Recently in The Great Themes Category
In his most recent novel, Generosity
, Richard Powers expresses frustration at the role of the novelist:
I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.
Michael Dirda, writing
in The New York Review of Books
, quotes this passage, and then continues:
He [Powers] confesses that he would really like to write the kind of story that "from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there's no choice like chance."
Dirda doesn't think much of Powers's aspiration - he calls it "more portentous than clear" - but I felt an immediate intuitive connection with Powers. Having just finished a novel, I am currently traveling around the world in a relaxed and unplanned way. Where am I going? Wherever my friends or family are - or wherever my curiosity takes me. When am I going? Whenever it's convenient for my friends or family to see me. How long will I be traveling? I don't know. What will I do afterwards? I don't know.
Why am I undertaking such a journey? To this question, I have a solid answer: because I felt like it. I had a strong, un-ignorable sense that this trip was the right way to fill my time at this stage in my life.
Up until now, I've passed my days in a highly self-directed manner. I decided what to do, and then I did it. I wasn't easily distractable (I'm not one of those people who goes online to look up the spelling of a word and ends up frittering away two hours on trivial explorations).
For reasons that I can't explain, but which exerted powerful visceral force on me, I felt convinced that now I must change my approach. I must surrender self-direction and float, like a jellyfish, wherever the ocean currents take me. I must allow my life, from one day to the next, to break free; to invent itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. Rather than deciding what to do and then doing it, I must accept that there's no choice like chance.
Powers' dilemma as a novelist is no different from anyone's challenge in crafting his or her life. Humans make sense of their lives in stories, and each of us is, in a sense, penning a lived novel with our life choices. Each of us is caught between allegory and realism, as we struggle to choose between actions that are symbolically meaningful and those that are practical. Each of us ping-pongs between fact and fable, as we select the bases for our decisions. Each of us struggles to keep creativity and non-fiction in balance in our lives.
I have just written a novel that was more planned than anything I've previously written. I didn't allow myself the luxury of not "quite mak[ing] out what . . . to do" with my characters. Practical in the extreme, the novel was strategically constructed to sell. It's a fable that studiously ignores inconvenient facts; a creative act that required all the strength of a daily grind.
Like Powers, I felt some frustration with this process. But the character at loose ends by the end was me. And the story that I wanted to allow to break free was mine. For the sake of satisfaction in my life, and for the benefit of my writing, I needed to (re)invent myself out of everything in the world that I never allowed to distract me.
Unscheduled time, chance, joblessness, disconnection from the rat race - these are the flotsam and jetsam of the modern world. I am discovering what stories they yield . . . while I swing from a tree.
(Image of Richard Powers from Minnesota Public Radio website
In a previous blog post
, I discussed the issue of power imbalances between (a) photographers who document people in humanitarian disasters, and (b) the subjects of those photos. I myself am a photographer and videographer who engages in such work, and at the time of that last blog post, I had the pleasure (and luck) to be able to report that, "I have
found the experience [of photographing people receiving humanitarian aid] uniformly rewarding."
In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary
about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups.
The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video.
My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project. For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book.
Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time. My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.
My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder. In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO.
He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced. He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.
Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary. Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO.
Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief. A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.
I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder. Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them. In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.
I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation. When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly. I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work. And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.
But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective. He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it. I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.
Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black. Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.
Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill. My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions. On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.
I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant. Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power. Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine. I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect. (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.) Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:
- I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
- I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
- I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
- I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile.
In writing this blog post, I am not trying to badmouth the NGO or its founder; nor am I indulging in any guilty white liberal confessional. My desire is to offer a fair account of a difficult exchange that probably could have and should have been less fraught, as well as to extract the lessons learned from that interaction and offer them for the benefit of others committed to engaging across divides (be they of culture, class, nationality, language, race, gender, etc.).
On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector. Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage.
(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)
Shakespeare's Sonnet XX
confounds me. It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love. Here's the poem:
A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.
I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem. But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland. Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows. So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."
Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality. Personally, I find that theory absurd. For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g.
, that loving another man makes a man gay). We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.
But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird. For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine. Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando
-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth").
Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing." Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator.
This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy. Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless. Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men. From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game
), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.
In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience. But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.
Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance. And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits. As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review
of two books exploring Greek pederasty:
The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive
as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform. To
this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices,
and yet it had its own principles of decency. In sex, as in so much
else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren. We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.
(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website
Mario Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother
is a slim, nasty novel about the devastating consequences of allowing oneself to be too bedazzled by gorgeous painting.
The story charts the spectacular destruction of the marriage of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, a middle-aged couple in Lima who marry despite Donna Lucrecia's concerns about becoming a stepmother to Don Rigoberto's son, Fonchito. Don Rigoberto focuses so completely on his rich fantasy life - a fantasy life augmented by his reproductions of smutty nudes by the likes of Titian and Jordaens (left) - that he doesn't notice the hazards that cause Donna Lucrecia anxiety. For her own part, despite her awareness of the dangers, Donna Lucrecia doesn't know how to manage the risks and so falls prey to Fonchito, who first seduces her and then exposes her to Don Rigoberto.
The novel contains lovely reproductions of the paintings that animate Don Rigoberto's and Donna Lucrecia's sexual fantasies. These fantasies involve detailed narrative accounts of the naughty doings that the paintings portray, narratives that - in their attentiveness to the minutiae of the visual art - contrast starkly with the couple's myopic view of encroaching (and menacing) reality.
In his portrayal of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, Vargas Llosa is not merely mocking people who devote more energy to their fantasies than to their flesh-and-blood lives. Rather, he takes aim at the narrowness and lack of ambition of the lives (and, consequently, the imaginations) of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia.
Don Rigoberto, for example, engages in an elaborate, nightly pre-sex ritual, during which he secludes himself in the bathroom and devotes obsessive attention to one part of his body each day of the week. One night - ear night (removing wax and tweezing unwanted hairs) - Don Rigoberto muses:
"Happiness exists," he repeated to himself, as he did every night. Yes, provided one sought it where it was possible. In one's own body and in that of one's beloved, for instance; by oneself and in the bathroom; for hours or minutes on a bed shared with the being so ardently desired. Because happiness was temporal, individual, in exceptional circumstances twofold, on extremely rare occasions tripartite, and never collective, civic. It was hidden, a pearl in its seashell, in certain rites or ceremonial duties that offered human beings brief flashes and optical illusions of perfection. One had to be content with these crumbs so as not to live at the mercy of anxiety and despair, slapping at the impossible. Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears, [Don Rigoberto] thought, in a mellow mood.
(p. 29.) I had wondered why Vargas Llosa (and his publisher) had gone to the trouble of reproducing the paintings in In Praise of the Stepmother
, since doing so inevitably made the book more expensive. But when I read, "Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears," I had my answer. Anyone who can gaze upon the art slipped between the pages of the novel and yet still conclude that happiness is as confined a condition as may be experienced from wax-free ear canals deserves to have his wife seduced by his son.In Praise of the Stepmother
is a condemnation of the Philistine, and particularly of aesthetic pretensions of the nouveau riche
. Like a snubbed Yahweh smoting some unfortunate idolaters, Vargas Llosa deals pitilessly with this hapless couple, allowing them to ignore that the powers unleashed by great art are complex and uncontrollable, and ultimately crushing his protagonists under the weight of their ignorance.
Though Vargas Llosa's vengeance is confined to the imagined world of his novel, In Praise of the Stepmother
stands as an unmistakable warning to those who, rather than blind themselves with paintings, bury themselves in books. (Image of Jacob Jordaens King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges
from National Museum of Sweden
"Utterly futile" is not a bad description of all (my) attempts to blog about Roberto Bolaño's 2666
. A blog post is simply too flimsy a format for any proper address of Bolaño's monumental achievement. Bolaño's 2666
requires depth and thoughtfulness from the attendant critical commentary, and a blog post (virtually by design) scrupulously avoids either. The snarky quip is indigenous to the blog post; the piquant insight is almost always lost and alone in a blog post, having arrived in such foreign territory only after a wrong turn routed it from The New York Review of Books
or like journal.
By which preamble I mean to introduce a follow-on thought to my last post
about Bolaño's 2666
. In that post, I pondered - ineptly - Bolaño's choice to present a writer-character, Benno von Archimboldi, without providing any examples of Archimboldi's work. I speculated that the writer-without-an-oeuvre
might be a symbol of mortality, a subversion of the writer's (Romantic) aspiration of immorality through his or her works.
Because a blog post is not a format conducive to exhaustive consideration of alternatives, I did not mention in my prior post another hypothesis that, on reflection, strikes me as more probable than my initial conjecture. Instead, I am now devoting this blog post to my alternate theory: that Bolaño left the reader without examples of Archimboldi's writing because Archimboldi's importance lies in his existence, not in his novels.
As Baroness Von Zumpe, Archimboldi's publisher, admits:
she had never bothered to read any of [Archimboldi's novels], because she hardly ever read "difficult" or "dark" novels like the ones he wrote. . . . When Archimboldi wanted to know why she kept publishing him if she didn't read him, which was really a rhetorical question since he the answer, the baroness replied (a) because she knew he was good, (b) because Bubis [her deceased husband] told her to, (c) because few publishers actually read the books they published.
In the world of 2666
, the priority is to bring the good book into existence. What happens thereafter - whether the book becomes a bestseller or tops out at only 500 copies sold - is irrelevant. The novelist writing and publishing is good for the world, even if the novelist is unread.
This perspective strikes me as quasi-religious, echoing traditions of contemplative nuns who withdraw from the world and pray for particular causes. As Mother Carmela of Child Jesus, a Thai convent, says
, "Through prayer we are responsible for society and the world." Believers may never see or interact with these nuns, but may nonetheless find solace in the knowledge of the cloistered nuns' prayers.
In the same way, Bolaño suggests that by writing and publishing, Archimboldi (and novelists generally) is (are) responsible for society and the world. The importance of Archimboldi is that he exists, writing and publishing and thereby taking responsibility for the good of humankind.
Like contemplative nuns, Archimboldi has withdrawn from the world - he's a "vanished" writer - and his writing (again like the prayers of the nuns) is invisible to us. Yet Bolaño wants us, the readers, to find solace in the fact of Archimboldi's efforts, just as Catholics find succor in the fact of the contemplative nuns' prayers. The writing itself, like the text of the nuns' prayers, is besides the point.
That's my stab at the wayward thoughtful insight. Now for the snarky
quip: nuns take a vow of poverty; unless Bolaño advocates that novelists do the same (and Bolaño is an author who switched from poetry to novels in order to make money
), the novelist can't afford to go unread.
(Images from The Daily Mail
and National Museums Liverpool