Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Link round-up: mistranslation

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders.

 

One of the first essays that really turned me on to translation–not as a practice, but as a kind of ‘genre’ of literary critique–was Borges’ essay on the translation of 1001 Arabian Nights.

The Thousand and One Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

Of course, the evocative and elusive essay by Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” came soon thereafter.

The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin

While translation promises the noble pursuit of universal communication, more often we are such tribal, provincial, territorial creatures that our language resists transcendence–sometimes intentionally so.

We sometimes take comfort in knowing that we’ll forever be misunderstood by outsiders. And this applies not only to languages of nations, but to languages of different professions, languages of different races, and even language differences between generations.

One thing that has become clear to me, both from reading these essays and from living abroad and trying my own hand at translation, is that mistranslation is inevitable. Delightfully so!

For those with the necessary insider knowledge, mistranslations are a joy to unravel for the humor that arises from discovering the latent boundaries between different languages. I even find discussions on mistranslation entertaining to read. That’s why I’ve created a list of articles that take a stab at identifying and decoding mistranslations in some capacity.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Admittedly, this is just meant as fodder for nerdy amusement. I do realize, though, that such discussions are capable of starting holy wars when sacred texts are involved. I also know from editing translated book quotations that it is very easy to mince/distort the words of non-native speakers, who are often very important people (such as when people assumed that JFK made the err of saying “I’m a jelly doughnut” in German). This is when the humor turns sour. But, alas, that’s for another post/author/blog to discuss. I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. Add your own links in the comments, if you feel inspired.

xo, Erica

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She (also) brought us “The End of Imagination”

This year brought us Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which I have not yet read. She soared to the top of any publisher’s chart in the wake of her first novel, God of the Small Things, and then “disappeared” (for some) into her role as an activist, non-fiction commentator on politics. When people craved the artist, she narrated the facts. We should be grateful! I just finished reading her collected essays, The End of Imagination published in 2016 by Haymarket Books. What I’m about to write is rough–culled from memory–because I don’t have the time to go searching through my kindle for quotes or anecdotes found in the book. Then again, I never promised polished, perfect analysis on this site.

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What a soreness it is to see how deeply entrenched we are in the same themes she wrote about starting nearly twenty years ago–nuclear arms races, displacement via multinational investments in hydroelectric power and dams that devastated the Indian landscape, crisis market economics, the Afghanistan War, and the longstanding impact of the Patriot Act and the War on Terrorism following 9/11. She honors Noam Chomsky in these pages and questions her role as an author with a deeply committed spirit of activism that does not look away. She distinguishes the importance of her role as a fiction and a writer of non-fiction, which she bemoans for falling into the category of activist-writing. Labels haunt her because her work, as any work of a brilliant author would, constantly defies them.

I found this collection profound and impassioned–urgent. How have we sustained this treacherous urgency for so long without apparent headway or resolution? Reading these essays lifted any veil that clouded my vision about the curse of neoliberalism. Where can I possibly start?

I felt relieved of some ignorance after reading this book. I have read North American tales of neoliberalism brought to us by Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. I have read European theoretical critiques brought to us by Guy Debord, Tikkun, Franco Berardi, Zizek, Serres, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, but these didn’t draw me in like Roy’s pages. The approach is different. Testimonies and pure blasphemy, not theories, are narrated to us as a comprehensive story in Roy’s text. Her wit ascends proportionately to the horror. She paints a picture of liberal ignorance, freedoms being stripped away, the gloss of democracy that maintains perpetual warfare, and so on and so forth.

When she questions her role as an artist, she is questioning a thousand-year-old caste system. These are lived injustices, that she gives testament to–not by accident, but by an investment in opening herself up to the social wounds at her disposal. She does not suppress them for her own benefit. She is not one to hide her head in the nearest hole or gloss over the havoc wreaked upon individual lives for the sake of her educated audience. Her writing stings and sings. She acknowledges her implication in injustice while with such a candid outcry and binds herself to the cause of poor people and the environment by unraveling tight knots of hypocrisy.

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She reminds us that nowhere on paper can we find the economic benefits that hydroelectric building projects bestowed upon India. She is waving the non-existent reports in the thin-air and counting up the lives of the displaced–all from the lower strata of society–now virtually disappeared as an interest group. Resettlement promises were not kept and the losses merely place those people who depended on their small farming for survival–on lands now immersed by a reservoir–in perpetual limbo without relief.

Now, if you’re following the news, these hydroelectric dams are guaranteed to investors in Brazil, causing very similar indigenous strife for the sake of very dubious benefits to society, considering their guaranteed deforestation and pollution of the rain forest and its watersheds. The social benefits of the developmental-craze sweeping across “developing countries” has proven false–again and again. The same goes for Turkey, where I currently live, with its debt-driven megaprojects.

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Roy reveals the hypocrisy of Nelson Mandela to remind us that market economy politics is not a sacred sphere. Even our saints could not withstand its pressures. It is a rigged, delusional battle of unjust promises to wealthy investors backed by militaristic regimes. The apartheid continues under the false guise of a democratic market economy (an oxymoron).

The insistence of her words gave my own vision of dissent new life. I found it acceptable after reading this book to call myself an anti-American. To articulate the precise moments when the government and its henchmen conflate its policies with romantic ideals to relieve itself of accusation. To recall that secretary of state Madeleine Albright could write off Iraqi children as collateral damage, a simple calculation error, and brush it aside as a necessary part of the process. So often, I don’t know how to speak about these things, let alone how to demand justice. She offers up her own voice on behalf of others. She is generous in that regard. She wants us to take her passion and let it ignite our own.

What are the crimes she cries out against? Crimes of globalization, i.e., that the global market economy is simply a more efficient, updated form of imperialism. Guarantees for investments can wreak havoc by displacing millions of poor citizens with the click of a mouse. Instability and crisis are not merely symptoms, but strategic tools in this system of distraction. The military is the backbone to the economy. Things we’ve heard before–but she reminds us that we need to pay attention, for the power to resist lies in public outcry.

She reminds us that the Taliban was in part a U.S. invention because Afghanistan had been primed and stoked to become more zealous in its religious opposition of communist Russia, as a ploy by the U.S. This was back in the 1970s. She articulates with ease how weapons are sold to both sides of an argument by the U.S. These are not details to overlook and write off as coincidental marginalia. Her book gives a vision of what it means to connect the dots, and to dedicate oneself to caring, to speaking out about what interpretation tells us.

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She details how terrorism is used as a blanket term to crush non-aligned ideologies, beliefs, critiques, protests, etc. This manipulative rhetoric was devised by the U.S. and exported to developing countries. She describes how this occurred in India with its armed backlash against Muslims and it fittingly describes the situation in Turkey, where the military coup attempt was followed by an exploitative system of mass-jailings, firings, and etc. to initiate an educational, financial and political restructuring of the country to benefit the wealthy few. All in the name of democracy.

So I read it with my mouth agape in astonishment and I suggest you do the same.

 

 

On American sexism of late

When Hugh Hefner died, I didn’t shed a tear. Hugh Hefner was easy to ridicule and ignore for the most part. I tried to ignore the cringe in my gut when his face appeared in magazines. Turn the page. Men who lead harems are considered powerful by some standards–those of likeminded men. But by other standards–those of many women–these men are considered if not outwardly, then inwardly inferior. They are making up for some deep, gaping inadequacy. Trump’s small hands became a symbol for this kind of inadequacy, because as the wive’s tale goes: hand size correlates. This is the standard women’s interpretation, is it not?

Now what about Harems? Or the modern American capitalist version: the Playboy mansion. Of course harems are a separate culturally specific phenomena–I’ve toured Topkapı Palace, I even live in Istanbul. But I mean the compounds of women, collected as property, that seem to symbolize women’s dependence on male taste, wealth, and status. Oftentimes the male figureheads of such compounds are double or triple the age of their women property. The age-gap gives the entire arrangement an air of uncanny pedophiliac impurity. A kind of geriatric flavor, in which the future death and linked inheritance of a wealthy individual becomes a fetishized, sexualized commodity in and of itself. The women inside such a harem compete for power linked to their sex appeal. The women inside probably feel powerful, too. Their function is to oppress other women almost as much as the men themselves, just by their sheer quantity and by the harem’s internal hierarchy.

But women in a harem don’t determine the power. They don’t own it. They just profit off of it. Some people say these women should not be blamed. We say women should not be shamed for turning into parasites of the swollen patriarchal system. Those women are needy, too, just like women who choose self-determination. Well, if not blamed, what about educated? Would these women still exist if women’s consciousness on the whole could improve a bit?

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Hugh Hefner seemed to choose duplicates of the same woman-type. Hugh Hefner perpetuated the blond Barbie-like Pamela Anderson look. Women who find Hugh Hefner’s system oppressive may also have a distaste for that look, like I do. It is likewise a very racially specific look. My impulse is to defend myself against it by pointing out its flawed sense of beauty: it’s fake, it’s exaggerated, it lacks nuance, it lacks character, it lacks eccentricity, it’s narrow minded, it’s cliche, it’s formulaic, and etc. People compare women with this look to thoroughbreds, pieces of meat, isolated body parts–like a piece-of-ass, or other ways of seeing that are perhaps more familiar to wealthy people who are attuned to the monetary values and graded qualities of their possessions, like the percentages of stock indexes. People want to place beauty into statistical models, percentages, ranking systems and other capitalist ways of thinking. Beauty competitions serve the same function–women are compared, weighed, measured, eliminated, made scarce, and more or less commoditized.

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What else? This Harvey Weinstein guy from Miramax is suddenly “exposed” in the media. High-profile women had been holding off for years. This is the harem of Hollywood. Women who hadn’t been a victim of his antics denied even knowing about his sexist bullying. He has been called “smart” and “manipulative” by women who apparently disapprove of him. Like a cunning fox? Don’t give him that credit. Don’t excuse him. He was a producer in a position of power who used this power to oppress women by way of a kind of sexual initiation or rite of passage. Some women refused, but they also chose avoidance until now.

Avoidance is an easy coping mechanism. It makes sense in a way. If you have enough of a foothold to stand upright in a career, independently, then you can ignore the dirty politics influencing others around you. You cry tears with the women who experienced it the worst, you feel for them, but you do not necessarily financially support or go out on a legal limb and testify on their behalf. Many women choose not to expose themselves on behalf of their suffering sisters. But real support requires this courage. Real anti-sexist support is material in the sense that it legally protects or financially benefits, or takes care of another’s basic needs, or creates systems that enable that kind of support. These forms of support can bring stability for other women and ourselves. We need to form safety nets, safe spaces, and networks.  

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Avoidance is a way of accepting the system of relative advantage. By this, I mean politely choosing to profit individually. It’s what I assume women of color are actually complaining about when they complain about white women. All women are struggling to “stay afloat.” When women should be building safety nets for one another, across racial lines, across age lines, across cultural lines, disability lines, across so many lines of difference, they instead play this game of avoidance and subtle one up(wo)manship. Women have the power to organize and ensure that the fall to the bottom is not so catastrophic. Women can become mentors, leaders, and organizers. One specific example is planned parenthood. Don’t let men decide its fate! I often wonder where are the women’s versions of “fraternal orders?” Where are the women who show willingness to financially and materially support one another?

Women traditionally do this in the private sphere. They rear families. They contribute all of their time and energy to the interests of others. Perhaps the idea of transposing that mindset into the public sphere seems too inhibiting. Perhaps women just want to escape the care-taking role altogether. Or perhaps their care taking role has always been independent all along, in a sense. Mothers can often singularly dominate without question. Perhaps that is what many women crave in their public lives as well. A kind of independent domination of their own sphere of influence.

In other words, it seems that women often prefer gaining entrance onto sinking patriarchal ships–to prove their equality in comparison to men. They’d rather pursue this than practice equality among one another. I often crave inter-gender equality and respect. Such equality depends on the more difficult alternative of building a ship, hiring crews, and captaining women-owned fleets. Systemic sexism would not be included in the by-laws.

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So many women did not speak out about Weinstein until now. Why now? I didn’t follow this issue that closely, but let’s look at the president. This seems like a case of diverted energy. Aren’t so many women just angry about the current president? Just replay the tapes of Trump’s voice and remember what a heinous individual he is toward women. Just watch him place his hand on his daughter’s ass again. If we can’t oust the biggest sexist in power, then at least we can focus on one at the heart of the entertainment industry of Hollywood. At least we can join our Women’s March on Washington. We can get angry at his rhetoric toward women and lash out at so many other sexists because they are around us everywhere. We have a constant reminder in the white house of how much work is left to be done.

But what if Hillary had won the election? Then what would’ve happened? Let’s rewind. Obama won the election twice. This did not take away police brutality. This did not stop systemic racism. Rotating figureheads in or out of leadership roles creates symbolic, not systemic change. We should try to understand the difference, because we should place our bets on the latter. We need to take ownership, not just fill the roles of a system that has been in place for centuries.

Symbolic change is based on flimsy outward notions of identity–the same labeling and profiling mechanisms that racism depends on. Systemic change is based on seeing beyond the limited careers of charismatic individuals. What inspires me still about the authors of the U.S. constitution is their self-awareness about authoring systemic change. I don’t understand why our system doesn’t have a simple safety net to avoid politicians like Trump in the form of a minimum entrance exam regarding foreign and domestic policy. Politicians should have to pass an admissions test to enter politics. This is just one minor example of how we could strengthen the system. But we should all remember that Trump got into power due to a systemic change. Citizens United eliminated caps on private campaign funding. This is an example of how easily our democratic safety nets can be removed. Taking this into account, systemic, not symbolic progress should be the primary target for women.

I honestly haven’t done much to research my own blog topic. This one has been off the cuff. Feel free to add your thoughts or resources in the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Elinor Ostrom’s no fuss solution to the Tragedy of the Commons

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To me, Elinor Ostrom’s ideas seem normal and reasonable. They don’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination. In fact, they seem so strikingly ordinary, that they could easily be overlooked out of context. Yet, our time is marked by the complex quagmire of globalized neoliberal market economics that has gained almost unchallenged traction. In this context, her intuitive and relatively simple ideas are considered revolutionary.

What she is most known for is her so-called Nobel Prize in Economics. To be more specific, she won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel of 2009, as there is technically no prize devoted specifically to economics. Elinor Ostrom was an odd choice, considering she was an outsider to economics. She was more well known for her work in political science and ecology; she was a woman whose ideas do not fall neatly into any ideological camp. Yet, she had essentially devised a template or a “design” to deal with the “tragedy of the commons,” a problem which presupposes the inability of civilizations to manage commonly held resources without depleting or destroying them. This theory was promulgated by ecologist Garret Hardin, who popularized the idea of overpopulation as the leading difficulty facing humankind with his famous 1968 paper entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” However, Elinor Ostrom found many examples of people managing commons without such calamitous outcomes through her empirical observations and related scientific research.

She derived from her research eight underlying design principles which she had observed in communities in Africa that did not exhaust their commonly held resources:

8 Principles for Managing a Commons

1. Define clear group boundaries.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

These principles sound rather quotidian to me. They are fair, egalitarian, respectful, diplomatic, inclusive, and practical in that no abstract models are required to implement them. They are spun from the fiber of common sense. Arguably, the only reason such principles could be considered revolutionary is because of how detached, abstract, and obscure modern economic theory has become. It is loaded with jargon, indoctrination methods, and complex calculation models that require a steep learning curve just to approach an everyday topic — how resources are managed. Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics theories (which Naomi Klein calls free market fundamentalism in her book The Shock Doctrine) have prevailed so much that their linked neoliberal ideology has become naturalized as the status quo. Plenty of criticism from economic thinkers has targeted this ideology, but for Derek Wall, few critics have broken ties with it so fully as Elinor Ostrom because of her ability to think beyond markets and states. The fact that she is able to think outside of the “norm” of these prevailing theories makes people consider her work incredibly shocking, hopeful, and influential.

It should not go without saying that her work derives directly from the third world — from “under-developed” countries and their local communities. Such an approach veritably flips the teleology of “progress” on its head even though her theory has been upheld by the progressive West as the next step forward for the dilemma of the “tragedy of the commons.” In fact, she honored the wisdom of locals for its potential to protect their lands more effectively than governments. Her premise is reinforced by a recent study on how indigenous Peruvians are more effective at managing and conserving land than their regulatory government.

All in all, her theories are literally closer to home than neoliberal models of consumer capital, derivatives, markets and shares, states and all of the related terminology that constructs a grand farce of “economic reality” in our time. Her work serves as a means to call a spade a spade. She reminds us that common resource management is, in its simplest terms, a socially-constructed set of rules and determinations made by and for the people who depend on those resources. It does not gain strategic, ethical, or economic superiority through the adoption of a top-down abstract management ethos that drowns us in a complex lexicon designed to implement our social conditioning as market-based consumers by means of manipulative puppet-mastery.

On “Husbandry,” as a form of conviction in writing

I believe Susan Sontag was fully cognizant of the verb form of the word “husband” when she wrote her piece, “An Ideal Husband.” To husband means “to manage prudently and economically,” or to “use sparingly” according to Merriam Webster’s dictionary. These attributes seem suited to stoics or ascetics who define their lives by what they have not exploited, rather than by what they have. Concision is often cited as hallmark of good writing these days. Perhaps Sontag used the word “husband” to suggest that we should apply the mantra “kill your darlings” to the moral sphere as well as to the words themselves (heaven forbid we judge the “content” as well as the “form”), which might put a halt to our contemporary proliferation of maximalist and autofictional writers.

In “An Ideal Husband,” Susan Sontag divides great writers into two categories–husbands (those writers with a moral conscience and a sense of civic duty) and lovers (those who offer the short-lived feverishness and excitement of madmen). She claimed in 1963, that the modern world was filled with lovers, but not enough husbands, unlike in other periods of literary history when the opposite was true. Then she goes on to describe how Albert Camus nearly fit the bill of an “Ideal Husband” as a writer.

Though the lopsided categorization excludes even a nod to women as possible “great” literary figures, I’m intrigued by her classifications because I realize I share her thirst for a moral conscience in writing. I crave people whose inherently intertwined roles as an artist and a person are not arbitrary or loose connections that we should counter-intuitively compartmentalize. I seek a unity of purpose in authorship and in life, and a foresight which does not exclude others through frenetic impulse or an advertisement of desire at the expense of others.

Authors such as Shruti Swamy, W.G. Sebald, Michael Ondaatje, and even Susan Howe appeal to me for their qualities as good “husbands” in that I feel invested in their deep conviction in simultaneous aesthetic and moral thresholds that bind (or bound) them to their history and personal complicity in our time.

For me, moral consciousness depends on the ability to reflect upon our historical role and our place in the world amidst others not in spite of them. In order to do so, I feel that writers must depend on their ability to translate across divides of time, consciousnesses, and linguistic and cultural norms, and whether this crossing derives from the pith of the language, or the divestment of one’s originality for the sake of testimony–to give valor the unseen, lost spark in a footnote (or ideally, to accomplish both), it depends on solidarity with others, all of them. I feel an attraction to writers who navigate the sharp divisions of time, place, and self-interest that otherwise bind us to our various forms of narcissism.

A bond is never solely a comfortable relationship. To be bound is the condition of relative, limited freedom, which denotes sacrifice of possibility in order to maintain a level of comfort. Possibility is the antithesis to sanity and to really embrace it responsibly requires endurance, discipline, and sobriety, even, since possibility, contrary to its stated claims, is a limiting factor which also binds us. Each possibility is achieved by the exclusion of others. When one is bound by history, or bound by a deep investment in respect for humanity and the natural world, a state of grace lingers in that person’s works. This is how an author who is a “husband” with a long-term, purposeful conviction, beyond temporary pleasure can be trusted.

Naturally, the risk of writing which derives from moral conviction is to lose sight of the temporal, sensual, aesthetic pleasures that surround us in favor of aphorism. Let the subtle sounds of wind blowing through the tree leaves and the breath-ornamented silences between strangers remind you who you are and what unseen rifts there are to cross. Knowing pigeons, too, are watching us from the boughs of those trees. We never go unseen; we are always passing through one register or another.

 

“Apocalipsis de Solentiname” by Julio Cortazar

In an attempt to revive old literary studies of mine, I’ve divided a paper I wrote comparing two of Julio Cortázar’s stories into two separate articles. You can find my companion piece on Cortázar’s “Blow-up,” (1959) here, in the Bosphorus Review’s latest issue. The interesting thing about that story, for me, is that nearly twenty years later, Julio Cortázar seemed to have recycled the premise of “Blow-up” and updated it when he wrote the story “Apocolipsis de Solentiname” (1976), which I write about here.

In “Apocalipsis” the import of historic testimony, which was absent from “Blow-up,” bridges his characters’ isolated shock in a way that asserts his real symbolic political solidarity with the Latin American revolutionary collective (in his writing, the purview of individual experience has transformed into historical testimony). “Apocalipsis” directly engages with a historic period of time leading up to the FSLN overthrow of the Nicaraguan government during the Revolution in 1979. It provides a harrowing vision that prophesies the forms of torture other horrors that the people of Nicaragua would be subjected to. In addition, it is an important example of an author responding both to public criticism and political tragedy through a work of art in an attempt to express political solidarity with the oppressed while furthering his revolutionary literary aesthetic.

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Julio Cortazar in Solentiname

In “Apocalipsis,” Julio Cortázar returns to his representation of the photographic process as a means to rupture bourgeois consciousness. In this story, Julio Cortázar (the fictional protagonist whom I will refer to as Julio) travels to a press conference in Nicaragua. The story mimics historical truth because all of the characters in the story are in fact drawn from his real-life experience of attending a similar press conference in Nicaragua. Cortázar writes about the questions that are raised at the press conference: “why don’t you live in your own country, why was the film of Blow-Up so different from your story, do you think a writer ought to be politically committed?” These questions are also questions that the story “Apocalipsis” demonstratively responds to.

For the answers to those questions, we ascertain from his depiction of violence that Cortázar did not live in his country due to fear of the military regimes that plagued Latin America for lefitsts, the film Blow-Up was different because Antonioni did not perceive (or wish to portray) the political resonance of the story, and Cortázar does indeed believe that a writer should be politically committed. While Cortázar expresses his disparagement for the repeated questions people expect him to answer, i.e., “don’t you think that down below you wrote too obscurely for the masses?” he also responds to them by sharpening his ideological message in support of revolutionary solidarity, by the end of the story.

In “Apocalipsis,” Julio visits a small town where his poet friend Ernesto Cardenal lives. He helps the locals to sell their paintings. Several instances of foreshadowing unhinge the travel-diary-like narration. While praising Enesto Cardenal, he writes, “the jackal may howl but the bus moves on,” which as Alberto Moreiras points out in his essay, “Apocalypse at Solentiname as Heterological Production,” has metaphoric significance. The passage briefly hints at one’s empathy and the ability to feel pain at a distance. Moreiras writes: “The jackal in Cortázar’s text foretells an extraordinary act of ectoplasmic translation.  A jackal is the Central American animal whose howling culturally translates the howling of the wolf in other latitudes: ominous, portentous” (160). Later, in the airplane, Julio has a flash of anxiety when he jokingly comments that their Piper Aztec, “was in fact taking us straight into the sacrificial pyramid” (14). These hints of warning destabilize the naively optimistic rendering, just as the narrative destabilization in the beginning of “Las Babas” planted clues to the direction the story would take.

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When Julio arrives at their destination, he snaps a photo with a Polaroid, and takes note of how strange the image appears as it develops: “one of those cameras that on the spot produce a piece of sky-blue paper which gradually and miraculously and Polaroid begins slowly to fill with images, first all disturbing ghost-shapes and then little by little a nose, a curly head of hair” (14).  He de-familiarizes the photographic process by writing as if he is naïve to it:

For me to see emerging from nothing, from that little square of blue nothingness those    faces and smiles of farewell filled me with amazement and I told them so.  I remember asking Oscar what would happen if once after some family photo the blue scrap of paper suddenly began to fill with Napoleon on horseback, and Don Jose’s great roar of laughter . . . (14)

The surrealistic sense of imaginative horror in these initial passages casually disappears beneath the mention of friendly laughter. The momentary dream of horror is suppressed by the reality of comfort and peace among friends, a juxtaposition that again foreshadows one of the central themes of the story.

Cortázar highlights Julio’s status as a visitor in order to situate him within a different class than the others. He is intrigued and unfamiliar with the paintings he sees that are made by the people of the village: “. . . and I saw the paintings in a corner, began to look at them.  I can’t remember who it was explained they’d been done by the local people, this one was by Vincente, this one’s by Ramona, some signed, others not, yet all of them incredibly beautiful, once again the primeval vision of the world…” (15). Julio sifts through them, stunned by their depiction of a world full of plants, work, religion, and natural beauty.

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In following with custom, Julio attends Mass and discusses how the service portrays the instability of the lives of the people in the town:

[Mass] which that particular day was Jesus’ arrest in the garden, a theme the people of Solentiname treated as if it dealt with them personally, with the threat hanging over them at night or in broad daylight, their life of constant uncertainty not just on the islands or on the mainland and in all of Nicaragua but also in nearly the whole of Latin America, life surrounded by fear and death, life in Guatemala and life in El Salvador, life in Argentina and Bolivia, life in Chile and Santo Domingo, life in    Paraguay, life in Brazil and in Colombia. (15)

Cortázar intentionally extends the solidarity of his story’s political outcry to encompass the lives of all Latin Americans. His political aim is to connect the experience of Latin Americans as a singular, inclusive experience.

Before Julio leaves the island community, he decides to take photographs of the paintings he admires in the community room. He details his efforts to photograph the paintings: “I went through photographing them one by one, positioning myself so that each canvas completely filled the viewer” (15). The photographic medium extracts the paintings from their time and place, allowing Cortázar to transport them back to Paris. When he writes: “as luck would have it, there were exactly the same number of paintings as I had shots left, so I could take them all without leaving any out, when Ernesto came to announce the launch was waiting,” he gives sense that there is some kind of divine necessity in his capturing these images (15).

Again, a minor fissure seeps into the text when Julio explains to Ernesto Cardenal that he took photographs of the paintings: “he laughed, painting-snatcher, image-smuggler. Yes, I said, I’m carting them all off, and back home I’ll show them on my screen and they’ll be far bigger and brighter than yours, tough shit to you” (15). Cortázar positions Julio in a joke about imperial theft enacting the way bourgeois tourists take photographs in order to collect memories from afar. As Walter Benjamin describes in his essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (Work of Art, 221). Julio thinks that the photos will later become a fixture of his comfortable Parisian home.

When Cortázar returns to Paris, one of the first things he decides to do is to develop the film, and once he picks up the photographs, he prepares to view them on his projector, just as he had planned. He expresses the naive excitement of a tourist about to relive the beauty of a distant place they’ve travelled to. Instead, what he sees betrays his expectations. A boy he photographed appears with a bullet in his head, shot by an officer and faced with other men with machine guns. He describes both the boy and Solentiname being “hemmed in” by “water and officialdom” (16). The boy is “hemmed in” by the photographic medium itself, locked into place in the form of a testimonial image, and Cortázar’s renewed vision of the place appears “hemmed in” in the middle of a military attack.

Julio’s emotions bubble up and he thinks that he must have mistakenly taken someone else’s photographs. Then he sees a photo taken of the Mass that confirms that the photos belong to him. He scrolls through the complete set of photographs, seeing a series of images of the torture of a naked woman, a mass grave in a mine, and a car exploding. The images encompass different Latin American sites where history plays out as a violent rupture to the bourgeois conception of the world, “I carried on pressing and pressing between flashes of bloody faces and bits of bodies and women and children racing down hill-sides in Bolivia or Guatemala, suddenly the screen flooded with mercury and with nothing and with Claudine too, coming in silently” (16). When his companion, Claudine, enters the story, he is speechless and leaves so that she can look at the photos alone. With a sense of irrational conviction, he states: “…we never know how or why we do certain things when we’ve crossed a boundary we were equally unaware of” (17). Julio goes to the bathroom and experiences a physical response to the state of shock that the photographs put him in.  He vomits.

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Poet Ernesto Cardenal conducting mass in Solentiname

This scene recalls Roberto Michel’s scream in “Blow-up,” each instance of hallucinatory violence produces an uncontrollable bodily response. Then Julio notices that Claudine isn’t screaming. The fast juxtaposition of responses places the hellish visions like a weight upon Julio, but not on Claudine. The horror that opened itself up to him seemed to happen by way of an gap in reason that can’t be explained. He writes: “I wasn’t going to say anything to her, what was there to say now, but I remember vaguely thinking of asking her something really crazy, asking if at some point she hadn’t seen a photo of Napoleon on a horseback. I didn’t, of course” (17). When the narrator returns to his mention of a dream in which Napoleon would appear as if to justify his own unreliable, hallucinatory mind. For Napoleon to appear would no longer remain an implausible farce as it was when the motif appears in the beginning of the story. The recurring motif reminds the reader what has changed, which is to say the story produces two simultaneous frames of reality that create dissonance in their mutual independence. This mutual independence forms a strangely counter-intuitive truth because though it seems plausible that a bourgeois could comprehend violence, the bourgeois subjectivity relies on its wholly reified consciousness towards violence.

In comparison to “Las Babas del Diablo,” “Apocalipsis de Solentiname” produces a much more direct symbolic message. Cortázar does away with the narrative meditations on medium, opting instead to import a sense of historical realism. Cortázar asserts that a Latin American writer must express solidarity with the condition of the people, “He must, metaphorically or actually enter the street, and in Latin America this street becomes more cluttered with barricades, snipers and painful confrontations every day” (Politics, 539). Cortázar uses “Apocalipsis” as a means to symbolically “enter the street.” His story serves as a testimony of his empathy at a distance through a willful unveiling of clear and realistic horror as though it were an irrational dream. Cortázar uses the symbolic weight of his status as a well-known author and he uses the revolutionary struggle in Nicaragua as a backdrop to his portrayal of widespread violence throughout Latin America that produces shock, not indifference. He maintains his fantastical mode of representation by inserting irrational hallucinations as a liberating breach in logic: “the photographic medium becomes a privileged vehicle where his avant garde aesthetics coincide with the weight of visual testimony” (Russek, 2).

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Photography slices reality from its context and puts separates it within a newly established frame.  For Benjamin, photography “penetrates deeply into its [reality’s] web” (Work of Art, 233).  In Cortázar’s use, this web is immersed in historical violence and otherwise invisible to the countenance of his bourgeois subjects. In “Apocalipsis” the violence that appears as a result of the developed photographs is explicit and the reader knows exactly what Cortázar’s insertion of violence refers to. The violence is historically specific although no actual massacre had taken place in the community of Solentiname at the time Cortázar wrote the story. Later, the Nicaraguan revolutionary movement by the Sandinistas would progress, and a similar incident of military slaughter would happen at Solentiname, which makes the story prophetic. Either way, military violence had become common in Latin America, which is why Cortázar gestures that the violence he sees is something shared across Latin America.

In both stories, Cortázar interrogates questions of asymmetrical relationships of power akin to Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” which are defined as the “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (qtd. Russek, 4).  While “Las Babas del Diablo” remains localized in a Parisian setting, in “Apocalipsis,” the disparities of power take on global proportions. “Apocalipsis” captures a wider totality of the many different ways that people experience disparity including cultural imperialism, class differences, and technological disparity.

Cortázar’s revolutionary struggle is still at stake, and his emphasis on political commitment is relevant now just as it was when he wrote “Apocalipsis” in the 1970s. The question that remains is how one might draw from Cortázar’s strengths in forming a revolutionary literary aesthetic while endeavoring to push them further towards material praxis as opposed to residing in a merely symbolic plane.

Cortázar did incur direct political consequences by writing “Apocalipsis” because the military junta in Argentina at that time censored the publication of the story. Presumably, its visible testimony to militaristic violence struck a nerve. The potential for the testimonial use of images culminates in Benjamin’s description of the intersection of aesthetics and politics, “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war” (Work of Art, 241). One of Cortázar’s strengths is in his discovery that representations of violence need not hinge on a rational portrayal. His inclusion of the irrational appearance of violence through photography and the utter shock it produces exposes bourgeois denial and reintroduces a phenomenon that has been de-familiarized. He recalls a time when photographs were shocking. He extends horror to the spaces where it belongs.  For Moreiras:

The greatness of “Apocalipsis resides in its capacity to affirm a certain constitutive impossibility for the work of art to engage in ontological constructions while at the same time also affirming that the work of art depends, in its very constitution, on such constitutive impossibility. This has serious consequences regarding the possible effects of literature on political thinking and the social articulation of cultural work (159).

Cortázar’s effort to use literature to expose the dialectic positions his revolutionary aesthetic in a Marxist-Hegelian tradition.  However, he did not wish to write what became known as “proletarian literature” because he felt that it had become too conventional. Writing itself, for Cortázar demands a revolutionary approach, which aims toward future forms by defying rational thought and endeavoring to reintroduce diminishing political praxis through an aesthetic means. Cortázar ultimately portrays self-critique as a precondition for revolution in his story “Apocalipsis.”  This story stems from earlier meditations in “Las Babas” on the bourgeois subjective complicity in relation to violent circumstances.  These two stories symbolize the preliminary break down of bourgeois consciousness that is required for revolutionary praxis.

Further Reading

To read the story in full along with Julio Cortázar’s own lecture on the story check out LitHub’s article, “Julio Cortazar Teaches a class on his own short story.”

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. “Aestheticism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms. 10th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2012. 3-4.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 217-251.
————-. “The Storyteller.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 83-109.
————-. “The Task of the Translator.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968. 69-82.
————-. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
Castro-Klarén, Sara. “Cortázar, Surrealism, and ‘Pataphysics.” Comparative Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Summer, 1975), 218-236. JSTOR. Web. 22 March 2012.
Cortázar, Julio. “Apocalypse at Solentiname.” Trans. Nick Calstor. Index on Censorship, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1979. Google. Web. 3 April 2012.
————-. “Blow-Up.” Blow-Up and Other Stories. Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York:  Pantheon, 1967. 114-131.
————-. Interview with Jason Weiss. Writing at Risk: Interviews in Paris with Uncommon Writers. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1991. 39-56.
————-. “Politics and the Intellectual in Latin America.”  Trans. Mary E. Davis. Books Abroad, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Summer, 1976), 533-540. JSTOR. Web. 22 March 2012.
————-. “Some Aspects of the Short Story.” Trans. Naomi Lindstrom. Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Fall 1983), 25-37. EBSCO. Web. 22 March 2012.
————-. “The Fellowship of Exile.” Alltogether Elsewhere: Writers on Exile. Ed. Marc Robinson. Trans. John Incledon. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994. 171-178.
Kelman, David. “The Afterlife of Storytelling: Julio Cortázar’s Reading of Walter Benjamin and Edgar Allan Poe.” Comparative Literature, Vol. 60, No. 3: 244-260. EBSCO. Web. 22            March 2012.
Lukács, Georg. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MIT: 1971.
Moreiras, Alberto.  “‘Apocalypse at Solentiname’ as Heterological Production.” Julio Cortázar: New Readings. Ed. Carlos J. Alonso. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 157-182.
Pagano, Adrianna S. “On Official Histories and Subversive Pedagogies in Cortázar.” Translation and Power. Ed. Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2002. 80-98.
Russek, Dan. “Verbal/Visual Braids: The Photographic Medium in the Work of Julio Cortázar.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature. Winnipeg: Dec, 2004. Vol. 37, No. 4: 71-87. Literature Online. Web. 22 March 2012.
Tcherepashenets, Nataly. Place and Displacement in the Narrative Worlds of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

 

While on Hiatus . . .

I’ve been on hiatus from writing book reviews for Pomp and Intertext, and I feel slightly guilty about it. I’ll admit, I’ve focussed my attention elsewhere, but only temporarily.

Recently, I’ve been volunteering to help with outreach and editorial assistance as well as writing for the Bosphorus Review of Books. The journal is so far the only English language literary journal located in Istanbul. My contributions there have included a book review on Achmat Dangor’s novella, Kafka’s Curse (May), and my most recent contribution, a book review on Yashar Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk (July).

Apart from that project, I’ve been focusing my attention on my biodiversity blog entitled Biodivvy.com. Even there, I’ve turned to books as an important inspiration for my writing.

Today, I’m trying to succinctly summarize a book-long history of modern Western ecological thought starting from the 18th century in response to the question:

“Why should we care if just one species goes extinct,

especially if it is no use to us?”

Presumably playing devil’s advocate, a friend posed the question to me. The question is compelling and has many possible responses, which is why I’ve turned to history for answers.

My gut reaction is, of course, “no species is an island” and that any one species’ decline has myriad consequences. However, some species may seem expendable, especially if we don’t notice the related symptoms of decline and imbalance, or if we don’t personally experience any consequences. For me, that response is ignorant, far too common, and indefensible, so I’m writing about it.

Natures EconomyThe history book is Nature’s Economy by Donald Worster. So far, I’ve introduced the contributions outlined in the book of Gilbert White (holism, as opposed to abstract, mechanistic scientific approaches) and Linnaeus (a hierarchy of interdependent species, “economic” limitations of food, range, and reproduction upon individual species, a benevolent utilitarian whole–in contrast to Hobbes’ vision of a natural system of war and carnage). Next, I’m onto Thoreau, then Darwin, then others . . . after I take a coffee break. Once I’m finished with this, I’ll write a separate post on Vandana Shiva’s book, Staying Alive, to fill in some of the gaps for the post-colonial and feminist approaches to ecology.

 I hope my blog will spread important knowledge in the manner of Freire a la Pedagogy of the Oppressed meaning, I want to distribute information horizontally–to put it into free, shareable terms, as many other knowledge-based platforms have already done successfully (i.e. Wikipedia–currently banned in Turkey). Though my blog is not specifically intended for a Turkish audience, I’m writing with fervor due to the stark reality that soon Turkish citizens will not even receive education about evolution, which is frightening!

I promise, I’ll return to Pomp and Intertext to focus on other compelling books and topics, ASAP.

Book Review: Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories

Book Cover, Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler’s stories don’t advertise their original content from the outset. Nor do they presuppose a delight for science fiction. Of course, their bookstore-aisle categorization and Octavia Butler’s reputation as a preeminent writer of science fiction lead us to believe something with creatures, aliens, space, or magic could enter the story, but apart from that, the stories in Bloodchild and Other Stories generally begin in plain speech from an everyday, human perspective.

Picture of Octavia Butler from Aerogramme Writer's Studio

Picture of Octavia Butler from Aerogramme Writer’s Studio

We are provided details about the relationships of the narrators, with a voice that narrates the same way a person might describe their relationship to their mother or their uncle, for instance. The difference is that these relationships are not with human beings. The humans of her stories have familial bonds with giant millipedes that use humans in their parasitic birthing ritual (“Bloodchild”), plants dreamed up from elements of quantum physics that need human contact as if humans were their drugs (“Amnesty”), or other people who have conditions that make them so violent they will tear out loved ones’ eyes due to preconditioning as a result of experimental medication (“The Evening and the Morning and the Night”). In spite of these bizarre relationships, the untainted honesty and directness of her narrators makes even these odd scenarios relatable.

For this review, I will limit my discussion to these three stories, which left the strongest impression on me, personally.

Realization that the mother figure, T’Gatoi of “Bloodchild” is a giant millipede does’t fully picture into the narrative of the story until about twenty pages into the thirty one page story. We are given a rich sensory impression of her sounds and movements:

“She made a lot of little clicking sounds when she walked on bare floor, each limb clicking in succession as it touched down. Waves of little clicks. She came to the table, raised the front part of her body above it, and surged onto it. Sometimes she moved so smoothly she seemed to flow like water itself. She coiled herself into a small hill in the middle of the table and looked at me.”

Once we receive such vivid descriptions, we realize we had been waiting for them all along because as a way to build suspense, Butler seems to etch the feelings and situations of the humans first, before revealing the strangeness of their circumstances.

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Courtesy of xfadingfastxxx on Deviant Art

The common thread in the stories within this collection is interdependence. Though the “others” within her stories, those gazed upon by the narrators, appear more powerful or dangerous, both parties have come to realize the mutual benefits of working together, in spite of the risk. Humans and millipedes are bound together. The narrators in the stories may be trying to convince others of this benefit (as in “Amnesty” and “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”), or they may be learning about it in a coming of age narrative of sorts (as in “Bloodchild”). The catch, however, is that mutual benefit does not come without sacrifice.

The element of sacrifice in the form of physical pain in Octavia Butler’s stories offer the reader an immediate visceral response. We are led to imagining the risk of a grub eating its human host from within and its forestalled conclusion by way of cutting open the stomach of the human without anesthetic and delivering the grub to its next host—a larger farm animal—until it grows to the size of the regular giant millipedes who keep the humans in check. We are led to imagine a creature made of a giant mass of floating plant-like fronds that form a unified sentient ‘community’ in “Amnesty” that has exposed the narrator’s body to brutal shock treatment with its electric parts. And we are led to imagine an unimaginable physical violence that entails tearing off limbs and taking out eyes. This violence is directed both towards the selves and others of characters with this condition which is brought on by intimacy in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” The mutual benefit for humans is that the only way to survive as a human species is by participating in such dangerous liaisons. The benefit of the ‘others’ is a preference for their normal human counterparts. Nevertheless, the immanent threat of these powerful invasive species (or conditions) has made humans’ self-sacrifice a physical burden and reality in these highly imaginative social configurations.    

In the Afterword of “Bloodchild,” Butler describes how her inspiration first came from a simple premise—male pregnancy. In addition, she was fascinated with the botfly found in South America that lays its eggs inside the flesh of an open wound on another creature, which grow until they eat their way out of the host and fly away. Mortified by this natural phenomena, she processed her fear in writing. Nature informs the thematic material of Octavia Butler’s fiction in this collection and in particular, her work provides imagined scenarios of humans engaged in symbiotic relationships.

There are three main variants of symbiotic relationships found in nature: mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism. Mutualism is described as “biological barter” in which a plant or animal species trades a service or resource with another plant or animal species. One example is the cleaning-service of the red-billed oxpecker which eats the ticks off its host’s back, such as that of an impala.

However, the oxpecker may also harm its host animal that has an open wound by widening and worsening the wound whose blood it drinks. Commensalism is a bond formed by a neutral benefit of one creature without causing benefit or harm to the other. Parasitism is of course a bond in which one organism binds itself to another in a way that harms the other. Butler uses the suspense of gradually revealing mutualism out of relationships that at first glance seem parasitic in her stories.

By extension, her stories promote a genuine understanding of a basic ecological principle: biodiversity.

By situating humans as the less powerful creature in a symbiotic relationship, she emphasizes our complicity in nature. Since the symbiotic pairings in her stories are easy to transpose as allegories for human interactions (in her afterword of “Bloodchild,” she complained that someone had misinterpreted it as a story of slavery), she draws out the oddly complicit and symbiotic phenomena that is also inherent to humanity that requires us to bridge social divisions. Though her stories incorporate imagined, unnatural phenomena, by way of symbiosis, she folds humans back into nature, rather than exempting us from it, with her fiction.

However, her stories also invite interpretation as visions that potentially detail the relationship of a black body to a white, or Western, “alien society.” Her narrators are usually female and described as having dark skin, somewhere in the middle of their narratives. It is never a pronounced description, as emotional and perceptive descriptions are offered more weight than descriptions of physical appearance, but it offers a subtle, important gesture. It helps the reader to recognize that Octavia Butler is indeed writing about her own experience, her own reality. However, this analysis gives way to more specific investigations brought on within Butler’s fiction.

I was particularly struck by parallels to institutionalization in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” Like prisoners or mental patients, the participants in the institutionalized system in which characters carrying a genetic disorder bear social markers that prevent them from going unnoticed. They must wear special restrictive garments. The genetic disorder, which triggers violent behavioral disorders, is furthermore the result of medical testing on humans. Only inside a special building where they respond to the pheromones of the female “warden” who is inspired by the “queen bee” found in nature, can the people with the genetic disorder live without restriction. There, they’re left to work with their hands to make art. Her characters in this story participate in a system that does not grant them the liberty of free will and her characters must begrudgingly accept this reality and make the best of it.

By applying the authoritarian role of a queen bee to her story (in place of a warden-like figure), Octavia Butler reorganizes the typically patriarchal power relationships in an institutionalized settings. Furthermore, the characters who are invited to see this phenomenon are wary of the dynamic, but they, too, soon recognize they would benefit from it, as it provides a safer environment. The idea of a beneficial institutionalization is borne out of a perfect merger of ideas from nature and institutionalization in this story. I find it interesting that Butler is able to shed light on our complicity in perpetuating such institutions, while offering a refreshing remix of the power dynamics and causes (criminality or mental instability) it hinges on.

Furthermore, her story displaces the blame upon the subjects participating inside the institution because it comes from a pre-existing condition derived from an external cause. Likewise, PTSD or infantile drug addiction displace the blame upon people with behavioral disorders in society, since it is known to have been derived from an earlier source for which society, not the individual, is to blame. It is this perspective that she seems to highlight of bondage to conditions derived from socially induced causes. Reading “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” in this light reminded me of people with conditions as drug-test patients, military service, or even institutionalized racism.    

The unnatural physical harm of human torture, which we may mentally but not viscerally understand, is etched with precision in Butler’s story, “Amnesty.” In this story, the humans are more treacherous than the invasive species. Her story combines the social, emotional, and physical dimensions of torture in a way I had not fully conceived of prior to reading the story. At the end of the story, she gives a brief afterward, which informs us that her story is based on the experience of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese-born scientist at Los Alamos nuclear laboratory. I was not aware of his experiences, prior to reading her fictional story. His life experience, by proxy, led to accusations that he was a spy collecting and transferring classified weapons information to China. However, none of the accusations held any weight upon full investigation. In fact, they way the FBI interrogated him was to psychologically manipulate him in order to get a confession, which is now considered a point of misconduct by the FBI.

Drawing us into allegories of geopolitical power plays, we understand that her story “Amnesty” offers a valid critique of sanctioned torture and offers an interpretation of the role of Wen Ho Lee as a scientist obtaining classified information as a pursuit motivated at least in part by curiosity, rather than ill-will. The story’s description of the alien “communities” as a conglomerate of individuals matches our assumptions about the collective nature of communist China with its massive population, but on the contrary, it could also reflect the many mysterious open ended questions and elements of Wen Ho Lee’s story. A conglomerate of independent clues that does not seem to amount to a united identity.    

Finally, without Butler’s afterwords, I never would have been able to draw these interpretive conclusions. In this sense, her afterwords serve as useful guides for making connections between her stories and the real world. She is generous to her readers, whether they themselves are practitioners of the art of storytelling or social critics. She offers the beauty of transparency, knowing that it does not harm her highly original from the threat of mimicry. Indeed, this is a sign of a truly successful artist. Her art does not reveal cheap tricks of the imagination nor does it become vulnerable to the threat of plagiarism when she grants us clues to the inception of the work. On the contrary, it is strengthened by her willful generosity.    

    

  

 

Book Review: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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Although Maggie Nelson is more popular for her “genre-bending” book, “The Argonauts,” I recently had a chance to read her earlier poetry book “Bluets.” In an attempt to revive my hobby of writing literary commentary as I previously have for “The Cave” by Jose Saramago and Walter Benjamin’s article, “A Berlin Chronicle,” I chose a book that came from an independent publisher, offered a unique combination of prose and poetry and relied on the concept of theme and variation.

Published by Wave Books in 2006, this book of prose poems invites responses as varied as the material it contains. This is revealed by her fans’ and critics’ comments on Goodreads: “Dippy.” “Evocative.” “Borderline humorless.” “Filled with life.” Nevertheless, the resounding opinion from her readers is positive, as it has received 4.3 stars. For me, the almost-cluttered material of the book promises too much. It promises to divulge a love affair with the color blue, but instead results in a semi-confessional narrative about a less-than-glamorous personal sexual relationship. I emphasize sex, because the book is preoccupied with sex. Yet, somehow the sex and feeling of the book never seem to intersect. Allusions to a mysterious quality of blue as their supposed point of crossing never fully suffice. In fact, the stronger feeling the book projects is one of the author’s inadequacy to fulfill her desire for intimacy with either her lover or her color. They are always mediated through too much clutter or “detritus” as she refers to it, to allow the feelings in the book to linger.

At times while I was reading, rich feeling comes through in the sensational descriptions of color as a phenomenon of shimmering light. These descriptions are mediated by memorable references to other author’s inquiries into color. At times, the feeling of light and color almost oozes out of the pages. Darkness is also included to frame the concept of color by way of Stanza 73., when Nelson describes Newton’s discovery of the spectrum in a “dark chamber” with an aperture through which to refract sunlight. This technical description is betrayed for a seemingly arbitrarily planted tangent—that the assistant may have been a rhetorical fiction. The meta-plane of textuality is never far from reach. In stanza 130., Nelson writes “We cannot read the darkness. We cannot read it. It is a form of madness, albeit a common one, that we try.” This smacks of mystical religiosity in a way that is buttressed by the not-so-subtle name-dropping of “God” twenty-five times in ninety-five pages. Yet, I found that such attempts at feeling, meaning, depth and “naming the unnameable” never let me immerse myself enough to escape the sense that this work is a “project,” and as such, its mysticism felt prescribed.   

For instance, throughout her writing process, she receives shipments of blue objects by friends who she calls her “blue correspondents” and she also applies for grants to travel abroad to seek out blue, though she never receives one. This marks an instance when she must merely default to what she deems common as much as she’d prefer to escape it. Nelson introduces the French word bluets only to later discover its English counterpart: a common cornflower. Just like other English flower names such as amaryllis or calla lily, the name cornflower offers less of a cue for the senses than the name bluets does. This sense that common things are inadequate may not have been an intended theme, but it can be observed repeatedly throughout the book.

It promises to show the process of falling in love with a color. The first of the numbered paragraphs says: “Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it because more serious.” I never got the sense of any gradual change in the text other than the sea change that comes from demystifying a topic. We are lead from descriptions of bluets to cornflowers, from the discovery of the spectrum to collections of blue detritus. By the end of the book, it is clear that the romance has faded. Otherwise, the mere presence of numbered paragraphs grants the pages an artificial progression.

Nelson suggests she is keen on “having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock” in one self-satisfied diatribe (62) against Puritanism. She teases us with the suggestion that she’ll give us access to her feelings about sex. But later, she offers little more than a cold, graphic fuck for a description of her lover. There are no names, no faces, no histories, no details about him given. The only information granted is that she is willingly sleeping with someone who has an open relationship with at least one other person, which she seems to resent. In fact, Nelson displaces the underlying longing for this character by erasing him as character and drowning him in pull quotes of well-known male icons like Newton, Andy Warhol, Goethe, and Wittgenstein. In that sense, the project seems to be grounded in a feeling of longing or misery that is intrinsically linked to this lover, but unwilling to articulate him as character. Instead, she meanders through thoughts on the color blue.

It feels like a passive aggressive near-confession meant to derive some revenge. Perhaps this revenge is taken upon the object of desire in the text—the male fucker with too many female prospects who is personified as a bowerbird in one part of the text (68). Perhaps her form of revenge is publication. In this sense, it has an interesting mixture of intimation and intimidation.

The sex is too loud, the science of color is too contrastingly stiff, and the collection of ‘blue’ anecdotes is, in fact, strikingly bare. Let’s consider some of the well-known blue referents not mentioned: the nazar (evil eye) pervasive in Turkey, the Greek flag and the color of the Greek Orthodox Church, Picasso’s blue period (perhaps briefly mentioned when she describes “The Blue Guitar”), the American Blues tradition (whose main proponent in the text is Billy Holiday), the films of the Three Colors Trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, one of which is Blue, Blue Monday, and even (with so many references to other thinkers from this time period and region of the world) Der Blaue Reiter. Yet, her status as a professor and her female loneliness are glaring as if to send a fatal warning to anyone who dare enter into the evocative promises of the text. She proclaims an urgent need to be revered for this work of academic gesturing (or else!). It smacks of privilege in the sense that the poetics are demanding as if her project “deserves” some empathy from us, the readers.

Another character is in the hospital, being cared for by the narrator. Yes, in addition to collecting blue pull quotes and ephemera, she tends to an aging friend. This is perhaps the most sympathetic relationship drawn of the narrator as opposed to the narrator as professor (whose idiot students can’t understand Gertrude Stein), the narrator as lover (whose object of love is not worthy of characterization), or the narrator as reader (whose readings really only encompass the supposed greats of the Western Canon with minor cameo appearances of ‘other’ figures). Apart from these markers of an elevated status, she is a caregiver, who marvels at the color of her sick friend’s feet. She almost heeds the warning offered by this woman: your relationship is “morbid.” However, admitting to such a denunciation would derail not only her relationship, but also her project-based text.

Surprisingly, I felt that the text was drowning in tropes of ‘maleness’ and a problem of gender seems to be at the core. The text leaves us wondering—is she the damsel in distress, is this a captivity narrative, or is this a female warrior asserting her prowess? However, when she describes a longing to be “subsumed into a tribe of blue people” or the “Tuareg, which means ‘abandoned by God,’” the problem of gender dissembles to one worthy of postcolonial criticism. She has the gall to justify this “exoticism” by claiming that she’s not the only one to share in this fantasy. This “Western” inescapable desire triggers the sort of spice-box nostalgia for the British Empire and other heart-of-darkness themes that eliminate any further possibility to read her evocative text without a grain of salt. An underlying problem of whiteness also appears to linger in the folds of the text.

While comparing itself to a confession at the start of the book, the most convincing revelation is the unnerving forthrightness of this woman to assert her Western privilege and academic status with such unabashed caprice. After this striking incapacity to sort through the implications of her own text—which is one that is composed on the binary pillars of savagery and civilization, striking chords of mysticism for the former, and encyclopedic referencing for the latter, her appropriation of the term blue from African American music is all the more glaring. When she incorporates the most well-known female jazz singer, Billy Holliday, as if to announce the elephant in the room—the appropriation of an American theme hailing from African Americans, which she refuses to otherwise address, I was left starving for the real blues, not her clever French bluets.

Meanwhile, this sideswiping of a tradition is structured through a range of distracting measures meant to delude us into believing she is confessing something personal. And by that, I only mean personal-according-to-the-custom-of-an-American-literary-and-aesthetic-tradition. Much of the thematic material feels like academic (or poetic? or literary?) posturing. At no point while reading the text did I get the sense that I’ve actually read anything intentionally revealing about the narrator. Her collection of material stirs up varied impressions that stem from avoidance of the central dilemma—the self-proclaimed “Western” coldness of the text.

In another color-themed artistic endeavor, several years ago, artist Anish Kapoor got exclusive rights to the Vantablack pigment the “blackest black.” Equally pretentious as it is superlative, Anish Kapoor made his “work” exclusive as a means to give it some kind of longevity. Likewise, Maggie Nelson’s text practices the art of restraint more than it practices revelation, offering up a kind of exclusive set of inquiries that are probably only scratching the surface of a larger whole. No purchase or patience could grant us that access. Even the mentions of drunkenness, dope, and booze feel like textual placeholders to signify “depth of experience.” In the end, the overwrought text generally diffuses any connection between signifier and signified so thoroughly that all we’re left with is a medley of self-conscious efforts at artistry in which the effort remains more pronounced than the artistry. Her complete dissatisfaction for the familiar is marked with an excessive desire to find “exoticism” throughout her daily life with a forcefulness. In addition to an underlying sense of inadequacy, the text projects a sense that she wishes to take power, conquer and divide the winnings of her daily life—as a form of sweet revenge.    

What do we call this book? Textual collage, chapbook, novel-in-verse? Clearly her efforts at elevated meaning are driven by researching a theme and its variations. We are pulled into a medley of linguistic and philosophical tropes. We can easily break the text down into its parts. Firstly, it contains signature blue objects: tarps, lapis lazuli, tuareg, garbage bags, blue light. Then, to make even further use of numbers than her own numbering system, I used the search function in my Kindle. There are 25 mentions of God, 16 mentions of Goethe, and 100 instances of blue in the text—achieving absolute numerical and textual stasis. Her own awareness of the potential inability of her leaflet to take flight is brought up in Stanza 226: “I thought I had collected enough blue to build a mountain, albeit one of detritus. But it seems to me now as if I have stumbled upon a pile of thin blue gels scattered on the stage long after the show has come and gone; the set, striked.” Drawing upon a well-known literary trope, she likens the text to a theatrical performance. Perhaps this is one last effort to avoid complicity in an otherwise problematic text.

Why is Ecology pushed to the Margins of Literary Criticism?

People often push the importance of ecology for literary writers to the margins. While the field of Ecocriticism exists to study this particular intersection, I feel that certain writers warrant their ecological concern to play a more prominent role in the way critics write about them.

Margaret Atwood’s wikipedia entry describes her as a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist, with “environmental activist” conspicuously listed last. Her various roles are also listed as if her environmental concerns and her literary are discreet parts of her oeuvre, operating independently of one another. However, considering the thematic content of her recent works such as Oryx and Crake and Surfacing and the artistic projects she has developed, it is clear that ecological thought, as a philosophical world-view, motivates her writing in an essential way. Her legacy will be skewed in this regard, in that critics will continue to diminish the essential role that an awareness of nature plays in her literary praxis. The same is true for other authors.

An obvious example of an author whose work fundamentally derives from natural observations is Henry David Thoreau. His literary texts are clearly shaped in both form and content by the experience of living his solitary existence on Walden Pond. What is less known about his legacy as a thinker is that he made a substantial scientific contribution to our understanding of ecological succession. By observing the strange patterns of tree growth after clear cuts took place in which pine trees would grow up after oaks had been cleared, he developed a theory of tree succession in his text, The Succession of Forest Trees. This text gave farmers and later scientists important insights about how seed dispersal is dependent upon the interactions of other organisms such as squirrels who carried seeds. His scientific and literary approach both equally contributed to this breakthrough and this historical episode is being highlighted by theorists of the Nature of Science. However, this scientific contribution is overshadowed by his other literary work in which people often give undue emphasis to the humanistic elements rather than his environmental insights.

Vladimir Nabokov was another naturalist whose etymological insights as a butterfly collector led to a later proven theory of the evolution of blue butterflies. Furthermore, his vast amounts of time spent in nature contributed to his insights about aesthetic mimicry which play prominently throughout some of his most famous works such as Pale Fire. His engagement with nature played a crucial role in his literary production.

Many contemporary authors including Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin, and Arundhati Roy have turned their full attention to using their literary influence as a platform for environmental activism. After Roy’s publication of the critically acclaimed novel, “God of the Small Things, she has written mostly nonfiction that has criticized the Indian government for militarization and the construction of large scale nuclear energy plant and dam. Her political activism essay writing is intrinsically connected to both social and environmental concerns which are both inseparable from the experience of the landless poor in India.

Likewise, Ursula K. Leguin has written essays that defend the central significance of ecology as a concern of the left and Margaret Atwood is also an active member of the Canadian Green Party and an honorary president of the Rare Bird Club division of BirdLife International.

Reading these author’s work alongside other ecologically inspired writers can reveal a cohesive set of literary interests based on natural history and its role in society. Such significance depends on their experiences and observations of the environment.

In most of these cases, environmental activism is fueled by the experience of spending valuable time observing the natural environment, which forms not only the subjective material of the writing, but also an underlying ecologically-aware worldview. Such a view may not be in direct opposition to other economic, political or religious world views, but it often supersedes those concerns. In a Guardian Interview, Margaret Atwood dramatically described the greater significance of natural constraints to those of human rights:

The trouble with politicians [at events like the Copenhagen summit of 2009] is that no one wants to go first, go skinny dipping and take the plunge. Oh, and then you have people arguing about fatuous things like the environment and human rights. Go three days without water and you don’t have any human right. Why? Because you’re dead. Physics and chemistry are things you just can’t negotiate with. These, these are the laws of the physical world.

Margaret Atwood seems to have developed an understanding that the inclusive framework of the natural world should be our primary plane of inquiry, whereas other systems have a tendency to ignore or distract from this already-existing system.

This privilege for ecology need not be antagonistic towards technology or a modern/futuristic society, as Ursula K. Le Guin’s futuristic novels reveal. Instead, she feels that technological advances that are compatible with natural phenomena are this that we, as humankind, should privilege. In her recent essay about Murray Bookchin, who is known for his famous essay, “Ecology and Revolution,” Le Guin describes his urban social and technological perspective the future of the political left, a contribution which surprised the journal editors who published it. I think this surprise derives from an inability to take authors’ environmentalist “side projects” seriously as an essential element of their work.

I don’t personally know much about Murray Bookchin’s ideas yet, but from this article in Jacobin, I learned that his work has had an influence in my current region of the world (Turkey) within the movement to free Kurdistan.

Overall, I believe the only way to fully honor these literary figures through criticism is by conceiving of their legacy as situated within a tradition that bridges natural history, ethics and literature.

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