October Links Roundup: That’s What I Like

There is no theme this month.

The single best medical decision I ever made was to get the Mirena chemical IUD this year–or as I call it, “Van Helsing”, because it stopped the bleeding! I was somewhat pushed into it because my insurance company forced me off the brand-name Pill that kept my endometriosis under control, and the generic version was making my blood pressure go up (or perhaps that was the frustration of losing control over my reproductive health??).

But I didn’t actually hear about the IUD option from my OB-GYNs. It was never suggested to me, during the 30+ years I’ve been chronically disabled from menstrual pain. No, I had to read about it in the comments on an article about fertility magic at Little Red Tarot. Some goddess must have been looking out for me, because my periods have stopped, and for the first time since I was 10 years old I can make plans like a normal person. I don’t have to deal with losing a week of my life every month to pain and insomnia, or the shame of having to make false excuses for my unavailability because menstruation is a taboo subject for many people. As with all hormonal medications, your mileage may vary, but it dramatically changed my life for the better.

Lack of information is just one of the obstacles to good reproductive care. In her essay “You’ll Feel a Pinch” at the online literary journal Catapult, Megan Stielstra writes about her decision to have her IUD replaced early, in case the Trump administration makes birth control even more expensive and hard to get. She had to go through a lengthy and humiliating process to get this authorized. I blame the Religious Right; they’ve capitalized on people’s reasonable moral qualms about abortion to gain veto power over all health care relating to sexuality and reproduction.

Turning from real-life monsters to probably-imaginary ones, comics artist Greg Ruth explains why “Horror Is Good for You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” on the website of sci-fi and horror publisher Tor.com. (Hat tip to Love, Joy, Feminism for the link.) Childhood is scary, so stories that acknowledge the strangeness and dangers of the world are validating and can teach resilience. Horror archetypes teach us truths about intimacy, isolation, difference, and the struggle to find your place in a community. Moreover, the constraints of writing for younger readers can produce more subtle and effective fiction, because the writer can’t go for the lazy shock value of sexual violence and gore. No wonder I became a horror fan in junior high… around the same time I started to bleed every month… coincidence?

Also at Tor.com, the Lovecraft Reread series by Ruthanna Emrys and Anne M. Pillsworth offers insightful and witty critiques of work in the HPL tradition. After covering H.P. Lovecraft’s original tales, they have gone on to reread stories by weird fiction contemporaries like M.R. James and E.F. Benson, and contemporary practitioners such as Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Lumley. You may even find horror greats like Ramsey Campbell dropping in to the comments section, which is remarkably respectful and well-informed.

The high-modernist poet T.S. Eliot was my other big literary obsession during those teen years. Revisiting Lovecraft this year, I noticed some psychological similarities. Both writers contemplated man’s humble place in the cosmos, liked to name-drop erudite references in multiple languages, had a fastidious and even phobic attitude about sexuality, and resorted to racist caricature in their defense of Anglo-American civilization. I wondered if they were aware of each other, since their iconic works were written in the 1920s-30s. Wonder no more: in comment #9 to the Lovecraft Reread of HPL’s “At the Mountains of Madness”, user “trajan23” treats us to HPL’s TSE parody, “Waste Paper”, which begins thus:

Waste Paper
A Poem of Profound Insignificance
By H. P. Lovecraft

Πἀντα γἐλως καἱ πἀντα κὀνις καἱ πἀντα τὁ μηδἐν

Out of the reaches of illimitable light
The blazing planet grew, and forc’d to life
Unending cycles of progressive strife
And strange mutations of undying light
And boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeated and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moonshine hootch made tight,
And quite contrite to see the flight of fright so bright
I used to ride my bicycle in the night
With a dandy acetylene lantern that cost $3.00
In the evening, by the moonlight, you can hear those darkies singing
Meet me tonight in dreamland . . . BAH
I used to sit on the stairs of the house where I was born
After we left it but before it was sold
And play on a zobo with two other boys.
We called ourselves the Blackstone Military Band
Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home?
In the spring of the year, in the silver rain
When petal by petal the blossoms fall
And the mocking birds call
And the whippoorwill sings, Marguerite.
The first cinema show in our town opened in 1906
At the old Olympic, which was then call’d Park,
And moving beams shot weirdly thro’ the dark
And spit tobacco seldom hit the mark.

Never fear, you too may find a place in the literary canon of white men, with help from the Lovecraft Engine, a random phrase generator that remixes HPL’s favorite over-the-top descriptors. My first go-round gave me “That iridescent, fabulous menace,” which is exactly what I aspire to be.

Speaking of fabulous, our queer link of the month is Brandon Taylor’s LitHub essay “Who Cares What Straight People Think?” Taylor writes about what is gained and lost when books with queer characters go mainstream, no longer segregated in specialty bookstores or back rooms. One could argue that when straight writers and readers consume narratives of queer suffering, it perpetuates a narrow stereotype of LGBTQ lives as tragic and Other. Perhaps it’s more progressive to write mainstream fiction about characters who just happen to be LGBTQ. However, Taylor concludes that it’s a mistake to use outsiders as our reference point for self-censorship. Gay-bashing, AIDS, child abuse, and other traditional tropes of queer fiction are still unfortunate realities that we must be free to write about:

It is tempting to imagine that this is the way things ought to be, tasteful meditations on the human condition with queer people at their center, that the supposition of a queer default means an abandonment of trauma narratives and queer suffering. That everything will be alright when we’re finally writing of ourselves in our everyday lives, everything smooth and bourgeois and immaculately styled.

But that would be a grave miscalculation, a failure to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Queer people live their everyday lives under the threat of violence and political persecution. Queer teens would rather die than continue living in a world that is actively hostile to them. Our narratives must remain alive and vital to that pain, to the very real suffering we endure. To assume a central queer gaze is not to pass judgement on narratives of queer suffering at all, but to allow queer people to continue to tell their stories, to write into their own narrative spaces without the need for a heteronormative overculture. After all, it is the heteronormative gaze that renders these narratives problematic. It is their place of prominence in the overculture that presents the problem, not the narratives themselves.

It is not enough to merely write queers in comfortable bourgeois captivity. You have not conquered some artistic challenge. You are not artistically pure for turning away from queer suffering. Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience. The answer to Michelle Hart’s question about the state of gay literary fiction is this: we must move toward a queer aesthetic, which permits the true simultaneity of queer experience. We must stop waiting for permission. We must stop looking to the overculture for legitimacy. Within a queer aesthetic, we weep and we laugh and we withdraw and we advance. Queer suffering and queer joy dominate the ordinary instant. We are everything at once.

 

 

Two Poems from em jollie’s “A Field Guide to Falling”

Western Massachusetts writer em jollie’s new poetry collection A Field Guide to Falling (Human Error Publishing, 2017) is like a stained-glass cathedral window: even in scenes of suffering, the glorious colors give joy and uplift. Much of the book processes the aftermath of breaking up with a beloved woman, though at the end, the narrator seems to find a new beginning with another partner and a greater sense of herself as complete and sufficient. But this therapeutic summary can’t do justice to the mystical meaning of her journey. The speaker bravely walks up to the edge of everything we consider permanent, looks into the clouds swirling above the bottomless gulf, and finds a way to praise their ever-changing shapes. These poems imply that the value of falling–in love, out of love, out of Eden into a world of loss–is in how it challenges us to keep our hearts open, to say Yes despite it all.

Specificity keeps these classic themes fresh. A lesser poet would risk pathos with the extended metaphor of “How to Set a Firefly Free” as a farewell to a relationship where love exists but is not enough. This poem works because it is a real firefly first, a symbol second.

Firefly, suddenly setting aflame cut crystal hanging
from ceiling fan pull-chain. Greenish glow in each facet
while all night dogwood salts dark-wet sidewalk
flowers ripped gloriously open in rainpour.

Isn’t that a love poem all by itself? Those “flowers ripped gloriously open” already remind you of your own worthwhile heartbreak, whatever that was. The ending, which makes the personal connection explicit, only confirms what you felt it was about from the very first lines.

…If only
I didn’t know why lightning bugs blink.
If only I wasn’t so wise to the fact that your light
does not belong to me, will not ever.
If only I didn’t know that was right.

So naturally I just Googled why lightning bugs blink. Wikipedia says the trait originally evolved as a warning signal to predators that the bug was toxic to eat, but now its primary purpose is to communicate with potential mates. This dual meaning of sex and death confirms the speaker’s sad verdict on this love affair, which earlier in the poem she compared to the bond between a neighbor and his snarling dog: “[w]e said they were so mean they belonged together. Yet there/was something sweet about the belonging.”

jollie has one stylistic tic that I understand is common to the Smith College “school” of poetry, which is the occasional (and to my mind, random) omission of “a” and “the”. I’m sorry to say this is a pet peeve of mine. It creates a missing beat in the rhythm of a sentence, which distracts me. It’s fine to twist grammar to make a more compressed line, but I feel that this works best when the entire poem is written in an unusual voice, not when a single part of speech is excised from otherwise normal English.

jollie has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. It was hard to choose just two! Buy her book here.

Object Constancy

Sand can be grasped in a palm, yes. But wind
will take it eventually. Heart is body’s hourglass,
holding its own beginning
& end, its constant ticking tipping moment into
granular moment, for a while. You could take my skull
in your hands, but you will have to give it back
at some point. As will I.

Sure, Freud’s nephew came to understand
that Teddy Bear was just over edge of crib when it
disappeared from sight. But where is that Teddy now,
if not in some museum, curators desperately
fighting its inherent impermanence? Presence has to be
interrogative, doesn’t it, rather than declarative?
Dust is still dust. What I mean is: how
do I trust more than what I learned in the chaos
of childhood when since then I’ve been ingrained with loss
upon loss, like every human walking wings of light
through time?

Feather the paintbrush of my fingers across your jaw.
Feather the paintbrush of your fingers across my jaw.
We color each other for this moment. Just this one.
Then it’s done, days like hungry teeth devouring
endless could-have-beens into the finite sacred what-was.
I say: I love you (I have no choice)
What I mean to say: I let go (I have no choice)

****
A Few Desires, or How to Hunger

I want to be the malleable soap
your hands sculpt as you cleanse yourself,
as ordinary and as daily and as caressed as that.

I want to be the cutting board, that firm surface
you can lay edges against, that allows you
to divide roughage from nourishment.

I want to be the pillow case, containing all
the softness for resting your public face
and the slim canvas you play your private dreams onto.

Let me suds into joining the stream of water
down the drain, become the bamboo board
oiled so many times until finally, split, I am

placed on the compost pile. Let the laundry
tear my threads until, like the pillow case,
I cannot contain, but let every thriving thing seep out.

But in truth I can be none of these things,
just this tiny self loving you, accepting your gifts,
providing what sustenance I can in return.

In other words, use me up, until I am done with myself.

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast and the Death of White Jesus: Final (?) Thoughts from NecronomiCon 2017

My visit to NecronomiCon 2017, the convention of H.P. Lovecraft horror fans and scholars in Providence RI, concluded with the Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast on Sunday morning. Darrell Schweitzer’s Amorphous Tabernacle Choir treated us to Mythos-inspired hymn parodies. Scott R. Jones spoke about the cosmicist philosophy of his book When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, or as he likes to call it, “Keeping it Real-yeh.”  Horror writers Cody Goodfellow and Anthony Teth presided as priests of Yog-Sothoth and Shub-Niggurath, with mitres that the Episcopal Church could only envy. Goodfellow (left) even looks suspiciously like former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Hmm… haven’t seen him lately…

The genius of this Monty Python approach to religion is that you get all the fun parts of high-church Christianity–gory pictures, occult medallions, over-the-top vestments—without the doublespeak that death is life, torture is salvation, and the universe is a safe place. It reminded me of the Church of Satan, a humanist organization that doesn’t so much literally believe in evil supernatural entities, as reclaim those symbols to expose the weak spots in traditional religion. (Because humanism is just more fun with fancy dress.)

The Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast was finely balanced on the line between farce and sincere religious-philosophical questioning. The refusal to collapse one mode into the other seemed like a healthy shadow-integration, the Zen paradox that we approach the deepest wisdom through discovering our foolishness.

I wasn’t expecting a genuine religious experience at this conference, but I got one. At a couple of points during the weekend, I had this brief and unprecedented feeling of freedom from my constant strivings to cheat death and achieve significance. The Mythos looks mortality and infinity directly in the face and accepts them, even semi-ironically celebrates them, which I found such a relief from the relentless religious-cultural-psychological project of propping up the ego and distracting ourselves from the abyss.

The Prayer Breakfast sermons were solidly humanist rather than nihilist. That is, they used our humble and mysterious position in the web of life as a reason to reject all forms of xenophobia, arrogance, and fanaticism. I especially loved Teth’s “Sermon Against Purity”, reprinted on his website. Some highlights:

The concept of Purity is anathema to life itself, since any rudimentary study of biology can clearly show the interdependence of organisms to the life cycles of the invisible squirming masses of microbes, germs, and bacteria that cling to epidermis and esophageal tract, stomach lining and salivation ducts.

Enjoy your breakfast, by the way.

Those creatures made sterile or bereft of these helpful swarms in lab experiments grow weak and die, barely able to digest or process what would normally be considered “basic foods.”

Yet the concept of Purity is also anathema to death. Those aforementioned masses responsible for the continuance of a creature’s life will almost immediately begin devouring their host the moment life processes cease, while dozens of various mammals, reptiles, molds and fungal growths eventually have their fill and leave the rest to worms, mites, plants and trees. Even if we go back to the philosophical root of death itself, entropy, we find not this supposed purity, but an exceedingly complex system of devourment and proliferation, with cooperation and competition creating a teaming miasmal stew of wonder and possibility…

…And one of the most ridiculous of these, shall we say, Puritanical concepts, is where folks profess this enigmatic and frankly preposterous Purity within, of all bloody things, human genes. Yes, humans, those oddly bipedal, domestic primates who for thousands of years have been humping their neighbors, humping their friends, humping their neighbors’ friends and friends’ neighbors, until eventually deciding to migrate elsewhere and continue the rampant rutting cycle with whomever happens to be nearby and (theoretically) willing. Humans who have been mongrels since the beginning, and shall be so at the end.

Yet some take this even further, claiming even greater purity and superiority over these shambling masses of great apes, while carrying Polynesian garden torches of all things, and flashing a salute fit for Caesar…

…Yes, humans who claim superiority over all other terrestrial life on this adorably blue, spinning sphere due to a combination of brain size and thumb dexterity, but still have a helluva time figuring out that most basic of tenets: Don’t shit where you eat.

At the bookfair, I picked up a pamphlet of Robert M. Price’s sermons from the 1995-2006 Prayer Breakfasts, which I’m about halfway through. Price is an actual former Baptist pastor and theologian who went on a trajectory through liberal Christianity to atheist humanism. Some of his non-Cthulhu-related sermons are available on his website. He’s also a well-known literary critic and editor of Mythos fiction. “Founder and Editor, The Journal of Higher Criticism; Founder and Editor, Crypt of Cthulhu; Fellow, The Jesus Seminar“. You don’t see a resume like that every day!

Price’s Cthulhu sermons don’t have the positive political vision or moral center of the ones I heard this summer. He emphasizes the Nietzschean joy of facing the abyss. Spiritually, all we have is a choice of fictions. The ultimate forbidden knowledge is that there is no knowledge. Setting this alongside Lovecraft’s white supremacist views and the majority-whiteness of the conference attendees, I started to wonder whether there’s something white about this brand of intellect-driven disillusionment. It takes a certain amount of privilege and safety to feel that you can dispense with religion’s prophetic, justice-seeking function.

Simultaneously with Price’s sermons, I was reading James Cone’s 1969 classic Black Theology and Black Power to prepare notes for a church discussion group. In his chapter on black Christianity in America, Cone says the black church’s central theological problem was why God had allowed slavery to exist when it was so clearly a violation of God’s moral law. The courage and risk involved in affirming God’s existence notwithstanding, as a black person with this history, makes white death-of-God theology “seem like child’s play.”

It’s understandable to repudiate faith because you’re morally outraged by oppression, says Cone. “But if it arises out of one’s identity with an advancing technological secular society which ignores the reality of God and the humanity of man, then it appears to be the height of human pride.” (Here’s looking at you, Jesus Seminar.) According to Cone, only the oppressed, or those who are sacrificially in solidarity with them, really have the right to decide whether God is dead or irrelevant. “If theology fails to re-evaluate its task in the light of Black Power, the emphasis on the death of God will not add the needed dimension. This will mean that the white church and white theology are dead, not God.”

Perhaps our modern god has been an idol of (liberal) intellectual or (conservative) moral certainty, not a real presence we depend on in our helplessness and unknowing, so when those certainties die, God appears dead. Whether you replace that with the Jesus of liberation theology, or a sense of oneness with all life, I think there has to be something we align ourselves with, above the oppressive systems of the moment, so we can name falsehood and evil for what it is, and find strength to resist. Even Lovecraft’s anti-theistic stories are full of moral judgments and outraged adjectives–unspeakable, decadent, accursed, loathsome, and the like. The universe may not be on our side, but we ought to be.

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Eldritch Gifts: More Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

Iä, everyone! I continue my report from NecronomiCon Providence, the recently concluded convention devoted to all things H.P. Lovecraft. Here are some highlights from the panel discussions and author readings. (I did not attend the off-site movie screenings because I am (A) chicken and (B) have no sense of direction even with a map.) Generalized trigger warnings apply for all links below: death, creepiness, blasphemy, sexual situations, etc.

Author discoveries:

Guest of honor Kij Johnson‘s fiction blends poetic surrealism, horror, and feminist critique. She read “Mantis Wives”, a strangely poignant–even romantic–story about the female insects’ well-known habit of decapitating their mates, and an excerpt from her novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which was vivid and tense but went somewhat over my head because I haven’t read Lovecraft’s “Dreamlands” stories. Johnson also referenced her Nebula Award winning story “Ponies”, available on the Tor.com website. It is a masterpiece about the cruelty dealt to, and inflicted by, little girls. I know it’s a great story because I keep trying and failing to think of alternate choices that would avert the protagonists’ bleak fate.

James A. Moore read a suspenseful excerpt from his novel Deeper, a horror/adventure novel about what happens when Lovecraft’s sinister New England town of “Innsmouth” is rebranded as a tourist destination named Golden Cove, and a marine research team discovers that the monstrous Deep Ones still live in its waters.

Matt Bechtel read from his debut collection Monochromes. His punchy reading style went perfectly with the rapid-fire humor of these flash fiction pieces, with their unexpected turns toward melancholy or terror. Some followed the logic of high-concept poetry: for instance, what happens when “Someday” finally comes?

Nnedi Okorafor prefaced her reading by pointing out that humans, usually white and Western, are the default characters in alien first-contact stories, and it’s really time to shake things up. She read the fantastic beginning of her novel Lagoon, where first contact is made instead with marine animals in the ocean outside Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor’s multiple-award-winning novels include the Binti and Akata Witch series.

Craig Laurance Gidney read the beginning of a very scary ballet story from his limited-run novella The Nectar of Nightmares, and I may never find out how it ends because it’s out of print. Damn it, Craig. I’ll check out his Lambda Literary finalist collection Skin Deep Magic instead.

Gwendolyn Kiste read the title story from And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, a fine example of movie-buff noir about a murdered actress haunting an obsessed fan.

Panel discussions:

“Writing Non-Stale Mythos Tales” (Vincent O’Neil, Alex Houston, Kij Johnson, Tom Lynch, Peter Rawlik):

Cthulhu has been so normalized by pop culture, how can we create a frightening Mythos tale today? Think about what makes any story a fresh example of an established tradition, e.g. fairy tale retellings. You could write about what is left out: center the perspectives of supporting characters, as in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead”, or the original author’s blind spots–obviously race and sex were big ones for HPL. New books looking critically at Lovecraftian racism in a Mythos contest include Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I loved!) and the anthology Heroes of Red Hook (Golden Goblin Press), all stories from the POV of minority-group characters in the Jazz Age setting of HPL’s singularly racist story “The Horror at Red Hook”. Unusual genre mashups bring out distinctive features of both: P.H. Cannon’s Scream for Jeeves parodies Lovecraft by bringing his cosmic horrors into the world of his contemporary P.G. Wodehouse’s frothy upper-class comedies. (I must read this!)

A key element of a Lovecraftian story is the movement from faith to gnosis. Characters discover that the universe is not at all what they thought it was. In a sense, this is always a fresh theme, because we can all be terrified by the loss of what we believed in, or getting what we want and regretting it. Our own personal mortality comes as a surprise emotionally, whatever we might know intellectually.

The panelists were in agreement that tentacles do not a Mythos story make. Neither does pedantic flowery language. Most writers don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical discipline to imitate HPL’s style. We’re in a post-Mythos world where we can’t be surprised by the same discoveries that HPL’s characters made. No modern person would meet Cthulhu in real life and not already know about the books. Perhaps all fiction is meta-fiction now! Everyone is aware of living in a particular genre and literary tradition. (My favorite example of this is the scene from the movie “Stranger Than Fiction” where Dustin Hoffman asks Will Ferrell 23 questions to determine what genre of novel he’s living in, so he can stop the author from killing his character. “Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large luxurious homes? Has anyone left a large wooden horse outside your door?”)

“Guests of Honor Panel” (s.j. bagley, Ellen Datlow, Kij Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones, Steven Mariconda, Nnedi Okorafor, John Jude Palencar, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Richard Stanley, Peter Straub)

Squee! I shared an elevator with editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow! I played it cool, though, and did not exclaim how her horror anthologies have pleasurably scared the crap out of me since high school. I also felt like a high-level fangirl for remembering Omni, the science fiction and fantasy art magazine that I read in the 1980s. Datlow was their fiction editor back in the day.

The panelists spanned the genres of fiction, criticism, poetry, visual art, and film. They considered: What is “weird fiction” (or poetry, etc.) and why do we create it? It is creative work that presents us with the unnameable, makes us grapple with our insignificance, or dissociate from normal modes of cognition to see another aspect of reality. Straub said, “I like the sense of luxuriance… amplitude… narrative overflow” in probing the limitations of human comprehension. Sidney-Fryer observed that “the weird serves to purify the ordinary emotions by heightening them.”

In what sense is weird fiction political? Panelists disagreed as to whether all art was already political, versus the mid-20th-century New Criticism dictate to stick with the words on the page. Some suggested that it’s political–perhaps by virtue of being anti-political, unconstrained by ideology or “decency”–to write about taboo subjects. Straub called it liberating to face the experience of abjection, to stay present with the emotional discomfort of the events on the page, instead of spinning intellectual theories about them. Consciously layering political agendas onto our reading can be an avoidance mechanism.

“Anyone who writes fiction where cruelty is a common thread is surely responding to the presence of cruelty in his own life,” added Straub. He said he came from a “classic traumatic childhood” and was supremely blissful when writing a novel about sociopathic serial killers, because it was cathartic! “Dark” fiction is integrated fiction. In American life, we are taught that it’s a moral duty to reject the shadow side, but that is where our life takes root. The biggest religious moralizers are often the ones who are caught in perverse scandals.

“A Very Terrible Difference: Race, Gender, and the Other” (Byron Nakamura, Faye Ringel, Jenna Randall, Troy Rondinone, Fiona Maeve Geist, Eli Shurberg, Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt)

Humanities professor Faye Ringel gave a paper on Lovecraft and racism, surveying some of the recent literature that’s used the Mythos to criticize HPL’s politics: Black Tom, Matt Ruff’s wonderful Lovecraft Country, and Paul Lafarge’s The Night Ocean, which she said examines HPL’s possible homosexuality. (The old boy seemed more asexual to me, but am I going to object to slash fiction about anybody? Never.) Both LaValle’s and Ruff’s black characters decide the Old Ones are not as scary as white humans. Interesting fact: the first KKK represented themselves as the living dead, the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, so ghost stories are an apt genre for a novel about American racism.

Troy Rondinone discussed Orientalism in 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction. Orientalism is Palestinian cultural critic Edward Saïd’s theory that the East is configured in the Western mind as the Other, a surrogate or underground self that defines the West in contrast to its alleged backwardness–decadent, exotic, mysterious, deceptive, effeminate. Hence the many references to primitive death cults and menacing gods of Egyptian origin in the work of HPL and contemporaries. Watch out for the same unfortunate tropes today in films like “The Mummy” and “The 300”.

Geist and Shurberg (Hampshire College, represent!) gave a paper about mapping intersections of queerness and negativity. Geist quipped that though we don’t know much about Lovecraft’s sex life, his stories are “kind of thirsty” about miscegenation. Scholars and fans have made this fake hermetic separation between HPL the great writer and HPL the gross racist. (Indeed, primo Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi dis-invited himself from this year’s convention to protest what he felt was excessive focus on the author’s political sins. Too bad so sad.) Our reading of him will be deepened by putting these halves back together.

HPL’s incorporation of eugenicist views in his writings fits with his stated personal opinion of sex as mechanistic and degraded, an undisciplined force that potentially leads to the degeneration of the social body and the species. More than just a product of his time, his racism harks back to the academic literature of the 1800s, about the virile empire that goes forth to conquer lesser peoples but is vulnerable to impurity from interbreeding. These scholars developed complex racial taxonomies that remind us of Lovecraft’s fixation on the genealogy of once-great families in decline.

For a cosmic pessimist who believed in the universe’s indifference to human values, HPL was heavily invested in the moralistic hierarchy of the races. “He was an atheistic Puritan.” Perhaps that was the repository for his anxiety about his own metaphysics–faith in fragile white civilization replaces traditional religious faith. “The Call of Cthulhu” encapsulates this paradox: the opening describes the dark seas of infinity and the tiny happy island of ignorance, and isn’t it a coincidence that all the Cthulhu cultists are people of color?

This observation was a good segue into Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt’s paper about the historical antecedents of “Call of Cthulhu”, which has a memorable scene of a human sacrifice cult in the New Orleans bayou. In the early 1910s there was a notorious spree of axe murders in Louisiana against the families of poor black agricultural workers. The media sensationalized them with rumors that the killings were related to voodoo. A 17-year-old black girl named Clementine Barnabet was coerced into confessing, then subjected to brutal medical and psychological treatment in prison. Schnopp-Wyatt is dubious about her connection to the murders, let alone voodoo. This paper left me agreeing with “Black Tom” that I’d take tentacled aliens over a run-in with the American mental health and criminal justice systems, any day.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the Rapture–

It’s a gift to be squamous,
it’s a gift to have fins,
it’s a gift to have gills
when Cthulhu wins.
When all the stars are right,
on the world’s last night,
we will swim in the glory of R’lyeh’s light.

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

Give Me That Old One Religion: Notes from NecronomiCon 2017

How times have changed at Reiter’s Block. Only a few years ago I would have been reporting on the Wheaton Theology Conference. Now my idea of a spiritual retreat is NecronomiCon Providence, the biennial convention for writers, artists, scholars, and fans who shamble in the footsteps of that 20th-century master of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). This will be the first of several posts on the convention and revisiting Lovecraft’s work.

HPL penned classics of cosmic horror such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, as well as being an influential editor, collaborator, and mentor to many other writers in the genre. His literary heirs include prominent horror writers such as Robert Bloch (Psycho), Thomas Ligotti, and Ramsey Campbell.

It’s strangely fitting that his beloved Rhode Island hometown (his tombstone reads “I Am Providence”) bears the name of a religious belief whose loss tormented him. Divine Providence, the idea that world events are meaningfully directed by a God who placed humanity at the pinnacle of creation, is precisely what has been swept away in Lovecraft’s cosmos. His characters are driven mad by discovering that powerful uncanny forces, superior and indifferent to humans, are lurking below the fragile surface of this illusion we call civilization. Ignorance truly is bliss, but unachievable, as there is nothing so tragically human as the quest for hidden knowledge.

HPL was also, perhaps not coincidentally, a flagrant and neurotic racist. Genealogical and antiquarian research, an obsession of many of his interchangeable narrators, is likely to reveal corrupt ancestry (fish-frog people, humanoid apes, or body-switching wizards) that inexorably pulls the hapless descendant into degeneracy. His work is fascinating not least because it holds up a mirror to 20th-century anxieties about Darwinism, the brutality of the First World War, and the mixing of cultures in an immigrant society.

On a psychological level, forbidden family knowledge is a topic that resonates with many readers. When HPL was very young, his father died from syphilis in an insane asylum, and his mother was also institutionalized there at the end of her life, which must have contributed to his love-hate relationship with intergenerational history and breeding (in all senses of the word).

I personally read incest themes into his work as well. Sexuality is only depicted as corrupting and unnatural, involving the breaking of unspeakable taboos; the ocean, from which his most memorable horrors arise, is an archetype of the engulfing maternal feminine; and in tales like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Thing on the Doorstep”, evil ancestors forcibly occupy the minds and bodies of their descendants. Incest leaves you with the very Lovecraftian terror that you will become the thing you most abhor. Whether or not HPL was literally a survivor, the symbols are there for us to see ourselves in his characters.

I think HPL was the first horror writer I read, when I was about 12; before that, I’d been such a nervous child that I closed my eyes in the Mystery section of bookstores so as not to see the word “Death”. Turning suddenly and eagerly towards what I feared, I went on to consume every horror anthology I could find in my high school and college libraries. This interest continued until about 10 years ago, when I fell into the deepest part of my PTSD brain and could get nightmares from an episode of “The Simpsons”. Yay, recovery! Three years ago, coinciding with my survivor-conscious farewell to Christianity as I’d understood it, I heard Cthulhu calling…and found something deeply healing in the Mythos.

Cthulhu resembles the evangelicals’ God in many ways, except without the bullshit that he loves you. Cthulhu doesn’t gaslight anyone. Echoing Calvinism’s absolute divine sovereignty, Cthulhu is honestly indifferent, inscrutable, able to destroy the world, and beyond all human ideas of Good and Evil. According to the footnotes for this story in Leslie Klinger’s indispensable The New Annotated Lovecraft (Annotated Books, 2014), HPL was thinking of Nietzsche, another great critic of Christian hypocrisy. Whether you get eaten or not is just random, like double predestination. Cthulhu demands or at least seems to appreciate human sacrifice, but doesn’t say it’s for our own good, unlike the Christian Father God’s sacrifice of his Son. Despite the frequent assertions that the events of these stories have shaken the narrator’s sanity, the Antarctic winds from the Mountains of Madness have the bracing quality of truth dispelling the fog of denial.

Even so, I felt a whisper of anxiety at our blasphemy as I entered Providence’s First Baptist Church in America for the opening ceremonies of NecronomiCon that Thursday afternoon. Founded by Roger Williams in 1638, it’s the oldest Baptist church in the country. Apparently HPL’s leadership in architectural preservation efforts put him back in their good graces despite his apostasy–we were told he was kicked out of Sunday School after three weeks for asking too many questions!

Just days after the racist rally in Charlottesville, I was also worried what sort of person the conference would attract, and whether it was insensitive even to be celebrating such a problematic author right now. Never fear, the clientele was solidly queer/Goth/nerd, with not a tiki torch or Confederate flag decal in sight (though some white dude, hopefully not an attendee, shouted slurs at my family from a car window outside the mall the next evening).

Barnaby Evans, executive director of the Providence arts organization WaterFire, emceed the opening ceremonies, setting a politically progressive and inclusive tone that continued throughout the weekend. It was clear that we were here to carry on and critically develop the Lovecraftian legacy of awe in the face of cosmic mysteries, rather than being apologists for his blind spots. Opera arias and organ music by the dazzling Gigi Mitchell Velasco filled me with a sense of the sublime, giving me hope that I could let go of doctrines but keep what I loved about church: a community gathered in a beautiful historic place to meditate on the wonder (and sometimes terror) of mortal existence.

Until our next installment–

In Cthulhu we are trusting,
Though his rites are quite disgusting;
From his crypt he’ll soon be busting,
And that’s good enough for me!

Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
Give me that Old One Religion!
It’s good enough for me!

(Darrell Schweitzer’s Innsmouth Tabernacle Choir Hymnal)

After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”

July Links Roundup: Queer and/or Christian Podcasts

Ron Swanson Says ‘You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me all the bacon and eggs you have’

Summer is here! Time to stay indoors, in my dark air-conditioned office, and walk on the treadmill. It’s true. But I’m improving my mind as well as my glutes. In between binge-watching “Parks & Rec” on Netflix (I am such a Ron Swanson), I’ve discovered some podcasts about queerness, literature, and spirituality that are well worth your time.

If you love poetry, throwing shade, and gay sex stories–you know I do–Food 4 Thot is the place to be. (“Thot”, a/k/a “that ho over there”, is urban slang for slut, with some racial and class overtones. Slate explains the nuances here.) Food 4 Thot features Native American poet Tommy Pico, author of IRL and Nature Poem; Fran Tirado, editor of Hello Mr.; fiction writer Dennis Norris II, a MacDowell Colony Fellow; and scientist and essayist Joseph Osmundson. Guest hosts have included acclaimed novelist Alexander Chee and Black feminist poet Angel Nafis. Their snappy, rollicking conversations flow from serious analysis to salacious satire and back again: pastoral poetry and colonialism, giving ourselves permission to dislike the classics, awkward three-ways, the greatness of Eartha Kitt, and the name-guessing game “Steakhouse or Gay Bar?”

Kevin Garcia blogs about LGBTQ-affirming Christian theology and his journey to self-acceptance from a Southern evangelical background. His podcast A Tiny Revolution interviews groundbreaking queer spiritual leaders and allies, often people of color. Most but not all are still within the Christian tradition. Guests have included Austen Hartke, creator of the YouTube series “Transgender and Christian”; Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism; and Rev. Jonathan Vanderbeck, a Reformed Church minister who had important things to say about monogamy and hypocrisy in “affirming” Christian spaces.

The Fat Feminist Witch “examines witchcraft and paganism from a modern, fat, feminist perspective; with a cauldron full of sass.” I highly recommend her recent interview with Little Red Tarot columnist Andi Grace about setting boundaries and surviving toxic masculinity. I plan to sign up for Andi’s next semester of Hawthorn Heart: Magical Boundaries for Women and Femmes, July 22-Oct. 14. Read an excerpt from the course material at Little Red Tarot:

The most effective boundaries that I’ve been able to enact in my life have all been: measurable, accountable, negotiable and communicable…

…Often, when we are setting a boundary, the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience. And at the same time, boundaries that are built around our emotional, subjective or qualitative experience of something can be hard to maintain because they can be hard to measure in a concrete way.

This means: the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience, but the boundary itself will be more effective if it’s nestled in a concrete way of measuring its effectiveness…

Boundaries that are measurable are especially helpful for women and femmes because so much of our exhaustion and feeling of being used or not appreciated has to do with an implicit (or sometimes explicit) expectation that we will provide endless emotional labour. This labour is seen as a requirement and is often measured in how the feelings of the people around us shift based on the impacts of our time, wisdom and attention. And for most women and femmes, when we are giving this labour it goes unnoticed, but when we cease to do so, people feel angry that we aren’t providing, effortlessly and constantly, work that is perceived as a natural and necessary part of our being.

And so being able to measure, for example, how long we are willing to listen to someone process a feeling with us or what we deserve in return for this labour makes tangible and visible the work we do that is often invisibilized.

What podcasts do you recommend, readers?

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Killing You In My Mind: My Early Notebooks

A few years ago, a writer friend and I were briefly obsessed with the reality show Storage Wars, where a colorful cast of junk-shop dealers competed to bid on abandoned storage units. Since they could only glance at the mystery pile of crap before committing to a price, it was anyone’s guess whether they’d find a cache of rare coins, or a locked safe containing a fake severed hand.

To avoid disappointing future rag-pickers on national TV, this month I am purging my off-site storage room, which contains all the papers, books, and knickknacks I’ve hoarded since the 1980s. (At least that’s what I think is in there…I opened up an envelope marked “stock certificates” yesterday to find photos of my dolls’ wedding.)

In the manner of the Great Book Purge of 2014, chronicled on this blog, the storage excavation gives me an opportunity to discover how my beliefs and attitudes have changed, or not, in 30 years. My trajectory is hopefully of interest to someone other than myself, because understanding the psychology of our political or religious opponents is necessary for any bridge-building in these angry times.

Moreover, as an adult with a child of my own, I can look back at my teenage journal entries and see the ways that my elite schools failed me emotionally, even as (or in part because) they held me up as an academic and artistic success story. My junior high and high school for “gifted children” was wonderful at encouraging multiple kinds of academic and artistic intelligence, but also tended to track kids into the one thing they were superior at and keep them there, and make them too responsible for caretaking other students’ jealousy. We received the weird mixed message, “Be the best you can be, but if you’re bullied, it’s your fault for showing off.” (Not unlike my home life with a narcissistic mother, actually, who swung constantly between demanding that I look thin and pretty as a reflection on her class status, and enviously hiding me in ugly clothes like Cinderella.) I reached a point where I simply wouldn’t try anything I wasn’t already good at, even something as small as switching from sanguine chalk to rough black charcoal in figure-drawing class. Harvard provided superlative opportunities for meeting smart and creative people, but the grading and teaching ethos was predominantly about sorting students into winners and losers, rather than teaching everyone at the level they were on. Maybe I can offer future educators some clues for spotting and supporting traumatized overachievers.

Or simply a good laugh at these gems of misanthropy from my early notebooks. Take, for example, the opening of the mid-90s sestina “The Seven Deadly Virtues”:

Patience first, that pale child dressed in rueful
red, in the brute fears of some banal game
struck down, unable to go against the grain
of her virtuous feebleness, to repel
the force of the frustration that forms
the first thing we learn. Those who can prevent

torture never recognize it, nor prevent
us from giving the name Forgiveness to the rueful
realization we’ve missed our chance at revenge…

(That’s not half bad, though the rest of the sestina becomes awfully long-winded as I attempt to hit those end-words.)

Along the same lines, this list from January 1992 may sound detached and philosophical, but I well remember the anguish of wondering why my “good” self diverged so much from the traits that actually helped me stay alive. List #1 is redacted because its length embarrasses me now.

List #1: My Moral Virtues

Loyalty
Compassion
Willingness to be a nonconformist for a good cause
Concern for ethics
Sense of my own and others’ dignity
Maturity/responsibility (no drugs, no casual sex, no self-destructive pleasures except too much snacking)
Artistic integrity

List #2: The Qualities I Like Best About Myself

Intelligence
Deviousness/effective rhetoric
Assertiveness
Ability to resist oppression through manipulation of the oppressor
Self-preservation instinct
Ambition (without betraying or stepping on others)
Sense of personal style

One can almost glimpse Julian peeking out of the closet in that second list, waiting for me to love him more than those deadly virtues. Instead, these notebooks contain the long-lost original drafts of several quirky but over-intellectualized and gloomy short stories, mostly about humiliated fat women or cruel parents. (Autobiographical much??) From the 1993 tale “Pinocchio Died for Your Sins”, I see that I hated Disney’s film then as much as I do now, for the same reason: it punishes children for not avoiding the temptations and deceptions that adults deliberately put in their path.

This thought experiment from March 1993 reminds me of child abuse expert Alice Miller’s radical midrash on Genesis in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware:

Anthropologists like to say that God and religion are just projections of things we don’t want to admit are really human creations (e.g. norms and taboos that are merely man-made are called God-made). But what if the reverse is true? What could the reverse of that be? …perhaps that we and the rest of the created cosmos are merely projections of things God doesn’t want to face about Himself.

It’s like Beatrice in [Nathaniel Hawthorne’s] “Rappaccini’s Daughter”–her poison is made to bear sole responsibility for an evil we all share. Did God cause original sin so He could blame us for it? In other words, evil came from God’s character flaws but He made us so we’d bear the blame. I don’t actually believe all this but it’s an interesting concept.

What strikes me about this juvenilia is how fiercely I was attempting to be loyal to myself, in the face of social pressure or ideologies that promised an end to loneliness and guilt…for a price. Equally striking is the consistency of my difficulties with Christian virtue and belief, side by side with my attraction to the tradition. Really, nothing has changed, though at the time I framed my dissent as rational individualism rather than trauma activism or queer theory. My long goodbye to Christian identity in the past 3-5 years has been shaking my confidence in any fixed sense of myself or my perceptions, but it shouldn’t. I was always trying different routes to the same goal.

Such as, for instance, November 1990’s “The Instantaneous Reiter Method for Determining the Direction of One’s Existence,” my fancy-ass name for a list of pros and cons about my possible call to Christian ministry. (Little did I suspect the two most important reasons: “vestments are too hot” and “you will become a pagan in 2014”.) In case you want to try this at home, Step 1 was “Write down all the thoughts and feelings you have about the proposed course of action,” and Step 2, “Analyze the philosophical implications of each part of Step 1.” The upshot was, I was aesthetically drawn to Christianity and comforted by a community where I didn’t have to compete or excel (“It would also be nice to love God,” I confessed), but I couldn’t honestly say that a desire to serve God or other people was paramount.

What I feel in church–am I being religious, or is it just an escape from my problems (psalms that say God will protect the righteous)?…I always loved church before I had any problems [Ed. Note: What, as a zygote??] or before church helped. But is religion the last refuge of a scoundrel, or is what you discover in hardship equally (or more) valid as what you discover by peaceful thought?…It would seem that even if now you know how nice it would be to be looked after, that doesn’t make it any more moral or plausible to accept or expect it.

Guys, this is kind of sad, huh? I was truthful enough to realize that it was codependent caretaking to become a minister in order to get love and protection, but no one in my family, church, or education had taught me that I was entitled to love and protection just because I’m human. Nothing immoral or implausible about that.

It’s strange, in retrospect, that my sense of victimization by greedy and arbitrary educational gatekeepers coexisted with my bootstrapping libertarian philosophy, which led me to write some cringe-worthy student newspaper articles about infantilized, needy, “victim culture” (think of your standard editorial against trigger warnings today). I think I was feeling that I shouldn’t have to abase myself, or reveal my private wounds, in order to receive basic kindness and a fair assessment from others. Not that this makes my arguments less wrong, but it suggests that those most vocally against “safe spaces” may be secretly the ones most in need of them, and in despair of finding them.

I leave you with this politically clairvoyant satire of a college entrance exam, from November 1990. Just think, if I’d remained my creed-wielding, Federalist Society dues-paying self, I could’ve been Betsy DeVos.

Existence Aptitude Test (EAT)
“the test to end tests”

There is a penalty for wrong answers. The Educational Testing Service thinks the difference between right and wrong is important. There is also a penalty for right answers. The Educational Testing Service does not want to foster antisocial elements whose intellectual superiority threatens the self-esteem of others and weakens the social fabric.

Therefore, only work out the problem when you have tried to guess and failed. Remember that the least imaginative guess is most likely to be right.

Good luck.

Part I: General Knowledge

(1) Time
(a) past and time present
Are both perhaps contained in time future.
(b) and tide wait for no man.
(c) is money.
(d)

(2) Space
(a) is curved.
(b) and time are one.
(c) is limited, so act now!
(d) ____________

(3) Death
(a) shall have no dominion.
(b) be not proud.
(c) and taxes are inevitable.
(d) to the Educational Testing Service!

(4) The world
(a) is too much with us, late and soon.
(b) is charged with the grandeur of God.
(c)
(d)

(5) Beauty
(a) is truth, truth beauty. That is all we know, and all we need to know. Stop. Do not complete the rest of this exam. Hand in your paper to the proctor.
(b) and the Beast lived happily ever after.
(c) is in the eye of the beholder.
(d)

(6) God
(a) is dead.
(b) is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
(c) bless [insert country’s name here]
(d) knows.

(7) Energy
(a) =mc squared
(b) can neither be created nor destroyed.
(c)
(d) is eternal delight.

(8) Life
(a) is a bitch and then you die.
(b) is a beach and then you dry.
(c) is a bitch and then you marry one.
(d)

Part II: Literature

(1) Lord of the Flies is about
(a) an entomologist.
(b) the devil.
(c) sadistic teenagers.
(d) Harvard.

(2) The title of Gone With the Wind refers to
(a) Scarlett’s dress when Rhett carries her upstairs.
(b) the gracious and infinitely superior Southern way of life.
(c) Atlanta burning.
(d) Margaret Mitchell’s notes for the lost final chapter of the book, in which Scarlett sues Rhett for alimony and Ashley fulfills his latent homosexuality.

(3) In Moby-Dick, the whale represents
(a) the Holy Grail.
(b) the forces of nature that overpower humanity.
(c) a society dominated by the white male power structure which the disabled and disadvantaged seek to infiltrate or destroy.
(d) Harvard.

(4) Coleridge’s lines “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/a stately pleasure dome decree” suggest
(a) a drug experience.
(b) a world of poetic fantasy.
(c) the Taj Mahal.
(d) Donald Trump.

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Judging Smut

Each spring, when we advertise our humor poetry prize at Winning Writers, and again in the summer when we publish the winners, we can expect a few hot complaints about our openness to sexual explicitness and coarse language. Not all of our archives are NSFW, but yes, you can expect more dick jokes than in the average magazine or website for light verse. This market segmentation is one reason we welcome drunk Santas and copulating mollusks; there aren’t many other outlets for intelligent literary burlesque. But more importantly, bodily functions and the absurdities of desire are not high on the list of things I find offensive. Even the word “smut” implies that sexual topics, and by extension the people who write and publish them, are dirty and tainted. I want to unpack this assumption.

Reinterpreting others’ moral purity judgments as triggers or boundary assertions helps me resist the shame that sometimes gets projected onto my work as a writer and editor. I understand and respect people’s different thresholds for exposure to explicit material. Forcing sexual content on someone can be as much a form of harassment as stigmatizing them with purity rules. I didn’t understand how to navigate these boundaries when I used to workshop my fiction, nor did my instructor appreciate that publicly discussed parameters for the group would be better for the creative process than after-the-fact private scoldings.

The flip side of my responsibility as writer or editor, though, is the public’s responsibility to own their choices. Don’t leave bad reviews on Amazon for TV series because they have gay characters. That’s not an aesthetic judgment, it’s a statement that people with sexual interests unlike yours shouldn’t exist. Don’t send work to a publisher whose taste you don’t respect, but don’t also send them a letter saying you’d be ashamed to be associated with them.

I wish readers and aspiring contest winners would get this hot under the collar about literary offenses that have far more potential for real-world harm than silly anecdotes about tampons. Gratuitous sexualization of female characters in action-adventure tales. Exotic, “othering” portrayals of people of color and non-Western cultures. Fat-shaming and other misuses of physical difference and disability to code fictional characters as villainous or laughable. Poems whose “humor” depends on the undesirability of elderly, fat, or poor people. Stalker-ish and nonconsensual behavior framed as romantic pursuit. Every year, our judges and screeners weed out hundreds of entries to our four contests because of fails like these.

Sex isn’t dirty. Prejudice is.