Reading List: April 2016

  1. The Poems of Sappho, Sappho / Trans. Willis Barnstone (Poems, ~600 B.C.)
  2. The Driver’s Seat, Muriel Spark (Novel, 1970)
  3. Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag (Non-fiction, 1978)
  4. Rivers to the Sea, Sara Teasdale (Poems, 1926)

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It’s been a slow month where I read almost nothing for the first two weeks, and spent a lot of time going very, very slowly through some books which are still not done. (Hence the snail.  But why is he nude!!)

I really wish I could read right now.

Flowers, herbs, and seeds

I haven’t been reading as much as I should this month, so I’ve been thinking back on other books.  My Cousin Rachel seems like something nice for this time of year, when we’ve got rain and all the plants are blooming.

I’ve only read two books by Daphne du Maurier, and I definitely preferred Rebecca to Rachel.  Mostly because of the protagonists. Rachel‘s protagonist is a man who goes from the ages of 24 and 25, and he is abhorrent.  The author perfectly captures the entitlement and foundless confidence of young men, which is admirable, but I often found myself a bit too repulsed by him, even if that was perhaps the point.  The second Mrs. de Winter, by contrast, was always a delight to read about.

But anyway, I read My Cousin Rachel a while ago and don’t have the clearest memory of it.  But I do have a clear memory of the aesthetic:

  • Spring rain
  • Black lace
  • Stormy weather
  • Herbal teas
  • Seeds and dried herbs
  • Planting flowers and the smell of soil
  • Priceless gems
  • Cold, wet, windy days and nights

The mud makes me want to drink sweet tisanes and experiment with spices, thanks to Daphne du Maurier.

It rained yesterday and I bought thyme, cardamom, barley, split peas, two sapphires, and peaches.  Then jasmine, chamomile, lemon, and mint teas.

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The Pillow Talk

‘It struck me,’ Ailill said, ‘how much better off you are today than the day I married you.’
‘I was well enough off without you,’ Medb said.
‘Then your wealth was something I didn’t know or hear much about,’Ailill said. ‘Except for your own woman’s things and the neighbouring enemies making off with loot and plunder.’
‘Not at all,’ Medb said, ‘but with the high king of Ireland for my father — Eochaid Feidlech the steadfast, the son of Finn, the son of Finnoman, the son of Finnen, the son of Finngoll, the son of Roth, the son of Rigéon, the son of Blathacht, the son of Beothacht, the son of Enna Agnech, the son of Aengus Turbech.  He had six daughters: Derbriu, Ethne, Ele, Clothru, Muguin, and myself Medb, the highest and haughtiest of them.  I outdid them in grace and giving and battle and warlike combat.  I had fifteen hundred soldier in my royal pay, all exiles’ sons, and the same number of freeborn native men, and for every paid soldier I had ten more men, and nine more, and eight, and seven, and sic, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.  And that was only our ordinary household.
‘My father gave me a whole province of Ireland, this province ruled from Cruachan, which is why I am called “Medb of Cruachan.”  And they came from Finn the king of Leinster, Rus Ruad’s son, the woo me, and from Coirpre Niafer the king of Temair, another of Rus Ruad’s son’s.  They came from Conchobar, king of Ulster, son of Fachtna, they came from Eochaid Bec, and I wouldn’t go.  For I asked a harder wedding gift than any women ever asked before from a man in Ireland — the absence of meanness and jealousy and fear.
‘If I married a mean man our union would be wrong, because I am so full of grace and giving.  It would be an insult if I were more generous than my husband, but not if the two of us were equal in this.  If my husband was a timid man our union would be just as wrong because I thrive, myself, on all kinds of trouble.  It is an insult for a wife to be more spirited than her husband, but not if the two are equally spirited.  If I married a jealous man that would be wrong, too: I never had one man without another waiting in his shadow.  So I got the kind of man I wanted: Rus Ruad’s other son — yourself, Ailill, from Leinster.  You aren’t greedy or jealous or sluggish.  When we were promised, I brought you the best wedding gift a bride can bring: apparel enough for a dozen men, a chariot worth thrice seven bondmaids, the width of your face of red gold and the weight of your left arm of light gold.  So, if anyone causes you shame or upset or trouble, the right compensation is mine,’ said Medb, ‘for you’re a kept man.’

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The Táin Bó Cuailnge is the only epic I’ve ever read, and though I did not enjoy having to write an exam on it, I think I like it.  At the very least, I like Medb, and I like her confidence, her entitlement, her strength, and her introspection.  I would like to be more like her.

Poems for the earliest moments of April 21st

From Sara Teasdale’s Rivers to the Sea

April

  THE roofs are shining from the rain,
The sparrows twitter as they fly,
And with a windy April grace
The little clouds go by.

  Yet the back-yards are bare and brown
With only one unchanging tree—
I could not be so sure of Spring
Save that it sings in me.

Deep in the Night

  DEEP in the night the cry of a swallow,
Under the stars he flew,
Keen as pain was his call to follow
Over the world to you.

  Love in my heart is a cry forever
Lost as the swallow’s flight,
Seeking for you and never, never
Stilled by the stars at night.

Alchemy

  I LIFT my heart as spring lifts up
A yellow daisy to the rain;
My heart will be a lovely cup
Altho’ it holds but pain.

  For I shall learn from flower and leaf
That color every drop they hold,
To change the lifeless wine of grief
To living gold.

Morning

 I WENT out on an April morning
All alone, for my heart was high,
I was a child of the shining meadow,
I was a sister of the sky.

  There in the windy flood of morning
Longing lifted its weight from me,
Lost as a sob in the midst of cheering,
Swept as a sea-bird out to sea.

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Illness as Metaphor & the most romantic girls are dead

TB is celebrated as the disease of born victims, of sensitive, passive people who are not quite life-loving enough to survive. (What is hinted at by the yearning but almost somnolent belles of Pre-Raphaelite art is made explicit in the emaciated, hollow-eyed, tubercular girls depicted by Edvard Munch.) And while the standard representation of a death from TB places the emphasis on the perfected sublimation of feeling, the recurrent figure of the tubercular courtesan indicates that TB was also thought to make the sufferer sexy.

[…]

It was both a way of describing sensuality and promoting the claims of passion and a way of describing repression and advertising the claims of sublimation, the disease inducing both a “numbness of spirit” (Robert Louis Stevenson’s words) and a suffusion of higher feelings. Above all, it was a way of affirming the value of being more conscious, more complex psychologically. Health becomes banal, even vulgar.

There is a disturbing and persistent trend  for desiring the dying woman, which I don’t know if I could really articulate before.  Illness as Metaphor helps me put into words that desire.

Gradually, the tubercular look, which symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity, became more and more the ideal look for women—while great men of the mid- and late nineteenth century grew fat, founded industrial empires, wrote hundreds of novels, made wars, and plundered continents.

To be sick and dying means so many things, which Sontag lays out.  It means to waste away which results physical beauty: in thinness (think of all those Dostoyevsky heroines who are ‘too thin’ yet impossibly attractive to the narrator), the pale skin and blushing cheeks.  It creates an emotional or psychological attractiveness: the vulnerability and fragility, a slow sadness (let me save you!), but also the feverish mania, excitement, and self-destruction (wild and fun!); the emotional highs and lows of TB ensure the best of everything: the fever-highs mean you’re active, entertaining, and sexy, while the sickly lows mean you’re weak, controlled.  It’s a perpetual near-death, an act of dying.  Not dead yet, but not really living.  The dying-girl is fun and fragile, she’s passionately sensual but psychologically deep, she’s ‘not like other girls’ but she’s not strong enough to do anything but die.  She’s “interesting”:

Sadness made one “interesting.” It was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad. That is, to be powerless. In Stendhal’s Armance, the anxious mother is reassured by the doctor that Octave is not, after all, suffering from tuberculosis but only from that “dissatisfied and critical melancholy characteristic of young people of his generation and position.”

Sadness and tuberculosis became synonymous.

[…]

Not TB but insanity is the current vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence. The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness. Once that illness was TB; now it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment.

While reading about the romanticization of illness I was thinking as well of the romanticization of depression (Sontag writes:”Depression is melancholy minus its charms–the animation, the fits.”)  The beauty of the dying woman, who is killing herself, seems too common.  This death can be the lungs attacking the self due to an excess of emotion, sensuality, passion, intelligence (as in the case of TB), or suicide due to an excess of emotion, sensuality, passion, intelligence (as in the case of melancholy).  Camille wasting away in luxury in La Dame aux Camélias (or La Traviata, or Camille), or Ophelia floating in a mass of flowers in Hamlet are the same: we remember them best as dying or dead.  Their appeal must be in their fleetingness: they will destroy themselves because they were too much for this world, too much for the men who loved them, but as they burn up it means no one else will have them and she is yours and yours alone for eternity.  You get everything: the wild party girl (whether that means the sexy Parisian lifestyle or insane plant-based condemnations, which are definitely “interesting”), but you also get to exert your masculine superiority: you are the stronger one here, you are the one with the potential to save and protect and aid, while she is all the more feminine because she is weak.  If you’re lucky, then her illness and death might even inspire you to be a better person, or even a better artist.  I am also reminded of the scene from Je, tu, il, elle where the truck driver discusses being turned on by a crying woman more than anything else in the world.

What could be better than a dying girl, a girl who is everything?  She is both sides of femininity: the frail and the exciting, the pure and the passionate, the innocent and the intelligent, the virgin and the whore.  All this in a body that’s pale, blushing, thin.  Physically and emotionally attractive with the added benefit of dying so that you don’t have to actually deal with her.  A fantasy girl (we couldn’t call her a woman) with a fantasy illness (Camille never has the the smell of rotting flesh on her breath).

 

Dark-Eyed Sleep

Dark-eyed Sleep, child of Night,
Come in thy shadow garment to my couch,
And with thy soothing touch,
Cool as the vesper breeze,
Grant that I may forget;

Bestow condign release,
A taste of rest that comes with endless sleep;
Lure off the haunting dreams,
The dire Eumenides
That torture my repose.

For I would live a space
Though Phaon has forsaken me, nor yet
Be found on shadow fields
Among the lilies tall
Of pale Persephone.

Louise Brooks, 2., I would also probably hate my fans

As mentioned previously, the things we know about Louise Brooks are simplified: 1. she was hot and had a lot of sex, 2. she was a volatile, angry bitch who destroyed her own chances at success.

One can see why this is thought.  Her famous film roles in Pandora’s Box or Diary of a Lost Girl, or the vampy Hollywood roles like those in Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em, The Show Off, A Girl in Every Port, The Canary Murder Case, and even God’s Gift to Women capitalize on her status as sex symbol, while the rest is formed by gossip.  And she was notorious for her rudeness, stating, for instance: “Fans? I detest them!” she said.  “All they want to do is come up and rob you.”

Reading Barry Paris’ biography of Brooks, however, you find more nuance in her hatred of her fans, which only seems to crop up during her revival post-1950s.  Articles written about her seem to have been reductive sex gossip which enraged her (wouldn’t that enrage you?)  Two more quotations, written by Brooks caught my attention:

I have turned down homages in London, Toronto, California, New York… this year Scotland.  Not because I think I am grand.  I just don’t like getting ruffed up by a lot of fools who pay my expenses for the privilege of abusing me.

I find your opening sentence intriguing: “For millions of men who love cinema, you are Loulou.”  With one exception [Lotte Eisner], as far as I know I have never had a single admirer of my films among women.  And to be a film star of enduring quality, an actress must not be only admired but imitated by women fans.

Fan were exploiting and abusing her, reducing her to nothing but sex and objectifying her, with, it seems (from Paris’ descriptions at least) more interest in her 20-year old dancer’s body, 20-year old nudity, and 20-year old beauty.  These fans were seemingly all men, until later in the 1960s when women began to copy her style (note: according to Paris it is men who have interest in her role as a star and in her films, and it is women who have interest in copying her hair; it is men who are vocal about their consumption of Lulu, it is women who are relegated to the pages of uncinematic, unacademic style magazines).  This feels contradictory — there are references to her status as queer icon in her early days, encouraged by her friendships with lesbians, her androgyny, her brief affairs with women, and the queer content of Pandora’s Box, and this suggests a fanbase of gay women.  But her popular revival from the 1950s to her death was taken up fully by men, who valued above all else her youthful eroticism.

A final quotation from Brooks:

It’s simply that I make whoring as ugly as it is, and this is a man’s world and they’re not going to have it…. Men are the publishers, and anything that kills their sexual pleasure is not going to be allowed….  It’s all right in [Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man] to make up men who beat women and kick them around and give them syphilis and clap and babies.  That is fine because that makes the man a hero in this kind of world’s eyes….  I detest what they do to women.  And women are forced into that kind of life, and they are not going to let me tell it…. That’s why they hate [Pandora’s Box], because it shows this rich man, this rich man like Hearst, whose whole life is to build power, to get rich enough and powerful enough to live a life of sex with women.  That’s every man’s ambition.  I don’t care who they are or how they hide it or whether they are able to achieve it or not, and I write against that from beginning to end.

If these are your fans, then it seems perfectly reasonable that you’d hate them.

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