The Queerness of Mary Oliver

When Mary Oliver died last week, I missed seeing explorations of her as a queer artist, so I was glad for this piece written by Jeanna Kadlec on the role of queer desire in Oliver's poems, including some of her most familiar ones.  An excerpt:

Take “Wild Geese,” perhaps her most beloved poem. “Wild Geese” is distinctly, uniquely queer. In the poem, the speaker gives the reader permission to inhabit their body: to be present in it, to know and own what they want without shame. Harder to do than it sounds, as any queer can tell you. Brandon Taylor has written about how this poem speaks to validating the reader’s worthiness. For me, someone who grew up in the evangelical church, the experience of reading “Wild Geese” has often been about receiving permission to desire within my own body: I do not have to be good; I do not have to repent.


How the World Thinks

How the World Thinks: A Global History of PhilosophyHow the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy by Julian Baggini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since I began teaching philosophy in the 1990's I've tried to expand the canon and to include non-Western elements in my teaching. These movements have gained momentum more broadly in the academy in recent years, and so I've been trying to expand my understanding so I can be a better philosopher and a better teacher. I hadn't yet seen a good introductory text one might use for global philosophy.

And this book still isn't that, but it quite good. This is not a book one could assign in an intro class, because it requires some familiarity with philosophical traditions, but it is a fascinating exploration in comparative philosophy.

Baggini writes that the different philosophical traditions are different, with different emphases, ideas, and values. And that you can't just pick and choose from those traditions, you need to understand how the ideas hang together and have developed through history.

But he does believe that the various traditions can learn from each other and can see how one might think differently if different ideas are emphasized. Plus, he thinks this is the way the world is going anyway, with globalization bringing the various cultures into closer communication, such that in the future global philosophy will be a cross-cultural conversation with roots in the various traditions.

One feature of the book that was enjoyable was the way he discussed contemporary events--such as the election of Donald Trump or the policies of Xi Jinping--through the lens of their culture's philosophical traditions.

My only negative feedback is that some of the chapters and sections could have been edited and structured differently. And a few others could have been expanded.

But overall I found this a very helpful guide in understanding how our current world thinks and what it's primary values are.

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Harold Stevenson or The Prominent Artist I Knew

Harold
Last night I was reading an e-mail from a friend in Norman, Oklahoma and it mentioned friends of hers who had died this year.  I had missed in the news in October that Harold Stevenson had died.

Harold was a prominent artist who never quite reached the fame and popularity of his contemporaries.  You can read an excellent obituary here that gives you some of his history, which includes working with Andy Warhol and having one of his paintings exhibited on the Eiffel Tower (it was taken down when it caused a giant traffic jam).

The New Adam

Harold's masterpiece was The New Adam, the most monumental male nude ever painted by an American artists (the actor Sal Mineo was the model).  The paintings is forty feet long and was intended to be displayed wrapped around three walls of a gallery.  It was to appear in a show at the Guggenheim in 1962, a show that made names such as Robert Rauschenberg famous, but the painting was rejected at the last minute.  The Guggenheim finally purchased the work in the early Aughts, though it hasn't been on display in a while.  In 2005 a detail from the painting was selected for the cover of the book Male Desire: The Homoerotic in American Art.  I reviewed that book here.

So, how did I know this prominent gay painter?

He was from Idabel, Oklahoma, a small town in the pine woods of southeastern Oklahoma where he returned in his final years and he was friends with people I knew in Oklahoma City.  It was my privilege to hang out with Harold on a few occasions.  A few times he attended the church I pastored in Oklahoma City, including once being there for the annual pet blessing.  He gave me a signed print.

Harold was a delightful person, funny and smart, and full of great stories of some of the most significant characters in twentieth century American cultural life.

Harold's other masterwork is less well known, though it has been exhibited in Paris.  This work is entitled The Great Society, and now belongs to the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the University of Oklahoma campus, though it is also currently in storage.

The Great Society

The Great Society is 100 larger than life size portraits of the citizens of Idabel, Oklahoma painted by Harold in 1966.  In 2006 the paintings were exhibited in Norman, Oklahoma and I reviewed the opening for Hard News Online (which no longer exists, though you can read the opening paragraphs of the review here).  That night Michael and I were fortunate to be part of a small group that went to dinner with Harold after the premiere, where we peppered him with questions.  That night, in answer to one of my questions about the paintings, Harold responded, "You must understand, Reverend Doctor, that each one was spontaneous; after the session, I never touched them again."

I hadn't seen or talked with Harold for some time, one of the losses of moving to Nebraska, but I was sad last night to learn of his death in October.  He was a fascinating figure--this great erotic gay artist from rural Oklahoma who returned there and in one of his greatest works elevated its ordinary citizens into the world of fine art.  


A Stranger's Mirror

A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014A Stranger's Mirror: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014 by Marilyn Hacker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two things stand out about this poetry collection. First is the way that she works within a wide variety of traditional forms--sonnet crown, ghazal, glose, pantoum, etc.--yet does not write stuffy poetry. I'm rarely drawn to poetry this structured, yet hers has a vitality.

Second is the international flavor of her work. She is an American Jewish lesbian living in France who has studied Arabic language and literature. The new poems that begin this collection are written in response to recent upheavals, including the Syrian Civil War.

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The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book two lacks the punch of book one, in my opinion. But I'm still engrossed in this story.

Book one ends with an horrific revelation that plays out in the first chapters of book two. But eventually the story reaches a point where it drags on, and I was growing tired of the characters and the plot. I think it could have moved more quickly in places. But the final third does move briskly and sets up some intriguing possibilities for where the story goes next.

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Leviathan

LeviathanLeviathan by Thomas Hobbes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The first two parts, wherein the essence of the political argument is made, were entertaining enough. Interesting to read for better historical perspective. Interesting to read to see the flaws in the argument--such as the false dichotomy between an all-powerful sovereign or a state of civil war and his oversimplified and incorrect understanding of human psychology and evolutionary development.

Parts three and four are a chore, even if you skim through them. I didn't expect the lengthy theological arguments. At points the issues are relevant to the political issues confronting him--he is writing after a religiously-motivated civil war--but often there are vast numbers of pages on various doctrinal issues that seem unrelated to the main thrust of the book (and also wrong with the hindsight of the history of theology and biblical interpretation).

But worthy to read these historical text if nothing else to help remove the blinders that keep us trapped into our current moment, thinking we live at this exceptional time and that our troubles are so, so bad.

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Brilliant interview with Arundhati Roy

The Boston Review has published a brilliant interview with author Arundhati Roy discussing her books, her politics, and the state of the world.  I encourage you to read it.  An excerpt:

While it is easy to take lofty moral positions, in truth, there is nothing simple about this problem. Because it is not a problem. It is a symptom of a great churning and a deep malaise. The assertion of ethnicity, race, caste, nationalism, sub-nationalism, patriarchy, and all kinds of identity, by exploiters as well as the exploited, has a lot—but of course not everything—to do with laying collective claim to resources (water, land, jobs, money) that are fast disappearing. There is nothing new here, except the scale at which its happening, the formations that keep changing, and the widening gap between what is said and what is meant. Few countries in the world stand to lose more from this way of thinking than India—a nation of minorities. The fires, once they start, could burn for a thousand years. If we go down this warren and choose to stay there, if we allow our imaginations to be trapped within this matrix, and come to believe there is no other way of seeing things, if we lose sight of the sky and the bigger picture, then we are bound to find ourselves in conflicts that spiral and spread and multiply and could very easily turn apocalyptic.