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Posts Tagged ‘books’

12 NOVEMBER, 2012

Philosopher Judith Butler on Doubting Love

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“Love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.”

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination,” John Keats famously wrote. John Keats, who also argued for the gift of “negative capability” — the intricate art of embracing uncertainty and living with those shaky in-between states, echoing Einstein’s contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Still, we’re creatures incredibly susceptible to cognitive dissonance and painfully prone to paralysis in the face of ambiguity, especially when it comes to the most tender and vulnerable corners of our inner worlds.

In her poignant essay titled “Doubting Love” from Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — the same anthology that gave us Martha Nussbaum’s exquisite advice on fully inhabiting your inner life — philosopher Judith Butler examines the question of uncertainty in that corner of life where we most long for security and grounding conviction. She writes:

On occasion when I am getting to know someone — when someone seeks to know me or, indeed, find in me the occasion for love — I am asked what my idea of love is, and I always founder. There are clearly those who have their ideas of love, who enter into their conversations, their letters, their initial encounters with an idea of love in mind. This is admirable in a way. And I am somewhat embarrassed by the fact that I have no answer, and that I cannot, in the moment of potential seduction, [have] an entrancing view of love to offer the one with whom I speak. … One knows love somehow only when all one’s ideas are destroyed, and this becoming unhinged from what one knows is the paradigmatic sign of love.

Butler then describes herself as a “secular Kierkergaardian when it comes to love,” but also sees Freud as her guide:

[Freud] is the one who writes, ‘A man who doubts his own love may, or rather, must doubt every lesser thing.’ And this is the line I return to in my life, a line that cannot be read once, at least not by me. Freud is making a statement, but he is, implicitly, delivering as well a warning and an admonition. The one who doubts his own love will find himself doubting every lesser thing.

[…]

There is no way around it: If you doubt your own love, you will be compelled to doubt every lesser thing and if there is no greater thing than love, you will be compelled to doubt every other thing, which means that nothing, really nothing, will be undoubted by you.

After examining the oscillation of certitudes and uncertainties in love, Butler returns to Freud:

It would seem that for Freud the goal is not to doubt one’s own love, to come to have certainty in it, and to somehow know oneself in the dispossession that love provides. I am the one who loses myself here, in this way, under these conditions, who finds the following irresistible; who falls then and there; who wants, who idealizes, who pursues; who cannot forget this or that kind of thing, wants it again, cannot stop wanting it easily; who wants to be pursued, or to become unforgettable, irreplaceable. One finds that love is not a state, a feeling, a disposition, but an exchange, uneven, fraught with history, with ghosts, with longings that are more or less legible to those who try to see one another with their own faulty vision.

And yet, what Richard Feynman knew about science, Orson Welles knew about film, and Rilke knew about life might indeed be true of love as well — that faulty vision, that state of doubt, seems absolutely necessary for complete love:

If one becomes somewhat savvy about one’s love — ‘ah, yes, there goes my love again, what will it bring forth this time? What havoc will it wreak?’ — does this mean that one ceases to doubt it, or that one knows it with certainty for all time? Or is this the distance that one takes from what one cannot do, an instance of the doubt that goes along with love? We might think Freud is saying that to doubt one’s own love is to doubt it in a very fundamental way, to call the most important matters into questions, and to not let assumptions go unquestioned. It is, in a way, to become philosophical in and about one’s passions. And this does not mean that one ceases to live them or that one kills them by thinking them into the ground. on the contrary, one lives them, and seeks to know them, but only by bringing one’s questions into the practice of love itself. I cannot pretend to know myself at the moment of love, but I cannot pretend to fully know myself. I must neither vacate the knowledge that I have — the knowledge, after all, that will make me a better lover — and I cannot be the one who knows everything in advance — which would make me proud and, finally, lovable. Love always returns us to what we do and do not know. We have no other choice than to become shaken by doubt, and to persist with what we can know when we can know it.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2012

Changing New York: Berenice Abbott’s Stunning Black-and-White Photos from the 1930s

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A breathtaking time-capsule of this ageless, ever-changing city.

New York City loves its streets, loves its dogs, loves its heat waves, loves its apocalyptic fictions — but, above else, loves its timeless dignity. Between 1935 and 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of city’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (public library), along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city.

Many of the photographs are now in the public domain and have been made available online by the New York Public Library. Here are some favorite images Abbott took between November 1935 and May 1936, as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP) — a Depression-era government program related to the Works Progress Administration, enlisting unemployed artists and workers in creative projects across advertising, graphic design, illustration, photography, and publishing.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan

Gasoline Station, Tenth Avenue and 29th Street, Manhattan

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan

Ferry, West 23rd Street, Manhattan

Henry Street, Manhattan

Fulton Street Dock, Manhattan skyline, Manhattan

Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan

23rd Street Surface Car, West 23rd Street, Manhattan

Oldest apartment house in New York City, 142 East 18th Street, Manhattan

Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, Manhattan

'El', Second and Third Avenue lines, Bowery taken from Division St., Manhattan

Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue between 12th and 13th street, Manhattan

And, hey, is that time-traveling Don Draper?

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan

A few blocks around my studio:

Jay Street, No. 115, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn

Warehouse, Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn

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12 NOVEMBER, 2012

A Short Poem from Kurt Vonnegut

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“And what, and what / Do the two think of?”

The recently released Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library), which gave us the beloved author’s curious daily routine, is a treasure trove of nuanced insight into Vonnegut’s life and character. Among the seemingly mundane epistolary chronicles lie gems that shimmer with Vonnegut’s reluctant warmth and peculiar brand of sullen optimism — gems like this delightful short untitled poem Vonnegut sent in a letter to his friend Knox Burger in June of 1961:

Two little good girls
Watchful and wise —
Clever little hands
And big kind eyes —
Look for signs that the world is good,
Comport themselves as good folk should.
They wonder at a father
Who is sad and funny strong,
And they wonder at a mother
Like a childhood song.
And what, and what
Do the two think of?
Of the sun
And the moon
And the earth
And love.

Complement with Denise Levertov’s poem “The Secret,” which bears a certain resemblance of subject and sensibility.

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09 NOVEMBER, 2012

Philip Pullman Reimagines the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

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“You have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.”

For two hundred years, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have anchored generations of in the world of storytelling. They’ve inspired a wealth of gorgeous illustrations (including by the inimitable Edward Gorey), some delightfully minimalist takes, unexpected architectural analysis, and even irreverent infographic animation. But what remains at their heart, the blood that pumps across the centuries and generations, is the art of story — and what better way to celebrate that, as the tales turn 200, than with an exquisite retelling by one of modern history’s most celebrated literary titans? That’s exactly what Philip Pullman does in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (public library) — a collection of the 50 most memorable of the Grimms’ 210 tales, which Pullman regards, along with Arabian Nights, as “the most important and influential collections of folk tales ever published.” Each story is coupled with a short “biography” tracing its origin, evolution, and moral.

From Snow White to The Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella and beyond, into the less familiar fringes of the Grimm legacy, Pullman sees the stories with eyes at once fresh and ancient, masterfully pulling out their essential storyness with equal parts piercing language (“No, no, my lord, it’s just my heart. When you were living in the well, when you were a frog, I suffered such great pain that I bound my heart with iron bands to stop it breaking, for iron is stronger than grief. But love is stronger than iron, and now you’re human again the iron bands are falling off.”) and keen insight (“…the finest of [the tales] have the quality that the great pianist Artur Schnabel attributed to the sonatas of Mozart: they are too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”)

He writes in the introduction:

[M]y main interest has always bee in how the tales worked as stories. All I set out to do in this book was tell the best and most interesting of them, clearing out of the way anything that would prevent them from running freely. I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water. My guiding question has been: ‘How would I tell this story myself, if I’d heard it told by someone else and wanted to pass it on?’ Any changes I’ve made have been for the purpose of helping the story emerge more naturally in my voice. If, as happened occasionally, I thought an improvement was possible, I’ve either made a small change or two in the text itself or suggested a larger one in the note that follows the story.

Pullman zooms in on the flatness of fairy tale characters:

There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious. If people are good, they are good, and if bad, they’re bad. Even when the princess in ‘The Three Snake Leaves’ inexplicably and ungratefully turns against her husband, we know about it from the moment it happens. Nothing of that sort is concealed. The tremors and mysteries of human awareness, the whispers of memory, the promptings of half-understood regret or doubt or desire that are so much part of the subject matter of the modern novel are absent entirely. One might almost say that the characters in a fairy tale are not actually conscious.

[…]

The most fitting pictorial representation of fairy-tale characters seems to me to be found not in any of the beautifully illustrated editions of Grimm that have been published over the years, but in the little cardboard cut-out figures that come with the toy theater. They are flat, not round. Only one side of them is visible to the audience but that is the only side we need: the other side is blank. They are depicted in poses of intense activity or passion, so that their part in the drama can be easily read from a distance.

What makes this an asset rather than a detractor is the story’s pace:

Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.

[…]

The speed is exhilarating. You can only go that fast, however, if your’e travelling light; so none of the information you look for in a modern work of fiction — names, appearances, background, social context, etc. — is present. And that, of course, is part of the explanation for the flatness of the characters. The tale is far more interested in what happens to them, or in what they make happen, than in their individuality.

On imagery and description:

There is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.

On the constant flux and metamorphosis of art as revealed in fairy tales:

The fairy tale is in a perpetual state of becoming and alteration. To keep to one version or one translation alone is to put a robin redbreast in a cage. If you, the reader, want to tell any of the tales in this book, I hope you will feel free to be no more faithful than you want to be. You are at perfect liberty to invent other details than the ones I’ve passed on on, or invented, here. In fact you’re not only at liberty to do so: you have a positive duty to make the story your own. A fairy tale is not a text.

Before diving into the stories themselves, Pullman offers one final piece of whimsy:

Finally, I’d say to anyone who wants to tell these tales, don’t be afraid to be superstitious. If you have a lucky pen, use it. If you speak with more force and wit when wearing one red sock and one blue one, dress like that. When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.’

On a rant of an aside, as usual, the UK edition has a far more beautiful cover design, by Ohio-based designer Cheong-ah Hwang, and the much more imaginative title Grimm Tales: For Young and Old:

It even comes with a charming animated trailer:

Cover notwithstanding, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version is the perfect literary companion to Taschen’s visually stunning The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm , one of last year’s 11 best illustrated children’s books.

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