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,
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.

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