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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what to write about when you’ve lost your mind

i haven’t read a whole book since may.  what i have done is … nothing that any public knowledge should own.

but women are children, and only men can have adult experiences.

as we can see in the subjectivity here:

Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.

literature for me is still stuck in perhaps 1962.

how do we dare to write? well part of it, now, i think, is how do we dare to have feminine subjectivity? because feminine subjectivity is still very much how gender could be conceived of 40, 50 years ago

plath is unfortunately still, as a woman, just as pertinent today as she was  decades ago.

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.

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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The shock of beautiful women and why do I care? (the other half of thoughts)

”It was a mistake to make her so dowdy,” Professor Silver said of Woolf’s film portrayal. She argues that the dowdiness feeds into the ”belief that intellectual women aren’t stylish or fashionable or beautiful.”

I had seen The Hours years ago and read the novel at the same time.  I remember not caring much for either.  I think I liked the book a bit more than the film, since the film struck me as so drab.  My memories of it are grey and dull and sepia-tone, for some reason.  But what I do remember of the film strongly is the prosthetic nose that Nicole Kidman dons in order to appear more like Virginia Woolf (see here).

There is nothing wrong with big noses, except my own because I hate it.  But women with strong noses otherwise can be beautiful.  Which is where the personal conflict comes in — film-Virginia’s grotesque nose, perpetually threatening to detach itself like a chunk of rotting meat and cartilage, reminds me of myself when it should be beautiful, but it is purposefully ugly.  Nicole Kidman’s look feels like it was made with the intent of creating something ugly — it is not about how women with big noses are beautiful and Woolf was beautiful and we need to mimic it.  It feels like a creation of something drab, grotesque, tragic; the transformation of the beautiful star into the sad, ugly, dowdy writer.  To quote one of the most offensive listicles I’ve ever seen:

But Virginia Woolf, as expanded on in the first article here, was by all accounts beautiful.  For whatever reason they decide to make her ugly in film, and by ugly that means big nose and slightly unkempt hair, but we know in reality she was beautiful and thought of as beautiful.  But why does it matter?  Does the idea that intelligent, academic women writers can’t be beautiful, stylish, or desirable matter?  Who cares if they are perceived as ugly, if what matters is their output?  Does it change Orlando or Mrs. Dalloway to think: “This was written by a very ugly woman,” or “This was written by a great beauty”?
For me personally, I don’t know if it matters much to know a writer was beautiful, though I might be more endeared to her and more interested in her if I find out she was ugly (I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain amount of a feeling of betrayal when I first saw a photograph of Barbara Comyns, for instance).  But I am not the patriarchal masses.  The shock at and fetishization of beautiful women who write often overrides them: Sylvia Plath’s all-American blonde looks are all we seem to remember of her, with her smiling and bikini-clad on the cover of her collection of short stories or images of her direct look into the camera, hair loose and waved to demonstrate her natural and earthy beauty, becoming iconic.  We rarely think of her in terms of the scene in The Bell Jar where after  hospitalization she looks so rough the nurses won’t let her have a mirror.  And sadly the first thing you’ll ever read about Clarice Lispector is that you’d never think someone who looked like Marlene Dietrich could write that way (and the second thing you’ll read is that she’s like a new Kafka).
We don’t take beautiful women seriously when they write, and when they express something moving or unique or existentially fierce and terrible, we express shock: you’re lovely, but smart!  This is unheard of!  The problem is that this is just part of people not taking any women seriously.  If you’re beautiful it’s that you must be dumb, some air-head obsessed with hair and makeup.  And if you’re ugly, you must be …. also dumb.  And pathetic.  Probably obsessed with men you’ll never be with, hair and makeup you don’t understand, and increasingly sad and embittered by your lack of desirability (think: thick-browed, bespectacled Bette Davis in Now, Voyager: the angry neurotic that no man would ever touch, who you’d never even listen to because how could something worthwhile come from such an ugly mind).  But beautiful or ugly, your talent will be a shock, and you will be reduced to appearance.
So: is there an issue of us not conceiving of smart women as beautiful, or beautiful women as smart?  The issue of not thinking of smart women as beautiful is not a problem, except in the idea that we need more ways to reduce women and make them consumable — a woman acquires a voice, but we need her to still her soft and pretty, hot, sexy, nice for you to look at while you don’t listen to her or read her books.  You don’t have to be intimidated by her intellect if you’re point of reference is more along the lines of glamour models.  And then you can also create your dream woman: sexy and smart (you can sleep with Marlene Dietrich but hang out with Kafka.  And when Kafka becomes a bore you can tune out and go back to looking at Marlene).  Smart women can be defined as beautiful and be consumed, or defined as ugly and rejected, denigrated, and their intellect denied and credited to their ugliness.

Ugly Women,a half of thoughts

There is an abundance of beautiful heroines.  Especially when they are not the main character, seen through the eyes of a man as a prize, sometimes as a prize with an ounce of agency and intelligence, but a prize nonetheless (that agency and intelligence only make her more alluring).  In Evgenia Citkowitz’s Ether, the main woman is a stunning young actress; the man who she ends up with is an unattractive older academic, whose physical description screams “disgusting” but who possesses charms through his personality and intellect.  The novel mocks this trope in a way (the balding and physically repulsive, condescending older academic with the younger, exceedingly beautiful, bright but not as smart, woman) — in my opinion, not enough.  I am not a fan of the “it’s so sexist that it’s actually kind of feminist, right?” sort of thing.

But really, from what I’ve been reading lately, everything is about beautiful women, even within feminist or women’s writing.  Clarissa Dalloway is beautiful.  Maria Wyeth is beautiful.  The women in Clarice Lispector’s short stories are often quite beautiful.  When they are not beautiful, they are plain (with potential for beauty, obviously!), but so far it is rare to find The Hour of the Star-levels of ugliness.  Esther Greenwood sees herself as ugly (often in racialized terms), but she has her admirers.  Alice in The Vet’s Daughter is never described as beautiful, but never seems to be verging on ugly or even grotesque (again, she has her admirers).  Where are the women who are repulsive?

There are a few ugly heroines.  Isabelle-Marie in Marie-Claire Blais’ Mad Shadows is ugly, and her mother grows grotesque as she becomes disfigured by infection.  Macabéa in The Hour of the  Star is supposedly ugly, but the narrator is unreliable and cruel.  The second Mrs. de Winter is exceedingly plain, but one has to wonder if it’s only in comparison to the exceedingly beautiful first Mrs. de Winter.  But more often than not you get the “My looks aren’t bad, but they aren’t great… but they are mine and I accept them” sort of feel to women in fiction.  What of women who are so ugly that they cannot accept their looks, or only accept how ugly they are rather than the “I may not be a great beauty but I am fine!” line of thought!

I have been thinking of this for two reasons.  First, I found out that George Eliot was ugly.  She was described as horse-faced, and her father thought her lack of looks would mean she wouldn’t find a husband.  But there is still a reluctance to admit it!  In an article from the New Yorker, a number of descriptions for Eliot’s looks are collected: “It must be a terrible sorrow to be young and unattractive: to look in the mirror and see a sallow unhealthy face, with a yellowish skin, straight nose, and mouse-colored hair,” “next to no feminine beauty or charm,” “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous,” “exceedingly plain, with her aggressive jaw and her evasive blue eyes,” with a few horse comparisons.  Yet the author seems to refuse to name the ugliness.  Instead it gets called Eliot’s “less than conventionally beautiful appearance,” or “her looks, both of which presented a challenge to acceptable norms” (this isn’t ugliness, it’s just non-normative, a challenge, a rebellion), “alleged ugliness” (was she really ugly?), and finally the rather soft descriptors of “uncomely appearance” and “wasn’t good-looking.”  None of this describes the harsh reality of “ugly.”  To obsess over her ugliness is comparable to obsessing over defending her “beauty” which was simply “unconventional” — what is most important is her writing.  Was Evelyn Waugh ugly?  Was Henry James ugly?  Yes, but no one cares.  Was George Eliot ugly?  Yes and either we seem to find it somehow remarkable, since women are not allowed to be ugly, or we disavow the ugliness.

My second reason for thinking of ugliness in women was Ash Wednesday (Larry Peerce, 1973), the film in which a somewhat bloated and wrinkled Elizabeth Taylor gets full-body plastic surgery to impress her distant husband (Peter Fonda).  But the premise is that Elizabeth Taylor with some sagging skin around her eyes and neck is ugly, despite the fact that she is still Elizabeth Taylor, and therefore one of the most beautiful women to live.  The film concludes that really regardless of her appearance, it was her husband, not her and her fading looks, which was breaking up the marriage — but it still takes great pains to show us the grotesqueness of a pre-surgery Taylor, the grotesqueness of the surgery itself (plenty of gore!), and the grotesqueness of the recovery, in order to contrast with her beauty and perfection (in elegant hair, a new wardrobe, and perfect makeup).

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Ugliness is proposed in order to glorify beauty, in one of the world’s most beautiful women.  Which is almost… offensive? The idea that a puffy, jowly Liz Taylor with her head pushed back into her neck to create a double chin from the right angle is in any way ugly is absurd, and I think we all know that.  In a way it reminds me of Funny Face being premised on the idea that Audrey Hepburn is weird-looking, when she was, and still is, an acclaimed beauty.

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So can we ever get ugly women in fiction, who aren’t monstrous villains, or actually just beautiful, or not wearing any makeup, or a little bit plain but some man will find her truly attractive very soon?  The problem is that it probably doesn’t matter, because either we will render the ugly woman monstrous and mock her and strip her of her humanity and reduce her to a failed femininity as “femininity” and “ugliness” are not compatible.  Or we will deny she was ever ugly and protest because we know that “femininity” and “ugliness” are not compatible, and we know ugliness is one of the worst possible insults to a woman, whose beauty is praise above all else, and we will not afford her the position of “ugly woman.”  While ugliness was a part of George Eliot (it’s credited with why she even got an education, and it’s remarked upon by significant historical figures who knew her) we either deny it or mock her.  But her ugliness should be accepted.  In the same way that you can’t google “Clarice Lispector” without reading “looked like Marlene Dietrich.”  Lispector was stunning, and Eliot was hideous.  We don’t need to make appearance take precidence over work.  But I also don’t see the need to deny Eliot’s ugliness, especially when we are so starved for ugly women.

In this manner we will never get the psychology of the woman who is repulsive.

What do you offer? / (Silence)

I have finished the complete plays of Sarah Kane and I don’t know what to think.  I know nothing of theatre, though.

The first I read, and my favourite, was 4.48 Psychosis, because it was so raw and real.  There was nothing about it that I disliked.

But then I moved on to Blasted, Crave, Phaedra’s Love, and Cleansed, in that order.  Really I think the problem is that I will never enjoy things like rape, or racial slurs from a white person.  Rape is in every play.  Again, I know nothing of theatre: is the point to shock?  Is the point to have no comment on it?  Personally: it’s just not a thing I will ever accept in art and there are very few instance of rape in art that I will be able to stomach (namely, that which comes from people dealing with their own sexual trauma in a very “This art is a clear representation of me dealing with sexual assault” way).  And then the slurs, especially in Blasted, are so hard for me to take in.  Again, it has a purpose, it demonstrates how awful the character is, whatever.  But I can so imagine being in an audience, watching white people on stage spouting racial hatred for shock or because ‘well, we’re all good white people and we know that it’s wrong, you can trust us,’ while we praise the white writer, and me feeling smaller and smaller (you know that feeling of being in public surrounded by white people listening to ‘well meaning’ racism which has some intellectual purpose and you just feel like you’re being pelted with sharp hail while everyone else has umbrellas).

The thing is that this would be enough for me to totally abandon Sarah Kane.  Maybe keep 4.48 Psychosis, and reject everything else.  But then she does such good violence and absurdity!  This alone is enough to make it worthwhile.  But I don’t know how to reconcile that which is painful — I do not need pain, regardless of its purpose — and that which is creative, funny, experimental.

Darkness
Light

Ian masturbating.

Ian cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt cunt

Darkness
Light

Darkness
Light

Ian strangling himself with his bare hands.

Darkness
Light

Ian shitting.
And then trying to clean it up with newspaper

Darkness
Light

Ian laughing hysterically.

Darkness
Light

Ian having a nightmare.

Darkness
Light

Ian crying huge bloody tears.
He is hugging the Soldier‘s body for comfort.

Darkness
Light

Ian lying very still, weak with hunger.

Darkness
Light

Ian tears the cross out of the ground, rips up the floor and lifts the baby’s body out.

He eats the baby.

He puts the remains back in the baby’s blanket and puts the bundle back in the hole.
A beat, then he climbs in after it and lies down, head poking out of the floor.

He dies with relief.

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