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Posts tagged "Mark Greif"


Incurvatus in Se(x)

Another quote from Mark Greif’s essay, “Afternoon of the Sex Children”, taken from the collection Against Everything. While he may put a few more eggs in the cultural agency basket than I would, the core observation, when considered alongside an incurvatus in se-/AA-derived estimation of human libido, can’t help but illuminate our moment. You have to ask, in other words, are today’s headlines the awful yet inevitable fallout of decades of rephrasing/selling sex as self-fulfillment? Or is the everything/nothing-ness of our sexual schizophrenia an expression of a deeper bind? You tell me. Ghastly either way:

The reason it seems a sex of pure politeness and equal access does not work is that the constant preparation to imagine any and every other person as a sexual object (something our culture already encourages) proves to be ruthlessly egocentric and antisocial, making every other living body a tool of self-pleasure or gain. At times I wonder if we are witnessing a sexualization of the life process itself, in which all pleasure is canalized into the sexual, and the function of warm, living flesh in any form is to allow us access to autoerotism through the circuit of an other. This is echoed at the intellectual level in the discourse of “self-discovery.” The real underlying question of sexual encounter today may not be “What is he like in bed?” (heard often enough…) but “What am I like in bed?” (never spoken). That is to say, at the deepest level, one says: “Whom do I discover myself to be in sex?”–so that sex becomes the special province of self-discovery.

Meanwhile, the more traditional way of de-emphasizing sex, by subordinating it to overwhelming romantic love, has diminished as an option as the focus on self-discovery has increasingly devitalized romantic love. Self-discovery puts a reflecting wall between the self and attention to the other, so that all energy supposedly exerted in fascination, attraction, and love just bounces back, even when it appears to go out as love for the other.

Why We Eat (and Think About Eating) Too Much

Another excerpt from Mark Greif’s intimidatingly excellent essay collection Against Everything, this time as an excuse for posting the accompanying de Botton video almost as much as the quote itself:

It will be objected that the care for food is a fascination only of the rich; this is false. Stretching from high to low, the commands to lose weight, to undertake every sort of diet for the purposes of health, to enjoy food as entertainment, to privatize food care as a category of inner, personal life (beyond the shared decisions of cooking and the family dinner), have communicated new thought and work concerning food to the vast middle and working classes of the rich Western countries, too.

I think there is something wrong with all this. Underlying my opposition is a presumption that our destiny could be something other than grooming–something other than monitoring and stroking our biological lives. Many readers will disagree. I respect their disagreement if they are prepared to stand up for the fundamental principle that seems to underlie their behavior: that what our freedom and leisure were made for, in our highest state, really is bodily perfection and the extension of life.

One of the main features of our moment in history, in anything that affects the state of the body (though, importantly, not the life of the mind), is that we prefer optimization to simplicity. We are afraid of dying, and reluctant to miss any physical improvement. I don’t want to die, either. But I am caught between that negative desire and the wish for freedom from control. I think we barely notice how much these tricks of care take up our thinking, and what domination they exert. (pgs 38-39)

One of the Cruel Betrayals of Sexual Liberation

Merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fascinating observations about inverted “little l law” in n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s masterful collection, Against Everything:

Liberation implies freedom to do what you have already been doing or meant to do… But a test of liberation, as distinct from liberalization, must be whether you have also been freed to be free from sex, too–to ignore it, or to be asexual, without consequent social opprobrium or imputation of deficiency… One of the cruel betrayals of sexual liberation, in liberalization, was the illusion that the person can be free only if he holds sex as all-important and exposes it endlessly to others–providing it, proving it, enjoying it.

This was a new kind of unfreedom… sinfulness redefined as the unconditioned, unexercised and unaroused body, and a new shamefulness for anyone who manifests a nonsexuality or, worst of all, willful sexlessness. (pg 26-27)

On Our Bookshelf (This Time Around)

As summer winds down, here’s what we’ve been reading over here at Mockingbird HQ (and on sabbatical), as published in the Love & Death Issue

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’ widely acclaimed first novel addresses death, grief, and the afterlife. Narrated by a graveyard full of, um, lively ghosts, this novel is a roller coaster from start to finish. With humor and empathy, Saunders powerfully illustrates that “the truth will set you free.”

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott

Published this spring, Lamott continues to sing the song of grace: “Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves forgiving the debt, absolving the unabsolvable.” Pulling from St. Augustine and the Dalai Lama, she weaves her thoughts on mercy with such honesty and humor that you might feel like you’re sitting down as one of her Sunday School students.

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

Emmanuel Carrère’s new book (novel? memoir? biography?) on St. Paul and the early Christians often reads like a diary fused with historical fiction. Carrère, well-known in France for his unique non-fiction storytelling, believes that the only way he can really communicate a subject is by looking as honestly as possible at himself. In this book, then, that means capturing the New Testament through his own relationship with and (un-)belief in its God. A powerfully honest and captivating reimagining of both the nature of belief and the radical message Paul carried.

The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century by Stephen Marche

Stay-at-home dads get no respect, women are still almost never in the boardroom, and feminism has failed us. Why, Marche ponders, have we come so far and are still inundated with the same bizarre problems? Because women are still women and men are still men, and no one wants to make the damned bed. If you are in ministry, your premarital counseling couples should read this brilliant book alongside Capon’s Bed and Board.

My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir by Macy Halford

Halford, who spent several years working as a staffer at The New Yorker, writes with immense care and loyalty about the devotional that shaped (and continues to shape) her life, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. Halford, who was raised in an Evangelical family in Dallas, uses the devotional (and Chambers’ own life story) as a way of excavating her own life and Christian faith.

Against Everything: Essays by Mark Greif

Greif is the co-founder of culture magazine n+1. This book synthesizes the strangeness of the modern world by challenging it and unpacking everyday taboos like exercise, hipsters, and punk music. Greif shows his cards as an Enneagram 8, but that doesn’t stop him from writing some real sizzlers on everyday life through a decidedly intellectual lens.

Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos

One of our guests on The Mockingcast, Febos’ cutting collection of memoirs wrestles with addiction and sexuality and offers up a gratifying depth of spirituality. Her riff on the Jonah story and our innate calling towards “choose your own adventure stories” is one for the ages. She writes, “every love is a sea monster in whose belly we learn to pray.”

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Ripping its title from a Dostoevsky classic, Elif Batuman’s debut novel follows Selin through her first year at Harvard. Upon arriving at school, she’s given an email address, her first. One night, she sends a snappy message to Ivan, the mysterious boy in her Russian class, and hilarity ensues. The romance would fit well in a 19th century novel—excepting Selin and Ivan’s preferred form of communication. Armed with a healthy suspicion of her surroundings and a sharp wit, Selin makes for a revelatory, refreshing narrator.

Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts by Harriet Lerner

This little book ranks up there with our other social science fave, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). Lerner gives us a powerful glimpse into all the strategies and self-deceptions we have around our wrongdoing–on what counts as an apology, and on what keeps us from giving (and receiving) it. She also insightfully keys in on the prime impulse that makes the non-apologizer a non-apologizer: the need to be perfect.

Phases: Poems by Mischa Willett

Poems playful, at times, epigrammatic, conscious of things Italian and incongruous—they are delightful and plain spoken, rhythmic and musical, at times difficult enough to slow the reader’s march through them, most times sufficiently welcoming and placed (e.g., the Pacific Northwest) to keep the reader coming back for more. The collection’s nine brief sections are laid out as though phases of a voyage. An exciting new volume in the Poiema Poetry Series (Cascade Books), curated by poet/editor D. S. Martin.