From literature

california belongs to joan didion


For a writer to take ownership of a place, to stake out their position in its liminal spaces, they perpetuate their vision into art and popular culture, and in turn, our collective memory. When we read we are unrelentingly challenged to deconstruct writers’ visions and how they shape our perspectives of familiar places. Together, as writer and reader, we enliven the phenomena of fiction, that through fiction places are transformed,  plucked out of objectivity and into a metaphysical realm, resemblant of, albeit distorted, the place itself. And this vision is what really counts; what culture and art reveal to us, what we see in the world is sufficiently, and entirely, as the world is. Or may as well be.

In her new book, “The White Album,” Joan Didion writes: “Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner… a great deal of Honolulu has always belonged for me to James Jones… A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”

California belongs to Joan Didion.

Michiko Kakutani wrote this in the New York Times in 1979. Once you’re familiar with Didion, it’s difficult to hear news reports, or read about or watch on television anything Californian without her vision of the Santa Ana and the Mojave desert and the highways and the empty spaces, elbowing their way forward in plain sight. Below, evidenced by various Didion quotations, we explore California, namely, Didion’s own experience of California that has for the last four decades been translated into something of cultural phenomena and its own very real reality: her burning, amorphous, enigmatic, spiritual, golden metropolis in all its mystique.

“It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself; Nathanael West perceived that in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end. Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people and floods others with an amorphous unease.”

Still from Play It As It Lays (1972)

“…devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves… It is the season of suicide, and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”

Ed Ruscha Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963)

“The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant… Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new lifestyle, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.”

still from Lady Bird (2017), Sacramento California

“Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country.”

“The freeway experience … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participation requires total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.”


poetry as untranslatable: gloria anzaldúa on straddling dual identity

Alison Hawthorne Deming

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“borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them”

The Chicano movement – the extension of Mexican American civil rights movement during the 1940s and 60s – was a movement of working-class Americans born of a cultural and racial ‘mixture’ across the southern borders of the US, exhibiting political solidarity and a linguistic common ground within their community. Queer theorist and Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa is known for her Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), a poetic discourse of the hybrid identities formed in the borderlands and voicing the people of inherited colonial oppression.

‘Chicanos did not know we were a people until 1965.. with that recognition we became a distinct people, we became aware of our reality and acquired a name and a language that reflected that reality’

the tool of language

The semantic field of Anzaldúa’s poetry, her littering of Spanish nouns amongst her majoritively English political discourse, raises the question: do the words she uses mean more, or something altogether different, in the language in which they are written? Does Anzaldúa speak to greater literary philosophies beyond the cultural, political remit that thematises her work? In conflating her dual identities, she speaks only to those who share this identity, irrespective of the glossary given at the bottom of her text to translate her Spanish. We ask, what does ‘rajetas’ mean for Anzaldúa, and is its meaning lost in translation lest it is kept in Spanish? Does the exercise of translation rid the word of its cultural exclusivity and meaning altogether? Her bilingualism speaks to the transitional state of life on the border: a physical and psychological border. Yet in her alternation, she is unable to commit fully to either language. Her orphan tongue is not native to any fixed geography, instead, she straddles in between, incomplete. Her linguistic alternation becomes central to the way she understands herself and the complexity of her cultural background: the border splits and prevents her from one sole identity; she is both.

In this dualism, Anzaldúa finds strength. The ‘crossroads’ she imagines become a point of divergence. Self-determination born out of identification. A sense of autonomy and agency is manifested within the crossroads, and in this exercise of choice, there is identity. It seems that to transcend borders, whilst the borders home identity, requires being ambiguous and contradictory. Anzaldúa is emphatic in her promotion that to overcome or navigate the border, you must become a crossroads. You must diverge and emancipate from the border rendering it as merely an origin, not as a final, immobile destination.

the struggle of the mestiza* is above all a feminist one

“The future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.”

The Chicano Movement, in its romanticisation of the past, was a highly masculine environment, with conservative ideas of sexuality and gender roles, and Anzaldúa’s Chicana identity is rooted within this patriarchal and homophobic community. As a working-class queer woman, her sexual identity became another means of ostracisation, and for her poetry, she risks exclusion from her own cultural movement for her sexuality. Thus the intersections of her identity become internalised within the Chicano movement: oppressed outside the community for her Chicana heritage, and within for her queerness.

Violent metaphors seem to feminise the poem: the Woman as a site of bodily oppression and violence. The ‘open wound’ Anzaldúa imagines can be seen as a state of suffering, an exposure of dual identity that prevents healing, or, identification from either side of the border. Belonging exclusively to the isolated ‘third country’ in between. However, Anzaldúa seems to believe that in the possession of an ambiguous, contradicting identity, there is empowerment. In contradiction there is conflict, and in conflict, you can shake up both sides of the border.

Anzaldúa speaks self-consciously to her own language within her poetry: “until I am free to switch my language I will be illegitimate”. In translational gaps and miscommunication, the paradigm that she will be misunderstood by monolingual Spanish or English speakers, she finds strength and community. There, in refutation of the exclusion from her racial community, she speaks to the Chicana movement itself. She tackles and activates the language that defines her community around a shared experience and identity, insofar that her poetry, its duality and conflict and fragmentation, is her identity: “I am my language”.

*Mestiza = (in Latin America) a person of mixed race, especially one having Spanish and American Indian parentage.

isolation, conflict and constraint: the coherency of jean rhys’ short stories

20th-century novelist Jean Rhys compels readers with her mesmerising narratives of exile, loneliness and distorting what it means to be a flâneur. As born and raised in Dominica with European ancestry, Rhys’ writing speaks closely to her own upbringing and the complexities of her identity, accounts of being isolated and witnessing isolation in others. The Mulatto woman who spoke ‘sometimes in French, sometimes in English’ is a famous example of isolated characters from Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight (1939), a critique of modernist pretension. Rhys writes of the woman: ‘she hadn’t been out, except after dark, for two years. When she said this I had an extraordinary sensation, as if I were looking down into a pit’. This distanced account, looking down into a pit, evidences Rhys’ interest with distances within human interactions, notably, to illuminate the realities of isolation, despair and their conflation with the process of casting someone as ‘other’ for their race and nationality.

Rhys’ deconstruction of identity and the loneliness this conceives are far from simple categorisations of modernist or postmodern writing. Rhys is a precarious modernist. She sees and articulates a lot more in the process of being cast as other, for race and gender together, than is seen in European modernism, especially.

Rhys delineates race and identity against the backdrop of urban spaces, hence the ascription of flâneurism across many of her protagonists. They wander and observe society, but in a less privileged sense than is usually implied (the flâneur as typically bourgeois men). Rhys’ stories try arduously to identify their narrator and characters to the point of exhaustion. They are often distinguished by their racial, gender identity or with no fixed identity at all, and for the latter, implying no fixed, permanent place. In this authorial decision to reveal, or refrain from revealing, individuality, Rhys distorts the notion of wandering and replaces its implied leisure with the act of survival, a forced and imposed form of exile: a reality familiar in the conflicts of the 21st century.

In her genius, there is devastation and constraint. Rhys’ stories are tireless efforts to provide a vision for the onlookers to those in exile and to voice those exiled. The quotes below are extracted from short stories and provide previews and thematic notations to better visualise Rhys coherency and distinction as a 20th-century writer, as her vision continues to haunt the present for its relevancy, of exile and identity crisis.



Heat (1976)

“Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all. I know now that they were all frightened”

Community, fear, isolation, misrepresentation, falsity.



On Not Shooting Sitting Birds (1976)

“There is no control over memory. Quite soon you find yourself being vague about an event which seemed so important at the time that you thought you’d never forget it. Or unable to recall the face of someone whom you could have sworn was there forever. On the other hand, trivial and meaningless memories may stay with you for life.”

Memory, human connection, fabrication, identity, communication.



Mixing Cocktails (1927)

“I long to be like Other people! The extraordinary, ungetatable, oddly cruel Other people, with their way of wantonly hurting and then accusing you of being thin-skinned, sulky, vindictive or ridiculous. All because a hurt and puzzled little girl has retired into her shell.”

Loss of connection, caution, solace, inability to map identity.



The Day They Burned The Books (1972)

“He had pulled Mrs Sawyer’s hair. ‘Not a wig, you see,’ he bawled. Even then, if you can believe it, Mrs Saywer had laughed and tried to pretend that it was all part of the joke, this mysterious, obscure, sacred English joke.”

Conflict, race, cultural identity, colonialism, structuralism.



I Used To Live Here Once (1976)

“There were two children under the big mango tree, a boy and a little girl, and she waved to them and called ‘Hello’ but they didn’t answer her or turn their heads. Very fair children, as Europeans born in the West Indies so often are: as if the white blood is asserting itself against all odds”

Race, memory, youth, invisibility.





synecdoche, new love: modern couples exhibition review

Modern Couples presents a different way of looking at Modernism in art, as seen through the artist ‘couple’, an elastic term encompassing all manner of intimate relationships that the artists themselves grappled with, expanded, embraced or refuted.’

– Exhibition Guide

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde is the newest exhibition at the Barbican Centre. Organised in collaboration with the Centre Pompidou-Metz, the exhibition draws on a wide range of original paintings, handwritten letters, sculptures, artist manifestos, and furniture. The idea of the solitary artistic genius is done away with, giving attention to the muses, rivals, lovers and companions whose consideration seems long overdue.

Including the likes of Vanessa Bell & Roger Fry, Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin, Claude Cahun & Marcel Moore, Eileen Gray & Jean Badovici, and over forty more- the exhibit considers more than just romantic or sexual couplings but platonic, familial, professional and competitive ones. It also steers away from a heteronormative model, including couples such as Lili Elbe & Gerda Wegener.

D. Tanning and M. Ernst with his sculpture ‘Capricorn’, 1947, @John Kasnetsis

Sprawling across two levels and filling twenty-three rooms, the exhibition is comprehensive to say the least. Each couple is given a section of wall on which their names, artistic output and biography of relationship are printed. Oddly, the ‘birth’ and ‘death’ dates of the relationship are also supplied, each one coming together on one wall to produce a timeline: ‘from the liaison to the life-long’. The works of art are exclusively framed within the rhetoric of the ‘modern couple’. Little evidence and reference is given to work beyond the timeline of the relationship, as if that artistic output is deemed unworthy of mention.

But this is not to say the exhibition does not have its successes. For example the sheer variety of material is extremely impressive- a testament to the effort and rigour of the curators involved. From Marcel Duchamp’s Erotic Objects (1950-1) which are based on the moulds of female genitalia, to the harrowing handwritten communications between Camille Claudel & Auguste Rodin: “please don’t be unfaithful to me anymore”. Upstairs the exhibition also features examples of Aino & Alvar Aalto furniture and a selection of designs from the Bloomsbury group.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, 1933. Houghton Library, Harvard University

‘Liberated, Radical, Obsessional!’ is the tagline emblazoned across the promotional tote-bags and posters, but throughout the exhibition I asked myself: where? Where is this obsession that inspired, enabled and empowered the artists behind these wonderful works of art? The fervour that supposedly fuelled these works of passion are displayed in a format that quickly becomes repetitive and mechanical. It is like one has stepped into the physical manifestation of each artists’ dictionary entry and we are unable to delve further beyond their opening sentences. Unfortunately, despite its good intentions of representing the overshadowed partner, the exhibition does little to advocate their genius and brilliance.  If one compares Modern Couples to the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibit which ran last year, the former seems entirely soulless. Whilst Boom for Real celebrated Basquiat as a multifaceted and energetic creative, Modern Couples is a straightjacket to those it includes. It does little to relieve the more unknown partners of their obscurity as their work is only presented as the output of a ‘couple’.

Whilst I admire the variety of material, Modern Couples flatlines in the struggle between quantity and quality.  The art is used, not only to represent the whole relationship, but each artist’s entire oeuvre.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova in the workshop. (in front of Kino-phot magazine covers), 1923 Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde can be seen at the Barbican Centre, EC2Y 8DS, until 27 Jan 2019.

looking on at robert frank’s ‘the americans’

Ed Ruscha writes “[Frank’s] achievement could not be imitated in any way, because he had already done it, sewn it up and gone home. What [he] was left with was the vapors of his talent. I had to make my own kind of art. But wow! The Americans!” Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, published in 1958, was highly influential in post-war American photography.

Frank writes in U.S. Camera Annual (1958) “with these photographs, I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal and, therefore, various facets of American life and society have been ignored. The photographs were taken during 1955 and 1956; for the most part in large cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and in many other places during my Journey across the country….

I have been frequently accused of deliberately twisting subject matter to my point of view. Above all, I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. Opinion often consists of a kind of criticism. But criticism can come out of love. It is important to see what is invisible to others—perhaps the look of hope or the look of sadness. Also, it is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph…

My photographs are not planned or composed in advance and I do not anticipate that the on-looker will share my viewpoint. However, I feel that if my photograph leaves an image on his mind—something has been accomplished.”


Men’s room, railway station, from The Americans by Robert Frank
Detroit River Rouge Plant, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Funeral – St Helena, South Carolina, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Parade Hoboken, New Jersey, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Drive-in-movie, Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Car Accident – U.S. 66 between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona, 1956 from The Americans
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Belle Isle, Detroit, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Trolley, New Orleans, 1956 from The Americans by Robert Frank
Main Street – Savannah, Georgia, 1955 from The Americans by Robert Frank

jack kerouac on frank

“That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in these tremendous photographs taken as he travelled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen on film… After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin”

Kerouac also said on Frank that “he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’ posits ‘Americans feel the reality of their country to be so stupendous, and mutable, that it would be the rankest presumption to approach it in a classifying, scientific way… One could get at it indirectly, by subterfuge – breaking it off into strange fragments that could somehow, by synecdoche, be taken for the whole.’

demystifying james joyce’s ulysses

James Joyce’s modernist epic follows Leopold Bloom around public and private spaces of Dublin over the course of one day; as he eats, drinks, wanders, masturbates, watches and interacts with others.

It was published in full during 1922, the same year that the poem that sought to define 20th-century anxiety (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) was also published. Eliot and Joyce express a similar sense of anxiety: the form of Ulysses and The Waste Land are examples of fragmentation, symbolising a time of literary revival, rebirth.

It celebrates its centenary in 2022, and today, the general consensus remains that Ulysses is the undisputed champion of the modernist movement and of 20th-century prose. But for a novel of such high status, its acclaim and its reputational necessity (‘it is a must-read before you die’ according to many), it is infamously avoided. Perhaps this is due to its precedence for being nonsensically experimental to the point of reader-isolation, or the disproportion of its size and subject matter (730 words to describe one day).

Below are some features of Ulysses that can help debunk the myths that keep it at arm’s length for its inaccessibility.


it can be navigated as a human body

Joyce describes Ulysses as ‘among other things… an epic of the human body.’ This synopsis is useful for the navigation of the novel’s structure. Joyce was aware that his novel is a difficult, experimental read so he devised what he called the Gilbert Schema to assist the reader’s experience and perspective of the text. The episodes are tracked by the time of day, their symbols, colour, and literary trope.

Many episodes also have an affiliated organ that is connected to the ways in which the episode is written, for example, Lestrygonians is written in a peristaltic form as it describes mastication and digestion. Penelope, the final episode and one I later pay closer attention to, is described as a ‘female monologue’ and its associated organ is flesh to emphasise sensuality and femininity.



its non-linearity makes it a non-commitment to read

There is a kind of plot but it is mainly mundane, and as Leopold is essentially a flâneur (a man who saunters around observing society) the plot prioritises movement and bodily experience moment to moment above remaining faithful to a beginning, middle and end.

It was first serialised in the American journal The Little Review which explains its perplexing nonlinearity. Although this does complicate and deconstruct the typical reader experience, it does mean that it can be opened to any episode without obstructing the overall effect. 



it experiments with a variety of literary forms

Most episodes are written with staccato punctuation to characterise Leopold’s perspective as his own kind of language. There is however a break from this form in the final episode, an episode that is fluid and unpunctuated as it explores an alternative perspective: Leopold’s wife, Molly. Perhaps the distinct styles speak to a kind of gender/character distinction, dichotomising ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ narratives in their style.

There is also medieval and Shakespearean tropes in the language of the Library episode (Scylla and Charybdis), an episode that self-consciously focuses on literature. Ulysses’ exploration with forms past and present means that each episode can be expected to read differently from the last and to the next, creating a disjointedness in reading the text linearly.



it has its own birthday that is celebrated every year

Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, celebrates Joyce and Ulysses every year on the 16th of June (the date on which the novel is set). The celebrations started in Dublin but have expanded to cities such as London and New York as well. People dress in Edwardian costume and there is often readings of passages from Ulysses, and in Dublin, there are pub crawls around the city, including the places Leopold explores in the novel.



henri matisse made etchings for the 1935 edition

Henri Matisse provided etchings for the 1935 publication of Ulysses. As shown below, the illustrations depict a sense of fluidity and speed and the drawings themselves look as though they were done very quickly and spontaneously. They are hardly an epic, Renaissance style painting one would associate with a novel of such epic proportions and Homeric influence.

Perhaps this speaks directly to the humour of the novel itself: the absurdity of a 730 page novel spanning one day. 

The etchings are continuous lines, no breaks, much like the novel’s reluctance to leave few gaps, every second accounted for and drawn out. They forebode Joyce’s linear playfulness within Ulysses, as a faithful representation of reality, of one day.



it contains one of the most captivating monologues of 20th-century literature: molly’s monologue (Penelope)

It’s a subject of controversy that Joyce included such an intimately sensual experience of womanhood. Joyce’s own wife Nora hated it. However, its placement at the end of the novel, after 600 pages of masculinised, violent, bodily, grotesque representation from the viewpoint of Leopold, Penelope (known more commonly as Molly’s monologue) ends the novel with a sense of beauty.

It is graphic. The passage explores experiences of breastfeeding and sex and menstruation, captured in eight long unpunctuated sentences. Some say this structure is like a menstrual flow in itself, which links to the Gilbert Schema and the exercise of reading the novel as a human body.

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another… then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

– James Joyce, Ulysses, ‘Penelope’, 1922

It is interesting to critique the ethics of this passage whilst enjoying its unmediated, stream-of-consciousness style, in a kind of multitasking exercise.

If any section of Ulysses is read in isolation, I think it should be this one. Although it is the least like the other episodes, it speaks to, or attempts to speak to, a feminine vision of modernist writing that feels essential to the movement as a whole, and whether or not it fails or succeeds to articulate femininity is part of its intrigue.


john berger and susan sontag on story-telling

In their 1983 Talk to Me (which can be seen here), artist and art critic John Berger and writer, philosopher, essayist and filmmaker Susan Sontag deliberate each other’s, and articulate their own, versions and definitions of the art of story-telling.

Sontag claims that at the ‘very centre of the whole enterprise of story-telling there is the fact that story-telling is an activity that faces in two directions’: truth, on one hand, invention on the other. Berger posits that the story ‘sits somewhere between fiction and truth’ but must, for him, begin as truth.

Berger believes that story-telling is fundamentally a merging of subjectivities, specifically, three subjectivities (of the story-teller, the protagonists, and the reader) in necessary connection and relation to each other.

Sontag disagrees. She claims that, as a writer, she cannot feel the subjectivity of the reader. Perhaps this lends itself to the fact that she believes that there is a distinction between hearing a story and reading one, critiquing the foundation upon which Berger’s story-telling tradition relies.

Berger posits an oral experience in which subjectivity originates and exists, using the analogy of a child listening to a story and experiencing a cooperative subjectivity of being both teller, listener, and participant of the story. Sontag believes that there is a distinction between listener and reader, between literary and oral, modern and primal traditions. Sontag elaborates on her disagreement with Berger’s subjectivities by suggesting that once people began to write stories down, moving beyond oral transmission, they began to write ‘different kinds of stories’ altogether, that there was a ‘radical break with the oral tradition’, that the art of writing is not just an ‘addition of art’ but an ‘expansion’. Writing allows more for the story-teller. To write down is to expand and modify what can be said due to the resources of print. It’s far richer to ‘read with the eyes as opposed to hear with the ears’, she says.

Berger believes that regardless of whether a story is heard or read, the reader makes constant jumps. Like a film or montage, there is a constant process of editing in the art of storytelling. Subjects change from sentence to sentence and we, as reader or listener, are constantly relocated. We are continuously carried elsewhere as the story unfolds. And this exercise from the writer depends on how they believe the reader or listener will react. They make constant assumptions and these assumptions are eventually taken for granted, and a kind of complicity is born between listener and speaker, reader and writer.

For Berger, story-telling is a ‘rescue operation’, or a shelter ‘against that endless terrifying space in which we live’, or as he also calls it, the Absurd. For Sontag, story-telling ‘enlargens our imagination’ instead, and introduces us to the terrifying space, the Absurd, in which we live.

Check out the full conversation here.