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Literally Laced with Allusions

Disclaimer: This is Rachel, not Mike. I can’t figure out how to change the name of who is posting. I am not a blogger. But I’m going to give it a try, because there is so much material to cover on each reading and so little class time to cover it.

As Mike has mentioned and as Zadie Smith herself mentions, On Beauty draws upon EM Forster’s Howards End. It also directly references Scarry’s “On Beauty and Being Just” (see the previous post by Mike). The description of Levi doing laps in the pool during the anniversary party echoes Sheever’s short story “The Swimmer” (https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/Cheever_Swimmer.pdf) and the name Kipps refers to a story by that name from HG Wells (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700961h.html). This novel is literally laced with allusions.

Beyond Forster and Scarry, the most obvious allusions woven through the text are to the work of Zora Neale Hurston, specifically They’re Eyes Were Watching GodTell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, and “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” Some of the references to Hurston abide on the surface: Kiki is from Eatonville, FL (home of Zora Neale Hurston) and the Belsey’s daughter is named Zora. Some of the other allusions reside slightly below the surface,such as the Haitian politics, and if you haven’t read Hurston’s anthropological works, you may have missed them: Tell My Horse chronicles Hurston’s anthropology work in Haiti and Jamaica.

On Beauty has been described as a follow-up to this anthropological work and many scholars argue that the “minor” Haitian characters are just as important for the development of the novel as any of the Belsely’s or the Kipps. I put minor in quotation marks, because Haitians make up a large number of characters and are the economy that allows the novel to work. They do the labor in Wellington and represent more than just plot devices in moving the story forward. They work for low pay as servants; Haitian art is the commodity that seals the upper-middle class position of the Kipps; Haitian laborers do menial jobs; and Haitian street vendors sell the faux designer handbags. The Haitians help Wellington’s upper-middle class maintain the illusion of affluence. Thus Smith connects on another level (beyond that of Levi and Carl) with Forster’s discussion of socio-economic class, which I’m sure we will discuss in more detail in the classroom. (Another connection to Tell My Horse is Michael’s fiance/wife is Jamaican).

While many have detailed the allusions to They’re Eyes Were Watching God and Tell My Horse, the most compelling connection comes in the characterization of Kiki and in Hurston’s short autobiographical piece “How It Feels to be Colored Me” (http://www.casa-arts.org/cms/lib/PA01925203/Centricity/Domain/50/Hurston%20How%20it%20Feels%20to%20Be%20Colored%20Me.pdf). Zora Neale Hurston’s pieces places humor and race and pride and slavery and femininity hand in hand. Smith places all of these in Kiki. When Kiki’s sadness over Howard’s betrayal with a skinny white woman wells up, we hear Kiki giving herself a rebuke for focusing on Claire’s color that reverberate Hurston’s lines, “BUT I AM NOT tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. …No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Kiki’s voice sounds very similar to the voice of Hurston’s in her autobiographical writing.

When discussing Wellington, the reader could substitute Smith’s words with Hurston’s; Hurston acknowledges, “I do not always feel colored. …I feel most colored when I am thrown up against a sharp white background. Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.” Kiki feels her color most when she navigates the streets of the town of Wellington and the halls of the academic Wellington.

Kiki also feels her color when in contrast with Howard, or rather when Howard is in contrast at home in the midst of his wife and children: “Sometimes it is the other way around. A white person is set down in our midst, but the contrast is just as sharp for me” (Hurston). Kiki’s blackness contrasts with Howard’s whiteness; they both are defining themselves based on the Other, in the same way the Hurston only came to realize she was black upon leaving her all black childhood home at the age of 14.

Both Kiki’s and Hurston’s blackness is felt in relation to whiteness, not a thing unto itself. Hence, “at certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time.” The cosmic Kiki – the one and only Kiki stands. She stands two hundred and fifty pounds allows her an even more youthful face (“A beautiful tough-girl’s face” 15), more voluptuous breasts (her enormous spellbinding bosom 47), and allows her to physically take up more space, shoving Howard metaphorically and physically into a chair to get out of her way (“Now she crossed the room and pushed him with such force that he was muscled into an adjacent rocking chair” 15).

Where Hurston directly references slavery, Smith only alludes to Kiki’s ancestral roots in slavery with referring to her as coming from “simple Florida country stock,” as well in the use of the word “simple” to describe Kiki’s lack of academic interests.

We are able to go through nearly every line of “How It Feels to be Colored Me” and draw connections to Zadie Smith’s characterization of Kiki Belsey; however, I’ll end my alignment by drawing our attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s sentence, “I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.” Throughout the text we read Kiki adorning herself with beads (necklaces, bracelets, earrings). Kiki’s body signals readers to the “eternal feminine” in the description of Kiki’s bosom: “The size was sexual and at the same time more than sexual: sex was only one small element in its symbolic range. …Her breasts gave off a mass of signals beyond her direct control: sassy, sisterly, predatory, motherly, threatening, comforting” (47). Smith writes Kiki’s body and personality to read as everything “eternal” feminine from sexual to motherly, from threatening to comforting. She carries upon her everything the world makes of women – from the Madonna to Malinche. Femininity is written on her body; she’s unable to escape it even if she wanted to. Even Claire notes that Kiki radiates “an essential female nature. …Full of something like genuine desire,” calling Kiki a “goddess in every way” (227). Men and other women recognize Kiki as what Hurston described as “the eternal feminine with its string of beads.”

As much as Forster’s and Scarry’s works inform On Beauty, the allusions to Zora Neale Hurston’s life and works flood Smith’s novel, informing everything from naming to Haitian politics to black feminine identity. Zadie Smith should have just named a character Zora, so that we readers didn’t miss the connection. Oh wait! She did.

End note: did you know Zadie Smith wrote a book of academic essays on writers, one of which was Zora Neale Hurston? She did. Besides her novels, Smith is also the author of the essay collection on writers, “Changing My Mind,” and a nonfiction book about writing, “Fail Better,” and edited an anthology of sex writing entitled “Piece of Flesh.”

 

Quick Thoughts on Zadie Smith’s On Beauty

Rachel and I elected to teach Howards End and On Beauty for self-evident reasons:  both

Zadie Smith
©
Dominique Nabokov (Source)

novels are exquisitely crafted in terms of plot, imagery, symbolism and character development, and, consequently, both novels are eminently readable and teachable.  Readers encounter in these novels sympathetic portraitures of humans struggling and often failing, in the words of Forster, to “only connect”.  The fact that all of us desire at times to connect and fail, like the characters, to do so, lends a universality to the themes of the novels that transcends the limitations of time and place (Edwardian England, the United States during the first decade of the 21st century).   Both novels move along a stylistic fault line where comedy and satire (Forster’s carefully crafted representation of middle class arrogance and folly, Smith’s accurate and barbed depictions of the inflated egos and meaningless chatter of academics and administrators) pushes against tragedy (the senseless death of Leonard Bast, the death of Carl Thomas’s poetic and scholastic aspirations) causing tremors and upheaval.

Zadie Smith acknowledges her indebtedness to E. M. Forster, and she pays homage to him by repurposing much of the structure of Howards End in On Beauty.  Her novel, however, is not a pastiche, or simple retreading of the path worn by E. M. Forster’s writing.  Although a reader familiar with Howards End will immediately recognize Smith’s indebtedness, On Beauty stands on its own.  One needn’t read Howards End (presumably many of Smith’s readers had not) to appreciate the merits of On Beauty.

Smith, to an even greater extent perhaps than Forster, dips into a vast reservoir of history, culture and academic theory.  Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps exemplify liberal and conservative positions in how they approach art, textuality, religion and even the question of affirmative action.  Karen Armstrong, a character who only appears in one brief section, provides the reader with a passionate, living examination of the Rembrandt paintings that is overlooked in Howard’s arid and pedantic theorizing.  In Smith’s writing, the paintings of Rembrandt and Haitian artists are vividly realized in ways that seem alien to her characters who make a living teaching about them.  There is also the liminality of the various characters – Howard, a white, British expatriate from a lower-class background who has married Kiki, a black American, and now works at Wellington College; Monty, a knighted, black, Caribbean-British intellectual who starts the novel in London, but moves with his family to Boston.  And then, of course, there are the young characters who struggle to define their identities – Levi, who embraces the cause of Haitians, even though he has really only learned about Haiti through a book, Carl, who shifts between hip-hop and classical music, the gritty streets of Boston and the refinement of Wellington, and Victoria, who moves from sexual relationship to sexual relationship in search of somebody who “sees” her as a person.  In all of this Smith moves seamlessly back and forth between geographic and ideological positions: London and Boston, Foucault and TuPac all find places in her world.

One of the cultural borrowings I have not addressed is Zadie Smith’s use of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just.  I’ve included a link to it here for anyone who might want to skim it.

The Life and Times of E. M. Forster

Michael D. Amey

“My defence at any Last Judgement would be ‘I was trying to connect up and use all the fragments I was born with.’” E. M. Forster

“Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely means putting up with people, being able to stand things.” E. M. Forster

1 January 1879 – Born to Alicia (aka Lilly) Clara Whichelo and Edward (aka Eddie) Morgan Llewellyn Forster.  Lilly’s father was an impoverished drawing master who died when Lilly was twelve.   Eddie’s father was a clergyman, and was connected to the Clapham sect – a strict, evangelical social reform group.  Their values had an ongoing influence on Forster, and his writing frequently reflects those values.  Eddie’s family had, in contrast to Lilly’s family, a significant amount of money, which would allow them to support Forster.  Eddie, Forster’s father, was an architect.

Lily and Forster
Forster, age 3, with his mother, Lily Source

30 October 1880 – Eddie Forster dies.  The death of Eddie means that Lily, and Forster’s aunts, will play a major role in raising Forster.  Forster will live with his mother most of the time until her death in 1945. Forster would later write to Bob Buckingham, “Although my mother has been intermittently tiresome for the last 30 years, cramped and warped my genius, hindered my career, blocked and buggered up my house, and boycotted my beloved, I have to admit she has provided a sort of rich subsoil where I have been able to rest and grow. That, rather than sex or wifiness, seems to be women’s special gift to men.”

1883 – 1893 – Forster and his mother live in a house in Hertfordshire that becomes the model for Howards End.

Outside_Rooks_Nest_1
E. M. Forster, as a child, at his home in Herfordshire. Source

 

1895 – Oscar Wilde is imprisoned for “sodomy and gross indecency”.

1897-1901 Forster enrolls at King’s College Cambridge and becomes involved with a discussion group, “the Apostles” where he meets people who will become part of the Bloomsbury Group in the early 20th century.

Bloomsbury
Members of the Bloomsbury Group.  Source

1901-1902 Forster travels through Greece and Italy with his mother.  Their stay in a pension in Italy provided inspiration for the setting of A Room with a View.

1903 Forster starts writing A Room with a View.

1905 Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Lionel Trilling, “Forster’s first novel appeared in 1905. The author was 26, not a remarkable age at which to have written a first novel unless the novel be, as Forster’s was, a whole and mature work dominated by a fresh and commanding intelligence.”

1906  Forster meets and falls in love with Syed Ross Masood, a young Indian man.

Syed
Syed Ross Masood and E. M. Forster.  Source

Masood “woke me up out of my suburban and academic life, showed me new horizons and a new civilization and helped me towards the understanding of a continent… There never was anyone like him and there never will be anyone like him” (Moffat 91).

 

1907 The Longest Journey.

1908 A Room with a View.

1909 “The Machine Stops”

1910 Howard’s End.

1912-1913 Forster visits India.

1913 Forster begins Maurice – a celebration of same-sex love.  He also starts writing A Passage to India.

28 July 1914 The Great War (World War I) begins.

1915 – 1919 Forster is a conscientious objector, who served out the First World War as a Red Cross volunteer in Egypt.

1921 Forster returns to India for a visit.

1924 A Passage to India.  This is Forster’s last novel.  He continues to write short stories, essays and non-fiction.

1927 Forster is elected a fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.  He delivers a series of lectures on novels that are later collected into Aspects of the Novel.

1930 Forster meets police officer Bob Buckingham.  Forster falls in love with Bob, and the two have a relationship that includes Bob’s wife, May, until Forster’s death.  Forster

Forster and Buckingham
E. M. Forster and Bob Buckingham, circa 1934.  Source

wrote, in response to Bob’s praise of Bob’s sexual satisfaction with May,

“I felt a bit sad at some of the things you said yesterday, not that you meant to make me sad, but you made me think of my limitations whereas generally you make me forget them.  I believe that you are right—that particular experiences which I can’t ever have might make the two people who share it feel they are in touch with the universe through each other.  What a pity all (normal) people don’t get it” (qtd. in Moffat 239).

1930s – 1940s Forster is a broadcaster for BBC

1 September 1939  World War II begins.

1943 Lionel Trilling’s E. M. Forster is published.  This along with the reprints of Forster’s novels leads to a “Forster revival”.

1945 Forster revisits India.  Lily, Forster’s mother, dies.

28 June 1969 The Stonewall Riots occur in New York City.

7 June 1970 Forster dies.

1971 Maurice is published.

Work Cited

Moffat, Wendy.  A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

 

 

 

 

An Introduction to E. M. Forster and “Howard’s End”

ForsterE. M. Forster, born January 1st, 1879, a mere three years after Queen Victoria adopted the title Empress of India, came of age in the late Victorian period, and much of the social anxiety of that period around empire, the status of women, radical politics and social class infused his writing. However, if one message threads through all of Forster’s writing, it is that admonishment at the start of Howard’s End – “Only connect!”.  In A Passage to India, Forster strives to connect India and Britain, Adela and Dr. Aziz, in A Room with a View, the upper-middle class Lucy finds love with George, her social inferior, in “The Machine Stops,” Forster envisions a future society where social intercourse, mediated by the Machine, has increased immensely, but at the expense of real intimacy with others, and the posthumously published Maurice is dedicated to “a happier year,” perhaps to when two men can love each other openly. Finally, in Howard’s End, Margaret contemplates her ability to save her suitor, Mr. Wilcox:

Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.  Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man.  With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire.  Happy the man who sees from either aspect the glory of these outspread wings.  The roads of his soul lie clear, and he and his friends shall find easy-going.

….

It did not seem so difficult.  She need trouble him with no gift of her own.  She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man.  Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.

Perhaps Forster’s own desire to connect was inherited.  The marriage of his parents was a union between two social classes, with the poor Lilly marrying “up” into the wealthier Forster family.  Perhaps, too, the fact that Forster’s father, Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, for whom Forster was accidentally named, died when Forster was two meant that Forster missed that connection.  Perhaps, Forster’s depiction of, at the time, socially problematic connections (Indian and British, male-male, social inferior and social superior), was produced by his reading of his father’s homoeroticism.  After all, as Wendy Moffat writes in A Great Unrecorded Life:  A New Life of E. M. Forster, Lilly and Eddie had gone on their honeymoon, not with a lady companion for Lilly, but with a male friend of Eddie’s, Ted Streatfeild.  Moffat notes that Aunt Monie “wrote that [Streatfeild] was ‘very nearly’ a lady companion, ‘I own, but not quite’” (25), and “While Lily rested at the hotel, the men walked and talked” (25-26).  Perhaps, Forster sought connection because of how others read him as a child as effeminate:

The whole of the world appeared as a set of rules, to be negotiated with care if you were not powerful.  There seemed to be ways to earn a little safety.  At the age of four, Morgan told his mother he “would much rather be a coward than brave because people hurt you when you are brave.” At other times it seemed that however much one tried, who you were was determined by whether you adequately act a part.  But both his anachronistic dress and his extremely sensitive manner made him seem “half a girl,” Lily complained.  “I was he was more manly and did not cry so easily.”  Once, when he was mistaken for a girl by a servant, he was told to go back and correct the misapprehension. Dutifully, he returned and announced, “I’m a little boy.”  “Yes, miss,” was the reply. (Moffat 30)

Perhaps Forster’s desire to connect arose out of his own homosexuality.  Later in life he would record how he and a neighbor boy “built a little house between a straw stack and a hedge, and often lay in each other’s arms, tickling and screaming” (qtd. in Moffat 31).  It might be proper here to historically contextualize Forster’s sexuality.  In 1895, the year Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for a homosexual affair, Forster was sixteen.  Forster died in 1970, just a year after the Stonewall riots in New York, and only three years after the process of decriminalizing homosexuality had begun in Britain.  No wonder, then that Maurice, Forster’s ode to homosexual love, was not published until after his death, fifty-eight years after he wrote it!

As we move into a discussion of Howard’s End, I think we need to keep all of the above in mind, and we need to also keep in mind Forster’s humanist ideals.  He wrote, “The humanist has four leading characteristics – curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” His belief in the human race, his desire to “only connect,” meant that tolerance would never been enough for him: “Tolerance is a very dull virtue. It is boring. Unlike love, it has always had a bad press. It is negative. It merely  means putting up with people, being able to stand things.”

You may wish to read the following:

An excerpt from Wendy Moffat’s “A Great Unrecorded History”

Edwardian Transcendentalism … Maurice, by E.M. Forster

 

More resources for reading “The World’s Wife”

I  thought that those of you reading Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife for this semester’s free class might like to hear from her about why she wrote these poems.  In an interview you can read here, she explains:

What I wanted to do in the book was to look at all the stories—fairy tales, myths, stories from history, film and pop music or whatever, stories of heroes which had informed me as a writer, part of my cultural ancestry.  So I wanted to celebrate them, in a way, but also find a truth which hadn’t been amplified previously.  And the way I wanted to do that was to find a female perspective on the character, and I did that by finding a personal connection with the fairy tale, myth, piece of cinema, etc., so that although I’m wearing the mask of Queen Herod or Mrs Beast I’m not lost in my own place, my own life.  It might be that it is autobiographical in that it might be true to my imaginative life or my emotional life but not necessarily true to the actual details of my life.  Once I’d done that I typed out the poems in a sort of chronological movement.  So we start with “Little Red Cap” which is about a young girl becoming a poet and end with “Demeter” which is about a woman becoming a mother.  So that it follows the arc of my own life in some ways.

 

Preliminary Thoughts on first Reading Carol Ann Duffy’s “The World’s Wife”

Michael Amey

 

“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see,” opines Janie Crawford, the protagonist of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  While Janie’s statement is a generalization, it does convey the strength and resilience of many black women in the face of adversity.  Carol Ann Duffy’s title, The World’s Wife, builds off of a similar theme.  Mules and wives have frequently been reduced to “beasts” of burden.  Shakespeare puns off of the “bearing” of mules and women in The Taming of the Shrew in this exchange between Katharina and Petruchio:

KATHARINA

Asses are made to bear, and so are you.

PETRUCHIO

Women are made to bear, and so are you.

ambassadorsIf women are made to bear, then at very least Duffy wishes to give them voice.  Her The World’s Wife is a collection of thirty dramatic monologues, in which women from history or folklore, or women married to famous men, provide their own accounts of events.

The purpose of these monologues is to have the reader re-examine characters or stories in a new light.  Consequently, these poems render anamorphic stories we thought we knew.  From this new perspective we learn that Little Red-Cap is NOT the victim of the wolf, Pygmalion’s bride comes to life and responds to his Anamorphosiscaresses to get rid of him, Freud’s wife has penis pity instead of penis envy, and Queen Herod becomes the catalyst for the slaughter of the innocents because the three Queens, presumably on their way with their husbands to visit the newly born Jesus, tell her to watch for a star revealing the location of

The Husband. Hero. Hunk.

The Boy Next Door.  The Paramour.  The Je t’adore.

The Marrying Kind.  Adulter.  Bigamist.

The Wolf. The Rip. The Rake. The Rat.

The Heartbreaker.  The Ladykiller.  Mr Right. 

who will break her daughter’s heart.

Each of these poems subverts the power structures of the original stories from which they are derived.  Thus, Little Red-Cap is no longer the passive victim of the wolf’s trickery; she has agency of her own, and makes “quite sure [that] he spotted me, / sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink, / my first.”  The wolf may think that he, and his command of poetry, have control over the “waif”, but she is in charge and uses her time in apprenticeship to the wolf.  Ultimately, no woodsman is required to save this young woman – she’s never been lost, and she takes an axe to the wolf, “as he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat,” not to escape him but to see what’s inside him.

In some of the poems, Duffy switches the sexes of the characters, as in the case where King Kong is re-imagined as Queen Kong, and the helpless female “victim” is replaced by a willing male “partner”.  Removed from the story is any threat of violence, sexual or otherwise.  Queen Kong merely thinks that she can “swat his plane from these skies like a gnat,” without actually doing so, and her trip to New York to retrieve her paramour, far from involving the violence of the movie, turns into a shopping spree for “clothes for my man, mainly, / but one or two treats for myself from Bloomingdale’s.”  The biggest change, however, is the ending of the story – Queen Kong and her lover have “Twelve happy years,” and he dies peacefully, in stark contrast to the violent death of King Kong.

Part of what Duffy is doing, of course, is subverting the racist and sexist coding of the original movie.  A number of critics have suggested that the 1933 movie, King Kong, played into white fears of miscegenation.  The massively strong ape becomes a stand in for the “threatening” black man.  The trip to King Kong’s island by the “filmmaker” is a nod towards imperialist expeditions to “exotic” and “savage” locals.  The ape’s fascination with the white, blonde woman is another iteration of the worn-out literary and cinematic trope of hypersexualized black males seducing and / or assaulting white women.  For a more explicit presentation of that trope one need look no further than D. W. Griffith’s 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation.  In the case of King Kong, the entire military and police apparatus of the white state is brought against the black “menace,” and the woman is “saved” by the death of the monster.

king-kong

While Duffy explicitly “others” her Queen Kong, she makes clear that a mutually satisfying relationship is possible.  Queen Kong may have come in pursuit of her lover, but he has a “blown-up photograph” of her over his head.  However unusual Queen Kong’s relationship with her paramour might be, she, and the reader, don’t doubt that “no man / has been loved more”

Before concluding I want to point out that Duffy employs a variety of poetic forms, meters and rhyme schemes.  For example, her poem “Anne Hathaway” is written as a sonnet, which, of course, is appropriate for the wife of Shakespeare, who popularized that form in the English language.  At the same time, Duffy, makes the poem uniquely Hathaway’s by having her adhere to iambic pentameter in the meter but eschew Shakespeare’s rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef) for the three quatrains.  The volta, however, follows Shakespeare’s pattern by being a rhyming couplet that moves the speaker from a discussion of her and Shakespeare’s bed and love life, to his death:  “I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head / as he held me upon that next best bed”.

For a better discussion of these poems, visit this link:

Jeanette Winterson “On Carol Ann Duffys ‘The World’s Wife'”

 

Do Modern Retellings of Classic Novels Actually Work?

An interesting piece on retellings of classic novels, which is the focus of this semester’s free class.

Cultural Life

What would you say if I told you that one of the most popular classic novelists of all time was coming back, with her works reimagined for a twenty-first century audience?

When I received an advance reader copy of Sense and Sensibility last week, my initial reaction was curiosity, followed by thoughts about the audacity of the title: the blue cover with “Sense and Sensibility” emblazoned on it in gold lettering. You see, this is not Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Look upwards from the golden title and you will see Joanna Trollope’s name glinting on the cover, above an image of two modernized Regency-style silhouettes.

The Austen Project is “a major new series of six novels teaming up authors of global literary significance with Jane Austen’s six complete works”.

Three of the titles are still to be revealed but the reimagining of Sense and Sensibility will be followed…

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THE NEW MAN:  EUGENICS AND HUMAN ENGINEERING IN A “BRAVE NEW WORLD”

Welcome to a long delayed post on another classic dystopian novel.  Today I’ll be introducing you in a general way to Brave New World, and we’ll be examining the relationship, if any, between biology and destiny.  This post will also lay the foundation for a later post on the 1997 movie, Gattaca.     

 

Crossing the Frontier into Huxley’s Brave New World

Huxley            Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is, I think, a departure from most of the dystopian fiction we’ve encountered or are likely to encounter.  Huxley’s description of a dystopian society, for example, lacks the grime and poverty evident in 1984.  Instead of describing rundown apartments and outdated technology, Huxley depicts a society at that is technologically advanced, that possesses a range of commodities, and that can only be described as decadent.  This departure from Orwell’s grim vision of dystopian society can perhaps be understood when one realizes that the World State was modeled, in part, on Huxley’s perception of the United States.  As David Bradshaw points out in his introduction to Brave New World, the feelies (an advancement on Hollywood movies), the over consumption of goods, the references to Ford and the Model T, and the depiction of amoral men and women living life in the present were all meant to be caricatures of life in the United States in the early 20th century.

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Can We Believe Huxley’s Vision of America?

Great Gatsby

For those of us who might wish to protest that life in America in the ’30s couldn’t have resembled life in Huxley’s World State, it might be wise to reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was published in 1925.  The characters of that novel, with their lavish parties and decadent lifestyles, would have undoubtedly felt just as at home in the World State.

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The difference between Orwell’s dystopic vision and Huxley’s extends, of course, beyond simply the physical descriptions of their respective societies.  More surprisingly, where Orwell describes a citizenry that wears an “expression of quiet optimism” because it fears Big Brother, Huxley presents a citizenry that at least thinks itself happy, even if that happiness is illusory (Orwell 5).  Indeed, Huxley’s World Controllers are also very different from Orwell’s Big Brother and Zamyatin’s Benefactor.   For one, we, the readers, can be sure that, unlike the other “leaders”, the World Controllers actually exist.  Their function is also different.  Where Big Brother acts as a deterrent for bad behavior by creating fear, the job of Mustapha Mond is, according to himself, “to serve happiness.  Other people’s — not mine” (209).  Unlike O’Brien in 1984, Mond clearly does not have to rely on torture to control his citizens.  By comparison to 1984 and We, the apparatus of governmental control in Brave New World is virtually invisible.  Huxley dispenses with the Thoughtpolice of 1984 and the Guardians of We.  Spies apparently are not necessary in this “utopian” dystopia.  Of course there are police, but far from using the violent methods described in 1984 and We, these police use the calming influence of drugs and soothing voices to quell a rioting mob (195-196).   The results of this mob control are quick and effective:

Two minutes later the Voice and the soma vapour had produced their effect.  In tears, the Deltas were kissing and hugging one another — half a dozen twins at a time in a comprehensive embrace.  Even Helmholtz and the Savage were almost crying.  A fresh supply of pill-boxes was brought in from the Bursary; a new distribution was hastily made and, to the sound of the Voice’s richly affectionate baritone valedictions, the twins dispersed, blubbering as though their hearts would break.  “Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you!  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest friends, Ford keep you.  Good-bye, my dearest, dearest …” (196-197).

This description of the rioters parting would be starkly out of place in either Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s novels.  Nothing here suggests the violence implied by the Guardians and the Thoughtpolice.

Perhaps more striking than the absences of a police apparatus and a totalitarian regime are the things that are present in Huxley’s society.  Sexual activity, far from being discouraged, like it is in Oceania, or being controlled, like it is in The One State, is permitted and, indeed, actively encouraged.  Where Winston and Julia have to slip away Brave New World namessurreptitiously for a rendezvous in the countryside, Lenina and Bernard can simply take his plane for a romantic weekend.  Where the young women of Oceania join the Junior Anti-Sex League, the children of the World State engage in erotic play, and Lenina gets scolded for being too monogamous.

Religion, absent from the two prior novels, is also present, but it appears to be a religion that lacks dogma or condemnation of any sort.  The religion of the World State combines the fetishization of Ford with religious elements from Christianity.  The following passage shows how the World State has mimicked the Eucharist in its Solidarity Services:

The President made another sign of the T and sat down.  The service had begun.  The dedicated soma tablets were placed in the centre of the dining table.  The loving cup of strawberry ice-cream soma was passed from hand to hand and, with the formula, “I drink to my annihilation,” twelve times quaffed.  (72)

 

The soma tablets at the center of the table are meant to stand for the wafers offered during communion, and the cup of strawberry ice-cream soma replaces the cup of wine traditionally passed around among Catholic celebrants.

In addition to sex and religion, the World State differs from Oceania and the One State in that it provides a range of leisure activities.  These activities include visits to the feelies, games and, of course, the use of the drug soma.  

Omelas and Brave New World            Given Huxley’s sharp departure from the model established by earlier dystopian authors, we might ask if this novel can fairly be characterized as dystopian.  Part of the ambiguity that readers experience when reading Brave New World is a consequence of Huxley’s own ambivalence about the society he had described.  While he seems to decry much of what he describes, Huxley actually had a much more complicated relationship to the themes discussed in his novel.  He was, at least up to the time of writing Brave New World, partially convinced that in order for humanity to be saved, a dictatorship might have to be imposed and eugenics (the act of selectively breeding humans for certain traits) might be necessary in order to save the European race (Bradshaw 1994).  For all of his implicit criticism of the United States and American technology, Huxley actually applied for American citizenship, and, although it was denied, lived for many years in America.  While Huxley’s description of the drug soma seems disturbing, Huxley actually used psychedelic drugs such as peyote, mescaline and LSD.  His experiences with the drug mescaline are described in his book The Doors of Perception.  All of this background information obscures any facile interpretation of Brave New World.    If the novel is dystopian, then it presents a complicated dystopia, more in line with the Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas than with Oceania or the One State.

 

Losing Human Freedom:  Predestinating and Conditioning

            If law enforcement seems remarkably absent in Huxley’s Brave New World, it is because the World State does not require force and violence to control its citizenry.  Clearly, the abdication of violent means took some time.  In describing the evolution of society to the students at the hatchery, Mond notes that in the early years, “[e]ight hundred Simple Lifers were mowed down by machine guns at Golders Green” and “[t]hen came the famous British Museum Massacre [where] [t]wo thousand culture fans [were] gassed with dichlorethyl sulphide” (44, 45).  It was only after these violent attempts to regulate the citizenry that the World Controllers came to realize that violence was a highly inefficient way of controlling the population (45).  In essence, the World Controllers recognized what John Locke, the British philosopher, had argued in the 17th century:  rulers only rule with the consent of the ruled.  The problem was that the World Controllers did not want their citizens to have any choice in giving their consent to the social structure.  Fortunately for the Controllers, science offered solutions to the nagging problem of free-will and individuality.  The solution that the Controllers would take was premised on the same ideas that would be developed by the American psychologist and writer, B. F. Skinner who, in his novel Walden II, argued that “man is determined by the state” (1957, 276).  For the Controllers, the means of determining the destiny of humanity resided in two areas:  1)  biology and 2)  conditioning.

The biologic aspect of control in the World State is premised on the assumption Picture5that biology is destiny.  If a person inherits certain genes, he or she will excel at certain activities and do poorly in other activities according to this theory.  While Huxley could not have foreseen the genetic manipulation that is available today, he was able to foresee the concept of “designer babies”.  All of the babies in the World State are, in fact, designer babies inasmuch as they are created to specifications determined by the state.  To begin, experts at the haterchery carefully screen genetic material.  The best genetic material is reserved for manufacturing upper caste members of society.  Less desirable material is reserved for the lower castes.  After the material is selected, it is carefully manipulated to produce or enhance specific characteristics.  The fetuses destined to be lower caste citizens are injected with alcohol to create brain damage, thus ensuring lower levels of intelligence.  As Mr. Forester explains to the students at the hatchery, “in Epsilons […] we don’t need human intelligence” (12).  Using this pragmatic approach, the World State only gives to its citizens what they will need to fulfill their predestined existences.  For example, citizens destined for a life in the tropics are acclimatized to hot conditions and are immunized against tropical diseases before they are even “decanted”. The state’s tampering with these humans/products effectively narrows the possibilities available to each of them.  Even if an Epsilon could possess the desire to be an engineer, for example, she would never possess the intelligence required for the job.

The production of humans is carried on along the same basis as a production line.  Indeed, Henry Ford’s automobile plant is clearly the inspiration for the assembly line at the hatchery.  Among the stages involved in this assembly line are quality control and the tailoring of each product to, as I’ve already indicated, fill specific social needs.  As Mond points out, the task of mass producing these humans is made infinitely easier by Bokanovsky’s Process, a process which allows for the creation of clones.  The result of the process is “[s]tandard men and women; in uniform batches [so that the] whole of a small factory [can be] staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg” (5).  Humans, then, become interchangeable cogs maintaining the social machinery.  Individual identity is sacrificed in favor of caste identity.  One of the consequence of this mass production is that citizens are also “plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about” (201).  These roles are abolished, both because they are unimportant to the continuation of the World State and because everyone is replaceable.  If a woman loses the man she was sleeping with, she can always get an identical product to replace that man.  In theory, at least, nothing distinguishes him from any of the men produced from the same bokanovskified egg.  Given that each caste member is also conditioned to have the same likes and dislikes, it is possible that the substitute product male would be identical to the original.  Who needs to worry about the concept of a boyfriend when you can date an identical individual whenever you want to?

Given the fact that the World State designs and produces its citizens, it is easy to understand why citizens like Lenina are willing to accept the hypnopaedic proverb, “Everyone belongs to everyone else”.  In the case of the World State, this is very nearly true.  This proverb echoes the law in Zamyatin’s One State: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21).  In both societies, the individual is viewed as a product of the state.  However, where in the One State a law has to be made to the effect that each citizen has the legal right to any other citizen’s body, no such law is necessary in the World State.  After all, the World State doesn’t merely claim to own its citizens, it actually manufactures them.

Biologically predestinating individuals determines the likely future of each citizen; conditioning makes them happy with that lot.  As the Director of the hatchery explains, “All conditioning aims at that:  making people like their unescapable social destiny” (13).  This conditioning occurs through a number of different techniques.  There is both physical conditioning, as when Delta children are electrocuted to make them dislike and fear books, and verbal conditioning, as in hypnopaedia.  The point of hypnopaedia is to shape the mind of the child through repeated suggestions, until, according to the director at the hatchery,

at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind.  And not the child’s mind only.  The adult’s mind too — all his life long.  The mind that judges and desires and decides —- made up of these suggestions.  But all these suggestions are our suggestions!  [….] Suggestions from the State.  (25)

 

The director’s point is made even more cogently by Mond when he explains to John Savage the role of Epsilons in the World State:

Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance.  His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run.  He can’t help himself; he foredoomed.  Even after decanting, he’s still inside a bottle — an invisible bottle of infantile and embryonic fixations.  Each one of us, of course […] goes through life inside a bottle. (203)

 

A very similar view of the power of conditioning is presented in B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel, Walden II.  In Walden II, the spokesperson for the society, Frazier, explains to his guests:

Our members are practically always doing what they want to do—what they “choose” to do—but we see to it that they will want to do precisely the things which are best for themselves and the community.  Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free (Skinner 1976, 279).

Frazier’s assertion that citizens can be free even when their behavior is predetermined presents a paradox.  To a certain extent, the citizens of Huxley’s World State have a more accurate understanding of the limits of freedom and predestination.  Thus, when Lenina observes to Henry that perhaps Epsilons, whom she personally finds revolting, don’t mind being Epsilons, he responds, “Of course they don’t.  How can they?  They don’t know what it’s like being anything else.  We’d mind, of course.  But then we’ve been differently conditioned” (66).  Henry goes on to explain to Lenina, “if you were an Epsilon […] your conditioning would have made you no less thankful that you weren’t a Beta or an Alpha” (66).  Evidently Henry recognizes that he and Lenina aren’t in fact free; more disturbingly though, this lack of freedom doesn’t bother either of them.  To a certain extent, these two products of the World State are far closer to the machine-men envisioned in Zamyatin’s One State.  After all, Henry and Lenina can’t help but be happy.  The state has won, not because it has shaped reality to suit its citizens, but because it has shaped its citizens to suit its reality.  Unlike the rebels in Zamyatin’s One State and Orwell’s Oceania, far from rebelling, these citizens of the World State cannot even grasp the concept of rebellion.

Although upper caste members of society seem to lack choices just like their lower caste counterparts, they do, in fact, have some capacity for rejecting the conditioning that they have experienced.  Perhaps they require an element of rationale thought and free will to ensure that society continues to operate smoothly.  The possibility of bucking this system is revealed by the Director’s criticism of Bernard Marx, “Alphas are so conditioned that they do not have to be infantile in their emotional behavior.  But that is all the more reason for their making a special effort to conform.  It is their duty to be infantile, even against their inclination” (88).  As I shall show in my next post, the inclination to remain infantile is encouraged by promoting unconstrained consumption and instant gratification.

Works Cited

Huxley, Aldous.  Brave New World.  Perennial, 1998.

Skinner, B. F. Walden Two. MacMillan, 1976.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny.  We.  Penguin Books, 1972.

 

Cartography of The Lesbian Body: Erotic Discourse in Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Poetry

 

“Este es el viaje de la sangre mía:

apenas viaje, espuma de palabras.”[1]

(Apenas Viaje (1))

 

                                   ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

                                   ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’

                                   ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Through the Looking-Glass (193))

 

As Humpty Dumpty pontificates, the power of language is based not in the possibilities of language to signify things, but in the ability of language to create a system of representation that is not directly linked to the objects represented.  Language is a system that in fact, needs no objects at all.  Language controls and determines the horizon of experiences of anyone using it.  There is nowhere to go, no place outside language.  Therefore, language establishes the norm. Language dictates normality, and consequently, morality, by restricting the areas where definitions can be acquired or transmuted.[2]   As noted by Michel Foucault in Les Mots et Les Choses, the linguistic path toward restriction of meaning is of a dialectical nature.  A pattern of signification is established by means of opposition: good versus bad, moral versus immoral, normal versus abnormal, heterosexual versus homosexual.

Given these dialectical pairs, it is logical to infer that a homosexual discourse of the erotic is established against a heterosexual one and as structurally pertaining to a dialectical system of representation.[3]  The problem is that placing the homosexual erotic discourse — specifically in this case, the lesbian erotic discourse — as oppositional, implies a hierarchical system of distribution of legitimacy where homosexuality takes a subservient role, functioning as a response to a previous (and therefore more legitimate within its own tradition) heterosexual discourse.  It is often argued that this dialectical system serves the political purposes of both sides of the argument: the heterosexual side defining itself as original; and the homosexual one placing itself as the antithesis for the production of a synthesis where previous discourses (i.e. heterosexual ones) will be eliminated.[4]

In examining the poetic works of Minnie Bruce Pratt,[5] a different reading of the erotic discourse can be established.  It is no longer merely dialectical.  Pratt’s works establish her discourse beyond/outside the limits of heterosexuality, where language acts not as a divider but as a place where it is permissable to talk within the contradiction.[6]  This reading of her work is possible not as an act of will on the part of the reader but because Minnie Bruce Pratt opens the door to it: “…when I write and speak of my life as a lesbian, my poems have also been seen as outside the bounds of poetry.” (Rebellion (228)).

This makes Pratt’s political/poetic project quite different.  The spaces she claims as her own are not to be juxtaposed to heterosexual boundaries, but perceived within their own integrity.[7]  If anything, Pratt acknowledges that the possibility for the existence of her writing has a material base shaped by a lesbian community that opens a space of difference where she can express herself:

The only reason that I can now choose to piece together my… way of making a living is because many women… have made places within the economic system where I can do my work and be paid for it…. I do not have to leave the land of myself, my lesbian self, my woman self, in order to do my work. (182)

“When I began living as a lesbian, I had no place in that world of legislators and poets except as a criminal. I had to create a new reality… a vision and a dream of a place without domination, without injustice authorized by law. I can say because of that dream I have become a poet… one who offers possibility, threatening to some, desired by others, but possibility.” (229)

Her poetry can thus, be read as a dialogue between Pratt and her community, particularly because the distance between the persona in the poems and Minnie Bruce Pratt is almost non-existent. She crosses the line when commenting in her essays about her own writing, there are constant references to her own sons, her lovers, her history.  She also crosses the line when in the acknowledgements of her books she thanks “the many women who talked to me after poetry readings, for their conversation with me about this work” (We Say We Love Each Other (v)). Her poems can be read as autobiography where the self expands to express other selves, as a form of retribution, and as a form of continuation and recognition: “Unless I write explicitly of how I am a lesbian, I will be denied my identity, my reality.” (Rebellion (134))

It is because of this that Pratt does not establishes her erotic vocabulary from a literary vacuum, but from a mark of reference of those who have been there before her, and those who are there with her, both as fellow writers and audience: “And that is how I learned to be a lesbian poet: other lesbians taught me.” (132)  Her poetic language is an individual creation but it is also immersed in the language of the community for which it was created.  That is why it is not possible within Pratt’s poetical/political project to resignify heterosexual erotic language.  Such a movement would automatically establish her poetry within the boundaries of dialectics. Lesbian sexuality would be, under those circumstances, read as an imitation of heterosexual sexuality.  The movements, the gazes looking at the lesbian bodies would became, by means of dialectical functioning, a distorted reflection of heterosexuality.  In that reflection, a double motion would take place, one that would portray heterosexuality as the norm, and lesbian sexuality as the aberration. The difference would not be a signifier of otherness, rather, a mark of failure.

I can see the desire

The first strategy Pratt uses to create her erotic vocabulary is to go back to a place where –as Michel Foucault indicates in The Birth of The Clinic— the distinction between the objects being named and the words used to name those objects is nonexistent.  A place where there is no distinction between the act of seeing and the act of saying, and therefore a place where new layers of meaning can be added or mutated, and where the objects themselves can be transformed.  This area is created by fragmentation, spacing, and superimposition of meaning over the same word.

Both in We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature texts are spaced and fragmented. Empty spaces surface between words or the words themselves stretch beyond a single line of verse.

like a dragon-

fly skims the pond, darns the water…

(We Say We Love Each Other (46))

 

Tonight it is raining ice, no thunder, no light-

ning, just the cold rain icing in the leaves. (65)

 

A grey day, drenched, humid, the sun-

flowers bowed with rain.  I walk aimless

to think about this poem. Clear water runs…

(Crime Against Nature (29))

These openings in the text fulfill a double function: they serve as a reference to Sappho, a recurrent gesture in the writing by lesbians which allows the poem to be recognized within a tradition –albeit fragmented and almost lost– and they point to the silence and the violence the text[8] has to suffer in order to exist.[9]  The meanings of the words are multiplied by their breaking.  The dragon escapes the dragonfly, the light escapes the lightning, and the sun the sunflowers.  All the escapees have a characteristic in common: they are larger than the linguistic prison that contained them.  They grow when they are free, when they are released.  It is a powerful metamorphosis that mutatis mutandis expands from dragonfly to dragon, from a tiny insect to a mythical creature; not just a bolt of lightning, but all the light; not just a flower following the motions of the sun, but the sun itself.

The title of her second book of poetry announces that her writing is a “crime against nature.”  By a heterosexual definition, the representation of lesbian desire is in itself an act of violence.  The violence consists not only in the public announcement that the text, the persona of the poems, and the writer herself are lesbians, but also that simultaneously, text, persona and writer are mothers, sisters, and daughters.  Defining herself as a lesbian is regarded as breaking the code of silence, but defining herself as a lesbian mother is breaking the order of the discourse.  A lesbian mother alters the social texture because it juxtaposes meanings that were held as incompatible.  A lesbian mother resignifies the notions ascribed to women.  Everything that a woman does is, by a sleight of hands, turned into something else.[10]  The hands that rocked the cradle, that caressed the sons, that fought the ex-husband, that closed into a fist, are the hands that now make love to another woman “my fingers sunk in you/ up to the knuckles and palm…” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)).  And those same hands are repeated in one of the sons:

He has my hands, wide palm, long fingers.

He has my big hands, which are my mother’s.

(Crime Against Nature (107))

What does this mean?  Does it mean that the son carries, somehow, the lesbian self of the mother?  There is an urge in the moralism of heterosexuality to restore the imbalance. This moralism has no problem accepting the mother as the author who dedicates the book to Ransom and Ben, but it is troubled by the nature of those poems.  It has no problem –almost– accepting the lesbian as the author who writes erotic lesbian poems, but it is troubled by the offering of those poems  to her sons.  The disruption is not present in any of the terms of the equation.  The equation itself is disruptive.  A mother? yes; a lesbian? yes; but not the two together in the same person.  In Crime Against Nature mothers and lesbians are one and the same woman; there is no sign to mark a distinction between them.  The disruption has been established.  Furthermore, this disruption is prolonged in the reading of the erotic, because now one of the favored tropes of lesbian sexuality is superimposed on the tropes of maternal affection.  If the lesbian/mother has the power to give her hands to her son, it follows that she has also the power to give birth to her lover, “flat on my back, thighs open, against the board” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)).  Now that differences have been erased, where is the instance distinguishing childbirth from love-making?  This question does not remain at the level of the text.  It moves into the realm of the iconic and the photographic representation that comes with the poems.  After all, the (apparently) naked Minnie Bruce Pratt on the cover of We Say We Love Each Other is the same Minnie Bruce Pratt who smiles to us, sitting between her sons, Ben and Ransom, from the back cover of Crime Against Nature.  Even more, the woman who took the pictures, Joan E. Biren, was Pratt’s lover at the time. Not only does Pratt present herself as the writer of the poems, but also as a mother and the object of desire of another woman.  “In your photographs… I can see the desire.” (We Say We Love Each Other (87)).  Because we look at the photographs Pratt’s lover took, we see through Joan E. Biren’s gaze, her lesbian gaze.  Does that make lesbians out of us?  How are we supposed to react if we are not part of her community of readers?  The mechanism of inclusion is not a given, as it would be in a heterosexual text, which always presumes the heterosexuality of the reader.  That is yet another disruption that the juxtaposition of words forces upon the reader.  The gaze of the lover and the gaze of the reader are, by action of the photographs, simultaneous.  Minnie Bruce Pratt was smiling at the camera, at the woman behind the camera, but now, she is smiling back at us.

Gen.2,20./ The one who tells the tale, gets to name the monster

By the end of the nineteenth century, medical science in Europe –with particular emphasis in Germany– had already started to clinically name the homosexual as the deviant and the pervert.[11]  This definition was (still is) widely supported by the religious and social apparatus, because it gave a physical body to the notion of evil.[12]  The lesbian becomes a monster because her instincts are loose.  No longer restrained by reproduction, the sexuality of the lesbian is explicitly an act of pleasure and desire, without other purpose than its own expression.  The homosexual does not re/produce in herself the surrounding ideology because she does not re/produce herself biologically when making love to another woman.[13]  What makes a monster and a pervert out of a lesbian is specifically this ability to redirect her sexual desire without hiding its nature.

The action of naming is more than simply ascribing a sound to an object, and it goes beyond the Saussurean notions of signifier and signified.  A name establishes a place within the universe, and reinforces the hierarchical boundaries of that universe by subordination.  The judeo-christian tradition has always been very clear about this.  Adam, the first man, is master of all living creatures because he gives them a name.  It is this ability that makes him human.  Given the fact that it is language that fixes the limits of perception establishing the boundaries within which each individual will be able to recognize her own identity, it becomes necessary for the lesbian author to take over those names given to the monster and the pervert and invert their meaning.[14]  And this is precisely what Minnie Bruce Pratt does when she resorts to both the obscene/monstrous and the medical/legal vocabularies to articulate lesbian desire and to place it into a different geography of the erotic language.

The figure of the lesbian as a monster is a recurrent one throughout Pratt’s poetry.  Lesbians are “monsters,” “beasts”  with “tentacles” and “delicate knifeblade tongues.”  They are “Godzilla Satans” with “basilisk eyes, scorching phosphorescent skin.”  The linguistic space of the word woman is already completely taken.  The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists under woman: “one possessing in high degree the qualities considered distinctive of womanhood (as gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly)[15]” (2629).  Out of necessity, the lesbian discourse of desire takes over the monster.  Because of its mythological nature, the figure of the monster is blurred, and lacks definition.  It is within those holes in the signifying structure of the word monster that new meanings can be added to the term.  The monster becomes the lesbian, but the lesbian is not a monstrous being.  In this open area, Pratt is able to signify, describe and regulate, the behaviors of the monster/woman/lesbian. These monsters are now loving ones.  They take great care of each other, they are tender and loving.  They no longer terrorize –they never did– but rather “explain/ the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure/ on the walls of my vagina.” (We Say We Love Each Other (77)).  Pleasure and knowledge are intertwined and give power to those who are, as if by nature, rejected by the social morality.  It is interesting that monsters, witches, and giants are part of the cosmology of fairy tales, and that according to Bruno Betelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, these figures work, many times, as devices by which the children listening to the story can acquire some of the characteristics of the adults without losing their own.  The same movement is performed by Pratt, who as a lesbian writer reclaims her woman self through the monstrous.

But lesbians are not only defined as monsters, they are also defined as obscene and vulgar: queer, dyke, butch, inhuman, crooked, slut.  And this is still another area that lesbian authors have to claim in order to define themselves.  The tactic is similar to that applied to the monstrous.  It consists in an affirmation and validation of the insulting term in order to claim it as property to be altered and changed.

You some kind of dyke?

Sweating, damned if I’d give them the last say,

hissing into the mouth of the nearest face, Yesss,…

…[my] mouth like a conjuring trick, a black hole

that swallows their story and turns it inside out.

(Crime Against Nature (112))

 

I’ve never gotten used to being their evil,…

No explanation except:    the one who tells the tale

gets to name the monster. In my version, I walk

to where I want to live. (115)

The evil one, the monster, the sweating dyke who hisses back are all the same figure: a woman reclaiming her place.  The story needs to be rewritten in a way that makes possible the existence of the woman/lesbian/mother; in a way that creates a location to live in.[16]

In Pratt’s poetry, the monstrous and the indecent are contested in the same movement, not because there is a certain didacticism on the side of the author, a need to simplify in order to make the information more accessible, but because the discourse of aggression erases the limits between Godzilla and the queer.

…You some kind of dyke?” (112) where “some kind” points precisely at that space of the undefined, which is also a space of recognition.  Establishing the unknowability of the other –in this case, a lesbian– opens up the possibility that such an other could be someone alike.  And that is what makes this appropriation so disruptive to the social order.  It turns things inside out, because it enables the perverts to become human beings without having to define their selves as the opposite dialectical end of the equation where heterosexuality establishes both intention and meaning.  It turns things inside out, because now the monster gives herself a name she likes, and the one who told the tale, has lost his voice.  The monster does not need him any more.  If she now chooses to stay where she is, it is out of her own will, it is because she does not reject the other because of his difference.  Monsters, as redefined, are loving creatures.  The one who told the tale, has become himself, truly heinous.  The hatred that the monsters/lesbians would not take, is of a heterosexual nature.

Obviously, what applies to the lesbian applies to her body, which becomes fragmented, a “disreputable cunt,” a “filthy vulva.” But what has been aimed towards lesbians as a means of aggression becomes, through Pratt’s poetry, a place of recognition: “Her cunt…/ …The shape and color/ mine exactly. We could be sisters by the resemblance.” (We Say We Love Each Other (31)) and a place of strength:

as I advance in the scandalous ancient way of women:

our assault on enemies, walking forward, skirts lifted,

to show the silent mouth, the terrible power, our secret.

(Crime Against Nature (120))

This strength is born out of openness, out of presenting in public what was kept in secret.  The motion that lifts the skirts uncovers a vertical mouth which utters a discourse that goes beyond the gesture of the words, because it silently exposes itself.

Or criminally unnatural

Any classification implies a moral judgement, and when this judgment is negative, it forces a transformation of the discourse into the legal arena.  A deviant behavior is not only linguistically censored, it is legally penalized.[17]  “To be a poet who is a lesbian is to be a potential felon in half the states of this country and the District of Columbia, where I live.” (Rebellion (228)).

As with the vocabulary of monsters, medical and legal terminology are a constant presence in Pratt’s poetry, particularly in Crime Against Nature where the title itself establishes this recurrence.  Clitoris, shoulderblades, vulvas, vaginas, tendons “tense as wire,” woman’s genitals, orgasms, androgen, lesbians, coexist with bestial, custody, depraved, deviant, pervert, per anum, per os.  This collision of terms is also an exercise of appropriation.  Because there is no established language to express erotic tension and sexual desire, Pratt resorts to the vocabulary imposed upon her, resignifying it.  Both medical and legal terms are given new layers of meaning through the context in which they are immersed.  The bestial snake-like tongue is not poisonous, but pleasant: “and tongue like a snake (bestial is in the statute)/ winding through salty walls…” (Crime Against Nature (116)). The genitals are fruits awaiting “in the bed where we devoured each other…” (We Say We Love Each Other (78)), they bring “…a rush of pleasure…” (Crime Against Nature (114)).  Because of her status as a lesbian writer, Minnie Bruce Pratt faces two levels of silence.  Socially, as a woman, she is not expected to talk about sexuality, much less, about sexual pleasure.  As a lesbian, she is not supposed even to exist.  As a writer, when Pratt talks about her sexuality and her pleasure, she is shattering the silence and pushing the limits of the medical/legal definitions: “The law when I read it/ didn’t mention teeth. I’m sure it will some day if/ one of us gets caught with the other, nipping.” (117)

The last section of the book, from which Crime Against Nature gets its title, forces this push beyond the text itself because it portrays her actions not only as an occurrence of the past and the present, but also as an announcement of the future, and as an announcement of “crimes” such as “nipping” still not contemplated under the current regulations.  It acts as a gesture of defiance and also as a foundational gesture.  Pratt claims for herself –and therefore for her lesbian community– a sexual act (past, present, and future) that has not been announced first by the heterosexual erotic discourse.  It is the basis for an independent vocabulary, that coexists with the heterosexual, without being subservient to it.

A place not marked yet in any map

Pratt’s erotic discourse and vocabulary is still evolving and it is already mature.  It is already established and it is yet to come.  It is already established because it allows other women to recognize themselves within its patterns of representation.  It is yet to come because it defines its presence as a pulsion towards the future.  Its announcement has not been made.  As expressed in the last poem of the collection, the mouths are open, but they are still silent.  They are ready to tell all they know, but they have not started to talk.  They have disclosed the existence of a secret, but they have not revealed its nature.

This space of uncertainty is where Minnie Bruce Pratt’s erotic discourse is rooted. The area of the undefined is the location of Pratt’s political/poetic project, and the erotic vocabulary is an essential element.  It appears as an individual expression, but it is presented out of a dialogical communal experience.  It is a practice that consists of the creation of geographies: “our thighs clearing/ a wider and wider space on the cold slippery floor.” (We Say We Love Each Other (98), but these geographies acknowledge their own temporal nature.  The erotic expression functions as an horizon of possibility: “A dream, a place I’ve never come to, though I’ve travelled/ miles.” (95)  It is in the nature of horizons not to be reached.  The distance between the traveller and the end of the visible landscape remains unchanged. The paradox is that the horizon is inscribed within the body.  What is at stake is the design of a glance able to see the object of desire without the historical elements of oppression that constrain both desire and its object. But it must also sustain the consciousness that reminds the eye of the historical struggles that made possible a free glance.

Postscriptum

I asked myself several times what is the purpose of this paper.  More accurately, what is my purpose on the paper.  Why lesbian desire, why Minnie Bruce Pratt as subjects?  I can justify my options on the methodological and theoretical level by mentioning the necessity of exploring lesbian/feminist writing and theory in order to have a better understanding of my main area of interest, namely: lesbian, gay and bisexual texts/discourses in the Americas.  But what does it mean to me, as a gay/bisexual man, to write about erotic lesbian discourse?  I believe there are two main reasons for me to do so.  The first one, is that I have a strongest suspicion that my mother was, once, in love with another woman.  The paper becomes a means to understand my mother and her silences.  The second one, is that confronted with the possibility of publicly acknowledging my homo/bisexuality, my mother threatened suicide, pushing me back to geographies of silence.  The paper becomes a means to recover something of the voice I have lost, even though it is now in a language that twists my tongue, in a language that my mother does not understand.  The paper entitles me to speak, even to speak loudly, but also entitles me to be coward, and not to face myself with my mother’s suicide on my name. It would seem that after all, I see some guilt in my desires. I had to travel six thousand miles in order to lovingly embrace a man and still feel safe.  Maybe that is a third reason for the paper: a sort of exorcism to discover the inhabitants of all my desert islands.

 

Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.

Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965.

——, Nietzsche et la Philosophie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

Derrida, Jacques. Eperons. Les Styles de Nietzsche. Paris: Flammarion, 1978.

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of The Clinic. An Archeology of Medical Perception. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

——, Histoire de la Sexualité (Tome 1, 2, 3). Paris: Gallimard, 1984.

——, El Discurso del Poder. México: Folios Ediciones, 1983.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Nietzsche’s Zatathustra. Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939. (Volume 2), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Mohin, Lilian, ed. Beautiful Barbarians. lesbian feminist poetry. London: Onlywomen Press, 1986.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy     of the Future,  New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

——, The Genealogy of Morals. A Polemic, New York: Russell & Russell, 1964.

——,  The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner, New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

——, Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin Books, 1968.

——, Human, All Too Human. A Book for Free Spirits. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Plant, Richard. The Pink Triangle. New York: An Owl Book, 1986.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. We Say We Love Each Other. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1985.

——, Crime Against Nature. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1990.

——, Rebellion.  Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Press, 1991.

Sappho. Works. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1965.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Apuntes para un estudio de la linguística. Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1974.

Walsh, María Elena. Apenas Viaje. Argentina, Buenos Aires: El Balcón de Madera, 1948.

 

1 “This is the journey of my blood/ barely a journey, a spume of words.”

2 One of the most obvious examples of this is George Orwell’s 1984.

3 This system of representation goes beyond the dialectical discourse of Hegel and Marx, and its roots can be traced at the core of “the Western civilization” and it is grounded in an essencializing reading of its (acquired/appropriated) sacred text: The Bible, and its oppositional system of good and evil, Heaven and Hell.

4 Obviously, this is not the only political possibility to challenge the social structure, but it is one that does not challenge the existence of such as structure, nor it claims for its disappearance.

5 For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature.

6 For a perspective on anti-dialecticism I am following Nietzsche’s theories particularly as they are expressed in Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, sections 1, 3, 4, 9, 21, 24, 36, 44, 153, 161, 169, 198, and 219.

7 As Nietzsche puts it: “How could anything originate out of its opposite?… Such genesis is impossible; whoever dreams of it is a fool, nay, worse than a fool. (Beyond Good and Evil (6)).

8 And the writer, and the reader.

9 This becomes evident particularly when looking at different editions of the works of Sappho. In most instances, the translator/editor is force to interpret the language, to fill the blanks with hypothesis, and to guess what has been lost.

10 Not casually, the word “hand/s” is the most common noun in the two volumes of poetry, appearing sixty-seven times in We Say We Love Each Other, and fifty-one times in Crime Against Nature, not to mention synonyms and related words such as fingers, palms, fingertips, etc.

11 Both Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle, provide a good source of information and bibliography on the subject.

12 Through the ages different groups have been given the role of evil: women, jews, pagans, blacks, homosexuals, etc. depending on the cultural context, and the levels of discrimination socially permitted, but only women have been a constant presence in each and every one of these groups.

13 Needless to say, homosexuals (both men and women) do have sons and daughters, far more often than presumed, as it is the case of Minnie Bruce Pratt.

14 For the concept of language as the location where to establish and determine human behavior I am following Michel Foucault’s theories, as expressed in Les Mots et les Choses.

15 Interestingly enough, the concept of gender and womanhood are not linked by the definition.  A woman is therefore one who possesses the qualities of a woman, not one who merely has female genitalia.

16 This urge for the constitution of a lesbian geography is evident in the novels of many contemporary authors, such as Monique Wittig, Jewelle Gomez, Rebecca Brown, Patricia Ealkins, etc.

17 A recent example of this being “Amendment 2” by which voters tried to amend Colorado’s constitution to prohibit lesbian and gay rights laws.

Groceries, Guns, and Garlic: Richard Matheson and the Survival Horror Genre

On July 16th, 2017, I received three messages in rapid succession telling me that George A. Romero had died. If that name doesn’t ring any bells for you, know that Romero almost single-handedly created the modern zombie tale, as well as many of the conventions and tropes of the horror genre. In particular, Romero is associated with what I’ve heard called “survival horror.”

As designators go, survival horror might sound a little obvious. Any horror tale is likely to involve someone trying to survive something. But, whether you like that term or no, it does describe a particular subset of stories that focus on what characters must do and must have to survive in the face of a sustained threat. That might mean gathering ammunition and food supplies, barricading doors and windows, establishing roles and responsibilities, and creating systems and (eventually) societies.

The tension in a survival horror story stems from the struggle to achieve these measures and the threat to them that inevitably follows. What’s more, the source of that threat is very often internal. Yes, the zombies are getting more numerous out there, and those boards on the front door are only going to hold for so long, but what’s really worrying is that guy in the corner of the room who’s sweating profusely and muttering to himself.

At its core, survival horror is about the toll exacted on people psychologically when they’re placed in extraordinary circumstances. Very often, the pressure of unrelenting horror causes people’s worst attitudes and behaviours to take center stage. Quickly, some of the survivors opt to sacrifice their comrades, or even loved ones, to save their own lives. It’s a grim picture of human nature.

As Romero himself indicated, the greatest threat in these tales generally isn’t the obvious monster. To quote Charleton Heston: It’s people.

If you want to see concrete examples of what I’m describing, and you haven’t already seen any of Romero’s works, you should probably start with the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the original Dawn of the Dead. Just in case there’s any doubt in your minds, though, know that both are very graphic.

While George A Romero could easily be credited with establishing a lot of the tropes we see throughout the horror genre nowadays (and not just in zombie films in particular), he himself said that the inspiration for his work was Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend. This being a literary blog, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to Romero to draw some attention to a work he clearly loved.

I Am Legend takes place in a world where human life has been almost completely eradicated. In its place, there are vampires; lots of vampires. The one living human we know about at the beginning is Robert Neville. The story revolves around Neville’s attempts to keep himself alive and sane. Both are a daily struggle.

The first part of the book details Neville’s survival regimen. Each day, Neville has to gather supplies to eat and to reinforce the defenses on his home (including mirrors and cloves of garlic, both of which repel vampires in the Western tradition). He also keeps himself physically fit and then drinks himself into a stupour as part of his daily routine.

maslow-pyramidI’m going to take a quick detour at this point and talk about one of my favourite psychologists for a moment. Abraham Maslow formulated this theory he referred to as “the hierarchy of needs.” I’m grossly oversimplifying his theory when I say that it describes how people prioritize their needs.

The illustration on the right shows the hierarchy, with physiological needs at the bottom and more abstract, conceptual needs as you progress toward the top, culminating with self-actualization.

I’m mentioning Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because I think it’s relevant to the survival horror genre. Generally, you’ll see characters move up and down this hierarchy in the course of the narrative. The audience feels relief as physiological and safety needs are achieved, hope as love/belonging needs look like they might be met, and despair and terror as each is taken away again.

Let’s get back to poor Robert Neville. During the day, Neville is faced with the crushing reality that he’s the sole survivor of the human race. Alone, he locates and stakes vampires through the heart as they sleep. When darkness falls, he barricades himself at home, weathering the onslaught as best he can with a combination of alcohol and loud music.

In terms of the hierarchy of needs, as the story opens, Neville seems to have his physiological and safety needs mostly under control. He has food supplies and a protocol for regular upkeep of his home’s defenses. He’s worked out that garlic, crucifixes, and mirrors all offer a defense against the undead. So, feeling that those most primary needs are (at least temporarily) satisfied, Neville experiences the higher needs in the hierarchy, and that’s where he’s vulnerable as we meet him.

The vampires’ attacks are largely psychological, targeting Neville’s need for love/belonging. The jeering voice of his former neighbor, Ben Cortman, is a constant reminder of the sense of normalcy lost. (I don’t necessarily get the sense that Neville liked Cortman in life, but even the neighbor you avoid engaging with on your way to the mailbox offers an oddly comforting sense of the routine.)

Further, each night, female vampires perform lewd and grotesque acts on Neville’s front doorstep, simultaneously repulsing him and reminding him of the impossibility of normal relations with a love interest.

The audience is offered a glimmer of hope when Neville discovers and adopts a dog. In the dog, Neville has a companion again. He isn’t alone. That makes it all the more crushing when the dog dies, leaving Neville more broken than he was before. It’s the momentary gains that Neville experiences that make the losses so painful. Better to have loved and lost? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

The cumulative effect of all of these pressures makes Neville highly susceptible when he encounters Ruth, shattering his previous belief that he’s the last living human. Read no further in the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to know (and haven’t already guessed) what happens next.

With Ruth, we see Neville’s needs placing him in peril for the final time. His desire for human connection leaves the door open (quite literally) for Ruth’s betrayal. Neville is captured, imprisoned, and condemned to die. If those don’t sound like the actions of carnivourous monsters, you’ve caught on to the final twist of I Am Legend.

As it transpires, two strains of vampire have emerged: The one that torments Neville during the night and another that, as it turns out, is tormented by Neville during the day. Because Neville has made it his mission to find and kill vampires in the daylight, he has unknowingly become The Thing That Goes Bump in the Night himself.

In an inversion of the hierarchy I’ve been describing, Neville is now that thing that thwarts the efforts of an evolved, self-controlled population of living vampires to secure their own safety and well being. He’s their first boogeyman. Their first superstition. Their first legend.