Posts Tagged ‘art’

Another atypical novel. There’s nothing Gothic or weird about this; it’s depressingly real. It begins with The Hon. Charles Wyndham calling his wife and her family a bunch of parasites, and then they spend most of the rest of the novel remembering their lives together.

Maria and Niall are not actually brother and sister; her father married his mother when they were both infants, and produced the third child, Celia. Maria and Niall are sometimes like two halves of a single person, they rely on each other so much, but at other times not.

The tunes he had written for this tiresome revue were maddening, insistent; you could not forget them for one single moment. Once you heard them, you went on humming them all the time, throughout the day, until they nearly drove you crazy. The trouble was, thought Maria, that when the time came to dance to them, she would be dancing with Charles. And Charles was a stolid, safe dancer, steering you rather as he might steer a little ship through shoal water, an anxious eye to the bumps of other dancers. Whereas Niall . . . Dancing with Niall had always been like dancing with yourself. You moved, and he followed. Or rather, he moved and you followed. Or was it that you both thought of the same moves at precisely the same moment? And anyway, why think about Niall?

Their parents were performers, so the children grew up in theatres, even when they were very young children who really needed the attention of their parents. Pappy was effusive but careless, and Mama was cold and distant. She began to connect with Niall when he showed a gift for music, but she died so shortly afterward that it couldn’t make up for all the time she didn’t care for him. Niall is the only one to go away to school, and he hates it, running away all the time, usually to go find Maria. She went upon the stage at the same time he went to school. Maria is always dogged by her father’s spectre; people assume that she gets roles because she’s his daughter, not because she has any talent of her own. By the time it’s clear that she is a good actress, her fears of inadequacy are too deeply ingrained to be easily overcome. Niall leaves school shortly before graduation, to run away to Paris with a friend of his parents. Pappy always talks about his French blood, saying that all his vagaries are due to the unknown biological father. He never learns discipline, and it takes decades for him to learn to write down music himself. There are times he reminds me of myself. Discipline has never been easy for me; I believe that I write well, but I never work at the craft, and rarely write anything original. If I were dedicated to writing, I’d do it more often, and think more about my sentences, and chart plots in my head, and listen for characters’ voices. Niall cranks out popular songs of the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter variety, good for revues, but he wishes he could write concertos, something that he perceives as worthwhile and lasting.

Celia’s problem would be a different one. People, finding her more sympathetic than either Niall or Maria, would pour out to her the story of their lives. “You have no idea what he does to me,” and she would find herself involved in another person’s troubles, her advice sought, her co-operation demanded, and it would be like a net closing round her from which there was no escape.

Celia, the youngest, product of both famous parents, the only legitimate child of the three, yet has no desire to follow them. She always wanted a family, so she spends her youth taking care of Pappy, as he declines into alcoholic old age. Her attention is always on other people; she draws well, and writes children’s stories to accompany the pictures. Her drawings capture her mother’s grace and her father’s emotive range, but without their drive to pursue Art. She has more pressing matters to attend to. Of the three, I find Celia the easiest to like, because she does care for ordinary people. Maria and Niall are too full of The Artist’s Vocation to notice or care about other people. I suppose they learned that from their parents.

And yet, whom do I identify with the most? The antagonist, the angry husband from the first chapter.

The movement from the armchair, as Charles changed his position and straightened out the sports page of the Sunday Times, should have warned them of irritation, but they took no notice.

This is me all over. If an actor is supposed to be so attuned to the use of the body and how it reveals character, why would they then ignore me, when my body language speaks so loudly? It was true with The Ex, and true with the guy I was seeing at the holidays. I guess they look long enough to figure out who I am, and then they stop. I’m not exactly mercurial, but nor is my interior life placid. I’m layered, like an onion, and I show more and more of myself as I build trust. Once you get past that first layer of silence, you can’t assume that you know me well enough to stop paying attention. Not if you want me to stick around.

“I will tell you what matters,” said Charles; “it matters to have principles, to have standards, to have ideals. It matters to have faith, and a belief. It matters very much if you love a woman, and a woman loves a man, and you marry, and you breed children, and you share each other’s lives, and you grow old together, and you lie buried in the same grave. It matters even more if the man loves the wrong woman, and the woman loves the wrong man, and the two come from different worlds that just won’t mix, that won’t turn into one world, belonging to both. Because when that happens, a man goes adrift and is lost, and his ideals and illusions and traditions get lost too. There is nothing much to live for any more. So he chucks his hand in. He says to himself: Why bother? The woman I love does not believe in any of the things that I believe in. Therefore, I may as well stop believing in them too. I also can lower standards.”

I’ve felt like this about the Midwest, including Texas. Texas and Illinois are not so different as Texans would have you think. I’m an East Coast guy; over there, I feel free, like it’s easy to find friends I have things in common with, like everything is possible. Here, I feel confined by the expectations of others. Back home, there are lots of different kinds of people, but here there are only two: Normal, which means moderately conservative straight-ticket Republican Christian; and Weird, which is everyone else. But while at my high school Goths and cowboys could be friends, here the Weird make the Normal really uncomfortable. I’d say this isn’t so much a Midwestern thing as a not-academia thing, but even when I was at the university in Illinois I had a hard time fitting in. My friends were a guy from Scranton PA and the local girl who had lived in Paris for several years. The Middies do their best to be kind, but I feel like I’m visiting a foreign country where they happen to speak the same language I do. You know, like Canada, but without the tundra.

To some extent, we create the world we live in; I’ve made some good connections here, primarily with students, but I’m thinking about The Ex. When we first got together, we seemed to inhabit the same world, but in time we built up in opposite directions. And this is where I feel like Charles; we both married the wrong woman. I shouldn’t have married a woman at all, honestly, but it was necessary for me to figure out that I’m not attracted to them. I went adrift and was lost, for what feels like a long time. I also lost the ideals and illusions and traditions, and now I’m working toward new ones. Charles goes directly toward another relationship, but I’ve been learning to do things alone. A month or two ago my son and I were both sick, and I told him how fortunate he was to have his mother to take care of him while I didn’t have anyone to do that, and he said, “Yes, you do, Dad. You have yourself.” And I’ve been pondering that, the fact that I complain about having no one to love and be loved by, but I have myself. And valuing myself and taking care of myself is important right now, because I don’t have anyone else. One day he will come, and I’ll stop singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along,” and I’ll enjoy the fact that he has. And this man I hope to meet deserves to be with a guy who has his shit together. So I’ll keep learning to be the guy that the guy I’ll love will love.

This thought isn’t really related to anything, and I don’t have anything really to say about it, but it struck me as beautiful:

They say that when we sleep our subconscious selves are revealed, our hidden thoughts and desires are written plain upon our features and our bodies like the tracings of rivers on a map; and no one reads them but the darkness.

As we near the end, as their memories catch up to the present moment, Charles confronts them with the question of whether they are or are not parasites. They evade the question, but I think it’s important to say it outright: No, they are not. Artists are not parasites (and the idea of Celia as a parasite doesn’t even bear considering – cf the Surplus Woman Question of the nineteenth century). The word parasites assumes that they feed on us, that without our applause they would die. It’s just not like that. These artists create for the sake of the Art itself. Niall despises the people who whistle his songs, and Maria only notices the audience as a collective entity. Ordinary people like Charles are just not interesting to them. If anyone matters, it’s the other artists. She acts to prove that she can, both to herself and to the other actors. He writes music because he must, and to please his lover and his sister. There are rare occasions when a story will affect me that way, but when you work sixty hours a week and have a tiny apartment full of children and a talkative wife, as I did for several years, you learn to block it out. But if The Words are coming back, I want to welcome them. I want to make time to write; I want to have the energy and attention to get things down in the evenings. If I can use words well, I want to use them to make my friends’ hearts glad, to make the world beautiful. There’s nothing parasitic about that.

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I know. I know, people who are as poor as I am have no business peeking into used bookshops, even if they are new in town, and even if it’s Memorial Day weekend and no other shops are open. So I did, and the owner was terribly friendly, so of course I did what I had sworn I would not do. I bought a couple of books. Less than a week later, I picked up a couple more because I feel guilty using a store’s wi-fi for an hour without spending any money there. Besides, circumstances in my life are demanding that I make some decisions with relation to my belief system, and when I saw the title of this book I knew intuitively that I needed to read it.

You see, I’ve been getting lonely on the weekends. The loneliness drove me to visit the local Mormon church, because this is the church I was raised in, and I needed to meet some friendly people. Mormons are always happy to welcome a member who is new to their town. No need to mention that after two months of living here and exploring these two towns, I didn’t feel exactly new any more. So I’ve been there two or three times, and so the bishop called me in to have a little getting-to-know-you chat. He seems friendly (I seem to have passed the age beyond which pastors no longer seem paternal), not really bothered by the whole gay thing. But a week or two ago he asked me back in, and the conversation, while not threatening, was more professional than friendly. The problem is this. Even though I haven’t thought about myself this way in quite some time, in their terms, I bear the priesthood of Melchizedek, the high priest of the Old Testament. Yet, as a single man not given to celibacy, I have done things that the church cannot abide. They say that it’s the premarital nature of the sex that’s a problem, not the gender of the actors involved, though I confess that I have some doubts on that score. Not having premeditated a plan for this conversation, naturally I panicked. Long painful pauses, some random stammering. We agreed not to withdraw my church membership immediately, but we’re going to continue to have these little chats from time to time.

So I’ve spent these almost-two weeks trying to understand myself. What I do and don’t believe seems too big a topic for me to tackle all at once, so I’ve gone at the situation from a different angle. Why am I reluctant to take the active role in terminating my alliance with this church? The only answer I’ve been able to accept is sentiment. It’s not the doctrine; most of it, especially the stuff central and unique to them, seems like bollocks. If there is any sort of trajectory to my life, any overall moral lesson, it has been that no one is going to save me. Either I do it myself or it doesn’t get done. Most people are kind, and many of them want to help, but if there is to be any meaningful transformation in my life (aka salvation) it has to come from me. No one else is going to do it. Partially because I don’t like being helped, and partially because they all have their own shit to deal with. Like Rilke’s God, who sort of accidentally created humanity. He had gathered up the clay and was shaping it, but other problems kept coming up, like a baby bird who had lost its parents, so he stopped looking and let his hands carry on without him. God’s hands finish the first man and drop him down onto the earth while God’s eyes and attention are elsewhere. According to Rilke, God is still looking for a complete and perfect man, unsuccessfully since the dawn of time.

“And that is why it is urgently necessary that God should learn what man really is like. Let us rejoice that there are those who tell him . . .”

The good lady was not yet rejoicing.

“And who might they be, if you please?”

“Simply the children, and now and again, too, the people who paint, write poems, build . . .”

“Build what, churches?”

“Yes, and other things too – build in general . . .”

As I was saying, sentiment. I feel a great deal of nostalgia for the person I once was, for the boy who could see life as simple, like the German einfach, one-fold, singular. He was kind of narrow, but he was sweet and happy, innocent. Rilke’s stories are written with children in mind, and I believe that part of the attraction this book held for me is in my need to reconcile the man I have become with the overgrown boy I held onto being for too long. Another important aspect of this sentiment is my desire for my parents’ approval. I forfeited that when I told them that I’m gay, and I’ve been regaining it insomuch as I can convince them that I am still the same person I’ve always been. Around them, I am as little different as possible. Okay, in truth, I’m not very different at all, but I’ve always been careful only to show them one side of me, and it’s not the side of my character that is actually most prominent. I worry that if I voluntarily withdraw my church membership, my parents will never forgive me. There are also the many friends who have worked so hard to keep me in this church. It’s been the best way I know to honor their love for me, by continuing to belong to an organization that brings them so much personal fulfillment. The Mormon church does a lot of good things for people and meets many physical and emotional needs; just not mine.

Christians (including Mormons) are apt to say that the only way to truly find oneself is in God. You give God everything you have and deny yourself of all ungodliness, and God returns to you all of the things that are really you and gives you a sense of complete identity. This follows the implications of Paul’s epistles, that who we really are is an obedient spirit wrapped up in an envelope of sinful flesh. Good desires come from our true selves, while evil desires come from the physical body, which is not really us. Mormons teach that the body and spirit together form the human soul, but they tend to cling to this holy spirit/evil flesh dichotomy, and I don’t believe in it. I lived that way for a long time, and it’s like I was living half a life. I kept wanting to destroy parts of myself, important, significant parts that shape my character. I hid several aspects of my real self from my conscious self in my labors for divine approval. Now I try to accept whatever aspect of my self is revealed to me. I don’t have that surface happiness any more, but nor do I have the hidden self-hatred. I am becoming simpler, a more unified self, while my view of the world is becoming more complex, more multiple.

The thing I keep running aground on, in terms of faith, is not a belief in God itself, it’s all the add-ons. You believe in God, so you must also believe that you’re a sinful creature in need of Jesus’ blood to save you from hellfire. You believe in God, so you must also believe that Joseph Smith was led by an angel to recover a religious document remarkably similar to the Bible, engraved on golden sheets, preserved by God in a hole in the ground for fourteen hundred years. You believe in God, so you must also believe that God sent his messenger Gibreel to communicate his final message to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) fifteen hundred years ago. You believe in God, so you must believe the world is a mirage, a symbol of spiritual truths not yet directly revealed to us. You believe in God, so you must believe that homosexuality is evil, which means that God built you for either celibacy or damnation, though most days you can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s all this other rubbish that seems absurd; the simple idea of a God doesn’t.

And this, I think, is one of the real strengths of Rilke’s book. He presents us with a God unencumbered by sanctimonious rubbish. His God gets distracted, forgets things, misunderstands, and reveals himself in the least likely places. I suppose you could say that this version of God is too limited, that God should be infinite, infinitely beyond our comprehension, all-seeing/all-knowing/all-powerful. Such a God is easy for people to worship (most people – I don’t know if I have a reverent bone in my body), but hard to love. To love, you have to be able to draw something close to you. Rilke’s God is harder to worship, but easier to love. And my need to love is stronger than my need to venerate.

In “A Story Told to the Dark,” Rilke introduces a ‘fallen woman,’ someone who left her husband for the love of an artist and now raises her illegitimate child alone. Her childhood friend comes to visit her, and she explains to him how she has come to love God:

“As a child – did I love God? I don’t believe so. Why, I never even – it would have seemed to me insane presumption – that isn’t the right word – like the worst sin, to think: He is. As though I had thereby compelled him to be in me, in that weak child with the absurdly long arms, in our poor apartment where everything was imitation and false, from the bronze wall-plaques of papier mâché to the wine in the bottles that bore such expensive labels. And later – ” Klara made a parrying gesture with her hands, and her eyes closed tighter, as though she feared to see something dreadful through the lids – “why, I would have had to drive him out of me if he had been living in me then. But I knew nothing about him. I had quite forgotten him. I had forgotten everything. – Not until I came to Florence, when for the first time in my life I saw, heard, felt, realized and simultaneously learned to be thankful for all those things, did I think of him again. There were traces of him everywhere. In all the pictures I found bits of his smile, the bells were still alive with his voice, and on the statues I recognized the imprints of his hands.”

“And you found him there?”

Klara looked at the doctor with large, happy eyes: “I felt that he was – at some time once was . . . why should I have felt more? That was already more than enough.”

The doctor got up and went to the window. From it one could see a stretch of field and the little old village church of Schwabing, and above it the sky, no longer quite untouched by evening. Suddenly Doctor Lassmann asked, without turning round:

“And now?”

Receiving no answer, he came quietly back.

“Now – ” Klara faltered as he stood before her, and then raised her eyes full to his face, “now I sometimes think: He will be.”

I can cope with this idea, of God as the Arthurian legend, the once and future king. I know that I should try to stick with the Rilke here, but this idea of his has reminded me of another book, that expresses a similar attitude toward God but more familiarly (for me):

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. […]”

If Melville is right, and Moby Dick is just a mask through which Ahab can strike at God, then Rilke is also right, and Klara can learn to love God through her aesthetic sense. And as I think about my life since coming out, this appreciation of the beauty in art and nature has actually been sharpened. Without realizing it, I have been loving God through the mask of creation this whole time. If reverence is only to be found in genuflecting, using only the right terms and metaphors, and fostering a lively sense of my own nothingness, then yes, I am a failure. But if reverence can be found in the sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world, at sunlight on long grass or wind through freshly-leaved trees, or a series of statues in a French park or the paintings of an old Dutch master, then there is indeed hope for me yet.

Perhaps this is what I need to fix clearly in my mind before my next little chat with the bishop: his church, while it can offer me some measure of human love and support, in the long run it cannot offer me hope. If I fall back into the habit of believing them, my future will ultimately be one of despair. Hope and peace are in the woods, in the art galleries, in the libraries, in the love of a good man. And that is where I will find my faith as well.

I read once that a writer is “a reader moved to emulation.” There is no writer who stirs me to write like A. S. Byatt. This is not to say that I have her skill with language, but simply that I wish I had. Her descriptions are lovely; reading her is like resting in a pool, feeling yourself borne along floating, but only temporarily, only so long as you keep very still, because with the slightest movement you will sink or be forced to swim.

The stories in this collection are only partially, and usually only metaphorically, about fire and ice. Water and light are more common. Beyond these elements, though, these are stories about stories, and story-telling. In them ancient myths come back to life. Visual art plays an important role as well. They’re also stories about foreign travel and therefore crossing boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, the uncanny finding of things known in unfamiliar settings.

CROCODILE TEARS

A married couple has a little tiff in a London art gallery over some kitschy piece of shit that the husband wants to buy; a few minutes later he drops dead. She leaves, goes home, packs a few things, and takes a train to France. She does what she can to elude detection, and ends up in Nimes. Not for the bullfighting, but just because that’s where she ended up. She spends her time avoiding the things that (as a tourist) she ought to do. She meets a Norwegian gentleman whom she does not fall in love with; she gets rather irritated when he keeps saving her from suicidal accidents. He tells her the old Norse story of The Companion, a man who was frozen in the ice and then mystically aided his thaw-er to achieve his goals. Eventually she softens toward him, and they decide that together they can face the traumas and responsibilities they are each running away from.

A LAMIA IN THE CÉVENNES

An English painter moves to France and installs an outdoor swimming pool. He’s captivated by the shade of blue that results from the interaction of the tile with the water. There are some chemical problems with the pool, so he has it drained and refilled from the river. Wouldn’t you know it, a giant snake gets into the pool with the river water. It’s the Lamia from the Keats poem; if he kisses her, she’ll become a woman and make all his dreams come true. But he doesn’t want a woman, he wants the colors that shine and iridesce all over the snake body. He strings her along until a houseguest takes her bait.

COLD

While I love her realistic stories, no one can write a fairy tale like A. S. Byatt.

Princesses, also, are expected to marry. They are expected to marry for dynastic reasons, to cement an alliance, to placate a powerful rival, to bear royal heirs. They are, in the old stories, gifts and rewards, handed over by their loving fathers to heroes and adventurers who must undergo trials, or save people. It would appear, Fiammarosa had thought as a young girl, reading both histories and wonder tales, that princesses are commodities. But also, in the same histories and tales, it can be seen that this is not so. Princesses are captious and clever choosers. They tempt and test their suitors, they sit like spiders inside walls adorned with the skulls of the unsuccessful, they require superhuman feats of strength and cunning from their suitors, and are not above helping out, or weeping over, those who appeal to their hearts. They follow their chosen lovers through rough deserts, and ocean tempests, they ride on the wings of the north wind and enlist the help of ants and eagles, trout and mice, hares and ducks, to rescue these suddenly helpless husbands from the clutches of scheming witches, or ogre-kings. They do have, in real life, the power to reject and some power to choose. They are wooed. She had considered her own cold heart in this context and had thought that she would do better, ideally, to remain unmarried. She was too happy alone to make a good bride. She could not think out a course of action entirely but had vaguely decided upon a course of prevarication and intimidation, if suitors presented themselves. For their own sakes, as much as for her own.

A genuine ice princess falls in love with a man of fire. She’s initially captivated by his glasswork, and my heart ached for her because even in the gift-sending stage of things it’s clear that his nature is wholly different from hers. They each find beauty in otherness, and they find ways to make it work.

BAGLADY

While it seems realistic at the beginning, this story takes on a fairy-tale quality as well. A woman gets lost in an Asian shopping mall. Maybe less fairy tale and more urban legend, but maybe these two types of story are not so different. When I went to New York, my friends warned me not to go out drinking late or go home with strange men because I don’t want to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys; just like German parents used to tell their children about Little Red Riding Hood to keep them away from going into the woods alone.

JAEL

So, you know the story from the Old Testament. Israel is in bondage (again), and under Deborah’s direction, they go to war against their oppressors. The leader of the enemy army, Sisera, runs into the Hebrew camp and asks a woman to hide him. She treats him nicely, gives him dinner and a place to rest. While he’s sleeping, she nails his head to the ground. Byatt uses this to talk about gratuitous betrayal – unexpected, purposeless betrayal. A woman remembers being in school, when she lived on the peripheries of a couple of rival gangs (1960s-ish white-girl gangs, so don’t think of Baltimore or Detroit). She also talks about her current life designing advertisements for fruit drinks. She always incorporates classical themes, from the Bible or Greek mythology, and the younger set don’t understand. One of the younger women is working at betraying her, so it’s kind of a vicious circle. If I were more misogynistic than I am, I’d say that this story shows how all women are like this, but I don’t actually see it that way. I have very good friends who are women, and they aren’t vile betrayers.

CHRIST IN THE HOUSE OF MARTHA AND MARY

And, from the New Testament, Mary and Martha. Someone summarizes the story from the Bible, but the narrative is more about the painting than the Bible. The Velazquez painting, with the same name as the story. I’m used to hearing it as the story of Mary and Martha, I guess since the final –y of Mary elides more effectively with the following and than the final –a of Martha; I don’t say it Marthanmary, there’s always a glottal stop between Martha | and. Nevertheless, I like putting Martha first; she gets the short end of the stick all the time, but if we all just sat at Jesus’ feet waiting for him to multiply loaves and fishes no one would ever get any dinner. Maybe Mary was clumsy or a bad cook, so listening was a better task for her than serving and cooking. It always seems to me that there must be more to the situation than we get in the Scripture. Some people are active, some are contemplative, and some are both; to me, the bad thing is to go against one’s own nature, not to be careful with the housework. So Byatt describes an angry, rebellious cook (aptly named Dolores) who meets a painter who visits the house where she works. He does beautiful things with light on still life, and even when he makes a painting of her she notices first the fish, eggs, and garlic.

I know that there are some people who will object to my associating the Bible with myths and poetry; well, that’s what it is. They’re Hebrew myths. Take the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: the people of Sodom commit an offense against the laws of hospitality; some Biblical writers who interpret this story say that the reason God sent the angels was that the people didn’t take care of the poor; the Qur’an and the New Testament writers (who lived two or three thousand years after the event) say that it was a cautionary tale against homosexuality; the Gay Church movement insists that the story is about gang rape. These stories might be moralistic, but they’re also malleable. The important thing about Scripture, as with myth, is not whether these stories literally happened; the important thing is how we respond to them, what they say about human nature, and how these stories impact the way we live our lives. In this sense, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Spock can be as important as Ehud and the disgustingly fat Moabite king. Stories – myths, legends, poems, scripture, novels, jokes, anecdotes, fairy tales, television programmes – even more than fire and ice, quicksilver and brimstone, or fire water wood air metal, are the elements that compose our lives. We are the stories that we believe, that we live, that we love.

 

So, Clarksville Tennessee seemed like a good halfway point on a long trip last weekend, so I pulled off the highway. I intended to walk around Walmart for a while before getting back on the road, but I was in the wrong lane at that intersection, so I went on up a little way, got over into the right lane, and then there was a Books-A-Million. I hadn’t seen one of those in ages; their stores in my North Carolina towns closed some years ago. So I went in to get some exercise, get out of the car for an hour or so, and as I was wandering about I saw this book with an underwear model on the front, and he’s all wet and happy and his underpants are nearly transparent . . . of course I picked it up. Inside, there are even more guys experiencing a variety of emotion and various states of undress, so I decided to get it. The spine is broken like any well-loved paperback, but BAM doesn’t have a used section, so I imagine that someone in Clarksville liked to go in, thumb through, and then put it back on the shelf. Judging from the book’s condition, I’d say either one person liked to do this a lot, or several people liked to do this. I used to do that when I was in the closet, get just enough of a look to excite me but never bringing it home. As I was waiting in line to check out, I couldn’t decide if I was being a selfish bitch for taking this resource out of the store or if I was a Good Samaritan removing temptation from people who clearly regarded it as such. But really, I’ve been in the mood for some fresh material for private time, and that’s what I got it for.

Once I got it home, I realized I had made a mistake. This isn’t really a book for masturbating to. It’s like trying to get turned on by the Belvedere torso, or the works of Michelangelo. The photographs are beautiful, no doubt, but not always sexy. There’s a difference between art and pornography. Porn is all about muscled bodies, hard dicks and tight asses, but art is about beauty, not fucking. Yes, most of the men in these pictures are nude or mostly so, and most of them are obviously very strong, but the effect is not to promote sexual interest. I realize this may be a gay thing; the editor claims that this is one of the first collection of nude male photographs that is targeted to straight women instead of gay men. I enjoy it, but I don’t get off on it.

It would have been too easy to have compiled a selection of typical body-builder or calendar-boy images. Beautiful as these are, such a collection would have been only a limited representation of the male form.

These pictures are taken by what they call leading photographers, but I don’t know enough about photography to agree with that. The pictures are beautiful; not all of the men are. Some are quite plain, but given the right lighting and posing, given the right work by the photographer, they can all take beautiful pictures. The book is organized by photographer, so it feels a little like a collection of advertisements for the artists, a quick mini-portfolio of each one, and that’s a little distracting for those of us who are not cognoscenti. I’m flipping through, enjoying the pictures, and then suddenly there’s a woman smiling straight into the camera next to her biography and it breaks my concentration. One of the photographers wrote a short introduction; it’s completely biased in favor of his personal friends. Some of the artists don’t get more than a sentence, or half a sentence. Others get whole paragraphs.

My favorite group is the section by Robert Flynt, clearly the most artistically stylized. I was also quite pleased with Conrad Hechter’s pictures, and those of David Vance, and Dennis Dean’s hitchhikers, and Michael Palladino’s dusty athletes. While every picture in the book is lovely, my favorite shot is on page 153. Photographer is David Gray; the subject is nude in the semi-lotus position, on a big rock with blue sky behind him. It’s peaceful.

The important thing, though, the reason I’m writing about this book here instead of moving onto the Eco novel I started this week, is what it says about me. I don’t need reminding that I’m a lonely gay man desperate to be touched; I do need to be reminded that I’m attractive. Looking through this book, the guys are all at different levels of muscle, of desirability, of the size of various organs, but all the pictures are good. Even the ugliest dude can be perceived as beautiful. I’m not the ugliest, and when I look at these pictures I don’t just see beauty, I feel beautiful myself. I am a gorgeous guy too.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.

 

Quick disclaimer: The correct transliteration of Japanese into English involves dashes over vowels, but I don’t know how to make WordPress do these correctly. So I’m missing diacritical markers throughout the entry. I’m sorry.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a famous early twentieth century Japanese novelist, among those who know anything about Japanese novels (not me). Many of his books have been made into pictures, and there have been four film versions of Manji/Quicksand, which tells the story of a lesbian love affair. Most of his novels seem to be similarly concerned with the often problematic nature of sexual attraction and behavior. This tiny book is an essay on aesthetics.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but Western design is all about cold flat surfaces. They’re easier to keep clean. Cleanliness is at the heart of most of it, and by cleanliness we often mean brightness or newness. We like light. The sun gives life to the entire planet, so we welcome it into our homes as much as we can. Part of our ideas about beauty and health involve exposing the skin to the sun in order to counteract “prison pallor.” We also like things to look new. Well, we prefer things to be new, but we can’t manage that all the time. But these are all Western ideas, Western values. Tanizaki has a tendency to decry Westernness in favor of his idea of traditional Japan.

Traditional Japanese design is all about warmth and shadow. Instead of putting glass in the windows, they put paper. Instead of filling the bathroom with tile and porcelain, they use wood. They only like silver when it’s tarnished, after being touched thousands of times by unwashed hands. They like dirt and darkness. The whole idea of a house is to create beautiful shadows in the corners. They set pictures back in little alcoves so the shadows grow deeper around the art. The attraction to gold is that it shines in very little light, glowing in the darkness. The reason for bright makeup and garish costumes in Japanese theatre is that it was performed with very little light. There’s a certain softness to everything, a haziness as life retreats into obscurity.

One of the things that bothers Tanizaki is Western paper. He sees it as thin and cheap and overly bright, and I’ll agree that much of it is (cheap copy paper). But consider used books. My copy of The Mill on the Floss, for example, has nice paper. You can feel the texture in it. It smells like wood and ink, as a book ought. Holding it without reading it, just touching the pages, warms the hands and the heart. Thank you Oxford UP, but really, most old books have this feel to them. Try a Bantam paperback from the 1960s, or a Penguin Classic. They’re nice. They give me the same feeling as being in a forest. I wonder if, as books age, they return to their woody origin, redeveloping grain. Maybe if we left them alone, they’d grow moss and bark. I love mine too well to try the experiment.

I could agree with many of Tanizaki’s points, though I was a little uncomfortable with the joys of grime, but my brain absolutely rejected his portrayal of feminine beauty.

My mother was remarkably slight, under five feet I should say, and I do not think she was unusual for her time. I can put the matter strongly: women in those days had almost no flesh. I remember my mother’s face and hands, I can clearly remember her feet, but I can remember nothing about her body. She reminds me of the statue of Kannon in the Chuguji, whose body must be typical of most Japanese women of the past. The chest as flat as a board, breasts paper-thin, back, hips, and buttocks forming an undeviating straight line, the whole body so lean and gaunt as to seem out of proportion with the face, hands, and feet, so lacking in substance as to give the impression not of flesh but of a stick – must not the traditional Japanese woman have had just such a physique? A few are still about – the aged lady in an old-fashioned household, some few geisha. They remind me of stick dolls, for in fact they are nothing more than poles upon which to hang clothes. As with the dolls their substance is made up of layer upon layer of clothing, bereft of which only an ungainly pole remains. But in the past this was sufficient. For a woman who lived in the dark it was enough if she had a faint, white face – a full body was unnecessary.

Oh my. It was bad enough being an American housewife, with the pressures to stay in and keep the house clean, but being expected to stay in, not keep the house clean, and barely even to exist? Straightening out the natural curves of the body until every woman becomes a clothes hanger, an ungainly pole? No. This is not beauty; this is torture. I suppose there are some evolutionary advantages: if you live on a small island chain, it’s important not to overpopulate your habitat (cf the British, who colonized the world to relieve the overcrowding at home). The women Tanizaki describes lack the traditional markers of fertility, and the stress of having to look like that I imagine would reduce what fertility they have. The disembodied face seems more like a ghost than a woman, and Tanizaki’s aesthetic for women has all the problems of Poe’s famous statement that nothing is more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died. How do these men have sex with these women? Who wants to fuck a gaunt stick? Traditional Western thought is that you heap a woman with clothes, and a man’s imagination works busier to imagine what’s underneath them (think about the bustle), but Tanizaki’s view of traditional Japan implies that they heap women with clothes and men forget what’s underneath. I think this is unrealistic, but I don’t really have much contact with Japanese culture other than what you get reading Memoirs of a Geisha and graphic descriptions of seppuku.

Japanese women used to coat their teeth with black lacquer to make their faces seem whiter. Tanizaki is sad that they don’t do this any more.

On the other hand, he also waxes poetic on the beauty of No actors. Kabuki actors wore bright white makeup, but the No actors just used their own skin.

I once saw Kongo Iwao play the Chinese beauty Yang Kuei-fei in the No play Kotei, and I shall never forget the beauty of his hands showing ever so slightly from beneath his sleeves. As I watched his hands, I would occasionally glance down at my own hands resting on my knees. Again, and yet again, I looked back at the actor’s hands, comparing them with my own; and there was no difference between them. Yet strangely the hands of the man on the stage were indescribably beautiful, while those on my knees were but ordinary hands. In the No only the merest fraction of the actor’s flesh is visible – the face, the neck, the hands – and when a mask is worn, as for the role of Yang Kuei-fei, even the face is hidden; and so what little flesh can be seen creates a singularly strong impression. This is particularly true of Kongo Iwao; but even the hands of an ordinary actor – which is to say the hands of an average, undinstinguished Japanese – have a remarkable erotic power which we would never notice were we to see the man in modern attire.

Even in our modern Western society, a man’s beauty is not diminished when he is dressed. Tanizaki is approaching a homosexual aesthetic here: why is there so much gym porn? Not just because it’s a culturally sanctioned opportunity for men to undress together. Gay people (men or women) relate to others in this way more frequently than straight people. Like Tanizaki, we see someone who is attractive, we look at ourselves and realize how little difference there is between us, and we see ourselves as more beautiful because of our similarity with the other. I was hanging out in an airport a couple of weeks ago noticing all the good-looking men walking by, and then I scolded myself a little – ‘Think about what these guys have in common, OccMan. Dark hair, glasses, beard, collared shirt? Now look at yourself. You’re such a fucking narcissist.’ Perhaps, perhaps. After all, I can take an essay on Japanese aesthetics and use it to talk about myself for fifteen hundred words.

Tanizaki realizes that he’s talking like a grumpy old man who can’t see the value of the time he’s living in now, and the nostalgia is so thick you can suffocate in it. But I don’t think his memory is the same as the reality. Only the wealthy could live in the manner he describes. I would imagine that the poor were less interested in beautiful shadows and more interested in getting their work done and their physical needs met. Forget her wispy ghost-face; can she cook? Most women had to leave the house sometime, instead flitting about in the elegant shade. There is beauty to be found in the lives of the poor too.

Tanizaki’s writing is lovely. Funny, serious, artistic, disturbing (lacquered teeth), insightful, possibly inaccurate. It opened to me a new way of thinking, in only forty pages. I find myself looking at the dust and shadow under the bed, trying to see that as one of the more beautiful aspects of the studio apartment, but my eye drifts back to the photographs I have up and I can accept the fact that I see the world as I do, differently than a Japanese writer in 1933. I’ll keep loving light and cleanliness, glass and steel, tile and porcelain. Our style has its own poetry, its own literature, its own culture. It’s good too.

 

When reading the works of Milan Kundera, it helps to have some knowledge of, or at least interest in, three subjects: philosophy, European history and politics, and sex.

I’ve read this novel before, focusing on plot and character and letting the philosophy wash through me. But having read Sartre recently, I understood the philosophy better, so I paid more attention to it. The title and first two chapters introduce some of the important concepts. Kundera begins with Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: existence happens in cycles, patterns of behaviour that are repeated within a person’s lifetime, throughout cultures, and on the global scale as well. Many books read this way, including the Old Testament (referenced quite a few times in the text). If this moment is bound to happen again and again, it is infinitely important that we make the right choices because we, and everyone else, are bound to repeat this choice over and over. This sounds like an easier-to-swallow version of Sartre’s idea that what choices we make define humanity. The responsibility for our choices and the awareness that they affect everything in time and space feels like a weight, and this heaviness is roughly equivalent to Sartre’s meaning of the word anguish. On the other hand, the Germans have an old saying, einmal ist keinmal, or, once is never. If something only happens once, it may as well have never happened at all. Kundera seems to champion the belief that life is a series of discrete moments with little connection to each other. Without these causal connections, there is no grand responsibility for the world, no weight. There is an incredible lightness, in which nothing we do matters because we are powerless to affect anything. Hence the unbearable lightness of the title.

Personally, I think lightness and weight are two extremes, and the truth is a blend of the two. There are certain clear causal links between my behaviour and the events in my life. However, I am not responsible for the choices of other people. Kundera only presents the two possibilities, that either events return and we always choose the same thing or events never return and every decision is irrevocable. I think that similar choices recur in our lives, so that we do have the opportunity to change our minds, to choose to be something other than we have always been. We are constantly recreating our identities, and if we want to be different, we can act differently and choose something new. I think this is what Sabina is getting at with her fixation with betrayal of betrayals; choosing something new that contradicts her choices in the past, she has a compulsion to do and be differently than she has done and been. She keeps in the middle between lightness and weight, and you notice she’s the only main character to live through the book.

As with philosophy, Czech history is not my forte. It’d be interesting to read this book in close juxtaposition with Milosz’s The Captive Mind and other books about the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century. Nearly all of my knowledge of European history comes through its literature, and, as with most novels, you don’t have to understand it all in order to follow the story, so again as with philosophy, I let the history wash through me and piece together a more complete understanding with time.

The aspect of the political situation that I identify with most strongly is the fear of observation. I’ve always been a little paranoid about being watched and judged, and living in a country with strict anti-terrorism legislation doesn’t help. I don’t want to overthrow any specific government; I think the whole idea of government is flawed, but it sure beats having to walk around with a gun all the time. I do object to being asked which books and films I bring into a country, though. Stories are very important to me, and I get heartily offended at the implication that some are unwelcome in an entire country.

In Tereza’s eyes, books were the emblems of a secret brotherhood. For she had but a single weapon against the world of crudity surrounding her: the books she took out of the municipal library, and above all, the novels. She had read any number of them, from Fielding to Thomas Mann. They not only offered the possibility of an imaginary escape from a life she found unsatisfying; they also had a meaning for her as physical objects: she loved to walk down the street with a book under her arm. It had the same significance for her as an elegant cane for the dandy a century ago. It differentiated her from others.

(Comparing the book to the elegant cane of the dandy is not absolutely precise. A dandy’s cane did more than make him different; it made him modern and up to date. The book made Tereza different, but old-fashioned. Of course, she was too young to see how old-fashioned she looked to others. The young men walking by with transistor radios pressed to their ears seemed silly to her. It never occurred to her that they were modern.)

Yes, all of this, yes. This was me as a kid, but I recognized the old-fashionedness of it because I read old-fashioned books. I went all out for it, with huge mutton chop sideburns and pocket watches and bowties and stuff. I don’t mind feeling a little anachronistic at times. The first time my ex saw me naked she said I looked like a Victorian gentleman.

Persons who are uncomfortable with sex should never read Kundera. Sex is very important to him, so he puts lots of it in his novels. Sometimes it’s very graphic, like the clockwork orgy scene in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I welcome it, but I don’t discuss Kundera with my mother. I may not have a ton of sexual experience, but I do have a vivid imagination and a tendency to think about it a lot. I analyze my experiences and fantasies to understand myself, and what things I’d like to try in the future. Kundera discusses the vision of Paradise in terms of unattainable ideals, but two of his characters have an experience that approximates mine. They laugh and suddenly the joke turns into sex.

What could have excited them so? A moment before, the hat on her head had seemed nothing but a joke. Was excitement really a mere step away from laughter?

Yes. My vision of Paradise is the memory of my favourite sexual experience. My laughter is often misunderstood because I don’t laugh at things that are humourous. At funny movies, I remain silent because I’m afraid of missing something. I laugh when I am delighted with the world, or a certain person in it. When I feel a rush of love for someone, I laugh because I’m so happy. Sometimes that makes it seem like I’m laughing at their problems or distress, as at funerals, but that’s really not it at all. So one night I was so happy leading into sex that I started laughing for no apparent reason, and the ex started laughing too, then suddenly we were fucking hard and fast, and when it was over we burst out laughing again. My vision of perfection is this combination of love and joy, where the partner is a source of intense physical and emotional delight, perhaps not constantly, but regularly. Lately I’ve been meeting guys who seem really great and delightful, but once they take their pants off they become violent. I’d prefer to sleep with someone who’s not going to call me a bitch, slap me around, or choke me. That doesn’t seem like an unrealistic goal, but it is proving harder than it looks.

As I move through the world gaining experience, I realize more and more just how separate love and sex really are. Our culture tells us that they’re the same thing, or that one is a sign of the other, and we even refer to sex as making love. It’s all a big lie. I prefer to use the phrase ‘making love’ in the sense that Jane Austen uses it, when two people talk to each other with the purpose of inspiring or encouraging positive feelings between them. Love can be accompanied by physical actions, but we hardly have sex with everyone we love. With nearly all the people I love, I would feel extremely uncomfortable with the implication that they desired a sexual relationship with me. I try to love all the people I come into contact with, so there’s usually at least some involved when I have sex, but I can’t say that I’d want any of my partners back again. I wish them well in future romantic endeavours, so long as they don’t involve me. Love is a patterned emotional response, but sex is a behaviour. It’s great when the two come together, but they don’t always. Intellectually, I can understand the behaviour patterns of the characters in the novel, but I don’t envy Tomas his promiscuity. When two people commit to sexual fidelity, I think they should honour that commitment. I see marriage as a promise of faithfulness; if you’re going to live with one partner while following several others, I say don’t get married. His affairs upset me almost as much as they do his wife.

One of the differences between characters is how they define themselves. What makes me different from other people? How do I know that I am uniquely myself? Tereza has a real problem with her body; she sees the physical bodies of all people as being roughly equivalent, so she only feels herself when clothed. Her self is her soul, that difficult-to-define entity. Her unique combination of intellectual and emotional patterns, I guess you could say. But those are so tied into the body, electrical impulses moving through biological matter, that I don’t see the distinction. Soul and body are so much a part of each other that I can’t imagine a realistic post-death life where they are separate.

For Tomas, on the other hand, a woman’s individuality is made clear in her sexual behaviours. When he meets a woman, he wonders,

How would she behave while undressing? What would she say when he made love to her? How would her sighs sound? How would her face distort at the moment of orgasm?

Even when I meet someone I’d like to sleep with, I don’t spend time on these questions. My concerns are a little different. Is he interested in me? Is he still going to be nice to me after I drop my pants? Is he going to kick me out immediately afterward? Would he be good with my kids? If we’re watching a video on the couch, would he rather put his arm around my shoulders or have mine around his? Will he let me kiss him in public? What would he look like in a kilt? It may seem as though I’m making moral judgments against Tomas, but I don’t feel that I am. According to the culture I was raised in, Tomas’s questions are much more masculine, and since I’m a man, I feel I ought to be somewhat more like him. But then I remind myself that I’d rather be me, and that I’m okay as I am.

Kundera defines kitsch several different ways in this novel. Art is inseparable from the discussion, but it encompasses the body, politics, and philosophy as well. Kitsch is an aesthetic mode that denies the existence of the unpleasant. The first unpleasant thing is shit. We do distance ourselves from our own feces, and consider it an oddity if someone makes a habit of looking at it. But what is shit? Indigestible material we’ve consumed, mixed with waste from the body. Our cells are constantly replicating because they are also constantly dying and being expelled from the body: our shit is composed of the influences on our body that we can’t use any more. It seems like a healthy thing to me to examine what emotional or intellectual influences we’re holding onto and to release those that no longer serve our growth. What happens if we don’t release that shit? Blockages, cancer, regurgitating the same old shit again and again. Kitsch enables the eternal return of unchanging ideologies. Another unpleasant thing kitsch denies is death. We’re all going to die; that’s the only real end to any of our stories; it’s my evidence that nature always overpowers humanity eventually. Much of twentieth century art consciously distances itself from kitsch by embracing shit, death, and ugliness, which is why you rarely see it outside of specialist galleries.

But political movements rely on kitsch, perhaps not bad art itself, but the idea of it. We ignore the unpleasant realities of an ideology in order to convince people to join us; as such, there’s a kitsch for every ideology. Kundera calls liberalism’s kitsch The Grand March – a protest march with fists punching the air, slogans chanted in unison; all that’s missing are the uniforms and the goose-step. Those of us who find a comfortable home for our identities in the humanities can get easily sucked into it, and lose sight of the conformity we are demanding. Everyone should compost for their container gardens and recycle their identically low-BHA plastic bottles. Good ideas, of course, but people can be just as judgmental and controlling about liberal politics as they can be about conservative politics. Eventually Kundera calls kitsch the opposite of individuality. What makes us unique? Our shit, our death. Our faults and failures. What we discard. Perhaps what makes me me is which shit I am willing to forgive myself for.

A quick word on plot structure: This is not a linear story. Each part focuses on a specific person. Part I is for Tomas and is about the lightness and weight above. Part II is for Tereza, and covers approximately the same period of time as the first, but seeing the same events from her perspective instead of his. Tereza focuses on questions of soul and body. Part III is for Sabina and Franz and all their miscommunications. The exact timing re Tomas and Tereza wasn’t clear to me. During or after. Part IV we’re back with Tereza, mostly after Part II, and Part V is Tomas during the same time again. Part VI is Sabina and Franz, now separated, after Part III and at least partially during the time of Parts IV and V. Part VII is back to Tomas and Tereza but focuses on their dog, before the end of Part VI. So, don’t get upset when people die; you’ll probably hear more of them later anyway. If it seems hard to follow, take breaks between sections. We hear stories from people in real life this way, but not all at once. We constantly revise our understanding of people, sometimes based on things they do now, sometimes on things they did in the distant past. If something doesn’t make sense, it probably will after we have better information. Treat it with the patience that you do reality and it’s not too hard to follow.