Reading List: June 2016

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  1. Love Songs, Sara Teasdale (Poems, 1917)
  2. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay (Novel, 1967)
  3. Audrey at Home: A Kitchen Table Biography, Luca Dotti (Non-Fiction/Cookbook?, 2015)
  4. Mad Like Artaud, Sylvère Lotringer (Non-Fiction, 2003)
  5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson (Novel, 1962)
  6. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm (Non-Fiction, 1993)
  7. Collected Poems, Charlotte Mew (Poems, 1953)
  8. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (Novel, 1959)

Re-Reading Ariel

Lady Lazarus, Daddy are the poems that stick out, are remembered, beloved.

I always hated Ariel because of them.  Because they are racist, anti-semitic.  They are no doubt amazing, striking poems, full of beauty and strength.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

[…]

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

Lady Lazarus

Anti-semitism, racism, and pure ignorance are part of of Lady Lazarus, Cut, Ariel, Lesbos, Mary’s Song, Daddy.  It is impossible for me to ignore and simply go on with the poems, as much as I want to chant with Sylvia “Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free–
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

–Tulips

There is so much to love about this collection.  The imagery that repeats is amazing: water (the sea, shells, pearls), plants (trees, flowers, leaves), the body (flesh, veins, blood), the cosmic (moon, stars, comets).  It’s beautiful and the sentiment is so strong, such as the anger of Lady Lazarus, and it’s easy to see why it’s so beloved for that anger alone.

I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.

Somebody’s done for.

Death & Co.

But the argument that Plath takes up imagery of the Holocaust to look at the woman’s place in society is absurd.  Those who believe that have obviously not met Jewish women.  Intersectionality has to exist.  She made beautiful, strong poems, with contagious anger, but to appropriate this struggle is offensive.  It also doesn’t account for something like Ariel or Cut, which are flat out racist, not just appropriating inappropriately the Holocaust to look at her own pain/anti-semitism sublimated into gendered oppression.

In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking

I didn’t call you.
I didn’t call you at all.

Nevertheless, nevertheless
You steamed to me over the sea,
Fat and red, a placenta
Paralyzing the kicking lovers.
Cobras light
Squeezing the breath from the blood bells
Of the fuchsia.  I could draw no breath,
Dead and moneyless,

–Medusa

Yet the emotion is contagious.  I want to love Lady Lazarus.  But I can’t.  I get to the anti-semitic, ignorant, racist lines and I’m brought out of the poem like  having a bucket of water thrown on  you or running into a brick wall face-first.  So is it a good collection?  Yes.  But still anti-semitic.  Racist.  That needs to be discussed at the same time as we talk about the feminist outrage present in the poems.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

–Daddy

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To haunt your own house

There are two things that I really like about We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  The first is the aesthetic and sensation it gives, mainly surrounding food.  This is a novel you can taste and smell.  It is breakfasts of tea, toast, jams, pancakes and eggs; dinners of roast meats, vegetable soups and fresh salads; desserts of pies, cakes, cookies.  The food is wholesome and substantial.  And despite the place of sugar-as-murder-instrument, it doesn’t taste too sweet.  It’s like a full meal encompassing protein, vegetables, and dessert, rather than something made of pure sugar and with no nutritional value.  It is in many ways a synesthetic experience to read this novel.

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Secondly, I like the construction of characters.  Merricat and Constance could be monsters, but we are on their side.  To look at them from the village’s perspective, you can see why they’re feared.  Obviously you have the supposed cold-hearted murderer and the girl devoted to her.  More conceptually they are monstrous.  They are presented as witches: the strange rituals and spells performed by Merricat, like burying objects, nailing books to trees, or practicing protective incantations; living off the land like near-animals (which Constance attempts to correct during Charles’ stay), with great knowledge of plants and poisons; Constance obsessing over preserves like potions and Jonas acting as familiar to Merricat, who seems to communicate with him in an unnatural way.  There’s Merricat’s insistence that she comes from the moon, making her alien, as well as Uncle Julien’s comment that she’s dead, making her a ghost.  And there is fear of  mental illness in the form of Constance’s agoraphobia.  The two of them are interpretably monstrous, in terms of reality, the supernatural, and stigma.

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So to me it’s significant to have two women outcasts as protagonists, where it never goes to romance seriously.  They aren’t fixed by a man or find love, instead they regress further into isolation because the outside world is a hostile, terrible place.  And that’s really empowering.  It’s empowering to hear “Yes, those people are as bad as you think, yes, you’ll feel better alone, yes, hiding from life is the best choice.”  In another book, Merricat would have the boyfriend that Constance suggests a girl her age should have, and Constance would have ended up with Charles, while both of them would return to society to be happy in the company of others.  But they don’t and that’s beautiful.

 

Audrey at Home

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Audrey Hepburn is probably my favourite actor.  I’m a bit obsessed with her.  I wish I was her.  So the chance to eat like her is very exciting.  Luca Dotti, her son, exploits Audrey Hepburn for all she’s worth, so this book is perfect for fans.  Opening his introduction with an anecdote about being “Mrs. Dotti’s son,” not Audrey’ Hepburn’s, it seems a little silly to have a whole book about looking in on the star’s secret personal life, a life peppered with stories that often involve her Hollywood career and star friends.  She really just loved to stay at home, eat some pasta and chocolate cake with her sons and dogs in front of the TV, because she’s just a normal person!  A normal person who’s best friends were the wives of Yul Brynner and Gary Cooper, who socialized with Gregory Peck and Robert Wagner.  Here’s a snapshot of her sunbathing with Givenchy.  Here’s a little story about how here Oscar was tucked away on a bookshelf because she didn’t care much about it.  She only cared about pasta.  But just don’t forget she had an Oscar, OK? Insert jokes about how Audrey was the Fairest Lady and how her whole life was a Roman Holiday.  But she was just your typical average housewife and mom!  Also a UNICEF hero.  Don’t forget it!

I shouldn’t be cynical and negative, since the recipes are fun and as a fan of Audrey Hepburn I kind of love the whole thing, though as a vegetarian there isn’t too much I can try.  Also I can enjoy something while seeing it as a very transparent attempt at exploiting celebrity, an attempt veined with misogyny which posits the role of housewife/mother as the most noble and desirable.  But I also love pasta, and it reminds me of when I spent a year eating pasta at least once a day, which gave me a lot of time to experiment with sauces and toppings.  I found that I really enjoyed a light spaghetti for lunch with garlic, olive oil, and finely chopped spinach so that it was sort of like a spinach pesto, and then a linguine with tomato sauce of mushrooms, carrots, garlic, onions, and imitation ground beef (this was when I lived in Dublin so it was Quorn brand, and that really absorbs sauce much better than anything I’ve had in Canada) for dinner.  More recently, I like spaghettini (which cooks fast) or linguini (which suits this dish better) with olive oil, chopped artichokes, parmesan, and lots of pepper and perhaps a splash of red wine.  Or a nice tomato sauce with olives and hot peppers.  My favourite meal was, and maybe still is, pasta with a simple lettuce salad (vinaigrette is very easy to make and much tastier than anything store-bought; I started with Julia Child’s recipe and ended up with something closer to an eyeballed amount of olive oil, then equal parts dijon mustard and wine vinegar close to about a tablespoon each. Then add garlic salt and pepper to taste) and a cup of tea (I drank orange pekoe with milk and sugar); I got the idea from a Haruki Murakami short story, and ended up eating pasta every day for close to a year.  It was a good idea, and I remember enjoying the story, though I feel as though I’ve outgrown Murakami somewhat.  I have fond memories of his writing and his food obsessions, but the way he treats his women characters is juvenile sexism at best, violently misogynist at worst.  His work perhaps merits revisiting, but whether or not I have outgrown Murakami, I can say for certain I have not outgrown spaghetti.

Back to this book, I made eight of the recipes over a few weeks.

Salads

Tricolore Caprese Salad: it’s supposed to have avocado but mine was no good and I left it out; it was still good, despite my mistake:

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Peach Salad: also straying a bit from the recipe, which called for fresh mint.  I could not find any and left it out.  It was still good, but it’s hard to make sweet peaches bad.

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Pastas

Spaghetti al Pomodoro:  You can find the recipe here.  Mine isn’t the prettiest pasta but it is a nice, basic sauce.  I left out the sugar as I found my tomatoes and carrots were both sweet enough.

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Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino: It’s barely a recipe but quite tasty.

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Penne alla Vodka: of all the recipes I made, this was the most disappointing.  A good enough sauce, but most definitely not worth the effort.  I will stick to the pomodoro.

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Desserts

Madeleines: I was glad that the recipe was not the traditional lemon-flavoured kind as I am not a fan of citrusy baked goods.  They make for a good tea biscuit.  I added a splash of vanilla which I think helped to make the flavour a bit less flat, as otherwise these would be very plain.

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Chocolate Cake: Very moist, and tasty.  Perhaps closer to a brownie than a cake, which I prefer anyway.

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Pears in Wine: So easy and glamorous!!

Overall, I think it’s a very novel idea to have a biography cookbook, and it’s fun.  Many of the recipes are quite easy to make, though I didn’t care for the number of them which were not actually Audrey Hepburn’s (why would I care about Luca Dotti’s wife’s cake?).  But it’s a sweet idea, and everything turned out fairly well.  I’ve also never spent this long on a single blog post.

Fetishizing Mentally Ill Women

Amour 9

Beauty sometime, in all her glory crowned,
Passing by that cleere fountain of thine eye,
Her sun-shine face there chaunsing to espy,
Forgot herselfe, and thought she had been drowned.
And thus, whiles Beautie on her beauty gazed,
Who then, yet liuing, deemd she had been dying,
And yet in death some hope for life espying,
At her owne rare perfections so amazed;
Twixt ioy and griefe, yet with a smyling frowning,
The glorious sun-beames of her eyes bright shining,
And shee, in her owne destiny diuining,
Threw herselfe, to saue herselfe by drowning;
The Well of Nectar, pau’d with pearle and gold,
Where she remaines for all eyes to behold.

Michael Drayton’s poem from 1594 describes with love the allure of the suicide of the beautiful woman.  We love to see beautiful women who are sad and fetishize their deaths, which often occur at their own hands, and this poem is a great example.  Another example is the persisting image of Ophelia, who is the perfect suicide: she is beautiful, and her beauty enhanced by her death (think of her hair flowing in the water, wet dress seeming to cling to her despite the original play describing a ballooning effect in the river, flowers adorning her as the most beautiful marker of madness, eyes glistening with tears); though her madness was, briefly, loud and strange (as mental illness often is), in the water and in death she is silent and becomes a quiet submissive beauty rather than a raving lunatic (her death prevents the irritation that comes when women are allowed to talk).  And this is how she is so often immortalized in art: the image we recall of Ophelia is one of beauty, silence, flowers, and the glorious moments before death — we don’t not think of her triggered by cruelty, or loudly condemning men.

QUEEN GERTRUDE

There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

emphasis mine

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Alexandre Cabanel, 1883

By no means is  Ophelia made ugly in the play, but her death is different from its popular depiction: her clothes bloat around her like an inflatable raft rather than body-hugging wet fabric; she is out of touch with reality and sings gleefully rather than the image of her mournful expression we see in paintings; when she finally drowns, her death is muddy — characterized by filth, dirt; it is not the beautiful floral bath of her popular depictions.  The mentally ill woman is made from the already fetishized psychotic suicide to be even more fetishized: more palatably psychotic (that is to say: less vocal, more silent) and more beautifully dying.  We don’t see her die in the play but one can imagine the effect of her death on her body: bloated from drowning, hair tangled from the water, swampy from the river mud — not likely: flowing waves of hair, glowing pale skin with flushed cheeks, flowers neatly arranged about her clean dress and face.

Alexandre Cabanel, 1872 & 1883

Death, and suicide, are ugly.  The corpse is an ugly thing, the act of dying lacks beauty, and there is nothing attractive about decay.  But women have one value, and that is their beauty.  Even in death and sickness, they are only valued for their beauty — mental illness or suicide only serve to make a beauty more exciting.  So in the case of Ophelia, the problem of ugliness is avoided by depicting her pre-suicide, or depicting her death as a fantasy with little bearing on reality.  And it is disgusting that we would want to, and almost always do, turn a tragedy and illness into a fantasy.

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John Everett Millais, 1852

When we think of mental illness and suicide in women, we have images of youth, thinness, pale skin, cleanliness, and above all, natural beauty.  We love women who die by suicide, especially young ones.  Their youth and beauty is  forever preserved and they will never grow old.  They are made different from other girls because of their sadness: a depth that is there only for appeal, rather than discussion, introspection, examination; of course, you can’t go into the effects of mental illness when the person who is ill is now dead.  We love when self-destruction is fun and seems to damage no one but the girl who self-destructs: for everyone else, her life is just a sexy party; for her, she’s slowly dying and will end in a death that silences her before her self-destruction becomes less than fun and before age can claim her beauty.

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John William Waterhouse, 1894

We reduce mentally ill women to flat extremes, where they become nothing but sexy and sad.  We forget they had problems and lives outside their illnesses.  We love Marilyn Monroe but don’t talk about how troubled she was and how much help she really needed.  We love Jean Seberg but think of her as the French-chic pixie with a sad end rather than a supporter of the Black Panthers who struggled with her acting career.  Vivien Leigh is a beautiful, young glamour icon, not someone whose illness destroyed her marriage and aged her prematurely.  Edie Sedgwick is a wide-eyed party girl who’s a bit deeper than your regular party girl because she was sad; we don’t think about histories of trauma or drug addiction.  We love Sylvia Plath but broadly her work isn’t taken as seriously as men poets, and we love to remember her blonde, all-American good looks while diminishing her writing talent.

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Arthur Hughes, 1863

Plath is a good example of the most willful ignorance that surrounds mentally ill and suicidal women.  The Bell Jar is reduced to school-girl nonsense that only naive, uneducated girls seem to enjoy because they are not smart enough to read something with more depth or value.  It is seen as self-indulgent.  It is seen as shallow.  It is seen as simply not as good (complete the sentence: as the work of men).  A gross double standard: we rarely discuss the self-indulgence of, for instance, Hemingway, nor do we discuss his beauty or looks when talking about his suicide.  Yet we love to look at Plath, images of her in a bikini, in a cute dress, in a sweater looking straight at the camera, bangs curled, hair loose or up, smiling or smouldering.  We can fetishize this.  We can take her and give her a certain value.  We can consume her and her death in a way that doesn’t apply to someone like Anne Sexton, who is rarely fetishized or consumed, or Virginia Woolf, who is often mocked for her ugliness — both writers who have perhaps gained more respect for their work and talent than Plath, but who are not quite so strangely beloved.  They are loved for their skills, Plath is loved for her tragedy.  Because she fits into our model of the perfect suicide, and when we can diminish women we will.  This is not to say that she was oppressed by her good looks or that Woolf and Sexton being taken seriously rather than being thought of as primarily beautiful is a bad thing.  This is to say that the way we love to consume the deaths of beautiful women, the way we reduce women to their beauty, is disgusting.

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Marcus Stone, 1887

An issue is that there is no shying away from the reality of women’s mental illness — it’s not like the grotesqueness of it all is hidden.  The Bell Jar describe how the protagonist becomes so ugly after her suicide attempt that she is not permitted a mirror.  We have descriptions of weight gain and loss, bruised skin, bad haircuts; deaths in dirty basement crawlspaces, deaths of characters described as looking like horses.  For another example, Anne Sexton describes suicide as:

I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Opehlia
Jules Joseph Lefebvre, 1890

But we never think of how mental illness betrays the body.  We do not think of illness preventing someone from caring for themselves and descending into filth and clutter and stench.  We do not think of the scars of self harm.  We do not think of weight gain or loss from disordered eating, nor the effect on the body that substance abuse can have.  We do not think of how lack of sleep can impact appearance.  We do not consider how all of these things, going on for years, can age you prematurely, and how unsexy that really is.  Nor do we think about deaths.  Bodies bloated from drownings, faces bruised and filled with blood from hangings.  The woman covered in her own vomit after an overdose.  The exploded head from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  None of this matters when women’s mental illness and suicide is a fantasy: in that fantasy, everything is clean, no one ages, no one talks about their illness, and death is a preservation of beauty and a confirmation of an emotional depth that you never have to deal with because you don’t have to deal with problems that are dead.

The grotesque and painful reality of mental illness is unacceptable.  Sickness is unacceptable.  Women will never meet up to the standards of the fantasy, especially when things are bad.  We will never be Ophelias, and we will never be understood.  We will only be shamed more and more for not being fantasies in real life.

Elizabethan Sadness

Amour 14

Looking into the glasse of my youths miseries,
I see the ugly face of my deformed cares,
With withered browes, all wrinckled with despaires,
That for my mis-spent youth the tears fel from my eyes.
Then in these teares, the mirror of these eyes,
They fayrest youth and Beautie doe I see
Imprinted in my teares by looking still on thee:
Thus midst a thousand woes then thousand joyes arise.
Yet in these joyes, the shadowes of my good,
In this fayre limned ground as white as snow,
Paynted the blackest Image of my woe,
With murthering hands imbru’d in my blood:
And in this Image his darke clowdy eyes,
My life, my youth, my loue, I here Anotamize.

 

Amour 43

Why doe I speake of ioy, or write of loue,
When my hart is the very Den of horror,
And in my soule the paynes of hell I proue,
With all his torments and infernall terror?
Myne eyes want teares thus to bewayle my woe,
My brayne is dry with weeping all too long;
My sighes be spent with griefe and sighing so,
And I want words for to expresse my wrong.
But still, distracted in loues lunacy,
And Bedlam like thus rauing in my griefe,
Now rayle vpon her hayre, now on her eye,
Now call her Goddesse, then I call her thiefe;
Now I deny her, then I doe confesse her,
Now I doe curse her, then againe I blesse her.

 

Sonnet 12
To Lunacie

As other men, so I my selfe doe muse,
Why in this sort I wrest Inuention so,
And why these giddy metaphors I vse,
Leauing the path the greater part doe goe;
I will resolue your; I am lunaticke,
And euer this in mad men you shall finde,
What they last thought on when the braine grew sick,
In most distraction keepe that still in minde.
This talking idely in this beldam fit
Reason and I, (you must conceiue) are twaine,
‘Tis nine yeeres, now, since, first I lost my wit
Beare with me, then, though troubled be my braine;
With diet and correction, men distraught,
(Not too farre past) may to their wits be brought.

Mad Like Artaud

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Artaud, age 2

Mme. M: He took care of us.  When I was little, like all little girls I tried to write poems.  I would bring them to him and ask his opinion.  He would say, “This one’s good.  This ones horrible.  You can fix this one.”  He was so invested in … in what I asked of him.  And at Christmas for example, he took me into his room and we wrote letters and made cards for our parents and slipped them under the napkins for Christmas Eve dinner.  He dictated the letters.  This is to tell you that, ultimately, he was very attached to us.

JL: He was very affectionate.

Mme. M: Yes, very.  I can’t tell you how affectionate.

JL: Also, he was always seeking affection.

Mme. M: Oh yes, always.  Always looking for affection … now how can I put it?  He’d never forget birthdays or holidays.  He would put money aside a long time in advance for these occasions.  He bought mother….  One day after he had seen a statue in a store, he took me there to see if it was suitable, then he went in and bought it!  So you see he was very thoughtful.  He was always trying … to please others.

From the end of the interview between Mme. Marie-Ange Malausséna (Mme. M), Antonin Artaud’s Sister, with Jacques Latrémolière (JL), Artaud’s doctor at Rodez, in Mad Like Artaud by Sylvère Lotringer (trans. Joanna Spinks)

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How sweet!