Friday, September 22, 2017

The One Taboo "Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed" Won't Touch

The anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum was hailed as "hugely significant" (The Atlantic), "provocative" (Vanity Fair, The Rumpus), and "searing" (The Washington Post, The Huffington Post) when it was published in 2015. And indeed the book tackles one of the most stubbornly entrenched taboos of our society: the choice to remain childless.

The essays in the collection range from rather academic surveys of data harnessed to an argument, like those by Laura Kipnis and Jeanne Safer, to lyrical memoirs of childhood, like those by Courtney Hodell and Sigrid Nunez, and harrowing accounts of trauma, like M.G. Lord's essay, or sarcastic humor pieces, like Geoff Dyer's. Any childless person will be familiar with the enraging circumstances every childless woman, and not a few childless men, encounter on a regular basis and the usual arguments and reasons that people whip out when justifying their choice of childlessness. For the open-minded parent, some of these essays might reach for "hugely significant," "provocative," and "searing," but for your average thoughtful, childless person, the theme ends up being a bit of yawn, though some of the essays are fun reads.

In her introduction, Daum declares that her intention was to prod us, as a society, to "stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption - and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness." But there's one taboo that neither Daum nor any of the sixteen contributors dares to confront straight on: none of them are prepared to state, or defend those who state, that they plain and simple don't like kids.

Essay after essay presents the reader with a protest that each of these writers loves kids, but decided, for various and sundry reasons, not to have their own. Here we find the sore spot, the social bruise, that no one dares to palpate. Only one writer comes close and - quelle surprise! - that writer is Geoff Dyer, a straight man. He vehemently demolishes every argument in favor of parenthood with a sarcastic flourish. He complains about the grossness of the entitled little brats who frequent the fancy school in his neighborhood, but moderates his tone for the state school kids who gratefully accepted his used tennis balls.

That's the closest this book gets to acknowledging that you're not a monster if you don't like kids.

A brief, incomplete tour of protestations of adoring the wee ones:

"Let no one say that I didn't spend the equivalent of a year's college tuition hauling my beloved niece and two nephews to the movies regularly during their formative years, bribing them into good behavior with pricey buckets of popcorn and gallons of soda. Let no one say that I didn't do my best to imbue them with my values... and subtly shape them in my image, a project that continues to this day... 'Who's your favorite grown-up' I wheedle..." - Laura Kipnis

"Meanwhile there are a lot of kids in my life. I have six nieces and nephews and I am the godmother of my best friend's son and daughter." - Kate Christensen

"I have friends who are in grammar school, and my favorite movie date for the past six or seven years is presently a junior in high school." - Michelle Huneven

"What I do know is that I have nieces and nephews whom I'm proud to see growing into interesting, thoughtful people. I have friends whose children I adore - even children I haven't met yet... I call all these buns-in-ovens 'Porkchop,' and I look forward to passing along my own wisdom and being part of their lives." - Danielle Henderson

Blech, where is the vomiting emoji when you need it? I could have drawn at least one similar quote from every essay but Dyer's, attesting to each author's love for children. In Meghan Daum's introduction, she baldly embraces the taboo, writing, "We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people's children, which in turn enriches our own lives."

There, in stark black and white, a big, enormous, flashing sign that says: "We're not evil because we like children! We like them, we really, really like them!" There's the taboo that these seventeen childless writers didn't even try to dismantle. Rather, they retrenched behind it. Childless people aren't selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed, it's implied, because they still love children. They just don't have any of their own. But what exactly is so terribly wrong about not loving children, or even hating children? This collection would have had a much better claim to being "hugely significant," "provocative," and "searing," if just one of these writers had had the chutzpah to consider whether loving a child really is a prerequisite for being a human being worthy of being heard, recognized, and respected in our society.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Film Review: "Polina"

Polina, directed by Valérie Müller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, is ostensibly a film about a classically trained ballet dancer finding her artistic voice. She achieves this by giving up a chance to join the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and wafting off to France with a boyfriend who previously deflowered her on a heap of tutus. In fact, Polina is the story of a woman for whom dancing is a form of self-expression rather than an art form.

Polina, played as a young woman by Anastasia Shevtsova, wears a perpetual pout, grim, sullen, and inexpressive. She drifts, between silence and insolence, practice and idleness, ambition and apathy - indeed, it's a wonder so many people try to stick with her. Though the camera lingers lovingly on her puffy lips and her wide blue-green eyes, it's hard to say whether that physical surface refuses to yield its psychological secrets, or if there aren't any secrets there to hide. 

Little insight is given into just why Polina feels so stifled as a dancer. She complains that she's sick of "mindlessly executing other people's choreography," but what neither she, nor the filmmakers, seem to realize is that the mindlessness is not soldered onto the performance of other people's choreography. The mindlessness is all Polina's, her boredom, her vacuous disengagement, her sullen refusals to cooperate: none of that is to be found in the ballets that she studies with teacher after sympathetic teacher. Her move from ballet to modern dance is framed as liberation from an overly disciplined, ego-erasing classical technique. I could buy this if the little bits and pieces of choreography that we get to see - there isn't a single, uninterrupted dance sequence in the entire film - weren't so derivative, so blatantly in line with what modern dance is, and has been, for decades, which is surprising given that Preljocaj is quite a respected choreographer. It's impossible to glean why so many people believe in the talent of this incessantly reluctant dancer, since the dancing that the expressions of the actors insist is so moving is... okay, not bad, pas mal

To be fair, blame for this choreographical failure should also be apportioned out to cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and editors Fabrice Rouaud and Guillaume Saignol. Close-up shots, perhaps a legacy of the graphic novel source material, preponderate, claustrophobically cutting off the tops of heads and the tips of chins. The obviously hand-held camera bounces and wavers through shots of static, seated actors, not so severely as to make the audience queasy, but enough to be distracting. The dances suffer most egregiously as a result, with frequent cuts to teary-eyed observers watching the dances chopping up every choreographed scene. Full-length shots are exceedingly rare and, when we get them, seem accidental, the roving camera falling to right or left just enough to squeeze in those feet. No dance will ever look especially impressive on film unless the camera shows us the whole body. An outstretched arm here, a hand on a gauzily wrapped waist there, an upturned face, these offer nothing more than a vague shadow of a movement, body parts rather than a body. 

If the film is meant to be a critique of the stuffiness of classical ballet in favor of the freedom of modern dance, which is, true, somewhat more open-minded towards new, and especially female, choreographers, that critique is both shallow and too vehement. Preljocaj himself switched from ballet to modern. He started working with such lights of the modern dance world as Merce Cunningham - in 1980. I could buy Polina's change in allegiance if the film took place a hundred years ago, during the cataclysms of the birth of modernist ballet, or even during the '80s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but modern dance is already more than entrenched within establishment dance. The vapidity of Polina's balletic rebellion lies in the total lack of artistic risk involved in the decision to move to modern. 

However, maybe Polina shouldn't be considered a dance film, but rather a coming-of-age drama in which the heroine just happens to be a dancer. Her rebellions against her teachers, her slow, painful drop from the Bolshoi to street-dancing in Paris, her self-consciously adolescent self-abuse, then become illustrations of the malaise of being young, relatively talented, and poor. As such, the film offers the pleasures of much young adult literature, both endlessly self-pitying and insistent on the pursuit of 'art,' an art that at bottom isn't about the perfection Polina's Russian maestro (Aleksei Guskov) tells her all artists pursue, but working out the personality kinks that the child of a social worker, rather than a smuggler, might work out in therapy. The dialogue is littered with the sort of generically mystical bromides that are supposed to be deep; for example, "Don't dance. Show me what it's like to look at God."

As a whole, though, Polina is too earnest to be pretentious, too studiously and naively serious. The fact that Polina smiles twice in the entire film illustrates how desperately lacking in a sense of humor both she, and the film, are. While it's true that perhaps the greatest modern choreographer, Pina Bausch, exhorted us to "dance, dance, otherwise we are lost," she also had enough a twinkle in her eye to choreograph an en-pointe piece in which the ballerina danced with veal in her toe shoes. The despair in Polina is unleavened with either the smallest speck of laughter or joy or the withering gravitas of an intellectually grounded postmodernism. Adolescent dancers going through an angsty period might connect with this film, but for the rest of us, it's a slog.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Feminist Rebuttal to Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century

I've become increasingly wary of ranking works of artistic and cultural value as ranking has become increasingly central to the way criticism functions and is understood. Rarely is a consensus ranking particularly interesting, since consensus irons away the fascinatingly idiosyncratic choices that an individual might make. What we agree on is far less thought-provoking than differences of opinion. However, consensus rankings can be a powerful illustration of sociocultural dynamics in the literary world precisely because they demand a certain degree of agreement.

One fascinating consensus ranking is Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, a list of the top hundred books that 17,000 French respondents nominated in response to the question, 'What books have remained in your memory?' One interesting aspect of this list is that it isn't a list of the 'best' books of the twentieth century, but rather a list of the most memorable. A memorable book could, in theory, be memorably bad, though judging from the list, most respondents chose well-respected, critically acclaimed books.

Out of the hundred books on the list, only twelve were written by female authors. The choices range from major feminist texts such as Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to experimental novels by Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar and a mystery by Agatha Christie, as well as essential works that witness the horrors of totalitarian regimes, such as Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. The range among this small percentage of the list is impressive; far less impressive is the ratio of female authors to male. Had the list been limited to books by male authors, it would have been essentially the same list; the same cannot be said for the reverse.

Thus, I propose to offer alternatives to the books chosen by the respondents of Le Monde's poll. For each book written by a man, I choose a comparable book written by a woman. The original choices are in brackets and all of my choices not originally written in English are available in translation, unlike some of the books from the poll. Without snubbing the books written by male authors - many of which, such as Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, are favorites - I hope this exercise serves to remind us that the canon is, and should be, elastic. While one hundred is a nice, round number, no scientific law insists that only that many and no more can be considered the most memorable of the twentieth century.

1. Chéri by Colette [The Stranger by Albert Camus]
2. HERmione by H.D. [In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust]
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry [The Trial by Franz Kafka]
4. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt [The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry]
5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck [Man's Fate by André Malraux]
6. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline]
7. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse [The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck]
8. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda [For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway]
9. Precious Bane by Mary Webb [Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier]
10. The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis [Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian]
11. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
12. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein [Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett]
13. This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigaray [Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre]
14. Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong [The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco]
15. Prison of Women by Tomasa Cuevas [The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn]
16. Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska [Paroles by Jacques Prévert]
17. Collected Lyrics by Edna St. Vincent Millay [Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire]
18. Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood [The Blue Lotus by Hergé]
19. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
20. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture by Sherry B. Ortner [Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss]
21. Herland by Catherine Perkins Gilman [Brave New World by Aldous Huxley]
22. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin [Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell]
23. The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit [Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo]
24. Progress of Stories by Laura Riding [The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco]
25. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher [Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality by Sigmund Freud]
26. The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar
27. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin [Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]
28. Orlando by Virginia Woolf [Ulysses by James Joyce]
29. Arturo's Island by Elsa Morante [The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati]
30. Lust by Elfriede Jelinek [The Counterfeiters by André Gide]
31. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy [The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono]
32. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill [Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen]
33. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]
34. To the North by Elizabeth Bowen [The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner]
35. Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda [Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac]
36. Eloise by Kay Thompson [Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau]
37. Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield [Confusion of Feelings by Stefan Zweig]
38. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
39. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala [Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence]
40. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery [The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann]
41. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
42. Suite française by Irène Némirovsky [Le Silence de la mer by Vercors]
43. In Pursuit of the English by Doris Lessing [Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec]
44. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey [The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle]
45. Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil [Under the Sun of Satan by Georges Bernanos]
46. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton [The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald]
47. Women at War by Dacia Maraini [The Joke by Milan Kundera]
48. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath [Contempt by Alberto Moravia]
49. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
50. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus [Nadja by André Breton]
51. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym [Aurélien by Louis Aragon]
52. Restoration by Rose Tremain [The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel]
53. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington [Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello]
54. In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield [The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht]
55. Catherwood by Marly Youmans [Friday by Michel Tournier]
56. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle [The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells]
57. An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum [If This Is a Man by Primo Levi]
58. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley [The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien]
59. Les Vrilles de la vigne by Colette
60. Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop [Capital of Pain by Paul Éluard]
61. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin [Martin Eden by Jack London]
62. The King's General by Daphne du Maurier [Ballad of the Salt Sea by Hugo Pratt]
63. The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous [Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes]
64. The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan [The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll]
65. On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt [The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq]
66. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag [The Order of Things by Michel Foucault]
67. The Moon by Night by Madeleine L'Engle [On the Road by Jack Kerouac]
68. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf
69. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
70. Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing [The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury]
71. The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras
72. Selected Poetry by Emily Dickinson [The Interrogation by J.M.G. Le Clézio]
73. Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute
74. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller [Journal, 1887-1910 by Jules Renard]
75. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen [Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad]
76. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés [Écrits by Jacques Lacan]
77. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Lynn Garafola [The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud]
78. The Group by Mary McCarthy [Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos]
79. The Archivist by Martha Cooley [Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges]
80. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner [Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars]
81. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain [The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare]
82. Obasan by Joy Kogawa [Sophie's Choice by William Styron]
83. 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye [Gypsy Ballads by Gabriel García Lorca]
84. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith [The Strange Case of Peter the Lett by Georges Simenon]
85. Kinky by Denise Duhamel [Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet]
86. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor [The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil]
87. I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant [Furor and Mystery by René Char]
88. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers [The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger]
89. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier [No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase]
90. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling [Blake and Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs]
91. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid [The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke]
92. Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro [Second Thoughts by Michel Butor]
93. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
94. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter [The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov]
95. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford [The Rosy Crucifixion by Henry Miller]
96. Sudden Rain by Maritta Wolff [The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler]
97. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver [Amers by Saint-John Perse]
98. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding [Gaston by André Franquin]
99. The Liars' Club by Mary Karr [Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry]
100. The Third Eye by Mollie Hunter [Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie]