The Neapolitan Quartet

 The roads in Burundi are well-paved, for the most part, but narrow. Since much of the country is mountainous this makes for harrowing turns. I remember clutching the seat in front of me—the centifugal force pushing me to the side—as we slid around another semicircle of pavement blind. I felt something similar reading these books. They might be called a story of friendship, of growing up, of romance, of life in Naples in the mid-twentieth century. But all of these descriptions fail to capture the pell-mell energy of the books and the danger one senses waiting behind each turn. The energy and the danger spring from the relationship between the protaganist, Elena, and her best friend, Lina. “Friend” isn’t quite the right word: It feels more like a rivalry sustained by mutual obsession. The two revolve around one another like twin stars. Though the friends drift apart throughout the course of the four novels, fate—and the pull each exerts over the other—always brings them hurtling back toward one another. As a reader it was impossible not to get sucked into the vortex. A year later, I’m not sure I’m out yet. 

To Organize Delirium

Be an outlaw. Be a hero.
Be an outlaw. Be a hero.

Yesterday I visited the recently opened Hélio Oiticica retrospective. Oiticica was a Brazilian multimedia artist and “the most influential Latin American artist of the post–World War II period,” as the introduction to the exhibit puts it. Most of his work was political and much of the exhibit has an explicitly political message. Che’s familiar face greeted us in the second gallery; the image at left hung on the adjacent wall. 

Not all of it is so serious, though. One section of the exhibit is a recreated beach, complete with sand, birds, and reconstructions of some of the box-like penetrables. Bouncing in the foam pit and trudging barefoot across the installation I felt as if I was transgressing all that I knew about museums. Can I do this? I asked the guard several times. Each time he nodded. Twice he added suggestions: “Feel free to go in there,” he said. 

a penetrable
a penetrable

The most effective piece was one which combined play and politics, one of Oiticica’s signature penetrables. It is built like a maze, but with one path. Every few feet the path is broken by a semi-transparent curtain which one must move through to continue. Each section formed by the curtains in front and behind has its own multicolored light-source and a television blaring contemporary advertisements. The curtains block both light and sound, so the transition between sections is as complete as stepping across the threshold of one store to enter another in a mall. The total effect is disorienting. At the end of the maze is one final surprise, engaging one of the remaining senses. But I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to taste for yourself.

Another Crucifixion

I spent half a day in Cleveland recently and I’m very glad part of the time was spent at the (free) Cleveland Museum of Art. The Italian Renaissance room, in particular, was wonderful. On one side were paintings in which the human form appeared bright and idealized. On the opposing were more naturalistic paintings and in the center was this one by Caravaggio.

It’s readily apparent that this is not a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion–the rope on the subject’s arms and his age suggest another crucifixion. I wasn’t familiar enough with Church tradition to identify this as St. Andrew but the description remedied my ignorance. Perhaps because I’m much more familiar with scenes of Christ’s crucifixion, as I looked at this painting I kept comparing it to those I’d seen before. Similarities and dissimilarities are evident at once. St. Andrew, like Christ, is the focus of the piece, and yet one senses that the true center lies outside the frame, as his eyes and the light on the right suggest. In both there is contorted flesh but blood is notably absent from this picture. One’s eyes are drawn immediately to St. Andrew’s right side–the spot where Christ was pierced–only to see that it is unharmed. 

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As Lent begins I hope to carry this image with me as a reminder that discipleship is loving imitation, and not a replacement, of what Jesus did for us. 

Cooked, Digested

I watched the first episode of Michael Pollan’s docu-series Cooked. It was a little meat-heavy for my taste and predictably suffers from the pop-science/”explain everything to me” tone that is fashionable these days. Still, some parts I did enjoy, not least of which was the revelation that kiddo-Michael Pollan once gave his pet pig named Kosher to James Taylor (yes, that one) who had a pig of his own, Mona, in whose presence Pollan’s pig immediately perished. A few other things above in writing and pictures, and below in type:

01. One of the main benefits of cooking is that it reduces chewing time. Primates spend half (!) their waking hours chewing.

02. I thought this–from a man working in a butcher shop MP profiled–was good advice: “Use the money you would spend eating out and take it to a butcher shop or a farmer’s market. I guarantee you’ll get more meals, healthier meals, and honestly better meals than you would eating out.”

03.Something I didn’t know: Much of the flavor for meat comes from the wood with which it is cooked. The wood itself contains plant material that flavors the meat and when juice from the meat drips onto the wood that changes the smoke the wood gives off.  

04. Pollan closes out with this quote (paraphrasing here): “A passive consumer is the identity I am least proud of. I prefer my identity as a creator, a maker and cooking allows me to be that.” I think that’s a big part of (1) the crises of identity many young people experience, since they aren’t taught how to make things and so don’t and (2) the interest in do-it-yourself-ism, from brewing beer to crocheting. This winter I’ve enjoyed doing the latter, and as I’ve written before, learning to bake has been really good for me

I’m not sure yet if I’ll finish off the series. If I do I’ll post my notes here. Happy Mardi Grad y’all. 

A Room of One’s Own

Why have there not been more great works of art by women? This is the question around which Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” spins. Its widening ellipses—one almost sees them on the paper, the pendulum swinging from the still point above—trace a path from Jane Austen to Christina Rossetti to Woolf’s own day. The reader need not recoil from dizziness, though, since the whole is balanced by Woolf’s confident, conversational tone. One almost feels one is with her, trespassing on the college green and pulling tomes from the shelves of the British Library. One wishes it were possible, she seems so amiable. For all her dissent from the norms of her time she has none of the shrill of a dissident and all of the dexterity of a wit. How deftly she skewers her opponents! Her case is admirably simple: a lock on the door and a check in the mail are necessary to write great work. Who are we to disagree? It is just these, she says, that have been denied women until the present time. Without privacy and material independence we cannot expect great art. Let us be glad she was afforded both. 

Dix Paroles de Simone Weil

It is far easier to say — “Life is more important than anything I can say about it” — than to say — “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.”

— W.H. Auden

That which is difficult to say, should still be said: Simone Weil’s writing is more important than anything I can say about it. I won’t say much. Simone Weil was a philosopher and mystic who lived in France in the first half of the 20th century. Brought up by secular Jewish parents in Paris, Weil studied and taught philosophy before her activity with labor organizing ended her teaching career. When she was 25 years old, she spent a year working in the Renault automobile factory, an experience that compromised her already weak disposition and forced her to give up her experiment in living in solidarity with the working class. During her time recovering, Weil had a series of mystical encounters. Though she refused baptism into the Catholic Church, spiritual matters dominated her thinking in her later life. She died in England at the age of 34, exiled from her homeland by the Nazis. She is believed to have died of voluntary starvation, which she had undertaken to protest the plight of her French compatriots.

Her writing is, by turns, brilliant and frightening, sometimes simultaneously. It is always lucid: what Leslie Fiedler called the ‘terrible purity of her life’ is reflected in her parsimonious prose. Here are ten aphorisms that I’ve been reflecting on recently (taken from notebooks and letters, collected in Waiting for God, Gravity & Grace, and Simone Weil: An Anthology):

1. It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day. 

2. Method of investigation: as soon as we have thought something, try to see in what way the contrary is true.

3. It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me.

 4. Social enthusiasms have such power today … that I think it is well that a few sheep should remain outside the fold in order to bear witness that the love of Christ is essentially something different. 

5. To accept the fact that [other people] are other than the creatures of our imagination is to imitate the renunciation of God. I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness. 

6. Love for our neighbor, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius. 

7. We are incapable of progressing vertically. We cannot take a step toward the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us. 

8. I have to be like God, but like God crucified. 

9. The children of God should not have any other country here below but the universe itself, with the totality of all the reasoning creatures it ever has contained, contains, or ever will contain. That is the native city to which we owe our love. 

10. Prayer consists of attention.