Category Archives: Working

The Paper of Housewives

Women create thread; they somehow pull it out of nowhere, just as they produce babies out of nowhere. The same image is latent in our own term lifespan. Span is from the verb spin.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, (238).

IMG_5783

Textile from Mexico given to me by my grandmother

About a year ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Elizabeth Wayland Barber on the history of fabrics. I wrote down the title of one of the books she wrote (mostly because I loved the title—and the title’s sense of humor was very much in line with her personality which made for a wonderfully lively, fascinating, and fun lecture style). More than a year later, I finally got around to reading it.

If the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen (29).

Barber begins by working out what we are talking about when we use the term “women’s work.” She points to Judith Brown’s criteria in which women’s work must be suitable for the people that are bearing and tending to children (and there are no societies in which men take on the latter—the former being, obviously, unlikely). Therefore: “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home” (30). Spinning, weaving and sewing all fit nicely into this criteria.

Cloth survives poorly in most of Europe, subject to the destructive effects of alternating wet and dry weather; yet our surviving textiles from Neolithic are astonishingly ornate. Clearly these Neolithic women were investing large amounts of extra time into their textile work, far beyond pure utility, far beyond our concept of “subsistence level” (90).

This suggests that a reconsideration of our assumptions of what ‘level’ humans historically lived at needs to be reexamined, as well as the obvious (to me) fact that—human beings like making the useful beautiful. As I always say—art is the constant.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Barber herself weaves. This enables her to reconstruct ancient textiles so that the arm-chair archeologist’s assumptions about the level of sophistication of a given society are not only challenged, but disproven. Only a weaver would know what the warp and weft denote. Only a weaver would know that a given pattern makes no sense unless more than one color is being used—thereby pushing certain knowledge in the dying of fabrics to significantly earlier dates than had been thought.

By looking at murals, previously discarded archeological evidence of spindles, looms, weights and the odd scrap of fabric, as well as art, a tremendous fount of the previously silent or discarded history of women can be known.

Simply following the language trail reveals so much of how and when sewing and weaving skills emerged.

But it is Barber’s knowledge that exists in her hands, rather than her head that so greatly impressed me. Understanding what one is looking at—true understanding of the art involved is an enormous advantage. For instance, in regard to the historical ubiquity of “string skirts” which are used (Barber cogently conjectures) to signify a woman’s readiness for childbearing—and thereby again shows how the visual is used as a form of language, perhaps even a precursor to language—Barber notes that on a Paleolithic Venus figure the sculptor has rendered the string skirt as fraying out at the bottom into a “mass of untwisted fibers” which shows that in c. 20,000 BC certain knowledge of twisted fibers, and therefore knowledge of sewing, existed.

Barber weaves a wonderful history of textiles. A history that greatly contributes to one’s understanding of ancient societies, language, myth, culture, and art.

We women do not need to conjure a history for ourselves. Facts about women, their work, and their place in society in early times have survived in considerable quantity, if we know how to look for them” (300).

Knowing how to look at what is, as well as, significantly, what isn’t, is true scholarship.

*title from p 232

Advertisements

Live Without Appeal

The only question for us was whether  or not to accept a world in which there was no choice possible save whether to be victim or executioner (Albert Camus quoted 271). 
– Sean B. Carroll, Brave Genius

IMG_2405It is difficult to assign a genre to Sean Carroll’s book Brave Genius. Ostensibly about the friendship between Albert Camus and Jaques Monad, like life, the book is quite a bit more complex, enormous, and interlaced than the simple premise would suggest.

Camus, famously, was the moral voice of an amoral age, writing anonymously for the French Resistance paper Combat during the Nazi occupation, he also wrote his manifesto, Myth of Sisyphus during that time. I find that astounding. But I suppose it really underlines the message of his profound essay – the revolt is against the absurdity of the world, the revolt is actively rejecting the blinding  copout of ideology or suicide – to live! to feel joy or pain, but to feel! To be authentic to the vitality, the humanity, the passion – to the only thing we have – life.

Jacques Monad was a Resistance fighter, and Carroll gives an account of those years with frightening clarity. The terror is palatable. But Monad was also a biologist trying to understand, through science, the same questions Camus was deeply engaged in – what is the meaning of life – what is life? Monad would go on to discover what happens in between DNA and the creation of protein, and he too would win a Nobel Prize for his contributions to humanity through his work.

Monad admitted that, of course, “this fundamental scientific result is also the most unacceptable” to most people, as it overturns all previous, long-cherished notions of human’s special significance in the universe (487).

It is more than halfway into the book before Camus and Monad even meet, and by then their friendship is a logical conclusion of their individual work, perspectives and proximity… yes, the friendship was meaningful and true, but…it is the steadfastness of their humanity that is raison d’etre of their individual importance and importance to each other. The consideration of their bravery in the face of absurd cruelty and a devastatingly frightening  absence of kindness is profound and deeply moving. The book is really equal parts history, science, and philosophy. Carroll takes the near inevitable friendship between like-minded intellectuals as a baseline for what is really an exploration and history of all travellers on the same journey.

“We are living in nihilism….We shall not get out of it by pretending to ignore the evil of our time or by deciding to deny it. The only hope is to name it, on the contrary, and to inventory it to discover the cure for the disease…Let us recognize that this is a time for hope, even if it is a difficult hope” (267, Camus quoted) 

The confluence and yet beautifully related questions concerning the meaning of life, whether it be through philosophy , politics, science, or any other mode of thinking,  is at the heart of the book. None are possible without intellectual freedom and Carroll’s focus on the horrors of the infringement upon intellectual freedoms is the cris de coeur of the book.

In the act of refusal, the rebel thereby defines a value, a value that Camus alleged “transcends the individual, which removes him from his solitude” and thus joins him to others, and so establishes “the solidarity of man in the same adventure.”
The first philosophical secret of life for Camus was the recognition of the absurd condition. This instinct for positive rebellion–against death, oppression, suffering, or injustice– was the second secret of life, the path to humanity (308).

As much as Albert Camus was, and is,  an inspiration for all of the open-hearted and sincere populace, I have a feeling that this book was written to expose the truth that there are many amongst the true-hearted. Jacques Monad’s story is every bit as riveting and moving as Camus’ or any other of the countless unsung heroes of humanity. And yes, Monad is not exactly unsung, having won a Nobel Peace prize and what not, but still, Carroll’s purpose is to invigorate that which is universally graspable- freedom, and human dignity. The choice between executioner and victim is exactly the hell Monad and Camus gave their lives’ energy to combat. And yet…the world remains what it is…it is enough to make one weep in futile rage.

What Camus could not abide were ideologies that sacrificed life in the present, the one fundamental value above all, for some promise of future justice (310).

Brave Genius, while not really about a friendship per se,  makes the history, science, and humanitarian interest of that time so compelling that one hardly notices. It is simply inspiring that such people existed. Camus is well known, Monad less so, but there are many other heroic, beautiful people intertwined in the story and that is the moving heart and soul of this history. Good people existed then. They exist now. There has never yet been a system designed to put them down permanently. Never.

The question (and striking down) of adaptation (in enzymes) was key to Monad’s work, and in another way, Camus’ as well. To adapt to evil is true suicide. To adapt to fear and the fettering of intellectual freedom is the death of humanity. The acute crisis of WWII was horrific, but the chronic crisis of existence is another, and for Monad, Camus pointed a way out of the despair that the cosmos’s indifference or the scientific evidence of mere chance and necessity being the sole arbiters of all existence seemed to make inevitable. After all, what does any of that matter when we have life within us now?

In the middle of winter  I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer (322 Camus quoted from Return to Tipasa).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life is Poetry

Life, lived on the same plane as poetry and as music, is my distinctive desire and standard. It is the failure to accomplish this which makes me discontented with myself (3).
– 
Lady Ottoline, quoted in Lady Ottoline’s Album.

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

Lady Ottoline, by Simon Bussy

As I read Selected Letters of André Gide and Dorothy Bussy the name of Lady Ottoline came up with some frequency. By an odd coincidence I happen to have the book, Lady Ottoline’s Album, in my possession (with a postcard of the portrait of Ottoline by Dorothy’s husband, Simon Bussy, laid in). Last year when I worked as a companion to elderly (mostly) women, I had a client who delighted in knowing and discussing what I was reading, which delighted me, naturally. More often than not she had a personal connection: Isak Dinesen? “My husband had lunch with her, she was like a bird! All she ate was fruit and champagne!” I loved that- to quote my youngest son, that’s  “my always dream!” But I digress.

When it was time for me to move on, she told me to take whatever books of hers I wanted to “start my library.” I hadn’t the heart to tell her that I was  in the process of a massive book downsizing to make my move manageable, not to mention the fact that I am actually a full fledged book-accumulating adult, but when one is 104, I guess I would seem a mere girl starting out in life….Anyway, at the very least, on sentimental grounds, I couldn’t resist. And of course, I cherish them now, as they recall her to my mind.

One of the books I choose was Lady Ottoline’s Album, but I had not yet read it. André Gide and Dorothy Bussy had reminded me, but it wasn’t until yesterday, whilst in the midst of a quasi-quarterly cleaning and reorganization spasm that I came upon it.

André Gide

André Gide

It had not, until this moment, occurred to me that Ottoline was a woman who would allow me to make love to her, but gradually, as the evening progressed, the desire to make love to her became more and more insistent. At last it conquered, and I found to my amazement that I loved her deeply, and that she returned my feeling (38) Bertrand Russell, quoted.

Lady Ottoline seems to have been the type of woman who had an exquisite understanding of the excellence of social interactions- conversation, humor, passion, intellect – the poetry of life. Pursuing the myriad photographs in the book one can’t help being fascinated by her face -her countenance is strangely appealing- she should be unattractive, and yet, she is, in fact, quite strikingly beautiful.

The list of guest that she hosted is extraordinary, she had a knack for attracting artists and writers to her home, Gide and Russell, of course, but also Yeats, D. H.  Lawrence, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Hardy, Henry James, Auden, Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, among others:

“…I remember spending some dark, uneasy, winter days during the first war in the depth of the country with Lytton Strachey. After lunch, as we watched the rain pour down and premature darkness roll up, he said, in his searching, personal way, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?’ I hesitated a moment and he supplied the answer: “Virginia of course.” (78) – Clive Bell, quoted.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

The book is comprised of her and her famous guest’s writings or letters and a huge array of photographs that Ottoline, for the most part, took. An intimate peek into the lives of a wonderfully influential group of people. The photos of these towering figures in casual moments, is fascinating, and extremely endearing…I can’t stop picturing Yeats, described perfectly by Stephen Spender as having “something of the appearance of the overgrown art student” (100).

Despite Lawrence’s rather scathing sketch (presumably of Ottoline) in Women in Love, which would seriously breach their friendship, (and yet seems a plausible description)…she is a mesmerizing woman. Her relationships, by all accounts burned bright; there is a ferocity about her that makes me trust Lawrence….but still, her insistence that life be lived as poetry – reduced to pure feeling and experience, is so appealing. I suppose Lawrence wondered if she ever really achieved her desire.

Nevertheless, She and Lawrence, have philosophical congress. Concentrated in our bodies, for good or bad, life is meant to be felt, loved, and savoured. It is a lovely little book- an erstwhile golden age, elegantly composed by a passionate woman who had, truly, a genius of repose.

*Lady Ottoline’s Album: Snapshots & Portraits of Her Famous Contemporaries (and of Herself) Photographed for the Most Part by Lady Ottoline Morrell from the Collection of her Daughter Julian Vinogradoff. Edited by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, with an Introduction by Lord David Cecil.

Life in the Margins

preview

My desk blotter with my random marginalia

Some people, when they begin a new job, buy an new outfit to start off on the right foot. Me? I bought a used book. I have started a job digitizing medieval manuscripts and had the very clever idea to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to get myself in the proper frame of mind.

“It matters a great deal, because here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important” (112).

IMG_1689

So far in my job, no one has been murdered. Although I have enjoyed Eco’s non-fiction, I have to admit it is the very genre of the “murder mystery” that put me off reading The Name of the Rose in the first place much less seeing the film. I don’t like the feeling of terror. The Exorcist was my first and last horror movie and Inspector Montalbano is the only detective I will ever love (but, Salvo, rest assure, I do love you). Basically, I’m a chicken. I am therefore happy to report that three murders in, I am forging ahead: labyrinth; dark, smoky intoxicating halls; ghoulish imagery; and creepy monks aside, the joy of reading about parchments and rubicators as I handle the very sorts of books that are at the center of the mystery in The Name of the Rose is tremendous fun.

An ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches (128).

True, the script I am photographing is mind bogglingly small. I may go blind just trying to focus my camera never mind contemplate how they wrote in such a miniscule hand – nevertheless, I feel a kinship of sorts to the scribes of these texts. I prepare them to be ‘scribed’ by the computer, but we have the same problems, ye old monk and I: making copies, trying to get the details right, uncomfortable chairs, lighting issues, all in an effort to share the knowledge contained within.

Terce: In which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books (181).

I think the biggest loss in the act of transcribing these books to a digitalized format is that in binary code, there is no room for marginalia. One thousand years from now that will be the most frustrating loss for archivists. They will want to know that I cursed in three different languages when I mistakenly failed to adjust the focus on fifty images. Alas, they will never know. The loss to history is….incalculable.

IMG_1690

 

*The Name of the Rose translated from the Italian by William  Weaver

Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

IMG_1583
The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.

 

*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn

 

WITHDRAWN

System 1 is gullible and biased to believe, System 2 is in charge of doubting and unbelieving, but System 2 is sometimes busy, and often lazy. 
– Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (81)

IMG_1429

I spent the greater part of my working hours this past week removing books from the library shelves and stamping them “withdrawn.” Feeling something of the executioner, I began to muse on the psychological effect it might have on me to stamp the word, “withdrawn” “withdrawn” “WITHDRAWN” over and over again.

One further limitation of System 1 is that it can not be turned off. If you are shown a word on the screen in a language you know, you will read it (25)

Daniel Kahneman’s fascinating book, Thinking Fast and Slow names the differing ways of thinking, respectively, System 1 and System 2. The part we know and believe to be firmly in control is System 2, all activity that requires conscious thought lives in this system. The unfortunate news that Kahneman shares in his book is the overwhelming evidence that System 1 is in fact (smugly, no doubt) running the show. System 1 is so firmly in control of our reactions, impressions, and judgements, that it hardly need deign to acknowledge its domination.

The technical definition of heuristics is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. The word comes from the same root as eureka (98).

Admittedly heuristics is a good thing. We are not after all computers and lack the ability to algorithmically function in real time. Lord knows I’m all for split second, heuristics. Or so I thought. I don’t want to make an enemy of my own brain, but the fact that System 1’s default attitude is to believe, always to believe, concerns me.

declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true (212).

Halo effect, illusions of validity, hindsight effect, coherence, over confidence, context dependency- the list of pit falls, oversights, blind spots and standard issue mental sloth is depressing me. Standing in the back of the stacks with my red stamp – withdrawn, withdrawn, withdrawn, the frame of my life takes on a rather pathetic hue. What might I be feeling if the word was “discard?” I shudder to think. But never mind “discard,” the depressing point, according to Kahneman is that if the word had been “keep” or “valued” I probably would not have even noticed. It doesn’t fit into my story.

A single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (302).

As the acidic paper of the books I remove from the shelves flake and fall, strewing my hair and the floor with brittle specks of lonely confetti, I force System 2 to step it up. How we frame events, the tension between our remembering selves and our experiencing selves  makes a real difference to the actual quality of our lives. Kahneman mentions movements and policies, at the end of the book, that aim to help us help ourselves when dealing with all of our innate (and not always negative) judgment disabilities. And that is some cause for celebration. For hope.

Unless there is an obvious reason to do otherwise, most of us passively accept decision problems as they are framed and therefore rarely have an opportunity to discover the extent to which our preferences are frame-bound rather than reality-bound (367).

An admission that we know nothing,  yet relentlessly protect our belief systems against reality, is a healthy thing to keep in mind – I’m talking to you System 1! Understanding how profound our mental biases and tendencies are leaves me feeling that much more like useless confetti helplessly blowing about- it’s no use! but, never fear- my optimism bias kicks in and I just KNOW that acceptance is the first step! All is well, all goes well, all goes as well as it possibly could – oh dear, I must confess my cynicism bias can kick my optimism bias’s ass any day of the week…..In the meantime I take some solace in the ineluctable certainly that, it is not just me. My predictable predilection of perception fallibility is matched only by yours. Solidarity, my fellow humans!

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it (402)

Mirror

“Passing life’s halfway mark, I lost my way in a dark wood”
– Andrei Tarkovsky, The Mirror (film)

me_looking

One of my jobs is in a library. I always like to shelve the books first. I’m hidden deep in the stacks, focused intensely on tiny sometimes obscured sequences of numbers, letters, dots and slashes.  I work in the arts and music section, the books are all lovely and tempting…but last Tuesday when I came in I could see there was a DVD shelving emergency underway, so I gave the books a longing look, and got right to work on the towers of DVDs. Still, I have preferences. I always start with the foreign films, then documentaries, and only then attack the regular collection. I find the foreign films more interesting, plus there is a stool on wheels that I can skate around on while running through the alphabet in my head over and over again, which makes it more fun.

Sometimes I don’t shelve them. I put them aside, and when I have a minute I go downstairs and check them out. That’s how I came to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror.

The paradoxical thing about a task like shelving books is that it requires deep but meaningless focus. It’s just numbers and letters. But then there is the actual object in my hand, which can trigger thoughts, memories, and feelings. My shift is two and half hours and it feels very like to what watching The Mirror feels like: somewhat stream of conscious, deep in thought, with memories, words and images coming from all directions creating a quiet, sometimes profound emotional rhythm.

There is no story, really. Not in our minds, and not in The Mirror. But the engrossing drama of  (presumably) Tarkovsky’s childhood memories,  twisted up with his mother’s history; the sequences of Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry, read by the narrator (A. Tarkovsky);  the beautiful cinematography: by random turns, black and white, and then color; the dreams and nightmares, anxieties, regret and hope all converge to express, I think, a visual representation of the deep recesses of our minds in which our foundations, if examined, can be all revealing. Just a glimpse, maybe. But a flickering light in between the letters and numbers of our lives.

*photograph taken by Augustus Accardi