Friday, August 30, 2019

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The long-term low-grade guilt that I'd been carrying around for years ... for not ever having read works by Toni Morrison came to a head recently upon learning of her passing. So I picked up The Bluest Eye in order to finally break that guilt. I imagined and hoped that from the first to the final page, I'd develop an intense love affair with this book. I wanted to. That is what I wanted. That is what I deserved.

And though there were certain passages that struck me throughout, I didn't find myself in love with the book for most of the pages. I wanted it to open up for me but it wasn't opening up. I wanted to adore and defend Pecola Breedlove because I knew she was the one I was supposed to stick up for. But for most of the book I found myself stuck ... wondering WHY.

And then I got to the last several pages. The last three to be exact. Where not the WHY of Pecola but the HOW of Pecola opened up. And with that opening, I started understanding what happens to those like me who want Pecola to do that thing for us.

"We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty ... for we were not strong, only aggressive, we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life."

The tragedy of Pecola is multi-faceted. Her "enemies" (both imagined and real) don't pack up nicely. And for all the questions of HOW the story assuages, many more questions of WHY linger. Like why does the soil not support all seeds? Like why do we need to feel beautiful, even if we are other important things like smart, talented, and compassionate? Like why do conventional standards of beauty make some and ruin others?

For all these and other questions that Morrison has stirred within me, I am grateful. And more so that I stuck with it until the very end when not just the book opened up, but also my quest to live without the fear of asking myself questions about how and why I pursue and measure beauty.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Object Subject

If the greatest turn-on for men is to see that the woman is turned on, then the greatest turn-on for women is to feel that she IS the turn-on. So goes the argument that Esther Perel lays out in terms of dynamics related to eroticism between heterosexual men and women. In other words, we women need to feel like the object of desire in order for the erotic to be enjoyable. 

In 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the phrase "The Male Gaze" in her essay titled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. A piece that posits that in the context of cinema, women are frequently depicted as sexual objects in order to please the heterosexual male. The term "male gaze" has evolved over the years to cover much more than the genre of cinema, to include all visual arts and literature. 

As a painter I notice that when I paint a nude female subject, there are heterosexual men who try to veil their pleasure, so that their expression doesn't get misconstrued as the type unable discern the visual from the behavioral. And therefore overstating academic-based praise and downplaying erotic-based praise. 

We females also veil our praise. On the one hand, we say "She (the painted subject) is beautiful" but are careful not to be overly effusive so as not to build a hierarchy of beauty or condone pleasure by a viewer who might be viewing the subject as the object of beauty. It feels safer to make sure that we pass the litmus test of the trendy strand of feminism that argues every body is calibrated equally and therefore every body should yield the same type of pleasure by the viewer. Our veil also works to keep our praise conceptual instead of practiced, because to agree with Perel's argument that we are turned on when we are the object of desire has the potential to have someone categorize us as anti-feminist. And overly preoccupied with the erotic. 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

One of my best memories of summer 2019 will be my having read the book BECOMING by Michelle Obama. It read much like the way I've heard her speak on television. Real. Dignified. Interesting.

I related so much with her story of how she grew up learning to play the piano on a beat-up but loved instrument with imperfectly chipped keys and how when it was her turn to play at a recital on a perfect piano, that she froze. I've had similar feelings. Especially with cars and neighborhoods ... preferring the coziness of beat-up but loved objects over perfectly fancy ones. 

The lessons that Michelle learned through her college roommate Suzanne also hit home for me. That it's ok to sometimes swerve off one's ambitious path and one's list of checkboxes and have some fun. I adored the way President Obama proposed to Michelle. I hadn't heard that story before and I could just imagine exactly how the tension was building up while they were at dinner and how it all released so beautifully with the arrival of dessert. It made me smile and it made me feel like I was right there.

I found intriguing her use of the term America's Gaze in terms of how it felt to manage the way Americans were looking/gazing at her and her family during campaigns and their time in the White House. On page 270, she writes: "I've learned that it's harder to hate up close," which I agree with. That even if we Americans vehemently disagree, we can actually coexist if we dare to move beyond the gaze, move behind the false bravery of 280 characters, and allow for interactions that involve true sharing and true listening.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

LANNY by Max Porter

What I appreciate most about LANNY by Max Porter is that it shows how weirdness becomes suspect whenever the routines of life go off the rail. Like when a young boy goes missing ... the weird parts of his mother's writing makes her a suspect ... and the weird doodles of Pete the art teacher convince us that he is likely guilty of the heinous possibilities that our imaginations quickly construct.

Sadistically, we humans have evolved into creatures who simultaneously cheer for and denounce the heinous. For entertainment. And vindication ... that tidy and upstanding and logical, framed-Renoir-reproduction-hung-in-the-hallway is the proper way to live. Even if we suffocate in the process.

LANNY is a weird book. The way it's written. The way typography is used. The way characters swerve in and out of assorted realities. It takes us into the depths of a forest we don't really understand, and the depths of the human condition to show that in all honesty, people ... even in our effort to be "normal," are weird. And for that honesty, I thank Porter. A book I will not soon forget as I continue to ponder his ultimate question of which is more patient: an idea or a hope?