At one intersection, my attention turns right, the street is barricaded, pedestrian traffic only. The shops spill their goods out onto the pavement. I move into the current of the crowd, which is not really a crowd, it's a dozen people drifting, and another dozen crisscrossing our paths in the opposite direction, but I gaze up the street, the slight incline to the north, and there I see spaces teeming with faces, colours, movement, I remember this is what it's like to be, to be among people, enjoying summer, profiting from the day, engaging in consumerist activity.

Following this path begins to lead me away from the arbitrary destination I had set, but one more block won't alter the overall trajectory too drastically. I want to reach the crowd, without being in the crowd, but the crowd is an illusion, it keeps receding up the incline of the street — that, or I can't see it when I'm in it.

I need to change my focus, stop looking at what lies in the distance, see what's directly in front of me. I duck into a shop and spend two hours trying on clothes. I have spent a year wearing a black t-shirt dress, I don't trust my fashion sense anymore. What do I want? What do I like? I enjoy the saleslady's attention, she has opinions — not the blue, this one is a better fit, too short, try this. (And this dress is so romantic, so flouncy and feminine, I can't remember if this is the sort of thing I ever wear. Do I still need to project an image onto the world?)

I spend hundreds of dollars on clothes I don't need, but the chartreuse silk is soft like a sunbeam through the honey locust, and my t-shirt dress is threadbare, I imagine I will have to wear proper clothes again one day.

When I get home, all I can talk about is the bookstore a few doors down from the dress shop, with the boxes on tables organized by genre. The sign indicates they are all 0$. I glance through the two small boxes of English books, I recognize several titles as forgettable beach reads of summers past. But one volume leaps out at me, I can't believe my good fortune, Stanislaw Lem's Tales of Pirx the Pilot, I take it to the counter inside to confirm, incredulous, is it really free?, and then nest it carefully in my bag, deep in rayon and chiffon, and I walk away, smiling like chartreuse silk.

Space has three dimensions. . . . Words without meaning. He tried to summon some sense of time, kept repeating the word "time." . . . It was like munching on a wad of paper. Time was a senseless glob. It was not he who was repeating the word, but someone else, inside him. And that someone was enlarging, swelling, transcending all boundaries. He was travelling through unfathomable interiors, a ballooning, preposterous, elephantine finger — not his own, not a real finger, but a fictitious one, coming out of nowhere . . . sovereign, overwhelming, rigid, full of reproach and silly innuendo. . . . And Pirx — not he but his thought processes — reeled back and forth inside this preposterous, fetid, torpid, nullifying mass. . . .

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Even love needs something to touch

César Aira, waits for his issues of Artforum to arrive. 

Eventually (but this happened years ago: I am trying to recover a memory that I've half lost along the bumpy trajectory of my life) I began to get tired of waiting, tired of the psychic space waiting put me in. I wanted to adopt a more virile stance. Living in a state of expectation was eroding my nerves, distracting me from my occupations or directly nullifying them. Nothing was left. Waiting is an empty waste of time.

[I learned about waiting from my mother. Events of note occur very occasionally; waiting fills the void that is the rest of her life. Maybe this is where my interest in whitespace started, trying to shape the vast in-between. One can approach waiting with either anxiety or patience. I have watched my mother be consumed by the emptiness. There is nothing left for me but patience.]

Artforum, by César Aira, is a series of anecdotes and vignettes documenting his relationship with the art magazine as a physical, print publication, distinct from its content. It is a near obsession that borders on object fetishization, but it isn't quite that. Nor is his the studied madness and attention to detail of the serious collector.

This charming book encapsulate the joy of thingness, with all the emotional connection and existential resonance a material thing can bring. It's the thrill of the hunt for an issue, it's the dogged pursuit, a logic-defying method of acquisition, faith in serendipity. 

(I think of all the times I could easily have ordered a book, but I deferred the process because I wanted to find the book, or it to find me, even this book, for example; I checked numerous online inventories, and planned a trek to the shop, scheduling it among other responsibilities, hoping it would not be too late, that no one else would buy it in the meantime, undergoing this elaborate mental process, delaying gratification, not just so I could have it, but so I could have it in my own way.)

One can say that they are only material objects, that other things bring true happiness. But would that be true? There always has to be something material, even love needs something to touch. And in my proceeds of that joyful day, the material was so entwined with the spiritual that it transcended itself, without ceasing to be material. I won't talk abut the pen, I would get too carried away. But that transcendence was pretty obvious in the magazines. They were paper and ink, and they were also ideas and reveries. They reproduced the dialectic of art, with as many or more attributes as art itself. Before, I spoke about the "material trace." It was more than that: the word is "luxury." Material made of spirit is the luxurious border where reality communicates with utopia.

Excerpts

Thursday, July 08, 2021

Where the past exists as an eternal disappearance

Ellie swam up to me. "Hey," she whispered, cupping her hand under my head and lifting it so I could hear her. "I was thinking about how, in the mystical Jewish tradition, reading histories that have vanished, that have been hidden from view through time's erasure, through the systemically concealed violence against our people, is considered an approximation to nothingness, to Ein Sof, to the divine. So maybe interrogating a space like Al-Andalus, like the apartment, however wretched it was — a place where the past exists as an eternal disappearance — is like entering the void itself, the place where language feels divine because it is capable of naming that which has been made to disappear, of articulating the unspeakable. Do you think that's possible?"

Do you? Because I always think about these things during casual drunken ocean swims.

Savage Tongues, by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, reads more like an extended psychotherapy session than it does a novel — it's an academic exercise, not an entertainment.

Arezu, an Iranian-American, heads to Marbella, to the apartment where she stayed as a seventeen-year-old and fell into a sexual relationship with a much older man. Fortunately, she brings along her best friend Ellie, a red-haired Palestinian-supporting Israeli, to help her clean the place.

Friendship, I thought, is a form of witness. She had received my testimony. She had held it with tenderness and love. She had taken care with my story. 

While Ellie scours the bathroom, Arezu plumbs the depth of her memory of Omar, instinctively maintaining that she was complicit in all that transpired. It's clear to anyone of this #metoo generation that Omar is a pervy predator and she'd been seriously gaslit.

I was in acute pain, lonely in ways I was too young to grasp, and there was no one around to ask me to articulate my suffering, to help me fix it in language, so I raged on like a wounded animal who knows not what to do except soothe her pain with more pain, lust after the final blow of death that will put an end to it all. I became hooked on Omar.

The protagonist is a writer and is fixated on articulating things that are as yet beyond her understanding. I thought this was my way into the novel, as I'm trying to come to terms with my inadequacy in expressing my emotional self, to accept that some experiences are inexpressible, to differentiate between what needs expressing and what doesn't. When does language help and when does it hinder?

One who comes to this novel with the wrong mindset might easily find it laughable.

The relationship between our political pain and our attraction to destructive men was not always clear; perhaps being with men who make us scream and gasp and moan takes us beyond the confines of language, back into our original pain; it allows us to explore and later confront the patriarchal and patriotic leaning of the colonial social project.

Arezu sees the value of sharing personal pain as a means of political agency, but struggles "to process your own loss of dignity without demonizing him or subjecting him to the dominant narrative of the Arab man."

The jacket copy makes comparisons to Marguerite Duras and Shirley Jackson, Rachel Cusk and Samanta Schweblin. I detect no trace of the latter pair — there is nothing easy about the writing or subtle about its social commentary. It may be a brave novel, but I found no joy in it.

This is a heavy book. The added sociopolitical layers don't add much depth to the characters, needlessly weighing down the plot with theory. The psychological exploration of Arezu's trauma feels valid and true, but its payoff as a novel wasn't worth the investment.

[I just realized I've had Oloomi's Call me Zebra on my shelf unread for a couple of years. It may stay that way for a while.]

Sunday, July 04, 2021

It had nothing to do with sex

Vernon Subutex, by Virginie Despentes, is a chaotic canvas of characters all falling into orbit around a new messiah. Convoluted as life itself.

"Don't worry, I don't want to be a burden, honestly, it doesn't bother me sleeping outdoors." They look at him as though he were insane. Normal. He would have done the same in their shoes. The real truth was that, physically, he could no longer bear to be enclosed by walls and ceilings, he found it difficult to breathe, every object was hostile, and he was plagued by a noxious vibration. The worst thing was having people around him. He could feel their misery, their pain, their fear of not being good enough, of being unmasked, being punished, wasting their lives: he felt it was like pollen, it insinuated its way into every orifice and made it impossible to breath. Which meant that no, he really, truly had absolutely no desire to move in with any of them. These days he needed space. Solitude. 

After Vernon's record shop shut down, it wasn't long before he ran out of money. He gives up his worldly possessions (or he stops caring about them), and starts relying on the kindness of strangers and old friends. He has charm, charisma, and good looks, and he spins a mean set of tunes. Overlaid with the aural experiments of a rock star friend recently deceased in possibly suspicious circumstances, the sound waves act like a drug on the masses.

The center of the room was filled with people — the silhouettes had converged and were moving, some slowly, others still entwined, or tracing circles around each other. And then she saw — not with the clarity of a hallucination brought on by acid or shrooms, but even so she saw, and could not claim it was a dream since the illusion lasted long enough for her to be entirely aware of it — light waves surrounding the bodies and she could perceive ribbons of energy, writhing and moving between people. She is a rational person. Unless on drugs, she did not expect to see colored streamers connecting people.

She doesn't like it when people read her cards, she doesn't believe in the supernatural, she's got no time for spells and curses. But here, in the darkness, she could see things that did not exist. And the most unsettling thing is that she did not deliberate, did not decide to get up — she simply found herself on her feet, hands in the air, an idiot smile plastered to her face. She was dancing. And although she was not touching anyone, not brushing up against another body, she recognized the feeling — she was orgasming. It had nothing to do with sex and yet this was the most incredible fuck she'd ever had in her life.

These are the ultimate raves, by invitation only, so the inner circle can control the vibe. The hangers on  include former musicians, a screenwriter, porn stars, a stock market trader, a rock critic, a tattoo artist, their wives and lovers, the homeless and the wealthy, Muslims and atheists. It's a panorama of Charlie Hebdo's Paris, where people are contradictions and sometimes even hypocrites.

Over three volumes clocking in at nearly 1,000 pages, this was an engrossing read. Despentes is often compared to bad boy Michel Houellebecq; maybe I'm inured to provocation on the grounds of that holy trifecta of sex, religion and politics, but I don't see it. Despentes's characters are messy and offbeat, but they feel real. I'm not sure if there needs to be a social commentary underlying this thick slab of life; it's simply exuberant.

I just read and kept reading, way past my bedtime.

The brain of a person with irrational goals has greater depth of field than one that functions normally, it's always several steps ahead, it anticipates everything. It's the same thing with alcohol. Even when Véro wants to stop drinking, she knows that her brain will manage to get her into situations that leave her no option, and generally this happens unbeknownst to her own free will — in other words, she does not decide to drink, she remembers she needs to call an old friend going through a hard time, and once she is at his place, she realizes that what she really comes for is a dozen shots of pastis. The brain is devious: it plays tricks on your consciousness, it does things on the sly, that way you get exactly what you wanted while pretending you were thinking about something else entirely.

While Vernon Subutex is no lyrical masterpiece (neither is War and Peace), it holds both beauty ("She is resilient and fragile, and there is something about the tension between these things that makes her overwhelming.") and truth ("You don't batter the mother of your kids because she did something wrong. You do it because you're violent.").

Check out Jennifer Croft's take on Volume 1 with a particular eye on the quality of the translation (Croft translates Olga Tokarczuk):

Part of what makes this book so exciting to read is Despentes's ability to broach so many topics, toggling between them in seamless, almost superhuman fashion. Deftly she tackles sex, materialism, the technologies that are hastening society’s collapse, capitalism, racism, gender fluidity, wounded masculinity, wounded femininity, domestic violence, homelessness, porn, the hypocrisy of the left, and the virulence of the right. Vernon Subutex 1 is about all these things, but it is also about Paris — the people living in the city today, and in particular, those who don’t change when society changes around them.

Excerpts
from Volume 1
from Volume 2 
from Volume 3 

He does not say what he is thinking. He is thinking that no one is solid. Nothing. No group. That it is the hardest thing to learn. That we are tenants of a situation, not landlords.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The blessed consummation of memory made real

The Divorce, by César Aira, is not about a divorce. This realization came as a minor disappointment, as a divorce story stumbled upon in a village bookshop during a weekend getaway while processing heartbreak felt serendipitously appropriate, to serve as potential inspiration for a writing project of my own.

In fact, the stories here revolve around Enrique, who owns the guest house in Buenos Aires where our divorcee, Kent, is staying.

The center, for me, was Enrique's guest house. It was the radiant source of a life composed of ever-new, constantly changing images. Because of my personal circumstances, principally the sense of impermanence that followed the divorce, I had gone in search of some kind of eternity. [...] Time seemed to rule everything. And yet it was not so. Time was merely the mask that eternity had put on to seduce the young.

Enrique is accidently doused in water and stopped in his tracks beside a sidewalk café, when Kent's companion recognizes him from a strange night at boarding school that marked the end of their childhood.

It had been a meeting and a parting in one, precipitated by an accident or an adventure that, over time, had grown in their memories, taking on cosmic proportions, like a galactic explosion.

The school was on fire, and the paths of these two lost souls converged in their desperation to escape amid hordes of Jesuits. The laws of physics went up in flames around them as they fled into an architectural model of the building, risking infinite recursion. But there they were, a chance meeting in a cafe, fifteen years later.

What they were experiencing in that moment was something like the blessed consummation of memory made real.

Enrique finally notices Kent, and then sees his mother at the next table. These encounters inspire further tales from Enrique's past. We learn about a sculptor apprenticed to another sculptor, neither of whom showed any proof of ever practicing the art.

It was interesting as a lesson: people can sincerely believe that they are something they are not, and even govern their lives according to that belief.

Part of the book circles around this theme of how force of personality overpowers depth of character or accomplishment,  and I wonder if that's meant to extend to a commentary on storytelling as a display of style over substance, or maybe it has something to do with divorce.

The mother's role in life was to head the family business, for which she consulted a manual, which may or may not have had a key, which each individual may or may not possess. Other aspects of her life had short shrift: 

Her sex life began late but was clamorous and chaotic, as if she were expressing herself in a foreign language.

[I love that line. Love is always a foreign language, vaguely familiar.]

Maybe divorce, by fixing one's status as individual, makes one perceive everything as being about oneself. We sees our own themes repeated in the people around us, entire societies reflecting our individual dynamics backs to us.

Finally we hear about Enrique's tragic love affair (not Kent's) with a supernatural woman imbued with Mystery, that ended right there in that moment on the sidewalk in a torrent of water. It is poetic, mythic, whimsical, sad, and just so.

Acquiring an education in love could happily occupy a whole life ("life" here being understood as a synonym for "youth"). The succession of lessons was endless. Everything was love, but love itself was synonymous with the anticipation of love. [...] The prospect of true love graced his encounters with emotion and poetry.

I'd been reluctant to hop on the Aira bandwagon — despite the acclaim for his novellas, no description grabbed me enough to pick one up. Maybe that changes now. A little bit Borges, a little bit Perec, not too mentally taxing, slightly awesome.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Kill the King and fuck the Queen

Caissa, the muse of chess, was no less ruthless than the muse of poetry. Muses had a way of killing those whom they inspired.

The Eight, by Katherine Neville, originally published in 1988, is a rollicking thriller full of puzzles and esoteric plot points that starts with a chess match — one minor faceoff in a tournament for the ages. With symbols enough to make Robert Langdon's head swim, Neville takes us on a tour of the corridors of power connecting Napoleon and Catherine the Great with ancient Masonic orders as well as America's founding fathers. 

One must never lose sight of the big picture. And remember: a pawn that reaches the eighth rank can be promoted to Queen. (I mean, Caïssa wasn't one of the original Nine.)

"Chess, my dear, is such an Oedipal game. Kill the King and fuck the Queen, that's what it's all about. Psychologists love to follow chess players about to see if they wash their hands too much, sniff at old sneakers, or masturbate between sessions. Then they write it all up in the Journal of the AMA."

From 1970s Manhattan, our (female!) computer wiz protagonist sets off for Algeria on a work contract. The story slips through time, spanning cultures and continents — from Phoenician mythology and the French Revolution to the Colonies and the looming OPEC crisis. 

Basically, The Eight has a serious Assassin's Creed vibe, only the Pieces of Eden are pieces of a legendary chess set (fictitious), gifted to Charlemagne by the Moors, scattered across the globe. There's no overt alien angle, but it brushes up against arcane formulas like the Music of the Spheres that unlock secret knowledge like the elixir of life.

Neville imagines an encounter between Leonhard Euler and Johann Sebastien Bach in which the composer has translated the mathematician's knight's tour to music, producing philosophical alchemies where physical transmutations are wanting for proof.

Cameo appearances feature William Blake, Benedict Arnold, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, painter Jacques-Louis David, and William Wordsworth, among others.

"This one — the man with the head of a bird — is the great god Thoth. He was a doctor who could heal any illness. He invented writing, too. It was his job to write the name of everyone in the Book of the Dead. Shahin says each person has a secret name given him at birth, written on a stone, and handed to him when he dies. And each god had a number instead of a secret name...  [...] We believe the universe is comprised of number, and it is only a question of vibrating to the correct resonance of these numbers to become one with God."

Caïssa, by Domenico Maria Fratta
[When I was in grade 8, in the early 80s, my teacher was something of a computer enthusiast. We were the only grade-school classroom in the region with a computer "lab" — three monster machines we took turns on. I wrote a program in Basic to complete the calculations for an income tax return. Our teacher was an immovable force, physically resembling a very tall, thick brick wall. He had a bushy black moustache and a Ukrainian name, and he spoke softly but forcefully, like he might be holding you at gunpoint. Because he maintained our student records on computer, he argued that it was easier to call us by number than to remember our names. I was number 8. I've held an affinity for this number ever since.]

The novel is about chess the same way Alice Through the Looking Glass is, with no great insight into the game or its players, but it pauses to ponder whether to play the man or play the board, and speculates that chess's popularity in America is not evidence of intellect so much as of morality.

Neville quotes Polish Grand Master Savielly Tartakower: "Tactics is knowing what to do when there something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do." I realize I am becoming a master strategist of life.

The secret was not hidden beneath a rock in the desert. Nor was it tucked inside a musty library. It lay hidden within the softly whispered tales of these nomadic men. Moving across the sands by night, passing from mouth to mouth, the secret had moved as the sparks of a dying bonfire are scattered across the silent sands and buried in darkness. The secret was hidden in the very sounds of the desert, in the tales of her people — in the mysterious whispers of the rocks and stones themselves.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Raw earth and full bellies

Priestesses smelled like forbearance and cheap incense, not raw earth and full bellies.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is an exquisite thing, the second book in the Singing Hills Cycle by Nghi Vo. This time the cleric Chih is accompanying Si-Yu and her mammoth when they are waylaid by hungry shapeshifting tigers. To stave off sleep, and to stay alive, Chih tells the tale of the love affair between legendary tiger Ho Thi Thao and human scholar Dieu.

She had turned out to be a better traveler than she had thought, or at least, she had not been eaten by hungry ghosts or had her skull stolen by fox spirits yet. She had mostly stopped panting whenever she needed to climb a rise, and she had learned early on that you never passed a priestess and her road shrine without offering something, even if it was only a tiny coin, a bun, or a prayer.

[I read the first book with a heart full of sadness, while staycationing in my own city. I read the second book with a heart full of hope while vacationing just outside the city. I wonder how much my state of mind contributes to my overall impression of these books. How much of the serendipity is actual, how much have I constructed?

I read the above before venturing out to the monastery. The lady at the cheese shop confirms they take cash, credit, even prayers (but if that's the preferred payment, she may have to charge extra — prayers aren't worth what they used to be). I seriously consider buying a zither at the antique shop down the road from the inn where I'm staying; then I read about the tiger queen correcting Chih's facts, "her voice as taut as a zither string." The countryside shapeshifts around me.]

The royal felines interrupt Chih regularly, so Chih can annotate the story with the cultural context they provide. The versions of the legend differ depending on who is telling it and whom they are telling it to. Even a love story is propaganda embodying guiding principles.

"When she shared the food that Scholar Dieu offered her rather than eating it all, she was expressing... fond feeling and fascination. When she offered her name without asking for Scholar Dieu's, she was opening the door."

"Opening the door for what?" asked Chih, fascinated in spite of themself.

Sinh Loan waved a thick hand. "To any number of things. To a courtship. To a single night of love. To something that would last far longer. To an opportunity to know her more and better. For more."

The fascination and infatuation flourishes, in spite of or inspired by their species and cultural differences.

As the sun grew ripe and started to drop towards the horizon, Scholar Dieu read the poem, and as she did, it came to Ho Thi Thao how very beautiful she was. She had been beautiful in bed for three nights, which was important, and she was beautiful now, when she was angry at having her way blocked. It came to Ho Thi Thao that perhaps she wanted to learn how else the scholar was beautiful, and even in what ways the scholar might be ugly, which could also be fascinating and beloved.

I feel overcome by love and beauty (even the ugly is beloved). These books are mythic: weightless and transportive. 

Review.
Excerpt.

Friday, June 11, 2021

A museum to the absence of love

The Ancestry of Objects, by Tatiana Ryckman, tells the story of a woman having an affair with a married man.

We lean against the counter and leak onto the linoleum floor. We think of the stain he's made in the house, in us, and wait for the moment when he will leave and we can toy with the lonely wetness of our cunt and the house, the whole house holding us in a warm echo. We will come fondling the bruises he's left.

It's precious. It's a slim novel(la?), but dense — the sentences need unravelling, the meanings are cryptic. It feels like the kind of book academics love to admire and aspire to write. The narrator's use of the first-person plural does not draw me into her universal(?) experience; rather it alienates me — I can't decode her character readily enough to be able to relate to it. 

We know she is alone, burdened by the ideas of sin and guilt, and suicidal. 

The plot of our days takes on a beige vacancy. The house is a hair shirt, and we have grown accustomed to being unable to scratch the itch. A lifetime of summers spent punishing ourself between bedroom and kitchen and living room floor has prepared us for the special ennui, though this time we have no one to blame but ourself.

We're not sure what she does with her days (nor is she). The narrator lives in her grandparents' house. They're now dead, but the house has been preserved. She's encased in an obsolete worldview.

We could teach the ancestry of objects preserved as a museum to the absence of love, to tenderness stored more faithfully in hairpins collected in mason jars than in our lineage of fallible hearts.

[Honestly, I don't know what that means.]

It is in many ways the exact opposite of Annie Ernaux's Simple Passion, and it is a startling coincidence that I should be reading these books essentially back to back. Ernaux' s take on her affair is an examination of her own behaviour, in awe that she could be driven to such action and that she took pleasure in it. There is no joy in Ryckman's telling. Her affair is heavy, her despair permeates every breath.

Ryckman is sometimes quite graphic, if poetic. (I wonder if the narrator knew anything of love or sex before David; it seems unlikely that her character has ever loved before, yet there's a worldliness in her attitude that is out of sync with what we know of her past.)

He fastens his pants, ashamed, and kisses our mouth full of his come and, standing, pulls us to standing and holds us for a moment very tightly, the come still the loose wet muscle of an oyster in the shell of our mouth.

Many passages stood out not because they were erotic, but because they were odd. (One reviewer called the sex scenes gross. That's a step too far, but it underscores the difficulty of writing anything that hopes to embody human desire.)

The fantasy is not to have David but to be known by David. That he will leave no stone unturned in his need to see more of us more deeply, that nothing he finds could diminish his desire. That even in our darkest recesses, we are acceptable, okay. That we will be okay. That, more than searching for an answer, he will be consumed by the curiosity to ask.

But David does not ask questions. David does not peer into the cavern of our heart. There is nothing he wants to know, and so he says without saying, we are not worth knowing.

Of course, every story these days serves as a reflection of my own plotlessness. What did I want from my latest love affair? To be seen. To be known (in the biblical sense?). To be worth knowing.

Excerpt.

We stay like this until the bitterness and sadness and loneliness and many adjectives of our affair settle into the boredom of waiting for it to pass.

Monday, May 31, 2021

The approximate quality of our conversations

"What's your passion?" How I hate that question. Passionately. 

It's a phrase that gained traction over the last couple decades or so. (Is Oprah to blame?) We used to talk about hobbies and interests. Now I feel inadequate for not having a driving force that is my singular focus. I am not passionate about reading, or sculpting, or the environment. I care deeply about them, but they do not stir a fire in my belly. (Perhaps I believe my passions should be sexual.)

I've been thinking a lot lately about love and passion, and the words we use to express them, and how words often get in the way. It's one of the great paradoxes of our modern life that we value open and honest communication, and we rely on words to do the heavy lifting, yet we so rarely use them the same way. We are each one of us a giant, fragile talking egg. 

It is a great personal paradox that I make my living by manipulating words; I am regularly paralyzed by their inadequacy.

The fact that he was a foreigner made it all the more difficult to understand his behaviour, moulded by a culture that I knew only through folklore and clichés for tourists. At first, I was discouraged by the obvious limitations of our exchanges, which were reinforced by the fact that, although he spoke fairly good French, I could not express myself in his language. Later I realized that this situation spared me the illusion that we shared a perfect relationship, or even formed a whole. Because his French strayed slightly from standard use and because I occasionally had doubts about the meaning he gave to words, I was able to appreciate the approximate quality of our conversations. From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger.

"Passion," to me, has always evoked volatility. A grand romantic passion is doomed to tragedy and forces beyond our control. (Is this why I'm so wary of passion?) My own psychology feeds this definition. And etymologically, passion is linked to suffering. If passion is not those things, then how is it different from love? (Is it?) (Where is the joy?)

Simple Passion, by Annie Ernaux, is a memoir recounting her state of mind in the aftermath of an affair with a married man. It is not about the man or their relationship. It is about her experience of them. 

The book opens on her memory of seeing a porn movie for the first time. The writing is graphic but detached, leading me to feel the absurdity and mundanity of the scene on screen. She remarks on how it normalizes that which was once shocking and shameful.

It occurred to me that writing should aim to do the same, to replicate the feeling of witnessing sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment. 

Surprisingly then, the rest of the book is devoid of sexual content. It is, however, painfully honest.

Indeed, it has helped me normalize what I can only call temporary insanity, the obsession I feel for a man I'm sleeping with, not just any man, certainly I don't feel this way about every man I've slept with, but there's been a man or two in the course of my life who's gotten under my skin. The single-mindedness, that everything relates to him or anticipates him, is in service of his being, not like I exist solely to serve him, not that nothing exists outside of him, not that I'm some vapid thing who has no sense of self outside of her man, who forgets her friends and family and obligations for him, but suddenly he is important, and his presence (or absence) shines light or casts a shadow on everything else. And when he is gone, he remains important.

When I was reading, the sentences that gave me pause were those concerning a relationship between a man and a woman. They seemed to teach me something about A. and lent credibility to the things I wished to believe.

I too stand the words on the page beside my relationship, looking for points of intersection to cross-reference my experience. (I gloat inwardly when she misses a screening of Oshima's Realm of the Senses, which she was convinced encapsulated her story; I had the pleasure of enjoying it in the company of my lover.) 

Was that love? Simple passion? Just sex? (When is passion simple? Is it, in fact, always so simple?)

Whether or not he was "worth it" is of no consequence. And the fact that all this is gradually slipping away from me, as if it concerned another woman, does not change this one truth: thanks to him, I was able to approach the frontier separating me from others, to the extent of actually believing that I could sometimes cross over it.

I measured time differently, with all my body.

I discovered what people are capable of, in other words, anything: sublime or deadly desires, lack of dignity, attitudes and beliefs I had found absurd in others until I myself turned to them. Without knowing, it, he brought me closer to the world.

None of it is overwrought. None of it is pathetic or apologetic. It's quite simple really. (Love happens inside one's own head.)

Passion is also patient (for its own resolution?), deep and abiding, despite any of my efforts to tame it a little or deny it entirely.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Holding the universe together

Guided meditation this week reminds me: Your heart is devoted to your existence.

Today, after five months, curfew is lifted. Tonight I think I'll take a midnight walk.

It's been 450 straight days of German lessons.

My hanging strawberry plant, purchased prematurely enough to have had to suffer a few too many too cold nights, has yielded one perfect strawberry, which some creature or other helped themself to.

Between other things, I've been reading J.D. Salinger's Early Stories (1940-1948). There's a line I've loved forever, which appears in "A Girl I Knew."

The apartment below mine had the only balcony of the house. I saw a girl standing on it, completely submerged in the pool of autumn twilight. She wasn't doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together. The way the profile of her face and body refracted in the soupy twilight made me feel a little drunk. When a few seconds had throbbed by, I said hello to her. 

I've always wanted to be that girl, the girl who could breezily hold the universe together such that one poetic soul might actually notice it. 

Today I had my chakras cleared by a Reiki master. Psychotherapy has helped release me, somewhat, from my emotions, yet I still feel blocked, like I have a permanent lump in my throat. Maybe I need spiritual release. What could Reiki hurt?

Research this for too long, and you start to sound vaguely stoned. Is Reiki real? Does it matter whether Reiki is real? And whose definition of real are we working with: Is it real according to the presiding scientific and medical framework, which tells us that phenomena need to be measurable to be taken seriously, or is it real in the looser, unquantifiable way of spiritual practice?

I felt my hands get extremely hot and heavy. I felt paralyzed. I felt like I was breathing without breathing. I had an image flash across my mind, the strangeness and violence of which jolted me out of and into myself.

A friend directed me to an episode of the Invisibilia podcast, The Great Narrative Escape. Storytelling is as old as time, but clearly individuals, for various reasons, are drawn to different types of stories.

This episode resonates with me for a million reasons. I've always been anti-narrative. It shows in the books I choose to read, the movies I prefer to watch, even the people I listen to. I've always felt there's more to "story" than plot twists and character development.

[Perhaps marketers actually get this, as it's surely a stretch to call what they do "story." It's only in the last decade or so that "storytelling" has become the dominant terminology to describe the m.o. of marketing departments everywhere. The decade before that it was about shaping a "narrative." (Remember when marketing was about selling things?) I've witnessed the evolution of marketing's jargon to disguise its own purpose in an attempt to legitimize it. The goal is to make marketing entirely invisible.]

The podcast preamble mentions how people weaponize narrative to advance political agendas. People feel defenseless against narrative. So, does a "boring" story have any power, and where does it come from? 

This episode is primarily about low-narrativity Slow TV. It gives people agency to decide for themselves what's boring, what's interesting. It puts you inside yourself.

It's not actually "slow" — it's real time. What is it that makes us believe that reality is too slow? Why would anyone want to speed up time?

Things I am doing slowly
Writing thoughtful secret things. 
Practicing my penmanship with a fountain pen.
Sanding a sculpture, for about an hour nightly, with no noticeable progress (with the intention of painting it soon).
Healing my heart.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Everyone is like a bombed-out city

It is not difficult to fall in love. First her eyes staring at him last night, her youth and that faint impudence — nothing vulgar, just enough to pique his curiosity. Then there is the way she carries herself, the urge to stroke her back, to press his lips against her inner thighs; there is the tone of her voice, the mischievous gleam when she talks to him, something just a little rushed about her delivery — but not enough to get on his nerves. And that unconscious ease that comes of being so young — still oblivious to the blows that will destroy parts of her. Past the age of forty, everyone is like a bombed-out city. He falls in love when she bursts out laughing — desire mingled with a promise of happiness, a utopia of perfectly matched tranquilities — she only has to turn her face to his, to let him kiss her, and he will enter a different world. Vernon knows the difference: arousal is a pulsating in the groin, love is a weakening in the knees. A part of his soul falls away — and the floating sensation is both delicious and disquieting: if the other person refuses to catch the body tumbling toward it, the fall will be all the more painful, since he is no longer a young man. With age we suffer more and more, as though our emotional skin, more delicate, more fragile, can longer bear the slightest blow.

— from Vernon Subutex 1, by Virginie Despentes.

Monday, May 24, 2021

We are our own virus

"The human being is the cause of all evil in this world. We are our own virus."

Tender. One who tends. Legal tender. My heart is tender (loving, affectionate, but possibly compassionate, young, impressionable, delicate, frail, weak, soft, also sensitive and fragile). My tender feelings for you. Tender is the night. An open sore is tender. Is it a physical state, or an emotional one?

When we tenderize meat, we break it down. It becomes soft and pliable. 

"Have you ever eaten something that's alive?"

"I haven't."

"There's a vibration, a subtle and fragile heat, that makes a living being particularly delicious. You're extracting life by the mouthful. It's the pleasure of knowing that because of your intent, your actions, this being has ceased to exist. It's the feeling of a complex and precious organism expiring little by little, and also becoming part of you. For always. I find this miracle fascinating. This possibility of an indissoluble union." 

Tender Is the Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica, is about cannibalism and factory farming. Kind of. It's clearly a dystopia, although that label didn't occur to me while reading it; I was too involved with the personal drama of one man grappling to reset his moral compass to examine the societal implications. 

I bought into the premise immediately. This book was horrifically unsettling and pageturningly weird (the lovechild of Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream and Roberto Bolano's 2666).

Animals, globally, have fallen prey to a virus — many have been eradicated, those that remain are deadly. Humankind, with its taste for meat, turns to cannibalism. Rather than abolish the practice, governments regulate it, converting existing facilities and supporting economic forces to produce "special meat," sourced initially from marginalized populations and then bred in captivity.

He always asks himself what it would be like to spend most of the day storing human hearts in a box. What do the workers think about? Are they aware that what they hold in their hands was beating just moments ago? Do they care? Then he thinks about the fact that he actually spends most of his life supervising a group of people who, following his orders, slit throats, gut, and cut up women and men as if doing so were completely natural. One can get used to almost anything, except the death of a child.

Marcos remembers the times before the Transition, but the before and after of his life are marked more significantly by the tragic death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage. He is floundering in the aftermath, and it's only when he is gifted a female specimen — for his personal consumption, or resale, or potentially for breeding with the right permits — and he has to deal with its inconveniences that he appears to be roused from his moral stupor. It's not an epiphany of consciousness so much as a confrontation with logistics.

The novel's Spanish title, Cadáver exquisito, may be more evocative of the surreal and erotic elements that simmer beneath the surface.

She offers him a cigarette and lights it for him. While they smoke, she says, "I don't get why a person's smile is considered attractive. When someone smiles, they're showing their skeleton." He realizes he's never seen her smile, not even when she took hold of the hooks, raised her face, and cried out in pleasure. It was a single cry, a cry both brutal and dark. [...]

Spanel has an arrested beauty about her. It disturbs him that there's something feminine beneath the brutal aura she takes great care to give off. There's something admirable in her artificial indifference.

There's something about her he'd like to break.

Spanel is the butcher he occasionally fucks. Somehow, Marcos' relationship to her is not at all surprising amid the spectrum of women with whom he has contact — his sister, the administrator at his father's nursing home, the scientist at the lab, his estranged wife, and not least the specimen he tied up in the barn.

In fact, the argument could (should) be made that Tender Is the Flesh is a deeply feminist novel, beyond the typical feminist–vegetarian links, from how the processing farms treat pregnant specimens to how Marcos in one way or another commodifies the women in his life.

What he wants is for her to scream, for her skin to cease being a still and empty sea, for her words to crack open, dissolve. [...]

When she stops writhing, he runs his hand along her skin, and he kisses her and continues to move slowly. It's then that Spanel screams, she screams as if the world didn't exist, she screams as if words had split in two and lost all meaning, she screams as if beneath this hell there was another hell, one from which she didn't want to escape.

Specimens have their vocal cords removed. They are silenced. Euphemisms abound throughout the society so as not to utter the truth.

This novel was ousted from the 2021 Tournament of Books in the first round, but the commentariat has a lot of insight into dehumanization, sermonization, and the horror genre. Interestingly, the discussion revolved more around this book than the novel that beat it out.

Marcos is also tender, broken down by life and still naïve. How is it that what one feels can be so at odds with what is

One day he saw his parents dancing to the rhythm of Armstrong's trumpet. They moved in the half-light and he stood there for a long time, watching them in silence. His father stroked his mother's cheek and, still a young child, he felt that this was love. He couldn't put it into words, not at the time, but he knew it in his body, in the way one feels that something is true.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The first lump of clay: Peter

Trust your hands. Your fingers know things. You have touched faces. You have touched children and lovers. Your fingers remember.

That was the first lesson. The first lesson is always one of trust.

After that came geometry. Twenty pounds of grey were divided to became a sphere on a slab.

Wet, smooth, messy. Returning to childhood, to earth. Primal, satisfying.

We entered a Stone Age and learned to use tools.

Anatomy. Musculature. Proportion.

(Ears are like fingerprints, and they're a bitch to sculpt.)

Think of who they are, where they come from, what their purpose is.

That was the second lesson. Every object has a story.

Peter. He's German, 50-ish, works a soul-killing administrative job. Failed poet. When he was young he fell out of a tree and broke his nose. Every poem he's ever written has been about that tree.

One woman wanted to craft a bust of an African woman basking in the sun. Another was using a photo as her guide, her boyfriend when he was little. Ah. Backstory. 

The writer in me had given this way too much thought, but my sculptor self is grateful for the detail. Character is born of detail.

Peter was abandoned at the arts centre when lockdown was first decreed over a year ago, still wanting a touch up of epoxy, and a coat of matte to reduce the shine. I was finally able to retrieve him, and another work in progress, by special appointment. 

He sits now, at home, in this eternal state of near completion, witnessing my poetic failings, my struggles with trust and love.

My living space has given way to art studio. Art is solace and meditation. Clay is the vessel, my fingers are god. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The distance of art

I considered the possibility that art — not just L's art but the whole notion of art — might itself be a serpent, whispering in our ears, sapping away all our satisfaction and our belief in the things of this world with the idea that there was something higher and better within us which could be equalled by what was right in front of us. The distance of art suddenly felt like nothing but the distance in myself, the coldest, loneliest distance in the world from true love and belonging.

Second Place, by  Rachel Cusk, is a book I like more now in hindsight than I did while reading it. The story is uncomfortable and frustrating, with unlikeable characters and unclear motivations. Too much like real life, perhaps, for me to see its artfulness up close.

Some people write simply because they don't know how to live in the moment, I said, and have to reconstruct it and live in it afterwards.

[This describes my relationship to living, and moments, and writing and reading, quite accurately.]

The narrator, M, a writer of books that no one seems to have much regard for, hosts something like an artist's retreat, wherein the artist is obliged for her hospitality and she can leech off their creativity. M's voice is very much like Faye's, the writer in the Outline Trilogy, but here's the thing: I don't much like M. I get the feeling nobody does. Faye, however, wasn't much more than an outline, given shape by the stories of the people surrounding her. M has more solidity — filled in, but with dark unpleasantness.

So M invites this artist, L, to stay; she's in love with L, or his art, or both, it's hard to tell. After a long while L finally agrees to come, but he brings a woman with him, which M clearly didn't bargain for, and there's less artistic inspiration about the visit than financial desperation — L is out of style and down on his luck.

What interested him was his suspicion not that he might have missed out on something, but that he had failed entirely to see something else, something that had ultimately to do with reality and with a definition of reality as a place where he himself did not exist.

M is genuine in her regard for L's art and her wish to commune with him, to understand his vision and and process.

It took L's painting to make me really see it. I saw, in other words, that I was alone, and saw the gift and the burden of that state, which had never truly been revealed to me before.

She feels failed, and frustrated, and aging. (But maybe I'm projecting.) She doesn't feel valued, as an artist or a patron. (But maybe I'm projecting.) She believes that the truth is an absolute thing that exists outside of us, and it is art's purpose to capture it.

I am interested in the existence of things before our knowledge of them — partly because I have trouble believing that they do exist! If you have always been criticised, from before you can remember, it becomes more or less impossible to locate yourself in the time or space before the criticism was made: to believe, in other words, that you yourself exist. The criticism is more real than you are: it seems, in fact, to have created you. I believe a lot of people walk around with this problem in their heads, and it leads to all kinds of trouble – in my case, it led to my body and my mind getting divorced from each other right at the start, when I was only a few years old. But my point is that there’s something that paintings and other created objects can do to give you some relief. They give you a location, a place to be, when the rest of the time the space has been taken up because the criticism got there first. I don’t include things created out of words, though: at least for me they don’t have the same effect, because they have to pass through my mind to get to me. My appreciation of words has to be mental. 

She rages at L's dismissal of her. She's clearly had to struggle to be a mother and an artist, simply to be a woman in a body and with an aspiration. L, of course, embodies male white privilege.

Things go wrong, and then they go wrong again, and again, and somewhere in the middle of it art happens and we're somewhat in awe of it even though it bites, it's terrifying, maybe this is some kind of truth. And most of us come out of it as better people.

There's a certain point in life at which you realise it's no longer interesting that time goes forward — or rather, that its forward-going-ness has been the central plank of life's illusion, and that while you were waiting to see what was going to happen next, you were steadily being robbed of all you had. Language is the only thing capable of stopping the flow of time, because it exists in time, is made of time, yet it is eternal — or can be.

[The whole story is addressed to someone named Jeffers. This is a reference to a 1930s memoir of an arts patron who wrote about DH Lawrence's stay at her colony. If you don't know the story, then the construct of Jeffers doesn't make sense — it's unnecessary and an unfortunate distraction.]

The human capacity for receptivity is a kind of birthright, an asset given to us in the moment of our creation by which we are intended to regulate the currency of our souls. Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty will fail us sooner or later. My difficulty, I saw then, had always lain in finding a way to give back all the impressions I had received, to render an account to a god who had never come and never come, despite my desire to surrender everything that was inside me. Yet even so my receptive faculty had not, for some reason, failed me: I had remained a devourer while yearning to become a creator.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Something meant to live in Air

Do trees exist?
entry for the nineteenth day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came the the south-western halls

Many things are unknown. Once — it was about six or seven months ago — I saw a bright yellow speck floating on a gentle Tide beneath the Fourth Western Hall. Not understanding what it could be, I waded out into the Waters and caught it. It was a leaf, very beautiful, with two sides curving to a point at each end. Of course it is possible that it was part of a type of sea vegetation that I have never seen, but I am doubtful. The texture seemed wrong. Its surface repelled Water, like something meant to live in Air.

— from Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke.

Here was a clue that he knew about the trees. But it is a relearning. Knowledge through observation through the senses. What really exists? How can I understand it?

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

"Yes, I have loved."

We humans are, in the end, stupid creatures who cannot help desiring that someone know us as we are. 

Our first night together, we made love for endless hours. The hallways creaked with other people's stories, but Room 205 was a haven from the early December cold. The city was in another phase of lockdown, so we'd packed a picnic supper; I don't remember eating. We inhaled each other. 

We stepped out into the night for a cigarette and a stroll, only to encounter hordes of homeless looking for Covid-free shelter. It felt apocalyptic, and possibly we were desperate to lose ourselves. Back inside, he drew us a bath and we washed away the sins of the world.

Finally I was tired and closed my eyes, and he read to me, in French, from one of his favourite novels. I drifted off to hazy images of a solitary man with a gun in early winter who is a hunter but not a hunter, in a muddle of what words mean and who people really are.

It's only now, five months to the day, that I remark how odd it was, that he should have brought with him this treasured book, to commune with me, essentially a stranger then, in a hired bed during such strange times. 

The Hunting Gun, by Yasushi Inoue, is a tragedy told by three players — the lover, her daughter, and the neglected wife — who revolve around a man with a hunting gun, once inadvertently captured in a prose poem. He is a symbol of solitude yet a gravitational force. (This 1949 epistolary novella tells of a love affair that began in 1934 Japan; the translation reads like a smooth and timeless classic.) All three letter writers yield confessions of a sort, acknowledging secrets and shame as the love affair is exposed from each perspective.

A man's lies can sometimes elevate a woman, you know, to the very level of the divine.

Everyone has a snake living inside them, the hunter believes, an idea that haunts his lover:

What are these snakes we carry inside us? Egotism, jealousy, destiny... the sum of all these things, I guess, a sort of karma too strong for us to fight. I regret that I will never have the occasion to learn what you meant. At any rate, these snakes  inside us are pitiful creatures. I remember coming across the phrase "the sadness of living", or something close to that, in a book; as I write these words, I feel my heart brushing up against a similar emotion, irredeemably sad and cold. Oh, what is this thing we carry inside us — intolerably unpleasant, yet at the same time unbearably sad!

The snakes are simultaneously sins and sin-eaters, I think. (The snake inside me eats all my words.)

Excerpt.
Review.

To love, to be loved — how sad such human doings are. I remember once, in my second or third year at girls' school, we had a series of questions in an English exam about the active and passive forms of verbs. To hit, to be hit, to see, to be seen... and there among the other words on that list were two that sparkled brilliantly: to love, to be loved. As we were all peering down at the questions, licking our pencils, some joker, I never knew who, quietly sent a slip of paper around the room. Two options were there, each in a different style of handwriting: Is it, maiden, your desire to love? Or do you rather desire to be loved? Many circles had been drawn in blue and red ink, or in pencil, under the phrase "to be loved", but not one girl had been moved to place her mark below "to love". I was not different from the rest, of course, and I drew my own small circle underneath "to be loved". I guess even at the tender age of sixteen or seventeen, before we know much about what it means to love or be loved, our noses are still able to sniff out, instinctively, the joy of being loved.

When the girl in the seat next to mine took the paper from me, however, she glanced down at it for a moment and then, with hardly any hesitation, pencilled a big circle into the blank area beneath the words "to love". I desire to love. I've always remembered very clearly how I felt when I saw her do it — provoked by her intransigence, but also caught off guard, uncertain what to think. This girl was not one of the better students in our class, and she had a sort of gloomy, unremarkable air. Her hair had a reddish-brown tinge; she was always by herself. I have no way of knowing what became of her when she grew up, but now, as I write these words twenty years later, I find myself recalling, for some reason, again and again, her forlorn face.

When, at the end of her life, a woman lies quietly in bed with her face turned to the wall of death, does God allow her to feel at peace if she has tasted to the full the joy of being loved, or if she is able to declare without any trepidation that, while she may not have been very happy, she loved? I wonder, though — can any woman in this world say with real conviction, before God, that she has truly loved? No, no — I'm sure there are women like that. Maybe that thin-haired girl was among the chosen few when she grew up. A woman like that, I'm sure, would walk around with her hair in a wild tangle, her body scarred all over, her clothing ripped to shreds, and yet she would proudly lift her face and say, "Yes, I have loved." And then, having spoken those words, she would die.

Oh, it's unbearable — I wish I could escape it. But as hard as I try to chase the vision of that girl's face away, I can't do it, it keeps coming back. What is this intolerable unease that clings to me as I sit here, hours before I am to die? I suppose I am simply reaping the punishment I am due as a woman incapable of enduring the pain of loving, who wanted for herself only the joy of being loved.

I was the dying woman, but now I'm the thin-haired girl, with the forlorn face, always by myself. I needed so badly to be seen, I didn't know what it was I was seeing with my own eyes, my own heart, until now. I say with conviction, before God, that I have truly loved. "Yes, I have loved." Poorly and recognized too late, but I understand now that I loved him.

I know you as you are, V., and you are loved. Thank you for teaching me this.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Better for it to exist than for it to be perfect and only in your mind

Accuracy above all things. You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune, by Nghi Vo, is a beautiful piece of storytelling as old woman Rabbit reveals incidents from her lived past as companion to the empress. Her fairytale-like anecdotes fall on the ears of Chih, a cleric, who is traveling to the Dragon Court of the new Empress of Wheat and Flood, but she stops at the site of the former empress's exile to catalogue whatever knowledge lingers there.

Chih, whose abbey is an archive, has with her Almost Brilliant, a neixin, a talking bird-like creature who commits to memory what she cannot manage to document on paper.

"The abbey at Singing Hills would say that if a record cannot be perfect, it should at least be present. Better for it to exist than for it to be perfect and only in your mind."  

It's a deceptively gentle and intimate story even while set against a backdrop of warring factions and empirical goings-on, depicting a world where women are property, vessels, with daily struggles as epic in scope as any insurrection. "Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves."

"Do you understand?" grandmother asks Chih after every tale, as there is secret knowledge, lessons to be learned.

*****

I write this as I'm reeling from a gutted heart. It's not broken, but it's been ripped open, rubbed raw, laid bare. I know now more clearly than ever the importance of present over perfect. Finally, I begin to understand some things. I have so much more still to learn. I must remember the small to remember the great. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The decomposition of my face

Pleasure taken alone can be told, pleasure taken with another is elusive.

This week, I received an unsolicited review copy of a novel in the mail — The Heart Remembers, it's called. This is not about that book, I'm not sure that I'll read it. But I take its arrival for a sign, a message. What does my heart remember? And how could I have forgotten? How is my heart not a part of me? (Sometimes you receive gifts from the universe.)

I had to cover geographical distances to reach parts of myself. I had to go from Paris to Dieppe in a Renault 4 and to sleep facing the sea to learn that somewhere in a part of me that I could not see and that I had not imagined I had an opening, a cavity that was so supple and so deep that the extension of flesh that meant a boy was a boy, and I was not, could be accommodated there.

The Sexual Life of Catherine M, by Catherine Millet, is a (scandalous? sensational?) 2002 memoir in which the art critic and curator catalogues her many adventures with many men, primarily in orgiastic fashion in Paris and the Bois du Bologne, from the late 1960s onwards. 

Led to it by a mention in Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, I expected more reflection, more enlightenment. However, I respect the candour with which Millet divulges intimate details. It fit perfectly with my informal project of reading under-the-radar classic erotic literature.

I hesitate to use the word "erotic" or "amorous" in relation to these escapades that are purely physically sexual. While dripping with pleasure, and there's no evidence to dispute that Millet thoroughly enjoyed herself, there's not a lot of heart in her testimony.

Narration cuts bodies into pieces, satisfies the need to reify them, to instrumentalise them. That famous scene in Godard's Le Mepris, when Piccoli runs, word by word over Bardot's body, is a beautiful transposition of the two-way traffic between sight and speech, each word bringing a part of the body into focus. How many times don't people say "Look!" when they're fucking?  

In some ways, it's an exercise in body positivity, taking pleasure in one's body, in all bodies, no matter their shape, size, age. But there's a part of Millet that wants to be objectified, wants to be Brigitte Bardot. Millet tells us about the bodies, and the circumstances of encountering them, but she neglects the mind, the heart.

A body and the mind attached to it do not live in the same temporal sphere, and their reactions to the same external stimuli are not always synchronised.

She is aware of the performative nature of her acts, but it seems that only late in the game does she recognize the value of being seen, truly seen.

In real life, a man that I met only once gave me such intense pleasure that I have very precise memories of it, and this was because with every thrust he would order me "Look me in the eye." I did as I was told, knowing that he was witness to the decomposition of my face.

Millet also reveals how little she understood her body. Despite the experience, and pleasure of a certain kind, her clitoris remained a mystery for a long time. 

Eventually I cottoned on: the clitoris was not an obvious landmark like a nail on a wall, a steeple in a landscape or a nose on a face, it was a sort of muddled knot, with no true shape, a minute chaos where two little tongues of flesh meet like when a backwash throws two waves together.

She admits also to not having had a real orgasm until very many years into her adventuring.

It took me a long time, a really long time, to identify the caresses, the positions that I liked best. I will venture this as an explanation: I was not right from the start granted a body predisposed to pleasure. First I had to give myself — literally abandon my whole body — to sexual activity, to lose myself in it so thoroughly that I confused myself with my partner so that I could emerge from this transformation having sloughed off the body I was given at birth and taken on a second body, one capable of taking as much as it could give.

(I wonder sometimes how I discovered my clitoris, how lucky I was — how I marvel at the pleasure it brings me. But then, I could always lose myself in my own body; I always had trouble caring about the pleasure of others and understanding how different yet compatible it could be compared to my own.)

It is all the easier to write about discomforts and displeasure because they seem to distend time, and time allows us to focus. Even if they do not register with us straight away, the carve out a furrow within us which represents time.

I'm left wondering what Millet truly gained from the experience. There is a coldness about this book, like she's barely skimming the surface of her psyche, that makes me question the narrative she's told herself, how honest is she being with herself.

At times like that, it is the other body that you leave behind, a body you may have known only a few hours, but which during those hours has nourished you with its solid presence and its smell, it that body which provides you with the ineffable well-being of familiarity. How many times have I thought, as I fantasised languidly about the life of high class whore, that that was one of the advantages of their job. As for the journey itself, the lapse of time we inhabit when we are no longer in one place but not yet in another, can be a source of pleasure measured on the same scale as erotic pleasure.

See also
Guardian: The double life of Catherine M
New Yorker: Doing it in the road
LRB: Hang on to the doily (Jenny Diski: "If sex is just a bodily event, that's slag: if you think or better still write about it, that’s freedom.") 

While I was no longer capable of exchanging a single word with him, or to respond to the touch of his hand, I could still offer him the spectacle of myself indulging in the complete negation of my being.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it. What this Knowledge consists of he is not entirely sure, but at various times he has suggested that it might include the following:

  1. vanquishing Death and becoming immortal
  2. learning by a process of telepathy what other people are thinking
  3. transforming ourselves into eagles and flying through the Air
  4. transforming ourselves into fish and swimming through the Tides
  5. moving objects using only our thoughts
  6. snuffing out and reigniting the Sun and Stars
  7. dominating lesser intellects and bending them to our will

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark, is a mesmerizing enchantment.

Piranesi, as he is called by the Other, lives in the House, explores the House, documents the House, loves the House. "The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite." The House is a labyrinth (the First Vestibule contains eight massive Statues of Minotaurs), an endless dilapidated mansion (many ceilings are cracked if not collapsed, particularly in the Derelict Halls of the East), perhaps a kind of prison. 

Piranesi struggles to survive, collecting rainwater and trapping fish, drying out skins and seaweed. He tracks the tides. There appears to be no exit, but he never questions the Other's comings and goings, or how he manages to procure for him over the years a cheese and ham sandwich, a new pair of shoes, or an endless supply of multivitamins.

I write down what I observe in my notebooks. I do this for two reasons. The first is that Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness. The second is to preserve whatever knowledge I possess for you, the Sixteenth Person.

While Piranesi is systematic in applying the principles of rationality to every situation he encounters, there is naivete in his interpretations and gaps in his understanding.  

I went to the Eighteenth North-Western Hall and had a long drink of water. It was delicious and refreshing (it had been a Cloud only hours before).

The puzzle of the House is initially its geography, but for the reader it quickly becomes the mystery of Piranesi's being there and piecing together scraps of journals to formulate a theory of his relationship with the outside world.

This realisation — the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge — came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there. When I tried to retrace those steps my mind kept returning to the image of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight, to its Beauty, to its deep sense of Calm, to the reverent looks on the Faces of the Statues as they turned (or seemed to turn) towards the Moon. I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.

The fragments of information begin to position us in relation to our current physical world, late twentieth century to present day, and introduce us to a group of "transgressive thinkers." We follow Piranesi's train of thought as he pursues cross-references to journal entries that include passages copied from books and lecture notes (and a timey-wimey shoutout), addressing the nature of Ancient Man and the Theory of Other Worlds.

"Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamored with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. And its merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It's not actually possible. I pictured it as a sort of energy flowing out of the world and I thought that this energy must be going somewhere. That was when I realised that there must be other places, other worlds. And so I set myself to find them."

It's tempting to read the House as a state of Piranesi's mind. It's somewhat more horrific than that, but it remains beautiful.

Perhaps that is what it is like being with other people. Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not. 

Piranesi is a meditation on how we create meaning. Trapped with himself, really, Piranesi struggles with the nature of memory and his relationship to the past to define his place in the world. His days are chores and rituals and observations.

This is the most immersive novel I've read in a very long time (and I can easily imagine it as a virtual reality experience). I could spend a lifetime exploring the halls and the statues, attuning myself to the rhythm of the House, gathering clues to its nature. 

Excerpts
When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule
A list of all the people who have ever lived and what is known of them
I retrieve the scraps of paper from the Eighty-Eighth Western Hall
I question the Other

"We shan't meet again."

"Then, sir, may your Paths be safe," I said, "your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty."