Bluets Maggie Nelson.jpg

I've wanted to read more of Nelson's books since I first encountered her breakout 'The Argonauts' a few years ago. Her approach to contemplating certain ideas and their personal impact is so striking and thought-provoking. I picked up this book (first published ten years ago) because she gave a fascinating talk at the Southbank Centre in London. 'Bluets' considers her powerful attraction to the colour blue, its manifestations in ordinary objects and art as well as its symbolism in paintings, songs and writing. She originally intended its subject to remain within these boundaries and join in a literary tradition which considers colour. But when writing it she also included references to the break down of a love affair and her close friendship with a woman who has become a quadriplegic. Her musings weave through the analytical and personal to present a striking way of thinking about our perceptions, emotions and language. 

I've also always felt the appeal of the colour blue. It has a warmth to it but also induces a melancholy feeling. People have always remarked on how strikingly blue my eyes are. Once I was in a group where we were asked to organize ourselves in a line from people whose eyes are deepest brown to those whose eyes are the brightest blue. The group decided my eyes are the bluest and for some reason this felt like a great compliment to me. Nelson considers “Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).” It's a romantic idea but a ridiculous one. This is part of the reason I appreciate Nelson's point of view though. She takes her research and political views seriously but at the same time she playfully toys with the theoretical and enjoys the teasing pleasure that can be had with language.

I appreciate that Nelson describes how her collection of blue objects feels meaningful to her even though she can't recall their origins or significance. All that's left is their beauty. I think we have a similar relationship to cherished memories of events and people in our lives. There's a feeling that resonates when we recall them even if we can't recreate all the details of the past. She describes how “blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.” Quite often she describes experiencing the colour blue like a sensation that is beyond words – as are the feelings it generates. Therefore, she sets herself the impossible task of trying to describe something which can't be summed up, but what she provides instead are approximations and discussions around the meaning of the colour blue.

Nelson also engages in serious dialogue with writers, philosophers and artists from the past who have written about colour. Sometimes she looks to their texts for knowledge or support for her own theories. Other times she repudiates the folly of their reasoning. For instance, she takes issue with the way William Gass asserts we can't see what we really desire in reality and that it's better to look in fiction for it because there the desire can be perfectly encapsulated in words and our imaginations. Nelson asserts: “I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the alter. Your loss.” There is both pleasure and pain to be found when engaging in reality with all its attendant imperfections. It'd be a mistake to close oneself off to its jagged contours.

Maggie Nelson Southbank Centre 2019.jpg

In a way I'm surprised I found this book to be as emotional as it is intellectually stimulating. Normally I get frustrated when authors withhold details that convey the core impulse driving them to write about a particular subject. Nelson refers to the breakdown of her relationship only glancingly and yet I felt the weight of its enormous loss all the same. She describes the debilitating feeling of being alone: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do. It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one's solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” She also asks “what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?” Perhaps it's not so mad to be in love with a thing that's so beautiful specifically because it's incapable of loving you back. If it can't reciprocate feelings it's also incapable of rejecting you.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMaggie Nelson
LibraryBook.jpg

Many book lovers have fond childhood memories of going to the library and discovering there the wondrous breadth and power of great storytelling. Early in “The Library Book”, author Susan Orlean gives a moving personal account of her burgeoning passion for literature found in the library and also the quality time spent there with her mother as they’d take regular trips to borrow new books. It’s her memories and ardour for the institution which prompts Orlean to explore the bizarre mystery surrounding the horrific fire in Los Angeles’ historic Central Library which occurred on April 29, 1986 and destroyed approximately 400,000 volumes or 20 percent of the library’s holdings. She gives a vivid account of the incident and the case surrounding it - especially the investigation of Harry Peak who was suspected of starting the fire. Moreover, Orlean meditates on the LA library system’s history as well as how libraries are institutions central to many communities. Although it recounts a very bleak incident, this book is ultimately hopeful in describing the resiliency of libraries and books because people’s desire for them keep them alive: “The Library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Some of my favourite sections of the book are her descriptions of the endearingly quirky people who have organized and run the library system in Los Angeles since its inception in 1872 and the diverse librarians who run it today. It’s bracing discovering how the management of the library was at times wrestled out of the hands of more capable female librarians because the library board believed it was a job for men. There were also bizarrely prescriptive rules in place early on for patrons who were discouraged from reading too many novels or they were labelled as “fiction fiends.” Naturally, as society became more progressive, so did the rules of the library and the ways in which it served the community from the city’s homeless to being more accessible to children, immigrants and the disabled. It was also compelling reading about how libraries have embraced the arrival of the information age and the challenges of updating how information is stored and disseminated to the public. It made me feel for librarians who get asked some of the most bizarre questions imaginable by the public every day.

Orlean spent a lot of time conversing with people who work in many different functions within the library: not just librarians who check books in and out, but people who organize the stock, transport books, guard the library and run community programmes. In this way reading this book felt like getting a tour of the institution itself. Seeing so many levels to its running and management felt similar to watching Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Orlean’s book is also a great conversation starter about what libraries mean to us personally. In this way, it’d be a wonderful companion to reading Ali Smith’s “Public Library” which is a book of short stories as well as a series of testimonies by authors and publishers who’ve found libraries springboards in fostering their passion for literature.

LibraryBook2.jpg

I also found it fascinating reading about some of the LA Central Library’s most famous patrons including Ray Bradbury who frequented the library in his youth. It’s ironic that the institution which fostered a love of reading for the author of “Fahrenheit 451” would eventually lose so many of its books due to fire decades after this classic novel’s publication. While the mystery surrounding the cause and reason for the destructive fire of 1986 is at the centre of this book, its heart is a celebration of libraries and the people who are devoted to them. “The Library Book” feels like the most wonderfully intimate conversation for book lovers. But it also meaningfully grapples with the struggles that libraries face. Like many places in the world, libraries in the UK are facing increasing budget cuts despite the number of patrons increasing (according to a recent BBC report). I loved using and borrowing from my local library when I first moved to the UK. In recent years I’ve frequented places like The British Library and the London Library for special exhibits like a celebration of Jean Rhys or book prizes such as The Young Writer of the Year Award. But I’d like to return to libraries more frequently for the objects they’re founded upon: books!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSusan Orlean

Joyce Carol Oates is such a prolific writer that it may surprise some of her readers to discover that she is also a committed and voracious reader. It’s easy to imagine the perennial question which Oates is asked “How do you write so much?” being quickly followed by “How do you read so much?” Soul at the White Heat is a sustained and fascinating collection of nonfiction chronicling not only her reflections as a writer, but her engagement with a wide range of books by authors —some of whom are “classics” and others “contemporaries.” Every analysis or review Oates gives of a single book is scattered with mentions of that author’s other publications as well as a wide variety of other writers and books which provide enlightening points of reference. The collection is filled primarily with book reviews, so the subtitle “Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life” clues the reader into how the compulsion to write is inextricably linked to the desire to read widely and rigorously. Because this collection comes from a writer of such productivity and stature, it can be read in two ways. The first is as an astute survey of writing from some of the greatest past and present practitioners of the craft. The second is as a supplement to Oates’s own fiction, providing fascinating insights into how her perspective on other writing might relate to her past publications. However, underlying this entire anthology is the question of why writers feel inspired to write and what compels us to keep reading.

For some writers, Oates gives an informative overview of that author’s complete output. There is the “weird” writing of H.P. Lovecraft or the “bold and intriguing” detective fiction of Derek Raymond both of which lead Oates to make intriguing observations about the nature of genre. Another section gives a broad look at the life and work of famously prolific author Georges Simenon with a special consideration for the memoirist nature of one of his pivotal novels. In one of the most personal pieces Oates recounts a visit and interview she conducted with Doris Lessing in 1972 where she considers Lessing’s psychologically realist fiction alongside her audacious science fiction. Oates nobly raises the stature of some lesser known writers such as Lucia Berlin by drawing comparisons between her “zestfully written, seemingly artless” short stories and the firmly established writing of Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and Raymond Carver.

Oates has taught literature and writing for most of her life and in several pieces it’s possible to gauge her academic nature to inspire and provoke more nuanced thinking. Such is the case in one of the opening essays where she meticulously dissects the “anatomy of a story.” In “Two American Prose Masters” she makes a sharply analytical critique of how tense is used in a short story by John Updike and contrasts this with a heartrending story by Ralph Ellison. At other times she questions how style and form are related to subject matter. For instance, when considering Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest she asks if a postmodernist use of irony excludes emotion no matter how devastating or “mighty” the subject matter. In considering the “detached and ironic tone” of much of Margaret Drabble’s fiction she prompts the reader to ask how this reflects contemporary English culture and feminism. As much as making judgements throughout these numerous essays and reviews, Oates draws readers to more attentively question how they read fiction.

As a critic, Oates shows a great deal of empathy towards the artfulness employed by the vast array of writers she discusses in this book. If negative points are made they are often balanced by something positive. However, she certainly doesn't shy away from pointing out severe failings in either authors or their books. Such is the case with H.P. Lovecraft who for all the wonder of his gothic imagination was “an antiSemite . . . racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot” and she observes how “For all his intelligence and aesthetic theorizing, Lovecraft was, like Poe, a remarkably uneven writer.” When reviewing the novel The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler and Tyler's parochial portrait of the diverse city of Baltimore she surmises that “the fiction is determinedly old-fashioned, 'traditional' and conservative; it takes no risks, and confirms the wisdom of risklessness.” In the case of Karen Joy Fowler whose novel We Are Completely Beside Ourselves Oates admires as “boldly exploratory” she nonetheless considers it a misjudgement to limit the novel's point of view to the first person. She circumvents even mentioning Fowler's novel for the first five pages of the review by embarking on a fascinating consideration of Darwin and animal rights.

Oates doesn’t strictly limit herself to the realm of fiction in her criticism. She also reviews nonfiction and autobiography. These range from what might be the new definitive biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin to Margaret Atwood’s overview of science fiction In Other Worlds (where Oates cites the notable absence of Doris Lessing) to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her attempted suicide. When considering an “unauthorized” biography of Joan Didion titled The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty, Oates considers the evolution of Didion’s writing and how in her journalism she finds “a perfect conjunction of reportorial and memoirist urges.” Sometimes Oates asks how real-life relationships between writers and artists influence their output. When surveying the published letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz she wonders if it weren’t for Stieglitz’s influence whether O’Keeffe would still have achieved her deserved legacy as an American icon of the art world. There is also an essay which contemplates the difficult later years of Mike Tyson in the book Undisputed Truth as well as a review of the film The Fighter where Oates draws upon her considerable knowledge of boxing to critique the way the film misses out on the athletic art form of the sport. It’s easy to see why Oates was motivated to write about these last two examples because of the sustained interest in the sport she’s shown throughout her career in both her fiction such as her most recent novel A Book of American Martyrs and her slim nonfiction book On Boxing.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

There are many pieces in Soul at the White Heat which will intrigue the avid reader of Oates’s oeuvre for how the subjects and writing styles she discusses relate to her own work. For example, Oates is highly sympathetic with Derek Raymond’s “existential pilgrim as detective, the object of his inquiry nothing less than the meaning of life itself.” This is both a mode of writing and character type she also used in her exemplary post-modernist detective novel Mysteries of Winterthurn. There is also a very considered review of Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Kind Words Saloon where he realistically renders the now mythic figures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday just as Oates sought to reimagine the girl behind the legend of Marilyn Monroe in her monumental novel Blonde. Oates admires the different slant on Dickinson’s life Jerome Charyn takes in his novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson which is interesting to consider alongside Oates’s extremely imaginative short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” where she gives the classic American poet a second life as a computerized mannequin. When writing about Lorrie Moore's distinctive short stories Oates pays particular attention to two stories which rewrite particular tales by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James (writers whose stories Oates has also previously created her own versions of). Despite there being many parallels in themes between her own work and these other writers, Oates tactfully never references her own fiction.

Soul at the White Heat opens with four somewhat candid pieces about the writing process and her own “credo” as an artist. It's possible to see how she holds to her “several overlapping ideals” when looking back at both her fiction and the way she critiques other writer's books. In Oates's writing room she reflects how her younger self would feel “stunned” that she would produce so many books when “each hour's work feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.” From the confined space of the study this anthology ends by moving out into “real life” with a touching, vividly detailed essay about a visit Oates undertook to San Quentin prison where she admits her idealistic urge “To learn more about the world. To be less sheltered. To be less naïve. To know.” Although this is not mentioned in the piece, Oates was subsequently inspired to help bring the stories of prisoners to the public consciousness by editing the extremely engaging anthology Prison Noir. For an author who writes so infrequently about her own life (recent memoirs A Widow’s Story and The Lost Landscape being notable exceptions) it’s refreshing to meet Oates’s voice when unmediated by the guise of fiction. Here is someone so “inspired” and “obsessed” with the boundless excitement and vertiginous joy to be found in great literature that she is motivated to devote so much time to the activity of reading when she’s not writing her own fiction. Perhaps this is the real answer to that oft-asked question of how Oates has produced over one hundred books of fiction. It’s not about how it’s done; it’s about why she does it.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Even though I’ve read reviews and received lots of strong personal recommendations about “The Argonauts” since it came out in the UK earlier this year, I was still somehow unprepared for the surprisingly clear-sighted wonder induced by Nelson’s thoughtful revelations about love and family. She writes with such refreshing honesty about her lover-than-husband Harry Dodge – a relationship which is at once unique because Harry is transgendered and perfectly ordinary for their desire to create a settled family/home. Harry comes to the relationship with a young son and, after living together for some time, Nelson decides to become pregnant through IVF treatments. She records their personal transformations – Harry’s body changing through testosterone injections and her own body changing in pregnancy – and their development as a family unit. The result is an invigorating and deeply moving meditation on gender roles and sexuality in modern day society.

One of the most exciting things about reading Nelson’s writing is the fine-tuned artistry of her prose. Her sentences are concentrated and direct. There’s an intelligent precision used which is akin to reading Annie Dillard. She recognizes the fallibility and subjectivity of language “Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.” Yet, she knows it’s the only means by which to communicate what she wants to say. She draws upon a huge range of theorists, philosophers and artists including Eileen Myles, Susan Fraiman, Judith Butler, Jacques Lacan, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Denise Riley, Sara Ahmed, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Weed, Leo Bersami, Luce Irigaray, Anne Carson, Dodie Bellamy, William James, Michel Foucault, Mary Lambert, Julia Kristeva and Andrew Solomon. She also considers a range of authors who write about raising children. The quotes she selects from these writers are folded into her experiences and thoughts on her particular situation in society to give them immediate relevance. This makes her writing at once highly intelligent and wholly relatable.

Nelson recounts tense moments of confusion where strangers question Harry’s gender, being stalked by a disturbed fan of one of her books and the arduous process of giving birth. She considers how the ideas of some of the aforementioned writers sometimes help her process or conflict with her own unique experiences. Yet, for all the sophisticated references, there is also a wonderful light-heartedness and humour to this book. For instance, when considering a description of female genitalia by Ginsberg she states “I still don’t see the need to broadcast misogynistic repulsion, even in service of fagdom, but I do understand being repelled. Genitalia of all stripes are often slimy and pendulous and repulsive. That’s part of their charm.” This humorously levels all the physical differences of gender to find a commonality outside of sexuality while giving a light-hearted slap to the tendency gay men have for offensively sneering at the female body.

It’s interesting how what Nelson is essentially seeking to create is a rather traditional nuclear family unit through other means. She shows through their struggles and triumphs how every family is unique in its own way. The central metaphor of the book is a boat which is made of component parts that are being continuously replaced, yet it maintains its name. So, as their family undergoes change, the couple at the centre retain something essential about themselves despite superficial differences. The portrait Nelson creates of their experiences isn’t romanticized, but “The Argonauts” feels like one of the most romantic books I’ve read in a long time.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMaggie Nelson
2 CommentsPost a comment

Growing up in the 80s I really had no awareness of the spread of Aids in America. One of my first memories of hearing about Aids was in science class at school where my teacher Mr Marble told everyone that it’s the gays who were responsible for spreading this disease. It was only during my teenage years in the 90s when I came out and befriended other gay people that I became more knowledgeable about the virus. It’s a sad fact that some of the people I was closest to in my younger years are now HIV+. With an estimated 35 million people having died from Aids and another 37 million people currently living with it, this is something which affects everyone but particularly people in the gay community. I was aware that for many years there was a huge stigma attached to it and I saw the documentary by the same name as this book, but only now having read David France’s masterful nonfiction book “How to Survive a Plague” do I fully comprehend what a courageous few activists and scientists did to help educate the public, change the policies of the government and pharmaceutical industry and bring together an afflicted community overrun by fear.

David France is a journalist who arrived in New York City at the end of the 70s just as the virus was starting to rapidly spread in the gay community. In this book he gives a detailed and comprehensive account of the spread of Aids and the way it affected society. He does this through many personal stories of doctors, activists, politicians, businessmen, researchers and HIV+ individuals which bring their struggle to life as they combat a system gripped by prejudice. It’s truly shocking how the institutionalized homophobia of the government and community leaders showed a blatant indifference to the thousands of gay men infected with HIV across the country who died over the course of the 1980s. France makes it vividly apparent how this led to innumerable personal tragedies from people who hid their status until their deaths to people so terrified of contracting HIV they became celibate: “In countless ways, survival, unexpected as it was, proved as hard to adjust to as the plague itself.” But he also shows how this galvanized parts of the community to come together to literally fight for their lives (albeit with many disagreements along the way).

France recounts how Reagan and his government maintained a shocking level of silence about Aids for many years. It was only when the actor Rock Hudson and an anemic boy who received an HIV+ blood transfusion went public about their status that the country at large started to take real notice and action about Aids. But, even then, an insufficient amount of money, time and expertise was being applied to combat it. It’s horrifying the lack of funding given to Aids research, care and prevention because of institutionalized prejudices. For instance, the negligence of mayor of NYC Ed Koch meant that “In the thirty months of plague, a time in which 1,340 New Yorkers were diagnosed and 773 were already gone, Koch had spent just $24,500 on AIDS. In the same time frame, San Francisco had allocated and spent more than $4 million on care and prevention.” Across the country policy was being shaped by the stigma attached to the disease and prejudices against gay people: “In 1985, twenty states debated legislation for quarantining or otherwise controlling people with AIDS and suspected carriers.” This book really makes it apparent how the institutional response set an example which turned people against trying to understand the disease and the gay community. It led to rampant homophobia which condemned huge groups of people who were already painfully suffering.

It was only through the concerted action from some of the people cited in “How to Survive a Plague” that society at large began treating people afflicted with Aids with compassion rather than scorn. In some instances, France recorded verbatim rousing speeches in public forums which came from a place of passionate personal emotion as much as from a place of clear-sighted truth about the outlandish bigotry of the system. This includes a heartrending and inspiring speech by Darrell Yates Rist which he delivered at a town hall meeting at a Methodist church in Greenwich Village. I know that his words are going to stick with me.

David France’s powerful and emotional book not only pays rightful tribute to the heroic acts of people who cared for those affected by Aids, but sets a benchmark for how we should all be active and engaged citizens. Have a look at this article to see why we still need to be vocal about combating Aids. Given the new conservative governments we’ll be living under in both America, Britain and other parts of the world, it’s more important than ever that we learn how to engage our politicians and decision-makers to look out for the welfare of all people – particularly those afflicted with Aids. Please don’t be intimidated by the length of this book; it’s relentlessly engaging on many levels. “How to Survive a Plague” reveals an incredibly important part of our history that should never be forgotten.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid France

It’s difficult to write about books that affect me the most. Of course I was drawn to this non-fiction book because the title is so in line with my blog’s title. As well as being a platform for me to ponder what I’m reading, I like to think of this blog as an ongoing exploration on the conflicted relationship I have to literature – how it can make me feel so connected to our larger shared humanity. At the same time, it makes me physically alone and reading itself can serve as a self-imposed barrier to social interaction. Therefore, “The Lonely City” is exactly the kind of extended meditation on loneliness I crave to better inform me and expand my understanding of this condition. It’s a heavily researched book focusing on a choice selection of artists’ work and biographies to enhance Olivia Laing’s arguments about why we might frequently feel lonely, what loneliness means and how it’s a manifestation of living in society. This book is also highly personal with sections which are startlingly candid and touchingly vulnerable. In the same way that Helen Macdonald used an electric range of sources and personal experiences to broaden our understanding of grief in “H is for Hawk”, Laing uses fascinating research to inform a dynamic portrait of her intimate reality and make strong observations about loneliness. This made reading “The Lonely City” a deeply meaningful experience for me and made it a riveting book.

Laing concentrates on multiple visual artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz to formulate a nuanced and compelling understanding of what loneliness means. Her interpretations of these artists’ creations is heavily informed from biographical information and how expressions of loneliness are reflected in the physical forms of their work. She conducted an extensive amount of research going through archives and conducting interviews to gain deeper insight into the struggles they faced. In doing so she makes a number of compelling connections between how similar difficulties can manifest differently through artistic expression. She also references studies from psychologists such as Frieda Fromm-Reichmann to inform her arguments and deepen an understanding of the feelings these artists processed and formulated into art.

Klaus Nomi - Simple Man

"Come now and take my hand
Now and forever, never to be lonely
Yes, I'm a simple man!
I do the best I can"

There’s a mesmerising way in which Laing’s engagement with art and artists leads on to more research and related research into other fascinating figures/artists such as Valerie Solanas, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, Klaus Nomi, Zoe Leonard, Jean-Michel Basquiat. They all reflect back on her focal subject and cast a different perspective on the sensation of being an outsider. The queer or racial minority status of many of her subjects and the way in which broader society has rejected them makes their deep-set feelings of aloneness and alienation highly understandable. They also serve as touchstones for Laing’s own feelings of not fitting into the majority or any neat classification of gender or sexuality: “I inhabited a space in the centre, which didn’t exist, except there I was.” Examples such as the famous gay cruising grounds of the piers in 1970s NYC serve as vibrant displays of freedom from social pressure to be in a monogamous couple or “to cuddle up, to couple off, to go like Noah’s animals two by two into a permanent container, sealed from the world.” Although men are frequently made to measure themselves against impossible masculine standards, women experience differently intense stresses to fit into a certain type leading Laing to state “God I was sick of carrying around a woman’s body, or rather everything that attaches to it.” Her observations about the general pressure towards conformity make her conclude that multiple forms of “structural injustice” induce feelings of loneliness and that loneliness is a collective experience rather than a singular one. In some form we all inhabit this state of mind, this city.

Growing up as a queer boy in the relatively rural state of Maine, I always had a keen sense of being outside the norm and often felt lonely. Moving to the city of Boston in my teenage years did little to assuage these feelings. While I met many like-minded people and had a range of experiences to broaden my sense of identity, I was made to feel more intensely isolated during a short period where I had nowhere to live. Bundling up against the cold and hunkering under a closed shopping centre’s light throughout the night, I read constantly to distract myself from the sleeplessness caused by living rough.

I always remember one evening when a guard patrolling the centre’s perimeter came upon me at 3am. Nervous I’d be ushered to move along I started to get up, but he just raised his hand and asked with genuine concern if I was alright. I huddled further into my coat and raised my book again assuring him I was fine. He lingered a moment and I could tell he wanted to ask more or offer some assistance, but I concentrated on my book deflecting any potential connection. There is a similar moment that Laing recounts when she’s reading at a train station and is approached by a man who is obviously desperate to strike up a friendly conversation. She avoided this contact and subsequently felt guilty about it. In the same way, although I was the one in need, I feel a lingering guilt that this man offered a connection in a lonely city and I shied away from it.

Reading can be a deeply enriching experience providing knowledge and extending our empathy to see the world through another individual’s perspective. However, it can also serve as a shield to avoid engaging with others even when a connection is what we desperately want. It’s also why participating in online interactions can be so much more seductive than making real life contact. As Laing writes about time she spent mostly online: “I wanted to be in contact and I wanted to retain my privacy, my private space.” It’s particularly fascinating how she concentrates upon examples from the rapidly changing landscape of the internet for how loneliness is both expressed and perpetuated through this medium. It proves how loneliness isn’t simply a question of being by yourself as opposed to being surrounded by others, but how the internal life become despondent, detached or separated from the external reality.

“The Lonely City” is a book that raises many deeply embedded and probably hidden feelings. It’s admirable not only for the sustained and studious lengths to which Laing probes the mystery of the common state of loneliness, but the way in which she bravely inserts herself into the question itself. Reading this book felt to me like engaging in the most personal and intense internal conversation – the kind you might only have with yourself sitting alone in a diner late at night staring through a window at all the distant lights.

 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
4 CommentsPost a comment

Whenever I go to an art exhibit I never think too much of the signs outside which proclaim who it was sponsored by or particularly notice the discreet (but prominent) logos of the companies included around the show. If I do ever consciously think about these things I’ve assumed two things. Firstly, a sponsor has given a large amount of money to support this exhibit so, even if they are a dodgy company, at least their money is going towards something good. Secondly, the presence of a sponsor’s branding doesn’t have any significant impact on how the art of that exhibit is perceived or interpreted. Reading Mel Evans’ book “Artwash” I’ve become conscious of the fallacy and danger of these assumptions. Drawing upon a large amount of historical research, investigations into the financial and power structures of cultural institutions, theoretical and critical theory and her own experiences working within Liberate Tate (an art collective that uses creative intervention for social change) demonstrations, Evans convincingly argues why artists and members of the public alike should challenge the insidious way petroleum conglomerates align themselves with artistic venues.

Evans focuses specifically on the group of Tate museums across the UK as an example of a cultural institution that has sanctioned a longstanding partnership with BP. She shows how it’s not a coincidence that the museum has maintained this company’s sponsorship despite criticism from the public as well as many public figures. Political influences have pressured these institutions into inviting such sponsorship and have seen prominent representatives of the organization become influential members of the museum’s board. You would assume that BP must donate a large amount of money to wield such influence, yet Evans shows that the company’s donations form only a very small percentage of the funds which allow the museum to continue. The benefits for BP far outweigh the benefits for Tate because of the social license the association creates for the company. This sponsorship is a form of “Artwash” to brush over the dramatically destructive effects oil companies have on both the natural environment and specific communities.

Watch Mel Evans discuss Artwash and her art activism.

When a company’s name and symbol are imprinted on a cultural institution or specific exhibits its presence is not benign. Evans argues how “Logos are architectural features, and are also powerful symbolic objects.” The association created between these logos and the artistic institution form both a conscious and subliminal impact upon viewers whose overall impression of the company becomes more positive. In some cases, it can also directly undermine the conscious intentions of the exhibits. More than the effect sponsorship directly has upon a viewer’s experience, Evans shows how “In each arena of curating and learning, it is evident that BP sponsorship has caused problems for Tate: from cognitive dissonance for audiences, to undermining the choices of curators, conflicting with learning programmes, and emerging unexpectedly as a bone of contention between artists and the gallery at events and in commissions.” An oil company’s sponsorship of cultural institutions undermines the creative expression and value of the art which is meant to reflect who we are as a fully cognizant and socially responsible society. 

The book begins with an account of a summer party held at the Tate in 2010 where the author and other members of Liberate Tate created a demonstration which meaningfully disrupted the party. It was a particularly potent expression as the party was held in part to mark twenty years of BP sponsorship. The party was occurring at the same time that the horrendous effects of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico were spiralling out of control. For one of the nation’s greatest cultural institutions to be celebrating a company that was creating such a monumentally negative impact upon the globe was the height of irony. Mel Evans’ book is a rallying cry for both artists and citizens to accept a more socially responsible role in how we consume and interpret the arts. We don’t all need to walk into museums and spill bags of oil to make a statement; we can make a change by being conscious of the impact sponsorship has on the arts and letting cultural institutions know what we think about the companies they choose to align themselves with. This book shows why it’s important we be more aware of the meaning of such corporate associations with the arts.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMel Evans

Like many people I was shocked by the revelations about the activities and documents of the US National Security Agency that Edward Snowden leaked in 2013. The scale of online and computer surveillance being conducted by this government-approved/funded agency in cooperation with telecommunication companies and other countries’ governments is staggering. The journalist that Snowden worked with to break this story, Glenn Greenwald, has written his account of the dramatic release of this information. “No Place to Hide” recounts their meeting, the intense period of launching this momentous news story from a hotel in Hong Kong and some of the key events which occurred after the story broke. Greenwald goes on to reproduce and explain some of the key documents which helpfully outlines why these top secret communications, memos and manuals revealed are so significant. He convincingly explains why online privacy is so important in our society and the important role that journalism should play in keeping governments in check. These points should be obvious, but as Greenwald astutely observes their meaning has been obfuscated by the ways in which governments and the mainstream media work jointly to push their own agenda.

Although I’m obviously freaked out by the idea of my personal communications being observed or collected by a government agency, I have to admit part of me has always felt about this story ‘Well, I don’t have anything to hide… or, at least, nothing that would be of interest to the secret service or the general public.” Greenwald does a fantastic job of addressing this exact reaction. He intelligently breaks down exactly why “Everyone, even those who do not engage in dissenting advocacy or political activism, suffers when that freedom is stifled by the fear of being watched.” It’s also easy to make the argument that if it’s for the greater good and if it helps to isolate participants in illegal or terrorist activities shouldn’t we accept general surveillance of the internet? Firstly, the trouble is that much of the surveillance activities aren’t actually about combating terrorists. They are more often about gaining economic and political advantages for the government using them. Secondly, it’s a grave folly to leave ourselves so exposed because you never know how the information may be used against you. Greenwald also observes that “Forgoing privacy in a quest for absolute safety is as harmful to a healthy psyche and life of an individual as it is to a healthy political culture.”

Glenn Greenwald's TED talk

I was shocked and horrified by many of the facts which Greenwald recounts in “No Place to Hide.” It’s given me a much more clear-sighted understanding and guarded attitude towards the media I consume as well as both the Obama administration and the British government I currently live under. The revelations contained in this book aren’t limited to the US, but show the horrendous way the British secret service ransacked and destroyed information given to the Guardian by Snowden and the intimidating tactics used to hold Greenwald’s partner in custody without cause during his layover in London.

The internet has become such an integral part of our lives; the revelations contained in Snowden’s files have made a significant impact in making everyone think harder about how we want this virtual landscape to be governed or policed. As well as being a highly informative account of what is probably the most significant leak of top secret US agency files in history, this book is a powerful reminder that we must always be vigilant of the government we live under no matter how easy it is to be complacent.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGlenn Greenwald
2 CommentsPost a comment

Growing up in the 80s in the northeast of America my afterschool TV viewing was filled with anti-drug and ‘Just Say No’ campaign commercials. Nancy Reagan appeared on ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ to warn the children and shake their hands. Punky and Cherie were offered drugs by “cool girl” gang the Chicklets on the show ‘Punky Brewster.’ Jessie became a caffeine pill popper on ‘Saved by the Bell.’ I was inundated with fear surrounding drug use and drug dealers. Maybe the messages affected me or maybe they didn’t, but I’ve never taken an illegal drug in my life. The main reasons for this are probably more to do with lack of exposure (I’ve always been the geeky bookish boy who has only been offered illegal substances a handful of times) and fear of addiction. I have quite an obsessive personality so have tried to steer clear of overindulging in things like drinking, gambling or eating Circus Peanuts – all of which I’ve binged on when given the chance. My personal opinion on the drug war has been that it’s an insolvable hopeless battle. With the factors of high-profits and addictive chemicals there will always be drug pushers and drug users. I’ve felt there’s no alternative but to continue the fight in the same way it has been conducted for the past one hundred years. Reading “Chasing the Scream” I was surprised to learn about this war’s real origins and that my assumptions about addiction and addicts were ridiculously simplistic. This book shows the true historical complexity of this issue, the reason why the war on drugs has failed so abysmally and why legislative change and support for addicts is necessary.

Johann Hari recounts the stories of many people involved in the war on drugs over time from the initial days of the criminalization of marijuana to its most recent legalization in the states of Washington and Colorado. These individuals encompass a wide socio-economic range and hold a diverse spectrum of opinions about drugs. They include heads of state, governmental officials, community activists, gang members, addicts, scientists and health professionals. It’s incredibly engaging how these oftentimes harrowing and remarkable personal stories take you into heart of the battle to show the real individuals who are affected by the war on drugs. Their experiences often change their own opinions about the way it should be fought and say something significant about how we perceive the drug war.

The person of most significance with the longest-lasting impact was Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who pumped up his department’s usefulness after the end of Prohibition in the 1930s by spreading fear about the evils of drug use. Many of his arguments were indelibly linked with racial prejudice and played upon white America’s discomfort about racial minorities becoming more integrated in their communities. As Hari explains, because Anslinger’s messages to the public connected addiction with “Negro people… He could wage the drug war – he could do what he did – only because he was responding to a fear in the American people. You can be a great surfer, but you still need a great wave. Harry’s wave came in the form of race panic.” The war on drugs in America and many other countries has continued to be closely connected with racial prejudice ever since. Much later in the book he explains how a lawyer who was a fervent advocate of ‘Just Say No’ realized she was “acting as part of a racist machine, against her own intentions.” She later went on to become a strong campaigner for the legalization of marijuana. It’s particularly fascinating and tragic the way that the author explains how the singer Billie Holiday was hounded and used by Anslinger as a public personality that needed to be made an example of.

A 1980s public service announcement by Pee Wee Herman about crack cocaine.

After reading the many stories Hari recounts and well-researched points he makes it seem astoundingly clear why the war on drugs has failed. He sums it up most succinctly here: “Prohibition – this policy I have traced across continents and across a century – consists of endlessly spreading downward spirals. People get addicted so we humiliate and shame them until they become more addicted. They then have to feed their habit by persuading more people to buy the drugs from them and become addicted in turn. Then those people need to be humiliated and shamed. And so it goes, on and on.” It’s a horrific cycle that needs to stop and one important way we need to begin is with how we perceive addicts. So often we’re inclined to judge people who are addicted to drugs as being at fault when really the cause of their addiction is due to deeper internal issues rather than poor will power or even chemical dependency. Hari eloquently explains how contrary to popular belief “addiction isn’t a disease. Addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you – it’s the cage you live in.”

The debate over whether to legalize drugs is complicated and difficult. But look: prisons are overflowing, society-scorned addicts are dying because they don’t really know what they’re putting in their bodies from dodgy sources and increasing amounts of money is spent on law enforcement chasing drug gangs which are only renewed as soon as they are shut down. Of course drug use can’t ever be fully eradicated, but it can be so better managed and controlled. Hari admits that “Legalization slightly increases drug use – but it significantly reduces drug harms.” It’s vital to understand that proper regulation and overseeing of distribution by medical professionals is so much better than leaving it to gangs who control the monopoly. “Chasing the Scream” is such a well-researched, powerfully-told and convincingly-argued book that shows why the present laws, bloody battles and villainization of addicts needs to change.

The book also has an interactive and informative website: http://www.chasingthescream.com/

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohann Hari