Relegated Areas

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For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through a space that’s at once alien and familiar. I don’t know if I should call them abandoned places; what I mean is relegated areas, where the surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes. A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

My Two Worlds
Sergio Chejfec (trans. Margaret B. Carson)

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison’s final essay in The Empathy Exams is its strongest piece. “I’m tired of female pain, and also tired of people who are tired of it,” she writes. In many ways Jamison’s response to the female body and pain opposes Kate Zambreno’s project, but I prefer to see it as complementary, viewing the same issues though other prisms.

The Empathy Exams is a series of unrelated essays, memoirs, and ‘pain tours’ that focuses primarily on American culture. It is framed at by the fascinating The Empathy Exams, an exploration of Jamison’s job as a medical actor, paid to convincingly fake illness as part of medical students’ training, and concludes with Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.

Jamison writes beautifully, though often without the punch of a storyteller like Joan Didion, but the collection shows tremendous power as an essayist with a journalist’s eye.

Jonathan Gibb’s Randall

'black painting' - Ad Reinhardt

‘black painting’ – Ad Reinhardt

Satire is a demanding form, an act of aggression that can easily fail. Freud’s depiction of jokes as repressed hostility is evident in the sadistic satire of Anthony Burgess, and the snobbishness of Evelyn Waugh’s self indulgent attacks.

To qualify as satire a denunciation has to be potent, yet yield pleasures for a reader in sharing an act of narrative violence. Jonathan Gibb’s Randall aims its satire at the Young British Artists of the contemporary art world of the 1990s, starting with an act of literal violence, the killing of Damien Hirst, “hit by a train and killed, apparently when drunk”. Its secondary target is that period of the late 1990s when the shock-troops of New Labour’s marketing department set out to rebrand Britain as Cool Britannia, uniting in common purpose a bunch of mostly white males that included the YBAs, pop musicians, second-generation yuppies and media figures.

Randall not only captures the slightly hysteric mood of this period, but also nails its target with deftness and a degree of affection. It is perhaps successful because that hint of amused fondness balances its satirical offensiveness. But don’t take that to mean that Randall’s satire is insipid, it is exquisitely cleansing and gloriously funny.

Books emerge that come to define existence for a particular social strata in certain time periods: Geoff Dyer’s gratifying depiction of life in South London in the 1980s in The Colour of Memory hit its target squarely and cleanly, as does Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised of how people and communities disintegrate under neoliberalism. Randall sits between both time periods, skilfully satirising how art and money found common ground in the 1990s.

The Obscene

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Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard

When things become too real, when they are immediately given and realised, when we are in short circuit which means that these things are brought closer and closer together, we are in obscenity. From this standpoint, Régis Debray made an interesting critique of the society of the spectacle: according to him, we are no longer in a society that distances us from things, in which we could be said to be alienated by our separation from them . . . Our curse is that we are brought up ultra-close against them, that everything is immediately realised, both things and ourselves. And this too-real world is obscene.

Unmoving Targets

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This concerted attempt to erase the responsibilities of thought and volition from our daily lives has produced a nation of couched-out soft touches, easily riled by the most cynically vacuous sloganeering and handily manipulated by the alibis of “morality” and false patriotism. To put it bluntly, no ones home. We are literally absent from our own present. We are elsewhere, not in the real but in the represented. Our bodies, the flesh and blood of it all, have given way to representations: figures that cavort on TV, movie, and computer screens. Propped up and ultra-relaxed, we teeter on the cusp of narcolepsy and believe everything and nothing.

Barbara Kruger
Remote Control: Power, Cultures, and the World of Appearances

Writing That Stops Itself

Binge-reading Anne Carson continues with Men in the Off Hours. I’ve just spent a fortnight with Eros the Bittersweet, reading it three times back to back and then a fourth to transcribe large passages into my notebook. It is simply one of the most sublime books I’ve read, and certainly the finest on the nature of desire and love, and how each intertwines with the act of reading and writing.

I keep thinking of how to write about Anne Carson’s work which I might attempt when I’ve finished this reading of her oeuvre, but my reverence gets in the way of any critical insight. Michelle mentioned Carson’s idea of writing/language that “stops itself” which is evident even in the weaker works like Autobiography of Red, with unexpected images like “He switched on the light. He was staring at the sweep hand of the electric clock / on the dresser. Its little dry hum ran over his nerves like a comb.”

But the writer who comes to mind most immediately whose language constantly disrupts thought is Derek Walcott. Last night I reread his dazzling Omeros, and wanted to share these seven exquisite lines (I can’t preserve the spacing on WordPress):

We watched the Major lift
his wife’s coffin hung with orchids , many she had found
in the blue smoke of Saltibus. Then Achilles saw the swift
pinned to the orchids, but it was the image of a swift

which Maud had sown into the silk draping her bier
and not only the African swift but all the horned island’s
birds, bitterns and herons, silently screeching there.

There are, so far, many poems in Carson’s Men in the Off Hours that stop me dead. I have to put the book down and inhabit the silence that her work conjures.

Pale Notes on Friendship

Agamben: “Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.”

Our friendship was inevitable. It started as a consequence of elective affinities. We had in common a love for Beckett, Woolf, Duras, Rimbaud-though mine was perhaps more reverent. Beckett could do no wrong. Our first encounter took place at her sister’s apartment, overlooking the pretty church on Saint Germain des Prés, a block away from Les Deux Magots, where we would one day make a Salad Périgourdine and cheap bottle of Beaujolais last all afternoon. For some reason I was apprehensive, made even more so by her obvious nervousness. She devoured a bowl of walnuts, cracking each walnut shell with vehemence, a reflection, I thought, of our shared tension. We argued about whether Four Quartets or The Duino Elegies was the most sublime long poem of the twentieth century. I had no parents, she had three.

Contact is Crisis

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As members of human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another–whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional, or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.” The difficulty presented by any instance of contact is that of violating a fixed boundary, transgressing a closed category where one does not belong.

Anne Carson
Putting Her in Her Place: Women, Dirt, and Desire
from Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek

Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky

What would have made Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky a better book? Like any brilliant book it is multiply flawed, how could it not be?

The women are impoverished, wafer-thin, particularly in contrast with his richly depicted male characters, who are breathing with complexities and life. Rahimi’s pawnbroker Nana Alia is as two-dimensional as Dostoevsky’s Alyona Ivanovna in the parallel Crime and Punishment, his Sophia is not a match for Dostoevsky’s Christ-like Sonia (Sofia).

As the title suggests, Rahimi borrows from Dostoevsky the narrative frame for his book, mirroring the original to a point, but setting it a violent and war-worn Kabul during its occupation by the Taliban. A Curse on Dostoevsky lacks much of the whiff of Christian moralising that weighed Dostoevsky’s masterpiece down, but also lacks much of its intensity and intricacy. The comparison is only viable because of Rahimi’s bravery in choosing to echo Crime and Punishment, a novel he clearly dissects with love.

The radiance of A Curse on Dostoevsky lies in the characters that do come together, particularly the protagonist Rassoul, every bit as distinctive and imbued with existence as his brother Raskolnikov. There is also sheer joy in the unpredictable turns of what might loosely be called a plot, you never really know where Rahimi is going with his narrative, but the writing is so good that you stay for the journey, a pleasure to be part of the conflicted world he has created. I was enchanted by the story and sorry to leave Rassoul and his world behind.

The Selfish Individual

Throughout this week I’ve binged on Susan Sontag’s essays and interviews. The last pieces Sontag wrote are collected in At the Same Time, which include two of my favourite Sontag reviews.

Sontag’s A Double Destiny: On Anne Banti’s Artemisia in which she writes of Banti’s “prowling” around her own text is a deeply insightful review of a stunning book, a rare work of historical fiction that is worth reading. The essay sent me dipping back into Artemisia.

I also came across an essay I haven’t read before, an acceptance speech written for the Jerusalem Prize. With great lucidity Sontag deals with the encouragement of personal liberation, the legacy of the 1960’s that far from freeing up human subjects, acted as a precursor to the selfish individualism so prevalent today in America and the UK, and being exported to a society near you year by year.

I prefer to use “individual” as an adjective rather than as a noun.

The unceasing propaganda in our time for “the individual” seems to me deeply suspect, as “individuality” itself becomes more and more a synonym for selfishness. A capitalist society comes to have vested interest in praising “individuality” and “freedom”-which may mean little more than the right to the perpetual aggrandisement of the self, and the freedom to shop, to acquire, to use up, to consume, to render obsolete.

I don’t believe there is any inherent value in the cultivation of the self. And I think there is no culture (using the term normatively) without the standard of altruism, of regard for others, I do believe there is an inherent value in extending our sense of what a human life can be. If literature has engaged me as a project, first as a reader and then as a writer, it is as an extension of my sympathies to other selves, other domains, other words, other territories of concern.