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."

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Your time is a finite and dwindling resource

I think it is possible to track the onset of middle age exactly. It is the moment when you examine your life and instead of a field of possibility opening out, an increase in scope, you have a sense of waking from sleep or being washed up onshore, newly conscious of your surroundings. So this is where I am, you say to yourself. This is what I have become. It is when you first understand that your condition — physically, intellectually, socially, financially — is not absolutely mutable, that what has already happened will, to a great extent, determine the rest of the story. What you have done cannot be undone, and much of what you have been putting off for “later” will never get done at all. In short, your time is a finite and dwindling resource. From this moment on, whatever you are doing, whatever joy or intensity or whirl of pleasure you may experience, you will never shake the almost-imperceptible sensation that you are traveling on a gentle downward slope into darkness.

Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru, was not what I expected it to be. Also, it turns out that I don't know what the red pill is anymore. I didn't know that the red pill had been coopted by the alt-right. That hardly seems fair. I've always taken the red pill. 

The opening of this book, as quoted above, is a pill on its own, opening up a rabbit hole within myself.

Having recently begun talk therapy, I am finding that everything is therapy, this book included. Perhaps because, again, I am waking up to middle age. Every so often, and with increasing frequency these days, I wake up with a jolt, an urgency to seize the day, hurry before I run out of time. But for what?

Many people dislike this book because they are tired of novels about writers. I also have been tired of novels about writers. A world so privileged and niche. So unrelatable. Why would a writer write about writing anyway? Shouldn't they get outside of themselves?

I have developed a visceral dislike of being watched while I write, not just because the content might be private, but because all the things one does while writing that are not actually writing — stretching, looking out into space, browsing the internet — seem somehow shameful if they're monitored by others. The feeling of being watched induces an intolerable self-consciousness.

I have recently begun, again, to take special interest in novels about writers. Perhaps because now I am a writer myself. There, I've said it. At least, the word "writer" is in my job title. It has been for a couple of years, but I have never really owned it, until now-ish. (I am not, though, a writer of novels, let alone of novels about writers.) But it's so much this! this stretching and looking out into space that is vital to writing, but which doesn't look like work at all. I haven't, until now-ish, been able to accept this as a valid part of my work. I have always struggled to make up for it, cover it up. I feel guilty about it. There's shame in having a job that other people don't recognize as work. There's shame in having a job that allows me to stretch and look out into space, even necessitates it — I don't deserve to have it this good.

The plot of this novel — I think it is lost on me a little. What matters is what it makes me think on. This is true of almost all books for me. 

The narrator is a writer who goes to Berlin for a fellowship. Of course, he wants the funding associated with the program, but he's not interested in putting in the work, both of actually writing his proposed book or of engaging in fellowship with his fellow artists. He's not abiding by the terms of the contract; he doesn't work in the very exposed common workspace, he prefers not to engage with anyone at all. One of his assigned dinner companions at the centre calls him daring, or calls him out for being daring. The object of gossip, he determines. Maybe he's just being a bit of an entitled jerk.

Another of his dinner companions argues,

The right to privacy was no more or less than the right to lie, he said. To misrepresent yourself to the world. It incubated fraud and corruption, and despite what liberals claimed it was not some sacred universal that all humans needed in order to survive.

Our fearless narrator stays in his room, mostly not writing, considering leaving the centre.

I hated being there, no one liked me, and I wasn't doing anything useful, but I wasn't ready to go back home. I wasn't qualified. I hadn't solved myself. I spent an hour or so on the internet, falling down various rabbit holes, before I finally hit on one of the things I was looking for.

I hadn't solved myself! This is what we're here for. Is that what the writing is supposed to do? Or is it the being away from the daily grind, the responsibility of family and bills and things like voting, participating in democracy, being an active member of society.

I like to think that, even before therapy, I regularly make an honest effort to solve myself. I am still a puzzle to myself, the final picture yet to be revealed. I still don't know what kind of person I want to be. 

Because I still had no Wi-Fi, I couldn't do the various diverting and quasi-important things I did on the internet — read Wikipedia pages, downloading pictures of people in war zones — all the subtle and mysterious components of my not-writing. I was thrown back on my own resources, into myself, or what took place in the space where a self ought to have been.

He becomes paranoid about the workings of the centre, that he is being surveilled in his room but also outside the centre. He has been binge-watching a cop show that randomly and uncharacteristically quotes Comte de Maistre; he comes to believe the show is layered with secret meaning.

So he is having a midlife crisis or an existential crisis or a crisis of conscience (personal, political, social) or a psychotic break.

He feels "the uncomfortable sensation of contact with a stranger." He writes down the shitty life of the woman who cleans his room at the centre, who grew up here, under the Stasi, "a whole country, reeking of piss and schnapps and cabbage soup." He meets the creator of the cop show he's watching and falls down the rabbit hole that is the cult of his personality. He follows him to Paris, and then follows the clues to go off-grid in Scotland.

His rock bottom ends his lifelong project of exploring the luxurious particularity of his selfhood and Iness, kind of. He steps outside of himself to engage with the world, only it's not clear to me, and maybe to him, whether it's the right world he's stepped into. The novel closes on election night in America, 2016, the night Hillary lost.

And somehow, even as I recognize it for the trainwreck it is, watching it at a remove, this is all relatable. 

I've always found it hard to speak on cue about my emotions. I am an articulate person, but only about things that don't touch me. As soon as someone asks what I feel, I get confused. I don't have the immediate access to my feeling that seems, to my eternal amazement, to be the birthright of most human beings. What question could be more profound than how are you? It feels lazy to say just any old thing, so I look inside myself and invariably this is a terrible idea. Searching for feeling is like being the lookout on a ship, shining a lantern into thick fog. Objects that appear close at hand recede into the murk, or reveal themselves as chimera. Somewhere off the port bow are icebergs.

But how are you really? In contrast to the narrator, I am not a particularly articulate person, at least, not in person. I'm better on paper, but even then... I wonder if some days I use up all my words in my work as a writer. I wonder if this inarticulacy is why I am writer, a challenge to myself.

How am I? I am tired. But I am happy to be engaging with books again, motivated to feel things and create things. 

Each time I try to find a point of departure, a place to make a stand and defend this part of my story, some narrative tentacle emerges out of the swamp, and I have to stagger back.

So this is where I am. And I am a good writer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Before you became who you are

Here’s the thing: Words arrive rowdily, with all their luggage and definitions. Words that are both what they say they are, and how they say it. Words always arrive a little too late, off to the side, but they hope that what they contain will eventually show up. That it is buried somewhere in the jumble of their word-suitcases. 

— from I Say 'Stone' or 'Flower' – Reflections on a Practice, by Morten Søndergaard.

About a year and half ago, someone came into the office to talk about a game they were developing. While most of the talk covered the technical aspects of photogrammetry, I couldn't help but be charmed by the stop-motion animation, the care with which every element was hand-crafted. What clinched my interest was that the concept development included the collaboration of a poet. At heart, Vokabulantis is about words — their necessity and inadequacy. I'm so happy to see this project moving forward (support the Kickstarter campaign).

The poet involved in the project is Morten Søndergaard, and that one lunchtime session had sent me down a rabbit hole of word games and philosophical inquiry and self-reflection. I asked a colleague to pick up a copy of his A Step in the Right Direction for me when in Copenhagen. It wasn't available it turned out, but it strengthened my resolve to undertake my own walking project, or rather refine a concept that was already in the making.

Rediscovering this game this week has meant turning over all these stones to see what I'd crushed beneath them, or what hid there when I wasn't looking. 

I've started walking again, in earnest. But it's miles before I sleep, and time isn't bending the right way.

One evening I picnicked with a friend and we speculated about the time capsule buried on top of the mountain. Later that night I watched a movie about a woman who gets phonecalls from twenty years ago, but the conversation informs the past, thereby changing the woman’s present. The next day I walked up the mountain, and for a good portion of the way, I inadvertently shadowed a woman who looked like a younger me; we would pass each other, and our paths would diverge, only to cross again ten minutes later. I passed her last at the edge of the cemetery, engaged in conversation — she appeared to be on a date. The time capsule is slotted for opening in 2142.

The destructive force of anti-curfew protests saddens me. 

I can't stop crying today. Hormones, I think. Tired, too. I thought once that I might walk through this pandemic.

It's been 405 days of German lessons, and I still can't say anything meaningful. It's been 50 odd years of English, and same.

I am just a couple hundred pieces away from completing the 4000-piece puzzle I ordered a year ago, a and it feels urgent now, like it's up to me: when I finish, it will all be over.

I am flitting through many books, restlessly. I am reading Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru, and enjoying it. 

You tell yourself you're getting on fine without them, these men who used to be your friends, and you are — until you need someone to talk to, someone who knows you, who knows who you used to be before you became who you are.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

A tangible somethingness

He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her. He didn't mind the somethingness; he rather liked it, in fact, and had looked forward to seeing it demolished. But she refused to let him do it. Why had she told him she was a masochist? He looked at her body. Her limbs were muscular and alert. He considered taking her by the neck and bashing her head against the floor.

— from "A Romantic Weekend," in Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill.

Friday, March 26, 2021

One has no rights as a lover

Some ways of seeing women and their sexuality and way of being in the world, as expressed by John Berger in his novel G. ...

On physical sensitivity:

When Laura was a small child she realized, through her own observation and by way of remarks made by her mother, that there were certain secret aspects of a woman's body which might be prized above all others and which could equally well be more shameful than anything else in the world. As she grew up, she became convinced that in everything which related to these aspects she was peculiarly sensitive. She had only to be frightened (or so she believed) for her fear to bring on menstruation. If a man touched her in a certain way on her shoulder, she would feel a convulsion in her womb. Ordinary brassieres would chafe her nipples. She used to be ashamed of this sensitively because it made her awkward and irritable. But she also used to be glad of it because she believed that one day she would be able to share her secret with a man who would become as infinitely curious about it as she was herself.

On feelings:

What separated her from the British wives with whom she was obliged to pass most of her time, was her lack of opinions. She had come to hate the sound of talking. She trusted certain feelings in herself precisely because they did not lead to conclusions.

On love:

Being in love is an elaborate state of anticipation for the continual exchanging of certain kinds of gifts. The gifts can range from a glance to the offering of the entire self. But the gifts must be gifts: they cannot be claimed. One has no rights as a lover — except the right to anticipate what the other wishes to give.

On widowhood:

A widow, by contrast, embraces the inexorable. She recognizes her husband's absence as final. She returns to the past. She pretends that time is repetitive. If she thinks of the future at all, she thinks of it as eventless. Her refusal to consider any possibility of remarrying, her insistence on having ceased to be, in a sexual sense, a woman, are not so much an expression of a permanent and absurd fidelity as of her conviction that no important event can ever occur again in her life. She believes that her life will always be full with the event of her husband's absence: an event which can be endlessly reproduced so long as she lives with her memories in the past. She tries to make her own life timeless. She considers the passing of time a trivial affair. Her husband has entered eternity. (This is an accurate formulation even if she is without religious belief.)

Despite finding G. to be pretentious and (gasp) boring, there are moments of beauty, moments where I wish to be seen by a lover with such clarity. 

[I lack opinions. My feelings are many and contradictory and do not lead to conclusions. I have sometimes believed that I lack the confidence to have opinions, but it also grants extraordinary freedom.]

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The assumption of fixity

He believed that Nietzsche, he said presently, had taken for his motto a phrase of Pindar's: become what you are. [...] If he understood me correctly, I ascribed to outside factors the capacity to alter the self, while at the same time believing the self capable of determining or even altering its own nature. He recognised that he had been very fortunate in that no one, as yet, had tried to stop him being what he was; I myself had perhaps not been so lucky.

Kudos, by Rachel Cusk, is a kind of vanishing act. After getting to know the narrator in the first two books of the trilogy, she is strangely absent from this novel. She has disappeared into the crowd of people she meets.

It's a lovely, breezy kind of book, recording conversations of substance, so I find it a little disconcerting to learn nothing about her. When last we left off, she was freshly divorced and renovating her London flat. Now we know only that she is on a book tour.

Doing the literary festival circuit, she is interviewed a few times, but the journalists take centre stage.

The tremendous effort to conjure something out of nothing, to create this great structure of language where before there had been only blankness, was something of which he personally felt himself incapable; it usually rendered him, in fact, quite passive and left him feeling relieved to return to the trivial details of his own life. He had noticed, for instance, that my characters were often provoked into feats of self-revelation by means of a simple question, and that had obviously led him to consider his own occupation, of which the asking of questions was s central feature. Yet his questions rarely elicited such mellifluous replies: in fact, he usually found himself praying that his interviewee would say something interesting, because otherwise it would be left to him to make a newsworthy piece out of it.

She is suddenly no one. Of a fellow writer, she reports,

When she wrote she was neither in nor out of her body: she was just ignoring it.

It feels like those conversations she listens in, chooses to be part of, and summarizes for me must hold some clue to the person she is, must be some signpost to the message I'm supposed to take from this.

I hadn't realised, I said, how much of navigation is the belief in progress, and the assumption of fixity in what you have left behind.

I get a glimpse of the bigger picture when the subject of Louise Bourgeois comes up. For a better explanation than I could  give, see Kate Taylor's article in the Literary Review of Canada: "Rachel Cusk: Mother as spider — Being a woman and an artist in the world."

So there's a lot to mull over in this slim volume.

Her description of her life had struck me, I said to her now, as that of a life lived inside the mechanism of time, and whether or not it was a life everyone would have found desirable it had seemed at the very least to lack a quality that drove other people's lives into extremity, whether of pleasure or of pain. [...]That quality, I said, could almost be called suspense, and it seemed to me to be generated by the belief that our lives were governed by mystery, when in fact that mystery was merely the extent of our self-deception over the fact of our own mortality.

Suffering had always appeared to me as an opportunity, I said, and I wasn't sure I would ever discover whether this was true and if so why it was, because so far I had failed to understand what it might be an opportunity for.

"I admit," she said finally, "that I took pleasure in telling you about my life and in making you feel envious of me. I was proud of it. I remember thinking, yes, I've avoided making a mess of things, and it seemed to me that it was through hard work and self-control that I had, rather than luck."

(I've always assumed that my life was a result of luck, things held together and worked out despite my poor decisions and inadequate planning. Things plod along in a general direction, without the fixed point of ambition.)

I particularly enjoyed the conversation with Hermann, the young man who led the festival participants through the first city to the reception venue. He wisely observes that

He had come to the conclusion that most questions were nothing more than an attempt to ascertain conformity, like rudimentary maths problems. 

(I have come to the same conclusion in recent months. We all want to believe that we're normal.)

Reading Kudos made me feel accomplished and smart for a little while. 

She never said anything unless she had something important to express, which made you realise how much of what people generally said — and he included himself in this statement —  was unimportant.

Review.
Excerpt.

Friday, March 19, 2021

A bit askew, yes, but touchable

Hygiene's not a major concern of mine. 

At some point I realized that boys and girls are taught differently about how to keep their intimate regions clean. My mother placed great importance on the hygiene of my pussy but none at all on that of my brother's penis. He's allowed to piss without wiping and to let the last few drops dribble into his underwear.

Washing your pussy is considered a deadly serious science in our home. It’s made out to be extremely difficult to keep a pussy really clean. Which is nonsense, of course.

You can't get to be this age (my age) and not have come to terms with the mysterious effluvia of the body, in pain or in pleasure. I have seen birth and death up close. Contact with young children, with ailing elderly — this is part of a full life. And sometimes, life is messy.

Helen Memes revels in it, yet Helen is not old enough to have had such a full life. The 18-year-old narrator of Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche, bears no resemblance to the 18-year-old currently living under my roof, or the one who once occupied my aging body. At least on the surface. Maybe that's why I find her so fascinating. Maybe that's why I find her so sympathetic.

I grow avocado trees. Besides fucking, it's my only hobby.

She is sexually experienced and frequents (female) prostitutes. She has little regard for parental authority; she had herself sterilized as soon as she was of age. Not much fazes her, but really, she's just a child. All she really wants is for her divorced parents to get back together.

Helen nicked herself while shaving her ass, complicated a little by her cauliflower-like hemorrhoid, and ended up in the hospital with an anal lesion requiring surgery. Wetlands spans her time there, prolonged a little by the antics she undertakes in a desperate ploy to bring her parents into the same room.

More than the story, I am stunned by the reactions to this book. In my view, it is neither revolutionarily liberating nor the most disgusting book you'll ever read. Is this the book feminism needs? This book has been called: Shocking. Disgusting. Extraordinarily gross.

It's not. And it's a bit sad that Wetlands shocks and disgusts so many. 

In fact, it's quite funny, sweet (in its way), and perceptive.

I'm fascinated by her face. She's unbelievably well-kept. That's what people say: a well-kept woman. [...] Well-kept women get their hair, nails, lips, feet, faces, skin, and hands done. Colored, lengthened, painted, peeled, plucked, shaved, and lotioned. 

They sit around stiffly — like works of art — because they know how much work has gone into everything and they want it to last as long as possible.

Those type of women would never let themselves get all messy fucking.

Everything that's sexy — mussed hair, straps that fall off the shoulder, a sweaty glow on the face — is a bit askew, yes, but touchable.

Despite the fucking, it's not a particularly sexy book. It's just tremendously honest.

There's something enchanting about Helen, about how she reveres her bodily fluids. How she sees people stepping in her droplets of pee and then carrying them on their shoes, marking her territory for her. She exchanges used tampons with her friend, to become blood sisters. She collects her own tears, to sprinkle on them on grapes that she offers to the nurse. Her saliva on a water bottle becomes a kiss when it passes someone else's mouth.

Like her juices have magic properties that will make avocado trees grow, will make her father love her, will make the broken world around her whole again. 

In reality we’re all turned on by the scents of pussy, cock and sweat. Most people have been alienated from their bodies and trained to think that anything natural stinks and anything artificial smells nice. When a woman wearing perfume passes me on the street, it makes me sick to my stomach. No matter how subtle it is. What is she hiding?

Print excerpt
Audio excerpt

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The ignominious mysteries of her life as a woman

The artist Louise Bourgeois, for example, was suddenly all the rage in her last years and finally allowed to come out of the closet and be seen, when her male counterparts had been on the public stage all along, entertaining people with their grandiose and self-destructive behaviour. Yet if one looked at the work of Louise Bourgeois, one saw that it concerned the private history of the female body, its suppression and exploitation and transmogrifications, its terrible malleability as a form and its capacity to create other forms. It was tempting to consider, she said, that Bourgeois's talent relied on the anonymity of her experiences; in other words, that had she been recognised as a younger artist, she might not have had cause to dwell on the ignominious mysteries of her life as a woman, and instead would have been partying and posing for the front covers of magazines along with the rest of them. There were a number of works, she said, executed when Bourgeois was the mother of small children, in which she portrays herself as a spider, and what is interesting about these works is not just what they convey about the condition of motherhood — in distinct contrast, she said, to the perennial male vision of the ecstatically fulfilled madonna — but also the fact that they appear to be children's drawings drawn in a child's hand. It is hard to think, she said, of a better example of female invisibility than these drawings, in which the artist herself has disappeared and exists only as the benign monster of her child's perception. Plenty of female practitioners of the arts, she said, have more or less ignored their femininity, and it might be argued that these women have found recognition easier to come by, perhaps because they draw a veil over subjects that male intellectuals find distasteful, or perhaps simply because they have chosen not to fulfil their biological destiny and therefore have had more time to concentrate on their work. It is understandable, she said, that a woman of talent might resent being fated to the feminine subject and might seek freedom by engaging with the world on other terms; yet the image of Bourgeois's spider, she said, seems almost to reproach the woman who has run away from these themes and left the rest of us stuck, as it were, in our webs.

— from Kudos, by Rachel Cusk.

It's a remarkable coincidence that I should be reading this just weeks after having discovered Louise Bourgeois and with a couple of volumes of her art and writings now at my side.

This passage is key also to my understanding of this novel, as Cusk's narrator vanishes before our eyes.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

We must do eccentric things

A new edition of The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington, is out from NYRB Classics, featuring an afterword by Olga Tokarczuk. I'm delighted to discover what I assume to be that afterword printed as "Eccentricity as Feminism" in The Paris Review.

That is why the philosophy of eccentricity expressed in The Hearing Trumpet is connected with age. It can be treated as a special message from the old to the young, going against the current of time. We must do eccentric things. Where everyone is doing This, we must do That. While the whole center is noisily establishing its order, we shall remain on the periphery — we won’t let ourselves be drawn into the center, we shall ignore it and surpass it.

I previously got caught up on the winking nun, and Tokarczuk also devotes a great deal (but a different kind) of energy to understanding her. But I never got around to writing about the book once I'd finished reading it.

(I remember feeling bamboozled while searching for a cover image, as Goodreads showed me an edition clearly not my own and all the covers featured cats. Ah, my Make America Kittens Again browser extension was still enabled.)  

I'm still dipping into Carrington's short stories, and I have plans to write about the power of older women. Maybe I can justify buying this new version of a book I already have to reread it (already!) from a new perspective.

See also "Reclaiming women’s bodies from shame": a photographic illumination of ageing and "A different way of living": why writers are celebrating middle-age, because it's all connected (although while I concur that sexuality changes, I refuse to believe that a "quietly sex-free middle age" is the reward some of them make it out to be).

Oh my gawd, Viv Albertine, remember the Slits? I loved that song.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The suckings and ejaculations of the heart

The ink and the blood in the turquoise water: these are the colors inside the fucking.
Is blue the color of hope or of despair?

Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, is an investigation into the colour blue, blueness in general, and love. In 240 meditations, or episodes, or prose poems, she grieves a relationship while a friend lies paralyzed following a serious accident. From the beginning, she also declares herself to be in love with the colour blue and proceeds down a path of philosophy, aesthetics, and symbolism.

4. I admit that I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke — take your pick — an apprehension of the divine. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)

Nelson calls them propositions, invoking Wittgenstein. She addresses Wittgenstein's Remarks on Color, written in his final months, directly. "He chose to write about color. About color and pain. Much of his writing is urgent, opaque, and uncharacteristically boring."

Goethe's Theory of Colour also plays a large role. Nelson turns to scientific, medical, philosophical, musical, artistic, and literary sources to describe the colour and the feeling it invokes. 

(Someone at bookclub mentioned Bluets during a discussion of Han Kang's The White Book. That's when I first heard of it. It immediately put me in mind of William H. Gass's On Being Blue, which Nelson also references.)

In proposition 21, she describes a dream:

There was a dance underway, in a mahogany ballroom, where we were dancing the way people dance when they are telling each other how they want to make love.

...and I think I understand that she is a little like me, and the devastation of her breakup is relatable, and the force of her everything is relatable. Now I think I am closer to understanding:

20. Fucking leaves everything as it is. Fucking may in no way interfere with the actual use of language. For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is.

But I don't know. Is "may" an imperative construction? — fucking shall not be permitted to sway our communication, it cannot be the basis of our communication, it is something else entirely.

Where does the blueness reside? (What colour is my blue sofa in the dark?)

I am mystified by how a book of this sort comes to be published. It would infuriate many readers. I cannot imagine it having wide appeal. It is art. Maybe this is how I want to write, meditatively, propositionally. (I want to infuriate.) She posits the female gaze. I learn about Catherine Millet and Isabelle Eberhardt.

For my part I have no interest in catching a glimpse of or offering you an unblemished ass or airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light.

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure's cyanometer
I wonder what kind of woman is Maggie Nelson, and again I think she is like me.

72. It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one's solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem. Can blue solve the problem, or can it at least keep me company within it? — No, not exactly. It cannot love me that way; it has no arms. But sometimes I do feel its presence to a be a sort of wink — Here you are again, it says, and so am I.

Her blue is not holy or unholy. It is not depression, nor is it festive. It is some solace, a pharmakon, like fucking or writing. 

92. Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping — its intensity, its frequency, She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair. (Can a reflection be a witness? Can one pass oneself the sponge wet with vinegar from a reed?)

I think my despair has been sufficiently witnessed. I am, however, desperate to be witnessed, before I disappear, witnessed in my desire and secrecy, my madness and joy.

178. Neither Cornell nor Warhol made the mistake of thinking that all desire is yearning. For Warhol, fucking was less about desire than it was about killing time: it is take-it-or-leave-it work, accomplished similarly by geniuses and retards, just like everything else at the Factory. For Cornell, desire was a sharpness, a tear in the static of everyday life — in his diaries he calls it "the spark," "the lift," or "the zest." It delivers not an ache, but a sudden state of grace. It might be worth noting here that both Warhol and Cornell could arguably be described, at least for periods of their lives, as celibate.

179. When I imagine a celibate man — especially one who doesn't even jerk off — I wonder how he relates to his dick, what else he does with it, how he handles it, how he regards it. At first glance, this same question for a woman might appear more "tucked away" (pussy-as-absence, pussy-as-lack: out of sight, out of mind). But I am inclined to think that anyone who thinks or talks this way has simply never felt the pulsing of a pussy in serious need of fucking — a pulsing that communicates nothing less than the suckings and ejaculations of the heart.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

A sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette

On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel "in progress" rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette.

— from Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. 

Late-stage pandemic is messing with your brain. "We have been doing this so long, we’re forgetting how to be normal." And "the forgetting feels like someone is taking a chisel to the bedrock of my brain, prying everything loose." 

I have forgotten how to make small talk. (That's OK, I always hated it anyway.) Perhaps because nothing is small anymore. Or everything is. Any conversation that is not related to the pandemic — the procurement of goods, the logistics of curfew, what series to binge-watch, how tiresome it all is — is deep and meaningful, even if it consists only of awkward silences.

Imposter syndrome is on the rise, in part because no one sees us work anymore (watch the webinar! prevent burnout!).

The last day I worked at the office was exactly one year ago. I work too much, except when I procrastinate, and then I spend overly much time and energy on pretending to work.

I am conceptualizing a longform piece of literature. The sculpture is gestating. More than a year of daily German lessons. I have assembled a significant portion of my 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but I can't see the forest for the trees. 

Some days I walk. The urge to move is more spontaneous, less regular. My walks are shorter now. My world has gotten smaller.

My feet are itchy. I can't stand to wear boots anymore. I want to shed my winter skin like a snake.

My 18-year-old caesarean scar is itchy. A numb horizontal line inching across my lower abdomen. It feels like it doesn't belong to me.

I have lost three mittens/gloves in as many weeks (why isn't there a single word that is less weird then "handwear" to encompass both categories?). I have lost three articles of handwear in as many weeks. I have lost one mitten and two (nonmatching) gloves in about three weeks.

Reading often feels like a chore, except sometimes it doesn't.

My life, everything, is a work in progress.

Reading Rachel Cusk (Kudos), I discover Nietzsche's motto, borrowed from Pindar: Become what you are. I will embrace the paradox. I am scheduled to start talk therapy at the end of the month.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

I never became the woman I imagined

August. Two-thirty in the afternoon. Everything before our eyes burned white, and the sky was a perfect blue over the buildings, the total blue of a computer screen. Everything was shining in the heat. When you breathed, it came in through your nose and when you didn't it came in through your skin. 

Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami, is unsubtle. Haruki Murakami proclaims on the cover that "It took my breath away." The novel was lauded as one of Time's must-read books of 2020, and it won a slot in the 2021 Tournament of Books (as well as a local bookclub). I'm sorry to say that I found it disappointingly obvious.

In the first part, Natsuko is a struggling writer in Tokyo, visited by her older sister, Makiko, and her niece.

Makiko, a hostess, wants breast implants. (She has already undergone nipple bleaching.) Natsuko tries to be understanding, but is fairly judgmental.

My monolithic expectation of what a woman's body was supposed to look like had no bearing on what actually happened to my body. The two things were wholly unrelated. I never became the woman I imagined. And what was I expecting? The kind of body that you see in girly magazines. A body that you see in girly magazines. A body that fit the mold of what people describe as "sexy." A body that provokes sexual fantasy. A source of desire. I guess I could say that I expected my body would have some sort of value. I thought all women grew up to have that kind of body, but that's not how things played out.

People like pretty things. When you're pretty, everybody want to look at you, they want to touch you. I wanted that for myself. Prettiness means value. But some people never experience that personally.

I was young once, but I was never pretty. When something isn't there, inside or out, how are you supposed to seek it out? Pretty faces, gorgeous skin. The sort of shapely breasts that anyone would kill for. I had nothing of the sort. I gave up wishing I could look like that a million years ago.

Makiko's daughter, Midoriko, meanwhile, resists puberty and refuses to speak to her mother. Natsuko bonds with her over books, but they don't manage to communicate openly about puberty or body image or womanhood.

The second section of the novel is set a decade later. Natsuko now makes a semi-successful living as a writer. She begins researching artificial insemination for a project but becomes caught up in the question of whether she wants children of her own. She does.

The reason why she doesn't want to conceive a child the old-fashioned way, however, quite apart from being single, is that Natsuko has an aversion to sex. 

I wanted him to feel good, but I didn't understand myself. I thought it was on me to make it better, that I had to make some effort. I tried, too, but somehow it never felt right. It wasn't physically painful It just made me so uneasy, and I couldn't make the feeling go away. Lying naked on the mattress, I felt like I could see black spirals coming from the ceiling and the corners of the room. When Naruse moved his body, the spirals grew larger and edged closer, until they swallowed me, like somebody had slipped a black bag over my head. The sex was never enjoyable or comforting or fulfilling. Once Naruse was naked on top of me, I was alone.

This feels like a convenient plot device, to give Natsuko a motivation other than tragic infertility. I would have been happy to read more about Natsuko's sexuality, but as it is, the novel feels like contrived social commentary. 

"That's what it was like when we were younger. Sex wasn't a thing, it had no real role in our lives, you know? It didn't matter if you were a woman or not. It's just, for me, things stayed that way. It's like that part of me never grew up. I don't think there's anything strange or unusual about it, though. That's why sometimes I have to ask myself: Am I really woman? Like I said, I have the body of a woman, I know that. But do I have the mind of a woman? Do I feel like a woman? I mean, what does feeling like a woman actually entail? [...]

Maybe some women are still doing it at seventy or eighty, but not most, right? I dunno. At a certain point it must become impossible. In the future, as medicine advances and our lives get longer, we'll be old for an even greater portion of our lives. Which translates into more time on earth without sex. Less time spent fucking — all the panting and the gasping, in and out, sweating your miserable fucking face off, fucking your brains out, the temporary insanity of our lives."

[Tragic! That women aren't still doing it! That it must become impossible! That women believe this to be true!]

From the accounts of Natsuko's friends, and the evidence of the generation before them, marriage doesn't amount to much more than slave labour. She implies that woman accommodate men in exchange for love and sex, but Natsuko doesn't get any pleasure in this bargain.

While the book on several occasions notes that Western society is much more enlightened on issues between the genders, the man-bashing made me feel uncomfortable. I'd like to think that we're past that here in the West, we don't speak with the same generalizations. But I can appreciate how the conversation is just barely getting started in other parts of the world, and things need to be said.

Although many pages are devoted to it, Natsuko manages to sidestep gender politics in her personal decisions.

"When people say they want kids, what is it they actually want?" It is not the birth or the pregnancy, it is not the culmination of love between two people. Natsuko's desire is pure — she wants to know the person that is born out the situation. (I'm at a loss to understand how this is different from adoption, or from meeting a stranger in the street.)

I struggle when I read Asian books, with some exceptions (Tawada and Kang, for example, are brilliant). I don't know if my failure to connect is founded in the translation, culture, or style. But I know this novel is necessary and I hope it can act as an agent of change.

Here are a couple of reviews that may convince you that Breasts and Eggs is a masterpiece:
PopMatters  
The White Review

Friday, February 26, 2021

The intimate and the stranger

(Passion must hurl itself against time. Lovers fuck time together so that it opens, advances, withdraws upon itself and bends backwards. Time which their hearts pump. Time whose vagina is moist with timelessness. Time which spends itself when it ejaculates generations.)

John Berger is perhaps better known as an art critic than as a novelist. His essays have given me food for thought. However, I am not particularly inclined to read another of his novels. 

I recently came across Berger's novel G. listed among underrated erotic writings. I'm not one for bodice rippers, or any of the infinite shades of grey, but I do appreciate a subversively sensual story. I hoped the title was a clever allusion to the Gräfenberg spot (but it's merely the protagonist's initial, with perhaps a hopeful nod to Garibaldi). Although praised for its experimental nature, I found G. to be pretentious and boring.  

His privilege is more important to him than his life, not because he could not survive without his American mistress, four servants at home, a fountain in his garden, hand-made silk shirts, or his wife's dinner parties, but because implicit in his privilege are the values and judgement by which he must make sense of his lived life. All values stem from his belief — that his privileges are deserved.

Berger clearly writes from a place of privilege, but he is transparent about it, and if I understand his Ways of Seeing, then his awareness of it, without fully excusing it, is the point — it's the friction, the thing that makes art spark.

Most men when they stare at an unknown woman who attracts them, have already begun in their imagination the process of seducing and undressing her; they already see her in certain positions with certain expressions on her face; they are already beginning to dream about her. 

Experimental means something like a hodgepodge of lovesick poems, history lessons, and philosophical treatises on the nature of love and sexual attraction. And drawings! Giovanni's adventures are set across the backdrop of the triumph of Garibaldi, the Boer war, the first airplane crossing of the Alps, the outbreak of World War I and the plight of Slovenians at that time. Experimental also means that occasionally a first-person narrator intrudes upon the story reflecting upon anecdotes from his own life.

Despite being a Booker Prize winner, the novel has very few reviews. It seems it spoke to a critical mindset of the time but had limited mass appeal.

He bends his head to kiss her breast and take the nipple in his mouth. His awareness of what he is doing certifies the death of his childhood.

The New York Times review of 1972 summarizes G.'s behaviour this way:

G. is not a victimizer but a willing victim whose nature is a release for the nature of others. He has the ability to evoke more reaction in others than he feels in himself, but always on the sexual basis of a one‐to‐one encounter, not on the grandiose scale of previous standards of heroism.

That critic also notes that this novel, to which sexuality is central, is colder and more impersonal than many of Berger's art essays. It occurred to me more than once that what I was reading sounded more like an outtake from Ways of Seeing (published the same year) — too much of a digression into Berger's (likely) personal experience, however deliberately detached to disguise the singularity of it and pronounce a generality.  

Beatrice plays a large role in G.'s upbringing and his experience of her is formative.

Beatrice is a woman without morality or ambition because she is incapable of surprising herself. She can propose nothing unfamiliar to herself. This self-knowledge is not the result of prolonged introspection but, rather, of having always been familiar, like an animal, with the patterns of action and reaction necessary to satisfy her own unquestioned needs. It is possible that I make her sound like an idiot. If so, I do her an injustice.

This description of self-knowledge sounds like confidence and certainty, which to my mind would reinforce morality and ambition. But I'm not particularly interested in untangling Berger's rhetorical gymnastics. 

To follow her look, we enter her state of being. There, desire is its satisfaction, or, perhaps, neither desire not satisfaction can be said to exist since there is no antinomy between them: every experience becomes the experience of freedom there: freedom there precludes all that is not itself.

The look in her eyes is an expression of freedom which he receives as such, but which we, in order to locate it in our world of third persons, must call a look of simultaneous appeal and gratitude.

But it is striking that he has so much insight into the woman's look, whereas the male viewer is essentially a blank canvas. (I wonder what kind of lover Berger would be. He has looked at women, watched women, and considered what they mean to him, sexually and perhaps socially, as he stands at the center of his own universe. But has he entered into honest and intimate dialogue with women, and stood truly naked before them?)

When Zeus, in order to approach a woman he had fallen in love with, disguised himself as a bull, a satyr, an eagle, a swan, it was not only to gain the advantage of surprise: it was to encounter her (within the terms of those strange myths) as a stranger. The stranger who desires you and convinces you that it is truly you in all your particularity whom he desires, brings a message from all that you might be, to you as you actually are. Impatience to receive that message will be almost as strong as your sense of life itself. The desire to know oneself surpasses curiosity. But he must be a stranger, for the better you, as you actually are, know him, and likewise the better he knows you, the less he can reveal to you of your unknown but possible self. He must be a stranger. But equally he must be mysteriously intimate with you, for otherwise instead of revealing your unknown self, he simply represents all those who are unknowable to you and for whom you are unknowable. The intimate and the stranger. From this contradiction in terms, this dream, is born the great erotic god which every woman in her imagination either feeds or starves to death.

Here's a review that expands my understanding of the book. G. is a historical curiosity, but I didn't enjoy reading it.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Sometimes it's a hydra writhing

The creative energy seems to be related to that gushing of emotional force slightly diverted by a soothing hand. reassurance of the right kind. That reassurance which transforms the hate into work, may come from a certain amount of past success, or a "certitude" of attaining some may be a form of being wanted,

Sometimes it's a hydra writhing and sometimes it is a sea of lava

In the mornings when I wake up it is right under my fingers if I touch my heart, tense in a angry silence. Any fear as tiny or unjustified as can be open the dam. Pouring of aggressive reproaches, 

—  from The Return of the Repressed: Psychoanalytic Writings, by Louise Bourgeois.

I'm struggling to finish reading a novel I don't like. Everything I read these days starts off as a good idea, until it bores me. Lately I'd arrived at some self-realization, with the further aim to better see myself, know myself — reading no longer provides the access to myself it once did. Instead, finally, I strive to engage in acts of creation, but I struggle to do so.

This is what my days consist of:

  • One lost right mitten, one hyper-insulated left mitten repurposed as a phone case.
  • One 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, a landscape in Croatia that radiates a calm, cool, entirely imaginary warmth.
  • One broken fine-crystal champagne flute. I'm devastated for about an hour, and am truly surprised that a possession of this sort, of mine, lasted 30 years (enduring regular usage over the last 5).
  • One 352-day streak of language-app German lessons. Aber ich verstehe nicht.
  • One-third of a 5-pound bag of beets found moldering away in the depths of my refrigerator.
  • Too much work.
  • One box of company swag. Scarf and toque, among other things, but no mittens (or champagne flutes).
  • The occasional respite with a lover and a flask of single malt on a park bench or in a hotel room, violating the spirit of curfew and limitations on social gatherings.
  • One dead houseplant, succumbed to a draft. Two other plants struggling with hydration issues, or possibly fatigue.
  • Three sculptures in progress (two clay, one soapstone). This is the part of the process where I lay down my tools for several weeks or even months and think about what I'm trying to achieve.
  • Contact info for a psychotherapist. Just sitting with it for now.

By chance, while looking for inspiration or guidance, I discovered the art of Louise Bourgeois (how did I not know her name before now?). It speaks to me. It's organic, visceral, and weirdly erotic. I ordered a book, for a more coherent retrospective, and insight, than internet can give me. What I see as "intestinal" may be that internal writhing hydra.

[I want to sculpt bodies, my body, bodies I know, maybe the bodies of insects (see Maman, only think Clarice Lispector). I want to turn bodies inside out. How do you turn stone into pillowy flesh?]

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

To look is an act of choice

So much profundity:

"To look is an act of choice." "To touch something is to situate oneself in relation to it."

"Fear of the present leads to mystification of the past." (This one needs unpacking.)

"The uniqueness of the original now lies in its being the original of a reproduction."

John Berger in Ways of Seeing aims to demystify and democratize art. In essay #1, he shows that technology (reproduction) has made art free, but the masses fail to recognize this because the prevailing elite imbue original art with a bogus religiosity. 

The visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve; originally this preserve was magical or sacred. But it was also physical: it was the place, the cave, the building, in which, or for which, the work was made. The experience of art, which at first was the experience of ritual, was set apart from the rest of life — precisely in order to be able to exercise power over it. Later the preserve of art became a social one. It entered the culture of the ruling class, whilst physically it was set apart and isolated in their palaces and houses. During all this history the authority of art was inseparable from the particular authority of the preserve.

What the modem means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it — or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce — from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they no longer, in themselves, have power.

Yet very few people are aware of what has happened because the means of reproduction are used nearly all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did. Understandably, the masses remain uninterested and sceptical.

(Half a century later, is this still true? Has the world changed? Are we more artistically literate? Has social media made us all artists? Or have I become one of the cultured minority and lost touch with the masses? Art is everywhere, art is free — glorious and free.)

Stay tuned for Berger's mansplanation of the male gaze, and his demonstration of it in his Booker Prize-winning fictional account of the erotic adventures of G., published the same year (1972).

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

There would be time for this

"Gawd, mom," says the girl. "You're such a nerd." She's wide-eyed as I giddily skim the hardcopy course notes she just picked up at the college bookstore. The Hollow Men!, I exclaim, and off I go on a Doctor Who tangent. (It seems I've done this before.)

She's enrolled in a course that's a poetry face-off, Eliot vs Larkin, and I'm jealous. Maybe I should've studied literature. But maybe I'm relieved I didn't ruin my joy of reading.

Here's something I wrote for an assignment in high school a very long time ago. (I found it!)

For the Love of God 
[A response to J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us pour the tea 
While from the day's tedium we're freed,
Momentarily.
Teas steams my pores and stains my skin,
Like he did.

(They know their art.)

A question twines itself about the steam,
Rising and spreading as all questions do.
Crashed to the floor, sparking, igniting, teeming with smoke.
There would be time for this.
But the tea is growing cold.
Hisssss.

Does he dare? How dare he!
Lighting their cigarettes. In holders so long  —
Precariously balanced, flicking ashes on my dress.

In the room they speak as though
Only they know Michelangelo

He should have known
To crawl back to his hovel
Where no women go...

Time crosses legs, swings his foot, 
Fingers drumming on the table at his side.
Beside himself. "Besides, you never could
Take our relationship seriously!"

You know what I mean,
Do I have to spell it out for you?
It would have been worth while
If we tried and cried awhile;
Starry nights, and snow angels...
No. After sunset there's only twilight.
You know what I mean.

No! I am not Eve, no giver of life;
Am she who takes,
And preys on innocents,
Savouring life better than knowledge.
Living, not knowing.
Hunter of the hunted.

You grow old,
Ssooo oollldd.

I would sing for you, 
But I know the voices of mermaids 
Would disturb the guests.

I would've written you one for ten bucks, but I handed this one in myself. Top marks, of course, and seriously not bad for a 17-year-old, although I see myriad ways to improve upon it (particularly the title). 

What strikes me now:

  • That I had any notion of romantic love, or failed romantic love
  • That I referenced Lilith mythology, that even then I railed against intellect, that I argued (academically, ironically) that heart should trump brain
  • That I thought I understood Prufrock

Saturday, January 30, 2021

A kind of secretly ruined beauty

For an entire year I spent my allowance on expensive medical books, while my friends all spent theirs on drugs. Nothing brought me as much happiness as those books. All those beautiful medical terms that didn't mean anything, all that hard jargon — that was pornography. [...]

It was clear what I liked, where I fell on the map, and once I'd clarified the specialty, I dedicated myself to it alone: I liked pulmonary illnesses (certainly reminiscent of Helen, Ippolit, and the other tubercular patients), and cardiac patients. These latter had their tawdry side, but only if they were elderly (or over fifty, when frightful things like cholesterol started to intervene). If they were young... what elegance. Because, in general, it was a kind of secretly ruined beauty. All the other illnesses tended to have a timeline, but this one was different. A person could die at any moment. Once, I bought a CD in a medical bookstore (where all the employees though I was a student — I'd been sure to slip that in, as a precaution) that was called Cardiac Sounds. Nothing had ever brought me so much joy. I guess that what normal men and women feel when they hear their preferred gender moaning in pleasure, I felt when I heard those ruined hearts beat. Such variety! So may different rhythms, all meaning something different, all of them beautiful! Other illnesses could be heard. Plus, many of them could be smelled, which I found unpleasant. If I took my MP3 player out on a bike ride, I'd have to stop because I was too turned on. So I listened to it at night, at home, and during that time I got worried because I wasn't interested in real sex. The audio tracks of heartbeats took he place of everything. [...]

After a while I decided to get rid of the recorded heartbeats. They were going to drive me crazy. From then on, one of the first things I did with a man was lay my head on his chest, to see if there was any arrhythmia, or a murmur, an irregular beat, a third heart sound, or an atrial flutter, or anything else. I always wondered when I would find someone who was an unbeatable combination of elements. I remember that longing now, and I smile bitterly.

— from "Where Are You, Dear Heart?" in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enríquez.

It's weirdly beautiful and erotic, a powerful story of perversion, persuading me nothing could be more intimate than massaging my lover's heart, feeling it pulse against the palm of my hand. Truly fleshly, visceral love. 

Following in the tradition of Argentinian fabulists, the reviews of this story collection invoke global masters, from Shirley Jackson, Borges, and Cortázar (I see why) and Ocampo (I must read her) to Bioy Casares, Bolaño, and Schweblin (yes).

Most of Enríquez's stories have a paranormal element, either vaguely or outright horrific, where the horrors of life — of the body, of stolen children, of the disappeared — carry over beyond death. These fables are not for the fainthearted; they might inspire nightmares or teenage girls to become witches.

As with the best short stories, most of the events are ambiguous in nature, with no clear resolution. I wish some of them could go on forever.

Stories
The Intoxicated Years (from Things We Lost in the Fire
Back When We Talked to the Dead (from The Dangers of Smoking in Bed
On a French Love Affair and a Man Lost to Time