Last night, while taking a hot bath and drinking one cold glass of Pinot Grigio (an activity that has become a Glorious Autumn Habit), I finished reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Not a single character in this bleak satire is “likeable” (they are, of course, all loveable) and love them I did as they hurtled, lost, through their lives. Though hopeful moments are few and far between, the two that come at the end (amidst horrific mass death) are stunning. The book takes place in Manhattan between 2000 and 2001.
Death is present throughout the book–dead parents, dead dogs, dead fruit–and no one has a functional relationship with mortality because, according to the protagonist, their vanity (including her own) has gotten in the way. Thus the book reads like a contemporary literary vanitas: beautiful objects formally arranged to remind the reader that earthly goods (Louboutins for skulls, sleeping pills for wine, Whoopi Goldberg VHSs for hourglasses) are fleeting while spiritual peace is everlasting. The protagonist believes that a year of sleep will bring her this peace in a purity of form: “Mine was a quest for a new spirit.”
One of the last scenes of the novel takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and culminates in a tense interaction between the protagonist, a security guard, and a painting of grapes in which our sleeping beauty has at last, at long tortured last, seen some humanity. The suspense I felt here reminded me of this episode of the Art Curious podcast, about why certain people at certain times are driven to enter museums and destroy works of art.
But the protagonist does not destroy the art, she simply touches it, in a significant moment John Berger might reflect on as having “almost nothing to do with what anyone teaches about art. It’s as if the painting, absolutely still, soundless, becomes a corridor, connecting the moment it represents and the moment at which you are looking at it. And something travels down that corridor at a speed greater than light, throwing into question our way of measuring time itself.”
The water in my bath cooled; the wine in my glass warmed. I drained the tub and turned on the latest episode of KUWTK. As I watched, the unnamed protagonist’s voice–fed up, mean and funny –was still running through my head. One reviewer said Moshfegh writes sentences “that are snipped as if the author has an extra row of teeth.” On the screen, Scott Disick takes a pair of dull scissors and saws through Kim Kardashian’s Fulani braids, which had begun to make her feel “claustrophobic.” It’s not her real hair anyway, she assured him and Khloe. And even if it was, she didn’t care, she needed out.
October 2nd, 2018
Ana Mendieta was a Cuban artist probably best known for her Silueta series, three examples of which are shown above. Like Kara Walker after her, Mendieta’s use of the silhouette shows both a presence (of body) and an absence (of detail). Mendieta left Cuba in 1960 at age twelve with Operation Pedro Pan, a secret mission that transported thousands of minors to the United States at the start of Fidel Castro’s regime. She didn’t see her parents for years afterward, and bounced from state to state, from foster home to foster home.
Less celebrated are Mendieta’s more brutal pieces. She once used her own body to re-create a violent rape scene, inviting viewers into her home to see her naked, tied to a table, covered in blood. For a different piece, she poured pig’s blood and viscera from the front door of her apartment out onto the street, suggesting a wounded body on the floor inside. The art was in her surreptitious photographs of people’s reactions to the blood, which Mendieta predicted correctly would be indifferent.
People say Mendieta’s work was overshadowed by her death, but I don’t know if that’s true. I first learned of Mendieta’s art when I saw her gorgeous, gender-bending photography series Untitled (Facial Hair Transplant). It wasn’t until a couple years after that that I accidentally stumbled upon her cause of death: a fall from her apartment window after a fight with her husband, sculptor Carl Andre. He admitted they’d argued that night about “his reputation in the art world surpassing hers,” but that she must have jumped out of the bedroom window or accidentally fallen. He was charged with her murder and acquitted for lack of evidence.
I am thinking about Ana Mendieta today because of a news report: her estate is suing a film studio for using Mendieta’s art without permission. Meanwhile, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life is being immortalized, again, this time on Broadway. The press release announcing the development reads (in the third sentence) that producers are “working closely with the Basquiat Estate and have secured the rights to the painter’s art work and personal archives.”
Wonderful news for the Basquiat Estate, for theatre-goers and art-lovers. I love Basquiat’s work and legacy as much as I love Mendieta’s. In a perfect world, both estates would be honoured and consulted and compensated. Both artists would get their own Broadway show.
October 1st, 2018
In today’s episode of Canadaland, Sheila Heti interviewed Rachel Cusk. It was a wonderful surprise to hear two women talking about art on a media criticism program that I otherwise conceive of as being very male. I loved what Cusk had to say about character, truth and narrative frequency, how she directed each question, no matter how personal, back to form. When differentiating between her fiction and memoir (Cusk has written several books of each) Cusk said, “A novel, you have to build like a building, so that it stays standing even when you’re not in it…For memoir, you use yourself as the building so other people can come be in you for a bit.”
The end of the interview was disappointing, only because I felt as though Cusk had said something that demanded more questions. She said, “(On literary panels) one is expected to have an opinion on the Me Too movement…and I find I have nothing to say. I felt I’ve lived through womanhood in the most basic and arduous ways, and now I don’t feel gendered, and I’m interested in knowing what is after gender.”
I am so curious to hear more about what she means. She is fifty-one. She has written eight novels and three memoirs, all about issues that are decidedly “gendered”–motherhood, divorce, sexist reactions to her books. A reviewer at the New York Times called her one of the smartest writers alive. She has no opinion on Me Too. She is interested in what is after gender. Aren’t we all? Isn’t that what Me Too is all about?
September 28th, 2018
From Etel Adnan’s Night:
Memory can fail us…We then enter barrenness, we silence the mind’s deserts; a few events may emerge, oh so very few!
There must be non-human memories from where our own surges, take us to the next thing.
Memory and theatre work in similar ways. Memory trespasses our limits. Some animals hear it…some structures own it. Theatre started with the Greek oracle. In Delphi. When the Pythia was uttering her sound, her cry, she was passing a message from one world to an other, so that it be stored in the human memory, and the people were watching, and the event was becoming a representation.
Thus a remembered event is a return to a mystery. When that happened for the first time, in pre-ancestral times, the creature that witnessed it as a return to the past was shattered.
September 27th, 2018
CW: sexual assault
I’m currently watching the U.S. senate judiciary committee address Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Senator Dianne Feinstein is introducing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and listing her accomplishments such as her multiple degrees, her peer-reviewed papers, and her two sons and marriage.
Now, Senator Feinstein is denouncing the Republicans’ conduct around the allegations. “In 1991, Republicans belittled Professor Hill’s experience…Today, our Republican colleagues are saying, “This is a hiccup. Dr. Ford is mixed up…” But in the last few days, two more women have come forward with their own allegations about sexual assault involving Brett Kavanaugh. All three women would like the FBI to investigate their investigations, but the Republicans will not allow it.
Kavanaugh has said he has never blacked out, never drank to the point of excess. But, several of his college classmates have come forward to say that this claim does not match their memory of him.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is about to speak. She’s wearing a blue suit. Her voice has a lighter timbre than I’d anticipated, with a bit of vocal fry. She says she is terrified, and her voice cracks. She believes it is her civic duty to report what Kavanaugh did to her in high school. This poor woman, I am thinking. I hope she survives what will happen to her after this is over. She has not had a lot of time to make this decision to go public. She’s talking about her summer she spent swimming and diving, the summer she met Brett Kavanaugh. She knows she will be asked how she got to the party. She doesn’t remember. But the details of he assault have been seared into her memory. When she got to the top of the stairs, she was pushed from behind. Brett and Mark (Judge) came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them. One of them turned the music up louder. Brett pushed her onto the bed and got on top of her. Grinding into her, groping her, trying to take off her clothes. She yelled. She believed he was going to rape her. Brett put her hand over her mouth to stop her from yelling. It was hard for her to breathe. She thought Brett was accidentally going to kill her. Brett and Mark laughed. A couple of times she made eye contact with Mark and thought he might help her, but he did not. Mark jumped on the bed, and Brett and Christine toppled off the bed. She escaped.
Brett’s assault drastically altered her life. She convinced herself that because Brett did not rape her, she should just move on. She waited until May 2012 during a couple’s counselling session to disclose the details of the assault. She and her husband had “quibbling” about a remodel of their home because Blasey Ford was insisting on a second front door, and her husband could not understand why. She finally disclosed the assault, the reason for the need for the second front door.
She was going to remain private. She did not want to expose her family to the inevitable hatred and threats from the public. Reporters pressured her, showed up at her home, urged her to come forward.
And now here she is. Twenty-seven years after Anita Hill. Another Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual misconduct, the same white Republican men judging Blasey Ford and not judging Kavanaugh.
“This was an extremely hard thing for me to do, but I couldn’t not do it.” Thousands of sexual assault survivors have reached out to thank her. Her family have also been the target of constant harassment and death threats. These messages have been terrifying and have rocked her to her core. She has been doxxed. Her family have been forced to move out of their home. Her email was hacked. Apart from the assault, this is the hardest time of her life. “My motivation in coming forward was to be helpful and provide facts about how Kavanaugh has damaged my life…It is not my responsibility to determine whether he deserves to sit on the Supreme Court; my responsibility is to tell you the truth.”
She ends by “requesting some caffeine,” and they offer her a Coke. This is America.
My mom would watch this hearing all day, or she would tape it on the VCR and we would watch it together after she got home from work, sitting on her bed, eating Mr. Noodle with Kraft cheese slices. I’m not sure if I’ll watch the whole thing.
Oh, okay, here’s Rachel Mitchell, the woman they hired to question Blasey Ford. She starts by saying that she is sorry that Blasey Ford is terrified. That’s interesting. The woman UBC hired to investigate the complainants never said anything like that in our meeting; she appeared very cynical from the get-go. When I heard the Republicans had hired a woman to do the questioning, I laughed. As if women can’t be misogynistic, I chortled. As if hiring a woman ensures that *she* will be able to get to the bottom of an assault, whereas a man would be too tipsy off his own gender to hear a victim through unbiased ears! Ha ha ha. But Mitchell has at least the verisimilitude of empathy, which is better than immediate suspicion, only because it might help put Blasey Ford at ease. I think any ease in a process like this is a gift. Oh, I see Rachel Mitchell is an expert in sex crimes. Now it all makes sense.
Senator Feinstein again asks her to go into the impacts of the assault. “The sequelae of sexual assault varies by person. Anxiety and PTSD type symptoms. Claustrophobia, panic, and that type of thing. The primary impact was in the initial four years after the impact. I struggled academically. I had a very hard time forming new friendships. I had academic problems.” You’d have to be there with her at that time to know the impact.
Senator Feinstein asks how she could know for certain it was Kavanaugh’s hand on her mouth but does not know for certain how she got to the party. She says, “Epinephrine and norepinephrine encode traumatic memories in the brain, whereas other details slip away.”
I’m going to go outside for a few minutes and feel the air on my face. My love for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Professor Anita Hill, heroes.
September 26th, 2018
Yesterday, I finished reading Foe by Iain Reid. Actually, I listened to this book. My friend Amanda Reaume finally convinced me to give audio books a try, and I believe this story was a particularly good one with which to start. The language is exquisitely simple and bare, like bones. There are only three characters. The setting is rural, in the near future, with little mention of technology. Just that everyone has a “screen.” Oh, and the big mission Junior might be going on. Junior is the protagonist. His direct narration keeps all the conflict right at the surface, and this feels like more than skilled writing, it feels like part of the story. When he has an argument with his wife, he tells us plainly: “It’s not good. I feel bad.” When he sees a nearby barn on fire, he knows he has to help: “I can’t be a bystander. I have to be brave. I have to act.” The spare declarations become rhythmic, like a chant, weighted with significance and foreboding: “The more Hen talks about the heat, the more I’m aware of it.” Well, isn’t that eerie. Does she control you with her thoughts? Are you in some sort of simulation? At its best, the exactitude of Junior’s thoughts feels almost fable-like, and everything takes on the sheen of metaphor or allegory: “The roads aren’t worn out from overuse, but from neglect.” Only when he gets angry and yells and swears does he break from this pattern. But when he gets angry doesn’t give us any hints either. The causes of his anger are universal: it comes hot on the heels of the fear that he’s losing control over someone or something. Just like any other human. When he does get angry, Terrence, their visitor, steps in and gives him something to calm him down. After all, Junior might have to leave and undertake a big mission. (This is not a spoiler, btw. We know the premise in the first few pages.) He needs to preserve his strength, to save his nerves. The anger passes and we’re back in the mysterious purgatory of not knowing what anyone really means. We can guess, we can make good guesses, but we can’t be sure until the end. A real page turner. Or I should say audio runner!
September 25th, 2018
When Mandela the cat is visiting our home, Chispi the dog doesn’t mind joining me on three hour walks in the rain. He’ll even stop to smell the plum hydrangeas, beginning to crisp in the September air, if it means delaying our return by a few more minutes. The hydrangeas in Vancouver tend to be blue or purple because we have acidic soil here.
The hydrangeas at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are a gorgeous blend of purple, blue and pink, which means the soil feeding them has aluminum sulphate and lime or gypsum. I was there last summer on London’s hottest June day in forty years, and it was too sweltering to sit exposed in the courtyard, so I took some photos and went back inside.
My mother favoured white hydrangeas. They grew in bushes around our home, and when they started to crisp she’d prune them and take them inside and arrange them in vases and baskets. There must have been at least twenty arrangements around the house. I’d have to lift them gingerly off their various plinths and shelves, taking care not to shake and detach the fragile petals as I dusted the furniture beneath.
September 24th, 2018
Over the weekend, we clicked into autumn. Here are some artworks commemorating my favourite season.
Gustav Klimt, Beech Forest, 1902
Egon Schiele, Autumn Sun, 1912
Alma Thomas, Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze, 1973
Helen Frankenthaler, Autumn Series #1, 1977
September 21st, 2018
Yesterday, listening to The Daily while walking my dog, I cried, as I often do, thanks to the highly-skilled storytelling and editing abilities of The Daily‘s producers and the emotionally manipulative score that plays lightly under Michael Barbaro’s dulcet murmurs of encouragement for his interview subjects. At its most hardened, The Daily covers political scandals; at its softest, the victims of a natural disaster or war or abuse. Yesterday’s episode, called “A High School Sexual Assault,” did both. As I so often do, I let my mind wander throughout the introduction, only tuning in seriously when the interview subject began reading signatures from her high school yearbook–a great hook. So, I missed the fact that the woman talking was Caitlin Flanagan, writer for The Atlantic and proponent of the idea that the #MeToo movement has gone too far.
I found the episode remarkable in that it was entirely devoted to this woman’s recollection of her experience fighting off a teenage boy who tried to rape her. He’d driven her to a beach and forced himself on her to the point where she had to scream and shove and punch to get him off. A fragile girl having just moved to a new town and already struggling with depression, this attack sent her over the edge and she attempted suicide. Flanagan reminds the listener in an admonishing tone that she wasn’t a strong girl who’d became suicidal after the attempted rape; she was a barely holding herself together girl who became suicidal after the attempted rape. It’s a distinction that asks the listener to extend her the allowance of context that she herself might not be willing to extend to others.
The story turns when Flanagan reveals that the apologetic yearbook signature she’s read at the beginning of the episode was in fact from her attacker, and that two years after that initial written apology came an even better apology, in person and with his own tears. These two apologies combined showed Flanagan that he 1) recognized the seriousness of his offence, 2) understood the impact it could have had on her and 3) was genuinely sorry. These apologies helped her heal. These apologies are what’s missing for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Anyone with a cursory understanding of trauma knows that much of the emotional injury of abuse comes when the abuser will not acknowledge the impact of her actions. Studies show that medical malpractice lawsuits decrease when the physician apologizes for her mistake. It’s all connected to the witness theory, and it’s why we have truth and reconciliation hearings, and it’s why when teachers make bullies apologize to their victims, it is less about punishing the bully and more about supporting the victim. A victim needs to feel heard in order to begin healing.
I’m happy Flanagan told her story. She’s the perfect victim. She fought off her aggressor and went on to become successful. At the most difficult parts of her story, her voice shook and threatened to break into tears, which Barbaro interpreted as the lasting impact of the initial trauma. Yes, I nodded as I walked Chispi through the downpour. Those are her body memories coming up. Good things she’s got them under control. Good thing she’s stronger and can acknowledge the pain but quickly move past it to focus on the healing. In her yearbook, her attacker had written, “I know you will succeed because you are smart.” And Flanagan exclaims to Barbaro, “I did succeed…because I am smart!”
While I don’t right now agree that Grace’s story should have been published, I also believe Ansari is guilty of a physical or sexual assault of some kind, and at the very least of sexual harassment. If a woman moves her hand away from your dick, you don’t keep grabbing it and putting it back. That is coercive. That is physical coercion.
I think Flanagan read that Babe piece and felt anger toward Grace; why didn’t she handle these physical intrusions the way she’d handled them as a teenage girl in the 1970s? Grace should have screamed, shoved and punched her way out of Ansari’s apartment. After all, there’s no distinguishing context to extend to Grace. For some, shoving a horny teenage boy off of you in a car on the beach is the same as shoving a millionaire celebrity off of you in his Manhattan flat. For some, the 1970s are the same as 2018: it’s still up to the woman to stop the assault, not up to the man to recognize her as a human being and not a “flesh vase for his dick flowers.”
September 20th, 2018
In 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in New York put up an exhibition called “Color as Field: American Painting, 1950-1975.” In it, curator Karen Wilkin included a selection of works titled “Origins of Color Field” which of course included Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko and of course did not include Olga Rozanova. Sure, Rozanova wasn’t American, but neither were these Newman and Rothko paintings from 1950 or later. Seems like another opportunity missed to get it more firmly on the public record that before a man, a woman.