Monday, May 30, 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A ramble through/about the green.

acknowledgement: my phone takes lousy pictures.

I read Remembering Babylon
last week, during a four-day visit to my extended family in Lousville, Colorado (which, incidentally, was a blast). It was one of those books (I think and I hope we've all read them) that seemed to find its way into my hands by divine fiat—a book I opened up when I really needed to read it.

Louisville is just a bounce down the road from Boulder, a city that has held an almost mystical significance to me since my monthlong stay there in 2008. Of course a pilgrimage was called for. But I was less interested in revisiting Pearl Street, browsing dispensaries, and reminiscing at the Naropa campus than exploring the hills at the edge of town.

I've lived in Philadelphia since September; by any analysis I'm happier here than I was in Maryland or St Thomas. I am, I really am—but the exiguity of open green spaces has been eating at me like a rust creep in my spiritual undercarriage. So as I read Remembering Babylon and came across passages like these:
It was as if he had seen the world till now, not through his own eyes, out of some singular self, but through the eyes of a fellow who was always in company, even when he was alone; a sociable self, wrapped always in a communal warmth that protected it from dark matters and all the blinding light of things, but also from the knowledge that there was a place out there where the self might stand alone. Wading through waist-high grass, he was surprised to see all the tips beaded with green, as if some new growth had come into the world that till now he had never seen or heard of. When he looked closer it was hundreds of wee bright insects, each the size of his little fingernail, metallic, iridescent, and the discovery of them, the new light they brought to the scene, was a lightness in him——that was what surprised him——like a form of knowledge he had broken through to. It was unnameable, which disturbed him, but was also exhilarating; for a moment he was entirely happy. But he wondered at himself. A grown man of forty with work to do, standing dreamily stilled, extending his hand, palm downwards, over the backs of insects, all suspended in their tiny lives in a jewel-like glittering. Another time, by the creek, he looked up, casually he thought, and saw a bird. It was balanced on a rounded stone dipping its beak into the lightly running water, its grey squat body as undistinguished and dusty looking as a sparrow's (but there were no sparrows here), its head grey, with a few untidy feathers. He was sitting, himself, on a larger stone, also rounded, eating the last of a sandwich, his boots in mud. But what his stilled blood saw was the bird's beak drawing long silver threads out of the heart of the water, which was all a tangle of threads, bunched or running; and his boots had no weight, neither did his hand with the half-bitten lump of bread in it, nor his heart, and he was filled with the most intense and easy pleasure: in the way the air stirred the leaves overhead and each leaf had attached itself to a twig, and whirled yet kept hold; and in the layered feathers that made up the grey of the bird's head; and at how long the threads of water must be to run so easily from where they had come from to wherever it was, imaginably out of sight, that they were going——tangling, untangling, running free.
Pages like these didn't so much make me want to lose myself a bit in a wild place (a real place) as thrust the preexisting need to the fore of my attention.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Remembering Babylon: COVERED IN BEES

A dust-jacket synopsis of David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1993) would probably misrepresent the novel as a hoarse note in an exhausted refrain of Western literature: that of the settlers and the savage.

Scene: an isolated community of European homesteaders in Queensland, circa 1860. The settlement's toilsome and sweaty business as usual is disrupted by the arrival of Gemmy, a "white black:" in his former life as a cabin boy, Gemmy was pitched overboard, washed up on the Australian shore, and taken in by an aboriginal tribe. By the time he stumbles upon the settlers' village, he is well into adulthood and has lost his ability to speak coherent English from years of disuse. The villagers regard Gemmy with a mixture of disdain, paranoia, and wonder.

You've heard it before: a story of the commerce, conflict, lessons learned between European settlers and an indigenous representative of their host continent. But Remembering Babylon explodes through the rhytidome of this old theme, propelled by Malouf's talent for diagramming the obscurities and profundities of social relationships and the elan he brings to transcriptions of adolescent frisson (which we'll see presently). Moreover, the focus here isn't so much on the social relations and bad blood between the European and aboriginal contingents, but rather on the pristine Australian landscape and the varying modes of living in and/or with it.

In several respects, Remembering Babylon recalls Heart of Darkness—although the former is much less capital-P problematic and certainly more lowercase-P postmodern. Here the primeval "Absolute Dark" represents not brute savagery and the danger of regression, but the existence of (and opportunity for) an alternate mode of being. As Malouf's narrative lens flits across the village, the most significant and persistent characters tend to be the ones who are compelled to cross the boundary, as Mr. Kurtz did—although what they discover on the other side could not be further removed from The Horror, The Horror.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Semantic erratum: on 'feminism'

I ran out the door after finishing the previous post and belatedly remembered a conversation with a woman who professed that "feminism" is a word that no longer has any specific meaning, and "feminists" no longer refers to any one particular group advocating a common ideology. What somebody means when they espouse feminist ideas, or who they're saying they are when they identify as feminist, is dependent on how they position women's issues (and on which womens' issues—which issues, which women) within the schematic of intersectional identity politics.

Perhaps I don't have the right to opine on this (as a male), but the germ logic of feminism is that women are not second-class citizens and should not be treated as such. That's all I mean when I say "feminism."

This definition is only a starting point. "How should women be treated?" "What do women need?" "How should women behave?" The more rigorously these questions are examined, the more divergence there will be in the answers. But the original statement is uneffaceable and inarguable.

A rephrasing of the earlier point: a progressive movement that allows or encourages the equitable concept of feminism to be obfuscated by sectarian vindictiveness and dogmatism is not doing itself any favors.

Brief: note on the 'regressive left'

To anyone who might have been missing them (I can dream), I apologize for the lack of updates lately. I've been busy with a project that—well, it's a project. Maybe it will pan out, maybe it will die in the water. We'll see.

Quick note on a topic we've alighted on from time to time: the aggressive tribal zealotry of (some) social progressives. You know the broader movement has a snowballing PR problem when young, intelligent, otherwise liberal woman are complaining about feminism/feminists. I'm not going to name names (I've mentioned them here before), but two women I'm close to, both in their twenties, recently expressed their distaste for feminism/feminists and the rhetoric of the social justice conversation. (One was referring to activist cliques in West Philly; the other is just fed up with quote-unquote SJW harangues in online fora.)

Their complaints were of the same tenor. "They're shrill, they take everything to seriously, everything offends them. They don't want equal treatment, they want special treatment. They hate men, they treat men unfairly. They're just mean people, I'm tired of them." Etc., etc.

Question: is it Problematic for a man to tell a woman why feminism is a good thing?