Hope Against Hope

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A memoir of her poet husband who died in exile in 1938 under Stalin by Nadezhda Mandelstam, giving an incredible portrayal of what life in the Soviet Union was like, both before and after her husband’s death. First arrested in 1934 for writing a poem about Stalin, M was inexplicably released and the pair lived together in exile for a few years before his subsequent re-arrest which quickly led to death in a labor camp due to malnutrition, heart condition, and lack of will to live.

The depiction of harsh living conditions is eye-opening. People sharing rooms in apartments, the requirement of a permit to live wherever you are (and a Moscow permit denied to the Mandelstams after his first arrest), the preciousness of a pair of trousers, the precariousness of being able to get enough food. As soon as M was tainted with a whiff of illegality, many of the intellectuals turned their backs on him. But even before that, life was filled with police informants and spies.

Whatever meager resources are available are shared among friends. The pair constantly “borrow” money from friends with no hope of paying it back since they have been blacklisted from work. After M’s arrest, Nadezhda finds a room along the train line to Siberia in hopes of seeing M on the train. She runs out of money and gets work as a spinner before the authorities get suspicious about an educated women taking on such a job.

There were once many kind people, and even unkind ones pretended to be good because that was the thing to do. Such pretense was the source of hypocrisy and dishonesty so much exposed in the realist literature at the end of the last century. The unexpected result of this kind of critical writing was that kind people disappeared. Kindness is not, after all, an inborn quality—it has to be cultivated, and this only happens when it is in demand. For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned, vanished quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our times—the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of the people, the search for an ulterior motive behind every action—all this has taught us to be anything you like except kind.

Nadezhda’s purpose seems to stem from preserving the memory of her husband and his poems. “There are many women like me who for years have spent sleepless nights repeating the words of their dead husbands over and over again.”

“When I used to read about the French Revolution as a child, I often wondered whether it was possible to survive during a reign of terror. I now know beyond doubt that it is impossible. Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life.”

The English translation by Max Hayward came out in 1970 a few years after the original was released in Russian.

The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning

I was afraid to read this book, not wanting to face the images that Nelson might foist upon my brain, but admiration for her writing won out and I primly frolicked through the pages. My overall impression is a smudge of characters (Artaud, de Sade, Plath, Kafka, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Chris Burden, Wittgenstein, Gaitskill, Derrida) whose names act as shortcuts or passwords for entry into this realm of thought. The biggest takeaway was learning about some pieces I’d never known about and confirming that the 1970s were probably the best decade by far for making art:

  • Burden’s crazed work of the early 1970s: 220– filling a gallery with a foot of water/4 wooden ladders/climbing up with 3 other people/tossing in a live electrical current and remaining in danger for 6 hours; Deadman – laying down in traffic on busy La Cienega Blvd in LA with 2 flares by his body, covered by a tarp. Cops ask him what he’s doing, “Making sculpture.”; his famous Shoot where his friend shoots him in the upper arm with a .22; the failure of TV Hijack where he pretended to hijack a news anchor on live TV; and his TV Ad where he purchased as much air time as he could afford – 10 seconds – to air a snippet of footage of another piece where he crows on his stomach through broken glass only wearing underwear.
  • An early work (1974) of Marina Abramovic in Naples, Italy, similar to Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece: Rhythm 0, performed only once, where she stood motionless for six hours with objects laid out for audience to use on her body, including a gun, scalpel, needle, knife, rose, olive oil. “Violations to Abramovic’s body begin slowly, then pick up speed. By the end of the performance, her clothes have been cut off, her body burned, sliced, and decorated. Eventually a man holds the loaded gun to her head and tries to make her fire it, at which point some audience members intervene to stop him.”
  • Gordon Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture” in the 70s, making core cuts in buildings scheduled for demolition in NYC.
  • Eleanor Antin’s 1972 piece Carving: A Traditional Sculpture which used her body as living marble along with a thirty-six day diet, photographing her body slimming “almost imperceptibly over the days, her vacant stare prohibiting any happy before-and-after narrative.”
  • Nao Bustamante’s 1992 Indig/urrito performance inviting white men from the audience to get on stage and kneel in penance for the 500 years of white-male oppression of natives then bite the burrito she wore like a strap-on.
  • Not intentionally an art piece, but the surveillance cameras along the Mexican border used in the Texas Virtual Border Watch Program where users at home can pick a spot to monitor. One housewife in Rochester, NY watches at least four hours a day. Nelson visits the website: “there were fifteen cameras rolling on scenes of bucolic calm. My favorites were Camera 5, which featured a still patch of golden weeds with the directive, ‘During the day watch for subjects on foot carrying large bags,’ and Camera 10, which featured a swiftly moving river alongside the directive, ‘During the day if you see four or five men in a boat report this activity. AT night if you see a vehicle, boat, or people movement report this activity.’ The static, unending nature of the footage bears a weird resemblance to the endurance-based, art-house aesthetic of, say Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964)—a film that consists of eight hours and five minutes of continuous footage of the Empire State Building—or that of a virtual yule log, albeit one of a more sinister variety.”

Nelson gives a shout out to a list of women writers, including Jean Rhys, Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Marguerite Duras, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Eileen Myles, Gaitskill, Highsmith, Compton-Burnett.

***

Just went down a Lydia Davis rabbit hole and discovered a great interview with her. This part about not naming characters resonates:

INTERVIEWER

You rarely give your characters names. Why is that?

DAVIS

I’ve always felt that naming was artificial. I’ve done it. I wrote about one woman and called her Mrs. Orlando, because the woman I based her on lived in Florida. Recently I wrote a story called “The Two Davises and the Rug” because I have a neighbor named Davis and he and I were trying to decide which one should end up with a certain rug, and I was very fond of using that name, even though it wouldn’t make much difference to anybody if I called it “The Two Harrises and the Rug.”

American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers

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I had to read this in small sips to manage my incredulous rage and keep my blood pressure in check. Now that I have sipped my way to the end, I have a full appreciation for what Sales put herself through to get this story: interviews with teenagers around the U.S., witnessing their obsessive phone checking, viewing “slut pages,” mastering an entirely new language (thots, thirsty, fuckboys, etc.) and technology (Yik Yak, Tinder, etc.). I also appreciate the arc of the story—some of the darkest truths revealed in the middle to three-quarters, then an upswing with older girls seeming to catch on that the misogyny, objectification, passivity are optional and Sales leaves you with a somewhat uplifted spirit after slamming your head against the puke-soaked concrete floor of a basement where girls are prancing around doing duck-face selfies and worshiping the Kardashians while being dissed by the fuckboys.

For those looking for the short answer to how things got so insanely messed up with twelve-year-old girls being asked for nude pictures and getting dick pics within minutes of their first turning on iPhones: widespread availability and societal acceptance of online porn with degrading images of women.

Her chapters group the discussion around the ages of the girls, so chapter one is about thirteen-year-old girls, the next is about fourteen year olds, then fifteen, etc. up to nineteen. So you begin at a low point, your stomach churning to hear about the pressures put on 13 year old girls to manage their online reputation, be attractive to boys but not too attractive (slut-shaming), along with fending off online bullying and doing all the other normal teenage stuff like school and friends and activities.

What’s part of the cause of this? Terrible parents, made even more terrible by technology. “And so many children growing up today experience the world as a never-ending series of photo shoots, for public consumption.” As one Boca Raton parent relates, “I’ve seen mothers take their daughters to have hair and makeup done to do selfies.”

A group of thirteen year olds in Montclair NJ share their thoughts with Sales:

As they started talking about all this, they became urgent and intense, just as the girls in Boca had become when they were talking about social media. They began talking fast, raising their voices, interrupting and overlapping one another.

“All we talk about all day is what’s happening on our phones, but we never talk about how weird that is,” Sophia said.

“I spend so much time on Instagram looking at people’s pictures and sometimes I’ll be like, Why am I spending my time on this? And yet I keep doing it,” said Melinda.

Sales interviews Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, who says, “I think, before the digital age, girls had more opportunities to develop a rich interior life. At some point they were experiencing solitude. They had time to daydream or write in diaries or just think. Now they’re online most of the time and a lot of what they’re doing there is comparing themselves or being compared. Online life is a toxic enabler of the desire to compare.”

One of the Boca Raton girls mentions that people say mean things on social media that they wouldn’t say in person, which is backed up by a 2013 study of cyberbullying that reports “perceived anonymity online and the safety and security of being behind a computer screen aid in freeing individuals from traditionally constraining pressures of society, conscience, morality, and ethics to behave in a normative manner.” Sales sums up, “digital communication seems to relieve people of their conscience, enabling them to feel more comfortable behaving unethically.”

Lots of the same studies I’ve already come across crop up here, like the 40% decrease in empathy in college students and the troubling effect screens have on making kids not able to communicate with each other in person.

“Exploitative and disrespectful men have always existed. There are many evolved men, but there may be something going on in culture now that is making some more resistant to evolving,” said Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College.

“Misogyny now has become so normalized,” said Paul Roberts, author of Impulse Society. “We can’t even see the absurdity and the inequity of it, it’s so pervasive. When the male gaze was digitized, it was almost as if it was internalized.” He continues, “You realize how insane things are today when you think about the relative rate of change. When I was in high school, if I had gone around saying, Here’s a picture of me, like me, I would have gotten punched. If a girl went around passing out naked pictures of herself, people would have thought she needed therapy. Now, that’s just Selfie Sunday.”

I was glad to see Sales touch on hypermasculinity, albeit briefly. First coined in 1984, it was used to describe the behavior of collage-age men who associated masculinity with “calloused sexual attitudes towards women,” “violence as manly,” and “danger as exciting.” Since that time it’s only become more pervasive, the media flooding us with images of men being hypermasculine and degrading women.

Sales interviews Donna Freitas, author of The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, who said, “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them. They’re learning sex through porn. What it means to have sex, a lot of the time, is to mimic what they see in pornography.” In a later chapter, Freitas talked about interviewing a girl who woke up with a boy masturbating in her mouth, “She was talking about this like this was a usual occurrence, and I think it is.” The girl was surprised when Freitas referred to the experience as a sexual assault. “She had no idea that’s what it was. I’m not sure some young women know what consent is anymore.” Freitas also said, “We’ve learned to be distant from our bodies,” something she attributed to our increased interactions on screens.

Girls don’t even realize they are being sexually harassed when forced to look at raunchy images in school or having boys try to unzip their pants or grab their butts or say lewd comments. A 2011 American Association of University Women survey reports that “some researchers claim that sexual harassment is so common for girls that many fail to recognize it as sexual harassment when it happens.” A 2014 study of Midwestern girls found that girls failed to report incidents of sexual harassment in school because they regarded them as “normal.”

Sales brings up the question about why women/girls are being so passive, simply accepting this new state of affairs. It’s a good question, one that I think is partially answered by the lack of role models available in the media for this kind of pushback, standing up for oneself. It’s nearly impossible to find a movie that passes the Bechdel test, much less has a powerful and strong female lead. In our world dominated by images in the media, it’s critical to have a counterbalance to the flood of negative images.

The Cosmopolitans

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Gulped this down in one sitting as a salve to the burn I was getting from reading Nancy Jo Sales’ amazing and infuriating book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Schulman’s book is a dreamy and fun story about NYC in 1958, at the intersection of two fifty-year-olds’ lives: Bette, a white secretary from Ohio who’d been in the Village for thirty years, and Earl, a gay black actor who worked at a slaughterhouse day job to make ends meet. The two are neighbors who meet up for dinner every night, battling loneliness through each other.

The calm, smooth current of their lives is interrupted by the arrival of Bette’s young cousin Hortense, who moves in with her sizable allowance and begins taking acting classes. Around this same time, the atmosphere at Bette’s workplace changes significantly as well, as the advertising company decides to move into television and brings in dynamo consultant Valerie to whip things into shape. Things start to break apart when Hortense moves in with Earl as he inexplicably shuns Bette and thinks to saddle himself with a rich white wife as a way to make it through life. A TV is delivered to Bette’s apartment right before the book’s Intermission, which Bette leaves in the middle of the room, unplugged, as a table.

The second act is a whirlwind of machinations as Bette plots about how to get Earl back, in the process confronting her now-paunchy and dilapidated former lover (who married her cousin and is the father of Hortense). Bette also slyly buys up half of the company she’s working for, which she reveals at a critical moment where she’d been almost fired by Valerie. The end is too tidy, the perpetual problem of wrapping up a book, wherein the book’s author (Sarah Schulman) makes her appearance as a baby crying in the building and bringing Earl and Bette back together as friends. A final beef is with the “A Note on Style” appended to the end of the book wherein Schulman gives us four additional pages detailing her influences, the rails on which she built this story, revealing that she wove in two lines from Balzac’s Cousin Bette into the tale, “I leave them to the literary detectives to unearth.” Gag. This is worse than a book with multiple introductions and prefaces, where the author breaks through the fourth wall to smirk about how clever she is.