January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Frida Kahlo struggled with physical infirmary for most of her life. At six she contracted polio, and at 18 she got into a near fatal trolley accident. For the next period of her life she was confined to her four-poster bed with a mirrored top, trapped in plaster body casts. Forced by her suffering to confront her own image and identity, she painted what may be the most famous self-portraits in history. Through her images Kahlo created an autobiography detailing her quest to understand both herself and her world. It is a mixture of dark knowledge and jubilant passion that one sees looking into the deep-set eyes of her self portraits, the dry ground she lies upon, or the scattered Mexican talismans lying nearby. Her paintings explore revolution, westernization, industrialization, tradition, bloodlines, love, freedom, death, and disaster, with a frank lack of discretion that catches us off guard no matter how many times we see them her paintings.
Despite spending nearly half of her life confined to bed, she became a Mexican cultural icon; her persona as much a part of her mystique as her art is. According to the bare bone details of her life Kahlo could easily be categorized as the cliché female stereotype in the art world: victimized, suffering, eccentric to the point of destruction. But what keeps Frida’s face plastered on posters, umbrellas, lighters, tote bags, murals, museum walls, the walls of Madonna’s mansion, and in the ephemeral crawl space of our minds and hearts is her ability to paint the dreadful beasts that lurk in our souls, worshipping them as a thing of beauty. She dares us to grasp the horns of the devil and look him right in the eye, explaining to us with delicate brush strokes that this is the only way to the goddess-like passion and vibrancy she embodied, and towards which we nervously tread, grappling for truth.
*If you like Frida Kahlo’s work I recommend reading “Frida Kahlo: Painting Her Own Reality. I provides a short but complete biography and nice reproductions of her paintings. I found my copy at a MOMA museum store in JFK but you can buy it on amazon.
January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve always taken the Beats personally. I can’t read Beat writing without weighing my own life against their dogma. This has resulted in a way too invested love/hate relationship with the Beats, literary figures from over half a century ago at this point in time, whose ideas and lifestyle, if not their writing, is seriously dated by now.
My investment probably has something to do with the fact that I can’t read about Kerouac without relating to him, and his propensity towards “ both spiritual panic attacks and arias of ecstasy.” David Gates describes the Beats prime audience as “late adolescent idealists who aspire to become holy degenerates,” and I fit the bill in that sickening way that makes self-identified non-conformists squirm.
Gates’ article on the Beats describes them as the Romantics of the 20th century, both literary movements attempting the “direct expression of inner states of feeling” in their work. This comparison also holds true in my feelings towards each movement: I appreciate Beat and Romantic writing, but it’s their philosophy I love. But strangely it’s only the Beats by who I feel judged, maybe because the Romantics are safely sealed away in the passage of years and their academic prestige. Or maybe it’s the difference between the Romantic medium of choice, the poem, and that of the Beats, the novel. So much of Beat dialogue is devoted to doctrine and Beat description is of glamorized nights out.
With their combination of dogmatic preaching and estrangement from respected literature, the Beats are preserved as the cool radicals, the “holy degenerates,” forever taunting us to join them, unaware of how times have changed to where even if our hearts were in it, we’d be hard pressed to figure out how. What in the 40’s and 50’s was radical and bohemian—dirt poor road trips, weed, Levis, open relationships, free form music and writing—is now assimilated into main stream culture. Perhaps this phenomenon adds to my resentment: the impression that I’ve been left with something cheap, diluted, a knock-off from a previous generation. For me, “On the Road” must rest in glorified nostalgia. In their time the Beats worshipped each other’s mumbling whispers of genius, but for me to join their ranks in this reverence is now impossible.
The part of “On the Road” I found most poignant came in a paragraph that crossed from the second to last page to the last, as Sal waves from the back of a Cadillac to Dean, who is forlorn in his overcoat in the harsh winter of a New York street. His maniac rambling and shivering energy that Sal worshipped as mad passion is glorious in the hazy night of On the Road, but looking in after putting the book down proves Dean an uncertain hero. In this ending I got the impression of Sal finally seeing Dean ruined by reality, certain not to withstand the future. There’s a sense of guilt in writing off Dean as a relic of a era long past, because I can read in this ending Kerouac’s sadness in watching this fate fade in over 50 years ago.
I think it’s best for us not to write off the Beat’s and their philosophy, especially as another generation whose issues of identity seem wrapped up in catastrophes too big for their remediation. As quoted in Gilbert Millstein original review of On the Road, the Beats are distinguished in their “will to believe even in the face of an inability to do so in conventional terms.” The Beats best teaching might be to tell us to find whatever beat-up, haphazard, idealistic, disillusioned, transcendent belief works for us right now.
November 4, 2010 § Leave a comment
Lucy and Her Mother
Lucy describes her rebellion against her mother and the identity their relationship represents: “I had spent so much time saying I did not want to be like my mother…her reply always was “You can run away, but you cannot escape the fact that I am your mother, my blood runs in you, I carried you for nine months inside me.” How else was I to take such a statement but as a sentence for life in a prison whose bars were stronger than any iron imaginable.” Lucy’s affliction is her inability to know herself. She rebels against her inherited identity, determined to shed her old self in return for a self-created one. As Lucy rejects her identity, her mother derives her power from her own, embracing her given nature, while she herself cannot. Her mother becomes a goddess figure for Lucy, enriched by the strength of generations of colonial people, the power derived from embracing the culture. As a result Lucy is unable to free herself from the power her mother wields over her. She says: “I would see her face before me, a face that was godlike, for it seemed to know its own origins, to know all the things of which it was made.”
So the question lies, why does Lucy need to sever her relationship with her mother? Why does Lucy reject not only her mother, but also her native culture? Lucy’s mother gives birth to five sons, upon whom she projects visions of great education and accomplishment. Lucy is devastated to discover her mother’s lack of ambition for her, the daughter molded in her own form. She sees her mother’s actions and perspective as so unforgivable that she will not allow herself contact with her mother, because to give into her desire for her mother’s love and approval would be to accept and validate her mother’s opinions about Lucy’s, and all women’s, potential for achievement. She cannot embrace her mother, she must reject her culture, because to do otherwise would be to concede to the identity her mother and native culture have prepared for her; one without personal accomplishment, education, great deeds. Lucy leaves Antigua to escape this shattering blow to her identity, but no longer able to worship this perfect, self-sacrificing woman, is lost in America.
Lucy wants to have an identity of her own creation, an identity that gives her value. Lucy remembers deciding that she wanted to change her name when she was younger. Rather than Lucy Josephine Potter, a name steeped in colonial references but empty of grandeur, she wants to be Enid Blyton, “the most unusual of all the names” (Kincaid 150) of the authoresses whose books she loves. When she tells her mother, her mother is furious, “a ball of fury, large, like a god” (Kincaid 150). When Lucy asks why she was named Lucy, her mother replies under her breath, “I named you after Satan himself. Lucy, short for Lucifer…” (Kincaid 152.) In this piece of information, Lucy finds an existential anchor, a vision of herself that is at last meaningful and grand enough for her. After all, if her mother is god, it makes sense Lucy should be Satan. Lucy admits she is her mother, as an angel is to god. Lucy then rejects the identity her mother would give her, becoming the fallen angel, Lucifer. However, her mother was the one who gave Lucy her name. Her mother gave her this identity, an identity that essentially requires its holder to reject their identity before assuming it. This revelation is shared towards the end of the book, providing a sliver of hope that Lucy will find an understanding of herself. Lucy says that after hearing her name, Lucifer, she “was transformed from failure to triumph. It was the moment I knew who I was.” (Kincaid 152)
November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
Maybe homesickness isn’t only missing the place you left or the home that’s familiar and comforting. Homesickness seems to intensify with the less you have from the place you come from – the fewer people from home you travel with, the fewer people you know in the place you’re visiting, even the fewer things you take with you, like the familiarity of these elements anchors you. The less familiarity you have to anchor yourself, the less anchored you are within yourself. Does homesickness swoop in not as a yearning for the comfort of home and the exhaustion of the unfamiliar, but as a result of being unattached in this new place? Being unattached to your environment leaves you unmoored from yourself, as if identity is derived from our connection with the people and objects around us. If our environment is unfamiliar, are we unfamiliar? Is homesickness not a yearning for a place, but a yearning for the secure identity yours place in a community ensures?
Annie Dillard writes that as a teenager she confused “living with leaving.” When she was a young child, her father, frustrated with the static existence that Annie will later associate with adulthood, takes off on his sailboat, planning to make it to New Orleans. So Annie, fighting to avoid the dispassionate, static existence impending with the arrival of adulthood, plans her escape from her hometown, Pittsburg. In the same way, “the road trip” seems to be the quintessential promise of making something happen; the literal movement of travel sustaining us while our desire for movement within our life eludes us. And sometimes it helps. In the same way a writer can use literal movement to mimic metaphorical movement, I think we can trick ourselves with travel; like the feeling of speeding along a highway is hardwired within our subconscious to trigger the sensation of flight, and with it freedom. The “odyssey” archetype has to come from somewhere; we find things, simple things when we’re moving that can’t be found when stationary. Or maybe all the great stories of existential discoveries made on trips (Thelma and Louise, Homer’s Odyssey, On the Road) has conditioned us to believe in their power, and either we’re so enamored with this idea that we convinced ourself of the similar power of our experiences, or we are subconsciously freed during these experiences because we believe we should be. This idea of liberation as a result of movement and distance speaks of a connection between freedom of behavior and a state of being unattached.
Lucy, the title character in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy, holds this concept of freedom. Lucy flees from Antigua in hopes of creating a new identity for herself that is inherently her own. She intimately identifies with the question: “Isn’t it the most blissful thing in the world to be away from everything you have ever known—to be so far away that you don’t even know yourself anymore and you’re not sure you ever want to come back to all the things you’re a part of?” (Kincaid 66) posed to her by a young man, demonstrating her confusion between discovery and denial, freedom and escape, living and leaving. Despite this, there’s something electrically tempting in the terrifying freedom described.
Both Annie and Lucy’s stories lead me to wonder, is it ever truly possible to create a state of unattachment? Consider being far far away from your home, free of all attachments, free to recreate yourself, no expectation of your behavior, your identity. But this freedom comes from having no attachments, and it is our human nature to create bonds where ever we go. So we create attachments in this new far away place. With these people, objects, or activities we cement an identity through that with which we associate. We create our identity from our attachments, so to be free of attachments is to be free of identity. If we define freedom as being unattached, then we can never be free, or to be free is to be lost in a sea of uncertainty of our existence. This brings me back to Annie and Lucy, Annie who realizes her mistake in confusing living with leaving, and Lucy who hangs onto “leaving” as her lifeline, defining freedom as liberation from all personal attachments. Kincaid ends her novel with a description of Lucy weeping because despite having completely severed her ties to past identity and any personal attachment, she wishes she “could love someone so much that [she] would die from it.” (Kincaid 164)
November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
The following personal essay is partially inspired by themes explored in Annie Dillard’s memoir An American Childhood. I used Maira Kalman’s children’s book “Oh la la! Max in Love” as a starting point to explore childhood memories and their significance in my life now.
A childhood seems to exist in the form of stories; a fiction of memories and anecdotes relayed to us by our parents and grandparents. It’s a composite of storybooks, favorite movies, cartoon shows, and make-believe games. Memories of “true” events differentiate from our memories of the stories we were raised on only in those random detailed images that sit stubbornly fixed in our minds: eating Cheetos at the half moon table in pre-school, reaching out to grab the ring on the merry-go-round in the Luxembourg Gardens. That is, unless we’re remembering our childhood as shown to us later in picture albums and home videos. Our little faces, counting in French at us from the screen: “Une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq and cinq means five!” In these pictures and movies there’s the certainty, the promise that this was our life—that at one point in time what we see in these images was happening. But within our minds we have other images, ones that might’ve only been real to us. These are the memories of the stories we loved and the stories we created. They coalesce to entangle our memories with their glorious discoveries, truths and tragedies, leading the subconscious here, to this realm of make-believe…
“Allo? Allo Jacques? Jacques, it is me, Mimi. Oui. Oui. Mimi. Have you heard the latest? Tout Paris is abuzz. Max is here!….”
Read from one of my favorite storybooks, “Max in Love,” when the poet dog Max goes to Paris (my town!) and falls in love with a poodle version of Josephine Baker…
“…You say good-bye, I say hello. Hello hello…”
Mrs. Jessup, the most beautiful, glamorous, joyous music teacher, who taught us to make noises with our mouths that sound like horse hooves walking, told us that one of our classmates was the inspiration for that song. She said that Paul McCartney called our classmate’s house to talk to her mom. This little girl picked up and when Paul said ‘Hello,’ and she said ‘Good-bye’ and hung up the phone. Good-bye Paul.
“Hello? Oh hey….” My sister would talk on the phone for hours; I couldn’t do that. When I talked it was hi, where when what, okay see you later then bye-bye. Sometimes my friend and I would eavesdrop on her side of her phone conversations when we were playing detectives. Or if it was just me I’d record what she said in my detective notebook, dark green vinyl with a gold decal, and then I’d report back to my friend the next time he came over. I’d sit concealed on the staircase, scribbling furiously fast, recording the fractured half story.
I made stories too. I’d become a fairy with my neighbors, and their backyard, with its cool dark forest and bright glowing flower garden, was our kingdom. But in the midst of it all someone would complain about being sacrificed to some dark king, and we had to go inside among tantrums and tears, and the story whispered away into the afternoon….
In other stories I’d be a runaway, living in the woods with my friends. We lived in the playhouse, making food from mud and leaves. When we decided it was time to go back home we embarked on the hammock: our boat that would take us through the stormy waters to safety. But the waves went so high! And the hammock flipped! My friend hung on but I was floating away, farther and farther…
As I get older, it’s harder to believe the stories I had once created for my friends and myself. My detectivehood in the past; the essential searching and examining of make-believe have been transferred to the study of a story already laid out for me: humanity’s great collective history wrapped up in academia. A childhood adoration of stories turns into analysis and design. These are the adult’s rendering of the world they encounter, as is make-believe to a child. Each biological process, philosophical theory, Renaissance painting, Romantic poem, Modernist principle, must be the universe reflected back at me through the filter of the eyes and hearts and minds of millions before me. Who’s to say what’s true and what’s make-believe? It can only be as real as playing runaways in the green sunlight of my backyard.
My past is a mélange of fixed images and fleeting storylines; memories fabricated and augmented and memories of stories and make-believe. Without the format of stories to lay the groundwork, how will the memories of my present look? So the soft search for a raconteur’s truth continues – searching in knowledge, searching in distance from what I know and what knows me. As I plan for travels to far-off places like Haiti, Hawaii, Greece, I am Max going to Paris for love, a Beatle hung up on for saying ‘hello,’ a fairy questing for a magic wand, a temporarily orphaned child, orphaned by the loss of my everyday life, hum-drum hum-drum hum-drum, “I don’t know why you say good-bye, I say hello…” …to my own story; a memory as good as the all stories.
October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
Jamaica Kincaid’s novel “Lucy” describes the young woman Lucy’s experience leaving her home in Antigua for the first time to be an au pair for a wealthy family in the US.
I didn’t like Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy until I was about a third of the way through it, and I think that’s because I didn’t really like Lucy until that point. I judged her harshly for her harsh judgment of those around her. As the reader I was only able to gain knowledge about Lucy from her actions, marooned by the lack of the usual narrative self-reflection in a character- led first person novel. She had a certain armor of unknowability about her, a power derived from being a stranger, free from the confines of expected personality and behavior. This unwillingness to be fully known is an important aspect of Lucy’s character, but its manifestation in Kincaid’s narrative tone limited my ability to relate and connect to the character. Though written in first person, I didn’t gain access to an elucidating internal world, or what inner world I was shown was uncertain, vapid, and incomplete. Rather, Lucy is as foreign to the reader as she is to the other characters in the book, and ultimately to herself. A foreigner in a new land, she has become an alien within herself by rejecting her native identity in her bid for escape. Lucy’s lack of self-knowledge arrested the growth of connecting with her as a character. After all, I know no more about Lucy than she herself does. As a result of this introversion within both the character and the writing tone, the ego swoops in, and the reading of Lucy becomes a type of self-reflection, an exploration in introspection. Throughout the reading I found myself connecting Lucy’s observations and memories with my own, as if I was compensating for Lucy’s lack of described introspection with my own.
But then, a little less than halfway through this book, in the section titles “The Tongue,” Kincaid began presenting Lucy’s memories from her childhood in Antigua. An event would occur, and presumably connect in Lucy’s mind with this memory from her past. The narrative structure was still devoid of memoir-type self-reflection; there was no explanation for Lucy’s train of thought. Just the description of memories that spanned for pages, winding on until I forgot where I had come from in the story, that this was indeed a memory at all, as I was buried in layers of narrative. Reading “Lucy” is an experience in psychological analysis as well; you are privy to Lucy’s outward life plus her scattered memories, and these are shares with you and left unembellished for you to interpret. An understanding of Lucy will not build without a little work on the part of the reader. You must do what she is unable to: understand how her past experiences in Antigua have led to her present desire to flee herself and all that is familiar.
October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
I’m a senior in high school for the next four months until i graduate to quickly relocate in Haiti, mission unknown. To satisfy my graduation requirement I created “Liberation and Exploration in Art and Literature,” an independent study focusing on intertexuality and the interaction between text and visual elements. through the reading of a variety of selected titles from writers around the world. Thoughts and discussion will be greatly appreciated!