Sunday, December 12, 2010

Does Matt Weiner Owe Idelle Weber Royalties?

When I was a budding feminist at Smith College, taking lit courses, Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics: feminist literary theory was something of a touchstone, laying out a narrative of the stages that feminist criticism had gone through. First there was the "images of women" criticism, looking at how male writers had portrayed women, then there was the discovery phase, when critics discovered or, more often, rediscovered women writers who had been neglected, under-read and misread. (Rediscovered because, often enough, as Jane Tompkins demonstrated about 19th century American fiction, women writers were often, in a reversal of the standard artistic-heroic cliche, well-known in their own time only to be buried later by the condescension of cultural gatekeepers.) Then, there was the phase we were presumably in at the time, and presumably still are: the phase of theory.

The idea of course was that criticism had become more sophisticated, that we didn't need to do that rediscovery thing anymore. (The images of women stuff was of course often seen as really passe, and "simplistic," which always struck me as unfair. Someone had to say something about Mailer, and anyone who gets on the cover of Time for doing it must be doing something right.) But the more damaging unstated assumption that I think goes into this is the idea that the rediscovery has been done, that our curriculums and cultural institutions are so multicultural and progressive that they bend over backwards to celebrate women artists, and artists of color. I mean, many of us know that this isn't true, as the Guerilla Girls brilliantly demonstrated time and time again. But we're still surprised by what we don't know.

All of which is to say, before I went to the Brooklyn Museum's great exhibit on Women and Pop art, I'd never heard of Idelle Weber. Munchkins I, II & III, the yellow and black triptych of silhouetted men going up and down the elevators at MetLife prompted Time Out to write this:
It begs obvious comparison to Mad Men; it's almost hard to believe it's a product of 1964 instead of another contemporary, guiltily nostalgic reflection on white-collar conformity.

Which would seem to have it exactly backwards: Mad Men is doing a Pop Art commentary on itself every time the camera starts behind Jon Hamm's head, and it would seem the real anachronism is thinking that artists aren't capable of critiquing their own age. Weber also had these cubes with the silhouettes on them which were kind of gorgeous, and one of them even had a figure in a slumped, viewed from behind pose. Now if one of those showed up on Draper's desk, it would be a meta-joke, but it could it also be a parting gift from Cooper, who has plenty of time now to build his collection beyond the Rothko from season 2.

Here's part of what wikipedia has to say about Weber:

In light of her success, Weber moved to New York to work and to secure a gallery affiliation. Sam Hunter, then curator at MoMA, arranged for her to meet art historian H.W. Janson, who admired Weber's work but stated that he did not include women painters in his books.[1] Charles Allen, owner of the Allen Gallery, similarly indicated that he did not show women artists.[2] Weber attended an illustration and design class taught by Alexander Liberman at the School of Visual Arts, but when she asked Robert Motherwell if she could audit his class at Hunter College, he responded that married women with children were not permitted to audit classes because they would not continue painting.[3] Weber had married earlier that year. In 1958 her son was born, followed by a daughter in 1964, yet she continued painting.
We think this is an old story, that it's either too far in the past or too familiar to bother us much. But Weber, like many of the women in the show, is still alive and working, and as the old Guerilla Girls poster said, you could probably buy most of the show for the price of a single Warhol.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Music Corner: Streets of London

Today while working in my office, I was playing my normal Pandora mix station, floating in and out as I moved between varying levels of concentration and spaciness. Then, midway through a song, I was startled upright. My brain stumbled, trying to make sense of what it was hearing, failing at instant recognition but knowing I was hearing something deeply, almost primally familiar. It was that odd sensation seeing someone you're struggle to place but knew ten or fifteen years ago, a wholly different thing than running into someone you're struggling to place but met last summer.

Finally I looked at the screen and saw that I was listening to Sinead O'Connor's version of "Streets of London," Ralph McTell's old folk hit. How did I not know she'd recorded this song? McTell's song was one that my parents had recorded off The Midnight Special, the folk program on Chicago's WFMT (named of course for the Ledbelly classic), turned into mix cassettes and played during our car trips. They're probably the songs I'll remember when I'm senile and have no idea what Lady Gaga, David Foster Wallace or Mad Men ever were or why I or anyone cared. Like a lot of these songs, "Streets of London," was a sad song by a guy with a plain voice and a guitar, filled with a longing that was probably a strange thing for a kid to have as their formative musical experience.

Sinead's version, though, is something else. Sinead, of course, is, was, always, Something Else. I've been thinking a lot recently about how the late 80s and early 90s were this weirdly open moment, culturally and politically: think Public Enemy, riot grrrls, Backlash on the best-seller list, Spike Lee. Backlash prompted me to go to a women's college. Musically, though, if I were to be honest, Bikini Kill and such were never really where it was at for me. Sinead on the other hand, was Something Else. (If I were to be very, very honest, Tori Amos was a big part of it too, but that's another story.)

Now, it's tempting to write something nostalgic about how I listened to I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got obsessively, and how it understood me perfectly, and all that, but that's not quite how it went down. It was more like she was someone I was always conscious of, but who was unsettling, and I knew it would be more unsettling to spend too much more time with her. I was an intense person trying to hide; she was an intense person who made one of the best videos of all time by being totally exposed. I remember talking to a friend about the bald head and the closeup, and how brave they were, how beautiful she had to be pull it off, only vaguely sensing how brave and subversive it all was for a twenty-three year old who was already a single mother, already getting heat for her politics, for talking about her abusive childhood, whose debut was full of all the mythic poetry we could want at sixteen but also a song whose sublime horniness we could only begin to appreciate back then, who ended one of the greatest breakup albums of all time with the bare a cappella incantation "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" - quite something for sixteen year olds to try to wrap our heads around - but who also put one of the best anti-Thatcher songs in the middle of it.

Then, as everyone knows, there was the Pope thing. I was at my first semester of college at the women's college Backlash had inspired me to attend. I may have been watching it live, because I remember seeing her do it, and I know it was cut from the episode, although maybe it was on the news or something. I remember my fellow students - certainly an audience inclined to be sympathetic to how her translation of Marley's anti-racist message into a cry against abuse and its enablers - being mostly embarrassed by it. We were nice girls, we believed in being fair to everyone, and tearing up a religious icon's picture smacked of nasty things that nasty people did. I remember the discussion being about how she must be crazy, cracking under the fame. I remember my high school boyfriend, a nice Catholic boy, going off on her and me stammering a half-hearted defense. I remember enjoying her next few albums but wishing she wouldn't have little audio clips of Germaine Greer or speeches about how the potato famine wasn't really a famine and about "the one true enemy - the Holy Roman Empire" and how Jesus said "I bring not love I bring a sword." I remember being embarrassed for her when I read some music magazine interview where she said that all the problems in the world were caused by child abuse, because I was in college and I knew the answer to any statement like that was always ButIt'sOfCourseIt'sMoreComplicatedThanThat and then you get to leave it there. Oddly, I don't remember people steamrolling her CDs, Joe Pesci on the next SNL talking about smacking her, or her getting booed off the stage. Once again his followers did the Prince of Peace proud. (Wikipedia says that even before the pope thing, Old Blue Eyes threatened to smack her for not wanting the national anthem played before a concert. He had a point. I mean, any country that allowed that gangster-enabler to be a paragon is a pretty amazing country, no? The guy is like a walking encyclopedia entry under white privilege.)

In any case, of course it turned out that she was right, that there was a lot that we didn't know - not just about the church, but about her. At least, I didn't know until this year that she'd spent time in a Magdalene laundry after being encouraged to shoplift by her troubled and abusive mother. I didn't know they'd operated that recently. Frank McCourt-style memories of mothers talking about priests don't get at what she describes in the opening of her editorial response to the Pope's "apology":
When I was a child, Ireland was a Catholic theocracy. If a bishop came walking down the street, people would move to make a path for him. If a bishop attended a national sporting event, the team would kneel to kiss his ring. If someone made a mistake, instead of saying, "Nobody's perfect," we said, "Ah sure, it could happen to a bishop."
This made me think about the opening of one of Chris Marker's films, when he talks about the Old Russia and how the czar's people would smack someone who didn't take their hat off and bow, and how whenever you talk about Revolution and the good and bad of it, you have to remember that that's where it started. And this part made me cry:
We worked in the basement, washing priests' clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap. We studied math and typing. We had limited contact with our families. We earned no wages. One of the nuns, at least, was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.
She doesn't give the exact dates but it was probably no more than a dozen years from then, from that first guitar from the kind nun, to being discovered and the "Lion and the Cobra" and the breakthrough with "Nothing Compares" and then to that night on SNL. People think artists take on unpopular views because they want attention, that it's an affectation, that they're just not serious people like the rest of us and they should shut up and play. And of course there are some where that's an understandable response. But I think with someone like her, being so public so young, without the ideological training that is the passage through prestigious institutions that other types of public figures go through, you get something real and raw and beautiful, and more often than not, people just don't know what to do with that. We bitch about the superficiality of popular artists, and then when one isn't, we freak out at their sincerity. She must be crazy, or else she doesn't really mean it.

Well she wasn't, and she did. And I wish it had been her reedy version of "Streets of London" I'd heard on those car trips, because that voice can (almost) make me believe in something like a holy spirit, which she says she believes in in spite of it all, and even if not, it's a voice I'd like to remember in my senile years.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Maximal Minimalist

Recently I went to some galleries with a young painter. The galleries didn't do much for me - how often they don't - but the afternoon yielded me some framed New Yorker covers I bought on the street. And it yielded me something he said: "Everyone's a minimalist or a maximalist."

One of the hardest things when you're young is knowing what you like. I think the young are often pretentious out of something of a good impulse: they don't know what they like so they try to like everything, or at least all the right things. We blame universities and over-intellectualizing for taking us away from what we like, from that natural state of love we once had for reading, or looking, or listening, or what have you. And maybe it's true for some. But for me, at 15, at 20, and sometimes even at 25, the question "Do you like it?" instilled terror. It wasn't that I didn't like things, it was just that there seemed to be no pattern, no way to describe it.

Like the best friends or the best partners, the best teachers hold up a mirror. I remember Anna Deveare Smith giving a talk at NYU, and she said, the best thing a teacher did for me was tell me I was funny. One of the most romantic pieces of writing I know is "He and I" by Natalia Ginzburg, which begins "He always feels hot, I always feel cold."

So, if ten or fifteen years ago, I'd been at a gallery and some had asked, are you a minimalist or a maximalist, I would have gone into a panic. Instead, now, when he said it I said "ah, so that's what Synecdoche, NY was really about! Catherine Keener and Philip Seymour Hoffman are doomed from the start because she's a minimalist and he's a maximalist."

This week, Poet Laureate Kay Ryan spoke at my school. She was a great reader and performer, and the students loved the way she slowed down her readings of her tight little puzzle poems. At one point she talked about how things like taste are pretty set early on, and read "After Zeno," which she wrote when she was 19 following her father's death, years before she started publishing, and which starts:

When he was
I was.
But I still am
and he is still.

Immediately I thought of Lydia Davis, who does something similar in "Grammar Questions," also about a father: "Now, during the time he is dying, can I say, "this is where he lives"?

So there you would seem to have it: two versions of the minimalist, in poetry and in sort-of prose, which nevertheless aspires to the condition etc. It is perhaps not accidental that in slogging through Infinite Jest (how the maximalists must announce themselves in their titles, as if we couldn't tell!) I keep thinking, look at all the hidden gems - you could have hundreds of beautiful poems here, if you pulled them out, if only they were fifty words on a page, where people could see them!

But I also think of this, another poet mourning a parent : "towards education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school and learning to be mad, in a dream - what is this life?" And later, this - "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window - I have the key - Get married Allen don't take drugs - the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window. Love, your mother' which is Naomi - "

Which takes me back again to the same question: why not say what happened, why not say her words? What will it be: to say nothing (and everything) of a life, or to say everything (and nothing)?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Long-Ass Mad Men Post, In honor of Carla and not illustrated by a photo of Deborah Lacey

(Lots of spoilers)

As folks who know me know, I'm more than a little Mad Men obsessed. I wrote a whole honest to god essay about Betty Draper (Francis) at the start of the season this summer. I've had multiple dreams about the show (more about that later) . More than that, though I think it's probably permeated my thoughts over a longer period of time, and I've had more discussions, with more people, about how they've responded to it, often in a deeply personal way, than just about any other work of art in any medium that I can think of. That the thing this is true about happens to be a television show would have bothered me once upon a time, but it doesn't now.

Sunday, I had some folks over to watch the finale. As it unfolded, we started asking each other, "Is this really happening?" as if we expected Don to reassure us "It will surprise you how much this never happened" and Allison to insist "This really happened." Which it did: he really proposes to Megan, he really says all those gooey things with that glazed look that we've only seen when he was trying to sell furs to Roger in a flashback, things that he referred to in the very first episode as "invented by guys like me to sell you nylons." When Joan and Peggy shared their conspiratorial cigarettes, I was delighted, not only for a hint of solidarity to conclude this season of the rise of the working woman, but because after the long slog out in California, we finally saw that someone besides us thought this was ridiculous, that we're allowed to laugh at him.

So, Don. Don Don Don Don. Perhaps this says something about my level of cynicism, but I was more annoyed and angry with Don after this episode than ever before, including when he blacked out and forgot to pick up his kids. The problem is, I don't know if this is his fault, or the show's. I don't know if I hated it, like Amanda did. I do think it was crazy to dump the firm storyline so completely: I'm happy as anyone to see Peggy triumph, but panty hose ain't going to cut it. Overall, I have this weird trust in the show, that they're fucking with us on purpose, giving a finale that's not really a finale, making us wait to see exactly when Don is going to snap out of it. But why did he fall into it in the first place? Does the guy just go crazy every time he goes to California? (As one of my friends mentioned on Sunday, we never really found out what was going on with those international playboy types he ran away to in season two.) I get that it's kind of a twist from the earlier Don-almost-improves-but-then-runs-away scenarios, running away from a marriage and and running into one are almost the same thing. Exactly how did he get from mourning Anna to this?

But then I think, maybe this is why it's a brilliant show, maybe not everyone would react this way, maybe someone like Megan to take care of him is the best he can do, since he's certainly terrible at being single. And hey, once's he's married he'll have better luck scoring again. (When he's married to a brunette, will he start cheating with blonds?) I mean, I don't really think this, I actually want Faye to blackmail his ass. But I imagine how people might have a very different reaction, and how all throughout the California interlude, you're trying to see what Don is signaling, how deep the self-deception goes, or if an actor thinks of it in terms of self-deception in order to put it forward.

But here's what I'm thinking about the most: Betty and Carla. Peggy and Joan may be able to reach across the divide, but not these two, not in this life. How absolutely infuriating that Carla finally gets some lines but only when she's being dispatched from the Francis household and, presumably, the show? In one of my recent Mad Men dreams (yes, there have been more than one), I was pitching a show to Matthew Weiner, saying that he should do an episode that follows Carla home, and shows her teenage son, recently politicized, taking her on for working for someone like Betty. In a Times interview, Weiner defends the lack of black characters by saying that was the reality of advertising at the time, but I don't buy it: they showed us Peggy's family, which is anything but part of that world, why not Carla's? I find it telling that The Wire was so good at showing us black (male) characters, and Mad Men is so so good with white (female) characters, but never the twain presumably can meet, as if we're all like Peggy and Abe in the bar, arguing about who has it worse, unable to take in more than one injustice or struggle at a time. Then things got really weird: I was looking on IMDB, and Deborah Lacey, the actress who plays Carla, isn't listed on the full cast list. Just not there. And the only photos I can find of her won't upload onto the blog. Is the whole internet trying to play some meta-dark joke commentary? Forget one episode: as a commentator on this great post by Sady about Betty's sad silences puts it, "I want to know about the sadnesses and losses of Carla. That ought to fill up a few seasons. Or a few dozen." .

My other Mad Men dream? Jon Hamm with a Tom Selleck moustache representing himself in court in his divorce from Megan. It's going to be a long wait until the next season.

ETA: Here is a great piece by Salamishah Tillet on the show's "All of the blacks are men, all of the women are white" problem, complete with the photo of Deborah Lacey I can't upload.

ETA: Finding this picture of what Ida Blankenship really looks like almost makes up for everything.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Poetry Corner

The other day I wrote a long, intemperate post on the subject of Jonathan Franzen. (Short version: I think I know why Freedom is not the Great American whatever, which is, as Frank Norris once wrote, not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff, but I don't want to read it just to see if I'm right.) Then I thought better of it and deleted it. Then today, I was reading about how Freedom wasn't nominated for a National Book Award, and I thought, that's why I deleted it: ultimately you can't spend your time with things like that. So I looked instead at what was nominated: how great that Patti Smith's amazing Just Kids is in the mix. And then I noticed that Kathleen Graber was nominated for poetry. I used to teach with Kathleen back at NYU - I didn't know her very well, but she always had a stack of beautiful books that she'd carry around tied together with a sash or a rope, which I got a kick out of because it made me think about that scene in Rope, but it also because it's just a beautiful way to carry books. Once in a while we had readings in the program I taught at, and she'd read something just so breathtaking I can remember exactly the lines and how she read them. Stuff like this. So I looked up her new book of poems, the book that got nominated, and it turns out it was inspired by a Joseph Brodsky essay about Marcus Aurelius and that when she was writing it she would alternate between reading his meditations, writing a poem, and cleaning out her garage, inspired by Aurelius stoic injunctions against attachment. File that one away under the practical uses of poetry and philosophy.

So, in such a spirit of detachment, godspeed, Jonathan Franzen. I meant you no harm. I'm sure you and Freedom and the great American whatever will be fine. In the meantime, I'll be reading The Eternal City.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Last night I ended up seeing Howl after messing up the times for the movie I actually wanted to see. It was one of those great unexpected viewing experiences. I'm sure a lot of people will hate it. There isn't really a script: the whole thing is made up of scenes from Howl's obscenity trial, Franco as Ginsberg talking to an unseen interviewer, and Franco reciting the text over a truly odd set of animations. It doesn't come close to passing the Betchel test, but it's hard to fault it for that when Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassidy and Peter Orlovsky get about three lines between them. There are also lots of great photos of the young Allen & friends, which are gorgeous and heartbreaking the way the photos of young Dylan in the Scorcese documentary were. When the real Ginsberg sings over the closing montage, you kind of start to weep a little. The closest thing to it I can think of was Chicago 8 from a few years ago. It's hard to know what to say about the animations: Moloch is a giant calf like the golden calf you destroy in Sunday School pagents. There are lots of phallic fields and the approaches to animating lines about the cocksman and Adonis of Denver or sweetening the snatches of the sunrise are not metaphoric, to say the least. But the whole thing made me kind of weepy. I mean, first of all, putting basically the entire text in a movie is gutsy. Why not team up with Oprah and have a whole series of movies that are nothing but animated recitations of great books? Maybe that will be Franco's next project, or his Columbia thesis, if he doesn't first get inspired by this role to throw potato salad in the face of professors who lecture on Dadaism.

If there is an idea that comes across here, it seemed to be something about the liberatory, utopic feel of the poem. What feels hard to recapture about 1955 was not why Howl might have been shocking or met an obscenity charge. (The trial part of the film was the least compelling - it's fun to see the expert witnesses make fools of themselves, but it's all too smug.) What you get from Franco's reading is the celebration of these men and their beauty. It's the sex revolution before there was a sexual revolution. In the interview Franco as Ginsberg says that the key thing about the infamous line about saintly motorcyclists is that it ends with joy, which the reader doesn't expect. And as Andrew O'Hehir points out in his review, despite all our progress, we still don't have a lot of unabashedly romantic and erotic celebrations of same-sex love in our culture (or, arguably, of heterosexuality either.)

The movie also made me think more about the idea of self-disclosure, which I contemplated in my last post. Why not just write what happened isn't quite the question for poets, of course. To the extent that the movie has any kind of a 'plot,' it's how Ginsberg comes to write the poem he doesn't want his father to read. The format of the film protects it from the paint-by-numbers Freudian 'find your voice' thing of most Hollywood biographies. But we get close to it when Franco as Ginsberg talks about learning to put the everyday in his poems, about how the best of us comes out when we speak to our friends, but writers hide that to try to sound better than they are. This took Ginsberg to his reinvention of Whitman, making his subtext text. It's a familiar revelation, but somehow Franco makes it work.

But here's what I was really left thinking about, of course: Jon Hamm. He doesn't have a lot to do as Ferlinghetti's lawyer. But when we get to "who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments if fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality" the animation takes us past billboards that look exactly like the opening sequence of Mad Men. There's no way this is a coincidence. Later we see Ginsberg in a San Francisco ad office, moving tag lines around the page, expressing relief that he can survive in a straight job "with several secretaries." All of which leads me to one inescapable conclusion: in the series finale, when Don finally drops acid, he's going to find out that his whole stint in adversing was a peyote trip and he's going to wake up in the apartment of Midge's bohemian friends from Season one. Roger was the ghost of his dead father, Bert Cooper is the shaman, and Ken Cosgrove is the angel-headed hipster." Then he and Sal run away together. (Sal as in Sal Paradise: coincidence? I think not.) Who's with me?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Fragmentary Thoughts about Writing and Roland Barthes' Mother

I remember, once, in college, visiting a friend at another college. Her favorite professor, a poet, was coming over for dinner. We made a three course Indian meal, picked out the best cheap wine we could afford. I remember this poet seemed to me uniquely glamorous, a woman who was not famous and would never be but somehow made her living doing something creative, and was older than us but carried herself in a way that made us think she had a right to write the poems she did, that she could write about passion and not be ridiculous.
Midway through the dinner, the poet talked about her mother. She said that she'd always thought the most terrifying lines of poetry she'd ever heard were these, from Anne Sexton's "Housewife":
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.

A woman is her mother. That's the main thing.

It was the last two she was referring to as terrifying. To be swallowed was one thing, to be was another. We all nodded knowingly at the great wisdom of what the poet was saying.
When I was in graduate school, I was surrounded by something called "theory" and people I thought of as theory heads. A lot was said about what that was, some of it interesting, a lot of it not, and somewhere deep inside me there may be someone who has something to say about that. One thing I remember is conversations among ourselves, and with people we were hiring, where the question was posed, "who is your favorite critic/theorist?" Thankfully in my program this was really a question about who you enjoyed reading, people who were called critics or theorists not because they were 'experts' or had some claims to be systematic, but because they were smart and beautiful writers who wrote something that didn't fit into any one category. And when we asked the question that way, nine times out of ten, the answer was either Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes.

It's probably not a coincidence that both these writers work in the seams of genres, from Benjamin's not-quite-essays and epigraphs to Barthes' mythologies and the pseudo-dictionary of "A Lover's Discourse." I remember one of my favorite grad school teachers saying that if we got nothing out of what we were doing, perhaps we would have a chance to give that book to to the right person.

So, now, this little New Yorker piece. I love things like this, pieces of diaries, pieces of other lives. When I'm on the subway and I see someone writing in a Moleskin, I have to stop myself from looking over their shoulders. In that moment of writing, squeezing in a few lines before school or work, it seems everything they had to say would be of the utmost fascination. When you see something like this, one little fragment for a day of grief, you think of the hours squeezed into that sentence. At one point, he says "I don't want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it- or without being sure of not doing so - although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths."

I think I know what he means. All writing comes from life, and there's something distasteful and ethically suspect about it, and not just when we're betraying confidences. Even after her death, Barthes doesn't want to turn is mother into literature, but he is unable to do otherwise. Sometimes I think the whole trend towards abstraction in criticism - of which New Critics were as guilty or guiltier than theorists - and the whole insistence on the irrelevance of biography, was a way of dealing with this discomfort. We think novels are better or superior to memoir, because we think memoir can't be written, not really, not fully, by anyone with a conscience.

It's odd to hear a man of about sixty speak of his mother the way he does. He mourns ("Don't say mourning. It's too psychoanalytic. I'm not mourning, I'm suffering") her the way we think of mourning a long-time partner, her absence a constant presence. Apparently they lived together for the whole of his life. I don't know anything about the circumstances, but I prefer to think of it as nothing pathological, as simply a case where a bond doesn't break. Should it feel so strange, to hear a man mourn with pure grief, rather than with the guilt and half-regret we expect from today's memoir writers.

Of course, it's even harder for the mothers to tell their stories. Back in A Room of One's Own, Woolf goes through the names and says, the thing these women all have in common is that they are not mothers. More now can find some insufficient solution to the need for time and solitude, but the ethics of saying what they know remain vexed. A friend told me recently of finding the diary of a great-grandmother, who described not only her desperate unhappiness, but contained detailed portraits of her husband and children in meticulous and unflattering detail. I asked her what she did with it and she said, I got rid of it, of course. There is the responsibility, there are feelings, also. But there is also the urge to record, always equal parts hope and despair.

And so the mothers remain everywhere and nowhere, as Barthes once said of men in women's magazines. Others pull together the fragments, as in this chilling piece of a story by Lydia Davis:
Mothers, when they are guests at dinner, eat well, like children, but seem absent. It is often the case that they cannot follow what we are doing or saying. It is often the case, also, that they enter the conversation only when it turns on our youth; or they accommodate where accommodation is not wanted; smile and are misunderstood. And yet mothers are always seen, always talked to, even if only on holidays. They have suffered for our sakes, and most often in a place where we could not see them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Six Thoughts on the final books of Middlemarch

Last weekend I had a lovely dinner with my Middlemarch reading mates. I sped through the final books to be prepared, jotting down notes as I went. At dinner, I launched into an impromptu speech on the comparative trends in the 19th century novel in England, France, and Russia. This isn't really my field (I've never really had a clearly defined one - such is the beauty of the Comp. Lit major), but halfway through I thought, hey! I actually know something about this. This is the other side of the well-commented upon impostor syndrome common among academics: you worry for years that you're a fraud but then, slowly you realize you actually know what you're talking about, at least some of the time, which is an odd feeling.

Anyways. Six thoughts!

1) I loved reading Middlemarch but I can't say the experience was completely immersive - probably I'd need to read in the period a little longer first. Throughout my reading life I've gone through phases where I find it very hard to concentrate on serious reading, and others where I can't get enough of it. This is part of why I'm suspicious of the-internet-is-killing reading thing: in my experience web or channel surfing or what have you comes as a result of distraction, rather than being its cause. 19th century literature certainly does have a different pace - and of course reading it in one go is different than how the original readers would have encountered it in serialized form. But it does seem my reading improved over the course of the novel, as the writing started to feel more 'modern' to me - which is not inherently a good thing, of course, except insofar as it meant the writing was feeling less strange, with meant I was acclimating myself. I wish more writers wrote more honestly about their reading experiences - boredom, frustration and all - not the 'oh I can't concentrate anymore' self-laceration, but the foibles of it.

2) With Austen, especially in Persuasion, Eliot seems to share the fantasy (i.e. wish fulfillment, not necessarily completely unrealizable) that the heroine will win love through the force of her character - in this case, Dorothea's loyalty to Lydgate's innocence and even Rosamond's redemption. If love/marriage is the drama of women's lives, the least an author interested in their inner lives can do is make this a scenario in which she can act and not be acted upon - and winning love through a virtuous action perhaps gives more agency than directly pursuing it, even were that permitted. We see the other side of this in someone like Wharton - in The House of Mirth it is the heroine's character - or at least her unwillingness to completely corrupt herself that leads to her tragedy.

3) What happens in novels? I remember, years ago, watching Dangerous Liaisons with a good college friend and her brother. The brother kept saying "why don't the just drop the bomb!" He knew the characters were supposed to be doing cruel things, but it seemed silly to him that they did this through letters and mind games and not violence. And it's true: if you're used to contemporary movies, it feels weird, a world without violence where conflict must be found elsewhere, where the set pieces are constant: dinners, this or that person coming to call. And if you're used to contemporary fiction, it's the world without sex that strikes you: I mean, you understand about the Victorians at all, but how do you have knowledges about marriage without it?

4) People talk about Balzac as important in writing novels about money in a way that was previously frowned upon. Middlemarch is not really a novel about money but it is a novel about position and profession. Fred and Will need to find a position in order to win Mary and Dorothea and are held back by expectation and the meddling of their elders. Lydgate needs to be more successful to save his marriage. Causaban's scholarly impotence mirrors the failure of his marriage. These men's struggles for position in so many ways mirror the women's struggle for satisfying marriage and each sheds light and sympathy on one another's.

5) While Eliot takes on and in many ways achieves the challenge of giving a comprehensive portrait of her town, the working class characters and the servants are marginal and fall down. This is pretty universal in 19th century lit. of the canonical variety. I've thought a lot about why being an English major so often feels small 'c' conservative, despite the political affiliations of its practitioners. As a wee lit major taking women's studies majors, you're often immersed in something like Eliot or Austen or Wharton while your soc. major friends are reading about nannies. This tension probably led me to a lot of the ruminating on the topic of how gender and social class intersect, like I was trying to do here.

6) Surely when Woolf called this a novel for grownups she meant that we get at least three marriages at the start rather than seeing them at the end - though of course we also get Dorothea's second and Mary/Fred's first at the end. The postscript sums things up in a way that makes it sound like our narrator is talking about real people, whose lives can be summarized as by a biographer. Here we get and interesting caveat to our happy ending, a hint that, pace #2 above, it's not only a contemporary reader who finds marriage as a reward for virtue a less than completely fulfilling end: "Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done - not even Sir James Chettam, who went no further than the negative prescription that she ought not to have married Will Ladislaw." I can't think of another ending that makes this kind of gesture towards its own limitations, in a how many story lines we have way, not some meta-meta hemming.

So, obviously, I didn't read and write about two books every week this summer. But aside from Middlemarch and the three other books I blogged about, I read a great book by Julia Serrano about sexism and transsexuality, one of Anne Lamott's memoirs, and a book about teaching by a certain controversial radical Chicagoan, and I have a post coming up on Jean Baker's great book about the suffragette's. So, if you count Middlemarch as a couple books, it wasn't too too shabby.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is it OK to be foolish?, in which our narrator can't refrain from television references: Middlemarch Chapters 34-42, Book 4, "Three Love Problems"

Poor Mary. When we realize that medicine is not a respected profession in Middlemarch, Eliot's world seems far away. But Mary's predicament, we can all imagine "And you see, I must teach: there is nothing else to be done." She is unhappy because "I am not fond of a school-room: I like the outside world better. It is a very inconvenient fault of mine." But the others ignore this, explaining instead that she must dislike it because she'd be teaching girls, who are of course, completely silly and "can neither throw nor leap."

And Casaubon. Ah, poor Casaubon, Eliot keeps telling us. He's sick and in a painful stalemate with his wife and can taste the young Will circling Dorothea. It’s so easy to mock, the narrator keeps childing us, but we should have some sympathy for the man. It's a an admirable position, even if we sometimes feel like we're been scolded. I'm often not fond of satire: people say it's about our hypocrisy, but we usually mean, 'look at how foolish they are!" Baudelaire said, we laugh to feel superior, and this has always seemed to me a real and intractable problem.

Of course, Causabon’s suspicion of his foolishness is not harmless: he sabotages Will's desire to acquire a respectable position, and we can tell worse is to come. On Sunday night's Mad Men, the Berkeley coed tells Don, "But no one knows what's wrong with themselves and everyone else can see it right away." So often when we have third person narration, we feel that that's what's going on "look at what's wrong with them and they're too foolish to see it!" No wonder the pull of first person to shield these poor characters from such piercing inspections.

But it's just as easy to say that people can imagine all too well what is wrong with them, but must protect themselves or others from that knowledge. Thus "Casaubon had never put any question concerning the nature of his illness to Lydgate, nor had he even to Dorothea betrayed any anxiety as to how far it might be likely to cut short his labours or his life. On this point, as on all others, he shrank from pity; and if the suspicion of being pitied for anything in his lot surmised or known in spite of himself was embittering, the idea of calling forth a show of compassion by frankly admitting an alarm or a sorrow was necessarily intolerable to him." Poor sickly Casaubon (although as always with the 19th century, it's hard to figure out exactly what his symptoms are supposed to be) brings to mind another moment from the golden age of cable: Tony Soprano, in one of his moments of clarity, venting his anger at Christopher, says "I took pity on him. But people shit on your pity."

Our narrator is so very considerate and responsible in helping us to empathize with her characters and their foibles. But we still wouldn't want to be the Casaubon of this story any more than if Eliot took a more satiric approach. We want to be the center of the story, whose flaws are inevitably noble rather than foolish. Eliot is trying to paint a portrait of a whole community (and how much it takes, by her method, just to get one small provincial town - making you question those whole claim to capture nations), but she's no naturalist. This isn't Zola or the wire, where environment is all. Eliot believes, fiercely, in something called character. (Mad Men believes in it too, even though it's always telling us that it's an invention). And as long as we're in the world of character, we find ourselves jockeying for position in the narrator's favor. I'm not like that, not at all.

Of course, then there's Mr. Brooke, who really just is foolish, for whom the narrator makes no special pleas, and who is of course absolutely nothing like us or anyone we know.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"For My Part I am Very Sorry for Him": Special Pleading (Chapters 22-33)

(To the left: Victorian novel on the mantle of my bedroom in a Victorian mansion in S.F.).

My fellow reader has noted that he sometimes finds the narrator of Middlemarch invasive: he described her as another character. It's certainly the part that feels the most antiquated to the contemporary reader. The philosophic commentating of the Russians is more understandable to us than the character and situational commentary we get here. And yet. Most of the lines I find myself underlining in this section fall into this category. Witness chapter 29, which my correspondent also pointed to as a favorite. Dorothea is barely back from her honeymoon but already miserable enough t0 identify with the suffering evident in the photograph of an old aunt who had mad a bad marriage. There are multiple story threads in the book, of course, but Dorothea is a if not the central figure, certainly the closest thing to an Eliot stand-in. But the narrator positions herself in this chapter as the one who keeps us honest, who doesn't want us just to sympathize with the young Dorothea but with her not young and in many ways unappealing husband: "I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect." She wants us to understand his predicament, how he will give in to convention by marrying Dorothea but has no idea what to do with her, no idea that there is something to do. This is a result of convention, of course, but her judgments are also those of character: "His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity."

Elsewhere the narrator says: "People were so ridiculous with their illusions, carrying their own lies unique while everybody else's were transparent." In every other interview you read with a contemporary author or filmmaker, they talk about how they don't want to judge their characters, just to understand them. Now, if by this one means that you don't want to see them as simply bad and there fundamental different from the rest of us, or give your reader a quick dose of moral superiority, this makes sense. But in practice what it means is that the author will not trust herself with the non-moralizing kind of judgment, that is, discerning observation that looks at the character from the outside. Without this it's hard to have something like Austen's piercing but compassionate satire. (And of course, certain kinds of description, interior monologue and characterization invite the reader to far harsher and less compassionate judgement than what Eliot leads us to, but with less honesty about what they're doing.)

A lot of other stuff happens in this section, of course: its title, "Waiting for Death" refers to the machinations as the family waits for old Mr. Featherstone to pass. But more on all these threads later. In the meantime, to underline this point, a couple gems of narrative intervention:

- "The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots."
- "For the old man's dislike of his own family seemed to get stronger as hot less able to amuse himself by saying bitter things to them. Too languid to sting, he had more venom refluent in his blood."
- And one she gives to a character, just for balance: "Oh my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn't have the end without them." George Eliot pre-channels Oscar Wilde!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Lydia Davis, "Varieties of Disturbance: Stories"

The first time I came across Lydia Davis' work was in the Nerve "Naughty Bits" collection. It was a piece called "This Condition," and it's just about the sexiest thing you'll ever read, though my tastes on the matter have been known to be atypical. Since then I read her collections Almost No Memory and Break it Down and now this most recent collection.

Davis is typical and atypical of certain things about contemporary fiction, at least the kinds I'm most fond of. Some of the pieces are one line long, some are typical flash fiction length. She starts with situation, mood, tone. Many aspire to the condition of poetry. They're often hysterical. All the blurbs say there's no plot, but I don't think that's right. Take a piece like "Enlightened." It starts "I don't know if I can remains friends with her." The narrator talks about why: "I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it's not very enlightened to say that." I guess there isn't a plot because we don't know the events or conversations that have led to this revelation, but really, does it matter? You could say there isn't plot in the typical epiphanic sense, or you could say there's an epiphany every other line. They're lived in rather than unfolding across time - what it feels like inside a mind.

While I was in Seattle, my friend who is a fan of popular fiction was saying that she likes the commercial because the strengths are in character, plotting. Her husband likes short stories, she said, but she finds them frustrating because you don't get enough time with the characters. She's frustrated, wants more. Her husband and I said that's exactly what we want: to want more. I like to feel like I'm dipping into another world; I don't want or can't buy into that I actually live there. I think about that O'Hara line about not enjoying a blade of grass unless it's near a record store or another sign that people do not regret life - I can't enjoy an event or description unless a mind or some other sign of where this life comes from is near. Otherwise the world is more interesting.

Besides, you can't tell me a piece like "Head, Heart" lacks for one single thing:

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again.
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dispatches from the Provinces: Middlemarch Chapters 11-21

I am currently sitting in the Isadora Duncan suite of a lovely B&B near the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco. So, reading the Victorians in a Victorian! Quite lovely. Up until this morning, however, I was at my parent's suburban home, where I read this second set of chapters where you start to pull back from Dorothea's story and get a sense of the social landscape of Middlemarch. Now, being from the suburbs of a Midwestern city may not be the perfect socio-cultural analogy to the Midlands, but it got me thinking about the Provinces, following from Eliot's subtitle "A Study of Provincial Life." Of course the hero's move from the Provinces to the city is an ur-subject of the bildungsroman and the 19th century novel - here we have characters with those ambitions who don't move or who move and come back: Lygate had love in Paris but will have marriage perhaps in Middlemarch, Causaubon looks foolish to the younger would-be intellectual because he lacks German, and Dorothea honeymoon in Rome.

I love the description of Lygate and how he comes to his profession: until he discovers medicine everything comes easy and knowledge is something you just display. Medicine isn't about position for him but his position in Middlemarch cannot help but be part of the issue: hence his plan "to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world." And his admirer Rosamond - of course her provincial ambition is filtered through him. I love the description of her infatuation: "a stranger was absolutely necessary to Rosamond's social romance," which had always turned on a lover and bridegroom who was not a Middlemarcher." For young people, so often the idea of romance is that idea of being someone else, of being someplace else. But the unevenness between the girl who pours all of that into the young doctor, and the doctor who finds her fetching but is more taken with his book on Fever, leaves us with our narrator pitying them both.

And Dorothea! You start off wondering how she will slowly become disenchanted with her marriage, and instead we have her breaking down into sobs on her honeymoon- the realization comes all at once, as the husband sucks the life out of Rome. Every provincial has that moment of realizing that, if you're looking through the wrong eyes, all the art and culture that was supposed to take you somewhere else can't take you anywhere, but it's robbed you of the fantasy of escape.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Her ideal nature demanded an epic life": 8 thoughts on the first ten chapters of Middlemarch

1) Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I had a certain teacher. In graduate school, the program I taught in had these peer mentoring groups, and the leader asked us to think about who our mentors were. I mentioned this certain teacher and there was an awkward moment: you weren't supposed to mention a high school teacher as a mentor. But she was. In any case, the year I graduated, she bought a book for each person in our class that, she said, thought of in some way as a match for us. She got me Middlemarch, which was her favorite novel. I remember her saying something about plowing through it when she was pregnant and housebound, and maybe that was the way you needed to appreciate it. Now, I've gotten through quite a few Big Books in my day, but for whatever reason this one has been on the shelf - has moved many shelves - until now. When I took it down, I was shocked to find that my copy (now broken at the spine) has an inscription from her that mentions my reading it "when the spirit moves me," so I hope she'll understand.

2) The prelude with Saint Theresa as setting the scene for Dorothea: "Her passionate ideal nature demanded an epic life . . . Her flame quickly burned up that light light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-depair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order." The idea of religion as an outlet for the otherwise unrecognized needs of girls and women is especially fascinating for me. In Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother, she talks about her mother's passionate relationship with various priests. In those days, she says, priests were the only ones who took a women's inner life seriously. Rationalists types (including myself) who don't like the hard line atheist line often talk about religion as a source of community, which is absolutely true, but sometimes we forget how much it's a source of/outlet for emotion. If you're young and passionate, God, good, evil, and all that feels the way life feels, that things matter, that everything is at stake.

3) "You have your own opinion about everything, Miss Brooke, and it is always a good opinion." Having opinions about things as a way of trying to exist in the world, a way to be known, understood . . .

4) Dorothea's desire to be taken seriously: so much of 19th century literature that takes on The Woman Question fights on this terrain: the question is women's mental acuity, moral nature. It's a question of fitness, about claiming a place in people's estimation, not in the world per say. I'm thinking of Margaret Fuller's extensive focus on what a woman properly educated would be capable of - that translating German is at the top of the list isn't just about class, it's about symbols of recognition. Or of the end of Persuasion: the heroine is rewarded in love because she speaks and proves women's greater capacity for love. It's odd to read this stuff in an era where defenders of sexism so often are the ones to tout women's alleged moral superiority.

5) Mr. Brooke: mansplainer?

6) Of course, 19th century novels with heroines most often end with marriage (comedy) or death (tragedy). That we start Middlemarch with Dororthea's engagement to Casaubon announces a different kind of story. I also love how chapter 10 ends with this understated account of the marriage: "Miss Brooke, however, was not again seen by either these gentlemen under her maiden name. Not long after the diner-party she had become Mrs. Casaubon, and was on her way to Rome." Maybe that's why my copy has a quote from Virginia Woolf calling it "one of the few English novels written for grown up people."

7) Dorothea's attraction to Casaubon and the question of perspective. If writers, filmmakers bothered more to look at relationships between older men and younger women though the eyes of the younger woman, we might often see what we see here: the longing to be taken seriously, for knowledge, and for some kind of place in the world, even though Casaubon is no world-breaker. But it seems that just as we get a taste of this, the perspective starts moving around. Even as our gentle narrator says, judge not harshly the middle-aged man's spinely legs, we see in their descriptions - his blood runs semicolons, something of truth. Not to mention: his big project is The Key to all Mythologies. He's perhaps a higher quality mansplainer, like Mr. Ramsey in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, who will get to R when everyone else is stuck on Q.

8) On Casaubon leaving middle-aged bachelorhood, and a representative passage of what's gotten me hooked: "Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment, and that large drafts on his affection would not fail to be honoured, for we all of us, grave our light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them. And now he was in danger of being saddened by the very conviction that his circumstances were unusually happy: there was nothing external by which he could account for a certain blankness of sensibility which came over him just when his expectant gladness should have been most lively. . . "

Monday, July 5, 2010

"As Seen by Toads": Week 2, #1: The New Yorker, 20 under 40 issue

So, apparently, according to a recent article in The Nation, Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary gave this definition of realism: "The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads." Now, as it so happens, when I started playing around with fiction a few years back, it seemed to me that what I was interested in trying to do was, for a lack of a better term, psychological realism. I went to workshops where some people wrote about wise talking flounders (they were usually the guys) and the others (me and usually many of the women) wrote about a variety of topics that were nonetheless about homo sapiens in a world basically resembling ours, interacting with each other in ways that recall the way non-fictional people sometime interact with one another. Seeing as how the talking flounder camp liked to see themselves as heirs to every modernist, postmodernist, and magical realist they could name (and boy could they name them!) and tended to look at the actual world folks as backwards: too nineteenth century, too domestic, too female. Perhaps I was being sensitive. I developed this little rap about the 30s and realists being the real radicals and all that.

After playing with writing for a while, though, and reading fiction through that experience, I started to look at it differently. I started to think that there's no such thing as realism. A great teacher told me what I was trying to do was "describe how the happening happens," which might be another way of saying psychological realism, but it doesn't feel like realism when you try to do it. I don't mean that in that "artistic creativity doesn't fit those tiny critical boxes" kind of way. I just mean that I've started to think about the way all good fiction heightens, punches up, alters things. Contemporary fiction we often think of as realist often does this by condensing and distilling time, scene, character: hence the iconic role of extra spaces between paragraphs. Of course, you learn in school that modernism was where you get authors playing with time, like the great "Time Passes" from To The Lighthouse. But every work of fiction deals with the central question: how to tell a story that may take place over five years in ten pages, or ten minutes in 30 pages. The backwards time structure of Underworld didn't do that much for me, but I chocked up when a character's old age is described with something like 'time had passed quickly, like the time in a novel.' The great realist writers always have those moments where you feel the strangeness of experience recalled and condensed, the strangeness of life.

So. My favorite story in the "20 under 40" issue (which had 8 of the 20) was the most 'experimental' or whatever, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here We Aren't So Quickly" It describes a lifelong relationship and marriage through a series of selected details. It's not told from the point of view of old age recalling youth; instead it's a voice removed from the whole of life, looking down at the string and trying to figure out why one point should mean more than another:
And here we aren't, so quickly: I'm not twenty-six and you're not sixty. I'm not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into any sea. . . Everything else happened - why not the things that could have?
Two of the stories, by Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart, try to take their punch up from reality through humor and satire, and really really didn't work for me. Basically, their satire revolved around the fact that some people in Hollywood are assholes, except aspiring screenwriters who are nice but a little lazy (Ferris) and that the future will be bleak because no one will read books or really try to communicate except our nebbishy hero. Then there were the stories by Philipp Meyer and Rivka Galchen, which really didn't seem to have any punch up at all: that is, they described things that happened to people. And as far as I could tell that was all they did, and it wasn't enough, though of course I could be missing something. I feel this a lot with memoirs: it's not that writing about yourself is self-induglent, just that when self-indulgent people do write about themselves they think what happened is interesting enough.

"Why not just say what happened?" Joan Didion asks in "On Keeping a Notebook." She's restless with herself, mistrusts her accounts of things, she bears down and squeezes the rock.
ETA: Hmm, the June 28th story is really good too: a writer uses a terrifying story she hears at a dinner party in her book and dreads running into the person who told it to her. That's about it, but she gets at the strangeness of it, and by coming at it by this angle, with this remove, the original terrifying story holds us in a way it can't when, as in the Meyer story, it's just something that happens. The story is by Nicole Krauss. So, advantage Park Slope power couple.

By the way, in the same issue, the consistently wonderful Ariel Levy gives "kinder face of the right" Mike Huckabee just enough rope to hang himself. His big draw seems to be that no one could picture him in a sex scandal. Because folkies ex-ministers never have them! The secret of his marital success: "I think we both went into it understanding it was for life. . . I've always said, 'If you believe divorce is an option, you'll take it." In the next paragraph, the happy couple goes to a Pat Boone concert where one of the songs contained this similarly moving homage to the sacred marital bond: "What is a wife?. . . A patient soul that picks up my dirty socks and underwear and handkerchiefs and washes them and puts them back in the drawer so she can do the whole thing again, next week"

Earlier, Levy challenges him to make an argument against gay marriage that isn't based on religion or his personal sense of 'ickiness.' He flounders, but he should have just asked Boone. If men marry men, or women women, how do you know who's supposed to wash the underwear?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Week 1, #2: "I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.": Patti Smith, "Just Kids"

I was outside Greenlight Bookstore in Ft. Greene the other night and noticed a book that had collected the stories of prominent New Yorkers talking about the moment they first arrived in New York. Now, there's at least one obvious problem with this, excluding, as so many stories about the city do, the people who grow up here. There's also the whole lost golden era thing. Ah yes, we think, back then people could come with no money, find a cheap place, work at a bookstore. . . and that kind of nostalgia for what you never lived through (the only kind of nostalgia I'm ever vulnerable to) is kind of boring, and probably wrong in a whole bunch of ways.

But then you read Patti Smith's memoir, and she comes to New York after working in a factory in Jersey and giving up a baby for adoption at twenty and right away by coincidence she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, then he comes into the, yes, bookstore, where she's working and buys her favorite necklace, then she runs into him in the park when she needs to get away from a creepy writer she went out with because she was hungry, and they fall in love, and they're still artistic soulmates after he discovers he's gay, and she makes extra money buying up first editions and reselling them, and they actually live at the Chelsea Hotel, where Janis Joplin hangs around without an entourage or anyone bothering her, and eventually she meets Janis Joplin and writes a song for her, and she writes poetry, and when she starts reciting poetry it's at St. Marks, and when she decides to start writing songs and then performing them it's at CBGBs, and she's about the only person on earth who can compare herself to Baudelaire and Rimbaud and get away with it. And did you know she tried to track down Rimbaud's lost writings, went to his hotel? She's just that kind of person, the person that these things happen to, and so yeah, it's a romantic and nostalgic book. What of it?

Of course, nostalgia is always about loss too, and along with Patti and Robert creating and meeting all the right people, the other thing that happens in Just Kids is that people die. Jim Morrison dies and Patti writes "Break it Up" about him Jimi Hendrix dies and she writes "Land" about him and Janis Joplin dies and never gets to sing the song Patti wrote for her. Years later, after Patti has moved to Detroit with Fred Sonic Smith, Robert calls Patti distraught that Andy Warhol has died, and then Robert's partner Sam dies and then Robert dies, and Patti writes "Paths that Cross."

The nostalgia and the elegy and the romanticism all work so well in part because this is such a fundamentally sweet book. The portrait of Mapplethorpe as a young vulnerable and protective artist finding his way is especially moving if you think about the way he became the anti-NEA poster boy in the eighties. His photographs, which you get a taste of throughout the book through reproductions that follow the story, are breathtakingly beautiful. He saw his S&M stuff as something he had access to and therefore a duty to record. His image as someone looking to shock makes all the more heartbreaking his and poignant his reaction when Patti tells him she's leaving New York: "My mother still thinks we're married." Sady Doyle has a typically awesome piece that notes how much she defends his work, and how reticent she is in describing her own artistic and sexual daring. She's right, and her observations about how women who write without that reticence get slammed are of course spot on. I don't know if Smith is holding back, so much, as telling a different kind of story than the one her music tells. I remember reading a profile of Almadovar where someone expressed surprise that he was being very critical of a colleague who had an affair. "Your characters are so sexually out there!" someone said, and he said "That's art. This is real life." So many people are moralizing in their work or public presentation and then "fail to live up to it," if they're even trying. Patti and Robert pour their wildness into their work, and with each other they were tender and protective and kept their vow to take care of one another. It's hard to know what counts as bohemian, or countercultural, but this combination is certainly something we could use more of.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Week 1, #1: Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America

Back Story: This week I was on campus, and I found Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book in my mailbox. I had no idea why it was there. Now, were I the Secret type that Ehrenreich goes after in this book, I might be tempted to think "free book! Gift from the universe that wills good things to those who wish for them!" Sadly, on the way home I remembered that I'd filled out a survey for a publisher and selected this as my free book thank you about six months ago. Well, sometimes the universe takes its time. Or, as the homicidal nun in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You puts it, God always answers our prayers, it's just that sometimes the answer is no. In any case, I like Ehrenreich's stuff and have used some of it my classes, but the best thing I've read of hers is the essay "Welcome to Cancerland" about how her experience with breast cancer led to "A Cult of Pink Kitsch," the essay that was the origin of this book, so I was excited to take a look.

The Read: Like all of Ehrenreich's work, this is, if I may allow myself to use the bland language of the positive, "a good read." The someone hyperbolic subtitle is about the only wrong note in the whole thing. From her experiences with being told to think of cancer as "a gift" to motivational corporate speakers who show up just before everyone's about to get axed, from the prosperity gospel to the "positive psychology"'s grab for academic respectability, she weaves together stories of a relentless insistence on positivity which is, naturally enough, most often directed to those with the least money and status. My personal un-favorite: a California home security system company whose 'motivational' tactics included breaking eggs on the heads of under-performing salespeople and making them wear diapers. (The punch line: it's not harassment because they did it to men and women!) My reaction to a lot of the book was like what Ann Patchett describes after seeing "Glengary Glenn Ross": it was like a horror movie of what your life would be like if the whole writing/teaching thing didn't work out. People work in offices like this! Every! Day! The last time I temped was over ten years ago and I still have those nightmares. (And I remember that last job too, at some fancy fashion place in the far West Village.) Someone in a class I'd just T.A.'ed for walked in and shot me a look I'll never forget. Actually, I'm sure she was perfectly lovely and I just remember it that way.

To me, though, the most interesting part of the book was her chapters on the origins of positive thinking, in the "New Thought" of the nineteenth century which arose as a response to Calvinism and its many ills. One of the most interesting figures in this story is Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. I remember reading her biography in a book of short bios of exceptional women when I was about nine and how she healed herself and how there was this slip of paper on her bed when she died that said "God is my life." It was a chilling but moving story, then as now: then as now, of course, positive thinking is a way for people to claim power when the world has given them little of it, and it was an attractive option for all those nineteenth century sufferers of mysterious ailments, which included, I learned from this book, not only middle class women but clergymen, who didn't yet have direct marketing empires to conquer. I guess it makes sense when you think about preachers in 19th century literature, like poor old Hooper behind his veil.

The temptation, of course, is react to the emptiness of things like the Secret and the prosperity gospel by seeing the old model of neverending sinfulness as attractive - or at least as admirably rigorous in light of what's replaced it. The book never does this, but it did leave me wondering at times - the mega-churches, for example - so they're light on theology and heavy on guitars and support groups - is this a problem? Of course the calculated optimism the guy who writes Dow 36,000 is dangerous, but what about the ordinary person? Enforce cheerfulness is terrible, sure, but the actual experience of people drawn to these things - it's easy and probably mostly correct to think of it as quiet desperation, but the whirlwind tour Ehrenreich gives us doesn't leave a lot of room for their voices.

Coming Up Next: Fiction. For Real this time, including perhaps, the notorious 20 under 40.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why The Golden Notebooks?

So, after another semester of carrying around the same book for months, it's the summer, and I'm feeling ambitious, like the kid who wants to win the library summer reading prize kind of ambitious. So, my plan is to read 2-3 books a week, and write about them here. Now, every good blog needs rules so: Rules!

1) Lots of fiction, maybe some poetry. This year I had that "I assign so much non-fiction, I'm a second rate sociology/history teacher instead of an English teacher! Harold Bloom was right!" moment that happens to the best of us. Then I awoke from this nightmare and realized that Harold Bloom was still wrong and I was just hankering to read some more fiction.

2) Lots of stuff I already have on my shelves but haven't read, especially that friends have given me and cause me endless guilt every time I stare at my floor to ceiling shelves. (Seriously, those there are my shelves! Pretty cool, no? And they've filled up since then! I still need the leather chair and the sliding ladder, though.) And lots of stuff that will require much much shame of the you've never read what variety, like that game in that David Lodge novel (which, no, I haven't read).

3) Book Club! My friends at Open Letters Monthly are making The Tale of Genji this summer's Infinite Jest. A worthy choice, but for me it will be the summer of George Eliot. A few friends will be tackling Middlemarch this summer, so I'll post on this one throughout. Which has been sitting on my various shelves since it was given to me by my high school mentor, which makes it the queen of the guilt for not having read club.

4) I might post about non-books, but will try to keep the someone is being wrong on the internet stuff to a minimum, for obvious reasons about the shortness of life.

So, why the Golden Notebooks? Well, of course, because. I first read Lessing's masterpiece in a Modern English Literature class back in my undergrad days. The prof. was a little self-conscious, as male profs. are somewhat want to be, about teaching this feminist classic to a bunch of young feminists at a woman's college, so he asked if any of us wanted to teach it. Being the not-yet-recovering terminally "Good Student" I was at the time, I volunteered. I don't remember a lot about what we did when we taught it, but I remember defending it from some complaint or another. Something must have stuck because some six years later I taught in this seminar. Now assigning all of a 635 page novel (in a course where we were reading about five other novels) was probably one of the more naive things I did back when I was a naive young graduate student (ah, the early aughts . . ) I prepared this whole lesson on British politics of the period because I was afraid they'd be vexed that these middle class women were canvassing for Communists. Instead the students were upset that they slept with married men. Go figure. But, seriously, how can you not love a 635 page novel whose summar is best described by its character: "Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Capitalism. Socialism. Sex. Love. . ." I'll spare you going on and on about the brilliance of the four notebooks that capture different parts of a life - the political and the artistic, the personal and the public, memory and the present - and how this is the best treatment I know of some thing I think about a lot - the struggle to live an integrated life. I'll especially spare you any thoughts on the way too obvious observations one could make about how blogging might be transforming the long proud tradition of 'notebooks' as important women's writing - whether actual diaries or fictional ones like the ones in Lessing's novel. Lessing is a bit grumpy about The Kids, and she'd probably hate that. But, Sei Shonagon is dead, so she can't complain, and my new girlfriend Sady says it best.