Wednesday, March 30, 2022

A gallery of monsters

If each of us drew our own body as if by dictation from our own internal perspective, we would produce a gallery of monsters!

— from The Sexual Life of Catherine M., by Catherine Millet. 

I'd been planning the third major sculpture for months. (Peter was my first; the second was my tree lady.) I wanted to develop technique. I wanted to stretch beyond what I'd been taught about form. I wanted to create art.

This project had purpose. A self-portrait. I established some objectives.

1. It had to look like me. At least in its early stages. I would allow for it to morph into something more symbolic, expressive, a distortion of me. But its basis had to have sufficient me-ness that I could not deny to myself that it was me.

2. It had to express joy. Pain is easy. It's unique, powerful, exquisite. But Tolstoy was wrong about happiness. Happiness is also nuanced. And it's difficult to express artistically without being saccharine or facile. I needed to preserve something joyous, but I needed to find it first. This was a pandemic project, after all. (I considered some secret joy, some orgasmic expression.)

3. It had to represent me symbolically. It was at this level I thought art manifested. I wanted it to be a self-portrait from the inside out. Maybe my brain spilling out. (What do my migraines look like?) Maybe my head split open and my brain obviously set wrong. Maybe in place of my brain, my heart.

This is what I thought about throughout the summer of 2020. I procured materials, I waited for winter. I broke open the package of clay in early November. It was US election night, I had the tv on, I needed art to counterbalance reality, I wondered if that made my art a political act.

For a few weeks I obsessed over cheekbones, the angle of my nose, the whorls of my ears. And then, quite unexpectedly, I fell in love, or something. I felt both seen and not yet fully seen, and that it didn't matter whether I was seen or not. Suddenly seeing didn't matter, feeling mattered. I thought more about seeing, without actually seeing.

Very coincidentally, I'd started reading John Berger's Ways of Seeing at about that time:

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. [...] 

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Love didn't last, but I had projects to keep me busy. I kept thinking about how I was seen, how I saw myself. I started seeing outside myself, in a way that I hadn't in a very long time. Among all the ways of seeing, I started seeing my way.

I learned how to handle clay, maintain its wetness. I learned how to work it when it is hard (the work of carving). I learned how to perform a lobotomy. I learned about shapeshifting. I can point to this sculpted portrait's objective faults: the face too flat, the ears too big, the mouth too thin. Too unfocused. Too ambitious. Too inauthentic, even if conceived in an authentic kind of way. 

I studied my perception of myself. I created a very long neck, not because it was realistic or particularly aesthetic. Likely this was a subconscious expression of the distance between my brain and my body.

I failed on all three objectives. (Except maybe the first. And the second and third.) I lacked patience, persistence, and discipline. (But this project served its purpose.)

I am listening to a podcast in which is discussed the drive to create beauty out of pain (and I think: beauty in ugliness and imperfection — wabi-sabi); how Leonard Cohen makes you want to die and spread your legs at the same time; how obsession with a thing is often an obsession with what the thing represents.

I am learning to refocus on form. Art will manifest itself somehow through clarity of thought. I am learning to be naked.

To be naked is to be oneself. [...]

Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.

To be naked is to be without disguise. 

This morning, I woke up and looked at it anew, and I smashed it.

Time to start again.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

The swelling of proportions

I'd gone to France for work, to a party, in a castle decked out in a way I'd never seen. I'd had a fair amount to drink, and I latched onto someone who worked for an important newspaper, unlike me in those days, when I slaved away a a meager publication. The guy was my age, I'd known him for a long time. He made me laugh all night, I drank and laughed, and for the first time, I cheated on my husband. And it was amazing, really amazing, but not the sex, I care next to nothing about sex. I remember, instead, the swelling of proportions that followed. I walked down tree-lined avenues at seven in the morning, the air was lovely, and I felt I'd grown as tall as a giant. But then the sense of swelling proportions dissolved, and I started to feel terrible. Not about my husband, honestly, I didn't feel the least but guilty. In any case, I believed I had the right to enjoy life.

I think about the care some people take, or not, with my secrets. Those intimate divulgences. Do they mull them over, mystified? How does it change their view of me? Do my secrets shock them, or do they puzzle over why I bother to keep them close? Do they hold them for me, or spill them out? I have so very few.

I think about the secrets I know about others.

I stumbled across Trust, by Domenico Starnone, on just such a day when I was wandering down old familiar streets, with a swelling of proportions, a swelling of memories, thinking about someone's secrets, and realizing I couldn't tell anybody about them. That someone would never know if I did. Nobody would care, about the secret, or about its telling; nothing would change. But it's a bond, my honour.

(His dark secret only made me love him more. It was the small secrets, the insignificant omissions, that drove a wedge between us. But I wonder if he thinks about it sometimes, the fact that I know.)

The tension of Trust depends on this pact between lovers: they confide in each other their most shameful secret, "something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it," to bond them forever. Yet, a few days later, Pietro and Teresa break up.

We never know what they told each other. We know Pietro thought Teresa's secret awful. And Pietro lived in fear that Teresa might reveal his own shame. It's something she holds over him, even after his death.

The book unfolds in three parts, spanning decades and shifting perspectives, from Pietro, to his grown daughter, to old woman Teresa. Pietro's life is mostly unremarkable, a mostly undistinguished career, some minor celebrity, a typical family life with an ambitious but disappointed wife. 

His failings are also mostly unremarkable, and perhaps typical of his generation. Teresa was his student, and he felt threatened by her, diminished by her. In turn he diminished his wife, who was surely capable of great successes but was burdened by the traditional demands of marriage and motherhood. 

At this point I must pause for a moment to draw attention to the fact that, in that moment, I totally gave in to the truth of a cliché. I thought: we fall in love with people who seem real, but don't really exist. We invent them. I don't know this self-assured woman, who speaks to me in such clipped sentences, this fearless, scathing woman. She's not Nadia. There's the person we love and there's the real person, but as long as we love the person, we never see the real person underneath. We inevitably waste so much time, I said to myself, loving people. These past few years, I happily invented a person. I've taken great pleasure entering into the body of a pale watercolor of my own making.

Pietro did not think well of himself, and he shouldn't, though he didn't give these matters much thought. With an incomplete understanding of his inadequacies, but his sense of entitlement thoroughly offended, he rather blamed the unjustness of his lot in life on the socioeconomics of his upbringing.

A psychological descendant of Alberto Moravia's Contempt, Trust starts like this, stylistically modern, breathless. 

Love, well, what to say? We talk about it a lot, but I don't think I've used the word much, on the contrary, I doubt it's ever been of any use me, though I've loved, of course, I've loved, I've loved until I've lost my mind and my wits. Love as I've known it, in fact, is a lava of crude life that burns the refined one, an eruption that obliterates understanding and piety, reason and rights, geography and history, sickness and health, richer and poorer, exceptions and the rules. All that's left is a yearning that twists and distorts, an obsession without a cure: where is she, where isn't she, what's she thinking, doing, what did she say, what did she really mean when she said that, what isn't she telling me, was she as happy to see me as I was to see her, and feeling better now that I've left, or has my absence debilitated her instead, as hers debilitates me, annihilating me, stripping me of all the energy that her presence, on the other hand, generates, and what am I without her, a stopped clock on the corner of a busy street, oh her voice on the the other hand, oh to stand next to her, to diminish the distance between us, reduce it to nothing, erase kilometers, meters, centimeters, millimeters, and melt, lose myself, stop being myself, in fact, it already feels like I was never myself other than within her, in the pleasure of her, and this makes me proud, it cheers me up, and it depressed me, it saddens me, and then it jolts me again, it electrifies me, I care so much for her, yes, all I want is the best for her, always, whatever happens, even if she turns cold, even if she loves other people, even if she humiliates me, even if she strips me of everything, even of the very capacity to care for her. 

Shiny New Books 
LARB: The Terrible Powers of Self-Deception: On Domenico Starnone's "Trust"
Cleveland Review of Books: In Search of Self through the Other: On Domenico Starnone's "Trust" 

Sunday, March 20, 2022

A convulsive act

My adolescence as a reader became, without a break, a long and unhappy apprenticeship as an author.

The geese have returned. They've brought the rains. 

I am living amid a labyrinth of boxes. All my possessions, I am turning them over in my hands, weighing their worth. I like my things.

I am finishing repairs to the unit I will soon vacate while shopping for furniture to fill my new space. I am sick to death of my financial advisor and the notary and the customer service people of half a dozen different services. 

I spend my workday considering how we should talk about the industrial metaverse. I think: this is not reality, this is not my reality. I think: I haven't yet made peace with my profession, because writing isn't a real profession. I think: I resent my mother, my upbringing, for convincing me that pursuing artistic endeavours was nice, but not a way to make a living.

I escape into art. I am in workshop only one evening a week. But I research wire types and gauges for armatures; I make prototypes at home, testing poses, trying techniques; I amass boards and cloths; I buy litres of silicone, preparing to cast molds.

I'm not entirely pleased with my latest sculpture, working from a live female model this time. I don't think I've ever looked at a female body this intently before. The model's function is as an anatomical reference. But she has surgical scars, and acne, and razor burn. We're not supposed to notice these cosmetic details, we're encouraged to whitewash them. But I want to capture the scars, at least. They are vulnerability and strength. This is beauty. A friend tells me about wabi-sabi. (We are all broken.)

I try very hard to see what is, to not let my mind fill in the blanks. (Years of jigsaw puzzling has trained me for this.) I understand something, finally: I will show you what there is before I show you what I see. I must be able to show you what there is, so that you are ready to see when I show you what I see.

I am surprised to find that I am not enjoying books I was certain to like; clever and experimental suddenly don't seem to have sufficient substance to carry the weight of their presumptions. I am returning to modern classics to find depth of character, psychological underpinnings, plot, place in the world.

I have completed 743 days of daily German lessons, yet I find myself drawn to things Italian.

I watch The Great Beauty and The Hand of God, and I marvel at how Sorrentino frames his world, comingling the vulgar and the sublime, all of it beautiful.  

In In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, Elena Ferrante offers a window onto the reading that formed her, as she believes strongly in "the importance of the writing we've inherited."

These essays were conceived as a series of lectures, which were then curtailed by the pandemic. Despite the insights, they are dry. She is a brilliant novelist, and no doubt an accomplished academic, but while her fictions keep me up past my bedtime, these learnings lulled me to sleep. 

Anyone who has literary ambitions knows that the motivations, both great and small, that impel the hand to write come from "real life": the yearning to describe the pain of love, the pain of living, the anguish of death; the need to straighten the world that is all crooked; the search for a new morality that will reshape us; the urgency to give voice to the humble, to strip away power and its atrocities; the need to prophesy disasters but also to design happy worlds.

But importantly, I learn: "Every good character needs an other." I think about that. It helps to take me outside of myself.

I watch The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal's adaptation of Ferrante's novel. It's anxious. The camera so very female, the way it lingers on beautiful men (women too), lusts for their youth. I understand now that there is such a thing as the female gaze, and it's a thing I have, I turn it on others.

So I got in the habit of using traditionally rigid structures and working on them carefully, while I waited patiently to start writing with all the truth I'm capable of, destabilizing, deforming, to make space for myself with my whole body. For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Pain is the awareness of being alive

It was her Father who told her that highly educated people did nothing but complain, and that those in poverty, on the other hand, could stand more, much more, or maybe they felt less. He also said that distraction could be the best medicine, but that some medicine could be lethal if one denied all symptoms. Because pain is the awareness of being alive. One had to a little dead or a little deaf in order for the body to rest.

I'm not enjoying books I thought I would enjoy. Reading them is a slog. Writing about them is a penance. 

Maybe I've grown too discerning. Maybe I'm bored.

There were no candles in the country of the present, where the electricity never went out. Never, until it did.

Nervous System, by Lina Meruane, starts off beautifully, in a cold and clinical way. Pages like poetry. But the electricity went out for me early. It soon becomes needlessly cryptic.

Ella is self-absorbed, at the centre of a constellation of people, none of whom have names. I don't care about any of them. The Father (domineering, until he is sick, possibly dying), the Firstborn (mostly absent), the Friend, the Cousin. The Mother (biological) and the other Mother (the second wife, who birthed the Twins). Ella is working on her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she's blocked, so instead she turns hypochondriac or possibly genuinely mysteriously ill. Possibly she quits.

The book is suddenly about Ella's boyfriend El (not really a name, just he to her she), who works in a  psychologically and politically traumatic environment and is severely injured on the job. But he doesn't seem to figure significantly in Ella's life, so I don't care about him. Possibly they split up.

Then it is about other people's traumas and illnesses.

Possibly someone (a Mother) had breast cancer in the past. The family is noncommunicative and dysfunctional in a fairly normal way.

Possibly there was a rape. I wish I knew so I could feel outraged rather than detached. I wish I could feel something.

Ella smiles sadly, reminding herself that those young people still live in the hopeful order of consecutive time, which had never been hers.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Not to fulfill your desires

Sprawled across Jackson Avenue is a larger-than-life lady, screaming her "I don't give a fuck" in chemical pink. We come up on her from behind; a slight torque in her repose, I can't see her hand, between her legs I think, and I feel embarrassed to catch her masturbating in the midday sun. She's monstrous and gorgeous, she looks like an armature barely wrapped in plasticine, but she's all bronze, baby. So this is Queens.

We have a few minutes to pop into the bookstore. It's a comforting place, I want to touch all the books, my hand caresses the shelf, my fingertips drag across the tabletops. I want to read all the books I haven't read, but there isn't time, so I reach for a blind date. "Read me if you like... - intense, complicated sibling rivalries/ - carnivals/ - David Lynch films/ - unreliable narrators."

It's only later that I realize I know what the book is, of course I've read it. (And the receipt confirms my suspicion.) I shouldn't play this game. I've read too many books, I read too much about books, to be blind to them. But in that moment I was happy, I must've already known what it was and I reached for it anyway, this mysterious book made me happy.

I watch The Green Knight again, because it is beautiful and dark and mysterious, and it reminds me that an instant can be a lifetime, and I can wonder for all eternity where it all went wrong, and I can't tell if it actually went wrong at all. This is what I do now, I watch this movie at every opportunity, which seems to be when I fly. Who the hell is this green knight anyway? And this time the image of him picking up his head reminds me of Medusa carrying Perseus's head, but not the bronze, rather the recreation by a live model, the photograph we drew from in art class the other week, that haughty smirk. Now I want to sculpt the green knight, but I can't yet, because I don't understand him. I wonder if cutting off my own head would bring clarity, it is my oppressor after all. (And St Winnifred too, everyone losing their head.)

A friend and I are texting about Ukraine, and she sends me a poem by Bertolt Brecht, because we live in dark times. I read it and I am gutted. (Headless and gutted, empty.)

Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them
Is accounted wise.

I can't tell if Brecht is saying it is wise to forget one's desires, or if it is thought wise but isn't. I spend a weekend in New York fulfilling some desires, yearning after others, and all in all not knowing what to do with them any of them anymore.

I have been reading Ferrante and Starnone, and I will write about them someday. I have been reading other things, and enjoying not writing about them. I am working far too much.

A drunk angry Ukrainian spews profanities on the subway platform and a rat makes for the exit. The poster in the elevator in the hotel reminds me that all my desires are worth fulfilling, even as the world burns.