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Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

The State of the Political Novel: An Interview with Édouard Louis

May 3, 2016 | by

Édouard Louis

Édouard Louis, born in 1992, grew up in Hallencourt, a village in the north of France where many live below the poverty line. Now his account of life in that village, written when he was nineteen, has ignited a debate on class and inequality, foisting Louis into the center of French literary life.  

En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (Finishing off Eddy Bellegueule) is unsparing in its descriptions of the homophobia, alcoholism, and racism that animated Louis’s youth in Hallencourt. “We thought the book would be as invisible as the people it describes,” said Louis, who rejects any romantic views of the “authenticity” of working-class life. His publisher thought the first edition, two thousand copies, would last years. But hundreds of thousands of copies have sold in France, and the book is being translated into more than twenty languages. The novel, which has earned Louis comparisons to Zola, Genet, and de Beauvoir, is set to appear in English later this year.

Eddy Bellegueule can be read as a straightforward coming-of-age story, but beneath its narrative is an almost systematic examination of the norms and habits of the villagers—inspired, Louis has said, by the theories of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It’s as if he’s taken the whole place and put it behind glass—like observing the inner workings of an anthill.

Who is Eddy Bellegueule, and why do you want to finish him off?

Eddy Bellegueule is the name my parents gave me when I was born. It sounds dramatic, but yes, I wanted to kill him—he wasn’t me, he was the name of a childhood I hated. The book shows how—before I revolted against my childhood, my social class, my family, and, finally, my name—it was my milieu that revolted against me. My father and my brothers wanted to finish off Eddy Bellegueule long before, at a time when I was still trying to save him. Read More »

Dord, and Other News

February 24, 2016 | by

Dord!

  • Foupe, adventine, dentize, kime, morse—these and other non-word words have made their way into English-language dictionaries over the centuries, blurring the line between errata and neologisms. Philologists call them ghost words, and they’re mainly the result of printers’ errors. Jack Lynch writes of the most famous example, from 1934: “Webster’s included many abbreviations in its wordlist, and the compilers planned to include the abbreviation for density … One lexicographer—Austin M. Patterson, special editor for chemistry—typed a 3" × 5" card explaining the abbreviation: he headed it ‘D or d’ … But when it came time to transcribe the card, someone misread it and ran the letters together without spaces, producing ‘Dord, density’ … The entry made it into the dictionary as ‘dord, density.’ It took five years for a Merriam editor to notice the strange entry … The printer removed dord from the next reprint, filling the otherwise empty line by adding a few letters to the entry for doré furnace.”
  • While we’re on dictionaries: Are they sexist? Well, yes. Are they irretrievably sexist? That depends … “Feminists and linguists have been talking about the sexism that lurks beneath the surface of dictionaries since at least the nineteen-sixties … In 1987, the radical philosopher and activist Mary Daly wrote an entry for a word of her own coinage: ‘Dick-tionary, n: any patriarchal dictionary: a derivative, tamed and muted lexicon compiled by dicks.’ Rooting out the sexism in dictionaries was a priority for feminism’s second wave. The nineteen-seventies and eighties witnessed a profusion of alternative volumes like Daly’s, which highlighted biases that belied mainstream dictionaries’ descriptive ideals … The choices about what to include in a dictionary, like the construction of any historical record, are, arguably, inherently political … Feminist linguists argue that, in some instances, lexicographers should put a thumb on the scale.”
  • Today in love and the arts: Georg Friedrich Haas, a world-renowned composer, sent an OkCupid message to his future wife. “Wow—your profile is great … I would like to tame you.” Thus began a different kind of courtship: “In a joint appearance with his wife, who now goes by Mollena Williams-Haas, late last year at the Playground sexuality conference in Toronto, then in an interview this month in the online music magazine VAN, he has ‘come out,’ as he put it, as the dominant figure in a dominant-submissive power dynamic. Mr. Haas has chosen to speak up … because he hopes to embolden younger people, particularly composers, not to smother untraditional urges, as he did … Williams-Haas, who described the situation as feminist because it is her choice, said, ‘I find intense fulfillment in being able to serve in this way.’ She conceded the discomfort many may feel with a black woman willingly submitting to a white man … she added, ‘To say I can’t play my personal psychodrama out just because I’m black, that’s racist.’ ”
  • The other nontraditional composer in the news is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which has recently detected gravitational waves for the first time in history and converted their signal into audio. “When we listen to the waves that LIGO first played for us, we can tell that the system is quite heavy, since the signal ends a bit lower than middle C on the piano. If the system were lighter, the waves would have ended at a higher pitched note … We know we can hear these waves now, and we want to make our ears better … We want to hear the ghostly whispers of the earliest moments of the universe’s expansion. We want to listen without prejudice and to hear things that for now we can barely imagine.”
  • If space sounds make you anxious, turn your attention instead to Japan’s Kamakura Period (1185–1333), serene statues from which are now on display at the Asia Society of New York: “These mesmerizing sculptures show the sacred being standing quietly above an opening lotus blossom, and dressed in monk’s robes whose folds fall in a cascade of graceful waves. Their power to entrance arises from the near-perfect balance of motion and stillness, symmetry and asymmetry, they display. They do not move and yet they seem to radiate peace … Kamakura statues are miracles of technique. Carved in wood, and hollowed out so that the skin of the sculpture in some parts is not much thicker than cardboard, they weigh almost nothing. They hover on the verge of immateriality.”

Come for the Secrets, Stay for the Art, and Other News

February 23, 2016 | by

Artist unknown, Independent Order of Odd Fellows banner (detail), c. 1900–20), paint on canvas with wood and metal, 88.5" x 71". Photo: José Andrés Ramírez. Courtesy of American Folk Art Museum). Photo via Hyperallergic

The Countries We Think We See

January 8, 2016 | by

For Lesley Blanch, travel writing offered a chance to explore her preconceptions about a place as much as the place itself.

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Every travel writer is a character in her own narrative, no less a part of the story than the “foreigners” that story depicts. In my own travels, I’ve found that women in countries that discourage mixed-gender interactions often speak to me more openly about culturally illuminating subjects—sex, love, motherhood—than they might to a male writer. My femaleness, it seemed, wasn’t simply a question of perspective; it was a question of action.

When I raised this subject in a lecture last year, someone in the audience broke in with a question. Why did I feel the need to “insert” myself into my narratives at all? She brought up the travel writer Colin Thubron, whom she cited as the paradigmatic example of the quiet, objective observer. “He doesn’t insert himself into his writing at all!” she exclaimed. Read More »

Nancy Drew in Starlight

December 21, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

lilac

An illustration from The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

Who is Nancy Drew, really? The instability of the girl detective.

The writer Bobbie Ann Mason once described the Nancy Drew novels as sonnets, or “endless variations on an inflexible form.” The same could be said of Nancy herself: though outfitted with a few baseline characteristics—her freedom, her wile, her supreme politesse—she’s perpetually shape-shifting throughout the series. Alternately sixteen and eighteen, Nancy Drew is a scholar of ancient languages and an amateur archaeologist; a flawless cook, an expressive painter, and a dynamite prom date. She can dance in a corps de ballet and scuba dive fathomless depths. On separate occasions, her friends have walked in on her tap dancing, learning Morse code, and tap dancing in Morse code. Even her hair color is famously inconstant—from book to book, it flickers from blonde to strawberry blonde to her most distinctive shade, Titian, so named for the rosy apricot color used in many of the sixteenth-century Italian’s paintings.

And yet, there are some things Nancy Drew simply does not do. In her decades-long original run of more than fifty books, she never once goes to the movies or mentions an actor by name. Her only brush with Hollywood comes in 1931’s The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where she meets the diabolical Gay Moreau, a washed-up actress who’s also a Nancy Drew impersonator, committing petty crimes to defame the detective. Nancy approaches the case with some amusement at her resemblance to a “blonde actress,” but things take a turn for the weird when the starlet kidnaps Nancy, binds and gags her, and, to Nancy’s horror, begins to act: Read More >>

What’s Your Sign? And Other News

December 9, 2015 | by

“Aztec zodiac man,” a facsimile of the original painting or codex, 1831.

  • For the cultural critic, astrology is low-hanging fruit: a gimmicky, pervasive pseudoscience that preys on our superstitions, our solipsism, our need to make sense of the unknown. It’s easy to ask people, How can you buy into that shit? But the editors of n+1 point out that “a better question might be why people like it, or whether it’s a problem to subscribe to something in which you don’t believe.” They point to astrology’s redemptive features: “We trust it because it corresponds to nothing; it doesn’t pretend to be true, or demand our belief. Unlike the pernicious pseudosciences of the past, or the scientism and pop neurology of the present, astrology poses little threat of getting serious … As a supplement to other points of view—what’s visible on first impression, say, or what you know of someone from experience—it adds another dimension, pulling some features into the foreground and pushing others to the back, reminding you of a person’s complexity … To consider that the shy person is sometimes wild, the considerate person sometimes duplicitous, is to practice something rather like empathy.”
  • At business schools, meanwhile, they’re teaching something much more treacherous than astrology: literature. At Columbia, aspiring executives can take a three-hour weekly course called Leadership Through Fiction, taught by Bruce Craven: “A four-minute promotional video posted online alongside Craven’s syllabus outlines the rationale for repurposing literature as management shibboleth … These novels, he explains, are ‘narratives about characters in many different professions’ who must find a ‘balance between their professional obligations, their personal expectations, and goals.’ Like real people, fictional characters stumble, and it is ‘through their stumbling,’ Craven promises, ‘that we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the future.’ ”
  • In her Nobel Lecture, Svetlana Alexievich—who will not, one suspects, be auditing Craven’s class—puts forth a more nuanced purpose for literature: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think—how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don't appreciate it, we aren't surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk ... I love the lone human voice … It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history.”
  • If you really want to steep yourself in “the everyday life of feelings,” look at 108 years of high school yearbook photos reduced to a minute-long video. Researchers at UC Berkeley compiled the images to study the changing face of the American teen: “The regular nature of yearbook photos—schools have been asking students to face forward and be recorded for posterity since the early twentieth century—made them a good candidate for this kind of machine-driven visual analysis, which can catch small variations in repetitive images … The final data set is made up of 37,921 forward-facing portraits. The population represented in the dataset is from 115 high schools, in twenty-six states … The researchers created a delightfully named ‘lip curvature metric’ to measure smile intensity, finding that while everyone smiled more as time went on, girls always smiled more than boys.”
  • As our nation’s smile intensity has changed, so has the valence of its slang. Take the word badass: in the mid-1950s, as Hermione Hoby explains, it was “used for the kind of men whose posturing invited mockery. To call someone a badass was to seek to puncture puffed-up masculine pride.” Today, though, it’s become perhaps the single most nauseating faux compliment: “the phrase ‘badass women’ peaked in 2015. This, in other words, was the year in which badass underwent such a regendering that it became understood as the foremost battlecry of feel-good feminism … If female badassery, as we understand and value it, comes down to maleness in the most basic and anatomical sense, if virtual dicks are now the yardstick for female power, then we have a problem. Because beneath the feel-good female bravura of badass is a decidedly feel-bad notion, namely that the only way a woman can exercise power is to submit herself to the drag (in both senses) of ‘behaving like a man.’ ”