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.

Isherwood on Writing

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. 

2016.12.16 : one at a time, not all at once.

The trouble with a daily writing practice is that it has to be daily and it has to be in spite of whatever resistance one is feeling to the idea of sitting down to write. 

The purpose is to learn to circumnavigate that resistance. 

It is very, very hard.


I’ve spent a good deal of time lately trying to understand the basics of planning, goal setting, and time management. I want to be able to get things done, and make sure that I show up on time and prepared for the variety of obligations that ultimately present themselves. 

The first problem, of course, is that this is all an elaborate ruse to keep myself from getting the things I’m supposed to be doing, done. The second is that I have approached this research endeavor through the media of Youtube and Pinterest which are ultimately exercises in self-doubt and envy. Also probably misinformation. 

Mostly, and I thank Alexis Giostra (aka MissTrenchcoat) of Strange & Charmed for the name and call-out of the habit, I suffer from shiny object syndrome (from this video). Also known as “commitment phobia,” “poor impulse control,” “perfectionist tendencies,” among others. In the past three months, I have designed a variety of different printable planner inserts, and multiple physical planner notebook objects. I’m proud of all of that work, and I do think it was informative, both personally and technically. 

What that means in practice, however, is that I have not stuck with a given planner structure/system for longer than about 3 weeks. That’s not long enough for a person to build a habit, and certainly not long enough for me to build a habit. 

Habits are, as any number of people will tell you, the cornerstone of daily life and successful individuals. It’s why men wear suits, why Steve Jobs wore the same all black outfit every day, and why you can remember to put milk in your coffee in the morning. Essentially, habits are tiny automated processes you kick start at certain times/with certain behaviors. Whether or not you know it, you likely do the exact same thing every time you shower, shampoo, conditioner, bodywash, arms, legs, back, etc. Or when you brush your teeth, you start on the same side of your mouth every time and go through the same order of tops/insides/outsides each time. Maybe you get up at the same time every day (or can’t sleep in later than a certain hour). This is habit. 

In my life, I have had remarkably few habits develop. Most of them have to do with how I brush my teeth, and the order in which I do things in the shower. I managed to solidify, whilst in college, the evening tooth brushing routine, so that I would brush, floss, and put in my night guard, just by getting to the bathroom before bedtime. (I am probably overly proud of this fact, but I’m learning to take my victories where I find them.)

More importantly, however, is that automated processes don’t require thinking. I’m not a fan of the term “spoonie” or the spoonie movement/nomenclature, but they are founded in a very important basic principle: we all have a cognitive limit. The biggest suck of cognitive energy is decision making. The best reason to develop habits is that you’re removing decision making processes. If you can automate all the steps between “wake up” and “get on the bus”––turning off your alarm, getting out of bed, washing up, breakfast, getting dressed, gathering your stuff, leaving the house––you’ve conserved cognitive energy that can be better used to make tough decisions at work, come up with new ideas, etc.  

Having a plan is not the same as having a habit, however. It isn’t enough to know that when your alarm goes off you should turn it off, get out of bed, wash up, eat breakfast, get dressed, etc etc. Should only means that you have to make the decision to do it. Here we can borrow from Freud briefly, and use the Ego, Superego, and Id to illustrate the point:

Should means that the Superego is telling you what the “proper” “moral” or “correct” course of action is, most of us hear the alarm in the morning and the Id starts screaming about how it wants more sleep, and how winter air is cold, and how the news in the paper will probably be depressing, etc etc. Now the Ego has to make a choice

That’s the bad news. Nevertheless there is good news!

Provided you make the choice enough times, you can turn it into a habit. That means, effectively, training the Ego to ignore the Id, and ultimately, training the Id to not mind as much. Habits don’t make things more pleasant (you won’t suddenly develop a fondness for cold winter air on your feet first thing in the morning) but it makes things easier (you won’t have to psych yourself up to put your feet on the floor). 

Now, that’s just one portion of the process of getting things done. That’s the stuff you can plan for/automate. The rest of it is learning the skills and supporting habits that will allow you to deal with the things that cannot be automated. Meetings, projects, parties, restaurant menus, et. al. I think a lot of people who don’t have very good habit forming skills in other arenas of their lives probably have a small arsenal of habits (both good and bad) for dealing with the unexpected, because they don’t have the kind of solid foundation that keeps the number of unexpected things to a minimum. For example, when ordering food or drinks off a menu that one has never seen before; some people will scan and look for dishes/ingredients they recognize/like and allow that to guide them in narrowing the list of choices, others look for the things they do not recognize or have never tried and use that to guide them. The goal of these tricks/habits is that they allow their practitioner to make fewer total number of choices. You don’t have to go through each item on the menu individually and accept or reject each of them (which would take a huge quantity of cognitive energy). You create a short list of at most three things you might order and then pick between them (which requires much less energy). 

In the same way, people with good habits for the “unexpected” might have it as part of their planning process to add an extra ten minutes to their schedule in front of any meeting which they use to review their notes, or meditate, or develop an agenda, or whatever, which allows them to be focused and prepared for the meeting. 

To be able to do this, however, you need to be able to keep track of when your meetings are. You can’t build the extra-10-minutes habit, if you never know when you’ll need to practice it. This is where these supportive habits come into play. 

When I say supportive habits I mean things like: regularly planning your day/week/month, checking in with schedules and to-do lists, keeping track of notes, information, and actionable items. That’s the sort of thing that, ultimately, needs to be developed on two fronts.

The first one is in your scheduled habits. If you make it part of your “morning routine” and/or “evening routine” to review your schedule for the day and/or focus on the tasks you need to do that day or the following one, than you’re making it an automated process to know what you have to be doing, when, where, and with or for whom. This keeps things from sneaking up on you outside of total freak accidents and unpredictable phenomena. 

The second is in reflecting on/reacting to your emotional or physical situation. If you finish something earlier than expected: go back to your schedule/to do list and reevaluate what you can do. If something takes longer than expected: go back to your schedule/to do list and reevaluate what you can do. If you are feeling stressed out, stop for 5 minutes and do some meditative/deep breathing until you are more clear headed … then go back to your schedule/to do list and determine what your next step should be. 

This second set of habits is harder, in some ways, to develop, because it does require the capacity (not so much intellectual, as emotional) to stop and reflect on our own actions/emotions. Anyone who has ever been stressed, overwhelmed, angry, upset, depressed (so pretty much the entire world) can tell you that pulling yourself out of the emotional moment or situation and recognizing it as an emotion can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. 

Then again, that’s why you have the first set of habits: if you check your plan for the day every morning, and put one together every night before bed, you’re already half-way to being able to stop and evaluate what you’re feeling or thinking based on what you are (or aren’t) doing. The cognitive energy you save by not having to force yourself out of bed, or remembering to brush your teeth can be spent figuring out why that phone call you said you were going to make last week still hasn’t happened. And maybe after some deep breathing, or planning a little script, or writing down, step by step, what you need to do to make that call (get the number. dial it. ask about x and then about y. thank the person for their time. cross it off your list.) and then you can move through it an onward.


I need to remember that when it comes to writing daily; I always have too much to say. The joy of writing daily is that I’m not obligated to stick to any particular topic or style or even do research if I don’t want to. I just need to type one word after the other, and that’s the habit I’m trying to build. One word at a time.