Jeanette Winterson- Art Objects

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Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. – Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

I’ve been rereading the essays in this book slowly this time around, the last time being 3 years ago.  I’m thinking about my favourite essays in more details and meditating on the content. This review is on the titular essay, Art Objects, an essay which discusses what happens when one discovers art and allows it into their lives and hearts, and how one must look for a language in order to express one’s feelings.

I had fallen in love and I had no language.

Winterson likens looking at paintings to travelling to a foreign city, and for me that really illustrates the fact that we expect to understand certain  things quickly but art, like visiting a new place, takes time to reveal itself to us, and so patience, and a desire to learn, is crucial. The first time I read this essay 3 years ago I was actually struck by the fact that Winterson said she’s willing to spend an afternoon with her favourite painting. As much as I love art and certain artists, I can’t imagine looking at a painting for even 5 minutes, so I started wondering what it is I’m not getting about art. I think more than anything, it is that our society that doesn’t encourage slowness of living, and it is up to the individual to slow down and appreciate things slowly and on a deeper level.

Another thing that resonated with me was the importance of having someone to accompany you on a journey. It’s not always possible to have a physical person to do so, even if you are surrounded by people, because people are on their own journeys, so I did appreciate Winterson illuminating the fact that even dead writers can be a guide, or someone to engage with on a certain topic:

I knew my Dante, and I was looking for a guide, someone astute and erudite, with whom I had something in common, a way of thinking. A person dead or alive with whom I could talk things over. I needed someone I could trust, who would negotiate with me the sublimities and cesspits of regions hitherto closed. Someone fluent in this strange language and its dialects, who had spent many years in that foreign city and who might introduce me to the locals and their rather odd habits. Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, wither by taming it or baiting it, cannot success. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Having just visited a giftshop with my friend and seeing how famous art can be used to sell souvenirs (think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers on a thermos, Monet’s Water Lilies on a wallet), I really did get to thinking about how the ubiquity of famous art pieces everywhere causes us not to really see the art, or just assume we know the art because we see its image everywhere. Related, Winterson talks about how we see out through “the thick curtain of irrelevancies that screens the painting from the viewer.”

Canonising the pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out.

One of my favourite recent articles is “Take Your Time: The Seven Pillars of A Slow Thought Manifesto” by Vincenzo Di Nicola . In it Di Nicola says “Just as fast food works for some meals and not for others, we must remain open to things that take time, both for preserving what is of value from the past and taking the time to forge new approaches in the present.” I may not be able to spend an entire afternoon with a painting, but I will attempt to spend at least 5 minutes on one.

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Elf Stories in Iceland

June 24- “It’s kind of an elf date.They are playing and dancing and singing all night long.”- Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, in conversation with Marianne Bjornmyr

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Street art in downtown Reykjavik

If you grew up reading Andrew Lang books like I did, you’d understand my fascination with fairy tales. As a child with an over-active imagination I believed in fairies, elves, goblins, sprites, every fairy creature. It seemed so normal to me that they existed. If you’d seen me convincing my sisters to help me look for fairies you might have laughed, but I was earnest. I never did find any traces of fairy folk and I soon grew out of that belief. Hearing stories about the Icelandic belief in elves intrigued me, and it was one of the reasons Iceland had always appealed to me as a holiday destination. Apparently a considerable percentage of the population believed in Huldufólk , i.e. “hidden folk.” Judging from its landscape Iceland it does seem like the perfect place to have elves. Maybe the word ethereal is over-used but in the case of Iceland it’s very appropriate.

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Near the Skogafoss waterfall area

While visiting southern Iceland’s waterfalls and glaciers with my tour group  I had the following conversation with my tour guide:

Halla (tourguide): Where are you staying?
Me: Hafnarfjörður
Halla: Hafnarfjörður! There are lots of elves there!

Hafnarfjörður is a beautiful port town right next to Reykjavik that has an elf garden that I unfortunately did not visit. Most of the locals I chatted with in this town had a couple of elf stories to share with me, though I’m not sure whether it’s because they were just humouring me as I was a tourist.

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Hafnarfjörður

While on our way back to Reykjavik,  Halla directed our gaze to a large rock that was lying some metres from the highway. Soon I was to hear my first elf story:

The highway was supposed to have been built where that rock lay, Halla said. Do you know why it wasn’t built there? Elves!

We learned that the elves wreaked havoc on all construction attempts. Tractors broke down, people got injured. The rock couldn’t be budged or destroyed. Its reluctance to move defied science.There were so many coincidences, too many to believe that supernatural forces were not involved in making sure that highway would not be built at that very location. Finally, the government decided to invite an elf oracle to figure out what was going on.

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View from the highway

I ended up finding confirmation of Halla’s story in a photobook I read at Reykjavik’s Museum of Photography, entitled “In Shadows/Echoes”. The elf oracle Ragnhildur Jonsdottir recounted a conversation she had with the elves:

“Okay, this is our home, it’s a whole community where you are planning to build this road. But if you agree to move the road over there, in a totally different place, then you are not damaging our village, then we will take care and make sure, as well as we can, that no one gets hurt driving this road.”

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Jonsdottir says the elves are older than humans, and as they are always smiling they don’t have any worry lines. They have very little to worry about because they aren’t greedy like us humans, apparently. There are many different species of elves, and they are very similar to humans but smaller. They even have a royal family. Pulta, one of the oracle’s elf friends, is from that family.

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Another elf story I heard took place in Reykjavik where an elf oracle was consulted before a large rock was moved. It was discovered that the rock was indeed an elf stone. The elves were amiable and agreed to move on two conditions: 1- A week was given to them so they could pack their things, and 2- they were housed in a locale that had a good view of Reykjavik.

On my last full day in Iceland I spend the day in Reykjavik and went looking for that rock. It was hard to find and even the people working at the tourist office only had a vague idea of where it was. But finally I found it, on a hill, very close to the Canadian Embassy. It was in a little park and someone had planted flowers around it.

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Even if you don’t believe in supernatural forces, I believe one of the morals of the elf stories is to pay close attention to signs that the world might be giving you, and not assume you are above nature.  In all the elf stories I heard the elves were always willing to compromise; they only became angry (understandably) if  their communities were being destroyed. Being careful, observant, and learning to read what the signs are telling you seems to be important if we want to live safely and peacefully.

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The black sandy beaches of Vik

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass- Theodore Dalrymple

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If the doctor has a duty to relieve the suffering of his patients, he must have some idea where that suffering comes from, and this involves the retention of judgment, including moral judgment.And if, as far as he can tell in good faith, the misery of his patients derives from the way they live, he has a duty to tell them so—which often involves a more or less explicit condemnation of their way of life as completely incompatible with a satisfying existence. By avoiding the issue, the doctor is not being kind to his patients; he is being cowardly. Moreover, by refusing to place the onus on the patients to improve their lot, he is likely to mislead them into supposing that he has some purely technical or pharmacological answer to their problems, thus helping to perpetuate them.- Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom

Theodore Dalrymple, a retired British psychiatrist, who has spent years working with the underclass is a very keen observer of human nature, as is evidenced by this book. His dealings with thousands of these people at close quarters gave him much of the fodder for his thesis which is, I’m sure that some will disagree, that a lot of poverty is caused by dysfunctional values, values that those in power exploit and make worse by creating a culture of victims. Most of these stories and anecdotes are from Dalrymple’s time working in British slums and prisons.

This was a very heavy read and I’m still thinking about it weeks after I read it. There are things discussed that seem so foreign to me because I’ve never had to deal with them, and it’s upsetting that so many do. I learned interesting points around education, literature, the violence in the British culture, the housing, and how often people in need aren’t helped enough because they aren’t tragic enough. It was eye-opening and there is a lot of pain in this book, and so much raises questions.

Also, it’s important to know that several of the essays in this book were written in the 90s, so people’s values have changed since then. I obviously didn’t agree with everything Dalrymple stated in the book, and I haven’t lived in the UK for a long time, so there are things I can’t speak to or challenge, even though I really want to.

I was surprised when Dalrymple  alluded that systemic racism isn’t a thing, but his other points about how we should treat people on a case by case situation, not by their race, was well-taken. Also interesting was how he has worked in African and Latin American countries where he talks about the poverty there but says that the Western underclass’s mental, cultural, emotional and spiritual poverty is the worst he has ever seen, something backed up by the doctors from Asia who start working at his hospital:

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries.

So much of this book is due to the fact that Dalrymple is tired of people blaming the system and not taking their own actions into consideration. There is a lot of controversial stuff, that’s for sure. But as far as critical thinkers goes, Dalrymple is one of the best I’ve come across recently.

I liked his thoughts on the architectural changes in England following the turn of the 20th century  when Britain was entering modernity:

The architects thought that modernity was a value that transcended all other virtues; they thought they could wake the country from its nostalgic slumber, dragging it into the twentieth century by pouring what seemed to them to be the most modern of building materials—reinforced concrete—all over it. Hence, among many other crimes, they tore down the elegant Victorian wrought-iron tracery of my city’s main railway station, with its splendid arched roof over the platforms and tracks, and built instead a brutalist construction of steel and soon-discoloured concrete to a plan that proved no more practical or functional than the old.

 

One of the points that spoke to me the most was perhaps this:

Experience has taught me that it is wrong and cruel to suspend judgement, that nonjudgmentalism is at its best indifference to the suffering of others, at worst a disguised form of sadism. How can one respect people as members of the human race unless one holds them to a standard of conduct and truthfulness? How can people learn from experience unless they are told that they can and should change?

This book will definitely make you think.

 

My Bondage and My Freedom- Frederick Douglass

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The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contented and happy labourers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. – Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

I’ve never read such a detailed and insightful autobiography about slavery.  Douglass helped me understand in more detail the horrors of slavery, especially the psychological. I can imagine it must have been really difficult for him to write this, to relive all his pain, but he was the perfect person to do so, being as intelligent and observant as he was.

In the beginning of the book, the discussions of family within slavery is very pertinent because it speaks to how the evil of slavery affects the very foundations of society. When Douglass as a child lives with his grandmother and siblings for the first time, this is what he says:

We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Why should they be attached to me, or  to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brothers and sisters, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning.

It’s even sadder when he discusses his mother:

“My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had  many children, but NO FAMILY!”

You could hear the injustice in his words once he looked back in retrospect when looking back in retrospect; a child  who had little recollection of his mother. When she died, Douglass wrote, “I was not allowed to visit her during any part of her long illness; nor did I see her for a long time before she was taken ill and died. The heartless and ghastly form of slavery rises between mother and child, even at the bed of death.”

Douglass uses his memories from his childhood and early adulthood to describe the hypocrisy and evils he encountered and observed as a slave, showing us that not a single part of life was untouched by slavery. His autobiography goes into detail of how he came to learn what it meant to be a slave, especially a bright slave, whose environment clearly did not nourish, and how he strategically tried to better himself and those around him, and eventually escape.

As a child Douglass asked himself the following “Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters? Was there ever a time when this was not so? How did the relationship commence?” I’ve said this before, but despite the number of books on slavery I have read I always learn more and I am always freshly shocked. Clearly there is no bottom to this evil practice, no shortage of cruel ways to keep people subjugated:

But, there is this difference in the two extremes; viz: that in the case of the slave, the miseries and hardships of his lot are imposed by others, and in the master’s case, they are imposed by himself. The slave is a subject, subjected by others; the slaveholder is a subject, but he is the author of his own subjection.

 

 

 

Ready to Burst- Franketienne

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Will my cries for help manage to move anyone? To reach some sympathetic target? I don’t know. But unhappiness, misery, despair, rage, rivers, storms, blood, fire, seas, hurricanes, my country, trees, mountains, my people, women, children, old men, all men, all things, and all beings, swell in my voice, to the point where, should I fail, I’ll have been truly alone. Terrifyingly alone. Horribly alone.- Franketienne, Ready to Burst

This is one of my favourite fiction reads of the year. Every single one of the French-Caribbean writers I’ve come across have been brilliant, and Haitian writer Franketienne is no exception. If you’ve read and loved Edouard Glissant or Aime Cesaire, you’re sure to like Franketienne; he writes in the same energetic way as both, and in the same visceral way as Cesaire.

Ready to Burst introduces us to two young men who are trying to make sense of their very brutal society. The novel also introduces us to a new form of writing, spiralism,  which is also known as the  “Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. I speak the unfolding of life in a spiral.”

And the current “unfolding of life” in Haiti is a stormy political situation. One of the characters in the novel is himself a writer and finds writing to be the only way he can get any peace:

In wanting so desperately to speak, I’ve become no more than a screaming mouth. I no longer worry about what I write. I simply write. Because I must. Because I’m suffocating, I write anything. Any way. People can call it what they want: novel, essay, poem, autobiography, testimony, narrative, memory exercise, or nothing at all. I don’t even know, myself. Yet what I write feels perfectly familiar to me. No one can say much more than what he has lived.

In a sense this novel is about writing a novel, and there were so many interesting passages about what a novel is, whether the novel is dead, what writer’s block is:

The novel is a vision of life. And as far as I know, life isn’t a segment. It isn’t a vector. Nor is it a simple curve. It’s a spiral in motion. It opens and closes in irregular helices. It becomes a question of surprising at the right moment a few rings of the spiral. So I’m constructing my novel in a spiral, with diverse situations traversed by the problematic of the human, and held in awkward positions. And the elastic turns of the spiral, embracing beings and things in its elliptical and circular fragments, defining the movements of life. This is what I’m using the neologism Spiralism to describe.

There are so many wonderful paragraphs in this very poetic,  very visceral book:

It is then that I become a tempest of words, bursting open the hypocrisy of clouds and the deceitfulness of silence. Rivers. Storms. Flashes of lightning. Mountains. Trees. Lights. Rains. Untamed oceans. Take me away in the frenzied marrow of your joints.

I’m not sure how I came across this book but I’m glad I did!

City of Lies- Ramita Navai

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From above, Tehran has an ethereal glow. An orange mist hangs over the city, refracting sunrays: a thick, noxious haze that stubbornly clings to every corner, burning the nose and stinging the eyes. Every street is clogged with cars coughing out the black clouds that gently rise and sit, unmoving, overhead…- Ramita Navai, City of Lies

I’ve always been intrigued by Iranian history and this book was fascinating. It’s a collection of stories from various Tehranis, giving us lots of insight into Iranian society. These are the stories of Tehrani citizens, told to the reporter/writer, citizens including a prostitute, an assassin, an exile, and a closeted Islamic militia member.

What I’ll say is this: people who are obsessed with morals and laws are often the least moral (and the most abusive). Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching and so unfair. The hypocrisy of life within a very rigid religious society was so obvious from these stories, particularly the hypocrisy around sexuality.

I learned a lot of interesting tidbits about Iran; for example, I had no idea that in the 1970s lots of Iranians provided cheap labour to Japan, doing the ‘3K’ jobs ; kitanai (dirty), Kitsui (difficult), and kurushii (painful). Nor did I know about the chronic drug problem in the country.

Iran seems to be a place of contradictions, and a place where people, young women in particular, seem to be oppressed. Take Somayeh whose family believes that “religion means living by the words of the Koran and the Supreme Leader’s fatwas to earn a place in paradise”:

Somayeh and her friends strongly believed that the hejab should be enforced. They agreed with the law, which states that if your make-up and clothes are contrary to public decency and you intend to attract attention, you can be arrested and taken straight to court…The girls were not to blame for their misogynous views. They had been fed the regime’s line on hejab, which was usually touted around the city via huge billboard advertisements, since birth.

 

I’m always interested by how oppressive regimes use children to further their agendas, and how they program them to do so. For example:

Morteza’s own views were not changing so much as being formed for the first time. The lectures were having an effect. Islamic scholars thundered about the dangers of moral decay, titillating the boys with enough morsels of lascivious detail to keep them interested and entrusting them with enough responsibility to keep them excited. The boys were wide-eyed with pride when they were told tha they were the guardians of their citizens’ virtue.

I was incredibly frustrated by the limitations such regimes put on its people, the hypocrisy which unfortunately hurts the women and children the most, and how people have to often hide who they truly are. Navai did share some important stories though, and regardless of how oppressive the regime is, people do their best to live, and I’d say that’s pretty inspirational.

The book did remind me of Persepolis, the feminist graphic novel set in Iran, and it’s no wonder because the women in these stories were treated abysmally.

Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto- Jessa Crispin

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Making feminism a universal pursuit might look like a good thing—or at the very least a neutral thing—but in truth it progresses, and I think accelerates, a process that has been detrimental to the feminist movement: the shift of focus from society to the individual. What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world has become identity politics, a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories. It has separated us out into smaller and smaller groups until we are left all by ourselves, with our concern and our energy directed inward instead of outward.- Jessa Crispin, Why I am not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

There’s something that Martin Luther King said that I read a few years ago that stuck with me, which is about the importance of reading widely, including reading views that you don’t agree with. I learned that is true and that we can learn a lot from people who think differently.  In the past this isn’t the sort of book I’d have picked up, I mean so many of my readings are feminist-focused; as a black woman I’m interested in feminism, and how to make my life, and the lives of the women in my life, better, so my defenses were slightly up when I read this one.

From my perspective, this book is a critique of feminism, and in my opinion every movement should be critiqued. As Crispin says, “Feminism is—should be—a movement, not an excuse to stand still.” She makes many good points and gave me food for thought. Overall she did make me think about labels and how important it is for us to understand what we are claiming when we take on any label. Basically, this requires self-reflection, and Crispin assumes that feminists do not self-reflect.

Being confronted almost daily with pinkwashing  capitalism, I was really glad that Crispin addressed how feminism is used in advertising.  Crispin says “ It is often supposed that acceptance of the feminist label will also result in the acceptance of the meaning behind it, but the meaning has been drained away by this psychotic marketing campaign. A woman can now take up the feminist label without any true political, personal, or relational adaptations whatsoever. It’s just another button on her jacket, another sticker on her bumper. The inner contents remain unchanged.”

I do agree with this, and additionally I agree with the importance of not celebrating someone just because they are a woman. See this article: https://www.buzzfeed.com/doree/feminist-hypocrisy-is-the-new-trend-in-startup-narratives?utm_term=.ouOegWxX4#.gsZo0K4xQ

Throughout the book I found myself disagreeing with plenty, and part of that reason was Crispin seems to be focusing on white middle-class feminism, which clearly I have little to no connection with at all. Crispin also uses examples from feminism online, and that makes me think that her data is skewered towards the West, as so much else is. I find that  it’s so easy to forget that there are worlds out there outside of the West, and the citizens of those places might not have the word “feminist” in their vocabulary, may not have access to the internet and other resources, but they are still fighting to improve the lot of women, and in very diverse ways, ways that are not mentioned in this book. Crispin also made several sweeping assumptions that surprised me, such as that feminists hate men.

But still, despite Crispin’s sometimes arrogance and blanket statements, I feel this is an important read. It’s a quick one too, and you can probably skip over a few of her essays as some of the stuff is repetitive.