Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Literature

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.

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Je Suis Madame Bovary

Waiver: This blog post has absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Hedbo (at least not explicitly).

Getting back to the original intent of this blog, I now return to literary commentary.

Today’s post is the first on a series about fictional suicidal heroines.

I’m afraid to admit it, but I only just recently read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert for the first time. While it has been touted by all sorts of Francophiles for its literary merits, I was more interested in reading it through a narcissistic lens.

Recap: “Madame Bovary” as you probably know, is story of a famous, lovely, young French woman who marries Charles Bovary. She soon feels bored by married life and turns to extra-marital romantic affairs. The first of these ends because her lover is distracted and ultimately refuses to commit and run away with her. The second leads to more heartbreak and dire fiscal consequences. Once she falls too deep into debt, she gets hold of some cyanide and ends her life when she courageously swallows away her debt, dreams, and doldrum. The death leaves a stain on her community, especially on the psyche of her forlorn husband.

With so many fallen dreams crumbling throughout the book, any empathy you start to feel for the characters is tainted by the overbearing notoriety of the author himself. After all, he wrote this book to satisfy his urge to critique the French bourgeois society of his era. We learn a compelling moral that unsatisfiable emotional needs, paired with the influence of several favorite bourgeois pastimes: reading and shopping and fantasizing, lead to one woman’s fatal downfall in the form of suicide. Her urge to “opt out” is compounded by the male constituents of the community who offer the option of support through sexual trade. At every corner, she faces the risk of losing her status, which is her most prized possession. This, in fact, proves to be worth more than her life to her. It is ultimately more “affordable” to expend her own life, than to risk losing her social status.

However, the novel’s particular focus on the fatal attraction of debt-inducing behavior was particularly poignant for me. Parallels between the risks associated with a female livelihood in this novel and my own life lead me to believe that beyond the book’s superficial warning against frivolity, there is another more compelling historical relationship between her (Madame Bovary) and me (Je Suis). Not only do Madame Bovary’s material demands lead to her downfall, there is a more sardonic depiction of female psychology at play. Her love of fiction, her fancy, her imagination and her wish to transcend “daily life” are actually what cause her demise and mobilize her debt. “Daily life,” after all, lacks passion. It lacks the extremes of emotion and it continues onward in a highly predictable manner. Flaubert is taunting us by drawing the line and reminding us that actually, the only people who are free from the risks that debauchery entails are privileged male artists like himself.

From a writerly perspective, the style of Madame Bovary has been cited for establishing what we now call “realism.” I was particularly entranced with the descriptions that gave such a compelling illusion of truth. The thick residue of time and space melted away so that I really sympathized with Madame Bovary, reading this book. This story led to profound self-evaluation on my part. This novel of female escapism and its hazards parallels the framework supporting my writing endeavors.

A brief summary is as follows: inspired by novels I read, I decided that I should become a creative writer. There was no financial goal in mind, just an urge to devour life for all of its myriad flavors. So, for a few years that comprised the latter half of my twenties, I earned two self-defining Master’s degrees in which I entertained dreams of both madness and greatness. Out of these endeavors, I produced very little actual readable work of any quality. I was “experimenting.” After a several-month-long trip to South America to learn Spanish, a class in Marxism at Berkeley, a year-long avant-garde poetry thesis, a several-month long-trip to Germany, and a visit to Turkey later; I landed in Istanbul as a SAT instructor and university application counselor for wealthy private Turkish students. Not to mention, all of my escapades have been extra-marital, but of a different kind than those of Madame Bovary. Mine are not dependent on any particular lover’s participation (for better or worse). Now that I am some 40K in debt (no, I am not a Columbia graduate, otherwise those figures would be into the triple-digits), I am still compelled to write. But more and more, I understand the difficult-to-face reality that my writing is actually a fatal, fruitless task. Little by little, I am crawling my way out of financial risk. The main difference between me and my mirror (Madame B.) is that I am still blind to how my romantic adventures have lead to any social downfall. Perhaps that’s why I’m still alive. My status as one among billions in this digital-era, leaves me thankfully anonymous. Therefore, I think my adventures have had very little effect upon my status, which started rather low to begin with. I have successfully escaped the Bovary effect: “Pardon me, but do you happen to have any… ahem… cyanide?”

Purportedly, Madame Bovary dispels the false, romantic illusions of the bourgeois class. In that regard, I have interpreted it as a stark, but brilliant portrayal of someone like me. At the same time, it allures us with the beauty of the senses, the decadence of extreme emotional range, and Ms. Bovary’s courage to singlehandedly take down an entire provincial, sexist community of men with a defiantly independent form of female nihilism. Perhaps, most of all, it is this that captures my imagination. I love Madame Bovary for her defiance and her reckless approach to what is ultimately the destruction of personhood by way of ruining her own body’s material value in a patriarchal society. She explodes out of its confines with her own death. This leaves the question, was Madame Bovary ruined by a toxic frivolity that led to her eventual demise, or did she succeed as the ultimate heroine of material escape?

Concluding thoughts:

Madame Bovary reminds us that we live in and come from a society that drives women towards debt through various factors including:

1. The urge to stay materially equal or superior to our peers in fashionable appearance, dress and lifestyle.

2. The combined disincentive to work that the traditional conceptions of marriage and motherhood imposes on women. This leads to our economic disadvantage. Of course, this is less prominent in this era, but many women must still contemplate this dilemma.

3. The romantic ideals of true love, emotional freedom and creativity that are often achieved in some part through material acquisition. This means that the life of an imaginative, artistic young woman is inherently conducive to financial traps designed specifically for our social economic “class.”

The Madame Bovary Antidote:

The greater the imagination, the greater our chance to escape this “horror.” 

“The Horror! The Horror!”

Yes, this is the colonization of women’s freedom of body and mind by the advertising, fashion, and the capitalist machinery that urges us to achieve ultimate material dependence under the guise of expressive independence. Ok, perhaps this has turned into a platitudinous post, so I shall…

end…

its…

life.

Up next on the suicidal heroine blog-post docket:

Commentary about Lily Bart in “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

2015 New Year’s Resolutions

Here are my New Year’s resolutions, what are yours? Once again, getting married and starting a family still didn’t make the list. Neither did losing weight or winning the lottery. My hopes are rather minor and highly personal. Most of them involve continuing the same things I was already doing at the end of 2014.

a. Pay off some debt.

b. Aspire towards fluency in one or all of the following languages: Turkish, German, Spanish

c. Find more editing and writing gigs in addition to my regular work (time permitting).

d. Finish reading all of the books that I buy and sell the ones I’m not referencing when I’m done with them.

e. Use less plastic packaging and create less waste.

f. Take a more journalistic approach to my life by documenting my travels and do so in ways other than online social-media photography, namely: writing, drawing in my sketch journal, and recording sounds with my handheld recorder. Compile these creations in some format other than marginalia scattered throughout my notes and papers and digital files.

g. Travel more (so far I have plans to visit San Francisco, home, and Amsterdam in February)

h. Critically approach the suicidal-heroine genre of writing in a project (a thought inspired by recently reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and Veronica Decides to Die by Paul Coehlo)

i. Get back to my historical writing project on Francis Fuller Victor and Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Pacific Northwest.

j. Plant some bamboo or other plants in the back yard (will it grow in Istanbul?)

k. Stay healthy, run, relax, drink chai and play tavla and chess.

l. Buy an accordion and learn some polka tunes.

m. Do some form of environmental activism.

n. Try my best to stay in touch with my friends and family.

o. Collaborate with others.

Anecdote: Hypotheses on literary aesthetics, “America,” and Susan Howe

Susan Howe, author of “Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history”

I’m cautious towards making a statement about aesthetics of American literature because I find this particular national construct menacingly impossible to comment on.  One qualification is that by the end of this post, I will have mentioned a rather limited set of authors, all in orbit of the work of Susan Howe.  Unfortunately, her influences are white-washed, and for me, weak in that sense.  Another qualification is that hopefully, I won’t descend to the cliché of capitalistic spectacle as a compelling concept for American aesthetics.  For me, the term spectacle is not important for what I want to say.

Aside from those comments, I’m intrigued by the creative interpretations of the poet Susan Howe, whose work expresses the need to gain a sense of belonging within a national literature as multivalent and diverse as that of the United States.  In some poets’ work, the desire to commemorate becomes quite intimate and fueled by longing due to a lack of collective identity.  For those who are exiled from within, batted around the workplace and the suburbs of the U.S. like a pinball, who find no collectivity anywhere but in the relationship of an author gazing on the lines of another author, commemoration forms a private, but nevertheless political act of friendship and alliance.  The legibility of two-ness transcends that sour American individualism that merely services an invisible machine.  When no longer reflecting a past homeland after immigration, authors have sought to establish identity based on the familiarity of textual belonging and curatorial quests for predecessors or some kind of artificial ancestry.  Commemorations such as Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book establish unpredicted alliances that cross boundaries of time and gender.  Individuals thus re-knit their work into the fold of other singular works in a way that sparks with potential.

Similarly, these two commemorations reflect a defensive mechanism put forth by poets against the critical or academic rendering of American culture. Their intimate etching of influence marks the resistance to theorists whose diagnosis collects upon their fore-runners like dust. Similarly, commemorations express resistance to the capitalistic shellac of advertising and Hollywood that is defined and exported as American-ness by media corporations in the form of mass-produced cultural objects. Instead, poets stake claims to a hidden path of culture developed through a close, slow, drawn out intimacy that capitalism will never know.

My interest in American literature is the in part due to the slow-birth of textual alliances such as these two works that oppose results-based or conceptual works.  While identity politics increasingly sub-divides groups according to traits with labels that sometimes form such splintered patterns that they merely invite the advance of newly emerged crevices to shatter identity anew. Sometimes identity services a form of further stolen flexibility from within the bounds of ‘human.’ The increasing specificity of categorized personhood is a symptom of the neo-liberal agenda of individualism.  American authors set themselves apart from one another through ever-smaller categorizations, and they have perfected the art of identifiable personhood by epitomizing individuation. Our canonical figures are each distributed as iconoclasts of some sort, symbolized for their distinguishable traits or habits. However, in works of commemoration, we see a gesture that slightly evades such individualism.

In works of commemoration, the smallest form of collectivity that one could possibly invoke—a pact between one living author and one dead—comes to life in full spectral resilience.  Each poet who commemorates digs up a grave and invites the corpse into an intimate consummate exchange.  What necrophilia! And yet, it gives us hope to see some sort of combined effort that is glorified as such.  Whatever its feeble form may suggest, it is still a form of that ever-persecuted elephant in the room of American politics, the collective. This poetic weed is bound to rise, in spite of the fact that the U.S. government all but disallows its own unity as a collective body for the sake of the neo-liberal agenda.  In my opinion, writer’s commemorations form a hidden, American, guerrilla formation of solidarity against the shadow looming overhead.

Furthermore, Susan Howe’s “path-finding” metaphor found in one of her most thought provoking texts, “Birthmark: unsettling the wilderness of American poetics,” expresses the simultaneous condition of loss and being lost that seems to mark a wide range of American experimental texts.  It is important to note that the underpinnings of this condition apply to the sense of separation that occurs for all moving persons, normally due to political unrest. This movement produces confusion not only about space, but also about purpose when the past and future no longer make ‘sense.’ The unsettling global movements of such an assemblage of people that the United States represents, and the proliferation of abandonment, exile, and unrest that fuels each movement, finds a less bleak, but no less troubling expression in the manic desire to succeed expressed by the catch phrase “American Dream.”

Howe revels in this confusion, and she claims its identity as feminine.  She traces this theme back in time to one of the documents of English textual history in the United States, in the Antinomian Controversy, when Anne Hutchinson’s over-pious “enthusiasm” for radical faith-based Puritanism threatened the church leaders’ sanctioned authority, and she was therefore punished by banishment into wilderness: the convenient wall-less prison devised by the courts of early American settlers. Nature, God, or natives would thereby do the work of punishment that each sentence of exile implied, in the minds of the persecutors. We should never forget how American settlement was in part spawned by a chain reaction of westward moving religious exiles. The puritans were purged from England to Boston, and they continued only to purge their own dissidents further west.

Howe writes about Hutchinson and her counter-tradition ghost that haunts other texts with regards to textual marginalization caused by editorial practices.  The shaping of her words for the historical record by the earliest ministerial/rhetorical think-tank censors in the U.S., provides a basis for what would eventually follow.  Howe notes that this clamping-down of culture simultaneously parallels the proliferation of another more manic and enthusiastic form of textual marginalia production, as well.  The pressure of censorship spawned the babbling noise of highly indeterminate excitement, perhaps just a form of textual anxiety, but nevertheless a trace of something, exemplified by Emily Dickinson’s trunk of slant-rhyme fascicles and other texts that Howe cites.

The simultaneity of schism and non-obedient enthusiasm marks the unevenness of American culture and its textual production.  Reflecting on American history of textual practice, as well as politics, Howe is able to assert that forms such as schism, gap, fragment and absence create a compelling theme in some American texts.  For me, these unexplained absences reflect the non-binding agreements waged by false colonial peace treaties with natives in the past, but also the contemporary manipulation of media and information control sponsored by the C.I.A.  The distinction between what is said and unsaid in the United States has always been a consciously perceived, yet indefinable threat.  The uncertainty towards a kind of magnitude of loss that simultaneously pairs with an uncertainty towards the magnitude of space, possibility, and freedom.  This dual uncertainty is reflected in the absences of experimental texts, including Howe’s emphasis on spaces of the page, H.D.’s use of palimpsest, T. S. Eliot’s use of the fragment, and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  Going back further, we find absences in the form of Emily Dickinson’s dash and Melville’s Bartleby and his precarious absence of desire to perform human subjectivity.

One of the most powerful effects of these absences is their assertion of literary non-rational production that opposes the necessary completions and well-defined presences of logical discourse and identity.  Refusal towards logic itself, through the imposition of absence, forms a possible underlying critique of how America’s science fetishism is unique for it’s disconnection from the humanities.  Poetry expresses the exile of humanities from its Frankenstein offspring: modern science.  Perhaps deep down, in the poetics of this country assert some kind of reactionary re-rejection back towards science.  The anti-rationalist gesture of missing syntactical components is for me an embittered response towards the schism that our academic institutions interjected between the humanities and the sciences along with a simultaneous and by no means contingent militarization of U.S. society. Science, in this strange schism, seeks to purge humanity from the authority of ‘nature’ with no new nature to colonize.  Thus, we have rockets futilely launching outward to space, mounting forms of toxic waste, and unprecedented extinctions.

While this is a rather general impression of a very complicated set of aesthetic hypotheses, American culture in some ways appears as a repository of strange experiments that look incongruous in relation to the mass-produced commercial culture that reaches for a total form of cultural manipulation.  I think they are expressions the failure and insignificance of this control.  I must state (again) that I have mentioned a rather limited set of authors, all in orbit of the work of Susan Howe.  I hope to qualify this set of impressions by suggesting that this is only one lonely corner of American-ness in an endless field of interpretation.