Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lazy Christmas

[ Image from: ]

Cooking bigos, sipping wine. Lazy Christmas. I've run out of steam for this New World, my smile's unglued and I miss the gray skies of Central Europe.

I'm also out of steam for here (again, right?). But there are other plans. Watch this space if you're not out of steam yet.

In the meantime,

get lazy for another new year.

All the best!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What if a human battery takes a nap?

Remember that scene from The Matrix when they show the human batteries in the real world outside of the simulation? I hope you do. If you don't, you're probably starting college right now or are even a little younger--young enough to have perhaps been put off by the bad sequels so that you didn't want to see the first film.

The reason I'm wondering about this is because more and more often that image of human batteries imposes itself on the images I see in advertisements, in which an oddly chirpy voice says something about "new solutions" for increasing my "productivity."

The one that scares me the most is the one for an "energy drink" (ha! see that, human battery--energy!) that is meant to do something to disrupt the natural processes in your body after a meal--to produce an effect that counters the obvious need to slow down your activities as your blood circulation concentrates on digestion and nutrition, your necessary life processes, instead faking wakefulness to your synapses so that you can work, work, work. The chirpy voice tells you that you're getting rid of a bad and disruptive "feeling" rather than that your messing with cycles that you need in order to live. And then I see the drink at the campus store, right by the registers.

In the health center that my students try to avoid unless their cold symptoms begin to appear almost fatal, there are posters touting the importance of healthy sleep of at least 8 hours per night, praising power naps. But it's the elixir against the bad "feeling" that is much more approachable, its chirpy call, much louder.

Then there are those advertisements for new office-work software and the newest phones. A couple on horseback on a dreamy beach check their work email, a woman on a ski-lift follows the stock exchange. All smile, as being at work on your day off buys them a higher level in productivity heaven, a chirpy voice says something about time-saving. This morning I saw a new one: two children eating muffins, chocolate smeared around their mouths; superimposed on their faces, a graph their parent is inserting into his or her presentation. This is happiness, right? The children enjoying dessert with a parent hidden behind a laptop, since kids never do anything groundbreaking, why not just feed them, put them in a place where you can see them, and enjoy a productive day off with your software and data? Quality time and good work, right, human battery?

* * *

A student emails me asking where my office is, right before our scheduled meeting. She's right opposite the secretary's office, where there's always three people she could ask and they would be able to give her an answer. Or she could use her indeed very "smart" phone to find the office number in her email inbox or on the course website.

I get a lot of similar queries at random times of day and night. Queries about information that is usually equally accessible to me and the students. I hear that librarians sometimes get questions via text messages or chat about call numbers and full titles of books--which the student might just as well type into the library catalog instead of asking about them. So much energy wasted by imagining non-existent pitfalls, so much thinking perversely saved by instant access demanded of people you imagine as "keepers of information." And all it takes is a moment to stop, breathe--sometimes take that dreaded nap or relax into your after-meal energy slump--and ask these really very easy questions of yourself.

[End rant.]

Monday, November 15, 2010


A hundred and two degrees in the New York smog. 'Halleluiah' by Leonard Cohen playing on her dime-store record player, that song Howard liked to call 'a hymn deconstructing a hymn'. Long ago Kiki had submitted to this musical part of the memory. But it was surely not true -- 'Halleluiah' had been another time, years later. But it was hard to resist the poetry of the possibility, and so she had allowed 'Halleluiah' to fall into family myth. [...] When, on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Jerome had played his parents an ethereal, far more beautiful version of 'Halleluiah' by a kid called Buckley, Kiki thought yes, that's right, our memories are getting more beautiful and less real every day.

Reading this in bed last night, I thought first about the time a friend of mine played me Jeff Buckley, the first time I heard him and, at first, didn't like him. Then, I thought what a pity it was that this comparison can't make the younger musician feel proud, since Buckley died almost ten years before On Beauty came out. So it can only make Leonard Cohen somewhat annoyed. But he's probably too zen for that.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Looking for Things to Read that Are Not the Things I Have to Read

Yes, I have lots of reading in the months ahead, and lots of writing related to that reading. (I belong to the "Dorothy Parker school" of writing; well, to some extent -- I hate the writing part, but I'm also increasingly ambivalent about "having written." As you can imagine, I find it all a nightmare and I complain throughout the process, finding new kinds of pain every step of the way. It's an important part of my life and its, hm, meaning.)

Because I have a lot of reading to fear, I'm trying to build an imaginary buffer of non-required reading. I don't know how much of it I will actually read, but I find comfort in knowing about books that I could read without a pencil in hand. For me, this means mostly new books, from the last ten years or so. And, usually, books by women.

Now, the latter is not a requirement but rather a flexible rule that has emerged in the course of my reading life. It's not an ideological stance (I don't think), though it has probably partly grown out of my weariness with everybody reading mostly men most of the time. When you check out people's responses to yet another bookish facebook meme, you'll find that, statistically, that tends to be the case. And I do manage to worry some people with my reading preferences -- there are friends and acquaintances who imagine I'm pretending like it's the 1970s and sticking to a "niche." But, hey, if gender is so irrelevant and we're so post-feminist, why should my reading belong to a niche rather than be the result of perfectly random choices -- the very same ones that result in all male book lists, only with slightly different results.

... and I see I've drifted away from what I actually wanted to say.

During a google search for I can't recall what, I stumbled across this piece, by Rachel Cusk. I then looked up Cusk on The Guardian and now I want to find out more about her writing. Anyone?

And in the real world, I'm supposed to be revising an essay and beginning to read some of the many things in my area. Instead, I'm staring at the yet unread copy of Zadie Smith's On Beauty on the table in front of me(I must be the last person who hasn't read it).

Monday, November 8, 2010

Things Are Getting "Serious"

I often think that I'd like to post something here but then end up worrying about giving away who and where I am. While the dangers are not as great as in spy movies, it would still feel like theft--of my private, half-serious notes and conversations. The crumbling wall between the fictional selves people have been creating on the internet and their public selves, signed by the names in their documents, selves who have bosses and "professional goals," cannot mean anything good.

Sure, I don't like idiots spewing hatred on forums and in comments, but I prefer that a moderator quietly cut them out rather than tracking them down. (Though, yes, I do think they should feel responsible for what they are saying, I just don't think such feelings an be simply induced.)

So the "seriousness" I mentioned has to do with my "professional goals." The quotation marks matter. I think we all deserve spaces where we can take ourselves less seriously and the home isn't quite that space anymore, what with professional emails and chats popping up at 2 AM on Saturdays. There is no more rest, there is just procrastination. If I were to pick a word as my nemesis, "procrastination" would be it. The devourer of my private, non-serious thoughts, the ugly imp that censors my time, making every moment that is not spent working seem over-indulgent.

This year things are getting "serious" in my work life--not entirely, not earth-shatteringly, but enough for me to get worried about the boundaries between the private (and, to some extent, imaginary and not so serious) and the rest (too serious, too real). And that sucks. I like what I do, but I also have many ironic (and sometimes vitriolic) things to say about it. And yet I know that my sense of humor would most likely be taken the wrong way if someone connected the dots.

Hopeless. But, hey, at least I finally posted something ;-)

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Fount of Boredom

I'm supposedly writing a paper. But I'm really staring at the computer screen and doing random paper-related things peppered with absolutely paper-unrelated things. Because I feel like this:

Not that I feel like reading this novel right now*; I feel as awkward as its style. Ble.

*It's Henry James's The Sacred Fount, which I must read at some point because it's supposed to be as terrible as this beginning. Pot calling the kettle black, eh...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I'm Back

Don't ask me why. I just love bad writing (reading it, writing it) way too much to stop. If you like it too, please stop by with your cup of tea or coffee and let's procrastinate together.

cookie monster

To clarify the changes in the author blurb: same person, just obsessively changing pseudonyms and email accounts. Please stick with the newest idea.

Much love,


The One in Which I Argue with Henry James*

From Azarian: An Episode (1864), by Harriet Prescott Spofford:

If he massacred your dolls when you were children twice (because he found her new hiding place for her toys), it looks like there's no hope for him. Sadly, the protagonist, Ruth, doesn't give up on Azarian even after his grand speech on how he imagines their marriage:

Henry James hated the novel for its 'unrealistic plot', 'unconvincing characters', and abundance of descriptive passages. Focusing on giving Prescott advice (write like French male writers!), James didn't think that the excess in the descriptions could have an ironic quality, or that boredom experienced by the protagonist was quite poignant, not to mention that the two aspects of the novel related to a distinctly different experience than that of French (or American) men.

Azarian would be À rebours à rebours if not for the fact that it was written earlier than Huysmans's novel. Art is an important theme in the novel, but not the "art for art's sake" of the decadent dandy, but the art of women painters (such as Ruth) or women of theater (such as her friend Charmian), or the work of salon hostesses such the mysterious Mme Saratov; art that does not conceal its relationship to money and does not enshroud itself in a veneer of "isolated genius."

The successful artist Ruth believes she has to get married because 'that's just what women do.' As she explains to a well-meaning friend who's trying to warn her about Azarian: "I see what you mean, yet marriage is the natural condition of maturity. Even a bad and selfish man must therefore be a better one if he has a wife If it were question with me ... of marrying such a man as those you knew, I should feel when the dazzle of his days was off how dull and dreary would they wear away. I would bide my time, I would marry him, serve him cheer him, be his slave" (199).

She's tortured by these ideas, driven mad by them to the point when she doesn't realize she's financially independent (her paintings sell extremely well) and that she was much less lonely before Azarian appeared and chased away her friend and love, the actress Charmian.

Azarian is a novel about death of boredom and the delusion of passivity. It's also a novel about women's talent being reduced to craft and fancy rather than artistry and imagination. That's what Azarian does to Ruth and James to Prescott. James accuses her of writing puppets rather than people, but are these categories necessarily mutually exclusive?

*It's easy to argue with the dead--they don't tend to talk back.


One of my three favorite songs about Ameeeerica. The other ones are "Pretty Good Year" (also by Tori Amos) and Hugh Laurie's moving tribute.

Finally, a Penguin's-Eye View of Antarctica on Google Maps

Take me there.

For a summer at Arctowski. I'm not joking, I'm just getting back in touch with my seven-year-old self.

Polska Ska from 1965

Alibabki, "Echo Ska"
from the album "W rytmach Jamaica ska" - Veriton, 1965

Poverty Porn

Poverty porn is, among other things, a genre of Polish literature. It's a relative of the misery memoir, but if they should meet at family reunions, it would be clear they are not on speaking terms. Because the misery memoir is premised on at least the pretense of its author going through hell, while the author of poverty porn is always looking down on hell from the distance of several storeys, typing away gleefully, while her elbows rest on the cushion of her middle-class status and her higher education.

The poverty porn writer is the smartest person you will ever know: he can break down the walls of epistemological impossibility and inhabit the bodies of the underprivileged better than they can. He will tell you all about the filth, offer graphic and heartbreaking description of incest and sex for food, he will even paint a vivid picture of the thought process of an uneducated person, linguistic lapses and childlike logic included. Thanks to his insight you will see what it's like not to have the will to live, not to have absolutely anything to look forward to, and what it's like to eat rotten leftovers straight from the dumpster.

Most importantly, perhaps, the poverty porn writer will show you what it's like to get aroused by all this. Beatings, garbage, teeth and gum problems, blisters, abuse, family dysfunction--she will show you how it can give you a hard on. It's real life, baby. The life around us that we fail to notice but which, in its rawness, has an authenticity we can only hope to emulate.

The poverty porn author not only notices but drinks from this fount of truth as fast as he can type. There's ardor in this, but also a kind of coolness that comes from calling the shots: you all are spoiled and privileged brats, you readers, but the writer is the one who can reach past his privileges into the dumpster of lifeforce, becoming the blood brother of his characters without even pricking his finger.

He knows. She knows. And you too can know some of this if you're willing to spend 30 PLN for a grain of truth that won't -- and don't even try to delude yourself -- give you any comfort. There's no hope for the sad characters of these tales. They go on to reproduce amidst the debris and then they turn into the debris and all you and the writer can do is watch and nod your heads in appreciation of this inevitability.

* * *

That's how I see this genre's modus operandi. I find it difficult to point to a specific "originary work," but the inception of poverty porn is connected to the growing wealth gap in Poland. Perhaps I should say, to the growing visibility of the wealth gap, because, obviously, there has always been a wealth gap, though before 1989 that fact was being covered up quite well by communist ideology and by the absence of celebrity journalism.

The work that stands out to me as the high point (maybe it is the "originary work," I'm not sure) of poverty porn is Dorota Masłowska's debut novel, Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną [Snow White and Russian Red] from 2002; though her column in Przekrój took the pornographic aspect to the next level. I can still recall one of her descriptions, which is in itself a condensation of what all the texts from the column were about. It's a description of Masłowska looking at an old homeless man digging in a dumpster, which takes the form of an ode to the homeless man--it's Masłowska's Petrarch pining away for the forlorn and unapproachable male and homeless Laura, who obviously only seeks some edible leftovers and maybe clothes. The description is quite openly erotic, and all of writing about poverty I have encountered after Wojna polsko-ruska shares that prurient fascination, even if it covers it up with moralizing about the duty of describing "the true Poland that goes unnoticed."

How does it go unnoticed if you all are gawking at it?

Yes, some of the poverty porn novels are pretty good. Masłowska has an ear for language, she is witty, and imaginative. Sylwia Chutnik's debut, Kieszonkowy atlas kobiet, exhibits a great sense of humor and a feminist sensibility (not to mention the author's love of Warsaw, which translates into a gripping portrait of the city). And yet--it's still poverty porn. And it is that because the vantage point of the author, regardless of assurances to the contrary, is high, high above their characters'. It's speculation about poverty, it's like trying on a coat in a second hand shop to feel it, smell it, and leave it there, walking out enriched with a whiff of a different person and of a different life.

However, in imagining a life without the perks of education and an (at least somewhat) well-to-do family, the writers are taking more away even from their subjects--the truth about their existence and about their thoughts. The writers have them pinned down like specimens in glass cases. You can't argue with me, I have whole internal monologues written down in your voice.

And nobody will argue, because how could they? Without the time, and often the ability to write books, and have those be publishable books, on top of everything. And to be able to find a publisher.

Putting all that aside--the position of the impoverished is not a position of authority, not a preferred speaking position, if it really is your lot, and not a literary mask.

So, we could ask, if "they" don't write their stories, what's the harm in someone else doing that? Well, it's not "their" stories then. It's looking down on "them," ascribing traits and thoughts to "them," and getting off on that.

* * *

There have been many similarly problematic cases in literary history: the as-told-to biographies of American Indians where biographers would intervene and have their subject oddly accuse herself of "savagery" against all logic, or The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which Thomas Gray would have you believe that Turner thought of himself as an insane monster.

Editing has its pitfalls too: Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted to take Harriet Jacobs' story and use it in her own novel, and Lydia Maria Child who did act as an editor for Jacobs, toned her story down, sentimentalized it, and gave it a preface that today we would find condescending.

But editing at least doesn't take the subject's voice away from her. And it makes the roles clear: you are the one who owns the story, and I am here to help you tell it.

My largest issue with the texts I accuse of making poverty pornographic is the authors' assumption of a position that is very distant from their actual perspective on the issues they describe and belongs to a weaker party, a party that lacks the intellectual capital to compete with them.

Of course, fiction is not bound to be autobiographical or faithful to any rules but those that it sets out for itself. But when the authors put forward arguments about society and social functions of literature, then it's clear that it's not just fiction and literariness that are at stake here.

If what you want to do is make a statement about society with your work, say who you are and where you're coming from. Say what it's like to look at and not share, what it's like not to be able to completely understand, while wanting to understand.

I'm waiting for works that instead of offering disability fantasies or fantasies about Polish-speaking Roma from Romania, speak about distance, desire, and anger of those who want to understand more. If you're really after important things that go unnoticed, you will have hit the jackpot with this, dear writer.

More Love for Poznań

Because they made another video.

The Strange Case of the Americano

[Image from the facebook fanpage of Café Kawka, Poznań]

Kawa szatan is, of course, very strong coffee, not necessarily espresso. It's the kind you have only now and then, in cases of intellectual emergency. It's best, of course, to have these emergencies in good company, either at home or in a reliable café, where you know you won't get a paper cup with a plastic lid. Kawa szatan needs a comfortable vessel in which to flaunt its aroma and taste.

Kawa szatan is best not had on an empty stomach. It's black and bitter and, thus, breaks very nicely the sweetness of sernik or szarlotka.

How to determine whether your coffee is a szatan or not?

If you're European, the question isn't very pertinent, unless you're a gastric sufferer, in which case the first sip will tell you. For Americans, regular coffee in Europe is bound to have hellish force - but it's not satan if a local person doesn't understand your surprise at its strength.

If the regular coffee is too much for you, order an Americano. It's the opposite of what you think it is: in most places I know in Europe Americano is NOT a coffee with a shot of espresso (like it is in the US), but regular coffee diluted to 'standard American coffee strength.'

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I Will Be Moving Soon

It didn't work out.

Restricting access just isn't for me. And worrying about being outed by account-linking, geographic tracking, and whatever the internet coughs up next is definitely beyond me.

I've been thinking about getting out of blogging entirely, but I'm not too thrilled at the thought either.

So on to yet another change of costume: new blogging name, and email account.

If you're interested, please join me here, where I will blog about satan's coffee, Polish politics, expat quandaries, and Poznań cafés. Please drop by because I will miss you otherwise.

Monday, July 5, 2010


In spite of all, my favorite city in the world.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Poznań Balloon Story

Sunday morning in June: I was sitting in the first floor* room of Cacao Republika with my childhood friend Iwona, when we saw this:

In the house opposite a window opened onto a room full of balloons and an elderly man trying to navigate between them. He started collecting them and put the first set outside...

... where a lady suddenly appeared to pick them up.

* * *

Part of me still lives on in Poznań, but only in the summer. As soon as the sun disappears, it hibernates.

*second floor in the US

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Almost on My Way

After I clean and pack and cross an ocean.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Gates Ajar

The Gates Ajar, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's spiritualist novel of 1868, is about the internet. How so? Allegorically and with a keen foresight. The internet is as desirous of its users' privacy as Phelps's characters are of contact with the dead. Arguing about privacy on the internet and tracing the latest means by which it is being stolen is as pointless, repetitive, and obscure as the religious rhetoric of Phelps's characters.

What this means, at least for me, is that I much prefer to read confounding books than to be confounded by having all my accounts and internet guises inexplicably connected against my wishes.

Since youtube and facebook continually demand to be "merged" with my google/blogspot shenanigans, I'm giving up on keeping the gates ajar, Phelps.

That is, as much as I enjoy discovering new blogs and having visitors drop by here, that pleasure is definitely outweighed by the fear of a Kafkaesque trial at a job interview for accidentally ambiguous wording of a post or for what I did on Thursday, May 20, 2010.

I'm not closing this blog but locking it via the invitations option. If you'd like a key, write a comment under this post in the next two days or email me.

I hate you, evolution of the internet.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Chickadee Sighting and Feeling

Niagara Falls, September 2009.

Thanks to the generosity of a bird lover from Niagara Falls, I fed and touched a few chickadees.

Loving the Terrible


But then:

-- Maria Susanna Cummins, The Lamplighter (1854)
Compulsively readable even though one of my worst nightmares happens in Chapter III.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Reading: Lonely, by Emily White

I have a copy with the blue cover (US edition vs. Canadian?). And while the image reminds me of the teenage I's favorite depressing book, The Bell Jar, the subtitle "A Memoir" feels less haunting than "Learning to Live with Solitude." White describes what for me are familiar experiences: a life in surreal tones that is, however, very real, but evades description as it evades relation. I don't think you can "learn" it because... what is there to learn? Renunciation? If so, why?

Why not "My Solitude and I"? If anything, White shows life from the vantage point of a solitary person, and the loneliness that makes this a different and difficult perspective is not "learnable," since it is hard to bear.

I haven't read the whole book yet, but here is one of the fragments that moved me--about the solitary "I" and language.

One of the things I'd done during lonely times in childhood was write out dictionary definitions and make myself memorize them. This isn't as entirely nerdy as it sounds. Words were something I cottoned to from an early age, and I loved flipping through the big dictionary my father had left behind. The problem was that, as a lonely adult, all the words I'd made myself learn seemed to take on lives of their own. Either they darted away just when I reached for them or they lunged back up at me with exhausting force. (39)

Monday, April 12, 2010

April 10, 2010

For now I have nothing to say.

Maybe only that it would be greatly appreciated (and I think I am safely speaking for all Poles in this particular case) if reporters would hold off on calling Poland "a young democracy" and did their research. Poland has very old democratic traditions and today's state is the Third Republic. Moreover, not othering us by prophesying "major turmoil and unrest" would be nice too.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Those Damn Elves!

They don't exist!

I'm saying that just so we know where we stand. Back in the day, when I enjoyed role-playing games (not of the sexy kind, of the nerdy teenager kind!) and read a lot of science fiction with a tiny sprinkling of Tolkien & co., we said that elves stink. Let's keep that in mind too.

My thinking is somewhat circuitous: from this piece on Joanna Newsom, wherein the author quotes someone else's association of Newsom with Emily Dickinson, to comments on this piece, where someone mentions how Nirvana gets to signify "the grunge" while Hole is usually dismissed as Courtney Love psychodrama... although where's the difference between them, really?

The "lesson" is, I guess, that female musicians get compared to each other so much they end up spending a lot of time denying that they're not one and the same person (or one of the only two possible types). An interview answer condensed from several interviews would look like this: "No, I'm sure I'm not Kate Bush and my lyrics have really nothing to do with Emily Dickinson, I also don't steal unpublished songs from Tori Amos, nor do I surreptitiously record Björk singing in the shower."

And I guess that if you're not being asked these questions it means you're mere pop decoration or a Madonna-wannabe.

What it also means is that women artists don't really get to have mentors or idols unless those are men, since admitting to inspiration must necessarily mean that you're it and have nothing more to offer the world.

But no, really, it's all fine, we're so post-feminist it hurts.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

So Bad You Can't Stop Watching (or Reading)

My latest favorite bad movie: Obsessed. I will keep my favorite bad novels secret (at least for now). I wrote about my favorite bad books a few posts ago: I can read Chmielewska at her worst, unfortunately, even when she stoops so low she has her protagonists praise "human nature" that makes men cheat and women do all the housework, while said protagonists lose money in a casino, inebriated, and lovelorn. It's camp without knowing it's camp (well, the kind of camp that hasn't read Susan Sontag's definition of itself).

Now, I've never read or been tempted to read Nicholas Sparks. I also don't know if I could watch any of the movies without feeling weak from all the sugary sweetness of romanticized cancer. This thread captures the potential and expressive force of the melodrama that Sparks resists (contrary to what he believes, he resists it solely in his defense of his books). And this interview shows just how melodramatic Sparks is in his self-presentation:

"I write in a genre that was not defined by me. The examples were not set out by me. They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were called the Greek tragedies. A thriller is supposed to thrill. A horror novel is supposed to scare you. A mystery is supposed to keep you turning the pages, guessing 'whodunit?'

"A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms."

That's one of his favorites, and he points it out as he walks the aisles of the bookstore.

"Hemingway. See, they're recommending The Garden of Eden, and I read that. It was published after he was dead. It's a weird story about this honeymoon couple, and a third woman gets involved. Uh, it's not my cup of tea." Sparks pulls the one beside it off the shelf. "A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway. Good stuff. That's what I write," he says, putting it back. "That's what I write."

I could see myself surreptitiously reshelving Hemingway's novels as "high-brow" romance (whatever that would mean), so Sparks does not convince me. Hemingway's stories, that's a different cup of tea. But self-aggrandizing comparisons aside, Sparks writes romance.

PS: What are your favorite bad books and/or movies?

Two Thoughts Together

Is it possible to feel passionate about something that you find slightly boring?

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Classics

Why didn't I find this earlier?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Almanac of the Dead

The people had been free to go traveling north and south for a thousand years, traveling as they pleased, then suddenly white priests had announced smuggling as a mortal sin because smuggling was stealing from the government.
Zeta wondered if the priests who told the people smuggling was stealing had also told them how they were to feed themselves now that all the fertile land along the rivers had been stolen by white men. Where were the priest and his Catholic Church when the federal soldiers used Yaqui babies for target practice? Stealing from the "government"? What "government" was that? Mexico City? Zeta laughed out loud. Washington, D.C.? How could one steal if the government itself was the worst thief?
There was not, and never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans' own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. (133)

* * * * *

Guzman's people had always hated her anyway. Because she was an Indian. "We know," Lecha said. "We know that. But what about the trees?"
Oh, yes, those trees! How terrible what they did with the trees. Because the cottonwood suckles like a baby. Suckles on the mother water running under the ground. A cottonwood will talk to the mother water and tell her what human beings are doing. But then these white men came and and they began digging up the cottonwoods and moving them here and there for a terrible purpose.

* * * * *

He thought about what the ancestors had called Europeans: their God had created them but soon was furious with them, throwing them out of their birthplace, driving them away. The ancestors had called Europeans "the orphan people" and had noted that as with orphans taken in by selfish or coldhearted clanspeople, few Europeans had remained whole. They failed to recognize the earth was their mother. Europeans were like their first parents, Adam and Eve, wandering aimlessly because the insane God who had sired them had abandoned them. (258)

Congo and Conflict Minerals

Let me clarify that I have been aware of the wars in the Congo for a long time. But I think that if my ability to feel shocked and want to tear the hair from my skull were exhausted, it would mean that I'm either dead or cynical to the bone.

I'm neither of the above yet I am one of the millions of people who reap benefits of these wars: I do have appliances that contain minerals stolen from the Congo. And I do feel stupid, wrong, and at the same time cheated because of that.

And so what?

I think we're in a situation where none of this can carry any weight. It's hard to even make it sound genuine, since my outrage is only a drop in a sea of outrage and mere outrage can't do anything. And where does the exploitation stop if we're increasingly oblivious of the way our pretty toys are produced? It's "invisible hands" and "fairy material" and only if you really bother to ask yourself about the path each part of your laptop or cell phone has traveled will you--perhaps--realize that the trip began in one of those areas of the world that have rare natural resources: stuff necessary for your laptop to work, stuff necessary for your stupid cell phone to vibrate...

I hope some day (soon!) this will stop happening.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Adore Kate Beaton

Kind of like Verne adored Poe (probably my favorite strip, this one). More balloons for everybody!

This one, which I found today, is very close to my current research.

Very true: Kościuszko's Insurrection was "crazy shit"--lots of upturned scythes (unfortunately, Wikipedia won't tell you about that in English).

Jan Matejko, Bitwa pod Racławicami [The Battle of Racławice], 1888 - image from Wikipedia

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Jeśli lubisz Trzęsidzidę

Verbatim translation: If you like Shakespeare.

I spent all my First Communion money on a lexicon of painting (exactly on this one, but back then internet was not where you found it) and I thought this was the most enchanting painting in the world:

Years later I heard about Elizabeth Siddal's anguish--posing for Millais in a bathtub of cold water. I wish someone would discover a secret alternative version of the painting or a sketch of Siddal on her break: reading a book in that bathtub, adding warm water on the sly.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Overcoming Intrusion? Egon Schiele: Sitting Woman With Legs Drawn Up

It took me a long time to come to terms with Egon Schiele. Much of his art repelled me (still does, to be honest) because of its voyeurism and obtrusive sexualization of little girls.

Much of his art is like a magnet, though. There is an expressive economy of lines in his sketches: there always appears to be enough, though it seems he drew only what was absolutely necessary to make the image legible.

The perspective is often difficult to figure out--sometimes it seems we're looking at the figure from an uncomfortable position at the ceiling, sometimes it seems we're crouching on the floor--but we're always close, in the model's personal space. So close that it's possible to feel like an intruder in a Schiele painting.

When I found KatColorado's re-enaction of Schiele's Sitting Woman... on Flickr, it got me thinking about that problem of intrusiveness and of tableaux vivants (one of those pastimes I can never understand).

KatColorado repeats the brilliant composition, the pose, almost the same perspective. Maybe it's just my hopeless attachment to text but her brief description of how she went about the project sets it apart from Schiele's invitation to intrude.

I don't mean to go all Marie Bonaparte* on Schiele, but having read about his troubled relationship with his mother, his use of his sister Gerti and then later Wally Neuzil and the Harms sisters as models, I can't quite separate that knowledge from the violence in his representation of women. The photographer re-enacting the painting isn't putting herself just in the position of the model but in multiple roles at once. Unlike in the haunting description of tableaux vivants in The House of Mirth, the issue here is not exact embodiment of the figure in the painting but re-doing the painting. (So KatColorado can survive the experiment, unlike poor Lily Bart?)

It leaves me still not understanding tableaux vivants but more at ease with the masochistic appeal of Schiele's work. I like the photograph. If you know more projects of this kind, drop me a line.

Egon Schiele: Sitting Woman With Legs Drawn Up (1917), originally uploaded by KatColorado

[While the dead cities and dead children paintings are incredible in their own way, I have no idea how to weave them in here, so I bracket them for now. Voilá!]

*Marie Bonaparte was a disciple of Freud's and author of a psychoanalytical interpretation of the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe, notorious for its vision of art as symptom of the artist's psychological issues.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snow Day, Snow Death

The jokes are over. This is my neighborhood yesterday:

(Photos courtesy of my favorite photographer)

I don't have pictures from today. Take a piece of paper, draw a narrow margin of graphite at the top, and let's say it's the sky today. Below that you have between 2 and 3 feet of snow (and growing). That's right: I live in an amateur illustration for Jack London's "To Build a Fire."

It's almost March. I still need to get to work today. Did I already mention I hate snow?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Illustrations and Ephemera for Uncle Tom's Cabin

I recently had the chance to look at several nineteenth-century illustrated editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, responses to the novel, and children's books of verse and tales based on the novel. The amount of material generated already as the installments of Stowe's novel were appearing in The National Era is astounding. If you think that the gadget madness started with Lucas's Star Wars, you need a sentimental trip to the sentimental edge of the nineteenth century.

I post here a few highlights from a random web image search.

Images, from left, with links to original sites: [1] [2] [3] Eliza's escape across the frozen Ohio river; [4] Dinah holding little Eva; [5] [6] Eva and Topsy; [7] Eva with Tom

Babie lato, or, the One I Always Got Wrong

Józef Chełmoński, Babie lato (1875)

Babie lato [Gossamer] is the painting that haunted me throughout childhood, mostly because it hung in my grandmother's living room and then I saw it in the museum with my grandparents. What troubled me about it was that I was sure the figure in the picture was a boy but the title - verbatim: women's summer - introduced some doubt. It was only after a few years in school that I learned that babie lato meant either gossamer or Indian summer. It took several more years before I realized the figure was not a boy but a peasant woman.

What I still don't get is why this Polish peasant woman is wearing a bright yellow turban.

But now my focus has shifted to the dog. It always makes me smile.

The Masochistic Delight of Erotic Excess: Podkowiński, Szał

Władysław Podkowiński, Szał (1894)

To make a long story short and potentially mistaken, the painter went crazy after presenting this equestrian sex fantasy to the cruel world of art connisseurs (I believe the world for him meant primarily Kraków).

Podkowiński was ripped apart by the critics who accused him of a tasteless pursuit of cheap thrills. Needless to say, Szał [Ecstasy] remains one of the most recognizable Polish paintings. Of course, it's also still recognized as kitsch, but certainly not cheap kitsch. And in a bare, minimalistic setting and with a Freudian mindset, I believe this painting could be interpreted as the be all and end all of art.

In the words preferred by our image-driven age, it's sex! animalistic desire! naked girl! red hair (=passion)! no gravity!

Saturday, January 16, 2010


My head is about to explode. I'm suffering over 6 pages of a word salad that is miles away from the coherent text of some 20+ pages it has to become. Agony, agony, agony!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Poznań: in Front of the Opera

... this is where M. and I met eight years ago. But it was in the middle of summer, so no snow and no sleigh rides.
I miss Poznań.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


Wiktor Górka, Hunting in Poland, 1961

Silva rerum 1

2010 started in the worst way possible, with news of my grandmother's death. I suspended my internet activity and socializing, which helped me immensely get myself together.

Things were going well: I got away from informational smog, I taught myself to knit (again) and made two scarves (pictured below, somewhat fragmentarily).


I finally started reading the biography of Alice James and finished Olga Tokarczuk's Dom dzienny, dom nocny, from which I picked out these gems of quotes (sorry, no English version at hand):

[The roofs of Heidelberg]

... w Heidelbergu zrobił doktorat z życia i pism legendarnej śląskiej świętej o imieniu Kummernis. Wykładał także na uniwersytecie, a specjalizował się w sektach działających na Śląsku w okresie reformacji. Zwłaszcza w szwenkfeldystach i nożownikach. Pisał o tym artykuły. 

Dachy w Heidelbergu są typowo niemieckie - czerwone i stalowe. Strzeliste zwieńczenia kościołów mają antracytowy kolor, który uspokaja oczy. Po wykładach szedł spacerem na zamek i patrzył z góry na miasto szemrzące wieczorami od taniego studenckiego wina z jabłek i naukowych teorii. (195)

[Objects and plants]

Wiem, że rzeczy, obojętnie, żywe czy martwe, zapisują w sobie obrazy, więc i ten aloes miałby w sobie jeszcze tamte słońca i niewiarygodnie oślepiające nieba i krople ogromnego deszczu, który bezszelestnie rozmywa niskie nadbrzeżne horyzonty. I każda część rośliny szczyci się tą świetlistą obecnością w sobie i powiela obraz słonecznej kuli, boga roślin, i sławi go po cichu na parapetach mojego domu. (Olga Tokarczuk, Dom dzienny, dom nocny. Wydawnictwo "Ruta", Wałbrzych, 1998, str. 216)

I probably won't pick up the English edition if I don't have the good fortune of teaching it (whick is, sadly, highly unlikely). Google books has a strange snippet.

A great article about Margaret Drabble that I found in a pile of papers I was going to throw out: "Dame of the British Interior," by Daphne Merkin. Long, written in a slowly-unfolding style I miss very much.


a great deal of Czech, Czechoslovakian, and German films. I recommend Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei, if you have verpasst it when it was in the cinema or have never heard about it.


Eventually, I got back to the internet and via Feminoteka discovered Anna Zawadzka's blog, To łatwo - feminizm i światło! The blog is written very thoughtfully -- a pleasure to read. But then I discovered another left-wing blog that featured a pseudo-polemic with Zawadzka's latest post (about women in abusive relationships): and my stomach turned. It's not that it's news to me that having a uterus -- well, not even that, just being identified as someone in possession of a uterus -- costs you ca. 25% of what you actually should earn, what someone identified as a proprietor of testicles earns in the same position. But it still makes me want to smash my head against the wall sometimes.


to restrict or not to restrict access to this blog? I would like to thank those who sometimes popped by here in 2009 ask your advice. I feel that I'm becoming increasingly shy and introspective and that's not a good combination.

The Accidental Feminist

Joanna Chmielewska, originally uploaded by erizone.

Joanna Chmielewska at a book signing in Moscow (Photo by erizone via Flickr)

I'm a fan of Chmielewska's comic crime novels. I say it with significant difficulty because I've been trying to hide this since high school. Her novels are rather simple and once you've recognized her patterns, they come across as straightforwardly formulaic (even for the genre). And yet.

I really like her earliest novels, the ones she wrote in the 60s and the 70s, though these novels present the communist militia as effective crime-solving agents of justice, somewhat naively explore the comic potential of the travel restrictions, citizen control, and turn into laughs the dearth of products and produce in a country that produced so much.

(For those who haven't experiences it, the spirit of the era is captured in the words of the grandmother from Juliusz Machulski's comedy about time travel, Ile waży koń trojański?: "If the USSR owned the Sahara, they would run out of sand." Everything was exported to the USSR, nothing was ever gotten in exchange but words of "a lasting friendship between the countries.")

Unlike the director Stanisław Bareja and the authors whose books were either chopped up or banned by the censors, Chmielewska didn't ridicule the People's Republic -- she eulogized it.

Is that my problem with Chmielewska? Actually, no. It is no secret that some people miss the regime or that their lives were in many respects better before 1989. In some -- significant -- respects it benefited women. A difficult economic situation was legally and widely recognized as an appropriate reason for a woman to get an abortion, if she wished to get one; it was deemed logical that a woman would want to work, that there should be kindergartens and school lunches. But of course there was also sexism and pay inequality.

And yet -- the measures that existed mattered immensely. That became obvious once they disappeared. Chmielewska's quirky thirty-year-olds wouldn't have been able to solve any crimes in the 1990s.

So they turned sixty and plunged into nostalgic fantasies. And the author declared that she absolutely wasn't a feminist. Rejecting the label is one thing, but she went further, offering piles of nonsense about "women's nature," delicate femininity, and the family.

I stopped reading her for several years not only because her books became dreadfully boring but mostly because I couldn't stand her searing hypocrisy.

Here is what I enjoyed about her writing (and am enjoying again with the fabulous radio adaptations of her early novels):

Chmielewska's protagonists are single mothers or unmarried women in their 30s and 40s -- independent, going where they're not allowed to go in order to solve mysteries or gamble (horse races and casinos recur). Her most frequent protagonist and alter ego, Joanna, is divorced with two sons, she spends more time hanging out in cafes with friends and new love interests than cooking soup for her kids. From one of the novels we learn that she had left her sons in Poland for a year to work in Copenhagen as an architect, explore nightlife, and gamble. For the money won at horse races she buys a car and snakeskin stilettos.

The CD edition of the radio play about the novel I've just briefly described includes an article about Chmielewska's "accidental feminism."

The article was written by her secretary whom Chmielewska fired shortly afterwards. Coincidence?

Poland is a country where public figures are almost never made to own up to their words and deeds (yes, Polański, among others; yet more strikingly, a former Prime Minister who wanted to outlaw divorce and then abandoned his family for a twenty-something-year-old bank employee).

I've never been employed by Chmielewska so I risk nothing in saying that when I was a teenager her novels gave me hope that I could indeed become who I wanted and not just somebody's wife and mother. I can't make her own up to her hypocrisy but I can point it out.

Note: The second photograph is Krystyna Sienkiewicz as Janka in Lekarstwo na miłość, the film adaptation of Chmielewska's debut novel, Klin (1964).