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.


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:
The White Review