Monthly Archives: September 2009

"poor" people


Poor People is not a pleasant read. Indeed, it is a very difficult and challenging read, and I don’t doubt that its author intended it that way. There is nothing I can say in critique (or in praise) of this book that hasn’t already been said by writers more articulate and with more experience and clout than me. For me, it’s enough to read the title and listen to myself as I say it aloud and hear everything implicit and subtly lurking behind that phrase: “poor people. Poor, poor people. Poor! People!” In those words I hear pity, fear and inevitable relief, that the speaker by default cannot be considered as one of the “poor,” since she/he can speak of them as something seperate and apart, something radically other and different from themselves. Disconnected. If you can view others as poor and thus by default radically separate from yourself, are you automatically saying that you by definition must be considered rich?

I read this book in between all the microfinance-related reading I’ve been doing over the past two weeks or so in preparation for my rapidly impending internship with Kiva (I’m getting on a bus to head to San Francisco for training tomorrow). I’ve read some pretty interesting stuff (especially the discussions about the commercialization of microfinance and the tension in MF about being focused on economic development or the marketplace, poverty vs. profit). Depressingly enough, I don’t think microfinance would offer much in the way of a solution to the “poor people” profiled in this book. To be given a loan to start a business or purchase supplies or improve your house, it’s already implied that you have already have started with something, as opposed to absolutely nothing. The people in these book really have nothing: they’re the the sickly old beggar women, the smelly drunk and indigent, the crippled, the beggars in subway stations holding out palms or rattling plastic cups full of coins, the refugees, the fevered mothers holding their babies and staring down at the ground before them. God, this book is depressing.

I did not particularly enjoy reading this book, which makes it hard for me to recommend it to people. I first stumbled upon it several years ago, in my stacks-shelving job at the college library. I flipped through the black and white portraits at the end and was intrigued by the number of photos that were of people from Colombia, and it’s never really left my mind since. The images of beggar women in burqas in Afghanistan during Taliban rule are definitely remain the most affecting (Vollmann’s discussion of poverty-as-invisibility ties in nicely to these images). The strongest bits of this book involve Vollmann-as-reporter, during which he simply profiles the folks he’s interviewing. I liked the portrayal of the Russian family in which the husband was too sick from Chernobyl to work, and his foray into an off-limits oil refinery in Kazakhstan has the elements of a really angry documentary. He veers away from this simple reporting in the middle part of the book, instead going off on long tangents from his personal list of what defines poverty, such as “accident prone-ness” and “unwantedness.”

At one point in one of my flights and bus rides (it’s hard to keep track of them lately!), I started doodling in my journal a list of WHY SHOULD WE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY? The main reasons I came up with weren’t so much academic as they were from my emotional gut. reason #1: Empathy: we’re all born in this crazy ass world without really asking for it, and being that we’re all in this sick mess together, we might as well help each other out… be a giver rather than a taker. Reason #2: Karma (in its most simplified definition): by helping others, you’re helping yourself, and more importantly you’re putting out a little positive energy out there into the black toilet hole of a universe for future use. Not exactly award-winning reasons, but for what it’s worth that’s what I succeeded in skimming off the top of my curdled-by-Greyhound brain.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more interesting things to say about poverty after I start Kiva internship, which I plan to blog about in more detail than I have so far in this space. In the meantime, one thing that really stood out for me in the wiki biography of Vollmann’s life is how he dropped out of a Comparative Literature program at Berkeley “after one year with the intention of engaging life instead of just studying.” What an interesting phrase, “engaging life.” How does one go about doing that, pray? Is life something you just walk around and eventually find if you keep your mind open enough, or do you have to adopt a more proactive, aggressively-seeking approach?

For me at least, life as I’ve engaged it in the past week has been pretty pleasant, visiting my various girlfriends in Los Angeles and staying with my grandma in San Luis Obispo county. This evening my grandma and I looked at old photographs and I learned about Cosmo and Al, the guys my grandma “went with” before she met my grandfather. Poor Cosmo (a Navy fellow) was rejected on the account of insulting my great-grandfather’s lawn, and Al (whom she “went with” for three years—long-term relationship, grandma!) went so far as to get her a ring, a fur coat and some kind of fancy box thing, all of which she rejected because “I didn’t have feelings for him that way.” Poor Al.

(You can check out the non-profit(s) I’ll be interning for until Christmas here and here.)

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Filed under experience, Kiva, non-fiction, poverty, social justice

Attempts on Her Life: Truth and Self in "Portrait of a Lady"

Well obviously the apartment would be beautifully furnished. Obviously it would have high ceilings and tall windows and date in all probability from the end of the nineteenth century when the rise in speculative building coincided with the aspirations of the liberal bourgeoisie to create monumental architectural schemes such as I’m thinking particularly now I’m thinking of the Viennese Ringstrasse which made such an impression on the young Adolf Hitler as he stood one morning before the Opera.
–Or one of the great Parisian boulevards.
–Or one of the great, exactly, Parisian boulevards.

–from Martin Crimp’s Complete Plays: Volume 2, page 209-212, “Attempts on her Life.”

I read this play while staying in my friend’s apartment in a suburb in Paris. The other book I was reading at the time was Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, another attempt of sorts on a lady’s life. It felt highly appropriate to be reading Henry James during a two-week poor man’s jaunt through England and Paris. The boulevards were definitely good representations of “the aspirations of the liberal bourgeoisie to create monumental architectural schemes;” “total Illuminati,” Corey mused while contemplating them. They made me think of imperial imagery and the cult of the Roman Emperor, like we learned in my freshman year humanities class, in which dead emperors were made into gods and his cult was spread through coinage, architecture and fashion. There seems to be a lot of dangerous implications when you try to definine something absolutely.

This is the first Henry James novel I’ve ever read, other than his short stories in college and The Turn of the Screw in high school for AP English. I read David Lodge’s novel Author, Author, an Amadeus-like story of James’ failure at the theatre and his friendship with an author who was super famous at the time, but whom nobody remembers now (have *you* read George du Maurier?). His books always lined my mom’s bookshelves at home, nestled in between Dickens and Vanity Fair. “Henry James is so subtle,” my mom once told me (I don’t know in what context, maybe we’d just finished watching Wings of the Dove or something). “You’ll read a whole page, and then look up, and be like, I know that something really, really important just took place… butwhat?” That’s as good of a summary of Henry James’ style as I’ve ever heard. I mean, it says a lot that the key scene in this novel consists of Isabel sitting motionless in a chair (how did they turn this into a movie, again?).

Despite this initial fear that this novel was going to leave me feeling like I was an absolute idiot, in the end I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this novel. Maybe my brain has just gotten really big over the past year (ha, ha, ha!) but I honestly didn’t find it that hard (I can haas literary smarts?). I definitely didn’t have the same reaction as my housemate, who read the first page of Wings of the Dove and threw it across the room shouting “WHAT THE BLEEP?!” (Oh, biology majors.) I got really into the characters in Portrait of a Lady; I finished each chapter with a feeling of eager anticipation, like I was waiting for the next episode of a TV series. I would update the ever indifferent Corey on their conversations and decisions: “Oh oh, it looks like Isabel is going to accept Gilbert Osmond’s marriage proposal. It’s all downhill from here.” “Henrietta the journalist really represents modern America! While Caspar Goodwood is a total embodiment of penetrative capitalism!”

This was an interesting book to read while traveling as a tourist. Isabel wanders through London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, looking at old ruins and art, attempting to “collect” experiences like those little barbed seeds that cling to your clothes when you pass through a tall field. (Collecting is a big motif in this novel; much is made of Gilbert Osmond’s art collection and his desire to keep Isabel and his daughter shut up in his nasty claustrophobic old house like expensive portraits.) There’s a lot of annoying stupid rich Americans and Brits in this novel, traveling for no point or purpose, living off their inheiritances. Isabel is smart enough to see through the emptiness, commenting with typical astuteness that “doing all the vain things one likes is often very tiresome.” (309) Why yes Isabel, it is very tiresome indeeed! She goes on to ponder:

The desire for unlimited expansion had been succeeded in her soul by the sense that life was vacant without some private duty that might gather one’s energies to a point. She had told Ralph she had ‘seen life’ in a year or two and that she was already tired, not of the act of living, but that of observing. What had become of all her ardours, her aspirations, her theories, her high estimate of her independence and her incipient conviction that she should never marry?

This is my favorite quality of Isabel’s: her introspection, her ability to ask those kinds of questions. When asked by the odious Madame Merle to define her idea of success, Isabel’s response is “to see some dream of one’s youth come true.” (206) I like how Isabel philosophizes and reflects on her actions, and I’m sure it’s this quality of hers that has captivated readers and literary critics for over a hundred years now.

Another thing I want to mention is the exchange Isabel has with Madame Merle in one particular section, as it sets up two different concepts of the ever popular topic in modernism, the Question of the Self. As Madame Merle puts it:

“When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we’re all each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our ‘self’? Were does it begin? where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us–and then it flows back again… One’s self–for other people–is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garment, the books one reads, the company one keeps–these things are all expressive.” (207)

In contrast, Isabel replies, “I don’t know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me.” (208) And thus we have two opposite viewpoints of how the self is constructed that are set up very intriguingly. A footnote from this page helpfully quotes a passage from Henry James’ brother William, the famous psychologist, who writes that “properly speaking, a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.” Whoa! How do you express yourself truely, if there are so many “selfs” for you to express? Are you doomed to forever be divided into American Doll Possee fragments, or will you ever add up to a complete and wholly integrated person? And, more intriguingly, what does this imply about the problem of understanding–not just understanding yourself or other people, but understanding and interpreting ART (which can be understood as the expression of a self). AAAAAAAAAA! Now do you see why this novel isn’t the typical Victorian-Realist marriage plot?!

Because this novel is so INTENSELY focused on the thoughts and meditations of the main female character (The Portrait of a Lady is an extremely appropriate title), I think the whole novel can be understood as an attempt to deal with the problem of the self: how to form it, understand it, and then communicate that self effectively with others. There’s a lot of discussion about the importance of experience in this book, and I think that relates back to this idea of how do you go about constituting the self, which I see as Isabel’s main struggle throughout the book. I remember reading in Derrida’s The Truth of Painting, way back in junior the year, something about how the frame of a painting doesn’t just close off the artwork, but also opens it up, because we’re forced to view the artowrk in whatever context in which it’s been presented, which in turn prevents our understanding of the artwork from ever being complete. I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly, but the basic gist is that the supposedly firm lines that “close” a portrait are ultimately misleading. This is what makes Gilbert Osmond such a creepazoid, he tries to define and trap Isabel in this aesthetic wifey little role (it goes deeper than that–doesn’t it always in Henry James?–but again, that’s the gist of it).

The last thing I want to touch base on is how Henry James is definitely not the author you’d read if you wanted to get an idea of how most people (that is, the working class as opposed to the rich and upper middle) were living–the coal miners, the tramps, the dishwashers, George Orwell’s peeps, basically. Henry James’ characters are such spoiled brats–I mean, these people really don’t do anything. They just travel around Europe, looking at old ruins and collect art, in an attempt to–what? Better themselves? Improve their souls? One of the commendable aspects of Portrait of a Lady is that there are characters like Isabel and her dying cousin Ralph who actually ask themselves the essential question of what is the freaking point.

But typing up this blog entry has been a bit of a surreal experience, because I’m also simultaneously Skype chatting with someone from the microfinance office where I’ll be interning this fall (yay multitasking!), in an attempt to sort out my living situation there (it looks like I’ll be staying with the family of someone who works in the office, which is super bien). In the Egyptian section of the British Museum, there was this little information card talking about the lives of the farmers and workers who worked on the land and were sometimes employed on state construction projects (if my computer wasn’t retarded, I’d upload the photo). To quote from the plaque: “They were not wealthy enough to be buried in decorated tombs. They were illiterate, and so their names and experiences are almost entirely lost, as in many societies. The study of human remains in poor cementeries is the only way of learning of the short lives of most ancient Egyptians.”

It’s weird to me, reading these Victorian novels of marriage and intrigue and travel through Europe, and think about all the short, illiterate lives that are being ignored, that have been lost to time. I think it’s incredibly stupid and ignorant to criticize books for what they’re not about, and that’s definitely not what I’m doing. I just wanted to comment that it was just an interesting experience, to wander through these boulevards in Paris built by kings and dictators, to go home to my friend’s apartment and read about characters doing the same thing, and now, I’m trying to sort out an internship where I’ll be working with people whose lives definitely do not revolve around questions like “should I go to the British Museum today or the National Gallery?”, or, “how is an art work simultaneously ‘closed’ by the artist for a deliberate aesthetic effect, yet opened up to interpretation by the audience?”, or, “when we say we ‘like’ a painting, or a book, what does that mean? Does it mean that there was a certain ‘truth’ shining through the painting or the words on the page that somehow got through to us? And if so, how? How do you reveal the truth of a work of art, if the artwork itself is concerned with showing how it is difficult and even dangerous to try to limit things to a single mesage or meaning?” And so on and so forth. Yeah.

To close, here is another portrait of a lady, from the website I’ll soon be working for.

Are you looking at her? Or is she looking at you?

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Filed under art, experience, Henry James, truth

life, London, this moment in June


I just got back last Wednesday from a two week trip to England and Paris to visit friends and family. While walking through the streets of London, through Trafalgar Sqaure and down Tottenham Court Road (how grandiose and epic and historical those names sound!), I loved reciting fragments from Mrs. Dalloway to myself, muttering these precious sounding phrases under my breath: what she loved, life, London, this moment in June. What a lark! What a plunge! Feeling as she did, that something awful was about to happen. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so. (3-4) I felt secretive and powerful, walking around and muttering these phrases absentmindedly to myself, as though I was one of those ancient pagan female magicians mentioned in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, casting a spell of protection, or maybe just chanting a mantra.

She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (8)

This is such a beautifully written book that no matter how many times I reread it, it never fails to shock me that Virginia Woolf killed herself. This is the number one book that I think of when I think of joyful writing, of writing that hums and writhes and wriggles in ecstasy from sheer joy and lust for life. It seems so puzzling that someone who could have written this also simultaneously decided that life, this life, was not worth living.

This book reminds me of something Tori Amos said about her most recent album: she said that she wanted it to be like a snapshot of time of what it was like to be a woman in this day and age. In Amos’ case, she’s chronicling the economic recession; in Woolf’s case, her focus is on Victorian society of post World War I. I’ll never really “know” what it was like to be a woman in that time and age (let’s stay away from the giant can of metaphysical worms). But Mrs. Dalloway is as engaging of a snapshot of a very specific historical period as they come. There’s tons of stuff to unpack here about post World War I society trauma and repression–you can easily make a parallel to the Iraq War, too (that’s another thing about this book that really got me: how easily you can apply it to life today, how contemporary it feels). “It was over; thank Heaven–over,” (5) Mrs. Dalloway thinks of the War, but of course it’s not (it never is), not for anybody.

No character better embodies the sense of the war not being over than the interestingly named Septimus Smith (his name is reminiscent of numbers, which feels important in a novel where the passage of time, the constant ebb and flow of “the hour, irrevocable” (117) and the ringing of the clocks is constantly emphasized). Septimus seems to suffer from such an excess of feeling that at times it sounds like an extremely bad acid trip: leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body; … the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. This problem of “over-feeling” seems to emerge as a reaction to his initial condition following the death of his friend Evans in the war, in which he “could not feel.” And then, with such hyper awareness and overdose of sensory input, it’s little wonder that Septimus found it difficult to get through the day.

Septimus’ plight made me think of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception,: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” That seems to be Septimus’ problem; the infinity and deeper meaning of everything appears as too glaringly apparent to him, to the point where he can’t condense his experiences or make any sense of them anymore and they just become overwhelming. Upon viewing a motor car that contains someone in the Royal Family (perhaps the Queen? It’s never made clear), for Septimus it appears to him as “this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had almost come to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought.” (15) He almost sees the centre, but not quite. At the moment when Septimus throws himself off the balcony, he cries out “I’ll give it to you!” (149) Is he referring to this ungraspable center, always out of his reach?

In the end, death seems to be the only way of bringing it all together, as Peter Walsh muses while the ambulance carrying Septimus’ dead body whirs by: “a moment in which things came together; this ambulance; and life and death.” (152) Mrs. Dalloway discovers this for herself as well, upon hearing of Septimus’ death of her party: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” (184) In the end, Mrs. Dalloway “felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty, made her feel the fun.”(186) With this sentence, I feel like Woolf herself is saying that she’s glad that it is Smith who is doomed, the artist, madman and poet, as opposed to Mrs. Dalloway, the socialite everywoman, the woman of the earth. In Mrs. Dalloway, death emerges as a moment with a potential for understanding and knowledge, however brief. As Muriel Spark wrote, “Remember you must die,” and as Ali Smith writes (in her Mrs. Dalloway rewrite of sorts Hotel World, a highly recommended book), “Remember you must live, remember you most leave, remainder you mist leaf.”

This is a good book to read every other year or so, especially around the time when you grow a year older. (I just celebrated my birthday a few days ago.) There’s a lot of juicy “what-have-you-done-with-your-life? times-a-passin’!” passages. “How remorseless life is! A little job at Court!” (74) Remorseless indeed. It’s scary, overcoming so-called banality. I think that’s Woolf’s main point by making the titular character someone who could easily be mistaken for someone shallow and lacking depth: a housewife who likes to give parties, “the perfect hostess,” who at the same time is capable of these most incredibly poetic reveries:

“a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew large and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, ‘This is what I have made of it! This!’ And what had she made of it? What, indeed?” (43)

What, indeed. How do you define what makes a meaningful or non-banal life? To whose judgement do you need to subject it to? How do you know that you’re making the right decisions, that you’re taking your life in the direction it needs to go in?

Then (she had felt it only this monring) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. (185)

I dunno. It may sound cliched and silly, but lately I’m really digging the mindset that it is REALLY not about the destination at all, it’s gotta be about the path. It sounds so mundane and banal when you put it like that. What I mean is that we really don’t get anywhere. We’re just on the road. You can get some things, some goals, some destinations you’d like to arrive at in your life–but you will never get it all. There is no idealized plateau where everything is suddenly going to click into place for you, click, and all of a sudden everything makes sense and you wake up every morning feeling content and fufilled and satisfied and you never have to worry about feeling otherwise. I mean, c’mon–that is NEVER going to happen (as this excellent clip discusses). That is as utopian of a vision of humanity as you’re going to get.

But I like what Richard Dalloway thinks about his days as an idealistic youth:

“He had been a Socialist, in some sense a failure–true. Still, the future of civlisation lies, he thought, in the hands of young men like that; of young men such as he was, thirty years ago; with their love of abstract principals; getting books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy. The future lies in the hands of young men like that, he thought.” (50)

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day. (64)

During this particular reread, another theme that stood out for me was the idea of simultaneous connection and isolation between people. I especially like the part where Richard Dalloway visualizes his connection to his wife as a “spider’s thread of attachment.” (115) It feels important when Richard buys Clarissa flowers instead of jewelry for a present and embarks on a grandiose mission, “walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” (115) Richard confronts the problem of how difficult it is to say exactly what you mean: “The time comes when it can’t be said; one’s too sigh to say it.” He thus comes to embody a very modern problem concerning language, that “it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.” (116) Or more specifically, to be unable as weel ignorant as to how to say what you feel. How do you give words to a feeling like “I love you” in face of a dilemma such as Richard’s: “thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” Needless to say, when the moment comes, he fails at his mission. But it feels somewhat redemptive that on the last page, Richard becomes capable of telling his daughter that he is proud of her: “He had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her.” (194) So there’s some hope there, at the end, of being capable of speaking, of putting feelings into words.

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Filed under death, future, travel, Woolf