Tag Archives: writing

reading history: censorship lessons

This is a true story:

In my youth I didn’t “get” cubism. It was fine and all, not my favorite because the abstraction often left me feeling a little overwhelmed in a way that was boring (as opposed to the sensory overload of something more post modern where the cacophony of colors and textures starts to feel like it’s moving at the speed of my own millennial anxiety). Picasso felt like a “great man” myth; a justification for some shift in european ideals, a way to insure and assure the tastes and investments of the elite.

But I wanted to get it. My best friend was really into Hemingway at the time, and we would spend afternoons out on the water with him explaining to me what Tortilla Flats (the name of a local restaurant) was about. I wasn’t going to read Hemingway, it felt too macho and too punishing.

“Midnight in Paris” came out around this time (the last Woody Allen movie I would ever watch), as well. I was very impressed by the pitch perfect inclusion of Owen Wilson in that film as the most irritating white guy. I particularly enjoyed Adrian Brody’s Dalí, and Corey Stoll’s Hemingway (“Have you ever wrestled a tiger???”). Most importantly it really introduced me to the figure of Gertrude Stein. I had heard her name and sort of-kind of knew a bit about her, but I was deeply and intensely interested in this titanic dyke of modernism. The woman that Picasso and Hemingway sought to impress, who held the moment and the movement in her salons and her hands and her words.

Vintage’s “The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein”

I bought a copy of Vintage’s “Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein” from Symposium Books, back when they still had a storefront on Thayer Street in Providence. (At the same time I added Anaïs Nin to my “to read” list, and began my shallow but impassioned affair with James Joyce.)

Now, I didn’t really enjoy the writing of Gertrude Stein. I didn’t “get” it either, but she, at least, was using a medium which I had an easier time parsing than that of the painters. Her sentences were long, convoluted, often purposefully devoid of proper signifiers and disconnected from traditional structures of meaning.

I spent a lot of time just reading one word after another and hoping that I would make sense at some point. (It didn’t, entirely, but…)

Then I said to myself this time it will be different and I began. I did not begin again I just began. […] Naturally I would begin again. I would begin again I would naturally begin. I did naturally begin. This brings me to a great deal that has been begun.”

—Gertrude Stein. p. 518-9.

It was while reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that i realized two incredibly important things.

First, through Stein’s descriptions of the unease people felt looking at the works of Picasso and Matisse, the abrupt confrontation with a painting that demanded something from them, I had managed to really feel and understand, for the first time, why Picasso’s paintings were so important and significant in the evolution of art into the modern period.

Second, Gertrude Stein was a horrific chauvinist, exactly as inclined to dismiss the woman who shared her life in the same manner that the men around her dismissed their own female companions, lovers, and muses.

Indeed, the very title of Stein’s “autobiography” is redolent with this particular form of femme focused misogyny. After all, why should Gertrude retain the right to speak for Alice in such a manner when she could just as easily and just as well tell the story through her own person and presence which already figures (and presumably informs) the narrative? I made it about half-way through what was included of the novel in my volume of Stein’s works and then decided I’d had enough of the impenetrability, the disregard for female and feminine agency (Gertrude having aligned herself firmly with the masculine/male energy and expression of her male contemporaries), and historical time period which I found curious at best and sort of irritatingly self-involved at worst.

Stein herself was a disappointment, and largely confirmed my distaste for the masculinist and chauvinist writing of the time period (I still look with grave suspicion and distaste on anyone who eagerly explains to me how Hemingway has informed their writing practice), and—with the exception of a persistent interest in “The Rhinoceros” and the Modernist application of “plasticity” to literary material—I moved on to the somehow less galling, if no less obnoxious, male chauvinism of the Beat poets.

Why am I telling you this story? Why does it matter that at 15 or 16 I read some literary fiction didn’t like it very much? In a sense, it doesn’t. The process of my personal intellectual development and edification, auto-didactic as it has been in many ways, isn’t of exceptional interest to you, who may not know me. It probably isn’t of great interest to a number of people who do know me, either. But we find ourselves in the strange moment where it seems that the impressive oversight in the American, or perhaps even English-speaking, educational realm has come to a head (one hydra head of many, ever ready to split again into new horrific fractions upon its emancipation from the body of our cultural nightmare) in the form of fantastic re-imaginings of the intention, impact, and reception of—in particular, abstract—art during the interwar period.

I offer this brief excursion into my own past to try and get to a greater point about how we come to understand history and culture and literature and art as a cumulative and interconnected process. I was willing to believe those people who told me that Picasso’s artwork was “revolutionary” in some capacity, a break with the previous sensibilities of aesthetic value, but that much was obvious by comparing Cubism to its representational forebears and contemporaries. What I wasn’t able to grasp without help, was the emotional and affective aspect of that rupture with tradition. It was not possible to access that information via a history of Picasso’s work, or an analysis of the impact of Cubism, not at the start. Anything written after Picasso’s inclusion in the Western canon was established serves merely as justification, post facto, of that inclusion.

Stein gave me something else: she gave me the immediacy of a semi-synchronous description of Picasso’s artwork, the process he underwent in bringing his vision to life, the socio-cultural factors he and the other modernist painters were responding to, the uncertainty of the times everyone was living in. And, perhaps most importantly, a look directly into the face of the conservative reaction and rejection of something new, something they felt was out of place, out of line, out of joint, their desire to shuffle it out of sight and return to the placidity of the values with which they were most familiar and most comfortable.

Some combination of my accidental concentration on the global history of genocide and systematized political mass violence (which always starts with censorship and (violent) exclusion of “undesirables”), and the love I carry for the outré, the perverse, everything pulpy and defiant of tradition, has meant that from the response to Picasso to the banning of Ulysses to the court case around Ginsberg’s Howl to the repeated attempts to shut down and limit access to queer art and literature online in the 90s, the 00s, the 10s, I return again and again to the question, not so much of what is “allowable” or “permissible” or “acceptable” in art and aesthetics, but why it is that every generation thinks that they are the ones who have discovered the “true” rules of Good Art?

In this case, history teaches us not so much where previous censorship fell short or failed to achieve some new horizon of enlightenment, but that every censorial iteration has been forced to admit defeat and then been castigated as—at best—foolish, or—with much greater frequency—as actively immoral, harmful, and destructive.

Time and again, those who emerge from history wreathed in the ever-fading light of timeless moral rectitude are not those who call for the abolition of this or that artistic or aesthetic mode, but those who speak, write, and interrogate that which they find morally, aesthetically, or intellectually impoverished, and who speak with clarity, passion, and fearlessness in favor of that which they believe to inspire to new heights and new horizons the breadth and wealth of the human spirit.

Week in Review 2019: 003

Read:

Books:

  • When I Grow up I want to be a Futurist. Badminton, N.
  • The Only Harmless Great Thing. Bolano, B.
  • “Prodigy of Dreams,” “Ms. Rinaldi’s Angel,” “The Tsalal,” and “Mad Night of Atonement” in The Nightmare Factory. Ligotti, T.
  • “Protestant and Catholics.” HPL to Frank Belknap Long, collected in Against Religion: the atheist writings of H. P. Lovecraft. 2010.

Articles:

  • “Lovecraft, Witch Cults, and Philosophers.” W. Scott Poole in The Age of Lovecraft. 2016.
  • “Weird Investigations and Nativist Semiotics in H.P. Lovecraft and Dashiell Hammett.” Brooks. E. Hefner in MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 60, Number 4. 2014.
  • Jason Colavito’s blog.

This week has been a little scattered. Whatever terrible thing I did to my wrist some time before Christmas continues apace and has vastly limited my manual dexterity and completely undermined my comfort. At least it has had the good grace to put my non-dominant hand out of commission so that I can continue to scribble. (Should I be typing? Probably not.)


Hefner’s article about Hammett and Lovecraft is really quite remarkable. It examines how Hammett’s novel, The Dain Curse, dismantles the racist ideological underpinnings of the classic ’20s detective story and/or Weird fiction tale, and how those ideas are metamorphosed into the narrative mechanics of nativist fiction.

He sees Hammett’s novel as “a broader critique of a cultural phenomenon in which bodies are seen as legible text where corporeal difference and criminal degeneracy go hand in hand.” (654)

Somewhat predictably, Hefner focuses on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hood” and “The Call of Cthulhu”.

His analysis of “Call” and Arthur Machen’s influence on Lovecraft’s views on cultural and racial “evolution” in Europe would have benefited from a greater familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence around Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. Hefner mistakenly credits Lovecraft with developing Machen’s theories of a degenerate pre-Aryan European race into the atavistic cult in “Call”. W. Scott Poole’s article in The Age of Lovecraft clearly shows the link between Murray’s description of the persistent prehistoric witch-cult and Lovecraft’s “global atavistic conspiracy” (Poole, xx). I mentioned Bobby Derie’s article Conan and the Little People last week, which provides a detailed primary source examination of Murray’s influence on Lovecraft.

(Aaand I just realized last week’s link to Derie’s article was busted… It should all be fixed now.)

Personally, I am interested in how Lovecraft’s knowledge and study of history impacted his racial views. Without contesting the assertion that his views were aggressively racist and that they profoundly shaped his literary output, I nonetheless contend that he displays a nuanced (and at times inherently contradictory) view of the different “races.”

Moreover, his eugenic epistemology (to borrow Hefner’s term) engages a racist semiotics which goes beyond the simplistic “Brown people are scary” logic which is often used as a short-hand for his views on the Other. In stories such as “The Lurking Fear” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” he uses a genetic determinist framework to define a degenerate or inferior class of people who, in contemporary terms, would be considered “white.” This classist dimension to his racism is particularly important, in a large part, because it continues to persist in contemporary fiction and ideology.

More on this to folllow…


Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (CATHR) continues to trouble me. Bridging the gap between my instinctive and wholehearted agreement with his fundamental premises (the universe is meaningless, the self is a construct of consciousness, we turn away from this fundamental truth, clinical depression provides a clear view of this inherent meaninglessness, etc) with my equally strong reaction to the tone of his argument.

I’ve described it variably as: “Yeah, the universe is meaningless. It’s not about you, so why are you taking it personally?”; “No shit.”; and, “Judith Butler says, ‘Everything you believe to be true is an imaginary construct, including the notion that you have an essential internal identity which can be expressed in such a way that it will be seen and recognized by others.’ Ligotti says, ‘EVerYthINg yOu tHoUGHt WAs tRUe is A cONstRUcT, IncLUDiNg YouR PerCEPtIoN Of A FUndAMEntAl sELf!!!'”

This has lead me to consider CATHR through feminist and post-colonial critical lenses – drawing on Butler and W.E.B. DuBois, primarily – particularly around the question of identity and the “Self.”

This week I took an unfortunate detour when I Googled “female pessimists,” and had the priviledge(?) to encounter a thread on the official Ligotti forum. It posited a number of reasons why women might be ill-suited to True Philosophical Pessimism. A few voices defended the possibility of feminine pessimism, but overall there was a marked failure to consider the female experience as one wherein even a purported Human subjectivity plays any role.

I hope to be able to contribute something organized and coherent on this subject in the future. For the moment, I offer instead this quote from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

(52) Harcourt Paperback.

Very important advice:

“…thinking about writing and getting excited about the wonderful writing that you are going to do is the most dangerous occupational vice of a writer. The thing to do is to get something down on the paper, and then you have something to work on.”

Isherwood on Writing. p. 135

“On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged. He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good. … He has to have a moral code. Every writer who really has any kind of vitality has some sort of moral code. … What matters is the intensity with which this struggle on the human level is realized. […]

“He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything and enjoys it. Because, of course, in the world of art if something is well done it is enjoyable. One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children. … This sense of joy, of contact with life, of the vitality of life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name. […]

“He has to have, I suppose one can say, compassion. He has to see the just and the unjust as being all his children.

What is the nerve of interest in the novel?, 66.

If the writer has managed to meld human passion and divine compassion, the result is, as he said of Hemingway’s “The Capital of the World”:

… not in the least depressing. It is in fact full of this strange joy in the experience of all these people. (79)


The theater is a box, a place of imprisonment in which the audience is shut up with the actors. The effects are created by means of claustrophobia: you can’t get out. […]

Remembering that the whole point of the play is that the people are in the theater and cannot leave until they have been dismissed by the working out of the play itself, remembering this, think of Beckett’s extraordinary use of pauses.

A writer and the theater, 91 & 93.

The theater is for speech, and the theater is also for character. … What is the film for? The film is primarily for image and for movement. This thing about image, about the actual, visual effect of something on the screen, can sometimes be very disconcerting.

A writer and the films, 101.

The sound in the film should always be, as it were, balanced against the image and not go with it.

p. 106

In addition, Isherwood outlines the role of the writer as a consumate and socially engaged outsider.

He [the writer] must always hold them [shared beliefs] with the possibility of dissent. Without the freedom to dissent, he is just that much less valuable to the community.
…the truly cooperative and social outsider is one of the most valuable members of the community, and a writer should strive to be such an outsider, sometimes assenting, sometimes dissenting, but always, one hopes, in some way illuminating the problem under discussion.

p. 131 & p. 132

Which reminded me….

Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.

But let us be realistic. These ways of understanding the enemy are the prerogative of poets, saints, or traitors.

Umberto Eco, “Inventing the Enemy.” 2008.

From Isherwood on Writing, 2007.

2017.01.11 : being and doing

If you haven’t seen Jen Kirkman’s new special on Netflix Just Keep Livin’? you are seriously missing out. There is a lot of hubbub (always, but especially right now, it seems) about whether or not women are or can be funny. I’m not here to weigh in on that debate, because I know that I qualify as a woman in a certain number of circles and I happen to be hilarious.

I’m recommending Jen Kirkman because she is also hilarious, and the special opens with a great bit about meditation. 

 I bring up Ms. Kirkman because she touches on the question of street harassment in this new work. Street harassment is another topic that every seems to have an opinion on and require one from everyone else.

She brought up something that had been circling my thoughts as well, as I started to actually experience street harassment. 

(The shift had something to do with working out and dressing for my job selling women’s athletic wear. I’m sure that riding public transportation increased the probability of its occuring. But this is a digression.) 

 Kirkman does an excellent job of expressing why street harassment can make people (and by “people” we mean “women”) feel unsafe: any semi-complimentary statement about a body part could either be left at that, or could be a prelude to some kind of claiming of said body part. (“Nice ass” could be just that, or it could be followed by “How about I take that for a ride?”) 

She also covers why it makes people (and by “people” we mean “women”) feel uncomfortable: any comment about your body is a reminder that you have a body. Most of us live our lives trying to forget we have a body. Not out of self-hatred, or willful ignorance, but because when we are running to the bus stop, our biggest concern is whether or not our legs and our lungs will get us there before the bus, not whether our butt looks good in these pants. (She also incisively remarks that “nice ass” not only reminds us of our physical form, and our subjectivity, but also usually introduces the doubt “is that a real compliment? or a mockery?”) 

Finally, she provides a solution. Should you wish to say something nice to a stranger, try complimenting something they have done, rather than something they are. That is to say: compliment their outfit, their choice of shoes, their hairstyle, these all reflect choices this person has made in presenting themselves to the world. Acknowledge their effort.

This brings me to a quick story about how compliments work. Some number of years ago, when I was living in a dorm, I had exited my refuge of solitude and entered the common area to get some water. 

[unfinished]

2016.12.17 : topographic narrative, narrative topography

It’s snowing. I don’t think we’ll manage a white christmas this year, because the temperature is expected to continue to go up, but right now, the roofs of the houses are disappearing into the white cloud cover of the sky, and the haze of snowflakes rushing towards the earth is hazing up my vision. 

It’s the sort of weather that is perfect for staying inside. There’s light reflected off the various newly whitened surfaces of the sky and the buildings and the earth, but it’s made soft. 

This is the weather that makes leaving hard to imagine. My room in my parents’ house has excellent windows. I have a bay window that faces south, and a huge window that faces west. I get beautiful warm afternoon light, and even in the morning, my room glows with natural light. 

Topography, geography, and architecture––the aesthetics of place––are of particular interest and importance to me. All spaces, shared and personal, are composed of the complexity of interaction and occupation. (I am attempting to escape my tendency to speak of “ownership,” both because it limits my thinking and because it contributes to a destructive interpretation of reality and experience.) But just as my parents each have their home office, into which I may walk and even perhaps take a book off a shelf, or borrow a tool, the understanding is that the space and its contents are under the purview and primary usage of someone else and that I am a guest. However, I find, that their occupation of the shared space of the sun room, and the dog’s persistent usage of the couch in that room as a bed means that I am alienated from that space. Not that I am unwelcome, but because it is a shared environment, the rules are less defined about usage and occupation, in that they are dependent on the other occupants, in a manner that leaves me uncertain how to proceed.

I contrast this to my experience of cities and streets and other public spaces (not simply shared ones). Cities have always held power over me. I love the way they feel: complicated, alive, communal, disinterested. They feed my desire to know that other people exist, and are alive, and are living, while allowing me the veil of anonymity and its associated confidence. 

Public spaces demand a certain vigilance: you are surrounded by strangers, but like any good party, you have an invitation and no one will ask you what you’re doing there, as long as you make a good show of belonging. 

More than that, cities are also made up of strips, sequences of travel. Commutes and favorite haunts are habits that become extensions of the self. We develop familiarities with the landscape and its inhabitants. A favorite graffito, a fellow commuter, a notable architectural feature, a crack in the sidewalk. We develop itineraries of place that keep us tied to the physical world. 

Personally, I build ant’s eye views of all the cities I visit, and the places I live. Like medieval travel maps I build sequential images in my head that tie one place to another. With enough time, those sequences will start to overlap and become branching webs of options marking all the turns that connect the places I frequent to one another. Sometimes I look up and find a landmark of significant height to serve as a beacon (the Acropolis serves particularly well, when in Athens) to get me back to where I started. But maps and other bird’s eye views have never really helped me. I find it easier to navigate in the dips and swells of the topography, from hills to sidewalk cracks, and the rhythm of travel, the rush of landmarks as you push your pace to make it to work on time, the number of breaths and turns along the bus route, where the road opens up and you can hit the gas. 

Places are something felt, a somatic experience, a story told with the body, rather than something one walks through or inhabits to carry on the intricacies of existence.