Simone’s Sermon by Jennifer Chukwu

 

Simones Sermon

Before judgment, I am obligated to inform you of Heaven’s updated terms and conditions. Humans keep killing each other at unprecedented rates, and to help with our population surge, angels like myself are working unpaid overtime to pilot a new program.

In the past, if you tried your best with your childhood and other circumstances, you would have been granted entrance into Heaven. Back then, we believed your soul and its experiences were the best indicators for salvation; however, we were too lenient. After the Salvation Board reviewed our population data, they realized by 2049 Heaven will have reached capacity. Therefore, the board has put me in charge of deciding who will and will not enter Heaven.

If I feel you represent humanity’s potential for evil or if you wasted your time on earth, you are going to Hell. If you have any questions or complaints, after judgment you are allowed to submit a ticket to HR. If your ticket gets reviewed, it is then escalated to the Salvation Board, where you might gain entrance into Heaven or a second chance at life. Now that we have reviewed the new terms and conditions, Brian, Sister Scholastica, and Elaine, I need all of you to line up in that order. Let’s begin before my lunch break.

 

book of brian

Book of Brian

Often your classmates asked, “Why are you so Black?” and your only response was to bury your head deeper into your algebra book until your nose touched the pages. You learned this tip from HALP.org, your favorite anti-bullying site. The users called it “turtling,” and it was great for ignoring bullies, teachers, and parents. You learned to trust the HALPers, but only after ignoring their initial advice. At the beginning of your freshman year, you tried defending yourself.

Your head shot out of your book and you said,

“’Cause Black is beautiful.”

“Not when it is covered in acne,” a classmate responded, and the class laughed.

After school, your parents asked questions they believed were encouraging. Was today better?” “Are you at least getting straight As?”  “Are you thinking about re-trying out for the basketball team?”

You nodded yes and no answers and headed to your room, but before you made it upstairs, your parents reminded you of your upcoming appointment with Dr. Lanning, the dermatologist.

When it came to your skin, they were desperate.

Your parents hoped that if the acne went away, then you would start looking better. From the infomercials, they heard of a new drug: Radoxin. It did wonders for people with acne. There were possible side effects, things like hair loss, feelings of depression, or severe skin rashes. But, all the pimples went away! Your appointment was the next day. At first you were excited, but after reading the side effects, you became terrified. That fear was for good reason. You became the third wrongful death lawsuit.

 

The day before you started your medication, you stared at your ceiling, waiting for daylight to disappear. You tried dreaming of your future, but you could only imagine ways to survive another school week. That week, you had already survived Thursday and only Friday remained. Fridays were great because there was pizza and Ms. Elaine, the associate teacher, always gave you a slice of pepperoni even though your parents only paid for cheese. Sometimes, if you had the courage to ask, you got a free soda, too. Ms. Elaine understood your pain. After her haircident in elementary school, she was never the same. Things became a bit better when she started following her favorite social media star, Lissa Evans’ accounts and her Inspirational Monday Message.

I know…humans will believe anything another human creates, but ask them to believe about God and angels and they say “LOL.”

Anywho, whenever she saw you, she hoped one day you would also find your cure.

After Fridays, it was the weekend, and you loved sneaking out the house. The first time your parents caught you sneaking out you told them you were meeting your girlfriend. They were too thrilled to question. Your dad gave you a condom and then winked at you. Your mother said you were becoming the man of the house.

The truth: the few times you talked to a girl happened when she wanted to play connect the dots. You were excited, even when she started tracing your pimples with her fingers. Once, she could’ve sworn she found The Big Dipper on your left cheek. Your simple ass laughed along with her.

Instead of meeting up with a girlfriend, you waited by the sides of the streets, bored. During these bouts of boredom, you thought about your options. You were not good at sports; last time you tried to shoot a basketball, you hit the coach on her head. You were a straight Bs student, the definition of average. Killing yourself was not an option—the lead chatter in HALP said so. Also, it took too much effort. You would have to pick a place, and then a thing to do it with, and you did not want to be a news story like the school’s secretary, Ms. Denora Johnson.

After you finished wandering and thinking about your options, you visited your friend, Mr. Elt, who lived between First and Pleasant Avenue. He was only seven years older than you, but insisted on the title of Mister because he was an “experienced” man. You trusted him because he looked like you and understood your struggle. Together in a coffee shop, you counted his earnings from playing overturned buckets as drums while cars waited in traffic. For his friendship and wisdom, Mr. Elt asked for a favor.

Lately, New Yorkers had been stingier than usual, and he needed an income other than playing drums. Per Mr. Elt’s request, you told him whenever you spotted a woman with a purse walking alone. Things were fine until one day a teenager caught him and called him an “ugly son of a bitch.” He had been called ugly before, but this time was the last. In his eyes, this woman was no Beyoncé, and you agreed.

You went over to help the woman. She did not recognize you, but you knew her. She was a senior at your high school. She was never particularly mean or nice to you. She reminded you of all the girls in your school. You figured getting revenge on one would right all the wrongs. By Mr. Elt’s third incident, you started having fantasies about hurting women. You imagined pushing them in front of buses.

After Mr. Elt’s fifth incident, more women you spotted started appearing on the news and your fantasies became darker. The reporters told women to travel in groups and look out for a man that matched Mr. Elt’s description. You should have reported him, but instead you listened to his shitty and depressing advice. He told you it did not get better. Your face would not change. The only hope was to treat women the way that everyone had treated you. Eventually, the goal was to trap a woman and make her feel like she was nothing without you. He told you that you had to achieve this goal by any means necessary.

Know what, this review is dragging, and a bunch of killed clubbers were just added to the Heaven queue. Brian, here are your take aways: you had a growing resentment for women because people made fun of you, if you are lucky and get another chance at life, read Chicken Soup for the Soul and How Not to Be a Sexist Pig, and turn in Mr. Elt. Before your acne medication killed you from Steven-Johns Syndrome, you enjoyed hearing about his exploits, and started planning ways to become just like him. At least you died before you completely followed in his footsteps.

 

book of scholastica

Book of Scholastica

At 8:30 AM, the school bell rang. At 3:00 PM, your students stampeded toward freedom. Both your and your students’ days were repetitious. When the children left, you remained seated at your desk and repainted your paddle’s handle. Since you were young, you wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by friends in Heaven. The moment that Jesus saw all the souls you saved, you knew that He would do the right thing and make you the new Right Hand in Heaven.

Oh, Honey, what were you thinking? That was never going to happen. If it makes you feel better, I think you have a great chance of being Lucifer’s Right Hand.

While still believing in this impossible dream of being the Lord’s Right Hand, you joined the covenant and then became a teacher at Sorrows Academy. At the beginning of the day, you picked up the wooden paddle and had your third-grade class recite John 3:16. The uniform sound of their voices uplifted your soul. Though they were children of God and angelic at times, you felt that they needed a guided path toward salvation.

When you first started teaching, you thought the path was paved by stern lectures, group prayers, and reduced recesses. But for months, the children would not behave no matter what you did. They drew on their desks, they swore when they thought you were not listening, and terrorized you with crude jokes. In your darkest hour, another older Sister talked about her glory days in the 70s and recommended the paddle. After this recommendation, things were never the same.

In your eyes, every day became blessed.

The children listened, prayed, and obeyed. At times, children were children, and they tried to revert back to their playful habits. During those times, which happened once or twice every school day, you tightened your grip on the paddle. Whenever you struck, you made sure the forces of Heaven and Hell were behind you. Whenever the child howled, it was for God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. These children learned how to cry out for mercy and repentance. The Old Testament workbooks and Father Cooke’s sermons failed them. The children were young and still had terrible lives to live. Nothing could save them but God, and paddling them was the only path toward redemption.

 

Your classroom had the dumbest rules:

First rule: No doodling in your workbooks.

From seven years of teaching, you learned that children doodle foul pictures—such foul things would not be tolerated in Heaven. Children who wanted to doodle in their workbooks could either go to Hell or to transfer to Sister Angelica’s class.

Second Rule: Outside was outside. Inside was inside.

News, unless it pertained to the Pope, did not belong in the classroom.

Third Rule: Bad behavior is never rewarded.

 

Your students were two hours away from dismissal and before they would escape, you decided to teach Elaine, one of your students’, a lesson. In order to save her, you needed to ensure that she understood her transgressions. While you sat behind your students during Mass, you caught Elaine playing with her pigtails. You heard rumors that Elaine allowed classmates to play with her hair and braid it in exchange for free juice boxes, cookies, and sometimes the answers for the day’s Tree of Knowledge question. To match Elaine’s light brown skin, she had long brown hair that all her classmates, especially the boys, marveled over. You worried for Elaine. If this behavior continued, what type of woman would she become once she left Sorrows Academy? She had no respect for her God-given soul and body. Not only did she distract herself from Father Cooke’s sermon, but allowed the students to buy her happiness. These were actions only allowed by future Whores of Babylon. You spent the weekends checking every single lesson plan to make sure the Devil never had a way of accessing your future friends through careless words or mistakes. But somehow, right under your nose, the Devil had attached himself to Elaine’s hair.

While tapping your pilgrim shoes, you ordered Elaine to walk to the front of the classroom. Your students’ hands twitched; they wanted to cover their ears. However, after the second blessed day, each of them learned that covering their ears was bad behavior. In order to completely understand their fellow classmates’ depravity, they needed to hear the screams of repentance. Your students’ hands gripped their desks. Elaine closed her eyes and her pigtails swung forward. The children watched them, the pendulums of her sin. You refused to stop until Elaine reached salvation. This child needed to learn her lesson or lose her soul.

Elaine said, “Please stop.”

You replied, “I cannot. John 15 verse 9. ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.’”

Elaine began screaming and you smiled. You hesitated for a moment. Perhaps Elaine finally learned her lesson and could return to living in God’s light. But in that moment of hesitation, she ran to the door and out of the classroom. The students looked at you and did not know whether to cheer or beg her to return. You set your paddle down, and walked after Elaine. This was not the first time one of your future Heaven-friends tried to escape. You fixed your habit and walked to the classroom across the hallway. There, you saw Elaine banging on the locked door of Sister Teresa’s classroom. Her class was away at recess, a spoiling reward for all her students getting above an 8/10 on the Tree of Knowledge quizzes for an entire week. With a calm smile, you took her by the hand and both of you walked to your classroom. You placed your paddle back into your desk drawer and grabbed a pair of scissors.

“You must remain in my love,” you said as you snipped off the two pigtails, and then tossed them into the trashcan. When Elaine returned to her desk, the other students tried not to look at her. Visibly mourning Elaine’s pigtails was bad behavior and would result in all being brought to the front of the classroom. The students watched you as you picked stray hairs off your hands.

So, you are definitely Hell-Bound.

 

book of elaine

Book of Elaine

Ever since your haircident with Sister Scholastica, your hair never grew back, and you never felt the same. Bless her soul, but your mother never wanted a child and did not understand how your hair worked. And then, your father, though Black, was not interested in teaching your mom about Black hair. The only hope was Mr. Marc, your hairdresser, but the bastard kept you in the Ringo cut.

After the haircident, you begged your mom to change schools, but Sorrows Academy was the best in its district. Also, she was secretly happy your hair was shorter and much more manageable. After a few fake sick days, you returned to school. Your haircident became legendary, and for years, your classmates stayed away from you. Partly out of fear of Sister Scholastica, partly because of the terrible haircut, and lastly because you were your grade’s suspected lesbian. Things changed a little in college—you found a different hairstyle.

After college graduation, you realized how much you owed in student loans, and decided to become a teacher. You returned to Sorrows Academy because they enjoyed hiring alumni, paid for your masters, and every other job said “No.” You figured you would protect students. Though you were overworked, underpaid, and somehow in even more debt, you were able to remove Sister Scholastica from Sorrows Academy. The principal and the Father knew about her disciplinary methods, but they overlooked them because of her classroom’s consistently high test scores over the years. After your independent investigation, you exposed the truth: Sister Scholastica gave students answers on test days. She believed the only test that mattered was the test of faith. She was fired that day. She was so bored during her forced retirement that she died earlier than expected.

As a reward, your roommate and “best friend” convinced you to finally use your vacation days for an eat, pray, love trip. Her reasoning: you were exhausted, recently dumped, and she was tired of listening to you cry through the walls. For your eat pray love trip, you went to NYC, then New Orleans, and then Vegas for some lovin’.

One day, while waiting for your margarita at a bar, you saw your idol—Lissa Evans. Two years ago, she moved to Vegas to work as a social influencer. She had dedicated her life to helping people like you. She posted photos of her daily adventures at clubs, exclusive restaurants, and expensive stores, with captions like, “Be your best self,” “Life is your adventure,” and “Beauty is subjective and you are always the subject.”

She had 6 million followers, and they worshipped her. She was beautiful, free, and made you feel like you could be that, too. Following her on social media for a year made your vanity return to what it was before the haircident. During your trip of self-love, you took on her philosophy and emptied your savings. You bought things and took pictures with things to show your worth. While in Vegas, you hoped to spot her but never imagined meeting her face to face.

After two years of living in Las Vegas, Lissa met fans like you everyday. To cope with how boring the day-to-day became, she came up with a set of routines to start her morning. While your mornings started with liking her most recent pictures, hers started at 11:00 AM with inserting her CD “Summer Loving” into her entertainment center. The only song on it was “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. After listening to it endlessly, she left her apartment and drove down the Vegas strip to watch the gamblers, beggars, and vacationers stumble down the street. Eventually, when she finished observing, she parked her car and joined her favorites at the bar to talk them up. After she saw you snapping pictures in front of every store on the strip, you became one of her favorites.

When she sat next to you at the bar, you wanted to take a picture with her as proof you met your idol, but Lissa told you put your phone away. She said,

“A day like this you want to barely remember.”

Though you did not understand her, you listened. She was your idol, and taught you how to live your life. While together, she told you that you were beautiful and you became comfortable, wanting to do everything she suggested. You left the bar and went clubbing. The two of you danced together. Although there were moments that you felt uncomfortable, you overrode your fear because this vacation was becoming the perfect story. You would not only nod yes or no when your roommate asked if you had a great time; finally, you would have a fun story to tell that was better than all of hers combined. Five minutes into this friendship, you called Lissa perfection. Fifteen minutes in, you cried about your recent breakup that was caused by your insecurity-fueled paranoia and your ridiculous work schedule. After twenty minutes, she got bored of you and your compliments, and after thirty, she knew you served part of her purpose. She grabbed your hand and asked,

“Are you here with anyone special?”

You tightened your grip and said,

“I’m by myself. This is my own eat, pray, love trip. I went to NYC, then New Orleans, and now I’m in Vegas, baby.”

Woman to woman, you should not have said that.

Lissa became even more excited than before.

You were another Vegas Virgin, and the fourth eat, pray, love girl that she had found in the past two months!

She ordered another round of drinks, and then left for the bathroom. With the stupidest smile, you swayed back and forth on the dance floor to the latest hits as you imagined her freshening up. In reality, she key-bumped in the stall, and then stared at herself in the bathroom mirror as she savored the minutes before her next steps.

For Lissa, last night was good not great. She killed you. She killed you with kisses, a plastic bag, and a spool of nylon rope. Before the night reached its climax, she sat you down on the couch and said it was time to try something different. She put on “Summer Loving” and tied your hands together with rope and placed a plastic bag over your head. She promised that when you tapped her back, she would take the bag off.

This moment was intoxicating so you put your fear away. While the bag was over your head, she ate you out and her lips became slippery with your cum. You gasped. Banged your fists on her back. Then you stopped.

Your roommate filed a missing persons report because you did not pay rent. She is still looking for you, but you are decomposing in the trunk of a car. You should have loved yourself, been more cautious, and etc. I am not sure if you learned your lessons and I do not have time to keep lecturing.

 

book of judgement

 

Book of Judgment

Sister Scholastica, Lucifer has been expecting you since the day you were born. Why are you looking surprised? I already told you that you were going to Hell. Then Brian, your death means two blonde girls in Manhattan live to text another day; so, I won’t have to deal with their paperwork until they die of toxic shock syndrome or alcohol poisoning. Brian, stop crying, trying to use your victim card will not help here because somehow in in Heaven every human is some sort of victim. Elaine, honestly, I don’t have time to fill out the paperwork for your second chance at life or onboard you to Heaven, so I’ll send you to Hell. Once I’m back from lunch, it is the round up, and all of you will go down together.

“May I please speak with another angel?”

Elaine, do not interrupt me. It is always the same with you humans. You come here pleading; meanwhile, we constantly save and are overworked while you destroy and indulge. Then, we have to explain why what you are doing is wrong. You all are violent, brutal, and ugly. It is in my professional opinion that Heaven needs to close its doors, but that is above my wings.

If anyone has a problem with this judgment, please direct yourselves to HR. I am not answering any questions. It is my lunch break, and today the cafeteria is serving milk and honey.

 

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Imagining Victims by Paul Michael Whitfield

1.

I’d like to discuss Diana Tietjens Meyers’ look at the edifying value of victims’ stories in her 2016 Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights in comparison to José Medina’s suggestion of ‘resistant imagination’ in his 2013 The Epistemology of Resistance. I suggest Medina’s concept has the potential to facilitate how victims’ stories can be morally motivating narratives.

2.

Meyers explores the importance of listening to and understanding victims’ stories, and explains this merits changes not just to theoretical accounts of what exactly such stories are and what they do morally, but also to their legal and political use. I’ll focus on the former, and Meyers’ proposed update to our concept of narrative structure.

In traditional accounts of such structure, narratives with moral urgency must begin with a “steady state” of morally neutral (or acceptable) circumstance that’s disrupted and then repaired. Meyers shows, with vivid examples, that the “very conditions that others regard as legitimate and ordinary are the cause of their victimization.” In distinction to those traditional accounts of structure, their stories ex vi termini begin and end morally fraught.

As Meyers points out, the change to our theoretical account of narrative structure must include a form of narrative closure that isn’t a resolution but “a moral void” and “a moral demand.” These stories are morally complete narratives, and the sort of moral completion they involve is a response of “moral self-examination,” where readers are lead by the all-around fraught narrative toward a “clarion moral appeal.”

 

3.

Medina explores the serious imperative of our “need to reimagine our categories . . . so that our reconceptualizations redirect our ordinary practices and our ways of relating to each other.” The personal and political effects of injustice and oppression merit more than merely working within the common and accepted practices of knowledge creation and production, but going further, so as to leave open the possibility of an effective and proactive response to the experiences of others who live (let alone work) within those practices that are not common or accepted.

Medina offers various concepts we might use to better understand this need from the point-of-view of someone who is outside those othered experiences, with the key concept being the imperative for resistant imagination.

If we are to critically examine and morally improve how we engage with others, if we’re to look closely at our daily practices and what we habitually recognize as permittable and unacceptable possibilities of social growth and melioration, one area that can be relevant to opening up latent conceptual space is our imaginative sensibilities. Medina directly positions his account of resistant imagination as direction for this potential.

Exploring the concept of imagination, he begins in the context of fiction, a common area for such exploration, and initially asks a question drawn out of the work of Tamar Szabo Gendler:

Why do we experience such resistance when invited to entertain fictional scenarios that violate our moral intuitions and values, and not when asked to imagine fictional worlds that violate our factual sense or the laws of physics? (Medina, 254)

We have a difficult time with the invitation to imagine a moral world different than ours, especially if that world conflicts with our own, or even causes us to imagine ourselves with more culpability than the ‘real’ moral world we feel comfortable and live in.

This causes us to develop what Medina calls imaginative resistance, where rather than the usual hypothetical reasons we use in other forms of reasoning (“cold counterfactuals”), we’re presented with scenarios where our affective and sociopolitical realities are put into serious question (“hot counterfactuals”).

Presented with a fictional scenario that implicates us in moral harm, our imagination itself becomes resistant, and places us further away from the possibility of that world to sustain our individual ‘real’ world stability.

800px-Steel_Wool_Spinning
Steel Wool spinning, Ballarat East, 2012 by Peter Thurgood

4.

This sort of response is exactly what Medina suggests we switch out: imaginative resistance for resistant imagination. Instead of our allowing our imagination to control how we react to moral scenarios that are uncommon or harmful to our sense of stability within our real “positionality and relationality,” we can instead use these fictive differences to instigate what he calls “epistemic counterpoints,” where the difference we experience itself becomes a cause for moral education and the possibility of better understanding what we have yet to experience ourselves.

The resistance of our imagination not to the transgression of its limits but, inversely, to the limits of our transgression where “what is to be avoided is letting one particular imaginative horizon or frame rule the day and become hegemonic . . . and making the subjects who grow under their influence become insensitive to the blind spots of the frame.”

Medina suggests this sort of resistance can move beyond our engagement with fictional worlds, and expand into our engagement with the real experiences of others who live lives we can only imagine, so as to be vigilant towards and repair “the circulation of ways of imagining collective subjectivities (e.g., racial or sexual identities) that demean them and prevent their inclusion in the community or their equal standing within it.”

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“communication” by Chris Garcia

5.

Medina’s concept of resistant imagination, then, seems relevant to and useful for Meyers’ account of how we might better approach and engage with victims’ stories.

To reimagine our categories, as Medina suggests, in order to include those different than us, one (admittedly rather small) part of this is to reimagine our category of narrative structure.

Victims’ stories can be both complete narratives and morally motivating accounts. An explanation of how to imaginatively resist the thought that narratives must begin and end with morally positive (or neutral) circumstances, the idea that motivation can come from a story’s ending morally fraught rather than morally resolved, is located within a combination of Meyers’ and Medina’s insightful books.

If the victim’s story ends with implicating the reader themselves, even, that reader can realize this as a chance they have to imagine what it’s like ‘on the other side’, to realize sometimes it doesn’t get better, that it still hasn’t, and that there’s a need for their work towards a real world that matches up morally both with their own experiences and those of others, even and imperatively when such a possibility seems unimaginable.

 

References

Diana Tietjens Meyers. Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights. Oxford UP. 2016.

José Medina. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford UP. 2013.

Devotion: Patti Smith by James Carraghan

I started this review at three in the morning. I woke up with a pain in my side; probably the result of poor cooking decisions on my part. I sat in a large chair, covered myself in blankets, and wrapped a heavy scarf around me for a shawl. The pains subsided with the writing, and the act carried them away.

A book that bears the subtitle (if only on the cover) “Why I Write” offers a starting point for interpretation before the work is even begun. There is a whole genre of writing given to the subject, ranging from musings and memoirs of the writing experience (The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard), to review collections as guides to identifying “good prose” (The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis), or the technical guides for usage (The Elements of Style by Strunk and White). Smith’s book is none of these things—not really. Smith has practiced devotion both as a writer and reader since adolescence. Reading her previous work—Just Kids and M Train in particular—informs me of her pilgrimages, her loves, her elemental respect for art that is capable of expressing the best humanity can offer. She has given her life to artists, even if they could not always give it back.

Patti Smith Pirelli Annie Leibovitz
Patti Smith photographed by Annie Leibovitz, 2016

The world Patti Smith inhabits, as well as the world she crafts throughout her work, is one where the past is still resting on the ground around her. It is the same world we inhabit. Smith has the gift to bring this past into focus like a camera lens moving from background to foreground. Leaving a café is not just leaving—Smith passes a bust of Apollinaire crafted by Picasso—the same bust she saw in 1969 when she visited Paris with her sister. 1969 brings her memories of the existentialists and their cafés. Later, Smith will go to her French publisher and follow the trail of Albert Camus, the existentialist/absurdist whose early death at the height of his power added yet more hauntings to his work. Before leaving for Paris, Smith grabbed du Plessix Gray’s monograph on Simone Weil, the atheist mystic whose room Camus meditated in before he went to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the layers of memory we see Smith’s influences on her writing, and the influences on her influences, and the way connection spreads out between artists across decades, languages, continents.

Patti Smith Performing “Land” and “Gloria” in Paris, 2015

Writing begins with transcribing, interpreting; collecting. There is no blank space where ideas come from. Instead, Smith sifts through the worlds in front of her, building from the pieces that come together. This gives voice to the work as well as the ghosts that helped create it.

I have stacks around me as I write at five in the morning. Because of the stomach pain, I will forgo early morning coffee. Because of the stomach pain, I will ignore the fact that I started a sentence with “Because,” a fragmentary move I have always disliked. I have read du Plessix Gray on Weil at least four times in the last seven years—a life of self-denial was never so interesting or so genuine. There are texts next to me I should be working on—class readings, research materials, overdue library books. I scratch on with my black pencil, making notes on the paper, beginning a new sheet after filling both sides, making notes on the margin. Putting a finished sheet next to the new, I’m struck by the rate at which words turn into sentences, which turn to pages; which turn into a book. Smith’s notebook looks open-faced on the cover photograph. Is this a part of the first incarnation whose preserved product sits in my lap?

Devotion handwritten

These connections between names, dates, works, and experience form a mystical way of engaging with the world for Smith.

At St. Pancras International I took yet another train to Ashford, the last length of my journey, to find Simone Weil’s grave. We passed row houses, a lifeless landscape. I noticed the date on my ticket was June 15, the birthday of my late brother Todd. His only child a daughter called Simone. I immediately brightened. Only good could happen today (24).

Smith’s notes become the trail that forms this book, the pieces of which have been built up before us. “Looking back on these fragments, I am struck with the thought that if Devotion was a crime, I had inadvertently produced evidence, annotating as I went along” (27). Samuel R. Delany once wrote in his critical study, The American Shore, about the material that builds and goes into a work

The preparation [of fictional creation] is only partially retrievable from an examination of the text; such retrieval may occur only through more or less informed supposition. (29)

The body of Devotion shifts on page 35, becoming the story Smith has been gathering material for throughout the first section. This represents Smith’s first sustained work of fiction. (She has, we are told in whispers, been writing a detective novel for some time.) A story of comings and goings, the attentive reader will see how the images—both those Smith singled out for us and those we find on our own—relate to the first section A skater viewed sleepily on television becomes the heroine—a skater whose sport becomes a perfected performance art piece, documented by the viewer—the voyeur—instead of the camera.

Stop-start. Begin again with toast. Making toast, I remember Smith’s descriptions of her life in and out of coffee shops in M Train, and the various meals of coffee and toast she describes. Bread is calming and filling, but not ultimately satisfying—man does not live by bread alone. Time passes. I take these notes with me to work in a folder, and slip the folder into the center of Devotion.

The brief story that makes up the center of Devotion reads like a fairy tale. It is dark, a love story between unbalanced partners—a young woman named Eugenia and an older man named Alexander. Eugenia, a skater, intrigues Alexander, who takes it upon himself to become her provider and controller. They begin a relationship in which each exerts a certain amount of control. Eugenia finds her interest primarily in skating. Their relationship twists like the four—then five—axles she performs on a private arena. The two are oddities who meet but never seem to come together, except in elliptical violence. The notes of the first section again help a reader determine the underlying themes—history, myth, Estonia, migration and refuge from that snip of Europe, the archaic, the poetic, the haunted, and the tragedy of spiritual self-sacrifice.

Patti Smith performs “My Blakean Year” at NYPL, 2010

The third section of the book finds Smith on a different pilgrimage, to the home of Camus this time, at the invitation of his daughter to view his final manuscript, incomplete and pulled from his suitcase after the car crash that ended his life. Like Weil, he is a thread through it all—the inspiration and connection that becomes material in the story of writing. Viewing the manuscript, Smith becomes distracted, wanting to create something of her own, to enter into the dialogue of artists.

That compulsion that prohibits me from completely surrendering to a work of art, drawing me from the halls of a favored museum to my own drafting table. Pressing me to close Songs of Innocence in order to experience, as Blake, a glimpse of the divine that may also become a poem. (93)

 We see here pre-text and post-text—the creation and (brief) analysis, the scaffold and the unveiling. Recurrence allow details to stand out; specks of light to bleed through. Great work can often inspire others to response—affection and devotion. The ability to connect these things allows for an answer to the question that sent the muse running off at the start:

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply live (94).

I come home late into the evening. There is little I can find to do—food doesn’t appeal but neither does rest. Internet images fill cheaper desires. A shower offers an open warmth different from the heat of my room. My wrists no longer hurt. Silence. Meditation hinging on deep sleep and the dream state. I reach out to my notebook and my pen. Living is not enough in itself—we must make something out of it. It is in this making that we find devotion enough to keep us for our days.

devotion cover
The Author’s Copy of Devotion, 2017

2017 Fall Reading List by Jordannah Elizabeth

I’m literally sitting writing this reading list in a Hugo Boss jacket that’s a bit too large for my small feminine frame. I found it barely worn in freshly dry cleaned in a “giveaway” box in my neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood leaves books, clothes and appliances out to share and trade. Some neighbors are a bit more well off than others. It’s not uncommon to find a wealthy student’s small collection of hand-me-downs that are clean, expensive and barely a year old. I almost like men’s jackets more than I like books, but as the season begins to change, and Fall makes chills the air crisp and chill, I can enjoy both at the same time. No need to choose.

These books are a combination of favorites, like my friend China Martens epic zine anthology, Future Generation and the enthralling Womanist literary effort, Hope is in the Holler: A Womanist Theory and a collection of books I’ve compiled while preparing for my feminist lectures and writing workshops like “Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions.” I rummage through libraries and independent books stores like Red Emma’s Books to find just what I need for my never ending literary pursuits.

The fall season is perfect for learning new things and growing our minds and perspectives, especially since school is now in session.

Future Generation: The Zine-Book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends & Others
By China Martens

One Dimensional Woman
By Nina Power

Role Models
By John Waters

Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation
By: Barbara Findlen

The Concept and Measurement of Violence Against Women and Men
By: Sylvia Walby, Jude Towers, Susan Balderston, Brian Francis

Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan’s Seminar VII
By: Marc De Kesel

A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Reader
Edited By: Frances Smith Foster

Listen Little Man
By: Wilhelm Reich

New Black Man
By: Mark Anthony Neal

Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions
By: Judith Kegan Gardiner

Sex, Drag, and Male Roles: Investigating Gender as Performance
By: Diane Torr and Stephen J. Bottoms

Hope in the Holler: A Womanist Theology
By: A. Elaine Brown Crawford

The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention
By: Sameena Mulla

Sister Outsider
By: Audre Lorde

On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970
By Elizabeth Siegel Watkins

High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories, 1966–2006
By Joyce Carol Oates

Shotgun Seamstress Zine Collection: Six Zine by and for Black Punks
By: Osa Atoe

Freedom Challenge: African American Homeschoolers
By: Grace Llewellyn

The Origin of Madness : A Philosophical Review of the Film ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ by Tini Ngatini

Manipulated image from John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness

Do you ever wonder how people go from completely sane to wholly mad? Or, think about how each of us is equally exposed to the possibility of catching insanity every time we open ourselves to the outside world?

One of these answers can be found in the film In Mouth of Madness (1995) directed by John Carpenter. The film understands madness as “that thing [which is] messing with the church [values]”; “that thing that offers pain and suffering beyond human understanding.” Madness is an abstract being that “wasn’t here [in this material world] before l wrote it”, says the character Sutter Cane. The question is how this very abstract matter known as “madness” manifests itself into material form, and thus becomes viewable, spreadable, discussable, and perhaps “curable”.

Such a journey can be seen in the character John Trent, who has gone from a “sane” insurance investigator to a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Trent is one out of a number of people who show schizophrenic symptoms after reading Sutter Cane’s horror books, including the Hobb’s End Horror and In the Mouth of Madness.  Books that are known for their success in generating a kind of seed of “madness” in the mind of a “less stable reader”. These seeds range from “disorientation, memory loss, to severe paranoid reaction”. Trent’s case is significant in that it may offer a potential clue to the outbreak of mass murders and riots in the city, which are claimed to only involve those who read Cane’s book.

At this point, it is safe to say that “madness” made its way to be among us by finding representation. “Homecoming instrument (s)” the film calls it. I would say that its first representation is in the mind of Sutter Cane. Then it manages to move Cane to write about his encounter with “madness” in the form of books. These books then could be considered as the second form of representation of “madness”. This second representation is special in that it signifies the presence of “madness” in the material world. With Cane’s books, “madness” is now viewable, discussable and spreadable to each individual. It will keep spreading until it achieved its fullest form, Hegel would say.

The fullest form of which every single being strive for is equal to life because it supposedly represents an achievement of completely being oneself, as Hegel implied in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What is often forgotten is that the way to the fullest form is violent and painful in that it constantly requires analysis of what one already achieved. In this analyzing process, the defective representation must be abandoned and destroyed, Hegel would further assert. Only by doing so, one can continue to find a new and better representation.  In the case of this film, we can see that only when Cane [as first representation of “madness”] sees the book Hobb’s End Horror is not perfect, he then can proceed to write the new one, that is In the Mouth of Madness. This new book [and other new form of representation that might come later] supposed to be better representation of “madness” as it corrects flaws of the previous book. Thus, the quality of this new book is stronger than that of the previous one. The new book In the Mouth of Madness is so strong that it “will drive you absolutely mad; choked [you] with the gleaming white bones, the hideous unholy abominations, countless unhallowed centuries”, says the character Cane when persuades Trent to open himself for “madness”. Trent does open himself for “madness” and, thus, rendered as insane.

Trent’s case shows that the desire for self-examination, which “madness” inspires in whoever come in contact with it, is more challenging with human beings than with the madness being [the abstract matter called madness].  This is partly because human beings reflect social values. Identifying some of those values as “wrong” and abandoning them not only challenges the individual’s inner stability but also disrupts the stability of the society in which one lives. As a consequence, once society classifies a person as “insane”, the individual may find himself lonely and isolated, or he may even be killed for such apparent “deviation”, Berger warned us in his Sacred Canopy. There are plenty of examples of killing done on the basis of “deviation,” and one of them is the religious conflict involving the Ahmadiyya community. To anticipate such horrific effect of madness, society advises those who are infected by madness, like Trent, must be made named, isolated from the healthy society, and cured before sent back to society.

The film even prescribes that to survive the influence of madness, one must do what Trent did. ”He did not shriek. He stared into the illimitable gulf of the unknown. And refused to close his eyes”. He continually refused to subjugate his life to the power outside himself i.e. the influence of Cane’s book and the label “insane” from a medical representative. He does it by often announcing his self-knowledge that he is a rational, independent and happy man who has control over himself and that no one will have a chance to control his mind.  In short, he fights madness by maintaining his ability to think for himself. Otherwise, madness will seep in and take control over his mind and dictate his body to do things he may not like doing.

The film is indeed very intellectually stimulating in that it not only portrays the origin of madness, but it also alludes to the insidious violence inherent in the transformation of knowledge. The film shows that knowledge transformation is violent because it requires the potential receiver to first destroy what he already knows before this new knowledge rests in their mind, a Foucauldian would say. However, such violence is mostly tolerable, if not acceptable, in almost every society. Why? Because such insidious violence, like the kind that Cane’s book generated, represent “senseless, seemingly unmotivated acts of violence”, says Trent. Only when it obviously threatens the life of the larger society, as in the form of a riot, will the power representatives act.  Again, the key to survive both the violence inherent in the madness and in the transformation of knowledge is to maintain the ability to think for oneself.

Powell’s Bookmarks: On Leaving Portland by Andrew Woods

A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:

“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”

We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks:  to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.

I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.

From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.

Art by Maskull Lasserre

I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.

Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.

The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.

And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.

Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.

Installation by Alicia Martin

Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.

Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.

The Looker: John Berger by James Carraghan

I was making my way through Ways of Seeing when I stopped at the end of the third essay and sent a text message to my friend. Within a few minutes he had responded, telling me that he was reading the same essay, at the same time, for a class; he had the same thoughts and was going to get in touch with me. This was not to be the last time this would happen. I worked my way through the rest of the book, finding germs of the theoretical lenses I would be studying in theory-heavy courses outlined with concrete examples. It still guides many things I write about—many of the conversations I have had in the last year were sparked by reading John Berger.

berger-mohr
John Berger by Jean Mohr

Berger was a multidisciplinary thinker before we used words like “multidisciplinary.” The seventy years of his critical explorations reflected the radical changes in the way we think about art, politics and the act of thinking itself. Berger was, in many ways, responsible for starting the process of consciousness raising many of us needed and still need. His work made us question the preconceptions we brought to analysis in a way that was both serious and playful. I can sum it all up in a single painting by Magritte: The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas un pipe).

magrittepipe

The image appears as if it is a pipe; yet as many have said, the viewer cannot take the pipe down and fill it, light it, or smoke it. In the end, it is not a pipeit is the representation of a pipe. It is in this area of differencebetween the thing and its representationthat we find the best of Berger’s work.

The way that of Berger holds most of his influence is bizarre. He is best known for (essentially) a novelization of a television program he presented in the 1970s: Ways of Seeing. The actual program hasn’t been released on video because of copyright issues, so to admit to having seen it is to admit to walking in the grey area of copyright law. The book is broken up between essays and visual (wordless) essays. The two connect together and reinforce one another to the point that they cannot be separated. Seeing image after image reproduced side by side, themes that previously would have required travel around the world to different galleries, close observation, and the persistence of memory in order to connect between point A and Point B, become apparent. Ways of Seeing compresses the journey while preserving a small part of the overall experience. Once these changes are seen, they linger in our consciousness. We can place them in our own world.

I will never forget reading Berger’s essay on the female nude included in Ways of Seeing, particularly the last paragraph, which so many seem to have missed completely:

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from mennot because the feminine is different from the masculinebut because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him. If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the images, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

Reading this set all the lights in my mind ablaze. In terms of feminist consciousness, this was the moment in which the pose and figure of women across the history of art shifted for me. Going to an art gallery soon after, I came upon a picture and imagined that it was now a naked man looking at himself in a mirror, with a woman viewing from the bed, or two men: a study in homoerotic narcissism. I turned the youth and a wolf (playing with the wolf? being chased by the wolf? actively attacked by the wolf?) from female to male, and the ambiguity of the image was removedthey were playing, roughhousingbecause, my consciousness told me, that is how boys and animals interact. I thought too of my transgender friends and lovers, and the way that we assign meaning based on sexual characteristics that may not always be present in the equation. Eventually, I did not even have to go that far. I could look at faces and paint them androgynously, letting them become bodies that were neither female nor male. I could read a painting leaving these assumptions for later, after the pose was discovered.

Outside of his writing, Berger lived the radical practice he wrote about. Almost every obituary recounted how he had donated half of his winnings from the Booker Prize for his picaresque novel, G., to the London branch of the Black Panther Party and used the remainder to finance a book on migrant workers. This was also the man who translated the poetry of Cesaire and Mahmoud Darwish into English and supported revolutionary struggles for independence throughout the world with the same ease he would describe a work by Picasso. At the time that the world was becoming more industrial, Berger moved to France and lived the life of a farmer (who also happened to be one of the most influential critics in the world). This shift in his life was responsible for a new branch of his writing: Berger wrote about the connection with humans and animals in the same tender way he wrote about depictions of lovers in paintings. He removed the distances between a life of the mind and a life of activity, becoming more aware of the difficulties facing those whose work feeds us in the literal sense.

What I miss most about Berger is the constant appeal to looking, for discovering the unseen connection between images, of parts of a single image. In art history and art criticism, we were taught how to read paintings. Unlike the majority of printed books, there seemed no way to instantly grasp the way a painting should be read. One can start with the whole, or the upper left, or move from the right counter-clockwise. The advice to “show, not tell,” seems to run amok here, and art felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. What was it, I wondered, out loud in a gallery by accident, that these critics had done to understands this meaning behind the artwork? (In other words, what sort of drugs had they taken?) Berger made the process of looking, thinking, discovering, a program I could follow through on because he took the mystery out of looking while retaining the beauty of the discovery.

Berger is best in miniature. The strongest works were the most concentrated, as if they had been boiled down and mixed together on a stove top. He revisits the importance we ascribe to objects, either as artworks, historical markers, or personal reminders of past encounters with other people, other places. An essay about a wooden bird given to him by a friend invites a discussion, not about the bird, but about exile, craftsmanship, and a disappearing mode of life. Berger returned to vision again in his short work, Cataract, exploring the way the anatomy of the ocular device impacts the process of vision and thought. Recovering from cataract operations in both eyes, he wrote about the radical shift in clarityfirst in one eye, then in the otherthat made colors intense again. As he aged, he had become a critic operating in a diminished capacity for some time as things began to come in clearly. Now it seemed as though he was entering a second wind in his late 80s. And so it seemed for the rest of the man and his reputation: Verso had just put out two large collections of his art criticism, a documentary, The Seasons in Quincy, had just been released at film festivals, and it seemed as though the world was turning its vision back to John Berger. Even with this productivity, it was clear that he was slowing down. His death was not unexpected. Still, no one I knew was ready for it.

I think of the way in which so much about Berger is contained in the physical world still. He seems like a man of the 19th century, still working on crisp paper in a digital age. I wonder how he would investigate the new trend of the 360 degree film footage, meant to be viewed on a mobile device, based around the idea of being there without being there. So many of the questions he raised about our critical engagement with images remain unanswered: How do we see the world around us? How do we process what we see? How do we distinguish between the representation and the real? In response, the gentleness of John Berger’s voice keeps asking us: Look.

1926-2017.