Tag Archives: winter 2008

TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN | SKYSCRAPERS OF THE MIDWEST | BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON

TOO COOL TO BE FORGOTTEN
Alex Robinson
Top Shelf Productions ($14.95)

SKYSCRAPERS OF THE MIDWEST
Joshua W. Cotter
AdHouse Books ($19.95)

BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON
Dash Shaw
Fantagraphics ($29.99)

by Eric Lorberer

The coming of age story is one of the great chestnuts of literature. One of its perennial problems, however, is that even when told in the present tense, it's usually written from the vantage of a wiser present, which can lead to narrative doldrums, to say the least. Fortunately there are still creative minds out there who can tackle this problem. A recent film, Let the Right One In, so thoroughly inhabits its 12-year-old protagonist's point of view that the horror of daily life and school brutality makes vampirism gentle and redemptive by comparison. Likewise, in Cormac McCarthy's The Road an even younger child is forced to cross the threshold in an apocalyptic wasteland, with every decision made by his protector an object lesson in the complicated nature of humanity.

In comics, there's a special opportunity to use the medium's disjunctive presentation of words and pictures and its ability to equalize the fantastic and the real when engaging childhood's end. Three recent graphic novels take different approaches to the coming of age narrative but all succeed in sketching in some intriguing details about the genre.

Alex Robinson's Too Cool to be Forgotten is the smallest of the bunch, though not slight by any means. Robinson, creator of the terrific, ensemble driven brick of a book Box Office Poison, here delivers a much tighter work, folded in on itself at times like origami. His decision to compress is wise, though, given the story's plot device: Robert Wicks, a balding father nearing 40, tries hypnosis to stop smoking and instead finds himself reliving high school with his adult memory and mentality intact. It's almost a worn trope, but Robinson uses the strength of his pictorial storytelling to keep the pace fast and the work engaging. He gets every detail just right, down to his younger sister's unicorn t-shirt in the past, and the details accumulate to hint at things about everyone (on Robert's intake form at the hypnotist, he fills in "How to Build Your Dream Deck or Patio" for the question "last book read": nuff said). Plus his imaginative and well-constructed layouts invite us down the rabbit-hole with Robert at every stage; juggling dialogue, thought balloons, character, and action, Robinson uses every trick in his arsenal to keep the story married to the themes. Narrating an adult mind in a child's body is no easy task, but Robinson pulls it off with aplomb, and if his time-traveling adventure yields a predictably mundane result—our present-day protagonist quits smoking, of course—how he gets there is filled with whimsy, heartbreak, and surprise.

Despite its fantastical lynchpin, Too Cool to be Forgotten essentially depends on psychological realism to reach its satori-like conclusion. Joshua Cotter’s magnificent Skyscrapers of the Midwest takes a different tack, using surrealism and formalism to convey its main character’s bildungsroman. Part of the fractured nature of the story comes from the fact that it was originally published in installments, of course, but even so, Cotter makes the most of his piecemeal project by inserting metatextual elements—fake ads, for example—that reflect the story back to itself and place the dreamlike narrative at an intriguing, resonant remove. And dream itself is part of the story, insofar as our protagonist’s tortured youth is spent fantasizing about something better—whether robots, Jesus, or a healthier home life. (As with Craig Thomson’s wonderful Blankets, the book’s even-keel presentation when it comes to the more fundamentalist branches of religion is a strength, keeping things complex and in play where a lesser writer might demonize and simplify.) And Cotter’s evocative illustrations do as good a job at blending reality and fantasy as his writing, staying just one side of whacky while feeling like they could transmogrify on the page at any moment. With such a stunning first major work, Cotter is destined for great things.

One could say the same about Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button. More family drama than coming of age story, it still belongs on this list for how deftly it handles the sweeping eddies of memory and occurrence that change us from our parents’ children into our own selves. Here the motivating device is the bombshell of an older couple announcing their divorce to their three grown children at the family’s beach house, and how it brings to the surface unresolved issues in each of their lives. For while the Loony children may be grown—David is having troubles in his own marriage, and Claire has a 16-year-old daughter, a character who throws the thready fringes of coming of age into stark relief—they still must travel through this trauma as accumulations of their younger selves, a process Shaw shows brilliantly. The entire work has the claustrophobic grace of a Woody Allen film, but Shaw does things that only comics can: for one, he bridges the gap between fantasy and reality by depicting Peter, the youngest Loony who sees himself (and is perhaps seen) as apart from his parents and siblings, throughout the entire narrative as an anthropomorphized frog. He also smartly refuses to offer an omniscient take on the events, save for the quiet move of labeling objects as the story unfolds, a move that, like Cotter’s metatextual elements in Skyscrapers, reminds us that the cartoonist is indeed God in this universe, even if he refuses to offer judgment.

Of course, these are but three examples of how smartly graphic novels can treat the tired and tireless subject of growing up; a fuller presentation could easily fill a book, one that includes autobiographical comics and teen superheroes and the hordes of other ways that graphic novelists go in search of lost time. Meanwhile, suffice it to say that these books—three of the best graphic novels of 2008 by any measure—hold important aspects of this prismatic theme up to the light, dazzling as they do so.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

A SCHOLAR’S TALE: Intellectual Journey of a Displaced Child of Europe

Geoffrey Hartman
Fordham University Press ($24.95)

by Spencer Dew

“What haunts a memoir that does not have the excuse of a significant personal conversion, revelation, exculpation, is the nexus of the life and the work,” says Geoffrey Hartman, and it is this nexus that he explores in his slim memoir, a reflection on his years as a leading figure in literary criticism—a career spanning work on Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, engagement with deconstructionism, a turn toward the hermeneutics of rabbinic midrash, and an ongoing interest in trauma, psychoanalysis, and collective memory. As indicated by the subtitle, Hartman was a child refugee, shuttled to England on a kindertransport. The Holocaust has become an increasingly central influence on his writing, and indeed, A Scholar’s Tale echoes some of the sentiments of the survivors whose testimonies he helped collect as part of a Yale project, aiming for “a kind of completion” to his life and offering a witness to his existence that, while focused primarily on his work, is nonetheless other than his work. This book is not, then, literary criticism per se, though the sort of “completion” it offers is elliptical, a weave fringed with loose ends, collecting anecdotes and opinions along with catalogues of influences and lists of subjects omitted.

All this gives the book the pleasant feel of an after dinner monologue—one delivered by a brilliant man with a storied past who, over a couple of brandies, dips into his memories, reminiscing about old times and old acquaintances and revisiting the texts and thinkers who have mattered to him most. This approach, too, accounts for the book’s flaws—the flitting across the surfaces of subjects rather than engaging in any real exposition or argument, the tendency toward cliché, and the emotional distance with which certain circumstances get treated. Take, for instance, the case of Hartman’s friend and colleague Paul de Man, whose death is treated cursorily, followed fast by revelations of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi propaganda in de Man’s early writings that Hartman handles with an awkward level of diplomacy. Many readers will be disappointed with such passages, along with drowsy bits about how, as a student, Hartman could have become a gargoyle in the cathedral that is the Sterling library, or his claim that “religion is sustained by ritual and romance, intensely imaginative conceptions, but these are too often skeletalized by a dogmatic theology or exploited by extreme sectarian politics.” Likewise, many readers will be left unsatisfied by Hartman’s avoidance of any serious commentary on his interest in rabbinic hermeneutics, in regards to which he merely makes passing comments on the echoes between Derrida’s playfulness and rabbinic aggadah, then segues to lamentations about his exclusion from Jewish ritual.

The advantage of Hartman’s approach, however, is that such flat passages are passed over with conversational speed, and among his many other topics are solid appreciations of Freud, Blanchot, and Buber, a gorgeous page of musings on the practice (and inherent ethic) of pedagogy, and a heartfelt defense of criticism, specifically “the affirmative character of critique.” Hartman also recounts the rise of feminist criticism at Yale, presents a preposterous public appearance by the superstar Jacques Lacan, and—both in the text and in an appendix—remembers Erich Auerbach’s “combination of esprit de finesseand immense learning” as a model “of humanistic scholarship.”

Indeed, it is in acknowledging both his indebtedness to and his continuing awe at the achievements of others that Hartman’s book hits its highest notes, giving it a tone both of graciousness and enthusiasm. When he expresses his ongoing wonderment, for instance, at Derrida’s 1972 Glas, “a pivotal work of both philosophical criticism and art” that combined, via split columns, commentary on Hegel with commentary on Jean Genet, his response to the text will send many readers back to it. So too, his comments on how his own interest in Wordsworth has only been deepened by his inquiries into the themes and ramifications of the Holocaust, as both issues deal with trauma and the role of the eyewitness, will prompt a return to Wordsworth and the wider Hartman oeuvre. Of the many threads raised in this text which one can only hope Hartman will develop into their own books, an idea repeatedly alluded to—how the ubiquity of news has rendered us “involuntary spectators and impotent bystanders of widespread political terror and the misery it leaves behind” and how media technology, presenting us with constant, flickering images of the so-called real, actually leads us to believe that our “individual lives are, or are felt to be, deeply fraudulent”—is most interesting.

Of course, Hartman’s attempt at “completion” on his own life and work also actively resists completion—urging, instead, continuing conversation and critical exploration. “What is unexamined is not lived,” Hartman writes, a statement that distills the underlying sentiment of A Scholar’s Tale and points to the meaning he has found in his career. There the specific work of literary criticism has intersected with ethics, politics, psychology, and theology, engaging, in the widest sense, what he calls the “religious resonance” of the written word.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

WET MOON: Volumes 1-4

Ross Campbell
Oni Press ($14.95 each)

by John Pistelli

A white woman in her early twenties, extremely thin, pierced, tattooed and with a Chelsea cut, kneels with her feet tucked under her and begins to pull her shirt over her head. Her back to us, she looks over her shoulder, aware of being watched, the expression on her face a narrow-eyed provocation. An African-American woman of the same age, her head shaved, a cigarette held to her pierced lips between two fingers, sits outside in torn tights and a small, revealing camisole. Her hand rests on her upper thigh and she looks just over our heads with a look of pensive and fretful desire.

These two portraits appear on the title pages of the chapters that divide up Ross Campbell’s ongoing series of graphic novels, Wet Moon. I invoke them not to be lurid, but rather to enter the discussion the text seems designed to provoke about the various pushes and pulls of gender and genre, the personal and the political. Wet Moon, like the portraits that move us from one chapter of the narrative to the next, involves its readers in a delirious regress of identification and objectification.

The series follows the lives of a group of mostly female college freshmen in the town from which the series takes its title, a locale combining the seedy, starved worldliness of the isolated college town with the grand and corrupted glamour of the Southern Gothic setting. Our heroines’ cultural coordinates, indeed, incline toward the Gothic in all its modes, including the High Romantic literature assigned in their classes as well as the live performances of bands like Bella Morte, whose lyrics often furnish epigraphs to the chapters. These allusions remind the reader that the Gothic, since its late eighteenth-century inception as a reaction against the rationalization of industrial life, has always served as a means for artists and audiences to escape the rigidities of the gendered and sexual binaries enforced by the same technocratic regime. From Mary Shelley’s artist-scientist and his tragic monster and the Bronte sisters’ male demon lovers all the way to Stephen King’s vengeful women and the hardcore cyberpunk heroines of William Gibson’s decadent future cities, we see that authors who work in or around Gothic Romanticism have always taken the genre’s lack of realism as a license to imagine themselves inhabiting not only other subjectivities, but also other sexed bodies and other forms of desire. Campbell partially follows in this tradition, but the joy of Wet Moon is to watch him combine it with a wry social-psychological acuity that short-circuits the occasionally self-important intensities of Romantic art.

At any given moment, Wet Moon seems ready to launch itself into a rollicking plot: dire secrets will be divulged and life-changing events will transpire! The main protagonist, Cleo Lovedrop, is a hapless magnet for intrigue: unbeknownst to her, her ex-boyfriend is dating her sister, while at the same time someone posts harassing messages about her in Wet Moon’s public places and her new girlfriend Myrtle exhibits worrying signs of murderous pathology. Her sister, moreover, works in a large mansion outside of town for a wealthy woman with one arm, who seems to have strange designs on her young employee. Add to this the FBI agent hanging around town with his monkey and you have the makings of an un-put-downable airport paperback.

Campbell, however, uses the expansive freedom of the graphic novel format to demonstrate that plot is the least interesting aspect of any extended narrative. While the elements summarized above give Wet Moon a spine of story, the real interest lies in the meandering, often uneventful lives of Cleo and her extended circle of friends. They spend most of their time in conversations—depicted, in their informal, vernacular drift, with a kind of anti-romantic ultra-realism. The women discuss everything: their own ramifying relationships, the subcultural objects that inform their tastes, their future plans and sexual desires. Campbell has been lauded by fans for his depiction of a multi-racial cast of female characters who display a broader range of physical and psychological types than one normally finds in popular media. The extended cast includes the exuberant punk and self-hating Trekkie Trilby, the kind but indiscreet Audrey, a blogger named Mara who is beginning to question her old friendships and lifestyle, and the aforementioned Myrtle, Cleo’s charming, intelligent, but possibly disturbed girlfriend.

While the fourth and most recent volume of Wet Moon ends with a violent assault and suggests that future episodes may force confrontations and revelations on the characters, the pleasures of the series stem more from the diverse company of the characters, whose psychological plausibility and complexity of intention mirror the dense network of real-life interactions which the artificialities of Gothic plot might falsify. Campbell has bravely committed himself to mixing genres, but the possibility that the over-the-top Romance will overcome the intricate social and psychological novelistic realism with which he has limned his characters’ personalities remains a possibility, one suggested by the gradual migration of Campbell’s drawing style from the observant realism of the earlier volumes to the manga-inflected stylizations of recent episodes.

Wet Moon’s genre-bending returns me to where I began this essay, with the question of where identification ends and objectification begins. It cannot be denied that the portraits of the women that head each chapter function as pornographic pin-ups, just as Campbell’s encyclopedic depictions of sexual fetishism (leather, body-modification, ephebophilia, costume play, etc.) enjoin us to wonder what kind of pleasure these books are meant to provide and to whom. The eternally relevant ethical commitments of feminism might militate against viewing Campbell’s identifications with, and realistic transcriptions of, the lives of his heroines as serving a positive political end, whether in Romantic or realist mode. Sexualized power, as many feminist thinkers have observed, is often a consolation offered by patriarchy for the powerlessness it enforces on women and other minorities in the political and economic spheres.

Wet Moon thus raises for a new generation a host of still-unresolved issues. Should art heighten reality or depict it faithfully? Can erotic art be moral in inhumane social conditions? By what right does an artist portray those other than himself? It is Campbell’s achievement that his compelling, lucid work clarifies the questions with such care and beauty.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

THE YEAR OF HENRY JAMES: The Story of a Novel

David Lodge
Penguin Global ($18)

by Jerome Klinkowitz

It would be easy to dismiss David Lodge’s new book as the whinings of a prickly Englishman about how his novel, Author, Author (2004) failed to make the 22-title longlist for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. He’d been on the five-volume shortlist twice before, in 1984 with Small World and four years later with Nice Work, and had feasted on the benefits, including popular reissues of all his novels in the U.K. and U.S., graced with appealing covers by cartoonist Paul Cox and lavish introductions by the author himself. The Man Booker contest had lifted Lodge’s fiction from his publisher’s midlist to bestsellerdom, without any compromises of artistic merit. Author, Author, an especially inventive experiment in the relatively new field of historical metafiction, was meant to test the creative limits of the author’s hard-won fame. And then, by a flabbergasting series of accidents and coincidences, Lodge’s race for the prize ran afoul.

So it’s natural to moan about how things went badly. David Lodge surely does make a fuss about it, albeit in a tempered measured way. Indeed, there’s a great comedy in the man’s mastery of suppressed rage, quelled in a way that invites the reader’s cynical sympathy—after all, as a critic Lodge is an expert on the work of Evelyn Waugh. But there’s also plenty of room for serious thoughts about the nature of contemporary fiction, from how it’s marketed all the way back to how it’s conceived. “The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel” is a novella-length narrative that shares space with eight shorter essays on literary self-consciousness; the eponymously titled volume as a whole qualifies as one of David Lodge’s more important books, where even the whinings make serious points.

The story of the novel is simple: Author, Author was meant to stand as an imaginative investigation of Henry James’s futile attempts to become a broadly popular author, and how his failures at this (including a disastrous foray into the theater) humbled him in the face of his close friend George du Maurier’s dumb-luck success with Trilby, one of the best selling novels of all time. In working out the narrative, Lodge made as great or greater progress in writing a biographical novel as did E. L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, and so many others who in recent years have embraced the form. The form is metafictive not simply because of authorial self-consciousness but because of the reader’s awareness of what’s real and what’s made up. As a successor to the more blatantly innovative fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, historical metafiction has reinterpreted realism for our times, taking advantage of all the benefits of anti-illusionistic writing while hanging on to shared history as well. Lodge’s title essay goes a long way toward explaining just how this process works, and deserves study as a critical document.

No matter that it’s anecdotal. The anecdotes are alternately infuriating and hilarious—and, like Evelyn Waugh, the author relishes their telling. Given that storytelling is the subject here, why shouldn’t Lodge tell some good ones? Their value is that they’re indicative of how an interesting new form of fiction is being made. And then unmade, in his case, by certain idiocies of the publishing world. But that’s how one learns things: by taking them apart, at times uncovering the assumptions that had been disguised as truths. That it all fell apart (in terms of reception) suggests how it may all stay together the next time around.

 

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

REBORN: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963

Susan Sontag
edited by David Rieff
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux ($25)

by Megan Doll

Writer and activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an uncommonly visible and telegenic public intellectual. When she died in 2004, Sontag left behind a large and varied body of work, a tribute to her myriad faculties and interests. Her journals and notebooks, recently made public by her son David Rieff, reveal that Sontag was similarly prolific in chronicling her private life. Reborn follows Sontag from the age of fourteen, a precocious adolescent living in Los Angeles with her mother and stepfather, until the age of thirty, when she is beginning to establish herself as a writer and lecturer in New York. The collection, the first of a projected three volumes, will thrill any admirer of Sontag’s work.

Sontag’s writings reveal a “besotted aesthete” in the making. From an early age, Sontag gorges herself on culture with a staggering sense of urgency and destiny. Notable aspects of Sontag’s prose style—her penchant for lists, notes, and dialectic—emerge even in her teenage years. Similarly, we can see some of the essays that catapulted Sontag into intellectual notoriety (Against InterpretationOn Style) taking shape in the pages of her notebooks. But what is most enthralling is the glimpse we are given into her private life.

The lacunae in Sontag’s journals are often as intriguing as their content. A terse, one-line entry announces her engagement, at the age of sixteen, to sociology professor Philip Rieff, who she met while a student at the University of Chicago. Far from the writings of a giddy fiancée, the next mention of Rieff comes a month later with the foreboding entry of January 3rd, 1950: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”

The journals from the early years on Sontag’s marriage (1951-1952), as well as the birth of her son, David, are missing entirely from the collection. Whether they were lost or disposed of remains unclear. But Sontag turns a detached eye on her early domestic life, unpacking conjugality in a series of “notes on marriage.” After leaving Rieff in 1957 to pursue graduate work in philosophy at Oxford, Sontag continues to reveal her thoughts on marriage obliquely. ”Lovers fight with knives and whips,” Sontag writes in 1958, “husbands and wives with poisoned marshmallows, sleeping pills, and wet blankets.”

Sontag’s more voluptuous reflections are reserved for her lesbian affairs, both as a young undergraduate in Berkeley and later, following the collapse of her marriage, in Paris and New York. These later entries expose in Sontag discomfiting feet of clay as she writes, lovelorn, about her inadequacies in bed. Sontag’s frankness is striking yet in perfect concord with her persona.

Like marriage, Sontag regards motherhood cerebrally. After her son tells Sontag, at the age of four, that he sees Jesus on the cross when he closes his eyes, she prescribes Homer as a corrective: “The best way to divert these morbid individualized religious fantasies is to overwhelm them by the impersonal Homeric bloodbath,” she muses. “Paganize his tender spirit. . .”

The title—which refers to a note written on the cover page of her one of her notebooks in 1949: “I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK”—communicates Sontag’s willful transformation. Her notebooks, Sontag reflects in Paris in 1957, play an integral role in this self-creation. “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any other person; I create myself,” Sontag writes. “The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION

Lionel Trilling
New York Review Books ($15.95)

Unknownby Alison Liss

In one of the final essays of The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling, mulling over the reasons for reading literature in light of its historical context, writes of the poet that “he may be used as the barometer, but let us not forget that he is also part of the weather.” Like the poet, Trilling must be treated not only as a product of mid-20th century America, but also as a writer of profound influence over the decades to come.

The Liberal Imagination, now re-released with an introduction from Louis Menand, collects a variety of essays published throughout the 1940s. The essays, which range from a close reading of Wordsworth to musings on the Kinsey report, are connected broadly by the theme of liberalism in the arts. Liberalism, which Trilling defines as a “mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning, and international cooperation,” was the foremost intellectual movement of the day, and in these essays Trilling deals with both its greatest achievements and its shortcomings. He identified himself as a liberal critic, yet he has no compunction in taking to task what he felt to be liberalism’s greatest sins: a preference for the political over the aesthetic, a cynical belief about the nature of humankind, and a worship of progress at the expense of a sense of history. Many of the essays deal with how liberal thought has affected which writers we deem valuable; Trilling is quick to praise writers that are thought of as triumphs of liberalism (Mark Twain) as well as defend those that he believes to be unfairly maligned (Henry James).

One of the pleasures of reading Trilling now, a half century after his book was first released, is that we are at nearly the same remove from him as he was from most of the writers and thinkers he wrote about. Trilling was keenly aware of how the passage of time affected how a work was read, and today The Liberal Imagination reads as a strange combination of datedness and prescience. Certain parts, such as his praise of Freud, strike a false note for a contemporary reader, but elsewhere Trilling’s ideas are just as relevant as they were almost sixty years ago. What Trilling said about the 19th century—“if the mechanical means of communication were then less efficient than now, the intellectual means were far more efficient”—we might today say about the 20th century; even in the digital age, Trilling’s aesthetic critiques are still insightful, his political critiques still biting.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

CORRESPONDENCE: Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris

edited by Louis Yvert and translated by Liz Heron
Seagull Books ($29.95)

by Jeremy Biles

“Intimacy is violence,” French writer Georges Bataille proclaimed in his book Theory of Religion, “and it is destruction, because it is not compatible with the positing of the separate individual.” Though the context of this comment is Bataille’s elaboration of a concept of sacrifice, it applies equally to his notion of friendship, which is fraught with a sacrificial violence that ultimately dissolves individuals, establishing through their destruction a “sacred” communication—an intercourse between wounded selves.

The longing for such sacrificial intimacy colors the pages of this newly translated volume of correspondence between Bataille and one of his most intimate friends, the writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris. Bataille, who died in 1962, is perhaps best known in America for his sophisticated pornographic novel The Story of the Eye, though English translations of much of his heterogeneous corpus—ranging across religion, philosophy, economics, sociology, and art—have revealed him to American readers as a crucial precursor to much postmodern thought, influencing the likes of Foucault, Derrida, and Kristeva. Bataille’s work—both his theoretical treatises and his fiction—emerges from his obsession with thesacred, a “prodigious effervescence of life” evoked, paradoxically, through a nearness to death (Theory of Religion).

Bataille’s fascination with such paradoxes and oppositions plays out in his friendship with Leiris. The two met in Paris in 1924, when Bataille was twenty-seven and Leiris twenty-three, their friendship forged amidst the intellectual and artistic tumult provoked by Surrealism. Leiris was a member of the Surrealist group; Bataille remained at its edges, eventually forming the center of a cohort of dissidents seeking to counter André Breton’s brand of surrealism with a more sinister variety. Leiris joined Bataille’s camp. But if Bataille and Leiris were allied in their criticism of certain aspects of Bretonian surrealism, they were also frequently at odds with each other.

Their opposition erupted most dramatically in their collaborations, and one merit of Correspondence is that it reveals the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that animated their joint undertakings. The first of these came with the short-lived but important art and ethnography journal Documents, a “war machine against received ideas” which bore the subversive imprint of Bataille’s editorial hand. (Leiris was on the editorial staff and contributed entries to the journal’s mock dictionary.) In the essay “From Bataille the Impossible to the Impossible Documents,” reproduced in this volume, Leiris expresses admiration for, and ambivalence about, the journal—and Bataille himself. Bataille “elaborate[s] that mystique of the ‘impossible’ (that is, what overtakes the limits of the possible and whose pursuit is therefore a pure waste of time),” Leiris writes. “It was [Bataille] who made the running in that bizarre game of loser-takes-all, the story of Documents.”

Despite indications of ambivalence, Leiris’s essay is an encomium for his friend Bataille, that “mystic of debauchery” who taught that “the only way to truly ‘live one’s life’ is to live it with fervid purity, in the dizzying manner with which death is lived, and, at one and the same time, with unbridled exuberance.” Yet Leiris’s renowned autobiographical works—Manhood and the four-volume The Rules of the Game—exhibit a sensibility that in many ways remains antipodal to the Bataillean traits he admires. Leiris is, as he repeatedly confesses, averse to the kind of risks Bataille promotes. Though his autobiographical works are maniacal displays of self-inspecting involution, risky in their confessional rigor (Leiris wants to reveal everything about himself, however humiliating), they are simultaneously the record of a self-proclaimed virtuoso of cowardice, frequently crippled by doubt, and at times nearly paralyzed by fear of injury, death, and contact with others. Expressing, with great nuance, erotic desires, Leiris nonetheless remains aloof in his relationships, and measured in his epistolary communications. He exhibits a hygienic will to distance at odds with Bataille’s compulsive desire to wallow in dirt, death, and decay.

But as William Blake wrote, “in opposition is true friendship”—and indeed, the letters and essays collected in this volume attest to an opposition that does not ultimately pry apart Bataille and Leiris, but rather invigorates their friendship. This is most apparent in the letters that relate to the College of Sociology, a small collective established by Bataille in 1937, dedicated to developing a pseudo-Durkheimian “sacred sociology.” Leiris was involved with the group as a lecturer, but in letters dating from 1939, leading up to the collapse of the College, he articulates a critique of Bataille’s methodological principles that can be read as a critical dissection of Bataille’s personality. Claiming the College is operating on “vague and ill-defined notions,” he finds in Bataille a troubling impulse to turn the association of intellectuals into a “moral community” resembling an Order or Church. Bataille replies to the critique on intellectual grounds, but he’s clearly wounded by Leiris’s “defection” from the group (undoubtedly all the more painful for Leiris’s previous refusal to join Acéphale, the secret society that Bataille had established a few years earlier).

Following on this clash—and perhaps even thanks to it?—Leiris and Bataille express a renewed tenderness. Leiris writes to Bataille that “it can only be that whatever binds us to certain others is the only thing that is humanly worthwhile, capable of surviving no matter what vicissitudes. . . . [B]ehind my words you will discover everything that I should like to tell you with the same spontaneity as a flood of tears or a burst of laughter.” Bataille fondly echoes Leiris in his reply: “It is not words that can make you understand the affection that binds me to you.”

If this tenderness seems at odds with Bataille’s penchant for sacrificial violence, one should consider the compassion that often underlies erotic combustion. In the end, the poignancy of this correspondence—continuing through the death of friends, wartime upheavals, and all manner of personal turmoil—owes something to the fact that Bataille plays the role of the passionate lover longing for dissolution in his friendship with Leiris, who in turn seems to withhold some of the affection that he nonetheless confesses. The letters and recollections assembled in this absorbing volume are a testament to the extraordinary desire for, and fear of, an intimacy so unreserved that it can rightly be called sacred.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

THE ANGEL OF GROZNY: Orphans of a Forgotten War

Åsne Seierstad
Basic Books ($25.95)

by Ellen Frazel

Åsne Seierstad has risked her life several times to write about the devastation of war within countries such as China, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Her international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul sparked a lawsuit against her, with the eponymous bookseller claiming that the book attacked and defamed his character. She has also been criticized for writing about countries riveted with deep historic conflict, about cultures and issues worlds away from her own. And yet, this criticism begs the question: How else will the world hear these painful stories? The Angel of Grozny, Seierstad’s latest audacious journalistic venture, comes at an appropriate time, as the world’s eye turns to Russia’s conflict with Georgia.

Surrounding all of Seierstad’s interactions with the people of Chechnya is the danger of choice: whether to remain silent or to tell your story; to smile and support the government, or to defy. She chronicles the amazing and disturbing capability of a country to change and to forget. Once a nation proud of its thirst for freedom, willing to fight Russia “till the end,” Chechnya now houses a puppet government, loyal to Russia and brutally intolerant of any opposition. Rebels who once fought in the wars against Russia now find themselves serving as bodyguards of an arrogant and corrupt president. As Seierstad writes, the conflict has become “chechenised”—it is now “Chechen against Chechen.” Those who resist the government disappear, and “those who associate with these people are enemies themselves. Those who weep at their funerals are dissidents too.”

Seierstad shares many stories of horror and cruelty, and the book reverberates with the plain fact that she has become deeply dedicated to exposing the true stories of the war-torn region. She develops several personal and emotional relationships with certain Chechens, and yet she manages to provide clear-headed accounts of the effects of the wars on both Chechen and Russian families. Both sides have lost thousands of people, and while violence still reigns in Chechnya, many incidents of ethnic violence also pollute Russia. The profound Russian-Chechen hatred seems to have no end in sight, and Seierstad herself struggles with feelings of futility, realizing “nothing will change. Everything will remain the same,” even as she tries to convince a Russian family to see the war from the Chechen side.

One Chechen woman, the inspiration for the book’s title, offers a window into the lives of those who have dedicated their lives to helping the war victims. Hadijat, the “Angel of Grozny,” runs a makeshift orphanage for children whose parents died during the wars. Many of the children suffered horrible abuse at the hands of their relatives or became bony husks while living and starving on the streets. Hadijat, among others in the book, sheds some hope on the bleak picture in Chechnya, the hope that people may one day be able to speak openly and expose the countless human rights violations occurring in the region.

As with all journalistic work on regions riddled with war and ethnic conflict, there is always the ambiguity of truth. “Everything in Chechnya had two explanations, one Russian and one Chechen,” Seierstad writes. All that the world can ask is that both sides get the chance to speak.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

LONELINESS AS A WAY OF LIFE

Thomas Dumm
Harvard University Press ($23.95)

by Spencer Dew

“I suspect that if you have picked up this book, you are asking pertinent questions about what it means to be lonely, and in turn I believe that it is my charge to explain myself to you as fully as I can in order for you to understand how and why I came to think about this subject as I do,” says Thomas Dumm, in a book that references very personal traumas and concerns: the absence of a mother, the death of a wife, the complicity of a former colleague in an oppressive regime, the unbridgeable distance between childhood and the present, and the unavoidable presence of one’s own inevitable death. What Dumm’s book engages deeply, however, are texts—literature, theater, film, essays—particularly of “those thinkers who have mattered the most to me,” those textual friends who have helped keep loneliness at bay and helped make sense of the world in all its seeming emptiness. While we, as readers, are invited into this ongoing communion with the voices of the dead, surely many people who pick up Dumm’s book asking questions about what it means to be lonely will not find comfort in Hannah Arendt’s observation that loneliness “is at the same time contrary to the basic requirements of the human condition and one of the fundamental experiences of every human life.”

“Each one of us confronts an interminable ocean, a place untouchable by others, a language that sounds to us like a scream in the night,” Dumm says at one point, and this claim seems safely universal. What this book fails to do, however, is to express that scream, to articulate even an aspect of its raw, visceral force. Rather than a book about loneliness, Dumm gives us a refuge from it. His philosophical analyses, literary criticism, and psychoanalytical frameworks are, foremost, mechanisms of denial and avoidance; rather than probing his own deep loneliness and speaking to the confounding and agonizing human reality he proposes to address, Dumm anesthetizes himself from this experience via the writing of this book.

Which is not to say that his readings of Thoreau, Melville, or Arthur Miller aren’t interesting; it’s just that in this context they offer intellectual escapism. Take the radical reinterpretation Dumm offers ofMoby-Dick: “Ishmael is Pip,” he argues; “It is Pip who alone survives to tell the tale, cook’s assistant assuming the identity of an imaginary seaman.” After his trauma, alone, at sea, Pip’s consciousness first fractures and then regains subjectivity while claiming—and asking the reader to call him by—another name. This is an amusing and bizarre hypothesis, but Dumm’s restatements of certain trends in continental thought regarding absence, presence, writing, and death point more to the absence of the writer from his own, present, work than to any revelations about human existence. “After my wife was diagnosed with cancer but before she died, a good friend suggested that I might not be able to write by drawing upon personal experience anymore,” Dumm tells us. His friends warned that perhaps the “form of critical thinking” Dumm engaged in would simply prove “not appropriate to such a subject.” What seems to be the case, however, is that Dumm isn’t really “drawing” upon this experience, isn’t delving into the realm of authentic feeling at all, but is keeping himself afloat on intellectual currents and novel dips into canonical texts. His reflections on the sadness of the career salesman or on the loneliness inspired by capitalist impulses (both linked to his reading of Death of a Salesman), read to me like the written equivalent of a run he describes, a day during his wife’s battle with cancer when only by noticing the shock on the faces of people he passed did he realize that he, as he ran, was sobbing. In this book, Dumm pumps onward, as if by the very act of writing he can outrun and thus escape his book’s ostensible subject.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009

GERTRUDE BELL: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Georgina Howell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($15)

by Victoria Erhart

Georgina Howell’s Gertrude Bell is two books in one. On the surface, the subject is the life of archaeologist and British political officer Gertrude Bell. While rich in details, however, Howell’s biography comes no closer to answering the nagging questions that fan interest in Bell eight decades after her death from an overdose of allobarbital at her home in Baghdad. Howell attempts no analysis of Bell’s obsessive life-long devotion to her father and her desperate need for his approval even when she was middle aged, independently wealthy, and an experienced caravan administrator and British political officer. Her father’s centrality in her life and her almost pathological fear of physical sex hampered her ability to form significant emotional attachments with eligible men in her adult life. Bell traveled like a queen while exploring the Middle East—bossing men, entertaining tribal chieftains on their own terms, flaunting her otherness—yet when in England, Bell behaved like a dutiful Yorkshire spinster. How should one reconcile the conflicting facets of Bell’s personality? Howell discusses only Bell’s external persona, even while making copious use of Bell’s voluminous correspondence.

The far larger and more pressing subject of Howell’s book is Iraq and the current problems in the Middle East, many of which have their genesis in British foreign policy decisions Bell helped draft following World War I. Bell well knew that British oil interests were the defining factor in British foreign policy; Arab self-determination was merely a political rouse to legitimize the British occupation of former Ottoman territory. Yet she spent years using her personal connection to convince tribal chiefs of British goodwill towards them. Unlike T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Bell never indicates she was troubled by her duplicitous behavior.

As early as 1919, Bell was worried about Kurdish demands for independence and how unrealistic a combined Sunni-Shiite government would be in Iraq. In letters to her father, she repeatedly mentioned “the fundamental split between the majority Shias—unworldly, apolitical—and the minority Sunnis—educated, powerful, financially astute.” Bell fought with Winston Churchill over the fact that there were too few soldiers to keep order in the country, and that too many Arab lives would be lost trying to restore order. She also realized early on that the British (and Bell’s) hand-picked candidate for King of Iraq, Faisal, must not appear to be a puppet leader but must convince tribal leaders to support him based on his own merits. She even acknowledged how unreasonable democracy is as a form of government in tribal societies.

Ninety years after Bell’s efforts, the U.S. faces many of the same problems in Iraq and appears to be repeating many of the same mistakes the British made. Regardless of the rhetoric about democracy and self-determination, the Gulf Wars have been fought to protect U.S. oil interests. A Sunni-Shiite coalition government still looks much better on paper than in reality. The Kurds continue to demand autonomy if not full independence. And too many lives have been sacrificed in pursuit of an ill-conceived and poorly administered duplicitous foreign policy.

Howell’s obvious fondness for her subject hampers her ability to construct a more objective and nuanced portrait of Gertrude Bell. Readers are, however, indebted to Howell for her decision to allow Bell to speak for herself by including quotations from many of Bell’s letters. Summing up the state of Iraqi affairs in spring 1920, Bell admits that events on the ground have overwhelmed British intentions. “We are now in the middle of a full-blown Jihad. . . Which means that it’s no longer a question of reason. . . The credit of European civilization is gone. . . How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?"

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009