Babyji Saturday, Aug 30 2008 

(puns always intended)

In Delhi people are everywhere and the pressure of people is atmospheres and atmospheres. Think of this. Each place you go being full of relationships that must be confronted. There is no singing that embarrassing song alone in the car with all your might, there is no serene and empty wilderness through which to walk,  no coffee shop with headphones on, no back of the class with a a private better-than-textbook book. There is nothing but the pulsing of the throng, rioting for multiple and separate demands. This book and its teenage protagonist uses that as grounds for exploration.

Anamika Sharma is a smart teenager, but more than that she’s curious in a real way. Normal teenage curiosity seems to consist of wondering what adults do or think about something and then approximating it. Anamika wants something closer to the real truth and it’s actively irritating not to have it. This is how the book wins me over. I have a desperate need to figure things through. If you could grant me the wish of knowing everything I would take it I guess, but if you could grant me the wish of figuring everything out I would burst from joy. Look, right now you are reading me blab about reading, both are me trying to figure shit out. Where essentially my only options are literature in English and my own mind Anamika has a diverse multitude acknowledging and interacting with her. There are teachers, Hindu traditionalists, pragmatists, hipsters, wretches, lechers, lectures, but mostly there are lovers. She starts out using mostly science and literature to cipher all her urgent questions, but quickly gets turned on to social resources. Others are a most excellent reference and her life in Delhi is the Library of Alexandria in terms of material. She has a sophisticated divorcee, a servant from the ghetto, and a girl from school with whom she explores not only her sexuality but a host of existential concerns.

People are a good reference but you have to pay a certain amount of attention or drag them into conversation they might not be capable of carrying on. Sometimes it helps to rely on certain shorthands. Sex is probably the shortest hand we can get. Well, I don’t really want to presume what kind of sex you might be having, but here’s how I see it: Sex creates this sort of hyper-state where the brain is roiled simultaneously with a million square of thoughts, emotions, and senses.  It’s like–  the sound of cloth falling folds in the cloth make that sound fold fingers into fingers press against one or other chest where heartbeats heartbeats are vibrations, sound, making sounds the origin of sounds is the mouth a kiss then memory of kissing near the sea then eyes blue eyes are the worst getting wider seing more things dust is floating slowly in the light that forms a shell around a curve, a line, a curve, a bone with muscle and skin and nerves, and nerves, and nerves, and nerves. Sex is when you answer the question “how do you open this door?” with “Grip the metal handle with your right hand, adjust to its coolness, squeeze pulling your four fingers three centimetres closer to your palm, flex bicep and twist wrist thrity degrees downward, pull arm and door toward body.” Or at least it, uh, can be that way…

To cope Anamika must exist in all directions simultaneously like a sphere with spikes, an emotional hedgehog. Each member of the crowd is pricked with a pine, and each spine is a particular inclination or question that an intelligent teenager is likely to have. There’s freedom in all that anonymity. Poke someone’s finger with a fine point, (the spine of how to be smooth? for example), and they don’t react much because it is a small injury. Poke another finger, and another until eventually there is enough blood to write the answer with. This is how Anamika uses her lovers. When a concern arises she disperses it among them by mentioning it and then throwing herself at them, and afterward she seems to have some new clarity on whatever the problem. It isn’t always this way, she seems to have some genuine desire even if a lot of it seems to be sublimated from other emotions she can’t confront directly, but there is definitely a trope of erasure. The strange thing is Anamika rages when she detects anyone directing ulterior motives at her through sexual pursuit.

And that’s something that happens on a nearly constant basis because having an intellectual’s narcissism she seems to find that everyone is desperate for her. When this happens she generally tries to redirect them by gently, even surreptitiously addressing what she thinks the real problem is. Seem like you need her and she’ll help you get a job. In that there is a desperate need to feel powerful and adult because part of the problem with having a lot of questions is that it make you realize there is all this shit you don’t know. When people around her act out like the sinister Chakra Dev placing a condom on her paramour’s desk it belittles her own use of sex to explore. So she, still having that intellectual’s narcissism, goes to the root and reclaims her sex and her lovers as only hers, as under her power, as safe for use. In other words, get your sticky hands off of the books, I the educated and authorized will show you how to find what you need.

It’s not surprising she views her a relationship with a live-in servant whom she rescued from an abusive husband and teaches rudimentary English to (when it is convenient) as a point of personal pride rather than completely unethical and manipulative.  She thinks with pride several times of “owning” Rani and of her being a kept woman. She has a passing thought or two that it might be a problem to hold complete, emotional, intellectual, social, medical, housing, and sexual control over another human being.

I loved this book, but it’s hard. It’s not a great book for the anxious and the lonely, namely me. I have so many similar curiosities but my approach is so different. None of the things she does would be emotionally safe to me so reading them can be a bit like watching a horror movie. Not that I care if her schemes or relationships fail (I assume so many of mine will it’s ain’t even a thang), more that I imagine myself in them as they are playing out and feeling completely on edge. That means I am there with here which means the story is compelling enough to keep involved, but in a way that makes me a little tense the way reading about having a stroke might.

Here’s the other thing, for a book so loaded with sex– the large majority isn’t that compelling. At a certain point the reader is desensitized. It’s often graphic but rarely lurid. When I read about sex I want to feel those certain triggers, I want to have to regulate my blush on BART by hiding behind the covers and the sheets, and that only happened a couple times. I mean, (guy in the $800 banana suit?) come on! it’s sex. I don’t want to think, “Oh she grabbed that woman’s ass… I wonder if she will pass that chemistry test.” even if that is what she’s thinking. I think it boils down to what I talked about earlier with the hedgehog. It’s a very safe sort of living disturbing people with only the slightest pin wound and being in no danger yourself. What’s thrilling to me is to learn with danger. To put something on the line. I want to go forth with only a rapier, my blood kept in and my flesh kept whole a result of good form alone, form that could be matched or surpassed at any touch. Though after reading this book I kinda think I’ll start to keep a dagger in my boot, you know, just in case.

Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee Friday, Jun 20 2008 

South Africa is fucked up. Post-apartheid South Africa is fucked up. Just being an Afrikaaner is fucked up in a certain way. This is a land with flamethrowers built into car doors as a defense against hijack; It should be a more alien setting, but as the backdrop of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace it’s unsettlingly familiar.

As an outsider approaching the subject of racial and political violence there is a temptation to distance oneself, as if saying “Oh, how horrible, and over there.” You know, the same way that a lot of Americans think of the South, or the past. Better yet, think of it as watching a Mad Max movie where everything is bizarre and terrible, but come on. Come on. In sum toto we recognize suffering and that suffering is bad, but not so much any responsibility for or desire to share in it (Isn’t this essentially what it means to be American?). Alternately we can try relating these terrors to our own lives, but how to do so without belittling their real circumstances? Can we seek understanding without appropriating? This is the major tension of Disgrace.

David Lurie is an obsolete professor sullenly teaching the too practical too vulgar, subject of communications where during apartheid he taught modern languages and classics. He purchases sex the way other people purchase a sandwich. He’s resigned, going through the motions, he’s not going to bother anyone and doesn’t want anyone to bother him. A ritualist in Robert Merton’s typology of deviance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strain_theory_%28sociology%29#Robert_King_Merton) Lurie is just serving his time. The problem is that he lives detached from the reality of his position. It’s not surprising that he sleeps with a student, Melanie Isaacs, nor that the student is black, or that he doesn’t see the need to apologize or admit that it was anything other than two consenting adults. Professor Lurie takes the dissociative attitude I talked about above in that he is cognizant of power imbalances but entirely unwilling to recognize it in his own life; even when enters his life in a direct and violent way.

The biggest flaw in the novel is a trope about the inadequacy of language. The book itself is an embodied contradiction to the claim that language is inadequate. Language is powerful and good and completely up to task. Can it let us understand what the situation is like? Perhaps not. But it can certainly describe to us and point out the obstacles to understanding. Frankly, any author (keyword: author) that makes the tired, trite assertion that language is not a capable mode of expression can go fuck themselves.

The world of Disgrace is bleak and accurate. Eventually Lurie comes to some recognition of his misdeeds, but as in the real world learning your lesson is rather meaningless. Lessons don’t undo misery, nor do apologies. I know this is a strange assertion to make in the United States where a little liberal white guilt seems to go a long way toward abdication of responsibility. How many times have you shaken your head at a fundamentalist or a support our troops bumper sticker and thought, “I am not that kind of person, I do not do those kind of things.” How satisfying it must be to a woman desperate and pregnant in a state with one abortion clinic and the corpses of the Middle East that you are a “good person” and that were it up to you everyone would be raised to your level. David Lurie never barred anyone from voting or bound them with a burning tire, yet tacitly he is an oppressor. If there is not value in being sorry then there isn’t any in being right while misery still exists.

The futility is strangely gratifying. Lurie is never redeemed or forgiven through his guilt. He ends up a degraded tangent of his daughter’s trauma, euthanizing wretched dogs and watching their bodies burn. His daughter tells him, poignantly: ” You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.” This embodies what much of what we can take away from Disgrace. There is more than the West making amends and admitting the wrongs of colonialism. We need to appreciate the fullness and independence of other societies without the expectation of absolution. We need to do things for their own sake, a strongly anti-capitalist notion.

Like energy and matter there is a conservation of misery; it gets moved around, redistributed but never reduced. When Lurie says, “I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” he offers a resolution to the tension between relating and detaching, simultaneous excursions into both extremes. In this way we recognize the pain of others without using it as our own, we understand without pretending we are noble for doing so. The same doubled for our own pain.

“Trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” A perfect maxim for the postcolonial West, and anyone really. If we can be silent collaborators to the suffering of others there must be be a way to be a silent ally to their happiness. In the silence, the disgrace-like acceptance, is the region where real connections are possible. Kant framed it as considering every person as an end to themselves, but tainted it with the reward of being considered “moral” for doing so. In the realm of the personal: to notice others, to remember that people are not major or minor, to accept disgrace as our state of being, and to be a silent ally.

Paula, Isabel Allende Monday, May 19 2008 

This is the last work by Isabel Allende that I intend to read until I can get my hands on The Sum of Our Days (this is not a birthday hint, I am a library partisan, and eventually a library courtesan) which will act to me as a sort of part two for this memoir. I don’t usually like memoirs, and I don’t review anything that isn’t good — all you need to know about the quality. I am going to spoil this book because I know that you will probably never read it. Should you defy the odds you won’t have me in mind while traveling through the lush, illuminated swamp gas of Allende’s history.

What makes it work? Well, that is what we are here to examine, dear reader. The book revolves around a porphyria-induced coma into which Allende’s eponymous daughter has fallen. Allende’s intention is a one-way communication with Paula consisting of family history.

What is so compelling in Allende’s novels is that she begins her characters, even minor ones, a generation or two prior to their debut in the action. I, for example, would start somewhere like “Major Walter Fleming Hamilton kept himself mysteriously crisp in the muddy humidity of Panama.” This makes her characters larger in the sense that forever after we are waiting for their genesis, lovers have to meet, parents must be born– this is the locomotion of pages turning, so whenever the person in question finally arrives, if only to hand another some coffee or steal a wallet it is for us a delight, an accomplishment. Each one of us is, unlike Major Hamilton, muddy with the past and other lives. She makes no exception for Paula, alternating the narrative between Chile long-ago and a metre from Paula’s hospital bed.

It is said that the size of your memory (and your language, according to Wiggtenstein) determines the size of your reality, and perhaps the reverse can be true: The more you are remembered the more real you are. Allende is trying to infuse her daughter with memory to make her more real, force her persistence in a network so much larger. The hospital scenes are difficult to handle for anyone with a working imagination. It is too easy to put yourself with whoever your love mad and stupid with an overnight beard, holding a dead hand in your own, and blowing cool breaths onto the softening wax wings that make up life. Well, it was that way for me at least, and Allende (most of the time) kindly drew me back into the past before the first tears managed to fall into my seat on BART.

The closer we come to the present, however, the more urgent the situation becomes. In the novel, and in the past world, we are spiraling toward the day when Paula will wake up. Yet in reality the doctors are using words like brain damage and vegetable. What is so wonderful, and ultimately so sad, is that Allende manages to write non-fiction that has this sort of character and motion. The story is much more interesting than looking for what in her life made her a great writer, or techniques that she uses. Yes, learning about her terrible grammar, late start, and gallons of correction fluid is fun, but it is certainly not the main event as it would be in most other cases.

Paula does not get better and in Part II it hits like a punch when Allende stops addressing the book to her daughter. She lets us know exactly what we are in for when she starts using that horrible third person: Paula is not going to wake up, or if she does she will not be the same. Still, with Allende even when the destination is sadness it is not necessarily depression. Depression is oppressive; it projects itself forever into the future and frankly is the culmination of far too much literature. Honestly, aren’t you a little tired of reading about corrupt, isolating systems that you will never meaningfully stand up to? (read: aren’t you tired of British literature) What Allende offers is a kind of tolerable sadess that is lush and a little romantic– the stuff that when endured and recalled will transform the past from biography to aphrodisiac. Kind of how when I imagine my future I picture my first heart attack: alone in a Belgian park and fallen into tangles with the sharp parts of a bicycle, calling out for help in my charlatan’s Flemish before a long recovery and return to an empty United States. This acts as a kind of satisfying tragedy because A) it does not generate disappointment by expecting it and B) because in reading Allende I realize how the meetings and the stories that will place me in that park will be so valuble. They cannot heal my heart or wake up Paula Allende, but they can make her real for a universe of millions who will hope for her after she has already gone.

Excellent parts:
When Tio Ramon meets Isabels mother and falls in love.
Tio Ramon’s princely heritage, and royal motorcade.
Tio Ramon in general.
Exiled life in Venezuela.
Willy Gordon and his Mexican Bandido Spanish.
New-age California hooey healing methods.
Isabel’s reaction to Paula’s Husband.
Tata’s cold showers and wish to die with dignity.