Attack of the (killer) Lesbian Gangs- Chavisa Woods

Excerpts from the GLBT Center Lecture on Street Sexual Harassment and the Dyke experience.                                   by Chavisa Woods


In conversations on the subject of gender, sex, sexuality and public interactions, when speaking with some seemingly liberal minded, artistically inclined, gay friendly heterosexual men, I have on more than one occasion come upon these general ideas and specific statements regarding the relationships of gender identity and gender relation.


1. Men’s sexual urges and desires are much stronger than women’s.


2. Testosterone is a sort of drug that affects sexual desire and ego in men in a way that women can never understand.


3. It takes a much larger amount of will power for a man to control his urges than it does for a woman to control hers.


4. Men’s urges are barbaric and primal. (implicitly excluding the primal from the feminine)


5. Most rapes occur because a woman is dressed provocatively. Most women who are raped were dressed provocatively when they were raped.


6. When upset, women cry, men kill.


7. I feel a sort of allegiance to other men and would not try to fuck their girlfriend, would not hit on her in front of her boyfriend. If a woman is with another woman, I see no real reason not to pursue that woman, or both women openly.


8. But you don’t look like a lesbian.


9. “Yeah, sure. My girlfriend likes women too. But it’s not the same thing. My desire for women is stronger than hers.”


10. Men are biologically more sexual than women. It is a scientific fact.


11. I think a lot of women don’t think they like being cat called, but when they get older, and it stops, they miss it.


12. And again. It is a scientific fact that male sexual desire is stronger than female sexual desire, which is a notion that runs through all of the statements.



The notion that it is a scientific fact that a woman’s sexual urges are not as strong as a man’s I find laughable, when taking into a consideration that for hundreds of years it was a scientific fact that women did not have orgasms. It seemed logical; the female orgasm was not needed for reproduction and women on the whole did not openly display strong sexuality, again for socio-psychological reasons. On the subject of scientific facts of biological sexuality I would also like to point out that the discovery of and research into the effects of estrogen began in the 1930’s, while the discovery and research of testosterone began in 1803.



When we approach something as interpersonal, psychological, sociological, and also biological, something as complex as sexual desire, it is inherently ruinous to approach the concept beginning with the question of strength. The question whose sexuality is stronger immediately mars and marks the deconstruction by implying that one side must ultimately take legitimacy over the other.


When using the question of strength, another problem arises. On what do you base the definition of strength when speaking of sexual desire? For too long it has been based on a simple fact of a physical urge, disregarding any notions of strong emotional or intellectual sexuality. A woman’s sexuality is therefore delegitimized as the emotional on the basis that the emotional is not linked to the instinctual, the primal, the physical.


This concept has no logical basis. Emotionality does stem from the instinctual and primal urges as much as the physical, although human emotions, over time have grown much more complex than animal emotion as we have become conscious of our emotions and are able to ask ourselves why we feel what we feel. Animals display a range of emotions too, albeit in a simplistic form; anger, guilt, sadness, playfulness, loyalty attraction, dislike, the need to nurture their young, fight, some species war and of coarse, the urge to reproduce. These all, at their base, are instinctual, simplistic emotional urges. Animals simply do not ask themselves why they feel these “emotions” and their emotions have remained basic, instinctual, less complex.


As the emotional sexual indicators have grown more complex in humans, so have physical sexual indicators. Thinness as a physically attractive concept is a very complex sexual indicator, as primaley, animalisticly, thinness would indicate sickness and weakness and make a female appear not to be a healthy mate or offspring bearer. In humans, typically, the woman is considered more attractive if she dresses colorfully, flamboyantly, showing off her body, wearing bright colors, flowers, make up etc. In most animals we find it is the males who display the flamboyant dress, and coloring, large feathers, bright reds and greens in lizards, birds and fish. Although among mammals the sexes are more homogenous. So even this idea of basic physical attraction in humans as purely primal and simple, does not take into consideration that human physical attraction, however immediate it may seem, is a very complex physiological process influenced by a societal evolution, that is now actually as far divided from animal territory as the emotional sexual response.



Also, I would like not to exclude the possibility that women’s physical sexual desire and enjoyment is as physically strong as a man’s, but that we process it, communicate it and act upon it differently, for biological, and socio- psychological reasons. This possibility cannot be overlooked. But it has been for generations. And that possibility many men still find laughable, and most likely threatening.



I can’t think of any other such marginalizing and outdated concept that is so widely accepted about a group of people in mainstream sociality as the conceit that a man’s sexual urges are overall, inherently, biologically STRONGER than a woman’s.


Again, this simple concept and the use of the idea of stronger is what inherently infects our idea of sexual desires. Exactly how the biology affects an individuals sexual desire is complex, may never be fully determined and shifts depending upon the psychology of the individual. I will say that a man’s biological make up is obviously different from a woman’s. And many studies have shown, or lead to show that a man’s sexuality and ability to enjoy sex is based more on basic physicality than a woman’s. But this idea that that basic physicality is more primal, more animalistic, again excluding or even neutralizing the role of female animal sexuality in nature, gives legitimacy to men over women as sexual creatures and takes a very naive and narrow view of nature, animal female sexuality and sexuality in general.


This concept seems to me to be not so different from the concept that blacks are biologically inclined to have better rhythm, be more sexual, violent or less intellectual due to the effects of melatonin.


Why does all of this matter?




This pervasive idea that a man’s sexuality is stronger, uncontrollable, is what allows men a sort of out, an excuse if you will to sexually harass and assault women on a daily basis with no danger of retribution. If this idea were not accepted, at least subconsciously by most of the population, would it be common place for an onlooker to take no action, to walk by as if nothing were happening, as a woman is being cat called, harassed and harangued? I don’t think so.



I live in Bedstuy Brooklyn. Although I encounter sexual harassment, cat calling etc, in every neighborhood, in this neighborhood, the level of aggression and frequency of cat calling  is noticeably higher in my neighborhood. I am not just called out as a dyke and as a woman; I am called out as a white woman. Men have yelled terms like snow bunny, snowflake, white bitch, white trash whore tap that white ass, as I walk by, and when I pass without acknowledging them, I am a white trash bitch, just a white bitch, and all sorts of other things.


On the surface this appears to be a racial and class issue. On some level it is. The subconscious need to subvert one’s own subjugation by subjugating another minority. But at it core it is definitively a sexist issue. These men see a white person as a representation of the former master and/or present oppressor; I have no doubt, and this feeling is not unfounded. But I have walked down these same streets with my white male friends in complete peace, while when I walk down the street with my female friends and my partner, it never fails to occur. Ultimately, I have concluded that these men view white women as white man’s property. Though they dare not “fuck with the master” in a public setting, they have no problem fucking with what is viewed as his property. The problem comes from viewing women, all women as someone’s property.


I do not eman to imply that these men do not also harangue and harass women of color. Of coarse they do. I’ve seen it. This is simply my experience.


The breaker came for me two weeks ago, when the cat calling, which I have always understood not as a sexual act, but a violent act, an act of aggression took on the form of full-blown assault. My girlfriend and I were walking down the street on a Sunday morning, heading to the deli on our block to get a bagel, and a man walked by, without saying a word and punched my partner in her stomach.

 He then went into the liquor store, bought a bottle of gin got into his car and sped away. I had my phone out to call the police, bit we were shocked and didn’t get his license number. There were other people on the street who had seen it. They did nothing except continue walking. One homeless man showed some sympathy, saying he had seen what had happened and was sorry. As we were speaking to this man and visibly upset, two other men dressed in their Sunday best walked by us and said flirtatiously, “good morning lovely ladies.” When we didn’t respond they scoffed and glared at us. I felt like was in a war zone, like I was possibly even a initiating the war, just by walking down the sidewalk without a man.


In one of her earlier poems, Adrian rich wrote that walking down the street visibly pregnant, was the first time in her life that she did not feel guilty walking alone as a woman.


That describes the feeling well. What are we guilty of? Of being a woman, alone or without a man. We are still guilty of being women un-owned by a man.


So dykes must be doubly guilty. We are not owned by men, some of us, to play with the term, are owned by and owned other women.


Now comes the issue of the dyke experience of harassment. I have been told by straight women, not to get so upset about cat calling. Some have even looked at me as though I was bragging when I complained about sexual harassment. And again I have heard from str8 men that they believe, while it annoys women, they miss it when they get older and cat calling ceases- That they worry that men no longer find them attractive.


I am not concerned with men finding me attractive. When I am walking down the street holding hands with my girlfriend and a man calls to us and implies that he would like to join us, I feel, not complimented. I feel “emasculated;’ for lack of a better term, humiliated, homicidal. 


You know the term can’t live with them, can’t live without them? I can live without them.


It is not only in the street that men invade my relationship, but in everyday conversation, at social functions, gallery openings concerts, etc. Men see no problem flirting with a woman who is in a relationship with another woman in front of the partner, when, If one of those women were male, they would never dare to do so. After being harassed on a beach, I spoke to a man and his wife who had witnessed the harassment and was concerned, but ultimately his concern veered into this mind boggling statement. “Well, you have to be careful, you are three women alone.” I was on the beach with two other female friends.  Now I have to ask you, how is it possible for us to have been alone when we were three people together? This implies that all women are alone without men. And it was not the first time I have heard such statements.





Group discussion began


Women were asked


How many have been sexually harassed? All


How many view cat-calling as sexual harassment?  All


How many of you have been physically assaulted: over 80%


Sexually assaulted: Over 80%


Raped: Many woman shared stories, one I have heard too often from lesbians, being raped by a casual acquaintance who claimed he was going to “fuck her straight.


One woman spoke of cat calling, ‘” I feel powerless. I shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of aggression every day of my life. I feel like I have my anger under control, and then, I don’t know, I feel like someday I might just freak out, explode and hurt someone, and that one guy is going to pay for every day, of all these years, of all these other men…”


Some statistics:


 ( I looked for statistics outlining the percentage of women raped who identify as lesbian, or percentages of lesbians who have been sexually assaulted. As of yet, i have found no statistics on that. If anyone knows where I might let me know)


·          One in 4 girls are sexually assaulted by the age 18


·          Of adult American women who are raped, 31.5 percent are physically injured, but only 35.6% of those who are injured received medical care.


·          According to a study conducted by the National Victim Center, 1.3 women (age 18 and over) in the United States are forcibly raped each minute. That translates to 78 an hour, 1,871 per day, or 683,000 per year.


·          According to the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 91% of the victims of rape and sexual assault are female and 9% are male.


·          Rape or sexual assault was the violent crime least often reported/ Only 16% of rapes are ever reported to the police.


·          7.7% of college men reported perpetrating aggressive behavior which met the legal definition of rape.


·          The rate of rapes and sexual assaults against lesbian and gays rose 13% nationally in 1995-1996, approximately twice the 6% rate for all violent crimes.


·          16% of male students surveyed by the Ms. Foundation who had committed rape, and 10% of those who attempted a rape, took part in episodes involving multiple perpetrators.


      -1 in 15 rape victims contracts a sexually transmitted disease as a result of being raped.  1 in 15 rape victims becomes pregnant as a result of being raped.  (Koss, Woodruff & Koss, 1990, A Criminological Study.)





Discussed means of activism.  This recent Trail was brought up. The case of the new Jersey four. (below)


Discussion lead to why this case has not had any real attention. Conclusion, because these were four black women, who were lesbians.


Many women in the room voiced their disappointment with the gay male community for not acting in solidarity with lesbian problems, when many lesbians have devoted much of their time as activists to issues directly affecting gay males. Women are harassed in the street as well, beaten and killed, but more often raped or threatened. They discussed the role of feminism in the lesbian community and the need for a greater understanding of feminist ideas.


Trial case details below:




“Or they defended themselves so you put them in jail.”


On August 18th, 2006 seven young African American lesbians (ranging from 19-30 years old) from New Jersey were verbally threatened, sexually harassed, and physically attacked by a twenty-nine year old man as they walked down the street in the West Village of New York City (the West Village is “the” gay spot in NYC. It actually pre-dates San Francisco as the ‘gay meca’ & is where queer youth from all over the country come to when they are ostracized from their communities. It is the site of the famous “Stonewall Riots” which sparked the gay rights movement in the late 60′s. And currently, 40% of the homeless people in the West Village are queer youth of color).

The man, Dwayne Buckle, approached the girls/ women saying he wanted to “get some of that” pointing Patreese Johnson’s vagina (Patreese was 19, but she looks 12). She said she was gay & not interested in men, in fact was arm & arm with another girl. He proceeded to tell them he would “fuck them all straight,” he said they were “nasty” and many other sexually assaulting and homophobic slurs.

They responded to him verbally . He flicked his cigarette at them & then spit in Renata Hill’s face. She spit back. He then punched Venice Brown in the face. From there a fight broke out. The girls would try to get him off one person & he would grab another. He pulled dreadlocks straight out of a girl’s scalp, extensions out of two others & chocked two of them until they changed color in the face.

Two men standing by jumped in to defend the girls. One took off his belt & whipped him repeatedly in the head with his belt buckle. The second guy is thought, by some to have stabbed him in the stomach. The attacker was allegedly stabbed in the stomach, and spent five days in the hospital with no long-term wounds. When these two men joined the fight, the women were able to get away. At one point on the surveillance (there were two cameras that caught different parts of the fight on tape) camera you see the girls walking away & the man Buckle waving hair he pulled out of their head at them & following after them for a moment.


The police came to the scene. The women had entered a Mcdonald’s a couple of blocks away. The police arrested the women.

The 7 women were initially charged with attempted murder. Those charges were dropped, but they were all charged and convicted with Gang Assault in the Second Degree and then various degrees of Assault (which are all felony convictions). Three accepted a guilty plea bargain and received six-months & five years probation. The other four, who became known as the NJ4, plead not-guilty and received sentences ranging from 3.5, 5, 8, and 11 years (Terrain Dandridge, Venice Brown, Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson). The two men who jumped into the fight were never looked for nor questioned.

The man who initially harassed them is charging that the girls took part in hate crime against straight men, and has a website and organization which now collects donations to prevent hate crime against straight men.


The media coverage was outrageous. Everyone from the NY Times, Bill O’Reilly, The Daily Post, the Washington Post, etc, had headlines ranging from, “Attack of the Killer lesbians,” “Petit But Ornery Lesbians Stab Admirer,” “Lesbian Gangs are taking over the U.S.” “Growling Lesbians,” “Wolf Pack of Lesbians,” etc. The media was blatantly homophobic, racist, sexist and classist. They used criminalizing language and likened them to animals, using only the picture of one of the butch lesbians in all of the papers. They also questioned “if they could even afford to be in NYC”.

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Chavisa Woods’ Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind -Reviewd byPhilip Gounis


          There’s a girl in New York City

          She calls herself the human trampoline

          And sometimes when I am falling, flying

          Tumbling in turmoil I say

          Oh, so this is what she means

                  -Graceland (Paul Simon

           It seemed eerily significant that in the same week that I first met Chavisa Woods, scenes of youthful violence and victimization filled the media outlets. YouTube videos of teenage girls in Florida bloodying one of their own was broadcast ad nauseum; over four hundred children of a polygamous sect in Texas were taken into protective custody; and Virginia Tech noted one year since its on campus massacre. A societal landscape of pervasive brutality and ubiquitous perdition. This also is the milieu of Woods’ short story collection, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind. Her stories are at once a true-life chronicle of growing up absurdly in rural America and a surrealistic survival book on how to transcend the same.

              Readers may have trekked some of this toxic terrain before with writers like Dorothy Allison, but Chavisa Woods leads us through these narratives with a Doris Lessing-like metaphysical clarity.

It is the author’s understated, wise beyond her years psychological perceptions that are the binding emulsion of this collection. In response to an interviewer’s comment on this, Ms. Woods response was,” Don’t they say it’s the mileage not the years that matter?” Indeed.

    It is a mark of the writer’s syntactical brilliance that she opens this book with a textbook precise description of the honeysuckle plant only to then adroitly immerse the reader in the paradoxical childhood realm of vulnerability and acute awareness. “Where I was growing up, violence was as common as a sneeze”, Ms. Woods stated to me matter- of- factly. Characteristically the children in “The Smell of Honey” have become acclimated to an atmosphere of violence to the point where this acclimation has become their device for survival. This is a reoccurring thread throughout the book.

    The vivid characters and scenarios are depicted with such sagacious nuance, that the reader is drawn into a childlike vision of rich metaphor that belies the knife sharp actuality. It is both a trenchant literary memoir and a searing indictment of a pitiless society. “Sundown in the Land of Lincoln” tells of a novice African-American grade school student who realizes that “People were processing the information of him and trying to fit him into the category of human being, without compromising the integrity of their own status…” Later, his dilemma is only finally resolved with a magical jolt of cultural and chemical shamanism.  


               By the time the reader reaches only the third story, “Kicking”; they find themselves vicariously enveloped in the complex vortex of adolescent sexuality. In just four pages, the writer vibrantly brings alive all the fear, anticipation and wonder of youthful physical discovery. All of this in what is ostensibly a short description of everyday playground shenanigans. This alternating sensibility of empowerment and vulnerability is the vehicle that transports and thereby transforms those who partake in all of Chavisa Woods’ art. It is an artistic statement that brings to mind the observations of French philosopher Jacques Lacan and his extensive explorations of his concept of “the Other.” In other stories, the female protagonists respond to their exploitation with a violent, brutal act. Mutilation or dismemberment is not disallowed. At the same time there is always a transcendent panoramic truth, both ontological and emotional that fills the page. 

       “Never Enough” is a narrative from her book that has a section that Ms. Woods often delivers as a performance piece. In it, the narrator, a female proto-punk dyke Holden Caulfield type declares: “ Or maybe I don’t believe in GOD anymore, ’cause my God was always talking about how he died for me and I had to die and be reborn for him all the time, or else spend all my afterlife dying, and I only have the energy to die for one thing at a time right now, and right now I’m dying for love. Maybe I’ll die for love right now, and later I’ll die for God. Or maybe I already died a little for God. Anyway. Fuck it.”

     It is in fact, the philosophical undercurrent of these stories that drive them and distinguish them from the genre of transgressive literature. And it is not as if these stories necessarily unfold in an orthodox linear manner. It is more accurate to say that the brilliantly descriptive prose barrels the reader through a Hieronymus Bosch like tunnel of images and deep perceptions. One rich in societal and psychological revelations. These seemingly shuffled chapters of one novel suggest progression and development simultaneously with freeze frame cinematic scenes that stop time for both the characters and reader. Beyond the constraints of linearity, the author is free to impart to the reader incidents in scenarios that are unbounded by cause and effect. What then surfaces and are truly experienced by the reader are the most profound of emotional and at the same time political truths.

            Chavisia Woods’ prose explodes the connection between patriarchal tyranny and fascism. It is within that spectacle of explosion that the contemporary American Zeitgeist becomes illuminated. . Love Does Not Make Me Gentle Or Kind is as much an indictment of the ignorant and sadistic among us as it is of the collective atmosphere of indifference that nurtures the same. What level of indifference must exist in a society that celebrates ignorance and pain? Is this indifference the only natural human response to an unfeeling, modern super- sized technological environment? And to what degree are these factors the result of a system of Darwinian economics? 


     Only the best narrative writing can provoke as this collection does. This is an extraordinary book. Woods’ impeccable use of language involves the reader in a high level of intense vicarious physicality, while it provokes an equally intense emotional and intellectual response. This is well crafted art in the form of effective, dynamic literature.

                                                                                               – Philip Gounis

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The Touching Exhibit – reviewed by Maria Logven and Tom Weiss


This review of the recent Yoko Ono “Touch Me” exhibit at the Galerie Lelong in Manhattan, is the work of two writers. Maria Logven, a native of St. Petersburg, Russia, writes fiction and poetry and is a regular at art openings. Tom Weiss, a native of New York City, is the publisher of UP FRONT News and also writes some poetry. He is not a regular at art openings. Both are residents of Staten Island.

* * *touch_me_exhibit_photo_by_daydreampilot-3.JPG

Touch me was the intimate title of Yoko Ono’s 2008 solo exhibition held at Galerie Lelong, New York. The personal nature of the show was conveyed through conceptual photography, film, portraits, and sculptures that invited viewers to participate and become not merely part of the show but also its heart. Works of different media positioned viewers at the center of the world created by Yoko Ono, the world that viewers could connect with and recognize. Touch me invited visitors to examine themselves through their relationship to this world. Point of view, both very personal and at the same time shared by others became the intangible creation that was as much part of the show as the installations that were used to produce it. By exhibiting this point of view, the show embraced the female experience.
Connections or relationships were integral themes that united all elements of the show. Segmentation is the method Yoko Ono chose to highlight relationships.
The exhibit was physically arranged in two somewhat separated sections. Touch me I, Touch me II, Touch me III, and Vertical Memory appeared in the large space, separated from the smaller adjacent area by a partition. The smaller area, which also contained the four screens of Ms. Ono’s Cut Piece performance, represented something of a political statement regarding mental health and freedom.
Touch me I was a large canvas that covered the entire width of the gallery. The canvas had several cut-outs in which visitors were encouraged to insert their body parts and have their photographs taken with provided cameras. Then viewers could write comments on their photographs and pin them to Touch me II, a white wall forming another canvas. Inserting their body parts into the holes, participating visitors had to consider particular segments of their body that they wished to appear on a large white canvas. Was it a face, a hand, a leg, or an intimate body part some felt brave enough to expose? All the grimaces and postures became segments pinned to the second canvas. Looking at the pictures—funny, shy, cute, conservative, ugly; reading comments—silly, neutral, sharp, sordid, humorous; viewers laughed, pointed fingers, compared, and contrasted, uniting these segments into a single growing installation and becoming aware of the relationship between themselves and the multitude of others. Crowning this installation was the Sky TV, another canvas that could be filled with stars resembling the photographs of the show stars pinned to the second canvas.
Touch me III consisted of female body segments. Visitors were invited to dip their index and middle fingers into a bowl of solution and touch the soft texture. Disturbing to the eye were the deformities of the body. The text on the wall explained that the sculpture was damaged and its toes were severed by rough handling. Yoko Ono decided not to restore the sculpture but left it as a comment on female experience. Viewers’ eyes connected segments into a body, while their fingers formed a connection with their own bodies both physically and mentally as they became aware of their own body parts that correspond to the ones they touched on the sculpture.
Vertical Memory was a series of pictures of a male face created by combining Yoko Ono’s father, husband, and son. Concise and moving comments written under the pictures were distinct segments that united into a narrative about the passage through life from birth to death. This installation highlighted diverse relationships to various men throughout a lifetime.
Segmentation continued into the adjacent gallery room with a 4-screen installation of Yoko Ono’s performance Cut Piece, filmed at Carnegie Recital Hall in 1965. The film featured Yoko Ono whose clothes were cut to pieces with scissors by regularly approaching strangers.
There was a series of portraits, Memory Paintings, of women from an earlier century who, according to a gallery staffer, were inpatients of a psychiatric facility in France. At the time the facility was presumably known as an asylum. While none of the subjects were depicted as in distress, none were smiling. One was somewhat disfigured. The inner side of the partition contained the outline of a door, presumably the way out of the institution.
Installations displayed in both rooms conveyed similar themes through similar methods, but taken together they demonstrated the connection of female experience through time.


Rescatando a un Anti-Héroe – por Linda Morales Caballero

Luis Bandolero Luis
Walter Ventosilla
Paloma Ediciones

En Luis Bandolero Luis, el dramaturgo, cuentista, novelista y artista plástico peruano, Walter Ventosilla narra una historia propia de la literatura romántica, extraída de la tradición oral de las serranías de Perú, con rasgos costumbristas y basada en la vida real.

El personaje principal como el título del libro lo manifiesta se llamó Luis, nombre completo: Telmo Luis Pardo Novoa dicen mis fuentes, pero pasó a la historia como Luis Pardo, un héroe, anti-héroe convertido en leyenda. Nacido en Chiquián, provincia de Bolognesi en el Departamento de Ancash al norte de Lima, el 19 de agosto de 1874 y muriendo el 9 de enero de 1909, a los 34 años de edad.

Luis Pardo es el Zorro, o si se quiere el Robin Hood de Chiquián en la serranía peruana sobre quien han escrito poemas, himnos, canciones, dramas y semblanzas escritores como José Diez Canseco, Alberto Ramírez y Oscar Colchado Lucio.

Ventosilla, en esta época sin héroes reales rescata a Luis Pardo como a una figura de carne y hueso que se sublevó ante al abuso de los terratenientes de su época y quien, a pesar de ser uno de ellos, optó por la justicia comezando por casa, dando así un ejemplo a seguir en contra del abuso de los gamonales para con los peones.

En ese sentido la novela trata un tema actual, tanto en materia de justicia social como en la importancia de volver la mirada hacia las raíces y cultivar a personajes históricos, por lo tanto imperfectos y vulnerables, hombres que se sublevaron ayudando con su vida y sus actos a denunciar el abuso a los más desposeídos, y a la vez legando con su muerte la consumación de una historia que no debía repetirse.

El aspecto humano del personaje aparece en sus debilidades de hombre: mujeriego (medio misógino) y bebedor, las que no son disimuladas, por el contrario, incomodan y ocasionan al protagonista una tragedia irremediable de la que extraer una lección, para que al final quede la leyenda de un hombre imperfecto que intentó hacer algo bien.

La narración de la historia va en dos tiempos, uno en el presente y el otro retrospectivo. La cuentan dos personajes: uno que vivió al lado del bandolero los momentos más importantes de su vida, hombre de la sierra que se expresa con el lenguaje propio de su calidad de peón, y quién se la cuenta al misterioso alter ego del narrador, cuya identidad (aunque quizás sospechada en algún punto de la narración ) se descubrirá totalmente al final de la novela para rematar el desenlace.

Así como los medios y los juegos de video venden, especialmente a las generaciones actuales, héroes ficticios, Ventosilla encuentra a través de este trabajo el modo de reavivar la memoria perdida en una sociedad de globalizado consumo dónde las nuevas generaciones aprenden sobre héroes virtuales con capacidades sobre humanas; esta novela, por el contrario, trae al presente un mundo real en un espacio y tiempos aún vigentes en la historia.

Walter Ventosilla con su novela Luis bandolero Luis rescata a un personaje a través del cual los lectores de esta generación, o sea los jóvenes en particular, dentro y fuera de Latinoamérica, pueden conocer a un héroe de carne y hueso, y no sólo consumir a los “bandoleros” “justicieros” que Hollywood inventa y hace famosos para vendernos una realidad ficticia.

The Inheritance of Loss – reviewed by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

“The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai

Grove / Atlantic, 2006, 324 pages


Review by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

Kiran Desai’s second novel (after Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard) earned high

accolades including a Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award.  The Inheritance of

Loss examines weighty sociological themes like colonialism, revolution, and immigration.   To

do so,  Desai shuttles readers back and forth from a mountain village in Nepal to the back rooms

and basements of New York City restaurants.

The most engaging and immediate storyline involves Sai, a teenaged orphan raised in an

English boarding school who has come to live with her grandfather.  In her grandfather’s

decrepit, isolated house in the shadow of Mount Kanchenjunga, Sai falls in love with an educated

but lower-class boy hired as her tutor.

While Sai’s grandfather is immersed in his own memories, Sai is mostly looked after by

the grandfather’s devoted cook.  No one in the house suspects that Sai’s love, Gyan, has been

swept up in revolutionary spirit and involved himself with a loosely-organized, lawless band of

angry young men who call themselves the Gorkha Liberation Army.  The rebellion, which Desai

paints as stemming from an angry response to poverty rather than a noble quest for equality,

suddenly reaches Sai’s doorstep.

Gyan’s foolish betrayal of his young loverñinforming his friends that Sai’s house contains

firearms and liquor and has no young men to guard it– is not revealed immediately, though the

frightening home invasion happens at the beginning of the novel, which then works its way back.

This was a slight misstep on Desai’s part;  this scene is the most intense of the novel and would

have been even more chilling had we known Gyan was responsible.  That early on in the book,

the reader hasn’t yet learned to care for Sai or for the cook: the stakes would’ve been higher for

the reader had Desai waited.  It is the most engaging and well-written part of the novel,  marred

by an unnecessary, offbeat bit of timeplay.

Structurally, Desai also loses points messing with unnecessary subplots.  The main

subplot follows the tribulations of the cook’s son, Biju, an illegal immigrant in New York City.

Biju works in run-down kitchens, sleeping in basement apartments overcrowded with other

illegals.  He finds no reconciliation with his father’s expectations of life in America.  His father’s

misguided belief in the American dream is obvious in his letters to Biju, in which he implores his

son to help the sons-and-daughters of neighbors as they arrive to New York illegally by the day.

Biju avoids “the tribe,”–of course he has no work for them, no food for them, and no where for

them to sleep.   The author’s pointñthat it’s no fun being an illegal alienñis clear.  To top it off,

Biju is robbed by soldiers upon his return home, stripped of his meager savings as well as his

American clothes.    It’s an in-your-face reminder that Biju has failed to absorb anything positive

from his time in America.

The author also offers occasional portraits of Sai’s grandfather as he examines his own

past; first as an impoverished child, then a haughty young man being educated in England, then a

feared Judge and abusive husband to his wife-by-arranged-marriage.  The Judge is a frustrating

character who never repents his misdeeds–only that they come back to him threefold.  His

comeuppance is, sadly, at the expense of his gentle dog, Mutt, so the reader can’t even glory in it.

Bouncing between three major storylines is difficult enough.  Unfortunately, Desai didn’t

stop there.  Biju’s friend Saeed– a ladies’ man from Zanzibar –has his own tales to tell.  Much

time is spent observing an elderly, upper-class pair of sisters who live in Sai’s village as they get

ousted from their home by revolutionaries.   There is also Uncle Potty and father Booty who

accidentally run afoul of the law, plus a handful of other minor characters who frequently pull us

away from more layered stories.

There is a fine line between creating tension by interrupting a narrative at a crucial

pointñthe cliffhanger effectñand allowing a plot to lose momentum.   Balancing big themes with

multiple storylines takes a mature writer.  Desai mostly succeeds, but a more seasoned writer

might have excelled.

To Desai’s credit, she is ambitious and never afraid to take chances in her writing,

playing with poetic form or even shopping-list style passages.  When she is successful, she can

deliver a beautiful knockout of a line: “They took the toy train and went to the Darjeeling zoo

and viewed in their free, self-righteous, modern love, the unfree and ancient bars, behind which

lived a red panda, ridiculously solemn for being such a madly beautiful thing, chewing his

bamboo leaves as carefully as a bank clerk doing numbers.”

When her writing falters, the result can seem jejune:  “…the light shining through thick

bamboo in starry, jumping chinks, imparting the feeling of liquid shimmering.”  Nonetheless,

Desai is a novelist to watch, carrying her readers to an exotic emotional landscape.  Chances are

good that she will continue to grow as a writer, and whatever she writes after Inheritance may

well be her opus magnum.

Travesuras de la niña mala/The Mischiefs of the Bad Girl – by Linda Morales Caballero

Mario Vargas Llosa
Travesuras de la niña mala/The Mischiefs of the Bad Girl
Lectura en la 92nd “Y” de Nueva York
15 de octubre de 2007
Por Linda Morales Caballero

Mario Vargas Llosa, el escritor hispano-peruano de reconocida trayectoria  dio una lectura de su más reciente novela Travesuras de la niña mala el día 15 de octubre en el  Kaufmann Concert Hall de la YMCA sobre la calle 92 en Manhattan, más conocido como la “Y” en Nueva York.
Después de la bienvenida al evento por el representante del director de la Y, vino la presentación del Sr. Jonathan Galassi, su editor, quien anunció que luego de la lectura, el escritor respondería a algunas preguntas formuladas por el público mediante tarjetas y firmaría libros en otro salón. Mario Vargas Llosa hizo entonces su entrada al escenario frente a una sala llena por una audiencia de habla inglesa y castellana, más o menos a partes iguales, quien le brindó una bienvenida con efusivos aplausos.
Vargas Llosa, Vestido de riguroso traje negro y lentes en mano explicó que haría una lectura bilingüe del libro traducido al inglés por Edith Grossman, a quién elogió por su trabajo. Acto seguido, comenzó en español con una breve lectura del primer capítulo de la novela, dónde Ricardito, el protagonista, y la niña mala, Lily, hacen su primera aparición. A continuación y en un inglés de marcado acento hispano hizo una larga lectura del capítulo II del libro.
Vargas Llosa bebiendo sorbitos de agua, de cuando en cuando, llevó al público por las páginas de su más reciente novela. Los asistentes rieron celebrando su sentido del humor, lo que  hace pensar que: o Vargas Llosa ha desarrollado un sentido del humor internacional o bien logra hacer entrar a los lectores en su mundo.
Cuando la lectura en inglés comenzó a resultar un poco extensa algunos asistentes se retiraron mientras otros comenzaron a distraerse, especialmente un grupo de muchachos de la escuela quienes tenían reservada gran parte de la platea. Pero Vargas Llosa no pareció enterarse si bien tal vez le produjo alguna distracción ya que, a pesar de la fluidez con que leía, a partir de este punto tuvo que repetir la entonación de algunas palabras.
Sin embargo llegada la hora de las preguntas, toda la audiencia (que seguía siendo la mayoría) volvió a concentrarse:
¿Ud. cree que los libros deben entretener?
A lo que respondió que sí, que si no entretenían eran un fracaso. “Deben atrapar al lector o tratar de hacerlo”, añadió.
¿Fue difícil escribir Travesuras de la niña mala?
“Siempre es difícil para mí” dijo, “a veces doloroso”. Explicó que un libro puede llevarle entre dos y tres años. Comentó que poco a poco se “infecta” de su atmósfera “y es entonces cuando me envuelvo”. Y confesó, “Al principio estoy distante”
¿Re-inventar a Madame Bovary lo inspiró?
“No, para nada. Tuve esta idea (la suya) por mucho tiempo. Quería escribir una novela romántica moderna, en un mundo dónde las cosas han cambiado mucho” Y aclaró que éste es ahora un mundo dónde las mujeres pueden tomar decisiones. La idea de la novela romántica se sumó al recuerdo de los lugares donde el escritor vivió y quiso utilizar su memoria histórica y personal. Aclaró que en la novela la parte del romance era la que tenía más ficción.
¿Vivir en el extranjero ha influido en su trabajo?
“Por su puesto, yo no sería el escritor que soy si no hubiera vivido en el extranjero” Dijo que sería un escritor de todas formas, pero uno diferente. Agregó que había sido influenciado tanto en la metodología que usa como en el tener unos horizontes más amplios que a su vez lo habían llevado a un mejor entendimiento de las relaciones humanas y del Perú.
“Fue en Francia que descubrí que era latinoamericano. Yo no me reconocía como un latino, me sentía como un peruano que deseaba ser un escritor en Francia”. Añadió que fue allí, en París, dónde descubrió a los otros integrantes del boom Latinoamericano y mencionó entre otros a Carpentier, Borges y Cortazar. “Esto enriqueció mi vida” dijo, y añadió que Octavio Paz llamaba a Paris “la capital de los escritores latinoamericanos” Atribuyó esta falta de reconocimiento a la ausencia de comunicación entre los países latinoamericanos.
“Yo respiré los años de la utopía” dijo, tal vez para aclarar su simpatía por los temas de izquierda de esa época. “Era prácticamente imposible no ser seducido por estas ideas. Entonces descubrí que los mitos y las ideas no eran parte del mundo real. Creíamos que la literatura tomaba parte en la transformación del mundo político y esto nos daba energía. Hasta que en los años 60’s las cosas comenzaron a cambiar”.
¿Es Ricardo (el protagonista de la novela) un patético, un romántico o ambas cosas?
“Mirándolo de lejos es un mediocre que solamente quiere vivir en Paris, eso llena sus expectativas. Pero por el tipo de amor que siente por la niña mala él vive una aventura extraordinaria a nivel personal”. Sobre la niña mala dijo, con una sonrisa de satisfacción, que ella era muy diferente, que la vida para ella era luchar, que era feroz para sobrevivir, alguien que vista de lejos podía ser condenada pero de cerca se volvía un ser humano mucho más creativo e interesante (que Ricardito)
La pregunta final no pudo estar mejor seleccionada a propósito de que la novela habla de lugares, moda, bebidas y comidas:
¿Qué elegiría Ud. si supiera que va a comer su última cena?
“¡Si supiera que esta es mi última cena no podría comer nada!” terminó diciendo y cerrando la presentación con un sentido del humor que todos celebraron riendo y con  muchos aplausos.

Luego de concluida la lectura se pasó a un salón donde una fila muy  larga de lectores esperó a que Vargas Llosa les firmara sus libros.

Nota: La sección de preguntas y respuestas fue llevada a cabo en inglés, para traerlas al público hispano parlante estas han sido traducidas lo más fielmente posible por la periodista.


En la Y de Nueva York

Presentación de Travesuras de la niña mala

Octubre de 2007

Foto, cortesía de Elizabeth Matamoros


My Chippewa friend has Penobscot Nation messages
posted on her front door
left there by her lover who lived with her before.
I can’t say I was sorry to see him go
cause he didn’t know how to party
or hang with our jazzy gleeful flow
He would often scream and was kinda mean
thinking we weren’t in the know
his favorite saying being
“I told you damn fools to go!”
At times now she mopes around her little place
cause she says she misses his sexual dance
it being the delicious apex of their stormy romance.
But he had to go back home to help with the horses
on his Dad’s big country ranch
him teaching those beautiful horses
to gallop around and prance
since they’ll become his inheritance.
His Dad’s getting old and can no longer process and hold
that big place all by himself
He doesn’t want to lose it or have it sold
so he called all his children back to him
putting a cramp in their roaming ways
But he had to be realistic and not think like he still has
his strong young carefree days.
I asked my Chippewa friend
if she was gonna visit her lover and
hang out at his ranch
She said no way cause in that lifestyle
she doesn’t stand a chance.
I told her she could learn.
She said urban life is for me
I want to be away from all that farm misery
I need to be free to come and go as I please
not cleaning horse stables and shucking peas!
I was kinda surprised you know
cause if he asked me I sure would go
even though he’d sometimes scream
but maybe in the wilderness
he’d release all his penned up city steam.
My Chippewa friend
still has Penobscot Nation messages
posted on her front door
She claims he ain’t coming back
so she says she ain’t happy like she thought she was before.
But how happy was she
with those messages posted on her door?
Stay away it said
Stay away she belongs to me
as she became a part of his fenced in destiny.
Those Penobscot Nation messages posted on her front door
should be coming down as I told her many times before.
In the past she chose to ignore me
since she said she loved him most definitely
I often wondered how their love could exist
But I need to mind my own business
so she won’t become pissed with me
forcing me to flee her company
Those Penobscot Nation messages are still on her front door
now she says he’s coming back for sure.
I feel happy for her
Maybe he’s changed a little here a little there
I don’t think she cares as long as he comes home
to her apartment above the stair to live
behind those Penobscot Nation messages
still posted on her front door giving all he’s able to give.
I know she’s looking for more of his love and his way
that Penobscot man’s coming back she hopes to stay.

Copyright 2008
Candece Tarpley

A Study of Icelandic Culture & Custom – by Maya-Catherine Popa

I. A Place Apart: A Brief History and Introduction:

In his poem entitled Journey to Iceland, W.H Auden says “Islands are places apart where Europe is absent/Are they? The world still is, the present, the lie” . Are we ever apart? Certainly, that is the paradox of travel: the more we personally discover of our earth, the longer we are away from our proper home. And yet, the islands, continents, and coasts all comprise this world we call home. The effect of being in a foreign place is often overwhelming. Our environment shapes our understanding of who we are: we live in context of what is familiar around us. But as Danish-born anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup advises, we must approach the foreign as a practiced place, to be experienced rather than seen. Language, here, is of the utmost importance: to experience rather than to see a place assumes that a number of external forces are actively at work. Foreign places should gratify all of our senses, not just our sight. Indeed, our understanding of where we are in the world is shaped by many factors that warrant discussion.
The difference between home and abroad is a sizeable one. It is as though the unfamiliar happens to us: the land, language, and people are all elements of our exchange. We interact with new places in a profoundly different way than we approach our hometowns. Whenever we travel, we are protagonists in a story of displacement and must act accordingly, experiencing in first person, not as the narrator. Perhaps our objective should be to unlock some secret, to mend the rift that sets us apart from the natives. This ambition is necessary when discussing Iceland, a country so unique in landscape, language, and custom that assuming the role of spectator and not a player in the performance would mean to miss the show entirely.
Hastrup claims to take the standpoint of “marginal observer, suspended between the private and public worlds” in her study of Iceland entitled A Place Apart. Though she refers to the private and public as two separate worlds, there is one unique world for Icelandic identity. While Iceland may appear impenetrable to foreigners, Icelanders actively reconcile the dual nature of their existence, embracing a catalogue of distinctive traditions while increasingly becoming a trendy destination and host to modern ideas and events. However, as any anthropologist will stress, it is difficult, and often unwise, to make generalizations about a society and its history. Harstrup notes “the stories told by anthropologists are reflections within reality, not outside or ‘upon’ it.” One objective is to reveal something essential about the people and culture in question through illustration rather than fact. Insights are achieved through a model of occurrence and recurrence. What should be sought, then, is a blueprint of experience that echoes basic truths about the place in question.
What form could reflect our understanding of culture? It appears that culture is a term at once stable and rushing ahead of us. We may speak of it in varyingly definite terms, of elements that suggest the expansiveness of society and place. Anthropologist Anthony Cohen suggests “culture is more like the performance of a symphony, in which members of the orchestra contribute varyingly, and possibly even have completely different opinions about the music they are playing” . It is ultimately beyond the limits of language. To the listeners, the visitors of a country like Iceland, the effect is that of “a unified score”. The variations are perceptible, though not fully identifiable to those outside the cultural ring. Culture is not as concrete as it is suggestive, a medley of factors that create our understanding of a place to be experienced.
Cohen’s analogy to music is one of the finer parallels to our position as cultural outsiders, a stance we each adopt at some point in our travels, or when addressing a foreign place in conceptual, detailed terms. This is particularly relevant to Iceland, a country riddled with elements worthy of examination. However, it is impossible to substantially discuss the country without a considered dose of contexture. As Harstrup concludes, writing culture “is neither canonical representation, nor creative fiction; it is a mode of orchestrating real experiences which brings contexture to life.”

I decided to visit Iceland in summer 2007, for a drastic change from New York’s summer scenery. I knew that by my visit in late August, the Midnight Sun, a natural phenomenon causing daylight to last 24 hours in Iceland, (as well in various other countries with north latitudes near the Arctic Circle), would have set. I was, instead, excited at the prospect of witnessing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis), the colorful curtains that cover the night sky in the world’s northernmost countries.
After a short five-hour flight, the pilot announced our decent into Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. As I looked out the window, however, I couldn’t help but ask myself if there had been some mistake. The view in no way suggested an inhabited country. In fact, what could be seen resembled images of the surface of Mars, volcanic and desolate. The sky was eerily white and the ground had a texture I had only seen in science textbooks. Soon enough, the runway came into view, and the lack of visible habitation was still startling. I soon remembered that Iceland is no bigger than the state of Kentucky and has a population of 300,000 (compared to Kentucky’s 4.2 million )—why would those people live close to the airport? Indeed, two thirds of the population lives in Reykjavik and its surrounding suburbs. No wonder it looked as though we’d taken a wrong turn and landed in uncharted territory.
Once in Reykjavik, I was staying with Rutur Finbogosson, an old friend whose parents are both Icelandic-born diplomats. Though Rutur had traveled the world over, living in half-a-dozen countries before the age of twenty, he had decided to return to Reykjavik for the summer to work in a factory that produces tar and asphalt for roadwork. Though Icelanders have always relied heavily on farming and fishing, a job in a factory, I learned, was common for young men regardless of their socioeconomic background. It is customary for Iceland’s youths to work as soon as they are of age, and as the construction industry is currently booming in Iceland (over 55% of Iceland’s buildings date post 1970) , many find jobs in factories. I was skeptical of this seemingly unfitting job for Rutur who is an indisputable intellectual, but learned he was being handsomely rewarded for his time there (particularly in light of the weakness of the US dollar).
Iceland, situated in the North Atlantic, was first visited by Irish monks in the eighth century. It was largely uninhabited until the ninth century, at the start of the Norse settlements. The first constitution was written in 930, establishing Iceland as a self-governing, democratic state. The alþingi (people’s assembly) were to meet once a year to confirm laws and judge cases brought before the court. In the year 1000, by a communal decision passed by the assembly, Iceland became Christian. The church eventually gained power, overwriting many of Iceland’s traditional laws. Nonetheless, it flourished as an autonomous society with an impressive political structure and refined tradition of writing.
As Christianity’s principles slowly (and predictably) affected the country, Iceland increasingly welcomed the idea of a kingdom based on divine power, a structure to which it had once been opposed. In the thirteenth century, Iceland swore allegiance to the Norwegian kingdom, and in 1380, when Norway united with Denmark, Iceland became a part of the Danish realm. Iceland stayed under Danish rule until its independence in 1918. The Republic of Iceland was declared in 1944, successfully ridding the country of its last bindings to the Danish kingdom.
I could not have asked for a host with a richer Icelandic history: Rutur’s aunt is Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, and the first woman in the world to be chosen as head of state in an open election. She held office from 1980-1996, for four terms, which is not uncommon in Iceland. The president can serve for as many terms as he/she chooses, and is elected. The president, however, is not the head of government—that role is still reserved to the prime minister.
Iceland has not had it easy throughout the centuries, passing from the hands of one empire to another, only recently achieving its independence. Famines were widespread during Iceland’s “dark age”, 1400-1800s. Iceland was not modernized until after the Second World War, at which time it made remarkable progress, innovating quickly. Rutur often expressed pride in Iceland’s forward-thinking approach to politics and issues of gender, as well as admiration for his aunt and her much appreciated work as the country’s leader. Iceland is renowned for an egalitarian system, something I was unaware of prior to my visit to the country. And if my brief week in Reykjavik convinced me of anything, it is that the old and the new can be meshed in wonderful and unexpected ways. Traditions can be upheld in the face of innovation, resulting in a hybrid as culturally varied and rich as the landscape itself.

II. Icelandic Identity and the Foreigner’s Dilemma

I was surprised to find that every Icelander I came in contact with would, after a brief introduction, ask if I had read the sagas. I was familiar with the concept of saga—a lengthy chronicling of heroic events—but the frequent questioning lead me to suspect that my interrogators had something specific in mind. The Icelandic sagas, it appeared, were not on par with my rather limited understanding of this body of literature. I left Iceland with napkins full of scribbled names, Njáls, Herald’s, Laxdaela’s; Rutur’s friends even argued over recommendations. It seemed as though every Icelander had these references under belt the way we, in America, might know the Disney classics, or pick up on references to Mark Twain’s disobedient boys. However, my analogy overlooks a key difference by omitting the important component all sagas share: the chronicling of events that are, by Icelanders, considered historical.
Whereas Americans appreciate their literature to varying degree, Icelanders look to the sagas as their written past. It is not purely the writing, but the story itself that excites them in a way that is foreign to our understanding of history or fiction proper. Iceland is a land of customs, of shared traditions and linguistic purism. In her study of Iceland, Hastrup tells us that when the Enlightenment occurred, foreign observers took note of how Icelanders retained more Nordic practices and beliefs than anywhere else. This is attributed largely to Iceland’s low external contact to the rest of the world, as well as its large peasant population.
Naturally, this poses a difficulty to historians, not to mention any foreigner trying to develop an understanding of the country. But, as Hastrup rightfully expresses, the distinction between myth and history is “a distinction which is one of modes of representation rather than kinds of reality. The content of the two modes is reality itself, and in so far as we may separate them as distinct genres, they have always been blurred in Iceland” . It is not historical fiction that abounds in the Icelandic sagas, nor is it a conscious or deliberate attempt to sensationalize and/or manipulate fact. Rather, the sagas are an example of a longstanding oral tradition. Storytelling has been practiced virtually everywhere in Iceland since the country’s incipience. It is embedded in the culture to an outstanding degree, and has not simply been a pastime. The Icelanders have constructed their self-understanding around this tradition, and infused it into all domains of society.

III. The Role of Myth:

Former president Vigdís Finnbógadottir says “There is also a parallel world in Iceland, an otherworld which has held the imagination since the beginning of time” This parallel world is one abundant in hidden creatures, curses, and invisible forces that share the land. When we consider Iceland, a land rich in craters and crags, mountains and hillsides that look entirely untouched by human contact, these beliefs do not seem so implausible. Indeed, as Rutur told me, it is not too uncommon for construction to be limited in certain areas still believed inhabited by elves. This deference for the concealed is unfathomable in America.
Trolls (tröll), hidden people (huldufólk), and ghosts (draugar) are all said to call Iceland home. Kirsten Hastrup shares a fascinating, if not amusing, anecdote from her months spent in the Icelandic countryside. She recounts conversations with locals who explained that trolls had effectively become extinct some two hundred years ago, but that petrified ones could still be found in the landscape. The huldufólk, elves, or so-called “hidden people”, Hastrup believes represent “a category of metaphorical humans, closely associated with particular features of the landscape.” Around the farm, she explained, there were specific places in which huldufólk were known to live, generally rock areas or gullies. When Hastrup asked about the current status of the elves, the locals shrugged. They had to turn to personal memory, reflecting on moments they had last been seen. Eventually, the group decided a group of huldufólk had last been seen standing by the farmhouse ten years ago. Their infrequent appearance may be linked to the farm’s installing electricity, also a decade earlier.
Though Icelanders in the countryside rarely encounter huldufólk, they are still very much a part of their world. More or less jokingly, people still blame missing items on their existence and their mischievous stealing. Hastrup recounts “The elderly wise woman of the farm told me that whatever was missing it would be no good searching for it. It would be a waste of time, since inevitably the items would reappear, once the hidden people had finished with it.” It is not a matter of whether the huldufólk really exist or not, though as an outsider, I would be very curious to know. The present of Icelandic tradition is a continuation of past beliefs, linking old generations to the new. Hastrup makes a point of saying that this traditional belief is not reserved to the countryside: a map of Reykjavik had recently been printed showing the supposed dwellings of secret creatures.
America acknowledges ghosts: they are the subjects of endless movies, including recent shows that investigate supposedly haunted locations. However, whether Americans believe in ghosts depends largely on what town you find yourself visiting Some are convinced of their existence, while others refute it entirely. In Iceland, draugars are revenants linked to fishing villages where drowned fisherman come back to roam. Though harmless, they are spooky and uncomfortable to come across. Hastrup says it is uncommon for women in the countryside to walk around late at night when the draugars are out and about, making her particularly brave, if not reckless, for being active nonetheless.
Every person Hastrup spoke to made reference to the past, which gives us a fascinating cultural insight. Though huldufólk and draugars are both spoken of in the past tense, they are no less relevant to the present in Iceland. Furthermore, certain misunderstandings arise from this conventional approach to explaining the present via the past. Hastrup explains that the “fear of the local women was partly due to the fact that in the village context, the category of draugar was inhabited by real, living people.” As with the huldufólk, the word was still used metaphorically. What we would understand as creepy night-wanderers, or else lost drunks, are still referred to as ghosts in Iceland. This is an intriguing distinction, if not a cultural rift that landed Hastrup in an unpleasant position when she stumbled on a middle-aged, unusual-looking man. So that is what the women mean by draugar. The question remains, do the Icelanders recognize they are talking about real people when they warn foreigners? Or do they really believe they’re seeing ghosts at night? Are ghosts spotted half the time, and living people the other half? Again, this is another example of a place where foreigners are lost in translation in the Icelandic world. And this is no small point, particularly because it is dark nearly all of winter.
Where does this tradition of myth and local creatures originate? Hastrup suggests that the history of Icelandic settlements indirectly created a myth of source, which in turn shaped their future growth and understanding. Iceland has long had an insistence on freedom, preferring an autonomous political structure settled upon by a general assembly. There has been a sense of commonality through a strong notion of equality of law. “Icelandic society emerged as an alternative to the centralist and feudal kingdoms of Europe” says Hastrup who confirms that this society made from scratch established itself both physically and conceptually apart from Europe.
Icelanders are adamant about their island’s distinctiveness. At once deeply concerned with mythology, Iceland actively mythologizes itself. The country itself adopts a haze, a fog that makes it a dreamland in the middle of nowhere. One wonders what Iceland might have looked like centuries ago if, upon my visit, the country in its modern age was a startling vista. “Iceland is not a myth; it is a solid portion of the earth’s surface” said Auden—is there any doubt America exists? Most of the time, countries work to forget our presence in the world. There is a key cultural distinction. Icelanders prefer their isolation and their status as under-the-radar. They demand little of surrounding countries, and persist in traditions, the myths we live by .

IV. Saga: Story and History

The term saga (plural sögur) in Icelandic literally translates to both story and history. It designates what has been said and spoken about the past, carried through the present and into the future. No distinction is made between the veracity of history and that of story, which is a startling, if not unsettling, concept. It is not that the truth and lies are reconciled, rather that both are regarded as coming from a place of reality. As Hastrup notes, in Icelandic, “knowledge (fræoi) is neutral in relation to the distinction between truth and lie: one’s learning may be somewhat wanting or wrong, but no lie” Lying is a conscious attack against knowledge. Icelanders partake in an exchange of what has been said, be it accurate or otherwise. It is not to stray from truth, rather to achieve it.
Both sagt er and munnmoelin segja are frequently used to foreword Icelandic storytelling, the former translating to “it is said”, and the latter to “legend says”. Story presupposes a history, a context vital for events to take place. These expressions are used as a preface, introducing records of a past still relevant to the present. As many anthropologists argue, there is no “legitimate” history, no purely factual reality. The history that seeks to work purely through official texts is caught in the “myth of realism” . Hastrup dismisses this myth in her study of Iceland. How could this world, experienced subjectively, yield an objective history?
Memory is of the utmost importance in Iceland: “the said, as story and history, is constantly recirculated, and in the process it both surrounds and constitutes the contexture of the Icelandic world.” Icelandic pride is deeply routed in storytelling, in commonality of origin. Just how important are the age-old themes of the sagas, these recollections? Iceland would not be the same without them. In 1944, when Iceland received its independence, a chief matter was regaining old manuscripts from the Danish crown, thereby physically reclaiming their history. This goal was eventually met, much to Iceland’s relief.
More so than any other country I have visited, Iceland lends itself beautifully to both story and history, alive and restless in the consciousness of the people who have a thorough knowledge of the land in which they have been raised. Historically, Icelandic culture has been relatively bare in material possessions (this changed post-World War II), which means their focus has been on craft, particularly literature, rather than amassing goods. Icelandic understanding of historical events shapes their approach to the present, implicitly framing their understanding of a new, modernizing country. It is ground for their existence, roots in the soil. Iceland suggests history is born from a collection of personal narratives, which, in turn, grasp at a larger whole. It is “the sense of ‘we’ is the subtext of communication” We cannot detach the reality of human experience from a chronology of events, no more than we can communicate wordlessly.
The so-called saga-age provides anthropologists with the richest understanding of Icelandic life, households, families, and struggles dating back to the thirteenth century. Their success as a category of literature is due in part to the countless battles described, the action and narratives. Though many references are lost to foreigners, it is still an accessible body of literature that has stood the test of time. Many of the stories still shared come from Old Norse, the primary source being Snorri’s Edda from the early thirteenth century. In the introduction of the Elder Edda, Patricia Terry states “The Edda poems, considered as a whole, seem not so much a book as a panorama” , suggesting that the Edda poems be considered as much for their literary value as for the insights offered on Nordic culture.
“Norse mythology provided the Icelanders with a concentric model of the world, which has influenced Icelandic cosmology ever since ” says Hastrup, once again suggesting that this literature is resiliently tied to the Icelandic cultural view. As will later be discussed, the sagas were at the center of the Icelandic nationalist movements in the nineteenth century, reinventing an idealized version of the Icelandic language. This is tremendously interesting, as alongside a purification of Icelandic via ancient manuscript came a rebirth of ambitions proposed by the stories. As Harstrup says “past goals were proposed as virtues for the future” . The themes of the sagas- violence, heroism, family, travel, gods, conquering- are all refurbished for a more modern time.
What we come to understand about the sagas is that they are not merely entertaining, battle-filled journeys that chronicle families. However, as Stefan Einarsson most beautifully explains it, “{…} not only the Eddas and the sagas had intrinsic value, but this old literature had become, so to speak, the very bread on which the people as a whole had survived during long centuries of famine and depression” This is a testament of the inspirational quality a document can have, particularly when it is tied to nationalist values. Of course, history has seen this power abused, though in the case of the sagas, it is a glorious written history that is revered, empowering its people through times of hardships.
Despite the acclaim the sagas receive as Iceland’s big literary contribution, it would be wrong to think that they are not argued about amongst historians and scholars. Whereas I may be less bothered as to whether or not Gunnar or Njal actually existed, historians itch to find historical evidence for each of the figures. However, if we keep in mind previous examples of Icelandic understanding, particularly Hastrup’s anecdotes with the draugars (ghosts), it is difficult to say what is true and what is only partially true.
What Hastrup refers to as “a set of internal images of Icelandicness” is an unyielding tradition that has guaranteed Iceland a continued record, despite the foreign powers that have settled in its land. This is no small point: Iceland’s history, though marked by intrusions and changes in political climate, has remained remarkably unique. What we may understand from this is that Iceland has developed an innate nationalism, fundamentally tied to its literary accomplishments, and therefore not instructed in the classic sense. It is as though, in Iceland’s isolation, Icelanders have retained a sense of cultural relevance in a way that has been distorted elsewhere in the world

V. Icelandic Purism—Conservatism?

Essential in my study of Iceland was my examination of the Icelandic language. Iceland is said to have received its name from one of its first settlers, Floki VilgerOarson, or vikingr mikill, a great Viking . He is thought to have (appropriately) named the land Iceland for its drift-ice in the fjords. Floki, however, found the land too difficult to live in, and left. Norwegian settlers soon inhabited Iceland, though Swedes and Danes were also amongst the pioneers. The Celtic connection with Icelandic is unclear: Celts were slaves of Norsemen and may have been interweaved culturally as a result of the move. While Icelandic appears markedly Norse, there are traces of subtle Celtic influence, particularly in some of the names.
Approximately 300,000 people speak Icelandic, mostly natives of Iceland (though nearly 6000 people speak Icelandic in the USA ). Icelandic is an Indo-European language belonging to the subcategory of North Germanic languages alongside Norwegian and Faroese. What makes the language particularly fascinating, and challenging, is that unlike most modern languages that have reduced the degree of inflections, Icelandic grammar is still heavily inflectional. It can easily be compared to the language Old Norse from which it is a descendant. The centuries have altered it surprisingly little, due in part to Iceland’s isolation in the North Atlantic.
Apart from the accented vowels and ö, p, æ, ð, Icelandic has no symbols that do not appear in English. Like in English, Icelandic nouns show three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. There are two numbers, singular and plural, also like English. However, unlike English, Icelandic has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. The dative case, from Latin casus dativus, meaning “the case appropriate to giving”, is used to designate the noun to whom something is given. The dative case was widespread in early Indo-European languages, thus if we consider the spectacularly little change Icelandic has undergone, we find it unsurprising that it is still used. Furthermore, as Hastrup notes in a chapter devoted to tradition and ideology, “archaism in language is here linked with literary achievement” Icelanders actively work to maintain the language of the sagas, as the “true” Icelandic.
Another interesting feature of Icelandic is its use of mostly grammatical gender that depends on the inflectional endings of words. Where as English employs “natural-gender”—inanimate things are neuter, live things are masculine or feminine, noun declensions in Icelandic are broken up into two categories: strong and weak. The difference, again, is found in the endings. The endings of singular strong declensions in the genitive case are always consonants, while the endings of singular weak declensions, in all cases, are vowels. Naturally, both categories further divide into subclasses based on gender and case.
The English word world is derived from the Old Norse notion of veröld, a word that is made up of two terms, verr and öld, meaning the age of man . This is in keeping with Icelandic perspective: it is man who encounters the earth, who firsthand practices time. The concept of “Icelandicness” relies on the language: it is at the basis for maintaining a transmission of the oral tradition. Icelanders are extremely protective of this tradition. They are right to be protective, particularly in light of the aforementioned political struggles the country has faced. Since the Icelandic economy relies heavily on fishing, it has had substantial moments of weakness, during which time outsiders have exploited it. For centuries, foreigners were not allowed to winter in Iceland, but had to leave by September at the latest. Perhaps this contributes to what Hastrup says about Iceland “there is an outspoken difference between ‘we the Icelanders’ and the rest of the world” a distinction that is actively upheld in the language.
Iceland is a country of linguistic purists. Angrimur Jonsson wrote Crymogoea in 1609, a Latin text about the history of Iceland. In it, he suggested that the Icelanders “consciously cultivate the ancient pure language as found in the manuscripts, and do not let foreigners, notably Danes, destroy it” Since the nineteenth and twentieth century, Iceland has undergone a process of purification tied to Icelandic nationalist movement. Literature was at the source of the rebirth of Icelandic pride. Icelandic of the sagas is revered as a pure form of Icelandic, untouched by what is known as pagufallssyki, or the dative disease (so called because dative case is often in lieu of accusative or nominative). This is just one of the linguistic diseases attributed to modern-day Icelandic which, despite having undergone remarkably little change, is still scrutinized by Icelandic scholars. Baldur Jónsson, a member of the Icelandic language committee (founded in 1965), says “Language cultivation is similar to the conservation of nature, the protection of plants and the soil. It is an equally noble act of purifying…Frankly speaking, the Icelanders are somewhat sloppy in their pronunciations” Let us hope Jónsson never has to listen to Americans speak English in the United States.

My first experience of Icelandic, while visiting Reykjavik, was a jarring one. It seemed as though Icelanders spoke very quickly, unleashing a series of sounds marked by consonants, the syllables not discrete, nor recognizable. I asked Rutur to speak to me slowly, but it still sounded like he was articulating from the back of his throat, in a way my mouse was entirely unfamiliar with. Icelandic sounded nothing like the French and Romanian I speak at home. Rutur, who also speaks French, English, and Danish, explained that in Iceland, it is customary to still learn Danish in school alongside English. My uncle is Danish, thus Danish sounds are less startling to me, though no less intelligible. Later that evening, after a few drinks, Rutur and his friend, Gummi, spoke to each in Danish explaining that “the sloppy sounds are easier to pronounce when drunk”. Clearly, Iceland and Denmark still have some cultural animosity.
I spent my first semester reading up on Iceland, as well as trying to decipher the language. I can say I understand how the language functions, though, admittedly, my Icelandic is shabby. It is impossibly difficult to learn, this we know from studies. David Tammet, for example, the famous high-functioning autistic savant, had his brain put to the test when he was challenged to learn Icelandic in just a week. Icelandic was chosen for its difficulty, his trainer explaining to the public that it is nearly impossible for foreigners to learn. Remarkably, Icelandic is now one of the eleven languages he speaks, but it needn’t be stated how rare this is. Part of the challenge of learning Icelandic, like with any language, is learning a hefty dose of endings. Since Icelandic is inflectional, this means learning rules for nouns as well as verbs and adjectives. Then, of course, there’s the issue of finding someone who speaks Icelandic to practice with you. None of this is impossible, and in my semester of studying the language, I have gained respect and admiration of it. I like to think it doesn’t look as foreign to me anymore, and that with some luck, the next time I find myself in Reykjavik, I will feel a little closer to the people.

VI. Gender Roles: Home As A Microcosm & Views On Women

Every woman I came across in Iceland was taller than me—but this was no achievement. What did surprise me, however, was something I could not readily express. Icelandic women, tall and beautiful as they were, portrayed little of the inhibitions I knew true of girls in America. This could be a European trait, certainly: Parisian girls, too, are different from American ones. But Icelandic girls seemed fearless, exuding what I could only have described at the time as a masculine energy. What a strange, and misplaced, choice of adjective. But it was not simply their behavior that seemed different; rather, it was the way they were treated by men in public, at restaurants and bars, that startled me. They drank unashamed and in great doses, liberated of female stereotypes, getting up to walk to and from the bar and never patronized or bothered by surrounding sturdy men. I asked Rutur if I was misinterpreting things, if I had made a hasty judgment thinking these young women different from the ones back home. No, he said, women here are treated just like men.

Over lunch, Rutur explained that marriage customs in Iceland were vastly different from those in the States. Having children prior to marriage is not at all uncommon. Similarly, moving back into the home of your parents is not unusual—in fact, it is encouraged. It is thought to allow the family to save money before they buy their own home. It also provides a source of free childcare as both men and women typically have jobs in Iceland.
Iceland was late to modernize, relying on a subsistence economy longer than its other Nordic and European counterparts. As such, each Icelandic household became a distinct element of production and consumption. The domestic life and work life were no different from one another: each member was responsible for the survival of the group. At the turn of the century, 75% of the population still lived on farms, compared to the 10% or less that do now . It is no wonder that the sagas are so interested in families and lineage, as they played such a vital role in the survival of the culture.
A ban on marriages was passed between Icelandic non-landowners as they were seen unfit to sustain a household. The connection between matrimony and founding households undoubtedly shaped Icelandic views of marriage, perhaps explaining Rutur’s experience of marriage in Iceland. In 1703, when the first complete census of Iceland was taken (a total of 50,358 Icelanders), the marriage ratio was drastically reduced compared to other European countries, most notably in women ages 15-49 of whom only 27.8 per cent were married . It appears, then, that the instinct to marry has always been secondary in Icelandic culture, acting as a technicality rather than a necessary procedure. Iceland passed an ordinance on domestic discipline in 1746, saying it was the “responsibility of the household head to see to his children and servant’s education ” while the local priests routinely tested said progress. By the eighteenth century, the degree of literacy in Iceland was high, once again showing the importance and influence of a tight family sphere.
Since the Middle Ages in Iceland, women have been a part of the social sphere, if only for their indispensable role as the base of the household. While men typically went hunting and fishing, women independently ran the home, often for long periods of time. The sagas propagate this image of gender dynamic, the men always portrayed as rugged, partial outlaw figures, while the women are strong and self-sufficient. Patricia Terry notes in her preface to the Edda that “the wives of Vikings were in fact more “bear-hearted” than it is usual for women to be now” but even this is relative to Iceland. What we see time and time again in Norse mythology are powerful women, be it in the sagas or in the deity figures of the valkyries, the women of Odin who carry the slain to Valhalla.
As Hastrup suggests in her chapter entitled Muted Characters, Icelandic women have never had a problem voicing their opinions and asserting their rights, which makes the significance of the women’s movement somewhat paradoxical. One of the most famous examples of assertion came in 1975, when all the women in Iceland went on strike for one day, crippling the small country. Humorously, ten years later, the strike happened again. That time around, even Rutur’s aunt was in on it: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the former president of Iceland, refused to sign bills for a day .
The social authority women possess in Iceland may be seen as matching that of the men, however, what the women are fighting for is a theoretical boundary rather than a physical one. Despite being the “bear-hearted” women of the sagas, women have symbolized the stable, unwavering aspect of life on the farm. They have been respected for this role, certainly. But what they now seek is liberty to pursue the riotous wild—that is, the returning side of the saga. Skaptadottir explains: “There is a clear division of labor between men and women and Icelandic fishing communities. This division has become more clearly defined with industrialization…One can almost say that there are men’s workplaces and women’s workplaces. Going to sea is a man’s job, except for a few women who go as cooks” The women are on land, while the men are out to sea, they are at home while the men are riding in the mountains. But women in Iceland are fearless and want the option of enduring the same trials as men. Ultimately, they will take equality in position.

VII. Concluding Thoughts

What is it that makes Iceland so extraordinary, so unique that W.H Auden, the entirety of the English language available to him, simply called it A Place Apart? Certainly it is no one thing, rather an amalgamation of principles, customs, and unique ideologies that create this vast landscape of tradition that is so mysterious and appealing to foreigners. Perhaps it has to do with Vigdís Finnbogadóttir understanding of her home country when she suggests that Iceland is understood both physically and intellectually, returning to Hastrup’s definition of a practiced place. Finnbógadottir says “the wonders of Iceland lie in its endless diversity and contrast: the whole spectrum is here, from profound tranquility to nature’s wildest forces, from intense solitude to companionable closeness. It is a unique world in character and appearance {…} the land is so much a part of the people—just as much as the people are a part of the land” This is unquestionably true, but Iceland also seems to mimic our behavior as humans: at once restless and tranquil, a part of a whole and yet alone. Iceland encompasses all of our paradoxes.
I know that I have only scraped the surface in my study, only uncovered part of a treasure that is still buried, somewhere, in a crater, by a ghost, in an inflectional ending. I have had the luxury of using Kirsten Hastrup’s account, which more so than any text I have ever read, takes a poetic approach to issues of culture and tradition. That is its greatest virtue, I believe, as part of the struggle in understanding a place is the limits imposed by language. An associative approach is often the closest thing to truth. I have routinely been traveling since I was born and still struggle to express the ineffability of displacement, at once excitement and utter overwhelm at finding that people live differently in the world, speak tongues that are noisy and chaotic to my ears, run by a mechanism that’s incomparable to back home. And yet, some things do overlap. Everywhere you go, people are starting families while others are rebelling, and everywhere, people are creating art. Perhaps the sagas, in their duality that so frustrates historians, while at once engrossing readers all over the world, are the perfect art.
What I have learned this past year is that understanding Iceland requires study—it is a land to be experienced intellectually as well as physically. Traditions are prominent and relevant in every aspect of society in ways a foreigner may only intermittently pick up on. Iceland is a fascinating example of a country that has managed to reconcile the old with the new, the archaic principles of language and tradition with social progress and a modern outlook. Its culture dazzles in its literary achievements, its high standards for the people who call Iceland home. Icelanders seem to know intuitively that their past, rich in story, echoes to their present. They do not forfeit this awareness, rather grow and are strengthened by it. In the end, Iceland is an island in corporeally and metaphorically speaking, requiring nothing more than itself, and perhaps the help of mother nature, to thrive. It is, as Finnbogadóttir concludes, “a world apart, but very much of this world” .

Invincible Men – by Nicholas Powers

Every summer, Hollywood lights up the screen with the clash of heroes and villains. But this year, it seems there is a strange urgency. It was more than simple excitement at well-made movies — it felt like Hollywood was battling not our boredom, but our anxiety. For the past few years we’ve heard people suggesting that America’s time as the only superpower is coming to a close. Is that what’s behind these blockbusters? Do we want to be the sole global superhero again?
Our national mythology, in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is that we are “the indispensable nation.” But as our reasons for invading Iraq stand as naked lies, as India and China rise and Iran taunts us, we look more and more dispensable.
Against this troubling backdrop of U.S. decline, superhero movies, in the words of Freud, “split the ego.” In the theater, we take the hero’s journey and separate our troubled American identity into a good and bad one. The hero stands in for our ideal self, purified of excesses like greed or militarism, which we isolate in the villain. Hero and villain battle in the streets, tearing up streetlights, flipping over tractors. Of course, the hero wins and we leave the theater cleansed through an act of cinematic catharsis.
We see Iron Man build an armor of righteousness, the Hulk chased to the edge of his rage-triggered strength and Batman pursue a gothic justice. Watching the heroes smash flashy cars and fly between skyscrapers, one feels the movies satisfy a subliminal need. They justified U.S. violence with morality and re-affirmed our innocence.
They do this because, long before he is a hero on the screen, he is us. Each of the summer’s champions begins as a muddled American. Tony Stark is a champagne- gulping, amoral playboy, Bruce Banner a mousy government technocrat and Bruce Wayne a clueless child. Each hero’s journey opens with a trauma that destroys him. Stark is captured and mortally wounded by Islamic warlords. Banner is soaked by gamma waves from his laboratory. Wayne sees his parents shot while they leave the opera. Each hero’s wound makes it impossible for him to be who he was before.
Over that wound, the hero pulls down the mask like a bandage of anonymity. His goodness is guaranteed by his suffering, which exposes him to the suffering of others. In their name, he wears an armored suit or impenetrable gamma-rage. So Stark becomes Iron Man and blasts Islamic warlords in order to free helpless Arab women and children. Banner, whose strength is triggered by victimization can, even as the Hulk, shield his ex-fiancé from the fiery explosions. And Batman guards the terrified people of Gotham against a multinational criminal underground anchored by a corrupt Chinese businessman.
In these movies it’s easy to see our anxiety about the Iraq War, Asian economic competition and gender roles being exorcised. More important, our myths teach us that our violence is justified by our pain. Is it any wonder that in the 2004 State of Union address, President Bush declared, “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country?” Our foreign policy reflects the vigilante justice we see in our movies.
Yet a subversive insight threads through these films. The dramatic friction at their core is not external threats, but the monster in the mirror. The final leg of the hero’s journey is when he turns to face the enemy within. Iron Man’s climatic battle is not with Islamic warlords; instead he tumbles through the street with his business partner Stane. The Hulk’s ultimate enemy is not the U.S. military, but rather a mercenary soldier who overdoses on gamma rays in a quest for glory. Batman’s nemesis is not the multinational criminal class, but the Joker, an American anarchist clown.
Hidden inside each movie is a perverse warning against our own excess. We see in the moral pyrotechnics an unintended lesson: We are our own enemy. I wonder, as the American audience learns to “re-split the ego” and our villainous side is killed or captured, in what form will it return?

“Goose-bumps”: Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum in New York – by Peggy Cyphers


Installation view of Spider Couple, Untitled, and Untitled at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008
© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation New York
Photo by David Heald

“Goose-bumps”: Louise Bourgeois at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

June 27,2008 – September 28, 2008

Review by Peggy Cyphers

Louise Bourgeois’ Retrospective, currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, solidifies her status as a master sculptor and showcases her inarguable aesthetic triumph, situating her solidly amongst the greatest artists of the last two centuries. Bourgeois, who was born in Paris in 1911, and immigrated to New York in 1938, emerged a key contributor to the art world’s visual language systems, which has secured her rank among the great women of history. She’s not exactly a queen, movie star or rock star, but rather a female shaman of the underworld. Her iconic figure, like the spider, is all brain and guts on that nimble skeleton, quick to thread a web around her viewers mind and send bristling goose-bumps down their spines! The artists’ web, the tangles of her life’s work, skewed with her many insidious additions like a spider’s jewels of flies and mosquitoes, creates an intriguing vortex, concentric yet never rambling. (Indeed, perhaps it’s is no accident that her focus is so intense upon on a web-making creature, as our lives have become so integrated as a result of the world-wide web and within the international net of the internet.
Bougeois has a skillful and creepy, but politically correct manner of spooling out metaphors from core psychological and emotional epicenters of trauma; to hint at unconscious horror from the safety of an armchair. As one enters the dramatically-domed museum, its retro “space age” aura consumes the senses, as the body reacts immediately to its architectural theatre. Her “Spider Couple” beautifully contrasts with the Guggenheim’s famed architecture, lacking the logic of a Fibonacci spiral and breeding a breath of foreign and perverse air into the white-washed arena. Louise’s spider’s are tactfully positioned in an effort to be more dangerous in the sterile circular room where the spider is left with no crooks or crannies in which to begin the creative process of weaving its sticky web. Bourgeois’ main sculpture here, “Spider Couple” consists of two entwined arachnids just above human height, both dwarfed by the massive white cocoon space. The audience feels a sci-fi fantasy tension prompting the question: what could be if these insect were alive, and socially with, what is actually happening at this classy museum on Fifth Avenue. The massive spiders probe us to reconsider who’s boss!? Metaphors abound both seen and unseen. Not messy enough for a web/studio, so clean! This tension between the figure and space is iconic and powerfully dramatized inside the Guggenheim’s inimitable interior. Climbing ever higher on the ramping floors one views mini stages of her distinguished career, where lexicons of past years’ labors are spiraling also through space and mind, strewn with personal vignettes, assemblies of antique underclothes and doors and objects of uncertain odd demeanors. Somehow her use of the museum space makes it feel shaft-like, more male, less feminine, and accentuates the uncomfortable slant of the runway floor. Each sculptural work from top to bottom relies on its arrangement to produce stories that make one consider time, both intimately and culturally. Louise Bourgeois’ subject works well in the niches, and descending the ramp, we embark on a fun-house ride through her remarkable artistic legacy. Louise Bourgeois’ marble carvings amaze her fans, as spectators’ views shift from soft to hard, traversing one of these well-hewn marvels. As a master sculptor, she knows the art of carving marble, and evinced by her impressive technical skill with the medium as in the work “Cumul 1″ 1968. Each work evokes the kinds of tensions that are simple yet profound, between and within the works, from rough to smooth. Her installations of soft and mixed media sculptures, and her playful remixing of materials (mainly recycled or non-fabricated) are coated with the aura of their provenance. The reality of touch and sensation that she evidences are intimate and not always sexual. She taps into an exciting, sensory world of adolescence: A young creature at the brink of sexual awakening, forming opinions, when no model works for proper human relations and seems further askew by what must take place in the home. In “Red Room”, Bourgeois’ childhood reminisces create a visual tribute to her family. She allows all to enter her world, but also prompts entry into our own unconscious mental cities. Time past and time future encompass the show and with those boundaries as markers, Bougeois seduces materials to make us ponder the fragility of time; viz., our own eminent deaths. This and more haunts, and allows the assemblies of her installations to create stories in shamanistic reunions of experience. That is why women were studying them with such protracted attention that opening night in June 2008. Back downstairs, near the bar, distracted men talked about the last show by Cai Guo-Qiang “Inopportune: Stage One” with all its dangling cars, violence and sensationalism. Tonight’s vignettes appear sweetly sinister, weirdly demure in a Victorian school girl way, with surreal layers of beauty on every surface. They tell an abstract tale of coming to consciousness, both mentally and sexually. Looking down from the top floor of the Guggenheim it’s exciting to see the “Spider Couple” occupying the rotunda. The metaphor of the spider as a goddess– one who nurtures and takes life away—is constantly at work, weaving a gooey web only it can traverse without being trapped. The entire museum is a cocoon and the viewer is now caught. Halfway down the ramp are a sampling of her accomplished etchings, originally pages from a book, a story only Louise can tell. But the curved, dramatically-lit wall next to them informs us of a bigger story: that she was the first woman artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art– in 1982, when she was already in her seventies. Last March we visited Louise in her brownstone in Chelsea – its beauty and her beauty crumbling and dark, as is her eyesight. Artists who alluringly attend her salon find a table of treats, chocolates and single malts, in the center of the shabby room. Yet we know the treat is to be here with Louise. She sits safely in her corner under a lamp. We are attracted to her salon or rather, the memory of it as it might have been before her age began to challenge her body. Her vision is failing from cataracts, but she still can respond to the color red, like a spider that is attracted to the warmth of life in the blood. That day, my student named Zoli, brought a bright red painting unaware of Louise’s passion for red, and was soon surprised by her response of, “Red, Red, Red!!” Lucio Pozzi also came that Sunday with his muse and Robert Storr arrived flamboyantly late. Other than that, she was less interested as each artist passed their art around the circle. I showed her a small work called “Spider Woman, for L.B” and a friend took a striking photo of us alongside the painting. In the 1960′s Louise began working with new materials like plaster, latex and resin, which aligned her art with a younger generation of artists such as Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman, who were adapting a more organic process to the sculptural art. Its fascinating to see the works she did during the 90′s and how her visual poetry, always concentrically evolving, continues to draw viewer in, like a queen spider in her lair. As she is quoted as saying in the Guggenheim’s literature, “…the spiral means that a theme can disappear and reappear twenty years later.” Her earliest work continues to be relevant even to this day; like a great wine the taste does not diminish with age but is rather enhanced, as do these multiple experiences of Louise Bourgeois’ amazing oeuvre.


Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney Museum – by Rebeccca Lossin

Review by Rebecca Lossin

While living in an underwater dome is not something most Americans dream of past the age of five,  “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe,” on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is much more than a nostalgic contemplation of unrealized utopia.  Placing a dome over mid-town Manhattan to in order to lower heating costs and avoid inclement weather is far-fetched at best, but for a nation in the midst of a housing crisis, on a planet facing devastating food, water and fuel shortages, this collection of apparently whimsical sketches and 50 year old cyanotypes of un-built homes is the very definition of relevant.

Both inspiring and depressing, Fuller’s designs for self-sufficient, low energy, spatially maximal housing is the way that pre-fabricated housing and post-war urban development could have gone and, arguably, the way that future development should go.   Even if there are reasons not to pull the blueprints off the museum walls and commence construction, Fuller’s work reminds us that actual, practical solutions require a visionary imagination- that thinking outside of the box will get us nowhere if it remains a figure of speech.

The Dymaxion house (a neologism combining the words dynamic, maximum and tension) was a round aluminum structure that was light enough to be shipped anywhere in its own metal tube.  Its shape minimized heat loss, it produced its own power and it was strong enough to withstand earthquakes and tornadoes.  It was also cheap.  Later, realizing that single family homes, no matter how efficient, were the biggest contribution to suburban sprawl and its attendant environmental destruction, Fuller shifted his attention to large-scale communal structures.   Inspired by a wider social  movement towards small, self-sufficient communities during the 1960s, they were designed to house 40,000 inhabitants and would not only produce their own energy but their own food as well.  It is impossible to tell where the climate would be if such efficient living arrangements were instituted on a large scale, but I can’t imagine we would feel good about ourselves if that question could be answered. Or would we?

Fuller was also  head of mechanical engineering for the Board of Economic Warfare during World War II and his architectural vision of efficiency was of a particularly, if not typically, military nature. Based on the very practical notion that extant technology be re-purposed rather than new technology invented, he sought  to turn “weaponry into livingry,” thus taking advantage of the well funded, technically advanced work of the U.S. military for civilian use.   Its a very nice idea and not by any means unique to Fuller: if we used all of the resources devoted to wars to raise the standard of living, the world would be a better place.  What is unique to Fuller’s version of this simple idealism is its literalness.  He did not want to make the military hold a bake sale to buy a bomber and transfer its budget to the department of education, he wanted to build bombers and make cookies in their cockpits.

A bunker-like, cold war aesthetic runs through the designs on display, but it is a series of diminutive drawings entitled “Zeppelins Dropping Bombs and Delivering 4-D Towers”  (c. 1928) that brings the logic of a militarily accomplished utopia into striking focus . For the most part, the show presents military technology as innocuous raw material with an equal potential for construction and destruction, but these early drawings remind us that this “livingry” is actually coming from weaponry and the quiet violence of these images should make us think twice.

The first image of a fleet of  Zeppelins hovering over cratered ground is jarring and distinctly dystopic for its retrospective association with the rise of Fascism.  It takes a moment to realize that these are meant as efficiently dug foundations for the houses being delivered in the second image, and in this moment one has to ask whether this transformation from weaponry to “livingry” is actually possible.  Can technology be removed from its original purpose?  Can the ideology behind the design be discarded so easily?

There is an obvious lesson to be learned from this exhibit: our habitats need to be rethought before our population becomes largely itinerant and the ocean starts to boil over.  And to an extent Fuller’s advice is being heeded, albeit too little too late, through the institution of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, hybrid engines and alternative fuels.  It remains, however, that Fuller’s designs were never realized.  No one ever lived in a Dymaxion home as more than an experiment.  This is problematic and while we should renew our efforts of environmentally minded reform, we should also be asking whether re-designing the car or the single family home is going to get us much further than using zeppelins to dig foundations.  The failure of Fuller’s models should serve as the real moral: it is not the products of the system that need to be changed but the system itself.  For it was a capitalist, militarily minded society that prevented the construction of inexpensive eco-friendly housing the first time around and it is the same profit driven system that will stop it in its tracks now.  What would the banks do if people could buy a $40, 000 house?

Environmentalism, as it stands, is largely an extension of consumerism and again, very much tied to the military.  A large part of the rhetoric of the green revolution revolves around oil, a substance for which we have been mired in war for over five years.  In order to save the earth we are buying expensive hybrid cars, overpriced organic produce and ultimately pouring capital into the system that caused the destruction in the first place.  If weaponry couldn’t be turned into livingry, as the failure of Fuller’s vision has shown, then it is doubtful that Ford Motor Company is the answer to air pollution.  While it is immediately necessary and practical to revise what we have, the green revolution will have to be exactly that- a revolution; a radical re-thinking of the mechanisms of productions.  It is unfortunately far more complicated than turning a car into a more efficient car.

It is perhaps odd to take inspiration from failure, but the practical failure of Fuller’s work is exactly where we should be looking.  It did not fail because it did not work. It did not fail because it was impractical.  It failed because it flew in the face of a system dependent on profligate spending and attempted to use that system against itself.  It failed because it was too practical- too possible.  Capitalism is a terribly efficient machine and if we are to take anything away from this show it is that change is not possible within it, no matter how innovative or realistic.  If Fuller’s ideas are to be realized it will not be a matter of transforming weaponry to “livingry” but the wholesale destruction of  a military-industrial complex that will never allow its inventions to be used for constructive purposes.

Philip Whalen: The Buddhist Charles Olson? – by Tom Savage

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, Michael Rothenberg editor.

Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 871 pp.

Philip Whalen was the greatest American Zen Buddhist poet of his generation.  But the poetry he wrote was never the kind of sappy, tranquil poetry that mostly passes for “spiritual” or new age poetry today.  His is a kind of stream of consciousness, open field poetry that included whatever happened in his mind the moment he wrote it down or just before he wrote it down, perhaps.  His frequent references to the older American poet Charles Olson suggest that although he may not have studied with Olson at Black Mountain College, the school Olson ran, he was influenced by Olson’s projective or open field verse.  While this didn’t lead to Whalen writing poems spread all over the page, it may have inspired him along with his Zen practices to be as inclusive as he was of everything that arose in his mind during a specific period of time.  Nevertheless, his poems were not simply “spontaneous” as Ginsberg’s or Kerouac’s, to whom he also refers frequently and whom Whalen knew, claimed to be.  Whalen revised his poems a lot, often over long periods of time, as the dating of his poems indicates.

Unlike most people who practice meditation today, Whalen seems to have discovered it without a teacher, either all by himself or by reading the books of D.T. Suzuki.  As early as 1959, he refers to such practices in the following way:

“…most of your problems will disappear if you sit (privately, in solitude) 1 hour per day without going to sleep (do not speak, hum, or whistle the while)…” from “All About Art & Life (CP p. 149).

In a prose work, (also from 1969), he describes his methods or intentions perfectly: “This poetry is a picture of a mind moving, which is a world body, being here and now which is history…and you.  Or think of the Wilson Cloud Chamber, not an ideogram, not poetic beauty: bald-faced didacticism moving as Dr. (Samuel) Johnson commands all poets should, from the particular to the general…”Since You Asked Me,” (CP p. 153).

Some of Whalen’s most “open field” poems are the poems in his handwriting (calligraphy) sometimes accompanied by pictures drawn by him but unreproducable here at least by me.

In the poem “Vector Analysis” (CP p. 228) he throws a prose bit in the middle of a poem, which otherwise might owe its form to Olson, Pound, or William Carlos Williams.  He manages, on occasion, to be one of the few poets who has written anything of value while on cannabis (hashish, marijuana) or wine.  One such poem is called “Easy Living” (CP p. 233)  He even includes a list of where the best hashish was made in the 70′s.  But this poem was written in 1961.  The list includes but is not limited to “Balkh, Chitral, Nepal”!  This poem opens “I want more than my share of good luck and prosperity.”  This is hardly a “stoner” poem or one of the sappy spiritual kind.  In “Night and Morning, Michelangelo” we encounter one of  his most heavily revised poems for there are two dates at the bottom” 1:IV:63 and “revised 14:XII;65″ He kept very carefuly notes of what he did and when, although he rarely uses footnotes to explain his many and often obscure references.  He either assumes the reader knows these things, or, essentially, writing these poems for himself, he may not care.

A very Zen poem called “Mystery Poem” begins “I am ragged edge of/Nothing/Uncomfortably lumping along (no fun” but which ends “Lady of Heaven/ her milk for all of us/who are raggedy edge of everything/The Center/Her love forever/All of us remembered.” (CP p. 325, written in 1963).  Discussions of everybody vs. nobody, everything vs. nothing or “no thing” are common in the Buddhist scriptures.  But to be bummed out about it as he is at the beginning here is hardly the Lotus-land of poetry we expect from most spiritual practitioner/poets.  Perhaps because Whalen got there first, before the Buddha dharma was truly available in U.S.A., he had few preconceptions of what to expect on “the PAth.” And, being an eminently honest poet, he wasn’t going to gloss over the negative states of mind just for the purposes of spiritual propaganda, which is what most Hindu and Buddhist poems written in America now are.

In “True Confessions”, Whalen says: “My real trouble is/Pepople keep mistaking me/ for a human being/Olson/being a great poet says: Whalen! –that Whalen is a–a–That Whalen is a great big vegetable!”  He’s guessing in the right direction” from 1964 (CP p. 384.  Not only does he invoke Olson here as a mentor and guide (one suspects the poets had contact with one another although Whalen could be making it up, too.), he alludes also to the Buddhist concept of anatta (no soul, not self) by humorously allowing himself to become a vegetable in Olson’s eyes.  In a poem called “I/O” one of the few questions or responses to or from the other great “projective open field” poet Robert Duncan, Whalen’s line “O tickle star, rut that purple rind c(hat) & c” with “there’s not very much of that left, either” Robert Duncan said ” (CP pp. 445-446).  These kind of curious jump-cuts from one context to another seeminly unrelated or only dimly related one are another common stylistic device in Whalen’s poetry perhaps meant to be “pictures of the mind moving” as Whalen said earlier.  We think of the human mind as rational but on closer examination it is full of these strange transitions or, if you will, interruptions in thought we would normally edit out but not Whalen.  He wants to give us the whole picture as it came to him, not embellishing or prettying it up in any way.  In “Never Apologize Never Explain” he talks of “strange new birds” a “father and mother visiting me.” As dead parents they reproach him for not having had children.  But then he says” They speak Homer’s language/Sing like Aeschylus”.  I for one have never heard birds sound like ancient Greek but clearly Whalen sees some similarity there . Also it gives him a chance to refer to the classical “canon” culture of Western civilization he loves so much although in other poems he makes fun of the idea of Western civilization.  That’s not what he means here.  He was an incredibly learned man and he saw the best of this tradition being forgotten, even fifty years ago, and thus stubbornly insists on reminding us that the greats are still here or there and an acquaintance with them is important, perhaps essential.  But this line “Sing like Aeschylus” is followed by the last line of the poems which reads as follows: “The life of a poet: less than 2/3ds of a second.” (1967) (CP. 641).

Although this book is large, the only sadness I can think of about it is that there are not even more poems than there are.  His period of greatest prolificity would appear to be the 1960′s.  (The last poem from the Sixties is to be found on p. 657 in a book covering his whole life (He died only a year or two ago) whose poems end on p. 799.  Apparently as (after a trip to Kyoto, Japan in the late Sixties) he got more and more involved in the practice and dissemination of Zen meditation, he wrote less and less.  This may also have been because, due to too much reading or whatever cause, his eyes began to fail him early, in middle life, in which case it became harder and harder for him to write at all.  Some of his later poems are among his best, however.  He published a lot in his lifetime.  This book claims to be a compilation of all his “published poetry”  Is there some vast cache somewhere of later poems that he never bothered to publish, for whatever reason?

This is a question this reviewer is unable to answer.  I only met Philip Whalen twice, once at Naropa Institute in 1976 and once in NYC at The Poetry Project toward the end of his life, at which point he had understandably no recollection of our previous meeting.  I regret that I didn’t have more opportunities to encounter him during his long life, both as a poet and as a meditation teacher.  But he came rarely to New York City and since the mid-Eighties, I have rarely left New York, where I write these words now.  I don’t mean to dwell on my own limited connection to Whalen here but merely to explain why I have no knowledge whether this volume is a “complete poems” or just a “collected poems.” At any rate, what we have here is wonderful and deserves to be read by any English-speaking person, young or old, Buddhist, Atheist, Christian or whatever religion he or she aspires to who wishes to call him or herself a poet.  There is much to learn from and to enjoy in the poems of the great Philip Whalen, poet and person, immortal and everyday.

To close this review, I will quote in full two of Whalen’s later poems:


Endless fruitless propinquity

Mr. Michael Wynne assures me that it is

Minot’s Ledge straight out beyond Boston Harbor.

For he has culled and fished those waters many years.

He remembers photographs of the lighthouse tower

Attacked by forty-foot waves from the open Atlantic

I wondered about the name fourteen years

Did I have it right

One, four, three

I love you, Olson was saying.

One , four three — Minot’s Ledge Lighting

What better way to remember?

I still haven’t forgot” (1977)


“Back to Normalcy

My ear stretches out across limitless space and time

To meet the fly’s feet coming to walk on it

The cat opens an eye and shuts it

That much meaning, time, significance

Wind chime, hawk’s cry

Pounding metal generator

Bell and board reheating bluejays,

Dana phoning shouts “You mean fiberglass?”

Telephone grapeleaves shake together

Dull blonde sycamore sunshine

Dana says “All you guys bliss out

Behind the carrot and raisin salad?’

Brown dumb leaves fall on bright forms

New and thick since the fire.”

Tassajara 8-11-77

*Tassajara is where Whalen’s Zen Center both was and still is.

   The End