August 2021 | Reading & Writing



#shortstory #literature | The Beach Boy by By Ottessa Moshfegh via The New Yorker

“At the stove, John righted himself, continued to stir the popcorn with one hand, and took his own pulse with two fingers of the other, pressing on his throat and breathing slowly until his heart rate returned to normal.

Meanwhile, Marcia took two extra-strength Tylenol, splashed some cold water on her face, brushed her teeth, and went to sit on the leather sofa in front of the television in the living room. A sudden excruciating pain in her head made her vision blurry. It was as if she’d been plunged underwater, the room murky and muffled, and she couldn’t breathe. She tried to call out to John. “Honey? John?” She could only gasp. Her throat gurgled, her hands trembled, and then she died. It was that simple. She was gone.

When all was quiet, John turned off the stove and poured the popcorn into a wooden salad bowl. He carried the bowl and the saltshaker into the living room, sat down next to Marcia’s dead body, salted the popcorn, ate several handfuls, and turned on the television. “Which movie did you say?” he asked her, scrolling through the pay-per-view listings. He looked at her downturned face. Her head hung to one side, resting on her shoulder. John smoothed her hair, put a hand on her knee for a moment, changed the channel to the baseball game, lowered the volume, ate the rest of the popcorn, then fell asleep beside her.”

#essay #lecture #art | Agnes Martin’s notes:  On the Perfection Underlying Life

In her lecture originally given in 1973, the artist Agnes Martin contemplated on the limiting effect of perfection and the transcendent freedom of helplessness.

Of the moments of perfection she told:

“Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties, and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone. But all such moments are stored in the mind. They are called sensibility or awareness of perfection in the mind.

We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it.

The function of art work is the stimulation of sensibilities, the renewal of memories of moments of perfection.”

Agnes Martin | Praise (1976)
Agnes Martin | Praise (1976)

Agnes Martin on helplessness:

“Helplessness, even a mild state of helplessness is extremely hard to bear. Moments of helplessness are moments of blindness. One feels as tho something terrible has happened without knowing what it is. One feels as tho one is in the outer darkness or as tho one has made some terrible error a fatal error. Our great help that we leaned on in the dark has deserted us and we are in a complete panic and we feel that we have got to have help.

“The panic of complete helplessness drives us to fantastic extremes and feelings of mild helplessness drives us to ridiculousness. We go from reading religious doctrine and occult practices to changing our diet. Or from absolute self abasement or abandonment to ever known and unknown fetish.

It is so hard to realize at the time of helplessness that that is the time to be awake and aware. The feeling of calamity and loss covers everything. We imagine that we are completely cut off and tremble with fear and dread. The more we are aware of perfection the more we will suffer when we are blind to it in helplessness.

But helplessness when fear and dread have run their course, as all passions do, is the most rewarding state of all. It is a time when our most tenacious prejudices are overcome. Our most tightly gripped resistances come under the knife, and we are made more free. Our lack of independence in helplessness is our most detrimental weakness from the standpoint of art work.”


After raiding the boxes with packed-away books in my Tallinn attic, been re-reading the female stream-of-consciousness novels by Renata Adler and Rachel Cusk, mixed with art theory books (Baudrillard, Greenberg, Schjehldahl’s non-theoretical but ultra-aesthetic essays on art exhibitions and artists). Also re-found some Tove Jansson short stories, my favorite one telling of a squirrel co-habiting her small island during one cold winter.

#review #literature | Sentimental Education by Merve Emre via The New Yorker

On Simone Beauvoir’s previously unpublished novel available in English in September 2021, describing her friendship and rapture with Elisabeth Lacoin, a beautiful classmate whom Beauvoir called Zaza, and whose name she underlined in black or brown ink throughout her diaries.

Lacoin died soon after their encounter, leaving a never-leaving wound that reappeared throughout Beauvoir’s writing. The novel at hand she deemed too personal to publish during her lifetime, and Merve Emre has written an excellent review analyzing the multiple facets of Beauvoir’s feminist theories and her personal social interests.

#book #essays #culturalcomentary | The Transparency of Evil : Essays on Extreme Phenomena by Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard The Transparency of Evil

A collection of short topical essays on the phenomena like the economy, desire, and art and their state n’ faith “after the orgy” that, according to Baudrillard, was the cultural liberation of the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the proposed ideas are relatable and acutely relevant, while others feel outmoded and short of sensational (I sometimes felt like ironically uttering a “duh, really?”).

Yet the essays in The Transparency of Evil : Essays on Extreme Phenomena provide a welcoming doorway to anyone looking to make connaissance with Baudrillard’s cultural theory.

On the Baudrillard note, I also happened upon his 1996 opinion piece The Conspiracy of Art, initially published in the French leftist newspaper Libération. A criticism that’s a balm for anyone annoyed by the trans- and ultratheoretical texts accompanying the exhibited works in any gallery, biennial, exhibition. Read The Conspiracy of Art here.

A couple of quotations from Baudrillard’s seminal opinion piece:

“The illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography and contemporary art has lost the desire of illusion.”

“As long as art was making use of its own disappearance and the disappeararce of its object, it still was a major enterprise. But art trying to recycle itself indefinitely by storming reality? The majority of contemporary art has attempted to do precisely that by confiscating banality, waste and mediocriry as values and ideologies. These countless installations and pedormances are merely compromising with the state ofthings, and with all the past forms of art history.”

“Other artists have a commercial strategy of nullity, one to which they give a marketable form, the sentimental form of commodity, as Baudelaire said. They hide behind their own nullity and behind the metastases of the discourse on art, which generously promotes this nullity as a value (within the art market as well, obviously). In a way, it is worse than nothing, because it means nothing and it nonetheless exists, providing itself with all the right reasons to exist. This paranoia in collusion with art means that there is no longer any possible critical judgment, and only an amiable, necessarily genial sharing of nullity. Therein lies the conspiracy of art and its primal scene, transmitted by all of the openings, hangings, exhibitions, restorations, collections, donations and speculations, and that cannot be undone in any known universe, since it has hidden itself from thought behind the mystification of images.”

““Our adation for painting results from a long process of adaptation that has taken place over centuries and for reasons that often have nothing to do with art or the mind. Painting created its receiver. It is basically a conventional relationship.” (Gombrowitz to Dubuffet). The only question is: How can such a machine continue to operate in the midst of critical disillusion and commercial frenzy? And if it does, how long will this conjuring act last?

#book #literature | Rachel Cusk, Outline

Outline by Rachel Cusk

I assume that some readers might cherish Cusk’s writing for her talent for perceiving details and the ability to turn the most insipid moment or scenery into an artful and beautiful description. The other reason why I return to Cusk with an acolyte-like allegiance is her (at times Didionesque) coldly analytical assessment of the human condition and human relationships.

In Outline, the first in her trilogy of travelogues, Cusk sends her narrator traveling to Athens to teach a literary course while conversing with a set of various characters, all (somewhat too) conveniently telling her their life story and willingly having their relationship memories excavated by the woman they know to be a writer. But the book and its exposures are immersive enough to have the reader forget about its flaws of logic and stumblings on the grounds of reality. A book worth reading for multispherical reasons.

Some paragraphs from :

“He had removed his shirt, and his bare back faced me while he drove. It was very broad and fleshy, leathery with sun and age, and marked with numerous moles and scars and outcrops of coarse grey hair. Looking at it I felt overcome with sadness that was partly confusion, as though his back were a foreign country I was lost in; or not lost but exiled, in as much as the feeling of being lost was not attended by the hope that I would eventually find something I recognised. His aged back seemed to maroon us both in our separate and untransfigurable histories.”

“It struck me that some people might think that I was stupid, to go out alone on a boat with a man I didn’t know. But what other people thought was no longer of any help to me. These thoughts only existed within certain structures, and I had definitely left those structures.”

[How very Didionesque…]

“I felt that I could swim for miles, out into the ocean: a desire for freedom, and impulse to move, tugged at me as though it were a thread fastened to my chest. It was an impulse I knew well, and I had learned that it was not the summons from a larger world I used to believe it to be. It was simply a desire to escape from what I had. The thread led nowhere, except into ever expanding wastes of anonymity. I could swim out into the sea as far as I liked, if what I wanted was to drown.”

#book #literature #Estonian | Jaan Kaplinski, Vaimu Paik

Jaan Kaplinski Vaimu Paik

A book of seven lectures-turned-essays that Jaan Kaplinski, the grand man of Estonian literature gave in Ööülikool radio lectures series. It’s somewhat strange to write in English about a book I read in Estonian, but I’d nonetheless like to recommend it to anyone able to read in EE, especially the lecture on the ways different languages offer various means for forming allusive expressions like the Estonian potid-pannid (pots and pans) that stands for kitchenware in general.

The collection’s foreword in the form of an email exchange between Õnnepalu and Kaplinski was intellectually stimulating, but the honey-sweet courtesy between the two writers diminished its depth for me – the exchange felt supernaturally romanticised in the vein of 19th-century aristocrat intellectuals. Recommend the book nonetheless.


Every time when visiting Estonia, I try to read books by Estonian authors. Here’s an article for Edasi Magazine (in EE) on the best books I read in June/July.

#book #literature | Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

hour of the star clarice lispector

Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s style is difficult to describe, a drop of scented oil in an otherwise unforgivingly coldsalty literary ocean. Maybe the words “inexhaustible stream-of-consciousness romance” would somewhat apply to her work. Reading her novels is somewhat like reading poetry, and I struggle with attuning to Lispector’s words every time I open one of her books.

Yet there’s always a story, always a rich serving of original thought. Hour of the Star is a novella that Lispector wrote in old age, pouring into the simple life story of a poor girl an abundance of dabbling details and ironic sadness.

I struggle to read Lispector and yet I am charmed with the sentences. Some quotes from the book:

“All the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I don’t know why, but I do know that the universe never began.”

“Most of the time she had without realizing it the void that fills the souls of the saints. Was she a saint? So it seems. She didn’t know that she was meditating because she didn’t know what the word meant. But it seems to me that her life was a long meditation on the nothing. Except she needed others in order to believe in herself, otherwise she’d get lost in the successive and round emptiness inside her. She meditated while she was typing and that’s why she made even more mistakes.”

“There was one ad, the most precious of all, that showed in full color the open pot of cream for the skin of women who simply were not her. Blinking furiously (a fatal tic she had recently acquired), she just lay there imagining with delight: the cream was so appetizing that if she had the money to buy it she wouldn’t be a fool. To hell with her skin, she’d eat it, that’s right, in large spoonfuls straight from the jar. Because she lacked fat and her body was drier than a half-empty sack of crumbled toast She’d become with time mere living matter in its primary form.”

The last paragraph, apart from the rest on the tale: 

“And now – now all I can do is light a cigarette and go home. My God, I just remembered that we all die. But – but me too?!
Don’t forget that for now it’s strawberry season.

#book #philosophy | Simone Weil, an Anthology edited by Siân Miles

simone weil an anthology

As anthologies go, the context and content are deeply dependent on the editor’s will. Siân Miles devotes the introductory essay to exhibiting Simone Weil’s career as a revolutionary, philosophical and political writer. Weil as a subject could be crowned as a saint and martyr who died on a hunger strike at age 34; or as an acclaimed political thinker who remained true to her beliefs. Either way, there is plenty of admirable about Weil’s character, not least her reluctant will to experience the life of the working class and to defy the luxuries of middle-class life.

The poet Anne Carson is an acolyte of Weil’s, so are many aesthetic artists or their curators who love to throw some Weil quotes into exhibition texts to add a tinge of intellectual aura. Considering Weil’s self-sacrificing life path, the unanimous celebration of her thought, and the multiplicity of topics she explored – from the nature of human goodness, truth, and justice to the post-WW2 rebuilding of European politics – her writing provides plenty of original well-versed ideas.

From the essay Human Personality:

““At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil be done to him. It is above all that is sacred in every human being. The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it.”

“What is first needed is a system of public education capable of providing it [crying out against evil], so far as possible, with means of expression; and next, a regime in which the public freedom of expression is characterized not so much by freedom as by attentive silence in which in which this faint and inept cry can make itself heard…”

“But the category of men who formulate claims, and everything else, the men who have the monopoly of language, is a category of privileged people. They are not the ones to say that privilege is unworthy to be desired. … Many indispensable truths, which could save men, go unspoken for reasons of this kind; those who could utter them cannot formulate them and those who could formulate them cannot utter them. If politics were taken seriously, finding a remedy to this would be one of its most urgent problems.”

“Beauty is the supreme mystery of this world. It is a gleam which attracts the attention and yet does nothing to sustain it. Beauty always promises, but never gives anything; it stimulates hunger bu has no nourishment for the part of the soul which looks in this world for sustenance. It feeds only the part of the soul that gazes. While exciting desire, it makes clear that there is nothing in it to be desired, because the one thing we want is that it should not change. If one does not seek means to evade the exquisite anguish it inflicts, then desire is gradually transformed into love; and one begins to acquire the faculty of pure and disinterested attention.”

From the essay The Power of Words:

“The effort of expression has a bearing not only on the form but on the thought and on the whole inner being. So long as bare simplicity of expression is not attained, the thought has not touched or even come near to, true greatness… The real way of writing is to write as we translate. Then we translate a text written in some foreign language, we do not seek to add anything to it; on the contrary, we are scrupulously careful not to add anything to it. That is how we have to translate a text which is not written down.”

“At the heart of the Trojan War there was at least a woman, and, what is more, a woman of perfect beauty. For our contemporaries the role of Helen is played by words with capital letters. If we grasp one of these words, all swollen with blood and tears, and squeeze it, we find it empty. Words with content and meaning are not murderous. If one of them occasionally becomes associated with bloodshed, it is rather by chance than by inevitability, and the resulting action is generally controlled and efficacious. But when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruin in their name, since what they refer to can never have any reality, for the simple reason that they mean nothing.”

[Absolutes and abstract entities, words like: nation, security, capitalism, communism, fascism, order, authority, property, democracy…] “Each of these words seems to represent for us an absolute reality, unaffected both by conditions, or an absolute objective, independent of methods of action, or an absolute evil…”

#exhibition #appliedart | 8th Tallinn Applied Art triennial exhibition Translucency

We visited the exhibition Translucency at Kai Art Center on the day of the Ironman competition, so our visit among a maze of opaque and translucent fragile objects was accompanied by stingingly loud “You are an ironman!” shouts every 10 seconds – the competition’s finish was located right next to the art center.

The artworks by 21 artists explored various forms of transparency and translucent materials. From sheer oversized undergarments to a glass interpretation of the Qwerty keyboard, the exhibition included several playful works, at times weighed down by the accompanying exhibition texts teeming with art English jabber about the artist exploring, studying, discussing a set of pretentiously worded yet ultimately incomprehensible concepts.

Of all the exhibited works, the objects by Helen Lee, Sissi Westerberg, Helena Tuudelepp were most memorable.