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Essays and Reviews

Now online: an entire issue of The Scofield dedicated to Kobo Abe and the subject of home.

Scrimabox

From my contribution to issue 3.1 of The Scofield: the essay The Problem of Home:

“Are we really as brave as we think we are, are we as honest, as enterprising, as free as we think we are? In America, national identity is a narrative drawn from a largely commercialized shared cultural experience and an interpretation of history that merges with legend—it’s a construct based not in fact, but on belief, and as such it has far more in common with religion than with reason. And while intellectual culture is currently undergoing a period of profound disillusion, in large parts of the country, anything that calls what makes America American into question is met not with impartial analysis or self-scrutiny, but indignant and often hostile repudiation.”

 

Dramatis Personae: 

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Adapted from a talk given on April 28, 2017 at the New School, New York City, as part of The Body Artist: A Conference on Don DeLillo.

“Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of ‘a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications’ resulting in ‘a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.’ Only a tiny percentage of all publications in the United States are works in translation, meaning that we have comparatively meager resources to examine our society and culture in comparison to other societies and cultures, and that this impedes our ability to reflect objectively on ourselves.”

Read the article in Quarterly Conversation here.

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Excerpt from my essay, (Re)Reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times:

“Are we more similar to animals than we care to admit, caught in vast murmurations and blind herds that obey some ancient code humming in our DNA? Or have we merely gotten used to believing our own stories? I mean not only to celebrate the work of one of our most influential, prescient, brooding, analytical minds but to comb it for clues, metaphors, a vocabulary and a language that can somehow explain us to ourselves. What can literary fiction achieve in a culture that has itself surrendered to fiction? That is more comfortable with make-believe than with doing the tedious work of trying to figure out why things are the way they are? Americans are addicted to fun—it’s what makes the U.S. so charismatic, and so good at popular culture, and enviable in so many ways, but it’s at the heart of a breakdown in discourse and a disassociation from reality that has us, literally, making things up as we go along. Americans want to be fired up, engaged emotionally—they want to get teary-eyed, earnestly confess, make solemn avowals. Does our literature help us to dig deeper, does it peel away the lies we tell ourselves, or does it perpetuate the problem through a self-celebration and nostalgia that reinforce the myths we’ve created about ourselves?”

Watch the full panel here:

 

The conference title, “The Body Artist,” refers not specifically to DeLillo’s 2001 novel, but to DeLillo himself, an artist who has spent a career dramatizing personal encounters with impersonal systems, the human body facing the inhuman machine. The event will feature panels and presentations predominantly by literary artists, fiction writers thinking about this fiction writer’s work—what it is, what it has meant, and what it means now.

Panelists:
— Scott Cheshire, “Don DeLillo’s Gods: A Taxonomy”
— Tyler Malone, “‘You Have Not Convinced Me’: David Markson, Don DeLillo, and the Narcissism of Minor Difference”
— Fred Gardaphe, “Masquerade Americana: Don DeLillo’s ‘Italianitá’ in a Minor Key”
— Andrea Scrima: “(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times”

The conference will consider not only DeLillo’s themes—paranoia, global terrorism, underground conspiracies, consumerism, digital technology, media, gender, and race—but also his craft, humor, language, style, spirituality and Catholicism, Italian-American identity, and his representations of New York, the city in which the conference will take place.

The New School | http://newschool.edu

Location: The Auditorium, Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall
66 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10011
Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 9:00 am to 4:30 pm

Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida premiered at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on December 24, 1871. A century and a half later, David Krippendorff sets his film Nothing Escapes My Eyes, which recently won the Berlin Short Film Festival, in a parking garage on Meidan el-Opera, or Opera Square, erected after the opera house was destroyed by fire. Verdi’s aria Padre, a costoro schiava non sono provides the soundtrack for a work that embodies nostalgia and absence in a precision of ambiguity that does not seek to reenact the opera, but present it as a metaphor within a metaphor, one uniquely suited to express the drama of identity with all the intensity it possesses in an individual’s life.

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See a short clip and read the entire piece in the new issue of Lute & Drum (no subscription required).

 

THIS IS US: Sang Reallamp

Andrea Scrima talks to Patricia Thornley about Sang Real, her third multi-media work for This Is Us, an ongoing series of interview and song. The series, begun in 2011, consists in highly mediated encounters the American artist stages in different environments.


AS:
 Patricia, there’s a strong sense of place in this piece that I’d like to ask you about. Perched on a stool on the banks of Port Medway Harbour, with domestic objects scattered in the sand and the tide rising rapidly around him, a rugged man stems himself against the cold and speaks about his connection to the landscape of his birth: “most people stayed within five miles from where they were born.” Surrounded by what appears to be the detritus of a life, he adds: “it wouldn’t happen today; there’s no work … you’ve got to go where the work is, I suppose.” As you question him off-camera, and as he offers his laconic answers, I find myself thinking about uprootedness and what it means when people lose the economic ability—and by extension right—to stay in the place they come from. The socio-political undertones in all the works of the series This Is Us probe questions of individual and collective identity; here, one of the themes is displacement, a fate this man has managed to defy.

PT: Yes, people seem to leave home for different personal or economic reasons now, as a matter of course. In the different pieces in this series, the notion of moving “forward” is key. In both the interviews and the songs I try to be inclusive of what exists on the back and the front of that movement.

AS: In each of the pieces in This Is Us, the people you interview are people you know personally, people you admire for a number of different reasons.

PT: Yes, the subject of this piece is a friend, and someone I hold in high regard; he lives in the community and takes care of property and houses there, mine included. I’m dependent on him in that sense. We often work together; I’m an outsider, and I’ve learned quite a lot about how to be in the landscape there, and how to be, through him. He has a way of coping, and laughing, and thriving. I’m interested in the way our lives and worlds cautiously, respectfully collide. It was a big step to ask him to participate in the piece.

AS: You mentioned to me that the title Sang Real comes from the Old French and combines the meanings of holy grail and royal blood. I noticed that at the end of the piece, as a kind of spontaneous afterthought, the man—who has been sitting on a kind of throne as the wind picks up and the waters rise alarmingly around him—fishes an object from the water, an old lamp that could be understood as a metaphor, a sort of grail. To an English-speaking reader, an entirely different meaning presents itself, of course.

PT: Actually, late medieval writers devised a false etymology for sangréal, an alternative name for “Holy Grail.” In Old French, san graal or san gréal means “Holy Grail,” whereas sang réal means “royal blood.” The objects placed on the beach were pulled from an old house that he no longer lives in and now uses for storage; they’re a combination of domestic objects and tools that he no longer needs. In keeping with the theme of home and place, I do imagine my subject as royal, and the harbor as a center, a life force erasing the detritus and then offering up what he is owed, a birthright retrieved in a casual gesture that speaks of essential instincts of survival.

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AS: As the waves come in, themes of danger and mortality emerge; lost in his own thoughts, the man seems circumscribed in a very particular space, the space of his life, in a sense. And then, in a kind of superimposition or even violation of that space, you appear in the frame and approach your subject with a microphone attached to a boom pole, which has something almost weapon-like about it, or you wander about in the distance in a somewhat predatory manner, carrying a large round reflector. These are stark moments in which different levels of reality collide, where life and art seem to hit up against one another in an uncomfortable way.

PT: Yes, there’s always a deep ambivalence involved in casting a friend in a piece. On one hand I’m paying homage; on the other, I’m making them an object of scrutiny. The impositions are inevitable and endless. Inherently, my “contribution” can only exist apart from real experience, and in counterpoint to my subject. We play what’s wrong with this picture as soon as I introduce my tools—my ideas, branding, props, equipment, music—into what implies or refers to a clean and honest inquiry.

Going in, we knew the shoot would be cold and awkward, but of course we didn’t know that the wind would kick up like it did that afternoon, that a storm would be rolling in. You can’t see it in the footage, but it’s snowing at the end of the shot. To the work’s advantage, this underscores the sense of danger, of human frailty in the piece, but it was nearly unbearable for the subject and crew. The harbor did give it back to us that day.

AS: There are several distancing devices used throughout the piece: you enter and leave the frame; off-camera, you discuss elements of the footage that can be changed, post-shoot, on the computer. Though I have seen incongruous props in other works in the series, I now find myself wondering about the false eyelashes.

PT: I’m interested in showing impulses and gestures rather than outcomes, in embracing contradictions that are present. I think of the shots of the crew at the end as a kind of nightmare hallucination from the point of view of the subject. The lashes are meant to be a gesture of submission to him, but they’re also a discordant detail that may reek of insincerity, especially in this landscape. In the song the repeated phrase I’m Your Man is sung in earnest, but it’s the chorus of a song about money. The crew and I have feminine decorations glued to our faces, but they are mangled by the weather in the end.

http://issue1.luteanddrum.com/#!thornley/http://luteanddrum.com/

Now in the December/January issue of The Brooklyn Rail

Leora Skolkin-Smith
Edges 
(re-released by The Story Plant, 2014)

In the drizzling rain, the Jordanian hills seemed closer than when I tried to see them from the bedroom upstairs. They lay to the east, though named “The West Bank.” The boundary between the Arab and Jewish regions was drawn by a fountain pen years ago when some British engineers came to canvass the rough land in the 1930s. The ink they had used was green, and so the border was called “the green line,” my aunt told me. The border had remained vague and uncertain, she said, subject to weather and other forces. No one ever seemed to know where it started or ended, the barbed wire often arbitrarily strewn to make up for the absence of clearness. A little more than a hazy outline still in the distance, there were thick layers of barbed wire on both sides of the border.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine from today’s perspective of heavily guarded checkpoints and border controls and ugly, towering walls, but Israel was a very different world in the mid-1960s, when 14-year-old Liana Bialik and her sister accompany their mother Ada to her native Jerusalem to take part in “The Ceremony of the Graves.” Syrian dams are under construction; snipers and terrorists dot the border to Jordan in a campaign to cut Israel off from its water supply, but Ada has retained the freedom and defiance of her earlier days—and it is this fierce and fiery side, hidden beneath the Westchester housewife persona known to her daughters, that suddenly emerges when they arrive in her home country. The remains of Jewish fighters in the War of Independence against Great Britain are to be excavated from their resting place in the Jordanian cemetery in the old city and moved to a new gravesite on the Israeli side of the border. Ada’s brother Elizar is among the dead; as she and her sister Esther reminisce about earlier days of smuggling ammunition in their girdles and brassieres past British soldiers too proper to even dream of stopping them, and look forward to celebrating the repatriation with the other members of the old division of Jerusalem’s underground group, the Haganah, in a grand ballroom of the King David Hotel, Liana has a difficult time absorbing the scorched landscape of her mother’s homeland: the inscrutable, vigilant faces of the people living there; the lizards darting in and out of rusted, sprawling barbed wire and then slithering into the dust; the battered warning signs and discarded gun shells scattered everywhere.

Read the rest of the In Conversation piece here:

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2014/12/books/mother-tongue

Edges cover

Davis

From The Lydia Davis Symposium
The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 35

Much has been written about Lydia Davis’ pared-down “style.” Her sentences are crafted with an economy that borders on parsimony. What is less frequently observed, however, is that her devotion to exactitude entails a repetition of words and phrases that—to a reader who happens to be tone-deaf to her particular brand of deadpan humor—can come across as tedious and even peevish. In a steady flow of neurotic energy, sentences are arranged much like a child might stack up pennies in painstakingly precise towers to distract itself from bickering parents. Yet Davis’ observations nearly always contain a sly wit. Her repetitions are not the repetitions of Beckett or Bernhard; they do not circle around the unutterable core of what language, by its very nature, fails to convey. On the contrary, Davis’ sentences clarify. Theyinsist. What is more, the continued reassertion of a thought and the perseverance in its reiteration frequently correspond to the respective narrator’s participation in a series of situations that find her hapless and misunderstood, situations that are highly distressing. Davis is concerned with correction, revision, rectification. If you no longer love me, if you are lying to me, then my only recourse is to recount, as precisely as possible, what happened, and in what sequence: what you said, and what I thought about it; what I believed you were thinking and not saying; what I said in response and what relationship this bore to what I thought and felt. In the absence of truthful communication and in the disorientation of shifting emotion, an accurate portrayal of circumstances is required to set the record straight. When spoken words no longer serve mutual understanding, language, in response, becomes a matter of validating one’s perception, a vehicle for self-preservation.

 

Read the full essay in The Quarterly Conversation:

http://quarterlyconversation.com/on-the-inimitable-lydia-davis

 

Issue 35: The Lydia Davis Symposium
Essays by David Winters, J.C. Hallman, Lynne Tillman, Madeleine LaRue, Florian Duijsens, and Scott Esposito — and an interview with Lydia Davis by Dan Gunn.

 

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