Reading: Karen Joy Fowler — We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Finishing this last night outside the Kneipe on the corner, bartender brings me beer (Hefeweizen!), looks at the cover, says, “Sieht sehr deprimiert…” “Naja, nicht wirklich, aber…”

Recommended to me by Debbie Notkin of the Tiptree Award.

Despite that, it’s not sci-fi, or fantasy.

The cover is very yellow. Very yellow.

I want to like it more than I do.

I think the prime reason it ‘resonates’ with so many people, why it’s so popular is because the readers think it’s a metaphor, and from that perspective it’s about them and their sad, middle-class childhoods and sad, middle-class lives. It’s not.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, somewhat similar, is not about trans or intersex children, but uses them to tell a story about cisgender people feeling different. Stand-ins, metaphors, freaks. The difference is Middlesex in fact written as this (I read an interview with Eugenides once where he said as much), whereas We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves readers can easily think this. It’s not. Or at least I think largely not. Not the aim, even if that does slip in.

If Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory was actually the story of a chimpanzee adopted into a human family, told from the perspective of the chimpanzee, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story told from the side of the rest of the family. Which is to say also it’s closer to The Wasp Factory than to Middlesex in writing and story, and as well, there’s very few people who would want to see Frank as a metaphor for their childhood and teen years.

Also, Middlesex is fucking bollocks and about as far from the humanity of The Wasp Factory as it’s possible to be, it’s a cynical piece of rubbish I dislike even more because I used to think it was pretty good. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the moment I still think is pretty impressive, though complicated. Flawed perhaps. Ah fuck it, it’s so easy to say ‘flawed’ and then we all nod and smile like we understand each other.

It’s like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. It’s the parable of the reality of Eating Animals. It’s an ugly reality.

So, sitting drinking my Hefeweizen, thinking, thinking. There’s this thing called Fermi’s paradox, which is basically, “Where the fuck is everyone?” In the universe, I mean. The galaxy even, nearby. Two to four hundred billion stars, most with planetary systems, more than enough time for life to evolve, so where is everyone? Lots of answers to that absence, quite a few which can be ignored because they start from anthropomorphic principles (“We make masses of noise across the electromagnetic spectrum, more evolved extraterrestrial life should make even more noise (blah fucking Type-II or -III Kardashev blah), we don’t see any, therefore no extraterrestrials.”)

How about they’re scared shitless of us?

Reading Eating Animals and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves together (maybe interspersing with Wasp Factory) would confirm my hypothesis. At least for me.

There’s a very interesting legal case in the US at the moment, habeas corpus for two research chimpanzees. The greater question and issue here is what constitutes ‘human’? Because human rights accrue only to what is human. You can only habeas a corpus if it’s human.

I imagine aliens observing us with horror.

Noam Chomsky (the reason I gave up linguistics almost as soon as I started was reading his stuff on deep structure and knowing immediately I’d never be anything more than average) wrote that aliens would comprehend all our languages as more or less the same, one no more exceptional than another. I think they would observe life similarly. They would see how we dominate, torture, destroy other life forms and be disgusted. Terrified.

Imagine us, with our so finely honed sense of exceptionalism, our easy ability to regard one life as human, deserving of the privilege of human rights, another—because it looks, behaves, seems different—not, our easy ability to inflict barbarity on those others, our habit towards violence and using every new tool towards violent ends, imagine us, as we are, with the ability to travel between the stars. Imagine the genocides we would inflict.

Ja, so, the Hefeweizen has quite a kick, served in half-litre glasses.

A quarter of the way through, Rosemary, the narrator, says something like, “So you’ve probably already worked out my sister Fern is a chimpanzee.” I was like, “What? Fuck! No!” I’d even read the bit at the end of the book, after the acknowledgements, were KJ talks about chimpanzees in the ’60s and ’70s in the US growing up in human families, vivisection on chimpanzees in labs, Animal Liberation Front rescuing those chimpanzees, chimpanzees in the wild. Fern is a chimpanzee? Faaark! Totally didn’t see that one coming. (No sarcasm there, I’m serious.) There were a couple of other times Rose was like, “You’ve probably guessed by now…” Nahpe, totally didn’t.

I’d feel more comfortable if people read it literally, than pretended it was all about them. Sure, it’s about family, domesticity, growing up in the ’70s to ’90s in America, all that. But it’s not. It’s about an academic university family who adopt a chimpanzee and raise it as the almost twin sibling of their newborn daughter, the ethics of this, the ramifications over decades for the whole family, chimp included (or especially), the changing attitudes to using animals for research, to understanding our own animality as much as animals’ humanity, the legal, social, philosophical shifts in this. I cannot seriously believe people can twist that into a metaphor. But I suspect that’s why it’s as popular as it is, even though the real story is as horrific as The Wasp Factory. The real story is we are horrific.

Reading: H. Jay Melosh — Planetary Surface Processes

So far this year I’ve had a bit of a lapse in reading. There’s been a pile beside my bed that I haven’t made much progress on despite being writers and subjects I’m dead enthusiastic over. I decided to order a few extra to add to said pile, hoping they would get me back on the goat-pulled reading cart.

Planetary Surface Processes by Distinguished Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Science, H. Jay Melosh at Purdue University has been on my want list for at least a couple of years. It’s a university-level textbook, with accompanying price (even for Germany), suitably thuggish weight and page count, and gets straight into formulae on the second page of Chapter 1. My first encounter with it was a review by Emily Lakdawalla of The Planetary Society (which is one of the very best space science news sites around, and Emily one of my favourite writers), late-2012. She said, “I could tell from the first page that this book was going to become a primary resource for this blog.” and I thought, “Oooh, ok, off to the bookstore!” She does point out it’s heavy on the physics and light on the chemistry, for which a commenter suggests McSween & Huss’ Cosmochemistry, now also on my list … nonetheless, her recommendation is good enough for me.

It fits in on one side with Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A geological exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Tibet, which I found a fantastic read, and on the other with my daily reading of space science, of which extraterrestrial geology and planetary processes, specifically those within our solar system, is a longterm interest for me. I’ve been following Curiosity on Mars (even getting up early for the Seven Minutes of Terror), Cassini around Saturn, New Horizons on its way to Pluto, Dawn on its way to the asteroid Ceres, and having a book like this is something of a necessary addition for me. So, I will be taking this brick with me on my upcoming travels, unportable as it is.

Gallery

Museo Civico Medievale

Tuesday before the evening performance, I decide for another museum, this time the Museo Civico Medievale, which I thought could be a good accompaniment to the Museo della Storia di Bologna I visited with Dasniya last week. Again set in a palace, this one being the Renaissance palazzo Ghisilardi, built in the late-15th century and containing one of the city’s towers, Torre dei Conoscenti. It’s very beautiful, with delicate arches; the upper floor ones being half the size of the lower. The museum itself is somewhere between Museo della Storia di Bologna and Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, having the grumpy, stalky attendants with their coats and books thrown on their chairs of the former, and the smart, room-by-room exhibits of the latter.

It also has the not-so-good audio guide of the former, a combination of the same narrator (probably employed for a bulk job on all the museums) suffering from frequent, abrupt finishings mid-exposition, and either cryptically placed numbers beside exhibits or entirely absent. I discovered though, instead of searching for the numbers, I’d just enter the subsequent one and look around until I recognised what was being discussed. In this way, I found myself quite well-educated on around a third of the exhibits otherwise unmarked.

Besides that – and I found myself enjoying it for the perverse anti-social quality – it is a solid and delightful museum on its own, and in combination with Museo della Storia di Bologna gives a comprehensive introduction to the city for someone like me, an outsider with no knowledge.

It caught my attention over the many other museums for the medieval focus, covering roughly a period from 10th to 15th centuries with some overflow prior – a significant period in the city’s history, and much can be understood by examining this span. Curiously, it starts with two rooms that are not exactly this focus; the second though contains collections of from the 15th century including one cabinet full of Chinese and Japanese works. Outside that door are three Jewish gravestones and one Muslim, which were left homeless due to a papal edict.

Getting into the museum proper then, I find unlike almost every European pre-modern museum filled with religious clutter, this one has rooms and rooms celebrating the university, or more precisely the deaths of its professors. A lot of religious stuff too, though I found the beauty of it, both aesthetically and in the craft of construction caused me to put aside atheist tendencies and be overcome by the sublime. Some of these works are deeply poignant; others joyous. It’s not possible for me to devalue them merely because they have a religious theme or content.

Later, there is a small statue of Mercury, and one of Archangel smiting Lucifer – very similar to the one in Madrid. Then I arrive at war.

Into a red room, suits of polished armour, lines of pikes, hatchets, broadswords and rapiers, helmets, chain mail, jousting lances, mauls, shields, flanged maces … one suit was especially impressive, an asymmetric jousting armour with three massive, square bolts and their threads protruding from the chest, and a solid facepiece except for three tiny holes.

Continuing into the room with 15th century guns, and I was about to get kicked out. I think they are Snaphances or something similar, long-barreled, with a highly-decorative stock and ornate firing mechanism. I ran out of time here, being shooed out by the attendants, grumpy as ever. It had taken me around 2 1/2 hours to get through 17 of the 22 rooms, and missing also a proper wander around the palazzo.

I was thinking also about what makes a ‘good’ museum, and why I might not want every museum to be ‘good’. The Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna is not exemplary by current ideas of what a museum should be and do, being as an acquaintance described it, “a museum of a museum”, yet in its inaccessibility, it also provides for something other than a single superficial visit, a tourist itinerary. The museums I’ve seen recently seem to sit precariously on incomplete history, colonialism, kitsch, populism, a meta-narrative of the subject they attend to. At one and the same time, they also are beguiling and disarming in their love of their subject, the concise summary of the work of uncounted people over centuries. Perhaps one of my basic propositions – however critical I might be of a specific museum or museums, or how museums as a whole currently function – is that I do not question whether there should in fact be museums. Museums, books, art, culture, music, dance, idleness, walking, getting lost … without the arts and culture, humanity is in poverty, and for most of us it is only museums that provide direct access to this from our past.

double happiness

Two excellent things in the last couple of days I shall endeavour to celebrate. Perhaps with wine and peanut butter. mmm… that’s a rather undelectable combination. Maybe to say, not at the same time.

On Monday after much tribulation, quaking, apprehension and terror, with the delightful company of Trudel, I found myself at the Ausländerbehörde once more and departed €50 lighter and in possession of a 1 Jahr Selbständige freiberufliche Choreographin und Tänzerin Aufenthaltserlaubnis. And today by courier arrived Serway’s Principles of Physics – A Calculus-Based Text, because I had this idea I wanted to study Environmental Engineering, and thought I should remember how to do such things.

things…

I spent the early afternoon today pottering around on two things that while their minutia is like worms eating in the garden, perhaps for me they will be the start of a new part of my life.

After much vacillating, I finally enrolled to go back to university and add another degree to my years of ambivalent study. I’m doing a major in Asian Studies, with a pile of stuff in politics, as I had this idea doing human rights work of some kind in Central Asia would be… fun. And to make something of my obsessional reading on the region and fields also. So I get to study Chinese properly too, instead of teaching myself some peculiar Cantonese-Sichuan-Hunan-Putonghua hybrid.

This starts at the beginning of June, and because it’s online, I can complete four semesters in a year, and I won’t be shackled to some town or city for two or three years either. mmm books! learning! excitement!!!

The other adventure is my impending departure for Europe. Yes, I can’t be without you Daniel, and I expect to be greeted at the airport by you with green mascara, glitter in your beard and wearing a Vivienne Westwood dress. Late June, I’m venturing far, far north to Townsville for a bit over a week for… mmm the flowers elegantly explain why. Then to Europe and unknown things.

I have no upcoming projects here, no funding I’m waiting to hear on, no obligations and so I hope maybe to find what I dream of in the places that have most felt like home.

For now then, to dance, finish a multitude of loose threads, arrange, pack, enjoy my darling friends here, and then…

同志 tongzhi queers in China’s universities

Tong Ge, who is in his late 50s, said the haunts for homosexuals had changed dramatically in recent years. “Up until about 1998 we used to meet in public toilets and parks,” he said. “Now there are bars, meetings, and even sports events.”

Yet the writer’s own life expresses the poignant half-world of China’s homosexuals. His novels like Good Boy Luo Ge have not been published in the Chinese mainland, only in Hong Kong, under a still-prurient censorship policy that has also restricted exhibition of some fine Chinese and Hong Kong films dealing with gay and lesbian stories.

His first love affair was at age of 17 when he and a male friend were assigned to Inner Mongolia at the start of the Cultural Revolution. One night, the two got drunk and found each other.

“It was wonderful – everything happened,” he said. “I felt like it was something I’d been waiting for a long time. I had no concept then of what homosexuality was – it was a period without reflection.”

— Sydney Morning Herald

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Paranoia alive and well

The 新青年学会 Xin Qingnian Xuehui – New Youth Study Group formed in Beijing in 2000. Really no more than a group of like-minded politically-motivated students and graduates who got together sporadically and debated politics and social issues, most of them are now in jail, except the one who betrayed them.

The Washington Post has a lengthy article on the group, in particular Li Yuzhou a philosophy major who betrayed the group to the Ministry of State Security, and fled, guilt-stricken soon after to Thailand.

The leadership’s interest in such a ragtag group reflects a deep insecurity about its grip on power. The party has delivered two decades of rapid growth, defying those who believe economic reform must lead to political liberalization. But it is struggling to manage rising social tension and popular discontent and remains especially wary of student activism, which sparked the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.