poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

October 27, 2011

A Week in Autumn.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 5:58 PM

It began as bleak as anything could be. Going on day four of solitude, alternating between pacing the room, writing down everything frantically for posterity, for clarity, for any idea of what to do next, then curling up in a fetal position under a pile of down blankets, I was running empty on my own resources. I wished myself no harm, nor others, I just wanted everything to. go. away. But no amount of fluffy bedding could muffle the sound of the cat’s worried mews, of the hellish symphony of construction next door, of the ominous howl of the wind through the drafty window, of my own racing thoughts. I had to get out of this noisy apartment.

It was a quiet, grey Tuesday afternoon in October. I exited the Jarvis el stop, lit a cigarette and held my head up high. I was there to meet a friend, a friend who had always been there for me like he was there for me today, whom my former lover had informed me only kept my acquaintance because he wanted to get into my pants. I didn’t have the luxury of debating if men and women could ever really be friends at this point though and resented that I was going to have to explain why I’d been ignoring his texts. I saw him waiting for me. Chin up. He gave me a hug, and I burst into sobs. Sobs I’d been holding back for days. In silence we walked down the sidewalk, tears streamed down my cheeks. We sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach at the end of the street, I offered him a cigarette, told him everything, every dark and confused thought, every fear, every way I had fucked up, every regret. I sat looking straight ahead, across the horizon, eyes scanning the small hill of grey stones, the smooth sand, the dark, turbulent waters, the overcast sky, the lilac clouds in the distance giving way to those promising rain. An icy wind scalded our cheeks and threatened our cigarettes and snapped me out of it. After a half hour of crying and confessing with abandon, I gathered my composure and dug about in my bag for something to wipe the mascara and mucus from my face while he doled out advice and shared stories of his own screw ups and struggles. “I care about you, as a friend. Do you understand? I have no ulterior motives.” “I want to believe you, but it’ll be a while before I can trust a man again. Or myself.” “I know.” The wind kicked up, assaulting us with sand, water, leaves and bark, and we headed inside. We warmed ourselves with black coffee at the dining table and chatted about work, vacations, life while two cats vied for our attention. The sky grew dark, and a small lamp in the corner cast everything in chestnut tones. “You seem better now.” “I feel better now.”

By the following evening, all hell was breaking loose. Outside, pedestrians were losing battles with umbrellas. Inside, I sat in a booth drinking a “pumpkin spice latte” and picking at a whole wheat “bagel” with “hazelnut cream cheese.” I had no appetite, but needed to get the manufactured, cloyingly sweet taste of pumpkin goo off my palate, and I had to keep drinking the coffee to stay awake. The evening was not going well. I’d just been given a lecture on how my lack of interest in marriage and a family, along with my penchant for sleeping with bad boy artists, must mean I enjoy being miserable and unstable. As if people with spouses and children have inoculated themselves against misery and instability. As if my ambivalence to the institution were not a consequence of my own miserable and unstable family. As if I had ever dated a bad boy artist before. As if I’d plans to do it again. As if I thought it were helpful to speak of people in stereotypes. I’d left the office shaken. What the fuck was wrong with people? I hadn’t even gone there to discuss relationships. I needed paperwork signed. Psychiatrists should really stick to doing what they know, like paperwork, and not try to analyze people they see for 5 minutes every 2 months. In the coffee shop I tried to read. Well, his wife is dying. I should not take that marriage stuff personally. Still… Jesus, this latte is disgusting. I was supposed to be meeting someone for coffee. I texted, called, nothing. Well, traffic was a mess, and I was in no hurry to venture out into the gale. I wrote a bit, tried to read. I’d been in a boring normal appropriate relationship for 8 years, and that made me miserable. What the hell did he know? I thought if I took another sip of my seasonal concoction I’d puke. Still no texts. Things were getting chaotic out there in way that encouraged me to leave sooner rather than later. “Hey, L-, it’s T-. Not sure where you are but I’ve been waiting for you forever and I am not waiting any longer. I mean, I hope you’re not trapped under a fallen branch or something.” I left, wrapped my trenchcoat tight around me, gave up on the umbrella, tugged my beret down over my head, found a doorway where I eventually was able to light a smoke. The night out there was wet and black and slick and wild and everyone was either running or holding on for their lives. People enjoy being miserable and unstable my ass.

Days passed. Storms departed, leaving warm orange days in their wake. Friends poured wine. Family phoned. Ex-therapist e-mailed. Cat stopped behaving upsettingly (except when I caught him watching the slasher flick Dressed to Kill, his eyes dilated and bulging from their sockets, all cartoon-like.) I cooked, slept, did yoga, wrote, paid visits, read a bit about Buddhism, read a bit about Fascism. I picked up a Reader and put it back down. Fuck all, he’s probably sick of himself at this rate… I gathered myself. I watched a documentary on Catholicism. God is love. But what the hell is love?

It was an October Sunday afternoon, almost 70 degrees and blinding rays of sun thrashed at everything violently, as if in the throes of death before being locked up in the morgue of our long Chicago winters. I’d read something in the paper about a tour of Graceland Cemetery and thought that might get me into the holiday spirit. Not to take the tour, of course. I am allergic to tours. I actually learned the world obyazatelno while trying to squirm out of ekskursii tours. I’d capitulate to the demands of my exchange program overlords but go on my own excursions through dacha dotted wastelands once off the bus and accounted for. Fucking tours. Also, why pay for a tour of a cemetery I can just, you know, walk around in for free? The general offices and visitors center were closed, but the gates were open. “Here for the tour?” a man asked. “No,” I responded defensively, already disoriented still only a few steps past the gates. I tried to look like I wasn’t there precisely to get lost, which I was.

Under my over-sized wool turtleneck sweater sweat gathered in the small of my back. I spent the first half of the walk propelling myself toward mirages of shade. So many trees, so many crypts, so many obelisks, yet no reprieve from the sun. Many of the graves were early 20th Century and unimpressive. I grew up in a graveyard and am a hard sell. (My aunt & uncle owned, ran and lived on the grounds of a cemetery.) Well, it was a beautiful day, a beautiful walk. I finally stumbled upon a cool, dark area, looked down and thought, now who is this lucky fellow, resting eternally in the shade? “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.” I began to pay attention as I strolled around the lagoon lined with a little wooden bridge, white marble columns and weeping willows swaying lightly in the faint suggestion of a breeze. Burnham. Field. Harrison. McCormick. Palmer. Sullivan. Wacker. Medill. Names so ubiquitous with my town, I’d never fully appreciated that they were real dead people. I contemplated the chalk white arched little headstones wedged into corners next to ostentatious monuments, their names erased with time and bad weather, and wondered who they were. I was glad for their modesty and grace and Halloweenishness. I peeked into ornately decorated crypts with beautiful stained glass windows opposite their doors, the harsh sun transforming colorful scenes into dramatic three-dimensional visions, the kind converts see in the movies. I came upon an imposing black wall against which a larger than life shrouded figure in lurid patina stood, forearm across his face. I looked upwards dizzyingly to the stone angels perched high in the air. I hummed, “I dreaded sunny days, so let’s go and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates, Keats and Yeats are on your side… Wilde is on mine…”

I showered away my graveyard stickiness, applied copious amounts of eye makeup, slipped on some sexy boots and was headed toward the Western bus. “Poise and grace. Poise and grace,” I repeated under my breath. Earlier I’d texted a girlfriend, “Hey, I kinda know this guy playing music at this performance thing at the Viaduct tonight at 9, wanna come? It’s only 5 bucks.” There was a slight chance the painter cabbie would be there. Then my chef friend phoned from the ER to inform me she’d chopped her finger off, “They can reattach it, but don’t know if it will take.” I eagerly offered to come to the hospital to keep her company, interpreting her misfortune as a message from god to cancel my plans. “You’re too sweet. No, I’m fine. Vicodin. Go out and have fun for me!” I interpreted this as a message from god to stick to my plans. Upon confessing that I was anxious about the possibility of running into my ex at the show, a nice fellow, mutual friend, offered to take me. I thanked him but declined, the horrid assertion that men were only kind to me because they wanted to fuck me still lodged in my memory. Not that a good fuck would be the worst thing in the world. A few weeks ago I’d gone to the Rainbo for cheap stiff drinks and a chat with a date. And a good fuck. I sat under the painting which had been promised me for my birthday, had a wonderful time, he was a wonderful guy, but his advances confirmed my suspicion that I was indeed emotionally unavailable and a good fuck would do no more to kill my pain than cheap drinks. I was too hung up on love. The painting at the Rainbo was shortly thereafter given to another woman. Motherfucker. “Poise and grace. Poise and grace.”

The performance began. The guy I kind of knew played fantastically hypnotizing guitar while a guy I’m very glad I do not know read various monologues featuring porn shoots, satanism, stds, depression and killing homeless people. I sat wavering between horror and boredom. The monologuist was sweating profusely and asking us why we were so silent, as if we were meant to stand up and cheer when the coke dealers set the streetperson on fire. The writing was clearly very angry but very unclear about what, intended to shock but void of imagination, cynical without enough maturity to make it believable. While the performer laughed nervously, dropping his printouts, demanding a towel, my mind wandered: perhaps not the best material to be exposing my fragile self to…, what if I walked out in the middle of the performance?, those large goth girls giggling in the row in front of me, it is nervous laughter?, what is the point of this? My girlfriend leaned over, “Uhm, what’s the point of this?” He continued on about facebook, erections, drinking binges. Were those his parents in the back row? They appear well-shod. I zoned out to the intoxicating sounds coming from the suitcase guitar thing, and the second the show ended I bolted out for a cigarette and reflection. “I feel much better about myself now,” I smiled widely. My girlfriend and I talked about what makes people make bad art, what makes people do bad things. I surprised myself by how grateful I was for the experience in sum, for my curiosity and courage, for being taken out of my own shit for a while, for perspective, even if acquired so harshly. I suddenly felt like a million dollars. At least I am not setting homeless people on fire or writing an homage to people who set homeless people on fire or laughing at homeless people being set on fire. It’s a low bar, I admit, but I felt positively angelic.

It was midnight when I stepped off the bus still high on my own moral foundation and good taste. Lightning flashed in the distance and crisp leaves whipped themselves into small cyclones along my path. Jack-O-Lanterns and cotton cobwebs decorated porches where lazy plastic skeletons sat eyeing passersby. Muffled thunderclaps far off and an angry wind interrupted the silence of a late Sunday night in a working class town. Something wicked this way was headed. The winds erratically shifted direction, carrying the leaves up into the sky where they danced madly around the sulfur street lights, trees shook like the possessed, lightning bolts cracked a few streets north, thunder let out a deep groan of warning. I made it to the door as fat drops of rain began to dot the sidewalk. Safe inside my apartment, I scooped up the cat and folded myself into the merengue of the fluffy down blankets piled upon the bed, listening to the rain tap gently against the roof next door, the wind whistle softly through the window. Finally, I thought, peace and quiet.

October 21, 2011

On Remaining in Touch.

Filed under: Too Much Information — poemless @ 9:57 AM

I’ve recently been sent two very different but very appropriate bits of prose from my two best friends from college. In itself, it is exceptional to hear from them at all. It is a bittersweet benchmark of age when those to whom you spoke, nay, saw practically every day for years, those who could routinely barge into your room unannounced in tears like nothing, those with whom you exchanged nothing less than passionate love letters over infinitely long holiday breaks now, though remaining indelibly in your life, surface but once or twice a year. When they do, it seems always to be a surprise, if a welcome and warm one. Perhaps it is a book received by post with a brief inscription, or a call from the airport at which a layover has been extended to make time for a weekend visit. I now have friends into whose rooms I barge in tears but now with a polite “is it ok if I…?” request beforehand, whom I see routinely though not daily because time has replaced the immediacy of everything with the ability to savour what is truly important, to whom I do not write passionate letters but probably should in the interest of preserving that art form. But when I do see or hear from my dear old college friends, it is as if no time has passed, as if no catching up needs doing, as if they know me so well and I them that it is enough to say to one another, “you and I exist and for that I am glad,” and not even that really needs saying. They keep me grounded and honest and humble and remind me of who I am, and I hope I do a bit of that for them too. They are wonderful, intelligent, beautiful and fascinating creatures, these friends. Anyway, here’s what they sent:

From one, currently working on her PhD at Oxford, though apparently reading my facebook or blog when procrastinating:

“I really enjoy Michiko Kakutani’s reviews. This one [of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, “The Marriage Plot”] at made me think of you, and this paragraph, particularly:

Leonard, needless to say, breaks all these rules, and Madeleine soon realizes she’s deeply, madly in love — or at least very smitten: “It was as if, before she’d met him, her blood had circulated grayly around her body, and now it was all oxygenated and red.” For someone so used to being in control, it’s a thrilling, disorienting and frightening experience, heightened further when Madeleine realizes that Leonard’s depression is not a passing mood but a serious and chronic condition that could well sabotage their relationship.”

I must say, it is a comfort to know that my own personal drama is enough of a universal human condition that whole novels and plays and films and tome after tome of poetry have been devoted to it. And it provides perspective: at least I won’t be tossing my spent self in front of an oncoming Metra anytime soon. Those lines she sent – and this is all she sent, you must know – resonated deeply, eerily. But I was not embarrassed or upset. I laughed at how she knew me and at myself. I used to tell people, do not try to be a character in a novel; write your own novel! I was 18 and it was all very profound. But there is no infinite supply of plots, it seems.

I received the following essay from another, who is a student of traditional Odissi dance in India. The piece was published in the New Indian Express “Devi” Magazine in Bhubaneswar. It’s as beautiful as anything.

From Autumn to Aswin

Each October in my home town, the groves of slender aspens in the Rocky Mountains would be turning a bright yellow and raining down golden showers of coin-like leaves blown about by autumn’s brisk breeze. We would wait for the first snow on the mountain peaks, eagerly conjecturing about the conditions of the coming winter skiing season. The first white flutters in town always seemed to come around Halloween, the holiday when all the kids wear costumes and visit the neighboring houses at night collecting chocolates. How many tussles erupted between concerned moms and excited children who didn’t want a heavy coat and muffler to obscure the well-planned effect of their Spiderman or Snow White outfit.

For the last five years, this season has taken on an utterly new significance for me. The month is marked as Asvin, not October, and the season is known as “rainy” and not autumn. Still, in an entirely different way, it remains one of my favorite times of the year.

During Durga Puja, I love to feel the charged atmosphere. The rhythmic gong of cymbals, the melodic tinkling of bells and the low drone of prayers create a powerful vibration which elevates my mind to a state of peace. Smoke scented with the sweet aroma of ghee and agarbati cleanses the air of impurities. Sense-impressions acquire an other-worldly clarity as the atoms of nature hum with a divine energy. The soft, warm brightness of the sun’s rays is accentuated as it shines in the drops of new rain. Bright green sprouts, bursting with life-force, grow as the days and nights pass, the moon changing its shape, the sun changing its place. I tune to the cycles of the planet as we invoke the powerful goddess through the elements of nature.

Worship of Devi is absolutely universal, as her energy and presence pervade every molecule of the universe and are felt in the hearts of every human being. Personally, I relate to Her in many ways. As a woman, I relate to Her as a symbol of empowerment and strength. As a spiritual aspirant, I relate to Her as the destroyer of ego and bringer of ultimate liberation. As a student of Odissi dance, I relate to the godess Durga through her mythology, as a protector, the slayer of inner and outer demons and the ultimate manifestation of bliss-giving beauty. I recently had the opportunity to learn the choreography “Durga” by the late Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra. In this choreography both her softness and grace and her intense power are portrayed. As a human being, I relate to the goddess Durga as a manifestation of the force of nature or prakriti. She is the universal mother, who, like this earth who births and sustains all creatures, both gives and takes life. I feel that she is very intimate, our very own near and dear and also an awesome and awe-inspiring force before which we are reduced to mere ants.

Wherever we are on the planet, whether in the Rocky Mountains of the United States or in the red-earth Malis of Orissa, the Goddess is manifested in the pure and unpolluted beauty of nature. I pray to the Goddess that on this Durga Puja, all of us, her children, are reminded of how perfect and beautiful she is in her form as Mother Earth. I pray that all of us should make a commitment to protecting the very special earth that is Orissa. I pray that we can work to protect and empower the women in the communities across Orissa. Ultimately I pray that her great peace will prevail in all of our hearts-that we will feel perfectly at peace within, that there will be peace between us and that peace will pervade the earth.

How beautiful is that? I am no hippie. And religions, well, I won’t be joining one soon. But reading this, from her, I am reminded of her infinite supply of energy and curiosity and fearlessness and wonderment, and how pleasantly contagious it all is. I can see her performing this piece, being fierce, animated, charismatic and then her falling on the floor giggling from the catharsis and totally over-the-top poetry of of all. The timing is certainly coincidental, yet this more than anything is exactly what I needed in my email inbox at this moment. This is exactly what I needed from a friend. A shift of focus, a reminder of what is important, a swift yank out of my worldly stew. And that bit about the goddess Durga as a protector, the slayer of inner and outer demons and the ultimate manifestation of bliss-giving beauty rocked too…

It seems so criminally easy for us to lose our humility, our perspective, our people.

Read a silly novel and know you are of that same silly species as its characters.

Go for a long walk and observe the forces of nature at work all around you.

Write a friend a passionate love letter.

Remain in touch.

October 6, 2011

Odds & Ends: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love” Edition

I began to write an essay, an anti-hipster creed in defense of N. Clark Street, about how we are all part of the human comedy and can’t we just stop with the judgement and hatred already? Honestly, does everyone have to be as miserable and cultured as you all of the time?

I began to write another essay, a judgemental and hateful screed against the double standards against which society judges women who under eat v. those who over eat. Honestly, you know lying on the couch with a bag of Oreos isn’t any less criminal than skipping meals, right?

I began to write yet another essay, an admission that I genuinely don’t like how negative I’ve become in the past week or two, or three, or four, or more. Negativity is contagious, insidious. Honestly, we all have our annoyances, peeves and impossibly high standards, but let me tell you mister, it’s a real bore when that’s your primary mode of conversation. I would like to think that if every last lame ass person, place or thing in the world were to vanish tomorrow leaving me with nothing against which to exist, my identity and self-worth would remain largely in tact.

Well that didn’t make me feel better either. Also, that last one mysteriously disappeared into the ether after a failed attempt at multitasking. Karma.

So here are some things that I do like! Shallow enough to charm, indulgent enough to gratify, interesting enough to distract, a few odds and ends that I unapologetically adore at the moment.

I. Marlene Dietrich’s Temperamental Screen Test for The Blue Angel (1929)

I have always thought Marlene Dietrich absolutely divine, and I just can’t get enough of this. Her little transformation is particularly appealing to me.

From Open Culture (which you should all have bookmarked):

In 1929, Josef von Sternberg began assembling the cast for the first major German sound film – Der blaue Engel, otherwise known as The Blue Angel. (Watch the English version online here.) A classic of Weimar cinema, the film featured Marlene Dietrich playing Lola-Lola, a seductive singer in the local cabaret. Lola-Lola was, it has been said, a “liberated woman of the world who chose her men, earned her own living and viewed sex as a challenge.” The persona captivated audiences, and it made Dietrich an international star.

Dietrich’s screentest for “The Blue Angel.”

II. Catalogue of the Musee du Montparnasse exhibtion “Les Artistes Russes hors Frontière.”

One of the delights my work gives me in lieu of a proper salary is perusing through art catalogues. The vast majority are modern art, which … well, there’s that negativity again… Anyway, this one recently appeared on my desk and transported me to heaven.

From ArtInfo: “Russian Artists in Paris in the Roaring Twenties”:

PARIS— In connection with the designation of 2010 as “France-Russia Year,” the Montparnasse Museum is hosting a important exhibition of Russian artists who once converged on this storied Parisian neighborhood. Over 70 artists are represented, covering the period from 1915 to the early 1960s, with special focus on the 1920s. At that time, many Russian painters and sculptors left their country in order to freely express their artistic ambitions and to seek out new trends in art.

The museum itself is part of this history: in its building, the painter Marie Vassilieff had her famous studio — a gathering place for Matisse, Satie, and other seminal cultural figures — and her equally-famous canteen, which provided dirt-cheap meals during World War I to those who were literally starving artists.

Beginning during the political upheavals of the early 20th century, many Russian artists decide to move abroad, and many chose to settle in France. While some artists had supported Lenin and taken part in the revolution’s early stages, most became disillusioned when Stalin took power, preferring to leave rather than to accept ethical and artistic servitude. At the time, Social Realism greatly limited the range of painterly subjects. Still, important artists did remain in Russia, such as Rotchenko, who followed Constructivist principles by applying artistic creation to daily life and mass production. But many other influential talents chose refuge in Paris, the world’s artistic capital at the time.[...]

Drawing on their interest in figurative representation, the Russians developed a freely sensual style of painting. The show includes Serebriakova’s series of languid female nudes, where the artist uses a warm palette to bathe her models in a natural erotic glow. In similar fashion, Marie Vassilieff celebrates the female body with Cubist renderings that maintain bodily proportions and extreme colors that bring Italian Futurism to mind. In general, Russian artists depicted physical beauty without stylizing it. This emphasis on the body also found playful expression in Montparnasse nightlife. During the Union des Artistes Russes’s charity balls, guests freely stripped off their clothes or dressed in drag.

The Russian artists who chose to live in France stayed there, whether by preference or necessity. Erased from Soviet art history, many were forgotten until the end of their lives. It took years before significant pieces of this exiled cultural heritage were rediscovered — many of them in flea-markets. The works shown here all come from the same collection: Georges Khatsenkov gathered 300 paintings over 30 years of tireless pursuit. Since Perestroika, the Russians have rediscovered their legacy, and today these artists are featured in Moscow’s Russian Museum.

From the exhibition: Georges Annenkov’s “Nu Allongé”


III. Ken Burns’ “Prohibition.”
Booze! Chicago! Roaring 20’s! I’d been eagerly anticipating the airing of this PBS documentary all summer, and let’s say I wasn’t drawn to it for its educational appeal. The fact that I learned anything new from it was icing on the cake, or a garnish on the glass, as it were. Did you know that there used to be no federal income tax, that women not only led the fight for but also against Prohibition, that men discovered the clitoris in the 1920’s or that elephants can do the Charleston? Neither did I. Did you evah hear of Lois Long? Neither had I. Now that I have, I am in love.

From “Prohibition”:

Twenty-three-year-old, Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois Long was assigned to cover the city’s nightlife for the New Yorker. She wrote about the speakeasy lifestyle with a liberated woman’s perspective under the pen name Lipstick. Long was the epitome of a flapper and chronicles of her nightly escapades of drinking and dancing in her column enchanted her readers.

“Lois Long’s columns were laced with a wicked sort of sexual sense of humor. She openly flouted sexual and social conventions. She was a favorite of Harold Ross who was the original editor of The New Yorker and who couldn’t have been more different from Long if he had tried. He was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her. “

From Wikipedia:

Lois Long (also known under the pseudonym Lipstick) was a popular writer for The New Yorker during the 1920s and the epitome of a flapper.

She was born to a Congregationalist minister in Stamford, Connecticut and graduated from Vassar. Long had worked at Vogue and Vanity Fair before finding fame at The New Yorker. Harold Ross hired her to write a column on New York nightlife. Under the name of Lipstick, Lois Long chronicled her nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing. She wrote of decadence of the decade with an air of aplomb, wit and satire, becoming quite a celebrity. Because her readers did not know who she was, Long often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in her marriage announcement to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

To summarize her lifestyle in her own words: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

She remained with The New Yorker as a columnist until 1968. She died in 1974 [1]

I don’t really believe in reincarnation or any of that nonsense. But it’s a little eerie, don’t you think? ;) A toast to Lois Long!

IV. Salon: Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

This article ignited the absolutely most tedious discussion on my facebook page, but I still like it, and after you read it, I will happily explain why.

An American hasn’t won in 20 years. The Academy finds our writers insular and self-involved — and they’re right
America wants a Nobel Prize in literature. America demands it! America doesn’t understand why those superannuated Swedes haven’t given one to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. America wonders what they’re waiting for with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. America wonders how you say “clueless” in Swedish.

OK, enough. But the literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.”[...]

Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”

The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists — even the writers who aren’t male (or white). Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class Indian-Americans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York. Swap the identity to Chinese-American, move the story a couple of generations back on the immigrant’s well-trod saga, and you have Amy Tan. Colson Whitehead started promisingly with “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days” but his last novel, “Sag Harbor,” was little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race. Jonathan Safran Foer is a narcissist disguised as a humanist. To his credit, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even pretend.

That makes for a small literature, indeed. The following are words from citations for recent winners and runners-up of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, inarguably our most prominent commendation for a novelist: tender, warmth, heartbreaking, celebration, polished and sensuous. It’s all small-bore stuff, lack of imagination disguised as artistic humility.

Just look back to 2008, when the slight “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer, but the Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O’Neill told the story of America in “Netherland” with far more eloquence, insight and humor than an American writer had in more than a decade.

That’s not to say our literature is barren. Dave Eggers has written a novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, “What Is the What,” and a fine “nonfiction novel” about Hurricane Katrina, “Zeitoun.” Best of all, his 826 reading centers have been a wholly selfless bid to get poor children reading and writing in eight cities. Then there is Aleksandar Hemon, son of Chicago and Sarajevo, who writes the kind of fiction that still seeks to span worlds. Johnston quotes him in the Atlantic: “I reserve the right to get engaged with any aspect of human experience, and so that means that I can — indeed I must — go beyond my experience to engage. That’s non-negotiable.”

Maybe it’s the same story as in politics and industry: America, once great, has been laid low. The difference is that great art needs no tariffs, no financial stimuli, no elections or military campaigns. It only requires courage — though a courage of a special kind — to see beyond oneself, to speak across both space and time via what Ralph Ellison once called “the lower frequencies.”

Indeed, compare the Pulitzer-winning descriptions with these words pulled from the citations of recent Nobel Prize-winners: Revolt, visionary, clash, oppression, subjugating, outsider, barbaric, suppressed. And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal.

Alexander Nazaryan, a member of the editorial board of the N.Y. Daily News, has written about culture for the New York Times, the New Republic and the Village Voice, among other publications.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York.

Are you done giggling at the irony of that last little bit? I could not possibly care who wins what award for what. Anecdotal evidence and recent experience hints that such attention is often reward for a successful combination of kissing ass, having the “right” worldview, exemplifying cultural trends and, we pray, talent. Everyone who leaves home is talented in this postmodern world so I suppose all those other matters are the only way to weed out the worthy from those who must continue to suffer for their art.

Moreover, while I do think that there is a navel-gazing movement in American writing, my grief with the state of contemporary American lit is that it often strikes me as nihilism wrapped in a big bow of preciousness. I would even go so far as to extend this description to most of contemporary culture. However, none of the above would necessarily prevent one from writing well or exploring the human condition in one’s writing.

I appreciated the article because I do find American literature to be shamefully insular, and because I could once more recommend “Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.”

V. Some music I like. Deal.

Several friends have advised that I, during such times of sadness and heartache as these, seek comfort in music.

I’m a bit burnt on music, having spent the past several months being told I know nothing about it. I’m no expert, it’s true, but my god I have spent the last 37 years listening to the stuff. What a perfectly ridiculous claim! Fortunately whatever breakup-induced illness had befallen me making me never ever want to listen to another song ever again was short lived, and the other night I found myself dancing around my apartment like a hysterical chorus girl to this:

Katherine Whalen singing “After you’ve gone.”

I’ll close with Ella singing Cole Porter. I may not know anything about music, but those two sure as hell did.

“Just one of those things.”

Should it be that these odds and ends do nothing much for you, it’s no deal-breaker. I’ll not interpret it as rejection and look for a corner in which to mope. I’ll celebrate your uniqueness and thank you, as always, for stopping by.

…and then I’ll begin another essay about how YOU ARE ALL WRONG!


LQD: “Why the pessimism over Putin’s return?”

Fear not – I’m still paying attention to our Vova. While I’ve been making a pathetic effort to compose a response to the recent 2012 Russian election developments, those smart kids Katrina and Stephen have gone and written pretty much what I’ve been thinking, saving me much time and effort. As always, if anyone has a problem with my publishing this in total, they can get in touch. I’m erring on the side of widest distribution. Go buy a Wa Po after you read this or something.

Washington Post: “Why the pessimism over Putin’s return?” By Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen

We make no brief for Vladimir Putin as a democrat, but much of the U.S. commentary following the announcement that he will return to the Kremlin as president in 2012 is simplistic morality posing as political analysis.

A Sept. 28 New York Times editorial, for example, insisted that Putin, who “has made clear his disdain for democratic rights,” is casting out the “more liberal and Western-oriented” Dmitry Medvedev. According to a Sept. 26 Post editorial, “Vladimir Putin decided that he would like to be president again, and so he will be.”

But the complexities of Russian politics cannot be reduced to the whims of one man — however powerful he may be. As was clear from polemics in Russian newspapers before the Sept. 24 announcement, Putin’s return to the Kremlin is prompted in part by the preferences of Russia’s ruling class — top officials and the financial elite known as the oligarchy. As the leading pro-Medvedev advocate, Igor Yurgens, acknowledged, “influence groups” favoring Putin “turned out to be ­stronger.” In their eyes, and probably in Putin’s, the ever-tweeting Medvedev was never able to shed his image as an ineffectual political figure. In effect, Medvedev failed his four-year audition for a second term.

The Russian elite, including the Putin and Medvedev camps, seems to understand that the country’s economy urgently requires diversification away from its heavy dependence on oil and gas exports. The state must find other sources of revenue for its growing budget. As Putin warned recently, such reforms will require “bitter medicine,” including higher taxes on the business class, which has prospered grandly under a 13 percent flat tax while many Russians have fallen into poverty. The governing class, eyeing its own interests, wants the tougher and popular Putin to preside over these changes.

It may turn out, as some U.S. commentators have asserted, that Putin’s return is “bad news for the Russian people.” But opinion polls show that, after more than a decade of Putin’s leadership, a majority of Russians still do not associate him with the country’s “bad news.” The reason is clear to anyone who has followed Russia since the end of the Soviet Union: It was Putin who restored pensions, lifted wages and elevated living standards after the traumatic 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin’s policies impoverished the country.

And what about President Obama’s highly touted “reset”? The Russian expert at the Center for American Progress asserts that “Putin’s return next year will reverse all of these positive trends” and “is no good for the United States.” This may be so in the limited sense that the Obama administration unwisely based its reset primarily on Medvedev — while directing gratuitous insults at Putin, such as when Vice President Biden told groups of Russians during his visit to Moscow this year that Putin should not return to the presidency. But the larger assumption that Putin’s return will mean a further diminishing of Russia’s democratic prospects is based on the false premise that Yeltsin, like Medvedev today, was a liberal democrat.

But it was the U.S.-backed Yeltsin who used tanks in 1993 to destroy an elected parliament, thereby reversing the democratization of Russia that began under Mikhail Gorbachev, a reversal accelerated under Putin. And while Medvedev has spoken often in the idioms of Western-style liberalism, it was Medvedev who took personal credit for using military force against Georgia in 2008 and then increasing military spending so sharply that his widely admired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, resigned last month. Moreover, if Putin is determined to pursue retrograde policies, why would he promise to appoint the “more liberal” Medvedev as prime minister — an office Putin empowered during the past four years?

Indeed, given the real alternatives, and not those that Americans might prefer, why the assumption that Putin’s return to the Kremlin will be bad for Western interests? For example, the New York Times reported Sept. 28 that Western bankers and corporations welcomed the announcement as “a net positive for foreign investors.” It’s also noteworthy that from 2000 to 2008, when Putin was president, he made more important concessions to Washington than Medvedev has during the past four years — giving the Bush administration critical support in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; bowing to a new round of NATO expansion; swallowing the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; and agreeing to an expansion of Russian supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Those days of a yielding Putin, however, may be behind us. He said as early as 2002 that “the era of Russian geopolitical concessions [is] coming to an end.” What’s clear is that Putin’s future cooperation with Washington will depend on his understanding of Russia’s national interests and equally on Washington’s cooperation with Moscow, which, despite Obama’s heralded “reset,” has not yet involved any tangible American concessions.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly online column for The Post. Stephen F. Cohen is a professor of Russian studies at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.”

What they said.

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