Wednesday, October 29, 2008
The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land's edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale's backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
Monday, October 27, 2008
Sunday, October 26, 2008
In another suggestive passage, from "In the Cause of Architecture IV: The meaning of materials--stone" (1928), Wright underlines his obsession with strata of rock as an inspiration for horizontal stratification in buildings, and reiterates the larger theme of "Nature" as a model for architecture.Read the grammar of the Earth in a particle of stone! . . . For in the stony bonework of the Earth, the principles that shaped stone as it lies, or as it rises and remains to be sculptured by winds and tide--there sleep forms and styles enough for all the ages, for all of Man.We might bear this in mind when looking at Wright's later masterpiece, Fallingwater (1936), with its cantilevered concrete ledges, rusticated stone walls and natural boulders. Not that one should expect simple linkages in either direction between written images and built forms. Rather, themes emerged or re-emerged in different guises as unfolding features of a landscape of the imagination.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Do you not wonder how she gives chase at once to soul and body, to words and tongue, to sight and colour, as as if scattered abroad, how, at variance within she is frozen and burns, she raves and is wise? For she is either panic-stricken or at point of death; she is haunted not only by one single emotion but their whole company, All things befall a lover, but she took the extremes of love's history and binding them in one achieved a masterpiece (trans. by Frank Granger).
Queen Anne's Lace
anemone petals nor so smooth--nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand's span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blemish. Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over--
*After reading WCW's poem, Singapore Jade sent me a poem by a pair of Victorian lesbian lovers who wrote collaboratively under the pseudonym of Michael Field. Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece and ward Edith Emma Cooper wrote around 40 works together. The imagery of "Cyclamen" has the sharp spareness of the Imagistes, but the last two lines would have failed the requirement "to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation" (Flint in Imagisme). Like H.D., the women were inspired by Sappho.
They are terribly white.
There is snow on the ground,
And a moon on the snow at night.
The sky is cut by the winter light.
Yet I, who have all these things in ken,
Am struck to the heart by the chiselled white
Of this handful of cyclamen.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
According to Bersani, queer theorists like Monique Wittig, Judith Butler, and Michael Warner have taken “queer” to delineate political rather than erotic tendencies. In their writing, they have erased the specificity of gay identity in favor of transcendence over the homo-hetero binary, or of social constructivism or of historicizing the category; these theorists fear, rightly, to essentialize gay identity, a move that would fall in with heterosexist practice.
Though he is opposed, like the other theorists, to essentialist definitions, Bersani wants to reinstate the specificity of gay identity—same-sex desire—because one needs to oppose heterosexism on behalf of something, from the position of somewhere, however compromised something or somewhere is. His most potent argument against the erasure of gay identity is that such erasure is exactly what homophobia aims to accomplish. The first two chapters develop that argument in detail, with references to America in the early 1990s.
The next chapter argues that S/M merely replicates the power structures in the outside world, and does not question, let alone change, those structures, unlike what its advocates, including Michel Foucault, say. This chapter supports the overarching argument of the book, that many strands of current queer theory are not as gay-affirmative as they make themselves out to be.
The last chapter, titled “The Gay Outlaw,” expands on what Bersani sees as the need to destroy all relationism first, constructed as it is by oppression, before we can see the way forward to a new view of relations and community. To figure forth that idea, he analyzes Gide’s The Immoralist, Proust’s Sodam and Gomorrah, and Genet’s Funeral Rites.
The book is a stimulating read, written in readable prose, without too much theoretical jargon. I agree with the need to keep the specificity of gay identity while keeping out essentialist definitions. Though “queer” intends to be inclusive, to describe behavior instead of essence, I want to think of myself as “gay” because that denotes, particularly, my sexual attraction to men.
I am not so easy with the idea of destroying relationism in order to revolutionize oppressive structures. As Bersani admits, the idea is very far from being a political program. To my mind, the idea is also far too literary, supported as it is by literary analysis. Bersani describes Genet’s “revolutionary strength” thus:
Both his abhorrent glorification of Nazism and his in some ways equally abhorrent failure to take that glorification seriously express his fundamental project of declining to participate in any sociality at all [author’s italics].
One might ask why one should read an anti-social writer for clues to changing society. Bersani’s answer is that Genet compels us to re-think what we mean and what we want from community. Still, Bersani’s language of revolution runs counter to Karl Popper’s argument that, given our limited knowledge, social change must be wrought in incremental steps, through the deployment of social technology, instead of resorting to revolution and wiping the slate clean. The homosexual as outlaw is too tempting an idea not to resist.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
[Shaw] points out, for example, how [Olga] Orozco's Esbozos frente a un modelo (Sketches in Front of a Model), where the idea that writing poetry is like trying to "translate a text written in a constantly changing code", echoes Borges's famous statement in La Muralla y los libros (The Wall and the Books): "this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon".*The young ultraist Borges believed that metaphors are the primordial element of poetry, and that they should be both novel and "effective" (eficaz), but by the 1950s he had decided that the real primordial element is rhythm and that all good metaphors are variations on familiar ones. Shaw suggests that Borges had lost faith in metaphor's capacity to "open up new dimensions of reality". But perhaps he decided that novelty and effectiveness are inversely proportional: the familiar metaphors have become familiar because they carry more cognitive freight more reliably. According to George Lakoff and Mark Turner, there are nine correspondences underlying the "life is a journey" metaphor (people leading lives are travellers, their purposes are destinations, and so on), all of them fairly obvious. When Andre Breton writes of a tongue that is a "stabbed wafer" (in "Union libre"), the correspondences that readers come up with are likely to be idiosyncratic.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Saturday, October 18, 2008
the other in the wash? Who needs five pairs of jeans?
Who, in his right mind, needs two pairs of underwear?
Too many! Who goes to the laundromat in briefs?
I have lived with little, I will live with less.
These books, accumulated like a secret vice,
seduced even the saint, and so must be reduced
to ten, no, five, no, two, no, no, how about one?
None! So, when a man needs you, he says, to go,
same man who needed you a year ago to stay,
you won’t leave with a rucksack and three shopping bags,
but fill your empty pockets with your empty hands.
You have lived with little, you will live with less.
Welcome, welcome, welcome to your new address.
from Anthony Grafton's review of James Simpson's Burning to Read: English fundamentalism and its Reformation opponents:
In [James Simpson’s] view, the great translator William Tyndale did not liberate the human spirit by turning the sacred texts of Christianity into English. Rather, he imprisoned it in chains of paper. Tyndale and his ilk caused what Simpson calls the rise of “fundamentalism”, the literalist form of religious reading that has repeatedly shown the power, especially in recent yearsm to provoke violence and hatred around the world.
Debates on small points, instead of being settled by conversation, turned into mortal combat simply because scholars conducted them in print. The new medium, cold, distant and precise, enabled writers to excerpt, anatomize and mutilate their opponents' words, paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence, using all the textual violence they could devise.
In the end, Simpson argues Thomas More showed himself a more humane reader of Scripture than Tyndale--even if More, unlike Tyndale, burned a few heretics for their pains. For More knew that no text--even the New Testament--could encompass the entire Christian message, and he insisted on the need for a consensual interpretation reinforced by the experience of centuries.
from Richard Hamblyn's review of Erik Orsenna's Portrait of the Gulf Stream: In praise of currents, translated by Moishe Black:
This thermohaline warming was first described in the 1850s by the American hydrographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, who seemed to view the oceans as little more than a vast and efficient boiler house: "the furnace is the torrid zone; the Mexican Gulf and Carribean Sea are the cauldrons; the Gulf Stream is the conducting pipe," he wrote . . .
"What a fool I've been to neglect science all these years", [Orsenna] declares; "natural history is the mother of every form of history, every sort of story, the novel of all novels."
The Gulf Stream, he soon discovers, is not so much a single path as a sequence of thermal improvisations.
"I went endlessly back and forth from reading maps to reading legends, not knowing which would leave me better informed"--a process that in the end produces a near-seamless blend of travel, science and literary reportage, a peerless portrait of a force of nature made up of a series of digressions.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
After freeing his mother, Garuda decided to devote himself to reading the Vedas in the Rauhina tree. Reading hymn one hundred and twenty-one in the tenth book of the Rig Veda, he found the question that gave the book its title: "Who (Ka) is the god to whom we should offer our sacrifice?"
Estuary to a hidden ocean, that syllable (Ka) would go on echoing within him as the essence of the Vedas. Garuda stopped and shut his eyes. He had never felt so uncertain, and so close to understanding. Never felt so light, in that sudden absence of names. When he opened his eyes, he realized that the nine stanzas were followed by another, this one separated by a space that was slightly larger. . . . The tenth stanza, without any question. And here was a name, the only name in the hymn, the only answer. Garuda couldn't remember ever having seen that name before: Prajapati.
The next chapter takes up the story of Prajapati who is a kind of Progenitor of all things, including the gods. Prajapati was the mind before anything existed. The mind did not even know whether it existed or not. The mind desired, with a desire that was "continuous, diffuse, undefined." It desired
what was definite and separate, what had shape. A Self, atman--that was the name it used. And the mind imagined that Self as having consistency. Thinking the mind grew red hot. It saw thirty-six thousand fires flare up, made up of mind, made with mind.
This fire was tapas, the same fire that burned in the gods, and in the holy men. Desire, in this myth, is longing for the Other; it is longing for form.
Chapter Three describes the desire of this Father for his daughter Dawn (Usas). Their union was disrupted by a son and god, Rudra, who fired an arrow into his father's groin, causing him to squirt his seed onto the ground. This triangular relationship, according to this chapter, is repeated with different names in different stories down the ages.
In Chapter Four, Brhama takes over the role of Creator and Father. The problem with his creation was that all were born exclusively of the mind, and no one died. Immortality proved to be oppressive. To solve that problem Brahma created Death. To solve the problem of mind, he created sex. When asked by the gods why bother with another mode of production, Brahma answered, "To preserve the world's gloss."
The triangle between father, daughter and son returns in Chapter Five. Daksa, a stand-in for Brahma, loved his favorite daughter, Sati, who, in turn, loves Siva. Whe Daksa refused to invite his son-in-law to his priestly sacrifice, Sati returned to her father's household, and rebuked him by self-combusting. Sati is, of course, the immolation of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre. Following his wife's death, Siva wrecked Daksa's sacrifice. The narrator draws this moral from the story:
The premise was a simple breach of etiquette, of terrifying eloquence. If Siva was not invited, sacrifice could no longer bring together the totality of the real. Thus he who was excluded took revenged. And the form of revenge he chose was once again the sacrifice. But this time a funereal sacrifice. The victim honored that day was sacrifice itself, the ceremony.
Chapter VI narrates the love affair between Siva and Parvati, the daughter of Himavat (Himalayas?). To capture Siva's heart, Parvati left her royal life to practice tapas in the forest. The god accepted her offer, and united with her, making her a goddess. Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet, makes an appearance in this chapter. He was sneaking a look at their love-making before chased away by Parvati.
Parvati also discovered Siva had many lovers, one of whom lived as water in his hair, Ganga. In the story-within-a-story, Ganga was initially a proud woman who thought she could sweep Siva away like a straw. She plunged from the Milky Way on top of Siva's head.
But no sooner had she brushed against that head than Ganga felt lost. Siva's hair was a forest. And what was a forest? Her waters were constantly being diverted, divided, humiliated in tiny streams. They settled in huge lakes, surrounded by a thick darkness that was no longer darkness of the sky. Huge angry waves kept beating down on Siva. And Siva gathered himself in one spot, From there, like silk from a spider, his maya spun out, the sticky enchantment of his mind. Siva held back the waters, wound around she who winds around all, multiplied the meanders that would soak her up. . . . Ganga didn't know it, but her fury enhanced her splendor. Streaming down Siva's hair, she saw a corner of the god's mouth lift, in a hint of a smile. That made her even madder. As she renewed her attack, boiling in obscure little ditches, a few drops of foam spurted out beyond the forest. For a moment they found themselves suspended in the void, surprised. Finally they tasted a sharp, dry flavor. It was the earth. Those drops formed Lake Bindusaras, the Lake of Drops. From there they flowed into a bed that seemed to have been made for them. Men called that river Ganga.
The story is enchanting. It is a charming explanation of how the great Ganges came into being. It is a striking extended metaphor. It is also very sexy.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
from Peter Brook's review of Michael Murphy's Proust and America:
But Murphy subtly and convincingly argues that Proust's sense of the "metaphorics of retrospection" has an Emersonian cast: the "looping-the-loop" by which we return to our earlier selves, and which opens on to Marcel's eventual discovery that the writer's task is that of translator--of life, of nature--recalls Emerson's sense of nature as a place of signsm a place engaged in a perpetual writing. Proustian metaphor espouses the famous Emersonian credo that words are signs of natural facts, and natural facts are signs of spiritual facts.
If "love" in Proust is self-torturingm riven with jealousy, doubt and a masochistic need to witness the beloved's infidelity, this is part and parcel of the detective work that characterizes his novel, as it does Poe's work. Sexual curiosity provokes a true epistemophilia: an eroticized drive to know.
Late in the novel Proust analogizes the composition of his novel--put together from papers glued together to permit exfoliating additions, the famous paperoles, so named by the faithful family servant Francoise--to the work of dressmaking. Murphy comments: "If fashion by its very evanescence embodies Time, it is the dressmaker who stitches together the different strands and materials. If Time is to be made visible it is not through the permanent, the aim of which is to deny Time exists let alone that it passes, but through the ephemeral."
from Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's review of Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Glassworlds: Glass culture and the imagination, 1830-1880:
The reality of Victorian glass production in the "gross matrial world" was far less charming. Most glass was still hand-blown, a form of manusfacture which was always dangerous and often lethal. (In one centre of glass production, Stourbridge, it has been calculated that about 30 per cent of glass makers died before the age of forty and about half before fifty.) The "exhalation" of the Crystal Palace was constructed from 956, 000 square feet of glass panels, each of which carried traces of its own manufacture in the tiny blemishes created by human breath, which flitted in and out of sight like ghosts, according to whether the glass was being looked at or merely looked through. It was the largest example ever seen of Marx's argument that labour is "crystallized" in industrial artefacts, and a monumental witness to what was often sentimentalized as the workman's sigh.
Consider Henry James's Maisie, who hears life being discussed by adults so often that she expeiences an "odd air of being present at her history in as separate a manner as if she could only get at experience by flattening her nose against a pane of glass." Or Lewis Carroll's Alice, who is brought to realize how shifty scale is in Looking-Glass World when she is observed by the train guard "first through a telescope, then through a microscope, an then through an opera-glass". Or Tennyson's Mariana, whose moated grange includes a "blue fly" which "sang in the pane": a sad echo of her own trapped state but also a concentrated image of the writer, who transforms suffering into art.
Monday, October 13, 2008
And as to the younger laborers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength of perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Between 1650 and 1850, the households throughout north-west Europe and British America responded to consumer incentives not only by working harder, but also by redefining the character of work. . . . In general, men and women worked longer hours. They had fewer holidays. The major force driving the "industrious revolution", however, appears to have been the labour of women and children. Women devoted themselves to productive activities that expanded household income; they stopped making articles at home that they could now purchase. Some engaged in proto-industrial pursuits--spinning and weaving flax and cotten, for example--while others cultivated crops to be sold on the market. A surprisingly large number of women ran small shops.
A major break in the story occurred around 1850, when the industrious household gave way to an entirely new structure, which he calls somewhat awkwardly the "Breadwinner-Homemaker Household".
. . . Breadwinner-Homemaker families wanted to live in healthy environments. They knew enough about germs to realize that clean homes--those with pure water, clean cooking utensils, and proper sewage facilities--required the household to use store-bought goods in wats that made their homes seem more sanitary, even more respectable. . . . [F]or less well-to-do families, the burden of channelling manufactured good efficiently towards the consumer goal of creating tidy, germ-free environments fell to married women. Unlike the mothers and wives who contributed to the income of the "industrious" households, late nineteenth-century women worked mainly at home, applying their productive labour to processing items purchased in the marketplace. The rising real wages of men, and the continued employment of dependent children, facilitated the transition from one household structure to another.
After the 1950s, the dynamics of the ordinary household shifted once again. . . . [A]fter the Second World War, men and women began to work longer hours. More significantly, married women returned to the labour force in huge numbers. Most of these women were mothers. . . . The breadwinner-homemaker faces extinction. Men and women have come to prefer living in households with multiple earners.
from Ian Mortimer's Commentary piece "Beyond the facts":
Names as representations of historical concepts illustrate how modern originality can come to be universally associated with the past and yet not be fictive. No one would refer to the Renaissance as either fictional or imaginary. But what needs to be stressed is that it is not just the name which is truly original but the concept it embodies. . . . True originality can be much more than just a poetic quip which happens to prove popular. It can be a way of envisioning an entire period, and perhaps even a way of envisioning the entire human past.
The acting was uneven. Jacqueline van Biene, who played Viola, brought a certain charisma to the performance. Her Viola was intelligent and passionate, qualities which make it even more mystifying how she could fall for the lethargic Duke Orsino. Julian Elfer was a very funny Malvolio; the genius of his performance lay in making him almost tragic. In the cell scene, he was not just pitiable in his deception, but, struggling to remain standing despite his agonizing bewilderment, nearly noble.
Friday, October 10, 2008
"It is never possible for a Jew of my generation to 'escape' his Jewish origin," Trilling explained, in a symposium on Jewish writers in 1944. Still, he said:
I cannot discover anything in my professional intellectual life which I can specifically trace back to my Jewish birth and rearing. I do not think of myself as a "Jewish writer." I do not have in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.
Around the same time, Trilling was asked to address Jewish students at Columbia. There is no innate quality of Jewishness, he told them. The culture of an American Jew is not Jewish; it's American. Jewishness exists only because of "the belief of non-Jews that Jews constitute a racial entity and a certain kind of action on the part of non-Jews based on this belief." Without this prejudice against the Jews, "the idea of Jewishness would largely disappear."
Sartre was criticized for making the same argument, a few years later, in "Anti-Semite and Jew," but there are always non-Jews who have ideas about "the Jews," and so there are, on Trilling's theory, always good reasons for Jews to feel Jewish.
I agree that there is "no innate quality" of Jewishness or other forms of identity, and that identity could be constituted by one's opponents, or one's other. But the missing element in this view is that one can form, or formulate, one's own identit(ies) too. Sure, one has to make do with what one has--through inheritance and circumstance--but one can collect some materials over the course of a lifetime.
In another section, Menand speaks of Trilling's cast of mind as dialectical, as illustrated in these quotations:
To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way.
The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause.
Perhaps only science could effectively undertake that task of freeing sexuality from science itself.
This intense conviction of the existence of the self apart from culture is, as culture well knows, its noblest and most generous achievement.
Menand writes, "Trilling saw everything under a double aspect: a trend and a backlash, a pathway to enlightenment and a dead-end of self-deception. He was a humanist who believed that works of literature can speak to us across time. . . . But he believed it with weakening conviction; he could see all the arguments for considering humanism a vain promise.
Trilling saw books, including the Great ones, as social products "all the way down." Menand summarizes:
They do not come from some place outside the system, and they do not represent an independent alternative to the way things are. They are among the things that are, even when they belong to what Trilling called "the adversary culture"--even when they reject conventional ways of thinking and behaving. The adversarial is part of the system; it helps to hold the other parts in place. Responsible liberal people feel better adjusted for having an appreciation of art and ideas that are contemptuous of the values of responsible liberal people. It helps the world seem round.
I think this is an important corrective to the easy idea that Great Books trascend time, that their message is universal. However, this explanation lacks a theory of change, of innovation. If even subversion is always conservative, then how does a culture change over time? This version of the dialectic appears very like statism.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
By rejecting transliterated Greek terms like atomi in favour of metaphors like semina (seeds) and genitalia corpora (generative bodies), [Lucretius] craftily presumes the material nature of the smallest units of life in advance of further proof. And the exaggerated trickle of word into word in his honeyed verse is the cleverest means of suggesting organic interrelations in the physical world, most famously through fortuitous phonetic connections: the link between lignum (wood) and ignis (fire) "proves" the metamorphosis of timber into ashes; that between umor (semen) and amor (love) reduces sex to an exchange of bodily fluids.*The poem on "all things" [i.e. De rerum natura] is also a compendium of all stylistic moods and registers, with an almost organic identity of its own: a shifting amoeba living out its predicted cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Where does the abrupt and gloomy ending among the Athenian plague victims leave us? Exposed, like trained Epicureans, to the finality of material thing or hopeful of yet another revival--honeybees rising from rotting corpses?
The essay--and the life--is remarkable for the geography it traverses. At the age of eight months, Pauline was flown from Seoul to Tokyo, then to Anchorage, and then to Chicago, where she was picked up by her foster parents, and brought back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That flight set the pattern for a peripatetic life afterwards. Madison for college. London for her master's. Chicago for corporate career. Urbana-Champaign for PhD. Queens in NYC for activism and living out a chosen life.
The years spent pursuing her PhD proved "pivotal" for Pauline in redefining her identity.
When I finished my dissertation in December 1993, I discovered Foucault while taking a graduate seminar in political theory. Reading the work of this radical gay French theorist helped me rethink my lifelong identity complex. I had labored for years under the feeling that I was a "fake Korean," unable to live up to the expectations of others. In light of reading Foucault and other theorists, I came to understand that my pursuit of--or flight from--Koreanness was doomed to fail from the start, since there was no essence of Koreanness to pursue. I came to see myself as having a distinct identity as a Korean adoptee--neither ethnically Korean in the way that Koreans or recent Korean immigrants are, nor Korean American in the way that U.S.-born, English-speaking Korean Americans are.
I could identify with the feeling of being a "fake" whatever. Growing up in Singapore, even before I went abroad for college, I was often made to feel that I was not a real Chinese since I could not speak, read or write Mandarin fluently. In Singapore, Mandarin was so identified with being Chinese, that other dialects (such as the Cantonese I speak at home, along with English) came to be seen as sub-cultures. An English-speaking Chinese was labeled a "banana," yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I was no victim, however, since such insults came from a class which was losing political and economic influence to the rising English-speaking class. My experience confirmed what Pauline discovered in Foucault: there is no essence to an ethnic identity. Rather, identity is historically determined, and is contested by class and other interests.
In the same years Pauline came to accept herself as a Korean adoptee, she also came to terms with her gender identity.
I would eventually come to call myself a "male-bodied woman," a concept radical even within the transgender community, because I reject the assumption that the presence or absence of the penis determines my status as a man or as a woman. While cross-dressers often find me too transsexual to relate to because I live full-time as a woman, transsexuals find me puzzling because I have not pursued hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. Even within the transgendered community, I find myself in between.
To see who we are clearly, we need to re-name ourselves. The phrase "male-bodied woman" probably consolidates--crytallizes?--how Pauline sees herself. If we are to look away from society's mirror, we need language to hold up another mirror. Language, in its power of abstraction, can change our perceptions, or, at least, show us how much our perceptions, so intimate and individual to us, are shaped by society.
One person's changed self-perception can transform the self-perception of others. Pauline, in her essay, wrote of the first international gathering of first-generation Korean adoptees, in September 2001, in Washington D. C..
Being at a conference with more than two thousand Korean adoptees was an extraordinary experience. While a few of the attendees were initially shocked by my presence--most had never met an openly transgendered person before--they soon realized that my life story as a Korean adoptee was one that they could relate to.
This passage reminds me that identity is not just a matter of authenticity and integrity; it is also a matter of community. Accepting her ethnic identity as a Korean adoptee, Pauline was willing and able to participate in this conference. When she entered this community, she brought with her all her other identities, including that of being a transgendered woman. Now, that community's self-definition must shift, however slightly. The community cannot disown one with a "life story" like its own, but needs to come to terms with the variations on the same theme.
I am stimulated by this passage to think through a little more my confused ideas about identity. My default position has been that identity is bad, is unnecessarily confining and intolerant. I am especially suspicious of national identity, with its flag-waving and five-year-plans, its armies and Olympics. Perhaps a more wholesome approach is to embrace all the identities jostling in me ("I am large. I contain multitudes."). I would like to be a poet in pragmatic Singapore, and a Singaporean in the English poetic tradition. I would like to be religious among the agnostics, and gay in my family.
Not for the sake of confrontation, but for the sake of authenticity. The talk of the performance, or construction, of the self leaves me cold. To be true to myself still seems an ethical imperative, and a psychological drive, even if the self is a moving target. The heart of Pauline's essay, the place she calls home, is a passage about what music means to her. In it, she follows "authentic" in one sentence, with "fullest sense" in the next. That juxtaposition seems suggestive to me. To be true to a thing is to possess the fullest sense of the thing. That argues for an idea of authenticity more in line with plenitude and complexity, than with singularity and correctness.
I bought a piano and thereby filled my little apartment with the music of my childhood and the spirits of those since lost to me. Sometimes when I play a Bach prelude, a Schubert impromptu, or a Chopin etude from my childhood or youth, the distinction between my past and present dissolves. And when I sing one of the German hymns from the Lutheran hymnal of my childhood, I realize how much music continues to shape my search for an authentic identity. My piano represents "home" in its fullest sense. It is not simply a musical instrument--or a decorative piece of furniture; it is an instrument of self-determination in the creation of my own culture of home; it is an instrument of the art of memory, a tool to be used in the archaelogy of the self.
Tuesday, October 07, 2008
Sunday, October 05, 2008
Chapter I Loomings—Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place on lodges in.
Chapter IX The Sermon—“Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over towards the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. . . . ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!” he groans, ‘straight upward, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’
Chapter XI Nightgown—. . . truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.
Chapter XXVI Knights and Squires—But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike, that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy. His omnipresence, our divine equality!
Chapter XXXII Cetalogy—But now I leave my cetological system standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but draught—nay, but draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!
Chapter XLI Moby Dick—So that here, in the real living experience of living men, the prodigies related in old times of the inland Strello mountain in Portugal (near whose top there was said to be a lake in which the wrck of ships floated up to the surface); and that still more wonderful story of the Arethusa fountain near Syracuse (whose waters were believed to have come from the Holy Lanf by an underground passage); these fabulous narrations are almost fully equaled by the realities of the whalemen.
Chapter XLII The Whiteness of the Whale—Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.
Chapter LV Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales—The Hindoo whale referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the broad palm of the true whale’s majestic flukes.
Chapter LX The Line—All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turns of death, that mortals realize the silent subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.
Chapter LXVIII The Blanket—It does seem to me, that herein [the whale’s blubber] we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!
Chapter LXX The Sphinx—“O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind.”
Chapter LXXX The Nut—If you attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit, that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls.
Chpater LXXXII The Honor and Glory of Whaling—That wondrous oriental story is now to be rehearsed from the Shaster, which gives us dread Vishnu, one of the three persons in the godhead of the Hindoos; gives us this divine Vishnu himself for our Lord;—Vishnu, who by the first of his ten earthly incarnations, has for ever set apart and sanctified the whale. When Brahm, or the God of gods, saith the Shaster, resolved to recreate the world after one of its periodical dissolutions, he gave birth to Vishnu, to preside over the work; but the Vedas, or mystical books, whose perusal would seem to have been indispensable to Vishnu before beginning the creation, and which therefore must have contained something in the shape of practical hints to young architects, these Vedas were lying at the bottom of the water; so Vishnu became incarnate in a whale, and sounding down in him to the uttermost depths, rescued the sacred volumes.
Chapter XCIV A Squeeze of the Hand—Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. . . . Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humour or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm forever! . . . In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.
Chapter CIV The Fossil Whale—Such, and so magnifying is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
Chapter CXXXI The Symphony—“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time, recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst no so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? . . .”
Chapter CXXXIII The Chase—First Day—In an instant’s compass, great hearts sometimes condense to one deep pang, the sum total of those shallow pains kindly diffused through feebler men’s whole lives. And so, such hearts, though summary in each one suffering; still, if the gods decree it, in their life-time aggregate a whole age of woe, wholly made up of instantaneous intensities; for even in their pointless centres, these noble natures contain the entire circumferences of inferior souls.
Chapter CXXXV The Chase—Third Day—“. . . Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference!”
Chapter CXXXV The Chase—Third Day—“Oh now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”
Saturday, October 04, 2008
The room became a raven until a white fire litthe wall. The doctor's breath alarmedand I was suddenly inside this bird, looking outof its eye.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsas clothes in a dryer ina laundromat at 3 a.m. might finally stopunclenching and accept their entanglement.
$13 a share. The man on the phone linehas a rope in his throat. The closing price isrouged. We can believe in God again. The banksare full. The streets are hungover. The man onmy left is rich. The man on my right is a monthfrom dead. The champagne ditches its bottle.The London air free-falls in the hotel-room.There are plates of carved fruit. New York ischeering through the phone. Heaven mustbe this way. Tomorrow, Germany. Then Paris.Hello. Goodbye. Where's the bathroom? I don'tunderstand. I am lost. How much?