When Style Starts to Crumble

In college, I couldn’t get enough French New Wave; stylish in costuming, presentation, and attitude, it was everything I aspired to be, but knew I was too soft to achieve. How to be one of those light-stepping girls who never got hurt or amused by the blunt, bullyish youths who did little more than scowl and walk around conducting their semi-shady dealings while tossing out despairing literary quotations?

From Breathless, via BFI Film Forever.

Even though I’m sure I’d still love À bout du souffle and Alphaville– not to mention all those smooth Alain Delon heist films– it’s been a while since I’ve dipped into the genre. But this evening, completely exhausted by spending too much time outdoors in a freak heat wave, I could do nothing more than sit still and down iced drinks and watch movies. Halfway through Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, I had to take a break; the atmosphere had grown tiresome, and I realized as never before that a solid chunk of La Nouvelle Vague (or at least Godard’s version of it) involves people treating each other badly and assuming they’re profound in doing so– all while smoking about seven cartons of cigarettes every thirty minutes.

I also realized these characters are painfully young; the protagonist of Soldat is twenty-six– yes, he and most of the other characters are involved in dangerous/potentially lethal goings-on centered around Algerian independence, and that’s admittedly serious stuff that’ll turn anyone into an adult– or at least the semblance of one– pretty quickly. But all the moodiness, the claims to feeling alienated while appearing to have very little emotional capacity or range (or even vague empathy for other human beings) at all: it feels so much like very fashionable undergrads hunkered earnestly down and gazing at their collective navels in the middle of the night, convinced of their own rightness in the face of the total phoniness of everyone else.

I probably shouldn’t be so dismissive; among other things, I’m more than a bit heat-stupid, and if my bones are feeling something less than solid, my brain matter and consequent ability to judge anything are probably also not at their best. The New Wave filmmakers were reacting to a lot of falsity, willful ignorance, and stultified cinema around them, and insisted that social issues of the day be included in their work. So maybe what I’m reacting to on this irritation-prone evening is a simple recognition of how we’ve in some sense moved beyond the datedness of their own forms or assumptions, gender relations being one of them. With the look and the attitude common to so much of this loosely knitted school having been turned into pure, harmless style, it may be easy to forget just how unique, and significantly so, this stuff was, and still is.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still take Last Year at Marienbad or The 400 Blows over any blockbuster, or even most of the schlock that continues to be made. Completely dickish Frenchmen are at least more interesting on-screen than the same old superheros or Hollywood leads. But I guess we can all age out of anything, even– or maybe especially– our youthful ideals. Sad? Maybe. But that just means there are other ones to find and inhabit, at least for a while.


Consolations Beyond the Image

I came late in life, and almost by accident, upon the work of W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn only popped up because a friend– who still doesn’t have that much trust in literature– felt compelled by a piece of scholarship to read the late German great, and then further bound by friendship to notify me that he’d found an exact literary fit for my mode of being in this world. Since then, I’ve read everything of the author’s I’ve been able to get my hands on, and have even watched a documentary on him that somehow managed to make itself as beautifully haunted as its own subject matter.

Just as I was so long ignorant of work so close to my own heart, it’s taken me eons to become aware of Philip Hoare, whom Sebald himself admired. A few days ago, I finished Hoare’s The Sea Inside, an exploration mostly centered around cetaceans and seabirds and the environments they call home. Although not as laden with the spectral as is his German colleague, Hoare seems to absorb in welcoming fashion the sea and the air and the fauna that share it, communing easily not only with whatever inhabits the present moment, but also with creatures whose kind disappeared from the earth long ago– stylish catlike beings and lumbering bird-giants too disturbingly other to our human ancestors for the latter to allow them even to continue existing.

This comfort in dwelling with past and present, near and far, is hinted at early on, when, listening to the weather forecast on the radio, Hoare hears with pleasure announcements about “places I’ll never visit but whose names reassure me with their familiar rhythms, while their remote conditions seem strangely consoling.”(1) I immediately perked up when I read this passage, sensing a kindred spirit. The combination of scratchy radio and the knowledge that there actually exists some mystery destination, close enough to be connected by sound waves, but entirely dependent on one’s imagination for existence in thought: the allure is plain for dorks who spend most of their lives dreaming up true, if not-quite-real, worlds– especially for those of us who every now and then find a hint of transcendence on the AM dial, eerily connected to the other side of the continent, where an ultra-local announcement about farm implements for sale, or the parish news in Cajun French, is going on.

That unpredictable, somewhat neglected band of radio provides its own kind of nostalgia for presently occurring things, or a narrow entrée into apparently closed communities. In its own way, (good) writing should do just that, and more; I get the sense that maybe, just maybe, good writing enables that expansion of empathy better than most other mediated channels of mental and emotional exploration.(2) As a recent article by Tim Parks argues, reading writing we just don’t understand might very well broaden and deepen, if not our outright empathy, at least our willingness to believe that there are entirely other modes of life going on all around us– that we are not the final arbiters of how existence should proceed or be run.

We can’t absorb reading in one quick gulp; in taking the time to move from the understanding of one word to another, and of the connections between and among them, we’re forced to witness something unfolding, one detail at a time, at least somewhat at that something’s own– not our– pace– as opposed to the flash of a complete picture on a screen or a page. As Hoare looks up at a night sky filled with constellations, he wonders at the “ancient patterns created by minds yet to be overwhelmed by the images that fill our waking day.”(3) That consolation he found earlier in the recitation of names of never-seen places: would that feeling still be there, or be any different, if he were still living in an analog world, or one in which television screens hadn’t yet become ubiquitous? Were Hoare not instantly able to pull up photographic images, if not of those exact locations being read out, then something very near and/or similar to them, would his sense of consolation be a bit more tenuous? Would his wondering at the stars be somehow different, were he not able to Google pictures of and detailed information about them at any given moment?

Might the ability contemporary technology has given us to view even the remotest of places, whether the entire length of an unpopulated island or the darkest interiors of our own viscera, contribute to a hasty presumption of familiarity with that which is other? That need that so many of us seem to have to believe “they’re just like us,” from politicians to celebrities to tribal-based societies, erects barriers not only to really knowing those multiple “theys;” it also prevents us from wanting to step outside our own little worlds, to confront possibilities beyond our own or allow those others to speak for themselves. It’s not that reading can’t result in, or even encourage, this sort of willful blindness. (Just look at all the propaganda that’s gotten even the American public where it is right now.) But the instantaneous visual flash of landscape or people may provide us with only a cheat sheet– something that, in being adequate enough for a starting point or surface-level summation, can’t possibly count as robust knowledge. Even Hoare’s real-life glimpse of the constellations in his sky– a present viewing of a collective image– can’t give him the full understanding of their meaning for people dependent on their positions to figure, for example, changes of season or locations at sea.

My allegations are, I know, old hat; I know I keep harping on the absolute necessity of our being able to read our reality for what it is, and to use all the resources we have at hand in order to build and maintain that capacity. As we become ever more impatient, begrudging the time needed to accomplish even the smallest of tasks or transactions, bothering to slow down and interpret words– even as we willingly communicate with each other (think emojis in place of text, as one huge example)– comes to seem like a tremendous burden. And as we lose the capacity to wield our words wisely and creatively– as we allow images of all sorts to replace those words– I worry about the attendant decrease in our capacity to wonder with all the power we’re able. And if that wonder is gone– well, what’s the point, anyway? Maybe that’s what it means for everything and everyone else to be just like us, or for us to be just like everything else: the whole universe floating along in one big sea of visions, watching it all pass by in a daze.


(1) Philip Hoare, The Sea Inside (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 4.

(2) Note I said “mediated”– because obviously, there’s probably nothing better than live, face-to-face interaction with another human being for realizing that each I is not a closed world unto itself. For a much fuller, better-articulated rumination on this theme, see Merve Emre’s recent piece on the personal essay in the Boston Review.

(3) Hoare, 36.

The Potential Value of Weariness

Here’s a topic: the literature of exhaustion. That genre may cover numerous varieties of collapse, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,… Maybe, as in my case, all of the above and more come together into a welter of hopeless confusion that may leave everyone ready to throw in the threadbare towel and creep into a subterranean cranny until the onset of either miraculous recovery or total global destruction.

Angelo Trezzini, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether or not readers feel like tackling these sorts of messes, I’ve known quite a few writers (myself included) who have few, if any, coping skills outside of putting words on the page. Exhaustion is enough in itself to make a person feel as if she’s losing it– but I wonder how or whether that heavy state of fatigue might have contributed and/or been related to the long tradition of substance-induced literary output, from DeQuincey to the Beats to Hunter S. Thompson and more. Sure, sure: we’re all well-versed in the ineffectual escapes many a desperate person will sample in the face of despair– but I’m wondering if, say, the benzedrine that pushed Kerouac to bang out (large parts of) On the Road in a continuous scroll helped induce not only a burst of mind-addled energy, but the editor-killing exhaustion necessary to just let it flow– and in expelling all those words, dislodging as well huge chunks of anxiety and restlessness and complete cluelessness as to how to live a life.

I’ve been pondering the literary uses of exhaustion over the last week, wondering if and when my own interior floodgates will finally burst– when my emotional infrastructure will be unable to bear anything else, and will release in bare, truthful fashion all the words repressed and piled up over decades into some coherent and elegantly executed narrative. With much less sleep than usual and many a stress egging one another on of late, the super-quick long-distance trip I took this weekend was probably inadvisable, where physical health and the resilience of my neurons were concerned. But I’m wondering if the much-needed burst of camaraderie and dancing with old friends, squashed in between transportation flubs, power naps, and an upcoming meeting, might end up providing some sort of trigger that will bring down vulnerable barriers and force me to follow the continual, nagging imperative to vomit out the Platonic ideal of a novel or short story or whatever that’s been staring accusingly at me ever since I learned how to read.

Back in a period that was so dark I resorted to The Artist’s Way as a potential source of well-being, I became sort of convinced that author Julia Cameron might have been onto something when she alleged that the production of great literature does not require drugs or booze or horrible behavior. It’s not that I haven’t held on to that possibility– and I’m certainly not going to dive into some trite underworld of slow destruction in the hopes it’ll make me a Real Writer– but I can’t shake the reality of the related fact that bouts of burnout and inebriation are usually the only times I speak fluently in a foreign language– that the worried perfectionism shuts off, and I can just have a free-flowing (if probably stupid) conversation.

Where writing is concerned, I have become more comfortable over the years letting people read what I put down on the page– a development not synonymous with not caring what my readers think, but rather with a growing conviction that just producing something may be more important than receiving accolades for it. Here’s what may be the rub, then, after all this pondering: getting to a place where the words flow with honesty and freedom may have less to do with heart and brain being under an external influence, and more about attaining the conviction, however that’s achieved, that you have nothing to lose. And when all your defenses are too tired to stand up for themselves, you may be pretty close to that coveted position.

The Privilege of Walking

Leo Lesser Ury, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m one of those people who need to spend a solid part of the day on foot. When I visit a new city, I pound its sidewalks; I often spend hours on outdoor trails with a group of like-minded people who can’t sit still; my morning and afternoon commutes are longer than they need to be so that I can clear my head via a form of self-locomotion that falls somewhere between the aimless pace of a flâneur and the crazed-hilarious rush of power walkers. And yes, every day– every one– I’m out on the public pavement, I’m reminded that I have to keep my wits about me; the jibes directed at my gendered body range from the pathetic to the comical to the outright threatening, proof that nobody’s entirely free in this world to exist with impunity.

This continual catcalling has nothing to do with me in particular; I don’t know one woman, regardless of her size or age or anything not directly related to her gender, who doesn’t have to put up with this crap. But here’s the thing: I’m well aware that others have to be much more guarded than I– even have to be prepared for disaster– when they step out into the streets. I’ve long grasped and lamented on a factual, even if not experiential, level that walking while black is a dangerous proposition. But Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue,” in the collected volume, The Fire This Time, made clear in a way I hadn’t yet felt it the fraught reality entailed in a black man’s simply walking out the door in the United States.

Had I not had to turn the book back in to the library today, I’d probably be able to offer you more of the specifics, the scenes and turns of phrase, that brought home just how much the avid walker I am had been taking for granted the mere act of placing one foot publicly in front of the other. Thankfully, though, I scribbled down the following paragraph:

Walking had returned to me a greater set of possibilities. And why walk, if not to create a new set of possibilities? Following serendipity, I added new routes to the mental maps I had made from constant walking in that city [Kingston] from childhood to young adulthood, traced variations on the old pathways. Serendipity, a mentor once told me, is a secular way of speaking of grace; it’s unearned favor. Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling. We see, we listen, we speak, and we trust that each step we take won’t be our last, but will lead us into a richer understanding of the self and the world.*

This is the author describing his long walks through Kingston, Jamaica’s dangerous streets– an exploration of “a greater set of possibilities” that was severely compressed and penned in in the supposedly safer cities of New York and New Orleans, thanks to dark skin being viewed there with hostile suspicion by the powers-that-be. Reading about that constriction was another variety of the slap in the face I received while in Palestine, learning just how restrictive “restricted movement” could be for entire neighborhoods, entire regions.

I’m not saying that those of us lucky enough to be able to stroll or even hurriedly run down a street without being (for the most part) unmolested should worriedly (and ineffectually) make a show of moaning about our privilege in an attempt to assuage our guilt. But we should at the very, very least understand that there’s something terribly, malevolently wrong about a social structure in which that most natural– and necessary– of human activities somehow acts as evidence against the person partaking in it. And following on that understanding, we should be incensed and hell-bent on figuring out how to make this atrocity and its related cruel idiocies cease, now, permanently. Because until we’re all free to stroll down the block, hands comfortably tucked in warm pockets and just enjoying the day, none of us is truly free to do so at all.

Cadogan’s essay is one that needs to be read, even if you’re well-versed in the situations he describes. Thankfully, you can get a version online of the essay, here titled “Walking While Black.” Don’t stop walking– but whoever and however lucky you are, don’t ever take walking for granted.


* Garnette Cadogan, “Black and Blue,” in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward (New York: Scribner, 2016), 136.

Just an Obvious Mini-Reflection

The incredible Doris Salcedo’s incredible Shibboleth, via Bizarre Beyond Belief.

Although things changed in my late teens, before high school, the prudish little person I was created a sharp moral divide between bookishness and athleticism, firmly believing no serious person could maintain both characteristics in any sort of balance (or, really, take up sides at all with the athletic camp). Unsurprisingly, I was spotted at every one of my sister’s games, from softball to volleyball to basketball, book in hand and completely oblivious to what was going on around me. Today, I’ll readily admit I was an idiot– but still have a book or three in tow wherever I go, just to be prepared.

And so I did have Brian Dillon’s Essayism in the front pouch of my purse when I walked into a major-league baseball game the other night. It stayed there the whole evening, until I got back on the train home; I was with a friend, and even had I been alone, I wouldn’t dare have whipped out a book in the midst of a cross-town rivalry. But it did get me thinking about all the good sports (or other genres of) action I missed in my early years, thanks to having snubbed everything that didn’t count as literature– and no wonder I was well aware of being a weird kid. And had I had my nose lodged in my trade paperback on this occasion, I would’ve missed out on a couple of determined rounds of fisticuffs in our section, the horde of security it took to break them up, and the scattered displays of inebriated chest-bumping that made my friend and I believe that the pruning dudes lovingly beating the crap out of each other were just going to have to make out at some point in the future. That is, had I continued ignoring the present world for the crafted word, I probably never would have escaped a very beautiful and very interesting, but very unreal, existence.

All that is not a celebration of stereotypical boys being boys; I can probably handle one live reminder per year of that brand of inanity. And I’m not going to give up quality writing for continual observation of sports-based rituals– but just being part of a merrily tense crowd did remind me that I have to look up every now and then, that there are actual living, interesting things and people beyond the page. A complete chestnut, that– but sometimes, you need to be slapped upside the head by the obvious.


Funding Evil and Its Foes

Dracula: it might seem odd to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake plowing through its last hundred pages, but that’s exactly how I came to the end of a tale that’s somehow managed to maintain its place in many a cultural imaginary for the last hundred-plus years. And overall, it was a good beach read (though perhaps better suited to a colder, cloudier time of year), made even more satisfying by the fact that it didn’t reach its climax on Halloween, as I’d feared it would. The only other surprise was the story’s extremely abrupt ending, largely free of the suspense-prolonging mishaps and false turns that populate a lot of horror literature and film.

Let’s face it: only a rich guy could get away with looking like this and waging centuries’ worth of evil. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What the book did make me consider, though, was just how much it had to say in mostly covert fashion about class and wealth, and what the latter especially can make possible. For instance, this group of friends– two doctors, a lawyer and his wife, a nobleman, and an adventurer– don’t even have to think about getting time off from work or making their excuses to employers et al to go on an international chase after the undead and solve what amounts to an unconventional healthcare situation– nor do they have to worry about the ridiculous outlay of cash the whole thing entails. Admittedly, the threatened Mina does mention in one diary entry, “it made me think of the wonderful power of money!… I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely. For if they did not, our little expedition could not start…”(1) But the recognition ends there, and we’re plunged right back into the action.

I’d love to see a story where it’s the poor who have to fight off evil(2) – but my guess is, if it had to entail all the travel and vacation hours required in Stoker’s tale, the search for funds would be pretty brief and futile, and instead of being left with a thrilling adventure with which the protagonists could regale their friends after dinner, everyone would quickly end up dead or damned, with not much of a plot worthy of the name.(3)

But that admonition about necessary wealth also applies to the villain himself; in spite of his super strength and cunning, our man had to shell out quite a bit of coin to get all his boxes of earth, as well as himself, shipped back and forth and housed in multiple properties. Had he been some poor street urchin whose transformation into a vampire hadn’t also elevated his financial or social position in the world, I’m guessing an army of villagers or urban block captains could’ve made pretty short work of someone unable to dismiss fears and/or crimes via bribes, much less afford a room for the night.

And the count’s prosperity is important here in another way. We learn that Dracula originally made his name fighting the Turks and going out in battle for territory, both securing and expanding his realm of control. So sure, he had plenty of funds stashed up over the centuries. But all that money and influence weren’t amassed in order to secure a very long and comfortable retirement feeding off forgettable villagers and waifs; nope, Dracula is a weird part of the colonial project, sailing off to London to plant a flag and propagate his own kind from there. The heart of British imperialism finds itself prey to its own practices, to an entirely different sort of colonizing endeavor– a subplot and/or critique I’m not sure Stoker saw or intended. But if we want to look at how empire is built by sucking resources (and hence, life) from others, vampire tales provide a pretty good analogy.

Of course, there’s the question of Christianity as the (one) force able to defend against this sort of evil, a topic or theme that’s been so hashed and rehashed, it’s not really worth talking about– except for some brilliant comedic queries I’ve witnessed over the years. Probably my favorite was dropped into a Mexican vampire spoof, one of those eye-rollingly bad b-movies you somehow find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But on this occasion, right before total despair set in, the hero, convinced of his victory, shoved a ridiculously large crucifix into the vampire’s face– to which the latter responded in triumph, “Ha ha! I am Jewish!” and advanced without a hiccup. The hour of my life I’d wasted up until then was suddenly redeemed.(4)

Whether in its pulp varieties or not, after dwelling for 400-plus pages in the world of horror, I’m ready to move on to– I’ll say it– more elevated matter. If the couple of wonderfully weird Elizabeth Bishop poems I read last night are an indication of what’s to come, things are about to take a more authentically poetic turn.


(1) Bram Stoker, Dracula, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003), 418.

(2) I’m talking authentically poor– not (upper) middle class, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lost Boys. Those settings of suburban comfort may not have been able to draw upon ridiculous wealth, but their locally based struggles were staged within healthy financial situations.

(3) I have a feeling that, had he wanted to treat less urgent subjects, Gil Scott-Heron might’ve done an amazing job with both the question of wealth and race in tales of horror and adventure. Someone needs to take Blacula one step further, under the guidance of “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mere suggestion is sounding offensively frivolous; we’ve got much more pressing matters to address, after all, than fictional creatures’ social arrangements.

(4) It doesn’t have to do with vampires, but in The Muslims Are Coming, Dean Obeidallah’s fantastic skit on ghost-hunting shows is apropos enough to include in a footnote to this piece. A fellow fan of this TV genre, Obeidallah wonders why families burdened by some supernatural presence are always Catholic. After asking why ghosts apparently don’t enjoy dropping in on Jews and Muslims, he goes on to ponder how his own co-religionists would probably have just gone on and welcomed the specter right in.

Poetry for the Vigil

There’s something about a storm on the horizon that won’t let me sleep– maybe just the marvel that some primeval awareness of weather patterns and their onetime implications for shelter and sustenance still linger in some backwoods of bodily awareness. Even before becoming aware of the first quiet hints of thunder, I’m suddenly awake and can do nothing but lie there uselessly until the system has worn itself out and there are no longer any low, thrilled giggles beneath my window, from late-night walkers caught in the rain.

From ako-aleko at Wikimedia Commons.

It was somehow appropriate that I waited it all out tonight with David Whyte’s collection of poems, The House of Belonging. I’m not sure where I first heard of Whyte or his book, which has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years– and I purchased it so long ago that I no longer had any expectations at all about what I’d find there.

Well– the material seemed to fit my mood, or to allay my restlessness to some degree; in the midst of the general tempest that is existence, Whyte, in his poet’s guise, at least, maintains an often frustrating calm in the face of just about everything, exploring how he belongs in the world, and the time and patience necessary to discover that manner of being. The simplicity of the whole project is often cripplingly beautiful, as in the second poem’s reference to his home,

where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.(1)

And Whyte’s acknowledgment even within this belonging of all “the testaments of loneliness” strikes a familiar minor chord with any insomniac with only the pages of a book to talk to in the middle of a blustery night.(2) But there are entire chunks of this volume that seem as if they’d be more appropriate in a self-help manual, more nuanced declarations and reminders of Stuart Smalley’s assertion, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I started to wonder, in fact, if Whyte had also fallen in his past upon emotional times hard enough to have cried half-ashamedly in a bathtub over the truisms found in How to Survive the Loss of a Love (3); numerous lines such as the following made me question whether I’d been deluded about the really good stuff that had come before it:

Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. (4)

Maybe part of the problem was with what often felt like prose that had simply been sliced into separate lines– not prose poetry, and not quite “poetry poetry,” begging the question of what counts as authentically part of the genre. Even though I’m no fan of strict labels or parameters, I was still uneasy with my basis for wanting to disqualify these sections– namely, the same one US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscene material: “I know it when I see it.”(5) There was something about many of these run-on sentences that just couldn’t qualify for me as “it.”

But if nothing else, the book, which really did contain some gems, got me through the first phase of this rainy night; maybe I should take it to my upstairs neighbor, who’s chosen to wait out his own restlessness by pacing back and forth above my head on creaky floorboards. I’ll make another attempt, though, to get some sleep, even though the thunder’s returned, and a few little drops of rain, and I need to shut the windows again

the night wind carries
everything away outside.(6)


(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997), 6.

(2) Whyte, “The Truelove,” 96.

(3) Peter McWilliams et al., How to Survive the Loss of a Love (Prelude Press, 1993). Credit where it’s due: this was a strangely powerful and necessary volume, a couple of years back. But I’m still going to be snarky about admitting that fact.

(4) Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” 23.

(5) That statement was made as part of 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio, which declared Louis Malle’s film The Lovers not obscene.

(6) Whyte, “The Winter of Listening,” 29.