Motherhood: A Reading List

Appropriately, a helpful list of books covering the subject of motherhood was published the other day…on my due date, in fact… (Which has now past. Clock is ticking people. And seriously, don’t get me started…) I was in the middle of drafting my own list (assuming I am blessed with the kind of magic baby that sleeps every once in a while so that I can keep up with my current pile of novels…) and though there was some overlap, I wasn’t terribly interested in non-fiction. To be fair, I am very rarely interested in the world of non-fiction as it is. But it’s also worth considering how little motherhood makes it into fiction, in any way that is not purely metaphoric. The Oedipal relationship, the Ogresse in the woods, the Wicked Step-Mother, the GoodKindMother who is usually killed off fairly soon…

Very few people seem to really explore things like ambivalence, terror, passion, yearning… That is to say, things that mothers themselves feel rather than things that mothers represent to everyone around them.

And while the vastly complex and destabilizing experience of being a mother is often portrayed in non-fiction, (sometimes by fiction writers), it is not often the territory of story. For example, Madeleine L’Engle has written extensively on motherhood, and most of it (if you can kind of get around the very religious bits which, I’ll admit, make me somewhat uncomfortable) is composed of brilliant confessional. Another example is Shirley Jackson, whose Life Among the Savages was kept in my family’s library next to the parenting manuals. It is also one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, which is surprising for an author so famous for horror.

If we know anything about women writers who are themselves mothers – those we might expect to compellingly take on the subject – we often know that they are brilliant intellectuals, but very poor maternal figures. Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing suffered from such a reputation.

Furthermore, if we know anything about fictional mothers, we know it from the perspective of the daughter, and daughters are often immensely unkind.

So given all of that, I wanted to go ahead and write a few words about my motherhood reading list in the event that some of you were out there searching for it.

First, I’m looking forward to reading Elisa Albert’s recent After Birth, just to see what kind of book this might be. I’m also curious as to how she works with the theme of domestic life. We’ve reached this point where the home space – the space of the mother – is an ideological combat zone. Staying at home or flying the maternal nest both require an immense amount of justification. I’m wondering if her book – which begins a year after the birth of the main character’s child – really does give birth to a “wet, red, slimy, alive…truth baby” as the NYTimes claimed in this promising review. I’m hoping that Fiction – which can tell the truth – will prevail here in cutting through all the fictions – lies – of motherhood that are currently infiltrating the zeitgeist.

Now, I had of course thought about Little Women, followed up by Little Men. Let’s face it. You cannot read these books enough. And I figure that the madness known only to mothers of newborns – from the paranoid house fire fantasies to the baby blues to that moment when you (so I’ve heard) actually want to throw your kid out of a window because it won’t stop crying – could be significantly calmed by the likes of Marmee. Come…on…who doesn’t want to be Marmee? Don’t we ALL think we’re going to grow up and have either a houseful of young women whom we raise to be stalwart, independent, good-hearted, thinking women? Or maybe we’re Jo, with a houseful of boys running around and getting into all kinds of mischief at Plumfield. (While also, ahem, having made a career for ourselves and married a man who truly appreciates our minds, thankyouverymuch.) Either way, these are the images of motherhood I was raised with.

HOWEVER, anyone who’s done their research knows that real lives upon which these novels were based, that is to say the strange and often weary life of Louisa May Alcott and her family, was not so pretty. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, basically spent the latter half of the nineteenth century dragging his family around from one harsh environment to another. He palled around with Emerson and Thoreau, but was a bit more extreme in his socialist/transcendentalist undertakings. And all the while, his wife Abigail (who had been very well educated, by the way) had to follow him around, doing his wash, cooking his clothes, and raising his children. But she herself was an interesting figure of ambivalent feminism and certainly ambivalent motherhood. So, with that in mind, I’m throwing Eve LaPlante’s Marmee & Louisa and My Heart is Boundless (Abigail’s journals) into the mix. It has always seemed to me that Louisa May Alcott lived the life that her mother encouraged her to live, but also lived a life that Abigail would have wanted for herself. I want to see if LaPlante explores that kind of mother-daughter transmission of ambition and longing at all…

[I was toying with the idea of doing a “mater in absentia” double feature with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse but I don’t think those would be at all emotionally grounding in the postpartum days to come, as interesting as those mothers are… However that might be someone else’s cup of tea…]

Speaking of Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook is definitely on the list. I’ve been meaning to read it for years, and am almost glad that I let it go until now, based on these remarks alone. What I find so interesting, and also terribly disheartening, is the way that we are still having the same “Can I have it all?” conversation that women have been engaged in for the last century and possibly longer. The protagonist, Anna, has a privately written life spread between four different colored notebooks, meant to span the four different sectors or themes of her life. The golden notebook is her attempt to resolve them. And isn’t that what we all – but particularly women (mothers or not) – are forced to do? Piece ourselves out fourfold and then attempt to make coherent sense of the pieces?

[If you, reader, are in the mood to continue with some Nobel Prize-winning South Africans, maybe follow this up with J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. I have zero interest in rereading this book (I didn’t like it at all) but it is considered by others to be a pretty good read. (This is also where Coetzee makes his famous eating meat=Nazism argument.) I also have this vague idea that the eponymous character, a writer and neglectful mother, is at least a little bit based on Lessing…]

Okay, and finally, in honor of his recent passing, I plan to read Terry Pratchett’s posthumously published The Sheperd’s Crown. Here’s the deal, haters gonna hate, but Pratchett’s witches are some of the most delightful maternal figures I have ever encountered. The relationships that protagonist Tiffany Aching forms with her magical mentors in the three proceeding books (The Wee Free Men, Hat Full of Sky, and I Shall Wear Midnight) are really enjoyable and I’ll tell you why. The older witches and their novice trainees are not nice to each other. They are proud and competitive and annoyed with each other, all of this combined with an inexhaustable wellspring of respect. If that’s not a great (but also truthful) mother-daughter relationship, I don’t know what is.

What’s interesting about these substitute mother figures in Tiffany Aching’s life is that they are not filling in for an absent mother who died tragically. Tiffany has a mother, with whom she gets along in a basically loving sort of way, though we don’t hear much about it because it’s not terribly interesting. But there’s more to Pratchett than you think. (Again, haters gonna hate, psh.) I would say that the living mother is in some way a subversion of the absent mother trope. And in the way that good YA literature tends to choose honesty over symbolism, I think here is where a literary choice is made to represent reality. Of course Tiffany Aching has to in some way incorporate the real mother (domestic life, origins, family structure) with the mother figure (ambition/career, exotic places/ideas, professional structure), because that’s far closer to real life. So in this final novel of the Discworld series (hello, historic moment) Tiffany herself grows fully into her own as a witch/maternal figure. This transition from daughter/novice to mother/expert should be interesting…

Anyway, here I go – happy reading to youuu!

I quit my job once and I want you to know about it

or Some Reflections Provoked by #QuitLit

Six years ago I found myself living in an idyllic midwestern college town, working anywhere from three to five jobs at a time.

Here is a list of what my BA in French/comparative literature and recently completed MA in African Languages & Literature qualified me to do: serve coffee, sell books, rent videos, teach piano, teach French, teach English/adult literacy, babysit, dogsit, file documents in an office, go back to school and complete a PhD.

I happen to think that I was qualified to do any number of things. But it was 2009. No one had a job.

The day the coffeeshop called me to say that they would hire me on a trial basis, I had applied for food stamps and was a week late on rent. Had I owned a car, I would have considered living in it. What I’m saying is that steady minimum wage work, after hours upon hours upon hours spent applying for every job from dog grooming to technical writing, was an oasis in the middle of the employment desert.

I should mention that this particular brand of customer service gig came with a certain amount of romance. In towns like these, in the mid- to late-2000’s, barista was still the chosen career of musicians and poets and writers. People like that, whose parents supported them, but only to a certain extent. (That was not me. I was way beyond that point. And I am embarrassed to remember that I kept looking around me wondering why these kids worked the same amount of hours I did, but had way cooler shoes.) The bartenders and waiters of small college towns still held a kind of action figure status.

And so the job came as somewhat of a coup. In fact, I imagine that I beat out a couple dozen of the tight-jeaned, beret-wearing, Camel-smoking, Arcade Fire-listening set. (Who am I kidding? I was one of that set.) It startles me when I think back to just how much street cred was contained in jerking out a double espresso. But there you go. That was the time. And if you were trying to eek out some form of notoriety as an artistically inclined person, who sometimes had things like shows or openings or readings or performances of any kind, there was no better marketing than to position yourself in a role of Pavlovian dependence with an entire town.

“Here’s your latte. By the way, I’m playing a show on Saturday down the street. Here’s the info.”

Glug glug glug…

“Gee, kindly lady who smiles while handing out my morning fix, there is nothing I would rather do on Saturday than that exact thing…”

My shows were full. And my music was okay, but I’m pretty sure it was mostly the caffeine.

Here’s what it’s like to work in a coffeeshop though. Really. The part that does not involve chatting with townsfolk and receiving homemade cookies and fatherly advice from the regulars: cleaning and scrubbing, listening to customer complaints, being told by a short manager with a Napoleon complex that everything about your milk steaming technique is pure idiocy, floor sweeping, floor mopping, more customer complaints, shooing out homeless people after the sun goes down, shoveling snow before the sun comes up, not listening to the music you like, not working the crossword during your downtime, cleaning the bathroom, carrying heavy things, developing acne because of the coffee bean oils, developing achy legs because if you sit down Napoleon will hop out of the woodwork and tell you – again – what an idiot you are…

And all the while, I could barely make enough money to go out drinking after work, let alone pay off my student loans. So coffee was only one of the many jobs I worked, though it was the most steady.

Finally, when I came into the shop one morning, and the manager led me by the nose (I didn’t know what that phrase really entailed until it happened to me) to show off an offensive spot of dust under the couch that I had overlooked during my nightly sweeping/mopping routine, I threw in the towel. (More literally speaking, I through a cleaning rag at him.) I walked out and started applying to PhD programs.

I quit. I quit my life as a piano-playing barista, whose wine-soaked version of poverty was literarily lovely but absolutely untenable anywhere outside of the creative imagination (or a small college town). I quit because I was lost. I quit because I was bored. Mostly I quit because I was tired of being treated as though I were worth nothing. By bosses, by coworkers, by the ubiquitous conversation in society that regarded financial decrepitude as a kind of odd and unfortunate spectacle, but offered no creative solutions for sustained financial independence.

But I did not treat quitting as some kind of social protest. It was a personal life choice.

I felt that, through the years, I had worked hard to develop some talents that were underused and underappreciated (and underpaid) in my current life situation. Given this, it would probably be better to seek out an environment that might put my particular skill set to work. That’s it. It’s that simple. There was no need to write essays about it, nor to throw it down as a gauntlet during conversations with my peers.

The decision made sense. Compared to the little money I earned, the fellowships that I ogled on degree program websites (that were not tied to hourly performance or anything to do with cleaning products) seemed gigantic. I was not naive. I was not tricked into graduate school. I knew about the academic job market – how could I not? All job markets were doing poorly at that time. And I did not care. For me, the university was the only gig around.

Again, it’s 2009. Unemployment is ravishing the country. No one is taking a chance on a smart kid and showing her the ropes as she goes merrily along, learning a brand new skill set that has nothing to with literature – French, African or Comparative. That conversation we’re having now, the alt/post/anti-ac conversation, doesn’t exist yet. Rather, employers (if employing at all) are choosing between twenty candidates who have the exact qualifications they seek, and they are still suspicious of anyone with letters after their name. Simply put, grad school was the only company that would hire me.

My point is not that I went into academia out of desperation, although that pretty much sums it up. My point is that, if you have known what it is to scrape by, you realize how unforgivably privileged it is to complain that any job – particularly those jobs that are nearly impossible to get (and I’m not just talking about the TTR1 jobs; some of those adjunct positions are pretty competitive too) – does not treat you as well as it should. Many, many, many people do not have jobs that treat them as well as they should. Most people, in fact.

I’ve heard academia compared to a bad relationship. And I get the comparison, I really do. But here’s the thing: putting a roof over your head in a bad economy can sometimes feel like a bad relationship, and it’s one that most of us cannot leave.

So that’s my quit story. I quit my jobs for academia. And that experience provides a unique perspective when we’re talking about what it means to up and leave. Imagine, if you will, that grad school is just another job. It pays the bills. Not very well, but better than some other jobs. It is steady and reliable work at a time when steady and reliable work are nearly impossible to find. It is no more; it is no less. It is not an identity. It is not a calling. It is collection of services performed in exchange for tuition remission, a small stipend, and some invaluable career training (by which I mean both intellectual apprenticeship as well as “professional development” if you are so lucky as to receive any of that). It’s actually not a bad deal. But that becomes impossible to recognize if you have never been out in the actual economy, performing actual work for actual hourly wages to put an actual roof over your actual head.

Given this perspective – where training is training and a job is a job and neither of these are composite features of an identity – it might not seem so shocking to exit a PhD program only to confront the dire straights of academic employment. It would be a bit like apprenticing to become a welder for five years (which is actually about what you’re looking at if you want to become a fully qualified craftsperson) and then realizing that welding jobs are fairly few and far between. Well, you know, the market changed. But what do you do? You get some other kind of job.

Again, I get it. Academics are highly specialized individuals, whose knowledge is the product of many years of training and hard work. Society should appreciate them. With jobs. Jobs that pay steady money. Jobs that they can count on from year to year. And we don’t have that, and I’m sorry. That makes us, the highly trained academics, exactly like everyone else in the world. And I know that makes us angry and disappointed, and rightfully so, because we were promised more. So was everyone else. We were all promised more. Whoops – we fell for the hard work-y bootstrap-y fantasy of the American Dream just like everyone else. And that sucks. And it’s hard. But it’s not exactly a dead horse worth beating. It doesn’t deserve a hashtag. It doesn’t deserve a genre.

People quit their jobs every day. When they do it, we call it a life choice, not a social protest. And those who cannot quit generally have no choice at all in the matter, and so, sadly, become undeserving of public attention.

I’m writing this not because I think the #QuitLit genre is necessarily a bad thing. I have read some truly intelligent and truly moving and truly brave pieces, some of which have been tremendously beneficial to my own mental health as an academic. The reason I’m writing down these somewhat unpolished (yes, I will totally admit it) thoughts is that there must be some way of saying “check your privilege” when it needs to be said. And really I’m just trying to politely utter it as something to consider, more so than shouting it as a command across the board.

As powerful as I have found these #QuitLit pieces – everything from “I’m walking away from a masochistic job search” to “My adjunct position does not pay for my medical condition” to “I am a tenured professor and I’m fed up” – I also have trouble with them. (That’s allowed right? We can have complicated and sometimes conflicting opinions about things, right?)

There were a couple of years there, not long ago, when I would all too often be found helping various friends and family members move out of houses that they had lost to foreclosure. I knew hardworking, formerly six-figure-salaried people who were waiting on second interviews for salesclerk positions at Kmart. People with advanced degrees around me would talk about waiting in line at churches for boxes of food.

Given this context, yes, the idea of quitting a job for reasons of personal satisfaction – because of this YOLO, do what you love culture that has somehow instilled in us the idea that work should be pleasurable – strikes me as ludicrous, although I understand why to others it would be a rallying cry. (It would be ideal if this could be the same rallying cry as raising the minimum wage, or providing healthcare to lower income Americans, or making community college free, but at the moment I’m not seeing it.)

So if I have a particular aim here, it is simply to gesture in a different direction (principally the direction outside of this rather specialized world we inhabit) in order to provide some perspective. Yes, there are many traumas being lived in the academic world, but we should remember that these are reflections of an economic trauma that many people are still living through. Publicly priding oneself in quitting a job would have sounded exceedingly crass five years ago, because there were so many people who scrambled for any employment whatsoever. Who were grateful for the smallest paychecks because they needed to buy food. Who did not pick up the phone for several years, and so were only too relieved when their home phone lines were eventually cut off by the phone company.

This – the experience of those who lived through the financial downturns of the past decade and the incredibly deep psychic wounds that come with unemployment – is what I think we are too quick to forget when we write and praise the literature of quitting.

what is an ‘invention’ ?

I’m still here, working away at the Bach Two-Part Inventions in a race against the baby clock.

And the other day, while trudging through # 5 in E min (which, okay, is kind of difficult…ugh…stay in a *&^% key, Bach!), I realized that I had never encountered ‘invention’ as a musical term anywhere except in reference to this specific collection of short pieces. It did not, as far as I knew, designate a particular form, although, loosely, there seemed to contain an exposition of a melody and then short variations on that theme following two/three different trains of thought, and then a recap at the end.

(Recaps are the Baroque equivalent of a mic drop.)

Bach Dreyfus

Because I still have enough self-respect as a researcher (even when completely outside my field) to draw on sources other than the interwebs, I hopped down to the library and checked out an actual book. With pages.

It is Laurence Dreyfus’s Bach and the Patterns of Invention* and the first chapter is helpfully titled “What is an Invention?” Good question, LD.

Turns out, not only was I slightly ignorant for not knowing the defining qualities of a musical invention (good news, there are none), I was really ignorant for not recognizing it as a term from classical rhetoric. (Duh…)** Cicero’s handbook for orators is even called De Inventione, and in the simplest sense, this term means ideas or subjects or stuff about which one speaks. In Bach’s sense, Dreyfus claims that this is the “musical subject whose discovery precedes full-scale composition” (2).

Now that seems contradictory…how, as a composer, do you ‘discover’ a musical idea…as if it were already there? And why is a discovery an invention? If I remember correctly from elementary school, those are different things.***

And here, apparently, is where it becomes important to really think about the influence of classical rhetoric on music at this time. Because the only way that you came upon inventions or subjects for oration, would be by studying rhetoric that already existed, so in this way, the term denotes both ‘invention’ in our sense of the word (the novelty of the individual idea/creation) and ‘discovery’ (the finding of things that already existed).

I don’t want to spend too much time here, even though there is a lot more to be said about rhetoric and musical composition. What I’m really interested in, however, is the role that Dreyfus wants to give the concept of inventio in understanding Bach as a composer, because he sees a vital joining of two realms that music theorists tend to separate, which are the technical aspects of composition and the inspiration of the idea itself.

The invention is useful here, because – as it was understood in classical rhetoric and by Bach himself – it does not only signify the compositional kernel, but also the process of bringing that seed to fruition. Therefore, the invention provides the means for its own musical creation. As Dreyfus puts it:

“This important notion of development or realization, moreover, implies that a successful invention must be more than a static, well-crafted object, but instead like a mechanism that triggers further elaborative thought from which a whole piece of music is shaped” (2).

That’s already a compelling idea – that a flash of an idea of a melody should, if it is really worthwhile, bring with it all the tools of its own development – but Dreyfus actually means to take this further, in order to resolve a problem that he sees in aesthetic study in general, and in musicology in particular. He explains it this way:

“The problem here is a pervasive one within the study of the arts, no less within historical musicology and musical analysis: the fact that contemporary scholarship, for all its accomplishments and methodological sophistication, so often becomes reticent when it comes to capturing some semblance of a profound musical experience” (4).

Let’s put this simply – theorists have a problem dealing with the slightly mystical, slightly wishy washy experience of artistic inspiration. It also becomes a problem for them to talk about Bach’s “greatness” (4) without resorting to the intuition that comes with listening/playing his works, but also without resorting solely to their technically interesting aspects. This is where ars and techne come together for Dreyfus, in the full elaboration of the concept of inventio.

Using concepts from rhetoric, Dreyfus then goes on to analyze the first two-part invention for quite some time. Frankly, it’s beyond my comprehension, but where he ends up is great. He contends that Bach’s inventions are the laying bare of a process, specifically the deeply difficult process of creating something. They show both the “fulfilled intentions” of the composer as well as his “frustrated desires” (27), because the resolution of dissonance is the very art of them. They are not great because they are elegant; they are great because their very substance must be continually ripped to shreds and put back together.

If the invention is the creative spark of a musical idea that also brings with it the material for making that idea into full-scale composition, then what it does not bring is the blueprint for doing this. I believe that what Dreyfus is getting at here is essentially that Bach’s Two- and Three-Part Inventions are interesting not only for all the usual musicological reasons (historically defined), but also in that their analysis yields the indistinguishability of the art and its blueprint. Because the work of art is in the making of that blueprint. If everything else is contained within “creative genius” or the “spark” that inspires the artist, what cannot be found there is a guide to the process of hammering it all out. That is the work of composition.

This would mean that the art does not disguise its own work. But that the dissonance and resolution, the sweat of the composer’s brow, is actually embedded in the very composition. And so theoretical analysis does not and cannot reveal a process, for the work makes itself evident.

Reaching beyond Bach, but gesturing toward what it is that I find so oddly compelling about playing these pieces, I want to conclude with the observation that we are living through a moment of deeply disturbing lack of appreciation for art work. It is dirty. Even worse, it’s beside the point. Work is passé. In much of what I read – and in fact in much of what I’ve written – there is a presumption that one can coast on a clever idea. We hammer out one hundred and forty characters, without bothering to see the idea through to its logical conclusion. Not only is this mental behavior sanctioned, it is encouraged. This is quite different than what Dreyfus has seen in the invention, which is that an idea – and to be more concrete, we’re talking 8-10 notes here – brings with it an entire world. A piece of music erupts from such a small explosive force. And so our worship of the brevity found in quippyness is perhaps not the problem so much as our tendency to remain stuck therein. In Bach, the idea – the creative genius – is not the point. What truly astounds – if we stand with Dreyfus on this – is the work, the hard labor, the craftsmanship.

So I begin to wonder if my craving for these pieces has to do less with the temporal quality of necessarily slow movement, (as I explore in my last post) and more to do with seeking an antidote for a kind of viral way of apprehending the world.

*Dreyfus, Laurence. Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

**Kidding – why would I know that? But I do now. And I’m sure I’m the better for it.

*** And I remember this because a common mistake among the pre-pubescent scholarly set is to declare with some certainty that Benjamin Franklin invented electricity. Which he did not. He discovered it. Because it already existed. See how this works?

Time in Two Parts

two part time

“I’ve recently started to finish learning Bach’s Two-Part Inventions.”

This awkward sentence nudged itself into some of my written correspondence this morning, and I gagged a little when I reread it before sending. My first impulse was to emphatically land my finger on the delete key, and to retype something a bit more polished sounding. I’m revisiting the Bach Inventions, in the hope of finally learning them all. Nice, right?*

I imagine that the awkwardness in the original has something to do with the overload of verbs up front – startedto finish, and learning are a fair number of actions to take into account. Particularly as they are only meant to signify a single but continuing process.

Yet there is also the problem of starting to finish something. What does that mean? I know what starting is, likewise finishing. But at what point in a project do you start to finish? Is three quarters of the way through a safe bet? Halfway? What if all beginnings are, in fact, the start of a finish? Isn’t that the teleological nature of all our endeavors? When we begin something, it is with the intention to end it. And so perhaps what strikes me as strange about saying I’ve recently started to finish learning the Bach Two-Part Inventions is that, in truth, I started them quite a long time ago. Only recently have I made a point to finish learning them.

Little more than a month ago, my goals were measured in chapters and sections (sometimes paragraphs and sentences) of a large written document that had a very clear end in sight.** Without these goals, I literally have no idea how to live my day.

I need new goals. And the first one that appeared was Bach. Because Bach and I have unfinished business.

As a twinkly eyed piano performance major, I had – like everyone else – learned four or five out of the fifteen two-part inventions. There’s a reason for this. They are pedagogically sound, in a way that something like Burgmueller’s études simply aren’t. Whereas the latter teaches you how to do something technically difficulty with your fingers (and okay, yes, that is important but…), the former teaches you how to think two different lines at once. The right hand and left hand are discrete entities, that are yet functioning together. (That’s called counterpoint.) And this is a really hard thing to get, which is why, after vowing (in the way that nineteen year olds vow things) to learn all fifteen by the end of fall term, I had abandoned them completely and changed my major.***

I switched to French & Comparative Literature and never looked back. Really. A decade later, after a doctorate in French & Comparative Literature, it is pretty clear that I have not looked back even once. (To be fair, I looked sideways a few times, like that gap year after my MA program that I spent juggling anywhere between four to five part-time jobs at once… You can see how we graduate students get ourselves into these situations – situations in which more higher education seems like a good idea. If impoverished overemployment is the only alternative to the lonely, low-paid labor of the mind, then I say no thank you.)

This is how I currently find myself in the unique situation of having time on my hands. The kind of time that comes from taking a significant pause between major life events – life events like finishing one’s PhD and expecting one’s first baby. What exactly do you occupy yourself with in the interim? Besides polishing up a few dissertation sections into article form, and reading all the books you’ve been eyeing longingly for the last five years, and taking long (slow) walks, and googling things like “Is attachment parenting really anything worth considering for more than five minutes?” and napping…

And that’s when Bach appeared. Because Bach takes time and concentration. Much more than I ever had as an undergrad, and certainly more than I will ever have again. There seemed to be no better answer to the question “How shall I fill my empty time?” If this particular epoch of liminal existence feels like a three month plane ride, then why not fill it with the kind of things one never has time to do?

So every morning, I sit down at my keyboard and slowly (painfully slowly) tap away at a line of music that, after two hours or so, is rendered more or less speedy in tempo, more or less accurate in notes. And this sounds excruciatingly boring. And it is sometimes. (Especially when I click back into “good music major” habits and actually play some warm-up scales.) But it is also a divine luxury, to be able to sit peacefully, without disturbance, and take all the time that I need.

And this practice expresses what really is so important about Bach Inventions as opposed to any other series of keyboard literature floating out in the world: they require slowing oneself down nearly beyond imagining. It is a lesson I never learned as an impatient teenager in the practice room; it is a lesson that I never learned as an impatient graduate student in the library. The lesson of tedium is hard won, and much of life is tedious indeed.

Much of art is tedious, in fact, requiring an immense amount of techne and very little of the inspired whatchamacallit of human brilliance. These have their temporal implications as well. Craftmanship takes years of repetition to develop whereas this flash of inspiration – the creative genius that I suppose we may in some ways thank Kant for (de)limiting: “Beautiful art is the art of genius”**** – is to be understood as the work of the moment. The thunderclap, the lightbulb, the “Eureka!” of the bath tub.*****

So I attempt to finish this piece of music in the remaining weeks the way that other soon-to-be parents occupy themselves with reading baby books and decorating the nursery. But I cannot imagine that the newly arrived member of our home will be at all appreciative of my ability to interpret the timbre of its cries or the color of its vomit, nor with how well the whimsical paintings on the walls match the crib bedding. It will also, in all likelihood, fail to be impressed by its mother’s ability to play all fifteen of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. But it may notice the stores of maternal patience that she has acquired in the process.

This is time in two parts. On the one hand, the large openness of the time it takes to make a human, on the other hand, the screeching pace of a metronome moving from 68 BPM to 120. Counterpoint, which is not the same thing as harmony at all. It functions – like multiple stratas of time – in dissonance and resolve.

*Hire me as an editor. I have competitive rates.


***That is actually the fault of Shostakovitch.

****This is expressed in the Aesthetics book of The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).

***** The exclamation is attributed to Archimedes, who discovered that bath water is displaced in equal proportion to the amount of naked Greek body you submerge in it.

The Millennium Trilogy and Relearning to Read the “Readerly” Text


There was not – if I’m being honest – much thought behind my decision to suddenly drop everything nothing and finally read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. Not that I insist on putting too much thought into one’s choice of reading material. In fact, I would call myself a proponent of the spin-around-in-bookshop-and-point strategy of literary selection. But I had in fact made myself a post-dissertation reading list full of gems that I have been meaning to enjoy for years. (PS – I finished my dissertation. I’m a doctor. A book doctor.) On the list were many names (Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Somerset Maugham, Marlon James) but Stieg Larsson, certainly not. This absence was based on nothing other than the fact that, since I’d been living without him for this long, I could go on doing so. In fact, this is the only sound reason for not reading anything ever.

Because I began grad school when these three novels came out (and because, I’m just going to admit it, I don’t tend to read popular books) I missed them entirely. I did hear vaguely about the controversy involving Larsson’s partner, who was denied inheritance after his death. But mostly because this was the kind of thing that we people who lived together without getting married and took ourselves very seriously discussed in disgusted tones. Just another example of matrimony qua bourgeois conspiracy.

So besides the knowledge that the series revolved around one (or several) tattooed, pyromanaical female protagonist(s) who displayed violence toward the vesidae family of insects, I had no reason to pick them up off the thrift store shelf for two bucks a pop. I did not even read the back covers. And if I had any thoughts at all, which I doubt, they might have been the following: 1) These books clearly represent some kind of sweeping cultural phenomenon/franchise that I have missed entirely. 2) I mean, what else has ever come out of Sweden? Let’s see…Linnaeus’s taxonomy and…Pippi Longstocking…I like both of those things, so… 3) Judging by the bright covers and the comments plastered all over them, I’m pretty much guaranteed a good time here.

In the end, I was looking for entertainment. And Larsson definitely delivers. I have been sitting on my patio for the last week, completely unaware of the world around me, following the exploits of a phenomenally strange young woman and her journalist buddy as they dodge bullies, elude police officers, steal from the rich, publish the stories of the poor, and generally fight the good fight.

But more than mere escape, I have also been relearning a valuable skill that has been beaten out of me like a bad habit in the last few years – how to take pleasure in reading. How to get lost in a book. How to feel for and with a character.

I say “skill” because I think it actually is. It may seem like total absorption in compelling prose could be considered a skill the way falling off a chair could be considered a skill. But it takes more than that to enjoy reading. There is a reason that the vast majority of the population rarely spends any significant time with books. It takes quiet concentration, which is a difficult thing to generate. It takes time and attention – actually, it takes a combination of those two things functioning simultaneously. It takes practice. (And also, by the way, it is kind of hard to spontaneously fall off a chair. Really hard. If you’re already sitting in it, and it’s not too high, it’s damn near impossible. Let’s not discount the effort involved, is all I’m saying…)

I can’t mention the words “pleasure” and “reading” in the same sentence without thinking of Roland Barthes and his Le Plaisir du Texte (1973). This annoys me slightly because here I am, joyfully attempting to separate myself from literary theory, but I can’t help it. This kind of thing has been imprinted upon me and besides all of that, I do love Barthes. I always have. It is in this work that Barthes comes back to the idea of “readable” (lisible) and “writable” (scriptible) texts that he put forth in S/Z (1970). Except here, they directly correspond to pleasure and bliss (jouissance). In French, jouissance means bliss, but also orgasm…which, yes, giggle giggle, is dirty, but also implies delayed but intensified gratification, as opposed to immediate sensation.

If I wanted to massively oversimplify this (and I do! This is not an academic article! Let’s oversimplify for the sake of thinking some neat-o thoughts that we can actually wrap our heads around! Let’s take all of Barthes and put it in a ‘nutshell’ because we CAN! It will be fun!) I would say that the “readable” text, which gives pleasure, is a passive experience, wherein the reader is “pleased” or “pleasured” as it were, but “to no end” (intellectually/sexually). One is stimulated but not satisfied, is perhaps a way of saying it. Then the “writable” text, which produces bliss/orgasm is a multilayered phenomenon in which the reader is not a passive subject, but rather participating in the “writing” of the text itself. That is complicated to explain. The way I’ve understood it is that, with a “writable” text or a “writable” reading, the reader must forge connections in order to fully understand the impact of the work. And that impact may actually be something different than the author intended, because it has to do with what the reader brings to the situation of the read/written moment. (And you’ll have to forgive me at this point if it seems I’m exclusively drawing from the introductory portions of S/Z rather than engaging Plaisir more specifically…we work with what we know…)

I bring all this up because, in simple terms, what Barthes is getting at is a politely overintellectualized way to say that some books are “literature” – even “great literature” – and some books are not. But that is not quite true either. It is more so that some readings are literary and some are not. And that part is on us.

I wouldn’t say that the Millennium Trilogy qualifies as whatever complex things Barthes means by the “writable” text. I’d say there is a lot of pleasure here and very little bliss. And indeed, my own reading (sitting here on the patio with my sweet tea and fly swatter wearing a muumuu and sunglasses, having apparently forgotten to either shower or seek gainful employment) could not be qualified as literary by any means.

For all that, I don’t think that taking pleasure in reading is quite so shallow as Barthes seems to imagine. And I think that there is something interesting, specifically, about Barthes’ very sexual terms as applied to Larsson’s work.

One of the running themes throughout the three books is violence against women – sexual violence in particular. This takes some gruesome forms, but it also takes the form of silent reflections and subtle actions of men that devalue (but do not violate, per se) the women in their lives. In fact, this is perhaps the one characteristic of the book that makes it “not only” some kind of “escape” but also a social commentary (albeit a subtle one).

So when we’re thinking about passive and active roles of reading (readable/writable, pleasure/bliss), I wonder how important it is to consider the sexual roles that Larsson portrays throughout the books, and to consider whether they relate at all to the experience of reading. If we take this text to be one of passive pleasure, a readable text in which we have no participatory (“writerly”) role, is it possible to see this as a purposeful limitation of our experience? Instead of pure escape within the (exciting, stimulating, titillating) plot of the text, is it possible to consider that we become passive precisely because this is part of the experience that Larsson means to portray in the sexual dynamics of the various characters?

There is a kind of oppressive flatness to the book that I think is purposeful. All characters are flat. Even though Lisbeth Salander is a genius with a tortured past, she is entirely static. Mikael Blomkvist is a “good guy” and nothing more. But here’s the thing. To his credit, Larsson is aware of this flatness. Why else, in the second book, when you are just about to tear your hair out with the sheer boringness of Dag and Mia does he kill them off? (I’m not spoiling anything – it’s on the back cover.) Because he knows that they are better off dead. So I don’t think we’re dealing here with someone who simply wasn’t gifted enough to write character, I think he’s giving us two-dimensional shadows for a reason. And they may be flat, but they weave throughout the multiple layers of some rather stocky plot lines.

So here’s the thing, I keep thinking about that rather off-putting scene that serves as the prologue for the second book. A thirteen year old Lisbeth Salander is strapped down to what we later find out is a hospital bed, and surveyed lasciviously by a man who we later discover is Dr. Teleborian, the renowned child psychiatrist. There’s a real concentration on the flatness of her position, as opposed to the uprightness of the doctor. He tightens the straps that are holding her flat to the table, but he never lays a hand on her. He is mobile, while she is immobile. This is meant to be construed as a sexually sadistic relationship and a violation, but it is emphasized that his pleasure comes from the position of power, not from any physical contact.

I guess my point here is that it might be worth exploring whether this particular scene could in some way be a representation of the reader’s relationship to the character in the scene of the encounter with the pleasurable text. It makes me cringe, but is it possible to consider that we as readers might also be locked in a sadistically imbalanced torture scene? Are we, as pleasure readers, Dr. Teleborian, sadistically surveying the helplessness of the characters upon the flat plane of the page itself? One of the goals of Larsson’s books was to expose the hidden realm of violence against women in Sweden, a task that he presumed he could accomplish more powerfully as a writer of literature rather than as a journalist. But that begs the question: why? Well, because that is the thing about fiction – the reader holds a position. Fiction is not a closed universe the way non-fiction purports to be. And here, I wonder if he puts us in such an odious position in order to more forcibly bring about a confrontation with a violence that lies just below the surface of pleasure. We take pleasure in the text, and part of this pleasure is in the flatness of characters combined with the dimension-laden intricacy of plot.

So while it would seem possible to construct a clear analogy between the “doctor” and “patient” and the reader and character, there is one clear and important distinction. Dr. Teleborian is in a position of power. We, as the readers – and particularly the readers of pleasure – are not. Indeed, we are passive as well. I would say that, precisely because this is a “readable” rather than a “writable” text, in Barthes’ terms, we do feel the immobility of the flat character (for we cannot do or change anything about the text), while simultaneously experiencing the mobility of the work itself, in which we are capable of participating in various positions.

(This might all be a way of simply noticing off-hand that Larsson has employed the omniscient third-person narrator point of view. In which case, I need a tee-shirt that says “I spent five years getting a doctorate and all I got was this lousy basic knowledge of literary devices.”)

Is my point that pleasurable reading is necessarily sadistic reading? Of course not. I certainly could not live with that. (Although, I kind of think that may be where Barthes goes in Plaisir.) I think reading for pleasure (as opposed to bliss) is a wonderful thing. Let’s not all suddenly feel dirtier than we already do about our mass market paperbacks. My point is that, in this particular text, the author has perhaps mobilized certain aspects of such reading (particularly the subject/object relationship) in order to bring to light a pervasive violence that is not only represented within the book, but that then reaches beyond the text itself in order to signify the relationship between the reader and the read. Yet that dualistic relationship is then brought into question, necessarily and precisely because the text is not “writable”. In other words, we are exposed to the position of the sadist, while yet escaping that position.

Which is my argument – boom! you didn’t see that coming! – for reading the “readerly” text.

Isidore Okpewho’s Myth in Africa (1983)

Some more Okpewho for you today…no introduction needed…

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Myth in Africa

Isidore Okpewho

London: Cambridge, 1983


Here, Okpewho takes the opportunity to drive in the point that he concentrated on in the previous work The Epic in Africa (1979), which is that the practices of oral literature are not solely related to religious ritual. He cites well known and respected anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, who has done quite a bit of work in Africa but, according to Okpewho, still gets it wrong. (And I gotta say, I’m starting to have some stray thoughts of possible misogyny in Okpewho’s work. How are there NO WOMEN in this whole book, despite the fact that Harold Scheub’s extremely influential work concentrates HUGELY on women storytellers in South Africa…? Here we have the ONE female scholar cited, and she is swiftly dismissed. Just saying…it’s something to think about…) Anyway, this beginning put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because he seems here to be setting Finnegan up as a kind of straw (wo)man. In fact, these words he seems to feed her are not even her words. The statement she makes, which Okpewho finds so objectionable, is actually someone else’s, with whom Finnegan is only tentatively disagreeing.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think we don’t often enough take the time to really consider the prejudices and the blind spots of our authors. (And by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’…)

Africa and oral narrative theory: a critical survey

This chapter is incredibly useful if you want a quick “state of the discipline and how it got there” refresher on the various scholarly trends that were picked up by those who analyze myth – not necessarily African myth, but myth in general. I have a feeling that this is, literally, the “Oral Literature 101” survey course he was probably teaching at the University of Ibadan. He very usefully goes through several schools of thought, but also organizes them based on categories for which he provides an illustration at the back of the book.

(It may be important to note that by “state of the discipline” I mean the state of the discipline in 1983. Some developments have occurred since then, but I must say, it’s not a popular topic, so what you’re getting in 1983 is probably a pretty accurate contemporary picture…)

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Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979)

After a fair bit of study during my undergrad and MA (the latter with Harold Scheub who has recently retired), I had almost entirely forgotten the fascinating body of work dedicated to African oral literature.

Oral? Literature? Did I hear you right?

Yes. Yes you did. Because despite not being written down, this rich body of tales, legends, myths, epics, folktales and fables are considered “texts” by those who study them.

Cool thing about oral literature? It has no definitive edition. So it’s like the difference between reading Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenin and Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Anna Karenina. (I prefer Garnett, to be totally honest, if for nothing else than the way she translates Russian peasant speech into London cockney.) Except instead of a different word or phrase here and there that leave academics in fisticuffs, vast swaths of the story can change. There are people who spend oodles of their time (like entire academic careers) comparing these different versions of a story. Frankly, that is not my thing. That is far too frustrating. But I do find the questions arising from these different oral texts fascinating.

Who owns the story? Is it an individual work or a collective effort? Is it a object merely in the service of religious ritual or is it an aesthetically informed piece of poetry? (Imagine if you will the difference between reading the Koran for purposes of religious practice or for purposes of analyzing the poetry in which it is composed, which is stunning.)

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Okpewho addresses some of these questions and quite a few more. This is a fairly specific text, but if you’re interested in African oral literature – or, actually, in any of the commonly known epics (Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Illiad and/or the Odyssey)-  you will certainly find some merit. I really enjoy Okpewho’s writing – it’s clear that he is far more concerned with poetry than with the mathematical functions of the folktale like some good Russians we know *ahem*Propp*ahem* and this carries through.

So for your enjoyment, my notes on The Epic in Africa

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