A Week in Culture: Wesley Yang, Writer, Part 2
January 20, 2011 | by Wesley Yang
This is the second installment of Yang’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
Bach Organ Works.
One of my many collegiate affectations was to play old records on a plastic turntable that I purchased at a garage sale. I had a bunch of classical LPs from my parent’s living-room bureau that I brought with me, including the Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major and Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in E-flat Major. The poor fidelity of those enormous sounds pressed through that tinny speaker gave the music an abstract and deconstructed quality that made it somehow purer.
My best friend at the time was Hoon, who was only four feet, eleven inches tall and very slight. We both shaved our heads totally bald in the summer between freshman and sophomore year in emulation of Michel Foucault. “I have a good head,” Hoon assured me in advance of shaving it. He was right—it was a very elegant ovoid shaped like a coconut that you could hold in the palm of your hand. I doubted I would have a good head, and after spending an evening trying to depilate it with a disposable Bic razor (I had to go to the barber the next day to finish the job, as there were impacted clumps that would not come off), I discovered that, in fact, I have a grossly oblong, egg-shaped head.
During my sophomore year at Rutgers, I fell into a desperate and unrequited passion for a Colombian girl who lived a floor above me in the river dorms (where I had moved after feeling alienated in Brett Hall, the honors dorm where 95 percent of the students were Orthodox Jews from South Jersey), and then had something like a minor breakdown. I would spend hours staring at the record player as it spun out this strange celestial music that induced a cold rapture that was intense in its longing but inhumanly remote. It seemed the aural manifestation of an austere and exacting God. I never quite enjoyed it, but everything else felt irrelevant.
I never really got over that record of Bach. I carried the little plastic record player with me throughout the rest of college, until finally my roommate during senior year snapped the record in half in a passive-aggressive fit. He had reason to be upset with me: I had made out with his sixteen-year-old sister who had visited us for a week after refusing to return to school that January. We stayed together, on and off, for the next seven years.
Very recently, I downloaded a complete set of Bach organ works by another performer and assembled a playlist of the tracks that made up the original record. The tonalities do not compare in beauty and strangeness to the ones recorded on the LP, and now I think I hear what the roommate must have heard. At the time, he confessed to me that he believed I played that record specifically for the purpose of tormenting him, and that was the reason he broke it.
9:45 A.M. I used to have long beautiful hair—jet black, silken, and fine, framing my face in layered abundance—but in a fit of absence of mind, I shaved all of it off, revealing what I knew to lie underneath: an enormous oblong head with a slant-eyed face practically reptilian in its impassivity. Now I glimpse my monk-like visage in mirrors and other reflective surfaces (frosted car windows, subway windows, puddles of standing water, a girl’s round compact vanity into which I have peeked as she applies fresh lipstick on the subway) and feel assailed at once by terrible regret for the loss of my only truly fine (physical) attribute, coupled with the salutary urge to get in shape, resume the study of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and harden myself for the world’s challenges—to take up the project of self-improvement while the energy for self-renewal still resides within me. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, as readers of the print edition of The Paris Review surely know, is a martial art designed to allow a smaller, weaker person to dominate a bigger one. I have been learning the art of breaking arms, dislocating shoulders, and choking men into unconsciousness. I feel a sudden upsurge of testosterone: I must use this upsurge of vitality to propel myself into practical activity.
But first a nap.
3:00 P.M. Second encounter in a week with a man wearing a handwritten sign declaring himself “a niger [sic] crying out for justice” against the municipal authorities who harbor the kidnappers that implanted a computer chip in his brain.
3:45 P.M. From King Lear:
What hast thou been?
A serving-man, proud in heart and mind; that curled
my hair; wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of
my mistress’ heart, and did the act of darkness with
her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and
broke them in the sweet face of heaven: one that
slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it:
wine loved I deeply, dice dearly: and in woman
out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of
ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth,
wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.
Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of
silks betray thy poor heart to woman: keep thy foot
out of brothels, thy hand out of plackets, thy pen
from lenders’ books, and defy the foul fiend.
Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind:
Says suum, mun, ha, no, nonny.
Dolphin my boy, my boy, sessa! let him trot by.
4:00 P.M. I sometimes will play a game on the subway in which I try to look at various people riding the train as a lover might—to be moved to tenderness by the ungainly peculiarities that make them unique, or to admire what is strong and forthright in them. The game gives way in short order to a different one—a speculative inquiry into what unbelievable series of traumas has left these people looking as they do.
4:02 P.M. I spot myself being observed by a woman in the midst of her own sick rapture of loathing and compassion.
5:00 P.M. Not so long ago, the thought occurred to me that nearly every woman I knew had enormous, round, imploring, ingenuous eyes. I scrolled through my mental PicasaWeb: there was M., M., M., E., I., G., K., A., R., S., all of whose faces were constructed with the rough eye-to-face ratio favored by the Japanese perverts who draw anime.
Here was something better than God—evolution—at work. Stephen Jay Gould has written about the special proportions shared by all baby mammals—the head large in proportion to the body, the eyes large in proportion to the head—and how these dimensions exert a universal appeal to the protective instincts of adult mammals. To retain these attributes into adulthood is to secure an evolutionary advantage that runs counter to the feminist dogma of our age. It must occasion some degree of ambivalence in those who possess it. But no one, in the end, would think to disclaim it.
Sometimes, when I indulge the species of New York exceptionalism that everyone entertains as a sop for living in this pit of filth and iniquity, I wonder if the average eye to face ratio of women in this city would outstrip that of any other city in the world.
9:00 P.M. From Irwin Shaw’s The Girls in Their Summer Dresses:
“I like the girls in the offices. Neat, with their eyeglasses, smart, chipper, knowing what everything is about, taking care of themselves all the time.” He kept his eye on the people going slowly past outside the window. “I like the girls on Forty-fourth Street at lunchtime, the actresses, all dressed up on nothing a week, talking to the good-looking boys, wearing themselves out being young and vivacious outside Sardi’s, waiting for producers to look at them. I like the salesgirls in Macy’s, paying attention to you first because you’re a man, leaving lady customers waiting, flirting with you over socks and books and phonograph needles. I got all this stuff accumulated in me because I’ve been thinking about it for ten years and now you’ve asked for it and here it is.”
“Go ahead,” Frances said.
“When I think of New York City, I think of all the girls, the Jewish girls, the Italian girls, the Irish, Polack, Chinese, German, Negro, Spanish, Russian girls, all on parade in the city. I don’t know whether it’s something special with me or whether every man in the city walks around with the same feeling inside him, but I feel as though I’m at a picnic in this city. I like to sit near the women in the theaters, the famous beauties who’ve taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses . . . ” He finished his drink. “That’s the story. You asked for it, remember. I can’t help but look at them. I can’t help but want them.”
“You want them, ” Frances repeated without expression. “You said that.”
“Right,” Michael said, being cruel now and not caring, because she had made him expose himself. “You brought this subject up for discussion, we will discuss it fully.”
Frances finished her drink and swallowed two or three times extra. "You say you love me?”
“I love you, but I also want them. Okay.”
“I’m pretty, too,” Frances said. “As pretty as any of them.”
“You’re beautiful,” Michael said, meaning it.
“I’m good for you,” Frances said, pleading. “I’ve made a good wife, a good housekeeper, a good friend. I’d do any damn thing for you.”
“I know,” Michael said. He put his hand out and grasped hers.
“You’d like to be free to ... ” Frances said.
3:00 P.M. A friend of mine named C., who was leaving New York to live in a horrible place, told us, the night before her departure, that she had gone to the Target at the Atlantic Center, shopping for new sheets for a person she had loved and hurt and been hurt by in turn that she now had to leave. And she confided in us, with the ostentatious candor that has always been her preferred means of self-concealment, that the act of searching through the sheets, and picking an item of an unusually high thread count, had reduced her to tears. Part of it was leaving this city she had loved and been wounded by to this dreadful place, part of it was leaving behind this person that she loved, and all of it coalesced into this reminder of a domesticity she would not get to experience, now that she was leaving.
7:00 P.M. MMA videos. When I am not trolling around for deals on electric guitars, I am watching videos of classic MMA fights, interviews, and commentary on the sport. I have a particular interest in references to the plainly homo-erotic undertone of these matches, in which nearly naked men find themselves wrapped in each other’s legs, or straddling each other’s torsos, on the ground. The boxing promoter Bob Arum dismissed the sport thusly:
skinhead white guys watching people in the ring who are [sic] also look like skinhead white guys …. guys rolling around like homosexuals on the ground.
Fans and practitioners of the art of jiu-jitsu have a surprisingly good sense of humor about this undercurrent of insinuation already built into an art form some of whose characteristic positions include “the mount,” and “the rear naked choke.” “It isn’t gay, so long as you don’t make eye contact,” is one proverbial piece of wisdom. Yoshihiro Akiyama, a superbly buff Japanese judoka, who has seen only limited success in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, (a person of Korean descent, I might add) was one of Japan’s biggest stars, and proudly bore the nickname “Sexiyama.” Chat room members do not seem to hesitate to use it when they refer to him. As one fan put it in the tagline companying his handle, “I put a picture of Sexiyama on my cell phone, and now it is permanently on vibrate.”
8:00 A.M. YouTube videos.
Vampire Weekend, “Mansard Roof”: Ezra Koenig came to my New Year Eve’s party a couple years ago. He was already a rock star then, a new kind of rock star—one much too reserved and self-preoccupied to behave badly in an overt way or to engage in debauches. He didn’t say much. He was genuinely shy. I felt I understood him perfectly. He was everything I once would have liked to have been, but wasn’t: sure of his gifts, and fortunate, self-sufficient, and detached from everything; rich, and handsome, and young.
Like all the best pop songs, this is a song that makes perfectly plain to its listeners that it will do no good to pretend you’re better than it.
Andrew WK, “Party Hard”: This guy is a complete idiot and anyone who buys into his shit is an idiot.
The Smiths, “The Boy with the Thorn in his Side”: My God, that petulant little riff that Johnny Marr plays during the fade-out is more eloquent than any articulate speech ever uttered by a person under the age of forty, though Morrissey does his best to keep up:
And when you want to live
How’d you start?
Where’d you go?
Who’d you need to know?
Duran Duran, “Rio”: The desaturated color of videos shot on the cheap during MTV’s first and only efflorescence—when it seemed that every voice they aired was the strangled sob of some recently buggered public schoolboy weeping in the linen closet—is an instant inducement to nostalgia.
The Vapors, “Turning Japanese”:
No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women, no fun, no sin, no you no wonder it’s dark. Everyone around me is a total stranger, everyone avoids me like a cyclone ranger —everyone. That’s why I’m turning Japanese, that’s why I’m turning Japanese, I really think so ...
Wesley Yang is a writer living in Brooklyn.