Self-Care Ain’t What It Used to Be, and Other News


On the Shelf

Jean-Léon Gérôme, La grande piscine de Brousse, 1885.

  • It’s always a good time to suck the marrow out of language. Just ask advertisers: in recent years they’ve laid claim to the word minimalism, evacuating its political-aesthetic lineage and rebranding it to sell sleek, Instagrammable housewares. And now they’ve captured self-care, which, as Marisa Meltzer writes, has seen a spike in usage that divorces it from its original radicalism, binding it forevermore to conspicuous consumption: “The current usage is often traced back to the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ Audre Lorde, who wrote in an essay published in her 1988 book, A Burst of Light, that ‘caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’ … Gabrielle Moss, author of the Goop parody book, Glop, thinks that self-care is starting to (surprise, surprise) lose its meaning and become a marketing tool. ‘Things that get branded as self-care now have nothing to do with taking care of yourself, like detoxes and juice fasts,’ Ms. Moss said. ‘I do them because I hate myself, not because I’m taking care of myself. It’s poised to be wrenched away from activists and turned into an excuse to buy an expensive bath oil.’ ”
  • If you want to read something about Russia that doesn’t contain the words hacking, Putin, or clandestine plan to undermine American democracy by propping up demagoguery, you might try this, by Adam Weiner—it’s about Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, a work of far-fetched political fiction from which Ayn Rand, of all people, borrowed liberally (or libertarianally): “The novel, once published, did not merely arouse spasms of sarcastic mirth; it also established a bizarre new paradigm of behavior in Russia. Rational egoism, though actually built on an immovable foundation of determinism, indulged its followers with the idea of endless personal freedom, depicting again and again an almost miraculous process of transformation by which socially inept people became like aristocrats, prostitutes became honest workers, hack writers became literary giants. For decades after the novel’s publication, in imitation of Chernyshevsky’s fictional heroes, young men would enter into fictitious marriages with young women in order to liberate them from their oppressive families. The nominal husband and wife would obey Chernyshevsky’s rules of communal living, with private rooms for man and wife. In imitation of the sewing cooperative in Chernyshevsky’s novel, communes began sprouting all over the place. As an example, the famous revolutionary Vera Zasulich was, within two years of the publications the novel, working for a communal book bindery, while her sisters and mother joined a sewing cooperative—all of this directly caused by What Is to Be Done?.” 

  • Then you can head to the MoMA, whose exhibition “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde” offers a more robust portrait of the national spirit than anything you’ll read in the news: “The museum has the most extensive collection of Russian avant-garde art outside Russia, and while this exhibition is not definitive, it provides a fast-paced summary of the movement’s arc of styles, media and social functions … Portions of four films projected in a small gallery provide a quick immersion in the rapid progress of Russian cinema from sentimental narrative to radical innovation to propaganda. We see the famous Odessa steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Potemkin,’ a reimagining of an incident from the Revolution of 1905 intended to help justify the permanent one of 1917. For the 1929 feature film ‘Man With a Movie Camera,’ Dziga Vertov filmed an actor rushing from factory to street to traffic stop, toting a camera and tripod to capture the nation’s bustle and productivity, in the face of the fiascos of industrialization and land redistribution. At one point, he sets up his camera in the space between oncoming trolley cars—Russia’s Buster Keaton.” 
  • Stéphane Mallarmé’s magnum opus is “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“One Toss of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”), a twenty-plus-page poem from 1898 that continues to baffle and provoke today: “Mallarmé’s transcendence of conventional poetics, his spatio-temporal gyrations, his yearning efforts to collapse signifier and signified, his wish to erase all boundaries between word, idea, and object, as well as between art and life, paved the way for innovative Modernist thought and practice in literature, music, visual art, philosophy, modern physics, and even prefigured aspects of today’s digital era. It’s precisely the poem’s difficulty that makes its influence so enduring.”