Against the Day I & II
Jan Augustin van der Goes / spider / 1690
Ben Nicholson / Cumberland landscape – Walton Wood Cottage no 2 /1928
Jay White / Passing Between Place / 2013
Margareta de Heer / A beetle on a branch … / 1603 – 1665
by Margaux Williamson
1. Trickster Makes This World (2010) – book by Lewis Hyde
Best book ever, man. Lewis Hyde examines the origin stories of hunger, rule breaking and loopholes from different cultures all over the world. I would call it invaluable – and dense. For some reason I didn’t think I would like it, so I read the chapters that seemed most interesting, then I started from the beginning and read the whole thing again, losing it twice along the way. I could say a lot about it, but mainly, if I knew you, I would buy it for you. The subject matter of “tricksters” might seem specific, but this book is far-reaching and deep. And rigorous.
Because the book looks to so many different cultures, it inevitably seems to create a new one – but because the subject matter is about corrupting what becomes too immovable, this new world culture doesn’t feel oppressive, it just feels older and wiser and full of troublemakers who are here to help.
2. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1975) – a memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston
Trickster Makes This World cited the work of a lot of people I love and am familiar with, like Marcel Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg and Frederick Douglass, but also one I didn’t know – Maxine Hong Kingston. I ended up picking up her book The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts shortly after reading Trickster Makes This World. The voice of the book is angry and uncertain, the heroine trying to figure out what is real from the old world or the new world, from inside her house or outside. It’s like she is throwing her arms and legs around to figure out what the actual boundaries are, and in doing so, finds the new framework of her specific world. It is epic and intimate.
According to Wikipedia, the book:
…has maintained a “vexed reception history that both attests to its popularity and questions it.” Much of the debate concerns issues dealing with “autobiographical accuracy, cultural authenticity, and ethnic representativeness,” while the critical center of the battle is whether or not Kingston offers a faithful representation of Chinese culture and of Chinese-Americans.
The book was criticized by the American writer Frank Chin for being “unChinese” and “a fake” and by the Chinese American writer Jeffery Paul Chan for being called non-fiction and for belittling Chinese-American experiences.
Both criticisms brought to mind another captivating and subversive book I read this year: I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus, a book that attracted similar criticisms from male colleagues but did well to wait for the younger critics, as seen in this really good essay on the author by Elizabeth Gumport. Here’s a passage from I Love Dick that Gumport quotes in her piece:
Because most “serious” fiction, still, involves the fullest possible expression of a single person’s subjectivity, it’s considered crass and amateurish not to “fictionalize” the supporting cast of characters, changing names and insignificant features of their identities. The “serious contemporary hetero-male novel” is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to “characters.” . . .
When women try to pierce this false conceit by naming names because our “I”s are changing as we meet other “I”s, we’re called bitches, libelers, pornographers, and amateurs.
Well said, Chris Kraus.
3. The animated movies of Studio Ghibli at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox
Greatest art pleasure of the year: a month-long program of Studio Ghibli animated movies at the TIFF cinemas during the spring. For movies that continuously touch on the battle between nature living and dead, there is no better venue than a warm theatre in a cold Toronto March.
4. Idle No More
It’s been amazing to see the different Canadian Aboriginal communities move together for the Idle No More protests across the country. It made me think of the smallest and the biggest gestures of trying to right wrongs and change your neighbourhood or the world. Small things like – I took a Canadian art history course once with a professor named Lynda Jessup. Maybe assuming we had already had our fill of the Group of 7 and their nature, Lynda Jessup taught us about the dead Catholic nun paintings (doesn’t count as vanity if you get your portrait done after death) from the early white colonialists, and then went straight to contemporary First Nations, Inuit and Métis art. Her course program gave me a sense that Canada was more exciting than it would lead you to believe. I felt grateful for it, and to other small and big gestures from friends and groups like the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival where I’ve seen great and surprising things including, this past year, Alanis Obomsawin’s movie The People of the Kattawapiskak River, about the Attawapiskat housing crisis, which I wrote about here.
5. All the wrong people telling all the right stories
I started the year off reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) on my Kindle – about a poor young white boy and an escaped slave’s adventures around the Mississippi river in the mid-19th-century . Somehow, Ernest Hemingway’s critique of the book had always stuck in my head. Hemingway said it was the greatest American novel, the novel that all other American novels come from, except for the horrible few last chapters , which no one should read. Though I hadn’t read Huckleberry Finn, I assumed Hemingway was wrong – maybe out of a random but sturdy loyalty to Mark Twain that must have ignited when I put on a Mark Twain wig and mustache at age ten for a school play.
Hemingway wasn’t wrong. Huckleberry Finn is a remarkable book and I wanted very much to cut out the last chapters and grind them down in my compost and let the worms eat them.
Suddenly feeling closer to Ernest Hemingway, I finally read his beautiful The Sun Also Rises about an American in Spain saying something about America. A book that made me feel that my alcohol consumption is totally moderate. Which echoed in my mind as I later read Ben Lerner’s beautiful novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) about a more contemporary man in Spain who is there to write something about Spain but then says something about America. A book that made me feel that my drug consumption was totally moderate.
But back to Huckleberry Finn; those terrible last chapters of Huckelberry Finn, and the great majority of chapters, kept thoughts of appropriation, political engagement and entertainment in my mind all year – thoughts heightened by good movies like Beasts of the Southern Wild (made by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar), Django Unchained (made by Quentin Tarantino) and The Paperboy (made by Lee Daniels). What those movies have in common with each other and with Huckleberry Finn is the Deep South, complicated appropriation of voice, and a desire to go towards pleasure, beauty, fantasy and heroes within stories that are fundamentally painful.
Appropriation is always a complicated issue. For me personally for instance, I always wish more men wrote in women’s voices. Though of course people are bound to get things terribly wrong, it’s hard not to see an empathy or loyalty develop to characters you work hard to identify with. Which suddenly makes me remember some interesting articles by Sarah Bakewell on Montaigne that ran in the Guardian last year (oh! now I see it’s a book). To sum up her summing up Montaigne: “Once you have seen the world from someone else’s perspective, it becomes harder to torture, hunt, or kill them.”
I heard Kevin Hegge, who made the movie She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column about the all-woman Toronto rock band, be asked on the radio this past year if he had been hesitant about directing a movie that was so much about women’s voices. He said he tries very hard not to take offense at the assumption that a woman directing would have been uncomplicated. There are women who are not feminists, he said, continuing: I am a feminist – a feminist needed to direct this movie.
I think that’s what he said. I didn’t write it down.
6. Behavioral science: B.F. Skinner wasn’t totally wrong
Speaking of Montaigne trying to see things from other cultural perspectives (but mainly trying to imagine what his cat was thinking), behavioral science came back in fashion this year, or at least it seemed so to me after reading David H. Freedman’s article The Perfected Self, which lingered in my mind long after reading it. I always kind of liked B.F. Skinner, having picked up his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity because I thought the title was funny, but ending up really appreciating it and B.F. Skinner along the way. This was all in my mind as I read Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken about how gamers have this sense that reality is broken because reality feels so much less meaningful and rewarding than video games. Though the book contains matter-of-fact lines like “we know regular life is meaningless, so …”, it’s a somewhat hilariously practical approach to thinking about how humans can change their behavior.
7. Dante’s Inferno (around 1320)
I had no idea how gentle and completely captivating this book was. I loved especially the first realm of hell, Limbo. It felt like a best-of, having all the people in history unlucky to be born just before Jesus. Even apart from finding Homer, Penthesilea, Orpheus, Plato and Euclid there, it felt so familiar. Dante’s empathy with the sufferers he came upon as he carried on through the realms of hell made you really feel sad that the work isn’t part of the bible.
Loved this painting this year:
Also loved this one by Chris Ofili that stayed in my head all year:
8. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) – movie by Lynne Ramsay
With some of the movies I mentioned above, I thought about the function of fantasy and entertainment in regards to painful political situations. For instance, Mark Twain’s attempt at a happy ending for a story that is contained firmly within the time of slavery. Or Quentin Tarantino with Django Unchained, staging a story two years before slavery ends, adding to the story a triumphant ending no less – Tarantino getting as close to hope and a hero as one could possibly fantasize about. I couldn’t help but imagine the opposite movie, a movie not about the near end of American slavery but about the beginning, a story that would feel centuries away from hope – how impossible it would be. How it hurts to even imagine. How not like the movies it would feel. I thought about these things in positive terms, not just as though it’s dumb or dangerous to find delicious and pleasurable stories to tell within the worst stories that we have, but also that it serves a purpose.
The movie that stayed with me most in this way this year was Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. I had never thought of the genre of reckless-feminist-fantasy movie (in this case, a shifting-of-perspectives fantasy contained within a nightmare situation). But this seemingly effortless masterpiece is now my favourite of the genre. I’ll write more about it soon.
9. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) – book by Stephen Greenblatt
Speaking of happy endings to the worst stories we have, Stephen Greenblatt wrote a brilliant book that I somehow couldn’t put down, about a book hunter and a book that may have greatly contributed to the undoing the spell of the centuries-long dark ages. He tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a book hunter and papal secretary from the 15th century who found the poet Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, a work written in the first century BC in service of Epicurean ideas. Lucretius’ work includes explanations of atoms, evolution and returning to the ground when you die. The Swerve flies from the 15th century back to the collapse of the Roman Empire, forward to the Renaissance, back to the dark ages and forward again to *spoiler* Thomas Jefferson. Within all the most painful stories about where humans can go and how long they can stay there, it tells the best story – the one about how one beautiful book saved the world.
10. Lena Dunham’s television show Girls
Lena Dunham’s television series Girls is great – as many people have said and many have disagreed with. I love that virgin character and her virgin-lover.
All the criticism about the lack of people of colour on the show was true, but so strange in comparison with all the other popular shows by white men that leave everyone out. It made me think that maybe white men are still universal and white women are still just white women.
Or maybe the creators’ casually audacious attempt to be universal with the title “Girls” but be so so specific in content is what brought on the attention. But maybe that’s good. Maybe we can add it to the pile of universal specifics that is getting more interesting by the day. We can know it as Lena Dunham’s Girls, right there next to Rye Rye’s Hardcore Girls, next to these true crime hardcore girls, next to my sweet little nieces (who are girls).
Since I’m suddenly lost in the subject of girls, let’s go to Honey Boo Boo child and recognize that she, Alana, is a powerful child-pageant contestant who is destroying the perverse realm of learned femininity and child sexuality from within. On television, she gets to use her own words rather than speaking the words that someone in an office far away wrote for her. She might not be writing her own scenes yet, but she’s in control of the dialogue and she’s pretty great at dialogue.
Back to Lena Dunham’s Girls. The most criticism I saw for the show seemed to initially come out of New York. It’s hard to do something in your hometown I guess. And maybe the story of second-generation artists and trust-fund kids running around in the city without looking out at the world is a more embarrassing story than the one New York used to be able to tell. But you got to use what you’ve got. When the neighbourhood changes, the story changes.
11. Speaking of using what you’ve got: Friends in my Toronto neighbourhood
Darren O’Donnell continues to be one of the most interesting artists around, with his and others’ Mammalian Diving Reflex (“Ideal Entertainment for the End of the World”) and the band of teenagers The Torontonians growing in art and skill.
Lynn Crosbie, who wrote one of my favourite essays this year about violence in movies, continued to devastate and bring the sun in with her beautiful book Life is About Losing Everything.
And Sheila Heti, whose latest book I acted in, continues to get much-deserved rave reviews like this really smart one from Joanna Biggs of the London Review of Books.
* Honourable mentions: Los Angeles – you are so beautiful in January. Attack the Block – you were as good as E.T.