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.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

A universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level

We are so schooled, he said, in the doctrine of self-acceptance that the idea of refusing to accept yourself becomes quite radical.

I don't know what it is about Rachel Cusk's Transit that made me want to write about love. I jotted down a reference to page 110 in my initial notes, as if something important had struck me, but it's hard for me now to find any connection between what I see on that page and the inspired outpouring I drafted. Maybe something about symbiosis, an inexplicable connection. But it must also be something about universality, a word I'd highlighted. 

In fact, when I check through the passages of Transit that I'd marked, there's very little about love at all. She retells anecdotes various characters share with her in confidence and in passing. I can't tell if there is a theme that threads them together. Perhaps they are all checkpoints on someone's road to awareness.

Without having much of a plot, Transit gives me a feeling, it puts me in a state of sharing the narrator's "post-divorce mind." It's the in-between of then — the kind of life I once led and was always vaguely dissatisfied with — and now — the life I am still growing into. 

I didn't see why, I said, I shouldn't take my share of blame for what had happened; I had never regarded the things that had occurred, however terrible, as anything other than what I myself — whether consciously or not — had provoked. It wasn't a question of seeing my femaleness as interchangeable with fate: what mattered far more was to learn how to read that fate, to see the forms and patterns in the the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity, let alone in personal concepts like justice and honour and revenge, just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. 

I'd been hurt, but I coped, and healed. (Had I been loved and betrayed? That sounds so dramatic.) Finally in my late forties I was coming to some minimal awareness, foundational for the exploration to come, of what I was actually feeling and actually thinking — where my thoughts come from, and where my emotions live in my body. I was finding some bodily emotional truth.

Love, I had come to understand, or my experience of one version of it (first post-divorce love), the kind that ends in sudden inexplicable heartbreak after a few weeks of walking on air, carried along by butterflies, does not happen between two people. It happens inside one's own head.

This was borne out by my ability to cope. Recreating the feeling of someone, of being in love with someone, simply by immersing myself in the same stimuli — the music we listened to together, the food and drinks we ate and drank together, the paths we walked, repeating the same rhythms of the day. When it was over, everything was the same, except for his absence, and it felt pretty much the same, I was still happy and in love, albeit with no one in particular, and I realized it didn't matter.

If you're lucky, however you may define luck, you meet someone who is experiencing a sense of love inside their own head/body that is compatible with yours, at the same time, and together you wallow in the universality of a very individual experience.

This may sound sad and lonely to some, that love is solitary. But I find it comforting — that love is not imposed from outside, that this chemical explosion is generated within me, that I can generate it myself — and transcendent. 

They were hunting dogs, the student continued, who ran in packs behind a falcon or hawk, the bird guiding them towards their prey. In each pack there were two principal dogs whose role it was to watch the hawk as they ran. The complexity and speed of this process, he said, could not be overestimated: the pack flowed silently over the landscape, light and inexorable as death itself, encroaching unseen and unheard on it target. To follow the subtlety of the hawk's signals overhead while running at speed was a demanding and exhausting feat: the two principal dogs worked in concert, the one taking over while the other rested its concentration and then back again. This idea, of the two dogs sharing the work of reading the hawk, was one he found very appealing. It suggested that the ultimate fulfilment of a conscious being lay not in solitude but in a shared state so intricate and cooperative it might almost be said to represent the entwining of two selves. This notion, of the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one's own perceptions but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level — well, like the German trainer before him, he was both seduced by the idea and willing to do the hard work involved in executing it.

It's just over a year ago that I read the first book of this trilogy, Outline. My opinion of this second book is similar: it is quiet and somehow beautiful, giving me not a story but a way into myself. 

Transit reveals its narrator only through the people she encounters, not how they see her so much as how she processes life through them. She is lukewarm and unmoored. There's not much love in Transit; it's post-love and pre-potential-love. It's transition.

I had seemed to see in it a portent whose meaning penetrated me like a skewer in my chest. I could see it, in fact, still, the turbulent whiteness massing and gathering, the wave whose inability to stop itself rising and breaking formed its inescapable destiny. It was perfectly possible to become the prisoner of an artist's vision, I said. Like love, I said, being understood creates the fear that you will never be understood again.

The Cut: Choose Your Own Rachel Cusk


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The suprasensual fool

I approached the beautiful woman, who had never looked so seductive as today in her cruelty, in her scorn.

"Another step," Wanda ordered. "Kneel down and kiss my foot."

She stretched her foot out from under the white satin hem, and I, the suprasensual fool, pressed my lips on her foot.

Last summer I met a man who, after we'd met for a drink and parted ways, offered — rather, begged that I grace him who was not worthy with the divine privilege — to be my slave. I asked him what he meant by this and he told me it meant anything I wanted it to mean, it didn't have to mean anything at all, so long as I treated him like the dog he was.

He may as well have sent over a copy of Venus in Furs.

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is such an unassuming little book, yet it is considered "the blueprint of masochistic aesthetics" in describing the condition named for its author: masochism. The book was published in 1870. The diagnostic term was coined in 1890, alongside sadism.

I found Venus in Furs listed among overlooked erotic classics; however, it's not likely to inspire one-handed reading. At most it may elicit a fascination with a certain kind of mind.

In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze notes:

But whether the descriptions are rosy or somber, they always bear the stamp of decency. We never see the naked body of the woman torturer; it is always wrapped in furs. The body of the victim remains in a strange state of indeterminacy except where it receives the blows. 

(I admit, I did not read the essay in its entirety. Why would I do that to myself? I just skimmed it for the juicy bits.)

A review of Roman Polanski's film version of a stage adaptation of the novel boldly claims that "A masochist is a power-freak disguised as a slave. Perhaps this is why we speak of sadists and masochists in the same breath."

While in popular culture we tend to think of sadism as masochism as complementary flipsides of the same coin, they require a very different mindset — a sadist would never choose a masochist as the object of their torture, and vice versa. Deleuze goes on to explain how Sacher-Masoch was "in search of a peculiar and extremely rare feminine 'nature.' The subject in masochism needs a certain 'essence' of masochism embodied in the nature of a woman who renounces her own subjective masochism." That is, it's a little more complex than meets the eye.

"It's no longer a whim!" she cried.

"What is it then?" I asked, terrified.

"It must have been latent in me," she murmured, lost in thought. "Perhaps it would never have seen the light of day, but you awoke it, developed it, and now that it has become a powerful drive, now that it fills me entirely, now that I enjoy it, now that I can't and won't help it — now you want to back out. You — are you a man?"

[I wonder sometimes what is latent in me, what do others recognize in me that I fail to see for myself. (Also, I cannot deny the glorious feeling of luxurious fur against my bare skin.)]

The relationship between Severin (an obvious stand-in for Sacher-Masoch) and the object of his devotion, Wanda, may not represent conventional love, but it's not trivial. The story is relayed from Severin's point of view, but Wanda's role is never dismissed — they are, after all, symbiotic.

According to Wanda, "I believe that you love me, and I love you too, and, even more important, we interest one another." They discuss the nature of their potential marriage "in order to see whether we can find ourselves in one another."

On the surface, Severin's motivation seems straightforward: "Give me a woman who's honest enough to tell me: 'I'm a Pompadour, a Lucretia Borgia,' and I'll worship her." (Though, the psychologists hint that something more manipulative is going on, consciously or not.)

"Because she's a hypocrite," I said. "I can respect a woman only if she is truly virtuous or openly lives for pleasure."

"Like me," Wanda countered jokingly. "But look, my child, a woman can do so only in the rarest cases. She can be neither as cheerfully sensual nor as spiritually free as a man. Her love is always a blend of sensuality and spiritual attachment. Her heart longs to captivate the man permanently, while she herself is prey to shame. And so, usually against her will, a dichotomy, a pack of lies and deception comes into her conduct, into her being, and corrupts her character."


"Make a point of remembering what I'm about to tell you: Never feel safe with the woman you love, for a woman's nature conceals more dangers than you think. Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be. A woman's character is her lack of character. The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feeling, actions. Despite all progress of civilization, women have remained exactly as they emerged from the hand of Nature. A woman has the character of a savage, who acts loyal or disloyal, generous or gruesome, depending on whatever impulse happens to rule him at the moment. In all times, only deep and earnest formation has created the moral character. Thus, a man, no matter how selfish, how malevolent he may be, always follows principles, while a woman always follows only impulses. Never forget this and never feel safe with the woman you love."

Venus in Furs is a short novel of great historical and psychosexual interest, but it's also loaded with drama: romance, intrigue, exotic locales. It should also be noted that it tries to engage in social commentary. It ends jarringly on this note:

The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work. 

This is open to debate. I'm not convinced that the novel as a whole supports Severin's final argument; it strikes me as a last-ditch effort to rationalize his behaviour. And I'm not sure Wanda would agree with him either.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Look, angels sense through space

Curfew starts tonight. The province-wide reminder alert prompts me to make my way home.

Helicopters circle overhead.

At 7:36 pm, a man sits by himself at the picnic table. I hear the faint strains of an orchestra as I pass within a few metres of him. Music piped in for the skating rink, I assume, before realizing the park's infrastructure is too rudimentary for that. No, he's brought his own accompaniment. He outbelts Dean Martin. "Everybody loves somebody sometime... My sometime is now."

I read little these days. I arduously file away at a block of soapstone, waiting for some secret greatness to emerge. 

Today I completed a 312-day streak of German lessons. This is the power of habit. I have given up hope of ever translating Rilke, I can't even sing along with Nena. But I am loathe to break my streak.

Look, angels sense through space 
their infinite feelings. 
Our incandescence would be their coolness. 
Look, angels glow through space. 

Whilst we, who know nothing more, 
resist one thing, whilst another occurs in vain, 
they stride on, enraptured by their intention, 
across their fully formed domain.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

A crack in this reality

This is what fascinates me: not writing as art, I've spent my whole adult life trying to understand that, never figuring out what it is, for that I'm too primitive or inadequate to understand. But writing as magic, that appeals to me, and writing as the creation of bonds and bands, that I can understand. Connect-the-dots drawings and the invisible links between them. The band is a desire to blaspheme the beloved icons of the art institutions; a desire to save and be saved, and to rewrite: the desire not to be a passive recipient.


In blasphemy there's a secret pact, a desire for a community that isn't rooted in the Christian, Southern spirt. Blasphemy protects us against the moral fables we grew up with; blasphemy renounces anything that requires our submission. It shows us a crack in this reality, through which we can pass into another, more open meeting place. Blasphemy has not forgotten where it came from; it maintains that defiance and energy. Blasphemy looks for new ways of saying we. And the band is a we, a community that happens without anyone asking. It's an unknown communal place, an impossible place. In a place like that, we can make art magic.

— from Girls against God, by Jenny Hval.

Writing as blasphemy, writing as magic. Maybe it's time for me to write in a new way.

Friday, January 01, 2021

Let's live suddenly without thinking

[Why do I look for signs? To be pointed in the right direction.

Why do I recognize some signs and not others? Because I already know where I want to go.]

One of the first recent signs was the souvenir pencil that rolled off my shelf to land at my feet. Emblazoned on its side: Exterminate all rational thought. Yes, I can do that with a pencil.

On impulse, I bought a magazine a couple of weeks ago: Adbusters #152, The Big Ideas of 2025 ("new ways to live, love, and think"). Because the crop of the future must be seeded now.

Standing in the shop, I open it randomly. A photo of a man on an old tubular-framed bed in what might be a war hospital or a communist-era tenement is set opposite a passage from Samuel Beckett's Endgame. I start to cry. (And if something makes you cry, you should hold it close.) [Downloading Endgame now to read later this week.]

The list of contents boasts love, hate, despair, betrayal. I flip past a quote from e.e. cummings ("let's live suddenly without thinking")

[whereby I (re)discover:

let's live like the light that kills
and let’s as silence,
because Whirl's after all:
(after me)love,and after you.
I occasionally feel vague how
vague idon't know tenuous Now-
spears and The Then-arrows making do
our mouths something red,something tall

(And I feel so vague these days and loving the now-and-then of things.)].

I am struck by an article on Mondrian's trees and Picasso's bulls, "how the evolution of Western aesthetics is one of creeping abstraction." I recognize that this is the philosophy I am attuned to. Strip away all superfluity. Leave only the essential. I want existence to be distilled to a single point in time and space, from which all the rest — from the texture of the sweater dress I wore the day he first kissed me to the hum of the insect gripping the underbelly of a tank rolling across a city I never lived in, in a time before my world began — can be extrapolated, inferred, intuited. A speck that holds the genetic material to clone the details of my universe.

I consider that maybe I am wrong to abstract. That I should wallow more, in loud music, fast images, the stuff of consumerism. 

[We're in the midst of another circuit-breaker-style lockdown. The bookshop has temporarily shut down its webstore. Everyone needs a rest. I take inventory of provisions to restock and plan a schedule for forays into the wild. It's nearing 300 days since I last worked in an office. A streak of just over 300 days of Duolingo German lessons. Another mirror-in-the-bathroom pandemic-chic haircut. We acknowledge 2021 with the merest "Happy New Year!" barely interrupting our evening of champagne and videogames on the couch in pyjamas. These are, in fact, happy days replete with meaningful meaninglessness.]

Pages later, a cut-up graffiti collage of a megaphone yells at me to fuck modernity. I'm not sure what modernity is anymore.

There's a multipage riff on an exchange in Shakespeare's Tempest, in which Sebastian is "standing water" and Antonio tells him, "I'll teach you how to flow." [Teach me how to flow, Antonio.]

The signs are everywhere.

A final exhortation reminds me that it's time to be the person I was always meant to be. "Let's taste the revolutionary sweetness of being out of control. Shall we?"