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robertogreco : jmcoetzee   3

The Book That Made Me: An Animal | Public Books
"The Lives of Animals was the first book I read in college—or at least the first book I read in a strange, amazing seminar that rewired my brain in the first semester of freshman year. The course was about animals, and I signed up for it probably because it was a course my dad, who had been advising me on all things college, would have taken himself. He kept animal effigies all over the apartment: portraits of a donkey and a marmot in the bathroom; a giant poster of “The External Structure of Cock and Chicken” in the living room; dog figures of many breeds; pigs, his favorite, in all shapes and sizes, in every single nook and cranny. In the dining room he had a huge pig sculpture made of leather, which in retrospect was a strange and morbid combination: one animal skinned to make an image of another. Our cocker spaniel had chewed its face beyond recognition by the time my mom got around to throwing it out.

My dad passed away in 2016, two years after they got divorced, and I faced the monumental task of disposing of his menagerie. I kept many things, of course, but couldn’t keep them all. It was so easy to throw out or donate clothes, housewares, furniture, even books. I didn’t know what to do with the creatures, who seemed to contain his spirit more than anything else. I laughed when I found a key chain in a random drawer: a little brass effigy of one pig mounting another. That was his humor. That was his mind, his way of seeing, his culture—which was based, like all cultures, in certain ideas about nature. Frankly, he was a difficult man to know even when he was alive. The animals offered me a way in, as they probably did for him.

Anyway, he was the one who saw the listing for a course named “Zooësis” and thought I might like it. And I really did, from the moment our indefatigably brilliant professor, Una Chaudhuri, asked us to read J. M. Coetzee’s weird, hybrid book. The Lives of Animals is a novella, but Coetzee delivered it as a two-part Tanner Lecture at Princeton in 1997, and it centers, in turn, on two lectures delivered by its aging novelist protagonist, Elizabeth Costello. During her visit to an obscure liberal arts college, she speaks hard-to-swallow truths about the cruelties we visit upon animals, making a controversial analogy between industrialized farming and the Third Reich. But the content of her lectures is almost less important than the reactions they generate and the personal consequences she incurs, which Coetzee shows us by nesting the lectures within a fictional frame. People get incensed; the academic establishment rebukes her argument, her way of arguing, everything she represents. Even her family relationships buckle under the weight of a worldview that seems to reject reason.

Her first lecture is about the poverty of philosophy, both as a basis for animal ethics and as a medium for thinking one’s way into the mind of another kind of creature. But her second lecture is about the potential of poetry, and it’s captivating in its optimism about the ability of human language to imagine radically nonhuman forms of sensory experience—or, perhaps more radically, forms of sensory experience we share with other species.

As a person who has worked within the field commonly known as animal studies but has never worked with real animals (unlike so many great boundary-crossing thinkers: the late poet-philosopher-veterinarian Vicki Hearne, the philosopher-ethologist Vinciane Despret, et al.), I often find myself bummed out by the inadequacy of representation: Specifically, what good are animals in books? Are they not inevitably vessels of human meaning? In Flush, her novel about the inner life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf has another way of putting the problem: “Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?” To which I would add: Do they not destroy, or at least ignore, the creature beyond the symbol as well?

Coetzee has a different view. Or Costello, at least, has some different ideas about what poetry can do. She celebrates poems like Ted Hughes’s “The Jaguar” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther”—“poetry that does not try to find an idea in the animal, that is not about the animal, but is instead the record of an engagement with him.” She finds value in poems that try to capture the fluid complexity of a moment of contact across species, rather than try to preserve an imagined essence of the animal in amber. She also defends the human imagination as something more powerful than we give it credit for. My favorite line from the book is her response to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel insists that it’s impossible for a human to know the answer to his titular question. Costello rebuts: “If we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?” I think it takes an effort of heart, more than mind, to follow her train of thought.

The novella reflects her resistance to the imperious voice of human reason—and her embrace of the messiness of the subjective imagination—on many levels. She’s uneasy at the bully pulpit, as was Coetzee himself. For the longest time I thought that the narrator was omniscient—an impersonal God figure aligned with Coetzee’s own position at that Princeton lectern. But then I read the novella again, preparing to teach it in a lit class where we were also reading Jane Austen. I realized that the narrator filters everything through the perspective of John Bernard, Costello’s son, who has a strange tendency to obsess over his mother’s body (paging Dr. Freud: “Her shoulders stoop; her flesh has grown flabby”) and profoundly ambivalent feelings about her. He is torn between sympathy and repulsion, connection and alienation. He is torn, also, between her perspective, which persuades him to an extent, and the perspective of his wife, Norma, a philosophy professor who loathes her and has no patience for her anti-rationalist message.

The question this novella raises is always that of its own construction: Why is it a novella in the first place? What does Coetzee communicate through fiction that he couldn’t have communicated through a polemic? I think the technique of focalization, which grounds everything in John’s perspective, shows us exactly what an abstract polemic about animals couldn’t: the impossibility of speaking from a position outside our embodiment, our emotions, our primordial and instinctual feelings toward kin. In other words, the impossibility of speaking about animals as though we were not animals ourselves.

Every time I read the book—definitely every time I teach it—the potentialities of its form grow in number. I find new rooms in the house of fiction that reveal how grand a mansion it is. I display it proudly, in the center of a bookshelf lined with animal books like Marian Engel’s Bear, Woolf’s Flush, J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, Kafka’s stories, and John Berger’s Pig Earth. The shelf is my own version of my father’s menagerie, brimming with all manner of complex and contradictory creatures. All of them are representations, but that doesn’t make them feel any less real, or any less alive.

I regard my father with some of the ambivalence that John, the son in Coetzee’s story, feels toward his own mother and her thoughts on animals. But I encounter the creatures he left behind with warmth, solidarity, and hope."
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11 weeks ago by robertogreco
The Triumph of the Quiet Style - The Awl
"The clearest demonstration of the quiet style—the dominant, most provocative, most interesting aesthetic of our time—is in theater, where Annie Baker created a revolution by slowing everything down, inserting long pauses, setting plays at room temperature. Baker is, in America and for straight plays, the unquestioned superstar playwright of her generation. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and a MacArthur Grant in 2017. Her success is so sweeping that it’s almost hard to remember how weird her style seemed five or ten years ago, and how much it ran against all the prevailing headwinds of playwriting, which, for decades, had been all about making plays faster, more shocking, edgier.

American plays were already fast-paced (quick cuts, overlapping dialogue) and then, in the 1970s, David Mamet figured out a syncopated style that made them even faster. (“Arrive late, leave early,” is his prescription for writing scenes). Neil LaBute, Mamet’s heir, starts his signature play, Reasons to Be Pretty, with the stage direction: “Two people in their bedroom, already in the middle of it. A nice little fight. Wham!” Edward Albee, the reigning granddaddy of American theater, admitted that he wrote The Goat, a play about a man’s love affair with a farm animal, more or less because he couldn’t think of any taboos left to break.

For Baker, studying playwriting at NYU, the contemporary approach to playwriting was a nightmare—a formula to get your turns and reveals as plentiful and as high up in the script as possible, and all of it about as artistic as working in the pit at Daytona. While in graduate school, she had a breakdown (by her accounting, one of many) and, stuck, declared to her mentor that what she really wanted to do was to write a play about her mom and her mom’s “hippie friends sitting around and talking about spirituality for two hours,” which, to Mamet and her NYU professors, would have been like saying that what she wanted most as a playwright was to make sure that her audience had the right atmosphere for a nice, peaceful nap."



"But it’s not as if the quiet style began ten years ago. Chekhov is quiet. Our Town is quiet. Beckett is quiet. French New Wave is quiet. Probably, in every era, ‘serious’ art is quieter and slower than commercial. What I am saying, though, is that something distinctive is happening, and it’s clearly resonating with audiences since the same tendencies are dominant in all these different mediums, producing what for years has been the the most unsettling, most challenging, most talked-about work.

The key figure for the quiet style, the one who lays its sociopolitical foundations, is J.M. Coetzee. In Coetzee, the ruling class relinquishes—reluctantly but voluntarily—all its entitlements and, in humility and debasement, acquires a kind of beneficence. “The alternatives [to the power structure] are not,” he writes in the Diary Of A Bad Year, “placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.”

For the protagonists of the quiet style, most of whom descend from generations of easy living (their privilege is so patent and so internalized that they rarely deign even to speak of it), institutions no longer have anything to offer them and need nothing from them. They tend to be very willing to relinquish whatever societal power they have to those who want it more than they do. It’s characteristic to be an ex-pat (as in Lerner and Greenwell) or to be in some sort of internal exile (Vermont in Baker’s plays) or to be adrift in the ghettos of the unpublished, unproduced artistic underclass (as in Jarmusch, Baumbach, Heti, Dunham, etc). In other words, to have opted out.

What’s crucial—and, ultimately, what defines the quiet style—is the gesture of abnegation, a recognition by its heroes that success either is not for them or doesn’t matter to them. In spite of its heavy use of naturalism, the quiet style is not realism. Fundamentally, the quiet style is a mode of religious expression and it leans heavily on its confessional aspect, its blind faith that the moments of most abject, most senseless humiliation are also the moments when we are at our funniest and truest and (ultimately) most divine. For me, the great attraction of the quiet style is that it takes the attributes of my much-maligned generation—our restlessness, fecklessness, envy, solipsism—and turns them into something like a prayer."
quiet  quietness  slow  pause  pauses  art  film  theater  samuelbeckett  frenchnewwave  jmcoetzee  2017  style  playwriting  writing  davidmamet  anniebaker  abnegation  restlessness  fecklessness  envy  solipsism  naturalism  realism  antonchekhov  jimjarmusch  sheilaheti  lenadunham  noahbaumbach  filmmaking  taolin  benlerner  mumblecore 
may 2019 by robertogreco
The Creativity of Anger | Wired Science | Wired.com
"To be honest, I find this data a little depressing. I’d rather have a brain that, as Osborn believed, always performs best when content and carefree. Unfortunately, that’s not the brain we’ve been stuck with. (Although don’t forget that watching stand-up comedy can improve performance on insight puzzles. Happiness isn’t completely useless.) I’m afraid the novelist J.M. Coetzee was at least partially right: “Always move towards pain when making art.”"
psychology  creativity  brain  apple  stevejobs  motivation  criticism  anger  business  imagination  feedback  jmcoetzee  emotions  mood  2011  honesty  upsidedown 
august 2011 by robertogreco

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