Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Category: Culture

Extreme Boredom: A pitfall of reading a lot of literature

If it’s boring, it might be literary.

There are stylistic tropes that fling around literary writing, just like they do around marketing writing or humor writing. Marketing writing always includes some kind of manipulative “why not” statement that tips your weight off balance, making you accidentally click “buy.” Jokes tend to be gestural and feature costumes, accidents, squeamish sex or other bodily functions, self-deprecation and the like. Then we reach the literary, wherein the words are supposed to cling to our palettes like fine wine. More often than not, I find that it clings to the roof of my mouth like peanut-butter. It is precisely this everyday-plain-yet-sublime-concrete-details trope that I’m bored with. Personally, I never liked peanut butter as a child, especially since my mom always bought the chunky kind. Any other nut could have made the spread more glorious. I mean, why not grind up pistachios, instead?

quote-there-is-nothing-more-awful-insulting-and-depressing-than-banality-anton-chekhov-47-49-74

Here’s an example.

Susan Straight — award winning author — writes the following paragraph in her story, “The Perseids,” found in the most recent issue of Granta:

“He turned the binoculars on his house – thirty feet away down the long cement path bordered with river rock, past the old plow and stone water trough. The ancient redwood shingles on the house had darkened to tight black scales. The first time his best friend Manny’s father picked up Dante for baseball practice, he said to Dante’s father, ‘Damn – these shingles aren’t even painted, homes!’”

(my emphasis added)

These are precise details, surely. Yet, to me, they are so uninspiring in the imagination, that I get that peanut-butter-sticking-to-the-roof-of-my-mouth feel from reading this. Perhaps the nausea rather than sentimentality towards my Spokane, Washington upbringing has something to do with it. Our faded-glory landscape featured plenty of river rock (as I recall from when I lived there). The main geographic feature of that area was a river. This portrait reminds me of the middle-class homes that people like me could have afforded in my parents generation. River rocks remind me of the 1970s when people had an opportunity to make significant changes in society and didn’t, opting for Nixon followed not long after by Reagan. “River rock” reminds me of how my grandparents, who would take me, in the twilight of their dementia, down to the river to show me how to skip rocks. We’d watch adorable ducks waddle by, and my grandpa would tell us stories of duck hunting. The river rocks even remind me of the popular Christian-Methodist summer camp I joined once, situated along the Spokane river, with the teenage cliques and full-blown group-think episodes of Jesus-acceptance catharsis that made me feel even more alienated than my own Catholic-republican family did. River rocks as evocative details are such a turn off for me.

On to “old plow” and “stone water trough”–don’t even get me started. These are clearly out-of-use relics that have been turned into middle class decorations. Why not throw in some old boots, a long saw-tooth blade and a buffalo skull? These things once had a function, you know, and those times were not as simple and easy-going as this nostalgic home-portrait suggests. These were backbreaking days that led to newly worshiped inventions: motorized tractors and lighter weight materials such as plastic. The ease and convenience of our new technological advancements in fact make the objects in this portrait fantastical, like a stage-set designed by Ralph Lauren. Placing these items inside the frame of the picture does nothing to highlight history, since our white parents with their complicated stories of genocidal Indian Wars paired with immigration and agrarian hardship aren’t usually the history-disseminating types. So we ponder our origins by decorating with old plows. These objects aren’t placed here to hint at the forces that shaped history in this dainty portrait, but to delete them with an emphasis on our limited, yet satisfactory, purview of cozy domestic life.

Next, the “ancient redwood shingles” emphasize the distance of time as if to slap us on the face and say, “get nostalgic!” This was so far back in time, they could actually cut down redwoods and turn them into something as mundane as shingles and not even protect them with paint! Back in those days, they could easily replace such shingles, so paint was but a mere afterthought. Oh my, how the prices have changed and our world has been turned upside down by clear-cutting. It’s as if the toilet in the house is studded with diamonds–and moreover, they didn’t even bother to wipe the piss of of them! This is not a pretty picture. These were distant times with vastly plentiful resources that are now scarce. (Oops!) Rampant expansion known as “civilization” happened and now the memory of abundance tugs our heart strings. How about that California drought? Not just shingles but entire redwood forests are turning black.

The “tight black scales” of the house emphasize the ruinous state the house is in. Moreover, this house is but a fish, and that could be a reference to the Bible, even, in case you haven’t had enough of the Bible stuffed down your throat in summer camp. And do you see how the “river rock” and the “fish scales” of the house turn the portrait into a river-setting without once pointing out water? Don’t stories with rivers usually feature drowning? Just like Chekov’s theory that introducing a loaded gun in the first act only leads to one conclusion. Yet, you’ll notice how the paragraph is “balanced” with these “scales.” These interpretations are all a stretch, and the stretch doesn’t take me anywhere that triggers insight or intrigue.

I’m still bored. And the homey disrepair of the era is again emphasized by the onlooker, who gently criticizes his neighbor, as if unaware he is doing so. He is, in fact, a bit rude. But we are somehow obliged to forgive his folksy ways, because he is just a suburban bumpkin, unaware that his comments are potentially condescending. Because in ‘merica, monkey see, monkey say. We verbalize and apologize later, all unawares. We expect hearty comradeship without push back, especially in white-on-white dialogue. In other words, literature in ‘merica means a no-nonsense embrace of the banal.

Sometimes, I cannot stomach literature. Indeed, the above details are not “nice” or “sympathetic” or even “interesting” to my ear. The paragraph is the definition of nausea for me, and my boredom increases with each added “concrete detail.” Details alone don’t make a story good. The details are always strapped like a damsel in distress to some overriding Godzilla-like associations, beliefs and ideologies which can easily sweep the text away from a reader. It doesn’t comfort me to read about good-‘ole white America (the elephant in the background of this text).

I crave wit, provocation, originality, estrangement, a sense of history and an outsider status. Those are my google keywords. Perhaps that’s why I eat up Roberto Bolano’s writing like ice-cream. And perhaps this article is not fair to the author or the text. I admit I couldn’t read much beyond this paragraph of the story, so my analysis really only applies to that paragraph.

But I’m not trying to be fair, I’m trying to define my literary taste.

Advertisements

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

jfk-berlin-58f7ca705f9b581d5981ad79

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?

consciousness-raising_inside1__86275-1486767166

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.

128805-004-69156f27

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.  

banu-nasty-woman-holding-up-sign

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.

cpbsktgxgaaetp6

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.