30 August 2008

Brand Upon the Brain!

The Criterion Collection DVD of Guy Maddin's 2006 film Brand Upon the Brain! (trailer here) has just been released, and one of the special features is a documentary in which Maddin says his movie (which includes an island orphanage in a lighthouse where a mad scientist concocts a grotesque experiment, people communicate telepathically via souped-up phonographs, and a gender-bending girl-boy detective right out of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys inadvertently [or not] creates a triangle of young love) is "97% true".

At first, I laughed. "Oh, that Guy Maddin, he's a joker!" But when I watched some scenes again after watching the interview, I saw what he meant, and it reminded me of things I've done myself, and things I have discovered other writers and artists to have done. Maddin says that he has often not responded in emotionally appropriate ways to certain events in his life, and he knew either at the time or soon after that he had not had the depth of response that was appropriate, and he always hoped for a second opportunity, a chance to get it right, and that movie-making is, in a sense, a way to do that, a way to re-enter an emotional space and provide the opportunity to feel what should be felt.

There is an immense store of emotion beneath the surface of Brand Upon the Brain!, and I found that when I allowed myself to be open to it, when I let myself ignore the things on the surface that are amusing (the camera angles, the extraordinary editing, the wonderful odd archness of it all) and instead entered into the world of the film simply as its own thing, not something to be interpreted or contextualized, it did, indeed, contain kernels of lingering, haunting feeling -- the weirdness becomes a touchstone, the aesthetic elements (music, image, voice) pull out emotion with a synecdochic force: none of this surface stuff is what has happened in my life, but it is what certain times felt like, or should have felt like. This, of course, is one of the great moves art can make: shadows on the wall lure us back to thought and feeling. Brand is covered with surface stuff that's fun to see and think about, certainly -- it's goofy, it's allusive, it's clever -- but it doesn't stop there, it allows other entrances. So often creators and critics seem to think there must be either/or, there must be surface brilliance or there must be emotional effect; there must be bizarre surrealism or there must be absolute realism. But the really affecting works of art, the ones that most linger with me and that I return to, are ones that seek to have both, to conquer every world, to ignore or deconstruct or disdain the supposed dichotomy.

So it is with Brand Upon the Brain!. Certainly, there will be viewers who don't like it, find it tiresome, find it too mannered for their taste. It's a Guy Maddin movie, after all, but if you don't mind the approach he has taken in his last few films -- the Eisenstein-meets-Brakhage editing style, the camera lenses obscured by Vaseline or made into a peephole, the melodrama -- then you're likely to find much here to think about and feel. I suppose Maddin is an avant-garde filmmaker -- I certainly don't know of anybody making movies in quite the same style -- but as avant-garde films go, his recent work is both accessible and entertaining once you decide to enter the film on its own terms. Brand is funny and weird, certainly, but it is also an affecting meditation on memory and regret, and that, ultimately, is what I value it as, because it is through the film's concerns with the past and how the past shapes and distorts our present that it ultimately creates, for me at least, its most vivid meaning.

I should note, also, that Brand Upon the Brain! was first presented as a theatrical event with a celebrity narrator, an 11-piece orchestra, a sound-effects team, and a castrato. I very much wanted to see it (especially since one of the producers, Gregg Lachow, is a friend), but was never able to attend one of the shows. The DVD includes multiple audio tracks with different narrators -- Isabella Rossellini, Guy Maddin, Louis Negin, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, and Eli Wallach -- some from the live shows, some recorded for the disc. I began watching the movie by flipping between different narrators, then finally settled on Crispin Glover, since his voice and intonations seemed most affecting and least jarring to me. The different narrators affect the experience of watching the film significantly, because though the narration is not always necessary to understanding what is going on, it is crucial for emphasis and tone. It occurs to me now that it would be interesting, too, to watch the film silently -- the evocative music (by Jason Straczek), the sound effects, and the narration all add dimension and power, but I'm curious what effect the imagery alone would produce. Well, I was looking for an excuse to watch the movie again...

27 August 2008

Words from a Few of America's Women, 1790-1920

Judith Sargent Murray, "On the Equality of the Sexes", 1790:
Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us; and that we are not fallen lower than yourselves, let those witness who have greatly towered above the various discouragements by which they have been so heavily oppressed; and though I am unacquainted with the list of celebrated characters on either side, yet from the observations I have made in the contracted circle in which I have moved, I dare confidently believe, that from the commencement of time to the present day, there hath been as many females, as males, who, by the mere force of natural powers, have merited the crown of applause; who, thus unassisted, have seized the wreath of fame. I know there are who assert, that as the animal power of the one sex are superiour, of course their mental faculties also must be stronger; thus attributing strength of mind to the transient organization of this earth born tenement. But if this reasoning is just, man must be content to yield the palm to many of the brute creation, since by not a few of his brethren of the field, he is far surpassed in bodily strength. Moreover, was this argument admitted, it would prove too much, for occular demonstration evinceth, that there are many robust masculine ladies, and effeminate gentlemen. Yet I fancy that Mr. Pope, though clogged with an enervated body, and distinguished by a diminutive stature, could nevertheless lay claim to greatness of soul; and perhaps there are many other instances which might be adduced to combat so unphilosophical an opinion. Do we not often see, that when the clay built tabernacle is well nigh dissolved, when it is just ready to mingle with the parent soil, the immortal inhabitant aspires to, and even attaineth heights the most sublime, and which were before wholly unexplored. Besides, were we to grant that animal strength proved any thing, taking into consideration the accustomed impartiality of nature, we should be induced to imagine, that she had invested the female mind with superiour strength as an equivalent for the bodily powers of man. But waving this however palpable advantage, for equality only, we wish to contend.

Maria W. Stewart, "Why Sit Ye Here and Die", 1832:
Do you ask, why are you wretched and miserable? I reply, look at many of the most worthy and interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen's kitchens. Look at our young men, smart, active and energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire; if they look forward, alas! what are their prospects? They can be nothing but the humblest laborers, on account of their dark complexions; hence many of them lose their ambition, and become worthless. Look at our middle-aged men, clad in their rusty plaids and coats; in winter, every cent they earn goes to buy their wood and pay their rents; their poor wives also toil beyond their strength, to help support their families. Look at our aged sires, whose heads are whitened with the front of seventy winters, with their old wood-saws on their backs. Alas, what keeps us so? Prejudice, ignorance and poverty. But ah! methinks our oppression is soon to come to an end; yes, before the Majesty of heaven, our groans and cries have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth [James 5:4]. As the prayers and tears of Christians will avail the finally impenitent nothing; neither will the prayers and tears of the friends of humanity avail us any thing, unless we possess a spirit of virtuous emulation within our breasts. Did the pilgrims, when they first landed on these shores, quietly compose themselves, and say, "the Britons have all the money and all the power, and we must continue their servants forever?" Did they sluggishly sigh and say, "our lot is hard, the Indians own the soil, and we cannot cultivate it?" No; they first made powerful efforts to raise themselves and then God raised up those illustrious patriots WASHINGTON and LAFAYETTE, to assist and defend them. And, my brethren, have you made a powerful effort? Have you prayed the Legislature for mercy's sake to grant you all the rights and privileges of free citizens, that your daughters may raise to that degree of respectability which true merit deserves, and your sons above the servile situations which most of them fill?

Sarah Moore Grimké, letter to Mary S. Parker, 1837:
It will scarcely be denied,I presume, that, as a general rule, men do not desire the improvement of women. There are few instances of men who are magnanimous enough to be entirely willing that women should know more than themselves, on any subjects except dress and cookery; and, indeed, this necessarily flows from their assumption of superiority. As they have determined that Jehovah has placed woman on a lower platform than man, they of course wish to keep her there ; and hence the noble faculties of our minds are crushed, and our reasoning powers are almost wholly uncultivated.

Sophia Ripley, "Woman", 1841:
Woman is educated with the tacit understanding, that she is only half a being, and an appendage. First, she is so to her parents, whose opinions, perhaps prejudices, are engrafted into her before she knows what an opinion is. Thus provided she enters life, and society seizes her; her faculties of observations are sharpened, often become fearfully acute, though in some sort discriminating, and are ever after so occupied with observing that she never penetrates. In the common course of events she is selected as the life-companion of some one of the other sex; because selected, she fixes her affections upon him, and hardly ventures to exercise upon him even her powers of observation. Then he creates for her a home, which should be constructed by their mutual taste and efforts. She finds him not what she expected; she is disappointed and becomes captious, complaining of woman's lot, or discouraged and crushed by it. She thinks him perfect, adopts his prejudices, adds them to her early stock, and ever defends them with his arguments; where she differs from him in taste and habits, she believes herself in the wrong and him in the right, and spends life in conforming to him, instead of moulding herself to her own ideal. Thus she loses her individuality, and never gains his respect. Her life is usually bustle and hurry, or barren order, dreary decorum and method, without vitality. Her children perhaps love her, but she is only the upper nurse; the father, the oracle. His wish is law, hers only the unavailing sigh uttered in secret. She looks out into life, finds nothing there but confusion, and congratulates herself that it is man's business, not hers, to look through it all, and find stern principle seated tranquilly at the centre of things. Is this woman's destiny? Is she to be the only adventurer, who pursues her course through life aimless, tossed upon the waves of circumstance, intoxicated by joy, panic-struck by misfortune, or stupidly receptive of it? Is she neither to soar to heaven like the lark, nor bend her way, led by an unerring guide, to climes congenial to her nature? Is she always to flutter and flutter, and at last drop into the wave? Man would not have it so, for he reveres the gently firm. Man does not ridicule nor expose to suffering the woman who aspires, he wishes not for blind reverence, but intelligent affection; not for supremacy, but to be understood; not for obedience, but companionship; it is the weak and ignorant of her own sex who brand her, but the enigma still remains unsolved, why are so many of the sex allowed to remain weak and frivolous?

Margaret Fuller, Woman in the 19th Century, 1845:
Knowing that there exists in the minds of men a tone of feeling toward women as toward slaves, such as is expressed in the common phrase, "Tell that to women and children;" that the infinite soul can only work through them in already ascertained limits; that the gift of reason, Man's highest prerogative, is allotted to them in much lower degree; that they must be kept from mischief and melancholy by being constantly engaged in active labor, which is to be furnished and directed by those better able to think, &c., &c.,-- we need not multiply instances, for who can review the experience of last week without recalling words which imply, whether in jest or earnest, these views, or views like these,--knowing this, can we wonder that many reformers think that measures are not likely to be taken in behalf of women, unless their wishes could be publicly represented by women?

Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, Seneca Falls Convention, 1848:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer. while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.

Sojourner Truth, 1851, as reported by Marcus Robinson:
I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart -- why can't she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, -- for we can't take more than our pint'll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don't know what to do. Why children, if you have woman's rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won't be so much trouble.

Account by Matilda Joslyn Gage of Susan B. Anthony's trial for the federal crime of voting without the right to vote, 1873:
As a matter of outward form the defendant was asked if she had anything to say why the sentence of the court should not be pronounced upon her.

"Yes, your honor," replied Miss Anthony, "I have many things to say. My every right, constitutional, civil, political and judicial has been tramped upon. I have not only had no jury of my peers, but I have had no jury at all."

Court—"Sit down Miss Anthony. I cannot allow you to argue the question."

Miss Anthony—"I shall not sit down. I will not lose my only chance to speak."

Court—"You have been tried, Miss Anthony, by the forms of law, and my decision has been rendered by law."

Miss Anthony—"Yes, but laws made by men, under a government of men, interpreted by men and for the benefit of men. The only chance women have for justice in this country is to violate the law, as I have done, and as I shall continue to do," and she struck her hand heavily on the table in emphasis of what she said. "Does your honor suppose that we obeyed the infamous fugitive slave law which forbade to give a cup of cold water to a slave fleeing from his master? I tell you we did not obey it; we fed him and clothed him, and sent him on his way to Canada. So shall we trample all unjust laws under foot. I do not ask the clemency of the court. I came into it to get justice, having failed in this, I demand the full rigors of the law."

Court—"The sentence of the court is $100 fine and the costs of the prosecution."

Miss Anthony—"I have no money to pay with, but am $10,000 in debt."

Court—"You are not ordered to stand committed till it is paid."

Voltarine de Cleyr, "Sex Slavery", 1890:
Yes, for that is adultery where woman submits herself sexually to man, without desire on her part, for the sake of "keeping him virtuous," "keeping him at home," the women say. (Well, if a man did not love me and respect himself enough to be "virtuous" without prostituting me, - he might go, and welcome. He has no virtue to keep.) And that is rape, where a man forces himself sexually upon a woman whether he is licensed by the marriage law to do it or not. And that is the vilest of all tyranny where a man compels the woman he says he loves, to endure the agony of bearing children that she does not want, and for whom, as is the rule rather than the exception, they cannot properly provide. It is worse than any other human oppression; it is fairly God-like! To the sexual tyrant there is no parallel upon earth; one must go to the skies to find a fiend who thrusts life upon his children only to starve and curse and outcast and damn them! And only through the marriage law is such tyranny possible. The man who deceives a woman outside of marriage (and mind you, such a man will deceive in marriage too) may deny his own child, if he is mean enough. He cannot tear it from her arms -he cannot touch it! The girl he wronged, thanks to your very pure and tender morality standard, may die in the street for want of food. He cannot force his hated presence upon her again. But his wife, gentlemen, his wife, the woman he respects so much that he consents to let her merge her individuality into his, lose her identity and become his chattel, his wife he may not only force unwelcome children upon, outrage at his own good pleasure, and keep as a general cheap and convenient piece of furniture, but if she does not get a divorce (and she cannot for such cause) he can follow her wherever she goes, come into her house, eat her food, force her into the cell, kill her by virtue of his sexual authority! And she has no redress unless he is indiscreet enough to abuse her in some less brutal but unlicensed manner. I know a case in your city where a woman was followed so for ten years by her husband. I believe he finally developed grace enough to die: please applaud him for the only decent thing he ever did.

Lucy Stone, in a letter to Susan B. Anthony, 1891:
It is not quite the same when we are seventy-two as when we are twenty-seven; still I am glad of what is left, and wish we might both hold out till the victory we have sought is won, but all the same the victory is coming. In the aftertime the world will be the better for it.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "Solitude of Self", 1892:
Is it, then, consistent to hold the developed woman of this day within the same narrow political limits as the dame with the spinning wheel and knitting needle occupied in the past? No! no! Machinery has taken the labors of woman as well as man on its tireless shoulders; the loom and the spinning wheel are but dreams of the past; the pen, the brush, the easel, the chisel, have taken their places, while the hopes and ambitions of women are essentially changed. We see reason sufficient in the outer conditions of human being for individual liberty and development, but when we consider the self dependence of every human soul we see the need of courage, judgment, and the exercise of every faculty of mind and body, strengthened and developed by use, in woman as well as man.

Whatever may be said of man’s protecting power in ordinary conditions, mid all the terrible disasters by land and sea, in the supreme moments of danger, alone, woman must ever meet the horrors of the situation; the Angel of Death even makes no royal pathway for her. Man’s love and sympathy enter only into the sunshine of our lives. In that solemn solitude of self, that links us with the immeasurable and the eternal, each soul lives alone forever.

Emma Goldman, "Woman Suffrage", c.1911:
Needless to say, I am not opposed to woman suffrage on the conventional ground that she is not equal to it. I see neither physical, psychological, nor mental reasons why woman should not have the equal right to vote with man. But that can not possibly blind me to the absurd notion that woman will accomplish that wherein man has failed. If she would not make things worse, she certainly could not make them better. To assume, therefore, that she would succeed in purifying something which is not susceptible of purification, is to credit her with supernatural powers. Since woman's greatest misfortune has been that she was looked upon as either angel or devil, her true salvation lies in being placed on earth; namely, in being considered human, and therefore subject to all human follies and mistakes. Are we, then, to believe that two errors will make a right? Are we to assume that the poison already inherent in politics will be decreased, if women were to enter the political arena?

19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, passed by Congress June 4, 1919, ratified August 18, 1920, with ratification certified by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby on August 26, 1920:
Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

22 August 2008

Recently Received

I've never given much of a sense here of the books that arrive at Mumpsimus Central each day. Here, then, are some photos of most of the books that have been sent to us in the past two weeks (the only ones I know for sure are missing are advance copies of Thomas M. Disch's The Wall of America and Holly Phillips's The Engine's Child, both of which I immediately put on the to-be-read pile -- though if I'm responsible to my other duties, I won't start reading either till the late fall. But being responsible is so dull!)

Some closer looks...

Paul Auster and Peter LaSalle!

Night Shade Books continues to publish a wonderful variety of books with beautiful covers.

Two books with great titles: The Age of the Conglomerates and The Defenestration of Bob T. Hash III.
An anthology, a novel, and a short story collection
And, finally, The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard and Adam Golaski's Worse Than Myself.

20 August 2008

Best of the Web Guest Blogger: Myfanwy Collins

Dzanc Books is publishing Best of the Web 2008, and because 1.) I think it's a great idea for a book and 2.) there are few things I wouldn't do for Dan Wickett and his Emerging Writers Network, I agreed to host one of the writers included in the anthology as a guest blogger here. (Other websites are doing the same thing, and I will post a link if Dan or anybody else creates a post with links out to them all -- and here's a collection of links to the others.)

The guest blogger here at The Mumpsimus is
Myfanwy Collins, whose "The Daughters" is included in the book. Dan selected The Mumpsimus as the place that Myfanwy would visit because we are both New Hampshire writers, a distinction that truly makes us members of an elite. ("Elite? Oh, so that's what you're calling it these days, Cheney..." Dear readers, please allow me my delusions.)

The items below were, I believe, intended to be separate blog posts, but I'm not going to have time to post anything more today, and I don't trust Blogger with future posting, so you're going to get all four pieces at once. And I might even be able to tempt Myfanwy into sending me a few more...

“The Daughters”
“The Daughters” is a story that I wrote within Kim Chinquee’s online workshop “Hot Pants” and I was extremely lucky to find generous and enthusiastic editors in Eric Spitznagel and Steven Seighman from Monkeybicycle where the story was originally published.

I’ve been told the story is creepy, but to me it is childhood, and for some of us, childhood is the threat of having a paperclip jammed in your ear.

Online Publishing
I’ve encountered much debate on the validity of online publishing. Is it as good as print? Why would you give your writing away for free (this is always asked even though many online venues pay and is this all about pay, anyway?)? Yadda, yadda, yadda. There never seems to be a consensus. Rather, people just seem to like to argue about it.

When I was first exposed to ezines, I’ll be honest, I thought they were lesser than and that I would never send my work their way. Then I actually read some of them and lo and behold I found that they were publishing great, exciting, subversive stuff.

I wanted in!

My first fiction publication was at Pig Iron Malt and I’ve never looked back. To my knowledge, only good things have come my way from publishing online. My work has been exposed to many readers (and editors, who have solicited my work based on what they’ve read). I’ve made money. I’ve made friends.

I’ve been heard. And now I even work for an excellent online publisher—Narrative Magazine—where I am an assistant editor.

Best of the Web
I’m grateful to the fine people at DZANC and to Nathan Leslie for Best of the Web. It’s a positive project not only for the writers involved but also for the editors of the ezines. Whenever online publishing can get more attention and be seen as valid and necessary, I’m happy.

As for the book, I think it’s a fine and eclectic collection of work and I find that I’m already looking forward to what’s coming next year.

Living in New Hampshire
I live in New Hampshire. I live in a bog in New Hampshire. It’s dark here and one day last summer there was a moose in my driveway (I’m not joking). Before that, a bear in the backyard. A fisher lives underneath my porch (you don’t even know what a fisher is? Do you?). All of this would probably lead you to believe that I live deep in the wild, but I don’t: I can be at Target in ten minutes.

Living here hasn’t affected the creative aspect of my writing. It does, however, make it more difficult to be involved in the peripheral writing activities you would find in a more urban area, like readings, workshops, etc. They are here, I just have to work to find them.

With all of that said, for such a small state, New Hampshire has its share of writers—past and present—who have changed the way people read.

In Which Dreams Get Political

I love the unconscious brain! Yesterday I went to the university library and took out a bunch of books, including The Arrival, which is very impressive visually and conceptually (I'd only looked at it -- "read" seems the wrong verb for a wordless book -- once in a bookstore, and wanted the chance to really stare; also, the director of the library, David Beronä, reviewed it for Rain Taxi, so I thought it would be fun to borrow it from David's library. He was a very appropriate reviewer for it, since he's the author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels) and The Jameson Reader (what I really wanted was Marxism and Form, but the library doesn't have that [gasp! ack!], so I was hoping to be able to trace some of the ideas I was trying to trace via the selection from Jameson's other writings).

So anyway, I looked at The Arrival, then read some Jameson, then read the Times article about Rachel Maddow getting her own show. I haven't actually watched or listened to Maddow very much, but I've enjoyed her when I've happened to see her on something or other (as often as not, YouTube), but I'm thrilled a major network is giving an out lesbian with a doctorate in political science her own show. I also love that her birthday is (according to Wikipedia) April Fool's Day, which is also the birthday of my paternal grandfather and Samuel R. Delany. (And wouldn't Delany just make the greatest guest on the show?! Imagine! They could do a birthday show together!)

All of this was apparently brewing in my brain last night, because I woke up this morning having dreamed that I somehow had become an advisor to Barack Obama, and we were in a little room with Noam Chomsky and China Miéville, trying to decide which one was going to be Obama's running mate. Chomsky protested that he's older than McCain, and Miéville said he's not a U.S. citizen, and Obama stood there and held his chin in his hand and looked thoughtful for a long time. But somewhere during the dream, he said, "Okay, I'm going to go make the announcement." And that's all I remember.

Naturally, I was disturbed this morning to wake up and discover that, in fact, Obama has not announced his running mate yet.

At least Rachel Maddow getting her own show was not a dream...

18 August 2008

Five Years

On August 18, 2003, I wrote the first post of this blog, a definition of the word "mumpsimus". The next day, I posted some ideas about what I thought would be appearing here. Then another post, some thoughts on a story by James Patrick Kelly.

Five years later, the blog has lived longer than I ever expected it to, been read by far more people than I ever imagined possible, and the posts have had far more range and variety than I thought they would when I was guessing what might pop up in what I then called, with more accuracy than I could know, "this mad universe".

Five years doesn't sound like much time, and yet look at how much has changed! When I began The Mumpsimus, the blogs I had read were all personal or political. There were plenty of sites about science fiction and fantasy, but I didn't know of anyone using a blog to write primarily about SF, and so I thought I would give it a try. I had only recently begun reading SF again after shrugging it off during college, and I thought the blog would give me an opportunity to find patterns between what I read, to formulate some ideas, to watch myself become reacquainted with a form of writing that had changed quite a bit in my absence. (I was inspired by two things primarily: the "New Wave Fabulists" issue of Conjunctions, to which I subscribed at the time, and the New Weird discussions at the TTA Press bulletin boards, which I discovered via Kathryn Cramer's blog -- in fact, I probably owe my decision to create The Mumpsimus to Kathryn, whose site I had been reading for a few months, originally because of her commentary on current events, until I found myself getting more and more curious about the SF community that appeared in glimpses and glances therein.)

Things did not start quickly. I wrote only 16 posts in all of 2003, and 10 of those were in the first month. This makes sense -- I was teaching at a boarding school, and that job took over my life again in September, and my sense of myself as a writer was not yet attached to the blog, so it was easy enough to ignore, and I was still thinking of this as a science fiction blog: if I wasn't reading much SF, I didn't have anything to write (I did allow myself to exclaim some joy when J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel, and tried a bit desperately in the last paragraph to tie it to something having to do with SF). January 2004, though, brought 24 posts, and I began to give myself the freedom to write about anything I felt like, regardless of its connection to science fiction. 2004 was the most productive year, with 319 posts total. Blogs became ever more popular during that time, and every month more people were using blogs to write about books.

319 posts shows, too, how suddenly the blog took over my life. I had, for the first time, a sense of an audience for my writing, and I wanted to satisfy it. I wrote quickly, without too much reflection, and though now I look back in awe at how much I wrote, I don't have any desire to return to that level of productivity, partly because it often led to half-baked or idiotic posts, blustery generalizations, vague pronouncements, and obvious self-contradictions. It also led to some sentences, paragraphs, and even entire posts that I'm quite proud of.

Some of the conversations and controversies of the early years have been lost, because Blogger did not have a native comment system then, and I tried out a couple of different ones, without much satisfaction (I wouldn't say I'm satisfied with Blogger's, but at this point, it's good enough). But somehow I think we'll all be just fine, even if all the comments about Lord of the Rings and homoeroticism have been lost.

I couldn't maintain the productivity, though, because the blog had put me in contact with enough people that I was given the opportunity to write reviews and commentary elsewhere, and so there wasn't as much material for this site. I thought about quitting many times, but instead gave myself permission to take breaks whenever I wanted. I'd achieved an audience for a while, but the struggle to keep that audience coming back, to keep the numbers of unique visitors high, to get links from more prominent sites, etc. -- the struggle began to wear me down. My life kept changing, too, but not in a way that gave me more time -- I started a Master's degree and then became a department head at the school where I worked. The only way the blog could survive was if I only wrote in it when I felt like it, even if that meant fallow periods and a much slower rate of posting. The only reason to keep doing this, after all, was if it could be fun.

And it is fun. More than fun. My life has changed so much over the past five years that I am grateful to have had this one stable element to it, and to have an archives of some of the things I have thought about, read, and seen during that time.

Often over the years, I thought that if The Mumpsimus could survive to its fifth anniversary, that would be enough, and I would give it up and move on to other things. (Often, I doubted it would make it to a fifth anniversary.) I don't feel that urge anymore, though, because I also don't feel the urge to try to get tens of thousands of readers, to review every book that comes through the door, or to blog when I don't feel like blogging. There are now thousands of blogs about books and reading, about science fiction and fantasy, about literature and life, and I feel no pressure to add to the noise except when it's amongst the noise that I want to be. So why put an end to this thing that has already metamorphosed so many times? The temptation to call it quits has subsided, at least for now.

As much as I write this blog for myself, I would never have continued this long without the readers who have joined in the discussion, sometimes to cheer me on, sometimes to add information, sometimes to challenge my statements and assumptions. Many of the people I met through the blog in its earliest days are now among my most frequent correspondents and closest friends, some of whom I see frequently in "the real world", many of whom I only get to see once a year at best, and most of whom I still owe emails to.

Really, this post is just me using a lot of words to say thank you. Thank you to the people who have been steady readers over the years, and thank you to the folks just now coming by. Nobody is forced to read this stuff, and that some of you continue to choose to amazes me, frightens me, humbles me. Thank you.

17 August 2008

Facial Noise

From a review of Arthur Bentley's Linguistic Analysis of Mathematics in the April 1936-June 1938 issue of Language, as quoted by Mark Liberman at Language Log (in a post that ends with Ursula LeGuin and Cordwainer Smith):
When Weiss speaks of 'language' he means exactly what he says, the language which is studied by linguists, the noise you make with your face.

15 August 2008

Progress Report

Life here at Mumpsimus Central continues on apace, despite the slow pace of posting. I finally got done all that I needed to do for Best American Fantasy 2008 and so now can begin trying to get organized for the next volume. I finished acting in a production of Taming of the Shrew that was fun and successful, and I enjoyed the irony of that being the show I appear in before teaching an introductory course in feminism this fall at Plymouth State (in The Riverside Shakespeare, Anne Barton makes the strongest case I've read for the play's subversive elements, but I'm still not really convinced). And I'm slowly getting organized with all of the tasks I have here at the house, though this has not been helped by the phone line getting hit by lightning, the lawn mower needing major service, etc.

In terms of reading, I've mostly been trying to prepare for my classes, sifting through gazillions (yes, that's a technical term) of essays and articles in search of ones to foist off on the feminism class -- I've collected well over 100 items, and am trying to determine which are most important and which are least -- a fun, if a bit overwhelming, process.

Yesterday I read Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer by Riki Wilchins, which I first learned about via Cheryl Morgan's excellent review essay about it. It's a readable and interesting book, good as a primer, though occasionally frustrating to anybody who's read a bit of Derrida and Foucault, since the use of their ideas is so simplistic, but I suppose that's a good counter to some of the tendencies of academics who have tried to write with the same sort of complexity as D&F but without much talent for it. Wilchins is better on Judith Butler's idea of performativity, but I may just think that because I'm less enamored of Butler than of Derrida and (especially) Foucault. I think Cheryl has given Wilchins short shrift on the concept of performativity -- I don't think Wilchins would deny that a person can have a strong sense of gender identity while also acknowledging that gender is performative and not essential (this is, as far as I can tell, why Wilchins devotes an entire chapter to race and critical race theory: race has a strong power over our sense of identity and many consequences for people's lives every day, but that doesn't mean we can't also point to the inadequacies of the concept of "race" and notice how the concept is constructed and enforced). But I don't think it's an important misreading (if it is even a misreading; I may be reading too much onto Wilchins's text to make it agree with my own feelings!), because so often the idea of performativity is used to suggest that a strong gender identity is something fanciful or easily discarded, or that transgender people are just pretending, and I'm glad Cheryl was able to attack that idea.

In any case, Queer Theory, Gender Theory is a clear and useful book to introduce people to important ideas about gender and its power in the world.

I had mentioned earlier that I was reading Nisi Shawl's Filter House for a Strange Horizons review, and might read Greg Bear's City at the End of Time for a review as well. I'm still intending to write about Filter House, but I won't review the Bear, since I managed to get 100 pages in and then just had to give up; I'm still quite fond of Bear's work in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the new novel is much too abstract and badly paced to hold my interest, and if I kept reading I'd just resent the whole thing. The Shawl collection is posing different difficulties -- what I've read so far is, alas, disappointing, though the fault may be more with my expectations than her writing: this is a book I very much want to like -- but the difficulties are ones I think I can write about, and, in any event, I'm hoping there will be a few stories among the ones remaining that work well for me.

I'm also still making my way through Meja Mwangi's novels, and enjoying them quite a bit. More on all that later.

A few days ago I got Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes and skimmed through parts of it. It got some press recently (under its British title, Excavating Kafka -- I don't know if there are differences beyond the title) for presenting information about and images from Kafka's collection of pornography. Hawes and his publisher are working hard to suggest that the book shatters all sort of myths, but aside from printing pictures of the porn (considerably less scandalous and disgusting than Hawes suggests -- I've seen worse in the art of the Greeks and Romans), Hawes doesn't seem to contribute much to the discussion that somebody who's read a bit about Kafka won't already know -- he's mostly attacking straw men. Worse, the narrative voice is so coy and grating that the book is nearly unreadable -- it's the voice of a teacher trying desperately to entertain an indifferent class, and only succeeding at shedding the last vestiges of his dignity.

Finally, my not-for-anybody-but-myself reading at the moment (always important when you have a lot of books to read for reviews or classes) is Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs, which is an extraordinary study of how Woolf wrote each of her books. It's the sort of book that will fascinate anybody interested in a writer's process, regardless of whether you've read all the books under discussion (I've pretty much read them all, but some of them not in over 10 years, when I took a Woolf course my senior year of college. But I even found the chapter on the one Woolf novel I've never read, Night and Day, compelling).

Lists and the Listless

Oh, if we denizens of the internets don't love us some lists! Me too, me too! I used to make lists of best this-that-and-another-thing -- best 3 home appliances I have used in my life (the pink feather duster always tops the list!), best 673 songs to listen to while shoveling gravel, etc. -- but there was something terribly authoritarian about it all, and the rabidly anti-authoritarian part of myself screamed back at the little tin dictator in my soul that such list-making is nothing more than a goofy manifestation of a fascist impulse. (The rabidly anti-authoritarian part of my soul uses the word "fascist" without much precision, alas. The more moderate anti-authoritarian part of my soul has read both Fascism: A Very Short Introduction and The Anatomy of Fascism and even the Wikipedia entry, so would never think of applying the term to such an innocuous little hobby as list-making.)

The lists I like these days are of the personal kind -- the books that, for whatever idiosyncratic reasons, particularly influenced a person, the books a person keeps near the desk, the movies a person watches to cheer them up (or bring them down), the animal species a person particularly likes to taunt at the zoo... Lists that revel in their subjectivity.

Samuel Delany has pointed to the opening of Thomas M. Disch's story "Descending" as an exemplary use of listing to efficiently suggest a character:
Catsup, mustard, pickle, relish, mayonnaise, two kinds of salad dressing, bacon grease, and a lemon. Oh yes, two trays of ice cubes. In the cupboard it wasn't much better: jars and boxes of spices, flour, sugar, salt -- and a box of raisins!

An empty box of raisins.

Not even any coffee. Not even tea, which he hated. Nothing in the mailbox but a bill from Underwood's: Unless we receive the arrears on your account....
A fine opening, and marvelous list to offer us a glimpse of a person.

The urge to list has led recently to the kind that least interests me -- X Science Fiction Novels of the Last Y Years That are Most Important, Yeah Yeah Yeah! -- although I was pleased to discover David Moles likes one of my favorite LeGuin books, Four Ways to Forgiveness, and so I now feel less alone. I do like to see both what is individual (e.g. David's choice of one of LeGuin's more neglected books) and what gets left out. Silences and lacunae. But I'm also the sort of perverse person who, when told n, o, and p are Q's best books ... immediately goes out and reads the others instead.

Anyway, the point of this was not to make fun of other people's hobbies (fascists!), but to point to two particularly interesting lists -- Ron Silliman's list of theoretical books that particularly influenced him and Jeff Ford's list of books that are part of the Breakfast of Champions for Fantasy Writers (in other words, "non-fiction books that are just so chocked full of cool ideas, descriptions of interesting phenomena, exotic tidbits of history, or compelling instances of the human condition that they make great fodder for the creation of Fantasy fiction"). Subjective, not authoritarian lists. Lists that tells us a lot about the list-maker and also point us toward books we might not otherwise know about.

Silliman has also written a few blog posts (here and here) that expand on why some of these books were important to him, the connections he sees between them, and the implications of their interest to him. He also offers some more general thoughts on that thing that has come to be called Theory and gets some intelligent and thoughtful comments from readers.

Since list-making is a kind of parlor game, it might be fun to create another parlor game from these lists: list five books from the various lists now floating out there on the many blogs you read, then imagine what would happen if a person read all five of those books one after the other. For instance:I expect the effect of reading all five of these books one after the other, as quickly as possible, would be to make the reader feel a lot more sympathy for the various hallucinations and strange experiences of Philip K. Dick during the 1970s.

08 August 2008

Ordinary Zhang

I thought my next Strange Horizons column was going live next week, so I didn't notice when "Ordinary Zhang" was published earlier this week. But it was! The thesis of the column echoes some ideas I first brought up in my review of Paolo Bacigalupi's collection, but my primary purpose in writing it was simply to get people to read or reread Maureen McHugh's magnificent China Mountain Zhang.

06 August 2008

Slings & Arrows

It took a few recommendations (including Kelley Eskridge mentioning it and Abigail Nussbaum writing a comprehensive review), but I recently watched all 18 episodes of the Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows, a smart and tremendously entertaining show about a theatre festival very similar to the Stratford Festival, where many of the actors in the series have appeared.

Stratford is a place of magic for me -- I have only been there once, in the mid-90s, but it was among the greatest theatre experiences of my life. Or, rather, two productions were among the greatest theatre experiences of my life: productions of Amadeus and The Merry Wives of Windsor (we also saw Macbeth and The Gondoliers -- the former was, I thought then and expect I would think now, dull and awful; the latter was well done, but it's not among my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan shows, so while I appreciated it, I didn't feel much passion for it). I have long lost the program from that summer, but two actors so impressed me that their names have stuck with me ever since: Stephen Ouimette and William Hutt.

Ouimette played Mozart in Amadeus to Brian Bedford's Salieri. He gave the role a range I had never imagined it could possess, making the character into something entirely different from what Tom Hulce did in the movie. Ouimette was also in Merry Wives, and one of the things I most remember is that I didn't realize it was the same person for quite a while. Here was an actor playing utterly different characters in repertory, something I had never experienced before, and which opened my eyes to what real acting can be: the challenge, the fun, the beauty of it. But the real revelation was Hutt as Falstaff. I had just finished high school, and up to that point had not seen any truly great performances of Shakespeare, and few performances of his comedies at all. They never seemed very funny to me on the page, and reading them was much more of a chore than reading the tragedies and histories. But I laughed throughout this production of Merry Wives, and most especially at Hutt's performance.

Stephen Ouimette was one of the stars of Slings & Arrows, and William Hutt was a guest star in the third season, giving a tremendously moving performance as an elderly actor who wants to play Lear before he dies (Hutt himself would die at age 87 in June 2007, less than a year after the end of Slings & Arrows). The presence of these two actors alone was enough to ensure my interest, but what held that interest was the intelligence of the writing and the impressively high quality of the acting from the first episode to the last.

From early on, Slings & Arrows was conceived as a three-season show, with each season following the ups and downs of putting on a particular production -- Hamlet in the first season, Macbeth in the second, and King Lear in the third. The events in the lives of the characters often parallel or echo the events within the plays, and the show deliberately explores ideas of youth in season one, middle age (and ambition) in season two, and old age (and mortality) in season three. It doesn't all work -- the second season is somewhat weaker than the first and third; I never bought the motivation for Paul Gross's character's insanity; the third season suggests an answer to the question of whether Ouimette's character is really a ghost or a figment of Gross's character's imagination, a question that should never have been answered, etc. -- but there are no episodes that felt like clunkers, and remarkably few episodes that didn't feel tightly conceived and cleverly executed.

One of the smart choices made by the writers of the show (Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney primarily -- Coyne and McKinney also play recurring characters) was to treat Shakespeare's works seriously and respectfully, but to make the series itself a comedy. All the characters are basically stereotypes, with a generally predictable range of personality and emotion, though the main characters do develop over the course of the three seasons (I would call the musical theatre actors in the third season caricatures if I hadn't lived with such people). But most of the real moments of vivid, multidimensional acting occur in the scenes from Shakespeare's plays -- not just because Shakespeare could write brilliantly complex characters, but because Shakespeare's plays offer us insight into what is going on within these character's lives. The characters don't become fully real, fully human until they are performing. Which is utterly appropriate to a show that is primarily about actors.

Because it is a comedy, there is very little about the arc of each season of Slings & Arrows that is a surprise. We know each show will be a huge hit (artistically if not financially) and that the main characters will all triumph in the end, just as we know that everybody will get married at the end of a Shakespearean comedy. Suspense about the end result is not what holds our interest -- what keeps us engaged is wondering how we will get to that end, and the marvelous individual scenes along the way. The Slings & Arrows writers loved symmetry, and they had great fun pairing characters and situations, creating subplots to comment on the main plots, etc., and the show's directors and editors took advantage of every such moment, particularly as they used the progress of one production at the festival to comment on another.

The overall vision of the show is a sentimental, idealistic, and simplistic one, a vision that very much celebrates the mystical, Romantic idea of actors as magicians and holy fools. In a documentary about the world of the theatre, such a vision would be infuriating; in Slings & Arrows it is charming. It charms us into believing -- at least for the hours we are watching the show -- that the lines between art and commerce can be clearly drawn, that art can heal wounds and make peace, that everyone has a great performance somewhere inside them, that sincerity matters more than anything else. Though its characters have their cynical moments, the show itself isn't the least bit cynical. If it weren't so funny, and if scene by scene it weren't so well written, the Pollyanna approach to life that is at the show's core would be insufferable. Instead, Slings & Arrows presents us with a fantasy world we all might want to live in. It's certainly one I was in no hurry to leave, perhaps because after years of disillusioning experiences with theatre at all levels, I still have enough of an idealist buried somewhere inside me to believe that maybe it isn't entirely a fantasy world.

Meanwhile, up at Stratford they're doing Taming of the Shrew, and so am I right now. They're also doing Romeo & Juliet, which I taught for the first time this past school year (badly, I must say, but so it goes). The company that produces our Shrew, Advice to the Players, also runs a camp for kids, and a bunch of those kids (from this year and past ones) decided to put on their own production of R&J, directed by and starring them, the day after Shrew closes. Because they thought it would be fun. Because there's something about Shakespeare and about the theatre that they love. Idealists and lunatics, magicians and holy fools! And it gives my heart great joy!

05 August 2008


Just as I was getting ready to get the blog back to full steam, I got cast in a production of Taming of the Shrew (playing Hortensio), and that has eaten up most of my time and energy for the past two weeks. But we opened this afternoon, and it went well, and now I should be able to stop spending all my free time learning lines and rehearsing and get back to reading and writing... (And responding to email -- apologies to everyone I owe notes to...)

Meanwhile, here are some good things for your ears: 1.) Kelley Eskridge on the Reality Break Podcast. Since becoming familiar with her work over the past year or so, I've thought Kelley is among the smartest and most thoughtful writers I've recently encountered, but not everybody who seems smart and thoughtful on the page is also able to seem smart and thoughtful in a conversational interview. Kelley is.

2.) The great and glorious empire of McSweeney's has expanded into the realm of audio via Emusic.com, which is offering subscribers McSweeney's Field Recordings. I mention this because the second volume includes Tony D'Souza reading his story "The Man Who Married a Tree", the one story that we included in the first Best American Fantasy that even the reviewers who hated everything else loved. I do have an Emusic subscription (I've discovered a lot of bands I wouldn't know about otherwise through them), but not for audio books, since I generally have an aversion to all audio books (many reasons, mostly of the pet peeve/personal failing variety). I'm tempted, though, to get the trial audio subscription just to hear Tony do all the voices...