Tag Archives: self-indulgent

The Venus Flytrap: Constant Clicking

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It used to be that the self-portrait was a revolutionary thing, a means of staking out the claim of the individual in a world where the common and communal ruled roost. In the birthday week of Frida Kahlo, the high priestess of exactly such behaviour, it might be nice to remember this – the power of the personal story and the documentation of the personal journey in an impersonal world. But people-watching at a tapas joint sometime last week, as a trio of girls passed their digicam repeatedly to the waiter and pursed their lips in that unsmiling expression popularly known as “sexyface”, I began to wonder: has the era of self portraiture as a genuine milestone marker made way for the era of self portraiture as farce?

There are photographs in which the beauty of the work lies almost entirely in the anonymity of the subject – devoid of name, stripped to only their appearance at the exact moment of capture – faces and bodies become illuminated with the pathos of multiple interpretations. But not so, in the age of having images of yourself tagged on social networking sites almost before you get home from the event. Almost as if to make up for all the unidentified faces ever caught on film, we snap, label and overshare with a vengeance.

The photograph as object in itself? Rarely. The photograph as proof, as social lubricant, as currency, as device? Constantly.

Why are we so obsessed with this constant clicking? Perhaps it’s the novelty of it – a camera is no longer a luxury in the average middle class home, and the virtual obsoleteness of film rolls empowers one with endless retakes, easy editing and instant gratification, every time. It’s no longer just special occasions that are recorded, but more often than not, the truly mundane. Take the phenomenon of photographing food – you’ve surely observed groups order large portions of food, take pictures of and with the dishes, and then leave most of them uneaten. I wonder sometimes if people really go on holiday just for fun anymore, or for the sake of the Facebook album (or three) that might result. The experience no longer seems to count, only the evidence of it.

I won’t lie – I’m as narcissistic as the next person, and cam-whoring is terrific fun. But it might pay to remember that in the early days of photography, some cultures mistrusted the camera, believing it to be a soul-sucking device. Just watch how a less than cozy bunch will transform for the flash – embracing, kissing or posing with a passion which, if it truly existed, would be very unlikely to occur with all eyes turned to the camera. I don’t know about an absence of soul – but a faking of spirit is obvious.

In our hurry to archive our daily doings, and even to engineer our visual catalogs to give the impression of a certain kind of life or personality, I wonder what happens to the symbolic value of the photograph as preservation. With so extensive a catalog of memories, will we stop cherishing images as we once used to? How long will it be before we reach a point of saturation where if something has not been recorded, it almost seems not to have happened at all in any significant way?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Mr. Cohen, I Hope You Live Forever

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Please don’t bother reading this if you are irritated by mad self-indulgence. Actually, you shouldn’t be at this blog at all in that case, so goodbye!

When I was 19, someone I was furious at played me Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man”, and said, “This song is for you.” That was how it began, this blessed affair with the man who was born like that, he had no choice, he was the man who was born with the gift of that golden voice.

Years later, all I remember of that first listen is of being in a room lit in yellow, suddenly aware of something profound lighting up within myself. And then I heard the Cohen Live version of “Hallelujah”. The rest — the poems, the other songs — I didn’t need anyone to introduce to me. I was already initiated. I would find them myself.

I was supposed to have a book published by the end of this month. Like Cohen, I think now, it would have been my first book, released when I was 22.

Some of you know that a crisis that I described as one to do with funding affected this intention. Well, it was funding. But it hit deeper, too. To have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet by a person who seemed to have more vision than I did hit my own vision, hard. A multitude of questions emerged, everything from my ambivalence about the project to its fate. Questions difficult to answer, questions I tried to mollify with statements like “I am just more interested in the process than the project, I suppose.”

I spent some weeks wandering in an existential angst I had never, ever known — a lack of passion. I’m still there, still finding my way out as I try to ascertain how I found my way in in the first place. I began to wonder if I even deserve a book (deserve with all the dramatics). I watched Schnabel’s Basquiat and Before Night Falls back to back, films about extraordinary men, their eternal art, and their short lives. The second one devastated me so much I haven’t been able to watch anything else properly since. Would I, like Reinaldo Arenas, go to prison for my writing, go into exile for it, die for it, I asked myself? Before anyone pipes up and invokes any political scandals I’ve found myself in in the past, let me just say my answer was NO. Then I read this. And realised that also NO — I have no pig in my panties. Not anymore. And then, I heard from the editor of an anthology an essay of mine had been accepted to five years ago, but had never seen the light of day. A new publisher had expressed interest. I re-read that piece, and knew immediately that I had to withdraw it from the collection. I could no longer stand by it. Is that how I will feel about Witchcraft, later? I wondered. Already, I can’t look at some of the poems anymore. Already, I know they are in there because other people love them, because I have a career because of them. But I am a million miles away.

I was no longer on speaking terms with the most passionate person I had ever met — myself.

There’s something I didn’t tell you — I am a very lucky girl.

The funding got sorted out. With the exception of one person, everyone who was behind me has stayed behind me. I have more creative freedom than most people have. I can have a book. A book. Something I’ve wanted, worked toward, assumed would always be mine, since I was seven years old. But only If I want it.

So the only reasons there is no book are purely internal circumstances.

As I write this now, I wonder if I should publish this post at all. Or if I will publish it, then delete it. If I should just email confidantes instead. I am so uncertain about a blog post — can you imagine how much trepidation I feel about my book?

But back to Cohen.

Inspired by recent discussions, I went looking up his poems again. This one I had first heard as a recording, in his own voice, that was inexplicably tacked on to a Tori Amos song I was downloading. I share it only because it is beautiful.

I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.

If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.

I kept surfing links, looking over lyrics I already knew, reading anecdotes about the songs. Comparing two versions of “Hallelujah” made me realise, amazedly, that the writer behind the greatest English song in the world was never really happy with it.

If Leonard Cohen has second thoughts, I am perfectly, perfectly entitled to mine.

And then I read this. I’m sorry to look at this so materialistically, but if Leonard Cohen had an evil manager cheat him financially, well into the late stages of his universally-acclaimed career, then the fact that it had happened to me isn’t really that big a deal.

Thank you, Leo. You may not be God, but you are surely a member of the pantheon.

All this while I have been waiting for the voodoo, knowing very well by now that the voodoo is always there, it’s just that I’m not letting myself feel it. I’m not saying I own it yet. I’m just saying that, like the fog-basking Namibian beetle (look, I am not stoned, I’m just short on metaphors, and I had to edit something about this amazing creature at work recently), I’m going to start aligning to the wind.