Sex Books, Day 3: Bataille, Story of the Eye, “The Antique Wardrobe”

…in which I argue that the use of shocking acts of sex within an otherwise normal domestic setting is analogous to the concept of “the sublime” for a post-romantic, cynical modern audience. 

At some point in all good erotica, one needs to sit down with a few sheets of paper, a pencil, a ruler, and a deep understanding that it’s okay to make mistakes and start from scratch. Without these tools, it’s simply impossible to visualize what the hell is going on. In fact, in the first chapter of The Story of the Eye, I spent a good ten minutes trying to work out what position the characters were in, and I completely failed. This time, I came up with this:

Story of the Eye, Figure 2.1

Indeed, I use an asterisk for assholes, and a coffeebean for vaginas. The first thing one realizes is that this is a very difficult section of the body to draw. The geography is simply confounding. But, as the chapter begins, “that was the period when Simone developed a mania for breaking eggs with her ass,” we’re pretty much forced to come to terms with precisely how she pulls this off (particularly if we’ve read the book before). So, there you have it. Also, a list of things that go on in this chapter: eggs broke with ass, piss on mother (accident), piss on tablecloth (on purpose), begging to be pissed on (during seizure), sex with a wardrobe (inside is locked another girl, masturbating), and an orgy of teens with broken glass and puking.

The scene at the end is one of the most memorable in the book, reminiscent of the ending of Hamlet, actually, the essential tragicomedy. As Hamlet closes, pretty much everyone you’ve met over the past three hours is piled up dead on stage, an ending I always look forward to: it never fails to please.

Here, a bunch of teens go to a tea party, get drunk, have an orgy that includes much pissing, bleeding, and puking, and they’re all strewn about the floor at the end…when their parents show up to take them home.

And one girl, the one who’s kinda raped in the first chapter, she’s been locked in a wardrobe and pretty much stuck there the whole afternoon, so when she emerges, this is the scene she encounters, runs to her mother…whom she begins biting. End scene.

What are we supposed to get from this? I think the big question is: are we supposed to laugh? or be horrified? or be aroused? Let’s focus on the slightly surreal qualities.

The surrealists, IMHO, prided themselves on works being completely disconnected from life, which is the reason why they failed and bickered so much–because it’s pretty much impossible to achieve their ends. There’s a “willing suspension of disbelief” required simply to absorb an exquisite corpse, or running from theatre to theatre while drunk–the difficulty isn’t the creative disconnect–anyone can create an exquisite corpse–the difficulty is for the audience, who must accept the art without question, without interpretation, without seeking meaning or moral or even identity. We’ve all channel-surfed while drunk, I’m sure–but our immediate instinct is to seek disconnect and renewed narratives, rather than seek an incoherent whole. In short, I think surrealism is meant to be a vehicle for achieving what one might achieve without surrealism anyway, and I think it’s unnatural.

Anyway, looking at work by Dali, there’s always something you can latch onto, whether a table, a hand, or a timepiece; of course, a painter of his calibre would think too highly of himself to throw all his talent into abstract expressionism when he could create new realities based on a classical education. And it’s here, the “latch,” so to speak, where I find the great parallel: Chapter 1 takes us to a cliff in the middle of a storm, which leads us naturally to Byron’s Manfred:

Ye toppling crags of ice!
Ye avalanches, whom a breath draws down
In mountainous o’erwhelming, come and crush me!         80
I hear ye momently above, beneath,
Crash with a frequent conflict; but ye pass,
And only fall on things that still would live;
On the young flourishing forest, or the hut
And hamlet of the harmless villager.

And to King Lear, 

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

 And lastly, back to Bataille, in which the first chapter ends with the three kids on the top of a cliff during a thunderstorm, Simone rubbing her face in a mud puddle, masturbating with mud, and forcing Marcelle’s legs open.

What’s familiar to us is this motif: humanity encounters the sublime and is thereby induced to madness. In Byron, the growing mist and potential avalanches lead Manfred to a dramatic plea for assisted suicide, as observed by a hunter; in Shakespeare, Lear’s madness is encouraged by his perception and dialogue with the storm, the balance provided by the Fool and others; in Bataille, the kids are moved from the simple pleasures of one pissing on the other’s sex to a mad rape in the mud–and it isn’t the narrator who is the collected observer, it’s Marcelle, in her continual horror at the narrator’s actions.

Manfred: cliffs -> avalanches -> hunter
Lear: wilderness -> thunderstorm -> the fool
Eye: cliffs -> thunderstorm -> Marcelle

This weakness at the point of possible transcendence isn’t a modern notion either, it’s present at least as far back as Leviticus 16:2, as (let’s take the KJV for the sake of ease) “and the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto Aaron thy brother, that he come not at all times into the holy place within the vail before the mercy seat, which is upon the ark; that he die not: for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat,” i.e., encounter that which transcends normal human experience, and you will die.

Moving this all forward by one degree, to actual modernity, by the time of Bataille, there is no longer anything sublime in the world. There are still popular artistic rubber stamps of the sublime, but we’re now dealing with a world in which every man went off to risk his life under clouds, not of thunderstorms, but of mustard gas. What is natural has been harnessed and destroyed. What is reality is domesticity and war, and we are doomed to civilization, now under the rule not of monarchs, but of republicans, not of the church, but of science, for it was indeed science that bombed out so many great cathedrals, and from a great multitude of tongues, now unification under a few flags, nationalities, a great simplistic one-ness. What in life is shocking anymore?

So, we are moved to the sitting-room for a tea party (watch this, I’ve mentioned “republicans” and “tea party” in a single post, so I’m going to get a shitload of confused ideologues trying to figure out what’s going on here. no, seriously–do you know how many people find my blog because they’re trying to get information about hens?)…and what is sublime is no longer the “ye crags, upon whose extreme edge / I stand” (Byron), but “the deep crack of [Simone’s] buttocks” (Bataille); what is sublime is no longer the “cataracts and hurricanoes,” of Shakespeare, but rather Simone, “jerking off with the earth and coming violently, whipped by the downpour,” her madness now “piss on me…Piss on my cunt” finalized by Marcelle’s “jeremiad of howls that grew more and more inhuman,” even causing terror to the narrator himself.

Essentially, when the sublime is no longer awesome in our eyes, what is there left to which we can retreat? Each other. I think the lesson here is that if we cannot find the sublime in each others’ eyes, in each others’ bodies, in each others’ hearts, in this modern world we’re left with nothing else, our cathedrals destroyed by bombs, our mountains destroyed by poets and painters, and we, somehow still virginal and unexplored, await that moment when we might lead each other to transcendence.

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Sex Books, Day 1: The Story of the Eye & The Story of O

And so we begin by speaking of love. The tamest, most secret longings our hearts felt in grade school. We stray at some point, a million stories left untold. But, we reach today, when our fresh stories are more interesting to us than our stale ones. And then what? You get involved in stories of love that are so painfully hilarious so as to lead one to the grocery store determined to find this or that to correct potential vitamin deficiencies and swearing not to resort to prayer and absolutely not to read one’s horoscope.

In short, I turn to the one genre my bookshelves hold the most of…determined to approach the books with the same aesthetic eye as I do everything else. When I read Shakespeare, I do so with one question: what turns me on? And that’s in that electrical aesthetic sense that makes Walter Pater still a glorious read despite the knowledge that he’s no longer a trustworthy source…he writes beautifully. But, as with anyone else, it is not simply beautiful sentences, elegant concepts, and poignant stories that turn me on…it’s also all the basest, most animal horrors of the boudoir that I approach with the same delicacy as when deciding which apples, in all their bruised, cloudy-skinned, fingernail-marked pageantry I’ll take home with me. Usually to forget and let rot in the fridge. What can I say?

So, assuming my potassium intake is sufficient, out comes the books! Let’s take a look at two of their intros and rate their efficacy:

The Story of the Eye and The Story of O.

The Story of the Eye

For the record, everything romantic that’s ever emerged from France was thanks to native-English speakers.

Eye begins with the author’s origin-tale, explaining quickly that things are about to get fucked up for reasons that can be explained away in psychoanalysis: from a young age, both he and his gal have felt a nervousness about all things sexual. What I didn’t understand the first time I read this book was that this nervousness is indistinguishable from other things that make one nervous, insofar as their manifestations go. Without that understanding, the book won’t make sense. Before a first date you feel much the same as before a job interview. This may include nausea. Nausea is also the feeling they get after decapitating a girl accidentally. The point being that while we can say “dates cause anxiety” and “job interviews cause anxiety,” the nausea and dry mouth and shakiness, we don’t tend to associate the two with each other beyond that. Much more so if we consider “dates cause anxiety” and “near car-accidents cause anxiety.” The two in this story do treat the anxieties as one and the same. So it sounds like fiction because…well, who does that?

There’s one key detail that it hinges on, though: the anxiety never dissipates. And that’s why I don’t think this story could have been written before The Great War, because it was there that we first learned on a mass scale what constant anxiety does to people. What if the anxiety remains, through the first date, through the second, through the hundredth, through a million orgasms? At that point anxiety is resolutely tied to love, to sex. And if even looking at a girl’s knees gives you anxiety, then how do you possibly handle the things in life that would give anyone else anxiety? How do you handle pain and fear and death?

And that’s the only way I can make sense of this book…I refuse to allow it to be a story of two creepy kids doing creepy things with each other. I had a friend whose sex life was extremely violent. I mean, by mutual consent. So, when the woman told him she wanted the relationship taken to the next level, i.e., he move in and be like a father to her son, my friend said “no way” and the woman clocked him right in the face. Out of anger. And my friend, (this is actually a friend of mine, not a story about me, I swear, I think the story is just as fucked up as you do), my friend was confused because he wasn’t sure if she just wanted a nice romp…or if she was actually angry.

And that’s why I don’t read in bed–because the last thing I want to do is associate reading with sleepiness. How does chapter one score? Like, 2 out of 10, like, trying to hang an electric blanket on a flagpole on a breezy day. But…that 2 of 10 is enough to bring me back to the next chapter.

The Story of O

The Story of O. Here’s where my logic entirely breaks down. If Eye could only come post-WWI, then O could only come post-WWII because I just don’t get it. It’s like, okay, so people’s faces melted to their chests in Hiroshima, I get it, but I don’t really, really get it. I mean, that’s crazy shit. The most remarkable thing in this chapter is the author’s endless descriptions of all things cloth, whether as clothing or upholstery. How it moves, feels, appears in the light, its drape, its emotional value. It’s that sort of thing that leads one to say “ah! this was written by a woman” and which leads me to say “ah! this was maybe written by Somerset Maugham.”

Secondly, I remark upon the narrator, who takes it upon him/herself to describe, midway through a somewhat sexual sequence taking place indoors that “the rain had stopped and the trees were swaying in the wind while the moon raced high among the clouds.” Fascinating. For a number of reasons. Firstly, the moon does not race anywhere ever. It’s about as well-regulated as anything possibly can be. It’s the clouds that were racing due to the wind that swayed the trees. Also, the moon was not anywhere “among” the clouds–it was in the same moony realm in which it’s always resided. This calls to mind the thin streak of cloud moving across the moon in that horrid Bunuel/Dali film, immediately followed by the razor slicing the eyeball in much the same fashion. And, so this relatively tranquil scene is followed immediately by the heroine tied up, whipped, gang-raped, confessing “I love you” while a man is gagging her with his dick, and being turned into a slave.

Let’s pause here to mention that one of my favorite films is Secretary. I understand the concept of wanting to do anything for love–that is, of absolutely needing to define oneself through another’s projected image of you. That’s the desire to be loved. Project who you think I am on me, I’ll play along if you’ll possess me, and hopefully by the time you realize the truth you’ll be in so deep that you’re stuck for life. Love!

And I’m not horrified in reading this. But I’m not turned on in any way whatsoever. I don’t care. I don’t feel titillation or excitement or a fetid desire to turn the page. I just don’t care. I’m achingly bored. This gets a 0 out of 10 in my opinion. That’s like turning the flagpole into aluminum cans.

So, if you had to guess, it’d be that I’m more turned on by stories that involve anxiety disorders than stories that involve BDSM. But not by much. And…overall this experiment is, so far, failing.

Allen: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1980)

I’m drinking my father’s beer, just pizzazzed up (shouldn’t the plural of pizza be pizzazz?) my mother’s stirfry with WHOLE WHEAT PASTA, lime juice, teriyaki sauce, tobasco, and sugar (it was DREADFUL…i’m so sorry), and this film made me laugh about things I wouldn’t have found humor in a decade ago.

“Can sex and love be different from each other?”
“Sure! Sex relieves tension and love causes it.”

Yo ho ho.

I was inspecting some toolbag’s bookshelves and found them to be remarkable in what can only be described as their retention. Goethe, Anais Nin, Hofstadter, how lovely to be well-read. And is it possible to, in this day and age, use it for evil? What with most of the fine educations, okay, all the fine educations, going to the well-endowed, mustn’t those without satin shoes and saffron condoms be at least of fortunate demeanor? I simply do not want to read anymore, not if it will turn me into a wrinkly arse, a mean-spirited so-and-so, an upstart crow.

Why shouldn’t Woody Allen make whatever films he pleases? And why shouldn’t he place himself in the lead? And why shouldn’t he remake classics to suit himself? He’s also prolific, which is an archaic concept, even for serious-minded graffitists. In the vast sea of collegiate dung, at least one can find a few diamonds, which the dung would claim were formed in the collegiate intestines, but which were truly just indigestible. Like twigs.

Better to be a twig than dung, but your salary won’t be nearly so high. So you probably won’t have healthcare.

Anyway, “Wooden Allen, or Artificial Exteriors” is written by Bert Cardullo in The Hudson Review, and he doesn’t even notice himself being mocked in Sex Comedy, as he writes with the same tone as Leopold speaks. Allen is a TV comic writer (mais si, si, I differenciate between comedic and comic, I’m a big pile of dung) and not worthy of sharing a sentence with Strindberg, the artistic godfather of O’Neill (who knew his place) and Bergman (whom Allen lathered up and shaved and smeared all the shaving-filth onto film and made his career, ah, ah)–Allen is clearly not the person we think he wants to be and is therefore a sympathetic puddle of redundancy, and and and and here’s another nine pages of what I think is important.

If only a fine education was expected and received by all…first, there’d be no Sarah Palin, and second, those of intellectual prowess would stop coddling the pricks of these useless critics whose life-experience begins and ends before their belly-button strings are thrown away. Senses and emotions, yes, indeed, those things bouncing around inside the plebs!

You know what I think of Ben Jonson? I walked out of a Ben Jonson performance. Senses and emotions, you can’t discuss them if you haven’t any yourself, you can’t appreciate the bouquet of wine when you can’t appreciate the bouquet of the earth at night, or the snow, or the deep autumn forest. But you can believe that’s precisely what you’re doing. And that’s culture. And you’re wrong, wrong, wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

And I might never read again.

Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

I haven’t any idea why both Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart hold such happy places in my heart–but they do. This is the sort of Hitchcock I enjoy most, when I’m not left feeling sick and paranoid. Well, right now I’m feeling sick because I’ve been drinking coffee all night and that’s a miserable thing for one to do. Beyond everything else, what I found striking in this film was his character development, which extended beyond the individuals and into their relationships with one another. I argue that Hitchcock takes the archetype of the hero/homecoming story for his model, but improves and modernizes it (don’t the two always go hand in hand?) by giving us two heroes whose ‘home’ is contentment in marriage; and I don’t mean that marriage is the goal, as in much of comedic Shakespeare, but rather more like in Austen, where characters battle each other and themselves in order to discover why a marriage would be happy.

Hitchcock throws us in some sense in media res by placing us at what proves to be the crucial moment in a troubled marriage. And then, rather than relying on flashbacks a la Telemachus to divulge the prehistory, the characters themselves drop hints. The first indicator in the film that this Hitchcock follows the archetype is that the film is neatly divided into two segments, both of which begin and end abruptly, and all hints are found within the first segment. A third segment is the one that occurs before the film, being the one only hinted at. The Morocco segment lays out all the problems: the marriage is in trouble, and the son is kidnapped. The kidnapping of the son arguably is a result of the failing marriage, and the London segment is dedicated to saving the son and fixing the marriage.

The first thing I noticed was that the son talks a lot. He’s obnoxious because he’s constantly commenting on everything his parents say, usually in a way that serves to lift the mood of the conversation though he acts as if he doesn’t know he’s being witty or funny. I’ve seen children act like this before–it’s how they desperately attempt to keep everyone happy. It’s how they try to prevent their parents from arguing.

1. Ben (Jimmy Stewart) says he’s called his wife ‘Jo’ for so long that he’s forgotten that she’s called anything else–her name is actually Josephine. Not only has he forgotten who she is, but he’s also given her a new name, which, as in the first chapters of Genesis, is a way of acquiring domination over anyone/anything.

2. They easily get caught up in tiffs. This is maintained throughout the Morocco segment and ends with the London segment, when they immediately begin working together seamlessly.

3. He’s fickle about what he feels strongly about, or else he tries to take up her cause with excess vigor. When he pushes aside her distrust of Louis Bernard, after she insists he finally becomes enraged with Bernard, to the point that even Jo tries to calm him down–because his emotions don’t make any sense. This is what made me begin taking notes, because it made me believe they’d had a fight in the past to which he was reacting.

4. She wants to have another baby. She brings this fact up entirely out of the blue. To us. But it’s a continuation of a series of conversations that take place in the pre-film segment that we don’t see.

5. They have monthly fights. They let us know this–and the ‘monthly’ bit threw me off because it inevitably implies that it’s her fault, but it’s not Ben who says it. She asks, ‘Ben, are we about to have our monthly fight?’ when, if it was related to her, he would be looking to her for the answer. At the same time, this happens to be the same day that she’s mentioned that she wants another baby. The conclusion I reach is that everyone should be praised for not blaming the fights on monthly lunacy, but rather they should be blamed on a monthly reminder of fertility.

6. ‘Six months ago you told me I took too many pills,’ says Jo. They measure time with their fights; but also, if she’d merely taken one aspirin too many and had a stomach ache, she wouldn’t have pinned it to a date like this. I’m going to call it a suicide attempt. Ben says ‘you know what happens when you get excited and nervous’–and she usually becomes hysterical (whose Greek root suggests the stereotype I mean), the hysteria ultimately being what saves the day.

7. Ben’s big plan is to offer the kidnappers ‘every penny I have’ to get back their son. He’s thinking in terms of his own money, not what they share. This would be meaningless except for the detail that she’s a world-famous singer who he’s convinced to give up her career and move to a backwards town in the midwest and be supported by him. In fact, their whole Europe/Morocco vacation is being funded by him and his work as a small-town doctor. They begin and carry on a joke for quite too long about which fixed body-part or delivered baby is responsible for, i.e., ‘I’m wearing Johnny Matthews’ appendix’ and ‘All the way home we’ll be riding on Herbie Taylor’s ulcers.’ Jo’s the one who comes up with this concept–and it’s the first time they’ve discussed it, as Jo says she’s ‘never thought of it that way’ before. Where is her money, as one would expect her to be worth significantly more than he is? Who knows.

So, these are the hints. And I think what it comes down to is likely this: they made a ‘deal’ that meant her retirement, their marriage, some children, and their total settling down. It wasn’t in that order, as she’d played London four years before the film’s action, and their son is older than that, but since then she’s settled down–and another child hasn’t come. And I think this is why they fight, because he hasn’t held up his end of the deal, and he’s holding her down because he feels inadequate when he compares their respective financial values.

In the end, it takes what he regards as her weaknesses (her hysterics, when she screams and thwarts the murder; her music career, when she uses it to both find their son and keep all the bad guys occupied) to save them all. And while this occurs, he’s given the opportunity to deliver their son to her by rescuing him from near-murder. If the son was the most important focus of the film, it would have ended with his rescue, the happy family back together. But it doesn’t. There’s an additional, slightly jarring, brief scene in which the happy family returns to the hotel room: they open the hotel room door, Jo’s uppity friends who used to work with her in showbiz are waiting there for them, and only one line is spoken, Ben saying, ‘I’m sorry we were gone so long, but we go and pick up Hank’ [sorry, but the screenplay transcript I’m using was made by a Russian (seriously), and I don’t have the energy to go back and see what the actual Jimmy Stewart quote was, so you’re just going to have to imagine Jimmy Stewart speaking in broken English]. I think his apology indicates that he’s accepted Jo more fully as a person–accepted her past in music, and may be willing to give her back her career (he never flaunts her career in the film–though she’s happy to mention it, he’d prefer to discuss himself), and who knows, maybe they’ll make some more babies.

My Job & Ellis Island

My Job & Ellis Island

Half my family can’t trace their history back more than a hundred years because when we entered the harbor our names were changed, in one case a simplification of the original name, in the second case to the name of the town whence we came. Many people take for granted the fact that even have family histories, though by the complete disinterest shown by my older relatives, perhaps I’m just wrong, as they don’t seem to care in the slightest about who came before them. So it’s up to me.

In the meantime, as I transfer old medical records from handwritten to digital, a lot of these people don’t seem to have any idea how to even write their own names. I don’t hold potential illiteracy or poor handwriting/memory/deteriorating bodies against Them except insofar as it makes my job more difficult, especially considering that a large number of these troublesome records likely represent deceased patients. And what do I do? I write their names however I see fit. And their addresses. Sometimes I discover a corrected spelling of the name when two patients have the same address. A lot of people aren’t sure if they have diabetes or not. A lot of people don’t know their zip codes. A lot don’t know how to spell the name of their cities. A lot don’t check either ‘male’ or ‘female.’ A lot aren’t sure of what year they were born, and significantly more don’t know how to properly express the full date of their birth–so they take creative liberty in doing so. And then, here I am, trying to transliterate all of this into what makes the most sense to the greatest number of people in the office. But, no doubt, I get it wrong often enough. And in a way, I’m just inventing people, addresses, and medical histories; I might as well work at Ellis Island; I might as well be Shakespeare.

Bizet: Carmen (1875) (Metropolitan Opera 1987)

Agnes Baltsa is apparently a great singer, though I wouldn’t know since this is the first opera I’ve ever audited, but what I do know, without a doubt, is that she’s too old for the role of Carmen. To be sure, all four of the leads in the 1987 Met version of Carmen are vastly too old for their roles. All the makeup in the world doesn’t hide it, and I become fairly uncomfortable watching them prance around performing the roles of teenagers, really sexy teenagers, and I keep thinking of Hamlet telling his mother “you cannot call it love; for at your age / The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment.” And I cry, and I cry, and I cry, and I cry.

A note by the Royal Opera House mentioned that contemporary reviews found the music replete with dissonance, which is difficult to imagine in an age when Carmen feels like a three-hour salad dressing commercial (by the way: salad comes from the Latin for ‘salt’–which means that a plate of vegetables is nothing but a plate of vegetables until you dress it, fool). A note by the San Francisco Opera described Carmen’s death as being the ultimate act of love for herself and Don José. I don’t see any evidence for this, partially because Carmen reads her fate in the cards and only afterwards seems bent on seeking its reality. But most of all, I think she’s just a fickle whore for whom such an ending, if truly an act of love, is too good.

Anyway, seeing as I don’t know anything about opera and thus shouldn’t make comments, I’ll briefly mention the things I find interesting about the character of Micaela:

“To illustrate: opera, as a matter of convention, demands solo voices…a soprano, contralto, tenor and bass in primary roles; there are vocal combinations of these four timbres, a chorus, orchestral interludes and accompaniments. The heroine, Carmen, conceived by the composer as a contralto, needed the light, lyric quality of a soprano voice as a foil. Mérimée’s gypsy had no female rival, so that Bizet felt obliged to invent one: Micaela” (Nowinski).

“The most frequently criticized artistic concession, on the part of Bizet, is his creation of Micaela. She springs to life, fully grown like Athena, based on a single mention in Mérimée. Purists invariably conclude that she represents a violation of the author’s original story. Don José’s reminiscence of a Basque maiden is simply personified–a legitimate, conventional tool, used by dramatists. Seen in this light, and as a vocal foil for Carmen’s contralto voice, Micaela assumes genuine validity.”

I need a soprano, so how about an imaginary soprano who always knows where to find Don José, with whom other characters don’t particularly interact (except the soldiers at the outset, the situation that, according to San Francisco Opera, illustrates her pluck and tenacity), who acts as a convenient reminder of an absent mother, and disappears when the protagonist forgets to shave. Micaela. These are loose ends, that we don’t know what becomes of her, or the mother, and unfortunately I just don’t care.

And that’s the problem so far. When I see this I feel like I’m watching ART. Levine waves at the audience before each act, and after each act the players come out and bow and hold hands and we’re constantly reminded, as if their wrinkles didn’t do it for us, that this isn’t real. It’s ART. They each spent a minimum of five years learning how to breathe properly, and the emotions they draw from us aren’t nearly so important as the emotions we imagine should be drawn from us. It’s heavy-handed.

“Complex problems confront us when we seek to define ‘meaning.’ . . .Cone maintains that when the [composer] sets a poem to music, he actually chooses ‘one among all its forms,’ that ‘he delimits one sub-set within the complete set of all possible forms.’ This unique concept, Cone suggests, ‘might be termed a latent form of the poem; and . . . the composer’s task is to make the latent form patent by presenting it through the more specific, inflexible, and immediate medium of music.’ In summary, he asserts: ‘Ultimately there can be only one justification for the serious composition of a song; it must be an attempt to increase our understanding of the poem.’“

This reminds me of the second line in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise: “His father, an ineffectual, inarticulate man with a taste for Byron,” a line that effects in me considerable discomfort. Art must be created for somebody, mustn’t it? I mean, somebody who gleans something more than cocktail-talk from it. And to sit here and watch an orchestra of secretaries, and a stage of secretaries (witness: Micaela’s two minutes of sighs and breast-clutching as she awaits the audience to shut the hell up), and to be told that This is ART, this is brilliance…I simply cannot believe it. Anything gained or understood from this must be purely from our own expectations of its gravity and depth, not from what’s actually there. What should be a combination of all these forms at their greatest heights rather feels like mediocrity, mediocrity, mediocrity, and I feel nothing, though I swear I try.

Anyway, I suppose what I’m getting at is that I enjoy What a Girl Wants so much because even if I don’t believe it, I can at least pretend to believe it because Amanda Bynes’ prettiness merits it. I pretend because I want it to be real because she’s pretty. So, in short, if opera is to gain my adoration, either the players must become younger, or the stories all have to be about old people and whatever their concerns happen to be, I dunno, groceries or Medicare.

Obviously, I saw the 1987 version from the Met. I read “Sense and Sound in Georges Bizet’s Carmen”, by Judith Nowinski. The French Review © 1970. And the lectures I heard from the Royal Opera House and the San Francisco Opera, I honestly don’t have any details on them.

novel: Lawrence: The Trespasser (1912)

Lawrence is one of these authors whose books I’ve always collected, but whose work I’ve never really found the courage to read. Where does one begin? It was my mother who handed me a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover when I was still a teenager, which was all I ever really received as far as a ‘birds and the bees’ talk goes, and I would skim through it looking for some magical description of the female orgasm. But, you see, I viewed it as pornography before literature, so that I looked towards the end of the book, and, finding nothing of interest, tossed it aside, figuring, I mean, hell, what could anyone know about sex way back then anyway. Anais Nin’s Unprofessional Study and how it brought her together with Henry Miller is when I began considering that perhaps I should be reading his works, and so a few years ago I did read The Fox, which I recall as being a cross between Jules et Jim and Bergman’s Persona, nothing ever really feels cleared up. We all giggled nervously at age 17 when masturbation was brought to light in “The Rockinghorse Winner”–but, without a doubt, Lawrence has become one of the most important writers of my life. Yes, I came to my sexuality with my best friend Anais Nin in one hand, I came to my senses with Henry Miller in the other (no, let’s be serious, it was the same hand. just kidding!), but I came to understand my masculinity thanks to Lawrence, and furthermore, it’s in this early novel of his that I find the truest illustration of your complete servitude to the most ephemeral of feelings, feelings that must in truth be something like little bats clumsily bobbing through the air, avoiding Siegmund by scent and smacking into the faces of Helena, who, well, reacts as you characteristically do his myopic and oppressive male chauvinism. And so, it is this book which has led me to make firm my conclusion that I’ve been unsure about for ages, but now am quite certain, because all these games must finally end: I must hide myself, and this may be the only way to finally shake you to your senses, to remind you of reality, there needs to be a complete restructuring of the existing social organization so as to produce full and equal status and protection of both sexes and all genders in order that we might attune our natural with our cultural rights, and perhaps then, perhaps then, the universe will be okay.

What’s most fascinating is the extent to which Lawrence clarifies the logic of his characters in a novel of which I see no signs of his biography, yet I see myself, and I see a confounding episode of my own life that takes place in the same settings as this novel does, under similar circumstances, and I had to deal with the same nonsense of it all–and while I had no answers before, I do now. I am a misogynist. But, before I leave an extended number of quotations that struck me for one reason or another, I will mention two things in particular:

In chapter 29, Lawrence breaks the rules pretty violently after writing up to this point in the past tense, suddenly he draws us out of the story and leads us to believe that there is something beyond the novel, something in reality that continues even after we close the book, something in the present [emphasis mine]:

Now Helena believed he was ill, perhaps very ill, perhaps she only could be of any avail. The miles of distance were like hot bars of iron across her breast, and against them it was impossible to strive. The train did what it could.

That day remains as a smear in the record of Helena’s life. In it there is no spacing of hours, no lettering of experience, merely a smear of suspense.

Towards six o’clock she alighted, at Surbiton station, deciding that this would be the quickest way of getting to Wimbledon. She paced the platform slowly, as if resigned, but her heart was crying out at the great injustice of delay. Presently the local train came in. She had planned to buy a local paper at Wimbledon, and if from that source she could learn nothing, she would go on to his house and inquire. She had prearranged everything minutely.

And then, not long afterwards, he draws us out of the narrative flow like this:

Helena stood still on the station for some time, looking at the print. Then she dropped the paper and wandered into the town, not knowing where she was going.

‘That was what I got,’ she said, months afterwards; ‘and it was like a brick, it was like a brick.’

She wandered on and on, until suddenly she found herself in the grassy lane with only a wire fence bounding her from the open fields on either side, beyond which fields, on the left, she could see Siegmund’s house standing florid by the road, catching the western sunlight. Then she stopped, realizing where she had come. For some time she stood looking at the house. It was no use her going there; it was of no use her going anywhere; the whole wide world was opened, but in it she had no destination, and there was no direction for her to take. As if marooned in the world, she stood desolate, looking from the house of Siegmund over the fields and the hills. Siegmund was gone; why had he not taken her with him?

This is all quite absurd, really, and quite brilliant, and perhaps in some way paying homage to the real Siegmund and the real Helena, whose story he used as his source, but I think goes quite a bit further than that. Chapter 27, as Siegmund is contemplating suicide, he finds solace in the idea that ‘the heart of life is implacable in its kindness. It may not be moved to fluttering of pity; it swings on uninterrupted by cries of anguish or of hate.’ And then furthermore,

Siegmund was thankful for this unfaltering sternness of life. There was no futile hesitation between doom and pity. Therefore, he could submit and have faith. If each man by his crying could swerve the slow, sheer universe, what a doom of guilt he might gain. If Life could swerve from its orbit for pity, what terror of vacillation; and who would wish to bear the responsibility of the deflection?

The novel begins many months after the suicide, Helena characteristically cold, playing with the affections of her best friend, and some guy, and yes, Siegmund is dead, but very clearly things aren’t so bad after all. And then the narrator takes us back to the beginning, through the suicide, and the aftermath through one year. And the narrator proves just what Siegmund believed, which is that the world does not even hesitate for the blink of an eye at one’s suicide, and even his wife only cries out of mere fear.

If I was faced with the girl I love, hanging in the doorway by the strap of her portmanteau, her face unrecognizable and distended, piss and excrement beneath the shadow of her nightgown, I suppose she’s the only person in all the world whom I could cut down, and place delicately on the bed. And I don’t know that I could leave her alone until her body was underground. And you can’t even text me. Well, such is love, the fairest, truest love.

So, while the opening chapter may be necessary for the sake of framing, the closing chapters are less so, but they function to illustrate that indeed, life does go on, very easily, and perhaps smoother than before, for both wife, children, and mistress. And in case the reader wonders whether things continue on so well, there’s no question, because the narrator drags us to the present tense for a moment, letting us know that, indeed, the death of one man means nothing at all, not to anyone.

* * *

So, now let’s move on to things I really love about this, which is the sorts of conversations I know all too well, in fact, these may be my conversations, not the protagonist’s, because in case you haven’t heard, generally you see no relationship between words and reality.

Chapter 4:

“When Helena drew away her lips, she was exhausted. She belonged to that class of ‘dreaming women’ with whom passion exhausts itself at the mouth. Her desire was accomplished in a real kiss. The fire, in heavy flames, had poured through her to Siegmund, from Siegmund to her. It sank, and she felt herself flagging. She had not the man’s brightness and vividness of blood. She lay upon his breast, dreaming how beautiful it would be to go to sleep, to swoon unconscious there, on that rare bed. She lay still on Siegmund’s breast, listening to his heavily beating heart.

With her the dream was always more than the actuality. Her dream of Siegmund was more to her than Siegmund himself. He might be less than her dream, which is as it may be. However, to the real man she was very cruel.”

Chapter 6:

Then again, when he raised his head and found her mouth, his lips filled her with a hot flush like wine, a sweet, flaming flush of her whole body, most exquisite, as if she were nothing but a soft rosy flame of fire against him for a moment or two. That, she decided, was supreme, transcendental.”

Chapter 7:

“‘I am her child, too,’ he dreamed, as a child murmurs unconscious in sleep. He had never felt her eyes so much as now, in the darkness, when he looked only into deep shadow. She had never before so entered and gathered his plaintive masculine soul to the bosom of her nurture.”

Chapter 8:

‘The best sort of women—the most interesting—are the worst for us,’ Hampson resumed. ‘By instinct they aim at suppressing the gross and animal in us. Then they are supersensitive—refined a bit beyond humanity. We, who are as little gross as need be, become their instruments. Life is grounded in them, like electricity in the earth; and we take from them their unrealized life, turn it into light or warmth or power for them. The ordinary woman is, alone, a great potential force, an accumulator, if you like, charged from the source of life. In us her force becomes evident.

‘She can’t live without us, but she destroys us. These deep, interesting women don’t want us; they want the flowers of the spirit they can gather of us. We, as natural men, are more or less degrading to them and to their love of us; therefore they destroy the natural man in us—that is, us altogether.’

‘I wonder,’ said Hampson softly, with strange bitterness, ‘that she can’t see it; I wonder she doesn’t cherish you. You are full and beautiful enough in the flesh—why will she help to destroy you, when she loved you to such extremity?’

Siegmund looked at him with awe-stricken eyes. The frail, swift man, with his intensely living eyes, laughed suddenly.

‘Fools—the fools, these women!’ he said. ‘Either they smash their own crystal, or it revolts, turns opaque, and leaps out of their hands. Look at me, I am whittled down to the quick; but your neck is thick with compressed life; it is a stem so tense with life that it will hold up by itself. I am very sorry.’

“Throwing himself down on the sand that was soft and warm as white fur, he lay glistening wet, panting, swelling with glad pride at having conquered also this small, inaccessible sea-cave, creeping into it like a white bee into a white virgin blossom that had waited, how long, for its bee.”

Chaptern 11:

“All she knew was that he was strong, and was knocking urgently with his heart on her breast.”

Chapter 16:

She made a moaning, loving sound. Full of passionate pity, she moved her mouth on his face, as a woman does on her child that has hurt itself.

‘Sometimes,’ she murmured, in a low, grieved confession, ‘you lose me.’

He gave a brief laugh.

‘I lose you!’ he repeated. ‘You mean I lose my attraction for you, or my hold over you, and then you—?’

He did not finish. She made the same grievous murmuring noise over him.

‘It shall not be any more,’ she said.

As usual, a man produces a billion sperms every hour, and a woman produces one egg each month, so women are often, highly economic with words when it comes to things that matter, things that demand discussion. This case illustrates it well. And then, here’s a rather pretty line: “turning to Helena, he found her face white and shining as the empty moon.”

Chapter 19:

‘I see it has,’ he answered. Then to himself he said: ‘She can’t translate herself into language. She is incommunicable; she can’t render herself to the intelligence. So she is alone and a law unto herself: she only wants me to explore me, like a rock-pool, and to bathe in me. After a while, when I am gone, she will see I was not indispensable….’

‘Is that why I have failed? I ought to have had her in love sufficiently to keep her these few days. I am not quick. I do not follow her or understand her swiftly enough. And I am always timid of compulsion. I cannot compel anybody to follow me.

‘So we are here. I am out of my depth. Like the bee, I was mad with the sight of so much joy, such a blue space, and now I shall find no footing to alight on. I have flown out into life beyond my strength to get back. When can I set my feet on when this is gone?’

A line I rather like is, ‘the naked body of heat was dreadful,’ and I was also struck by “‘If now,’ prayed Siegmund, ‘death would wipe the sweat from me, and it were dark….’” And it is essential to note that in both chapters 18 and 19 Helena is overly concerned with the time. Siegmund provides no commentary on this, but it’s a trait in you I’ve noticed quite a number of times, as you people have shown an offensive obsession with the time, with timetables, with minutes and hours and schedules and itineraries, and then without explanation, they don’t care anymore, they push aside the importance of time, and then eternity is something that makes sense to them again, and then back to timetables, the importance of being someplace at a certain time when nobody is waiting for you, and another train is leaving in half an hour anyway, but perhaps I’ll never understand because I’ve never gestated anything but diseases, and the only blood I ever anticipated with certainty concerned my wisdom teeth. So perhaps you have some frightening intrinsic connection to the clock, but god knows it’s offensive and superficial.

‘She does not understand,’ said Siegmund to himself. ‘And whatever I do I must not tell her. I should have thought she would understand.’

As he walked home beside her there mingled with his other feelings resentment against her. Almost he hated her.

–which aligns with something a line from chapter 31, when Helena is with her new boy-toy, Cecil, told from his perspective as Helena takes him through the exact spots she took Siegmund, exactly one year later:

He looked at her, wondering how much he was filling the place of a ghost with warmth. He thought of Siegmund, and seemed to see him swinging down the steep bank out of the wood exactly as he himself was doing at the moment, with Helena stepping carefully behind. He always felt a deep sympathy and kinship with Siegmund; sometimes he thought he hated Helena.

Chapter 20:

As Helena continues her flimsy companionship, sometimes overcome with senseless unexplained passions, like every time you’ve thrown yourself at me and then jumped away crying ‘no, I cannot, I cannot,’ only to wake me up hours later by flinging yourself at me again and pulling the same stunt, followed by a two hour rant about why Senator Clinton trumps Senator Obama any day of the week; let’s see how Siegmund fares:

She had a peculiar, childish wistfulness at times, and with this an intangible aloofness that pierced his heart. It seemed to him he should never know her. There was a remoteness about her, an estrangement between her and all natural daily things, as if she were of an unknown race that never can tell its own story. This feeling always moved Siegmund’s pity to its deepest, leaving him poignantly helpless. This same foreignness, revealed in other ways, sometimes made him hate her. It was as if she would sacrifice him rather than renounce her foreign birth. There was something in her he could never understand, so that never, never could he say he was master of her as she was of him the mistress.

Chapter 24:

Some rather nice lines:

“Her father’s quiet ‘H’m!’ her mother’s curt question, made her draw inwards like a snail which can never retreat far enough from condemning eyes. She made a careless pretence of eating. She was like a child which has done wrong, and will not be punished, but will be left with the humiliating smear of offence upon it.”

“The west opposite the door was smouldering with sunset. Darkness is only smoke that hangs suffocatingly over the low red heat of the sunken day. Such was Helena’s longed-for night.”

Chapter 25:

Siegmund dealing with his youngest child, after all his family has turned against him, his youngest daughter who conspicuously disappears after his suicide, a bit like Celia’s mysterious and unexplained lack of a single line in the entire final act of As You Like It, when she stands there dumbly as every difficulty is resolved. But seriously, isn’t this the truth? Dear children, the only ones who can see life as it is because they’re the only ones who can see life as it should be, and they’re only wrong because they discount all human constructs as being so false as they truly are.

He waited in a daze of suspense. The child shifted from one foot to another. He could just see the edge of her white-frilled drawers. He wanted, above all things, to take her in his arms, to have something against which to hide his face. Yet he was afraid. Often, when all the world was hostile, he had found her full of love, he had hidden his face against her, she had gone to sleep in his arms, she had been like a piece of apple-blossom in his arms. If she should come to him now—his heart halted again in suspense—he knew not what he would do. It would open, perhaps, the tumour of his sickness. He was quivering too fast with suspense to know what he feared, or wanted, or hoped.

Chapter 31:

The best evidence for why I should hide from you, right now, is during Helena’s discussion with Cecil:

‘More sorrow over one kitten brought to destruction than over all the sufferings of men,’ he said.

She glanced at him and laughed. He was smiling ironically.

‘For the latter, you see,’ she replied, ‘I am not responsible.’

Because although she sometimes loved Siegmund in all the right ways, even in his absence, she also has that peculiar chilliness about her, the separation of body and mind and life and morality and emotions. It’s all a lot of shit.

Byron – Occasional Pieces (1812)

Byron may be the most questionably reliable author I know of, even more so than whoever wrote The Things They Carried, so that by 1812 I’m still wondering if he’s telling the truth…does he really feel such sadness? Could it have taken the death of someone he loved for his writing such serious verse? Does it matter? In this case, I think it does, because Byron is his poetry in the same way that Shakespeare is not, it seems to me a mistake to read into Shakespeare by reading into his works, including the sonnets. Petrarch may bring to mind a proper example of how I feel about Byron at this juncture, because I’ve never, not for one moment, trusted Petrarch, and I think history treats him precisely as he wishes to be treated by it, rather than how I think he is–that is, I do not trust Petrarch’s religious fervor as anything other than spectacle–if a Shakespearean sonnet is about fucking, a Petrarchian sonnet is about not getting fucked for a very, very long time, and trying to deal with it. So do I believe Byron, or do I think he’s making use of the speechless dead, stirring up emotions that weren’t there until they were useful. Whatever the truth, his writing is much more grave and solemn, though with somewhat crudely lilting meter, until I reach this stanza of “If Sometimes in the Haunts of Men”:

For well I know, that such had been
Thy gentle care for him, who now
Unmourn’d shall quit this mortal scene,
Where none regarded him, but thou:
And, oh! I feel in
that was given
A blessing never meant for me;
Thou wert too like a dream of Heaven
For earthly love to merit thee.

His usage of “him” directly before the commas on lines 2 and 4, and the subsequent commas, throw the meter and rhyme off slightly, but it’s still in perfect form, the words follow the pulse, but the punctuation does not. I always try to read poetry without forcing a pulse, just to feel how the words naturally rest, and this caught me entirely off guard, and delighted me. It reads to me like this:

For now I know, that such had been thy gentle care for him,
who now unmourn’d shall quit this mortal scene,
where none regarded him, but thou:

And it’s quite beautiful, even the very sound of it, and I think this illustrates what 1812 does for Byron, then, beyond developing the essential Byronic character further, it’s his breaking rules, in a sense, by owning them–for the first time I feel as if he has complete control over the poetic form, and it no longer restrains him but rather gives him new freedoms. If clothes do not fit on your body, they are not clothes; if a cuisine is not edible, it is not a cuisine; I think all the arts lead back to one’s body, and if poetry does not fit in one’s breath, it is not poetry–this stanza simply thrills me.



Byron – Occasional Pieces (1810)

It seems particularly apt to come across this short poem today. Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was never something that made much sense to me, nor did Anais Nin’s final rebuffing of Henry Miller, and so on, so that all those terrible things we learned would be finally obliterated by feminism, well, I begin to wonder if there’s more to it than that. Do I believe in love? Yes. There is the love of a parent for his or her child, and there is the love of a man for another man or woman. And I think that covers it. Do I believe in love? Not really. I think it’s mostly a struggle of power, and it just happens to find an easy vehicle for cruelty when everyone is so desperately exposed. One year ago I had spend significant amounts of time in a cockroach filled shoebox of a bathroom watching a girl piss, a girl who refused to let such trivialities get in the way of conversations about Fitzgerald or Henry James, and since she also refused to let such trivialities like eating get in the way of her drinking, well, I saw her drink for six days straight without eating so much as one bite, and we would spend the nights sneaking cigarettes in my room after her boyfriend fell asleep and we’d sneak away from him. We grew close by drinking in the middle of a country road while the moon was large, surrounded by dark farms, and when trucks would come barreling down the road we would hold on to each other, determined not to move, determined, until the absolute last second when, holding on to each other, we’d save each other’s lives by flinging ourselves away from the middle, roll into the dirt. When we came back, everyone was angry at us, they’d all waited up, we couldn’t feel our bodies, and they never had any idea of what we really did when we went out there that night, their imaginations ended at the word sex. We were really out there discussing how unfair it had never been necessary that any of them had to work for anything in their whole lives. She knows how to love, I think. I’ve seen her love. She proposes to me at least once a month.
“For the record,” I tell her, “I haven’t been answering or returning your calls for the past two weeks for a reason. It hasn’t just been ignorance.”
“Really?!” she asks excitedly.
“Yes. We can discuss it another time.”
“Tell me!”
“It’s because last time we spoke you went on a drunken tirade and said things that were entirely unacceptable.”
“Oh, it’s because I told you to dump that bitch, I mean, she’s not a bitch, I’m sorry, she’s not, but it’s because I was telling you to dump her. I’m sorry.”
“That wasn’t all you said.”
“Oh shit! Really? Well, I was drunk, how can you expect me to be liable for–”
“You’re always drunk! Always! So you have to be liable for your words, because that’s your normal state of being.”
“Okay, okay, what did I say?”
“We’re not discussing it right now. But you broke some of my rules, and if you do it again you can be damn sure you’ll never see my face again.”
“Okay. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I said though. Do you still love me?”
“Of course I still love you.”
“And you’ll still marry me?”
“You and everyone else. Why is it that the only people who want to marry me are in danger of liver failure before hitting age 28?”
“And kidneys for me too!”
“You’re all going to fucking die, and just leave me, helpless and alone and unloved because I’m the unlucky one. Many years ago I had a dream that I was being shot, and my feet were attached to the floor and I couldn’t fall, and I desperately wanted to die, I hated being shot so much, but until I fell over I couldn’t die, and I couldn’t fall. I’m afraid it’s true.”
“We still have time left. Think about it, k? I’m serious. We would never be really in love, but, but we’d still be amazing.”

I came to believe that love was emotionally about punishment, practically about money, and now, I’m quite sure, it’s about power. It’s a thought that doesn’t escape me when I see how my dogs love me, how devoted they are to me, and I try not to remember that it’s because they fear me, because I hold power over them, and it’s not love: it’s subservience. But they don’t understand how I feel about them.

“Does being around your mother make you happy?”
“Not…really.”
“Then fuck her.”
“What do you mean? Should I call her and say fuck you?”
“Just fuck her!”
“I don’t understand…”
“Just forget about her. If she doesn’t make you happy, why keep her around? Why keep anyone around if they can’t provide you with something.”
“That’s a fucking heinous thing to say.”
“Think about it.”
“…you know, you’re right.”

Do I believe in love? No. Do I believe in friendship? Yes. Do I believe in firewater? Even more than I believe in friendship.

And now, the poem that spurred this whole mess:

The spell is broke, the charm is flown!
Thus is with life’s fitful fever:
We madly smile when we should groan;
Delirium is our best deceiver.

Each lucid interval of thought
Recalls the woes of Nature’s charter;
And he that acts as wise men ought,
But lives, as saints have died, a martyr.

1810 is fascinating year as far as his “occasional pieces” are concerned, because there are so few of them as compared with years prior and years following. At first I figured he was perhaps writing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage while on his travels, but there’s no evidence of such speculation, so I have otherwise no answers. What’s particularly noteworthy during this period is that he’s a perfect poetic upstart, perhaps in the wake of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, perhaps merely because he felt himself living in the golden age of mythology, making use of his classical education, “Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ,” and making full use of all his 2,000 parts.

Well, so it goes, Byron died alone, Shelley died essentially estranged from his wife, Keats died without ever making love to his lover, the political revolutions all failed except in Greece, the sexual revolutions gave way to stifling victorianism, what was radical became obscure, what was sublime became quaint, what was humanist became theist. What hope have I now?

Dijon, pt 2: language, body functions, customs, comparison to US.

Nov 30 11p My jet lag is still significant, I think, so much more of this past week has been slept away than I’d prefer, but still, I’ve done quite a lot, and not a single touristy thing. What I’m most pleased about is the fact that I spend the majority of the day speaking in French, even though my French is still very poor and I can’t even get through a simple café transaction, though, as in America, the moment anyone realizes that I’m not a native speaker they treat me like I’m retarded and then things go much smoother. Céline says I’m actually improving each day, although I think I’m having more trouble each day. The only explanation I can come up with is that with each day I become a little more invested in normal conversation, take for granted things I don’t have difficulty with, and long to say more complicated sentences in the meantime. Or it may be that I can only fake it for so long before becoming exasperated and resorting to charades or list-making. But I’ve even made some jokes that were understood within the past few days. Everyone speaks a little English, especially the students, who can speak very well, but I generally refuse to speak English to anyone except, when necessary or when having a more meaningful conversation, with Céline, who will stand back until I look at her with the expression that says, ‘translate, please!’

What we call the bathroom they call les toilettes. It’s a term that makes Americans blush, but it’s also what the British call it. But the reason they call it that is that the toilet is generally in a separate room from the sink, shower, etc. It’s a dedicated toilet-room. The other room is the bathroom. Just being with the girls over the summer made me a little less self-conscious about body-functions and the like, things that are rarely discussed in the US, or at least inappropriate. Here, it’s fairly common to see people pissing on the sidewalks, and I don’t mean in a corner, I just mean, in the middle of the day, against a wall on a busy street. Homeless people and drunk people. It’s legal to be drunk in public as long as you still have an open container. Yes, you read that correctly. Otherwise you’re considered a drunk. When I told you about how Céline has a remarkable ability to find money–$70 during the first few months she was in the US—and everyone tells me it’s just because I don’t pay attention to my surroundings, well, perhaps also it’s because not a day goes by when Céline does not instruct me to step over some river of piss on the sidewalk or a trail of fresh shits. And so, on the fourth morning, after going out to a housewarming party the night before and going to sleep dizzy, it was a considerably unhappy morning as I sat curled up under a blanket and watched French game-shows and Céline finally asked, “Stephen, you’re not going to like this question, but I’m sorry, I have to ask it, I’m really sorry, I know you’re not going to like this or else I won’t know what to tell you to eat to make you feel better…when you poo, is it…uhm, er, liquid?” I put the pillow over my face and cried “ouiiiii.” At the party, one of the first questions Céline was asked was ‘is it okay for us to burp in his face?’ She told them no, and she told me that things were probably going to be crazy, that there would be a lot of noise, dancing, and people ‘blurping’.

Almost immediately, kissing cheeks to say hello and goodbye became tedious rather than nerve-wracking because I had to greet so many people who insist on it—nearly everyone insists on it. I have trouble with names because they’re all new to me, and sometimes people say their names when I meet them, and sometimes they greet me with a word I don’t know—so I’ve taken to just repeating whatever they say and I assume that 66% of the time I’m correct (either I’m just repeating their name to show I’ve heard it, or repeating their greeting as my own, or sounding like an idiot.) As with body functions, everyone is significantly more open about sex, and the majority of their conversations, if not revolving around it, at least reference it freely, along with body motions and far more slang than English has seen, I’ll venture to guess since the Elizabethan age if Shakespeare is any indication of what common people understood. A room packed with people, more bottles than persons, loud music, baguettes, red peppers, pork ribs. But one of our roommates did not come, even though the rest of us did, and her boyfriend also. It was because she didn’t receive an invitation. Parties for us in my experience are generally word-of-mouth affairs, anyone can attend so long as they blend in, if you invite someone, it’s understood that their roommates and partners are also invited because it’s understood that if one of those persons is specifically not invited, it’s only polite to not attend yourself. Not here. If you’re invited you go, apparently even if that means leaving one of your close friends or girlfriend alone for the entire evening. I was given a glass of wine, everyone seems to prefer a sweet white wine from the region, good wine costs almost nothing, and nobody sniffs or swishes it. I still cannot get over how well everyone dresses. The dress boots with zippers that are so difficult to find in the US, they’re in every shop window. Everyone wears black, and nearly all their clothes seem to be black—I’m just constantly astounded by how everyone of all ages look like models.

Tonight I was having an English conversation with Alexandre, who I met in the US and so have an English-language relationship with him, so that when we were talking alone I felt fine speaking English. And we were discussing differences between the US and other places, how, for instance, getting through customs was instantaneous here, where I didn’t receive a passport stamp or need a visa or have my bags checked, whereas arriving in the US, they were all fingerprinted, made to remove most of their clothes, had their bags searched and required significant paperwork even for brief visits. I’ve been told many times that entering the US they were treated like criminals. Alex finds Canada attractive because it has the benefits of the US but hasn’t its shortcomings, one of the benefits being that if you work hard you can be paid more. And this is, I think, the beginning of the American mindset. I may be about to briefly discuss a few conclusions I reached after the events that I will sometime later recount, only because I remember them now, but the events themselves will serve as illustrations and if later disputed, are true now, and are, further, conclusions I did not expect.