— Samuel Coleridge, Table Talk
“It’s our predicament, at this time and at our age, to avoid saying the grand thing—to be scared of it, or to say it and then, in the very next moment, undercut ourselves, want to take it all back, dial it down, turn it into a big joke. This habit of mind started from a good place. You can trace it back to what we’re taught in college: be skeptical of capital-T Truth, look suspiciously at all-encompassing explanations. But it’s gotten out of hand. You hear it in conversation. Someone risks something, some idea they have, something they’re struggling to give words to, and how do they follow it up? They disassociate themselves from it. They say, But what do I know, right? Even about stupid stuff, like an opinion of a new movie. You can see it, too, in the profusion of phrases like sort of and kind of. People take shelter under words like maybe and probably when they could, by rights, insist and declare. On sitcoms, the most earnest character will always, immediately, be cut down in the next moment. It’s the dance move of our time, that little two-step. I struggle with it myself, all the time.” —Paul Maliszewski
As a collective visual statement, fashion is about the appearance of the individual and of the group. It is at once about self-presentation and conformity. Like music, it is improvisation within a structure. As the human condition doesn’t appear to respond well to too much repetition, fashion could be described as one of our antidotes to boredom. It must be new, but not too new; novel rather than radically different. A kind of planned spontaneity, it is applied art, making use of potentiality. Clothes can change more rapidly than other artifacts; although they are functional, they are statements too. Fashion could be described as the cultural genome of clothes.
—Lisa Chaney, Coco Chanel: an Intimate Life
Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off. Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human.
Most people lead their private lives. They have been given a natural modesty that feels to them like morality, but it’s not—it’s luck. They shake their heads at the people with their clothes off rather than learning about human life from their example, but they are wrong to act so superior. Some of us have to be naked, so the rest can be exempted by fate.
Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?
I was never able to agree with Freud that the dream is a ‘facade’ behind which its meaning lies hidden — a meaning already known but maliciously, so to speak, withheld from consciousness. To me dreams are a part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive, but expresses something as best it can, just as a plant grows or an animal seeks its food as best it can. These forms of life, too, have no wish to deceive our eyes, but we may deceive ourselves because our eyes are shortsighted. Or we hear amiss because our ears are rather deaf — but it is not our ears that wish to deceive us. … I knew no reasons for the assumption that the tricks of consciousness can be extended to the natural processes of unconsciousness. On the contrary, daily experience taught me what intense resistance the unconscious opposes to the tendencies of the conscious mind.
—Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, Illusions
More funny pathos, on the birthday song, a passage from Speedboat by Renata Adler.
What everyone dreaded was the birthday song. Anthems are sung in crowded halls. You can stand and mouthe. Carolers and singers from the Fireside Book are volunteers. You can stand and smile at them, or go away. But when the birthday song is imminent, the group is small. There is the possibility that everyone will mouthe. Someone begins firmly, quavers. Others chime in with a note or two, then look encouragingly, reprovingly, at the mouthing rest. The mouthers release a note or two. The reprovers lapse. The thing comes to a ragged, desperate end. If the birthday person’s name is Andrew or Doris, the syllables at least come out. Otherwise, you can get Dear Ma-ahrk, or Dear Bar-barasoo-ooh, or a complete parting of the ways—some singing Herbert, some Her-erb, some Herbie, and, if the generations and formalities are mixed enough, Herbert Francis, Uncle Herbles, and Mr. Di Santo Stefano. The song is just so awful, anyway. I cannot imagine, though, from what the double shyness about singing, about being seen not to sing derives. There seems to be no early trauma that would account for it. Someone may accuse a small child of being unable to carry a tune, although I’ve never heard of this; but surely no one then insists that the poor child be seen to mouthe. Then, then, just when the song has faltered to its abysmal close, the birthday person inhales somewhere near the candles of that hideous pastel cake, inhales, perhaps singes his mustache or gets frosting on his tie, gets wax on the cake or, if it is a she, into her hair, sprays everything with the exhaling breath. Applause. But it may well be that having no respect for occasions means having no respect for the moment after all.
I think there’s an edge of humor to the pathos in this poem by Fernando Pessoa… When the idea of birthdays becomes sad…
Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I was happy and no one was dead.
In the old house even my birthday was a centuries-old tradition,
And everyone’s joy, mine included, was as sure as any religion
Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I enjoyed the good health of understanding nothing.
Of being intelligent in my family’s eyes,
And of not having the hopes that others had for me.
When I began to have hopes, I no longer knew how to hope.
When I began to look at life, it had lost all meaning for me.
Yes, that person I knew as me,
That person with a heart and family,
That person of quasi-rural evenings spent all together,
That person who was a boy they loved,
That person—my God!—whom only today I realize I was…
How faraway! …
(Not even an echo…)
When they used to celebrate my birthday!
The person I am today is like the damp in the hall at the back of the house
That makes the walls mildew…
What I am today (and the house of those who loved me trembles through my tears)—
What I am today is their having sold the house,
It’s all of them having died,
It’s I having survived myself like a spent match.
Back when they used to celebrate my birthday…
Ah, how I love, like a person, those days!
How my soul physically longs to return there,
Via a metaphysical and carnal journey,
In a duality of me to me…
To eat the past like the bread of hunger, with no time for butter between the teeth!
I see it all again, so vivid it blinds me to what’s here…
The table with extra place settings, fancier china, more glasses,
The sideboard full of sweets and fruits, and other things in the shadow of the lower shelf.
Elderly aunts, different cousins, and all for my sake,
Back when they used to celebrate my birthday.
Stop it, heart!
Don’t think! Leave thinking to the head!
O my God, my God, my God!
I no longer have birthdays.
My days add up.
I’ll be old when I’m old.
If only I’d filched the goddamn past and brought it away in my pocket!
When they used to celebrate my birthday!
13 June 1930
Fernando Pessoa writing under the pseudonym Àlvaro de Campos, “the jaded sensationist”. Translation by the brilliant Richard Zenith.
We may win this year. We may lose it all. It is not going as well as we thought. Posterity, anyway, does not know everything. The simplest operations of life—voting in a booth, filling out returns, remembering whether or not one has just taken a pill—are very difficult. Jim leads an exemplary life, and I can’t cook. As is clear from the parking regulations, however, there are situations in which you are not entitled to stop.
Renata Adler, Speedboat (1976)
This woman can write paragraphs like no other.
[Origin: St. Mark’s Bookshop remaindered pile, originally $25, purchased for $7. 2007, 224 pages, non-fiction]
I just finished this book, and I can’t say that I’m sure what the author’s intention was. It’s a book about writing a book about Gertrude Stein. It’s also written in an engaging, sometimes acerbic, direct and personal style that makes it a pleasure to read. Her approach to biography is refreshing: she refuses to give a definitive narrative take on another person’s life; she highlights the outstanding biographical questions; she outlines the process by which she came to certain conclusions.
* No chapters, which gives it the flow of a long magazine article. It’s structured in three long sections. Part I is about Stein & Toklas during World War II, how they managed to survive; Part II is an inquiry into the impenetrable The Making of the Americans, including a great account of Malcolm’s reading of it and the scholarship surrounding the juicy notebooks Stein kept while writing it; Part III mostly concerns the fate of Alice Toklas after the death of Stein… All of this is interspersed with Malcolm’s questions about what can constitute established fact when dealing with biography; her dealings with various Stein critics & her own investigations into the life of Stein & Toklas; her own take on Stein’s writing.
* Perhaps an inadvertent theme that comes through is Malcolm’s distress at Stein & Toklas’s denial of their Jewishness, in both their life & their writing. (They were close friends with a Nazi collaborator, who was the one who helped them remain in occupied France, did not ever write directly about the atrocities of the Holocaust, although there was no way they could not have known, at a certain point.)
* Surprises revealed: Stein was extraordinarily charming. She made people want to help her & be around her. She needed constant human company (visits to friends) to keep writing. Men and women both were attracted to her. She was described by more than one person as a golden presence, like the sun, or else earthy brown. However, in her youth, she was depressed, confused, hyper-critical of those around her. Her first four years in Paris were not spent hosting the great Modernist artists, but in an “American ghetto” of friends and relatives, and she spent that time depressed.
And in one of the scant end notes, on their sex life: Stein preferred “cuddles”, while Toklas got the orgasms, which Stein referred to as “cows” (whoa!). “She calls herself ‘the best cow-giver in the world.’”
* Features sweet photos of Gertrude & Alice.
* It ends abruptly. A curious ending focused on how no one actually liked poor Alice Toklas. I guess this is on par with Malcolm’s determination not to make sweeping statements or grand conclusions. But the abrupt ending makes you wonder what you’re supposed to be taking away from this bok.
* A remarkable number of “side characters” in the Stein story wrote their own memoirs and autobiographies, funny.
* Aside: How did everyone have so much time to write letters all of the time?
— Janet Malcom, Two Lives