Archive for August, 2010

Daniel Tiffany Interview about Kitsch (Part I)

by on Aug.23, 2010

This is the first of a series of brief interviews I plan to conduct for this site. I’ve divided it into a couple of parts.

Daniel Tiffany

Daniel Tiffany is a wonderful poet and one of the most insightful critics in contemporary U.S. literature. He has published two books of poetry – Puppet Wardrobe and Dandelion Clock (parts published in Action, Yes a while back) – and three books of criticism – Radio Corpse (about Ezra Pound, a book I keep quoting and quoting), Toy Medium and Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (which Joyelle reviewed recently for the Boston Review. He teaches at USC.

I asked him some questions about kitsch, not just because it’s been the topic of some discussion on this blog but also because it’s the subject matter of the book he’s currently writing. And this is his first answer:

“It’s not difficult to arrive at a working definition of kitsch by surveying the qualities that come to mind for most people when they think of “kitsch”: sentimental, vulgar, fraudulent, superficial. These are not nice words. And these associations are the legacy of a generation of modernist critics who defined kitsch in vehement opposition to the formalist ideology of high modernism. Furthermore, these critics entirely suppressed the role of kitsch, as they define it, in the production of art identified with modernism. These efforts to mask and isolate the significance of kitsch were so effective that serious debate about the nature of kitsch has been largely frozen in place–according to these modernist premises–since the 1930s. In addition, a crucial feature of the Romantic origins of kitsch, as the modernist critics defined it, has almost entirely vanished from contemporary notions of kitsch: its fundamental association with poetry and poetics in the early 19th century. The true nature of kitsch can be recovered only by excavating its scandalous–and forgotten–relationship to poetry.

“Taking all of these factors into account, it’s clear that any working definition of kitsch must–at this point–acknowledge the polemical and impoverished legacy of modernist definitions of kitsch. Kitsch remains an enigma–a flaming enigma–precisely because the sanctions put in place against it–against the very idea of kitsch–nearly 75 years ago have proved so effective. Until these sanctions–and erasures–are lifted, kitsch will be nothing more than a scandalous accessory of modernism: the last, great unexamined aesthetic category of the 20th century.”

[Part II will follow tomorrow.]

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Anorexia in temporal drag

by on Aug.20, 2010

So I’ve been thinking more about temporal drag (an idea borrowed from Elizabeth Freeman – see my earlier post), this time in relation to narrative — how narrative crosses time, performing the pull of the past upon the present. Temporal drag in narrative can solder wormholes between eras, producing a vertical layering of temporalities that, in being made to run parallel, refuse anachronism, refuse progress. An example would be Octavia Butler’s Kindred which through a time travel portal forges links and adjacencies between slavery-era U.S. and the present, two seemingly discrete periods that in the narrative are simultaneous; in this approach to time Butler exposes ways in which the present is continuously affected by, suffocated or haunted by, a past that is not past because the present continues to revive it — rejecting the master narrative of progress. Science fiction often does this explicitly through mechanisms like Butler’s portal. Then there’s temporal drag produced via appropriation, via rewriting, revising. These strategies work in different specific ways to produce complex ties across time, bending time, if you will — but that image already presumes linearity.

Susan Terris’s Nell’s Quilt, published in 1987, is a young adult novel set in 1899 that charts the rise and rise and approaching fall of protagonist Nell’s anorexia. This book may seem like a random choice until I tell you I’ve been studying eating disorder narratives. This particular ED narrative is of interest to me because it uses temporal drag to connect different periods through recognizable pathology. (I use the word ‘pathology’ uneasily, am still figuring out how to discuss pathology, or perceived pathology, or ‘pathology,’ with a critical view of the idea itself — open to suggestions for how to do so more elegantly.)

In 1899, when the novel is set, there was no such thing as anorexia as we know it, or as readers in 1987 would have known it: a distinct and recognizable set of behaviors with a complicated etiology and serious bodily consequences first officialized by the DSM in 1980. Eating disorders did not spontaneously emerge in the 70s and 80s, of course, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg has shown in Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa — they’ve been around, first (to my knowledge) documented in the 13th-16th centuries connected with women fasting fastidiously out of religious devotion. Eating disorders, and anorexia has received the most attention probably because it’s the most visible, have come and gone in waves, with one such wave occurring in the late 19th century in the US, England, and France. In the time of Nell’s Quilt, laypeople (and most physicians) knew nothing of eating disorders as eating disorders: Nell’s symptoms are incomprehensible, in fact she’s diagnosed as neurasthenic, and her family rejects what they see as her selfishness, weakness, and stupidity. (Hmm, these attitudes sound familiar — are we sure we’ve moved past them?)

Nell is a young woman stuck in time, living with her family who are struggling to make ends meet on a farm in New England. She can see a future on the horizon, so she goes out and gets a home equity loan to further her family and settle down somewhere. She is both proud and deeply envious of her grandmother, who lived an independent life in Boston, where she was active in advancing women’s rights; and Nell dreams of joining the feminist struggle herself. But she can’t get out of her situation, which seems regressive even to her: she’s faced with an unwanted marriage proposal she feels pressured to accept because her marriage would alleviate her family of much of its debt. Nell’s feminist consciousness develops throughout the novel — she understands that her father is treating her as property because of her gender (“I was the collateral for Papa’s loan”); she resents the unfairness of her best friend Rob being able to go off and explore the world while her own future is limited to either staying on her farm, or marrying and going to live on her husband’s farm, where she’ll be expected to mother his daughter from a previous marriage. Rather than step into either of these futures, Nell stops eating.

Nell’s anorexia is a protest, and the novel treats it as such, is sympathetic to Nell’s situation and the unfair economic and social hierarchies that determine her life. In 1987, the time when Terris was writing the novel, anorexia/EDs were all over the media after Karen Carpenter’s death in 1983, and psychologists and the general population were only just beginning to understand the epidemic, often playing blame-the-anorexic, or sensationalizing them when they weren’t being stigmatized. By moving to the past — to an era where the future of women’s rights was on the horizon, where progress seemed inevitable — within a ‘post-feminist’ context in which so many of these women were giving their power over to eating disorders, Terris implicitly connects the two eras. Her insertion of contemporary, ‘post-feminist’ pathology into a past of emergent feminist potentiality produces a dissonance that suggests that the past is not quite past — sure, “progress,” but not clear or simply progress, the work is not, will never be done — and that makes a case for anorexic behaviors as a reaction, and a legitimate one at that, to sexism both in Nell’s time and in Terris’s.

Pulling from Freeman again, this time her essay on erotohistoriography, I’ll revise her question, which is concerned with queer practices of pleasure, to suit my own interrogation: “how might [dangerous or ‘pathological’ body management practices], be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” (59) What does it mean to link historically specific pathologies via narratological temporal drag? What does it mean to recuperate Freud’s case study of Dora, for instance, as Gina Frangello does in My Sister’s Continent, reviving and revising Dora’s pathology, refusing to see it as over, as historic, as no-longer-conscious? And how might these issues relate to Johannes’ notion of atrocity kitsch? I’m thinking of the sensationalism of a lot of eating disorder narratives, especially the early ones which tend to both exploit and condescend to eating disordered individuals.

I know I said I’d further discuss Muñoz, how his critique of queer utopia relates the past to the future but I’ll save that for a next time, dot dot dot. Meanwhile, from Todd Haynes’ Superstar (full movie available here):

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No Such Thing as Minimalism: Or, What’s so restrained about restraints?

by on Aug.20, 2010

I’m convinced there is no such thing as minimalism. I can’t think of an example in any art form that is convincingly ‘minimal’ to me. Works that usually fall into this category scream fetish at me—an elaborately enforced silence, an elaborately enforced stillness, an elaborately enforced sheen, an elaborately enforced pose. And exposed in each of those ‘enforcements’ is ‘force’. I feel space (of the page, of the gallery, of the concert hall) become impacted by these requirements, solid as a tooth in the jaw. Language usually also packs this ‘emptied’ space like infected bone. Moreover, ‘restraint’ and ‘constraint’ always seem to produce or reveal ‘strain’.

My favorite example of ‘restraint’ not producing minimalism is Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraints. Already deeply in debt to Jack Smith among other sources, Barney makes an absolute expenditure of withholding; his restraint from drawing implodes into acts of wild costume, gesture, texture, insertion, extrusion, multiphilia.

A secondary language of minimalism is the economy of spaces and contexts in which it appears: bank lobbies, bank plazas, the middle of carefully cleaned white pages, under magazine laminate, hissing from the microphone in the acoustical hall. All these environments and adornments and contexts amount to a secondary ‘language’ of minimalism which is the opposite of absence.  The tertiary language of minimalism: money. As we all know from ‘shelter’ magazines, it costs a lot to look like you don’t own anything at all. In the case of ‘minimalist’ writing (what is this anyway? writing that uses few words? few lines?) context is the fee.

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More Nothing

by on Aug.19, 2010

To pick up on Sami’s post, here’s necronaut Tom McCarthy on Auden on ‘nothing’:

‘Poetry,’ in the words of Auden, ‘makes nothing happen’–an active construct in which ‘nothing’ designates an event, perhaps even a momentous one. In looking into the abyssal ground, reading its source code and transmitting this nothing outwards, maybe we will find that our culture also has a secret, silent word.

–from “Calling All Agents: General Secretary’s Report to the International Necronautical Society”, 2003

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Watching Shutter Island; Eating Chocolate Cake; Thinking About Pain

by on Aug.19, 2010

That will take me a little while.  In the meantime, it’s always good to revisit the Nagi Noda animal hair hats, catwalk shadowers, and catwalk animal shadowers:

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Atrocity Kitsch

by on Aug.18, 2010


An Autobiographical Skit:
My dad was a journalist in Eastern Europe when I was a child. With some frequency he’d be put in jail for interviewing “non-existing” (ghosts?) people or trying to smuggle out documents or people from Eastern Europe. He’d come back after a few months and tell fantastic Peer-Gynt-like tales about escapes and chases (my dad is a great embellisher, mythomaniac). The anti-communist Croatian underground met in the living room in our shitty little rowhouse in suburban Sweden while I played with legos on the floor. When our house was bomb threatened, we were given big walkie-talkies and police guards.
I couldn’t sleep when I was a kid. So I’d stay up and watch the news and documentaries with my dad. I was fascinated by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. Once when I went to the bathroom the bubble in my urine made Saddam’s face and I hopelessly tried to keep others from ruining it (if I had been born a few years later, I might have called it “Piss Saddam,” the ultimate work of kitsch). My favorite books were two coffee-table picture books: The Third Reich and Stalin’s Gulags.
But my dad wanted me to be a film-director, not a journalist (because this had been his secret ambition all along), so by the time I was just a few years old, I had watched countless movies by Hitchcock and John Ford (my dad did not have a high-falutin taste).
From my mom I got: the songs of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
From the welfare state I got: a panic about the human body, a pornographic imagination, xenophilia (exactly what I was not supposed to get).
Many of my parents’ friends (especially when we were very young) were leftists, folk singers, agit-prop artists. I remember going to parties where singer Mikael Wiehe would sing communist anthems with his acoustic guitar. The grown ups would put on cautionary puppet theaters about the evils of capitalism and/or the atom bomb.
This is just to say: I was always interested in kitsch and war.

Cue: Ronald Reagan riding into the White House on a White Horse. Cue: The Manson Family staging a tacky mass-murder complete with actresses and a goofy soundtrack (both The White Album and Manson’s own songs naturally), not to mention captions written in blood (ready for documentation Beuys-style). Cue: David Lynch’s restaging of the Manson murders in Blue Velvet (complete with cheesy 50s music), except instead of a murdered would-be mom with her womb torn open, he has a father with his brains torn out. Cue: the Abu Ghraib photographs (preferably on a powerpoint presentation at an academic conference).

Given this, I can’t understand why I don’t have more sympathy for Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, an anthology of wonderful poems from the 20th century.

This is the third entry about Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. As I’ve noted in my other entries, what interests me most about this film is the “garish” vignettes that the movie tries to, but cannot quite make sense of, using trauma and murdered children.

Of all the garish vignettes in Scorsese’s movie the most garish of all are no doubt the highly staged flashbacks to the liberation of a concentration camp. Daniels has frequent dreams about the corpses piled up in train cars etc. Of course what sticks out about these dream is how artistic they are; what makes them horrific is that they make art out of corpses.

It is interesting to me to look at these garish vignettes next to a much more celebrated case of corpses-as-art: Spielberg’s Shindler’s List. Both Scorsese and Spielberg make use of similarly ultra-staged imagery of concentration camps: holocaust installation art. But while Scorsese’s film has been viewed as garish, Spielberg was not only given a pass for his highly asetheticized holocaust imagery, he was turned into a figure of great moral importance. This guy who made Jaws and ET in much the same spirit he made his holocaust movie gained this moral weight because he constantly insisted (in the movie but also outside of the movie) that he was using atrocity art for a moral purpose – to memorialize the historical trauma of the holocaust. In other words, the Holocaust served the same purpose the personal trauma serves in Shutter Island: it explain the art, it gives it a greater function.

Or to invoke Joyelle’s earlier post: Spielberg establishes his film as a genre – What Carolyn Forche might call “poetry of witness”, “against forgetting.” His film was not garish, not waste, it was not kitsch.

Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting is a collection of great poems and a work of utter atrocity kitsch. It includes garish (and often great) poems made useful by a framework of “witness” that itself – unbeknownst to Forche it seems – is one of the most garish critical frameworks I’ve ever come across: poems that come out of atrocities.

The anthology is divided into an Epcot Center of European genocides: one section for the Armenian genocide, one for the Holocaust etc. Forche’s criteria for inclusion: “…significant poets who endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century – through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare and assassination.” And: “The criteria for inclusion were these: poets must have personally endured such conditions; they must be considered important to their national literatures; and their work, if not in English, must be available in quality translation.” (30)

It is both the fetishization of horrors and an attempt to contain that garish fetish. To turn her perverse fascination into a textbook. But of course perverse fascinations are more powerful than textbooks; if you try to turn perversion into a textbook, you’re likely to end up with a perverse textbook. And that’s what Against Forgetting is. A perverse textbook about atrocity kitsch.

Forche’s book begins with a corpse: the corpse of Hungarian poet Radnoti, which is flung into a mass grave toward the end of World War II. When his widow exhumes the body, she finds his book of poems in his pocket “soaked in the fluids of the body and blackened by wet earth.”

What we have here is of course a garish corpse vignette that would fit right into Shutter Island. But it’s more important than that to Forché. It provides her with a model of authorship: the corpse as author. It seems the easiest political stance we can imagine is the body of the victim. In order to think of the politics of surrealism (which is of course very radical), Forche has to turn it into the politics of the victim body (as opposed to the French Surrealists, for example, who imagined the artist as someone shooting into a crowd).

Throughout her introduction to an anthology of incredibly garish, wild, often surrealist poems about atrocities, Forché emphasizes that the reason for these fanciful poems is the atrocities, that the atrocities in all their horror wrote the poems more or less. The poets were just writing down their “witness, “ not engaging in fanciful and decadent and garish artistry.

Or as she notes, “extremity produces a new kind of postcard.” Ie, the atrocities makes the postcard (kitsch!), not the author.

Here’s the piece by Radnoti that this refers to:

Blood saliva hangs on the mouths of the oxen.
Blood shows in every man’s urine.
The company stands in wild knots, stinking.
Death blows overhead, revolting.

[It seems implied that American poetry is not like this because we don’t have traumas to produce this kind of atrocious postcard. Which of course is false. Pace the actual postcards sent from lynchings in the first half of America’s own wonderful 20th century. Forché does include US poetry but only from the Civil Rights movement and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, as if there was not extremity or violence outside of these very visible instances of violence, as if capitalism isn’t built on systemic violence.]

Forche comes off as someone fascinated by the wild and powerful imagery of poetry written in World War II and under suppression in Eastern Europe, in particular Surrealist poetry, but she doesn’t feel quite comfortable just liking it. She has to find a genre for it, a purpose for it, a trauma to make sense of the garish imagery.

But also: She is fascinated by corpses and she has to find a use for it.

I think about Forché’s context: the highly anti-kitsch, highly regulated (“you must earn the image”) Quietist Workshops. Workshops that produced very tasteful, regular, uninteresting, apolitical poetry in droves. She finds this wild surrealist poetry that doesn’t at all abide by the rules of the Quietist Workshop (Can you imagine someone turning in Celan’s “Death Fugue” to a traditional workshop – “this poem is garish” or “it goes too far” or “you haven’t earned these images” would not doubt be the response, more about this poem in the next post). The way she deals with it is to say that this wild poetry is wild because it is written under extreme duress; the atrocities are “imprinted” in the poetry. As if the poetry wasn’t written at all! As if it were in fact quietist poetry, but the difference is that we live in nice, wholesome America and these European poets lived in horror.

In order to allow herself to be more striking/surrealistic/wild, she invents the project of The Angel of History: to re-inhabit the suffering of World War II. Thus she makes her poetry much wilder, imagistically striking etc.

But she’s not entirely recreating surrealist poetry. There are images (a wedding dress in a shed etc) that are garishly striking. But there’s a huge difference between the european poets and Forche’s own poetry: Her poetry is very much framed by the typical poetic subjectivity, which paradoxically provides a distance from the images. The images are always framed by her subjectivity. We know we are good and that others are bad. We are always safe in this poem.

Note to self: I must stop using the word “garish” soon. I just love it too much.

One interesting intertext is Sylvia Plath with her montage Hiroshima fevers and Nazi-Daddies and skin made of Jew linen. Plath was influenced by the Surrealists and some of the same poets that are in Forché’s anthology. But in difference to Forché, Plath is not interested in making these poets and their poetics useful, tasteful; she’s interested in the garishness of their imagery and in making them even more garish, even less tasteful. She is interested in the trauma, but she does not want to historicize the trauma, contain it; in her poetry trauma saturates the text.

One can also bring in Andre Breton and his use of shellshock and hysteria in the creation of Surrealism (the key movement for this anthology): The shellshock was the reason soldiers started to ramble from the unconscious, but it is not an end point, it’s an opening. It holds a similar role in the originary myth of Surrealism as Breton’s movie-hopping experiences, which left him “charged-up” for days.

To Be Continued….

(Next Episode: Ken Chen’s the Sublime and Atrocity, Total Art, Aase Berg’s Dark Matter etc)

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Does the Body Exist?

by on Aug.17, 2010

Reading Lucas and Kate’s posts today, my head is swimming with questions about the body.

I myself am given over to thoughts of the body– gross bodies, leaking bodies, corroding bodies that produce virus replicants instead of natural children. On the other hand, I am not a biological essentialist/determinist– I reject those models, and have little sympathy for the idea that language is actually rooted in ‘the body’ or in the spatial experience of the real world… So how to deal with this paradox?

Of course I could say, well, I reject naturalism, I don’t see the body as the term of naturalness, goodness, etc, I see it as a porousness, to media, to the supernatural, as the site of perversion, of unnaturalness. I like that detournment, but, still, I’m wondering– is the body a site at all? Is it material? Is it a material?

Reading post-colonial lit, such as the work of Don Mee Choi, I’m made to wonder, if this site the body doesn’t have a location, or can’t be located, than what is it?

Thinking of the body as a medium is inviting to me. So are Kate Bernheimer’s ghosts. Can ghosts be a modality that replaces the body? Do ghosts have a site? Certainly their transitoriness is their necessary quality… That makes me think of the child soldiers, suicide bombers etc who think of themselves as already dead and thus capable of a fantasized ultramobility/motility/ability…

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Conversations with Ghosts: Sarah Hannah and Stacey Levine

by on Aug.17, 2010


This: Sarah Hannah

“There are two sides to everything:/The ring and its ghost, the one/calling and the one called.”

–Sarah Hannah, “Elegy for a Bell”

Two sides to everything, but was she always calling from the other side? Is she talking now? Whose elegy is this? There were games we used to play that never were games. The ghosts who really were there. In tenth grade we spent hours up in the attic of her mother’s cottage—under her spell—though she was below us, downstairs, always smoking.  Upstairs we watched reruns of The Twilight Zone and wrote poems with a Ouija Board, and we talked, over and over again, about “Harold and Maude.” About how Maude treated Harold so kindly, believing in his suicides, that they were real and not fakes. One dark and leafy suburban afternoon, we even made our own “Odorifics” machine: fashioned it from a miniature trunk, like a pirate’s chest, but with a crank on the back. It was a music box, perhaps it belonged to her mother and we had snuck it up there; whether it belonged to her mother or not everything we did in the house was very furtive. We crept. Inside there was always a fog. Through the keyhole we threaded a bendy straw, striped; it was too fat for the hole and bent nearly closed, but it fit. To the straw, we attached a sock with a rubber band, and then we cut off the heel. One of us would hold the sock over the mouth with closed eyes; the other would put items inside the pirate trunk music box and crank. “Cigarette butt, perfume, and acorn.” “Diet pill, vodka, and bubble gum.” (We always chewed a particular brand.) I can’t remember the song the box played. In the movie, Maude tells Harold, when he compliments the amazing experience of Odorifics, “Thank you. I thought of continuing – graduating to the abstract and free-smelling – but then I decided to switch to the tactile.” There are two sides to everything she herself said. But—switch to the tactile. One time, Sarah and I did a strange sort of duet. We did a tap dance and, as we hop-shuffle-stepped in a circle, we recited together the monologue from Hamlet; this was to audition for a school play. (It was Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and we got parts as extras, as peasants. I remember only stage fright and dread and that we wore kerchiefs and that I completely forgot my only line.) Sarah had said in planning the audition, “Let’s make something happen!” And she did.

That: Stacey Levine

Author Kate Bernheimer asked author Stacey Levine for an interview with a ghost. Uncannily, a ghost interrogated Stacey Levine that very afternoon, outside her home, in the rain. She recorded the conversation via phone call to her mother’s voicemail. The following is a transcript of the interview.

GHOST (sitting motionless in a rocking lawn chair):  Why have you endeavored to read and write about ghosts? What has been particularly challenging about that?

STACEY L:  You come all the way back from the dead, and it’s literature that’s on your mind? You’re breaking all stereotypes. All right: Illuminating authors come to mind. Recently reading *Ghosts* by Cesar Aira was terrific. I loved the section about architecture, and the mindfulness to socioeconomic class. Writing about ghosts–I’ve done that only once, in a short story called “Believing It Was George Harrison.” I wrote this because I dreamed of a ghost. Dreams feed fiction well. They bypass the personality and tap into the universal pipeline.

GHOST:   When a human being dreams of a ghost, he or she is actually receiving a visitation from a ghost.

STACEY L.:  No. That is not what happened.

GHOST:  Yes, it is. There are things you have no idea about. You might bear in mind, too, that ghosts are very different than their once-living correlatives. The two entities scarcely have a thing in common, in fact.

STACEY L.:  Then what is a ghost?

GHOST:  Among other things, a state of mind. 

STACEY L.:  You contradict yourself. How can a ghost visit a human being if ghosts are a state of mind?

GHOST:  Don’t get pantsy. Ghosts are dust-laden. We can’t communicate by touching. We’re fields of frustration englobed by the divine. Now go on with your answers.

STACEY L.:  Okay…it wasn’t quick and easy to write about George Harrison’s ghost, but it wasn’t too difficult, either.

GHOST:  Let’s skip the self-praise. Why write about a Beatle’s ghost? 

STACEY L.:  His ghost is a representation of the all the characters’ longings. Isn’t that what ghosts and demons really are?

GHOST:  I tire quickly and fall sideways. Generally, I don’t dwell on anything. We ghosts mostly like jokes, parties, and pratfalls.

STACEY L.:  See, I was never a fan of pratfalls.

GHOST:  Because you’re not buoyant. And I’m done with you now.

STACEY L.:  But I have a question for you. Do you have an awareness of who you are, who you once were?

GHOST:  Psychoanalytic, sentimental nonsense. I really hate that. (Ghost no longer in the chair.)

Stacey Levine is the author of My Horse and Other Stories and other books. A new edition of her romance novel spoof, Frances Johnson, was recently published by Verse Chorus Press. Her short story collection The Girl with Brown Fur, including “Believing It Was George Harrison,”  is scheduled for publication in April 2011 by Starcherone/Dzanc.

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New issue of Action, Yes

by on Aug.16, 2010

A new issue of Action, Yes is now up:

It features stories, art and poems by Aylin Bloch Boynukisa (translated by Johannes Göransson), Bradley Paul, Boris Pasternak (translated by James Stotts), Brandon Shimoda, Sampson Starkweather, Georg Trakl (translated by Parker Smathers), Marina Tsvetaeva (translated by James Stotts) and many more.

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The Child, the Animal, Lispector

by on Aug.16, 2010

Existentialist Brazilian TV. 1977. Clarice Lispector refuses to name her unpublished book’s protagonist, whom we now know as Macabea. “It’s a secret,” she says. In this, her last interview, Lispector is asked about her relationship to students who visit her home. Specifically, what this relationship “reveals.”

Lispector: “It reveals something surprising. That they’re in the same boat.”

Reporter: “What does that mean, to be in the same boat?”

Lispector: “It’s that I think, sometimes, I’m isolated. Then I see university students–very young people–who are completely on my side. This shocks me. It’s gratifying.”

A smoker, Lispector is somber throughout the interview, unrecognizably Brazilian. “I’m talking from my tomb.” Yet, again on the topic of youth, the writer rises from her grave: “When I communicate with children, it’s easy because I’m very maternal.” And falls once more: “When I communicate with adults, I’m actually communicating with the most secretive part of me. Then it’s difficult.”

She thinks “the adult is sad and solitary” while “the child has released imagination” (fantasia).


Au hasard Balthazar. A film by Robert Bresson, Sontag’s spiritual stylist. The camera follows a donkey and a girl by making mirrors of their intimacy:

Haystacks, swing sets, a bestial baptism followed by the sharing of salt. Marie and her playmates fail to see a line dividing themselves and the foal. There’s no display of species anxiety. If their behavior suggests fantasy, it’s not that of spectacle, Disney, the crudely anthropomorphic. Marie, later in the film, stages a solemn wedding ceremony for herself and Balthazar. Children, we’re told, are innocent: their humanity is not oppressive to them like it is to us. While Edelman’s desperately reproductive adult thus figures the Child into “an imaginary fantasy of the recognizably human,” here our vision blurs. Children spill into the animal. They even get sick and approach death as fragile animals.

This weird species of space begs a question I could ask in two ways. My attempt to be stupid, if not childlike:

if child and animal coexist boundlessly, of what, if not power, does their relationship consist?

if Romulus and Remus (or, in India, Amala and Kamala) were raised by the she-wolf, what did she see when she first saw them?  Why not eat them?


These are not questions I want to answer.


Reporter:  “At what point, according to you, does the human being become sad and solitary?”

Lispector: “That’s a secret. I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer…”

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The Name of This Post Is Overdue

by on Aug.16, 2010

So the other night the neighbors were, once again, having a drum circle (or maybe it was rehearsals for The People’s Drum Circle Pandora, hard to say). I said it sounded like Cleopatra coming down the Nile, & since neither of us had ever in fact seen the Taylor-Burton spectacle, & it was available for download on Netflix on demand, shortly thereafter we were watching the showdown between Caesar and the scheming eunuch Pothinus. But Liz’s celebrated costume changes, which wouldn’t pass muster with today’s Project-Runway-schooled public, and Rex Harrison’s acerbic take on Julius Caesar, rebuffing Cleopatra like she’s an uppity flower girl, made the full 4-hour-plus running time look insurmountable; we checked out around minute 54.

Nonetheless, one detail in the Roman assault on Alexandria caught our attention. “Did Julius Caesar really burn down the Library of Alexandria?” queried Judith.  Well, for reasons unknown, I had recently been reading something about this film Agora, with Rachel Weisz starring as the female philosopher and astronomer Hypatia. (The movie apparently depicts her legendary kiss-off to a male admirer, handing him a handkerchief soaked in her menstrual blood and saying, “This is what you really love.” Which story I find, I’ll admit it, oblique.) Agora’s stirred up controversy for showing 4th-century Christians being ornery and malevolent, and among other things burning down the Library of Alexandria. Knowing this, I said I thought it happened later, and that Joseph Mankiewicz and company were just making shit up.  Besides which, the confluence sounded a little too world-historical, as if Abraham Lincoln invented the ice-cream cone.

When in doubt, though, one checks Wikipedia, am I right? & so it turns out (maybe everyone except us already knows this) to be a far more complex story, summarized for instance in this post here. Suffice it to say that Caesar and Bishop Theophilus both take some lumps, as do invading Arabs in 641. The real upshot seems to be, though, that nobody really knows for sure what exactly happened to the library. Deciding to ramp up my scholarly efforts, I poked about on JSTOR, logging on offsite to my U of Chicago library account, and turned up a really lovely and rich piece by Daniel Heller-Roazen: “Tradition’s Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria” (October 100, Spring 2002: 133-53.) It’s worth reading in its entirety, but some of the highlights:

About the philologists who worked at the Library:  “Their profession could not be better expressed than by the epithet that Strabo attributes to Philitas of Cos, perhaps the first great Hellenistic literary figure: “at once poet and critic.” They were not only dedicated to the composition of literary works; at the same time, they also formulated the principles and practices of the first textual criticism in the West. Their scholarship took the form of a massive project aimed at the conservation and, more radically, the “emendation” and “rectification” of the works of the classical Greek authors.”

The last known director of the Library, whose classifications of Attic poetry remain in effect today: “Vitruvius left us the following portrait of Aristophanes of Byzantium, in which the life of the man can hardly be separated from that of his archive: “Everyday,” Vitruvius writes, “he did nothing other than read and reread all the books of the Library, for the whole day, examining and reading through the order in which were shelved.”

The Library’s procurement practices: “Explaining how the copy of the Epidemics that once belonged to the physician Mnemon of Side came to be housed in Alexandria, Galen recounts that the Ptolemies issued an edict ordering all ships arriving at the port to be searched for books that might be aboard them. If any were found, they were to be immediately confiscated and copied; the originals were then to be added to the collection, while the duplicates were to be returned to the owners. Such books, Galen remarks, were marked as such in the Library, where they bore a specific label: “from the ships.”

The Library’s philosophical significance: “For the ethical and political philosophy of the Stoa taught nothing if not that the multiplicity of peoples, “united among themselves in one society and commonality” (quasi civili conciliatione et societate coniunctos) formed a single “great city” (magna urbs) ruled by a one law. The Library, the crowning achievement of Ptolemaic Egypt, was the archive of this “megalopolis”; and the form in which it collected works “from everywhere,” arranged according to a single order, mirrored that of the Hellenistic “world,” defined by the Stoics precisely as one organized “society [or republic] of all.”

Heller-Roazen documents, to the extent that his sources allow, how this institution devoted to the preservation and transmission of literary works became a Petri dish for forgery and textual corruption.  In a similar fashion, he suggests, the idea of the Library in essence had its destruction inherent in it all along.  “The life of the Library, like the life of the fire, was to nourish itself on what it consumed, to allow writing to live in outliving itself, bearing witness, in this way, to the catastrophe of the past in the present.”

As universal archive, the Library sought to free itself from a history whose destructive potential lay amply documented in the texts that it contained. It’s a paradox, or perhaps just a destiny, that would have made lucid sense to another Alexandrian who came millennia later:

from In a Township of Asia Minor

C. A. Cavafy (trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

The news about the outcome of the sea-battle at Actium

was of course unexpected.

But there’s no need for us to draft a new proclamation.

The name’s the only thing that has to be changed.

There, in the concluding lines, instead of: “Having freed the Romans

from Octavius, that disaster,

that parody of a Caesar,”

we’ll substitute: “Having freed the Romans

from Antony, that disaster,. . . “

The whole text fits very nicely.

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by on Aug.14, 2010

Following up on Joyelle’s post about The Bourne Identity, I saw Green Zone on a transatlantic flight last week. It was like watching Bourne 4. Same Damon holding it steady with no backstory, same director (as Bourne 2 and 3) holding the camera unsteady. Same contrast between men of action who demand our respect and weaselly pencil pushers talking dramatically into phones. Same reproductive futurism that Joyelle points out (substitute “For The Future of Iraq” for “For The Children”). As with Bourne 1, the central question of identity that Damon relentlessly asks is not “Who am I?” but “Why am I here?” Unlike Bourne 1, where no immediate answer is evident, Green Zone offers up an initial, false answer: Matt Damon is in Iraq because “WMDs” exist. The rest of the movie is about Damon exposing their non-existence. So while Bourne 1 is built around a blank trauma that is then filled in with detail, Green Zone is built around a detailed trauma that is then erased. We’re left with nothing. It’s as if Bourne 4 (aka Green Zone) is an attempt to strip away the identity established in the first movie, as if identity is predicated on trauma, and all traumas are only emblems of trauma. In other words, the real trauma is there is no trauma. A true identity is no identity.

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Poetics of Apocalypse (1)

by on Aug.13, 2010


I love this poem.  It does so much with so little.  I marvel at how the two lines mirror each other in their trajectory — a doubling of image and consequence — with the bottom edge always lagging slightly behind.  And from the jagged lines the eye turns to the encyclopedic phrase “Thousands of Years Before Present” — which for contemporary readers can’t help but suggest, perhaps ironically, the post-Derridean project of nonpresence — the heavy words flowing naturally left to right even as the numbers move backwards toward erasure. And what big numbers!  Nearly unfathomable.  And, as in many great works of art, the political is not tossed aside in favor of the aesthetic.  Within all the dynamism of the lyric lies a subtext of responsibility captured as emblem: a red, white, and blue flag fixed without wind — static on the screen.  Ultimately, for me, the poem recalls Gauguin’s famous painting:  Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?  Floating between the two rhetorical arrows of time the most compelling question in both works is not Where  but What  —  really What are we? And like that painting the poem points nostalgically back to the past, a simpler past in which humans lived in a closer and more beautiful bond with Nature.  But there’s one more play to make.  Finally, in startling fashion the blue line fires straight up at the end — making what appears to be a closed-ended poem, a static art, burst always forward into the future.  Remarkable.  A Flash.  Epiphany.  I mean who can get away with that anymore?

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