Sunday, November 30, 2014
Published 44 years ago, this collection of short stories, though quite good, hardly forecasts just how good a writer John Banville would eventually become. These nine stories, none much longer than ten pages, are terse, lean, and sparely written, but studded with beautifully realized, crystalline images and graced with razor-sharp, pitch-perfect dialogue. Long Lankin is minimalism that satisfies.
There is a haunting eeriness to these fictions. They read like ghost stories though not a ghost appears in a single one of them. The supernatural atmosphere is the result of a heightened sense of psychological tension that Banville creates inside and between his characters. Dialogue is preeminent; the stories often read like theater scripts except that they are fleshed out with brief paragraphs with sensual descriptive narrative—think the plays of Harold Pinter. The same sense of claustrophobic foreboding pervades the fictional air. At some point, a mysterious figure in black often appears on some tangential errand or bearing an enigmatic message; this odd character is the physical manifestation of the premonitory mood of disaster that often threatens, looms, but hasn't yet broken over the lives of Banville's characters. There are several dead, dying, or mad fathers. In a couple of stories there's been a murder off-stage and a killer reportedly on the loose. If life is changeable, tenuous, prone to tragedy at any moment, relationships are even more so. In many stories a female character forecasts that her lover will leave her. The male character denies it, assures her he's thinking nothing of the sort, "Do you believe me?" he asks, "Yes," she says, and then five or six pages later he admits that she was right all along.
Banville, the novelist, will later write an even darker fiction, but it will be leavened by a Beckettian gallows humor that is not yet in evidence in these early stories. But to compare the work of a twenty-five-year-old writing at the beginning of his career to a sixty-eight-year-old master of his craft is hardly fair. These stories are well-worth reading for what they are.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
A woman looks back on her life, her memories presented as a series of loosely-connected vignettes, in this short but extraordinary pseudo-autobiography. Hardwick claimed Sleepless Nights wasn't intended to be about her, but the parallels between the book and what is known about her life tend to belie that assertion. A Kentucky-born girl pulls up her small-town roots and transplants herself in New York City where she remakes herself into a sophisticated intellectual. She lives in a rarefied world of poets and patrons, artists and expatriates and is at one point married to a brilliant man. Hardwick's life followed the exact same trajectory and the brilliant man in her life was her husband, the poet Robert Lowell.
The memories are poignant, often touching, bitter and bittersweet. The characters that populate these memories are as prickly and uncomfortable as only real people can be, whether they are literati or cleaning women, wealthy dowagers or Billie Holiday. Elizabeth, the narrator, as well as Elizabeth, the author, is writing out of a place of heartbreak. Both have loved and lost, living in a kind of afterlife; in this case, parallel lines do seem to cross, as the lives of the author and her protagonist meet, fiction and memoir blurring. This "novel" having been written not long after the death of Hardwick's still-loved ex-husband.
Hardwick claimed that she never concerned herself much with plot in her novels. "If I want plot, I'll watch Dallas," she once quipped to an interviewer from The Paris Review. And Sleepless Nights bears out her aversion to plot points and conventional, clearly demarcated story lines. Instead she said that her goal in writing fiction was to create a hospitable environment in which her voice could speak. In Sleepless Nights, she manages exactly that. The book in structure and tone is entirely unique, a perfect vehicle for the "non-story" she has to tell. Of course, she does have a story to tell, the story of a lifetime told in vividly phosphorescent flashbacks, each fragmented memory within that life itself a story in miniature. Sleepless Nights is a kind of autobiographical mosaic; an anthology of multiple identity.
The writing is elliptical, poetic, compacted, beautiful. This is one of those books that comes to an author only rarely in a lifetime (and then only if he or she is both talented and lucky), a book that seems born a unique and fully-formed thing, complete and inarguable as a pearl or a revelation. I'm only guessing but I'd bet that once Hardwick got it started, Sleepless Nights poured from her fingertips as if it were being dictated. It's the kind of book that an author can't anticipate writing and can't repeat once having written it; that makes it the best, the rarest, and most essential of books: one that is thoroughly inimitable…though, having fallen under its spell, one feels compelled to try in one form or other.
In Sleepless Nights Hardwick has created a powerful machine for recounting a life.
Friday, November 28, 2014
Thursday, November 27, 2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Upon the unfortunate albeit inevitable death of Jean Baudrillard in 2007, I needed to find a new favorite living philosopher. It took a while, but it was worth the wait. At long last, there appeared on the event horizon a guy worthy of taking up the mantle of the world's most infuriating intellectual, and, to my surprise, he wasn't even French. He was the ever-provocative Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek, beloved and reviled as "the Elvis of cultural theory."
Here are some things I believe as articulated by Zizek in his new book, Event: A Philosophical Journey Through a Concept.
What is an event?
Zizek: "An event is something shocking, out of joint that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernible causes, an appearance without solid being as it's foundation."
"An event is the effect that seems to exceed its causes."
Love, religious faith, political convictions are all events in this sense. For instance: "I do not fall in love for precise reasons (her lips, her smile…)—it is because I already love her that her lips, etc. attract me."
What Rumsfeld left out, or why Rummy should be playing with Play-doh, not Plato
Zizek: "If Donald Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the 'unknown unknowns,' the threats from Saddam which we cannot even suspect, our reply should have been that the main dangers were, on the contrary, the 'unknown knowns,' the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves. These 'unknown knowns' were indeed the main cause of the troubles the United States encountered in Iraq, and Rumsfeld's omission proves that he was not a true philosopher."
What happens when the Death-Star strikes & obliterates the the Earth?
Zizek: "Depressive people tend to act more calmly than others under extreme pressure or the threat of catastrophe—they already expect bad things to happen. This fact offers yet another example of the split between reality—the social universe of established customs and opinions in which we dwell—and the traumatic meaningless brutality of the Real…A 'realist' is fully immersed in ordinary reality so when the co-ordinates of this reality dissolve, his entire world breaks down…the depressive goes on as usual because she is already living in a melancholic withdrawal from reality…[The Death-Star] is the Thing—das Ding at its purest, as Heidegger would have it: the Real Thing which dissolves any symbolic frame—we see it, it is our death, we cannot do anything.
"The melancholic's stratagem: the only way to possess an object that we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as if this object is already lost."
God as Death-Star.
Norwegian theologian Peter Wessel Zapffe: "Job finds himself confronted with a world ruler of grotesque primitiveness, a cosmic cave dweller, a braggart and blusterer, almost agreeable in his total ignorance of spiritual culture…What is new for Job is not God's greatness in quantifiable terms; that he knew fully in advance; what is new is the qualitative baseness."
Zizek: "In other words, God—the God of the Real—is das Ding, a capricious cruel master who simply has no sense of universal justice."
(asemic portrait of Slavoj Zizek)
The path to self-knowledge lies through the realm of the make-believe.
Zizek: "Fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me."
No compromise with cancer.
Jesus Christ: "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."
Zizek: "In situations of deep crisis, an authentic division is urgently needed—a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the necessary change. Such a division, not opportunistic compromises, is the only path to true unity.
Soviet apologist: "You can't make an omelet without breaking any eggs."
Panait Istrati: "All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where's this omelette of yours?"
Zizek: "The true 'breaking of eggs' is not physical violence, but the intervention into social and ideological relations which, without necessarily destroying anything or anyone, transforms the entire symbolic field."
My country 'tis of thee
Zizek: "Imagine a society which fully integrated into its ethical substance the great modern axioms of freedom, equality, democratic rights, the duty of a society to provide for education and basic healthcare of all its members, and which rendered racism or sexism simply unacceptable and ridiculous—there is no need even to argue against, say, racism, since anyone who openly advocates racism is immediately perceived as a weird eccentric who cannot be taken seriously. But then, step by step, although society continues to pay lip service to these axioms, they are de facto deprived of their substance.
"The debate about water boarding being torture or not should be dropped as obvious nonsense…one should note that we are dealing here with an extension of the logic of Political Correctness: in exactly the same way that 'disabled' becomes 'physically challenged," 'torture' becomes 'enhanced interrogation technique' (and, presumably, 'rape' could become 'enhanced seduction technique'). The crucial point is that torture—brutal violence practiced by the state—was made publicly acceptable at the very moment when public language was rendered Politically Correct in order to protect victims from the symbolic violence of labels. These two phenomenon are two sides of the same coin.
"So what about the 'realist' argument: torture was always going on, if anything even more in the (near) past, so is it not better to at least be talking publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem: if torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us about it openly? There is only one answer: to normalize it, i.e., to lower our ethical standards. Torture saves lives? Maybe, but it loses souls for sure—and it's most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready for forsake his/her soul to save the lives of his/her countrymen."
Don't look at me I'm exposing myself!
Zizek: "It is often said that today, with our total exposure to the media, culture of public confessions and instruments of digital control, private space is disappearing. One should counter this commonplace with the opposite claim: it is the public space proper which is disappearing. The person who displays on the web his or her naked images or intimate data and obscene dreams is not an exhibitionist: exhibitionists intrude into the public space, while those who post their naked images on the web remain in their private space and are just expanding it to include others."
All the World's a Stage
Zizek: "In theatre, there are occasional brutal events which awaken us to the reality of the stage. Instead of reading these gestures as attempts to break the spell of illusions and confront us with the bare Real, one should rather denounce them for what they are: the exact opposite of what they claim to be—escapes from the Real, desperate attempts to avoid the Real that transpires in (or through) the illusion itself."
The Real is only skin-deep; reality goes down to the bone
Zizek: "The notion of the Absolute Void-Substance-Ground beneath the fragile, deceptive appearances that constitute our reality is to be opposed to the notion that it is the ordinary reality that is hard, inert, and there, and it is the Absolute that is thoroughly fragile and fleeting. What is the Absolute? Something that appears to us in fleeting experiences. In such miraculous, but extremely fragile moments, another dimension transpires through our reality. As such, the Absolute is easily corroded; it all too easily slips through our fingers and must be treated as carefully as a butterfly."
My country 'tis of thee, part 2
Zizek: "The basic idea of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is to protect the citizens of the United States from (foreign) bad guys by figuring out how vulnerable some people are to terrorist 'narratives,' and then supplanting such narratives with better ones. To put it simply, DARPA endeavors to shape minds with stories. The goal is not to convince the potential terrorist through apt rhetoric or line of argument (or even plain brainwashing), but to directly intervene in his brain to make him change his mind. Ideological struggle is no longer conducted through argument or propaganda, but by means of neurobiology, i.e., by way of regulating neuronal processes in our brain. The catch is: who will decide what narratives are dangerous and, as such, deserve neurological correction?
Look into my eyes
Hegel: "The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. This night, the inner of nature, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head—there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful."
God's gotta nice ass
Zizek: "The Japanese expression bakku-shan means "a girl who looks as though she might be pretty when seen from behind, but isn't when seen from the front. One of the lessons of the history of religion—and even more of today's experience of religion—is that the same holds for God: he may appear great when he is seen from behind and from a proper distance, but when he comes too close and we have to confront him face to face, spiritual bliss turns into horror. This destructive aspect of the divine, the brutal explosion of rage mixed with ecstatic bliss, is what Lacan aims at with his statement that gods belong to the Real. Such a traumatic encounter of a divine Thing is the Event as real.
"The problem of Judaism is precisely: how are we to keep this dimension of the divine madness, of gods as real, at a distance? The Jewish god is also the god of brutal madness—what changes is the believer's stance towards this dimension of the divine: if we get to close to it, then 'the glory of the Lord is like a devouring fire'(Exodus 24:17)."
The title of a well-known book on the Holocaust—God Died in Auschwitz—has thus to be turned around: God became alive in Auschwitz.
The true horror does not occur when we are abandoned by God, but when God comes too close to us."
Cupid knows best where to shoot the arrow
Zizek: "When you fall in love, you don't just know what you need and want and look for the one who has it. The 'miracle' of love is that you learn what you need only when you find it."
Zizek: "Because the pure past is complete, each new work rearranges its entire balance. Take Borges' precise formulation of the relationship between Kafka and the multitude of his precursors, from old Chinese authors to Robert Browning: 'Kafka's idiosyncrasy, in greater or lesser degree, is present in each of these writings, but if Kafka had not written we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist…each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.' The properly dialectical solution of the dilemma of 'Is it really there, in the source, or did we only read it into the source?' is thus: it is there, but we can only perceive and state this retroactively, from today's perspective."
Don't show, tell!
Zizek: "Nowhere is the 'performative' role of retelling more palpable than in what philistines consider the most boring passages of Wagner's musical dramas, the long narratives in which the hero recapitulates what went on until that point. As Alain Badiou pointed out, these long narratives are the true sites of dramatic shift—in the course of them, we witness the narrator's profound subjective transformation. In other words, the truly New emerges through narrative, the apparently purely reproductive retelling of what happened—it is the retelling that opens up the space (the possibility) of acting in a new way.
Haiku as pure event
Basho: Old pond…
a frog jumps in
Zizek: "The three-lines-rule of a haiku poem is well-justified: the first line renders the pre-eventual situation (a calm old pond); the second line marked a cut in this inactivity, the intervention which disturbs the piece and will generate the event (a frog jumps); and the last one names the fleeting event itself (the sound of splash).
In the 1970s, at the time of the military dictatorship in Brazil, the circle of secret policemen engaged in torturing political prisoners improvised a kind of private religion: a New Age Buddhist mixture based on the conviction that there is no reality, just a fragmented dance of illusory appearances. Along these lines we can well invent yet another haiku:
Prisoners take a shower...
my finger presses a button
The point of this improvisation is not to engage in tasteless jokes, but to make us see that a truly enlightened person should be able to see a pure event even in such terrifying circumstances. The sad lesson here is that there is no incompatibility between brutal terror and authentic poetic spirit—they can go together."
There is no Garden of Eden until we're thrown out of it
Zizek: "Evil is the gaze itself that perceives Evil everywhere around it: the gaze that sees Evil excludes itself from the social Whole it criticizes, and this exclusion is itself the formal characteristic of Evil. Hegel's point is that the Good emerges as a possibility and duty only through this primordial choice of Evil: we experience the Good when, after choosing Evil, we become aware of the utter inadequacy of our situation."
Hegel: "What is thus found only comes to be through being left behind…The reflective movement is to be taken as an absolute recoil upon itself."
Zizek: "So it is 'only in the return itself' that what we return to emerges at all—it begins to exist or to be perceived as a possibility where before there was no trace of it.
Malcolm X was following the same insight when he adopted X as his family name: he was not fighting on behalf of the return to some primordial African roots, but precisely on behalf of an X, an unknown new identity opened up by the very process of slavery which made the African roots for ever lost."
Even God gets cheated at dice
Brian Greene: "If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantum experiments indicate that he is not observing the small."
Zizek: "The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before sits environs 'take note') the discrepancy) is a way to cheat God himself, the ultimate agency of taking note of everything that goes on: God himself doesn't control the quantum processes. Einstein was right with his famous claim 'God doesn't cheat'—what he forgot to add is that he himself can be cheated: there are micro-processes (quantum oscillations) that are not registered by the system."
Falling down enlightenment
Zizek: "The Japanese Buddhist Sakaguchi Ango criticized Buddhism for its detachment from actual life with all its passions; he proposed 'starting a new life that follows common desires.' The central notion of Ango was 'fallenness'—he encouraged students to continue to fall. Authenticity is fallenness itself: we leave behind our false Self not when we keep reality at a distance but precisely when we totally, without reserve, 'fall' into it, abandon ourselves to it. The illusion of our Self persists precisely insofar as we perceive reality as something 'out there,' outside 'me here.'"
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Friday, November 21, 2014
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Because Tsukuru Tazaki's name doesn't refer to a color, as do the names of the four close friends he had back in school. Because, as a typical Murakami protagonist, he doesn't have any distinguishing "color" at all; there's nothing exaggerated about him as a character; he's a facilitator of others, a perfect foil, an understanding ear, a voice of moderation.
Tsukuru—his name meaning "maker"—is a 36-year-old builder of railway stations. His life in Tokyo is calm, uneventful, a seesaw at perfect equilibrium, with neither ups nor downs.
That's the problem.
Is there any point to being on a see-saw that never goes up or down? That isn't the proper use of playground equipment or a life. Clearly Tsukuru isn't playing along, isn't really living at all.
Tsukuru has reached that archetypal middle-point in life's journey that Dante made famous. He can't seem to go forward or backward and standing still, as he has been doing, has become intolerable. His paralysis stems from the breakup of that group of friends he had back in school. One day they decided to cast him out without explanation. Tsukuru, being the obliging guy that he is, never demanded one. He accepted his exile without protest, went on his way, but the wound that he suffered never healed.
Living in Color
It's only when he meets and falls in love with Sara that he realizes he must finally confront the past; specifically, he must go back and discover the reason that his friends all turned on him. Actually, it's Sara who realizes that Tsukuru needs to make this journey and Tsukuru, desperate not to lose her, becomes convinced that she is right.
The bulk of the novel recounts Tsukuru's reunion with his old group. One by one he visits them, with one notable exception, and learns the disturbing reason for his banishment. But the apparent mystery solved, others, unsolvable, arise and that is where Murakami proves himself to be more than just a popular spinner of tales. For it isn't so much what happened and who did what to whom, but the why that forever eludes a neat and conclusive explanation. Life is, in the end, a mystery with too many valid hypotheses to ever solve. Sometimes it isn't a simple a matter of what we do or don't do that determines our guilt or innocence, but of being unable to control what we think or dream or desire that makes us complicit in, if not entirely responsible, for the tragedies that befall ourselves and others. Is it possible that without your conscious knowledge some dark part of you, born of anger, grief, disappointment, jealousy, or desire which you'd never consciously act on slips out in the night in spite of you and commits some heinous act that the "victim" actually calls to herself through her own equally unacknowledged desire for self-destruction?
In a Murakami novel it's entirely possible.
Nothing Black or White
We are left with enigma. "Far off in the distance," Murakami writes, "he heard a helicopter. It seemed to be getting nearer, the sound growing louder. He looked up at the sky, trying to catch sight of it. It felt like a messenger bringing some vital news. But he never saw it, the sound of propellers fading, then disappearing completely to the west, leaving behind only the soft, vague hum of the city at night."
The all-enlightening answer to the mystery sometimes seems to be right on the verge of dawning…and then slips back into darkness. That, Murakami says in one way or another throughout this novel, is just the way it is.
At one point, near the end of his tale, Tsukuru has a dream-vision. He's playing a challenging piano piece in front of a large audience that grows more and more inattentive as his performance proceeds. Eventually, among the noise of the discomfited, impatient audience, his playing is altogether drowned out. He can hardly blame them, though; the piece is beyond his skill to execute, beyond comprehension not only in practice, but in theory as well. Later, he reflects, "Our lives are like a complex musical score. Filled with all sorts of cryptic writing, sixteenth and thirty-second notes and other strange signs. It's next to impossible to correctly interpret these, and even if you could, and then could transpose them into the correct sounds, there's no guarantee that people would correctly understand, or appreciate, the meaning therein. No guarantee it would make people happy. Why must the workings of people's lives be so convoluted?"
Still, Tsukuru (and Murakami, now 64) concludes, he has to keep playing this music until "the score was over, he couldn't spare a moment's glance away. Even if there wasn't a single person now who was still listening." There is no other choice, no other way to live meaningfully.
Each of our lives is the perch on which we sing. There is nothing else to do. Even if our song ultimately goes unheard.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Monday, November 17, 2014
We all have our own Emily Dickinson.
Just as we all have our own Dostoyevsky, our own Jesus, our own Mr. Ed.
The problem when it comes to Emily Dickinson is that too many of us have the same one. I mean the agoraphobic, spinster-recluse of Amherst weaving spiderishly her acerbic enigmatic spells in the seclusion of a dusty obscurity, sex-inverted self-exile from a world she didn't so much renounce and pine for, as never belonged in from the beginning.
Emily Dickinson has become a stereotype more than a poet and like all stereotypes that prevents us from seeing her rightly; more importantly, Dickinson as "special case" becomes the beam in the eye blinding us to the complexity and full power of her poetry. It prevents us from extending to her the intellectual rigor that we naturally give as a matter of course to other poets and that like other poets her work deserves—and demands—if we are to truly appreciate it.
In her controversial essay on Dickinson in her controversial book Sexual Personae, literary provocateur Camille Paglia gave us her Emily Dickinson, an erotically-charged versifying dominatrix whom she perversely reframed and dubbed the Marquis de Sade of Amherst.
In this book, Susan Howe offers us yet another apocryphal Dickinson. Rather than the unsophisticated, accidental poet of myth, Howe evokes an Emily who, though primarily an autodidact, was nonetheless a wide-ranging and insightful student of literature. Her community was literary and she was no stranger to the society of Shakespeare, the Brontes, the Brownings, Emerson, Thoreau, and George Eliot, among many others.
In other words, Dickinson wasn't a variety of idiot-savant, writing in a vacuum, as the dominant myth surrounding her would have it. She was writing, as all great writers do, in dialogue with other writers, both of the past and of her own time, taking her place in an ongoing conversation that would eventually make her poetry an important part of the future, our present, and now, of literary history.
Howe is careful to point out that what kept Dickinson from being recognized as a great poet in her own generation—and for a surprisingly long time afterwards—wasn't only that she was a woman. Of course, her gender had something to do with it. But there were famous women poets in Dickinson's day. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among them. No, what set Dickinson to the side of the road was that she wouldn't—or couldn't—write like a woman. Or for that matter, any man then writing verse. Instead she insisted on exploding the conventions of her time, on discovering and developing her own unique language, technique, and form, much like Whitman and Melville, but even more extreme, for the expression of a vision unlike any other.
In My Emily Dickinson, Howe doesn't only trace Dickinson's literary precursors, but the historical milieu that produced the peculiar socio-religious culture which Dickinson inherited. Howe ranges widely, introducing the fiery sermons of Jonathan Edwards and the luridly popular Indian captivity tales of early pilgrim life as influences on Dickinson's sensibility. Daniel Boone and James Fenimore Cooper factor into the equation, the American Civil War, too, the issues of slavery, women's rights, and the precarious survival of early white settlements in a dangerous, dark, and "godless" wilderness are all traceable in Dickinson's work.
Emily Dickinson, in Howe's vision, is a sum total of her time and all that led up to her time. The recluse poet is not a crank shut-in, but a sybil, a prophetess, whose poetry was oracular; it spoke to and of her time, and speaks forward to our time; it's perfectly understandable that she was ignored while she lived as no prophet, so the gospel goes, is accepted in her own land.
Howe's book is an example of what has become known as "creative scholarship." Instead of taking the cool, objective, if not downright superior posture critics usually take to their subject, Howe engages Dickinson across time and space. She encounters, rather than interprets Emily D, with a passionate immediacy woman-to-woman, poet-to-poet. This makes for a far richer and more rewarding reading experience than provided by the invariably reductive, reasoned arguments of most traditional literary criticism.
Certainly many of Howe's interpretations and conclusions can be disputed. They are meant to be disputed. Dickinson is large; she contains multitudes. That is the overriding message that this book delivers. Howe makes no pretense of finality. This is Howe's Emily Dickinson. She suggests that we each find our own.
What Howe does at long last dispense with is the long-standing image of Emily Dickinson as victim. If Dickinson often referred to herself as a mouse, Howe reveals the intended irony. Shut up in that house in Amherst was a wild untamed tiger, if demurely dressed in mouse's quiet clothing. In this, Howe's Emily and Paglia's Dickinson merge. In both women's view, Emily Dickinson was a force to be reckoned with which no one in her day and age was prepared to reckon. "Luck," acknowledges Howe, "provided her with a devoted family that protected her privacy, a large house, a room of her own, and money." In this, as a woman of her time, Emily Dickinson was privileged, if she suffered for her gender in other, more obvious ways. But there's no reason for us to mourn or feel sorry for Emily D. What she lacked in recognition, Howe suggests, was more than made up for in her revelatory vision—a vision that may have cost her the world but gave her eternity.
Howe writes: "Poetry is the great stimulation of life. Poetry leads past possession of self to transfiguration beyond gender. Poetry is redemption from pessimism. Poetry is affirmation in negation, ammunition in the yellow eye of a gun that an allegorical pilgrim will shoot straight into the quiet of Night's frame. Childe Roland at the moment of sinking down with the sun, like Phaeton in a ball of flame, sees his visionary precursor peers ringed around him waiting."
With exalted company like that who could want anything from the common run of society? Recluse, misfit, loner she may have been, but Emily Dickinson was never alone.
a deer split clean
down the center
on the hood
loses its signal
you reach up
to press the on-star button
all the way down
Saturday, November 15, 2014
Friday, November 14, 2014
When she read the always dire news in the morning—the wars being fought, instigated or supported virtually everywhere in the world, the collapse of civil liberties, the income inequality between the rich and not-rich, the struggles of the hungry, the sick, the unemployed and uninsured, the irreversible consolidation of power by the powerful, the silencing of dissent by those still intelligent and courageous enough to dissent—she felt as if she were living in the midst of an aggressive mass of malignant cancer cells and that this uncompromising, self-justifying, take—all-at-any-cost cancer was not her country just because she happened to be living in it but something outside and beyond her, a foreign body, because she saw it plainly as the main threat to the health and life of the world. What shocked and shook her was realizing that she couldn't help feeling that anything awful that happened to this cancer would be perfectly justified, that any attack would be an autoimmune response from the world as a whole, defending itself from the virulent and unappeasably voracious disease that her homeland had become somewhere along the way. This realization had come upon her slowly and stealthily and now, although she was directly responsible for none of the crimes the country she lived in was perpetrating, she found herself acknowledging that she couldn't in good conscience object if she was annihilated in the midst of the flames of whatever horrible disaster it's enemies were contemplating by way of self-protective retribution. She might be collateral damage in terms of the harsh chemotherapy to come but she'd become, undeniably, inextricable from the cancer in which she lived nonetheless. (The Passive Terrorist, Elizabeth Szabo Birch)
This is the kind of dark thinking that you won't find in The Color Master, a collection of short stories by Aimee Bender. What you do find are slice-of-life tales with a sprinkling of magic dust. Minor disturbances and fleeting uneasinesses are resolved or, at least, dissipated in the general feel good atmosphere evoked by each story's conclusion. I suppose that after the high seriousness of books by William Gass and Danilo Kis I was susceptible to be let-down by any book that followed and the staunchly middlebrow writing of Aimee Bender did just that.
It was by no means a bad collection of stories, but it's the kind of stuff that suffers by comparison to great literature; this book doesn't challenge or stretch anyone's horizons very far or by too much. It's a fiction that seeks to capture the elusive fairytale quality we sometimes glimpse in the midst of ordinary moments and everyday life. There's nothing wrong with that; in fact there's everything right with it.
I guess what I object to—and miss—is the palpable absence of real darkness in these stories which would have given them a much-needed weight and gravitas. This is, after all, a dark world and it's getting darker as the days go on. Perhaps Aimee Bender thinks it better to light a candle than curse the darkness? I think you need to do both.
Here are brief plot descriptions of the stories collected in The Color Master: