Interval

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The essential thrill of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is foreshadowed in the film’s delayed establishing shot, somewhere around the 10-minute mark. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lies on the cold bricks of a small dark alleyway. Snow falls slowly. Pipes clink. Somewhere nearby, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) leaves his apartment to buy milk. The audience is shown his short journey in agonising real time – one insipid step after the other crossing the shadows. On his return trip he finally discovers Joe’s bleeding body and after failing to convince her to be saved through the ordinary channels of police and ambulance, coaxes her to come inside with the promise of tea.

The point of all this – the concentration upon darkness, the snow that falls so slowly it seems almost suspended in the air, the battered body that refuses to give up its place on the pavers – is of course to assert the notion that there is pleasure in abasement. More than pleasure, actually: Joe has crossed a threshold into an extreme of human experience. The film is therefore not about sex addiction as such, but the existential kick of descent. At ground zero of personhood, Joe, stripped of character and dignity, has found a concrete freedom. In many ways Nymphomaniac struck me as an old-fashioned film, especially in von Trier’s awkward soap-boxing against the perils of political correctness and the hypocrisy of the middle-class. This existentialism too, though often finely executed, seemed even more anachronistic than in his other films. But more than in his previous films I felt the singular thrill of visible descent, a sort of recognition from the beginning that says yes, I have seen that bottom of existence.

The only thing that really stuck with me from this film was this establishing shot. On one of my runs a few days later I became preoccupied with finding the best word for this extreme – the place where one lands after the fall, the place at the bottom of it all. I shrugged off: ‘abject,’ ‘debased,’ ‘degraded.’ Showing the way words play before they mean, I strayed into alliterative territory as I got stuck on ‘deranged’ and ‘delirious,’ which really had nothing to do with the word for the deepest depths. I tried ‘deepest’ and ‘depths’ but while they were functional, literal enough, they didn’t resonate – I was trying to find a word that caught something visceral and broken, yet at the same time free. The word for Joe on the pavement in the dark alley. Perhaps, even, the word for the old psychic place, the threshold between eros and thanatos. It was beginning to bother me. I ran faster, as if the word was getting closer but still trying to elude me. I got caught in a trap, a memory trap, where the only word I could think of was ‘inferno.’ This was not the right word. There was no place for heaven and hell in my thinking – despite the backdrop of Christianity-in-Western-art-and-music in von Trier’s film. ‘Inferno’ was not my word, but its raison d’être here was precisely to tease me with its proximity to the word I was searching for. The more I tried to get past this word the larger it became, so that the best I could do was a side-stepping echo-word, ‘vernal.’ In that way that is so typical of the magic of running, the moment I gave up my search was the same moment I: a. realised that I’d nearly run my entire course without raising a sweat or losing my breath; and, b. that the word I sought was from an early modern musical setting for mass.

I kept running. ‘Inferno’ still clouded my vision, obscuring but no longer blocking the word – my word – the perfect word for the lowest extreme of existence. Inwardly, I could see the outline. It had three syllables. It was not an English word. It was a melancholic word. It made me think of water. I could see an ocean. ‘Inferno’ it most definitely was not. I pounced, leaping over a puddle, into: ‘profondo.’ Yes, profondo. Si, profondo. No wonder I kept thinking of inferno – recall Dante: ‘Caccianli il ciel per no esser men belli, ne lo profondo inferno li riceve, ch’alcuna gloria I rei avrebber d’elli’ (Heaven to keep its beauty, cast them out, but even Hell itself would not receive them, for fear the wicked there might glory over them).

But isn’t memory a perverse thing? Because my attempts to find this mass, which I now desperately wanted to hear again, this mass or early opera, as I couldn’t quite decide – were fruitless as I typed ‘profondo’ and other random words I thought would yield a lead: ‘lasciavi me,’ ‘renaissance,’ ‘mass.’ I could hear the music, faintly. I could almost see the text. Something was there. Some dormant part of my memory was stirred by the word.

But profondo? No, non è profondo. I should have known better than looking in the vernacular when the object of the search was a mass. I kept finding references to Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso. I was more stuck than ever. How the hell was I going to find this piece of music? I didn’t even have the faintest idea of where to place it – except that it was some time after the emergence of polyphony. I barely remembered my History of Western Music – how was I supposed to then navigate this history?

It was a Sunday afternoon and I was procrastinating on a paper I was meant to be writing about John Mateer’s Orientalism. I saw on a bookshelf my old Norton Anthology of Western Music: Ancient to Baroque. There really was no other option. Fuck you, internet. I opened, thankful to be at least skipping ancient Greek and Roman notation, started at Gregorian chant and kept turning the pages. I listened as I read. I got lost in the mystic Hildegard of Bingen. I smiled at my annotated score of Guillaume de Machaut’s Agnus Dei – I once knew what a doubled leading note cadence was! And ‘DLNs’ were everywhere in this mass. I listened to the sensuous, transitional Landini, and Dunstable. I was forgetting why I’d opened this book in the first place. I thought to myself – how can this be a waste of time, consolidating these things I once knew? By the time I was up to Dufay I was well and truly gone.

Each composer brought a new world of pleasure. Josquin des Prez’s Mille Regretzaccording to my notes, was ‘extremely modern,’ exploiting ‘textual changes’ and ‘manipulating sonorities’ with a ‘wider range.’ I cued the music. I cried, inwardly, at something so modern in the fall of notes. The cadences were pregnant with the infinite possibilities of the new era. There were new tensions between each voice. Yes, the music exploited the full range of voices. How exciting – would des Prez have had any idea how influential these ideas were to become? I skipped the next des Prez piece, a motet left unannotated by me all those years ago, and turned onto the next motet, a palimpsest of my arrows and ‘NBs.’ The name of the motet was De Profundis clamavi ad teAnd of course I smiled in the surprise shock of recognition. I’d found it when I’d totally forgotten I was looking.

Perhaps I don’t really need to take you through the pleasures of this particular piece – you can hear them for yourself. Listen for the fabulous descent. Funny, isn’t it, how wrong my memory hints had been, even as they finally edged me into the prize. Latin, not Italian. Profundis. That was the word. And now, really, I felt that the entire line of text was apposite to my understanding of the point of Nymphomaniac: ‘De profundis clamavi ad te Domine: Domine exaudi vocem mean.’ Funny how I’d remembered ‘clamavi,’ the imperative ‘hear me,’ as ‘lasciavi,’ which is either the imperative ‘you, leave,’ or ‘you left.’ Out of the depths I have cried to you, Lord. In a way my mis-remembering is better fitted to the film: you have left me in the depths, Lord; or better, leave me in the depths, Lord. Anyway, these are some of the many pleasures of distracted memory research. I finally found the best expression for what really captivated me in the film. I’m down here.

But I really came here to talk about how things sound different at night. Don’t you know the menace of a bicycle tyre as it snakes behind you on a path? What about the creepiness of a myna bird, waking hours before dawn, when you yourself still haven’t been to bed? What about the laughter of a house party at the end of a suburban cul de sac? What about the shudder of the diesel engine of a bus, emptily turning a corner on its way to the depot? What about the brooding melancholy of lonely dogs?

One of the few sounds that sound nicer at night than during the day is the sound of a car engine starting up. Maybe I include in this also the allied sounds of last footsteps, door slams, and more recently, reverse beeper guides. This sound has always comforted me, probably stemming from some childhood happy time of the end of a long sleepover party, and later, but not much later, denoting the end of a weekend visit to my mum’s house. The sound of an engine starting at night, and its twin, the sound of an engine being cut, also at night, strike me as two parts of a supremely feminine interval. My mum, while not in the least taciturn, never had very much to say and consequently never spoke much during these night drives back to my dad’s. These drives were mostly silent, warm, essentially relaxed in their meaninglessness. I could never decide whether I preferred one parent over the other, and in hindsight I can see that the space of the car was an interval space, articulating a time when I didn’t have to wonder where I truly belonged.

 

Dennis Cometti’s Briefcase

Dennis

Running is by all accounts a good way to keep fit. Generally when people say ‘fit’ they refer to a state of the body: keeping fit means staying within healthy averages, blood pumping, limbs toned and defined. In many ways the fit body is the tamed body, regular, regulated, watched and kept under control.

But ‘fit’ is an amorphous term, and applied to exercise entails a meaning in excess of physical fitness. Exercise is also good for the mind – along with sleep it is the most recommended treatment for stress and the other anxious and depressive ailments. A fit mind also has the benefit of improved clarity and balanced perspective. In terms of the running mind, some writers have compared the mental endurance of long-distance running to the mindset required for completing a novel.

Beyond ‘fitness’ as such there is the zone. The zone is an enigmatic suspension of space and time, a non-dimensional arena entered by transcendental meditators and the elite athletes we see in sports drink commercials. Players of certain first-person shooter games know the zone. Good poets dwell there in the twilight pause before speech. The zone haunts many spots on the dance floor.

One of the benefits of running is the occasional access it provides to the zone. I couldn’t say how often runners enter the zone. I speak only for myself when I say that for all the freedom the zone offers, there are many conditions that rule the zone, and consequently the zone frequently eludes me. The great thing about the zone is that once I’m in it, I feel like I can run forever. My body works in totality: there are no legs, arms, or lungs, only a particular quality of sunlight and the sound of my feet in perfect rhythm.

There is a paradox then. The worst thing to do when running is attempt to link mind and body by thinking about running. Some may count their breath and that perhaps is acceptable. But pay too much attention to muscle and joint and pay the price: increased thirst, poor pace, jolting motion and breathlessness. Whenever I think about what my body’s doing for too long I cannot run properly.

Like east and west, mind and body do not make sense when purposefully merged. But they do merge of their own accord, making incidental sense here and there. The distinctions are powerful but of course fundamentally imaginary – after all, how far east is still east? Am I still myself without a properly functioning frontal lobe? Spontaneous connections are more given to allusion than logical labour. The attempt to link body and mind seems most successful through indirection.

There are three ways I might enter the zone. If I think one of three things I’m nearly always guaranteed to on one hand, click my body into its simple freedom and on the other, let my mind off its leash. Running and thinking about what your body does while running is as I say above a terrible mistake, but so is running and thinking your personal life, your work, things you need to do. You will feel every minute of your 30-minute jog. The mind enjoys straying into abstraction – that is the mind at ultimate play.

Make no mistake. I could not enter the zone without the physical aspects of running. There must be sweat, a global motor control, an increased heart rate. But for me the following three thoughts hold the key. Actually they are not really thoughts, but rather something between thought and image – a master-distraction masquerading as a notion or impression. I called them celebrity koans once and then stopped when I forgot to think about them while running. Running became as difficult as it can be around this time.

I do not think about these every time I run. They occur to me incidentally, rather than being drawn upon. Hence it was possible for me to forget about them.

Some people only listen to techno while they run, and while I prefer silence I respect that. We must find our own way to the zone.

 

Celebrity Koans

 

Generally speaking the West likes to think of the East in romantic ways. I side-step remarks about fixed temporality and languorous femininity to consider the koan as ultimate embodiment of the East from a Western perspective. The koan belongs to Zen Buddhism – the puzzle or paradox that awakens the meditator from the binds of reason in their bid for wisdom.

The Simpsons taught me about the tree falling in the woods. We live through these filters. My neighbour was once employed as a makeup artist by a local television station. Her regular gig was Friday Night Football, applying powder to the faces of the commentators and their special guests as they presented the featured AFL game of the week. She tells me many funny stories from these times – gossip-rich anecdotes about who is very rude, who doesn’t like whom and so on.

Dennis Cometti is a legendary Australian rules sports commentator. A regular of AFL broadcasting in the modern era, Cometti is famous for his smooth baritone and his inimitable facility for humorous metaphor. Such felicitous calls of the game include this description of a player’s handling of the ball: ‘Ashley McIntosh, like a good hair spray … capable of a subtle hold.’ As he is one of my favourite figures of the game – I used to fall asleep to the sound of his voice during Sunday afternoon matches as a child – I asked my neighbour whether she had any stories about Cometti to share. Her story was very short but very interesting. He was a nice man to have in the makeup chair: polite, funny and not difficult. In contrast to his long-time counterpart Bruce McAveny, who is famous for an encyclopedic knowledge of sports statistics, Cometti was not burdened by reference paperwork. But he always carried a briefcase. He brought this briefcase to the makeup room but never looked over preparation material, as in fact he never seemed to carry any. It was a conventional briefcase. I asked her of the briefcase’s contents. She told me that Dennis Cometti’s briefcase only ever contained two things: a bottle of water and a can of hairspray.

The idea of Dennis Cometti’s briefcase is the first of my celebrity koans. When I began to run really well I noticed that if I thought about this briefcase, I would enter the zone. I don’t recall any particular thoughts I’ve had about it, only a general sense of these enigmatic contents filling the briefcase as they simultaneously showed its emptiness. The illogical proposition of hairspray for a voice-over is a mirthful truth that suggests to me there are still men of action in our midst.

The opposite of the idea of a man of action is probably Marilyn Monroe, the screen embodiment of woman. An old housemate of mine owned a book about her life that presented a number of candid photographs of Monroe. Her favourite photograph showed the actress wearing a primitive form of sportswear in downtown LA. She was sweating. Wearing no makeup, with her blonde hair pulled back severely, Marilyn was jogging around the block. Although there is no way to tell, the picture somehow implied she was a slow jogger. Perhaps it seemed like she took small steps, her feet barely leaving the ground. The note that accompanied the photograph suggested that Monroe was one of the first celebrities to jog for exercise. The photo showed a woman making tentative steps at the vanguard of a fitness craze, before it became part of everyday life in the West.

The idea of Marilyn Monroe without makeup is my second celebrity koan. Like Dennis Cometti’s briefcase, I can’t recall any thoughts I’ve had in relation to this second koan. They are private and trivial imaginings, as opposed to the public and trivial imaginings of Marilyn Monroe with makeup.

The third celebrity koan came into my running life quite recently. Not so long ago I learned that Michel Foucault had been a vocal supporter of the Iranian revolution. He visited Tehran, met with a number of high-ranking clerics – including Ayatollah Khomeini – and published a number of emphatic works on the great potential and symbolism of the revolution. His support of the revolution, based on an optimistic assumption that only the East as such was placed to inject political truth into everyday life through faith, would quickly come to haunt him as Khomeini’s regime openly persecuted women and homosexuals in the streets as its first order of business. Known by scholars as Foucault’s ‘mistake,’ the Iran business privately shattered Foucault’s confidence as the French intellectual scene increasingly scorned his position. Interestingly, little has been translated about Foucault’s ‘mistake’ outside of France.

Perhaps Foucault’s support of the revolution was the logical result of his suspicion towards the West’s political structure and the hypocritical, oppressive philosophies upon which it is based. But perhaps an imagined rumour I was recently told was also a motivation for Foucault. This rumour is my third celebrity koan. According to the smiling person who introduced me to this story, Foucault and Khomeini had been lovers, who conducted confidential and passionate trysts under the guise of meeting for political discussion. Should this koan occur to me while running, it always manifests as an image of the two men’s limbs entwined as they caress on the sofa of a private jet, Foucault the little spoon. Note that it is impossible to verify this word-of-mouth rumour as a rumour, let alone fact. I did not ask whether someone had made this story up. Sometimes I wonder if I made this story up. When does a rumour become a rumour? What makes a lover a lover? These are things brought up by the third celebrity koan.

Squawk Like a Chicken

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Some of us arrive at adulthood on our knees. Some of us turn that arrival into an elaborate knee slide, gliding on and on down the time corridor. I was twenty and already too jaded to turn down a completely random job offer to work in the Kookai store at Garden City, Booragoon. I had never been inside a Kookai before but a vague recollection of their windows had left a less than favourable impression on me. On my first day, behind the directional body con dresses and ominously oversized flower brooches, I saw unimaginable stacks of pastel teeshirts and sweaters. Yes, the contents of that store, as well as the people that both worked and shopped there, were really none of my business. But never being one with much of a game plan for cash flow, I couldn’t say no. I had certainly arrived, but where was I? Booragoon – affectionately known to Perth-ites as ‘Garbo’ or ‘Boogas’ – was already familiar to me from childhood. Boredom’s Valhalla. I’d hated it especially as a teen. Now I wonder, did the dreaminess of that boredom – embodied by that particular shopping centre, embodied perhaps by the entire city of Perth – actually impart an important psychic message, a crucial mystery that I have subsequently carried through life?

Shall I speak of carrying things through life? A very close friend disclosed some distressing details about her recent experiment with colonic irrigation. She described white globules of candida, small bugs that looked like silverfish but were probably worms. She spoke of the indignity of the procedure, and the emotion of its aftermath. She said that if a single word flashed before her after the experience, that single word was ‘sad.’ Was there a sense of loss, then? She thought about it. We talk about ‘losing our shit’ like it’s a bad thing, probably for a reason. We like to hold on to our shit just as much as we like to hold on to each other.

The folks down at the Kookai store probably weren’t my business, but of course I made friends and felt the odd bristle of non-friend. The girls had names like Nikki and Yasmin, Claudia (‘claud’ like ‘cloud’) and most likely a couple of Jesses. I was closest with the other oddity, a stoner from an equivalent northern suburb who pretended to make jewellery. Now I think of it this isn’t much of a distinction – they all seemed to pretend to make jewellery, one way or another. We would start the day by going out the back and changing into clothes from the shop floor, which we would wear during our shift and then quite brazenly return to the shop’s stock, our personal grime the final touch to a future sale. The back. Despite what Otto Weininger alleged about feminine immodesty I’ve never been comfortable undressing in front of women, particularly in normative settings like designated change rooms. I wondered whether I was into women or merely a pure pervert as I blushed at the sight of thin cotton underwear and bony backs. The back room stank of feet.

They drank hot lemon in water and took a session at the tanning salon in their lunch breaks. As I remember their salads and thin bottoms that single word, ‘sad,’ admittedly flashes before me. If we worked a full shift we barely saw daylight.

For many reasons unclear to me I will never forget Michelle Bongiorno, who began working at Kookai a few weeks after me. I was closer to several others there, but I remember only Michelle’s full name. I only remember her by her full name. She was curvy and petite, all smiles and dumb questions like a black headed Pamela Anderson. I enjoyed watching scores of her male admirers visit her at the store, she genuinely believing they were her friends, they genuinely believing they were in with a chance.

She had a boyfriend but she was a virgin. What a combo. She told me about him but the impression immediately slid away. She told me about her family, who despite the cheerful Italian name were Spanish. Her parents still had sex every day, leaving PVC costumes and inappropriate DVDs scattered through their suburban house. Everyone in her family enjoyed the same morning ritual of smoking a cigarette on the toilet.  It was pure insight, and she had a knack for detail to boot.

She drove me home, or I drove her home, after a late-night Thursday shift. As we sped along an off-ramp near West Perth she told me I was pretty. I still feel like an arsehole about my reply. ‘People always tell smart girls they’re pretty, and pretty girls that they’re smart.’ She sat for a silent, injured minute, either wincing from the rejected compliment or more likely, measuring for the first time all the times she’d been told she was smart. God I hope I didn’t smash what wasn’t even an illusion. She was smart. She’d just been a little beset by conventional hotness. Like so many green girls. She was easily as smart as me. Where the hell did I get off anyway, thinking I was so smart?

She was a helluva storyteller in any case. I’ll never really know for sure but my impression, if I can be so crassly general, is that while boys and men are all talk, women are pretty truthful in tales of sexual adventures. Their mode is usually a potent mix of confessional and how-to. There were gross stories from clubland, in Perth a particularly idiotic roll-call of mafia goons and football players. One of the girls told me about a four-way involving a club owner and a pool table, but that’s much too boring to recall here.

Michelle Bongiorno had the cracker. One morning she said she had to tell me about something that had happened the night before. It turned out she was of course only a virgin in the technical sense of the word, a la Clueless. I braced myself for a pedestrian third-base scenario. And then I was blown away. On a whim, she had grabbed her boyfriend’s cock, shoved it up her arse, and sat down on it. Hard. Michelle Bongiorno, the smiling virgin who was scared of penetration. ‘Then what did you do?’ I, impressed, disbelieving. ‘Then I squawked like a chicken.’

Today I walked around for at least an hour looking for a non-sushi lunch. I finally gave up when my hunger crashed, and wandered into the nearest sushi place. Fuck it, give me a brown rice teriyaki chicken. I ordered the chicken. The woman behind me, impatient, started to cluck. ‘Bok, boork, bok bok,’ she said, audible but under her breath. I looked at her. She stared into the sushi fridge. When I had paid I turned to look at her again, somehow offended by her unexpected utterance. She proceeded to order the unagi in perfect English.

Thomas Mann, Letters

katia pringsheim 1905

TO KATIA

End of August 1904

…Stupid? If you like. You are so utterly enchanting a creature, my Katia, that for all I care you could be ‘a little stupid.’ That you aren’t, you yourself know best. But if by ‘stupid’ you mean the opposite of ‘smart’ (and I suppose that is it), by all means be so. I am the same way and am pleased to be so. For ‘smartness’ is something deeply nasty. The ‘smart’ person confines himself to eating no more than two rolls every day, lives cautiously, loves cautiously, and is too cautious to resolutely bind his life to his love. Everything naive, noble, and devout is ‘stupid,’ all intrepid devotion on this earth. Let us be ‘stupid,’ my Katia!

TO KATIA

Late September 1904

… that you – immortal phrase – showed me your books.

Otto Weininger

No comment on the following passage from Otto Weininger, Sex and Character, 120-121:

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It is very shortsighted of any one to consider the nurse as a proof of the sympathy of women, because it really implies the opposite. For a man could never stand the sight of the sufferings of the sick; he would suffer so intensely that he would be completely upset and incapable of lengthy attendance on them. Any one who has watched nursing sisters is astonished at their equanimity and “sweetness” even in the presence of most terrible death throes; and it is well that it is so, for man, who cannot stand suffering and death, would make a very bad nurse. A man would want to assuage the pain and ward off death; in a word, he would want to help; where there is nothing to be done he is better away; it is only then that nursing is justified and that woman offers herself for it. But it would be quite wrong to regard this capacity of women in an ethical aspect.

Here it may be said that for woman the problem of solitude and society does not exist. She is well adapted for social relations (as, for instance, those of a companion or sick- nurse), simply because for her there is no transition from solitude to society. In the case of a man, the choice between solitude and society is serious when it has to be made. The woman gives up no solitude when she nurses the sick, as she would have to do were she to deserve moral credit for her action; a woman is never in a condition of solitude, and knows neither the love of it nor the fear of it. The woman is always living in a condition of fusion with all the human beings she knows, even when she is alone; she is not a “monad,” for all monads are sharply marked off from other existences. Women have no definite inidividual limits; they are not unlimited in the sense that geniuses have no limits, being one with the whole world; they are unlimited only in the sense that they are not marked off from the common stock of mankind.

This sense of continuity with the rest of mankind is a sexual character of the female, and displays itself in the desire to touch, to be in contact with, the object of her pity; the mode in which her tenderness expresses itself is a kind of animal sense of contact. It shows the absence of the sharp line that separates one real personality from another. The woman does not respect the sorrow of her neighbour by silence; she tries to raise him from his grief by speech, feeling that she must be in physical, rather than spiritual, contact with him.

This diffused life, one of the most fundamental qualities of the female nature, is the cause of the impressibility of all women, their unreserved and shameless readiness to shed tears on the most ordinary occasion. It is not without reason that we associate wailing with women, and think little of a man who sheds tears in public. A woman weeps with those that weep and laughs with those that laugh – unless she herself is the cause of the laughter – so that the greater part of female sympathy is ready-made.

It is only women who demand pity from other people, who weep before them and claim their sympathy. This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the psychical shamelessness of women. A woman provokes the compassion of strangers in order to weep with them and be able to pity herself more than she already does. It is not too much to say that even when a woman weeps alone she is weeping with those that she knows would pity her and so intensifying her self-pity by the thought of the pity of others. Self-pity is eminently a female characteristic; a woman will associate herself with others, make herself the object of pity for these others, and then at once, deeply stirred, begin to weep with them about herself, the poor thing. Perhaps nothing so stirs the feeling of shame in a man as to detect in himself the impulse towards this self-pity, this state of mind in which the subject becomes the object.

As Schopenhauer put it, female sympathy is a matter of sobbing and wailing on the slightest provocation, without the smallest attempt to control the emotion; on the other hand, all true sorrow, like true sympathy, just because it is real sorrow, must be reserved; no sorrow can really be so reserved as sympathy and love, for these make us most fully conscious of the limits of each personality. Love and its bashfulness will be considered later on; in the meantime let us be assured that in sympathy, in genuine masculine sympathy, there is always a strong feeling of reserve, a sense almost of guilt, because one’s friend is worse off than oneself, because I am not he, but a being separated from his being by extraneous circumstances. A man’s sympathy is the principle of individuality blushing for itself; and hence man’s sympathy is reserved whilst that of woman is aggressive.

The existence of modesty in women has been discussed already to a certain extent; I shall have more to say about it in relation with hysteria. But it is difficult to see how it can be maintained that this is a female virtue, if one reflect on the readiness with which women accept the habit of wearing low- necked dresses wherever custom prescribes it. A person is either modest or immodest, and modesty is not a quality which can be assumed or discarded from hour to hour.

Strong evidence of the want of modesty in woman is to be derived from the fact that women dress and undress in the presence of one another with the greatest freedom, whilst men try to avoid similar circumstances. Moreover, when women are alone together, they are very ready to discuss their physical qualities, especially with regard to their attractiveness for men; whilst men, practically without exception, avoid all notice of one another’s sexual characters.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 32 in C Minor, Opus 111, II Arietta: Adagio molto semplice

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There’s a perverse sort of irony, cheek and reverse-snobbery behind composing serious music in C Major, which is just what Beethoven did in the second movement of the last piano sonata he wrote, the Arietta of Piano Sonata 32. Anyone who learnt piano will have a little soft spot for the C major scale. Well, I do. I still remember the small relief I felt when prompted by my teacher, who managed to stage the theatre of an exam in each of her lessons, to play something in C major –  scales with both hands; in contrary motion; in arpeggio. Look at me – no black keys! There was Middle C, splitting the centre of the keyboard. From that North Star, every key made sense in what as a novice seemed an identical constellation of black and white. It was the key in which I first played by ear Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with my left hand playing its first supporting harmony. And later, it was the key in which I foolishly invented my own variations to that song – with broken inverted chords and strange jazz rhythms. Good old C – saving my kid arse as I sight-read pieces I should have been practicing the week before. Good old C, all the barbarism of that key signature hiding in plain sight.

This is completely beyond my realm of expertise, but I suspect that somewhere, someone has codified the affect of each key signature of the Western diatonic scale. In its most brutal form, such a code could suggest that A major was hypocritical; A flat major lackadaisical. A little while ago I noticed my favourite Romantic pieces were generally composed in D flat major, a deeply nostalgic-feeling, or perhaps a wildly manipulative, nostalgia-inducing key. C major is the sound of childhood, the key of naivety. Yet at the same time it is the key of modernity – the exemplar of the diatonic scale emerging out of the Renaissance to become the foundation of Western harmony. The C major scale, tapped out on the keyboard, is just as good as any sound signature for the Age of Reason. In fact at this moment I’m convinced there is no better sonic metaphor for Positivism. It is a prohibition on introspection – there is nothing in music less intuitive than the idea of the C major scale.

Yet the Arietta is to be played slowly and simply (adagio e semplice) – that is, in such a way as to invoke introspection and intuition. The time signatures, 9/16 and 12/22, are not to be trifled with but in their way denote a removal from strict tempo. The temporality is – weird. Amazingly weird.  The first phrase, written to be played in repeat,  is only 8 bars long (16 with the repeat), but feels longer as it moves hypnotically in dominant to tonic chords. The harmonies are very basic and, in the post-classical moment in which they were written, movingly simple. Paired with the odd, glacial time signature and tempo, the effect recalls a choral scene of an earlier era. Those consecutive 5ths and 8ths could even be construed as a reference to the organum of very early sacred music.

Then things move along. Dreamily, the register shifts, after another glacial passage of more organum but with a minor inflection, to a flurry of 16th notes, reminiscent of a courtly dance (Allemande? Courante?) that maintains the logic of strict harmony in what are essentially arpeggiated chords. This is probably a good time to mention that the first time I heard this piece in its entirety was during the dance of Sylvie Guillem, a contemporary prima. What she danced was not ballet as such – but it was not divorced from the ballet tradition. The performance deserves an entry of its own.

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So intrinsic to the piece is the sense of deconstruction Guillem embodied in her dance. She would occasionally flick a foot out in a mock ballerina gesture that actually, very casually, displayed the incredible power and form she maintains as a real-deal prima. In this way she was very truthful to ballet. In the Arietta Beethoven is truthful to the history of Western art music. The piece is relatively short, but contains history, immense history – all condensed, and confessed to the listener in the equivalent of one of Guillem’s flip gestures. The crazy aspect of Beethoven’s historicity is that he quite strangely anticipates what sounds like ragtime. This happens somewhere one third of the way into the piece and if you’re like me – generally cynical and therefore easily duped – you’d probably assume that someone got jazzy with the recording and spliced something contemporary into that first third mark for kicks.

But they didn’t. It is remarkable that in what appears to be a historical account of musical forms, the composer somehow intuited a major form that at the time was still very much yet-to-be. Was the form immanent, self-evident given what had come before it? Only a genius could speculate. What a fine piece of speculation. I watched Slavoj Zizek’s new film, Pervert’s Guide to Ideology recently and enjoyed the claim he made about Beethoven’s Ninth. The relatively ignored coda to the Ode to Joy contains Beethoven’s critique of ideology, Zizek argues. It suggests an ’empty container’ embodied by the very famous piece of music that precedes it. Was Beethoven also operating in critique in this movement of the Piano Sonata 32? What could it mean, that this prophetic pastiche could function as a parody but is nonetheless so beautiful? Is there in fact any contradiction here?

I think what moves me about this second movement is its use of history to speak of freedom. The music is cynical in the sense that it does not accept that music is ahistorical or universal. Yet it also refuses to remain at this point – at the same time as it speaks through history, it refuses to accept history. It is speculative and superficial, gliding across centuries and into the future. I think such a freedom – fleetingly won here – is a difficult freedom and all the more moving to fleetingly witness.

This was the last sonata Beethoven wrote for piano. The music is giving way to a wilderness of sympathy for life in all its absurd forms. Death knocks at the door. Mortality shrugs off form. There is joy in parody. Parody annihilates  pathos. Parody is beautiful.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Some say there’s magic everywhere. Or perhaps they say ‘magic happens.’ Some fall under the spell of life itself. Some fall under the spell of language.

Most of the time I’d say that’s all a load of horseshit. But then I have to wonder, what do I believe, then? Magic, yes. Not everywhere. Maybe not even in language. Maybe not even in the self. But a certain self, a certain language… yes, that’s a start. I probably believe in magic in the same way I believe in hubris. There are those that dare to say, ‘I am the only one.’ I think Jesus said something to that effect. And wasn’t he an arrogant charmer, when you really get down to things. Dabbled in transfiguration. Made himself a god. A good storyteller too.

When someone says, ‘I am the only one,’ there is always a small, terrible chance that they are right.

Writers, the really good writers, sometimes they do this too. Gertrude Stein ventriloquised her long-time lover Alice B. Toklas in the eponymous ‘autobiographical’ title. The book is littered with these kinds of cheeky remarks,

… and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of the genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.

…They knew that in the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein is the only one.

But are they really cheeky, or is that my projection? Is Stein simply giving voice to Alice’s judgement? Or more audaciously, is Stein voicing universal judgement, which through her genius, she is able to intuit? In other words – magic?

To be honest I loved this book for about the first hundred pages. I was utterly charmed by the balls-out confidence of the entire project, not just the book, but the life led that the book renders full of laughter, brilliant company, total cultural belonging. After a few chapters of this outrageously positive volume I grew weary, and I fear that I’ll never get beyond the war years, which are still stuffed with wholesome, genius-filled good times. Alec Baldwin once said to Jerry Seinfeld, ‘Your life has just been one long boulevard of green lights,’ and that phrase springs to mind here. No sour grapes towards anyone, but I’d probably never finish Seinfeld’s book either.

I was asked recently to consider why I write. I silently modified the question to ‘why I don’t write.’ I think about writing, and I tell stories to the people closest to me. I narrate everything, but the paper trail always grows faint behind me. The answer to the latter question is in many ways much more instructive than the former.

I echo E. M. Forster’s thoughts on the subject of the writing life. He writes, he said, to share his thoughts with his clever, creative friends. Forster was the opposite of the deity writer. He was the humanist. He followed mediocritas, the middle way. He never thought he was particularly a great writer. I think his allergy to hubris allowed him to say things, to find things that no one else could, that only modesty and qualification and uncertainty could locate. I believe he didn’t write for acclaim, he wrote to gain access, to justify access to a very particular circle of thinkers.

I always finish Forster’s books, at any rate.

My Revolutionary Friends

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Lately I’ve been reading James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street. Every time I read Baldwin I realise I really haven’t read enough of his works. I think I realise this primarily because his voice varies so incredibly from text to text. No Name in the Street is a killer sample of matter-of-fact historical account, cut through with personal turns on some serious figures – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton… As often with these types of cross-genre texts (part autobiography, part political analysis, part travelogue, part wise banter) the pacing and framing are in constant flux… what I’m trying to say is that I feel so much joy to have rediscovered a master. ‘People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead.’

At Home Among Strangers

Lately I’ve also been watching some Russian cinema. At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger at Home (Nikita Mikhalkov) has to have the loftiest opening sequence in the entirety of movies. The musical number, riffing on the ideals of equality and brotherhood, sets up the nuanced interpretation of the musical genre in the narrative that follows. But to be honest I could have stood up and saluted my television after the song ended. The ironic use of the revolutionary moment was not lost on me (I think…) but there was a splendour in that scene that was just totally unexpected and therefore – my jaw dropped. You know those times when you think, ‘I’m watching the best thing ever?’ Yeah. Those are good times.

Lately I’ve had a bit of Linton Kwesi Johnson stuck in my head (probably triggered by thinking about the Black Panthers) – this is from the poem ‘New Craas Massakah’ :

is a hellava something fi true yu know
wat a terrible price wi haffah pay dow, mah
jus fi live likkle life
jus fi struggle fi suvive
everyday is jus worries an struggle an strife

Last weekend I attended a 24 hour speak-out against the government’s refugee policy. I decided to read Attila Jozsef’s poem, ‘The Seventh.’ It can feel strange, reading poetry to a non-poetry audience, but I think the organisers were grateful for the spontaneous volunteering to fill some air time. Here’s the final stanza:

 And if all went as was written,
 you will die for seven men.
 One, who is rocked and suckled,
 one, who grabs a hard young breast,
 one, who throws down empty dishes,
 one, who helps the poor win;
 one, who worked till he goes to pieces,
 one, who just stares at the moon.
 The world will be your tombstone:
 you yourself must be the seventh.

It seems like these things I’ve been doing lately are interconnected – for what purpose, however, I’m not sure.

Icebergs

I’ve never wholeheartedly shared the hatred of a sauna window. While I will always extol the virtues of an unholy dark sweatbox (Terry T, I’m looking at you), there’s at least one room with a view that holds a special place in my heart. Sure, that huge window comes at the expense of a few good degrees of heat. Sure, one’s need for a view while sauna-ing comes precisely from the lack of requisite zone-out temperatures caused by the presence of the impractical wall-sized pane of glass. But when the product of a causal compromise looks like this, well, anything can be rationalised.

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Yes, that’s a silly commercial shot. Real sauna-cam is a tricky art to master, and one I haven’t actually gotten around to testing anyway. We (I) want to bring less, not more gear into the sauna. But I testify that this photo isn’t all too different to what the eye beholds inside Bondi Icebergs’ sauna room. Hailing from the bitter and unbeautiful southern climes of Melbourne town as I do, there’s a tendency for everything in Sydney to take on a postcard-from-paradise look. Don’t second guess, just enjoy the pretty.

Icebergs is a seabath facility perched iconically on the south side of Bondi Beach. As far as dealing with Bondi goes, it’s probably your smartest bet for avoiding tourists (you hypocritical tourist, you). At only $5.50 for entry you’d have rocks in your head not to swing by. The baths, as you can see, are filled with the same good ocean water as the rest of the beach. There’s a larger pool, perhaps just shy of 20 metres, for lap swimming, and another smaller pool for wading, frolicking and floating. Because this is Bondi, the cult of the body beautiful for which Sydney is so famous takes on parodic dimensions here. Icebergs, like the rest of the beach, will have babes in all varieties in varied states of repose. Leg spreading, phone yapping. This is ok, because Icebergs is also home to the serious group of swimmers by the same name. These folk have earned membership and the tacit respect of non-members by swimming at the baths at least three Sundays of every month between May and September. That’s Australian winter, folks. It’s still fucking cold. Icebergs (the place) maintains a good little balance between lightweight beach babes and intense sea dogs that love a regular freeze and thaw. Surprisingly the baths themselves are rarely what anyone would call busy – even in peak summer season. The only place that’s never quiet is the sauna.

Yep, the sauna really steps up. Despite all the charms of Icebergs, I’d probably never really cross the Point Piper/Bondi threshold if the rocks weren’t cooking. To reiterate – entry to this place is $5.50. That’s FULL entry. Fuck, the bitch of NARC stings me for $7.10 with concession. And all I get to see through Northcote’s window is a balding Greek grandfather chatting up a middle aged Vietnamese woman in the spa. It’s not even as good as it sounds.

The sauna at Icebergs is powered by two large conventional electric units, one at either side of the door. On my most recent visit a major flaw in the design of the room was pointed out to me during sauna chat – incidentally, is there any better subject for sauna chat than saunas? For some reason the ceiling is a foot higher above the front part of the sauna before it drops down again at a right angle for the rest of the room. This means that a good deal of the heat generated by the units rises and becomes trapped at the point before the ceiling drops to its regular height, only to escape out of the door whenever it’s opened. Which is often. As a consequence the sauna is rarely as hot as it should be for its size, considering it’s cooking on two burners.

This is mitigated by the strong watering culture I suspect is fostered by the Icebergs members. There’s a refreshing and absolute lack of signs forbidding the pouring of water on the rocks. I have never visited without some wise-guy giving them a full dousing, often with a dash of Eucalyptus oil. Once I accidentally dripped my pink lemonade bottle on the rocks, leaving the room in a stinking cloud of cotton candy – and no one minded. With the right person attending to these duties, the temperature can rise to a doable level. Although I’m sad to say I’m yet to experience a good ‘I’m getting the fuck outta here’ moment, I have zoned and dreamed, usually with an eye to the horizon hoping for a whale sighting (it happens, only not to me), or otherwise, watching the younger surfers wring all the ride they can out of the waves that wash the shore.

As an incurable non-lap swimmer my appreciation of the sea bath aspect of Icebergs only comes from using the pool as a between-sauna-rounds plunge. In this respect the pool is more than adequate – it’s deep, clean and super cold. Knowing the water has come directly from the adjacent ocean somehow gives the act of plunge-pooling an extra refreshing dimension. I have no time for diving into chlorinated water between saunas so I’m particularly grateful for opportunities to do true hot-cold cycling as the sauna gods intended.

I’ve always enjoyed the chat at Icebergs. Experience behind the bar has shown me there’s nothing bitchier than a middle-aged businessman and certain Icebergs members have proven no mean exception. Last time someone was getting their speedos in a knot about never getting invited to an ongoing brunch. There’s also some high quality bullshit going on – ideas for phone apps, general theories of language acquisition, work-out tips, Indonesia in the 1970s, bifocal versus multifocal lenses, pretty girls. That’s the talk you want to hear, and there’s no shortage of it. Given its location within a premiere tourist destination – there’s a weird restaurant upstairs and god knows what goes on up there – it’s reassuring to know that Icebergs retains its culture of regulars. One can’t help feeling that these guys know they know what they’re doing. Let’s see what the board says:

The Heat/15 11
Spatial aesthetic/5 5
Quality of Chit chat/10 9
Ability and efficacy of water on rocks /10
(or use sensor to increase steam/heat)
10
Quality of fresh air access /10 10
Cool down/10 10
Lighting /10 9
Cost to value /5 5
Accessibility /5 4
Little extras /10 8
Overall feeling /10 9
OVERALL PROXIMITY TO BOILING POINT/100 90
 

Holy moly, 90. That might sound high for a place that has never pushed it, heat wise. Still, while it hasn’t pushed it, the room does get hot enough to sweat and zone. I imagine without the sauna as the warm ‘carrot’ dangling in front of swimmers doing laps in the freezing water of the Pacific, Icebergs would have very few members. It’s the unsung hero of the club, and fast becoming my personal favourite haunt in our fairer neighbouring city.

Bondi Icebergs:  ‘The Home of Winter Swimming Since 1929’

1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach NSW 2026

The Devil’s Playground

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It’s as if I went to the local DVD store (such a visit is a worthwhile if somewhat antiquated pursuit) and requested a masculinity trilogy. This week I walked out of North Carlton’s Small Screen with Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Raoul Walsh’s White Heat, starring James Cagney, and Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground. While watching White Heat I reflected on James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano – so many quirks in voice and action were lifted into that character from Cagney. I also couldn’t stop thinking about the wildly funny scene in which Meadow brings her precocious college boyfriend Noah to the Soprano household for a film screening. Noah ridiculously pitches this observation at Tony: ‘You a film buff? People say Hawks invented the genre with Scarface, but Cagney was modernity.’

When asked at the beginning of a movie night a few weeks ago whether I’d seen The Devil’s Playground, I said sure, the one  about rumspringer, the Amish meth-and-sex-loophole? Turns out the title resonated with quite a few filmmakers – as well as Schepisi’s sweet coming-of-age-in-training-for-priesthood semi-autobiography, the title was used for a silent Australian film from the 1920s, a couple of mid-century American dramas and a recent British horror film. So this week when discussing my film watching habits I’ve had to use director’s names as qualifiers. What am I doing tonight? I’m watching Schepisi’s Devil’s Playground. On the weekend I reacquainted myself with Tim Burton’s Batman (and related viewing material). And so on.

There’s much to be said for a casual delivery. TDP never feels very formal about character development. Simon Burke’s 13 year old Tom Allen faces the angst producing situations one would expect a teenager to encounter in any setting, let alone a seminary – bullying, loneliness, body shame, chronic horniness. But somehow this is never an angsty or serious film – it is so charming precisely because it avoids this cliche entirely. Burke always emerges from scrapes against arbitrary discipline and jibes with an innocent smile on his face. I still don’t know if I can tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acting, but I imagine it’s usually better to underact than overact – there’s a perceivable ease to Burke’s performance that is just so inviting. There’s a wonderful casualness to the various scenarios that’s emphasised by the charming use of vernacular. After being strangely coerced to cup the balls of another student, Burke yells ‘you’re bloody pissweak!’ when it turns out the other fellow doesn’t actually want to be pulled.

The pathos is sparing even in the face of the most dire existential crisis. For instance, the brothers in their quarters discuss the value of tradition and discipline – one of the elders sips his whiskey and points to the ceiling, asking, ‘what if he’s not really there, eh?’ Each brother nurses his doubts while furtively peeking into the swimsuits of the opposite sex. Each wonders about the dubious social capital of the divine vocation (aka being God’s boyfriend) in modern Australia. There are, incidentally, many lovely location shots of Melbourne in the 1970s (looking like the 1950s) – Werribbee Mansion, the City Baths, and what looks to me like the Napier Hotel.

There’s a decided lack of resolution that is extremely satisfying and wholly consistent with an exploration of modern faith. We never find out the cause of Tom’s bed-wetting, nor do we see its cure. Appropriately too, we never really see the bed-wetting bother the protagonist, even in the face of teasing. The bed-wetting seems to purpose the occasion of daily sheet washing, which is one of the only ritual activities featured in the visual language of the TDP. It’s all very comforting indeed, empty ritual. There’s a sort of lovely Ken Loachy lack of judgement going on. If you find the sound of pool balls being hit around the table comforting, you’ll draw extra comfort from this movie.