Friday, November 18, 2011

In Tents/Intense, or Why Be Outside When You Could Be Inside?

1. In Tents
You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23: 42-43)
If you want to save souls - and who doesn't - then a tent seems to be the best kind of temporary structure. It is a metaphor for this provisional life of ours - without foundations and likely to blow over. It is a romance with the elements. The wind blows, the tent billows, who here feels lost and alone? Answer - all of us…
In a tent you feel sympathy with others even when you don't know them. The fact of being in a tent together is a kind of bond. (Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? p.71)
October in the Jewish suburbs where I grew up was Tent City, so it felt entirely appropriate that Occupy the London Stock Exchange should pitch itself outside the Tabernacle on the intermediate weekend of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

Sukkot was as close as I got to camping, on the reckoning that Jews had had their fill of nomadic life long ago. All those patriarchs and matriarchs welcoming angels at their tent flaps were a thing of the past. We were intent on settlement, presented as the natural desire of a people forced into exile repeatedly, and then much mocked for their wandering, to stop, and be safe. Unlike the Pentecostal sect in which Jeanette Winterson grew up, Jews don't do tent revivalism or metaphors for provisional life.

But once a year, a little like middle-class kids heading to Glastonbury to 'rough it', we ate all our meals (with added daddy-long-legs dressing) under cover of leaves. With much swearing at his tools (hallmark of the bad craftsman) my father would erect the requisite booth. Hadar trees (Biblically mandated) being in short supply in North London, pine uprights and cross braces not dissimilar from the materials of our flatpack self-assembly beds were substituted, draped in a double thickness of flyblown plastic sheeting. As the trees in our garden were generally losing their leaves by this point in the year, leafy branches were purchased at the garden centre to create the 'roof.'

The letter imitating (and thus diminishing) the spirit, one could say. There was nothing natural about our sukkah; the natural world was something to be feared, despised and bug-sprayed, the opposite of culture, domesticity and divinity. God, of course, created the animals, mountains, etc - but that was just the prototype. Jewish life 2.0 took place indoors, estranged not only from nomadic, but also agricultural, life, smoothly assimilated into the post-industrial West. The prayer book held blessings to be recited on seeing certain animals and on seeing the little folk, and I only learned the latter. It seemed more likely to me.

But for seven days, that world-building aeon, we suffered the wind and rain and late, last insect life, claggy inside our plastic booth like overcoated end-of-pier mermaids. And on Shemini Atzeret, we returned - with abject gratitude - to the warm embrace of the dining room. Saved from the outside world for another year. It seemed inevitable, and appropriate, that the Great Storm of 1987 should occur as Shemini Atzeret slept into Simchat Torah. Sukkahs, held together with last year's nails and a prayer, were scattered to the four winds while their owners rested in the knowledge that they no longer had to eat in them.

The overall message being 'outside bad, inside good.' Outside the house, outside the community, outside God's embrace, you are lost to the wind, and a tent is no protection. Homemaking was the task of the Jewish woman, with the traditional tools of the exorcist: bread crumbs, books and candles. That warm, bosomy fantasy of home is emotively exemplified in Primo Levi's poem 'If This is a Man', which opens with an address to 'You who live safe / In your warm houses' ('Voi che vivete sicuri / Nelle vostre tiepidi case'), in contrast to those exposed and expelled from the domestic as a sign of the human.

But because Levi is an excoriatingly honest writer, he makes clear that the safety of those warm houses is a fantasy, one that is at once dependent on (ignoring) the exclusion of others from the boundaries of security, and on the precarious and temporary nature of that security itself.

God had the right idea, after all (not something I readily admit): a week of eating dinner in a booth should remind us that the security we seek and cherish is provisional, haphazard, and exclusionary. That we should live the 'precarious life' of vulnerability and dependability to others that Judith Butler advocates. Instead, it made us flee back into the consoling embrace of sofas, sideboards and second dishwashers, into the pretence that four brick walls could not be blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.

No wonder the temporary tent cities erected across the globe are freaking out the settled folk. As Jay Griffiths points out in Wild: An Elemental Journey, the animosity between settlers and nomads is perhaps the oldest violent binary in human history. The tent cities of the Occupy movement are like those of Sukkot: voluntary, intentionally provisional, intensely visible and highly symbolic. They quote the form of, but are not, the residential tent cities of necessity/desperation that are called 'shanty towns' or not called anything at all but swept away, as the Toronto municipal government did for the visit of the IOC in 2001.

That's not to say they are not pragmatic and useful: some Occupations have worked to provide housing and shelter for many people living on the streets (although this has also been a source of some conflict within the core Occupy movement, which is largely from the settled middle class; thanks to Maysie for linking to this excellent article from POOR magazine on the settled/settler attitudes operative at many of the Occupations; more on that at the end), as well as a free meeting place for discussion and connection that is increasingly hard to organise or discover in our increasingly privatised cities - the libraries and Workers' Institutes that Winterson remembers from her childhood in Accrington being slowly erased or, more insidiously, institutionalised into pay-to-play.

Perhaps Occupy, wherever it stands, is more like a revivalist tent than it cares to admit: a centre of charismatic speaking, gatheration, community feeling, action plans for saving souls, and the pragmatic and attractive benison of tea and sandwiches. A carnivalesque relief from the burden of maintaining our belief in the sanctity of property and the safety of houses. A moment of making a home in each other, while feeling the wind and rain on our faces. At John Kinsella's reading at Tent City University, unlit and unheated, I found myself experiencing a fierce ecstasy (ex-stasis, standing outside) at the sound of the rain, at the billow of the canvas Winterson describes, at the provisional rawness of the moment and the solid warmth of the crowd inside. Kinsella's work speaks fiercely and precisely about the living world (acknowledging the problems and possibilities of that term, ie: defiantly not a 'nature' poet, as he writes here) and our interconnections with it: it's a knowing un-pastoral engaged with the astonishing violence of the settled towards what unsettles them, be it animal, vegetable or human Other(ed).

While there's nothing to cheer or relish in the sadistic violence of police action against Occupiers, there is something ecstatic about the collapsible, moveable, resituable nature of this movement and its camps. The symbolic work of the carnival or revival is to be temporary and provisional and contingent, flexible and unexpected. 'We Shall Not Be Moved' as a song of protest re-interpreted to imply reclaiming all space as public, not putting down roots in a single spot and self-kettling into the illusion of stability.

2. Outside In
There was a person in me - a piece of me - however you want to describe it - so damaged that she was prepared to see me dead to find peace.
That part of me, living alone, hidden, in a filthy abandoned lair, had always been able to stage arid on the rest of the territory…
The lost furious vicious child living alone in the bottom bog wasn't the creative Jeanette - she was the war casualty. She was the sacrifice. She hated me. She hated life. (Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? p.71)
But here's the thing: we all need to be held. In Sandrine Bonnaire's beautiful documentary about her sister, who is living with autism, Elle s'appelle Sabine, the therapist at the care centre (which Sandrine shamed the French government into co-funding after her earlier investigations revealed the brutalising conditions in which Sabine had been imprisoned for several years), tells Sandrine that (and I paraphrase) she interprets autism as a disorder in which a person struggles, more than normal, to sense the boundaries between self and world. They live completely without walls.

Temple Grandin, the celebrated animal psychologist and an autism sufferer, thinks similarly. Studying cattle as they massed together, she realised that there was something profoundly comforting to her, as well, in the idea of being 'cow crushed': having her head gently but firmly immobilised. Sabine's therapist argues that some of the key 'anti-social' behaviours associated with autism can be read, compassionately, as sufferers attempting (and failing) to find limits, boundaries that will stand. Autism is an amplification of both the necessity and impossibility of finding safety, something we all experience.

As Winterson reveals in her memoir, adoption can be another similar amplification. She writes movingly of her struggle to redefine and then create a home -- at once bricks-and-mortar, and interpersonal -- never more so than when she says that, after childhood experiences of being locked in a coal cellar and of having no privacy in her own bedroom, she only feels at home in her house with the doors wide open. Winterson's solution, her route to plenitude, is fascinating because paradoxical. It's a poem: to feel safe behind an open door.

To me this is a heart-striking way of thinking through the vexed question of outside and inside that we experience in the home as a manifestation of the body, and which informs not only domestic and relational negotiations, but the very idea (I think) of property and its 'proper' protection. We build walls to shelter from the storm -- but the very existence of those walls reminds us that we are not, and cannot be, safe (because the storm is inside us). So we put locked doors in the walls. Then we alarm them. Then we build electrified iron fences around our properties, with armed guards outside them: each gesture that should make us feel safe(r) simultaneously reminding us that we feel unsafe. Freud says that's how the fetish works, constantly reminding us of the lack we want it to supply.

I thought about the fetish of the house a lot while watching Andrea Arnold's adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which - like Winterson's memoir - is a story of adoption, something that had never occurred to me before encountering the two texts concurrently. Arnold's 'controversial' casting of two dark-skinned British Caribbean actors to play Heathcliff (the controversy's utter risibility being that this casting is textually accurate) intensifies and crystallises the novel's passionate politics of love as the freedom from all oppressions, not least by focusing the viewer on Heathcliff's difference, his outsiderness. His inability to find and trust boundaries (both because they have been taken away, and because they are later used to exclude him) is performed in the film through a behaviour that is common for people living with autism: head-banging, a literal attempt to reimpose boundaries on the frightened and flailing self.

As an adoptee (Mr. Earnshaw finds him on the streets of Liverpool), Heathcliff -- like Winterson -- is hungry for a home. The film suggests that he finds this home (safety) initially in a relationship with Catherine, and in the space of the moors where they are equals in, and equalled by, the force of the land and elements. Arnold's adaptation traces, subtly through costume, light and framing, the shift that occurs as Catherine is coerced into increasing identification with the domestic space of Wuthering Heights and then -- as her only possible escape from poverty and oppression -- with the wealthier domestic space of Thrushcross Grange, which, with its higher walls and refined wallpaper, appears to promise her security.

Heathcliff, in exact opposition, is forced out of the house and into the stables, and into a labouring relation with (or rather, in alienation from) the land. What had once been an affective, ecstatic identification -- Heathcliff, moor, horse, wind, rain, desire -- is brutally inverted by Hindley's assertion of his power. Afraid, Hindley takes the associative chain and puts it in its cultural place: outside bad, animal bad, desire bad, Heathcliff bad. In turn, driven by Catherine's choice (that is not a choice: her coercive consent) to marry Edgar Linton for his money and property, Heathcliff becomes fixated on the values Hindley values. His revenge, when it comes, is propertied: he buys Wuthering Heights out from under the drunken Hindley, and (although Arnold leaves the unto-the-second-generation aspect out of the film) attains control of Thrushcross Grange through his daughter by Isabella Linton. Then he neglects both.

The film ends with Heathcliff, having bought Hindley's son's birthright after breaking into the house the previous night, walking away from it. A film that's almost obsessively conscious of framing shots through windows, door frames, cracks, takes off into the moors for the final time (which is, in ritual time, the first and forever. Momentarily secure in his ownership of the Heights, Heathcliff also secures ownership of his memories of himself and Cathy playing un-house on the moors. It's an uneasy and untriumphant ending, a vicious revenge fantasy that Arnold does her best to unromanticise.

Instead, she admits Heathcliff, in his grief for Catherine, to a temporary reprieve in his turning-away to the moors. And, in making him the point of view character of the film -- often framed in tight close-ups -- she brings us into the painfully uneasy, almost unnavigable relationship for Heathcliff between being held and being trapped. Central to this is the wall that borders Wuthering Heights, a marker between domestic and wild space. It's a tumbledown thing when young Heathcliff arrives, jumpable but jumbled enough to hide behind on the wild side. It's the only wall to his and Cathy's 'home', the divide they cross to come together.

When Hindley assumes ownership of the Heights, he sets Heathcliff and Joseph to rebuilding the wall. In a scene that places slavery squarely in the heart of the English literary canon, Arnold has Heathcliff pounding rocks with a sledgehammer, building the wall that will keep him in/out. Defiant, Heathcliff downs tools to run about with Cathy, but this adventure leads them to the Lintons' house and a higher wall to scale -- a wall they fail to reach on the return in time to avoid the Lintons' dogs. While neither wall offers much physical challenge to the young, strong Heathcliff (and he continues to use the over-the-wall route to Thrushcross once he's a legitimate visitor), the social boundary of class and race hierarchy that they signify remains impassable. Until he buys his own walls.

Winterson's description of her destructive, unheld, abandoned, angry aspect applies to Heathcliff too: the part of him that is a "war casualty" returns, takes over, makes him destroy the possibility of love-freedom. It's an anguishing spectacle (bewildering that so many people find it romantic). Arnold's version is unblinking on the bitter unstoppable replication of degradation and oppression. But the film also asks, not least in its casting choice, what other option does Heathcliff have? Beaten, spat at, abused, unhoused, made wild and degraded, what tools or skills or hopes has Heathcliff been given to do anything but aspire to unseat and replace his tormentors?

That's the most frightening spectre the film offers: our society. Full of "lost furious vicious child[ren]," myself included, oppressed by walls that exclude us, and by walls that trap us, and by those that promise a safety whose lack they point to insistently.

3. Unbuilding the Wall

In Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, the protagonist Shevek, a brilliant physicist, is lured from his revolutionary anarchist society to the fraught capitalist society that his parents left behind by the promise of research funding, time and space. It's a fantasy that, for those of us toiling in the bottom rungs of academia, is increasingly and apparently threadbare. Not only has the corporate university torn away the veils draping research in romantic notions of high-minded independence and social good, but the walls of the university themselves are utterly pervious. As students and faculty at Berkeley and UC Davis have encountered this week on their own campuses, the university is a walled institution, and will do whatever it takes to protect its walls.

On his return -- possibly to death or disgrace -- Shevek comes with only one idea in mind: to unbuild walls. Specifically and literally the wall around the space port that had long prevented any curious anarchists from travelling off-planet to visit the decadent society on the planet that gleams in their night sky. But what that might open up is left open. What we're left with is Shevek, in orbit around his home, planning to land publicly and to meet protestors and supporters with 'open hands.' As Judith Butler has argued, one thing the Occupy movement has demonstrated is that there is no such given as public space or the commons (the other side of the nostalgic/utopian fantasy of complete intimate/domestic security is that of complete public freedom): public space occurs where bodies declare themselves to be public, and that is a risky business.

Metaphorically and affectively, the walls we internalise -- our fears of abandonment and invasion, our sore lack of boundaries -- which we build outside us, and which are never high enough. And those walls persist in at Occupy: as a number of indigenous activists have pointed out, Wall Street has been Occupied for four centuries: as Ray Cook writes in 'A Haudenosaunee Observation of Occupy Wall Street' (thanks again to Maysie for this link).
The children of the West (Americans) are fighting amongst themselves (again) over distribution of a wealth that does not belong to them, a wealth derived from Indigenous lands. The opportunity to redefine wealth based on a more realistic view of the earth and an understanding of man’s place may be now.
What's necessary is Decolonize Wall Street / Oakland / Toronto / Vancouver (where the decolonisation struggle has become immediately and pressingly centred on the Keystone Pipeline) / Melbourne -- and even St. Paul's, in multiple complex ways. It's not just a change of vocabulary: to decolonise, rather than occupy, is to rethink the Eurowestern-dominated language of political protest at the same time as rethinking ideas of settlement, security and possession.

We need to know, and acknowledge fully, the history of the ground we stand on (which is never an island) in order to decolonise it. I'm reading The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe with my students at Middlesex this week; re-reading it, as I loved her books at about the same time I was grizzling miserably in a sukkah. While all the stern bivouacing adventures she puts her characters through never really filled me with the call of the wild, re-reading the book I have a startling sense of recognition: it's a book that's dramatically and passionately against colonisation (even as it has a Roman soldier as a main character) and slavery. The Britons have a coherent, complex culture (not the painted, child-killing savagery seen in the film), one that even Romans might opt into. The book made me think about Britain as a (multiply) colonised, as well as colonising, country: Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans. In our historical fantasy, the loss of the commons has been, since the Levellers of the English Civil War, associated with the Norman invasion. Can the British Empire be read as an acting-out of the scars of colonisation?

The great skyline of London, from Hawksmoor's and Wren's churches via the British Museum and Tate Modern to the execrable Shard, is funded by, and founded on, British imperial ambitions (much as the great era of the English novel was concurrent with Empire, and few readings are, like Arnold's, bold and brave enough to look that imbrication squarely in the face). London glistens with money made in slave-trading and plantation-owning (both, in their day, supported by and enriching the Church), and now the new imperial hegemony of financial trading, which politicians on all sides are so revoltingly keen to keep in London. London is in urgent need of decolonising, as much by recognising this heritage as by the important investigative work by Iain Sinclair and Patrick Keillor (Robinson in Ruins) into the creeping colonisation of both city and countryside by the military-industrial-financial complex.Occupy LSX shifted from its original target of Paternoster Square because that land is privately-owned and thus has bigger-better-stronger walls.

So the invisible walls of capital are left unbroached while the visible walls, a rainbow of slogans, protests, mantras, shouts of joy, sit ecstatically outside St. Paul's. But the walls remain.

4. Armour
Water resounds like stock epithets, strains
at our neglected gutters – tomorrow
score-marks of run-off, potholes dusty hollows:
the ground, a gullet, swallows the rain.  (John Kinsella, 'Gullet,' Armour)
John Kinsella's latest collection, nominated for this year's TS Eliot prize, is called Armour. It's a strange title for a collection by an anarchist-pacifist poet. Hidden inside the bristling exterior of the word is its root: arm, the body part that has become militarised, a metaphor older than the Roman occupation of Britain. The body part we use to grasp, but also to hug; to punch, but also to help. Strong in and of itself, its strength extended by the fetishes of armour and weapons. How, the book asks, can we refind our arm (note the first-person plural: the arm as shared vulnerability and mutual assistance, as never possessed by the fiction of the 'I') under the armour?

Sitting under the rain in the tent at Occupy St. Paul's, listening to Kinsella's open field compositions crossed by rail lines and songlines and atomic scars and toxic salt pans and family journeys and bird migrations and long memories, I was scared. Scared by the intensity of Tent City. It's not just the numinous aura of the bells of St. Paul's, or the shadowy twilight in the unlit tent, or the silent, focused listening of the people huddled on cushions (different in quality from any other poetry reading I've been to: seeking something different in the listening). It's the thought of uncovering our arms and unbuilding walls, person by person.

And also of putting our arms to work building new kinds of walls: shelter is a paramount animal need. Walls can protect, gather, offer communion -- but they can also be an armour of exclusion. Is it possible to have one without the other? A house that is defined as home by its open door? To carry, even within brick walls, the thought that this is but a booth? At the end of Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love series, the Chinese army arrives in revolutionary England with its secret weapon: a nanoculture that produces a living fabric called di. The walls of the Chinese occupation are alive. They billow as a tent billows. They are provisional. They are a recognition of where magic meets technology. They are a utopian dream.

But we are all made of living fabric. We are di. Maybe we can't build houses that can change shape and move, can fold down and be erected and expanded at need. But within ourselves, we can make an inside that is open to the outside. Uncovered arms, released from flak jackets and badges and wristwatches and bags and all the other forms of armour (defensive aggression) we carry. Arnold's Wuthering Heights stops before the end of the book with the hope that Heathcliff can recall himself: that outside, on the moors, he can be free enough in himself (of others' oppression) to stop the cycle. To grant others' freedom. If Heathcliff -- beaten, abused, degraded -- can go outside, leave the 'filthy abandoned lair' that is deep inside the fantasy of home, can't we?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Fascinating Ada: There are more women scientists than you think, and some of them are filmmakers and poets

7th October is Ada Lovelace Day: a global opportunity to celebrate Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and the founder of scientific computing. It's both moving and vexing that Steve Jobs is not here to celebrate Ada's work with Charles Babbage on the Difference Engine which made modern computers possible.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine
I first encountered Ada as a fictional character: the daring hero of William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, which saluted its heroine by inventing steampunk to devise an alternate 19th century in which the Difference Engine had been more than a prototype. But before I met here there, in my Cybertext Theory and Practice class (which also introduced me to cyborg feminism and feminist philosophers of science such as Donna Haraway, Sadie Plant, N. Katherine Hayles and Sandy Stone), I'd encountered her in Lynn Hershmann Leeson's Conceiving Ada, starring a young Tilda Swinton.

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Leeson's early video projects and online installations are a reminder that science and technology are not only driven by experiments in laboratories. As Haraway argues in "The Cyborg Manifesto," the military-industrial complex is the testing ground for many innovations, but -- from tempera to Pixar -- the arts have also provided a messy, alternative laboratory where 'discoveries' can be made. These may not have the commercial applications or textbook documentation of what we think of as scientific research, but they are  part of technologically-driven cultural change.

Ada, daughter of Lord Byron, was a writer and translator as much as a mathematician: working at the tail-end of the Enlightenment, where arts and sciences could be pursued inter connectedly as "philosophy" by someone such as Coleridge, Lovelace is not only a reminder of the achievements by women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but of the close interrelations in experimental thought. So it's perhaps no surprise that Gertrude Stein, perhaps the most ferociously experimental of Modernist writers, received a training in rigorous scientific process studying experimental psychology with William James.

At the same time (the turn of the nineteenth century)  Loïe Fuller (a close friend of Marie Curie's) was developed a number of innovations in relation to her dance films. Twenty years later in Hollywood,  Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to make Hollywood features (and still the most productive), famously invented the boom microphone.



Although experimental filmmaker Maya Deren held no patents, her films and critical writing make clear her engagement with cinematic technology. Her development of creative editing to free film narrative from realist strictures of time and place is as related to quantum physics as to her studies in the philosophy of Henri Bergson. For Deren, cinema was a site of experiment in its natural philosophical meaning, motivated by her youthful Trotskyism (particularly Trotsky's belief that artists would perform the experiments that produced the new society): aesthetics, scientific ideas and political ideology all converging to formulate a future with a difference.



Deren's work and legacy is being celebrated with a season at the BFI, opening with a conference tomorrow -- there will be a focus on her pioneering work as an ethnographic filmmaker, but also consideration for her technological innovations: her recognition of the camera as a difference engine.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Not Drowning but Reading

I think I forgot how to read.

I think I developed -- what to call it -- an affective dyslexia. I could make letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into narratives, narratives into worlds. I could be excited, moved, engaged by what I read. Even made to gasp by its audacity, wit, anger, beauty. But still: I think I forgot how to read. How to read as I did when I was a child. How to be taken over by reading.

The only childhood photograph of me that still exists (there was a bonfire mandated by vanity) shows me in the corner of a hotel lounge, my hair falling over my face, my face turned down into the pages of a book. Out of the frame, undoubtedly, my siblings and the other kids staying at the hotel are running around making mayhem. I'm the girl in the corner.

The girl in the book.

She grew up, and to all intents and purposes remained the girl in the book. I've predicated my working life on reading: as an academic, a critic, a bookseller and a writer. But as reading has become work, it has lost its edge. An edge, because the imperative of articulation has also whetted reading's keenness for me, has made it social and reciprocal and pliable and playable. But a private has been foregone, an inwardness of the reading experience. A writer/critic can no longer be the girl in the corner: I am answerable to an (indeterminate, possibly fictional) public. And that's the whetstone that keeps me sharp.

Reading-writing enabled the girl to grow up *in* the book, but also to use the skills learnt therein to affect life beyond the pages. Books are no longer my only safe space. 'Reading', as a complex and rewarding labour of awareness and articulation, has superseded 'reading' as an immersive line of flight. It keeps me present and engaged. If I want to lose myself, there's music (which I don't make, and rarely write about), contemporary dance and live performances of all kinds.

So maybe it's no surprise that it took a book in which rock and roll fuses religion, politics and scientific breakthroughs to re-immerse me, to shake my senses, to absorb me completely that I'm missing bus stops, tripping down bus stairs, gasping up from the pages as if hauled out of a dream or the sea. For 'a book' read 'books': nothing more satisfying than a series, Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love five-parter.

But the point here isn't to analyse or articulate why. It's to state the rush that has returned. Adults are supposed to put away childish things, like reading when they should be working/socialising/engaging in adulthood. But there is something that feels undeniably mature, more adult, in reading with the rush: being open to immersion. What was a necessity as a child now requires a kind of courage, to drop the critical armature. To risk (after a fashion) addiction.

What's that? The thrill of transgression? Fuck no, boring. It's the thrill of permission. The moment when the world says yes! to something they told you was impossible, was forbidden: more of that, always more of that. Gwyneth Jones, Band of Gypsys
A sexually-charged science fiction/fantasy hybrid with radical leftist politics (but more concerned with administrative detail), a sprawling narrative structure, narrative voice that drops in and out of different characters in close third (sometimes in the same paragraph): something they told you was impossible, something that works by its continual increase, its refusal of closure.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"anyone can do it, if they want to be peculiar enough" [AL Kennedy]


Thanks, AL Kennedy. The Blue Book pretty much cancelled me. With its sleight-of-hand whereby a seeming cynicism, all-pervasive, is turned into bittersweet sensation, the absoluteness of open emotion. No, not sleight-of-hand: that's to slight the magic. Beth, the protagonist, loves the word 'prestidigitation', and Kennedy, I suspect, does too: loves it as a diversion from what she's really doing. "Look, all hands/no magic," The Blue Book says. Fiction is just cold reading, performed chillingly in interstitial chapters that address "you," building up a portrait of the reader through small ephemera that seem impossibly accurate -- until you read a description of how Arthur (Art, haha) and Beth use informers and cold reading to build similarly accurate (because close observation marks us all, generically, human) pictures of the audiences for their psychic shows.

But Kennedy's a Penn-and-Teller of a magician: even as she appears to unfold the secret of the trick, shaming the reader for being gulled and the writer for gulling, she recuperates that shame by finding, in it, a necessary generosity, large and stunning. A final reveal that Kennedy's bone-deep irony and bitterness (as exemplified by her endlessly readable columns on writing and politics for the Guardian) are manifestations of a skinning, shredding love. She lurves humans, she does. To which she responds: "No, I don't. I don't love humans. And if you tell anyone, I'll kill you." [A for Anyanka, anyone?]

Almost impossible to read, The Blue Book: I can't imagine what it was like to write (and I don't have to: what the columns don't cover, the book describes -- as having fingers in the guts of the grieving). Kennedy's advice to would-be fake psychics - "anyone can do it, if they want to be peculiar enough" - is, I think, also her advice to writers. It's a bloody peculiar thing to do, make up lives and codes and patterns, lead the reader by the nose, for their own good. And then there's that "enough," referring to both "want" [if they want it enough] and "peculiar" [to be peculiar enough]. In each case, the word is an empty silk top hat with a rabbit (not) in it, the opposite of what it seems. Enough means "there is no enough." Not in a Zen "there is no spoon" way. In the sense that anyone reaching into that peculiar space will - must - find that the limits and boundaries keep falling away.

Which is why, despite being over-awed by the majority of the book to the point of burning my manuscript and keyboard, I found the very end made me go: huh. It was the second such 'huh' in as many days, the first belonging to Meg Rosoff's There is No Dog, a book that answers one of life's most pressing questions: is God a spoilt, sex-obsessed eternal adolescent boy (who happens to be very, very good-looking and occasionally inspired)?. The book's answer is 'yes and no', and it's absolutely brilliant. Like The Blue Book (oddly, Rosoff's book is also blue -- night sky in the UK edition, summer's day in the US), There is No Dog is about authorship and authority (and Rosoff writes just as well as Kennedy about the impossibilities and painful peculiarities of authorship on her blog), about taking dazzling narrative leaps, and about how absolutely amazingly amazing sex is. Well, desire. It has more testicles and wanking (or, curiously, "wanting" according to my spellcheck) than an episode of the In Betweeners, but it can't find a way out of the conundrum of desire -- either God's desire for Lucy, which causes the weather to go haywire (phew, not global warming then, off the hook for that one), or Lucy's desire for the eminently unsuitable Bob (God's actual name), which causes her to lose a capybara. No-one else even likes Bob -- Kennedy's Beth finds that her father feels likewise about Art.

And yet each novel offers Romantic Lurve as the Solution: coupling up being, apparently, as good as it can get. Lucy sees the Error of her Ways as far is Bob is concerned, but there is (of course) the Better Bet waiting to Complete Her. And Beth hardly marries Art in a flourish of tulle and confetti, but the end of the book uses the reader's hope to bring them together. Or rather, to hold them in a limbo that is only possible because it is suffused with our hope for their togetherness, tempered by the knowledge that they have each done Terrible Things. This is a problem. And there it was again last night at the end of Miranda July's The Future.

What I love about all three of these works (The Blue Book, There is No Dog, The Future) is that they ARE peculiar enough, as peculiar as the world is and in love with that peculiarity. And I love that all three of them are about hesitancy, complexity, doubt, multiplicity, indeterminacy and really, really great sex. Let's hear it for female desire and amazing depictions of orgasmic embodiment. But… but… but… is what lies beyond orgasm really, only, ever able to be: waiting. For him to come and find you. Really? I'm all for vulnerability, openness, companionship and even (I have problems with the word and its history of asymmetry and violence) love, but I feel like there's a dual, interrelated problem here: neither the novel nor love is peculiar enough.

To deal with the peculiar -- the particular, individuated, sui generis -- is to deal with the shift in the word's meaning, its encoding that whatever is remarkable and particular to a person/situation/place/object is deemed to be an enormity: that the individuated (not in the sense of individualised trainers), the contortions of a specific psyche, the instances of a history and their working-out, needs must be socially conformed. The novel as a form trembles on the cusp of the Enlightenment argument for individuation and utilitarian/economic arguments for the mass. It serves both tyrannical masters. Characters must be peculiar - but that peculiarity has to be either condemned or smoothed out. Kennedy is a genius of the peculiar: her short stories often leave me gasping at their intensity of intuition.

But the novel (and the novelistic narrative film) is resolutely not a peculiar form: no time-based narrative really can be, unless taken totally apart and restructured according to other, rigorous rules. At first, I thought The Future was making these new rules -- in relation to films such as Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielmann, which is similarly concerned with wayward dailiness whose cyclicity cuts against the linearity of cinematic time; or Sally Potter's Tango Lesson, which uses the temporality and hapticity of dance to create an unusual rhythm that twines, thyrsus-like, around the forward movement of the narrative -- but it abandons or unravels them.

What derails The Future, There is No Dog and The Blue Book is the insistence of coupled love as closure. This is not peculiar. It's neither particular nor strange. It's normative. It conforms (to) the novelistic shape of narrative, trapping its characters, foregoing larger questions of responsibility and forgiveness, questions about authorship in fact. All three texts hold up their injured paws at the end and ask us to love them -- for all their flaws and failures and half-starts and lack of finesse, which is peculiar and which draws me to these particular artists (artists of particularity). But to love these books (and their authors) all the same: to look away, to be sleighted. To love the form, even as we've been shown its foibles and failings. To love its reliance on (and our [manufactured] desire for) closure -- even as each text works towards openness, that expectation is invoked and so The Future feels hesitantly, indecisively unfinished rather than open; There is No Dog has its romantic ending by deus ex machina (in a new sense, but still); and The Blue Book asks its reader to become Art, and thus to be a figure of desire -- and then to desire.

There are other ways, I think: they're rare and complicated and perhaps too peculiar for anyone not peculiar enough. Charlotte Brontë's last novel Villette chooses a deeply perverse form of waiting-that-is-not-waiting, a wild temporal and affective leap, that perhaps explains why the novel is not as popular as Jane Eyre, which delivers: "Reader, I married him" (although Canadian poet KI Press has a terrific sequence in Spine that explores the odd taste left in the mouth by that marriage). Reviewing Arrietty for Eyewear, I suggested that
Arrietty doesn’t give the audience what it wants, but what it needs. Rather than a closing a satisfying narrative about how non-human Others (toys, pets) should love (ie: submit adoringly) their human masters and conform to a human-shaped world, as the third Toy Story film did relentlessly, the end of Arrietty opens out into risk, an unfamiliar gesture for a children’s film. Arrietty lights out for the territory.
That movement towards freedom (independence within relationality) is a movement towards the peculiar, towards a space in which to be individuated without being isolationist. Anne Carson, who says she wants to be "unbearable," produces that space for her protagonist Geryon, at the end of Autobiography of Red -- and in the epilogue interview with Stesichorus/Gertrude Stein, who speaks about the vocation of peculiarity as an unblinkingness. That painful difference again: Kristin Hersh talks brutally about it in today's Guardian, about whether making music is worth the elation, depression, possession she experiences.

Maybe, brought up in the Messianic tradition of Judaism, in which waiting for Him is all, I hate it particularly -- and find that model infuses so many Western texts. Both the waiting and the satisfaction, which is another form of waiting (happily ever after, really? Surely not. Surely just waiting for another in the catalogue of Terrible Things that make up the shape of narrative). I like endings that are beginnings: open, ecstatic. Endings that leave behind the lack that the story sets out the start: I want this. I don't get it. Fine: I'm free of wanting. That's a story of creativity too: I want to make this. I don't make it perfectly. Fine: I'm free of wanting to make it. It's made. It's gone. Paradoxical Undressing suggests that Hersh makes/records music in order to be free of its wanting, its demands on her. For music, we could put: love, humanity, the form, creativity, this one person, whatever. But at the end of the interview, she suggests something, an ending, peculiar enough:
"But what if we die?" she says. "What if we die and there's music everywhere?" And she laughs at what a great cosmic joke that would be.
What if, at the end, the desire that has hounded us -- the writing, the loving, the person -- is just "everywhere"? What if the bond of demand is relinquished, if we go into that which we want and wants us, but without want?

I don't know how to write that kind of ending: elsewhere in the interview, Hersh suggests such an ending is suicidal. But when I read those lines, I know that's what I want to find/to write. And so begins the Buddhist conundrum of not wanting to not want. Enough/not enough.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Death is now. And now. And now," or, The Work of Life in the Age of Digital Pre-Production

This was written during the Liars' set at ATP: I'll Be Your Mirror on Sunday. I've just learnt the acronym TLDR [too long, didn't read] so warning: this is going to be a long post. The Liars, like many of the bands playing ATP, are pretty committed to sustain (Godspeed You! Black Emperor were averaging 15 minutes a song). I'll try not to drone on, but I want the post to reflect the immersive experience, the drench not just of NOIZE, although Swans in particular certainly brought that (to the extent that I've been feeling strange and deafened the last few days, like I should be hearing that constant barrage of sound), but of sustained attention and development. And the half-formed thoughts it prompted, which I am leaving somewhat fragmented, totally unsubstantiated and rather feedbacky. If you want a (partial) review of the event with some very atmospheric photos, check out the multi-contributor diary on Wears the Trousers, my favourite music blog. It's particularly good on PJ Harvey and Portishead.
My ATP experience began with PJ Harvey on Saturday night (well, with the line-ups for chips, but let's skip that experience of duration), and with the odd realisation that I was framing my experience of the concert through the expectation that I would write about it here as part of the irregular series of female performers. That sense is nothing new, in a sense: I watch films and read books with pen in hand, even when not for publication. I've also reviewed dance and live theatre, but never live music (Birds' Eye View film and music extravaganza aside). While live music often prompts poem-thoughts and leads me to grappling for a notebook in my bag while going 'woooooooooh', it's not an experience that I filter critically or philosophically, despite adolescent plans to be a music journo. Being utterly unmusical, I can't Alex Ross it. It's embodied: sensory saturation (which isn't to say that its production and performance is unintellectual, or that I'm not learning and thinking). But while trying to catch a glimpse of PJ Harvey's extraordinary feather-hair arrangement, and feeling England shake, I was also framing her performance in words -- and, worse, in the viewfinder of my phone's camera. I should add that I'm a terrible and irregular photographer, but the iPhone camera works well for me (with its point-and-shoot absoluteness). So I took some crappy pictures of pixie people flared out in stage lights, more as a response to the crowd of camera screens waving in my vicinity than any internal compulsion.
Portishead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor both had video projections behind the band: Jem Cohen's impressively inchoate and melancholy films for the inscrutable Montréalers (whose sense of humour was abundantly demonstrated in their band bio in the programme, where they compared themselves to Rush), and faffy sub-Jem Cohen guff for the Bristolians. In between the lame films, Portishead did have live digital projection in over-exposed black-and-white, sometimes sequenced or mixed, but often extreme close-ups of Beth Gibbon. Film screens at large concerts, particularly festivals, are nothing new, but the use of grainy b/w appeared to be making a claim towards an affinity with Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight and the jazz club photographs that inspired it -- and that also inspired the Super 8 depiction of the Velvet Underground scene. Think of Nick Cave performing in Wings of Desire. So it was a concert film that harked back to analogue grain and rawness, but being both captured and projected while the concert was ongoing.
Geoff Dyer refers to the quality of certain photographs as "the ongoing moment," a paradoxical perpetuity of the instant (or instantaneous eternity) that is a direct descendant of Roland Barthes' argument about the photographic punctum, the inscription of the photographic subject's death that makes portrait photography so moving. But these pictures were not being taken to be viewed, or reviewed, as mementos in the future, either the distant future after the subject's death, or the near future of communicating the experience to real-world friends. Instead, they were taken for the moment and for the immediate future: to review a minute or an hour later, to relive the concert that evening. Not as mementos to secure memory as it might fade, but as a record of an experience people were not having in its lived time.
There's a name - well, an acronym - for this kind of delay, and it's not TiVo. It's PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder, perhaps the defining condition of post-9/11 EuroWestern society, as this recent article by Gordon Turnbull suggests. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler suggests that the realisation that the West is as vulnerable as the Rest has prompted a kind of social PTSD, complete with repetition compulsion; Turnbull's article suggests the ways in which we can learn from trauma _not_ to repeat, instead to recognise our shared vulnerability: that is, our shared proximity to death.
Digital technology, as Laura Mulvey has suggested, a kind of death of death: the end of the stillness of the photographic still that makes up film, as well as the end of indexicality, whereby a photographic negative physically (that is, chemically) records the light bouncing off the subject of the photograph. The practical eradication of physical printing, as well as the development of wireless transmission, challenges the ongoingness of the photographic moment. Instead, the camera becomes an electronic amygdala: that is, it records what we can’t quite experience, and distributes it, diffusing its effect. Rather than be present in the moment of the music (and some of the moments, such as Swans, demanded intense presentness from the musicians and audience through their use of sustain, drone, build and volume), the digital photographer defers his or her experience, sharing it later in the ‘safe space’ of the online community. Their post asks – implicitly – exactly the questions posed by trauma survivors when their memories return: was I (t)here? What did I feel? What has it made me?
And, perhaps most crucially, how did I survive? Thinking about digital technology and/as amygdala gave me an intuition about the traumatic memory, the ‘shell shock’ dream images produced from/by photographic memory, which repeat always the same, unprocessed, uncondensed. Freud intuited that this meant the images had not been seen at the time; they had not been captured by the conscious and thus sent through the unconscious. Instead, the conscious mind had averted itself in order to survive a violent/violating experience. I think we can take this further: these are images the mind never expected to have to process, to store in memory. They are the images of the seconds before death, the unseen instants carried, eventually, by everyone: not the famous ‘life rushing before one’s eyes,’ but the precise circumstances of death. That which one would never expect to see. So to replay that black box record within one’s own mind raises the question: Am I dead? If I am, how can I remember? If I’m not, how can I not remember?
So these precious, tortuous images induce survivor’s guilt through their painful clarity, the very fact of their availability proving both that we are not dead, and that we should be. While it’s an exaggeration to claim that a music festival is a site of trauma that one must defer, and then mourn, it’s an exaggeration with at least three contributory thoughts: first of all, the volume of articles published each summer on how to prepare for attending such festivals (mainly shilling for specialised wellies, tents, earcans, etc), suggest that this is an event to be survived (although not necessarily survivable); one could go so far as to argue that, given the obsession with detailing the boggy conditions at Glastonbury, music festivals are described in the register of accounts of trench warfare from WWI, and may even be a cultural substitution for the rite of passage constituted by national service. They are certainly a version/descendant of the rambling/back to the land movement that started in Germany in the late nineteenth century as an outgrowth of Romanticism: the reification of ‘landscape’ and ‘nature’ as separate spheres from the urban, to be enjoyed by city folk en masse, sporadically and passively.
Reason two is, perhaps as a dark reflection of the war zone, the physical assault of noise and crowds that are generally regarded as unpleasant (say, in the London Underground), but welcomed at a festival as part of the authentic experience – although this experience can be differentially assaultive depending on your vulnerability. Despite utopian arguments to the contrary, festivals are temporary autonomous zones that (as ever) tend to favour the autonomy of those wishing to take power-over, as with the incidence of rape at Latitude last year.
The intense experience of being in a crowd of strangers, one where ordinary social controls and supervisions may not apply, is intensified or underlined by reason three: a year after the fatal crush at Love Parade, it was also hard not to be hyper-aware of the dangers of the crowd itself. Furthermore, the urban crowd has been, since Dresden at least – or maybe Peterloo, the target of military and militant assaults. A crowd is an attractive target. It was difficult, at ATP this weekend, not to think of Utøya: a similar autonomous zone, one where youth, music, exchange, and many of the ideas and beliefs reflected by the festival’s line-up were shared. To be in a crowd is thus to be vulnerable: to other individuals therein; to the mass movement; and to individuals outside.
So perhaps those digital photographers had the right idea: record now to watch later. But can you live life like TiVo? Watching the sea of digital phone cameras capture and immediately transmit (to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, MMS, etc) a film being immediately captured and transmitted, I wondered what had happened to death. Not least because of Harvey's "All and Everyone" with its standout line: "Death is now, and now, and now." That, I felt, was what missing. Not in the negative, Nietzchean, rather adolescent sense of "militant dysphoria" that Dominic Fox proposes, but as the defining, enlivening aspect of lived experience. The death that makes the music I heard at the festival so haunting and compelling: music at extremities of aural violence and vulnerability, spectral dynamics of sound and silence, of density and spareness. It was music that demands you stand to attention, salute it: the music of war and the mourning of war.
Harvey and Beth Gibbon of Portishead, in particular, as female frontwomen, not only take me back to my formative years in the mid-90s and so probably define my idea of female performance, but also seem haunted by an older tradition: they are both keeners. Professional mourners. Let England Shake is the album George W. Bush and Pericles would both have banned: an angry, provocative work of mourning for the war dead. A recognition and a cry for justice. A making-audible of the death that saturates the English landscape. Portishead have recently recorded a song for Amnesty International, and their oblique lyrics are often dense with a desire for decreation, or grief in the face of impossible loss.
As Wears the Trousers point out, both nights, “Wandering Star” was the stand-out song of their set. This unbearably fragile song of mourning, bleak and beautiful, was performed by Gibbon in a rocking crouch, her eyes drawn closed, her face turned down. Not the most expressive, outward performer (she hunches her shoulders and draws her belly in protectively while singing, and faces the back of the stage while not; in fact, her singing posture was uncannily similar to that of the burned, bowed body of Joan at the stake at the end of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was screened, with live accompaniment, on Sunday afternoon), Gibbon appeared to cave in on herself for the most intense performance of the set. Uncommonly, the whooping crowd fell silent, even when the vocals dropped out (which prompted cheers and applause during all the other songs), in the presence of an intensity and rawness of feeling that – perhaps – we struggle to process, especially in the close proximity of so many (sweaty) others.
It’s the rawness of a collective mourning we no longer undertake, a collective witness to our vulnerability and connectedness. “Please could you stay awhile to share my grief,” the song asks. Death is now, and now, and now. This is what live performance demands: an affective, sensory apprehension of the layers of meaning in a ritual/performance, and our role in it, that is neither Dionysiac abandon (which inevitably leads to both risky and selfish behaviour, placing a premium on the expression of individual experience) or Apollonian triumphalism (which demands that the individual sublimate their experience into a cohesive performance directed towards a larger power). Obviously, blogging about this demonstrates that I have lost this sense/ability as much as anyone has, and that while trying to recapture it at ATP, I also found myself mourning it – and I have found myself grieving for the end of the festival since Sunday evening, when we heard the final notes of ‘Wandering Star’ and felt complete; sustained.
Through (re)writing these notes, I am seeking to reconnect to the brief glimpse of the needful network that sustains and shapes (not prescribes, commands or conforms, as religions and political parties do) the apprehension described above. Can there be a network without a system? A crowd without power? If there can, it must reside in the work of art itself, in its resistant liveness that defies the cultural determination that it has been staged in order to be instantly digitised. Performance, which contorts and absorbs the body, which makes shapes of yearning and desire, touches us kinaesthetically – not least with the desire to touch the performer, if only with our eyes. Sound, which moves through us in waves as light does not (which is why photography is possible), which is felt in the tympanum and the bones, which works on the nervous system, is a powerful medium for securing the interdependence of vulnerabilities necessary to be in the precarious now. And now. And now.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Divorce: A Love Story


Coincidence or zeitgeist? This week I've seen two works that use divorce as at once a lens onto the personal intimacy that shadows public policy, and as an analogy for the necessary separation of church and state. The works are as different as different can be: Asghar Farhadi's film A Separation, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in February, and Howard Brenton's play Anne Boleyn, revived at the Globe this summer after a successful run last year. Anne Boleyn takes up the famous story of Henry VIII's dual divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Roman Catholic Church, but suggests that Boleyn was not simply the strumpet of historical repute: she was a passionate, well-read Tyndale Protestant saving the soul of King and country. Brenton has an excellent article about the genesis of the play, where he reveals that it was seeded by Dominic Dromgoole's suggestion he write about the translation of the King James Bible, which marks its 500th anniversary this year.

Theatre, like Biblical translation, depends on a scrupulously accurate choice of words; unlike Biblical translation, that choice has to be made to allow for -- even create -- ambiguities, ironies and fatal double meanings. Brenton, like Shakespeare, uses a court setting to show how assiduously language is politicked, how weighty its precise dualities can be. He also follows the conceit of lovers speaking most truly in the language of metaphor: Henry and Anne sing to each other when and what they cannot speak openly. They long, in verse, for a pre-linguistic island idyll where they could communicate without or beyond words.

Yet it is Anne's copy of Tyndale's The Obedience of a Christian Man, annotated for Henry, that provides her with life after death when James I discovers it in a secret panel in a trunk (hoary but effectively done by the brilliant James Garnon playing James as a ticc'ing, dancing, roaring cross between Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly), as the book itself preserved the ideas and words of Tyndale even when the man himself (and many copies of his books) were burnt. And this small black book containing sedition becomes an effective theatrical device, a loaded secret passed from hand to hand across time. On the one hand, it liberates Anne to follow her conscience; on the other, it liberates Henry to take total power and, just outside the timeframe of the play, leads to the rise and rise of the mercantile Puritans, to the colonisation of North America and beyond.

All this turns on a book and a divorce, on the swearing of oaths (sometimes under torture) and the promises of lovers tested against the word of God. The value of giving one's word is measured against divine and human authority on the one hand, and against the individual conscience and heart on the other. Within the closed and corrupt world of the court, it seems like neither truth is possible -- theatre relies on that slippage and impossibility, but at the same time, on the verbal contract between audience and performer that we accept these words as a promise of a complicated kind of truth, one hidden within what is seen. This art of revealed mystery seems to me to be a manifestation of Christianity (the Globe is staging the Mysteries later this summer, currently being advertised by one of those posters that makes me want to smash my head into a wall -- God as a grandad in an armchair and, oh look, sexy naked Eve, the only woman featured) -- or Christianity itself a development of the religious mystery of Athenian theatre, which itself has a strong relation to the language and form of the law courts.

That's also the case with A Separation, a legal drama not in the sense of Law and Order or even Twelve Angry Men: instead it's about how the nature of litigation pervades every aspect of life as two families become entangled in a mesh of constant cross-questioning, assertion, delayed revelation, evidence, self-betrayal, and negotiation.

This trailer has no subtitles, but its sense is clear: this is a film about argument. An argument between individuals, in a series of small rooms. People who are connected to each other not only by incident, but by the passionate debate and desperate negotiation that ensues. Here are people living through language: verbal and gestural. In the film, all the crucial action moments that would be front and centre in a mainstream film occur offscreen, loading the dialogue of each scene with tension and revelation. In other words, it's great, necessary, brilliant, terrifying filmmaking.

The film is easy and hard to summarise (Peter Bradshaw's review for the Guardian does a good job), but the opening seconds make clear that the titular separation (the full title is Nader and Simin: A Separation) is one that is prelude to a divorce, as Nader and Simin argue their case before an unseen magistrate, whose place is taken by the camera and the audience. So from the start, the viewer is pulled in to the film's talky vernacular, its back-and-forth of assertion and contradiction, of eloquent body language and unspoken secrets. We are put in the position of adjudicator.

When I say the film is "talky," it's not like Woody Allen: although people quibble about definitions and verbal felicities, although there's a fantastic small scene where Nader takes his daughter Termeh to task over an English-Farsi vocabulary test. When she offers an Arabic word for 'guarantee', a word given to her by her teacher, he tells her to use the Persian word, even if it risks losing a mark. Not only does it reveal Nader's letter-not-the-spirit prideful personality, which is one of the motor's of the film's grindingly tragic events, but also the significance of language as cultural inheritance and legal formality. Yet even 'guarantee' is not a guarantee of anything: all words are translations, and therefore treacherous.

And that brings forth a question central to the film, about the arbitration of meaning. For the opening of the film to defer that arbitration to the camera/viewer is a bold move in a country where magistrates are not only legally, but theologically, bound. When we eventually meet a magistrate, he is revealed -- like the judge in Kim Longinotto's documentary Divorce Iranian Style -- to be an intelligent, thoughtful and just man, but one operating in an impossible system. The conundrum is evident from the start, where Simin presents her case for divorce thus: she has applied for a visa to America, where she believes that she and her daughter will find more equal opportunities; Nader is blocking the move because he has to care for his elderly father who has Alzheimer's. An impossible, perfect, parable-like paradox is presented: Simin is arguing for divorce on the grounds that she is currently in a position of inequality; but divorce cannot be obtained on her terms, because of that inequality. Were there full equality before the law in Iran, she would not be seeking a divorce. Simin can travel to America alone once she is divorced, which Nader wearily (and fatefully) agrees to, but Termeh can only travel with her father's permission, which he will not give.

The giving of permission, and one's word, proves crucial as each character is asked to present their version of events on oath, most crushingly when it is Termeh's turn. As in the Tudor court, oaths are always taken under coercion, whether human or divine. Such politics of fear raises the question of whether truth can be thus obtained (as in the debate about torture); feminists have coined the term 'coercive consent' to describe the situation in which a person with less power enters into a sexual or other relationship with a person with significantly more power (student/teacher, servant/employer), where the coercion may not be overt but may relate to implicit fears such as loss of earnings, grades or even immigration status. I think a similar term can be applied to the oaths taken and confessions made in A Separation and Anne Boleyn, particularly by the women, while the men can better afford to cling to pride and honour as justifications for following the letter of the law. (Echoed in this week's New Yorker cartoon-in-search-of-a-caption).

There's no real conclusion to this post, as there's no real conclusion to either the play or the film: Anne Boleyn ends with a whimper, unable to face up to the torture and murder of its deeply sympathetic central character, or to the less savoury consequences of the Reformation and James' scholiastic rule; A Separation ends with one of the most audacious final scenes in recent cinema, one that is both a still tableau, an agony of waiting that pulls us deeper into the titular characters' as it reinforces our role as magistrate, and one that, through the placement of the camera and the use of sound, shows that a divorce -- any divorce, not just that of a king -- takes place in, and as part of, a social maelstrom of other lives and losses. Like Nader and Simin, we are all still waiting to see what could happen if a full divorce of church and state, of authority and intimacy, were to take place, and how language, truth, heritage and even love -- forged in a crucible of religious tradition that we still cannot shake -- will resolve themselves.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Far from the Madding Crowd: Biophilia, Live Music, and Face Time


Welcome to another in this summer's irregular series of posts on women and live music performance. This one was prompted by a review of Bjork's show Biophilia that appeared on the F-Word. I saw the same show, on the same steamily humid day. Like Ruth Rosselson, I felt disappointed at first: distanced by the performance in the round framed by screen media (I found the videos inventive and distracting), music engines (likewise), the avenging angels of the choir (likewise and more so), and the Victorian architecture, which made me feel like I was at a cattle auction in a Hardy novel.

Which made me wonder: what exactly is it we're buying at live performances? Rosselson's review points out that the performance in the round meant that Bjork was facing away from 3/4 of the audience at any given moment, a gesture compounded or highlighted by her Braveheart/Boudicca-style wig and make-up. Like Rosselson, I found myself longing for face time: that intimate connection that seems promised by the yearning, direct, bodily intensity of Bjork's music. That faciality is the key mode of Western culture is a truth widely recognised, particularly in contrast to the place of the face in relation to identity in Islamic cultures. I found myself somewhat chastened to realise that what I was bidding for in my shuffling, head-winding position on the elevated terraces of the market hall was a chance to "own" a moment of Bjork's face, to "own" a direct connection with the singer/performer, as if she were singing directly to me.

That seduction is of course the predicate of musical and theatrical performance dating back at least to the eighteenth century and the appearance of women on stage in England in the Restoration: precariously paid and in social limbo, female performers were often perceived as prostitutes "offering" themselves on stage and off. That association, which was sometimes literalised under economic and social pressure, still haunts the presence of the female performer and the desire of the audience.

What's particularly interesting to me about Bjork's music -- and particular her new material -- is that, in all sorts of subtle ways, it plays with this desire and the idea of the face. David Attenborough's pre-recorded announcements -- brisk, associative, three-word captions -- couldn't be more different from his precise but flowing narration for BBC wildlife documentaries. Rather than naming and narrating species as they appear on screen (and particularly, with mammals, as their binocular vision engages ours), these captions present the theory or theme of the track that follows as an experiment rather than a confession.

Eye contact is a powerful experience, not only with a non-human Other whose eyes appear to offer recognition and reflect intelligence. It's one that shapes us from infancy in the maternal dyad, and one that can offer a guarantee of our existence and value in adulthood: but it is far from definitive. A partially-sighted person could have thrilled to the varied and palpable sound world of Biophilia, not least the absolute commitment of Bjork's voice to fill the space and engage her audience.

The video screens above the stage act as a reminder that confession is now (is always?) a mediated act, and our expectations of face time are not a nostalgia for an organic age of close connection with performers, but rather a product of cinematic technology, specifically the close-up and the video diary, which create the sense of public ownership over performers that generates paparazzi (Bjork has little patience with them as a species).

In place of this false nostalgia/claim to faciality, Bjork's new show offers a radical idea: biophilia. Love that relates to the life in liveness, not to appearance. The liveness of the voice as expression of embodiment, rather than the face. Of movement and co-operation (as when Bjork was surrounded by the choir as a mass of bodies) rather than the singular artist selling face time. Its radicalism stretches far beyond the commercial music business or issues of celebrity to speak to how we construct our relations with every aspect of the biosphere. Do we need eye contact with every refugee in order to protest draconian immigration regulations? Will we not save endangered animals unless we can have face time with them (every Friday, as per WWF's facebook stream)? Must something _have_ a face for us to engage with it -- to believe it is engaging with/imploring us?

Or can we read Bjork's costume and staging as a plea for escape from faciality: for returning the (pathless, faceless) rock to rock music?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

I Am a Lonesome Hobo

Where another man's life might begin
That's exactly where mine ends

These weren't the lyrics I was expecting to stick in my head from last night's Thea Gilmore gig at Union Chapel. In fact, it wasn't really a gig I would have bet on myself attending, being that she was covering Bob Dylan's album John Wesley Harding in its entirety to mark the legendary almost-Crouch Ender's 70th, and I am not what I would call a Dylan fan, in that I've never been electrified by his music. But I was electrified by Cate Blanchett's performance as the beautiful, androgynous, charismatic imp in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' strangely magical anti-biopic of the anti-rock star.
Despite my lack of Bob-knowledge, I was exhilarated by the film's freewheelin' turn through Greenwich Village, outlaw country, Gospel choirs and back - but what's stayed with me are the performances by Blanchett, Julianne Moore (playing a female folk star who is in no way based on Joan Baez) and Charlotte Gainsbourg -- although what I remember most about Gainsbourg in the film is thinking that someone should write a biopic of Patti Smith (Just Kids is crying out for an adaptation) and cast her in the lead.

That says more about my preoccupations than about the film, or indeed about Dylan, whom I was undoubtedly turned off male professors with a tendency to waving around a rolly in one hand and a battered copy of Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin in the other, while exhorting us to "fucking read Dryden." No thanks. So I'm no Bobsessive, but I love Thea and loved her cover of "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" so I was willing to see what she'd come up with. While Caroline Sullivan of the Guardian called Gilmore's recorded version of JWH "for completists only," the live show brought out something that's perhaps less palpable on the record, and excitingly strange: a female artist singing these incredibly masculine songs.

It's not just the lyrical content that could loosely be described as pretty male, but the stance of the singer: the inheritor of St. Augustine, the frontier dweller -- and the hobo. Figures of wandering, of travel and movement outside of social norms, whether sinners or saints (who were once sinners), the characters and narrators of the songs are facets of a male archetype. Which is not to say that women don't wander, move (or sin), but that the conservative patriarchal forces of Euro Western society have largely conspired to keep women in the house (where they belong!), so that any wandering woman is automatically errant and aberrant, as a symbol and in actuality.

So for Gilmore to claim the hobo's harmonica (I'm dying to say the hobo's oboe, but it would be a lie) is visually as well as audibly powerful. Where a man's life might begin is both traditionally and symbolically, exactly where a woman's ends: at the threshold. In the story of Dinah, the Old Testament makes it clear that a woman outside her front door cannot be raped, because if she's out there, then she's declared herself common property; an attitude that persists today in shaming rape survivors based on their location and clothing. Which surfaces the other sense in which a woman's life might end where a man's begins, a sense that is threaded throughout the history of folk music: in murder ballads that often hymn the end of a woman's life at a man's hands, often for her presumed infidelity, but sometimes just because that's the way things are between men and women. Willie Nelson's "I Can't Let You Say Goodbye" (used to excellent effect as the killer's theme in Jane Campion's hugely underrated In the Cut) makes the point chillingly: "Please have no fear, you’re in no harm / As long as you’re here in my arms / But you can’t leave so please don’t try…” The archetypical male/female erotic relationship is not a model of love, but of murder.

Nowhere is this clearer than on Kristin Hersh's ferally brilliant album Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight, which brings new life to old songs by revoicing them -- not from a female perspective, but as a female singer, in an act of transgendering. Rather than rewrite the lyrics to give us female murderers (there are a few of them in the old ballads as well), or happy endings (the Disney post-feminist princess trick), Hersh - like Gilmore with JWH - stakes a claim to the songs and the masculine archetypes they contain. Hersh's jangling take on classic American folk songs (including lullabies with dark intentions) preceded, by three years, Tori Amos' better known project Strange Little Girls, a cover album that identified female personae within and as narrators for songs by male artists, playing with goddesses and (as this Red Riding Hood-inflected video shows) fairy tale heroines.


But unlike Disney re-ups, Amos' strange little girls -- with their wigs and wolves and vaginas raining blood from the sky -- show that femininity is a performance, a put-on (or stick-up), a costume: one that is often worn under duress, or interpreted as putting oneself at risk. Stranger still, Dylan's JWH ends with a song that might suggest the same about masculinity. "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" -- if you look at the title objectively, what it offers is a position of vulnerability: not I'll be your lover or man or master, but "baby." Yes, it's also a little creepy. But the nursery rhyme-like lyrics ("The big old moon's gonna shine like a spoon" -- what do you make of that little gem, Ricksy-baby?) and suggestion of escape and the abandonment of social norms and the outside world - close the door, kick your shoes off - creates a space beyond gendered identities (OK, so the singer is pretty bossy and demanding -- "bring that bottle over here" -- or maybe just wants to go the whole baby fetish...), a space where men can admit to vulnerability. And sung by a pregnant Thea it has something extra, some enlargement of the aspects of human life that tend to appear in pop music. Open your eyes, open your door, maybe?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Singing the Pirate's Gospel

...which is what I have been doing for the last week, since seeing Alela Diane at the Scala. I am an Alela nerd (yes, limited edition vinyls, SXSW sessions, semi-legal download of her unreleased first album; even an Alela-hand-made quilted T-shirt) but her new full-band project Wild Divine leaves me... hmmm. Part of it is that I think it would be weird to go on tour with your dad and your husband, but I have neither so who am I to say. And part of it is that the swinging 70s rock-out sound is not one that means much to me, compared with a girl and her guitar. Especially coming on after the support act -- a wildly brilliant, triple-drumming Peggy Sue, who played a kicking set while dressed in homage to John Hughes' movies that they are TOO YOUNG to have seen first time round, which was adorable/made me feel ancient -- the whole Fleetwood shtick felt old to me.

Which is maybe its point: homage, retro, etc. So why was it not as adorable to me as Peggy Sue's drummer rocking an Eric Stolz fedora? It's not like I love the 80s in any way. Alela, incidentally, was wearing a low-backed, knee-length fringed black dress. Her all-male band were in jeans. And there, for me, is the bind: that 70s sound is, well, kinda floozy. Maybe then it was in a good way, but now it seems to part of the flow of the sexualisation of women in the music industry rather than a protest against it. And here's the double bind: while Alela absolutely has the Lady of the Canyon voice to sell the songs, even over the great wash of guitar and bass that her producers have thumped her with (the bonus CD showcases the pre-wall of sound versions which grab me much more), but she can't channel Stevie Nicks via her hips.

And nor should she have to -- or feel she has to. But somehow that sound demands a performance of free love female sexuality. Which brought home to me just how far our perception of female performers in the music industry depends on how they perform with their bodies -- not just Rihanna and Xtina and etc., but ALL female performers. If they're folky, they're expected to be coy, virginal, or medieval: it's not just a beard/no-beard or plaid/no-plaid deal as it is for male performers, but about the interaction of the triad of their voices, their bodies and their accessories. And while many reams have been written on the agential performativity of sexuality by Madonna (etc., etc.) and, conversely, the sexualisation of male performers (differently) in hip hop and boy bands, I feel that it skirts the issue.

So I'm particularly excited by Peggy Sue and their keening monotone, which is full of desire and rage and anomie, and is queer without being Song of the Week on Glee. And also about seeing PJ Harvey later this summer, because Let England Shake doesn't just raise the envelope or push the bar or dance circles round the box of female performers' sexuality, it just walks straight past. Having screamed her desire for her ex-lover's "fucking ass" on A Woman A Man Walked By, perhaps she feels she's gone as far as she can with the straight-talking, SlutWalking style she pioneered. And it's not that the historical/geological palette of Let England Shake is _better_ than her unquestionably feminist and intensely exciting previous material, but that she's found a way to do something _different_ (following in the barefoot thoughtsteps of Patti Smith's Trampin' in some ways). Let England Shake's sense of the bodily as earthly/earthly as bodily -- in this case applied to mapping the traces of wars 'abroad' in England's landscape -- first appeared on White Chalk, where the wars were within a woman's body. The albums, for me, are a pair, and I'm intrigued to see how she'll follow up her White Chalk show which I saw at the Royal Festival Hall: Edwardian gown; toy instruments; soft-voiced, inter-song banter. How will she make Alexandra Park shake?

This all matters to me not only because pop music is a huge tranche of dominant culture and socialisation, but also because poetry, for me, is -- very deeply, almost unacknowledged -- a substitution or sublimation of my primary desire to be a singer-songwriter. Blame/congratulate my early exposure to Joni Mitchell and Carole King via my mum's own Lady of the Canyon period. Or my surprise encounter with Tori Amos pre-Little Earthquakes (and I'm very excited about the new Tori album AND about a Tori poetry tribute I'm going to be involved in this summer). Or discovering Tracy Chapman just when I needed her most. Or being arrested, breathless, by the video for Kristin Hersh's Your Ghost on MTV. Or even blame my parents for my Hebrew name, which means little bird. I've always wanted to sing but I'm beyond unmusical.

So poetry it is, but always in relation to that (r)evolving group of female musicians who dominate my stereo/iPod. Hence the question of performance and sexuality feels very personal: what to wear to a reading, which poems to choose (rude or not rude), how to banter/flirt -- all with the aim of "selling", which is itself, of course, highly sexualised, especially for women who are still perceived as selling themselves (ie: their sexuality; ie: the only thing they have -- although don't own) whenever they appear publicly. Which makes all the choices non-choices: Victorian nightie? Basque and chaps? Meat dress? It's always a complicitous critique because it engages in the discourse set up by patriarchy in which a woman is defined by what she wears, and is thus always defined as sexually available by dint of wearing clothes, as all clothing either reveals or conceals the body and can thus be interpreted as sexualised. This is what the SlutWalk is all about. And I am all for it.

But I feel like, rather than wanting/needing to wear a short skirt and clumpy boots (I spent my 20s doing just that, and it was great, actually), I need the outfit equivalent of Trampin' or Let England Shake: a performativity that doesn't even get into the argument, that says something different on its own terms. Any suggestions?

Friday, May 13, 2011

For Joanna Russ, imaginaire extraordinare


Little Endless Delirium with some of the Women's Press Science Fiction to be found in Delirium's Library (well, all that could be found: the rest has been put somewhere Very Important and Easy to Locate that I now can't remember - hence the name of the library) including Joanna Russ' The Female Man and The Hidden Side of the Moon.

Feminist science fiction pioneer Joanna Russ has died, aged 74, on 29 April after a series of strokes. Christopher Priest's obituary for The Guardian does an excellent job of explaining why her work was so important (and unjustly neglected), but it doesn't describe the impact of reading it: while Eleanor Arnason writes that she found Russ' work abrasively angry, she also notes that thinking about Russ moves her to want to write more.

As much as the sexual anarchy and political energy of Russ' work, it is this will to write - to share stories, to reinvent them - that I take from her work. Her humour, her generosity to her characters (who tend to reappear from short story to novel), her critical thinking about writing, are embodied in her appetite in later life (according to Priest) for slash fiction, which derives part of its charge from busting open canonical texts, and part from doing so in a supportive, reciprocal community. In her introduction to Chinks in the World Machine, Sarah Lefanu notes that many feminist SF writers began by writing slash or (earlier) novelisations of TV episodes. That idea of fiction as a communal practice, as a shared art, a conversation -- and refuting the denigration of such an idea within capitalist patriarchy with its demands for the Author and [his] Originality -- is central to both Russ' embrace of science fiction as a recyclic genre, and to her witty (and yes, purposively angry) critical writing.

In reworking, she salvages and surfaces the unpredictable: not just untold stories, but untellings.
When Janet Evason returned to the New Forest and the experimenters at the Pole Station were laughing their heads of (for it was not a dream) I sat in a cocktail party in mid-Manhattan. I had just changed into a man, me, Joanna. I mean a female man, of course; my body and soul were exactly the same.
So there's me also.
While Joanna [Russ] has died, Joanna (and her parallel selves Jeannine, Janet and Jael) show us possibilities for who we can all be, also.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

"With his kiss the riot starts": What Hades Has to Say about Poetry

Anaïs Mitchell's Hadestown has been on my mind (and in my ears) constantly for the last few days. When it came out last year, I was struck by its ambition (the story of Orpheus and Eurydice retold as a modern folk-pop-blues opera) and its reconfiguring of lyric, ie: songs of love, of which Orpheus is the mythic father. The economic, political and affective complexities of the male poet hymning (always-already lost) love are laid bare through the subtle shift of the story into multiple perspectives, including Eurydice's.But relistening to it in the last weeks, what has come to the fore is its political observations, which seen incredibly timely -- Orpheus the folk poet-hero of a revolution against a tyrant who has imprisoned his songbird (who stands for freedom).

Reviewing the London performance of the opera at Union Chapel for the Independent on Sunday, Simmy Richman concludes:
At the show's centre is a song so sensational that even the discomfort of our hardwood pews is forgotten. "Why We Build the Wall" is both the story of life in the mythical underworld and as potent a parable as it is possible to write. "Why do we build the wall?/We build the wall to keep us free/And the wall keeps out our enemy/What do we have that they should want?/We have a wall to work upon/We have work and they have none/That's why we build the wall."
When I read the review in January I was more compelled/intrigued by the start, where Richman admits that "finding out about the best album of 2010 a few weeks after compiling your end-of-the-year list is about as grave a mistake as it is possible to make if you review music for a living," which made me think cynically about the multiple ways in which the UK music press ignores a class of female singer-songwriters whose work is not "freak" enough to fit their hipster folk tastes, or poppy/pappy enough to be patronised.

But it's the wall that I have come back to, and to the character of Hades, "king of the kingdom of dirt," "a mean old boss / With a silver whistle and a golden scale," sung on the album by Greg Brown, with a thrilling depth and steeliness. Hades only has one solo, "His Kiss, The Riot," where he lays his plans to trap Orpheus in the mythical double-bind of the terrible "don't look back." "Nothing makes a man so bold / As a woman's smile and a hand to hold / But all alone his blood runs thin / And doubt comes in, doubt comes in" he concludes, leading into Orpheus' and Eurydice's duet "Doubt Comes In." Though he uses it cruelly, Hades knows his psychology: he knows Orpheus, like all of us, is susceptible to fear (as is Hades himself), just as he knows -- and uses -- Eurydice's fear of poverty in "Songbird," when he seduces her to stay in the Underworld.

In "His Kiss, The Riot," Mitchell offers a fascinating insight into the psychology of dominance: her reading of Hades makes it clear that tyrants are not enormities, bizarre distortions of human nature, exceptions to the rule, aberrant perversions or magicians who put whole populations under a dangerous spell. They are human and -- under capitalism, with its structuring metaphor of competition -- they are inevitable. Hades speaks the language of spin, with its niggling, irritating grain of truth under layers of nacreous polish, when he says that "All my children came here poor / Clamoring for bed and board," arguing that he offered the miners, gravediggers, and -- in that spectacular image of the futility of capitalism and empire -- wall-builders work to raise them out of poverty (while of course, as Persephone's seductive "Our Lady of the Underground" hymns, keeping them in poverty by selling them illusions to buy with company scrip). "Now what do they clamor for? / Freedom! Freedom!" Hades protests, the music dropping away behind his barks of "Freedom!," as if there were no music that could support such a word. For him, it is the disruptor of harmony, of his perfect, closed system.

In Hades' cry, we can hear Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, the House of Saud -- but also every politician and manager who believes in the system. But the song also suggests just how vulnerable the system is, if it can be brought down by a kiss (or the image of a suicide, or a cardboard sign, or a line of poetry), and how insecure every tyrant, every person of power, is concomitantly. Power's main belief in itself is in its unshakeable stability: if it's not perpetual, it's not power. But Hades is "stricken… stung" by Orpheus' song -- so stricken that, after this cruel unfolding of his well-laid plan, his voice is not heard again. Orpheus falls away, as Hades predicts, and it is Eurydice and Persephone who end the opera, mourning and remembering him.

Hades is troubled by Orpheus because his devotion to love suggests that there is another way of life, one that is potent and provocative: "With his kiss the riot starts." That kiss awakens not only love, but love's insurgence, its refusal of ownership and hierarchy, its need rather than want, its poetry of productlessness, the very qualities that Hades puts forward so snidely when seducing Eurydice:
Hey little songbird, let me guess
He's some kind of poet - and he's penniless
Give him your hand, he'll give you his hand-to-mouth
He'll write you a poem when the power's out
Again, there's that irritating grain of truth: Orpheus is a dreamer, offering to get the river, trees and birds to arrange a marriage; the fear of poverty and hunger is real. But Hades, with his clever lines (as the Devil gets the best tunes, so Hades gets the cleverest turns of phrase, which in itself becomes a kind of cheapening of the poetic power of language), presents the symptoms (poverty, hunger) as the disease. Orpheus isn't poor because poverty is the natural state of poets, but because the society Hades runs doesn't value their labour -- and demands that they pay for the necessities of life.

But Hades' words are persuasive: "Hey, Little Songbird" is not a solo, but a duet, as are "Why We Build the Wall" (with the Hadestown Chorus) and "How Long" (with Persephone). Hades' system works because others are complicit in it: his workers and his wife. But complicit is a complicated word: Hades and his lifestyle are powerfully charismatic. "Seems like he owns everything / Kind of makes you wonder how it feels," Eurydice sings. And there Mitchell pins the biggest problem of power, which is that it itself is seductive. Rather than protesting, dismantling or exiting the system, the Workers and Eurydice want to use it, to become like Hades; to shelter in his power and thus to have it. Orpheus, compelled by his love of Eurydice, needs and offers something different - an outside, an unravelling of the whole system.

But Hades identifies that Orpheus, too, thrives on power of a kind: "Bravery can be contagious / When the band is playing loud." As well as the touch of a woman's hand, Orpheus -- as a poet -- depends on his audience and his culture for support. He needs to be heard, he needs to be approved, to move, to connect. And so he is vulnerable to the machinations of power that would separate him from that audience (and this is the springboard for much of the work of PEN, like this event for Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo tomorrow night). And this raises a profound question for me about vulnerability, one that has been mulling since I read Judith Butler's Frames of War.

That question is about how to sustain vulnerability when it is exploitable by power - but is also, Butler concludes (in alignment with Gandhi), the most durable form of resistance to power's depredations. I don't know how -- but Tahrir Square seemed to me to offer a model. My friend Rebecca passed on a translation of a sign she had seen there: "I was afraid -- and I became an Egyptian." Rather than repressing fear, as power does, or buying goods to cover it up, as power exhorts us to do, the protestors walked into, and with, their fear as a shared expression of being human. Not just "I was afraid," as Orpheus finds at the end of the song, but "and I became an Egyptian." Rather than putting the author out front in a combat for hearts and minds, or in conflict with his forefathers, or trying to win his crust, is there a poetry that can sing this shared consciousness?

Butler thinks that this is exactly what poetry (and only poetry/song, freed from the cause-effect constraints of narrative), removed from the marketplace, can do. She says: ‎
When the Pentagon offered its rationale for the censorship [of poetry by Guantánamo detainees], it claimed that poetry 'presents a special risk' to national security because of its 'content and format'… Could it really be that the syntax or form of a poem is perceived as a threat to the security of a nation?
and concludes that its not the syntax of form of the poem that's a threat, but its relation to the body and its relation of vulnerability. Even Hades, when he sings, sings of emotions -- song itself breathes with and from affect. Orpheus, who is all poem and no body (as the end of the classical myth recognises), finds himself overwhelmed by doubt -- that is, a belief in his own isolation -- and loses Eurydice, who asks him to "hold on tight."

Hadestown agrees with Butler, that interdependence and vulnerability (Butler calls it injurability) are inextricably linked and are definitional of life; they also agree that poetry is the form for voicing this injurability. But poetry also needs to "hold on tight", not to the sound of the band or the praise of the crowd, not to its reflexive, hyper-critical sense of itself as poetry, but to its relations with life, the body and freedom. It needs to feed us more than rivers and trees. It needs to "hold on" to its connection to us all -- and so it needs to have an informed comeback to Hades' clever lines and cutting insights in order to keep language vital. This is another way of saying that poetry is always political, that the lyric cannot shut its eyes against that busie old fool the sun and the world it brings in.

Hadestown shows this subtly: in between "How Long," Hades' duet with Persephone where he argues that "nothing comes of the songs people sing / However sorry they are" and the collapse of his wall in "His Kiss, the Riot," comes Orpheus' solo, a reprise of his earlier song "Epic," which is a description of Hades and his world. Envisioning Persephone "in her mother's garden" he sings that "suddenly Hades was only a man / With a taste of nectar on his lips." Love undoes even Hades. But it's not just the lyrics, which contrast the man of steel with the woman of flowers and pollen; the song is followed by an instrumental "Lover's Desire," a traditional Afghani piece. Persephone's image is at once Greek and part of the tradition of ghazals and shash maqam, the musical styles of Persia and Central Asia. And she is married, inextricably (if seasonally) to Hades: by kidnapping her, he has connected himself to her forever. Interdependence begins in vulnerability -- but acts of violence cannot destroy it, only secure the bonds tighter. That allows, just maybe, for that vulnerability, for the party that has remained vulnerable, to begin -- amplified by poetry, perhaps -- to effect change, to destabilise the violator. Just maybe.

You can see why the Pentagon banned those poems. Hades does the same.