Archives: January 2015

Renata Adler on Pauline Kael

In the New York Review of Books
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In 1980, Renata Adler reviewed Pauline Kael’s When the Lights Go Down for the New York Review of Books in 1980. Both of them were staff writers at the New Yorker. Time magazine called this ‘the New York literary Mafia['s] bloodiest case of assault and battery in years.’ A worthy candidate for hatchet job of the century?

Now, When the Lights Go Down, a collection of her reviews over the past five years, is out; and it is, to my surprise and without Kael- or Simon-like exaggeration, not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless. It turns out to embody something appalling and widespread in the culture. Over the years, that is, Ms. Kael’s quirks, mannerisms, tactics, and excesses have not only taken over her work so thoroughly that hardly anything else, nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility, remains; they have also proved contagious, so that the content and level of critical discussion, of movies but also of other forms, have been altered astonishingly for the worse. To the spectacle of the staff critic as celebrity in frenzy, about to “do” something “to” a text, Ms. Kael has added an entirely new style of ad hominem brutality and intimidation; the substance of her work has become little more than an attempt, with an odd variant of flak advertising copy, to coerce, actually to force numb acquiescence, in the laying down of a remarkably trivial and authoritarian party line.

She has, in principle, four things she likes: frissons of horror; physical violence depicted in explicit detail; sex scenes, so long as they have an ingredient of cruelty and involve partners who know each other either casually or under perverse circumstances; and fantasies of invasion by, or subjugation of or by, apes, pods, teens, bodysnatchers, and extraterrestrials. Whether or not one shares these predilections—and whether they are in fact more than four, or only one—they do not really lend themselves to critical discussion. It turns out, however, that Ms. Kael does think of them as critical positions, and regards it as an act of courage, of moral courage, to subscribe to them. The reason one cannot simply dismiss them as de gustibus, or even as harmless aberration, is that they have become inseparable from the repertory of devices of which Ms. Kael’s writing now, almost wall to wall, consists.

She has an underlying vocabulary of about nine favorite words, which occur several hundred times, and often several times per page, in this book of nearly six hundred pages: “whore” (and its derivatives “whorey,” “whorish,” “whoriness”), applied in many contexts, but almost never to actual prostitution; “myth,” “emblem” (also “mythic,” “emblematic”), used with apparent intellectual intent, but without ascertainable meaning; “pop,” “comicstrip,” “trash” (“trashy”), “pulp” (“pulpy”), all used judgmentally (usually approvingly) but otherwise apparently interchangeable with “mythic”; “urban poetic,” meaning marginally more violent than “pulpy”; “soft” (pejorative); “tension,” meaning, apparently, any desirable state; “rhythm,” used often as a verb, but meaning harmony or speed; “visceral”; and “level.” These words may be used in any variant, or in alternation, or strung together in sequence—“visceral poetry of pulp,” e.g., or “mythic comic-strip level”—until they become a kind of incantation. She also likes words ending in “ized” (“vegetabilized,” “robotized,” “aestheticized,” “utilized,” “mythicized”), and a kind of slang (“twerpy,” “dopey,” “dumb,” “grungy,” “horny,” “stinky,” “drip,” “stupes,” “crud”) which amounts, in prose, to an affectation of straightforwardness.

I leave aside for the moment Ms. Kael’s incessant but special use of words many critics use a lot: “we,” “you,” “they,” “some people”; “needs,” “feel,” “know,” “ought”—as well as her two most characteristic grammatical constructions: “so/that” or “such/that,” used not as a mode of explication or comparison (as in, e.g., he was so lonely that he wept), but as an entirely new hype connective between two unrelated or unformulated thoughts; and her unprecedented use, many times per page and to new purposes, of the mock rhetorical question and the question mark.

Because what is most striking is that she has, over the years, lost any notion of the legitimate borders of polemic. Mistaking lack of civility for vitality, she now substitutes for argument a protracted, obsessional invective—what amounts to a staff cinema critics’ branch of est. Her favorite, most characteristic device of this kind is the ad personam physical (she might say, visceral) image: images, that is, of sexual conduct, deviance, impotence, masturbation; also of indigestion, elimination, excrement. I do not mean to imply that these images are frequent, or that one has to look for them. They are relentless, inexorable. “Swallowing this movie,” one finds on page 147, “is an unnatural act.” On page 151, “his way of pissing on us.” On page 153, “a little gas from undigested Antonioni.” On page 158, “these constipated flourishes.” On page 182, “as forlornly romantic as Cyrano’s plume dipped in horse manure.” On page 226, “the same brand of sanctifying horse manure.” On page 467, “a new brand of pop manure.” On page 120, “flatulent seriousness.” On page 226, “flatulent Biblical-folk John Ford film.” On page 353, “gaseous naïveté.” And elsewhere, everywhere, “flatulent,” “gaseous,” “gasbag,” “makes you feel a little queasy,” “makes you gag a little,” “just a belch from the Nixon era,” “you can’t cut through the crap in her,” “plastic turds.” Of an actress, “She’s making love to herself”; of a screenwriter, “He’s turned in on himself; he’s diddling his own talent.” “It’s tumescent filmmaking.” “Drama and politics don’t climax together.” Sometimes, one has the illusion that these oral, anal, or just physical epithets have some meaning—“Taxi Driver is a movie in heat,” for instance, or “the film is an icebag.” But then: “Coma is like a prophylactic.” One thinks, How, how is it like a prophylactic? “It’s so cleanly made.” Or a metaphor with a sadistic note which defies, precisely, physical comprehension. “The movie has had a spinal tap.”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus on Silicon Valley

In Wired
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Gideon Lewis-Kraus is really very good at long-form reporting. Really, very good.

It was an unseasonably warm December, and somewhere nearby a rising tide in the San Francisco Bay was lifting all kite-surfers, but Nick Edwards and Chris Monberg were crouched at opposite rented desks in a shared coworking space near the Caltrain station in SoMa wondering if, by the middle of February, they would still have a company. At the moment Boomtrain, as the startup was called, technically had something like negative dollars, because it owed the state of New York a $30,000 fine after its payroll company had been six weeks late in telling them about a $400 unemployment-insurance bill for one of their remote engineers. Boomtrain also had no revenue, though that was hardly a hurdle to raising investment capital in Silicon Valley. Somewhat more problematically, it didn’t have a single customer, though there were several pilots in the wings. Almost inadvertently, Nick and Chris had found themselves building a business of enormous complexity—a personalization engine, based on machine-learning algorithms—and they were in over their heads.

Neither man was having an easy time keeping it together. Chris was waking up every morning at 5 am grinding his teeth, and Nick’s belt was clearly two notches tighter than usual. They had not taken paychecks in months; they’d be lucky, in fact, if they ended up paying themselves $30,000 apiece for the year. Nick was making ends meet by Air­bnb-ing out his apartment a couple of blocks from their office and commuting an hour each way from his girlfriend’s place in Petaluma. Chris was leaning hard on his indefatigable wife. For this they had upended pleasant lives, and they could no longer quite remember why.

Nick, 32, has sandy hair prone to straw-pile disarray; he speaks in quick, tremulous bursts, and holds himself with a schoolboy’s fretful defiance. He and his girlfriend have a lithe golden retriever, Emmy, and Nick often seems less like Emmy’s owner than he does her bewildered, affectionate older brother. Chris, also 32, is a calmer presence, with sunken eyes, a shaved head, and a slow, soft, pressurized voice. His mien is both monkish and military, as if he ought to be wrapped in a dark tailored cloak.

Anxiety, as it had mounted steadily through the fall and into December, drove the two friends along opposite trajectories. Nick had become jumpier, more spastic, with the light threat that he might roll his eyes back into his head and faint; while the more out of control their circumstances seemed, the deeper and slower and more effortfully controlled were Chris’ voice and bearing. High-stakes entrepreneurship is an exercise in restraint, and Nick and Chris gave the impression of suppressing different things. Nick seemed as though he might at any moment unravel into fear; Chris, into anger. When Nick began to mutter imprecation—“fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” it went, almost Tourettically—Chris folded him into a stern bear hug. Nick is a fidgeter, constantly moving his cursor with his arrow keys and tapping his foot underneath his desk. Chris believes that what saved their relationship was moving to a carpeted office.

Silicon Valley is not a place where one is invited to show frailty or despondence. It is, as Nick puts it, “the place where everybody is killing it all the time.” This might seem peculiar, given that the lot of the small-business founder has always been a fragile one. But in recent years the Valley has successfully elaborated the fantasy that entrepreneurship—and, more broadly, creativity—can be systematized. This is the basic promise of accelerators (Y Combinator et al.), that success in the startup game can be not only taught but rationalized, made predictable. Starting a company was once an urge felt only by the blindly ambitious and slightly unsound, but in the Valley it’s been ostensibly transformed into a scheduled path one can simply elect and apply for, rather as one might choose law school or Wall Street. And the promise of professionalized entrepreneurship has had a particular allure in recent years, since finance has been tarnished and a career in law made increasingly uncertain. Starting a company has become the way for ambitious young people to do something that seems simultaneously careerist and heroic.

This daydream of constant killing-it has made it difficult to talk about how fearful and distraught the life of the founder can be. But over drinks with close friends—on that rare occasion when an early-stage entrepreneur has time to have a drink or see a friend—almost any founder will tell a story that much more closely resembles Nick and Chris’ than it does the story of your favorite billionaire, reverse-engineered to seem a neat matter of destiny. This is especially true today, in the era of what observers have come to call the “Series A crunch.” Due in part to the rise of startup accelerators like Y Combinator, as well as to the surplus capital washing around the Valley from recent IPOs, it has never been easier to raise a small amount of money. And it has never been easier to build a company—especially a web or mobile product—from that small amount of money, thanks in part to the proliferation of cheap, easy development tools and such cloud platforms as Amazon Web Services. But the amount of “real” VC funding (i.e., Series A rounds) to be allocated hasn’t kept pace. The institutions that write the big checks, those that might support and sustain real growth, can survey what a hundred companies have managed to do with a small check and put their real money on the propositions that promise the greatest yield and bear the least risk.

Nick and Chris no longer cared about “killing it.” They were too honest and too tired for that language and that posturing. At this point they just wanted to survive. They had about a month to raise $1 million or they would no longer be able to make payroll.

WELCOME TO THE HACKER HOUSE

“It’s a story out of Dreiser,” said the intellectual historian Fred Turner, referencing the late-19th-century novelist who bleakly chronicled the exploitative early days of American industrial capitalism. The Dreiserian was a particularly strange mood to reconcile that day, given that it was winter and, on the way into Turner’s office on the Stanford quad, I’d picked one kumquat from a heavy bunch on a laden tree. “In Dreiser’s day it was the same,” he went on. “New York didn’t care about Chicago, but Chicago was where the hogs were being slaughtered. Now New York doesn’t care about San Francisco, but today the hogs are being slaughtered in San Francisco.” What Turner meant is that these are the charnel grounds of the new economy, and that there isn’t anything all that new about the new economy. Turner’s work, most notably his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, has described the contemporary ethos of the Valley as a synthesis of Cold War defense research and the ’60s spirit of New Communalism, creating—in theory—a nonhierarchical, networked approach to business. But in practice, business in the Valley continued to run in a familiarly exploitative way. The Valley might not actually make much in the way of tangible goods, but like industrial centers before it, it’s the place where the astounding success of the very few has been held out to the youth in exchange for their time, their energy, and—well, their youth.

For that mild month of January 2014 I’d been renting a pallet at one of San Francisco’s many “hacker houses,” so that I might meet some of those hopeful youths and see how they felt about their odds. On Airbnb and craigslist and Facebook there are at least half a dozen of these shared living spaces, advertising themselves as frictionless on-ramps to Valley glory. “We’ve got guys from every great startup here,” the guy who ran the place said on the phone. “Square, Lyft, Uber, Dropbox, Twitter, Apple.” Securing a bed there required no fewer than three interviews over Google+ Hangout—one of them a “technical” assessment—yet somehow he couldn’t find a way to email a photograph of the available room. I arrived to find I was paying $1,250 for a mattress on the floor, behind a panel of imbricated torn shower curtains, in an unheated rabbit warren of 20 bunk beds under a low converted-­warehouse ceiling. Unmarked from the outside, it was located on a deserted block in the vaguely disreputable neighborhood west of SoMa and south of the Civic Center, separated from the Mission by little tent cities under the highway. To get inside, you had to pass through a bolted air lock piled with trash.

My cohort hailed from all over: Mumbai, Sydney, Hamburg, Appalachia. They’d been in San Francisco two days or two weeks; the longest-standing resident had been there about four months. At least at first, people referred to each other by vocation. There was the iOS developer from Houston: a shy, gangly, endearing kid just a few months out of an Ivy; he’d stayed for his degree, which he worried might seem démodé, but he was only teased a little by the higher-status dropouts. There was the bitcoin guy, wide-eyed with a bowl cut, who’d never before left his Appalachia backwater. And the Australian engineer who was starting an engineering employment marketplace when he wasn’t engaged in Tinder encounters.

Then there was the doctor, who slept on the other side of the curtain from me. A heavyset guy of 23, he’d woken up in Mumbai one morning and could not bring himself to clock in at the large municipal hospital where he worked. He’d always been a coder but had obeyed his parents and gone to medical school. By 9 am India time he’d completed the flophouse’s technical interview via Google+ Hangout and bought a ticket leaving for SFO that night. His parents said, “Why today? Why not tomorrow? Or next week?” But he knew if he waited even a day he’d never go. On his second day ever in America he had an informational interview at Google. He seemed disoriented but in good spirits. He slept without a blanket and with three different devices charging beside him on his bed, lined up like kittens sleeping at the teat. His girlfriend always seemed available for videochat sex. He was really considerate about the whole thing. He usually waited until he thought I was sleeping, and even then he used headphones. All I could really hear on his end was his muffled instructions, along with profuse apologies that he couldn’t be any louder. It occurred to me that his girlfriend was quite a good sport, since in India it was midmorning. I could tell he really missed her.

All these kids, who didn’t yet know what it was like to have a company of their own, or wind down a company of their own, or work for a giant company and ride the bus, seemed certain of one thing: that the longing for total revolution that had for so long been the hallmark of youth was, at last, about to be fulfilled. The only thing they could count on was that they were going to be the generation that partook of the process by which all would be rendered irrevocably different. It didn’t seem to matter what the difference was, or whom it helped or hurt. It just mattered that things in the future would be unlike anything we’d seen before. And that, in the process, they were sure, many of them would get very rich.

(…)

Simon Critchley’s defence of suicide

At the Durham Castle Lecture Series
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Simon Critchley gave a lecture in defence of suicide at Durham Castle last 3 December. ‘I have a very simple idea,’ he said, ‘to write a philosophical defence of the right to suicide in the attempt to get us all to think more clearly, more soberly and less hypocritically about the perennial question: should I live or die? The legal frameworks that define suicide are still hostage to a Christian metaphysics that declares that life is a gift of God and therefore to take your own life is a sin. In killing oneself, it is claimed that one is assuming a power over one’s existence that only God should have. In the contemporary world, the state has taken the place of God and suicide is either deemed illegal or regarded as a kind of moral embarrassment. We think it is wrong without knowing why.’

Watch the lecture in full here.

 

Interview with Julian Barnes

In the Paris Review
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Julian Barnes turns 69 years old today, which seems reason enough to urge you to read his Paris Review interview from 2000, on the meaning of literature qua Sartre, his passion for French literature, cross-genre writing, and magic realism, among other things

INTERVIEWER

You are very European, which is unusual for an English writer, but also very English, especially to a foreigner. In France, for example, they think of you as quintessentially English. Where do you place yourself?

JULIAN BARNES

I think you are right. In Britain I’m sometimes regarded as a suspiciously Europeanized writer, who has this rather dubious French influence. But if you try that line in Europe, especially in France, they say, Oh, no! You’re so English! I think I’m probably anchored somewhere in the Channel.

INTERVIEWER

Sartre wrote an essay called “Qu’est-ce que la littérature?” What is literature for you?

BARNES

There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean by “telling the truth”?

BARNES

I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, groundbreaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art.

INTERVIEWER

Literature, then, can take a lot of forms—essays, poetry, fiction, journalism, all of which endeavor to tell the truth. You already were a very good essayist and journalist before you started to write fiction. Why did you choose fiction?

BARNES

Well, to be honest I think I tell less truth when I write journalism than when I write fiction. I practice both those media, and I enjoy both, but to put it crudely, when you are writing journalism your task is to simplify the world and render it comprehensible in one reading; whereas when you are writing fiction your task is to reflect the fullest complications of the world, to say things that are not as straightforward as might be understood from reading my journalism and to produce something that you hope will reveal further layers of truth on a second reading.

(…)

‘Doris and Me’ (The Jenny Diski Memoir, Part V)

In the London Review of Books
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Parts III & IV are behind the paywall, and you should consider subscribing to the LRB if you don’t already to be able to read them. Here’s part V:

I don’t remember the exact date when I went to live in Doris Lessing’s house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross. I think of it as being just a few weeks after Sylvia Plath killed herself in early February 1963. The suicide was still very raw and much discussed by Doris’s friends. So at the earliest towards the end of February. In any case it was before Easter, which fell in April that year, because at long last, released from my father’s prohibitions, I went on the Aldermaston March. (‘Ignorant, unwashed mob. You can’t go, you’ll be raped, and that’s that.’ Which was curiously whatever is the opposite of prescient; I’d actually been raped the previous Easter when he’d refused to let me go.) I was quite heavily chaperoned by the responsible, 25-year-old son of Doris’s best friend, Joan Rodker. He kept a watchful eye on me against the CND hordes, and more particularly against one of his womanising friends who, not long after the march, became the first boyfriend to test out the virginal, patiently waiting Dutch cap.

Doris hadn’t liked Sylvia very much; after some friends who had been rerunning the details of her life and death had gone home one evening, she told me she thought Sylvia too ‘pushy’ (‘networking’ we’d call it now) and hadn’t liked what she said were Sylvia’s excessive overtures of friendship. She refused to join in the soul-searching and excited chatter about why the tragedy of Sylvia and her two children had come about. For the first time I heard that moral qualifier Doris used almost automatically and almost always for a man: ‘Poor Ted.’ Over the years the name changed, ‘Poor Roger’ (my first husband), ‘Poor Peter’ (her son), ‘Poor Martin’ (or any other man who she thought had been treated badly by a woman). But as far as I was concerned the death of Sylvia was before my time, if only by weeks, in the same way that the end of the Second World War was before my time at my birth in 1947. The two events marked seminal moments in my life, but, for all that I was surrounded by people intimately involved in both affairs, Sylvia’s suicide and the Second World War felt less real to me than historical events that had taken place centuries earlier. I think it’s a way of avoiding the intolerable fact that the world and the people in it got on, well or otherwise, in the years and days without my presence, as indeed it and they will in my next and final absence.

It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.

I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.

For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure? We went several times in those early weeks to the beloved Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. Memorably, I saw Les Enfants du Paradis for the first of many viewings. Doris and her friends had already seen it, but rhapsodised for my benefit, picking out telling scenes or shots (Vous êtes toute seule, madame?), laughing at the way they’d been made to cry by such sentimental froth. But Les Enfants was too marvellous to be seriously criticised. It was certainly marvellous to me, and I listened to the talk after the viewing trying to find out why, along with The Seventh Seal, Le Mépris, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it was considered a marvel, and why Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, charming though it was, failed because it was self-indulgent. Self-indulgence was very often the reason for a film or play to fail in the eyes of Doris and her friends. It seemed to be a trap waiting for every maker of every art, and I couldn’t understand how they didn’t manage to avoid such an obvious pitfall, when it was so clear to the viewers. Although I relied heavily on others for instances of brilliance or ruination, surely the makers and artists knew what was good and what wasn’t? Everything was talked about, judged, argued over. None of Doris’s friends just went to the movies or the theatre for fun, however much they enjoyed it. Enjoyment wasn’t enough. You needed to know how what you were seeing and hearing ‘worked’ or didn’t, which sometimes was quite separate from how enjoyable it was. A film or a play was an event that only began with the experience of it. They were the basis for opinions, for conversations and for arguments that went on sometimes late into the night, over red wine, or occasionally a joint of the marijuana that, as an experiment, Doris had grown from seed in the garden the previous summer and which she dried in the airing cupboard with the towels.

Freud, Marx, Foucault, Canetti, Martin D’Arcy, Derrida, the anti-psychiatrists, even the behaviourism of Desmond Morris and Konrad Lorenz were to different extents the background to the chat for some, while others, Doris among them, relied on a belief in their own grasp of the effects of heart and mind on individual or crowd behaviour. But at that time, of all the ways of seeing in the world, understanding unconscious psychological motivation was everything, told you everything, i.e. the truth, while surfaces, behaviour, the overt story were so much gaudy wrapping – false reasoning, self-deceit.

I listened furiously, trying to take all this in and find out how it was done. To start with, I couldn’t understand how it was so easy for them to have a point of view, to know how and why things ‘worked’. ‘Working’, the pivotal valuation, was never defined. There seemed to be too much to learn. I picked up quickly that having opinions wasn’t enough and that it was necessary to have a basis – from reading, from study, from hard conscious thought – from which the opinions were formed. But more important than all the theory, behind and beyond it, there was some ineffable taste or intuitive understanding implicitly agreed on by these talking, always talking, people. I couldn’t imagine ever acquiring the all-important taste. Did you have it or not, from birth? Could you acquire it with diligent study? Many people were dismissed as stupid, especially academics, who apparently lacked good judgment, yet who seemed at least as learned as Doris and her friends. How could they be stupid? At 15, I felt it was already too late. I hadn’t read enough, seen enough, been to enough places, talked to enough people. I felt that nothing of interest had happened to me, not understanding that every life is ordinary to its owner, that looking for interesting events was to search in the wrong direction for something that isn’t absent because it isn’t the point. I felt that I was burdened with a lifetime’s weight of unfinished homework. I would never catch up. Never read enough. See all the movies and plays. Never learn how to think. These people all seemed so finished, so confident. And they wrote and were read, and by doing so they were deities to me, the hopeless unfledged writer whose sentences were never buoyed with confidence.

I stayed shtum. I listened. But I’d always been verbal. When I was researching for my book Skating to Antarctica, I visited an old couple who had lived in the flat next door to ours when I was a child. ‘You never let anyone get the better of you,’ she said. ‘They were all older than you. You were only three but you kept up and answered back.’ Already, when I was three. Protected. Armoured. Using words to get the better of bigger, older children. I learned soon enough around Doris’s table the rudiments of conversation, even if I hadn’t the faintest underlying faith in what I was saying. I knew I couldn’t stay silent for too long, that silence wouldn’t earn me a place round the table at which I was the only one who wasn’t there thanks to their entertainment value, what they did, or how they thought. I gradually stepped into the conversation, like the three-year-old keeping up with the bigger children. First with questions and queries, occasionally with comments and interventions. I set myself to learn, and asking questions didn’t seem to annoy people. Listening carefully, I showed myself, offered myself to them as a young person who was eager and quick to learn. They were happy to teach me. So I learned to speak, rather than sing, for my supper. But I never, at any time, had any confidence in what I said or thought. Like a Calvinist, always already one of the elect or doomed, I couldn’t think of myself as having that elusive and essentialtaste or understanding.

(…)

Drone

An extract from Hari Kunzru's new novel in the new Granta
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Granta‘s new issue is on India, and includes an extract from Hari Kunzru’s forthcoming novel, in which he imagines a Indian future where inequality is taken to an all-too-imaginable extreme:

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It is, of course, the tallest tower. In the slums below, people orient themselves by it as they carve their way through the warren of chawls. Rich men have been building tall on this hill for centuries, but no one will ever reach as high again. The owner of this hundred-storey pinnacle has bought the air rights around its peak, for sums so vast that the men who own the adjacent fifty- and sixty-storey erections feel quite sanguine about the cap he has placed upon their desires.

For now. Perhaps ever is too strong a word.

This is the house of the Seth, who has learned, in his century and a half of life, to appreciate the beauty of layering. A man of taste knows that when you change, you should always leave a trace. The common people have short memories. One needs to remind them, to keep things before their eyes.

Eighty years ago, when he built his house, the Seth loved Italy. He loved, in particular, the rolling hills and cypress trees of Tuscany as they appeared in the background of portraits of aristocratic Renaissance warlords. He owned pictures like this and saw no reason he shouldn’t go further. He had no interest in physically occupying any part of Tuscany, or indeed anywhere else in blighted Europe. It was the fantastical chivalric Tuscany of the portraits he desired. Urbino, as he called his house, was to be both a landscape and a castle within that landscape, a crag with a view of a palace and a palace with a view of a crag. A waterfall would tumble down its sides. And so it rose, the work of one of the great perspectival architects of the era, four impossibly elongated Palladian facades, which, from the point of view of the neighbours (and the shack-dwellers far below), broke into passages of Italian landscape, incorporating flocks of birds and a cataract that gushed white water. In certain weather conditions, a line of robed angels modelled on the Seth’s third wife could be seen ascending a set of spiralling golden stairs.

The apsara house, the slum boys called it. The sexy-sexy house.

Later, the political climate changed. Italy was not the sign of a true patriot, a real Indian. Unlike a lesser man, who would simply have pulled the thing down and built again, the Seth melted Urbino, like an ice sculpture left out in the sun, impressing the new order onto the upper floors. On top of the old palace, now angel-less and renamed Adityavarnam, is a Sun Temple built of red sandstone, in the shape of a chariot with a high-pointed shikhara and massive carved wheels. A saffron flag flutters at its peak. Below it, on the middle floors, are the quarters of the earthly members of the Seth’s household. The lower storeys, a maze of slimy rock and rotting Italianate columns, contain garages for his vehicles and giant kitchens for festival days, on which it is the Seth’s custom to feed the poor.

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The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie

John Jeremiah Sullivan 'on the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace'
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Last year, John Jeremiah Sullivan went in search of ‘a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley’ for the New York Times Magazine. Not only is this an excellent piece of reportage and essay writing, but it takes full advantage of the possibilities of online publishing, with audio samples, videos and photography. And, while this may not be a new piece, JJS is always worth reading. 

IN THE WORLD of early-20th-century African-American music and people obsessed by it, who can appear from one angle like a clique of pale and misanthropic scholar-gatherers and from another like a sizable chunk of the human population, there exist no ghosts more vexing than a couple of women identified on three ultrarare records made in 1930 and ’31 as Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. There are musicians as obscure as Wiley and Thomas, and musicians as great, but in none does the Venn diagram of greatness and lostness reveal such vast and bewildering co-extent. In the spring of 1930, in a damp and dimly lit studio, in a small Wisconsin village on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the duo recorded a batch of songs that for more than half a century have been numbered among the masterpieces of prewar American music, in particular two, Elvie’s “Motherless Child Blues” and Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” twin Alps of their tiny oeuvre, inspiring essays and novels and films and cover versions, a classical arrangement.

Yet despite more than 50 years of researchers’ efforts to learn who the two women were or where they came from, we have remained ignorant of even their legal names. The sketchy memories of one or two ancient Mississippians, gathered many decades ago, seemed to point to the southern half of that state, yet none led to anything solid. A few people thought they heard hints of Louisiana or Texas in the guitar playing or in the pronunciation of a lyric. We know that the word “Geechee,” with a c, can refer to a person born into the heavily African-inflected Gullah culture centered on the coastal islands off Georgia and the Carolinas. But nothing turned up there either. Or anywhere. No grave site, no photograph. Forget that — no anecdotes. This is what set Geeshie and Elvie apart even from the rest of an innermost group of phantom geniuses of the ’20s and ’30s. Their myth was they didn’t have anything you could so much as hang a myth on. The objects themselves — the fewer than 10 surviving copies, total, of their three known Paramount releases, a handful of heavy, black, scratch-riven shellac platters, all in private hands — these were the whole of the file on Geeshie and Elvie, and even these had come within a second thought of vanishing, within, say, a woman’s decision in cleaning her parents’ attic to go against some idle advice that she throw out a box of old records and instead to find out what the junk shop gives. When she decides otherwise, when the shop isn’t on the way home, there goes the music, there go the souls, ash flakes up the flue, to flutter about with the Edison cylinder of Buddy Bolden’s band and the phonautograph of Lincoln’s voice.

I have been fascinated by this music since first experiencing it, like a lot of other people in my generation, in Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary “Crumb,” on the life of the artist Robert Crumb, which used “Last Kind Words” for a particularly vivid montage sequence. And I have closely followed the search for them over the years; drawn along in part by the sheer History Channel mysteriousness of it, but mainly — the reason it never got boring — by their music.

Outside any bullyingly hyperbolical attempts to describe the technical beauty of the songs themselves, there’s another facet to them, one that deepens their fascination, namely a certain time-capsule dimension. The year 1930 seems long ago enough now, perhaps, but older songs and singers can be heard to blow through this music, strains in the American songbook that we know were there, from before the Civil War, but can’t hear very well or at all. There’s a song, Geeshie’s “Last Kind Words,” a kind of pre-blues or not-yet-blues, a doomy, minor-key lament that calls up droning banjo songs from long before the cheap-guitar era, with a strange thumping rhythm on the bass string. “If I get killed,” Geeshie sings, “if I get killed, please don’t bury my soul.” There’s a blues, “Motherless Child,” with 16-bar, four-line stanzas, that begins by repeating the same line four times, “My mother told me just before she died,” AAAA, no variation, just moaning the words, each time with achingly subtle microvariations, notes blue enough to flirt with tonal chaos. Generations of spirituals pass through “Motherless Child,” field melodies and work songs drift through it, and above everything, the playing brims with unfalsifiable sophistication. Elvie’s notes float. She sends them out like little sailboats onto a pond. “Motherless Child” is her only song, the only one of the six on which she takes lead to my ears — there are people who think it’s also her on “Over to My House.” On the other songs she’s behind Geeshie, albeit contributing hugely. The famous Joe Bussard (pronounced “buzzard”), one of the world’s foremost collectors of prewar 78s, found one of two known copies of “Motherless Child” in an antique store in Baltimore, near the waterfront, in the mid-1960s. The story goes that Bussard used to have people over to his house to play for them the first note of “Motherless Child,” just the first few seconds, again and again, an E that Elvie plucks and lets hang. It sounds like nothing and then, after several listens, like nothing else. “Baby, now she’s dead, she’s six feet in the ground,” she sings. “And I’m a child, and I am drifting ’round.”

Before there could be the minor miracle of these discs’ having survived, there had to be an earlier, major one: that of people like Geeshie and Elvie ever being recorded. To understand how that happened it’s needful to know about race records, a commercial field that flourished between the world wars, and specifically the Paramount company, a major competitor in that game throughout the 1920s.

A furniture company, that’s how it started. The Wisconsin Chair Company. They got into making phonograph cabinets. If people had records they liked, they would want phonographs to play them on, and if they had phonographs, they would want cabinets to keep them in. The discs were even sold, especially at first, in furniture shops. They were literally accessories. Toys, you could say. In fact, the first disc “records” were manufactured to go with a long-horned gramophone distributed by a German toy company. So we must imagine, it’s as if a subgenre of major American art had been preserved only on vintage View-Master slides.

In 1920, when the white-owned OKeh label shocked even itself by selling hundreds of thousands of copies of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (the first blues recorded by an African-American female vocalist), the furniture-phonograph complex spied a chance. Two populations were forming or achieving critical mass, whites willing to pay for recordings of black music and blacks able to afford phonographs, and together they made a new market. It’s around then that the actual phrase “race records” enters the vernacular. In 1926, Paramount had game-changing luck on a string of 78s showcasing the virtuosic Texas songster Blind Lemon Jefferson — his “Long Lonesome Blues” sold into the six figures — and as in Mamie Smith’s case, he touched off a frantic search among labels to find performers in a similar vein. The “country blues” was born, though not yet known by that name. It was men, for the most part, but with an important female minority, a “vital feminizing force,” in the words of Don Kent, the influential collector and poet of liner notes.

For the preserving of that force we have to thank not the foresight of those recording companies but their ignorance and even philistinism when it came to black culture. They knew next to nothing about the music and even less about what new trends in it might appeal to consumers. Nowhere was this truer than at Paramount. These were businessmen, Northern and Midwestern, former salesmen. Their notions of what was a hit and what was not were a Magic Eight Ball. So, when the mid-1920s arrived, and Paramount went looking farther afield for new acts, they compensated by recording everything and waiting to see what sold. Not everything, but a lot. A long swath of everything. The result was an unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated, all-but-unconscious survey of America’s musical culture, a sonic X-ray of it, taken at a moment when the full kaleidoscopic variety of prerecording-era transracial forms hadn’t yet contracted. Hundreds of singers, more thousands of songs. Some of the greatest musicians ever born in this country were netted only there. It was a slapdash and profit-driven documentary project that in some respects dwarfed what the most ambitious and well intentioned ethnomusicologists could hope to achieve (deformed in all sorts of ways by capitalism, but we take what we can get).

Among the first to wake up to these riches was, as it happens, the most prominent of those great ethnomusicologists, Alan Lomax. He had been traveling the back roads with his father, John A. Lomax, making field recordings for the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song, and he had seen firsthand that all of this culture, which had endured mouth-to-ear for centuries, was giving way, proving not quite powerful enough to resist the radio waves and movies. In the late ’30s, Lomax was record hunting one day and came across a large cache of old Paramount discs in a store. At the time they were a mere 10 or 15 years old and couldn’t have appeared less valuable to a casual picker. Lomax listened, transfixed by an increasing realization that Paramount offered him an earhole into the past, into the decade just before he joined his father on the song-collecting scene, an enormous commercial complement to what the two of them had been doing under intellectual auspices with their field-recording. Lomax started digging. In 1940 he created a list, with the title “American Folk Songs on Commercial Records,” and circulated it in the folklore community.

This list is a very precious little document in 20th-century American cultural history. It was published in only a limited library report, but copies were passed around. It marked the first time someone had publicly recognized these commercial recordings as something other than detritus. Most important, it made space for, even emphasized, the more obscure blues singers.

To grasp the significance of that, you have to bear in mind how fantastically few record collectors possessed such an interest at the end of the 1930s. Early jazz was a thing in certain hip circles, but only a few true freaks were into the country blues. There was twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances. Summoning weird old voices from the South, the ethereal falsetto of Crying Sam Collins. Or the whine of Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Moaner. Did McKune listen to Geeshie and Elvie? It’s unknowable. His records were already gone when he died — murdered in 1971, in a hotel room. Another early explorer? The writer Paul Bowles. The Paul Bowles, believe it or not, who started collecting blues records as an ether-huffing undergraduate in Charlottesville, Va., in the late 1920s, “at secondhand furniture stores in the black quarter.” Out West there was Harry Smith, who went on to create the “Anthology of American Folk Music” for Folkways Records, the first “box set,” of which it can be compactly if inadequately said: No “Anthology,” no Woodstock. Wee, owlish Smith. He and McKune came to know each other. No less important, they both came to know Alan Lomax’s list, which galvanized their passion for this particular chamber of the recorded past, giving shape to their “want lists.”

In the ’50s McKune would become a sort of salon master to the so-called Blues Mafia, the initial cell of mainly Northeastern 78-pursuers who evolved, some of them, into the label owners and managers and taste-arbiters of the folk-blues revival. An all-white men’s club, several of whom were or grew wealthy, the Blues Mafia doesn’t always come off heroically in recent — and vital — revisionist histories of the field, more of them being written by women (including two forthcoming books by Daphne Brooks and Amanda Petrusich). Still, no one who seriously cares about the music would pretend that the cultural debt we owe the Blues Mafia isn’t past accounting. It’s not just all they found and documented that marks their contribution. It’s equally what they spawned, whether they would claim it or not. Dylan didn’t listen to 78s, after all, on the floors of those pads he was crashing at in Greenwich Village, but to the early reissue LPs. By Dylan I mean the ’60s. But also Dylan. “If I hadn’t heard the Robert Johnson record when I did,” he wrote 10 years ago, “there probably would have been hundreds of lines of mine that would have been shut down.”

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The White Review’s January Translation Issue

Edited by Daniel Medin
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Check it out: it features work by Enrique Vila-Matas, Herta Müller, Daniel Sada, etc.:

This issue opens with an excerpt from the only novel completed by the surrealist Romanian writer Max Blecher before his untimely death at the age of 28. His Adventures in Immediate Irreality is introduced here by the Nobel-prize winning novelist, poet and essayist Herta Müller (whose cut-ups we published as a pull-out concertina in The White Review No. 5).

We are excited to publish an excerpt from an as-yet-untranslated 2008 novel by Spain’s Enrique Vila-Matas entitled Dietario Voluble; a story by the Finnish artist and novelist Tove Jansson; Uday Prakash’s story, translated from Hindi, on Judge Sa’b’s woes in modern India; an excerpt from Han Kang’s new novel The Vegetarian, on the difficulties of going without meat South Korea; a section from the acclaimed Japanese writer Minae Mizumura’s bilingual, experimental Shisosetsu from left to right; and newly translated prose by the acclaimed Mexican author Daniel Sada, whom Roberto Bolaño considered to be without rival among Mexican writers of his generation.

Elsewhere we have poems from Alejandra Pizarnik, a friend and collaborator of Julio Cortazar and Octavio Paz whose life ended tragically at 36 in 1972; a sequence from the Brazilian Angélica Freitas; and new poetry from the Austrian writer Clemens J. Setz. The issue concludes with two extensive interviews with the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa and the Polish novelist Magdalena Tulli.

This issue was edited by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is an editor of the Cahiers Series and Music & Literature.

Adam Shatz & Hari Kunzru on Charlie Hebdo

In the LRB and Guardian
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In an LRB blog post, Adam Shatz argues that we need to look beyond ideology and to social causes to understand the terror attacks in France this week: 

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In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter. The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent. It’s unlikely they could have recited more than the few hadith they learned from the ex-janitor-turned-imam who presided over their indoctrination. They came from a broken family and started out as petty criminals, much like Mohamed Merah, who murdered a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Montauban and Toulouse in 2012. Their main preoccupations, before their conversion to Islamism, seem to have been football, chasing girls, listening to hip hop and smoking weed. Radical Islam gave them the sense of purpose that they couldn’t otherwise find in France. It allowed them to translate their sense of powerlessness into total power, their aimlessness into heroism on the stage of history. They were no longer criminals but holy warriors. To see their crimes as an expression of Islam is like treating the crimes of the Baader-Meinhof gang as an expression of historical materialism. And to say this is in no way to diminish their responsibility, or to relinquish ‘moral clarity’.

Last night I spoke with a friend who grew up in the banlieue. Assia (not her real name) is a French woman of Algerian origin who has taught for many years in the States, a leftist and atheist who despises Islamism. She read Charlie Hebdo as a teenager, and revelled in its irreverent cartoons. She feels distraught not just by the attacks but by the target, which is part of her lieux de mémoire. A part of her will always be Charlie Hebdo. And yet she finds it preposterous – and disturbing – that even Americans are now saying ‘je suis Charlie.’ Have any of them ever read it? she asked. ‘You couldn’t publish Charlie in the US – not the cartoons about the Prophet, or the images of popes getting fucked in the ass.’ Charlie Hebdo had an equal opportunity policy when it came to giving offence, but in recent years it had come to lean heavily on jokes about Muslims, who are among the most vulnerable citizens in France. Assia does not believe in censorship, but wonders: ‘Is this really the time for cartoons lampooning the Prophet, given the situation of North Africans in France?’

That’s ‘North Africans’, not ‘Muslims’. ‘When I hear that there are five million Muslims in France,’ Assia says, ‘I don’t know what they’re talking about. I know plenty of people in France who are like me, people of North African origin who don’t pray or believe in God, who aren’t Muslims in any real way. We didn’t grow up going to mosque; at most we saw our father fasting at Ramadan. But we’re called Muslims – which is the language of Algérie Française, when we were known as indigènes or as Muslims.’ She admits that more and more young beurs are becoming religious, but this is as much an expression of self-defence as piety, she says: French citizens of North African origin feel their backs are against the wall. That they are turning to an imported form of Islam – often of Gulf origin, often radical – is no surprise: few of them have any familiarity with the more peaceful and tolerant Islam of their North African ancestors. Nor is it surprising to find an increasing anti-Semitism among French Maghrébins in the banlieue. They look at the Jews and see not a minority who were persecuted by Europe but a privileged elite whose history of victimisation is officially honoured and taught in schools, while the crimes of colonisation in Algeria are still hardly acknowledged by the state.

Assia is typically Parisian, in her dress, accent and lifestyle. But that did not prevent her from being reminded, at every turn, of her otherness. ‘Assia, what sort of name is that?’ people would ask her since she was a child. With its strong centralising traditions, France shuns expressions of difference, notably the hijab, but continues to treat French citizens of Muslim origin as foreigners. Second and third-generation citizens are still routinely described as ‘immigrants’. The message: don’t wear the hijab, you’re French; but don’t bother applying for this job if your name is Mohammed. ‘When my brothers were growing up,’ Assia told me, ‘they would be stopped by the police ten to fifteen times a day – on the bus, getting off the bus, on their way to school, on their way home. Girls weren’t stopped; only boys. The French are more comfortable with “Fatima” than with “Mohammed”.’ French women of North African origin are doing better than men – which in part explains why some of the unemployed men take to dominating their mothers and sisters, as if they were their property, their only property. Assia is one of many French Maghrébins who have found it much easier to live outside France.

To say that France has an integration problem, and that it’s in urgent need of repair, isn’t to let the killers – or, pace Packer, their ideology – off the hook. It is to take the full measure of the moral and political challenge at hand, rather than to indulge in self-congratulatory exercises in ‘moral clarity’. If France continues to treat French men of North African origin as if they were a threat to ‘our’ civilisation, more of them are likely to declare themselves a threat, and follow the example of the Kouachi brothers. This would be a gift both to Marine Le Pen and the jihadists, who operate from the same premise: that there is an apocalyptic war between Europe and Islam. We are far from that war, but the events of 7 January have brought us a little closer.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Hari Kunzru similarly highlights the complexity of the situation, and traces the jihadi movement’s roots to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789:

I’ve just been on Skype with my wife, who’s teaching in Paris. Our conversation was interrupted by sirens and she took the computer over to the window to show me the view. The street had been cordoned off by police. She didn’t know why. We checked social media for clues. Nothing. As we spoke, the cordon was lifted and together we searched the internet to see if the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo murders were still thought to be “headed towards Paris”. Not a day to visit a museum or sit on a cafe terrace.

Today I feel tired. I feel depressed and afraid. Above all I feel old. Somehow this attack, with its mix of the grotesquely familiar and the unforeseen, has brought home to me in a way other recent atrocities have not, how much of my life has now been lived inside this war trapped in its logic of permanent emergency. I never want to see another man kneeling in an orange jumpsuit. I never want to stand in another security line wondering if today will be the day. I am hollowed out by disgust. I am worn down by outrage. I want to get off the damn bus.

Of course I can’t. None of us can. The war will go on until it doesn’t, until it runs out of fuel and the historians take over, arguing about who or what won. I no longer expect to see an end in my lifetime. It will take a generation, and many enormous geopolitical shifts, before the wheels of this juggernaut shudder to a halt. Until there are no more self-dramatising young men who prefer the abstraction of death to living a meaningful life, until there are no more wealthy pious bigots to fund them, until there are no more disenfranchised migrants pressed against the border fence and no more hard-faced “realists” eager to turn the war dial up to 11, this will go on and we will have to live through it.

I would have said nothing, had I not felt that – on this, of all days – it would be an admission of defeat. Freedom of expression is empty if it is not used, but I can barely bring myself to sit down at my desk and read the commentary, let alone add to the pile of hopeful platitudes, lofty sentiments about liberty, calls for solidarity and compassion and moderation, or firmness, or bloody, bloody revenge. Why did this happen? Multiculturalism, drones, Guantánamo, the inherent viciousness of Islam, the inherent viciousness of religion more generally. Take your pick, whichever one suits your politics, whatever tin drum you want to bang on.

Just don’t bang it near me. I don’t want to read about how “we’re all” anything, because wishing away complexity is inadequate and juvenile. I want to hear no talk about cracking down on anyone or tightening anything up. We have cracked and tightened for a decade and a half and all we have to show for it is a bloated, unaccountable security state that is eroding the cherished freedoms we claim to be so eager to protect.

Above all I want to hear nothing about barbarism. The caricature of the jihadi as a medieval throwback, animated by ancient passions, may be comforting to those who would like to wrap themselves in the mantle of civilisation and pose as heirs of Voltaire, but as a way of actually understanding anything, it’s feeble. Understanding is the very least we owe the dead.

The jihadi movement is a thoroughly modern beast, which ironically owes much to the French revolutionary legacy of 1789. Though they are religious millenarians, looking to bring about global submission to the will of God, they are also utopian revolutionaries, and have adopted tactical thinking from the various movements that trace their legacy to Paris, and that inaugural moment of modernity.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was, of course, intended to raise the price on the exercise of freedom of speech. It was intended to cast the shadow of the guillotine over every editorial conference, every pitch, every keyboard and pen. It was meant to make us think twice. This much we understand. And it’s working. It has been working since the days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of crude confrontational religious satire was already a rarity. It will only become more so.

But the attack was also intended to sharpen contradictions, to harden positions and polarise opinion, pushing France (and the rest of the world) away from complexity, from nuance, from the recognition that one can be, for example, a believing Muslim and a loyal French citizen, towards the simple binary opposition between “us” and “them”, the binary of war. Why, asks a friend, did they do this, when they must surely realise that ordinary French Muslims would pay the cost? Because that was their intention. Serious repression by the French state will complete the circuit of the Charlie Hebdo attack, widening the gap between the poles. It would be a sort of collusion with the terrorists, a collaboration. In Britain we have only to think back to the disastrous consequences of internment in Northern Ireland. In the United States, the Bush government’s authorisation of torture has, far from keeping anyone or anything safe, been the most effective jihadi recruiting sergeant imaginable.

Those of us who want to short-circuit the logic of confrontation have our work cut out. Even if the French keep their nerve, even if the state and people do not succumb to this bloody provocation, we still have to distinguish our position from compromise. Mumblings about “respect” and “avoiding giving offence” seem cowardly and dishonourable. And compromise with the jihadi position is meaningless: the jihadi is absolute because otherwise he is nothing. Without the childish simplicity of binary logic, all his power and glamour leak away, and he becomes just another lost boy, picking up a gun in the hope that it will have the answer written on the barrel.

But refusing to compromise with the jihadi does not mean becoming his mirror. When I’m stupid enough to switch on cable news here in New York, the optics are different but I hear much that is familiar. Big hair and bright teeth instead of black flags and balaclavas, but the same parochialism, the same arrogance, the same atavistic lust for violence, the same pathetic need for good guys and bad guys, to be on the winning team.

If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air.

Here in Brooklyn I’m writing in a room half a block from a busy shopping street. The supermarket and pharmacy are owned by Egyptians. Between the dental surgery and the Korean-run bodega is a mosque. It’s prayer time, and a double line of taxis and limos is parked under my window, as it is every day. This is the world, the real world, into which I will soon go out for a walk, wishing my wife were back here with me, safe.

 

Gender, blah, blah, blah

Katherine Angel in the LA Review of Books
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Good piece by Katherine Angel on the gender imbalance in our idea of serious, intellectual writing in the LA Review of Books

VIRGINIA WOOLF, after bumping into T. S. Eliot early on in their acquaintance, wrote: “I kept myself from being submerged, though feeling the waters rise once or twice. I mean by this that he completely neglected my claims to be a writer, and had I been meek, I suppose I should have gone under.”

She wasn’t meek, she didn’t go under — then — and they eventually became close. Germaine Greer, in 1971, at a debate in New York filmed in Town Bloody Hall, spoke of “having to confront one of the most powerful figures in my own imagination,” a “most privileged being,” the male artist. The battle is internal, a battle inside herself to refuse the primacy of the male artist — a refusal necessary in the very act of writing, for writing to be possible at all. But the battle is also external: to have one’s voice heard, and heard in the right way. Deborah Levy, in Things I Don’t Want to Know, writes that “even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”

It’s happened to me several times at a literary event — sometimes one at which I’m reading or speaking — that a kindly, affable chap, after regaling me with a long account of his next book, smiles generously and asks me what I do at Penguin, or how long I’ve been working for the venue. When I say, Oh, actually I’m a writer, a spasm of embarrassment comes over his face. As it should. Not, of course, because of any career’s merit over another’s, but because he’s revealed his inability to see me as a writer. A flustered flash of insight has taken place. One such occasion was an event organized by one of my European publishers, at which I and three other writers (all men) read from our books; a dozen journalists (all men) were present, as were other guest writers (all men). Sort of the equivalent of a New York Review of Bookswith 26 men writers and 1 woman; or a London Review of Books with 14 men and 2 women. In a sense, I can’t really fault those male writers who inquire politely as to my job. They’re kind of right: I don’t look like a writer.

It’s not just men who reveal their assumptions in this way. Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress. And it’s a powerful thing, the learnt reflex to look at a woman and see someone who is by definition unaccomplished, a novice; someone’s disciple, companion, muse; someone with no power or expertise of her own. I’m not immune to it — I’ve caught myself in the act of underestimating women, of having assumed that the woman in the room isn’t the expert in the room. It’s a reflex so disturbing to notice that it’s tempting to pass over it in silence. But it’s a reflex enabled by the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media — a paucity not easily registered, so used are we to it.

Writing — coming to writing — is a profound act of self-realization that can be as arduous and painful as it can be exhilarating. I try hard not to coalesce all men into one lumpen category, including those who doubtless have also overcome struggles, internal and external, to be where they are. Struggles are often invisible. But one need only look at the pages of our literary magazines to see that women’s writing has a wholly different status culturally — Alice Munro, Hilary Mantel, Eleanor Catton notwithstanding. Our idea of serious, intellectual writing appears to be overwhelmingly male.

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