Art and Life

The most striking thing about A. V. Marraccini’s new book on criticism is not that it is personal, or even intimate—it’s that it is, against all odds, uncynical.

Courtesy Sublunary Editions

These days, the topics about which I am asked to pen criticism (the vagaries of Bjarke Ingels, the abuses of labor in architecture, Saudi Arabian vanity projects, McMansions) fill me with a boiling contempt for the state of the world as it is expressed through architecture. They do not make me happy. This is fine, on the whole, because in order to keep a sharp tongue in my mouth, I have to distance myself from my subject. If I admit that I love something, it opens me up to questions of taste, some of which considering my penchant for the linen-covered ’90s interiors of Martha Stewart, vegetable-printed fabric, and the shag-carpeted formal explorations of the 1970s—I cannot answer for. While I have written about the importance of criticism in an increasingly uncritical world—that is, the importance of criticism to a collective other—I rarely give any thought to what criticism means to me, Kate Wagner, the individual. Surely I must have, at some point, loved buildings enough to devote myself to critiquing them, even though I now claim to keep them at arm’s length and reserve my tenderness for other, more private things: the mathematical diversions of my husband, the virtually unlearnable Slovene language, the trips to the outlet mall I take with my friend Michael in order to banter about bottom-shelf Adidas sneakers.

So, when I started reading A. V. Marraccini’s treatise-cum-memoir on criticism, We the Parasites, my initial reaction was jealousy. Marraccini—a critic, essayist, and art historian who is the incoming critic in residence at the Integrated Design and Media program at NYU Tandon—began her critical journey by reading Greek mythology in childhood. Setting this journey against the opening months of the pandemic in London, she shows it to be underscored by complete and utter devotion to, obsession with, and love for the critical subject. In her case, that’s art and literature. Marraccini opens the book with a comparison of the critic and the fig wasp, an insect that fertilizes the fig tree’s inverted flower and is then dissolved by the fig fruit it helped create. “Criticism,” she writes “is a mutualism as parasites like me go, or at least commensalism. … The critical gaze is tearing apart, clawing into the soft central flesh of the tree bud.” This is indeed what the book does. From centaurs and Cy Twombly to Updike and Rilke, Marraccini buries herself into these works and connects them through the frenetic matrix of her interpretation, intermingling the parasite motif, narratives of her own queerness, and the personal satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) and meaning gleaned from the works. Most of the works she discusses center on motifs from Greek mythology, and in a typical passage about Homer, one of her first loves, she writes:

Criticism usurps the kiss of the reader’s mouth to the novel, the viewer’s to the painted panel. … Now that I’m a critic, it’s safe. I don’t look at Homer directly, to weep and burn my own hair. I look askance. I don’t want to be a marionette on his strings again, to be animated by my too-close parasites, my chosen ones, my comforters and bedfellows. I need to be buffered.

Marraccini treats everyone, even writers for whom she keeps her tongue sharp, with tenderness. She calls out Updike for his overt and grating misogyny at the same time that she appropriates and turns him upside-down in her mirror: “I can hear Updike now,” Marraccini writes, “the words he saves for sagging female flesh, I say them to myself in the mirror. It’s no good though, I’ve already bitten off his tongue at the root and started to speak with it. … I’ve stolen him and his words and I’ve grown my flesh to them in a graft I can’t undo for love or money either.”

The way Marraccini devours books and paintings and places, intertwining them with herself, makes her criticism, paradoxically, both forcefully savage and meticulously incisive. Her criticism maps onto the human body, and narratives of flesh, guts, disembowelment, and tears pepper the book viscerally. Discussing Twombly’s The Age of Alexander, she compares the wax and pencil scrawls on the canvas to healed wounds from the sarissa, a long spear with a sharp iron head that brutally ripped the skin. In describing a breakup with an unnamed lover, she uses the same comparison: “Today, the Girl from Across the Sea pulled out the sarissa and I wept. I did not want to conquer any worlds. There are scars there now, two cities raised in seismographic lines, like the ones in The Age of Alexander’s right, the peaks sometimes labeled too in a cryptic and partial numerical script.” In “Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus,” from Twombly’s Fifty Days of Iliam, she finds a dynamic depiction of heartbreak (“Another thin pencil line undercuts both clouds, as if to suggest they have already passed the gateway point for death. … Once Patroclus dies, Achilles sees no reason to delay and live”) and, simultaneously, a subversion of philos, which she defines as an untranslatable “eros, but only for clouds that are also souls.” The work, in Marraccini’s hands, seems entirely unlike the same massive canvases of chaotic scribbles and dabs that, when I viewed them, made me feel lonely and small. Twombly, I realized while reading Marraccini, has always made me feel that way. I just never thought it worth noting.

The way Marraccini devours books and paintings and places, intertwining them with herself, makes her criticism, paradoxically, both forcefully savage and meticulously incisive. Her criticism maps onto the human body, and narratives of flesh, guts, disembowelment, and tears pepper the book viscerally.

If criticism to me has become an exercise in personal distance, then for Marraccini, it seems to me, it might be the opposite. It is a process of succumbing, not only of inhabiting but of allowing oneself—mind, body, soul—to be inhabited. The most striking thing about Marraccini’s book is not that it is personal, or even intimate—it’s that it is, against all odds, uncynical. In her translucent rage (“Someday I want to be fucking terrifying. … I want to look these old men who hate me in the eyes and say ‘Be afraid. Die angry’”) there is little of the Twitter-era performance of feeling, where emotion always points to something else. There is, simply, authentic emotion. Hers.

So, what about mine?

A friend of mine died young and unexpectedly in the middle of June, the second of my friends to die within the same year. Two days after G’s death, my friend Jan had dinner with me at a McDonald’s in Ljubljana. I don’t know what gave him the idea, but he read giddily to me from Novalis, whom he described jokingly as “Hegel’s roommate.” Over a Big Mac, he selected lines from “Pollen,” a sensuous early Romantic treatise about the connections between humankind, the spiritual, politics, and the natural world published in 1798. Jan scanned through the piece on his phone, periodically announcing, “oh, that is a good one,” before reading out loud. “We look for the unconditioned everywhere and only ever find things.” Which is to say, we look for the untouched, the natural, that which is without contamination, and only ever find the ordinary, that which we have sullied with our perception. But also: There is nothing that is undiscovered or unfelt by others. I can still hear Jan’s voice, see his childlike smile, and remember how thankful I was that he was alive, reading to me, that any of my friends were still alive, reading and writing and studying and riding their bicycles and sleeping on American time.

As I sort out this memory, “Pollen” is open in a tab on my computer, and I wonder if it was Novalis who moved me so deeply or if it was Jan, my friend who sensed in some way that he could not provide for me anything of real comfort but perhaps Hegel’s roommate could. I had found myself parasitized by an instance of Marraccini’s wasps. It happened, too, when I stood at the castle Friedau in Ormož and understood—as did its thirteenth-century ministerials cast out from the high castle at Ptuj by the archbishop of Salzburg for their sins of autonomy against a powerful empire—the meaning of exile; when I went to Vienna and saw Egon Schiele’s paintings of his family before they would all die of the Spanish flu; when I stood in front of those Twombly paintings and felt lonely and small. “Eternity,” Novalis wrote, “with its worlds, the future and the past, is in us or nowhere.” Per We the Parasites, he could have just as well been talking about art.

Kate Wagner writes about architecture for The Nation. She lives in Chicago and Ljubljana, Slovenia.