Thursday, August 26, 2021

Unquenched and wild longing

Άδάμας (Unconquerable), by Sophia Wallace, 2013.

Desire, for women, can be complicated. While men are generally allowed to want openly, to covet pleasure openly, women have to be more discreet about our desires. We can be wanted but we are rarely allowed to want because if we want — if we crave — we are greedy, we are wanton, we are fallen, we are whores. If we want, we acknowledge that we yearn to be satisfied. We acknowledge that our satisfaction matters. We demand to be seen and heard.

I am interested in the silence and strictures around women's desire, how we seem to have decided, as a culture, that there is shame in wanting and believing we deserve to want. We seem to have decided that we must earn the right to want and be temperate when we dare to do so. If you must want, don't dare want too much. We can't even have a serious conversation about desire. There is always some pithy parlance framing desire as if to want means you are not just desirous and human, you are needy, desperate. These days, when we talk about want, we talk about thirst, about unquenched and wild longing. When someone is too open about their desires, they are mocked for the audacity of being thirsty, parched. If they aren't mocked, they are condescended to with rhetoric about empowerment. Look at that woman expressing her desires? Look how bold and brave she is.

The sad truth is that women who express their desires unabashedly are brave.

— from "What It Means to Want" [foreword], by Roxane Gay in A Woman's Right to Pleasure.

This book, published in partnership with Lelo (producer of the best vibrator ever) is an amazing collection of art and writings about art and pleasure. Yet, I feel I need to hide the fact that I'm reading it. We have so far to go. I have so far to go. Be brave.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The weight of myself

I'm humming a little. Softly. Just to myself. A tune I heard somewhere, can't remember where from, but it's lovely. It comes easily to my lips, and I don't usually sing. My lips are usually pressed together, bearing the weight of myself.

Did I like it? I think so. I was entertained. The writing and the story are compelling; I zipped through. I wish I knew Shakespeare better. 

Also, my big toe hurts. When I think about it, the pain in my toe, it throbs, like my mind can actively make it pulsate. I palpate the toe, but I can't find the focal point for the pain, not at the edge of the nail, not the pad, not in the bone, but the pain hangs on a thread that winds its way through my body to my brain. I'm sure the pain is a direct result of this book, like I metaphorically dropped it on my foot, and it's much bigger and heavier than I believed it to be.

All's Well, by Mona Awad, is weird. Like Bunny was weird. 

[I read Bunny almost exactly two years ago on a beach at Lake Tahoe, and any chance I could, while on a retreat with colleagues. I'd rather escape into the bullying clique-mindedness of campus life than engage in the Marketing department's labyrinth of in-groups, the obligatory assigned dinners, the feigned fun. "If you don't know everybody's name and understand what they do by the end of the week, then you're doing it wrong." Bunny was perfect.]

I never wrote about Bunny. It was too easy a read. Fluid and natural. There was nothing particularly quotable about it. It was funny and deep, and rich with insight into human character, but in a way that was easily processed; it never stopped me in my tracks. I actually mean this as high praise. It's so seamless, and entertaining and weird, you don't notice how good it is. 

I feel the same way about All's Well. I am also struck by the witchery, and trickster energy, that my summer consists of — the fiction I read is full of it, I am subconsciously choosing it, I want to be guided by it, to learn how to exorcise parts of my past, or transmute certain experiences, or embrace my goddess nature, shed the chrysalis.

Her boot tips rest at my head, stopping short  just of my temple. She could raise her boot and stomp on my face if she wanted to. Probably a small part of her does. Because that's what you do with the weak, and Grace comes from Puritan stock, a witch-burning ancestry. Women who never get colds. Women who carry on. Women with thick thighs who do not understand the snivelers, the wafflers, people who burn sage.

The plot has Miranda staging of one of Shakespeare's problem plays, All's Well That Ends Well, even while her students clearly want to perform Macbeth. Themes from both plays permeate Miranda's reality, and their characters cross over, but I can't help but wonder if her Shakespearean name isn't also pointing us to The Tempest, with its dreamlike and patriarchal elements. 

I felt a drop, I told Grace. Felt their anger in the filthy air. Felt the sword above my head. Felt my doom in the thickening night as we drove here. Three silhouettes looming in my side mirror, loping along the shoulder like wolves.

What defines Miranda is her pain, invisible as it is. And then the sudden absence of her pain. (Always the problem of having a body, wanting to inhabit it while detaching from it.)

Watch Mona Awad in conversation with Heather O'Neill.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Qui tollis peccata mundi

Above us Tyll Ulenspiegel turned, slowly and carelessly — not like someone in danger but like someone looking around with curiosity. He stood with right foot lengthwise on the rope, his left crosswise, his knees slightly bent and his fists on his hips. And all of us, looking up, suddenly understood what lightness was. We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people.

Meet Tyll, trickster extraordinaire. Self-centred, eternally childish, or perhaps wise, a disruptor of the highest order. Like the devil, he's a disappearing act.

Tyll, by Daniel Kehlmann, is a somewhat picaresque novel that spans the Thirty Years' War, of which I know very little, and featuring the likes of the Winter Queen and Athanasius Kircher. It's a time of upheaval — religion wars against religion, and religion wars against both witchcraft and science. Modernity wars against tradition. There is no clear winner, and everyone is hungry.

He says: "Are we going to die?"

"Absolutely," says Korff. "Us and everybody else."

He's right again, thinks Tyll, although, who knows, I, for one, have never died yet.

The story skips across Europe nonchronologically, telling of the arrest of Tyll's father for heresy, a quest for dragon's blood ("Dragon blood is a substance of such power that you don't need the stuff itself. It's enough that the substance is in the world."), and the siege of Brno. There be ghosts, Jesuits, and a talking donkey. 

Due to the darkness your thoughts don’t stay with you alone, you overhear those of the others, whether you want to or not.

It seems wherever tragedy lies, Tyll is near, but it's never clear if he incites it, feeds off of it, or is merely happening by, a witness. Angels and demons are both light as air.

A broad lewd grin appeared on the face of the famous man. A strong power now stretched between him and the woman. He was impelled toward her and she toward him, so forcefully were their bodies drawn together, and it was hardly bearable that they had not yet touched. Yet the music he played seemed to prevent it, for as if by accident it had changed, and the moment had passed, the notes no longer permitted it. It was the Agnus Dei. The woman folded her hands piously, qui tollis peccata mundi, he backed away, and the two of them seemed startled themselves by the wildness that has almost seized them, just as we were startled and crossed ourselves because we remembered that God saw all and condoned little.

Life is such that I had difficulty fully engaging in the history and deciphering the politics in play, but there was humour and intrigue and depth at every turn.

See the enlightening interview in BOMB Magazine: Daniel Kehlmann by Álvaro Enrigue.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The price of experience is life's great sorrows

It is a fact, though, that for some time now I have known about life. As for love, on that score there is not only no illusion left in me, but also no desire for illusions, no urge to try to make these things last which are only sweet and good because they are ephemeral . . . But then, this kind of thing is so personal, so much my problem, that it is impossible to explain it clearly, let alone to make anyone else understand me. The price of experience is life's great sorrows, but it cannot be shared.

One book inevitably leads to another. Maggie Nelson in Bluets dreams of being subsumed into a tribe of blue people, years before learning of the Tuareg (those "abandoned by God"). Nelson cites Isabelle Eberhardt: "Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off blue places, toward the bright edges of the earth."

[I recall the startlingly infinite blue of the eyes of Brahim, and occasional strangers, in a desert town in Tunisia. I remember believing they had a secret knowledge, like Fremen. Years later, lying on the dunes at the eastern edge of Morocco, I learned the desert is an ocean. Dig down, water everywhere. I'm rocked to sleep on the undulating sand, the sound of the wind through the dunes like crashing waves. Their eyes an ocean.]

An almost cold wind blew through the night, and in the dunes a murmur like that of the sea.

I was less interested in Isabelle Eberhardt's writing than in the myth of her. I realize now I might better understand her through the words she used to articulate her artistic vision. I settled instead for her tired jottings, curated and annotated by an editor with a different focus than mine. The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, features selections from four notebooks, beginning January 1, 1900. The final entry is January 31, 1903. She wrote mainly in French, with occasional passages in Russian (her mother's tongue) and Arabic (a language of spiritual interest). In October 1904, she was killed in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria.

She was educated. She published short stories under a male pseudonym. She dressed as a man. She was anti-colonialist and traveled across North Africa. She was a mystic and converted to Islam, joining a Sufi sect. She was attacked by a man who may have been a hired assassin. She had lovers. She was unbearably sad.

Apart from all (well, most) of these things, she reminds me of myself. "Even I, as someone intimately convinced that I do not know how to live." She tortured herself with becoming a better version of herself.

Seen from the outside, I wear the mask of the cynic, the dissipated and debauched layabout. No one yet has managed to see through to my real inner self, which is sensitive and pure and which rises above the humiliation and baseness I choose to wallow in. No one has ever understood that even though I may seem to be driven by the senses alone, my heart is in fact generous.

The journals give themselves over to mundane concerns: finances and the logistics of travel and lodging. She grapples with artistic insecurities. She confesses that she is often so preoccupied with the day-to-day that she has neither time nor inspiration for her writing.

While the diaries document a unique life, they don't really stand up on their own. They don't always provide sufficient biographical detail for me to understand what was at issue. What insight it offers into her character, her artistic process, is mostly meaningless without being familiar with her output. I shall have to seek out The Oblivions Seekers someday.

How could I have believed in the mysteriousness that I thought I sensed in this country, which was only  a reflection of the sad enigma of my own soul? I am condemned to carry my unnameable sorrow, this whole world of thought along with me like this, wherever I go, through the countries and cities of the earth, without ever finding the Icaria of my dreams!

I am as ignorant about myself as I am about the outside world. Perhaps that is the only truth.

The Paris Review: Feminize Your Canon: Isabelle Eberhardt

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Logic is indeed sexy

"I will submit to you today that logic is indeed sexy. Logic is fact in a world of fiction, truth in a society of lies, and light in the shadows. Logic will never betray you, deceive you, or disappoint you. It will guide you and illuminate your path ahead. Logic provides the loyalty, security, and friendship that many of you hope to find in a spouse someday. What could be sexier than that?"

The Tree of Knowledge, by Daniel G. Miller, is not about eating the forbidden fruit. Rather it maps the exciting intricacy of decision trees onto a world peopled by math professors and corrupt politicians. (And it's also a love story. [Isn't everything?])

I admire this thriller's ambition, and I loved the the idea of the puzzles (though they were rather simplistic, and would not realistically pose a challenge to students of logic), but the premise was a stretch. The characters were thin — there were a few I couldn't keep straight, many of them were interchangeable — and not believable.

Useful life lesson reminders: Break everything down into discrete challenges; it makes overwhelming goals manageable, reachable. Clear your mind of assumptions, images, emotions; focus on pure information. [But, I remind myself: Sometimes the emotion is the information.]