the cave: thoughts on pregnancy, privacy, and pain

Kiss_claysketch_1180Dawn Herrera-Helphand at The Point:

Arendt calls the private realm “the realm of necessity.” The language is hers, but it’s a variation on an old binary theme, the song of necessity and freedom. Figured variously as chaos, the animal, the feminine and the shadow realm, human necessity is the umbrella term for those aspects of life not subject to the rational will. In Arendt’s understanding, it especially signifies the immediate reality of embodied life, the thick stuff of it, the part that’s been squicking out Western squares from Plato to the present. To the chagrin of the Platonist, it is an irreducible aspect of our living being.

In its most mundane iterations, necessity is a driving and an equalizing force that compels everyone. We all eat and drink, we shit, we sleep and probably try to get off—you, yes you. With luck, the resources for doing so are reasonably secure and we can meet these demands with dignity, securely and without fear of opprobrium at the salience of our appetites and drives. Fussing over particulars aside, there is not a lot of room for reason-giving or reason-having in this realm of experience. Bodies drive us in some things. We do them because we are essentially beholden—we have to. And, having to do them, we prefer to do them in private.

Pain is the most intense manifestation of this phenomenon. As Elaine Scarry puts it in The Body in Pain (1985), pain brings about “a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”

more here.

virginia woolf on e.m. forster

E._M._Forster_von_Dora_Carrington_1924-25Virginia Woolf at berfrois (originally from: The Death of the Moth, And Other Essays):

We look then, as time goes on, for signs that Mr. Forster is committing himself; that he is allying himself to one of the two great camps to which most novelists belong. Speaking roughly, we may divide them into the preachers and the teachers, headed by Tolstoy and Dickens, on the one hand, and the pure artists, headed by Jane Austen and Turgenev, on the other. Mr. Forster, it seems, has a strong impulse to belong to both camps at once. He has many of the instincts and aptitudes of the pure artist (to adopt the old classification)— an exquisite prose style, an acute sense of comedy, a power of creating characters in a few strokes which live in an atmosphere of their own; but he is at the same time highly conscious of a message. Behind the rainbow of wit and sensibility there is a vision which he is determined that we shall see. But his vision is of a peculiar kind and his message of an elusive nature. He has not great interest in institutions. He has none of that wide social curiosity which marks the work of Mr. Wells. The divorce law and the poor law come in for little of his attention. His concern is with the private life; his message is addressed to the soul. “It is the private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision.” Our business is not to build in brick and mortar, but to draw together the seen and the unseen. We must learn to build the “rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts.” This belief that it is the private life that matters, that it is the soul that is eternal, runs through all his writing.

more here.

Ritual as an Urban Design Problem

4340071721_76648ae13e_b-150x150Sarah Perry at Front Porch Republic:

The Benedictine monk Aidan Kavanagh, who straddled two worlds as both a monk and a Yale divinity professor, proposes that we understand the Church as originally and centrally an urban phenomenon. He translates civitas as “workshop” and “playground,” the space in which social, philosophical, and even scientific questions are worked out by humans in contact with their God, “the locale of human endeavor par excellence.”

By the fifth century A.D., Christian worship in the great cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople had become not just one service, but an “interlocking series of services” that began at daybreak with laudes and ended at dusk with lamp-lighting and vespers. Only the most pious participated in all the services, but everyone participated in some. The rites “gave form not only to the day itself but to the entire week, the year, and time itself,” says Kavanagh.

Perhaps just as important as the transformation of time was the transformation of space, for the mid-morning assemblages and processions appropriated the entire neighborhood as space for worship.

more here.

Cromwell the fixers’ fixer: a role model for our times

Martin Kettle in The Guardian's Comment is free:

CromwellThomas Cromwell is the politician of the moment. We seem entranced by him. How cunning and deep he is. How clever and calculating. With what skill he acquires, husbands and uses his power. How precise he is in his judgment of when to speak and when to stay silent, when to watch and when to act, absolutely ruthlessly if need be…

Yet Cromwell, even in the Elton-Mantel version, is a very improbable hero for our times. Cromwell’s essential attraction is his mastery of statecraft, his ability to identify a political goal and achieve it unerringly but pragmatically. He is unsentimental, cold-blooded, secular, and ruthless. He is a master of detail and of small moves in the service of larger ones. It is not clear whether Cromwell ever read Machiavelli, but there have been few leaders in English or British political history who better embodied Machiavellian ideas. In short, he is the sum of much that the modern era dislikes, or affects to dislike, in its politicians.

What is even more unlikely about Cromwell’s place in the sun, as Mantel’s readers and viewers will know, is that he was an enemy of a man who in so many ways is the sum of everything that the modern era admires, or affects to admire. Thomas More remains the incarnation of individual conscience, of rising above the quotidian, and doing the morally right thing in difficult and dangerous times. It is no surprise that in postwar Britain, it was More, especially as embodied by Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, who ruled the Tudor roost.

Read the rest here.


Olivia Weinberg in More Intelligent Life:

VanMons is a city steeped in history. Located in the east of the Borinage, an area in the Walloon province of Hainaut in Belgium, it was a military camp for the Romans, a thriving hub during the Industrial Revolution and the site of the first major battle fought by the British and the Germans in 1914. Now, 101 years later, it is back in the firing line—as the European Capital of Culture. Mons won the title on its own merits, and then someone realised that 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the death of Vincent van Gogh. So he kicks off the programme for the year—but don’t expect an explosive blockbuster. “Van Gogh in the Borinage” homes in on the roots of his art, tracing the back-story behind the narrative we know. In 1878, aged 25, Van Gogh moved to Cuesmes, a coal-mining village in the Borinage blackened by a blanket of soot and a smoky haze. He was an evangelical preacher, desperate to become a respected clergyman, but he struggled to connect with the world around him and empathised instead with peasants and miners, some of whom he befriended and began to draw.

To train himself, he copied two artists whose style and subject he admired, Jules Breton and Jean-François Millet. “The Diggers” (above) and “The Sower”, both after Millet, show early signs of raw talent and deep emotional intelligence. Throughout his career, Van Gogh would return to simple, rustic scenes and the daily lives of working people, only with thicker impasto and brighter, more intense colour.

More here.

Friday Poem

A Soft, Bright Absence
Oddly enough, relief rises when he opens the door.
The steady thud of his steps, a falling night stick.
He holds me & my heart thumps like the pulse
of red & blue lights. The helicopter whir of anxiety
slows its chopping in my chest. When he’s late,
my searchlight does not go black. I breathe deeper
knowing that his rights have not been read.
His wrists cuffed only by crisp shirt & his father’s
bracelet, shiny as a revolver just cleaned.
When he says hey baby, hey honey, it is
a soft, bright absence of siren and megaphone.

by Tara Betts
from Alehouse Press, 2011

How Long Has It Been Since You Smelled a Flower?

Richard Shelton in Orion Magazine:

PrisonFOR FORTY YEARS I have worked at the nexus where language intersects with the lives of prison inmates, and it has proven to be one of the most exciting intersections imaginable. Much of it involves unlearning. Unlearning the language of excuses and the refusal to accept responsibility for one’s acts. Unlearning outmoded and no longer effective literary devices and attitudes. Unlearning, in short, by means of the honest and creative use of language, one’s orientation toward oneself and the world. Then building—building a renewed awareness of the natural world—a kind of wonder, a kind of hope that one is not entirely alone, not entirely lost as long as the swallows come back each spring and can be seen even from the narrow slot called a window in a prison cell.

There seems to be no limit to the evil we are capable of doing to one another. This includes both the assailant waiting for his victim and the state treating an inmate with deprivation so severe it amounts to torture, including the ultimate version of it—sensory deprivation. Early American prisons were designed so that an inmate would have no contact with anyone else, not even his keeper. Each man (and there were no prison facilities for women then) was given work to do in a totally private cell, a cell designed in such a way that he could neither see nor hear any other humans. He could not, as well, have any contact with the natural world. He was deprived of rain, snow, birds, plants, sunsets, animals, insects—everything. The shadow of this early practice hangs over today’s prisons like a cloud, producing policies by prison administrators who are often completely unaware of the history of those policies.

More here.

Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic satire

150126_r26055-320Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker:

The French writer Michel Houellebecq has become a literary “case” to be reprimanded as much as an author to be read, and his new novel, “Soumission,” or “Submission,” shows why. The book, which will be published in English by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is shaped by a simple idea. In France in the very near future, the respectable republican parties fragment the vote in a multiparty election, and the two top vote-getters are Marine Le Pen, of the extreme right, and one Mohammed Ben Abbes, the fictive leader of a French Muslim Brotherhood. In the runoff, the French left backs the Muslim, preferring the devil it doesn’t know to the one it does. Ben Abbes’s government soon imposes a kind of relaxed Sharia law throughout France and—this is the book’s central joke and point—the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism. Like the oversophisticated Hellenists in Cavafy’s poem, they have been secretly waiting for the barbarians all their lives.

Houellebecq is one of those writers who cause critics to panic, since placing him is tricky. He is probably the most famous French novelist of his generation. An immediately recognizable caricature of Houellebecq as a wannabe Nostradamus was the image on the last issue of Charlie Hebdo before the attack on its staff. But he is not a particularly graceful stylist, and it exasperates French writers who are to see him made so much of outside France, not to mention within it.

more here.

Is ‘Jesus’ Son’ a ‘Red Cavalry’ Rip-Off?

RedjesusNathan Scott McNamara at The Millions:

New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion ofJesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.

But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” ofRed Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.

“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story ofRed Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”

more here.

Low-Hanging Fruit

Francis FitzGibbon in London Review of Books:

HLFZakat, the Quranic obligation on Muslims to give alms for the relief of poverty, is one of the five pillars of Islam. The Holy Land Foundation (HLF), founded in 1988 by American citizens of Palestinian heritage, raised money for distribution by zakat charitable committees in Gaza and the West Bank. Most of it went to buy food, clothes and education for children. Between 1992 and 2001 the foundation raised at least $56 million. On 3 December 2001 the US Treasury Department decreed that the HLF was a ‘specially designated global terrorist’ (SDGT), and the next day, without informing the foundation of this decision, the FBI closed down its offices. Five staff members and the HLF itself were charged in 2004 with a variety of terrorism offences, on the basis that the money the organisation raised was ultimately going to fund Hamas.

The first trial, in 2007, resulted in a hung jury. The defendants were convicted in a retrial the next year. The leaders of the HLF, Shukri Abu Baker and Ghassan Elashi, are serving 65-year sentences and will die in jail. Three others were given prison sentences of 15 or 20 years. They lost their appeals, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, despite patent failings and abuses in the legal process. The 9/11 attacks precipitated much hasty and panicked action by the US authorities: hence the Patriot Act and the other instruments of at best dubious legality that the Bush administration used to advance the war on terror. But as a tale of legal chicanery by a government, of moral panic and of complicity on the part of the judiciary, what happened to the HLF is hard to beat.

Read the rest here.

Alice Munro’s Magic

Lee_1-020515_jpg_250x1097_q85Hermione Lee at the New York Review of Books:

Writers who get away from, or are in savage dispute with, “home,” yet spend most of their lives writing about it, are not uncommon, especially in North America: think of Shillington, Pennsylvania; Newark, New Jersey; Milledgeville, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; Red Cloud, Nebraska; or Great Village, Nova Scotia. What is special about Munro’s lifelong use and reuse of “family furnishings” and “unremarkable” local landscape?

Partly it is her exceptionally thorough and dedicated mining of the same ingredients, which endlessly come up rich and fresh, seem never to be used up, and however artfully shaped, feel “real.” Lives of Girls and Women (1971) was going to be calledReal Life. Munro’s “real life” ingredients become enormously familiar to us: the childhood in the fox farm on the edge of town, the mother with incurable Parkinson’s, the studious girl reading her way out of the country into university, the expectations for young women in 1940s and 1950s provincial, conservative, colonial Canada; the early marriage and motherhood in Vancouver, the condescending young husband, the adultery, the divorce, the deaths of her parents, the returns home.

In her stories about her mother’s past, “My Mother’s Dream” and “Dear Life,” she nudges us to remember that this is “real life,” even though she didn’t witness it herself: “It is early morning when this happens in the real world. The world of July 1945.” “He does not have any further part in what I’m writing now…because this is not a story, only life.”

more here.

Thursday Poem

Another Island

The old man sleeps on the little lawn
of the Korean Rosicrucian Church.
He positions himself like a cardboard cutout
all over Echo Park, sometimes by the curb
at Safeway, sometimes staring there
into the traffic as if it were a stream.
He always wears the same trimmed beard
and eyes like cloudy mornings.

Wherever he went in his youth
he didn't come home.
He hunkers down on his heels and sings,
brown bottle neck the instrument of his song.
He sits on the curb
and waves cover his ankles.

Even if I should catch his eye,
I couldn't find him.
I have a different island
to attend to and don't try to stop
the spinning door between the worlds.
I remember very carefully
how to come back.

by Eloise Klein Healy
from Artemis in Echo Park
Firebrand Books, 1991

Frankenstein Can’t Come Out And Play Today

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

ScreenHunter_956 Jan. 22 14.00In the standard Frankenstein story, a scientist creates an unnatural monster that breaks out of the lab and runs amok. But why should unnatural make something unstoppable? The contrary is possible, too. Imagine a different story: Frankenstein’s monster escapes, realizes that it can’t survive in the outside world, and retreats back to the lab. This story line may not make for a satisfying movie, but it might be a good goal for real life.

The fear of the unstoppable unnatural has been with us ever since scientists began moving genes between species in the 1970s. In a 1973 experiment, researchers transferred a gene from a frog into Escherichia coli. The gut microbe used the frog gene to make a frog protein.

It wasn’t long before researchers figured out how to use genetic engineering to turn microbes into factories. When scientists inserted the gene for human insulin into E. coli, the bacteria were able to manufacture a drug that had previously been harvested from cow pancreases. E. coli became the workhorse of biotechnology, spewing out drugs, vitamins, and industrial materials. (For more on E. coli’s strange yet significant history, see my bookMicrocosm.)

At first, the prospect of foreign genes in E. coli was terrifying. Some critics warned that insulin-producing bacteria would escape from fermenting tanks, get into people’s bodies, and cause an epidemic of diabetic comas. That never happened, probably because insulin does E. coli no good at all. The human gene is a burden to the microbe, draining off energy and resources it could use to grow.

More here.

What, To the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Chris Lebron in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_955 Jan. 22 13.44I am very honored to be addressing you here today, though it is not without some trepidation.

You see, the distance between where I grew up, where I come from in the world, and where many of you sit is significant. That I am where I am in the world sometimes surprises me. So I consider it an especially pressing duty to be mindful of my journey; and, when possible, to remind others that such a journey is just that for some of us — a setting out without a clear sense that we will get where we intend to go.

Representing the point of view that I do — as a brown American from a lower-class background, with the good fortune today to walk the halls of one of America’s most elite institutions as a teacher of philosophy — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is taken to represent a triumph. But here is an uncomfortable truth: It is a triumph of acceptable minimums rather than full respect for those who continue to wait for Dr. King’s dream to become reality.

My purpose is to challenge the common belief that honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. means the same thing to all Americans. Recalling the sense of disconnect expressed by Frederick Douglass in his speech “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” — between himself as a former slave and his white audience — I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.

More here.

Two, Not Together

Nurjahan Akhlaq in ArtAsiaPacific:

Two-not-together-series_-relief-print-on-somerset-paper-9_5x9___346Aisha Abid Hussain’s exhibition of recent works, entitled “Two Not Together,” was exhibited at Hanmi Gallery, in London, from August to September in 2014. In this body of work, consisting of photography, video, collage and prints, Abid Hussain delicately rips apart the institution of marriage. A recent graduate of the MFA program at London’s Goldsmiths College, as well as an alumni of the National College of Arts in Lahore (where the artist is based), Abid Hussain gained international recognition for her inclusion in the 2013 Bloomberg New Contemporaries—an annual touring exhibition of recent art graduates in the United Kingdom. A glance at her resume also reveals that she has shown at museum exhibits in New York, Vienna and Delhi, just to name a few.

“Two Not Together” is an exploration of Abid Hussain’s interest in gender and power relations, which are recurring themes within her oeuvre. For the works in the exhibition, however, inspiration came from her family photo archive. The artist claims: “My keen interest in human relationships with one another and to one’s surroundings inspires me hugely. The series is a satire, an attempt to start a debate regarding the institution of marriage. It is an effort to investigate the idea of marriage—is it not becoming a utopian concept in the present time and age?” Making use of a text by Urdu writer Bano Qudsia that frames the Hanmi Gallery show, Abid Hussain quotes the author’s reasons for which a marital contract should be valid in today’s world. For reasons other than having children, Qudsia suggests that a marriage contract should be renewed every two or three years. The artist herself adds that a paper contract for two individuals sealing their romantic commitment to one another is itself an archaic concept. The work in this exhibit uses a variety of media that parody, spurn and scrutinize the conventions of marriage that are specific to cultural context. The relief prints entitled “Two Not Together” (2014) are a remarkable set of works. The original photos that Abid Hussain’s prints are derived from are of her parents’ wedding. Five images, which originally captured moments of festive spectacle and ceremonial splendor, have been stripped of their photographic gloss and saturation and reduced to relief prints. The resulting images are rife with symbolism.

More here.