Archives: October 2017

The Many Faces of Sylvia Plath

Kelly Coyne for Lit Hub
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Kelly Coyne explores how, in focussing too much on her death, we miss Sylvia Plath’s capacity for life:

In October 1957, she wrote a “Letter to a demon,” in which she says, “I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colors. My demon would murder this self by demanding it be a paragon, and saying it should run away if it is being anything less… So: a stoic face. A position of irony, of double-vision.” The in-between space is what characterizes Plath’s work. And I think our cultural hang-up with Plath’s suicide is linked to the difficulty of reconciling all of these complexities and personas, a desire to write her off, therefore absolving us from having to reckon with the many contradictions she confronts in her fiction and poetry.

My concern with writing on true and false selves in Plath’s work is that it gives attention to her suicide, which already dominates the conversation around Plath. When I went to Plath’s archives at Smith College, her alma mater, I discussed this with Karen Kukil, the editor of her Journals, co-editor of her new book of letters, and curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, where Plath’s papers reside.

We went for lunch that day, and as we climbed and slid over the crunchy dirty snow in the dim afternoon light of mid-January Northampton, we talked about the feeling of dissonance that arises when caught in a conversation about Plath, like when, at an awkward academic reception, someone asked me what I was writing my master’s thesis on, and my answer—Plath—was met with the statement, “I should call your gas company.” Or the play Plath., which paints her as a flat depressive, devoid of the energy and joy and color that led me to love her. It isn’t the Plath we know. Public emphasis on the darker self so often overshadows the lust for life Sylvia expresses in her Journals, her voracious appetite for food and people and sex and travel, her relentless drive for self-actualization, the constant begging: “Nothing is real except the present, and already, I feel the weight of centuries smothering me. Some girl a hundred years ago once lived as I do. And she is dead. I am the present, but I know I, too, will pass. The high moment, the burning flash, come and are gone, continuous quicksand. And I don’t want to die.”

She was all of the things, and she can be all of the things. She was resilient, and she was sensitive, and she was ambitious, and she was a perfectionist, and she had flaws. Her Journals show an ability to reach—and capture—an ecstasy I had never seen on the page as a college student. That is what drew me back to her. For all of the sadness accompanying the facets of Sylvia Plath’s life and work that have been obscured—the burned journals at Hughes’ hand, the edited letters at her mother’s, by the public focus on her as a tragic figure, and even by her own complex masking of herself—there is an upside: over 50 years after her death, we have layers of her unfolding before our eyes; we are still getting to know her.

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The Novel in the Age of Trump

Ali Smith for the New Statesman
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Ali Smith’s Goldsmiths Prize lecture on the importance of the novel, featured in the New Statesman

The novel matters because though all the arts are family, related, and I tend to think at their best when they meet up with or cross over into each other, among them the novel is particularly versatile at this crossing-over in that it can borrow from and chameleon with and meet the other forms with immensely fruitful outcome. Where it crosses into the poem, and the short story – where it borrows from these forms’ essentiality, concentration and tight edit, where it borrows the short story’s indebtedness to our own mortality, and its ability to stretch form, its spatial elasticity; and where it borrows the poem’s deep-rooted ancientness of both voice and form, and borrows from both their way of allowing emphasis to work by resonance, like rings in water, as part of the shift of what we call plot – the novel blossoms into intensity.

Its structural possibility learns from the sculptural arts, where something extra-dimensional happens to the form – say you decide, like Henry James or Georges Perec, to cut a Barbara Hepworth-like hole in your novel either by leaving something unsaid, like James so often does, leaving readers with a hole at the centre of their reading, then that unsaid thing that pierces the work will also pierce the reader. Or say like Perec you cut out something physical like he does in La Disparation, in which a man called M Vowl disappears and so does one of the five vowels, the e, leaving many words unabl to b us d, writt n down, spok n by th voic of th nov l, which in turn opens a window on the absences in history, causing the haunting of the novel and its reader by things gone, removed, unseen, unsaid, unsayable.

And because the novel is, like the language that goes to make it, naturally rhythmic, it can sing anything and everything from the three-minutes-of-happiness pop song to the opera cycle, or both at once, and because every story tells a picture and every word paints a thousand of them, and because the novel’s footwork, its choreography with its partner in the dance, the reader, is why and how it moves us, there are the novels, like Angela Carter said of The Great Gatsby, that we lie back and have done to us, and there are the novels that ask us to do a lot or even just a little of the footwork. We all know about picking up a novel and hitting its first pages as if hitting a brick wall – but once you’ve committed, that’s you climbing over or knocking a door or a window through, and pretty soon you’ll be waltzing through walls, and so on.

The novel matters because and so on. By which I mean that I’ve come to believe that all the arts are about time, but that the novel in particular is about the and-so-on of things, continuance and continuity, the continuum. It’s a form, too, very interested in the workings of society, so it tells us about how we’re living, who we’re living with, and where we are in the endless social structural cycle that eventually gets called history.

But where the short story is a form whose briefness suggests our own – whose shortness signals what Katherine Mansfield (so short-lived herself, a writer who revolutionised the short form and was dead before she’d reached her mid thirties) has a character in a story called “At the Bay” declare: “The shortness of life! The shortness of life!” – the novel as a form is about the long view, the time continuum, in a way that suggests that even though the novel ends, time doesn’t, or won’t. No, the novel keeps on ticking, even if you pulverise it, like Stein, even if you bend it, like Woolf, or bend time in it, like Amis, and this makes it a comfort as a form, an ever-blooming thing, blooming out of itself, novel is a novel is a novel is a novel, which makes me think of the great Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland, dying young and saying just before he died, kiss next year’s roses for me.

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Aviators and Movie Stars

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Patricia Lockwood on Carson McCullers for the London Review of Books:

She was born Lula Carson Smith in Columbus, Georgia in 1917. Her father, Lamar Smith, was a jeweller who was forever tinkering with watches. Her mother, Marguerite, a more vivacious personality, had intended to name her baby Enrico Caruso and bragged to visitors that Carson cried in tune. Marguerite, in the traditional mould of stage mothers in places where stages are hard to come by, believed that her daughter was extraordinary in some unspecified way. She was so set on her being a genius that she was not in the least taken aback when she actually became one. Carson was primed to like applause. ‘In our old Georgia home we used to have two sitting rooms – a back one and a front one – with folding doors between. These were the family living rooms and the theatre of my shows.’

These entertainments were produced out of stultification. All of her longer works are set in the South, and they are sick with not just a small town atmosphere but an inside-the-house one: the nausea and the stuckness you feel when you have looked at the same things for too long – a braided rug, a tear in the screen door, a bust of Brahms, the water oiling itself between brown riverbanks. Under the tutelage of Mary Tucker, perhaps the first woman she ever loved romantically, she practised the piano for hours a day, repeating the same tricky passages until she was a general menace to the neighbourhood. After a bout of rheumatic fever in her mid-teens, she resolved to trade in one set of keys for another, and her first published story, ‘Wunderkind’, is about a girl training to be a concert pianist who suddenly ceases to be able to play well. As an artistic study, it is terrifying. It is about a body that simply stops being able to produce the insight it has been used to.

She escaped Columbus as soon as she could, fleeing to New York at 17 with a large sum of money – though the money, along with the real story behind its disappearance, was lost almost immediately on her arrival. In the summer of 1935, she met a charismatic and literary-minded soldier called James Reeves McCullers, Jr. They married when she was 20 and he was 24, and set up house in North Carolina. The detail that somehow sticks with you is that she wore knee-high socks to the wedding.

At first glance, Carson and Reeves seem like the last people who should have entered into a heterosexual covenant. Despite Carson’s remark that Reeves was the best-looking man she had ever seen, she confided to a friend later in life that she hated sex with men. Instead, she pursued women. Here is Carson falling so in love with the Swiss adventurer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach that she dedicated Reflections in a Golden Eye to her; here she is lying down in front of Katherine Anne Porter’s door at Yaddo; here she is hopelessly infatuated with a random ballerina she saw one night on stage. Here is Reeves entangled with various young women; here he is falling in love with David Diamond, a composer who was a shadow figure in their marriage.

I am thinking of a place called 7 Middagh Street, a fairytale brownstone in Brooklyn Heights whose back windows looked out onto New York Harbour and the Brooklyn Bridge. It was demolished in 1945, but for a while during the Second World War it functioned as a sort of filthy, alcohol-soaked salon. It was the brainchild of George Davis, the loose cannon former fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and for a while housed such diverse inhabitants as McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles and Richard Wright. (Auden seems to have been an especially terrible housemate, complaining about excessive use of toilet paper and telling people their colds weren’t physical but mental.) Carson was one of the original members; she arrived during her first separation from Reeves, who often hung around towards suppertime, wistful and drunk and disgruntled. While Gypsy worked on a mystery called The G-String Murders and Auden and Britten collaborated on a very bad opera about Paul Bunyan, Carson haunted the halls with a thermos full of a tea and sherry concoction she called ‘sonnie boy’ and chiselled away at the book that would become The Member of the Wedding.

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Large Issues from Small: Meditations on Still Life

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Claire-Louise Bennett on still lifes, ‘the essence of simple things’, and the poetics of space for frieze:

When I was very young, I made drifting lists that were triggered by the things on my bedroom floor, migrated outside to name those things that I imagined inhabited the dark – wolves, moths, fireflies, greying tennis balls tucked beneath black conifers – before turning inwards to tentatively alight upon that strange menagerie of internal phantoms that has been skimming across my marrow since day one. Writing was – and is still, to some degree – a way of linking the inner, the outer and the beyond along the same imaginative continuum. As Bachelard put it: ‘Large issues from small.’ Yet, despite the vibrant poetics that his meditation upon familiar space brings forth, the home and its accoutrements are still routinely thought of in predominantly domestic terms, amounting to nothing more than an environment characterized by habit, drudgery, tameness and unvarying outcomes. Seen from that dour angle, it’s hardly a strata of life that seems worth reporting on. In recent years, visual and performance-art practices have done a great deal to foreground the aesthetic value of the events, tasks and items that constitute daily life. Challenging the hegemony of fine art and its emphasis on beauty, religion and greatness, everyday aesthetics alert us to those myriad responses, from disgust to consummation, that calibrate our day-to-day environments and the activities they are host to. While this is a crucial and exciting turn, I feel that some of the artworks that have emerged from this discourse often present an estranged pastiche of ‘everyday life’, and reinforce generic ideas of the domestic. Too much of the human role is apparent in them, perhaps. I’ve sometimes wondered if it’s people who subdue things, rather than the other way around. Liberated from their customary function, objects regain a marvellous ambivalence which hints at their belonging to a limitless system far more generative than the one they are assigned to through their routine encounters with individuals. An unoccupied stage set has often seemed to me to transmit a greater dramatic charge than the play that comes to pass upon it. Perhaps it is for similar reasons that some of the artworks I like best are still-lifes from the Renaissance period.

The absence of human subject matter in still life meant that, as a genre, it wasn’t held in as high regard as portraiture, landscape or history painting; in my view, it is the very eschewing of a blatantly anthropocentric theme that makes these canvases so singular. And the more stripped down the compositions the better. Among my favourites is a still life, or bodegón, by the Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán. He completed Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber around 1602, at a time when most artists were exclusively occupied with depicting religious tableaux, battle scenes, royal figures and so on. Here, in this arrestingly austere arrangement, a quince hangs from a thin string at the top-left corner of an apparently paneless window; its outstretched leaves make it look winged and restless, as if at any moment it might take flight and disappear upwards out of the frame. Suspended beneath it is a cabbage, whose downcast aspect brings to mind Cyrano de Bergerac’s defence of vegetable life in his novel A Voyage to the Moon (1657): ‘To massacre a man is not so great a sin as to cut and kill a cabbage, because one day the man will rise again, but the cabbage has no other life to hope for.’ Below, on the unmarked sill, a cleaved melon has come to rest. The seeded surface of its hacked interior is the only area in the painting that is free from shadow; yet, here, unadulterated light seems indecent, intrusive, exposing the disarrayed pips and the dent of the severing blade to disquieting effect. Beside the melon is a slice of itself, one end in the merciful umbra of its bigger portion, the other end rent from its stippled skin. A year or so after he completed the painting, Sánchez Cotán joined a Carthusian monastery, part of a Catholic order whose emphasis on contemplation meant that the monks passed their days in silence and solitude. Perhaps only a painter with the capacity for hermetic spiritual dedication would feel moved to wrench these humble comestibles away from the raucous chaos of a muggy kitchen and present them in isolation. As De Bergerac, writing less than 50 years later, said: ‘Plants, in exclusion of mankind, possess perfect philosophy.

Another Spanish painter who created still lifes that transcend the daily round is Francisco de Zurbarán. It is not surprising to discover that the artist was very much influenced by Sánchez Cotán. As in Sánchez Cotán’s windowsill, the table of his Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose (1633) is placid and unmarked: there are no traces of human tasks, no nicks in the wood, no stains from previous repasts and neither of the table’s two ends can be seen. There is a similar precise ordering of objects and, like his predecessor, Zurbarán conjures mesmerizing black backdrops that pull our attention through the tangible elements onto an amorphous metaphysical plane. A metal dish of four citrons stands in front of this darkness, the fruit nosing the static air like deracinated moles. On the right is a saucer, upon which a cup of water stands askew, watched by a pale rose poised on the rim. Between both is a basket piled with coy oranges and a sprig of spiky blossom. The light on this arrangement seems to be coming from behind my left shoulder, picking out the protuberant lemons, some of the huddled oranges and one side of the obstinate cup, where it stops. The light does not, or cannot, penetrate the darkness behind; we could be anywhere. I do not consider what hand gathered and organized this produce, nor what mouth will consume it; again, these fruits are not for eating. This is not a slice of life.

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MISTAKEN | STATE OF MIND

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A new piece by Mary Ruefle in Granta Magazine:

About this time I began to suspect I was never named; people called me Mary because it was convenient, or because they had heard others call me Mary, I was in the beginning named after someone else who was named Mary but I was neither this person nor the one they called Mary after her, I was nameless, and in this state I perpetually wandered among fruit and flowers and foliage, among vines and overhanging rock and untamed animals, none of whom I could name, none of whom knew my name, nor, if they did, could they speak it. I read once that the Amazon was called the Green Hell, and if that is a name, I take it, if only as a substitute for my unknown name, which not even my parents knew when they named me Mary, after a woman who scrubbed her kitchen floor on her hands and knees, once a week, with a stiff brush. She was kind to me and I loved her, and since her death I have dreamt of her many times, either searching for her or speaking to her, but never once in my dreams have I called her Mary, which, I suspect, is not her name, or if it once was, is no longer. 

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Sculpting Space: Ruth Asawa at David Zwirner

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Osman Can Yerebakan reviews the current exhibition of Ruth Asawa’s works at David Zwirner New York for BOMB Magazine

In contrast to her tumultuous biography, Asawa’s art contains a reclusive serenity, shrouding a life spent with struggle due to race and identity. California-born Asawa and her siblings grew up in a Japanese immigrant household that was devastated by a six-year separation from their father as the result of his internment along with many other Japanese Americans during World War II. Asawa herself was interned for a year in California and Arkansas. She later attended Milwaukee State Teachers College in order to realize her dream of becoming an art teacher, an attempt hindered by the systematic aversion for employing teachers of Japanese descent. A visit to Mexico to study art played a key role in the formation of her illustrious career. There, Cuban-born industrial designer Clara Porset introduced her to Black Mountain College, where Asawa eventually worked with Josef Albers, immersing herself in a modernist avant-garde that challenged the artistic norms of the time. For the twenty-year old artist, innovation manifested itself in wire, an everyday, humble material that rarely went beyond utilitarian purpose. In Asawa’s hands, lines of thin copper, brass, or iron transformed into harmony.

The premiere of Asawa’s grand oeuvre at David Zwirner does not disappoint. A generous selection of her wire sculptures suspend from the ceiling often slightly above eye level—just enough to let the viewer absorb their meticulous details and celestial presence. Visually, they separate into two categories: circular and vertical. However, at times Asawa blurs the distinction with upright pieces comprised of multiple spheres. In order to plunge into Asawa’s mystical universe, close inspection is essential. Her intricate braids of wire—a material associated with masculine and industrial labor as opposed to yarn’s pigeonholed femininity—float in the air as effortlessly as bubbles. The in-between aesthetic of knitted wire renders them ghostly, yet salient. The sculptures’ unobtrusive postures allow for transparency and fluidity, and they permeate space similar to a puff of smoke.

“Life is like a line: there is a beginning and there is an end,” explains Jonathan Laib, Director at David Zwirner, in his catalogue essay for Christie’s 2015 exhibition, Ruth Asawa: Line by Line, “and Asawa has shown us another truth, another illustrated concept; the idea that there is no beginning or end, that there is a continuation.” Ceaseless wire compositions—nearly all labeled Untitled with extensively descriptive subtitles—defy logic and labor, stunning the viewer with their unassumingly organic forms that in reality are the product of arduous repetition. Particular sculptures convey resonance with the human silhouette through their voluptuous curves and contours that seamlessly bend inward, as Asawa triumphs over her uncluttered medium, merging ardor with the ethereality of tightly woven wire.

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Underground in Raqqa

FILE PHOTO:Smoke rises after an air strike during fighting between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants in Raqqa

Patrick Cockburn on the siege of Raqqa for the London Review of Books:

Shortly before the siege of Raqqa began in June, Islamic State officials arrested Hammad al-Sajer for skipping afternoon prayers. Hammad, who is 29, made a living from his motorbike: he carried people and packages, charging less than the local taxis. IS had arrested him a number of times before – mostly for smoking cigarettes, which were banned under IS rule – but he had always been released after paying a fine or being lashed. Attendance at prayers was compulsory and he had missed the Asr, the afternoon prayer, because a passenger had made him wait while he went into his house to get money for his fare after a trip to Raqqa’s old city. Hammad expected to be fined or lashed, but this time he was sentenced to a month in prison. Except it turned out not to be prison. On his first morning, ‘militants blindfolded us and took us in a vehicle to a place that seemed to be inside the city because it took no more than ten minutes to get there.’

Hammad and the other prisoners, all of them local men, were taken to an empty house. In one of the rooms there was a hole in the floor. Rough steps led down about sixty feet before the tunnel flattened out into a corridor, which was connected to a labyrinth of other tunnels. A fellow prisoner, Adnan, told Hammad that IS had started work on what was effectively a subterranean network a year and a half earlier. In other words, construction began in 2015, after IS’s spectacular run of victories ended and it started its long retreat in the face of Kurdish offensives backed by coalition firepower. To escape the aerial bombardment, IS decided to disappear underground, digging immense tunnel complexes underneath its two biggest urban centres, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, to help it defend itself when the final assaults came.

Few people in Raqqa knew the extent of the excavations going on beneath their feet – not even Hammad, who rode his motorbike around the city every day. The entrances were always in districts from which local inhabitants had fled or been evicted. ‘When we got into the tunnels we were amazed,’ Hammad remembers. ‘It was as if an entire city had been built underground.’ IS must have needed an army of workers to build it – but then there were large numbers of prisoners and jobless labourers to draw on. The prisoners were told as little as possible about what they were doing: anyone who asked a lot of questions was punished. Hammad saw rooms with reinforced concrete walls and ceilings, and what looked like boxes of ammunition piled up on the floor. When he asked about the boxes, he says, one of the guards ‘hit me on my back with a piece of cable and said: “Don’t poke your nose into things. This is not your business. Do your job and keep quiet.”’ The foreign fighters on duty were silent and unapproachable, but some of the guards were locals and occasionally talked to the diggers during the ten-hour working day. ‘Sometimes they joked with us because they were bored and tired,’ he says. One day he asked one of them what all this hard work was for. ‘This great construction will help the lions of the caliphate to escape,’ he said (the ‘lions’ were the IS emirs and commanders). ‘They have a message to deliver to people and they should not die too soon.’

IS officials used prisoners to work on the tunnels when they could, but they also hired labourers. One of these was Khalaf Ali. When IS seized the city in 2014, he was selling cigarettes in the street. ‘I was picked up by some militants who took me to a commander,’ he says. ‘They did not take me to prison, but they confiscated my boxes of cigarettes and said that if I sold cigarettes again, they would put me in prison and I would get thirty lashes.’ He started spending his days in a local square with other unemployed men; they would wait for a car or truck to stop and offer them odd jobs – moving furniture, mending broken doors or windows. In April 2016, Khalaf was sitting in the square with the others when an IS security man said he wanted to talk to them. At first they were nervous, but the official said they could have work if they registered their names at an IS office. When they showed up at 7 a.m. the following day, they were told they had to agree to certain conditions: ‘We must not talk about what we were doing in public as it was one of the caliphate’s secrets and, if we violated this condition, they would kill us as traitors.’ They were blindfolded and driven a short distance to an empty house, where the blindfolds were removed. It wasn’t the house Hammad had first been taken to: here, there were no stairs, just a sloping tunnel about 150 feet long, which took them around sixty feet underground.

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Experimental Zones

Charlie Fox for frieze
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Charlie Fox reviews ‘Basquiat: Boom For Real’: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first UK retrospective at London’s Barbican Centre

Back in 1982, the critic Rene Ricard discerned that Basquiat’s ‘earlier paintings were a logical extension of what you could do with a city wall’. His canvases are experimental zones where he explores the picture as an exploding galaxy of information (Pegasus, 1987) and the portrait as some digressive freak-out: Five Fish Species, 1983, dedicated to William Burroughs, is littered with factoids, quotations and dates drawn from the master’s dark biography. They operate like fields of strangely musical noise: words repeating, odd mixtures of art brut or antique material in duet, favourite themes (fame, death, cities, economics) resurrected or ripped apart. Skunks, leeches, Titian, boxing matches, dogs, Straight, No Chaser (1965) by Thelonious Monk, notebook scrawls about ‘the germs on a spoon behind the oven’: Basquiat turns his brain inside-out in encyclopaedic fashion. This data is also a wormhole of personal code and allusion: severed ears, the word ‘tar’, a feast of snakes hinting at poisons in his system and creeps trying to win his fortune. Sometimes he finds sucker-punch eloquence in drawing little more than a bone or tooth.

The same contrary energies are at play through his raid on art history. Basquiat figured out early that painting could be a patricidal game. (Hoban’s book seethes with his alternate bad feelings towards and eagerness to please his father.) For Untitled (World Trade Towers) (1981), he stages what he calls elsewhere ‘a flashback to his childhood files’ – revisiting the moment when he was hit by a car, aged seven – in the spirit of Cy Twombly with amphetamine psychosis. But for a few gobbets of blood-red gore, the scene is all scary monochrome: electrified Roman numerals mix with wonky alphabets and blurred shadows. Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) maims juicy parts of the genius’s back catalogue, turning the head of Vitruvian Man (1490) into a blast of static. Homage deforms into parody: wicked jokes at the expense of dead elders.

The raw facts of being the rare black kid within the white art world are also at play in his rambunctious attitude to the canon. (One creepy tidbit sees him alter a headshot of Warhol, creating Drella in blackface.) He provided acid commentary on the art world’s crook economics and ominous exclusions from the beginning. Site-specific riddles, Basquiat’s Samo graffiti comes from the same wish to unsettle or seduce the bougie crowd. A room of Henry Flynt photographs track him like a character from downtown folklore, half secret agent, half ghost, the cryptic one-liners appearing between cracked windowpanes and filthy paving slabs, words faint as ectoplasm: ‘Samo as a result of overexposure’. (Is the critic Greg Tate correct that everybody should hear ‘sambo’ stashed inside ‘Samo’, short for ‘same old shit’?) Like Warhol, Basquiat was always conscious of art’s proximity to prank. He scribbles factoids about his big daddy predecessors on brown paper for Untitled (Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Duchamp, Pollock) (1986–87), knowing his hand transforms mere art historical rehash into treasure. It indicates his typical wily self-consciousness about his status as a commodity – Basquiat garlanded his work with copyright symbols – but also his fixation on art history and whatever afterlife it assures.

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Ralph Ellison’s Tragicomic Soul

Alejandro Nava for Lit Hub
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In an essay for Lit Hub, Alejandro Nava uses the rhythmic balance of tragedy and comedy in Ralph Ellison’s works to elucidate his concept of ‘soul’:

Although there is an extraordinary, Gatsby-like capacity for hope exhibited in Ralph Ellison’s work, optimism is certainly the wrong word for it. In fact, Ellison’s version is propped up by the flying buttresses of both tragedy and comedy. It swings wildly between the two, like the swinging rhythms of jazz in Stanley Crouch’s eloquent description:

‘What I refer to is the expression of sorrow or melancholy in a melodic line that is contrasted by a jaunty or exuberant rhythm, that combination of grace and intensity we know as swing. In jazz, sorrow rhythmically transforms itself into joy, which is perhaps the point of the music: joy earned or arrived at through performance, through creation.’

In identifying these oscillations of sorrow and exuberance in jazz, Crouch taps into what Ellison named “soul.” Crouch essentially parses and explains Ellison’s grammar of soul, noting the way a high-spirited rhythm can transform a melancholic line into a stirring and uplifting performance.

Here and elsewhere, Crouch takes cues from Ellison on when and how to add tragic and comic elements in the right proportions. An excessive focus on one element could ruin the rhythm. If tragic lessons are erased from memory, we end up with banal and artificial sounds, like elevator music, a ditty for advertising, or the most trifling forms of pop music; at the same time, without the comic sense we will be left with cheerless and drab sounds, music that turns the living soul into stone and causes it to sink and drown in gloom. For the soul to grow to its fullest temple-like potential, Ellison required elements of each: the comic sense would be a leavening grace to lighten the gravity of suffering, allowing the American soul to rise to its fullest potential. With both ingredients in the right balance, soul is attained, a kind of multigrain bread of life.

Ellison defined soul as such: “It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as ‘soul.’ An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.” As we can see here, Ellison’s concept of soul is born from the conjunction of tragedy and comedy; it skates and slides between the two like the careening legs of James Brown, carrying us from the Apollo Theater to the church, from barrelhouses to the bedroom. In the process—one of the many lessons of the resilient history of black music in America—it displays, even flaunts, an existential toughness and ability to survive no matter the troubles it sees. It’s no wonder that Ellison speaks of an “apprenticeship” when educating us on soul: “Here it is more meaningful to speak, not of courses of study, of grades and degrees, but of apprenticeship, ordeals, initiation ceremonies, of rebirth.”

As an apprenticeship and initiation by fire, soul cannot be achieved in a scholastic manner; it requires the kind of verve, daring, courage, resilience, and shrewdness shown by the main character in Ellison’s Invisible Man. Though the protagonist is a scholarship recipient, his real education occurs outside the walls of the university, in the course of the numerous “battles royal” and contests of nerve that mark his life. He ends up living in an underground room—he speaks of being “clubbed into the cellar,” in point of fact—and must find his voice and perspective in this confined basement.

The narrative begs for allegorical elaboration. Whether one is driven into the underground like this young man or ingested by a whale like Jonah, Ellison implies that being black in America automatically puts one in the darkest dungeons of life, so that the gestation of soul will have to occur in Sheol-like spaces, in the face of death. Thus, there is a sepulchral or mausoleum-like quality to the cellar that Ellison’s invisible protagonist must enter and endure before he can be reborn, as if he were a seed that must fall and sink into the earth before germinating and blooming. (Early Christian baptisteries were shaped like mausoleums with this exact logic in mind.)

Besides possessing this phoenix-like ability to raise black lives from the ashes, Ellison’s concept of soul also casts a dark shadow over the American psyche. By speaking from the American underground, Ellison adds a blues-like color and prophetic edge to his concept of soul; it is a force of dissent against vain and jingoistic versions of American greatness. Ellison’s “soul” is not unlike biblical understandings—vital spirit, life force, or essential self—but he clearly adds the particular shibboleths of black history and culture to the religious account. Consistent with many romantic portraits, “soul” is accordingly a vital spirit and life force but now applied to African American traditions, a symbol of the “spirit of a race,” to quote José Vasconcelos (1882–1959).

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Poetry and Work: Some Thoughts on Paterson

JT Welsch for Honest Ulsterman
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JT Welsch considers the relationship between poetry and ‘work’ in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson:

If poetry’s status as work is worth asserting, it needs to go beyond semantics and subjective difficulty into more practical considerations of how the making of poems is valued (in various senses) alongside other kinds of labour. To this end, Paterson nudges the question of whether poetry is work towards a more interesting one about what kind of work it might be. In more and less subtle ways, Jarmusch gives us a chance to weigh poem-making against, on one hand, more material types of ‘creative’ work, and on the other, the waged work of Paterson’s bus driving job. The structure and editing foreground a sustained comparison of the former. While Paterson writes ‘at work’, his wife Laura makes things at home: sewing or painting curtains, making or refashioning clothes, redecorating their house, learning to play the guitar, or baking cupcakes for the local farmers market. Immediately, we’re confronted with the historically lopsided status and often strongly gendered division of work that takes place in the public or private sphere.

For the philosopher Hannah Arendt, this apparently ancient division of public and private is partly linked to the raising of intellectual labour over manual labour (or what we now call white- and blue-collar work) in classical Greek society. In The Human Condition (1958), Arendt singles out ‘poetry, whose material is language’ as ‘perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it’ – in other words, as almost purely intellectual labour. Leaving effort aside, this gives us the option of evaluating the work of poetry in terms of its material (or immaterial) nature. In The Craftsman (2009), however, the American philosopher Richard Sennett diverges from his Arendt (his former teacher), in his insistence on the merging of mental and manual labour in the work he venerates as ‘craft’. ‘Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking,’ Sennett insists. In this way, craft and its products represent ‘the intimate connection between the hand and head.’

But Sennett himself also acknowledges the unequal status of different crafts, linking to Arendt’s distinction between public and private realms in his defence for the male focus of The Craftsman. ‘Most domestic crafts and craftsmen seem different in characterthan labor now outside the home,’ he writes (with my emphasis). ‘We do not think of parenting, for instance, as a craft in the same sense that we think of plumbing or programming, even though becoming a good parent requires a high degree of learned skill.’ In Sennett’s historical account, this is simply the way it is. The preface of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft – also published in 2009, and in the UK as The Case for Working with Your Hands – apologises likewise that ‘it so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men.’

When Paterson premiered at the Cannes festival last year, Jarmusch recalls some ‘feminist French journalist’ accusing him of making ‘a throwback to ‘50s domesticity, et cetera, with this character of Laura.’ He finds this ‘a little shallow,’ however, and is ready with a long reply, which ends with him exclaiming ‘I’m a feminist!’ (Elsewhere, he tempers it to ‘I consider myself a feminist, in a way.’) To the French journalist and others questioning the film’s undeniably regressive gender roles, he explains: ‘Laura lives how she wants; she does what she wants. She’s entrepreneurial, even if it’s in a domestic set-up like selling cupcakes. She wants to maybe be musical – she’s very artistic in décor – so to say that she is not liberated, if one were to say that, then I wonder how these people think of all the working-class women in the world that are washing their families’ clothes or making food.’ When Jarmusch tells a female interviewer that ‘domesticity is a fact of how social structure works,’ he isn’t far from Sennett’s matter-of-factness regarding the difference in character of that work. Yet, his defence of Laura’s ‘entrepreneurial’ set-up also points to an essential difference between the two main characters’ approach to their respective crafts.

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