[a weekly compilation of random things]
Easter has welcomed us quietly, during the night, with a thin layer of snow: a blank page falling over everything, and its ever recurring promise of new beginnings. An absent place, breeding lilacs out of dead land.
Apples and oranges
“Of course, comparing apples and oranges isn’t all that difficult to do for most people—I like apples better, myself. When people say that you shouldn’t compare, say, Fantastic Four comics to The Importance of Being Earnest, they don’t mean that such comparisons are impossible. Instead, they mean that such comparisons are unfair. Putting an apple next to an orange results in the invidious, possibly elitist devaluation of oranges, and an insufficiently refined appreciation of the essence of orangeness.
The resistance to comparison is often a subset of the resistance to criticism in general, rooted in concern that analysis and evaluation will damage the analyzed and evaluated. As a quote often attributed to Elvis Costello has it, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Juxtaposing different things results, not in insight, but in intellectual and even spiritual confusion. Critics who attempt to squish disparate things together into one snowball threaten to tarnish the uniqueness of each separate snowflake.
But does art itself keep to this model of purity, with each aesthetic experience carefully separated and kept in its place?
I’m sure somewhere out there someone has created a dance about architecture—why not? Art finds meaning, humor, excitement, and surprise in juxtapositions and comparisons (…) and, similarly, criticism can find meaning, interest, humor, and insight in putting two seemingly disparate things next to each other and thinking about how they fit together, or how they don’t. Is The Wire like Greek tragedy? Are superheroes modern myths? Is your selfie comparable to Rembrandt’s self portraits? The answer in each case is in some ways yes, in some ways not so much—but the differences and similarities lead you to ideas, and aesthetic perspectives, you might not have had otherwise. One’s experience of art is always linked to one’s experience of other art. Artwork relies on tropes, genres, and prior knowledge
Whether art is bad or good or better depends, not just on whether it succeeds within the boundaries it sets for itself, but on whether those boundaries are well chosen, or foolish, beautiful or ugly, virtuous or morally contemptible. Is Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a ‘Changin’ better than Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing? It depends on whether you think politics in art should be generalized or specific, utopian or apocalyptic. But putting the two together makes you choose—and so forces you to interrogate the art, and your own opinions, with more care than you would have if you hadn’t brought them together.
Part of the excitement, and joy, of art is the opportunity to see other possibilities and other potentials. And that’s the excitement, and joy, of criticism too—whether you’re preparing to eat apples, or oranges, or kiwi, or some strange, unknown, misshapen fruit, that combines all of them, and is better than each.”
(Noah Berlatsky, LitHub, December 7th, 2016)
I am a salivating mouth
I am this
face to plate to
that I’m alone
and I alone am
the one -> pushing
(Layli Long Soldier, “Irony”. Poets.org, December 7th, 2016)
April is in my mistress’ face,
(To fill a Gap)
“To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it—
Block it up
With Other—and ’twill yawn the more—
You cannot solder an Abyss
“Absent Place — an April Day —
To the Souls that snow —
Drift may block within it
Deeper than without —
Daffodil delight but
Him it duplicate –”
I thought of her anger as a kind of blade
“In various disciplines people spend a lot of time digging tunnels that go straight ahead without looking side to side. And if they had looked side to side they would have seen an obvious error.
This is funny but I’ve often found scientists more open than some people in literature. More generous in a way, more accepting. But I also think part of it is because, and I say this in the essay “No Competition,” it is true that you cannot define the worth of a novel. Novels become famous and last because a consensus grows around them that this is a valuable piece of work. And as we know there are also great things that are thrown away and may be revived later.
In science there are bodies of knowledge. You’re sharing that body of knowledge, yakking away about it, and trying to ask interesting questions. But there is something that can be mastered. There’s more of a there there, as Gertrude Stein said. Reviewing a work of art, though, you hardly know what it means. There’s no final standard.
In an essay called “Three Emotional Stories,” I talk about the fact that I think at a kind of ur-level in the mind-brain, doing physics, doing philosophy, writing a novel—they are all the same. It’s all about this very rhythmic, muscular experience. I love this quote from Einstein. Jacques Hadamard, the mathematician, asked Einstein how he worked, and Einstein said, “None of my work has anything to do with science, either mathematical or linguistic.” He essentially said, “My work is visual, muscular, and emotional.”
When I read this I was so blown away because he was able to get hold of what most artists—and people working in many different fields—don’t really get hold of.
I take the long view. The long view is that in the United States and in many countries in the world, women have not had the vote for one hundred years. That’s one long lifetime. So that there should be ongoing prejudice and denigration of women is not surprising.
At the same time, I don’t really believe that progress is inevitable. Look what just happened in our country. This is definitely going backward. But I think taking a long view is good for one’s sanity.
And anger can be good. One of the wonderful happy parts of writing as the character Harriet Burden in The Blazing World was that she was so angry. It was so invigorating, I could just let loose with this character because that’s who she is. She’s just in rage. And it’s a kind of rage that has no depression in it. It’s just very focused. I thought of her anger as a kind of blade. I enjoyed it enormously.
Sometimes rage is a liberating quality. Rage is connected to the hope that things will be different.
(Siri Hustvedt, Guernica, April, 3rd, 2017)
And love, it isn’t love until it’s past
The public voice of women
What interests me is the relationship between that classic Homeric moment of silencing a woman and some of the ways women’s voices are not publicly heard in our own contemporary culture, and in our own politics from the front bench to the shop floor.
There is more to all this than meets the eye, however. This ‘muteness’ is not just a reflection of women’s general disempowerment throughout the classical world: no voting rights, limited legal and economic independence and so on. Ancient women were obviously not likely to raise their voices in a political sphere in which they had no formal stake. But we’re dealing with a much more active and loaded exclusion of women from public speech than that – and, importantly, it’s one with a much greater impact than we usually acknowledge on our own traditions, conventions and assumptions about the voice of women. What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.
We need to think more fundamentally about the rules of our rhetorical operations. I don’t mean the old stand-by of ‘men and women talk different languages, after all’ (if they do, it’s surely because they’ve been taught different languages). And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that we go down the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ route. My hunch is that if we’re going to make real progress with the ‘Miss Triggs question’, we need to go back to some first principles about the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do. And rather than push women into voice training classes to get a nice, deep, husky and entirely artificial tone, we should be thinking more about the faultlines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.
What I’m pointing to here is a critically self-aware ancient tradition: not one that directly challenges the basic template I’ve been outlining, but one that is determined to reveal its conflicts and paradoxes, and to raise bigger questions about the nature and purpose of speech, male or female. We should perhaps take our cue from this, and try to bring to the surface the kinds of question we tend to shelve about how we speak in public, why and whose voice fits. What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it. (…)”
(Mary Beard, London Review of Books, March, 20th, 2014)
Printing her name in what we call stardust
She catches it:
the revolving star atop
a police cruiser, reflecting
in a flash, the blood moon
coming up at dusk. Printing
her name in what we call
stardust. No one can look
for long into a burning
mirror: faces break up into
(Carol Muske-Dukes, “Wildfire Moon”. Poets.org, November 14th, 2016)
Women in Power
The right to be heard is crucially important. But I want to think more generally about how we have learned to look at women who exercise power, or try to; I want to explore the cultural underpinnings of misogyny in politics or the workplace, and its forms (what kind of misogyny, aimed at what or whom, using what words or images, and with what effects); and I want to think harder about how and why the conventional definitions of ‘power’ (or for that matter of ‘knowledge’, ‘expertise’ and ‘authority’) that we carry round in our heads have tended to exclude women.
You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently.
(Mary Beard, London Review of Books, March, 16th, 2017)
To the core
To speak to the core
that creates and swallows, to speak not always to what’s
shouting, but to what’s underneath asking for nothing.
I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl.”
(Ada Limón, “Notes on the below”. Poets.org, November 29th, 2016)
The Feminine Heroic
The portrayal of the feminine heroic often juxtaposes suffering and strength. Consider Cleopatra and the asp, the wounded Amazon warrior sculptures of Ancient Greece, or Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1620 masterpiece, Judith Slaying Holofernes. The painting shows Judith murdering the lusting Holofornes in his sleep, after luring him with her feminine guile.
Gentileschi was known for the way she “humanized strong women characters,” and imbued them with “raw emotional intensity.” She allowed Judith startling physicality: a furrowed brow, tense forearms, the lethal wielding of a weapon. The painting is widely accepted as a masterpiece of revenge, inspired by Gentileschi’s rape at eighteen by her father’s colleague Agostino Tassi, who was convicted at trial but never punished. In the painting, Judith radiates rage, suffering and strength. She’s the hero, full of agency, blood on her hands.
Depicting the feminine heroic has traditionally meant acknowledging the tension between Jungian archetypes—anima (feminine) and animus (masculine)—within a person, and amplifying the masculine traits: leadership, strength, tenacity. Imagine if emotional dexterity and agile compromise were valorized as much as stoicism and physical strength? Nurture over conquest, peace over violence, conservation over exploitation. As women carve more space for themselves in the adventure cannon, perhaps readers will see more of the feminine heroic, allow for its complexity and range, and acknowledge the relationship between representation, power, and possibility.”
(Megan Mayhew Bergman, The Paris Review, April 11th, 2017)
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
(T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land, I. The Burial of the dead”. Here)
The wandering uterus
The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen. If it wandered the wrong direction and made its way to the throat there would be choking, coughing or loss of voice, if it got stuck in the the rib cage, there would be chest pain or shortness of breath, and so on. Most any symptom that belonged to a female body could be attributed to that wandering uterus. “Treatments,” including vaginal fumigations, bitter potions, balms, and pessaries made of wool, were used to bring that uterus back to its proper place. “Genital massage,” performed by a skilled physician or midwife, was often mentioned in medical writings. The triad of marriage, intercourse, and pregnancy was the ultimate treatment for the semen-hungry womb. The uterus was a troublemaker and was best sated when pregnant.
It is no accident that such a diagnosis took off just as some of these same women were fighting to gain access to universities and various professions in the US and Europe. A decrease in marriages and falling birth rates coincided with this medical diagnosis criticizing the New Woman and her focus on intellectual, artistic, or activist pursuits instead of motherhood.
(Terri Kapsalis, LitHub, April, 5th, 2017)
Easter is my season of defeat
I’ve ever loved
my able reach.
(Jill Alexander Essbaum, “Easter”, Poetry, January, 2011)
Whenever you see a story within a story
“Since I am only human, truth is not what is reflected in the mirror, but is in the act of holding up the mirror to see what is reflected in the mirror.
Whenever you see a story within a story, or a play within a play, or a painting within a novel, I propose that what you’re seeing is a mirror held up to a mirror, a twist and perversion of the old metaphor, and it’s in service of so much more than something like “plot.” It disorients a reader in her place in relation to the work of art. And I just love that.
When fictions are embedded in fictions, when we see a character influenced by a work of art to behave in a certain way, the notion of “self” or “character” is presented to us as enactment. Personhood is not a noun, but a verb. It is a function that is both fluid and continually formed and re-formed in response to bearing witness to the world and, especially, to art.
Our human lives, it seems to me, are fundamentally quixotic. Give me parables nested in paradoxes—not in a heady metafictional way, but like the very riddle of existence, in a way that stuns and disables the intellect. I want fiction to bend, for its structure not to mirror the reality I think I see, but for its form and structure to help me peel back and question the way reality seems. The way I seem. I love working with the English language precisely because it fails. Even the most perfect word or phrase or narrative can at best shadow and haunt the phenomena of the world. Words and stories offer a way of experiencing being that is in their most perfect articulation a beat removed from direct experience. And so have I long mistrusted those works in which representation and words function without a hiccup, creating a story that is meant to be utterly believed.
I have had teachers of writing who have said: Stop worrying about all of this. Don’t think! And I get what that is supposed to mean—that writing from the head is different from writing from the heart, or gut. But old, long-entrenched habits of perception—so personally and culturally pervasive that we fail to notice them—can make it hard to distinguish what is the heart from what is mere custom, impulse, and/or cultural baggage. This seems insidious to me—not because we might be creating “bad” art, but because in mistaking something profound in the relationship between being and art, we might waste our lives. If in order to write well I must write from the heart, but something tells me some shadowy culture baggage in the form of convention is shaping that heart, then there is as much personal work as there is artistic work to be done. Why shouldn’t the process of attempting to make art change me, fundamentally? And over and over again? Don’t “I” arise continually alongside everything else?
So rather than hold up a mirror to nature—or viewing the world as a stage from some seat, somehow (how?) situated off of the world-stage itself—my imagination has been captured by experimenting with holding up mirrors to holding up mirrors. When writers such as Fielding did the same, it was not merely a narrative hiccup, or a bump in the road to creating the type of fiction that is now more mainstream. It was and is fundamentally, metaphysically at odds with more familiar fiction that aims to be represent reality. This is not an argument that all fiction should be metafictional or absurdist or heady. But it does seem to me that what is now generally accepted as “fiction” emerged out of an essentialism that is oddly consoling in its reduction of each individual to a particular set of characteristics, and the reality they inhabit a background distinct from this self. At worst, behind this form are assumptions about identity and reality that may prevent us from really knowing or loving ourselves or each other, and certainly shield us from mystery.”
(Bonnie Nadzam. LitHub, July 26th, 2016)
Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake
1 1/4 pounds of dark raisins
10 ounces of currants
6 ounces (1 cup) of finely-diced citron
1/4 cup of all-purpose flour (spooned into the cup and leveled)
2 cups (8 ounces) of sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/4 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon of ground mace
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves
1/2 pound (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup of granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1/4 cup of brandy
1/4 cup molasses (I use Grandma’s)
1. Adjust two oven racks with one in the center and one in the lowest position. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Butter two 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 3/4 inch loaf pans. Line the bottoms of the pans with parchment or waxed paper cut to fit, and butter the paper. Set the pans aside. Place a 13 x 9 x 2 inch pan half-filled with hot tap water on the lower oven rack.
2. In a large bowl combine the raisins, currants, and citron. Add the 1/4 cup of flour and toss the fruits with your fingers to coat each piece well. Set aside.
3. Whisk together thoroughly in a medium bowl the 2 cups of flour with the salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat the butter with the paddle attachment of an electric stand mixer on medium speed until very soft and smooth, about 1 minute. While beating on medium speed, gradually sprinkle in the sugar, 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, and beat for about 20 seconds between additions. When all the sugar has been added, scrape the bowl and beater and beat on medium-high uninterrupted for 5 minutes. In a 2-cup glass measure or small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork just to combine the yolks and whites.
While beating on low speed, drizzle in the eggs in 2 to 3 tablespoon installments. Beat until each addition is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next. The batter may look curdled; don’t be concerned. When all the eggs are in, scrape the bowl and beat on medium high speed for 3 minutes. At this point the batter should be smooth and fluffy. Scrape the bowl and beater well.
4. With the machine on low speed, alternately add the sifted dry ingredients in 3 additions and the brandy in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat only until each addition is
thoroughly incorporated. Add the molasses and beat it in on low speed. Transfer the batter to a large, wide, shallow bowl with about an 8-quart capacity (mine is 13 1/2 inches in diameter and 4
3/4 inches deep). For ease in mixing, it is important that the bowl not be too deep.
5. Now you will add the fruit to the batter, but it must be done gradually. In the play, “The Belle of Amherst,” Miss Dickinson says “slowly now–as you stir.” Scatter a handful of the fruits over the batter and stir them in well with a wooden spoon. Stir until each piece is well-coated with batter. Continue adding the fruits a handful at a time, making sure to stir until well-coated with the batter before adding the next installment. If you add the fruits too fast, they will tend to stick together in clumps instead of remaining in separate pieces. The batter will be very stiff once all the fruits are in. Spoon the batter into the pans, packing it down with a rubber spatula to remove any air pockets. The pans will be about
three-fourths full. Place the pans in the oven on the middle rack.
After 2 hours of baking remove the pan of water. Continue baking the cakes for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until they spring back when gently pressed and a thin wooden skewer inserted into the centers comes out clean. Total baking time is 3 to 3 1/2 hours.
6. Place the cake pans on a wire rack and cool the cakes completely. Run a thin-bladed sharp knife around the edges of the cakes to release them and invert the pans onto a counter top. If the cakes don’t fall out right away, rap the pans sharply on the counter to release the cakes. Lift off the pans, and peel the papers off the cakes. Wrap each cake in plastic wrap, and then in foil, and refrigerate them. This cake is far easier to cut when cold. Place the cake with its bottom side up on a cutting board, and cut into thin slices using a sharp serrated knife. If you want your cakes to have a little kick, brush them with a spoonful or two of brandy or rum before wrapping them up. The cakes will keep for up to 6 weeks in the refrigerator, or they may be frozen for 4 to 6 months.
Makes 2 loaves.”
Acts of resistance
“The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.” ― Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
And then I’ll sing for you that we could have snow in April
“I stop my car on the corner and wait
And I’ll wait until you get out
Your mother is zipping your jacket
She says you should call her
Give me a kiss, I’ll fasten your seat belt
Hold on, come on, we’re going
For a weekend once a month
And I know that I’m that dick your mother says
That your mother says he’s a dirty asshole
Who has screwed her into hell
To whom she is forever stuck through you
And who gives her way too little money
Come on, hold on, we’re going
I know, I’m still that dick of Christmas in April
Soon I’ll pour grape juice as if it were wine
And as if it were wine, I’ll cheer on you, on us
You laugh too kindly at all the jokes
Too fast too tired from doing your best much too much
You may go to bed
Good night, Bert, good night, Ernie
And then I’ll sing for you
That we could have snow in April
And I dream often: you’re sixteen
You are already sixteen and you come to my place
And you talk about your new boyfriend
And whether you should still go on with him
And then I say something beautiful
You hold me, give me a kiss
And we celebrate that it is Christmas in April
And some day it will be Spring again
It will be Spring again
Some day it will be Spring in April again”
(Marteen van Roozendaal. Translation by Juliana Brina)
Original lyrics in Dutch:
“Ik zet m’n auto om de hoek en wacht maar
En ik wacht maar tot jij buiten komt
Je moeder ritst je jas dicht
Ze zegt dat je haar wel moet bellen
Geef me een zoen, ik doe je gordel om
Hou je vast, kom op, we gaan
Voor eens per maand een weekend
En ik weet, dat ik die lul ben, waarvan je moeder zegt
Waarvan je moeder zegt, dat hij die gore klootzak is
Die haar de hel in heeft gevreeën
Aan wie ze via jou voor altijd vastzit
En die haar veel te weinig geld geeft
Kom op, hou je vast, we gaan
Ik weet, ik blijf die lul van kerstmis in april
Straks schenk ik druivensap alsof het wijn is
En alsof het wijn is, proost ik op jou, op ons
Je lacht te lief om al m’n grapjes
Te snel te moe van veel te veel je best doen
Je mag naar bed
Welterusten Bert, welterusten Ernie
En dan zing ik nog voor jou
Dat het kan sneeuwen in april
En vaak droom ik: dan ben jij zestien
Jij bent al zestien en jij komt langs bij mij
En je praat over je nieuwe vriendje
En of je nog wel met hem door moet
En dat ik dan iets moois zeg
Je houdt me vast, geeft me een zoen
En we vieren dat het kerst is in april
En ooit wordt het weer lente
Het wordt ooit wel weer een lente
Ooit wordt het weer lente in april”
(Marteen van Roozendaal)
As deep blue marks the wild scilla
No one’s despair is like my despair–
You have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the woman limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.
Do you suppose I care
if you speak to one another?
But I mean you to know
I expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet.”