Points of Light in the Darkness of 2009

From Johann Hari at The Independent:

It was a dark year, 2009, sealing a dark decade. It began with the world in economic free-fall and the Gaza Strip being bombed to pieces (again). We watched the vicious crushing of a democratic uprising in Iran, a successful far-right coup in Honduras, and the intensification of the disastrous war in Afghanistan. It all ended at Brokenhagen, where the world’s leaders breezily decided to carry on cooking the planet. 

 But in the midst of all this there were extraordinary points of light, generated by people who have refused to drink the cheap sedative of despair. The left-wing newsman Wes Nisker said in his final broadcast: “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” I want – in the final moments of 2009 – to celebrate the people who, this year, did just that: the men and women who didn’t slump, but realised that the worse the world gets, the harder people of goodwill have to work to put it right.[who Hari thinks helped to put it right


Sex & The Divine (Not Divine Sex)

The sinfulness of sexual pleasure has always had more than a fair bit to do with the sinfulness of woman.

From an essay by Francine Prose at Lapham’s Quarterly:

The debate over sex with the beautiful versus sex with the ugly had its twisted roots in the belief that there was an almost mathematical ratio between pleasure and sin. The greater the pleasure, the worse the evil. Apparently, too, there also was considerable worry about ejaculation as something that drains and weakens the male, a dangerous process in general and particularly in the presence of the predatory woman who, unlike her mate, doesn’t lose in sex a life-sustaining fluid. The rabbinic admonition to think of a woman as “a pitcher of filth with its mouth full of blood” was echoed in the work of the twelfth-century theologian Petrus Cantor. “Consider that the most lovely woman has come into being from a foul-smelling drop of semen; then consider her midpoint, how she is a container of filth; and after that consider her end, when she will be food for worms.”  [too much more]

Robert George on  heterosexual marital sex and hating anything else:

… the argument for marriage between a man and a woman can require “somewhat technical philosophical analysis.” It is a two-step case that starts with marriage and works its way back to sex. First, he contends that marriage is a uniquely “comprehensive” union, meaning that it is shared at several different levels at once — emotional, spiritual and bodily. “And the really interesting evidence that it is comprehensive is that it is anchored in bodily sharing,” he says.“Ordinary friendships wouldn’t be friendships anymore if they involved bodily sharing,” he explained to me. “If I, despite being a married man, had this female friend of mine and I said, ‘Well, gosh, why don’t we do some bodily sharing,’ and we had straightforward sexual intercourse, well, that wouldn’t be friendship or marriage. It is bodily, O.K., but it is not part of a comprehensive sharing of life. My comprehensive sharing of life is with my wife, which I just now violated.” But just as friendships with sex are not friendships, marriage without sex is not marriage. Sex, George said, is the key to this “comprehensive unity.” He then imagined himself as a man with no interest in sex who proposed to seal a romance by committing to play tennis only with his beloved. Breaking that promise, he said, would not be adultery.

The second step is more complicated, and more graphic. George argues that only vaginal intercourse — “procreative-type” sex acts, as George puts it — can consummate this “multilevel” mind-body union. Only in reproduction, unlike digestion, circulation, respiration or any other bodily function, do two individuals perform a single function and thus become, in effect, “one organism.” Each opposite-sex partner is incomplete for the task; yet together they create a “one-flesh union,” in the language of Scripture. “Their bodies become one (they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together) in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs and other organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole,” George writes in a draft of his latest essay on the subject. Unloving sex between married partners does not perform the same multilevel function, he argues, nor does oral or anal sex — even between loving spouses.

Infertile couples, too, are performing this uniquely shared reproductive function, George says, even if they know their sperm and ovum cannot complete it. Marriage is designed in part for procreation in the way a baseball team is designed for winning games, he says, but “people who can practice baseball can be teammates without victories on the field.”  [ewww more]

From Johann Hari at the New Statesman:

After all the arguments for subordinating women have been shown to be self-serving lies, what are misogynists left with? They have only one feeble argument that is still deferred to and shown undeserving respect across the world, even by people who should know better: “God told me to. I have to treat women as lesser beings, because it is inscribed in my Holy Book.”

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom are the editors of Butterflies and Wheels, the best atheist site on the web. In Does God Hate Women? they forensically dismantle the last respectable misogyny. They argue: “What would otherwise look like stark bullying is very often made respectable and holy by a putative religious law or aphorism or scriptural quotation . . . They worship a God who is a male who gangs up with other males against women. They worship a thug.”

Every major religion’s texts were written at a time when women were regarded as little better than talking cattle. Their words and commands reflect this, plainly and bluntly. This book starts with a panoramic sweep across the world, showing – with archetypal cases – how every religion has groups today thumping women down with its Holy Book.  [the review carries on]

Stopping Bulldozers

A pacifist, which is what I am, can be the strongest resister, and pacifism the most defiant form of resistance. Same with language usage: I mix the old and the new to engage with a debate about protection, preservation, conservation, and respect of the “natural” world. I am aware of the problems these words carry in terms of implying complicity, because I am a poet rather than a speech writer. For me, because of this, poems can stop bulldozers. Not because they just say “stop bulldozer,” but because the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer. I am using a semantics not of analogy, but of opposition. My words are intended to halt the damage—to see what shouldn’t be seen, to declare and challenge it.  

More from John Kinsella’s Vermin: A Notebook here

Flying Over Language

I can’t write without knowing that each thing I define will be erased in time. There are no safe and secure places for language. The death of meaning is like the extinction of a species. But other meanings come forth to fill each ecological niche. The poet routinely wipes out entire taxonomic groups in order to make room for new forms of life. This culling is necessary; the poet who doesn’t do this is in peril. You must join with the fragility of sentience, recognize the elementary or undifferentiated consciousness where language originates. Writing poetry is like playing the piano with your hair. You don’t know exactly why it works, but somehow you’re able to make music. What I’m describing is intuition, the golden hunch behind all the explanations and theories, which allows you to take advantage of the fluidity of meaning. To intuit is to step outside language and view it from the air. What’s seen when you’re flying over language are the ruins of custom and interpretation, mighty edifeces meant to last milennia. But in fact, they’re made of straw, built on flowing water. No one who is seriously writing poetry can live in them for long.

Don Domanski

Daughters in Poetry

From Eavan Boland:

There are far too few daughters in poetry. They turn up surprisingly rarely in nineteenth century poems, considering how they crowded into the available fictional equivalents. So it’s a relief to start the twentieth century with this big, ornate and controversial poem by William Butler Yeats. In a way it was overdue. He married late. He was well on the way to being sixty when he wrote this poem for his only daughter Ann.

What exactly is it he wants for her? What is it he wants to keep her away from? If a wealthy marriage and Irish politics are the first and second answers here, they still can’t shadow or trivialize the beautiful context of the piece. As a complex statement about patriarchy, the poem falters. But as an image of a father on a wild Atlantic night in the west of Ireland, trying to put words between his child and danger, it is memorable. And as an image-system of coastal thrushes, poisoned wells and the struggle against hatred it remains an absolutely compelling poem.

The absence of daughters in earlier poems raises an interesting question. Does a sudden, new and permitted subject matter–or gradually sudden as in this case–discover the poem, or the other way around? Probably the first. Certainly, the idea of daughters–the down-to-earth and vast register of human feeling compressed into the very word–has opened up a wonderful landscape of tone and intimacy and bold subversions in recent poetry, some of which I’ve tried to include here.

To start with, there’s “Morning Song” by Plath. No sonorous authority here. Not only does this first, joyful birth of her daughter Freida in 1960, find Plath in good heart and fine voice. But this is a place where she tries out the anti-narrative she would perfect in later poems like “Balloons.” The language is startling and exact. The baby’s mouth is as clean as a cat’s. The baby is at first a plump, ticking watch but then quickly lets out a bald cry which turns her into a statue, which makes emotion a museum and motherhood a spectatorship. And suddenly, skillfully, the poem has darkened.

Read the rest here

Present, Future & History

To try to make use of the past- to try to place a framework upon it – is to look in the wrong direction for answers. As Plato observed, the truth lies upwards in the heavens. We are better off imagining our future and carving it out of the ether than trying to mould it out of the misleading physical realities of the past. We see our past, as we see all falsehoods, through a glass darkly. The past is obscured by our cultural context and our search for the answers we already expect to find. We cannot learn from humanity’s mistakes because we cannot comprehend them and because humanity is too stained by sin and ineptitude to be worth taking any lessons from. Why conceive of utopia through a reading of the grubby realities of the French, Russian or Velvet revolutions? Why bother factoring in to our projects of social change the petty problems of dead people – with their silly flights to Varennes, their refusals to sack Washington, their untimely deaths, their squalid assassinations, their plots and counterplots and hairbrained schemes that landed them in the thick of it again – all historical accidents that are worth a laugh or a tear and nothing much more? The past is no use to us at all and that is fine. It is still worth a visit. But the future must be imagined and created afresh – again and again until no mistakes are undertaken at all. That is when history will finally stop and we will stop wasting our time looking for our answers within it.

Tim Stanley, History and Its Uses



Harvey Milk

Hilton Als on Milk and Harvey Milk at NYRB:

Milk received eight nominations for this year’s [Academy] awards; among them are [Gus] Van Sant for Best Director, [Dustin Lance] Black for his script, and [Sean] Penn for his impersonation of a man who did not find his true calling until he was forty-three years old. In the film, Milk doesn’t make much of a point about those lost years. “Forty years old and what have I done with my life?” he asks a new lover near the beginning. But the script is never explicit about what prevented him from living fully before 1973, the pivotal year in which he opened his camera store in the Castro. For a better sense of the painful secrecy Milk endured as a closeted gay man living in a pre-Stonewall world, and of the subsequent, purposeful freedom he felt during his belated coming-out, one can turn not only to Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s exceptional 1984 film, The Times of Harvey Milk (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1985), but to the bits of documentary footage Van Sant inserts into Milk‘s manufactured world.

Especially moving are the silent black-and-white images that make up the movie’s title sequence, in which well-groomed, thin, and for the most part white young men are rounded up in bars, cuffed, and arrested, while newspaper articles act as a kind of graphic voiceover: “Homosexuals and Police Clash”; “Tavern Charges Police Brutality”; “Police Start Crackdown on Homosexual Bars, Arrest 6.” These prefatory images, set apart from the main narrative, remain the film’s clearest statement of an essential fact: for most of his life, Milk lived in terror of arrest, interrogation, and punishment.  [more]