Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
I’d seen this book on the shelves of a number of friends and in the arms of a number of travelers, so I decided to pick it up. The title, “Middlesex”, suggested English countryside to me. On the cover was what looked like a steamship, and a quote on the back began “Part Tristram Shanty, part-Ishmael…” So I came to the foolish conclusion that this was some 19th century English seafaring novel.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Middlesex is the story of a hermaphrodite who grew up as Calliope but discovered in her adolescence that she is actually more Cal than Calliope. More specifically, Middlesex (the title takes on a new meaning now) is the story of three generations of a Greek family and the incestuous genetic and social history that enables the existence of Cal, who narrates the story.
The novel is epic. It spans nearly a century and traces the Stephanides family from battle-torn Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, across an Atlantic voyage, from the street corners of Detroit, through World War II, and out to the suburban haven of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The novel incorporates details upon details from all different spheres of life, dropping name brands from different time periods and regions and incorporating specialized jargon from a wide range of fields–Jeffrey Eugenides must have done an immense, immense amount of research during the writing process.
And the scope is as broad as the focus is often narrow. Over the course of 20th century, the Stephanides family responds to and participates in political, social, and cultural movements, and through them, we feel not only the sweep of a small Greek enclave, but also the sweep of a nation’s growth as it engages Prohibition, World War II, the idealism of the 50s, the revolutions of the 60s and 70s, and more. The story is as much about the conflicts within a country as it is about a family trying to face its secrets, past and present.
Through it all, Cal, as a narrator, is clever and endearing. A story about a hermaphrodite sounds unfamiliar to most at first, and there are moments in the novel when Cal faces the visceral or fearful reactions that arise in those prone to fear. But, from page one, Eugenides clears the air, setting us on a fresh foundation, and we discover a character who faces familiar childhood and adolescent trials and tribulations–we discover the humanity of a character one might otherwise find alienated elsewhere.
Do I recommend it? Yes. It’s a good tale for the modern age.
Epic. I’ll remember it for the incredible depth and breadth of knowledge it demonstrates. This novel impresses upon me the amount of research that an author must do to prepare for a serious work.
Published for the first time in 1993, the book proposes the historical reconstruction of the life and thought of Hypatia of Alexandria against the background of the political and religious conflicts that characterized her era (IV-V century AD). A prestigious philosopher and politician, Hypatia was one of the most important protagonists of a movement of political and cultural revival that was inspired by the values of the classical tradition and opposed the politics of the hierarchical church of the episcopes. By some of her contemporaries she was recognized as the third great leader of Platonism after Plato and Plotinus. She was the last great astronomer of the ancient mathematical school of Alexandria. She died murdered on the streets of her hometown in March 415.
Dante libera tutti
Dante Alighieri is famous as the father of the Italian language. But what example can we draw from him today? Certainly not a model of language to be spoken or written.
Rather, in the way in which he was a formidable progressive and inventor we can recognize a series of linguistic, and above all intellectual and sentimental freedoms, which are not the exclusive prerogative of genius, and which have an eternal relevance – even in our lives. Human and artistic freedoms witnessed by Dante that unite us all, and that with our individual strength we can try to understand and follow.
They talk to us about how masters are judged, how we love and hope, how we say and don’t say, how we tell ourselves, how we treat what is really valuable, how we borrow suitable words, of how new words are invented when pursuing a thought: in this book, each chapter speaks of a specific freedom that he takes and we can grasp and follow.
In short, Dante frees everyone. Not only by giving the basis of thought and words that our language needed to begin to be complete and frank, but also by witnessing what are the freedoms that language pursues and builds in the common space of the desire to speak.
In this book we do not fully tell the story and life of single words. We freely explore what is there before, among the branches of the first great oak of Italian literature.
A book written by three different people, well known to the public of Una word a day: Giorgio Moretti, main writer of the words on the site and author or co-author of all the other UPAG publications, Salvatore Congiu, teacher and editor on the cycle website “The strange couple”, in which he compares etymological results on five different languages, and Lucia Masetti, PhD student in humanities, former curator of the cycle “Literary glimpses” and co-author of the book “The tour of literature in 80 words”.
First published in 1973, this is a study of the force of photographic images which are continually inserted between experience and reality. Sontag develops further the concept of ‘transparency’. When anything can be photographed and photography has destroyed the boundaries and definitions of art, a viewer can approach a photograph freely with no expectations of discovering what it means. This collection of six lucid and invigorating essays, the most famous being “In Plato’s Cave”, make up a deep exploration of how the image has affected society.
This was terribly interesting, but I think you needed to know a little more than Sontag explained to understand where she is coming from in all this. The important thing to remember is that Plato wanted to banish the artists and he wanted to do this for a very good reason. To Plato the world we live in isn’t really the real world – the real world is a world we cannot have access to, the real world is where things never die, things remain the same and don’t change. Change and death, to Plato, are proof that the world we live in isn’t the real world. So, Plato saw the world we live in as a world of shadows, that is, one step away from reality. Art was therefore two steps away from reality and was therefore a copy of a copy. For Plato what we needed to do was get closer to reality, not further away from it. Therefore, he needed to banish artists from his ideal society as they move us away from reality towards images – that is more shadows.
So, for as long as we have had idealist philosophy we have had a problem between images, reality and how we can go about understanding the differences between the one and the other. This might sound like quite a trivial problem, but it is actually incredibly important. As Margaret Wertheim shows in her The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, how we have understood space has fundamentally changed how we have understood reality. Prior to the Renaissance space in artworks was depicted not to represent an ‘accurate’ picture of what people saw – but rather to show relative importance. So, God is huge and the angels are somewhat smaller and the king is smaller still, and the rest of us are tiny. The Renaissance developed perspective painting and with it helped to create the revolution in science that required a revolution in how we saw space, not as a frame for morality to be played out within, but as a plane for the unraveling of amoral and disinterested forces. As Sontag says in this work, “But the notions of image and reality are complementary. When the notion of reality changes, so does that of the image, and vice versa. “ Page 125
In many ways Sontag wants to turn Plato on his head. Plato would have had serious problems with photography. His main problem would have been the seeming accuracy of photographs. As Sontag says, “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.” Page 3 Or perhaps more importantly, “Photography is the reality; the real object is often experienced as a letdown. Photographs make normative an experience of art that is mediated, second-hand, intense in a different way.” Page 115
She plays with this idea of photographs being more real than reality throughout the book. Hard to put this point more pointedly than when she says, “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form.” Page 18 And breathtakingly, “It is common for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up—a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing—that ‘it seemed like a movie.’” Page 126
Photography gets to be ‘evidence’ because, “In the fairy tale of photography the magic box insures varacity and banishes error, compensates for inexperience and rewards innocence.” Page 41 The problem is that not only can photographs lie – something we still struggle to believe – but they lie on every level. They lie because they are a selective choice of what reality we intent to show. They lie because most photographs are anything but what people think they are – an accurate representation of what is photographed. This point needs a bit of explaining. Think about what happens to you when someone holds a camera up towards you. It is nearly impossible not to pose. But that means that what you get a photograph of isn’t really ‘you’, but instead an image of you posing in front of a camera. As she points out, “That photographs are often praised for their candour, their honesty, indicates that most photographs, of course, are not candid.” Page 66
We like to think that photographs explain the world to us and help us to understand it, but again she is savage in debunking this idea. “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.” Page 17 To really understand the world involves seeing the world as a process, in action, in time. But a camera – a still camera at least – cannot capture the process of life. The problem is that to understand a thing means, “understanding … how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.” Page 18 However, the veracity of images gives them an authenticity that confuses and bewilders us. And this is where the caption comes in. We look at the image and we see time frozen. We see a captured instant in what, to be understood, needs to be a continuum. The ‘context’ to understand this instant is added often by words, by language, by a caption. The relationship is a difficult one, but one that needs to be acknowledged: “’This photograph, like any photograph,’ Godard and Gorin point out, ‘is physically mute. It talks through the mouth of the text written beneath it.’ In fact, words do speak louder than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning.” Page 84
And this brings us to what I think is the main point – and back to Plato again. For Plato ‘the truth’ is what we need to spend a lifetime seeking, even if we are sure of only one thing – that we will never find that truth. The Greek word for truth is Aletheia. It means to uncover, unconceal. While Plato is seeking to get us to turn away from reality to see the reality beyond the apparent, photography also gets us to turn away from the real world, but as a way to get us to see the real world that is hidden in plane sight. Sontag again, “All that photography’s program of realism actually implies is the belief that reality is hidden. And, being hidden, is something to be unveiled.” Page 94
A lot of this book concerns the relationship between painting and photography. Painting is clearly an art form – and not just for the snobbish reason that it has a history going back as far as people go back, but also because to paint is to interpret. To paint is to put something of yourself into a painting. But it is very hard for a photographer to be truly original in the way painters can be. And this makes sense of something she points out about paintings and photographs, “It makes sense that a painting is signed but a photograph is not (or seems bad taste if it is). “ Page 104 But also that, “there is no internal evidence for identifying as the work of a single photographer…” Page 105
Painting is also a high-art form. She makes the point that art is hard work, “Classical modernist painting presupposes highly developed skills of looking, and a familiarity with other art and with certain notions about art history. “ Page 102 But photography presents itself as realism – realism in the sense that all you need are a pair of eyes to understand what is being shown to you. Of course, this is anything but the case, but we will get to that in a second.
Photography isn’t so much interested in the beautiful, she says at one point, “In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealised images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset.” Page 22 Rather photography makes the mundane and even the ugly ‘beautiful’ – beautiful in the sense that the very act of photographing it gives it an interest and fascination. Worse than this, not only have photographs turned everything into the potentially beautiful, but by presenting so many objects before us as objects of erotic or voyeuristic pleasure (I mean this in the broadest possible sense) photography is guilty of dulling our senses to the truly horrible. “Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible.” Page 32
But even this is only partly true. Sometimes the opposite is also the case. At one point she describes going to see an operation performed in a Chinese hospital – she observed this and although it sounds gruesome in all the ways we expect operations to be, she was able to watch the whole thing with more fascination than revulsion. But, amusingly enough, she wasn’t able watch a film made of nearly exactly the same thing. She explains this by saying, “One is vulnerable to disturbing events in the form of photographic images in a way that one is not to the real thing. That vulnerability is part of the distinctive passivity of someone who is a spectator twice over, spectator of events already shaped, first by the participants and second by the image maker.” Page 132
The ideological role photography plays in a particular society depends on the nature of the guiding ideology of that society. She makes wonderful use of a few stories from China about what makes a good photograph. She discusses a series of photographs taken by a Western photographer that the Chinese protested against. These showed rather candid photographs of the Chinese going about their daily lives. The Chinese critic found that idea repulsive about the photographs. The people photographed had been violated because they had not been given the opportunity to present themselves to the camera. Also, the images focused on parts of objects and of people. This too was seen by the Chinese as disrespectful. The images the
Chinese government approved of were more likely to be of the ‘Unknown Citizen Lei Feng – someone too good to be true and therefore worthy of emulation. As Sontag says, “In China, what makes an image true is that it is good for people to see it.” Page 137 That is, not the images literal truth – which everyone probably knows is almost certainly staged – but rather the truth as it ‘ought’ to be. Yet again, another hidden truth.
But if she is savage about Communist propaganda photography, she is hardly soft on Capitalist propaganda photography either. “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself. The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumptions requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.” Page 140
“Neil Shawcross, a Belfast man, bought two complete sets of the cards, explaining, ‘I think they’re interesting mementoes of the times and I want my children to have them when they grow up.’” Little did he know his children would have far more mementoes of those times in their own growing up.
This is a fascinating book and rightly a classic on photography.
That’s it for today and let me know if you have read any of these books and if you like them .