Theorizing community

I’m in the midst of attempting to formulate something brilliant for an upcoming project… so far I’m feeling a little incoherent. Earlier this spring, I read and re-read Randall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits; it’s a great book–complex and twisted and frustrating and sad… it’s one of those books that I truly believe everyone should  read, but no one I know has. Sad. But I’ll keep pushing it.

(plot spoilers– but the book is so good that the plot really isn’t the main thing, so feel free)

Horace is a black teenager in a rural community in North Carolina. The community is as many rural communities are:  heavily influenced by religion, race, a sense of history and continuity– redemption after slavery, proving racial equality–, being “respectable,” ideas of family and generation and respect for elders and the past and the upward, promising trajectory of history and ‘the race.’

Horace is gay. He is tormented, quite literally, by the fear of his family and church exposing and condemning his sexuality. He goes a little crazy–he sees bird men and ghouls and a mysterious double of himself that orders him to shoot the pastor–and then, horrifyingly, shoots himself.

This is awful. It is sad when it happens in a novel and tragic when it happens, as it too  often does, in reality. What I intend to look at, however, is not a simple reduction of this novel to a pre-figuration of the “It gets better” campaign- which, obviously, is problematic on many levels- instead I intend to examine the effect of Horace’s suicide, which he postpones until it can be witnessed by his uncle, the preacher, on the community as a whole.

I believe that a community is created by the mutual credence given to a set of stories. That set may exclude as much as it includes–the stories of the unsuccessful long shot, the insufficiently brave, the missed chance that is never reclaimed… these are not stories that are precisely profitable for a community’s sense of self and are not, therefore, usually prevalent in its collective mythos. I believe that stories of homosexual members of the community are most frequently included within this subset of excluded stories. Horace’s suicide, which, as I mentioned, is witnessed by his uncle, forces an acknowledgement of the previously ignored. He destroys the assumption that “none of us are like that”, or that “that’s a white thing” by dramatically–theatrically– forcing everyone to look.

I plan to examine this book and the ideas of community and homosexuality and suicide and religion… my thoughts are circling around a re-formulation of the centrality of history and of memory to the idea of the self. If community is created by mutual credence given to a set of stories, then all (all!) that is needed to fundamentally change that community is a change in the stories that are told and believed.

At least, these are the ideas that are percolating in my little house tonight.

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What I’m Reading: Bella Tuscany

Since my re-immersion in the world of academia, I’m finding it a bit difficult to read strictly for fun. I pick up a book, and by the time I come out the other end, I have half a notebook of ideas for research. That isn’t precisely a bad thing- I’d much rather have the creative juices flowing than otherwise- but it makes my leisure reading not quite so leisurely.

Hence, the travel memoir. While I come up with places I’d love to visit, I can enjoy the words more freely than when I am subconsciously tracking how frequently such and such word is used to describe…whatever.

This is the third book of Frances Mayes’ that I’ve read. My favorite is still Under the Tuscan Sun (don’t judge it by the movie of the same name- only the location is the same), but both A Year in the World and Bella Tuscany have images that are knock-you-over beautiful. I feel like I understand where she is coming from–I’m sure many people do–but she writes about getting away from the mad rush of the academic world- always writing, researching, reading, grading- and into a life that follows the planting and the harvesting and the morning cup of cafe at the village trattoria. Exactly what I so often need, even if, for now, it is only accessed vicariously.

In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes talks about finding, deciding to buy, and restoring Bramasole, her Italian villa. A Year in the World focuses on more exploratory travels- short trips and original impressions of new places. Bella Tuscany is a combination of the two- the heart of the book is definitely in Bramasole, but she talks about several short-ish trips to cities in Italy.

Her descriptions of Venice keep coming to mind: “I long to go inside the houses, experience from the inside what it’s like to have high tide lapping at the lower floor, smell the damp marble, see the rippling shadows of the water on painted ceilings, push back faded brocades to let the sun in.”

Those rippling shadows of water on painted ceilings…

My grandparents owned a house on the Kentucky River–I remember lying on the indestructible brown Berber carpet in the middle of the summer, the river plishing and plashing below, watching the lacy white curtains billow in afternoon river breeze and the hundreds of points of light that the river’s reflection would throw on the white ceilings.

I think this is why I love books so much- that memory was buried under twenty-some years of detritus, but reading her description of a similar sight in Venice conjures those long-ago lazy summer days.

What I’m Reading: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

The ancient General Fentiman is found dead in his favorite chair at the Bellona Club. The death appears to be natural, but a survivorship clause in a wealthy relative’s will, also newly deceased, requires a closer look at the circumstances.

The unpleasantness begins on Armistice Day, and echoes of the first world war create a complex theme throughout the book. The general’s two heirs, George and Robert Fentiman, are veterans. While Robert is the classic war hero- all hale and bluff and ready to shoot game in Africa after the war is over- George has suffered from shell shock since his return from the front.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s portrayal of shell shock and frail/fractured masculinities is one of the reasons I find her work so fascinating. Detective fiction, especially from this era, usually serves to shore up the disintegrating class system and the problems of modernity by ignoring all changes (Agatha, I’m talking about you). Sayers breaks that trend: Numerous characters in her books have been negatively affected by the war– Wimsey himself suffers from returning bouts of shell shock, and is open about spending time in an institution of some sort after the war. He met, and was rescued, by Bunter at the front, and Bunter is frequently presented as the indispensable one who knows what to do when the terrors come.

Bunter doesn’t suffer any aftereffects from the war. By positioning the hero, Lord Peter Wimsey (the aristocrat with excellent taste, excellent sensibilities, and excellent mental facilities) as the one with shell shock, I think Sayers is making a rather subversive stab at modern (well, 1914-style) war. She doesn’t make the leap to actually condemn the war– it is shown as a necessary evil–but in showing the repercussions of war, the long-term destruction of the livesthat escaped instant annihilation, she opens a space for a rather crippling critique of war. Presented with such violence, the correct response (since her hero responds this way) seems to be mental fracture. Instead of condemning shell shock (as was a prevalent party line at the time) as the effect of war on “weak, un-manly” men, shell shock seems to be the correct response.  (This from Elaine Showalter’s fascinating discussion of shell-shocked soldiers in  The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980.)

I also love Sayers’ gestures towards understanding women’s roles. Wimsey is summoned in the middle of the night by the long-suffering wife of the shell-shocked soldier, who has gone missing. The police had made rather a bungle of an interview earlier in the day, and there are fears that George has had a recurrence of his difficulty. Wimsey’s first instinct is pure lord of the manor: he orders her to sit and calm herself, while he begins making some tea for the little woman. He then stops himself with the following reflection:

“One has an ancestral idea that women must be treated like imbeciles in a crisis. Centuries of ‘women-and-children-first’ idea, I suppose. … No wonder they sometimes lose their heads. Pushed into corners, told nothing of what’s happening and made to sit quiet and do nothing. Strong men would go dotty in the circs. I suppose that’s why we’ve always grabbed the privilege of rushing about and doing the heroic bits.”
And then he sits down while she makes the tea.

This is why I love these books: if he had just sat down while she made the tea, he would have looked rather patriarchal/aristocratic/little woman will serve/godawful. Instead, Sayers has him begin to do the expected thing- to take over- then stop himself. Sayers is excellent at discussing the motivations behind actions and assumptions. Even when she is wrong (in my opinion) about those motivations, she articulates a reason behind them. They aren’t just the “natural male response” or the “natural female response”: there are deeper issues at stake. I think she works to expose the construction of identity, and more particularly, of gender.

(And that sounds like an abstract for the paper that I someday will write about her works.)

No Future: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jack Halberstam (with a little Queen Latifah in there too)

downloadFull disclosure: I spent the evening crocheting and watching The Last Holiday. I know, you didn’t think I was such a party animal. Truthfully, although the movie is somewhat horrible, I heartily enjoy the sentiment—the “why am I waiting and what am I waiting for” sentiment, when the things you are putting off in life (travel, family, free time)  seem ever so much more important than the reasons you are postponing them (education, career).

Last weekend, I seriously considered selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.

All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. In case you don’t remember (and why would you?) Queen Latifah is a hardworking employee/drone, trying to protect her future by postponing all joy: terrible job? not important, it pays. cute boy? not right now, must work. And so on and so forth. Then she gets a terminal diagnosis and moves to a fancy hotel in Europe to blow through her savings and live it up while there’s time. I feel like there are a few other movies out there with a similar plot, but can’t think of them right now.

Ok, the movie is kind of terrible. I don’t remember the rest– I think LL Cool J (the aforementioned love interest) shows up in Europe to sweep her off her feet, the diagnosis was wrong, and I guess she doesn’t regret her wasted savings. Whatever. As I said, not a great cinematic masterpiece.

And honestly, I’m not interested in it because of some abstract (whatever that is) value. but I’m fascinated by the burn down the world, grab it all freedom– the impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the former’s judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they”-catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? )

In the elimination of the idea of the future in Last Holiday– and in The Blue Castle, which is what I actually want to talk about– the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment.

God, that sounds hokey, but it seems to resonate, at least with me. I live so much of my life in anticipation: when my education is done, when I get a job I like, when I… whatever, that the present seems to escape me. My mother is right (gasp!)–I’m wishing my life away.

Those are problems for another time. What I am reading, however, is a reflection of those fat bubbles of unrest that are rolling to the top of my psyche. The Blue Castle has long been my favorite of L. M. Montgomery’s books; it’s just so absolutely flat-out romantic. Its premise is actually quite a bit like Last Holiday, which is why I began with the confession of my late-night TV watching: incredibly repressed woman gets a negative heath report, and decides (poster-type quote ahead) “to live before she dies.” Queen Latifah goes to some skiing resort;Valancy Stirling meets a mountain man and asks him to marry her.

Wonderful stuff…  (plot spoilers ahead)

Valancy Stirling is a skinny, sallow spinster who lives the most depressing life imaginable with her overbearing mother, sniffling aunt, and interfering, patronizing extended family. (Think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.) After suffering a worse-than-usual chest pain, Valancy secretly goes to a specialist, who tells her that she has a serious heart condition and will die within the year. Valancy rebels at the idea of “dying before she’s lived,” and starts speaking her mind at family gatherings, leading the elderly patriarchs of the family to murmur, aghast, while her mother has hysterics.

She eventually tells her story to the town ruffian, a “sparkly-eyed backwoods man” (direct quote) who smokes a foul smelling pipe and drives the oldest car imaginable. She then proposes to, marries, and moves in with this backwoods man, the euphoniously named Barney Snaith. After several months of the most perfect health and glorious happiness, she begins to wonder about the doctor’s diagnosis–and what that might mean to her marriage.

This has been my favorite L. M. Montgomery since I was about 16–I think I identified much too strongly with that crazy family! But I’ve always thought of this as kind of a fairytale; an uncomplicated trajectory from misery to happy ending. (I realize that all those who have studied fairy tales in any depth just gasped. Shush.) I still think the story is a little simplistic, but this time I noticed (was looking for) something else kind of nonfairytaley: Valancy saves herself. She doesn’t wait for a prince to rescue her–she leaves home, she throws off convention, she proposes to Barney, she essentially creates her own Eden–or at least her own entry into Eden. She isn’t an all round strong female character–she begins quite weak and then nobly returns home “with the grey face…of a creature that has been struck a mortal blow” when she fears that Barney will feel tricked when it looks like he will get a life of marriage instead of the originally planned year. In that, I suppose, Lucy Maud has Barney play the ever-loving hero, as of course, he comes to retrieve her. (And in such a frustrating way! These books that have the male lead tenderly swearing at the blockhead who won’t believe herself loved… the “Dear little fool!” exchanges…make me a bit tired.) But still, I do appreciate that Valancy didn’t gaze out the parlor window until Prince Charming rode up. In fact, she becomes weak again when she imagines herself to have a future. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine someone as, dare I say it, staid as Lucy Maud in light of ideas of queer temporality? Lucy Maud, meet Jack.

What I’m reading: Thrones, Dominations

When I began this blog, I planned to post regularly about my reading. I currently keep track over on Library Thing, but the format isn’t always conducive to my extended rambling. Summer (vacation, work drama, house guests) got in the way of my reading and writing, so I postponed beginning this phase of the blog. So… here we go!

Yesterday was a ridiculously lazy Saturday: I got up late and went straight for the book pile. I read Life of Pi, about which, although enjoyed immensely, I currently have no comment. Then I thought I’d finish the day (told you it was a lazy day) with a little Dorothy Sayers. I love Dorothy Sayers.

I’ve had Thrones, Dominations for ages. and I think I’ve read it before, but it’s been a long time and I don’t really recall it. Clearly,  it made a huge impression on me. The read, or re-read, on the whole, was good.

I was slightly concerned about a contemporary author “finishing” a novel that Dorothy Sayers abandoned some 80 years ago. That always seems such a problematic proposition: not only is the contemporary author supposed write “like” some one else, but also in the voice of another time. The result is often unintentionally and unwelcomely comic. Also, I’m rather a rabid Sayers fan, and was concerned that the characters I so love would be reduced to caricatures. It was a justified fear, Lord Peter seems a little more nervy than I remember from the “real” books, but Harriet seemed, on the whole, correct. (Of course, Sayers was always better at drawing Wimsey than Harriet, so the change would be more apparent in him.)

The mutterings about Germany I found rather annoyingly prescient. Had the book actually been completed in 1936 or whenever, then it would be an interesting point of research. Since it was completed in 1996, all the dialogic rumblings about fears of the German government seem a little bit like saying that you knew it all along, way after the event. Of course, the book is set in 1936, Hitler occupied the Rhineland in 1936- to ignore the events completely, given that Peter is supposed to be so closely connected to the Foreign Office, might also be read as false, but I thought the painting of the political climate a little heavy-handed.

Of course, I didn’t read it for the political climate, even as interesting of a climate as that of England in 1936–I read it for the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane story. If you haven’t read these books, move them up on your TBR pile. Start with Strong Poison, Harriet Vane is introduced in that one. Peter and Harriet are my favorite literary couple, bar none. That is insanely high praise.

They are so appealing because they are so intensely aware of the other’s self-hood. I love the portrayal of an intelligent woman actually considering the drawbacks of marriage to a wealthy man. The drain on her time, on her career, on her individuality, on her private time… she actually considers these (over multiple books!) at length. She respects her own mind, and doesn’t want to tie it, or herself, to a relationship that would keep her from fully developing. The only similarly, well, anxiously aware relationship that I can think of in literature is that of Ash and LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, another of my favorite and frequently re-read books.

So many books–actually, almost all books– show marriage as the ultimate (both in finality and scope) prize for women. This is why there is no tradition of a female quest or bildungsroman- the only possible acceptable end for a woman’s story is safely wedded and bedded, buried in the bed-sheets of a crypt-like berth.  If the female develops too much  individuality or character (the development of the character is what  drives the action in both of those types of books), she won’t be able to adequately fit into (disappear into) her husband’s world.

This is why I love these books. These actually show the struggle–that there is a possibility of loving someone, even a  good, non-abusive, understanding, intelligent someone, but fearing that a relationship will take away something integral to self. That the much-discussed “compromise” necessary to  any relationship might be about something more important than dinner plans. Of course, I’m as glad as anyone when Harriet finally says yes in Gaudy Night, but I love that Sayers addresses the problem of self-hood and relationships so centrally in her “couple” books.

This began as a review of Thrones, Dominations, and turned into something completely different. Thrones, Dominations occurs a few months after the marriage. A beautiful society woman is found dead by her devastated husband, both Lord Peter and Harriet knew the couple, so Peter starts asking questions.  Sayers is always a little heavy on the outside narrators–the first 30 pgs Busman’s Honeymoon is told through letters circulating through Society just before and after the wedding–but Thrones, Dominations uses that device more than her other books. Primarily we are given access to the dead wife’s boudoir, and limited entre into her mind and that of her husband. Their relationship, which is famously romantic, very passionate , but a little strained on the day-to-day communication part, is shown as the relief for the idealized relationship of Peter and Harriet, which is much more restrained in public, but presented as equally passionate, but with the necessary fillip of affection and friendship. The investigation into the relationship (because, of course, if a wife dies you must investigate the husband… thanks, Law and Order, you’ve taught us well) is really rather an interesting look into the concepts of jealousy and guilt, how much a situation is created by how it is read, and, of course, the ideas of individuality and couple-hood.

After I wrote the preceding comments about the multiplicity of narrators in Dorothy Sayers, I read a bit in the fascinating
Conundrums for the Long Weekend, England, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lord Peter Wimsey. In the introduction, the authors discuss the beginnings of modernity in conjunction with the end of The Great War–apparently Sayers’ use of the many narrators is her nod to the explosion of the unified self which was being explored by modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf. By giving us a multiplicity of viewpoints, through letters most obviously, but also through shifting dialogue, she nods to the modernist writers, but by keeping it accessible (no stream of consciousness and the narrator is generally identifiable) she keeps her middle class audience happy.

I love this! This is why I study- nothing is better than getting a bit of really foundational insight into your favorite books. Well, nothing other than a mojito.