Tag Archives: essay

What the Stars Sew

“Kit. Darling,” I called him, and he opened his eyes. Darling—there is magic in that word. Giles once addressed me as darling, in his letter to the Lighthouse, and the world changed its hue. 
—Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife: or, The Star Gazer (281)

print I made of cut foam, on fabric

print I made of cut foam, on fabric

Ahab’s Wife is a romantic, learned, and ambitious novel. I can not be sure if it was my mood or the book which matched, but I told a friend as I read it that if it had been  music, it would be a bass tone. A low note ran through the heart of the novel that resonated deeply. The tragedy of life pins us to the earth as the brilliance makes our hearts wish to soar.

At Margaret Fuller’s salon, women talked of magnificent ideas, of poetry and art, of science and travel. Never had I heard such discourse among women. Not one word of family of home or food or even sewing. I interjected the question did they not think that quilting could be an art form and perhaps the only art available to frontier women, and several, including Miss Fuller, quite agreed with me, although not all (375). 

By sheer coincidence I happen to have been participating in a pilot class, Critical Craft while reading this book. Throughout Jeter Nasland’s book she came back to sewing as a relevant and essential aspect of the protagonist Una’s life, so it was of wonderful interest to me that this point: the intersection of art and craft, as well as the function of crafts in people’s, particularly women’s lives came up.

In 1978 Lucy Lippard wrote a compelling article for the journal Heresies (reprinted in the book Craft in Action) called “Making Something from Nothing (toward a Definition of Women’s “Hobby Art”) in which she discussed many of the attitudes towards the ostensible lesser or lower art of craft.

The “overdecoration” of the home and the fondness for bric-a-brac often attributed to female fussiness or plain Bad Taste can just as well be attributed to creative restlessness. Since most homemade hobby objects are geared toward home improvement, they inspire less fear in the makers of being “selfish” or “self-indulgent,” there is no confusion about pretensions to Art, and the woman is freed to make anything she can imagine (Lippard 486).

She wrote of the lingering tendency of women being brought up with “an exaggerated sense of detail and needing to be “busy.”‘  The article highlights the “high end” art world’s turned-up nose in the face of some stunning and creative “crafts” made largely by women (often nameless women, as in textiles and decorative household goods) while embracing the male versions of bricolage, abstraction, and even fabric sculptures (she points to the work of Claes Oldenberg, whose wife, it should be noted, did the actual sewing!).

And this is not entirely a disadvantage. Not only does the amateur status of hobby art dispel the need for costly art lessons but it subverts the intimidation process that takes place when the male domain of “high” art is approached (Lippard 488).

In 2015 there is something of a renaissance of crafts. Curiously the word ‘hobby’ seems to be out of use….But, the hipsters have gotten involved! there are “craftivists” and a burgeoning cottage industry of high-end craft, which looks a hell of a lot like art to the likes of me (or at least costs as much…). The lines crumble.  And yet there is something in craft that reaches beyond ourselves. Often these are techniques and skills that are passed down from one generation to the next. Or, in a DYI spirit, one is free to create, in whatever manner one envisions the things they need, for themselves. The work involved is repetitive and mediative. There is also the sense of not only the connection with generations past, but also in the moment. And the lengths of time working on something acts as a marker of one’s own life: I knit that when I was pregnant, or, I made that when I was heartbroken that winter, or, I quilt that for my sister’s baby, I baked that cake for my daughter….our days are reflected back to us through these objects that are beautiful and precious because they mark our hand’s touch, our presence, our being.

Jeter Nasland’s book is a elegiac tale, intermixing historical figures, places and politics, with historical fictional figures. She takes her time in the telling, and although occasionally uneven, when the story is moving full sail the sweet wind of the storyteller is invigorating.

Beyond that, and more pertinent to this essay, she makes lovely use of the practice and metaphor of the crafts which surrounded her character’s lives. She uses Una’s defense and pride of her needlework to represent her independence of mind and connection to her body. The physical act of doing and making is what allows Una to be a “Star Gazer.” One must be connected to the mundane to let one’s spirit soar to the border of imagination: the star sewn heavens.

 

 

 

 

 

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So there’s this woman…

“A hair perhaps divides the False from True;”
Or False of True thy Verses, we thus due
Of meed bestow on One so bitter-sweet;
We read and dream then dream and read anew.

– Charles P. Nettleton, from the forward of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

RoycroftRubaiyat1906-140-2-1

“We read and dream then dream and read anew,” the line jumped out at me as I perused a beautiful ruin of a copy of The Rubaiyat printed by the Roycrofters. Reading is something of a dream. Even the way the tone and rhythm of a given story clings to one’s day, disturbing the line between real and oneiric. There is that easy way in which we begin to think of characters as if we know them and miss them when we have had to put the book down in order to, say, make dinner, fold laundry, do homework, or show up for work- all the tasks that we like to think don’t actually make up the bulk of our lives.

“This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life” – Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (218).

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a lovely story in which many lives overlap and influence each other in this blizzard we call life – the cannibals eat each other while the emotionally starved find meaning in seemingly sacrificial acts that turn out to be the only thing that can’t really be bought or sold. It’s the hard-sell, the prostituting of our collective souls, that is the nightmare we can’t seem to wake up from.

To pitch is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. […]…It’s endless, the pitching – endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death (28-29).

But what is a dream if not something we always wake up from? Every morning our eyes open to our lives again. Our story can begin anew. And, of course,  it’s all a love story – that’s what life is.  In Beautiful Ruins Walter’s most craven character, the chemically petrified Michael Deane, self-appointed pimp of the pitch, insists it is. And – he’s not wrong. It is all a love story. It can either be pitched as one, or lived as one.

O threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain- This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest – is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

– The Rubaiyat

image from – roycroftbooks.org

In the Wonderland of Mind

You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. 
Annie Sullivan quoted in Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life (16)

IMG_1381Two unrelated things occurred this week that led me to read Helen Keller’s early autobiography. The first was that I happened to come across the book on my children’s book shelf as I was enlisted to find something for my eleven year old to read (he chose Robinson Crusoe). The second is that I attended a lecture in which the topic of Wittgenstein’s private language argument was discussed.

To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life (55)

The question asked in the lecture was: is language essentially social? As language is an agreed upon  set of sounds and symbols, what is its function when agreement (with another) is taken out by virtue of isolation? Can we really imagine it? I wondered if Miss Keller might have some insight into the question.

Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this sixth sense – a soul sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one (65).

In the case of Keller, she, in fact, did have sight and sound, as well as some language acquisition for the first 19 months of her life, so she is more of a, (as the lecturer coincidently stated)  “Robinson Crusoe type” whose isolation comes only after language has (more or less) made inroads into the mind.

Many scholars forget, it seems to me, that our enjoyment of the great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than our understanding. The trouble is that very few of their laborious explanations stick in the memory. The mind drops them as a branch drops its overripe fruit (53).

Keller describes stirringly and with aching beauty the effect her reacquaintance with language, bursting with shared meaning and human contact, had upon her. Her thoughts regarding literature, learning, and life are lovely and true. This early autobiography is wonderful to read, not least of all for the  glimpse into Keller’s towering intellectual mind at its inception.

We should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort (55).

As I wrote in a response to the lecture, according to David Crystal’s book How Language Works, it is the “duality of structure” (Crystal 11) that differentiates language from communication. He describes the two different levels of language: the first: sounds and symbols which are the structural architecture and have no intrinsic meaning, (one doesn’t ask what “s” means, after all) and the second: combining, recombining and inventing ever new ways to use these sounds and symbols to communicate (Crystal 9). This makes it different to as well as a more narrow definition of communication, (which could be animal communication or body language -a smile or gesture of limited variability – even if there are hundreds of gestures, they can hardly be compared to the thousands of words, and thousands more word combinations as well as the rate of new word development). It would seem to me, a duality would be unnecessary for an isolated individual. But it also seems important, to me, to consider what we mean when we say, “isolated.” Anyone who already has language acquisition pre-isolation would naturally use it. Anyone who was profoundly isolated from birth would most likely not survive (or at the very least be severely compromised). Humans don’t thrive without others. How does “private language” fall in between those two points?

I find the more I think about it, the more I see language as a secondary issue of our humanness. Humans are inescapably social, language is a function of our essential sociability. Might not language then be by default essentially social because we are de facto social? Whatever its qualities, it seems an easy thing to agree with Keller when she writes:

There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with – ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy (42).

Indeed, one hopes we never lose our capricious fancy.

*title from page 51: In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another.

** All quotes fromDover Thrift edition of  The Story of My Life unless otherwise noted

In League With the World

You’ve got to allow for style, though. Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little.
-Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (8)

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Divided into three parts: The World, The Flesh and The Devil, Death of the Heart is remarkable book . A society drama in the vein of Edith Wharton, the story centers itself cleverly on the journal of the young and innocent Portia.

“But Matchett, she meant to do good.”
“No, she meant to do right.”
(96)

Having just lost her father, quickly followed by her mother, the sixteen year old, Portia, goes to London to live with her half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna (also, the brother’s life long housekeeper, Matchett). Portia and Thomas’s father had made the unforgivable social faux pas of falling deeply in love with a woman other than his wife. When the other woman became pregnant, Thomas’s mother stoically and sacrificially insists that he marry the soon-to-be mother of Portia, thereby more or less exiling the indecorous (if happy) family to wander Europe until their ends.

“Sacrificers,” said Matchett “are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice. Oh,  the sacrificers, they get it both ways. A person knows themselves what they’re able to do without.” (92)

Anna and Thomas are unhappily married to each other in that smooth cold manner that society generally facilitates so neatly. Anna suffered a serious heartbreak earlier in her life, which is never fully explained, but which warps and poisons her feelings towards Portia. Her heart, and its death, cast Portia’s innocence into a guileless search trying to make sense of the people around her.

In this [Daphne] was unlike Anna, who at a moment of tension let out oaths and obscenities with a helpless delicate air. Where Anna, for instance, would call a person a bitch, Daphne would call the person an old cat. Daphne’s person was sexy, her conversation irreproachably chaste. (188)

So delicious! I love the observations and keen insight Bowen displays – which is cleverly self-referenced in all the talk about keeping a journal. The act of Portia writing down her innocent, and therefore, perspicuous observations is taken as a near act of war. This novel was published in 1938, but the attention to female dispositions and attitudes is notable. Bowen’s descriptions of the various types of women that populate this novel are wonderful, down to the details of how they approach food, one “making a plunge for the marmalade,” (185) or some other fantastically illustrative sketch.

“If you were half as heartless as you make out, you would be an appallingly boring woman.” (318)

When the novel reaches its crisis it is Anna who while answering how she would feel if she were Portia, calls out the crux of the book. The cruel, crushing, corruption of one’s heart by societal mores….and for what?

“Boredom, oh such boredom, with a sort of secret society about nothing, keeping on making little signs to each other. Utter lack of desire to know what it is about. Wish that someone would blow a whistle and make the whole thing stop. Wish to have my own innings. Contempt for married people, keeping on playing up. Contempt for unmarried people, looking cautiously and touchy. Frantic, frantic desire to be handled with feeling…”

To be handled with feeling…because the alternative, as the character of Anna proves, is certain death to the thing we most dearly cherish: our hearts.

*title from page 385: “Happy that few of us are aware of the world until we are already in league with it.”

Difficult to Locate, Easy to Distinguish

The contrast between what counts as language and what does not is usually clear enough, once we look for evidence of productivity and duality of structure in communicative behavior.
– David Crytal, How Language Works (11)

IMG_1208How Language Works is a comprehensive book on all aspects of language. How we speak, hear, read, write, communicate and conversate. Hmm, that last one is not a word, but why shouldn’t it be, or why shouldn’t I use it? After all, save official sanction, it has the features required – recognizable phonemes, and plausible meaning. And as Crystal will confirm, and I will second, (exhibit A that I am) spelling is a function of multiple skills which have little to do with reading. Therefore, lacking (at least) one of the said skill sets, hell, conversate looks good to me!

We think of our fellow-speakers as using the ‘same’ sounds, even though acoustically they are not. (67)

Taking the first- the recognizability of phonemes, Crystal explains the unique ability that our ears, throats and brains have to do this thing we call language. Not mere communication- but language. Broken down into as many parts as science has been able, the process is fascinating. In the same way that visual perception both aids and distorts what we see, auditory perceptions has its own modifications for better overall use even at the risk of obfuscation of reality. Just as in visual perception: repetition, constancy, and closure dominate. Our ability to pick out words, particularly familiar ones, such as one’s name, in a crowded room defies the decibel level and chaos of noise.

The fact that our unconscious brains find order while our conscious brains try to instill order is an interesting collision of consciousness. But our conscious system is nothing if not incomplete: while in English we have five written vowel sounds, in speech we have twenty. And don’t even get me or my son Augie started on the sad lack of written punctuation.

Why is it that in English the ‘l’ sound in ‘fall’ and ‘leave’ is considered the same, when everyone can feel that they are produced in very different locations in the mouth and throat? One language will make the conscious distinction, while others will not. Every language makes use and organizes its own sounds, but no language makes use of all the sounds we are physically capable of making.

The word meaning, Crystal tells us,  has upwards of of twenty meanings. Twenty meanings of meaning. Oh Dio. Without these multiplicities we would not have the spectacularly creative and wonderful experience of language, but I have a feeling that the misery too is contained within. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood…

How did this all begin? I’m going to have to side with the Danish linguist Otto Jesperson who listed all the possible theories of language origination, but favored one: the ‘la-la’ theory. Such a lovely name I hardly feel the need to say more. But here it is:

Jesperson himself felt that, if any single factor was going to initiate human language, it would arise from the romantic side of life – sounds associated with love…(351)

Typically, our extended efforts to maintain order create their own complications. So much starts to seem arbitrary and then some French deconstructionist comes running in and blows the whole joint up, making matters worse! In the end, and yes, I’m talking to you grammar police out there, clarity and sincerity is all that counts. If you understand me, and if you believe in me we are experiencing linguistic communion of the highest order. And it’s lovely (regarding lovely: apparently it is a word that women make much more use of then men…).

The unconscious order is wondrously, marvelously complex, yet also, intensely directed towards purpose…of course, the meaning of the purpose is the real mystery.

*Title from page 56: Distinguishing vowels and consonants

 

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Pears and Proletariats

‘What are you laughing for, Professor?’
‘What do you mean – laughing? I’m in absolute despair,’ shouted Philip Philipovich. ‘What’s going to become of the central heating now?’
‘Are you making fun of us, Professor Preobrazhensky?’ 

– Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog (28)

IMG_1271I am reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. It’s the sort of book that sets my mind in fits and starts of questions and quagmires. Augustine’s subject is approached with such confident absolutism, that I begin to feel as though I have been thrown into some sort of alternate universe where everyone has agreed on a premise of possibly illogical terms.

‘You know how much work I did on the subject – an unbelievable amount. And now comes the crucial question – what for? So that one fine day a nice little dog could be transformed into a specimen of so-called humanity so revolting that he makes one’s hair stand on end.’ (108)

My first moment of pause came when Augustine lamented his theft of some pears from an orchard. He wrote, “there was no beauty in the pears I stole” hastily acknowledging that they were, of course, the beautiful creation of “you” – God (Penguin classics, 34). Nevertheless, they weren’t so hot as far as pears go. But that is not the point. The point is, he stole them just to steal them and he is a sinner.

Dog laughed, causing maid Zina to faint. Later pronounced the following 8 times in succession: ‘Nesseta-ciled’. […] The professor has deciphered the word ‘Nesseta-ciled’ by reversal: it is ‘delicatessen’…quite extraord…(61)

Now, hang on a minute, I said to myself. What does God have to do with ownership? Before we skip on down the lane of sin, can we stop a moment and ask why a “God given fruit” came to be “owned” by one over another in the first place? Good, bad, sin , God…who defines the terms?

You act just as if you were were on parade here,’  he said. ‘Put your napkin here, tie your tie there, “please”, ” thank you”, “excuse me” – why can’t you behave naturally? Honestly, you stuffed shirts act as if it was still the days of tsarism.’
‘What do you mean by “behave naturally”?’ (91)

Feeling depressed, I went to the library to get some lighter fare.  I spent some time searching for a book that had apparently gone missing and ended up with The Heart of a Dog, the Russian satirical novel by Mikhail Bulgakov set in the post revolution days of Moscow about a doctor who performs an operation switching out the pituitary gland of a (recently dead) human into a dog. A madcap, biting, and brisk tale in which the illogic of a dog’s move up in the world creates an absurdity of right question – why one man has seven rooms when others have just one….and wrong answer.

Doctor Bormenthal: ‘I shall personally throw Shvonder downstairs if he ever appears in Professor Preobrazhensky’s flat again.’
And Shvonder said: ‘Please enter that remark in the report.’
(128)

I told a friend that I was reading The Heart of a Dog as a sort of demented companion to Confessions. She said, “You know…Dog is God spelled backward…”

*The Heart of a Dog translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny
*Confessions translated from Latin by Garry Wills

**another Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)