Monday, May 9, 2016


Hi. It's been awhile since I just lost interest in this blog and ghosted everyone. I just wanted to let you all know that I am now on Goodreads and currently in the process of exporting all of my old reviews to there. It's been quite an experience rereading them. There were a few books (Moo Pak was one) that I had completely forgotten about and couldn't even tell you what was in them. I've also realized just how incredibly long-winded I could be and have been cutting out paragraphs left and right! (And let's not even get into the nonsense I wrote in my Republican days.) Any new reviews I write for Goodreads should be fairly short but I might post here again if the book warrants a longer one.

I've also discovered Booktube but have been largely disappointed so far. I swear, these people read nothing but the latest overhyped YA. As a minimalist I do get a strange satisfaction out of book unhauls, though.

In other news, I am now in library school to become an archivist and have gotten into collecting small vintage editions of the classics.

To anyone out there still following this blog, I hope all is well!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Now it is time for their just cause to be taken from Pharoah's hands, . . ."

. . . and for this reason, we three ladies whom you see here, moved by pity, have come to you to announce a particular edifice built like a city wall, strongly constructed and well founded, which has been predestined and established by our aid and counsel for you to build, where no one will reside except all ladies of fame and women worthy of praise, for the walls of the city will be closed to those women who lack virtue." (10-11)

Christine de Pizan (1363-c. 1430) was Venetian-born French author and scholar. Following the death of her husband in 1390 she turned to writing to support herself and her three children, possibly making her Europe's first professional female writer. While best known for her poetry, Christine also composed intellectual treatises and enjoyed royal patronage in both France and England. She was also famous for openly attacking the misogyny of her day, especially as it appeared in the works of male authors, leading many in recent years to proclaim her the first feminist in Western history. Christine often sought out female collaborators for her works, including a manuscript illuminator known only as Anastasia.

Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) was written in 1405 in vernacular French with Latin syntax and conventions. It grew out of Christine's ongoing response to Jean de Meun's The Romance of the Rose, which depicted woman as little more than lustful seducers. Still, as Christine notes at the start of her work, The Romance of the Rose was but one example of the continued vilification of women in the practically all-male Western canon. Women - according to innumerable philosophers, poets, theologians, scholars, and so forth - are relentless gossips, childish, vain, greedy, capricious, disloyal, and licentious predators. Unlike the male reader, Christine does not have the luxury of being able to select a book for light entertainment and expect not to be hurt and attacked. The Book of the City of Ladies is precipitated by just such an event: a book by one Mathéolus that she happened to pick up only to be confronted by all manner of slander against women. Christine internalizes his message and feels ashamed of herself for being of such a degraded sex.

As with Dante (c. 1265-1321), Christine is a character in her own work and initially introduced as having strayed from the true path into darkness and confusion. If it were not so that women are such contemptible creatures, she argues to herself, then so many esteemed men would not have made such pronouncements against them. Her Virgil-like figures who arrive to guide her in her hour of need are three heavenly beings called Lady Reason, Lady Rectitude, and Lady Justice who suddenly materialize in her study.
"Dear daughter, do not be afraid, for have come not to harm or trouble you but to console you, for we have taken pity on your distress, and we have come to bring you out of your ignorance which so blinds your own intellect that you shun what you know for a certainty and believe what you do not know or see or recognize except by virtue of many strange opinions. You resemble the fool in the prank who was dressed in women's clothes while he slept; because those who were making fun of him repeatedly told him he was a woman, he believed their false testimony more readily than the certainty of his own identity. Fair daughter, have you lost all sense?" (6)
They propose the construction of an indestructible City of Ladies, stronger and more glorious than any city that has come before it, and shelter to the legions of great women who have lived throughout Christian and Classical history. For medieval thinkers like Christine and Dante, the city was the epitome of civilized life. The city of Dis in the Dante's Fifth Circle of Hell is the aberration of something noble, particularly in the context of St. Augustine's writings on the City of Man vs. the City of God. The former is merely the temporal, imperfect representation on earth of the heavenly order, governed by laws and dependent on the goodwill of its citizens toward one another. Christine's conception of a City of Ladies is akin to the City of God in this respect, a subtle emphasis on the divine qualities of the female sex contrary to what is often said of them in Western literature and society.

The Book of the City of Ladies is an example of medieval allegorical writing, usually manifested as a dialogue between the author and imaginary characters who represent virtues or other abstract notions. The construction of the City of Ladies in this way serves as the framing device for a long stream of supporting evidence to counter the claims of misogynist men. The bulk of Christine's work is a series of anecdotes recited by the three Ladies which compose the metaphorical walls and building blocks of her eternal city. Thus, the allegorical city is the means to return voice to the voiceless and preserve for posterity the achievements of extraordinary women.* In medieval Christian tradition, the Word, or logos, is associated with light and order, and the path out of the dark wood of error and irrationality. In fact, etymology of our word "fame" comes from the Greek/Latin words meaning "to speak." Despite the strongly Christian foundation of her work, Christine presents Christian and pagan women in equal light, thereby emphasizing female goodness as innate and universal. Many of her heroines are derived from Classical mythology, which she incorporates into the Christian worldview just as Dante did in The Divine Comedy. Goddesses such as Minerva are portrayed as real human women of such greatness that they were deified by pre-Christian peoples.

Although the litany of anecdotes eventually grows monotonous it is interesting to note the values dissonance between Christine's medieval proto-feminism and the secular feminism of modern times. In response to charges of women's capriciousness we are given tales of wives whose husbands put them through all sorts of horrible trials to test their faithfulness. We have one woman, for example, who allowed her husband to kill both their children (they were actually hidden away at their aunt's estate) and then cast her aside and force her attend his wedding to his new bride (who was actually their daughter - he was about to end the charade). That she did not flee him or retaliate in any way and continued to treat him with kindness and respect is supposed to demonstrate the qualities of a dutiful and persevering wife. Many of the anecdotes concern women who endure Christ-like suffering, often at the hands of men, and are praised for their lack of any backbone whatsoever. Their role models are the female martyrs of the early Church who joyfully submitted to gruesome tortures and whose stories form the climax of Christine's book as the City's chosen residents. (This also further links the City of Ladies to the heavenly City of God.) We do hear a great deal about female warriors and leaders but those who acted independently of male relatives - most notably the Amazons - were the pagans of yore.

On the other hand, we do hear of female intellectuals whose cerebral feats more than match those of their male counterparts, which really slaps down any insult to women's intelligence. The affirmation of women as thinkers and scholars was doubtlessly of great importance to Christine, whose livelihood depended on her legitimacy as a writer. Regardless of how they are meant to relate to men socially, Christine is firm in her convictions that women possess equal capacity when given the proper education and opportunities. Her own career is proof.

As an early work of female scholarship, The Book of the City of Ladies probably has more historical value than usefulness in attacking misogyny in the twenty-first century. As demonstrated above, much of Christine promotes as the paragons of virtuous womanhood contradicts the principles valued by feminism today: assertiveness, self-reliance, nonconformity, and the willingness to fight rather than submit to injustice. Given the cultural context in which Christine was writing, however, the suffering women can perhaps be viewed ironically, as the true face of women subordinated by a patriarchal order intent on maligning them, and whose deliverance is only possible through chance or God's will. In short, the book is a cultural artifact. It is nevertheless significant as a woman's literary achievement in a time when female education was neglected and few women could even read. Its sequel, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, came out shortly afterwards to showcase the impact of women's speech and actions in their everyday lives, particularly in the promotion of peace.

The first English translation of The Book of the City of Ladies was published in 1521 by Brian Anslay as Boke of the Cyte of Ladyes. It was largely neglected over the next 450 years until Earl Jeffrey Richards released his modern English translation in 1982.

* From the Marina Warner's foreword to the 1982 edition by Persea Books.

A Year of Feminist Classics is a project started by Amy, Ana, Emily Jane and Iris, four book bloggers who share an interest in the feminist movement and its history. The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for all of 2012, we will each month read what we consider to be a central feminist text, with one of us being in charge of the discussion. . . What we hope to achieve is to gain a better historical understanding of the struggle for gender equality, as well as a better awareness of how the issues discussed in these now classic texts are still relevant in our times. We welcome all voices and perspectives, and we would love it if you joined in and added your own.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

"What an isolated, unreal world all of them lived in."

. . . A world built on illusions and Technicolor dreams. A world as phony as the films it churned out. She hardly knew a single person outside the film industry. Nor did she have time to get to know the real world - whatever and wherever that was. (138)

Shobhaa Dé (1948-) is an Indian novelist and journalist who got her start as a model in the late '60s. She was the founder, co-founder, and editor of three entertainment magazines, including Stardust, a bilingual monthly specializing in Bollywood news and gossip. Dé is also one of India's bestselling authors and is credited with the creation Hinglish, a lively, informal mix of English and Hindi that features prominently in her works. Her books, written in English, have been the subject of much academic attention in India and Great Britain and are translated into numerous regional languages.

Published in 1991, Bollywood Nights (also known as Starry Nights) was one of Dé's first novels, inspired by real-life love affairs among the heroes and leading ladies of the Indian silver screen. It tells the story of Aasha Rani, a starlet pushed into the industry by her ruthlessly ambitious mother, the mistress of a ruined producer who willfully exploits her daughter to pornographers and lecherous producers. Amma's tactics pay off, however, and Aasha Rani eventually reaches A-list status. She falls in love with reigning heartthrob Akshay Arora only to incur the wrath of his wife Malini. The ensuing scandal, combined with her traumatic past, results in a nervous breakdown that drives Aasha Rani to a new life in New Zealand, where she marries and has a daughter. But, as the Eagles once famously said of Hollywood, "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave."

Bollywood Nights starts off in media res, immediately pushing ahead at a breakneck speed that echoes the perpetual firestorm surrounding showbiz and its biggest players. The flashbacks that reveal Aasha Rani's painful history blend seamlessly with the present, emphasizing the subordinate role of even the most successful women. Obviously damaged by her mother's actions, Aasha Rani throws herself at producers, directors, other stars, and even underworld dons. I do not mean to deny her sexual agency, but Dé makes it clear that a woman's worth in Bollywood is, above all, her appeal to men, whether it's male audiences or male peers with power over fame and obscurity. There are strong parallels to Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, published contemporaneously in the US, which paints a vivid picture of women as commodified sex objects, interchangeable and disposable in their sameness. Patriarchal oppression is also seen in the way women interact with one another. Malini viciously attacks and slut-shames Aasha Rani instead of directing her anger at the misogyny that celebrates her husband's philandering and pressures women like Aasha Rani to essentially prostitute themselves. Bollywood as portrayed by Dé is a bright, gaudy carnival of alternating riches and horror, a jagged jewel box. "We are all just prisoners here of our own device."

Dé also touches on Western Orientalism with Jamie Phillips, Aasha Rani's white New Zealander husband. He is a fan of Bollywood films and all things Indian who refers to Aasha Rani's kinks as "oriental love games" (181) and bemoans the loss of his "exotic, oriental beauty" (187) after Sasha's birth and Aasha Rani's subsequent shift from a siren to a down-to-earth mother who's put on weight. It's racial fetishization, defined as valuing stereotyped features (whether physical traits such as skin color or perceived cultural traits such as "submissive Asian women") over the individual human. When actually confronted with India, Jamie is clearly repulsed by its grubbiness and foreignness, apparently preferring the prepackaged Bollywood version. Fetishization is also another form of exploitation. Despite her considerable resources, Aasha Rani when she met Jamie was an emotionally vulnerable women who had been conditioned to trading her body for favors.

Again, I realize I'm probably erasing Aasha Rani's agency and portraying her as constantly dragged from one bed to another by various external forces. The problem is a serious flaw in Dé's writing. Her characterizations are vague and inconsistent. Akshay Arora, for instance, is both a tender, considerate lover and a sexual sadist who gets off on hardcore porn and at one point rapes and beats Aasha Rani. Yes, people can be two-sided but Akshay's brutality comes out of nowhere. There's nothing to tie the two halves together. It doesn't even have any influence on Aasha Rani's love for him which makes me wonder why Dé included it in the first place. The narration is very shallow, focusing a lot on Aasha Rani's actions and very little on her internal self. Often it's completely impossible to understand why she does the things she does. She makes numerous decisions, particularly in London towards the end, that are just mind-bogglingly stupid considering what she's been through and what she knows of the world. Other times the story gets ahead of itself, choosing to skip to Aasha Rani's next big event rather than showing us the character development that leads to it. She meets Jamie and marries him two pages later. The effect is that of an extended gossip column: various lurid reports of a star's dysfunctional life strung together episodically over 300 pages.

Bollywood Nights is also relentlessly sex-negative. You can't even complain about the book's sole GLBTQ character, the lesbian journalist Linda, being a sexual predator who uses Aasha Rani for the inside scoop because every single last man, all of them straight, is depicted similarly. Even the most fulfilling consensual sex always turns out to have some kind of ulterior motive. It isn't so much that rape and exploitation are bad as sex itself is intrinsically harmful.

I ended up wondering that Shobhaa Dé's point was. Bollywood Nights certainly has the makings of a good protest novel with regards to the ugly underside of Bollywood but Dé sabotages her own arguments through needless sensationalism and the book's very ending, which has Aasha Rani dreaming of Sasha's future in the industry. *headdesk* This after 332 pages of Bollywood depicted as just about the worst place on earth. Obviously, it's meant to be redemptive but actually demonstrates very little personal growth on Aasha Rani's part, especially given the near-destruction of her sister Sudha, who had replaced Aasha Rani during her stay in New Zealand. Does the nightmare never end?

Trigger warning for graphic sexual violence.

Friday, February 24, 2012

"When I began carrying Henrik in my womb, I was afraid, but I decided to cease fearing."

The Brothers
By Asko Sahlberg
Translated from Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah
122 pages
Peirene Press
February 2012

. . . I sensed that motherhood was terrible, perhaps sweet at times, but above all terrible. Not because one human child would be more horrendous than another, nor is it so that offspring cannot bring joy when little and be useful when grown up, but because motherhood makes it possible for future generations to be rocked by dark tragedies. (46)

Asko Sahlberg (1964-) is one of Finland's most famous living authors. He published his first novel in 2000 and has received numerous awards. He currently lives in Sweden.

Published in 2010, He (The Brothers, translated by mother-daughter team Emily and Fleur Jeremiah) is Sahlberg's ninth work. Henrik and Erik are two brothers born to an old family of Finnish landowners. While Erik stayed behind, the restless and ambitious Henrik fled to the glittering cities of Russia to be seduced by the wealth and power of empire. In the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790 he fought for Russia, while Erik enlisted himself and his downtrodden cousin Mauri to fight for Sweden. It is now 1809 and Henrik has returned to the old farmstead, instigating a chain of events that threaten to expose long-buried secrets and finally upend an unstable status quo.

The story is told through several first-person narrators, including not only Erik and Henrik but also their mother, Erik's wife Anna, Mauri, an old farmhand, and occasional one-shots such as a maid and a city bureaucrat. Peirene publisher Meike Ziervogel compares it to As I Lay Dying and it is easy to see why. One of my English professors described Faulkner's novel as Cubist, with each of the narrators reflecting a different facet of the story, akin to a Picasso painting revealing all angles at once. In The Brothers this form allows the various secrets to be revealed to the reader but not the other characters, allowing for an omniscient view and numerous twists. I was also reminded of Chekhov's play The Cherry Orchard, with its faded aristocrats forced from their traditional complacency where they least expect it. Altogether, the combination of a slowly unfolding plot and dark but subdued prose is a tightly-wound tale whose intensity is in its brevity. Recommended.

Review Copy

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"We are lost."

"Which is to say: The war is lost, and that means more than a lost campaign, it means that we are in fact lost - lost, our cause and soul, our faith and our history. Germany is done for, or will be done for. An unutterable collapse - economic, political, moral, and spiritual - in short, an all-embracing collapse looms ahead. Not that I would have wished for what threatens us, for it is despair, it is madness." (186)

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, and essayist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 and married a Jewish woman who later converted to his Lutheran faith. When Hitler assumed power in 1933 the family emigrated to Switzerland and then to the United States in 1939. Mann became a naturalized American citizen and taught at Princeton. During World War II he produced a series of anti-Nazi radio broadcasts entitled "Deutsche Hörer!" ("German Listeners!") which were recorded in the US and then sent to Great Britain, where they were transmitted by the BBC. Mann would never again live in Germany, although after the war he often traveled there. He died in Zurich.

Doktor Faustus (Doctor Faustus, translated by John E. Woods) was begun in 1943 and published 1947. As the title suggests, it is a reworking of the German legend of Faust, an ambitious scholar who makes a deal with the devil. In negotiations with the devil's representative Mephistopheles, Faust agrees to trade his soul for a twenty-four year period of unlimited knowledge. Although some adaptations have Faust saved through the grace of God, in the original story he is corrupted beyond redemption and ultimately dragged to Hell before horrified onlookers. The tragic tale of ambition, temptation, power, and damnation is widely accepted as an allegory for the surrender of moral integrity in exchange for worldly prestige.

Mann's version is framed as the biography of the late composer Adrian Leverkühn, as written by his friend, an elderly schoolteacher named Serenus Zeitblom, while World War II rages outside and Germany's final catastrophe looms closer. Zeitblom had known Leverkühn since their boyhood days and remained by his side until Leverkühn's mental collapse in 1930 and death a decade later. Given Leverkühn's solitary nature, the bulk of the story is concerned with his artistic and intellectual evolution, from the comforting traditions of nineteenth century humanism, to the dizzying freedom of modernism, and finally to a nihilism seeking to redeem itself in new truths. The lectures of musicologist Wendell Kretzschmar, heard by Leverkühn and Zeitblom as adolescents, initially establish the history of Western music - and by extension, Western culture - as possessing of a frame of reference in God and the church. The destiny of art, however, was a gradual "emancipation from the cult . . . which on the one hand proved quite beneficial, on the other gloomily onerous" (91). Art for art's sake is, socially speaking, potentially dangerously unrestrained.

Leverkühn initially studies theology but eventually abandons it for a career in music. Lacking the cultural anchors enjoyed by previous generations, his early compositions are self-aware parodies that mock Romantic conventions. An overwrought tale of epic love and chivalry, for example, can no longer be composed with sincerity as audiences have seen such tales all too often and now recognize them as pure stylization. Art has lost its legitimacy as representative of life and taken refuge in irony. As Zeitblom explains:
It is indeed work, artistic labor for the purpose of illusion - and now the question arises whether, given the current state of our consciousness, our comprehension, and our sense of truth, the game is still permissible, still intellectually possible, can still be taken seriously; whether the work as such, as a self-sufficient and harmonically self-contained structure, still stands in a legitimate relation to our problematical social condition, with its total insecurity and lack of harmony; whether all illusion, even the most beautiful, and especially the most beautiful, has not become a lie today. (192)
Leverkühn subsequently longs for a strong personality to establish a new order out of fragmented modernism.
"You need only recall," he said, "how I defended the childish tyranny of [Beissel's] master and servant against your accusation of silly rationalism. What instinctively pleased me about it was itself something instinctive and naively consistent with the spirit of music; the will, which it suggested in its own comical way, to establish something like a strict style. We may well need someone like him, though on a less childish level, today, just as badly as his flock needed him back then - we could use a master of system, a schoolmaster of objectivity and organization, with enough genius to combine the elements of restoration, indeed of the archaic, with revolution. . . ."

He had to laugh. (202)
Shortly afterwards Leverkühn has an encounter with a demonic figure, if we are to believe a document he left behind that Zeitblom provides in its entirety. It purports to be Leverkühn's transcription of a dialogue between himself and a Mephistopheles type, who is either real or an imaginary personification of Leverkühn's thoughts on art and morality.
He (without annoyance): "So far, so good. Surely you are in fundamental agreement with me that it can be termed neither sentimental nor malicious if one acknowledges the facts of one's world and time. Certain things are no longer possible. The illusion of emotions as a compositional work of art, music's self-indulgent illusion, has itself become impossible and cannot be maintained - the which has long since consisted of inserting preexisting, formulaic, and dispirited elements as if they were the inviolable necessity of this single occurrence. Or put it the other way round: The special occurrence assumes an air as if it were identical with the preexisting, familiar formula. for four hundred years all great music found contentment in pretending such unity was achieved without a breach, took pleasure in conventional universal legitimation, which it endeavors to confuse with its own concerns. My friend, it will work no more. Criticism of ornament, of convention, of abstract generality - they are all one and the same. What falls prey to criticism is the outward show of the bourgeois work of art, an illusion in which music takes part, though it produces no external image. . . The claim to presume the general as harmonically contained within the particular is a self-contradiction. It is all up with conventions once considered prerequisite and compulsory, the guarantors of the game's freedom" (256-257)
Mephistopheles offers him twenty-four years of musical greatness in exchange for Leverkühn's renouncement of love. It is revealed that the prostitute Esmeralda with whom Leverkühn had had a one-night stand had given him syphilis. Its slowly progressing madness promises to grant Leverkühn untold-of heights of creative inspiration even as it ruins him physically as well as mentally. Settling on a farm outside Munich, Leverkühn takes up with a small group of intellectuals, most of whom (with the exception of Zeitblom) eventually meet tragic and untimely deaths. The affluent but empty lifestyle of Ines Rodde, for instance, who meets her end through morphine and jealousy, illustrates the spiritual vacuity of the German bourgeoisie. Thus the original circle is slowly supplanted by such figures as Georg Vogler and Dr. Holzschuher who long for a new age of disciplined harshness and ironclad ideology to arise from the softness and decadence they perceive as the fruits of unrestrained freedom.

Between periods of blinding migraines and illness, Leverkühn composes several daring and avant-garde works such as the opera Apocalypse, which he begins in 1919 shortly after Germany's defeat in the Great War. He speaks to Zeitblom of the need to unite art and the people:
". . . But what we call the refining of the complicated into the simple is ultimately the same thing as regaining vitality and the power of feeling. Whoever might be able to achieve the - how would you put it? . . . the breakthrough, you'd say, whoever might achieve the breakthrough out of intellectual coldness into a risk-filled world of new feeling, that person would be called art's redeemer. Redemption, . . . a Romantic word; and a word that harmonists love, shoptalk for the bliss of harmonic music's resolved cadences. Funny, isn't it, how for a long time music saw itself as a means of redemption, and all the while, like all art, it needed redemption, that is, needed to be redeemed from a solemn isolation that was the fruit of culture's emancipation, of the elation of culture to ersatz religion - needed to be redeemed, from being left along with a cultured elite, known as the 'audience,' which will soon no longer exist, which already no longer exists, so that art will soon be all alone, alone to fade away and die, unless, that is, it should find a way to the volk, or to put it un-Romantically, to human beings?" (338-339)
A central tenet of Doctor Faustus, Mann would later say, is the mistake of intellectuals such as himself and his avatar Selenius Zeitblom to regard art and society as separate spheres, even after the First World War aptly demonstrated the ability of war to unite nations and lay aside old rules in favor of patriotic redemption.
If war is felt to be, so to speak, with more or less clarity, a universal ordeal, in which each individual - and each individual nation - must do what he must do and be ready to atone with his blood for the frailties and sins of the epoch, including his own, if war presents itself to the emotions as a sacrificial rite by which the old Adam is laid aside so that a new, higher life may be secured in unity, then quotidian morality is thereby superseded and falls silent before what is extraordinary. (317)
The brief glory, degeneration, and downfall of Leverkühn mirrors that of Germany itself. The national devil was, of course, Hitler, who promised a defeated and directionless society a new beginning and united all aspects of life - including art - under the banner of his seductive gospel of the Thousand-Year Reich. In the seconds leading up to his collapse Leverkühn laments the confused, wandering spirit of the age that turns to the Devil, figuratively speaking, as the only alternative to a life of uncertain freedom.
"Item, my desperate heart did trifle it. Had indeed a good fleet brain and gifts granted me from on high, which I could have used in all honesty and modesty, but felt only too well: It is an age when no work is to be done in pious, sober fashion and by proper means, and art has grown impossible sans the Devil's aid and hellish fire beneath the kettle. . . . Yes, ah yes, beloved fellows, that art is stuck fast and grown too difficult and God's poor man in his distress no longer knows up from down, that is surely the guilt of the age. But should a man make the Devil his guest in order thereby to go beyond and break through, he indicts his soul and hangs the guilt of the age around his own neck, so that he be damned. For it is said: Be sober, be vigilent [sic]! But that is not the business of some, and rather than wisely to attend to what is needful one earth, that it might be there better, and prudently to act that among men such order be stablished that may again prepare lively soil and honest accommodation for the beautiful work, man would prefer to play the truant and break out into hellish drunkenness, thus giving his soul to it and ending upon the shambles." (523-524)
It is easy to see Mann speaking through Zeitblom and exploring his own grief and anger at his homeland's apocalyptic self-destruction. Doctor Faustus is very much a metafictional novel, with Zeitblom/Mann discussing the process and form of the work itself in the context of the current global conflict. A problem I have often had with frame narratives is the first-person narrator's apparent ability to reconstruct entire conversations from memory; here, however, Zeitblom seems to be using the dialogue to discuss various areas of German intellectual thought in the decades leading to the rise of the Nazi party. The characters' highly structured, organized sentences simply do not feel like natural speech, and it is easy to accept them as Zeitblom's subjective reinterpretations of past conversations in light of his present emotional state. This further links the fate of Leverkühn to that of Germany as a whole and establishes Doctor Faustus as, first and foremost, Mann's own literary means of coming to terms with Germany's spiritual and literal ruin.

The original translator was H.T. Lowe-Porter, who used Middle English to correspond to the passages originally written in Early New High German, a task she described as quite difficult. Mann himself acknowledges this through Zeitblom's thoughts on the publication of his completed work: ". . . I have now and then considered ways and means for having these pages reach America, so that for now at least they could be presented to people there in English translation. . . . Granted, the thought that in terms of content my book would surely arouse puzzlement in that cultural sphere is coupled with an anxious concern that its translation into English, at least in certain of its all too radically German passages, would prove an impossibility" (528-529). John Woods's second translation, which came out in 1997, is the one I read and it does not attempt to mirror the archaic German. I don't speak German and nor did I read Lowe-Porter's version; nevertheless I did not feel that anything was lacking and found the highly stylized speech of Mephistopheles and occasionally Leverkühn to be extremely well-done and a joy to read.

Other works by Thomas Mann I have read are the short stories "Death in Venice," "The Blood of the Walsungs," and "Tristan."

Kamelot, "March of Mephisto" (The Black Halo)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Muted Malmö

A flat owned by Nina Bergsten in Malmö, Sweden. Furnishings are a mix of family heirlooms, IKEA, and Paris flea market finds.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


On January 18, Boing Boing will join Reddit (and Wikipedia) and other sites around the Internet in "going dark" to oppose SOPA and PIPA, the pending US legislation that creates a punishing Internet censorship regime and exports it to the rest of the world. Boing Boing could never co-exist with a SOPA world: we could not ever link to another website unless we were sure that no links to anything that infringes copyright appeared on that site. So in order to link to a URL on LiveJournal or WordPress or Twitter or Blogspot, we’d have to first confirm that no one had ever made an infringing link, anywhere on that site. Making one link would require checking millions (even tens of millions) of pages, just to be sure that we weren’t in some way impinging on the ability of five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, and six global publishers to maximize their profits. If we failed to take this precaution, our finances could be frozen, our ad broker forced to pull ads from our site, and depending on which version of the bill goes to the vote, our domains confiscated, and, because our server is in Canada, our IP address would be added to a US-wide blacklist that every ISP in the country would be required to censor.

This is the part of the post where I’m supposed to say something reasonable like, "Everyone agrees that piracy is wrong, but this is the wrong way to fight it." But you know what? Screw that. Even though a substantial portion of my living comes from the entertainment industry, I don’t think that any amount of "piracy" justifies this kind of depraved indifference to the consequences of one’s actions. Big Content haven’t just declared war on Boing Boing and Reddit and the rest of the "fun" Internet: they’ve declared war on every person who uses the net to publicize police brutality, every oppressed person in the Arab Spring who used the net to organize protests and publicize the blood spilled by their oppressors, every abused kid who used the net to reveal her father as a brutalizer of children, every gay kid who used the net to discover that life is worth living despite the torment she’s experiencing, every grassroots political campaigner who uses the net to make her community a better place — as well as the scientists who collaborate online, the rescue workers who coordinate online, the makers who trade tips online, the people with rare diseases who support each other online, and the independent creators who use the Internet to earn their livings. The contempt for human rights on display with SOPA and PIPA is more than foolish. Foolishness can be excused. It’s more than greed. Greed is only to be expected. It is evil, and it must be fought.
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