Melancholy Monday

At the Ruins of St. Paul's

A woman sits at the base of the ruins of St. Paul's in Macau

(I know it’s not Monday, but we’re going to pretend it is. This was supposed to be for Monday!) I have a thing for melancholy. Done right, it’s delicious. Books*, music, whatever… it’s a tangible thing to savor. My love for the way that good melancholy can make one’s heart ache, while at the same time making everything feel beautiful reminds me of the Indian concept of rasa. Thinking back to an undergraduate Indian dance course I took in which we studied the topic extensively, it is a characteristic that the performer seeks to infuse their act with. With the combination of the artisan’s expertise and the appreciation and knowledge of the form that the audience brings to the performance, the audience can “taste” the emotions that the dancer is seeking to bring forth.

Having had a melancholy playlist a long time ago, I decided to put it back together… then I wanted to share it with a friend… and then I figured, hell, I’ll put it here. In addition, I’ve been grousing about not having made a music mix for anyone in awhile, the kind with long handwritten notes about what the songs mean to you with the intent to make some sort of connection over sharing art. So this is my mix tape. My mix tape to the internets!!! Some of these may defy what one thinks of as melancholy, but a lot of them are chosen just as much for tone, if not more-so. “40″ is first of course, as it’s always the song I go to first when I want melancholy.

*A mere two books make my “melancholy cut” so far:
Peel my Love Like an Onion – Ana Castillo
My Dream of You – Nuala O’Faolain

Book Review: A Strange Piece of Paradise by Terri Jentz

Tai O Fishing Village

Tai O Fishing Village - Lantau Island, Hong Kong. My own strange piece of paradise.

(I did my best to try NOT to use passive voice here regarding the attack on Jentz and her friend, but my brain is too tired to do the verbal mathematics at the moment.)

I picked up A Strange Piece of Paradise not for the details of the axe attack that Terri Jentz experienced during her biking tour across the United States, but rather because I was interested in the symptoms that resulted from the experience and her process of healing. While one is not privy to the gritty details of PTSD or the various revelations she may have had about her psychological state during her investigative process, she makes it clear that her research of the details surrounding the attack played a big part in this process. While this was a truly interesting, gripping book I felt somewhat disappointed by the end that so little of this aspect was featured. Despite that, it’s stayed with me for the past few weeks and I keep coming back to a few points that I’ll touch on in a subsequent post.

At first, A Strange Piece of Paradise is very much along the lines of a true crime book, consisting of the background of Jentz and her biking companion and the memories Jentz has of the attack. As the book progresses and she gets further into her investigation, it becomes a much broader rumination on the impact of the crime on the surrounding community. The warmth and concern of the people who remember the attack is often tangible when she recounts her meetings with them.

Jentz also explores the psychology of violence against women on both the micro and macro level, as her main suspect is a repeat offender: how violent relationships are sustained and the attitude of communities that continually give well-known abusers a pass, from neighbors to the law enforcement and court systems. As she interviews each of the women who had been involved with her suspect, struck by the idea that these were not the “type” to put up with such abuse, she puts together a rough portrait of how such a person breaks down and isolates their victims in an increasingly vicious cycle.

One of the most salient critiques I read about the book is that it can get repetitive. At the same time, I found that the way she constantly comes up with the same details from different people can be quite fascinating in terms of how stories change and what impacts each person’s memory. Again and again the attack is remembered “as if yesterday”, allowing for a large number of people to talk with. In addition, it was a useful lens through which to view people – for instance, the man she interviewed who made her attack all about him and how his failure to be the hero “ruined” his life (And yet, his memory of the attack is grossly inaccurate and leads one to question if he was even there at the time it happened.). I also never got tired reading how each new individual she interviewed wanted to bond with her over this event that impacted her and the community so deeply.

To some extent there are more radical strains lurking under the surface here, and every time she touched on them I just wanted to nuuudge her a bit so that she would further develop and explore these thoughts. While she makes the connection between society’s entrenched misogyny and violence against women quite clear, she only touches on such things as community versus state sanctioned justice and the cult of individuality in America and its adverse impact on the cultivation of community.

By the end of the book the music of Twin Peaks was playing in the back of my head, foreboding shots of pine and fog looming. Jentz successfully ties the dark, moody landscape to wanton violence against women as her personal investigation increasingly turns up stories of murdered women having been dumped in the surrounding pine forests. I found myself feeling increasingly disturbed and unsettled (though one is anyway by the main subject of the book) despite the warm, welcoming community of people she encountered as she investigated her own near murder.

Overall a good book. I found myself liking Jentz more and more as I got to “know” her through her connection with people over her brutal experience, particularly the way she bonds with other women later on in the book. When I put it down I didn’t expect it to linger as it has, and a number of questions and thoughts have come up in the past few weeks that I’ve been exploring.

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

Caged Songbird

Caged Songbird in Yuen Po Street Bird Garden


Against Love: A Polemic

Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis

And why has modern love developed in such a way as to maximize submission and minimize freedom, with so little argument about it? No doubt a citizenry schooled in renouncing desires – and whatever quantities of imagination and independence they come partnered with – would be, in many respects, advantageous: note that the conditions of lovability are remarkably convergent with those of a cowed workforce and a docile electorate. – Laura Kipnis

About a year ago I decided that perhaps I should educate myself about this ephemeral concept of romantic love. Not so difficult, as one of my favorite authors, bell hooks, writes extensively on the subject. But of course there was that one book that seemed so absurd I had to go for it. Against Love: A Polemic. Really, could Kipnis pull it off?? And if she managed to convince me of the idea that adulterers are in fact “freedom fighters” (as one review put it) what would that say about me? Well, fast forward a year – my little side project was interrupted by life (no, I wasn’t dedicated enough to lug these books to Hong Kong), but resumed a few months back. I finally resolved to sit down and check this one out.

I have to say that upon reading Against Love, Kipnis is an author who has earned my solid dedication. My reaction at page 10 was… “someone is trying way too hard to be edgy”….pg. 20…. “wow, these are some fascinating theories”…. pg. 30…. “what an incredible framework”…. pg. 40 “her way with snark!!! I LOVE IT!” … pg. 60, telling anyone in range that they HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

I may not always agree with Kipnis, to the point of having been infuriated more than a few times with The Female Thing: Dirt Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. At the same time I love her sharp perception, that snarky way of cutting to the quick and the widely ranged dabbling in political and psychological theory (Citing Marx, Weber, Freud and Wilhelm Reich among others here.). In Against Love Kipnis draws parallels between capitalism and love, establishing the framework of the “emotional economy”, to some extent implying that relational transgressions stand in for the political, which has become so passé in today’s climate. The quaint, patronizing manner that idealism and working for change are regarded with today is something she alludes to more than once.

According to Kipnis, love has been co-opted by the language and culture of the capitalist work place. A breezy critique of marriage is leveraged, mining theorists who put forth that “the only social purpose of compulsory marriage for life is to produce the submissive personality types that mass society requires.” Definitely something to research further. Ultimately, adulterers are regarded as the people who are bold enough to dream and try to realize emotional “utopia.” I strenuously disagree with this premise – what kind of utopia leaves some people out in the cold (ie, those hurt by infidelity)? Not one of my imagining, anyway – firmly putting me in the “moral trumping” category (as she puts it – though my own “righteous prig” is so much more colorful). If one were to really take this line of thinking a step further it seems that those who conduct (modern) polyamorous relationships are the ones trying to establish utopia, yet they don’t warrant mention. They are willing to face up to an entrenched system and openly say “this doesn’t work for me”, looking for a new solution and actively involving others in doing so.

But oh how appropriate, the honeymoon with Against Love didn’t QUITE last. The dazzling start waned for me as she segued into the point of the book: “the domestic gulag” and the question of infidelity. I was faintly amused as she shook the finger at those of us sitting there reading and thinking “I would never do this” with the none of these people thought so either, dearies (ok, so not quite verbatim). While I’m not at all interested in a critique of love that trumpets the virtue of adultery, I was disappointed at how the book completely fell apart and lost its focus by the end. It spiraled into an ever widening train wreck, from infidelity to a survey of the sex scandal drenched 90s of American politics, which doesn’t seem all that different from the last decade either (Or the past week, with the latest news of Weiner. Wiener indeed.) And while part of the point of this is to illustrate that in all the white knuckled determination of Americans to “preserve marriage” this is 1) utterly hypocritical and 2) all this relational transgression really does say something I think but oh my god my eyes have glazed, do we have to relive Bill Clinton and the oval office all over again?!

But all right, there really were some amazing threads of thought here which I loved despite the organizational train wreck. For instance, that it’s all a-okay to preach about keeping miserable marriages together for the children and enacting policy that promotes marriage as an exit out of poverty, however ill conceived these concepts may be. And yet when it comes to enacting policy that is serious about alleviating the impact of poverty or raising the quality of life of children, the United States ranks quite dismally.

And as this feminist looks askance and grits her teeth at the constant cultural pronouncements replete with evolutionary psychology that “prove” shaky conclusions, who can forgo such lines as these?!

Harkening back to some remote evolutionary past for social explanations does seem to be a smoke screen for other agendas, usually to tout the “naturalness” of capitalist greed or the “naturalness” of traditional gender roles. Man as killer ape; woman as nurturing turtledove, or name your own bestial ancestor as circumstance requires. (When sociobiologists start shitting in their backyards with dinner guests in the vicinity, maybe their arguments about innateness over culture will start seeming more persuasive.)

Or cutting, incisive lines like these:

Using love to escape love, groping for love outside the home to assuage the letdowns of love at home – it’s kind of like smoking and wearing a nicotine patch at the same time: two delivery systems for an addictive chemical substance that feels vitally necessary to your well-being at the moment, even if likely to wreak unknown havoc in the deepest fibers of your being at some unspecified future date.

Against Love introduced me to some incredible concepts concerning love and political economy and one I’m going to follow up on. As usual, Kipnis challenged me in certain ways, while in other ways the book just fell flat. So often I wish she’d take these cultural critiques and ask the deeper questions behind them but perhaps her aim is to set us on that path rather than do the digging for us. And hey, accuse me of doe-eyed naiveté but she didn’t convince me that love isn’t worth the work. If anything, it only strengthened my conviction. Don’t ask me how that happened. I’m still trying to puzzle it out myself.

Having graduated….

Garden Path

Here we are again.

…I suppose a retrospective is in order, given I started truly posting on the eve of my entrance into graduate school. It seems my last effort at retrospection oriented towards the future rather than an actual rumination on my trip. It takes me a bit of time to pull these posts together, often multiple revisions occur over a period of time and result in very different final drafts. My effort to actually write a retrospective, given the time sensitive nature I placed on this post was an affair of saccharine sentimentality. At the same time, I feel like there needs to be a benchmark here, however spare.

I officially have my Master of Arts in International Affairs with a concentration in Governance and Rights. For now, I’ll say that I felt truly privileged to continue my education. I love being a student – to me, the accumulation of knowledge is exhilarating. I’ll miss it more than I anticipated.

I’ve got bits and pieces of about five posts in the works that I hope I’ll have the time to flesh out now that I’m out of school. In addition, I’m hoping to begin a series of essays. I’m not sure if they’ll make it here, but I’ll certainly consider it. First I need to get over sweating at the blank page. While I have a lot of material I can cull from journals and such, the idea of turning the concepts in to full length essays is daunting.