These color photographs are some of the first of their kind, taken by the Lumière Brothers using an irregular screen plate filter made of dyed grains of potato starch. I was shocked by the difference between these and black and white photos, which irrevocably place their subjects in the past, creating a subtle break with a contemporary viewer who can’t help but characterize them first as dead, old, and distant. Black and white photos seems to always leave small but crucial patches underdeveloped—especially facial expressions, unintentionally dehumanizing their subjects and making each photo seem somehow belabored, struggling and barely succeeding to express its zeitgeist. These photos, by contrast, vibrate with color and gesture and depict—not just represent—fur, fold, wind, shade, wear, and shine.
In the summer of 1971, Harper’s gave its full issue over to a blustery, stampeding, occasionally disarming essay on contemporary feminism by Norman Mailer. The essay, “A Prisoner of Sex,” took as its primary target Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, and Mailer’s argument that each gender has its own distinct, ‘deep’ role or purpose within a grand, ill-defined bio-metaphysical melodrama (along with his frequent recourse to a sort of reactionary, hieratic chauvinism) generated a storm of controversy upon its initial publication. This controversy culminated in a public panel discussion in New York, moderated by Mailer and featuring Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos and Germaine Greer.
D. A. Pennebaker was on hand that night, and released a record of the event as Town Bloody Hall, from which the (entirely characteristic) above clip is drawn. Scattered clips from the documentary can be found on YouTube, but a DVD of the full film can only be purchased here. The conversation is a kind of carnival of prejudices, unfinished thoughts, belligerent catcalls, angry wit, and a general recurrent conciliatoriness (even warmth), the sum total of which makes a persuasive argument for the centrality of vocal, pointed admonishment and disagreement to truly generous and invested criticism. (Thanks to David K. O’Hara for posting the clip online!)
“How a society orders its bookshelves is as telling as the books a society writes and reads. American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe fractiousness, reduction, hurt. Books are isolated from one another, like gardenias or peaches, lest they bruise or become bruised, or, worse, consort, confuse. If a man in a wheelchair writes his life, his book will be parked in a blue-crossed zone: “Self-Help” or “Health.” There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. The professor of Romance languages at Dresden, a convert to Protestantism, was tortured by the Nazis as a Jew—only that—a Jew. His book, published sixty years after the events it recounts, is shelved in my neighborhood bookstore as ‘Judaica.’ There is no shelf for irony.
Books should confuse. Literature abhors the typical. Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince. Auden has a line: “Ports have names they call the sea.” Just so will literature describe life familiarly, regionally, in terms life is accustomed to use—high or low matters not. Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.”
—Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Penguin Books
In our offices last week, a heated debate sprang up around Lampedusa Beach, an Italian play we translated in our January issue about an African female stowaway trying to reach Italy’s shore. Can Lina Prosa—the white female playwright—write this story? Is her experience as a white woman simply too different from Shauba’s for a convincing portrayal? Or else—is it even ethical for her voice to stand in for an African writer’s?
I was reminded of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, a memoir by Richard Rodriguez that takes on—among other things—his frustration at having his writing pigeonholed in accordance with his basic demographic signifiers (Latino, gay). Rodriguez argues that the notion that only an author from your own racial, sexual, or gender category is able to address or portray you is not only false, but counter to the purpose of literature. “It is one thing to know your author—man or woman or gay or black or paraplegic or president,” writes Rodriguez. “It is another thing to choose only man or woman or et cetera, as the only quality of voice empowered to address you, […] understand you, or that you are able to understand.” Arguably, this gets at the inherent ethics of reading, which we all intuit: that empathy is not only the primary activity of fiction, but also the basis of moral action. In other words, if literature employs our ability to recognize and identify across dissimilarities, isn’t it plausible that the process of reading—or the act of writing—can itself instruct us in empathy? And that to deny that Lina Prosa can voice the African stowaway of Lampedusa Beach might be to deny the possibility of the exact kind of empathy that literature so perfectly models?
There’s something about a furry little creature and a singing crocodile that never ceases to perk me up on these haziest of gray days. In this particular scene from this Soviet era cartoon, Crocodile Gena sings a rather cheery song to Cheburashka about the Blue Wagon of life that perpetually rolls forward in spite of the pain caused by letting go of the past. Who knew cartoons could be this philosophical.
“Art always projects itself into the future….That’s why I say there are no novels with an ending. Thackeray said that every time he wrote a novel he wished that the valet who shined his shoes would take care of the ending for him. And Tolstoy writes: “My God! Who’ll finish the novel now!” And he says that because finishing his novel would mean knowing the future, and we don’t know the future….Tolstoy wrote fourteen beginnings for War and Peace. But the novel has no end—the true ending is Russia, the unknown future of Russia.”
—Shklovsky: Witness to An Era, Dalkey Archive Press
This weekend I sat down with Viktor Shklovsky. Or actually, I read, in about two hours, this book of interviews with the great Russian Formalist critic, novelist, screenwriter, and final witness to the historical avant-garde of the Soviet Union. Shklovsky, I think, should matter a great deal to us nowadays, pitched as he was between an abiding literary classicism and an entrenched sense of futurity that we’ve come to associate with vanguardism. He was—or so he claims—a fantastic orator, and this strange little book demonstrates the gamut of his intelligence, humor, and fiery wit. Shklovsky lived to be an old man, and the interviews doubly read as a chronicle of artists like Meyerhold, Eisenstein, Mayakovsky, Malevich, Gorky…the list goes on and on. The book is nothing if not epigrammatic, but I’ll leave you with this little quip, which has been ringing in my head (like a concussion) for days:
When an era ends, time sighs, and forms age.
—J. Kyle Sturgeon