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In an early scene of Eileen Chang’s 1956 novel Naked Earth (reissued this month by NYRB Classics), Liu Ch’uen – a young, enthusiastic new participant in Chairman Mao’s Land Reform movement – watches the “struggle session” of a local landlord’s wife. The woman has been brought into a courtyard to make a confession before the student recruits, Party members and local villagers. The landlord’s wife is frightened and pregnant.

As they approached the low flight of stone steps they saw that a thick rope hung down from the eaves. It hung loose, swaying a little in the breeze. Several tenant farmers were standing around, looking nervous. The atmosphere was thick, as if somebody had hanged himself here and the body had just been taken down and removed.

More… “Struggling Through”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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The writer R.K. Narayan was not prone to supernatural thoughts. He understood as well as anyone why The English Teacher — his 1944 novel about a grieving professor who learns to communicate with his recently deceased wife through trance writing — would inspire bewilderment in his readers, and even rage. In the first half of the book (the “domestic” half), a benignly self-absorbed English teacher of thirty, Krishna, living in the fictional Indian town of Malgudi, decides to devote himself more fully to his wife and child. In the second half (the “spiritual” half), the happy domestic picture dissolves into — as Narayan wrote in his memoir My Days — “tragedy, death, and nebulous, impossible speculations.” Readers might feel, wrote Narayan, as if they had been baited into the second half by the first. But he hoped readers would find an explanation knowing that, of all his novels, The English Teacher was the most autobiographical.
More… “In the Ground”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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The ethereal myth of the Old South

Driving south from the North, we tried to spot exactly where the real South begins. We looked for the South in hand-scrawled signs on the roadside advertising ‘Boil Peanut’, in one-room corrugated tin Baptist churches that are little more than holy sheds, in the crumbling plantation homes with their rose gardens and secrets. In the real South, we thought, ships ought to turn to riverboats, cold Puritanism to swampy hellfire, coarse industrialists with a passion for hotels and steel to the genteel ease of the cotton planter.

Most of what we believe about the South, wrote W.J. Cash in the 1930s, exists in our imagination. But, he wrote, we shouldn’t take this to mean that the South is therefore unreal. The real South, wrote Cash in The Mind of the South, exists in unreality. It is the tendency toward unreality, toward romanticism, toward escape, that defines the mind of the… More…

A Passionate Journey begins

The Written Image” was an exhibit of German Expressionist art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But it was not the exhibit of German Expressionism you might expect to see — none of Ernst Kirchner’s lurid scenes of degenerated Berlin society smeared across the streets. It was a show, rather, of portfolios, periodicals, works sketched on single sheets of paper. Featured among them were the so-called “wordless novels.” In one glass case was a 1926 copy of Frans Masereel’s My Book of Hours.

   

Frans Masereel was a Flemish artist whose primary medium was the woodcut. The woodcut genre thrived in Europe during the interwar years. Masereel and his contemporaries were drawn to woodcuts as they were to cartoons and silent film, media in which images were dominant and words were few. This was appropriate… More…

and his masterwork, The Unquiet Grave

Between autumns of 1942 and 1943, the English critic Cyril Connolly took a break from writing articles and set out to write a masterpiece. This, he wrote on the first page of his book, is the true function of a writer. Nothing else is of consequence. “How few writers will admit it,” he wrote “or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! …. Every excursion into journalism, broadcasting, propaganda and writing for the films, however grandiose, will be doomed to disappointment.”

“Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best,” wrote Connolly, “and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.”

It was agreed that Connolly’s previous books — a satirical novel… More…

“Does it matter?”

The 1940s film Portrait of Jennie begins up in the clouds, with questions: “What is time?” asks a voice. “What is space? What is life? What is death?” A quote from Euripides comes onscreen to the strains of Debussy:

WHO KNOWETH IF TO DIE BE BUT TO LIVE … AND THAT CALLED LIFE BY MORTALS BE BUT DEATH?

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

Is film an escape?

“You don’t know how terrible it is,” Joseph Cornell once told a gallerist who praised his work, “to be locked into boxes all your life.”

Boxes were Joseph Cornell’s obsession. He collected everyday objects and photographs and arranged them inside wooden shadow frames. Often he placed glass panes over the boxes, which makes them feel like windows. The names of the boxes are both solid and surreal: Observatory, Soap Bubble, Space Object, Pink Palace. The boxes are about objects but they are also about time. Cornell’s boxes are time contained. In them, history — which normally presents itself as solid, continuous and progressive — is shown to be an accumulation of shifting memories and questionable evidence. A Cornell box is chaos preserved in one silent eternal moment.

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She… More…

An ideal bust for the Victorian parlor

Just past the front door, in the Atrium of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, are six “ideal” busts. The busts are installed near window ledges and against walls, high above the floor, so that everyone is guaranteed to walk right by them. The busts are female figures, carved in white marble. Their faces are posed in the neoclassical style – impassive, serene – with pupil-less eyes cast blindly down, or toward an invisible horizon. 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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In the first few weeks of World War I, Evelyn Underhill published a little book about mysticism. Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Normal People was written during the last months of peace. But was a book about mysticism for the common man really necessary when the whole world was collapsing? Underhill decided it was, more than ever.

The contemplative life, wrote Underhill, is not some dreamy, silly pursuit; “a game fit only for idle women and inferior poets.” Neither is it a pious “special career, involving abstraction from the world of things.” Mysticism is a call to arms. It is a challenge to engage with true reality, to see things are they really are. “The mystical consciousness,” Underhill wrote in her Preface, “has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can… More…

(1938-2009)

People often talk about the physical presence of Maryanne Amacher when talking about the artist Maryanne Amacher. They will talk about her yellow hair and her long solitary dreadlock that dates from 1962. Or they will mention the red ski suit she wore even in summer, or her aviator hat and goggles, or the way she moved when spotted from a distance — long and gliding — a bright red ghost ship at sea. They will sometimes talk about the great wooden house she inhabited in Kingston, New York — which was littered with objects and sounds — or the fact that she died with no surviving relatives. Artist as goggles, house as body, history as hair.

We want, sometimes, to hold on to the physical body of an artist because art is so elusive. The jumping spluttering paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, are hard to pin down. But… More…