“The Writer’s Heart”: A Conversation between Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima

Liesl Schillinger and Andrea Scrima are two of the authors in Strange Attractors, an anthology that’s just come out with University of Massachusetts Press, edited by Edie Meidav and Emmalie Dropkin. The thirty-five pieces in the collection explore unsettling experiences of magnetism and unanticipated encounter irresistible enough to change or derail the course of a life. In chaos theory, “strange attractor” is the term given to the fractal variety of attractor that arises out of a dynamic system; its defining unpredictability makes this mathematical concept an apt metaphor for the twists of fate that send us reeling, but can sometimes feel oddly inevitable in hindsight. In her piece for the anthology, “Children and All That Jazz,” Liesl Schillinger weaves the music and heartache of Joan Baez into the lives and longings of a family in the American Midwest in the 1970s; in Andrea Scrima’s excerpt “all about love, nearly,” the narrator explores the dimensions of a world transfigured, and then dissembled, by passion.

A.S.: Liesl, I love the part in your story where a pack of kids is playing “Murder in the Dark” and the young narrator’s crush, who plays the part of the killer, draws near her in the dark yard: “I didn’t try to back away, I thought maybe he was going to kiss me, but then he killed me which was so predictable.”

L.S.: It’s funny, as a child, my belief in the importance of love—fed by the nineteenth-century novels I devoured—from Louisa May Alcott to Dickens and Austen and Stendhal—was unshakeable. I was always waiting for the coup de foudre. But that was paired with an instinctive pessimism, or maybe resignation. My mother gave me a reading list, I was expected to read a book a week, and didn’t consider not doing that. But I also read the twentieth-century novels on my parents’ bedroom shelves. John Irving, Shirley Hazzard, V.S. Naipaul, and Graham Greene did a lot to temper my romantic idealism. Or maybe to undermine it. I hoped for love to work out, but didn’t expect it to; and was somehow always relieved, I think (eventually), when one of my castles in the air collapsed, and I was back on solid ground.

A.S.: I guess my piece in the anthology covers the other, unhealthier side of things: when love makes you lose your footing and even your hold on reality: “my crazy, exalted, euphoric collusion in my own demise.”

L.S.: There’s a conversation between (Shakespeare’s) Antony and Cleopatra that I’ve never forgotten, though this is a paraphrase—Cleopatra says something to the effect of: “I will not have love as my master.” Antony responds, “Then you will not have love.” I’ve had a long and occasionally turbulent romantic history, and Antony and Cleopatra’s exchange reflects my experience. Read more »

Why do we read literary biographies?

by Emrys Westacott

I have just finished reading Curtis Cate's 2005 biography of Nietzsche. At close to six hundred pages one would expect it to be exhaustive, the kind that is routinely described in the back cover blurb as “definitive.” ImgresAfter all, Nietzsche's life, apart from his thoughts and subjective experiences, was not especially eventful or interesting. Born in 1844, the son of a Protestant pastor in a small German village, he went to an elite boarding school and excelled at university as a student of classical philology. He spent the next decade working as a professor at Basle in Switzerland except for a short period when he served as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian war. Plagued by ill health, he resigned his professorship in 1878 and spent another decade as a rather solitary nomad, moving between locations in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy, writing a series of books that found few readers at the time but eventually secured him lasting acclaim. In 1889 he suffered an irreversible mental breakdown and spent the rest of his days as a mentally incapacitated invalid until his death in 1900.

Whatever adventure and excitement there was in Nietzsche's life occurred in the realm of the spirit; it concerned the books he read and wrote, the music he listened to and composed, and the conversations he engaged in. This holds true even of his encounters with the two people he befriended who affected him most profoundly: Richard Wagner, whose music he revered yet eventually came to distrust; and Lou Salome, the brilliant young woman to whom he proposed marriage and whom he viewed as a possible disciple before their relationship foundered on reefs of petty envy, disillusionment, and misunderstanding.

So I perhaps shouldn't have been surprised if Cate's biography was less than riveting. If one wants adventure and excitement, one should presumably read about people who actually do stuff–like travel to far off lands, explore continents, suffer shipwrecks, lead revolutions, fight duels, command armies, wield political power–or at least raise a family and hold an interesting variety of jobs. The simple fact is that writers of remarkable books often don't lead especially remarkable lives.

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More about pluralism and perspectivism

by Dave Maier

PluA couple of weeks back here at 3QD, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse told us about a certain contentious use of the term “pluralism” in philosophy, which tries to identify a particular conception of philosophical method with the institutional virtues of toleration, openmindedness, and cute little bunnies. In their opinion, however, that doesn't fly: “every conception of the scope of toleration identifies limits to the tolerable. And for every conception of toleration, there is some other conception that charges the first with undue narrowness[…. There] is in the end no way of eschewing the substantive evaluative issues,” i.e., in order to identify the virtue of toleration with a supposedly “pluralistic” method.

Well, yes – no slam dunk for the “pluralistic” side. But just for that very reason, it's worth a look at those substantive issues which we cannot eschew. This will involve making a few distinctions (mmm … distinctions …), so let's get started.

What kinds of “pluralism” are there in philosophy? First, as Aiken and Talisse indicate in referring to “the idea of pluralism as a political movement within Philosophy [my emphasis]”, one could be a “pluralist” by believing that the range of philosophers hired by university philosophy departments should be wide rather than narrow. Is the point of a philosophy department to be a center of research into a particular subdiscipline or issue or method, or rather to provide as broad a selection of courses for students as is practical given the department's resources? Notably, such a “pluralist” might come from anywhere on the philosophical spectrum. One could think of the university's educational mission in this latter way no matter how one pursued one's own philosopical agenda.

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Marlene Dumas: Forsaken Frith Street Gallery London

by Sue Hubbard

1The Eurhythmics may not be considered the philosophical fount of all wisdom but the insistently recurring line that: “Everybody’s looking for something”, from their 1983 hit, Sweet Dreams, kept swirling round my head as I walked round the exhibition Forsaken, the first in the UK since 2004, by the controversial South African artist Marlene Dumas.

Better known for her provocative, eroticised images of woman painted in runny reds and watery blues that highlight the dichotomy between art and desire, pornography and more socially acceptable depictions of female beauty, Dumas’s work can be found in the Tate, the Pompidou Centre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Normally derived from Polaroids of friends and lovers, or borrowed from glossy magazines and porno pictures she has, here, used the words of Christ dying on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtain?“ My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” to explore the feelings of existential despair so prevalent in this solipsistic, secular age. Although in Judaism and Islam God is considered both unknowable and too holy to be depicted in figurative form, within the Christian tradition the image of the crucified Christ soon became the icon onto which all human suffering, rejection and longing were projected. Marlene Dumas’ crucifixions are of a sober northerly bent; more Mattias Grunewäld than Rubens. Her emaciated Christ is depicted as utterly alone – there are no jeering crowds, no weeping women, no thieves or Roman soldiers – painted against very dark or bleached backgrounds. Ecco Homo, 2011 is a moving portrayal of total abjection, whilst the monochromatic Forsaken, 2011 has some of the ghostly luminescence of the Turin Shroud.

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Anslem Kiefer: Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen – White Cube, Hoxton, London

By Sue Hubbard

In 1969 the German artist Anslem Kiefer compiled a book, Unfruchtbare Landschaften that brought together two disparate elements: landscapes and the pages of a medical textbook dealing with contraception. Placing the IUDs out of context on top of the landscapes seemed to imply sterility. Wrenched from their purpose and context these now alien objects brought with them not only traces of their own history but took on new metaphorical meanings. The beauty of the gesture of these juxtapositions lay in the attempt to say something beyond language.Anselm_Kiefer_Des_Meeres_und_der_Liebe_Wellen_2011_a4_1[1]

Kiefer is one of the most significant and serious artists of the post war generation. Born in Donaueschinger in South Germany in 1945, in 1966 he left his law studies at the University of Freiburg to study art. A student of Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s he began to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity in a muscular visual language. His paintings, oversized books and performance art draw from literature, art and music, philosophy and folklore. Borrowing from Teutonic myth he has conducted investigations into the recent past, particularly the era of the Third Reich, exploring a post Nietzschian desire to establish meaning in a brutal Godless world. His painted landscapes of the ploughed and rutted German countryside, incorporating straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, have become metaphors for the tragedy of recent European history. Engaged in an endless interrogation of the devastation and horror that his country wrought, he implies that the tragedy was a product of Germany’s intellectual and cultural heritage, a view endorsed in Michael Haneke's superb yet disturbing film, The White Ribbon, based on life in pre-first world war Germany.

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Pandora, Prometheus, and Pessimism

Schopenhauer

According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, women were created for the sole purpose of punishing men. The punishment of mankind in the form of womankind was kalon kakon, or a ‘beautiful evil’ – sent by the gods for a crime committed not by man but by the Titan Prometheus. Prometheus was presumptuous enough to steal fire (symbolising knowledge) from heaven to give to mankind. Zeus, infuriated with mankind’s sudden enlightenment, punished him with ‘a bane to plague their lives’, as Jenny March says. This bane was woman.

The first woman was ironically named ‘Allgifts’. She was fashioned out of the combined talents of the Olympian gods. Created from earth and water by the great smith-god Hephaistos, she was attired and domesticated by Athena; Aphrodite gave her beauty and grace; and, finally, Hermes deposited a cunning nature deep inside her heart. Zeus delivered this beautiful, and secretly evil, gift to Prometheus’ gullible brother Epimetheus. We call this first woman by the more popular name Pandora. She brought with her a dowry – the infamous ‘Pandora’s Box’, which was actually a great jar (or pithos). In the jar were sorrow, disease and hard labour. By opening it, Pandora unleashed these evils which have been plaguing us ever since. The only thing which remained in the box, within control of humanity, was hope. This was supposed to be some kind of consolation for all the suffering that life imposes on us, as individuals and as a species.

Yet, this seems like little consolation to some thinkers. One interpretation of this entire event is that with knowledge (Prometheus’ fire) comes sorrow (Pandora’s pithos). Even Ecclesiastes 1:18 reminds us of this. To somehow reconcile the two, some philosophers have asserted that with an increase in knowledge comes the alleviation of the suffering brought about by Pandora. The greatest exponent of this was probably Socrates but definitely his disciple Plato. Socrates, as a Platonic character, says that the unconsidered life is not worth living – or, to prove the point: the considered life is worth living. Yet, why is this so?

In fact, as figures like Arthur Schopenhauer and John Gray remind us, examining our life individually and human life in general, one is more likely to arrive at the opposite conclusion. Their views are this: Our world is filled with much suffering, strife and individual struggle. Our individual lives are hard – some much worse than others – and it seems that no amount of rationalising has decreased selfishness, bigotry and violence in us. We are still fearful of each other; we still quiver at the thought of death. Suffering is scattered about the world like pollen on a breeze. Of course there is no perfect way to measure human-induced suffering – but by all current measurements, for example body-count, we have in fact gotten worse (think of Nagasaki or the Khmer-Rouge).

Modern writers, like John Gray, who are taking on the mantle of Schopenhauer, say: We have used the outcomes of technology, the products of reason and the results of knowledge, to kill each other more efficiently, to induce suffering on an unprecedented scale. Knowledge of the world, how to manipulate it, is used to deliver suffering. This goes against the Socratic optimism which states that knowledge brings about a confirmation of life, making it ‘worth living’. According to Gray, this is not so.

409px-Glass-of-water

Of course because of technology most of us are alive. For example, given that women’s bodies are so poorly ‘designed’ for labour, many of us run a very high risk of death during labour: both the newborn and the mother. The reason for this is because of our bipedal nature. During birth, a child must pass through the middle of the pelvis: because we evolved to walk on two legs, this space is narrower than for other apes. Also, newborn humans have a much larger head because of a larger brain. Humans are therefore born at a much earlier stage (any later and the head would be even bigger) and are more vulnerable, thus entirely dependent on their parents. With the larger head and narrower pelvis, the entire process is slow and painful for the mother. Thanks to medical technology, this can be alleviated somewhat and the chances of infection and death are greatly lessened. Due to the brilliance in technology and the efficiency of medically-trained doctors – both of which are outcomes of reason – mother and child have a far greater chance of surviving.

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