At the same time I had to tell myself that we invariably made excessive demands of everything and everybody: nothing is done thoroughly enough, everything is imperfect, everything has been merely attempted, nothing completed. My unhealthy craving for perfection had come to the surface again. It actually makes us ill if we always demand the highest standards, the most thorough, the most fundamental, the most extraordinary, when all we find are the lowest, the most superficial, the most ordinary. It doesn’t get us anywhere, except into the grave. We see decline where we expect improvement, we see hopelessness where we still have hope: that’s our mistake, our misfortune. We always demand everything, when in the nature of things we should demand little, and that depresses us. We see somebody on the heights, and he comes to grief while he is still on the low ground. We want to achieve everything, and we achieve nothing. And naturally we make the highest, the very highest demands of ourselves, completely leaving out of account human nature, which is after all not made to meet the highest demands. The world spirit, as it were, overestimates the human spirit. We are always bound to fail because we set our sights a few hundred per cent higher than is appropriate. And if we look, wherever we look, we see only people who have failed because they set their sights too high. But on the other hand, I reflect, where should we be if we constantly set our sights too low?
From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Concrete.
This one looks pretty good. Blurb from publisher Picador:
Bitter Eden is based on Tatamkhulu Afrika’s own capture in North Africa and his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II in Italy and Germany. This frank and beautifully wrought novel deals with three men who must negotiate the emotions that are brought to the surface by the physical closeness of survival in the male-only camps. The complex rituals of camp life and the strange loyalties and deep bonds among the men are heartbreakingly depicted. Bitter Eden is a tender, bitter, deeply felt book of lives inexorably changed, and of a war whose ending does not bring peace.
“To poison a person or a party of persons with the sacramental wine” and other ideas from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Note-Books
- A house to be built over a natural spring of inflammable gas, and to be constantly illuminated therewith. What moral could be drawn from this? It is carburetted hydrogen gas, and is cooled from a soft shale or slate, which is sometimes bituminous, and contains more or less carbonate of lime. It appears in the vicinity of Lockport and Niagara Falls, and elsewhere in New York. I believe it indicates coal. At Fredonia, the whole village is lighted by it. Elsewhere, a farm-house was lighted by it, and no other fuel used in the coldest weather.
- Gnomes, or other mischievous little fiends, to be represented as burrowing in the hollow teeth of some person who has subjected himself to their power. It should be a child’s story. This should be one of many modes of petty torment. They should be contrasted with beneficent fairies, who minister to the pleasures of the good.
- Some very famous jewel or other thing, much talked of all over the world. Some person to meet with it, and get possession of it in some unexpected manner, amid homely circumstances.
- To poison a person or a party of persons with the sacramental wine.
- A cloud in the shape of an old woman kneeling, with arms extended towards the moon.
From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.
“The Death of the Moth”
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a pleasant morning, mid-September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience.
The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.
Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.
Old Dudley folded into the chair he was gradually molding to his own shape and looked out the window fifteen feet away into another window framed by blackened red brick. He was waiting for the geranium. They put it out every morning about ten and they took it in at five-thirty. Mrs. Carson back home had a geranium in her window. There were plenty of geraniums at home, better-looking geraniums. Ours are sho nuff geraniums, Old Dudley thought, not any er this pale pink business with green, paper bows. The geranium they would put in the window reminded him of the Grisby boy at home who had polio and had to be wheeled out every morning and left in the sun to blink. Lutisha could have taken that geranium and stuck it in the ground and had something worth looking at in a few weeks. Those people across the alley had no business with one. They set it out and let the hot sun bake it all day and they put it so near the ledge the wind could almost knock it over. They had no business with it, no business with it. It shouldn’t have been there. Old Dudley felt his throat knotting up. Lutish could root anything. Rabie too. His throat was drawn taut. He laid his head back and tried to clear his mind. There wasn’t much he could think of to think about that didn’t do his throat that way.
His daughter came in. “Don’t you want to go for a walk?” she asked. She looked provoked.
He didn’t answer her.
“No.” He wondered how long she was going to stand there. She made his eyes feel like his throat. They’d get watery and she’d see. She had seen before and had looked sorry for him. She’d looked sorry for herself too; but she could er saved herself, Old Dudley thought, if she’d just have let him alone-let him stay where he was back home and not be so taken up with her damn duty. She moved out of the room, leaving an audible sigh, to crawl over him and remind him again of that one minute-that wasn’t her fault at all-when suddenly he had wanted to go to New York to live with her.
So I updated Biblioklept’s Reviews page.
The page had just been a list of the reviews, riffs, and essays published on the blog, with each new entry stacking up in chronological order. For years I’ve known that this unorganized review dump was essentially useless, and I’d been meaning to turn it into an alphabetical index—and I finally did. (I kept the chronolist too, mostly for myself).
Anyway, as I went through this boring, sort-of-arduous process, I couldn’t help but reflect on a few of the habits that manifest under the surface:
The obvious: The reviews on the blog trend very heavily toward male authors. I already knew this, but counting things up makes it plain:
To date, I’ve run reviews of approximately 221 authors (approximate in the sense that I counted only once); of those reviews, only 36 were books by women. That’s about 16%. (This analysis doesn’t even begin to consider the multiple reviews of authors—for example, there are like a ton of reviews of Roberto Bolaño books, but only one review of a Clarice Lispector book). This ratio runs counter to what I’d like to believe are my principles; the number certainly contrasts with the fiction and poetry that I run on the blog (public domain stuff), which trends toward female authors. The number also contrasts with the ratio of male to female authors — roughly 1:1 — that appear on my course syllabuses.
If my tone sounds defensive, it’s because it is. The Read Women 2014 project has helped to highlight sexist reading habits—including my own. Sexism—any kind of prejudicial ism (and every ism is prejudicial) manifests as a blinding structure: Part of the structuring condition of ideological sexism is that the sexist person usually cannot see that he is sexist (he cannot see that he cannot see). I’m not offering this as a defense of my own habits: I’m not saying, Look, I’m aware of my skewed reviewing habits, and my very awareness of my inherent sexism makes me less sexist, absolves, me, etc. (But look at how I rhetorically dance around simply writing, My reviewing habits are sexist; look at how I’m still unable to simply type I’m probably a sexist, let alone I’m sexist, let me hedge, use parentheses, etc.).
Can I turn attention away from myself and onto the aesthetic critic Harold Bloom? In his Paris Review interview, he claimed:
I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.
Bloom’s statement is a perfect example of I cannot see that I cannot see. (Stephen Colbert essentially ridicules this kind of blindness on his satirical show The Colbert Report by repeatedly claiming that he is not racist because he cannot see color).
I think that (I know that) a certain male interest determines my aesthetic interest. At the same time, I understand Bloom’s resistance to the notion that aesthetics are somehow contingent on gender. Could a man have written “A Good Man Is Hard to Find?” or To the Lighthouse or Death Comes to the Archbishop or Their Eyes Were Watching God? (A man didn’t). We’d like to believe that the Great Stuff transcends the material world—that part of its timelessness is that it’s not bound to mortal gendered coils. Etc.
What about now? What about Read Women 2014? I’ve been reading more women authors, I think, but I haven’t been reviewing them. I recently reread Flannery O’Connor’s collection Everything That Rises Must Converge, some Gertrude Stein I’d never read before (including Tender Buttons), and some short stories by Eudora Welty and Willa Cather. I’ve read far less contemporary stuff though, although I did review Jessica Hollander’s excellent collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place. In general though, I tend to read less contemporaryish fiction now than I used to—I’m reading three books now, and only one is by a living author (Ben Marcus). Of the three books I’m reading now, only one is by a woman (Zelda Fitzgerald). Of the last ten book reviews published on this site, four are of books by women.
Data and numbers are unappealing—especially when they quantify something we (and when I write we you know I mean I) don’t want to acknowledge. We’d (I’d) rather qualify than quantify. Etc.
I suppose it’s the idea of a conscious effort that so repels some of us (me). The notion that I (we?) might have to make an actual intellectual (not aesthetic, perhaps non-intuitive) effort to differentiate our reading. But that’s what it takes, right? An effort. A recognition. A looking.