Critical musings: modern vampires

…as late as 1922 a senior and well-respected doctor in the United States suggested that a woman who desired sexual intercourse more than “once in two weeks or ten days” was a danger to her husband: “It is to her that the name vampire can be applied in its literal sense. –Gothic Configurations of Gender.

Can’t make this stuff up.

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Thinking and Feeling: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Kate Zambreno’s Heroines

The New Yorker review on the back of The Argonauts says “Thinking and feeling are, for Nelson, mutually necessary processes; the result is an exceptional portrait of both a romantic partnership and of the collaboration between Nelson’s mind and heart.” I think that connection– thinking and feeling in concert, not opposition–is what so appeals to me about these books. They reconceptualize the mind vs. body dichotomy of Western philosophy, using the privileged category of the abstract mind (theoretical analysis of language and society and gender) to interrogate and understand the very personal (messy relationships and uncomfortable impulses and inexplicable emotions). I love this kind of thinking because that’s what I do in my life– perhaps not as eloquently or as coherently as either of these two authors, but that urge to understand the why of the self is powerful. And since I love theory, and on some level I trust theory, that’s the medium I use to try to understand.

512teymmkwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

First off, what’s up with the title? Assuming you have the exact blend of ignorance/information that I have, here’s what you know: the Argonauts, Jason, Golden Fleece, Medea…. so you’d be justified in thinking a book titled The Argonauts is a retelling of a myth, in the nature of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which tells the story of Penelope, she of the wandering husband Odysseus, complete with Greek chorus of slaughtered maidens. (Confused? Read the book. It’s excellent.)

But The Argonauts— Nelson explains the title, which is a complicated analysis of the use of language by Roland Barthes:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo‘s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same inflections which will be forever new.”

I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.

So love is both a personal and immediate declaration, but it’s also an acknowledgement of your place in the structure of human emotions and the way we use language, and the way the word or the concept, in some way, inevitably transcends the immediate experience. But by using the word, we stitch ourselves into the narrative, so to speak.

I read this book as an extended meditation on integrity– not the moral kind, but in the more archaic sense of wholeness. What does it do to your identity– your personal coherence, shall we say– when you fall in love? (What do we mean by “fall in love?”) When you have sex? When you get married?  When you get pregnant? When you give birth? If we define the self by the borders of our body, when do we think of these borders as being permeable, and what does that do to our sense of self?

IMG_0206One of my favorite things about this book is the constant references to theorists. See those (very tiny) names in the margins? Those are the names of theorists from whose ideas she’s building on in the paragraph. On this page she references Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Mary Lambert, Susan Fraiman, and Lee Edleman; other pages cite Wittgenstein, Butler, Deleuze, Foucault… anybody you’ve ever read in an intro to theory class. I quite like this form of hat tip, but not citation– new thinking is most often built on old, either in reaction to or extension of, and this is just a very elegant way of attribution without getting bogged down. I think. Down side is that if you wanted to read more of such and such particular idea, it would take some work to locate. And random aside, which is neither a pro or a con: the further in my education I get, the more I feel like people are writing for my precise level of education. I’m guessing this is more an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and not actually the stars acting in alignment, but I’m reserving judgment.


Heroines, Kate Zambreno

In Heroines, Kate Zambreno interprets her life through the nearly invisible lives of the modernist wives and muses. She talks about “Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Zelda Fitzgerald: writers and artists themselves who served as male writers’ muses only to end their lives silenced, erased, and institutionalized” (from the Amazon review).

“The biographies of the great men see their excesses as signs of their greatness. But Jean Rhys, in her biography, is read as borderline; Anaïs Nin is borderline; Djuna is borderline; etc. etc. Borderline personality disorder being an overwhelmingly gendered diagnosis. I write in Heroines: “The charges of borderline personality disorder are the same charges against girls writing literature, I realize—too emotional, too impulsive, no boundaries” (45).

Heroines is ostensibly about the modernist wives and mistresses, but more about how the woman’s voice is silenced, how women living outside the lines are eccentric, mad, while aberrant, even anti-social behavior is merely a part of genius in a man. But it’s a personal memoir, not a history, more of a rambling and digressive contemplation of Zambreno’s position as a woman, as a writer, as a wife, as an academic. She’s overtly working out her own role through the studies of these other women (she terms it Bovarizing–as in, interpreting your life through literature, like Madame Bovary did.)

“I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order–pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.”

And my personal engagement with the text: I underlined paragraphs, scribbled annotations in the margins, wrote essays on the end papers, wrote gobs in my journal. This joins Nancy Mairs’s Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer in the small category of books that keep me inspired, make me want to keep working, to keep writing.

And every time I try to talk about this book, I end up talking about how much I write when I’m reading it. And I’ve read it several times– I first picked it up about a year ago, and read it cover to cover then, but since then I’ve dipped in at the odd moment, reading a paragraph or a page or ten, coming away feeling less crazy, less insufficient, less wrong in my selfness. It gives another lens to interpret parts of myself that I’d otherwise read as, well, crazy and insufficient and wrong. And her narrative style gives me confidence– she skips and swoops and is occasionally less than clear, but always intelligent. It seems so personal. So idiosyncratic. It seems like her voice, not just her thoughts, polished and straightened up into acceptable narrative form, but personal. A perfect blend of thinking and feeling.

Read more about The Argonauts here.

Read more about Heroines here.

This is a continuation of my “best books of the last year” project, in which I’m writing about the (you guessed it) best books that I read during my blogging sabbatical. The first entry to this collection discussed Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean, read it here

 

 

 

RBG, HUAC, and Beyonce: favorite things this week (26/52)

In terms of equality , there’s been a lot to celebrate this week.

supreme_court_abortionFirst, the Supreme Court decided that the regulations that Texas implemented state were illegal. You might remember Wendy Davis, she of the pink tennis shoes and the 11 hour filibuster? These regulations are what she was protesting. Her protest was ultimately unsuccessful, and in 2013 the Texas Senate Bill 5 implemented regulations such as the doctor having admitting privileges at local hospitals and that the clinic meet the same standards as other surgical health-care facilities. Texas had 41 abortion clinics before the bill was signed into law, today there are 18. The Supreme Court decided that the regulations presented an undue burden.

The inestimable Ruth Bader Ginsburg commented on the decision, which I quote at length. Because it’s RBG:

The Texas law called H. B. 2 inevitably will reduce the number of clinics and doctors allowed to provide abortion services. Texas argues that H. B. 2’s restrictions are constitutional because they protect the health of women who experience complications from abortions. In truth, complications from an abortion are both rare and rarely dangerous… Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements [such as] tonsillectomy, colonoscopy, and in-office dental surgery.

Given [these] realities, it is beyond rational belief that H. B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions. When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety. So long as this Court adheres to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H. B. 2 that do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion, cannot survive judicial inspection.

transgendermilitaryAnd if that wasn’t enough to make your little heart swell three sizes, the Pentagon kept the goodness rolling by ending the ban on transgender people being able to serve openly in the military.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter said

Americans who want to serve and can meet our standards should be afforded the opportunity to compete to do so. Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.

So happy 4th of July weekend! It’s been a good week to be an American.


 

A friend mentioned this podcast in passing last week, and I’ve gone all in. I started with the second season, which is all about HUAC Blacklist, and flew through seven episodes in the past few days.

Fun fact: John Garfield sold diaphragms in New York before he went to Hollywood. Who knew?

Favorite episodes (so far):
Tender Comrades: The Prehistory of the Blacklist
Blacklist Flashback: Bogey before Bacall
The African Queen: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and John Huston
He Ran All The Way: John Garfield

Highly recommended. Add it to your rota and get a little smarter. (Also, politics are terrifying. I’m not sure I’m politically savvy enough to draw connections between Brexit, Trump’s proposed wall and his whole general insanity, and the conservative climate that led to HUAC… but listening to this over the weekend seemed very appropriate, as political rhetoric continues to spin out of control.)


Beyonce’s BET performance.

Beyonce sang “Freedom” from her album Lemonade at the BET awards. The performance starts out in a nearly dark auditorium with a thumping, martial beat. As the Formation dancers, in tribal paint and hair styles, march down the aisle, a recording of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech is played over the loudspeakers. The stage is a shallow pool of water that the dancers and Beyonce march through as she begins the anthem, and as she gets to the chorus, which swells into a powerful demand for freedom and a removal of chains, the dancers run, legs churning to create arcs of water that catch the light, flashing an image that is somewhere between water and flame and is wholly entrancing. Beyonce’s bodysuit has long fringe on the arms–when she holds her arms out straight, in front of the golden splashes of light, she looks like a Phoenix, strong and sure and utterly unconquerable.

Holy hell, was that powerful. I’m wondering how and if I can/should include some (and what part?) of the amazing #lemonadesyllabus in my next class. Truth? I feel presumptuous talking about race in class. I occupy a privileged position in our racist society, so I’m always at a remove from any experience of racism. I don’t have the authority of the standpoint. But I suppose that’s the point of assigning readings, not just lecturing all the time: it lets me cede the floor to brilliant women of color who know about racial oppression in ways that I can only abstractly understand. And a little more bell hooks on the syllabus? Not a bad thing.


What’d I miss? What’s been making your week wonderful? 

Talking about Books: Arcadia, by Iain Pears

Fates of worlds, ends of stories, types of telling. Thinking about Arcadia (book and app) on the blog.

I got home late-ish on Friday night, picked up Iain Pears’ Arcadia to read a chapter or so of before turning in, and basically disappeared until late Saturday night. To be honest, I kind of knew that was coming–I’ve been excited about this book since I first heard it was coming out and I’ve read and loved all of Iain Pears’ novels, and own most. (And Arcadia! I hoped there were connections to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I love, and there are!)

First off, the plot of Arcadia is hugely complicated. If you’re familiar with Pears’ work, you won’t be surprised by this: An Instance of the Fingerpost told the same story from four perspectives; the three stories that made up Stone’s Fall were told in reverse order, The Dream of Scipio considers the same fundamental questions through several crises in history…. Lots going on, always. You don’t read Iain Pears with your brain turned off. (His art history series is less challenging but very enjoyable.

Screen shot of Iain Pears' Arcadia App, my phone. Iain Pears explicitly and consciously plays with forms of narration in his work. He talks narrative strategy in this article in the Guardian, in which he introduces the app that he designed for this book. From what I can garner (I read the old school hardback pictured above) the app is an ebook that lets you rearrange the narrative based on whose story you are interested in. There are ten narrative lines (the student’s tale, the professor’s tale) and you can follow read straight through on one narrative line, or stop to move to another. He mentions that critics of his previous novels thought they were too complicated, that readers complained because you had to remember a detail for 500 pages or so. (I’m thinking this is what note cards are made for, that’s how I made it through The Children’s Book, because, as much as I love Byatt, that book positively sprawls.) So he created the app to make things easier on the reader. I’m also wondering what this does to the function of the author– I’d need to play around in the app a bit to really have an opinion, but right now it seems to venture towards the “Choose Your Own Adventure” realm… not really there, of course, because the plot is set and I’m not sure how much the order matters. Perhaps I’ll understand this a bit more when and if I explore the app. Check out this video if you’re interested in the app.

But back to the novel. There is a lot going on at all times. Or at one time. Or however you interpret time, which is a central question of the book. That said, I only needed to flip around in the book to remind myself who someone was once or twice– in some books with multiple interweaving timelines (ahem, David Mitchell) I spend as much time analyzing and tracking as I do enjoying. Not the case in this book.

There are three worlds (for lack of a better designation) in Arcadia: Anterworld, a pastoral idyll with heaping helpings of all things Shakespearean; 1960’s Oxford, where Henry Lytton (friend of Tolkien and Lewis) writes stories about his ideal world as a respite from his war work; and Mull, a far-future totalitarian government in which Angela Meerson’s subversive discoveries about time travel threaten the prized stability. But divisions between these worlds are far from distinct: Henry Lytton has an idiosyncratic friend named Angela Meerson, the world he writes about is called Anterworld, and the rest is plot that I don’t care to spoil for you.

I highly recommend this book. I loved the characters, I loved the worlds, I loved the narration, I loved the problems that it was preoccupied with. Get it, you won’t be disappointed. And the app is free!

 

Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean: best books of the last year (1 of 4)

I’m catching up on the best books of my blogging sabbatical… come along!

I’ve read a ton since the last time I posted here. I should know– I’m packing right now, and I believe my book boxes are at least that heavy. It’s not unusual for me to rave about a book: I generally think most of the books that I read are amazing. If the ending wasn’t wretched, and the dog didn’t die… hey, I liked it enough to finish it, it’s probably still a little bit alive for me, so I’m going to have something good to say. Six months later? I’m all “I think there was a boat in that, right?” and couldn’t pick the lead character out of a lineup.

But these books. These do not present that problem. These are the books that have stuck with me, that I’ll read again. So without further ado:

1. Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery, Sally Andrew

Tannie Maria is a 50-something newspaper columnist in a small town in South Africa. (Tannie is a term of respect for a woman in Afrikaans.) Her column used to be all recipes, but the newspaper owners demanded an advice column, and so now she does both. Or rather, since she doesn’t think she has much to say about love or relationships, she gives people recipes that help with their problems. But sometimes that’s not quite enough….

From the back cover:

Recipe for Murder
1 stocky man who abuses his wife
1 small tender wife
1 medium-sized tough woman in love with the wife
1 double-barrelled shotgun
1 small Karoo town marinated in secrets
3 bottles of Klipdrift brandy
3 little ducks
1 bottle of pomegranate juice
1 handful of chilli peppers
1 mild gardener
1 fire poker
1 red-hot New Yorker
7 Seventh-day Adventists (prepared for The End of the World)
1 hard-boiled investigative journalist
1 soft amateur detective
2 cool policemen
1 lamb
1 handful of red herrings and suspects mixed together
Pinch of greed
Throw all the ingredients into a big pot and simmer slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon for a few years. Add the ducks, chillies and brandy towards the end and turn up the heat!”

This was one of my Christmas books, and I loved the cover so much that I read it first. And then I bought the audiobook and I’ve listened to it three or four more times since then. Maria is smart and lonely and hopeful and I just loved her and her world more than I can say. A bunch of Tannie Maria’s recipes are included in the back– they sound delicious, and once I’m settled into my new kitchen, I’ll let you know! And I highly recommend the audiobook– Sandra Prinsloo’s voice is perfect for the book. Only downside to the audiobook is that you can’t immediately look up the Africaans words in the glossary in the back, but I think the context makes it clear enough. And while the book certainly stands alone, happy days, it’s the first in a series! The second  comes out on July 7, and you can bet it’s on my calendar.


2. Nelly Dean: A Return to Wuthering Heights, Alison Case

Nelly Dean has been taking care of Wuthering Heights and the Grange since she was a girl. She told Lockwood the story of Wuthering Heights when he asked, but now she’s filling out the story with all of the things she left out the last time. And she left out almost everything.

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time when I was about 12, long before I cared about or even noticed unreliable narrators, or even narration as a thing to be concerned with. It was all about the story, and who did what and who loved who. or whom. whatever. Long before I cared about that, too. It was one of a few books that basically made my teenage years: Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Phantom of the Opera… overblown romance, a little hidden passion, and I’m there. Always a bit more Marianne than Elinor. Loved that one, too, but basically because the older sister is the smartest. Obviously.

But I’ve been thinking a bit more about narration lately, (taught Nella Larson’s Passing, and so introduced my class to the wonderful cacophony of an unreliable narrator; I rewrote a paper that had been giving me fits to focus on the narrator) and when I did my annual re-read of Wuthering Heights (usually in February), I was very aware of Nelly Dean’s pauses and gaps and linguistic stumbles. And then I was given Nelly Dean for Valentine’s Day, and was completely swept away. I did some research after– apparently I’m an idiot and people have been talking about the unreliable narration of Wuthering Heights for ages… oh well.

(In a completely random full-circle moment, one of the books that I used to frame my thinking about the narration in that paper I rewrote was Alison Case’s Plotting Women: Gender and Narration in the 18th and 19th-Century British Novel. And I only knew her name sounded familiar until I finished the book and was gobsmacked by how good it was and looked her up, and lo and behold, she’s in my library “borrow list.” And the worlds collide.)

Catching up: in which I meditate on the nature of privilege and gendered norms of anger, with moments of Pollyanna, and also a bunch of stuff that happened this year.

So about this time last year, I got tired of blogging, and since this is primarily just for me, I gave it a rest. Now I’m considering coming back. No promises, no schedule, no deadlines. Just perhaps slightly more frequent musings and ponderings popping up over here.

Starting up again is a bit like talking to a distant acquaintance after a long absence– I feel that I need to bring everyone up to speed on the last year. (And who, really, is this is everyone? this vast-y faceless audience whose existence I just negated in the first paragraph. All of that everyone.)

So year in a nutshell, looking back, looking forward:

I taught. a lot. (Honestly, I feel like that’s all I’ve done for the last year. Which is not a bad thing, just crazy exhausting. But hey! I could still be bagging groceries! [Pollyanna moment brought to you by the attempt to acknowledge the privilege of working in an industry that I love, but also recognizing that  a) adjuncts are exploited labor and b) god, I’m tired. and pollyanna out. for now.]) So that. Four classes spread over three semesters, which doesn’t sound like much but is in addition to the real job that, you know, lets me pay for rent and wine.

I drove. a lot. I took an office job on campus, which is the only real option if you want to teach and have to do something else to make ends meet (classes generally meet during business hours– you need a relatively flexible schedule and a walk-to-another-building commute to make that work.) So the job is great– not really a passion project, but fits my needs. But since my schedule has changed (every day on campus instead of twice or so a week) I have to wrestle the wretched commute every. damn. day. It has not been good for my general psyche or well-being.

I’m feeling super complain-y, and not sure if that’s the whole privilege/pollyanna thing, or the gendered restrictions on showing anger (you should seriously read this LA Times article on gendered anger RIGHT NOW), or that chestnut of EWW’s resounding in my brain (Laugh and the world laughs with you/weep and you weep alone/for the sad old earth must borrow its mirth/but has trouble enough of its own…) I could go on– I had the whole thing, some 30 lines or so, memorized by the time I was 10. I was such a weird kid. I remember quoting it while jumping rope… it has that kind of rhythm, though the sentiments are, shall we say, not as peppy. Full text here, just in case your childhood wasn’t as, er, unique? as mine.

To return to the year in a nutshell, and not the analysis of my emotions therein– I applied to, was accepted to, and chose a PhD program. (!!!) (Those are three very distinct steps. I promise.) I’m starting at George Washington University in the fall, and I will be very excited once I’m not so tired. I trust and believe. I thought long and hard about moving out of the city– a few of my options seemed to provide more obvious “better life” options (small New England towns that I’ve longed to live in, for, well, forever) but in the end I went with the best education. So I’m going to have to work very hard at being happy in this city which I kind of hate. But that’s mostly about the commute. I have complicated feelings about the city. Abstractly, I know I should appreciate it– opportunities here, yadda yadda. Actually, I live too far to take advantage of anything in my city (some 30 miles to the south of DC) or anything in DC. poor poor pitiful me.

But that’s going to change! I’m moving (god, my apartment is a mess) in about a week to a place which will definitely have challenges, but which will at least be closer. And private! I’ve had a roommate or housemate since I moved to DC, and wow, is that not good for me. So lots of changes, lots of things happening, lots of the crappy things are going away. Hooray!

Here’s hoping it’s not another year before I post… but no promises.

Currently reading: Good Night, Mr. Holmes, Carolyn Nelson Douglas
Currently listening: You Must Remember This podcast
Currently knitting: Waiting for Rain

Image at top: Join the Polly Anna Club and Be Glad pin, circa 1910, made by the Boston Badge Co. She looks about as glad as I generally am.