Category Archives: Inspirations

Month of Letters: Virginia Woolf to Gwen Raverat

For inspiration’s sake, I have been reading books of letters; and I thought I might post a couple of favorites here.  I’ll start with the letter I mentioned in my review below, Virginia Woolf’s letter to Gwen Raverat after her husband Jacques, who had been dying slowly from multiple sclerosis, finally succumbed.  The news had come to her with his final letter to her, praising Mrs. Dalloway, which she had sent him before its publication.

11th March 1925

Dearest Gwen,

Your and Jacques’ letter came yesterday, and I go about thinking of you both in starts, and almost constantly underneath everything, and I don’t know what to say.  The thing that comes over and over is the strange wish to go on telling Jacques things.  This is for Jacques, I say to myself; I want to write to him about happiness, about Rupert, and love.  It had become to me a sort of private life, and I believe I told him more than anyone, except Leonard; I become mystical as I grow older and feel an alliance with you and Jacques which is eternal, not interrupted, or hurt by never meeting.  Then of course, I have now for you–how can I put it?–I mean the feeling that one must reverence?–is that the word–feel shy of, so tremendous an experience; for I cannot conceive what you have suffered.  It seems to me that if we met, one would have to chatter about every sort of little trifle, because there is nothing to be said.

And then, being, as you know, so fundamentally an optimist, I want to make you enjoy life.  Forgive me, for writing what comes into my head.  I think I feel that I would give a great deal to share with you the daily happiness.  But you know that if there is anything I could ever give you, I would give it, but perhaps the only thing to give is to be oneself with people.  One could say anything to Jacques.  And that will always be the same with you and me.  But oh, dearest Gwen, to think of you is making me cry–why should you and Jacques have had to go through this?  As I told him, it is your love that has forever been love to me–all those years ago, when you used to come to Fitzroy Square, I was so angry and you were so furious, and Jacques wrote me a sensible manly letter, which I answered, sitting at my table in the window.  Perhaps I was frightfully jealous of you both, being at war with the whole world at the moment.  Still, the vision has become to me a source of wonder–the vision of your face; which if I were painting I should cover with flames, and put you on a hill top.  Then, I don’t think you would believe how it moves me that you and Jacques should have been reading Mrs. Dalloway, and liking it.  I’m awfully vain I know; and I was on pins and needles about sending it to Jacques; and now I feel exquisitely relieved; not flattered: but one does want that side of one to be acceptable–I was going to have written to Jacques about his children, and about my having none–I mean, these efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness, and the horror that sometimes overcomes me.

There is very little use in writing this.  One feels so ignorant, so trivial, and like a child, just teasing you.  But it is only that one keeps thinking of you, with a sort of reverence, and of that adorable man, whom I loved.

Yours,

V.W.

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Not a Valentine, but a pretty good book

Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary WorldsOcean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds by David Toop
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even now, 15 years on, this is a book that makes me feel pleasantly like I’m living in the future. It’s sort of like a William Gibson novel, a constant stream of semi-bewildering cross-cultural syncretic references, in a fascinating poetic style. Appropriately enough, it’s a great book for browsing around in, which is what I did with it for all these years until just recently I decided to read it all the way through at last.

I once told a friend that it was a book about ambient music, and saw his interest instantly disappear. It was the wrong choice of words. Ambient music was still a hip concept back when the book came out, but the book is more about the concept of ambience in general, environment as art, and ranges very widely outside the marketing category of “ambient”. John Cage and minimalism, Miles Davis and Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground and Kate Bush, as well as Brian Eno and Aphex Twin. And that’s only the music of the West. The parts about then-contemporary rave and ambient culture, all rainbow-clothed kids taking ecstasy and talking about digital psychedelic shamanism, tend to be the most dated bits; but then, it’s now an intriguing time capsule, and they do say that the 90s are coming back. I have an abiding nostalgic fondness for that 90s cyberpunk aesthetic, and Ocean of Sound is a hell of a lot less embarassing than that movie Hackers.

There are some weaknesses here and there. Most of the book is in short vignettes, but there is one extended narrative of Toop’s visit to Amazonas in Venezuela, visiting the Maquiritari and Yanomami peoples, which started to drag. But the real problem is that heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. It’s almost impossible, for me at least, to accurately imagine what music sounds like, based on a description. Toop’s way with words makes everything seem amazing and compelling, but actually hearing the music is often a disappointment. For me it’s usually the stuff that Rolling Stone used to call “electronica” that lets me down; for you it might be John Cage or Sun Ra, but it’s sort of inevitable one way or another. Nowadays it’s not as big of a deal–you only lose a few minutes on YouTube, where in 1997 you spent hours searching through used record stores only to be disappointed when you got home–but it’s still sort of a drag. I don’t want to blame Toop for this, but I can’t help it. I blame William Gibson for making Steely Dan sound interesting too.

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Valentine to a Novel: Jacob’s Room

Kat suggests that in February we write some love letters to books we’ve loved over the years.  I thought that was a great idea.  I have trouble coming up with reviews for Goodreads,  because that implies a level of objectivity that is hard to muster; but a love letter I can certainly do.

The reason I read Jacob’s Room, the first book by Virginia Woolf I ever read, was because I liked the cover design of the edition we had, pictured here.  I wanted something “summery”, I remember, and this book, which had both Jacob’s Room and The Waves in it, appeared to fit the bill.  I’m not sure how summery I actually found it, but I’m glad I judged this particular book by its cover, because otherwise I might not have discovered my single favorite author (if I was forced to choose.)

I had pretty much no idea what I was getting into; although we’d read A Room of One’s Own in high school, I’m not sure I even remembered that Woolf was the author of it, and in any case I’m sure I didn’t know what era she lived in or what kind of writer she was supposed to be.  I’m a slowish reader, and I remember laboring a bit through the beginning, not knowing what kind of book it was going to be, not sure it had been such a good idea to read it, until I got to the end of the first chapter, and then I was in love:

Outside the rain poured down more directly and powerfully as the wind fell in the early hours of the morning.  The aster was beaten to the earth.  The child’s bucket was half-full of rainwater; and the opal-shelled crab slowly circled round the bottom, trying with its weakly legs to climb the steep side; trying again and falling back, and trying again and again.

Jacob’s Room has one of my favorite things in a novel: an omniscient narrator with a personality.  This kind of beautiful little lyric image is one of her trademarks, as is passing over large portions of event and conversation by presenting a few telling details.  She will directly accost the reader: “Now let us consider letters,” or “As for the beauty of women,” and present little mini-essays.  She has some of that cruel Virginia Woolf wit.  I love it all, and I will take it over a thousand “well-made plots” written in “transparent prose” that “gets out of the way of the story”.

Another thing about this book is that it is so angry.  It’s pulsating below the surface, but it’s furious.  Jacob is seen almost entirely through the eyes of women, who will never have his privileges and possibilities; Woolf is often unsparing towards these women, whose constrained world has made them conventional and insipid: “But Mr. Letts allows little space in his shilling diaries.  Clara was not the one to encroach upon Wednesday.”  But she’s even more unsparing towards Jacob and Timmy and by extension, well-educated young men in general: self-absorbed, sexist, shallow, pretentious.  “‘Probably,’ said Jacob, ‘we are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant.'”  But despite this deep resentment towards these young men, the whole book is kind of a cry of rage against the systems, “men in clubs and Cabinets,” which have killed them, so pointlessly, in World War I: “With equal nonchalance a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the sea; and there impassively (though with perfect mastery of machinery) suffocate uncomplainingly together.  Like blocks of tin soldiers the army covers the cornfield, moves up the hillside, stops, reels slightly this way and that, and falls flat, save that, through field-glasses, it can be seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken match-stick.” Through all the beauty and humor and observation there is this kind of scream, why do you give them everything, and then destroy it all?

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More Grunge Blogging: My Favorite Drummer of the 90s

Patty Schemel of Hole, #2 pencil on paper, c.1995

This is a picture I drew in probably 1995, when I was 16, of my #1 musician-crush at the time: Patty Schemel, the drummer from Hole.  Classic high-schooler art, in that unmistakeable high-school-art style: slightly disproportionate but gently shaded #2 pencil drawing after a photo of a celebrity in a magazine; invested with deep, fierce teenage love.  It’s from a sketchbook which is full of various doodles, some weirdly-proportioned sketches from life (why did I always draw legs so short?), cartoons and comics, and occasional other drawings from photographs; but this is the one which I seem to have taken the most time over.

I saw her, as I recall, focussed on briefly in footage from a Hole live show, and though it was a brief glimpse, there was just something about the way she moved, playing those drums.  It may seem like a pretty random celebrity crush to have, even for a kid, but she was badass and beautiful behind the kit and adorable in photos and interviews.  (I never understood why it was Melissa Auf Der Maur that everybody I knew, boy or girl, had the hots for; she seemed kind of boring to me. )  I would strain my eyes peering at MTV, waiting for the half-seconds she would appear in Hole videos; I clipped out every picture of the band with her in them and put them on my wall; I used the fledgling Internet to download every interview and picture of her I could find, back when jpegs would download in stages, slowly resolving from big ugly blocks into a washed-out, still-pixelly picture over the course of five minutes. I was totally smitten, with this faraway obscurely famous lesbian who was 12 years older than me.

Now she’s got a movie coming out, about her life in Hole and doing drugs and fucking up and getting back on her feet, I guess, and having just watched the clips on YouTube, I can say I am still totally smitten by this faraway obscurely famous lesbian who is 12 years older than me.  Maybe thanks to those anti-commercial alterna-punk years, I always feel kind of weird about promoting products by people I don’t know, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I love Patty Schemel and I can’t wait to see her movie and you should go see it too.

pretty much the only solo photoshoot she was ever in

Funnily enough, my #1 musician-crush of nowadays is Pikacyu, from the sadly ended Afrirampo.  Drummers, man!

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Kurt’s Sweater, Blake’s Sweater

Kurt in his iconic sweater

This year being Nirvana Nostalgia Season, I’ve been thinking about one of the most iconic pieces of clothing of my youth: Kurt Cobain’s enormous, red-and-black Fred Krueger-style striped sweater, as pictured above.  Greasy blonde hair and this sweater say “Kurt” as much as a moptop and a collarless jacket say “Beatle”.  As a nerdy, fashion-fearing teen in the grunge 90s this sweater was everything I wished my clothes could be, a perfect example of Kurt’s effortless cool.  I was way too self-conscious and shy to actually emulate him (plus, like a dope, I took to heart that 90s alterna-bullshit about not being a poseur), but I studied pictures of Kurt, how he dressed, wondering how I could recreate that alchemy in myself.  I thought about this sweater.  It was one of those “aspirational pieces”, as I think they’re called in Vogue, which I thought about every time I went shopping.

So when I saw Gus Van Sant’s Last Days I was, despite myself, a bit disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Last Days is a really beautiful, amazing film, and to me one of the great costume movies.  Michelle Matland and her team did an amazing job recreating iconic Cobain looks for Michael Pitt in the character of Blake, a sort of poetic alternate-dimension version of Kurt.  Here’s Blake in his version of the Freddy Krueger sweater:

The version of the sweater in Last Days

The difference, and to me it’s a huge difference, is that Blake’s sweater is entirely intact.  Kurt’s, on the other hand, is absolutely disintegrating.  Unforunately I haven’t been able to find many good pictures of the sweater online, but rest assured, I spent enough time looking at it, thinking about it, to know.  Enormous holes had opened up at the elbows and the left shoulder; the end of the left sleeve was in unravelled tatters.  These were like heiroglyphics to me, each bit of damage recording some event–a dive into the drums, a trip through the mosh pit, drunken high jinks of one kind or another.  The damage was why I could never have Kurt’s sweater: even if I found the very same sweater, from the very same company, the very same assembly line, it wouldn’t have all this fascinating history encoded in it.  That sweater was unique, haute couture; the couturier was Kurt’s wild rock-and-roll life.

I’m in the position in life where I’m both obliged and able to usually repair my clothes if they get damaged.  But I always think long and hard before I do it.  How does this hole look?  Does it make this sweater more interesting?  Do I want to forget that this happened because someone grabbed me during my friend Danny’s concert and threw me into a puddle of beer?  I think the value of clothes does not necessarily decrease with cosmetic damage, the way it does with a car.  Sentimental value is, after all, true value.  Pants that wear out at the knees, or get stretched out by your belly, or get spattered with paint, what are they doing but becoming more yours?  Each imperfection is like an in-joke, ratifying the relationship between you and your clothes.  I think it’s beautiful.

Sci-fi fans love to tout the smoothness with which masters of the genre incorporate exposition into their plots.  What could be more subtle than these little signs of life as it was lived before the story begins?  The costumers of Last Days certainly knew the implicit-exposition value of such distressed clothes–I really love the fact that those plastic shades he’s wearing up there have been broken and taped back together–but for whatever reason, they decided to leave the sweater unscathed.  Maybe it just goes to show the irreproducible nature of such a specific, well-beloved piece of clothing.

The broken and repaired plastic sunglasses clearly visible in the poster.

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Nue: Villager

The villager who points the monk to the river and the strange boatman there.

Here is another puppet for my toy theater ‘production’ of Nue.  This is the villager who turns the travelling monk away, but suggests that a strange boatman may be able to ferry him to a nearby temple to stay the night in.  Having scanned it I will cut it out and attach a chopstick to make the simplest possible puppet.

I based this guy quite a bit on a different boatman, the grumpy one in Kawamoto Kihachiro’s Dōjōji, available on YouTube at criminally poor resolution.  Hopefully someday it will be uploaded in better quality.  Kawamoto’s work is a big inspiration for me.  Obviously this little puppet show will not be anything like as subtle and beautiful as his films, but they’re definitely something I’m keeping in mind as I work.

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Pizzazz, The Realest Punk of the 80s

The one and only Pizzazz

As I’ve mentioned before, this summer I’ve taken to rewatching the awesomely 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms with my sister and her family.  It’s very interesting to watch this show, which I had very definite but very limited memory of, after so long.  For one thing, it’s pretty good–much better than, for example, He-Man was on rewatching.  (The Internet will kill me for this, but I like it a thousand times more than pop culture sensation My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, which precedes it in Hub’s evening lineup.)  The animation is pretty terrible, but the character designs are great and the stories are wild and entertaining.  I don’t think I’ve seen any painfully antifeminist bullshit, even, which is a real surprise for the 80s.  For another thing, it truly is outrageous: because it takes place in the real world (excepting only the hologram technology on which the show rests), with regular humans and relatively mundane situations–in one episode Jerrica is stressed out doing her taxes–you might think that not every episode would place one or more of the Holograms in deadly peril.  But you’d be wrong!  They’re always on the brink of death.  At one point, Kimber was kidnapped and left inside an erupting volcano.  Awesome.

But the big surprise to me, really, has been how fucking awesome a character Pizzazz is.  The frontwoman, the money, and the ferocious heart of the Misfits, she’s a classic 80s cartoon villain, selfish, petulant, wealthy, perversely obsessed with foiling the heroes even (almost always, in fact) to her own detriment.  Like a lot of people, at first I found the conflicted, nice-girl-in-a-bad-crowd Stormer (who also has the best look on the show) to be the more interesting Misfit.  But when Pizzazz, in a fit of pique at the Holograms upstaging her once again, turned a fire hose on them in the middle of an interview on national TV, I thought, she’s rich, she’s spoiled, but there is no poseur about Pizzazz.  This woman is the true heir to the Sex Pistols.  And the more I see the more I believe it’s true.

I actually can’t tell if the Misfits are supposed to be punks or more of a glammy hair-metal kind of thing; not that I really think the creators of Jem necessarily knew the difference (I’m not too clear myself, style-wise, and their music, while awesome, is nothing like either–more of a new wavey, almost Adam Ant kind of thing.)  There’s nothing underground about the Misfits, but there are lots of mohawks and trad-punk-looking dudes at their shows.  In any case Pizzazz is the real anarchic brick-through-the-window deal.  She wants to assert herself and express herself and be the biggest star in the world doing it.  To me (and I hasten to note that I was just a little kid at the time, so what do I know about it) the mistake made by the American heirs to punk in the 80s, the hardcore and postpunk underground, was that they created just another straightjacket of orthodoxy, “authentic” VS “sellout”, in their attempt to escape the corporate system.  Pizzazz just doesn’t fucking care and doesn’t answer to anyone–not to her band, not to her fans, not to co-villain Eric Raymond, and certainly not to the mores of Reaganite America.

Pizzazz and Jem, of course, are sort of mirror-images of each other, and maybe it’s Marxist of me or something, but I find their differences to be mostly based on class.  They’re both extremely wealthy heiresses, but their sense of class is very different.  The Holograms in general, but especially Jem, seem almost as obsessed with foiling the Misfits as the Misfits are with them, and what they often complain about is their lack of taste.  (The Misfits’ clothes, all clashing colors and prints, are certainly intended to make this point.)  Pizzazz is loud, crass, attention-seeking, and self-aggrandizing–a walking slap in the face to bourgeois proprieties.  The show was created at exactly the moment when terrible paternalist do-gooder pop-rock was at its peak with Live Aid and We Are The World, and Jem was surely influenced by this both in her music and her life: in addition to being the world’s fastest-rising pop sensation, she runs an orphanage for girls.  Pizzazz, on the other hand, while of course she respects literally no one at all, actually seems to like spending time with lower-class adults on their own turf, hanging out in seedy clubs in abandoned warehouses and the like, without trying to “improve” them, and certainly without any appreciable “slumming” attitude.  That’s just the kind of place she likes.

Today we saw an episode which revealed some details about Pizzazz’s troubled relationship with her cold zillionaire father, who gives her money in lieu of affection.  It turns out her mother walked out on them when Pizzazz was young, and she’s had a chip on her shoulder ever since.  While this is a little bit the usual story of assigning Freudian anguish (if not actual mental illness) to explain away behavior outside of the accepted bounds of patriarchal bourgeois society, what the hell.  It rings kind of true for me, and it adds another fascinating layer to the character of Pizzazz.

Like one of my favorite bands ever, the Red Aunts, Pizzazz and her Misfits are apolitical, but at least as subversive as any actual riot grrrl band.  With her Kabuki-influenced makeup and ferocious ambition, Pizzazz must have been an iconic countercultural figure in the Jem universe.  In one episode, to my surprise and delight, the Misfits beat the Holograms and won Best New Artist at the show’s equivalent to the Grammys.  I hope that in that world, where Pizzazz was an influence on thousands of young people around the world, a girl picking up a guitar is not the fraught, defiant action that it still, somehow, is in our world today.  When some idiot boy tells her she can’t play, the girl in Jem World closes her eyes and sees a green-haired, zebra-striped monster in her mind, and knows it’s not true.  She is a giant.

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