I have a house, and it’s great. My money bought it, so it’s mine. I love to live in it. Never yours, always mine.
I have sex with a man, my husband. It’s great. We do it a long time. It feels good. A great time.
My mother comes to visit. She lives somewhere else. I came out of her vagina.
My job is at an office. I do it with a computer. It’s a lot of work. For one half hour I eat lunch.
I wear dresses, because I’m a woman. I also wear a bra, underpants, stockings, high-heeled shoes, a ring, a coat, a hat, and something else I’m forgetting right now. Eyeglasses. When I go inside my work
I take off the coat, the hat, and one time my shoes, but never all the other things.
My father was a man, and my mother is a woman.
My father is dead. His body was put into a coffin, and the coffin was put into the ground. He will be there until the end of time.
I am thirty-four years old. There are gray hairs on my head and wrinkles on my brow. I do a diet and jog around the track. I wear makeup on my face, such as lipstick.
Sometimes I hear voices, and they make me scared. The voices are in books, on television, on the radio, in the computer, and sometimes in a real person. They are different voices than my own. I’ve seen more dead bodies than most people I know.
Forget about the future, the past is what’s great. I remember the past, and I tell people about it in stories. My stories never include the future, which hasn’t happened yet.
When my father died from an illness, people said, “I’m sorry.” My friend said, “Take it one day at a time.” When I was younger I thought these were dumb words because lots of people had said them before, but now I think that these are smart words because lots of people have said them before. When he stopped breathing, I cried dozens and dozens of tears.
I have a dog named Meatball and a cat named Skinbag.
I am a light beige person. My hair is dark brown. My eyes are green. The bra I wear is for my breasts, which grew when I was a teenager. I also grew hair on my vagina and other places. Children can be distinguished from adults by their inferior height.
Some of my hairs I pull out. Hair is ugly—better to be shiny and smooth.
God lives inside a church, and he tells me that everything is great.
I had a wedding in a beautiful building. My dress was white and admired by everyone. A ceremony, rings, kissing, a toast, eating, speeches, and dancing happened. After my husband and I left, someone executed clean-up maneuvers.
My car is white and great. My husband has a vehicle too—green. We wear our seat belts when we drive and turn the steering wheels.
A child came out of my vagina. It was small and crying. Sometimes it was quiet. Later it grew. I sang so it would go to sleep and gave it milk. There were a lot of diapers. It was a girl.
Last week I put cheese and crackers on a tray. I bought wine. Lots of people came over. Music was playing. It was a great party.
My husband is in the garage kissing the babysitter. I pay the babysitter money to watch my child when I go to the office or to other people’s great parties. I am full of anger, but that’s okay.
Just kidding! Everything I’ve told you is a lie.
You can make someone look at you if you stare at them long enough. So I learned many years ago riding the bus to summer camp, staring down the motorists on the Long Island Expressway. I’d press my nose to the plexiglass windows and bear down on them with my eyes. Invariably the man in the blue Toyota would turn his head quizzically to the left, and up to my level.
What is the power of the gaze, that it defies the laws of physics, pierces through our blind spots, emits a signal that registers on some extra-sensory frequency?
It’s an invitation. A request to its object to be transformed into a recipient, and therefore an agent. But not, necessarily, to be reciprocated.
Is it always a display of power? Is there always something dominating, or even sleazy, about looking? Is that why we look back, our brains hard-wired to repel the invasive stare? What do you want? What are your intentions? What are you looking at? the receiver of the gaze demands.
Does the gazer even know?
The social psychologist Ilan Shrira, in Psychology Today: ‘That ESP-like feeling you get when you’re being watched is your brain telling you, in a barely perceptible way, that something meaningful is happening.’
‘I imagine a Parisian building with its façade removed, so that from the ground floor to the attic, all the rooms in the front are instantly and simultaneously visible.’ This was Georges Perec’s idea for his Oulipian masterpiece Life a User’s Manual (1978). Perec was inspired by a Saul Steinberg drawing, a cross-section of a New York lodging-house allowing the viewer to see into its twenty-three rooms. Onto this quintessential New York building Perec superimposed his Haussmannianimmeuble, adding yet another layer all his own: a 10 x 10 chessboard onto which he plotted a series of moves following the knight’s path, in order to explore all the spaces in this building on the fictional rue Simon Crubellier, joining Zola’s Pot-Bouille in the (small) canon of great French novels about apartment buildings and executing the art of constraint on a previously unrealised scale.
Not a prurient peep. Not an unveiling like the naked man I once saw in his brightly lit, curtainless Hoxton flat in one of those modern glass buildings overlooking the canal with the huge floor-to-ceiling windows, a very expensive fishbowl. I was with a group of friends, walking home after dinner. We stopped and looked and some of us turned away and some of us kept looking, to see what would happen with the woman waiting for him in the next room.
More like a sudden drawing back of a curtain, or a world half-visible in the gap between its drape and the edge of the window. Like the sudden appearance of my neighbour across the street in my old apartment on the Left Bank, who would open the doors of his French window, move his desk up in between them, and set to work on his model aeroplanes. At least I think they were model airplanes; I could never see quite well enough to make out what he was gluing together.
Not long ago I saw a beautiful book called Vis-à-Vis in the bookshop by my flat. It was a collection of photographs by an American artist, Gail Albert Halaban, of people inside Parisian buildings spied through their windows. Halaban shot from a safe distance. She doesn’t zoom in too far, just enough so that the faces come into view, no closer. She’s interested in the world, in the context, not in the interior life of an individual but the interior life of a home.
It’s a good title, vis-à-vis. It means face-to-face, though we use it in English to mean ‘in relation to.’ But in the context of French real estate, it means you can see into the apartment across the street, or next door. It is generally considered undesirable to take an apartment with a vis-à-vis. We might be caught off-guard, unprepared to be seen. The intimacy of the private sphere might be breached. Those of us in our vis-à-vis apartments, we hang curtains.
Halaban’s photos are so beautiful they’re suspect; there’s something apartment porn-y about them that makes them attractive but diminishes their power. (The antithesis of Halaban’s photos? Kima’s window moment in The Wire. Good night hoppers. Good night hustlers.) Those perfectly weathered Parisian buildings, distressed without having known too much distress, their biscuit-colored stucco topped with grey zinc rooftops, gabled to make room for maid’s room windows sous les toits. Some haughty, Haussmannian, with well-manicured inhabitants. Some short and stodgy with artists inside, judging from their clothes and their musical instruments. It’s not clear if the book is for Parisians to ogle each other or for the rest of the world to ogle Parisians. I don’t think it can be both.
I do a bit of looking around on the internet and find the shoots were all staged; everyone in the photos knew they were being photographed, had given their permission. That takes something away from them. We want to look in at people caught unprepared; if we open a book called Vis-à-vis it’s at least partly for the surprise of coming face-to-face. Or at least, to be faced with their face, without their having seen ours.
I found a video where Halaban explains what she was up to, anticipating allegations of voyeurism. ‘Some people think it’s creepy,’ she says. ‘But if you look at my photos of Paris you will realise I’m a friendly window watcher.’ In art, perhaps we want our window watchers to be less friendly; perhaps friendliness is the enemy of brilliance. Outside of art, we don’t want to be caught off-guard. We want to be the masters of our photographic profiles, curating our feed, beefing up the filters and retouching the flaws. We want to control the gaze when we are its object. But is there room in the cityscape for a watcher who’s not an artist, but not a voyeur, either?
Whether or not the people inside are performing their inside-ness, the photographs are striking visual vignettes with an aesthetics, and a politics, of surface. Whether art has to violate the surface is a matter for reflection.
I have a Gustave Caillebotte postcard I bought many years ago, before I moved to Paris, of zinc Parisian rooftops in the snow, and I kept it by my desk for years before I moved here, alongside another Caillebotte, the one of the workers stripping wooden parquet. (Caillebotte’s paintings are looked down on by the same people who dismiss things as too attractive. The discerning are suspicious when they feel aesthetically pleased.)
I kept them by my desk that way to make myself work harder, so one day I could have a view of the Parisian rooftops. Now that I’m here, I’m perennially hoping the next flat I live in will have that perfect view.
I want to see rooftops but don’t want to live in a tall building. I grew up in New York and have lived at many different heights in the city, once as high as the 26th floor. In New York, the higher the floor, the higher the price per square foot. In Paris it’s more complicated. You don’t want to live too close to the ground (a rez-de-chaussée will always be a difficult proposition on the market), but you don’t want the top floor either, sous les toits, under the aluminum rooftops, which are badly insulated, hard to heat in the winter, and will cook you in the summer. At what height it is acceptable to live is a question of experience and savoir faire. But I think the reason we don’t want to live up so high in Paris is because we’d be the only ones up there for miles, or meters, we’d lose our relation to other buildings – and why do we live in cities, if not to be in relation to others? In New York, up on the 26th floor, you have other aerie-neighbours.
I want to be high enough to see the rooftops but not New York high. I think what I’m looking for is an apartment on the top of a hill.
Where we live now overlooks where two roads come together to form a V, with our five-storey building on one arm, and another on the other, joined in the middle by a squat two-storey building in the shape of a triangle, like the Flatiron in New York, but less remarkable in a city built on the spokes of a wheel. We live on the fifth floor with an elevator but no balcony, because this is not a Haussmannian building. We are under the toits. It doesn’t matter too much because this is only temporary, a sublet until we can find a place to buy. As the dusk falls blue and the lights warm up yellow it’s like living in one of Halaban’s photographs, looking across our neighbour’s roof to the people filling the other building. At night the dark compresses, brings us closer together, while the light draws our attention, a lens-less zoom. From our height we can see into so many windows at once. A woman in a red sweater watching TV. A figure moving around behind a glazed window – a bathroom perhaps? There’s the trendy man and woman whose turquoise chair I once photographed because I liked the way it looked against their rustic wooden table. I hoped they wouldn’t spot me; how would they know I was not leering, but admiring?
Halaban cites Baudelaire’s poem ‘Windows’ as justification for her project. ‘What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can conceive taking place behind a pane of window glass.’
But sometimes what we want to see is nothing more than the pane of glass. Or more precisely, the composition within its frame. We don’t only want to look beyond it, we want to look at it. Who knows what we are seeing when we catch sight of our neighbours? Who are we to look past their surface?
It’s Halaban’s justification I find interesting. It’s human to want to connect, she says.
An article to assimilate the rise and rise of IS: ‘Islamic State is often called “medieval” but is in fact very modern – a horrific expression of a widespread frustration with a globalised western model that promises freedom and prosperity to all, but fails to deliver.’
Violence has erupted across a broad swath of territory in recent months: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, suicide bombings in Xinjiang, Nigeria and Turkey, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, massacres in Paris, Tunisia and the American south. Future historians may well see such uncoordinated mayhem as commencing the third – and the longest and the strangest – of world wars. Certainly, forces larger and more complex than in the previous two wars are at work; they outrun our capacity to apprehend them, let alone adjust their direction to our benefit.
The early post cold war consensus – that bourgeois democracy has solved the riddle of history, and a global capitalist economy will usher in worldwide prosperity and peace – lies in tatters. But no plausible alternatives of political and economic organisation are in sight. A world organised for the play of individual self-interest looks more and more prone to manic tribalism.
In the lengthening spiral of mutinies from Charleston to central India, the insurgents of Iraq and Syria have monopolised our attention by their swift military victories; their exhibitionistic brutality, especially towards women and minorities; and, most significantly, their brisk seduction of young people from the cities of Europe and the US. Globalisation has everywhere rapidly weakened older forms of authority, in Europe’s social democracies as well as Arab despotisms, and thrown up an array of unpredictable new international actors, from Chinese irredentists and cyberhackers to Syriza and Boko Haram. But the sudden appearance of Islamic State (Isis) in Mosul last year, and the continuing failure to stem its expansion or check its appeal, is the clearest sign of a general perplexity, especially among political elites, who do not seem to know what they are doing and what they are bringing about.
In its capacity to invade and hold a territory the size of England, to inspire me-too zealotry in Pakistan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya and Egypt, and to entice thousands of camp followers, Isis represents a quantum leap over all other private and state-sanctioned cults of violence and authoritarianism today. But we are not faring well with the cognitive challenge to define this phenomenon.
For Obama, it is a “terrorist organisation, pure and simple”, which “we will degrade and ultimately destroy”. British politicians, yet again hoping against experience to impress the natives with a show of force, want to bomb the Levant as well as Mesopotamia. A sensationalist and scruple-free press seems eager to collude in their “noble lie”: that a Middle Eastern militia, thriving on the utter ineptitude of its local adversaries, poses an “existential risk” to an island fortress that saw off Napoleon and Hitler. The experts on Islam who opened for business on 9/11 peddle their wares more feverishly, helped by clash-of-civilisation theorists and other intellectual robots of the cold war, which were programmed to think in binaries (us versus them, free versus unfree world, Islam versus the west) and to limit their lexicon to words such as “ideology”, “threat” and “generational struggle”. The rash of pseudo-explanations – Islamism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic theology, Islamic irrationalism – makes Islam seem more than ever a concept in search of some content while normalising hatred and prejudice against more than 1.5 billion people. The abysmal intellectual deficit is summed up, on one hand, by the unremorsefully bellicose figure of Blair, and, on the other, the British government squabbling with the BBC over what to call Isis.
In the broadest view, Isis seems the product of a catastrophic war – the Anglo-American assault on Iraq. There is no doubt that the ground for it was prepared by this systematic devastation – the murder and displacement of millions, which came after more than a decade of brutalisation by sanctions and embargoes. The dismantling of the Iraqi army, de-Ba’athification and the Anglo-American imprimatur to Shia supremacism provoked the formation in Mesopotamia of al-Qaida, Isis’s precursor. Many local factors converged to make Isis’s emergence possible last year: vengeful Sunnis; reorganised Ba’athists in Iraq; the co-dependence of the west on despotic allies (al-Sisi, al-Maliki) and incoherence over Syria; the cynical manoeuvres of Assad; Turkey’s hubristic neo-Ottomanism, which seems exceeded in its recklessness only by the actions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
The failure of the Arab Spring has also played a part. Tunisia, its originator, has sent the largest contingent of foreign jihadis to Iraq and Syria. Altogether an estimated 17,000 people, mostly young men, from 90 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to offer their services to Isis. Dozens of British women have gone, despite the fact that men of Isis have enslaved and raped girls as young as 10 years old, and stipulated that Muslim girls marry between the ages of nine and 17, and live in total seclusion. “You can easily earn yourself a higher station with God almighty,” a Canadian insurrectionist, Andre Poulin, exhorted in a video used by Isis for online recruitment, “by sacrificing just a small bit of this worldly life.”
It is not hard to see that populous countries such as Pakistan and Indonesia will always have a significant number of takers for well-paid martyrdom. What explains, however, the allure of a caliphate among thousands of residents of relatively prosperous and stable countries, such as the high-achieving London schoolgirls who travelled to Syria this spring?
Isis, the military phenomenon, could conceivably be degraded and destroyed. Or, it could rise further, fall abruptly and then rise again (like al-Qaida, which has been degraded and destroyed several times in recent years). The state can use its immense power to impound passports, shut down websites, and even enforce indoctrination in “British values” in schools. But this is no way to stem what seems a worldwide outbreak of intellectual and moral secessionism.
Isis is only one of its many beneficiaries; demagogues of all kinds have tapped the simmering reservoirs of cynicism and discontent. At the very least, their growing success and influence ought to make us re-examine our basic assumptions of order and continuity since the political and scientific revolutions of the 19th century – our belief that the human goods achieved so far by a fortunate minority can be realised by the ever-growing majority that desires them. We must ask if the millions of young people awakening around the world to their inheritance can realise the modern promise of freedom and prosperity. Or, are they doomed to lurch, like many others in the past, between a sense of inadequacy and fantasies of revenge?
Returning to Russia from Europe in 1862, Dostoevsky first began to explore at length the very modern torment of ressentiment that the misogynists of Twitter today manifest as much as the dupes of Isis. Russian writers from Pushkin onwards had already probed the peculiar psychology of the “superfluous” man in a semi-westernised society: educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift by his limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy. Russia, trying to catch up with the west, produced many such spiritually unmoored young men who had a quasi-Byronic conception of freedom, further inflated by German idealism, but the most unpromising conditions in which to realise them.
Rudin in Turgenev’s eponymous novel desperately wants to surrender himself “completely, greedily, utterly” to something; he ends up dead on a Parisian barricade in 1848, having sacrificed himself to a cause he doesn’t fully believe in. It was, however, Dostoevsky who saw most acutely how individuals, trained to believe in a lofty notion of personal freedom and sovereignty, and then confronted with a reality that cruelly cancelled it, could break out of paralysing ambivalence into gratuitous murder and paranoid insurgency.
His insight into this fateful gap between the theory and practice of liberal individualism developed during his travels in western Europe – the original site of the greatest social, political and economic transformations in human history, and the exemplar with its ideal of individual freedom for all of humanity. By the mid-19th century, Britain was the paradigmatic modern state and society, with its sights firmly set on industrial prosperity and commercial expansion. Visiting London in 1862, Dostoevsky quickly realised the world-historical import of what he was witnessing. “You become aware of a colossal idea,” he wrote after visiting the International Exhibition, showcase of an all-conquering material culture: “You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.”
However, as Dostoevsky saw it, the cost of such splendour and magnificence was a society dominated by the war of all against all, in which most people were condemned to be losers. In Paris, he caustically noted that liberté existed only for the millionaire. The notion of equality before the law was a “personal insult” to the poor exposed to French justice. As for fraternité, it was another hoax in a society driven by the “individualist, isolationist instinct” and the lust for private property.
Dostoevsky diagnosed the new project of human emancipation through the bewilderment and bitterness of people coming late to the modern world, and hoping to use its evidently successful ideas and methods to their advantage. For these naive latecomers, the gap between the noble ends of individual liberation and the poverty of available means in their barbarous social order was the greatest. The self-loathing clerk in Notes from Underground represents the human being who is excruciatingly aware that free moral choice is impossible in a world increasingly regimented by instrumental reason. He dreams constantly and impotently of revenge against his social superiors. Raskolnikov, the deracinated former law student in Crime and Punishment, is the psychopath of instrumental rationality, who can work up evidently logical reasons to do anything he desires. After murdering an old woman, he derives philosophical validation from the most celebrated nationalist and imperialist of his time, Napoleon: a “true master, to whom everything is permitted”.
For the past couple of years the summers, like hurricanes, have had names. Not single names like Katrina or Floyd – but full names like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Like hurricanes, their arrival was both predictable and predicted, and yet somehow, when they landed, the effect was still shocking.
We do not yet know the name that will be attached to this particular season. He is still out there, playing Call of Duty, finding a way to feed his family or working to pay off his student loans. He (and it probably will be a he) has no idea that his days are numbered; and we have no idea what the number of those days will be.
The precise alchemy that makes one particular death politically totemic while others go unmourned beyond their families and communities is not quite clear. Video helps, but is not essential. Some footage of cops rolling up like death squads and effectively executing people who posed no real threat has barely pricked the popular imagination. When the authorities fail to heed community outrage, or substantively investigate, let alone discipline, the police, the situation can become explosive. An underlying, ongoing tension between authorities and those being policed has been a factor in some cases. So, we do not know quite why his death will capture the political imagination in a way that others will not.
But we do know, with gruesome certainty, that his number will come up – that one day he will be slain in cold blood by a policeman (once again it probably will be a man) who is supposed to protect him and his community. We know this because it is statistically inevitable and has historical precedent. We know this because we have seen it happen again and again. We know this because this is not just how America works; it is how America was built. Like a hurricane, we know it is coming – we just do not yet know where or when or how much damage it will do.
Summer is riot season. It’s when Watts, Newark and Detroit erupted in violence in the 1960s, sparked by callous policing. It’s when school is out, pool parties are on and domestic life, particularly in urban centres, is turned inside-out: from the living room to the stoop, from the couch to the street. It’s when tempers get short and resentments bubble up like molten asphalt. It’s when, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, deferred dreams explode.
This is not my desire; it is my prediction. You can feel it building with every new Facebook post, viral video and Twitter storm. You can hear it from conversations with strangers at post offices, liquor stores and coffee shops. It is an unpleasant prediction to make because, ultimately, these riots highlight a problem they cannot, in themselves, solve; and it is an easy one to make because, as one bystander in Baltimore put it when disturbances flared there earlier this year: “You can only put so much into a pressure cooker before it pop.”
This is the summer I will leave America, after 12 years as a foreign correspondent, and return to London. My decision to come back to Britain was prompted by banal, personal factors that have nothing to do with current events; if my aim was to escape aggressive policing and racial disadvantage, I would not be heading to Hackney.
But while the events of the last few years did not prompt the decision to come back, they do make me relieved that the decision had already been made. It is why I have not once had second thoughts. If I had to pick a summer to leave, this would be the one. Another season of black parents grieving, police chiefs explaining and clueless anchors opining. Another season when America has to be reminded that black lives matter because black deaths at the hands of the state have been accepted as routine for so long. A summer ripe for rage.
* * *
I arrived in New York just a few months before the Iraq war. Americans seemed either angry at the rest of the world, angry at each other, or both. The top five books on the New York Times bestseller list the month I started were: Bush at War (Bob Woodward’s hagiographic account of the post-9/11 White House); The Right Man (Bush’s former speechwriter relives his first year in the White House); Portrait of a Killer (Patricia Cornwell on Jack the Ripper); The Savage Nation (a rightwing radio talkshow host saves America from “the liberal assault on our borders, language and culture”); and Leadership (Republican former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s post 9/11 victory lap).
There has barely been a quiet moment since. First there was the jingoism of the Iraq war, then the re-election of George W Bush in 2004, Hurricane Katrina, disillusionment with the Iraq war, the “Minutemen” anti-immigration vigilantes, the huge pro-immigrant “¡Sí se puede!” protests, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, the economic crash, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Obama’s reelection and the current rise in anti-racist activism. Being a foreigner made all these phenomena intriguing. Politically and morally, I picked sides. But, when reporting, it was more like anthropology. I saw it as my mission to try and understand the US: why did poor white people vote against their economic interests? How did the descendants of immigrants become xenophobic? Why were people disappointed in Obama when he had promised so little? The search for the answer was illuminating, even when I never found it or didn’t like it.
But the cultural distance I enjoyed as a Briton in a foreign country felt like a blended veneer of invincibility and invisibility. I thought of myself less as a participant than an onlooker. While reporting from rural Mississippi in 2003, I stopped to ask directions at the house of an old white couple, and they threatened to shoot me. I thought this was funny. I got back into my car sharpish and drove off – but I never once thought they would actually shoot me. How crazy would that be? When I got home, I told my wife and brother-in-law, who are African American. Their parents grew up in the South under segregation; even today, my mother-in-law wouldn’t stop her car in Mississippi for anything but petrol. They didn’t think it was funny at all: what on earth did I think I was doing, stopping to ask old white folk in rural Mississippi for directions?
Yet, somewhere along the way, I became invested. That was partly about time: as I came to know people – rather than just interviewing them – I came to relate to the issues more intimately. When someone close to you struggles with chronic pain because they have no healthcare, has their kitchen window pierced by gunfire or cannot pay a visit to their home country because they are undocumented, your relationship to issues like health reform, gun control or immigration is transformed. Not because your views change but because knowing and understanding something simply does not provide the same intensity as having it in your life.
… Grey is told from the perspective of Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire with what he calls a “dark, dark soul”. If it sounds like an interesting metafictional project, it isn’t.
The change in perspective hasn’t altered James’s style very much. Other than in the obvious way, she seems uninterested in penetrating the insides of her characters. Everything is told rather than shown. The closest thing we get to real introspection is when Grey thinks about himself, which he does often, sometimes in the third person. He looks in the mirror a lot. “My hair is wet from the shower, but I don’t give a shit,” he thinks. “One glance at the louche fucker in the mirror and I exit.” Occasionally he even thinks about himself thinking about himself: “I stop my wayward thoughts, alarmed at their direction. What the hell are you thinking, Grey?”
Christian is forever commenting on his own prowess, in bed and elsewhere. “Flaunting my erudition,” he says, “I quote the words of Andrew Carnegie, my favorite industrialist.” He doesn’t just say things; he says them “emphatically” or “sardonically” or “dryly”. “My smile is ironic,” he thinks, again and again, as if to convince himself of the fact. He commends himself on the articulacy of his inner monologue: “She’s oil on my troubled, deep, dark waters. Hmm . . . flowery, Grey.”
Over 10 years since Susan Sontag’s death, Steve Wasserman recounts his relationship with her and her relationship to everything (Sontag’s ‘exemplary effort to swallow the world’); a transcription of a lecture, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
I FIRST MET Susan Sontag in the spring of 1974 at a dinner in Berkeley given by Robert Scheer, author of one of the first pamphlets against the Vietnam War and former editor of Ramparts, the radical magazine for which Susan had written in the late 1960s. I especially remember a 15,000-word “Letter from Sweden,” which began with a sentence I never forgot: “The experience of any new country unfolds as a battle of clichés.” I was then a senior at the University of California and was moonlighting as Scheer’s researcher on a book he was writing on multinational corporations and a growing phenomenon that years later would be called “globalism,” but which at the time was more familiarly known to those on the left as “imperialism.” I was to graduate in June, and Scheer and I planned to go to New York to finish our work on the book. Scheer was to bunk with his old pal Jules Feiffer, the gifted cartoonist for The Village Voice, and I would repair, at her invitation, to Sontag’s penthouse, Jasper Johns’s former studio, located on the Upper West Side at 340 Riverside Drive.
I remember the apartment well. Flooded with sunlight, surrounded by a generous terrace overlooking the Hudson River, it was spartan: hardwood floors, white walls, high ceilings; in the living room a single Eames chair, an original Andy Warhol of Chairman Mao; in the dining room a long monk’s table made of oak with a brace of long benches on either side; in the kitchen’s cupboards a stack of plates, a few glasses, and row after row of back issues ofPartisan Review; leaning against one wall of Susan’s bedroom a curious stained-glass window from Italy of a spooky Death’s Head, a kind of memento mori, and, perhaps most impressive, by her bedside atop a low nightstand a 24-hour clock featuring time zones spanning the globe. Most important, of course, were the walls that bore the weight of her 8,000 books, a library that Susan would later call her “personal retrieval system.” (By the time of her death, 30 years later, the library had grown to 25,000 volumes.)
I spent the summer nearly getting a crick in my neck from perusing the books, and I remember thinking that — though I had just finished four years of college — my real education had just begun. I discovered scores of writers I’d never heard of as well as writers I distantly knew but had never read. For reasons wholly mysterious, I found myself drawn to four blue-backed volumes: The Journals of André Gide. These, like others in Susan’s library, were filled with her lightly penciled underlinings and marginal notes.
For my 22nd birthday in early August, Susan took me to see Waylon Jennings at the Bottom Line, the hot new club that had opened to great success six months earlier. (Five years later, I would return the favor by taking her to see Graham Parker & The Rumour at the Roxy in Los Angeles.) Her son, David Rieff, my age exactly, had long been besotted with country music and boasted a dazzling collection of bespoke cowboy boots, and we spent many humid evenings walking his dog, Nu-nu, an Alaskan husky with Paul Newman eyes, through the streets of the neighborhood, while talking politics and literature and the higher gossip over endless cups of espresso and smoking Picayunes, the strong unfiltered cigarettes he then favored but would later give up. Thus was a lifelong friendship forged.
Six days later, President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Scheer’s book had to be retitled: now it was to be called America After Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals. Those were the days before computers, of course, and it fell to me to comb through the page proofs, meticulously changing all the present tenses to past, as in “Nixon was.” Nothing so tedious was ever so pleasurable.
Susan and I kept up our friendship, and during the near-decade that I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review she was a cherished contributor. She was something of an Auntie Mame figure for me. We spent years haunting secondhand bookstores in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and New York, talking for hours over ever more bizarre dishes of Chinese Hakka cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall eatery at Stockton and Broadway in San Francisco, watching Kenneth Anger flicks and the surrealistic stop-motion puppet masterpieces of Ladislas Starevich, which Tom Luddy would screen for us at the Pacific Film Archive, over and over again until our eyeballs nearly fell out.
When she fell sick in the spring of 2004, I feared it would prove to be her final illness, despite having successfully survived two previous cancers. I last saw her in April 2004. She was in Los Angeles to receive a lifetime achievement award from the city’s Library Foundation. We met at her hotel. She looked, as ever, full of life, ardent as always. She drew me aside and confided the grim diagnosis she’d just received from her doctors. She said: “Three strikes and you’re out.”
Months before she died in December, I began to draft her obituary, which, in the event, would be front-page news. Twenty-five years before, I had clipped from the pages of Rolling Stone what I thought was the best interview she’d ever given: a passionate and far-ranging conversation with Jonathan Cott, an original and longtime contributor to the magazine. I quoted generously from it in my obituary.
Years went by and it came to pass that Cott discovered in his apparently bottomless closet the tapes he’d used to record his interview. It turned out that Rolling Stone had only used a third of their 12 hours of talk. And since Susan spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, we decided last year to publish at Yale University Press, where I was now an editor, the entire conversation.
Aside from the personal loss for those lucky enough to count Susan a comrade and friend and ally, why should her death matter? What did her work stand for? And, 10 years on, does it hold up?
She was, of course, one of America’s most influential intellectuals, internationally renowned for the passionate engagement and breadth of her critical intelligence and her ceaseless efforts to promote the cause of human rights. She was, as a writer and as a citizen of the world, a critic and a crusader.
The author of 17 books, translated into more than 30 languages, she vaulted to public attention and critical acclaim with the publication a half-century ago, in 1964, of “Notes on ‘Camp’,” written for Partisan Review and included in Against Interpretation, her first collection of essays, published two years later, in 1966.
Susan wrote about subjects as diverse as pornography and photography, the aesthetics of silence and the aesthetics of fascism, Bunraku puppet theater and the choreography of Balanchine, the uses and abuses of language and illness, as well as admiring portraits of such writers and filmmakers as Antonin Artaud, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Elias Canetti, Kenneth Anger, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, and Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Walser, Marina Tsvetaeva, Alice James. She was always hungry for more. All her life she aspired to live up to Goethe’s injunction that “you must know everything.” She wanted, as Wayne Koestenbaum has astutely observed, to devour the world. There were never enough hours in the day or the night. She stole from sleep the hours she spent reading and rereading, reading and rereading. She was an insomniac omnivore, insatiable, driven, endlessly curious, obsessed collector of enthusiasms and passions.
She was a fervent believer in the capacity of art to delight, to inform, to transform. She was hungry for aesthetic pleasures but haunted by the burden of a moral tradition for which purely aesthetic delights were a guilty pastime. She strained mightily to rid herself of its suffocations, even going so far as to turn a personal predicament into a general condition, famously urging, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
She was a paladin of seriousness. She thought it the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. She did not believe that one’s first thoughts were one’s best thoughts. She knew that the fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. And she knew that nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind should not be rushed.
She was distressed by the way her earlier championing of popular culture had been used as a cudgel by her critics to beat down the very idea of high culture, accusing it of snobbery and elitism, calling into question the necessity of artistic or literary or cultural discrimination. She didn’t believe, as she would later write, that her praise of contemporary work somehow reduced or detracted from the glories of the high culture she admired far more. Or as she put it:
Enjoying the impertinent energy and wit of a species of performance called Happenings did not make me care less about Aristotle and Shakespeare. I was — I am — for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture. No hierarchy, then? Certainly there’s a hierarchy. If I had to choose between the Doors and Dostoyevsky, then — of course — I’d choose Dostoyevsky. But do I have to choose?
In no sense, as she insisted, did she ever mean when she called for an “erotics of art” to repudiate high culture and its complexities. When she denounced, as she put it, “certain kinds of facile moralism, it was in the name of a more alert, less complacent seriousness.” She was appalled by the perverse populism that increasingly deforms our culture, elevating box office appeal and click meters to authoritative arbiters. She was alarmed by how, in the name of democracy, the tyranny of mass appeal had tightened its grip on the culture. She was repelled by the cultural hegemony imposed by the rise of the entertainment-industrial complex. Indeed, she feared, toward the end of her life, that a terrible sea change had occurred in the whole culture, and that at the dawn of the 21st century we had entered — to use Nietzsche’s term — the age of nihilism, as she wrote in the afterword she appended to a reissue ofAgainst Interpretation 30 years after it was first published.
She was, as ever, drawn to art that upends assumptions, challenges prejudices — turns them inside out and forces us to see the world through new eyes. She was not afraid of deep thinking or the delights to be had from its rigors. She had many heroes of the mind, not least Theodor Adorno, whose love of the aphoristic paradox, eclectic curiosities, and commitment to critical thinking were a model for Sontag’s own aspirations.
Where Ali Smith finds a ‘universe of meaning’ in the work of Barbara Hepworth, the Financial Times deduces that ‘female artists tend to assimilate and adapt radicality pioneered by men’. So here’s an extract from infinitely more valuable Smith piece.
It was a rainy sunny cloudy bright dark calm blustery day in May at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire and I was in a room full of forms between which I’d been ricocheting for an hour like a delighted pinball. “A Greater Freedom: Hepworth 1965-1975” displays pieces Barbara Hepworth made in the last decade of her life, full of the excitement of new technology and space exploration, lined all along one wall with her rarely shown Aegean Suite lithographs, startlingly vibrant sun, moon and planet abstracts like colourful constellations. It’s a room of works so dually modern and ancient-seeming that they make time irrelevant.
They were made when Hepworth was in her sixties and seventies and they are openly concerned with aesthetic and planetary genesis, the making of life and art out of matter. About them she said: “I don’t think anyone realises how much the last ten years has been a fulfilment of my youth.” A small bronze maquette, Three Hemispheres (1967), sat next to a photo of the Goonhilly satellite dishes. It looked quite feasible that the designers of those dishes might’ve borrowed directly from Hepworth in the making. “It so happened that I was invited to go on board the first one when it began to go round, and it was so magical and strange,” Hepworth is quoted saying on a wall-card next to both.
Imagine her, in her seventies, aboard a satellite dish. Eleanor Clayton, the curator of the two new exhibitions at the Hepworth Wakefield, explained about the creamy-silvery breeze blocks on which the exhibits were mounted, a direct reference to the 1968 retrospective of Hepworth’s work at the Tate in London, where she chose the beautiful utilitarian bricks herself and also arranged for the gallery to place plant life next to the exhibits in an effort to democratise the gallery experience and make it more organic. But the bricks had been difficult to source and Hepworth had had to spend quite a lot of her own money – £43, to be exact – finding the right ones. Clayton, too, had quite a time half a century later finding bricks to match. It costs, to be utilitarian.
Up came the subject of Barbara Hepworth’s chances of being chosen in the campaign for putting a visual artist on the new £20 note. Ah, but which Hepworth? One of us wanted Hepworth from the 1953 film by Dudley Shaw Ashton, Figures in a Landscape, smoking and carving in a most elegant evening gown. One of us favoured the glamorous Hepworth, in a big fur coat. One of us chose her standing in her headscarf and work-jacket, dwarfed by one of her own gigantic bronzes, looking up at it as if it’s sprung fully formed out of her head just moments ago. One of us chose a passport photo of her as a very young adult, beautiful, full of potential, already recognisably the self she would become.
That youthful picture is on show for the first time in the other new exhibition here, “Hepworth in Yorkshire”, whose focus is her formative years and whose display of photos, early plasterwork, drawings and paintings gives an intimate insight into both the early life and the work of the girl who cried out, when her mother took her to see the Albert Memorial in London, oh how frightful!; the girl who, aged 15, made a relief of some cousins using plaster from her uncle’s GP practice; the girl who won a scholarship to the Art College in Leeds at the age of 16, then transferred a year later to the Royal College of Art in London along with fellow students including Henry Moore, the others five years older than she was; even in her seventies she was inclined to say, when they were compared, “I’m younger than Henry . . . more in touch with the young people.”
Then we talked about slogans that might help with that £20 note campaign.
Burn a hole in your pocket, one of us said.
I love an art gallery you can laugh out loud in, and those Hepworth holes, the piercings through artworks we’ve come to associate with her, have always been a source of delight to many people. They were to Hepworth, too. She made the first one in 1931 or thereabouts, through a thick and curvy amorphous stonework. The original is long lost but in the photos that survive it’s as if you’re literally witnessing a piece of stone shifting its bulk to reach for its form. She talked, over the decades, about the “intense pleasure” this act gave her, especially because of its abstract nature, “quite a different sensation from that of doing it for the purpose of realism”. It was the start of her interest in what she would later term the “underlying principle of abstract form in human beings”. She called that first holey piece Sculpture, renamed it Pierced Form – a work that, simply by existing, could reframe the world it inhabited, make it possible to see through form and simultaneously see differently via form.
She is known for these holes, and for strings – at a certain point she began using strings over the hollows and holes of some of her abstract works, as if gesturing towards some mythical Orphean instrument, or conjuring a reminder of gut membrane. “The strings were the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind and the hills,” she wrote, both matter of fact and romantic. Henry Moore was dismissive, “a matter of ingenuity rather than a fundamental human experience”, he said of the stringing – as if ingenuity weren’t pretty fundamental to the human experience. “If every artist could truly, and with dedication, pull the string with which he was born – to the end – then a new concept could evolve,” Hepworth said in 1966, recalling her friendship with Piet Mondrian in a London full of cross-fertilisation between artists living and working together in the 1930s, London vibrant with pople who had left Europe in the rise of totalitarianism, all working in the face of the oncoming war. Those strings are somehow about such connecting, and also about stamina.
It is hard not to quote Hepworth’s own words about her art. She was an elegant articulator of her own and others’ work (keen in any case to represent herself: she usually took the official photographs of her work, and work by her second husband, Ben Nicholson, too, when they were together, for publicity and showing purposes; she happens also to have been a very good photographer). It’s going to get even harder soon not to quote her, since to coincide with the Wakefield shows and the big new Hepworth retrospective about to open at Tate Britain, the art historian Sophie Bowness, Hepworth’s granddaughter and trustee of her estate, has edited the first full collection of her writing, including transcriptions of her film commentaries and interviews. Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations (Tate Publishing) is a witty and satisfying read.
“Your work is very organic,” an interviewer says to her in the 1970s. “It’s meant to be,” she replies. “I’m organic myself.” The book is full of small, brilliant revelations, such as her interest when she visited Brancusi’s studio in 1933 in how he used “great millstones” as the bases for his classical forms – maybe a source of her own penchant for breeze blocks? On a larger scale the collection prompts a rethink of any clichés to which we might have settled, over the years, about Hepworth and her work. “I think of landscape in a far broader sense,” says the artist it’s easy wholly to associate with the real landscapes of Yorkshire or St Ives; “I extend its meaning to include the whole universe.”