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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Eat the World: From Iceland to Amsterdam
The Reykjavik Airport at 6:15am, I sleep on and off against my backpack. Drool pools against the fabric of my jacket-made-pillow in the shape of what kind of Rorschach ink blot? Wings, it appears to me, or something that flies. My skin is soft from a dip in the Blue Lagoon: a sulfur and algae spring that looks like steaming milk poured over the moon. Iceland, in general, looks like the moon. There’s mud on the sides of the Blue Lagoon that you can smear on your skin. Mineral rich, it claims to cure whatever ails you. National Geographic has named it one of the 25 wonders of the world.
My flight has met a series of unfortunate delays. Under the fluorescence of Gate 5, time stops. Sleep stops. Some Blue Lagoon goo is hardened and stuck to my hairline. I am hours from Amsterdam, where I will live for the next year, funded by The Fulbright Program to work on a fiction-writing project.
The words of Helene Cixous in her essay, “Bathsheba or the Interior Bible”: “Writing, thinking, is being in a state of waiting for what is yet to come.” It is to have “eyes that listen and do not see.”
There are certain constants across continents: hot yoga, black coffee, bicycles. I order a drip Chemex from a hip, minimalist café in Oud West Amsterdam. A stack of Kinfolk magazines rests on the counter–a taste of familiar Portland careening through from another country. My coffee comes in a clear glass on a tray with a miniature spoon and sparkling water. But where are the refills? I am afraid to ask, to appear as an over-consuming American. This is not like the Northwest coffee that’s so thick you can eat it. This is a place of small cups and light, but strong, liquid.
People speak Dutch to me, which I take as a compliment. But it’s short lived, because I talk back to them in English. I have come here to conduct research and write, but no one really understands what I’m doing. Or what I am working on. I tell them (to verb a noun) I will be queering fairy tales. Rewriting folklore. Studying fables, magic, and myth. Eyebrow raise. Queer doesn’t always translate.
My first night in the city: I walk the maze of canals and road. I feel very European with my short hair, the left side shaved. My boots and corduroy shorts, my button down buttoned all the way up. I can’t stop smiling at the alfresco patios, the flower-drenched terraces, the potholed brick lanes, and musicality of an un-understood language. An American man on a bicycle passes by me. He winks. Glances again, and says, “Well. You look like a boy.”
Susan Sontag in ‘Notes on “Camp”’: “The most refined form of sexual attractiveness consists of going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
Or at least it makes me feel less alone. To align my thoughts with those who thought great things.
I do not have a phone with Internet (so very retro) or a way to call anyone or anyone to call. I get lost a lot. I go deeper into the city–all the way inside of it. Helene Cixous knows, “one must penetrate into the country…by penetration you become it.”
While I am in the Reykjavik airport, I observe an Instagram picture from my ex-girlfriend who coincidentally is also in Iceland. She has taken an aesthetically refined photograph of two weathered leather boots, socks still in them, next to a steaming river in Hveragerði. Time strikes me as strange. During my last trip to Europe, she and I were traveling together. I haven’t seen her in years. We live on opposite US coasts. But somehow I don’t mind being so serendipitously near her and not intercepting paths. I can look at this photograph without longing to be in it. This in itself is a small miracle.
“The only kind of writer I could be is the kind who exposes himself,” says Susan Sontag, whose journals I have been reading. Can you imagine an entire audience of strangers reading your diaries after you have died? Would Sontag gasp at them being called diaries? Would she prefer something more neutral like notebook?
In the city, I am without social obligations, which is what I wanted. I wanted what Ginny Woolf calls a room of one’s own. But when I am bicycling home after my first yoga class in Amsterdam, and it is a summer evening and the air is pheromone-rich and young, I brush against something that looks a little like loneliness. Noises bloom out of each direction–clinking glasses, throats letting go of laughter, mouths meeting mouths, and phones ringing, waiting to be answered.
I make myself a salad in a room of my own and squeeze a lemon over it. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Wayne Koestenbaum: “Daily, Sontag’s spirit exhorts me: Move on! Eat the World!”
I am living in the past apartment of a woman who was on a similar grant here last year. By the time I arrive in the city, she has moved back to the states. We missed each other by a week. She left non-perishable food for me in the cabinet, a museum card in her old desk drawer, tea tree oil scrub in the shower. We exchanged letters on the Internet. She informed me about where to get organic groceries. I will never meet her (never say never!), but I will use her things: her ceramic bowls, her sea salt, her black rice. I will retrace her trails and step into the routine, though altered slightly by personal taste and tendency, that she left behind.
As you see, I have been reading a lot of Susan, as well as other writers who endear themselves to the fragment: Benjamin, Barthes, Cixous, Koestenbaum (She loved the fragment! Says Koestenbaum of Sontag. Her finest fictions and essays use the fragment as heuristic device and as musical measurement). They collage the ideas of others; collect the quotes of those they know through life or page. Through this, they create a kind of catalog, a canon. I’m trying to learn a lineage.
A fair-haired girl with painted nails and a penchant for pottery is sitting somewhere in Oregon and at this moment I know she’s thinking of me. She asks, Will I ever come back here? The way she says it makes me want the answer to be yes.
To fragment in fiction, essay, travel, as well as in life is to move quickly. It is to land on thoughts like lily pads. One after the other. It is to go unfinished. To splinter. Segment. To cause a break. But it is also to connect. It is to place disparate things side by side. It creates associations. It is to be content with the unfinished. It is to pursue sonic pleasure and stop. It is to move between boundary and threshold. It is to see completeness inside the incomplete. It is to prefer a part as well as a whole. In Amsterdam, the canals cause the streets to fragment. In life, a song or a movement or a moment–the brief touch of a stranger’s shoulder–can cause my thoughts to separate and then to meet again.
Sontag: “Jerking off the universe is perhaps what all philosophy, all abstract thought is about: an intense, and not very sociable pleasure, which has to be repeated again and again.”
People here speak English, but only to me. All around is Dutch: a guttural noise in the throat. I am a foreigner that other people have to go out of their way to understand. I am an inconvenience. I cannot read the ingredient lists at Albert Hein. Excuse me. Do you carry nutritional yeast?
What John Keats calls Negative Capability is a lot like what Helene Cixous gets at when she refers to the ears that listen and do not see. Keats urges artists and writers alike to be content with “half-knowledge.” He cautions against turning experiences and ambiguities into epistemological certainty. Nor does he think it’s possible. Sometimes phenomena should be appreciated as such. And moreover, the writer should be comfortable working inside mystery, inside the unknown. It’s the only way creativity comes. Do not seek absolute knowledge. Seek mystery. Work inside the dark. We cannot know Beauty, but we can get close to it.
Yeats once said that one must choose between life and work. Sontag once said the easiest thing in the world for her to do is to pay attention.
I could answer, says S.S., that a writer is someone who pays attention to the world.
Try to exfoliate the sugary sentiments that crust over the mind around 1am with something mechanical: push-ups, Facebookian stalking, a mapping of your astrological sign chart.
Another thing that crosses continents: the weather. Is it fair to say I love the way gray looks against the window? As if the clouds are saying, No pressure, really.
Characters in the 1964 French New Wave film Band à part, directed by Jean-Luc Goddard, break the world record for running through the Louvre with a time of nine minutes and 43 seconds. Bernado Bertolucci references this scene in his 2003 film, The Dreamers, when Isabelle, Theo, and Matthew dress in almost identical garb to their 1964 predecessors and undertake the same ambition. Bertolucci’s shot imitates the aesthetics of Goddard almost exactly: the loud slap of shoe to tile, the stretches of sound then cuts to silence, the hand holding, the security guard who braces to catch them, but can’t.
Sontag on doing stuff: “Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”
On Thursday afternoon, I go to the Rijksmuseum with my previous tenant’s museum card. It gets me in for free. I bring my notebook. I read the plaques. Vermeer dealt well with shadows. His use of light and dark is astounding. Art historians believe he achieved this by using a camera obscura. An informational website tells me he is known for his excessive use of paint and his proclivity for purchasing the rare and high-priced ultramarine, a color created from crushed lapis lazuli pigments.
And afterward when I walk to Vondelpark, where an August sky turns pink before it gives away the sun, I don’t really feel alone or very far away.
Genevieve Hudson earned her MFA from Portland State University, where she now teaches writing. Among other places, her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Collagist, Portland Monthly Magazine, The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle and HTML Giant. She was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant to work on a collection of fairy tale inspired short stories in the Netherlands.