Mephisto

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I read Mephisto, by Klaus Mann, and for the most part liked it.  It was clever and funny without ever mocking the gravity, danger, and oppression of Nazi Germany — Mann is able to satirize the Nazi elite in a humourous manner while continuously reminding the reader that comedic frivolity, excess, hypocrisy, and ignorance are part of the horrific violence of the regime.  I am also personally interested in 1920 and 1930s European art movements and politics, and the novel covers theatre (avant-garde and leftist) extensively, as well as influences from Russia and France.  So that was great for me.

However, I didn’t know how to deal with the character of Juliette/Princess Tebab, an African-German dancer.  She is, one the one hand, described as beautiful and resourceful, as well as an extremely talented dancer.  When the protagonist, actor and theatre director Hendrik Höfgen, asks her to leave Germany, she contemplates the racism of this request and her own German heritage, as well as why this heritage should be ignored because it is not ‘purely’ German, something which feels radical even today when being non-white effectively means ‘You are Other.  You do not truly belong Here.  Where are you really from?’

Less favourable in Juliette’s character is the stereotyping and fetishism.  She’s beautiful, but constantly referred to as ‘The Black Venus’ — you cannot forget her race.  More than this is the overt racism: descriptions of her thick, rough, dark skin, for instance, as well as her cruelty.  In the novel she treats Hendrik meanly, and they form an erotic, sado-masochistic relationship where she beats and humiliates him to his delight.

So I don’t know what to think.  Partially, I loved her character.  She was one of the only characters to stand up to Höfgen, and she was depicted as both intelligent and, in her own way, extremely sensitive.  Höfgen is the central hypocrite of the book, starting out in a Communist theatre group then manipulating his way into Nazi high society and allaying his hardly-there guilt by repeating to himself that if he didn’t suck up to the men and women giving orders for murder, he could be killed himself.  And Juliette is the only one to stand up to him, getting what she wants from him through exploitation and manipulations.  She is one of two characters who, by the end, actively express rage at Höfgen; the other is a minor actor who supported the Nazi party.  So in that regard, she comes out on top as one of the most lucid and active characters in the book.

Still, the characterisation of a Black woman who is a rough, violent nightclub dancer/prostitute and engages in scandalous sexual behaviour where (and I’m not saying these are my politics but dominant ideals) she takes on a masculine role with a feminised Nazi hypocrite, is not exactly my definition of progressive.  And though by the end I felt that she was my favourite (and only really likeable) character, while reading it was often painful to see the racist descriptions that Mann ascribes to her.  So I don’t necessarily know how I feel about the novel, and I think that Mann probably had relatively good intentions in creating her character.  I still feel uncomfortable.

Consuming Women

[Spoilers for The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood]

“I realized Peter was trying to destroy me.”

Marian starts the novel passive: she is in a relationship with Peter, it seems, simply because she doesn’t have anything better to do.  The relationship itself seems fragile.  Marian references how to talk, what to talk about, how to let Peter feel a sense of control over her, because he’s volatile: he could get upset, he could dump her at any minute.  Yet one gets the sense that she wouldn’t be worse for the wear should the relationship break apart.  It’s a passive relationship in all ways: Marian seems to not really care about the dull and/or comfortingly conventional Peter, and Peter in the end proposes to her after his last single friend gets married, seemingly assimilating to married life once his single life becomes empty.

After the engagement, Marian starts to have problems with food, escalating until she can’t eat anything.  Peter hosts a party, she runs away from it to be with Duncan, a self-absorbed grad student who treats her with alternating affection and cruelty, and ultimately uses her as he needs, thinking never of her needs.  But he isn’t dull, and he isn’t conventional.  Contrasting with the many scenes of Peter devouring meals, meats in particular, Duncan is deathly thin, and his sickly physique and young appearance are referenced frequently.  But although he’s not seen eating steaks with pleasure, he does eat constantly, in an almost birdlike manner.  He eats chocolate bars and seeds, saying he uses them to stop smoking.  After the night he spends with Marian, he devours voraciously his eggs and ham.  And one of his roommates cooks well, taking care of him.  If Peter wants to consume Marian, Duncan wants to be healed by her.  He states he doesn’t want to be “rescued” by her, but in her mind she thinks of herself as nurse-like with him.  He is controlling in a different way than Peter.  Peter is controlling like your stereotypical 1950s husband who expects you to serve him and be an ornament for him.  Duncan is controlling like a sick baby who needs your attention, draining your energy.

By the end of the book, Marian bakes a cake shaped like a woman, and serves it to Peter, expecting him to consume her: this is her cake substitute that he can eat instead of consuming the real Marian.  But Peter is shocked and leaves quickly.  Marian eats the cake herself.  Detached from Peter she is able to eat again and consumes her own self, becoming herself once again rather than the detached figure of Peter’s fiancée or Peter’s wife.  She is Marian’s Marian.

After Peter leaves, Duncan calls Marian, distraught.  One of his two roommates (whom he considers as parents who take care of him) has married Marian’s roommate and left.  Duncan is now in a “broken home” as though his parents have divorced.  He needs Marian.  She invites him over, and displays the same indifference to his problems as he showed for her problems earlier, something that disturbs him.  She tries to care, but is disinterested, thinking of other things and people.  She then offers him the remainder of the cake, which he accepts and eats.

Peter, who was trying to assimilate Marian into himself and his conventional life, attempting to consume her, refused to consume her cake-self and left.  Her protest of his consuming her, and actualization of it, is too shocking for him and he cannot accept it.  Duncan, however, eats the cake.  Without any noticeable pleasure, quickly and concentratedly; in other words, his eating the cake is self-contained, perhaps even self-absorbed: there is no performative aspect to show Marian that he enjoys her cake or the labour that went into making it, it is pure consumption for his own needs.  Though Duncan, to Marian, was an escape from Peter, he is essentially no different.  He also wants to consume her.  But where Peter balked at the accusation, Duncan doesn’t notice or care: he knows he is consuming her in his way (being a manchild who doesn’t care for her but demands her to be at his beck and call), and he doesn’t care who else knows this.  He is completely content with his consumption of her.  And so Duncan represents simply a different kind of man in the world of heterosexual relations.  Peter is more well know: the conventional husband who demands an obedient wife.  Duncan, the grad student, the English major, the museum-goer, quirky and interesting, especially in Marian’s dull, conventional life, seems miles away from Peter.  But really, they’re all men, consuming women in one way or another.

Reading List: August 2016

  1. Walden, Henry David Thoreau (Non-Fiction, 1854)
  2. Vincent Van Gogh: A Self-Portrait in Art and Letters, Vincent Van Gogh, H. Anna Suh, Alayne Pullen (Non-Fiction, 2006)
  3. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Plath (Non-Fiction, 2000)
  4. The Satyricon, Petronius (Fiction, 66)

I really would like to get back into reading novels now.

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“Let’s live while we can, since we know we’ve all got to die.”

I’m trying read more and write more.  I don’t have much to say about The Satyricon, except that it was entertaining for the most part, and perhaps more scandalous than the Fellini film which was a surprise to me.  I greatly enjoyed the scene of Trimalchio’s feast, so here’s another food post with what they eat:

  • On the tray stood a donkey made of Corinthian bronze, bearing panniers containing olives, white in one and black in the other. Two platters flanked the figure, on the margins of which were engraved Trimalchio’s name and the weight of the silver in each. Dormice sprinkled with poppy-seed and honey were served on little bridges soldered fast to the platter, and hot sausages on a silver gridiron, underneath which were damson plums and pomegranate seeds.
  • Turning his head, Trimalchio saw what was going on. “Friends,” he remarked. “I ordered pea-hen’s eggs set under the hen, but I’m afraid they’re addled, by Hercules I am let’s try them anyhow, and see if they’re still fit to suck.” We picked up our spoons, each of which weighed not less than half a pound, and punctured the shells, which were made of flour and dough, and as a matter of fact, I very nearly threw mine away for it seemed to me that a chick had formed already, but upon hearing an old experienced guest vow, “There must be something good here,” I broke open the shell with my hand and discovered a fine fat fig-pecker, imbedded in a yolk seasoned with pepper.
  • There was a circular tray around which were displayed the signs of the zodiac, and upon each sign the caterer had placed the food best in keeping with it. Ram’s vetches on Aries, a piece of beef on Taurus, kidneys and lamb’s fry on Gemini, a crown on Cancer, the womb of an unfarrowed sow on Virgo, an African fig on Leo, on Libra a balance, one pan of which held a tart and the other a cake, a small seafish on Scorpio, a bull’s eye on Sagittarius, a sea lobster on Capricornus, a goose on Aquarius and two mullets on Pisces. In the middle lay a piece of cut sod upon which rested a honeycomb with the grass arranged around it. An Egyptian slave passed bread around from a silver oven and in a most discordant voice twisted out a song in the manner of the mime in the musical farce called Laserpitium.
  • While he was speaking, four dancers ran in to the time of the music, and removed the upper part of the tray. Beneath, on what seemed to be another tray, we caught sight of stuffed capons and sows’ bellies, and in the middle, a hare equipped with wings to resemble Pegasus. At the corners of the tray we also noted four figures of Marsyas and from their bladders spouted a highly spiced sauce upon fish which were swimming about as if in a tide-race. All of us echoed the applause which was started by the servants, and fell to upon these exquisite delicacies, with a laugh. “Carver,” cried Trimalchio, no less delighted with the artifice practised upon us, and the carver appeared immediately. Timing his strokes to the beat of the music he cut up the meat in such a fashion as to lead you to think that a gladiator was fighting from a chariot to the accompaniment of a water-organ.
  • At length some slaves came in who spread upon the couches some coverlets upon which were embroidered nets and hunters stalking their game with boar-spears, and all the paraphernalia of the chase. We knew not what to look for next, until a hideous uproar commenced, just outside the dining-room door, and some Spartan hounds commenced to run around the table all of a sudden. A tray followed them, upon which was served a wild boar of immense size, wearing a liberty cap upon its head, and from its tusks hung two little baskets of woven palm fibre, one of which contained Syrian dates, the other, Theban. Around it hung little suckling pigs made from pastry, signifying that this was a brood-sow with her pigs at suck. It turned out that these were souvenirs intended to be taken home.
  • While we were speaking, a handsome boy, crowned with vine leaves and ivy, passed grapes around, in a little basket, and impersonated Bacchus-happy, Bacchus-drunk, and Bacchus-dreaming, reciting, in the meantime, his master’s verses, in a shrill voice.
  • The tables were cleared off to the beat of music, and three white hogs, muzzled, and wearing bells, were brought into the dining-room. The announcer informed us that one was a two-year-old, another three, and the third just turned six. I had an idea that some rope-dancers had come in and that the hogs would perform tricks, just as they do for the crowd on the streets, but Trimalchio dispelled this illusion by asking, “Which one will you have served up immediately, for dinner? Any country cook can manage a dunghill cock, a pentheus hash, or little things like that, but my cooks are well used to serving up calves boiled whole, in their cauldrons!” […] Before he had run out of wind, a tray upon which was an enormous hog was placed upon the table, almost filling it up. We began to wonder at the dispatch with which it had been prepared and swore that no cock could have been served up in so short a time; moreover, this hog seemed to us far bigger than the boar had been. Trimalchio scrutinized it closely and “What the hell,” he suddenly bawled out, “this hog hain’t been gutted, has it? No, it hain’t, by Hercules, it hain’t! Call that cook! Call that cook in here immediately!” When the crestfallen cook stood at the table and owned up that he had forgotten to bowel him, “So you forgot, did you?” Trimalchio shouted, “You’d think he’d only left out a bit of pepper and cummin, wouldn’t you? Off with his clothes!” […] “Since your memory’s so short, you can gut him right here before our eyes!” The cook put on his tunic, snatched up a carving knife, with a trembling hand, and slashed the hog’s belly in several places. Sausages and meat- puddings, widening the apertures, by their own weight, immediately tumbled out. [this is followed by great applause, obviously]
  • When my glance returned to the table, I noticed that a dish containing cakes had been placed upon it, and in the middle an image of Priapus, made by the baker, and he held apples of all varieties and bunches of grapes against his breast, in the conventional manner. We applied ourselves wholeheartedly to this dessert and our joviality was suddenly revived by a fresh diversion, for, at the slightest pressure, all the cakes and fruits would squirt a saffron sauce upon us, and even spurted unpleasantly into our faces.
  • The dainties that followed this display of affability were of such a nature that, if any reliance is to be placed in my word, the very mention of them makes me sick at the stomach. Instead of thrushes, fattened chickens were served, one to each of us, and goose eggs with pastry caps on them, which same Trimalchio earnestly entreated us to eat, informing us that the chickens had all been boned
  • Thrushes made of pastry and stuffed with nuts and raisins, quinces with spines sticking out so that they looked like sea-urchins. All this would have been endurable enough had it not been for the last dish that was served; so revolting was this, that we would rather have died of starvation than to have even touched it. We thought that a fat goose, flanked with fish and all kinds of birds, had been served, until Trimalchio spoke up. “Everything you see here, my friends,” said he, “was made from the same stuff.” With my usual keen insight, I jumped to the conclusion that I knew what that stuff was and, turning to Agamemnon, I said, “I shall be greatly surprised, if all those things are not made out of excrement, or out of mud, at the very least: I saw a like artifice practiced at Rome during the Saturnalia.” [it’s actually made of pork]

I had to look up what some of these things were.  Dormice are a specific type of dormouse (as in the character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), also called the edible dormouse.  Fig-peckers are unborn chicks.  Both were delicacies in Ancient Rome.  Vetches are a type of legume, but I couldn’t find anything about ‘ram’s vetches’ unless it was referring to ram feed.  It does seem that vetches could be used in bread-making, which might mean something.  But I’m not really doing enough research into the topic.

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The Triumph of Bacchus, Cornelis de Vos

At least the Priapus-based dessert sounded good.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

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After about a month, I have finally finished Sylvia Plath’s unabridged journals.  Journals untainted by the demon that is Ted Hughes!  Reading a journal which spans around a decade from a woman’s late teens to early thirties, from the early 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s, in a nearly 900 page book, is quite a journey.  You get accustomed to Plath.  Reading a couple entries daily, she became a part of my life; her personal thoughts and adventures intersecting with my own.  Needless to say, it feels sad to have finished.  Like losing a friend.  Plath’s most innermost thoughts were a part of my daily life, meshing with my own journaling, and now they’re gone.  It leaves an emptiness for me.

Firstly, the journals begin when she is young.  Though in her late teens, however, one is struck by her style and skill as an author.  Then one is jealous of her skill, especially at such a young age.  Then one reads her entries on her own jealousies, envy, of people more successful than her, her ambitions, and one forgets their own jealousies of the young adult Plath and instead embraces the sense of familiarity and relatability.  And the entries are so relatable.  Unanimously so.  Going to the goodreads page of this book one will fine numerous comments on the relatability of the content.  For myself, I found that sometimes entries were nearly identical to things I had written in my own journals, word for word.  Other than weird coincidences like that, there is the emotion which is so familiar.  Outrage, sadness, despair, excitement, drive, needs, weakness, strength, arrogance, anger.  It’s candid, as a journal should be, and so we recognize our own often hidden emotions, even the more shameful ones or the ones which are rarely represented otherwise.

Can you understand?  Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little?  For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that — I love life.  But it is hard, and I have so much — so very much to learn —

At the same time I was plagued by the ethics of reading a journal.  On the one hand, you have her journals unadultered by Ted Hughes — that’s a good thing!  On the other hand: would she have published these journals had she been alive?  The unabridged journals are necessary in the face of Hughes’ edits, but should the edits have even been opened to the public?  Journals are private; I know I wouldn’t want mine public.  And again I think: perhaps I wouldn’t care if my journals were published when I was dead.  Because the dead can’t think of such things.  But then there is the issue of Plath’s own wanting of The Bell Jar to be published under a pseudonym to avoid hurting those mentioned in the book — would not her journals be even more biting to her loved ones and acquaintances who she is completely honest about?  And then again I think of the passage in her journal where she reads the diaries of Virginia Woolf.  She herself consumed private yet published writing, so why shouldn’t we?

Overall, I got a lot from these journals, and I know a lot of people do.  They were moving and beautifully written.  They were engaging.  They took up a big place in my life while I went through years of her life.  And I still feel that I am invading her privacy.  I cannot deny the impact the journals have had on me, but I also cannot deny my feelings of guilt over reading them.  Nor can I deny how I ignored this guilt and kept reading…

 

Arrogant Men, Humble Women

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I recently read Walden.  

I did not enjoy it.

The first fifteen pages or so were misguidingly lovely; politically inspiring and beautifully written.  Then came the boredom.  The technicalities of living and creating life in the wilderness were presented in dull lists and dry descriptions.  But compared to the sentiments that came next, boredom was welcomed.

Thoreau is obnoxiously arrogant.  He writes frequently of how living alone in the wilderness is something everyone can and should do.  Students could cheaply build their own cabins in the woods instead of complaining about the high prices of  housing.  One can easily eat wild succulents boiled in salt water with woodchuck meat instead of go to a restaurant and spend money.  Rather than making a point about the trap of oppressive and exclusive capitalist luxury, the whole thing feels like a brag.  ‘I’m so much better than you because I can live off of stale bread and boiled weeds.’  And more than that, it feels inauthentic.  He’ll mention modes of help, horses to carry lumber for instance, but argue, ‘Oh, yeah, I had the horses, but really I did most of the carrying, they barely helped me, I didn’t really need them.’  The book is simply irritating, without any way of proving how much Thoreau really roughed it in the wilderness, and a sense of being spoken down to by a man whose superiority complex  is derived from his ability to be content eating rodents and denying himself yeast in bread-making.

By coincidence, I discovered around the same time that I was reading Walden the documentaries on Hannah Hauxwell.  Though dated especially in their treatment of gender, they provide a look at a woman who is charming, pleasant, engaging, and authentically living on her own outside of society.  You can watch them here: