Waking up hasn't been easy lately. I sleep deeply, but my dreams are peppered with old, gone loves, anxious circumstance, riddles, a sense of longing and rebuttal, and the daylight is unwelcome. Today was no different. I heard Sarah start the kettle, roaming around the house talking to someone on the phone. I heard bits of conversation about relationships, money. My nose was cold and I buried my head deeper into the pillow. No. I tried to remember last night's dream. Ted was in it, I know, and rooms, and water. I hate that he keeps coming into my dreams. It has been years since I've seen him, I'm trying to stop wearing the ring, he has a child I've never seen. I lie in my bed and know he is a symbol.
Satchmo scratches at the door. I forgot I'd locked him out too. I rubbed my eyes and blew my nose after a cacophony of coughs. I've been trying to keep the poor cat out of my room, as my eyes are tormented by eczema, my breathing often short and tight, but I miss the warmth of his little black body curled next to mine. Call me a crazy cat lady if you want, but he is sometimes the strongest source of love I feel in the whole world. Pushing him out while remaining as ugly and sick as ever- well, isn't that horribly unjust of life? I got up and let him in, and I kissed his cold, wet nose, looking out the window at the sky that is as grey as old mash potatoes gone bad in the fridge.
I looked at my phone and saw many symbols- emails, a text, some twitter activity and a missed call from Florida. It would have been my mother, who would have passed the phone to my father, who turned 60 yesterday. I notice the date, November 30th and I am reminded my grandmother died on December 2 three years ago. Yes, and I think of the papery skin of her hands touching the long necklaces, and the lavender cable cashmere that now I wear, and her smell.
The text is from Nick who wrote "It is Goran's wedding anniversary today." I think back to a year ago, to when Nick yelled "I'm never going to be your boyfriend, I'm never going to give you a baby, and I'm never moving in here" and how I went with him to the wedding anyway. We waited in the Tim Horton's across from city hall with just the bride and groom and her only friend, drinking hot chocolate. The ceremony was short and sweet, and we drank a lot at their north apartment and ate McDonald's on the way home, changing subways and buses a million times. He lost his keys, and I never stayed at his house again.
The rest of the emails are predictable. With the new job every morning I am greeted with an inbox full of either nasty or inane comments regarding some coffee shop review I penned. It rattles me a little, and the reviews and best-of lists are not exactly my ideal expression of what literary talents I may possess but I am reminded of my old professor Garry Neil Kennedy cleaning paintbrushes, and that Merce Cunningham quote I associate with him- "You have to love the daily work". At heart, I do. I love sitting at my desk for hours and hours on end typing. I'd rather it be in service of some central human quandary than where to get an artisanal latte-I hate the bought consciousness of it-but I feel the daily work of writing getting stronger, and a thick skin develop toward the comments. Everyone just wants their two cents-to be heard I guess.
I haven't quite found the balance of work yet though, as my own writing work is sidelined by the onslaught of blog assignments. I think it wouldn't trouble me if so much of what used to give me joy didn't turn against me like an enemy. Wine sends me in fits of sneezing, coffee the jitters; food, once a pleasure, swells the gut and lays in thick ribbons along the waistline, or plagues me with a sense of greed and guilt. I hate the fuss of fine dining; I haven't had a dinner party in months. I don't care about your dumb foam or locally sourced carrot. I used to enjoy dressing, finding stylistic expression in the pageantry of dress. I look in my closet and want to bag it all up and take it to the curb, which, actually, I did yesterday. The idea of shopping, vintage, cheap, high end whatever, is repulsive- feeding that myriad of commercial fantasies a self-deception I cannot participate in any longer. I no longer dye or even cut my hair, wear much if any makeup, or succumb to trends- all choices that once made me feel beautiful and strong- so, why do I feel as if no one will look on me with longing ever again? And why do I care anyway? Needless to say, the allergies that plague me only contribute to the oppressive sense of ugliness.
So where is my pleasure? I used to derive a great deal from caring for the friends around me- feeding them, meeting up, having drinks, organizing and hosting parties. But I'm tired of the predictable antics, and scared of the flashes of bratty behaviour that I, myself and my friends can sometimes fall into. New connections are scattered far around like distant stars, instead of being a comfort, I feel that I might never see them again. I stick to books, and writing, and the cat that makes me sick. It's strange, I long for a central privacy, but also feel terribly isolated. I go to bed hoping the next morning won't be have that tinge of dread, that all the blessed events and sweet mystery of life will be apparent to the sad little speck that is me.
To make it better I imagine a fire and a good feeling, and new snow in morning, of eyes that don't itch and burn, swimming in cooling water, standing on big rocks overlooking the ocean, seeing birds, and the possibility of reaching out to the soft skin of someone for whom no amount of closeness would be enough.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Saturday, November 23, 2013
I read the letters between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (of Pussy Riot) and Slavoj Zizek. Before reading them I was smug in the fact that the epistolary exchange had been a set up by Philosophie magazine, besides Zizek had come to annoy me, I found him jingoistic, sweaty. But the letters, particularly by Tolokonnikova, I found deeply moving and I found myself ashamed of my apathy to life and nostalgic for my youth, when I felt brave and combative. I still feel at odds with contemporary society, but my anger manifests inward. Instead of sensing a system's failures, I witness my own.
There was a time when this wasn't the case. I was young and read voraciously, I debated with my friends, who seems as impassioned as I was. Jobs, illness, age, babies, marriage- things change. But the letters reminded me of conversations, thoughts I used to have, theory that once I felt in my bones.
Existentialism resonated first. I was in my second year of University and I read Sartre. Nausea, The Outsider. Dostoevsky. Kafka. Kierkegaard. Neitzsche. The themes, I thought, yes, this is how it is. No rhyme or reason, life is aloneness, death forever and always. Refusal. Dissatisfaction with traditional systems, any bodies of thought purported to be adequate are actually remote from life, superficial, academic. Absurd. Then I read Lukacs. History and Class Consciousness. Twice. Commodity fetishism, material circumstances, alienation. Althusser. The Communist Manifesto. And went to art school and read Benjamin, and Adorno. I liked Adorno better. The image of the torn fragments, of art and life, to which, however they do not add up. I thought yes. That is how it is, the never adding up, the torn fragments, a hunt for integrity through the creative. Freedom as an end to be striven for but never as a certainty. The root origin of the word Utopia- No Place. Still, we hope for utopia, don't we? I identified as a Marxist for a long time, maybe still.
I was in a Marxist reading group in England, deep in we went to the writings; young Marx versus old Marx, Engels, Hegel, Marxist-Leninism, Marxist aesthetic theory, Marxist feminism, the working class, the bourgeoisie, totality, consciousness as political, historical materialism, property, power, and and and... I was not interested in him anymore. Tired of Marx. I didn't feel myself in the class struggle, I felt myself trotting off to work each day at the expensive clothing store where I'd gotten a job, where all the clothes were displayed to great effect, the bigger sizes (the owner never ordered more than a 8) hidden shamefully in the back, where my coworker had an eating disorder and catty gossip was the only conversation. We were to buy a few items from the store and wear them when we worked. I was depressed, drank every day, and ate chip butties and sausages from the workers cafe next door. I didn't fit into anything. I felt myself failing. The revolution wasn't on my mind- my debt, my growing tire of fat around my middle, the misery I felt upon waking, hungover and alone- it was life's existential dread I recognized. I was going to die and no amount of new clothes or skinny bodies or Marxist readings or endless pints was going to change that. "No prize, however great, can justify an ounce of self-deception or a small departure from the ugly facts" wrote Walter Kaufman and I felt it. When I looked into the mirror and saw my reflection I didn't think, 'Rise Up Workers! Unite!' I thought 'I hate this world and everything in it, especially myself.'
The two theoretical frameworks of Marxism and Existentialism are, as Sartre debated, contradictory. Existentialism denies systems, Marxism analyses them. And yet I find at heart of both an eagerness to acknowledge life's subterfuge. For Marxism, it is a rooting out of the deception (of freedom) between one (human/gender/class) and another; for existentialism, is it the deception of freedom from oneself, the multitude of processes by which we self-deceive.
But then, I wouldn't be a good Marxist if I didn't grasp Hegelian dialectics, and with it the notion that 'dialectical change proceeds through contradictions in the thing itself'. I was off Marxism, and back on Existentialism, back and forth, back and forth, though, and it's obvious now, I didn't, and still don't, really understand either of them. I was grief stricken, I was depressed. People look for answers. I look for answers. I continue to do so.
What echoes, in the mirror, in the letters, is what Derrida wrote in The Spectres of Marx, that perhaps what I feel of these theoretical frameworks is their ghostly demarcations. Theory as haunting apparitions, which act as as shadows do, dark angles to which I erect my real self, ever in oscillation. The self, my self, a series of contradictions, and the meta-narratives of Freedom, Utopia, Truth- as central to Marxism as they are to Existentialism, as they are to ME- are expressed as continual disavowals of notions of 'certainty', refusing to confuse romanticism for potentiality, which is not temporal, but life.
After I abandoned my Marxist reading group, after I re-embraced Existentialism only to find it also hollow, my apathy is confronted yet again. I find it's contradiction in death. On the 55 bus through Liverpool Street Station, I read Elias Canetti's memoirs. "I have spent the better part of my life figuring out the wiles of man as he appears in the historical civilizations. I have examined and analyzed power as ruthlessly as my mother her family's litigations. There is almost nothing bad that I couldn't say about humans and humankind. And yet my pride in them is so great that there is only one thing I really hate: their enemy, death." I began to cry, as I felt the closeness of my own death, and my unwillingness to let go. The fear of being then was sublimated by the reality of not-being. And many pages later he reminded me again: I do not want to go quietly, that despite weariness, despite suffering, despite injustices, loneliness and absurdity, despite the million reasons why life completely sucks, I am unprepared to give up. "Fear thrives strongest; there is no telling how little we would be without having suffered fear. An intrinsic characteristic of humanity is the tendency to give into fear. No fear is lost, but its hiding places are a riddle. Perhaps of all things, fear is the one that changes least. When I think back to my early years, the very things that I recognize are the fears, of which there were an inexhaustible wealth. I find many of them only now; others, which I will never find, must be the mystery that makes me want an unending life."
Be the mystery that makes me want an unending life. I forget this. I forget it again and again. The strangest things remind me that I live, and I am nothing. And while lonely, existing in the fear of not-being something lets me be the mysterious nothing, which is everything.
Oath of the Horatii, 1784~ Jacques-Louis David
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Monday, November 4, 2013
A Belgian-born French novelist and essayist, she was the first woman ever elected to the Academie Francais. There is an antidote that four hundred year old institution (that didn't accept a single woman until Yourcenar in 1980) then changed their bathrooms to Messieurs (Mens) and Yourcenar.
At the outbreak of the First World War, she was invited by her companion Grace Frick to live in the US, and did so (between travelling) up until her death in 1987 on the small Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine. She taught comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence, published several master novels and essays, and translated Virginia Woolf's The Waves, James Baldwin's The Amen Corner and Yukio Mishima's Five Modern No Plays. Imagine? She has a plaque dedicated to her memory on Mount Desert Island inscribed with a most beautiful epitaph:
"May it please The One who perchance is to expand the human heart to life's full measure."
There is some fascinating writing on Yourcenar on the inter web, like this Paris Review interview, and this New Yorker article- take a look, would you?
I don't know who took this photo, but great outfit Marguerite!
Toronto's mayor Rob Ford, who has been plagued by allegations of corruption since the beginning of time, has had his infamous 'crack video' finally surface in the the hands of the Toronto police. This shit is right out of The Wire. My first thought (besides relief) at seeing him, sweaty and red-faced in front of reporters outside his house, after Police Chief Bill Blair announces he has said crack video tape and that it is being used as evidence in an ongoing drug investigation? Besides, you thieving, gross bastard?
He should have heeded the astrological omens, man! We are in Mercury in retrograde, dude, don't you know that during that time, old wounds come back to trouble you? That anything involving technology especially, will be royally screwed up? Be cautious, clear of heart and mind and one can traverse the disruption Mercury in Retrograde brings. But act you have for the last three years? Conniving, full of false grandeur and empathy for the people? You are up shits creek! Oh Ford, you can run, but you can't hid from the planetary alignments! That's the sublime, natural world, with all it's beautiful mystery. What's more, he's getting his comeuppance on Halloween, when all esoteric knowledge should be particularly considered, and there he is, incising ghosts, ghouls, and city hall goblins...
On another, less politico streak, I love this.
Friday, October 25, 2013
"I had no money on me, so I threw a satisfactory small stone- black, shaped like a fat nub of charcoal. When the pool dimpled glassily and swallowed it, I made a wish: the choice presented itself as if it had been lying in wait all along. Men, or books?
With relief, I chose books.
I let something go and I felt very empty without it, and very clear."
This passage, from Tessa Hadley's new book "Clever Girl", struck me right away. Immediately I wished I knew someone else who read this book, or knew of Hadley. I came to know her writing by way of the New Yorker. She is the only fiction contributor who, after reading her, I took note of, chasing down her name and work as if struck by a bout of puppy love. I suppose in a way, it was.
"Clever Girl"follows Stella, from her early childhood in Bristol, the daughter of a single mother occupying a small bedsit in the 1960's, up until her middle age. Sounds dull, no? It's not. There is drama but none of the cheap kind, and while deeply psychological, the novel doesn't retain the suffocation of singleminded-ness. The tone instead can be summed by a passage from a late chapter
"And I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life, which we set such store by. The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you." See? She's very good.
I knew a couple of people who read the fiction in the New Yorker regularly (they might remember one of her stories) but I couldn't think of anyone who would have read this particular paragraph, this particular book. Then I paused to daydream. Wouldn't it be wonderful to find someone who'd read the same books as me? Even if they liked and noticed different things we could talk and talk and talk.
This wasn't the first time I felt this way. I had it with the Mary McCarthy too, and Adler and Tolstoy. Obviously I am not the only person who reads these books, and obviously there are many more I haven't read that someone else has. All of this is beside the point. What I'm expressing is a strange loneliness that I've noticed lately, an unexpected and rather unfortunate surprise- reading grows less and less shareable the more I invest in it. Oh, I can champion her, create a legion of fans that might eventually share my pleasure. To be sure, I will preach the talents of Tessa Hadley as I preach the talents of Nicole Holofcener. They both have a way of observing the everyday that feels spot-on; very telling, but not unkind, gently poetic, humourous, close. But that misses the immediacy of my longing. I can recommend books, sure but I cannot twin my reading experience in the moment of having it. Not then, perhaps not ever.
My pleasure of the text exists then in and of itself. No matter how many times I press others to read the same book, find the same words meaningful, the location of resonance and joy is particularly mine. I remember a similar feeling approaching academics- that as I grew more specific in my discipline, the chance of commonality decreased and decreased. Sometimes it bothered me, and sometimes it felt good to be alone in the world, as if on the edge of a cliff looking out on the vast expanse of ocean, the spray of waves cold and refreshing. Reading then reminds me I am alone: and the more I retreat into it, the more pleasure I take from the pages, the more reading exists for me- the less I exist for others.
I felt the strange doubling then (how the protagonist's own reading isolates her at times, connects her at others) as my experience and the protagonist's experience synced up. How wickedly delicious books can be in those moments, feeling so very alone, and yet randomly, wildly together. Feeling this, I pulled the duvet closer to my chin and read long into the night, finally finishing "Clever Girl" in that time that some consider night, and some consider morning.
Chinese Skirt, 1933~ Agnes Goodsir