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.

Advertisements

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? 

the uncanny stranger on display

This morning I’m thinking about the character of Harper Pitt in Angels in America. I’m trying to locate an opinion about a marginalized group in a play about marginalized groups. Is Kushner re-enforcing the trope of the silenced woman, who exists as a prop for male sexuality, or revealing it? Investigating or relying on the preconception of the female as mad? In this post-everything age of gender politics, is focusing specifically on the female role in a play about AIDS and gay identity somehow repressive or restrictive? Am I missing the point? Or does this play just rewrite a binary of male subjectivity and female secondary positions in a more fabulous key? 

“By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display–the ailing or dead figure, which so often turns out to be the nasty companion, the cause and location of inhibitions. Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” 

–Helene Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa

See Jane’s View: Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper

Today I’m returning to Cornwall, but with Susan Cooper instead of Daphne du Maurier. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is one of my favorites: it has kept its place on my bookshelves through multiple library purges and I reread it frequently. I’ve recently been skimming through Greenwitch, the third novel in the series.

Greenwitch brings together the characters from the first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, (Paul, Simon and Jane Drew) and the second, The Dark is Rising, (Will Stanton) in order to… well, you know, defeat Evil and stuff. (Evil with a capital “E”, of course.) Throughout the entire series Evil and Good collide in a series of escalating conflicts… lots of showdowns, lots of crises, Merlin shows up, it’s all quite enjoyable.

My favorite in the series is the second: The Dark is Rising. Will Stanton turns eleven on a snow-muffled day in late November, and learns his responsibilities as the seventh son of a seventh son. Cooper does such a wonderful job of describing the deep and awe-inspiring silence of a heavy snowfall and linking that silence to a sense of the immense age of the English countryside. A perfect November read, and one I return to on a near-annual basis.

Anyway, the third novel in the series, Greenwitch is the only which features a female protagonist. By virtue of her gender, Jane Drew is allowed to attend the strictly female ritual of the making of the Greenwitch. The Greenwitch is a straw figure that is built and imbued with a sort of Cornish cultural magic during a ceremony, then thrown into the sea as an offering. Jane later dreams of a conscious Greenwitch, mournful in the face of the inexorable pull of the sea as the structure is drawn out into the deeps.

Of course, Jane saves the day by performing to gender type: she empathetically just “knows” the emotions of the Greenwitch, she becomes the caretaker and takes responsibility for those emotions… but even though she is acting through those stereotypical tropes, she still is allowed to be an actor in the drama rather than an adoring onlooker.

That dream is the pivotal point in the book: the primary action occurs while Jane is asleep, safely ensconced in her bedroom.

At the beginning of the book, Jane’s uncle takes her to the bedroom that she is to occupy while they’re in Cornwall, saying that the room is “very small, but the view’s good.”

“Oh!” said Jane in delight. The room was painted white, with gay yellow curtains, and a yellow quilt on the bed. The ceiling sloped down so that the wall on one side was only half the height of the wall on the other, and there was a space only for a bed, a dressing-table and a chair. But the little room seemed full of sunshine, even though the sky outside the curtains was grey. Jane stood looking out, while her great uncle went on to show the boys their room, and she thought that the picture she could see from the window was the best thing of all.

She was high up on the side of the harbour, overlooking the boats and jetties, the wharf piled with boxes and lobster-pots, and the little canning factory. All the life of the busy harbour was thrumming there below her, and out to the left, beyond the harbour wall and the dark arm of land called Kemare Head, lay the sea It was a grey sea now, speckled with white. Jane’s gaze moved in again from the flat ocean horizon, and she looked straight across to the sloping road on the opposite side of the harbour, and saw the tall narrow house in which they had stayed the summer before. The Grey House. Everything had begun there.

Simon tapped on the door and put his head round. “Hey, that’s a super view you’ve got. Ours hasn’t any, but it’s a nice room…

Greenwitch is a “girl’s book”, just as The Dark is Rising is a “boy’s book.” (Please note the campy quotes. I’m not painting the world blue and pink here, I’m reporting the colors.) The Dark is Rising goes into beautiful and exquisite detail to describe the old roads and the forest–all of the out-of-doors adventures that Will gets into while his family is sleeping that enchanted, deep sleep. Greenwitch does the same… for the bedroom. And the view, oddly enough. When Jane is actually outside in that beautiful scenery, it isn’t as gorgeous. The rocks are menacing, the cliffs too steep… but from within her bedroom, looking out onto the scenery, safely sequestered, all is lovely.

It isn’t just Susan Cooper who is at fault here–I love her books and I’m not really aiming at her. Re-read Nancy Drew, or Francis Hodges Burnett, any L. M. Montgomery’s novels, or even (gasp) Louisa May Alcott. The amount of meticulous and loving detail that goes into describing the bedrooms–and that which can be seen from the bedroom–is truly astounding.

 

(The above pictures are from a special exhibit at the Met that is running through July 4 entitled Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.)