Category: Essay

Paris in August

Jacqueline Feldman for The White Review
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Jacqueline Feldman’s essay on surveillance, paranoia and the emergency state in Paris, featured in The White Review.

(…)

‘Our police are behaving more like American police now,’ I heard last February, at a dinner party in the Sixth Arrondissement. As for the United States, no one’s prognosis was optimistic, but finally the other guests agreed that the Americans had been impressive lately in their protests. They looked at me. Bravo, they said. Certainly, they added, aspects of the Women’s March had been problematic, but overall they had been cheered to read of the assemblies. One only hoped the French, too, would turn out so numerously were Marine Le Pen elected President, as the guests expected she would be.

I noticed the poster which read Respond to a terrorist attack in a doctor’s office, and subsequently, I would see it in libraries. It looks like an in-flight safety guide, but these stick figures flee, push a couch against a door, silence their phones and crouch behind a pillar. Also new since I moved away were the guards who searched purses at the doors to grocery stores. While the 1955 law creating an emergency state authorised house arrest for ‘anyone… whose activity proves dangerous to security and public order,’ the 2015 revision specifies that it may be applied to those for whom exist ‘serious reasons to think their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order,’ and, in this way, deemphasises their behaviour in favour of what is thought about them. The law that replaced the emergency state on 1 November 2017 requires a judge’s sign off before searches, though not ‘individual measures of administrative control and surveillance’, the former house arrests, but it preserves this wording. Another criterion must, now, co-present: the list of possibilities includes apologia for terrorism. Defined by the November 2015 law, the house arrests – numbering 400 in the law’s first three months, though at last count on 30 October, only 41 were in effect – might have required suspects to stay someplace other than their home, to stay in place for as many as twelve hours, to check in with authorities as many as three times daily, to wear an ankle bracelet, to turn in a passport or to break off a relationship deemed suspicious. The new law diminishes these impositions, for example by widening the bounds of the detainment to an entire town, and by limiting the frequency with which suspects must check in to once daily. Sensibly, both 1955 and 2015 laws stipulate these house arrests should not ‘take the effect of creating camps’. These laws have been compared with the US PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001; another American analogue for its near-unanimous passage days after the 9/11 Attack, the Authorisation of Use of Military Force, provides for strikes abroad against the perpetrators as well as anyone understood to be ‘associated forces’. The French emergency state, by contrast, addressed an enemy within. It was developed as temporary, requiring a vote after twelve days, but remained in effect continuously after November 2015, involving six renewals of varying lengths. While politicians including the president touted the new law as a way out of this widely ironised predicament of permanent emergency, they simultaneously insisted the law pass before the emergency state expired, so that protection would be continuous. ‘I’ve decided that in November we will emerge from the rule of law,’ Macron said on 19 September in New York. He corrected himself, having meant to say not état de droit but état d’urgence, emergency state.

 

More generally visible is the governmental threat metric Vigipirate, with its signs hanging in public buildings, and operations of the police or military, such as Sentinelle, which has stationed soldiers throughout the country since the shooting at CHARLIE HEBDO in January 2015. Sentinelle has elicited censure for its expense as well as the question, after a man drove a car into six of these soldiers in the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret on 9 August, wounding them, as to whether it creates targets. Also controversial has been the surveillance law developed in 2015, which allows the government to monitor phone and Internet usage automatically. Last January, I stayed with environmentalists who, before meetings, collected phones from those present, placed them in a receptacle, set it down outside the room, and closed the door. I hear that lately, they have used a microwave, figuring that it blocks signals completely. The converted barn where they live in Bure, Meuse is a 21-kilometre drive over fields from the nearest market town. They recalled a period of relentless vehicular searches the previous summer. Then as now police were behaving as ‘cowboys’, they told me, using that English word. One of these activists explained that, after breaking the windshield of a car belonging to police who were, by his account, taunting him, he was considered wanted, and that when he was picked up, protesting a revision to French labour law in Nancy, the physical brutality of his apprehension struck him as disproportionate. He could not be sure of this, but it would come to seem of a piece with the other activists’ experiences. He had required new glasses. His treatment may not have been explicitly permitted by the legislation, but, as another of the activists wrote to me, mimicking gendarmes’ remarks, ‘It’s the emergency state, we do what we want.’ This group of activists has made headlines for a foot injury sustained by one of them while protesting, the effect of a gendarme’s stun grenade, as well as a raid on 20 September resulting in the seizure of some forty computers.

 

A sense of futility had accompanied me following my move back to the US, as if I had, by leaving, given up on Paris. During the attacks in November 2015, I was concentrating in an apartment where I had moved a few weeks previously, drafting an article about the accents of American presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are from New York City, where I found I now lived. Such commentary had to be formulated from the posture of an observer. I had adopted it cynically. Only when we’re lucky enough to live comfortably do we regard the geopolitical landscape as if through a window. Sometimes, it breaks. Citing N. H. Julius, the nineteenth-century German physician and writer on prisons, Foucault locates Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon historically, at the advent of the modern state, with which individuals found themselves engaged in a preeminent relationship. Discipline had been achieved by spectacle, a theatre of the scaffold; now, those who had been onlookers were monitored themselves. While the act of watching characterises the panopticon in the popular imagination, essential too to the machinery is the isolation of the watched, their ‘lateral invisibility’, and their inability to verify the watching. Venetian blinds as well as dividing walls conceal any guard in the watchtower, even the guard’s shadow. In the unfamiliar city I fielded messages from distant friends, who thought that I still lived in Paris. Waiting to hear from Parisian friends, I checked Twitter and, scrolling, wondered whether it was required of me to post.

 (…)

To Be, or Not to Be

Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books
Masha Gessen at her apartment in Moscow in the early 1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties

Masha Gessen’s essay – which was adapted and given as the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library in December 2017 – on identity and the politics of choice-making.

1.

Fetus

The topic of my talk was determined by today’s date. Thirty-nine years ago my parents took a package of documents to an office in Moscow. This was our application for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union. More than two years would pass before the visa was granted, but from that day on I have felt a sense of precariousness wherever I have been, along with a sense of opportunity. They are a pair.

I have emigrated again as an adult. I was even named a “great immigrant” in 2016, which I took to be an affirmation of my skill, attained through practice—though this was hardly what the honor was meant to convey. I have also raised kids of my own. If anything, with every new step I have taken, I have marveled more at the courage it would have required for my parents to step into the abyss. I remember seeing them in the kitchen, poring over a copy of an atlas of the world. For them, America was an outline on a page, a web of thin purplish lines. They’d read a few American books, had seen a handful of Hollywood movies. A friend was fond of asking them, jokingly, whether they could really be sure that the West even existed.

Truthfully, they couldn’t know. They did know that if they left the Soviet Union, they would never be able to return (like many things we accept as rare certainties, this one turned out to be wrong). They would have to make a home elsewhere. I think that worked for them: as Jews, they never felt at home in the Soviet Union—and when home is not where you are born, nothing is predetermined. Anything can be. So my parents always maintained that they viewed their leap into the unknown as an adventure.

I wasn’t so sure. After all, no one had asked me.

2. 

Vulnerable

As a thirteen-year-old, I found myself in a clearing in a wood outside of Moscow, at a secret—one might say underground, though it was out in the open—gathering of Jewish cultural activists. People went up in front of the crowd, one, two, or several at a time, with guitars and without, and sang from a limited repertoire of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. That is, they sang the same three or four songs over and over. The tunes scraped something inside of me, making an organ I didn’t know I had—located just above the breastbone—tingle with a sense of belonging. I was surrounded by strangers, sitting, as we were, on logs laid across the grass, and I remember their faces to this day. I looked at them and thought, This is who I am. The “this” in this was “Jewish.” From my perch thirty-seven years later, I’d add “in a secular cultural community” and “in the Soviet Union,” but back then space was too small to require elaboration. Everything about it seemed self-evident—once I knew what I was, I would just be it. In fact, the people in front of me, singing those songs, were trying to figure out how to be Jewish in a country that had erased Jewishness. Now I’d like to think that it was watching people learning to inhabit an identity that made me tingle.

Some months later, we left the Soviet Union.

In autobiographical books written by exiles, the moment of emigration is often addressed in the first few pages—regardless of where it fell in a writer’s life. I went to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory to look for the relevant quote in its familiar place. This took a while because the phrase was actually on page 250 out of 310. Here it is: “The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.”

This is an often-quoted phrase in a book full of quotable sentences. The cultural critic and my late friend Svetlana Boym analyzed Nabokov’s application of the word “syncope,” which has three distinct uses: in linguistics it’s the shortening of a word by omission of a sound or syllable from its middle; in music it is a change of rhythm and shift of accent when a normally weak beat is stressed; and in medicine it is a brief loss of consciousness. “Syncope,” wrote Svetlana, “is the opposite of symbol and synthesis.”

Suketu Mehta, in his Maximum City, wrote:

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to.

Mehta didn’t let me down: this assertion appears in the very first pages of his magnificent book; also, he moved to America at the same age that I did. And while I think he might be wrong about everyone, I am certain he is right about émigrés: the break colors everything that came before and after.

Svetlana Boym had a private theory: an émigré’s life continues in the land left behind. It’s a parallel story. In an unpublished piece, she tried to imagine the parallel lives her Soviet/Russian/Jewish left-behind self was leading. Toward the end of her life, this retracing and reimagining became something of an obsession. She also had a theory about me: that I had gone back to reclaim a life that had been interrupted. In any case, there are many stories to be told about a single life.

(…)

It was gold

Patricia Lockwood for the London Review of Books
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For the LRB, Patricia Lockwood returns to Joan Didion’s works alongside the new Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold (directed by Griffin Dunne), evincing the ‘pointillism’ of Didion’s style.

(…)

To revisit Slouching towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the paperback editions just released by 4th Estate, is to read an old up-to-the-minute relevance renewed. Inside these essays, the coming revolution feels neither terrifying nor exhilarating but familiar – if you are a reader of Joan Didion, you have been studying it all your life. Read ‘Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)’ and see if you do not recognise the man in the modern scene. ‘Actually I was interested not in the revolution but in the revolutionary.’ Where things are moving too fast she fixes a focal point. She captures the way the language becomes more memetic, more meaningless just as the ground begins to swell under the feet – as if the herd, sensing some danger, must consolidate its responses. Her adept turn to political writing in the 1980s and 1990s showed the same prescience; if you are tuned to where the language goes strange, you will anticipate the narrative they’re going to try to sell you.

She herself is now powerful, runs the criticism. There is a danger in her, and it is the same danger she suggests in ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’: that the stories first tell us what it was like, and then they tell us how to live. Like the desert, she imposes a style. ‘Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.’

There is something to this. Her essays take place, for many people, in some innermost hotel room. We are there as she unpacks the items on her iconic list, sets the bottle of bourbon on the desk, calls home to check the time, lies down in the dark when the aura comes. Why are we closer to her? Why do we feel, along with her, the shaking of the hand narrowing down and down to the steadiness of the pen? A peculiarity of my own: among all her books, I had not read The Year of Magical Thinking, because my own husband, whom I married very young, on whom I depend and in whom I store half of my information, has a family history of heart attacks – to be more specific, the men on his father’s side all drop dead in their homes at the age of 59. ‘As long as I don’t read it,’ I often thought to myself, and thought no further, though I kept the book on a low shelf. Whenever the swimming-pool colour of the spine caught my eye I saw a kitchen, and a telephone on the wall with a long curling cord, and my own hands not knowing what to do. ‘As long as I save it, against that day.’

This is personal, but we have seen both the deep personal and the wide diagnostic in her, it is all tied together: South and West, the fracturing 1960s, a line of ancestry across the country. The earth rucking up like a dress bought where, bought when. The wagon train and the plane rides of the sentences. Someone’s on track. The assay scales and the choosing of the words. Her grandfather a geologist, herself a seismograph, her daughter sobbing ‘Let me be in the ground.’ The cowboy and the one who strides beside him, the Broken Man, the childhood bogeyman Quintana and she so feared. These things are together in our reading. Through long investigation into fracture she has brought them together, and somehow we are there in the centre of her thinking, in the place where she is working it all out. We are told it does not hold. It holds.

Perhaps she promises that synthesis, even of a time like this, is still possible. ‘I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ Perhaps she offers the feeling that if you write the facts down, the facts might somehow remain standing at the end, after the end. There is a small, unobtrusive reporter in the corner. She has outlasted everything else.

(…)

The Tenuous Nonfiction of Clarice Lispector’s Crônicas

Gabrielle Bellot for The Paris Review
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From Gabrielle Bellot’s essay on Clarice Lispector’s ‘confessional, ludic’ newspaper columns, featured in The Paris Review:

“I can feel the charlatan in me, haunting me,” Clarice Lispector wrote in one of the crônicas, or newspaper columns, she composed each week from 1967 to 1973 for the Jornal do Brasil. She was writing in Leme, a neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro named for a vast rock that resembled the rudder of a ship. “I am almost sickened by my basic honesty,” she continued. Later in the column, she suggested that “bad taste” and bad writing were similar, and that bad writing essentially meant telling the simple, unadorned, too-sincere truth. In writing, she declared, “the dividing line between bad taste and truth is almost imperceptible. In writing, moreover, there is an accepted standard of good taste which is actually much worse than bad taste. Just to amuse myself, I sometimes walk that thin line between the two”—between, that is, being a “charlatan,” as that column was titled, and writing the bland truth.

A uniquely Brazilian form, crônicas offered readers free-form writing from writers of all kinds, including poets and novelists. Lispector’s adoring editor at the paper, Alberto Dines, simply published almost everything exactly as she submitted it. Although many of her crônicas appeared autobiographical, many also seemed to bend the truth; Lispector, who rarely kept even her birthday consistent, felt most comfortable writing about herself when she was allowed to invent and embellish.

In her crônicas, she spoke more directly about her life than usual, yet those seeming revelations were overlaid with the metaphysical ponderings, digressions, and questions about reality that characterized her fiction, like The Passion According to G. H., and many of her short stories—as well as the works of hers that defied characterization. “I am not going to be autobiographical,” she wrote in Água Viva, a genre-defying semiautobiographical text partly stitched together from her newspaper columns. “I want to be ‘bio.’ ” In a note to her friend and editor Olga Borelli about the text, she wrote, “I must find another way of writing. Very close to the truth (which?), but not personal.”

If she played with the superficial truth, it was in service, she believed, of exposing one deeper, of passing readers a brief-lit lantern for the moonless dark of ourselves, even if that light revealed, sometimes, more contradiction, more chaos, more flittering soul-storm. Her crônicas blurred lines between genre—some are like little Zen koans, some lyrical reminiscences, while others, like “Return to Nature,” are harder to categorize, reading like parables or flash fiction. At times, they also muddied demarcations between nonfiction and fiction, resurrecting the oldest question of form: Where does nonfiction truly end and fiction begin, and what do we do with texts where we do not know the answer?

*

That she started the crônicas at all seemed a miracle. A year before she began them, she had nearly died when her two fatal addictions came together: cigarettes and sleeping pills. She had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in hand after taking a soporific on the evening she was supposed to have attended a friend’s book launch; at three thirty-five in the morning the following day, a neighbor noticed smoke billowing out of her apartment. She awoke in a familiar yet phantasmagoric hell: her room, acrid and ablaze. Instead of fleeing, she tried to save her papers and, in her maelstrom panic, attempted to put out the fire with her bare hands. Paulo, her son, saved her by dragging her to a nearby apartment; as she walked, she left bloody footprints. “The fire I suffered a while back partially destroyed my right hand,” she reflected later. “My legs were marked forever … I spent three days in hell, where—so they say—bad people go after death. I don’t consider myself bad,” she added, “and I experienced it while still alive.” Pandemonium, as for Milton, had taken on a new, hellish meaning.

She lived with the stagnant sadness of swamps; her old life had become an ignis fatuus, fluttering and flaming just out of reach. Typing became arduous. Her apartment, from where she could hear the hiss of waves and the thwack of tennis balls, seemed oppressive. The crônicas, however, gave her a new task to focus on and conquer, even though she had misgivings about becoming a cronista. The idea of writing for money appalled her. “I’m … new to writing for money,” she revealed in an early column. “I worked in the press before as a professional, without signing my name. Signing, however, automatically makes it more personal. And I feel a bit like I’m selling my soul.” A friend consoled her. “Writing is selling one’s soul a little bit,” he told her.

Her readers purchased her soul with relish. The columns granted her a vast new range of fans, particularly the Brazilian middle-class targeted by the Jornal. She was famous, now, in a new way. One corybantic fan, who had seen Lispector’s apartment ablaze on that fateful night, even appeared at her door with an octopus and proceeded to cook the cephalopod right then and there as a token of her appreciation. “Being a columnist,” Lispector reflected later, “has a mystery that I don’t understand: it’s that columnists, at least in Rio, are very loved … I feel so close to my readers.” She had joined a tradition in which some of Brazil’s most renowned writers had partaken, from Machado de Assis to Carlos Drummond de Andrade.

But she had also joined as a woman, making her one of the few female cronistas of the time.

(…)

On Liking Women

Andrea Long Chu for n+1
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For n+1‘s Motherland issue, Andrea Long Chu’s essay on transsexuality, Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto and feminist transphobia:

Once a week, for a single semester of high school, I would be dismissed early from class to board the athletics bus with fifteen teenage girls in sleek cap-sleeved volleyball jerseys and short shorts. I was the only boy.

Occasionally a girl who still needed to change would excuse herself behind a row of seats to slip out of her school uniform into the team’s dark-blue colors. For more minor wardrobe adjustments, I was simply asked to close my eyes. In theory, all sights were trained on the game ahead where I, as official scorekeeper, would push numbers around a byzantine spreadsheet while the girls leapt, dug, and dove with raw, adolescent power. But whatever discipline had instilled itself before a match would dissolve in its aftermath, often following a pit stop for greasy highway-exit food, as the girls relaxed into an innocent dishabille: untucked jerseys, tight undershirts, the strap of a sports bra. They talked, with the candor of postgame exhaustion, of boys, sex, and other vices; of good taste and bad blood and small, sharp desires. I sat, and I listened, and I waited, patiently, for that wayward electric pulse that passes unplanned from one bare upper arm to another on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday evening, the away-game bus cruising back over the border between one red state and another.

The truth is, I have never been able to differentiate liking women from wanting to be like them. For years, the former desire held the latter in its mouth, like a capsule too dangerous to swallow. When I trawl the seafloor of my childhood for sunken tokens of things to come, these bus rides are about the gayest thing I can find. They probably weren’t even all that gay. It is common, after all, for high school athletes to try to squash the inherent homoeroticism of same-sex sport under the heavy cleat of denial. But I’m too desperate to salvage a single genuine lesbian memory from the wreckage of the scared, straight boy whose life I will never not have lived to be choosy. The only other memory with a shot at that title is my pubescent infatuation with my best friend, a moody, low-voiced, Hot Topic–shopping girl who, it dawned on me only many years later, was doing her best impression of Shane from The L Word. One day she told me she had a secret to tell me after school; I spent the whole day queasy with hope that a declaration of her affections was forthcoming. Later, over the phone, after a pause big enough to drown in, she told me she was gay. “I thought you might say that,” I replied, weeping inside. A decade later, after long having fallen out of touch, I texted her. “A week ago, I figured out that I am trans,” I wrote. “You came out to me all those years ago. Just returning the favor.”

This was months before I began teaching my first undergraduate recitation, where for the second time in my life—but the first time as a woman—I read Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto. The SCUM Manifesto is a deliciously vicious feminist screed calling for the revolutionary overthrow of all men; Solanas self-published it in 1967, one year before she shot Andy Warhol on the sixth floor of the Decker Building in New York City. I wondered how my students would feel about it. In the bathroom before class, as I fixed my lipstick and fiddled with my hair, I was approached by a thoughtful, earnest young woman who sat directly to my right during class. “I loved the Solanas reading,” she told me breathlessly. “I didn’t know that was a thing you could study.” I cocked my head, confused. “You didn’t know what was a thing you could study?” “Feminism!” she said, beaming. In class, I would glance over at this student’s notes, only to discover that she had filled the page with the word SCUM, written over and over with the baroque tenderness usually reserved for the name of a crush.

I, too, had become infatuated with feminism in college. I, too, had felt the thrill of its clandestine discovery. I had caught a shy glimpse of her across a dim, crowded dormitory room vibrating with electronic music and unclear intentions: a low-key, confident girl, slightly aloof, with a gravity all neighboring bodies obeyed. Feminism was too cool, too effortlessly hip, to be interested in a person like me, whom social anxiety had prevented from speaking over the telephone until well into high school. Besides, I heard she only dated women. I limited myself, therefore, to acts of distant admiration. I left critical comments on the student newspaper’s latest exposé of this or that frat party. I took a Women’s Studies course that had only one other man in it. I read desperately, from Shulamith Firestone to Jezebel, and I wrote: bizarre, profane plays about rape culture, one where the archangel Gabriel had a monologue so vile it would have burned David Mamet’s tongue clean off; and ugly, strange poetry featuring something I was calling the Beautiful Hermaphrodite Proletariat. Feminism was all I wanted to think about, talk about. When I visited home, my mother and my sister, plainly irritated, informed me that I did not know what it was like to be a woman. But a crush was a crush, if anything buttressed by the conviction that feminism, like any of the girls I had ever liked, was too good for me.

(…)

Fairouz in Exile

Matthew McNaught for n+1
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Featured in n+1, Matthew McNaught’s poignant essay explores the experiences of displaced Syrian civilians through the story of his friend, Ahmad:

FAIROUZ IS UNSTUCK IN TIME: one moment, a 1960s starlet in a silk scarf, a Spanish guitar in her hands; the next, a stately elder in a white dress, all regal poise and consoling gaze before an auditorium of fans. Seconds pass and she is Nouhad Haddad, a late-1940s teenager with puppy fat and frizzy schoolgirl hair, before the stage name, the stylist, the international fame.

“Just search ‘Fairouz morning songs,’” Ahmad told me.1 “There are hundreds of compilations.” This was one of the first I found. Like the images in the slide show, the songs move back and forth through time. The Arabic ensemblestrings, oud, and zither, braiding a single line over the clattering groove of percussionis replaced now and then by bossa nova guitar or jazzy piano. Throughout it all, the voice is unmistakable. The same tender and maternal tone, alighting softly on consonants; the same clear, high notes and birdlike tumbles down the scale.

I write your name, my love, on the poplar tree

And you write my name, my love, in the sand of the street

My God, her voice is like honey, writes one commenter. This is an unusually civil corner of YouTube. Many just stop to say good morning, in the ornate way Arabic allows: morning of hope, morning of roses, morning of love. Others reminisce, and in this the Syrians outnumber any other nationality, even those from the diva’s native Lebanon. That morning sun, that smell of Damascene jasmine, and Fairouz filling every house. God, may those days return. One comment recurs like a mantra, repeated almost word for word under every compilation video like this: There is nothing sweeter than starting the day with a cup of coffee and the voice of Fairouz.

Tomorrow, when the rain falls on our broken stories

Your name will remain, my love, and mine will be erased

AHMAD TOLD ME his Fairouz ritual starts soon after 9 AM. He doesn’t need to set an alarm; by nine, enough of his seventeen roommates are up to make oversleeping impossible. He makes his bed, tidies the portion of the room he shares with two other Syrians, and brushes his teeth. He goes to the kitchen, one of two in the apartment, pulls up the YouTube compilation on his phone, and puts the kettle on.

Sometimes Ahmad enters the kitchen to find Edmund, from Ghana, at the table rolling his morning joint. Hassan, from the Congo, often sits by the windowsill, pouring sweet black tea from one glass to another until it has a head of silky foama habit he acquired in Mali, one of the longer stops on his ten-year journey to Europe. The Albanians listen to Albanian pop music on their phones, Edmund to dancehall, Hassan to Bob Marley. But when Ahmad has his morning coffee, everybody knows it’s time for Fairouz.

WITHIN SECONDS of our first real conversation in six years, Ahmad was mocking me like in the old days. When we last spoke, I had been studying Arabic in Syria for more than two years and gained a limited, inelegant fluency in the Syrian dialect. He’d had fun with this, testing me with a barrage of ornate expressions straight out of a ’30s Damascene period drama or getting me to repeat rude or obscure Syrian insults. Five years in England with an Iraqi wife had left me with a mongrel accent, a Baghdad-Damascus-Hampshire cross that he now found hilarious. “Your Arabic is amazing,” he said, through wheezing laughter.

Between 2007 and 2009 I was a part-time English teacher at a language school in the center of Damascus. Ahmad, who was 20 at the time, helped run a nearby café. When I had morning classes, he gave me my first coffee of the day and often my first conversation.

It didn’t take long for me to update him on my own news. I got married, left teaching, went back to school, and started a job in mental health. I lived in Southampton, on the south coast of England. Southampton was nice, I said, but a little dull.

Ahmad’s news took longer. After March 2011, he threw himself into the protest movement in his home suburb of Moadamiya. He saw peaceful marches turn to bloodbaths, and after months of killing and mass arrests, saw the opposition in Moadamiya turn to violence. He lost his job when the café closed down in 2012. He saw the regime response in Moadamiya escalate to a full-blown siege, and the armed opposition there turn increasingly sectarian and Islamist.

He managed to flee to a safer suburb in 2013, leave Syria for Lebanon in 2014, and fly to Nepal, where a family friend had offered him a job in a Syrian restaurant in the tourist town of Pokhara. After a few months running the kitchen he fell out with the owner, lost his job, survived an earthquake, and spent the last of his meager savings. With the help of friends, he borrowed enough money to get a flight to Istanbul that stopped over in Serbia. He fled the airport during transit. From Serbia he began his long journeyby foot, by bus, by shared taxito Bielefeld, in northwest Germany. Bielefeld was nice, he said.

He listed his losses quickly, as if to skate over the full truth of them: an uncle beheaded by pro-regime shabiha in a mosque. Four cousins to shelling. Another cousin, taken at a checkpoint and tortured to death. An aunt, shot by an antitank round while driving her car. A close friend to a sniper, another to torture, two more to gunfire. All this, he said, was before the siege really began.

His parents and his siblings were OK. His mom and dad had fled to Lebanon along with two of his sisters and his younger brother. His parents were in poor health but lived in relative safety. His two other brothers, his sister, and their families were still living under siege in Moadamiya.

He didn’t want to stay in Germany for good, he said. But for now he wanted to make the most of it: master the language, get a job. And he wanted, more than anything, for some of his family to join him. The younger ones had missed out on years of schooling. If they made it to Germany, they could at least get an education.

(…)

Clown School

Nuar Alsadir for Granta
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Featured in Granta Magazine, Nuar Alsadir’s essay ‘Clown School’ examines selfhood and performance: 

After my first day of clown school I tried to drop out. The instructor was provoking us in a way that made me uncomfortable – to the nervous smiley woman, ‘Don’t lead with your teeth;’ to the young hipster, ‘Go back to the meth clinic,’ and to me, ‘I don’t want to hear your witty repartee about Oscar Wilde.’

I was the only non-actor in the program and had made the mistake, as we went around the circle on the first day, of telling everyone that I was a psychoanalyst writing a book about laughter. As part of my research, I explained, I’d frequented comedy clubs and noticed how each performance, had it been delivered in a different tone of voice and context, could have been the text of a therapy session. Audience members, I told them, laughed less because a performer was funny than because they were honest. Of course that’s not how all laughter operates, but the kind of laughter I’m interested in (spontaneous outbursts) seems to function that way, and clown pushes that dynamic to its extreme – which is why I decided to enroll in clown school, and how I earned the grating nickname ‘smarty pants’.

But if I dropped out, I’d lose my tuition money. So I decided to stay, and, by staying, was provoked, unsettled, changed.

 

*

 

There’s a knee-jerk tendency to perceive provocation as negative – like how in writing workshops participants often call for the most striking part of a work to be cut. When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up – we lose our habitual bearings, and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in. Habit protects us from anything we don’t have a set way of handling. As it’s when we’re off-guard that we’re least automatous, it’s then that we’re most likely to come up with spontaneous, uncurated responses.

It turned out the perpetually-smiling woman was sad, the hipster (who didn’t even do drugs) acted high as a way of muting the parts of his personality he was afraid we would judge, and I found it easier to hide behind my intellect than expose myself as a flawed and flailing human being. Each role, in other words, offered a form of protection: by giving off recognizable signals to indicate a character type, we accessed a kind of invisibility. We cued people to look through us to the prototypes we were referencing. When the instructor satirized those roles, he defamiliarized them so that the habitual suddenly became visible. His provocations knocked the lids off the prototypes we were hiding inside of, in a similar way to how many psychoanalysts, in the attempt to understand a person’s conflicts, begin by analyzing their defenses – what is being used as cover – before moving on to what is being covered up and why.

Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning – though in radically different ways – create a path towards the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self, or, in Nietzsche’s terms, to ‘become the one you are.’ Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott considered play ‘the gateway to the unconscious’, which he divided into two parts: the repressed unconscious that is to remain hidden and the rest of the unconscious that ‘each individual wants to get to know’ by way of ‘play’, which, ‘like dreams, serves the function of self-revelation’. In clown school, the part of the mind that psychoanalysis tries to reveal – by analyzing material brought into session, including dreams or play – is referred to as a person’s clown.

 

*

 

Each of us has a clown inside of us, according to Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and founder of The Funny School of Good Acting, where I was taking my two-week, six-hours-per-day workshop. The theatrical art of clowning – commonly referred to as ‘clown’ – is radically different from the familiar images of birthday party, circus or scary clowns. Bayes’ program helps actors find their inner clown. The self-revelation that results provides access to a wellspring of playful impulses that they can then tap into during creative processes. His method stems from the French tradition developed by his former teachers Jacques Lecoq and Phillippe Gaulier – the kind of training the fictional main character of Louis CK and Zach Galifankis’ TV series Baskets seeks, and that Sascha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson and Roberto Begnini underwent early in their careers.

Lecoq, who began as a physiotherapist, believed ‘the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant’ – a phrase that could be applied to the unconscious.  The process of trying to find your clown involves going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialization to reveal the clown that had been there all along – or in Winnicott’s terms, your ‘true self’.

 

*

(…)

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.

(…)

Ralph Ellison’s Tragicomic Soul

Alejandro Nava for Lit Hub
Ralph-Ellison

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).

(…)

Extract: This Little Art

From Kate Briggs's new book out today
This Little Art

Extract from Kate Briggs’s new essay book This Little Art, published today. The essay is a genre-bending song for the practice of literary translation, offering fresh, fierce and timely thinking on reading, writing and living with the works of others:

DRAGONESE

It’s Walpurgis-Nacht in the sanatorium and Hans Castorp, the hero of The Magic Mountain, has been made to feel hot and reckless by the atmosphere of carnival. Standing a small distance behind him, in the doorway of the little salon, is Frau Chauchat. She is dressed in a startling gown of thin, dark silk.

Was it black?

Probably.

Or, at most, shot with golden brown.

Cut with a modest little neck, round like a schoolgirl’s frock. Hardly so much as to show the base of her throat. Or the collar bones. Or, beneath the soft fringes of her hair, the slightly prominent bone at the back of her neck.

But all the while leaving bare to the shoulder her arms.

Arms so tender and so full.

So cool and so amazingly white, set off against the dark silk of her frock.

To such ravishing effect as to make Hans Castorp close his eyes. And murmur, deep within himself: ‘O my God!’

He had once held a theory about those arms. He had thought, on making their acquaintance for the first time – veiled, as they had been then, in diaphanous gauze – that their indescribable, unreasonable seductiveness was down to the gauze itself. To the ‘illusion’, as he had called it. Folly! The utter, accentuated, blinding nudity of those arms was an experience now so intoxicating, compared with that earlier one, as to leave our man no other recourse than, once again, with drooping head, to whisper, soundlessly: ‘O my God!’

 

Later, agitated by the silly drama of a drawing game, he’ll walk straight up to her and boldly ask for a pencil.

She’ll stand there, in her paper party cap, looking him up and down.

‘I?’ she’ll ask. ‘Perhaps I have, let me see.’

Eventually, she’ll fetch one up from deep within her leather bag: a little silver one, slender and fragile, scarcely meant for use.

Voilà,’ she’ll say, holding it up by its end in front of him, between thumb and forefinger, lightly turning it to and fro.

Because she won’t quite hand it to him, because she’ll give it to him and withhold it, he’ll take it, so to speak, without receiving it: that is, he’ll hold out his hand, ready to grasp the delicate thing, but without actually touching it.

C’est à visser, tu sais,’ she’ll say. You have to unscrew it.

And with heads bent over it together, she’ll show him the mechanism. It would be quite ordinary, the little needle of hard, probably worthless lead, coming down as one loosened the screw.

They’ll stand bending toward each other. The stiff collar of his evening dress serving to support his chin.

She’ll speak to him in French, and he’ll follow her.

He’ll speak to her in French uneasily, feeling for the sense. 

 

A little further on she’ll command, a bit exasperated and more impersonally now: ‘Parlez allemand s’il vous plait!’

 

And in the copy of the novel I have open next to me as I read and write, Hans Castorp replies in English. Clavdia Chauchat has asked him, pointedly, in French, to address her in German, and his reply is written for me in English. I mean, of course it is. It’s an everyday peculiar thing: I am reading The Magic Mountain in Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation, first published in 1927. A novel set high up in the Swiss Alps, one of Germany’s most formative contributions to modern European literature (so the back cover of my edition tells me) and here they all are acting and interacting – not always, but for the most part – in English. And I go with it. I do. Of course I do. I willingly accept these terms. Positively and very gladly, in fact. Because with French but no German – I look at my bookshelves: also, no Italian and no Norwegian, no Japanese and no Spanish, no Danish and no Korean (and so on and so on) – I know that this is how the writing comes:

An unassuming young man named Hans Castorp travels up from his native city of Hamburg to Davos-Dorf. When the train stops at the small mountain station, he is surprised to hear his cousin’s familiar voice: ‘Hullo,’ says Joachim, ‘there you are!’ 

(…)

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