Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jane Austen: what if she is really angry?

In a college writing class, I showed a multi-ethnic group of students the above portraits of Jane Austen. Jane's sister Cassandra sketched the one to the left during Austen's lifetime; the second is a version of the first portrait concocted in the Victorian era. We studied these portraits in class to try to discern the difference between a first and secondary source--in other words, to discern how a story changes.

This cohort of students had never heard of Jane Austen and hence had no preconceived notion of her. When I showed them Cassandra's portrait on the left and asked them what they saw, where I perceived repose and resignation, and perhaps some defensiveness in the crossed arms or world weariness in the eyes looking away, they saw sheer anger. One student envisioned her glaring at her children with rage. "She thinking she gonna get out the belt to beat that kid," one said.

Could the pursed, straight-lipped Jane with the folded arms and the sang froid gaze really be angry? Could that be? Is she actually sending a death ray gaze toward someone? If so, who? Who has her so annoyed, if she is? I remember reading that one of her nieces, perhaps Caroline, was dismayed at the portrait. Did she too see anger?

If Jane Austen really is angry, which I can't quite see, though I could when my students were expressing themselves about her, I like to think the portrait contained a secret message the two sister's shared, a dark joke of sorts. It's possible, for we know from the juvenilia that the young Cassandra had a sense of humor the older woman seemed to lose. If only we could know the real story.

I take my students' experience of Austen as angry seriously, because, they, unlike me, don't look with the expectation of what they are supposed to see. And given the anger many critics find beneath the surface of Austen's prose--she was a satirist after all--the kind of anger WD Harding first uncovered in his "Regulated Hatred," my students' reading of the portrait is not outside of the range of the possible. Do you think Austen is angry in this portrait?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

An Exultation of Larks

Sometimes phrases enter deeply into us. Tonight, at dinner, Roger laughed about putting out the "conflagration of beef" when flames shot up on the gas grill. The term "conflagration of beef" triggered a forgotten memory of a dear children's book called St. Francis by Brian Wildsmith. 

I remembered words that I'd loved when I used to read the book to my young children: "exultation of larks." The photo below doesn't fully capture the lavish colors of the book's illustration of the "exultation of larks" but offers a sense of it:

The text is as follows, St. Francis telling his life story in his own voice:

"Very gently I was carried to my little church ... I could not see my beloved Assisi but I could feel it. I blessed it and all the people who would come to it in the future. We arrived at the little church. I knew the sun was about to set. An exultation of larks flew over, singing in glory as I walked through the Gates of Paradise."

The phrase "exultation of larks" has a lovely alliterative sound and also works as a double entendre, for a flock of larks is called an exultation, and we also imagine the larks, loving and beloved of Francis, exulting for him as he entered heaven.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Heaven is for Real:" But possibly not this boy's vision of it

 Recently a Quaker committee of which I am a member hosted a showing of the movie "Heaven is for Real." I was interested in seeing the film because it was outside of my comfort zone. To my surprise, I found it fit Roland Barthes's notion of a "writerly text:" open-ended and ambiguous--far more so than I would have expected. It really was not quite what I expected.

Little Colby sees heaven--maybe.

The plot goes as follows: a little boy named Colby, aged four, needs an emergency appendectomy, and at some point in is in danger of death. According to the movie, he never actually stops breathing, his heart never stops, his brain function never flatlines--he never actually dies, even for a moment.

Little Colby fortunately survives his operation, but it does cost a bundle. While under anesthesia, he has a vision, a dream or literal experience of heaven. 

After the operation, the boy tells his father, Todd, a pastor, bits and pieces of what the youngster understands as a visit to heaven: He sat in Jesus' lap, Jesus rode a rainbow colored horse, a choir of angels sang. The father, not naive, is intrigued but at first interprets the boy as describing a dream or vision based on fragments of stories he has heard about Jesus, the Bible and heaven.  When the little boy announces that Jesus has blue-green eyes, the father is convinced his son has imagined heaven: the parents have blue and green eyes and, of course, the parents think, the child is projecting mom and dad as Jesus. 

Dad, actor Greg Kinnear, comes to believe--or almost believe--his son has been to heaven. Anyway, it gets him thinking hard about belief. 

And yet. Some residue of the boy's story strikes the father as real. The story nags him, and he starts talking about it in the pulpit, to the alarm of the church's lay council. The father becomes so obsessed with the story that he starts having fights with his wife, Sonja, who will have none of it, and he goes to see a psychologist. This woman, clearly the classic castrating, dark haired, over-educated career woman and definitely not a "believer," pooh-poohs the pastor's thought that the heaven experience could be real.

Colby tells his Dad about heaven. Interestingly, though the family has a big house, Colby shares a room with his sister. His half is blue, hers pink. I imagine the audience suspends disbelief and understands this as purely a movie construction, as I have never heard of a boy and girl sharing a half pink/half blue room, and it would be highly unusual for a boy and girl sibling to cohabit in this day and age. It also wasn't necessary in terms of plot for them to share a room--the girl essentially sleeps through the conversations the father has with Colby. 

Meanwhile, a local paper gets wind of the "boy who went to heaven" and sends out a reporter. The church council becomes even more alarmed after the story runs. Though previously a banker on the council had offered to take care of the pastor's high medical bills--more than $50,000 (apparently the church did not provide him with health insurance or anything near adequate health insurance, though this is never said, and the pastor refuses the offer of help), now the banker is part of the group that turns on the pastor and announces that he has only one more week in the pulpit. (His wife at one point wants to get a job to pay the bills, but the husband informs her that her job is to be a mother.)

So far the wife has been a doubter, just like the female psychologist and the woman on the church council leading the charge against the him. However, when the four year old tells  her he has seen his dead sister in heaven, the wife breaks down: she did lose a baby to a miscarriage, even though she never knew it was a girl. The child, she reasoned, could not possibly have heard about that, so his story must be true. 

Mom becomes a believer after Colby tells her about meeting the sister Mom lost in a miscarriage. Kelly Reilly, the mom, plays another devoted wife to much more twisted man in the current season of True Detective.

In the climatic scene of the film, the pastor, in his final sermon, gives an impassioned speech in which he states that God is love and that what we believe is important. Heaven means different things to different people, he says. It may not be Jesus on a rainbow horse to everyone, but if we truly believed in sone sort of heaven, wouldn't it change how we lived, make us more loving and secure? Isn't the point to really act as if heaven is real? What he doesn't say is that his son's vision of heaven is literally real--the title of the book and movie are not My Son's Vision of Heaven is Real, but Heaven is for Real. What the pastor really wants people to think about is NOT the 4 year old's story of riding a rainbow horse with Jesus, but what it might mean if the concept of heaven--explicitly open ended as "whatever that means to you"--is real. Could it inspire us to behave less cruelly to one another in the here and now and instead (this is my interpretation) to build a better world.

In other words, this is Barthes's open-ended, ambiguous "writerly" narrative being mis-interpreted as a closed "readerly" narrative locating a literal heaven in a little boy's experience, devoid of ambiguity. 

The parishioners, led by the wife, are so moved that they come on stage in a group hug. Later, the pastor watches a show about a girl in Asia who paints her vision of heaven, and when his son sees her painting of Jesus on TV, amazingly a blue-green eyed man, he confirms it is the same Jesus he saw.

This is what Jesus looks like to little Colby during his trip to heaven.

The movie closes with the wife announcing she is pregnant.  We never see the pastor write the best-selling book, but clearly the wheels are turning--and he does have a huge debt load hanging over him. We might question him exploiting the naive statements of a four-year to make money, but we can also understand him needing to get bills paid--and it's not his fault he lives in a country that allows grossly inflated medical costs to be normal. Of course, it could be that Todd actually literally believed his son's story, but the tenor of the story suggests he does not. To give him his due, he seems to have sincerely wanted to get people thinking about their faith lives.

The movie is set in Nebraska, and the pastor lives in a big white frame house, apparently built very recently (not a 19th-century farmhouse) surrounding by open fields, reminiscent of Field of Dreams. The cast is almost all white, but I caught at least a glimpse of a black parishioner, and a black parishioner calls 9/11 at some point. The black-skinned person who calls 9/11 presents as extremely culturally white--very short hair, clean, crisp conservative clothes, an ultra-clean-cut look that does not threaten white sensibilities in any way. The real blacks, I would say, are a Latino couple with a baby to whom the pastor's wife gives a beautiful baby dress. When the Latino woman (who looks safely legal and as if she probably heads to a night job working at the Holiday Inn) exclaims it's too nice a gift to accept, the pastor's wife assures her: "Not for YOUR baby." This is apparently meant to exhibit lack of racial prejudice, but it comes across as very condescending: even a brown baby deserves a pretty dress! I am going with the idea that the movie makers meant well. 

Heaven is for Real interested me in particular because I am fascinated by the way people misread texts. This started with Jane Austen. I don't know how many times even top scholars in a field don't see what is right in front of them. (This is why I always tell my students to head back to primary sources.) I am even surprised at myself: as I go back to familiar texts I can come away with completely different takes at different times.  I am thus more and more in accord with Nietzsche's thought that people read or see what they have already decided is there, not what is really in front of them. 

 So I am interested that people seem to misread this movie as primarily about a boy's literal trip to heaven rather than as exploration of the power of belief. Why is the boy's story so important? Why are we all so prone to misread?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reading and Viewing recap

What follows constitutes a survey or perhaps cataloguing of my current reading along with my Netflix/Amazon Prime/PBS viewing. (We don't have a television chez Reynolds but we do project certain TV series and movies from the computer onto a screen, liberating ourselves from commercials).

 I often dream of reading books sequentially, as I used to, by which I mean finish one, then begin the next, but alas, that is no longer my way. I have starred those I've finished.

Recently (since June) I have read or am reading:

*Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, a short, "quiet" book which I loved. Written in the 1970s and set in a small village in 1950's East Anglia, it tells the story of middle-aged widow who does what the village considers shocking: opening a bookstore. It's wry, quiet, funny (sales spike when she stocks Lolita) and also sharp in its portrayal of the class system and the politics of envy and control.

*Bram Stoker's Dracula: I read most of it on flight home from Europe and found it completely engrossing. I finished it in the first days home. I knew all about it as a book fearing the New Woman, a sexualized, aggressive and murderous "other," while valorizing the passive angel of the home, but I wasn't prepared for the extent to which I would enjoy it as a well-imagined page turner that encapsulates most of the familiar vampire tropes. (And one of the chief "angels" is almost as feisty as a New Woman!) Of course, here the vampires represent evil in its totality, rather than, like today, often standing in for misunderstood or tortured souls. And Christianity is the answer for fighting off these demons. 

*Balzac's "Sarrasine", which I read aloud to Roger on the way to Pittsburgh last weekend. Romantic and overheated, it's a very interesting longish short story about gender, love, illusion and the nineteenth century demi-monde.

*A book on Warhol,  *a Jane Austen sequel and an book of *Roland Barthes essays, all of which I will (or may) write about eventually.

I am on a Barthes tear, so have begun S/Z, an analysis of the afore-mentioned "Sarrasine."

I am in the middle of Elizabeth Goudge's The Rosemary Tree, reading Gouge at the suggestion of local friends. I have mixed feelings about this book. My interest in the problem of religious fiction drives this read--so much overt "religious" fiction is terrible, and much of what is good is so because it lands smack in the middle of cruelty and doubt, dealing with loss of faith, disillusionment, despair and betrayal. What decent novels deal with religious themes in a positive vein? (I will say, perhaps having spent too long as "insider"--as a religion reporter and an MDiv.-- I tend to be underwhelmed by books like John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and Marilyn Robinson's Pulitzer prize winner about the pastor, the title of which I have forgotten.)

This cover says something about the intended audience and is one of the more restrained I found online: I have an early edition from my local library that has a more subdued cover. 

Reading neighbors who are Quakers suggested Goudge, and I would say she writes about religion well, mostly by displacing it to nature. We find God and grace and truth through the small beauties of creation or through the tiny, merciful, graceful gestures people make towards each other, usually imperfectl, having to transcend some irritation or another to reach out. Her nature descriptions are lyrical and lovely, reminiscent of Ann Radcliffe's in Mystery of Udolpho. While I am enjoying The Rosemary Tree, it does have its limitations, and I will make it the subject of its own blog post when I am done.

Books that I am "reading" in a different way include the following on-going, slow projects:

Roger and I continue to work our way through Sir Charles Grandison on road trips. We have five letters left in volume 4, then only three more volumes to go! Will Harriet and Sir Charles ever get married? Will Richardson ever find a place where he doesn't need to use 200 words where two would do? I still marvel that these seven volumes were the only fiction works Darwin brought with him on The Beagle.

Tom Jones, a reread after many years--very slowly.

The Austen Papers--focusing on Eliza de Feullide's letters, again slowly. I am finding them very interesting, in part because in many ways Eliza, Jane Austen's first cousin, was so ordinary a society type, but this is another slow, sporadic read, between "other things."

Northanger Abbey, but then I am always dipping into Austen.

I plan to start Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment as soon as I am finished The Rosemary Tree.

TV series I am following:

While Will was here, we as family got "hooked" on Orphan Black, a Canadian series about a young woman, played by Tatiana Maslaney, who finds out she is one of nine (or possibly 11) clones and joins with her identical "clone clan" of at least four other of her "sisters" to fight a group that is trying to destroy them. It's been lauded as a feminist series, and in some ways this is true (but in some very fundamental ways not). It's a gripping if over-the-top story, very well done, and part of the pleasure of watching it is seeing one actress bring off many different characters so adroitly. This series, will, I hope, become the subject of another blog.

The many faces of Maslaney in Orphan Black: strong women but the series is not unproblematic. 

True Detective: Not thrilled with the second season of the noir show: too self consciously artsy, too filled with macho masculinity and "pain," too lacking in a sense of humor, and hard to follow. But I am sticking with it for now--and hoping I will get to like it better.

Poldark: I never saw the 1970s version nor have I read the book, but am following this one. I love that it focuses on the plight of the lower classes and challenges the still-dominant ideology that poor people exist for the sake of the profit the rich can grind and squeeze from them. I loved when Poldark said he is reopening his mine not for profit but to primarily to employ people--and he ruffles the feathers of his own social class when he pays decent wages. He also crosses class lines to marry. He is actually a decent human being, who really sees other people and cares about community more than his own self aggrandizement. What a welcome contrast to a world that encourages us to focus narcissistically on our own "needs" to the exclusion of all else. The series so far (I have seen the first three episodes) is old-fashioned, and can sometimes be "icky"--moments of crashing waves and music coming to a crescendo as the lovers kiss kind of thing--but I am looking forward to what will happen next. But why criticize: Downtown Abbey does the same, but without the conscience or more precisely, with an entirely different lens of consciousness, than Poldark. But this too demands a post of its own.

Five Days: A very British series, only five episodes long, about what happens when a wife and her young daughter go missing. It was made in 2007 with some actors who soon after would catapult to Downtown Abbey fame. While I enjoyed it well enough, I felt that to really "get" the nuances of this series, you have to be British: a group of English actors perform agonizing English awkwardnesses and contortions about expressing emotion--and experience a level of agony and self-consciousness the average American simply wouldn't. (Sorry, British friends--and our US emotional "spilling" is probably a worse problem!) Probably, for me, the most typically "British" moment was when an older male character burst out that he "didn't know the script, didn't know how to be, how to act" in the circumstances.

Five Days

We watched the first season of Outlander, then dropped it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Felt: A thought-provoking feminist film

Saturday night, to cap off a day in Pittsburgh, Roger, Nick and I saw the film Felt. It centers on Amy, an artist, who experienced a sexual trauma before the action begins. The film suggests that she was raped after being given a date rape drug, but never specifies what exactly happened. Her friends try to help her, but nothing seems to work. Amy states at one point that only death or a coma will enable her to forget.

Amy in her sky blue bed, suffering from rape trauma. Like much of the movie's visual iconography, this still emphasizes both Amy's childlike quality and her body--and in the corner the dangling penile object stands as a reminder that the rape is ever-present to her.

She finds solace, however, in dressing up in a superhero "man" suit, a form fitting nylon unitard to which she has attached a flopping cloth penis and testicles she has made, and on which she has drawn pubic hair. Sometimes wearing masks, sometimes not, she runs around secluded places in her costume, climbing trees and rocks. She also agrees to do a nude photo shot with another woman, but while that woman appears topless, Amy wears a cupped bra, too large for her flat chest, with realistic nipples attached to the outside of it, and high white underpants with a vagina she has made also sewn on to the outside. The photographer is at first annoyed with her, but the other model convinces him it will make a good shoot.

Amy in her "man suit"

Amy and the other model's shared anger at men forms the basis of a friendship, so they work together to take low-level revenge on males, in one instance throwing a nice-enough seeming guy they have picked up at a bar out of their car and stranding him.

The vagina Amy fashions on her sewing machine.

Finally, Amy meets a nice guy. He engages with her as a full human being, and she invites him to visit her room, which she has painted blue with clouds, and her art studio. She confides in him that she feels devalued as a woman, constantly seen and treated as a sex object, and not understood. This is possibly the most important speech in the film. She tells him about her intense anger. He is kind to her, and for the first time in a long time she feels happy.

Without giving anything away, in the end Amy confronts what may or may not be an Othello scenario--has this seemingly great guy cheated on her?

In a stroke of what I would call good fortune, the sound didn't work as the film started so we watched the first few minutes, which don't need dialogue, in utter silence, stillness even. It was extraordinary, and I was prepared for a stunning film. Yet when mouths began to move and no sound emerged, people alerted the movie house authorities, who restarted the film. With sound, it was more ordinary. 


Amy Everson, who plays Amy, co-wrote the script with director and producer Jason Banker. In real life, Everson is an artist who wear a man-suit with a penis, and who suffered a rape trauma. Amy herself conflates the Amy in the movie with the real Amy. This "blurring" of the boundaries between fact and fiction initially interested me (and still does for different reasons now), especially as we came to the movie after a trip to The Warhol Museum, where I watched pieces of his films that indeed do merge fiction and reality.

But on thinking about it,  I realized that the movie Amy could not be the "real" Amy, no matter what the real Amy asserts, for the movie Amy is not coherent enough to write or star in a movie. I would instead understand the movie Amy as an injured fragment of the real Amy--and while I dislike the term, the visual iconography of the movie suggests we are witnessing Amy's badly damaged "inner child," the traumatized rape victim, engaging in a fantasy game of release. We see the part of Amy that is narcissistic, childish and mean: the angry id, lashing out.

These toys, set up by Amy to show a woman passed out after being served a date rape drug, becomes a clue to what happened to her. They again underscore the childlike side of Amy, perhaps meant to represent innocence corrupted.

I appreciated the film for confronting the real damage rape can inflict, and for doing so outside of a Hollywood context. I especially appreciated that the movie didn't show the rape that traumatized Amy, because depicting graphic violence against women, even if ostensibly to deplore it, often becomes a form of voyeurism that allows viewers to experience (possible) titillation. We don't need to gaze repeatedly at acts meant to humiliate, intimidate and subjugate women to understand them: we already know they are a violation.

On the other hand, while we didn't need to see the rape re-enacted, it would have  helped to have more a concrete sense of the specifics of Amy's suffering. Roland Barthes notes that in order not to objectify suffering or make it a form of ahistorical fantasy that serves power ("it just happened"), a thing divorced from actual history or power structures, something ideologically free floating, we need some kind of context, perhaps verbalized by Amy. Otherwise, we're allowed to make her "sex trauma" become anything we want it to be or not to be (and the worry is the "not to be" that might be constructed as  "all in her head" or "exaggerated" or simply earn her the label "crazy").

Amy in her body suit.

Both Amy and the film are obsessed with Amy as surface, Amy as body, Amy in superhero costumes, Amy wearing exaggerated marks of gendering, Amy reduced to pure sex object, often nothing more than genitalia superimposed on the blank white surface of her body suit, be it male genitalia or female or both, her face obliterated by a mask. (In some ways her penis suit becomes the reverse image of the burka, a costume, with mask, that covers her head to toe, obliterating her identity and thus, paradoxically, foregrounding her as only a sex object.) Amy wants to enact male gendering or an angry exaggerated female gendering, but never to defuse her obsessive emphasis on sexuality. Even out of costume, Amy lives primarily as sexual: thin, long-haired, if not Hollywood attractive, still sexually exciting to men, hanging out at pick-up bars, going on dates.

Amy in costume, both effaced and sexualized.

Sadly, in the movie, Amy says she hates sexual objectification, but is paradoxically obsessed with objectifying her body as a sex object. This is her trauma.

Rather than taking from her traumatic experience that all sexual violence--whether directed at men or women-- is damaging and abhorrent, she wants revenge--direct sexual revenge that has to do with torture, castration and murder of a man. We can both appreciate the depth of anger that this fantasy represents, and at the same find it repellent. Further, her active "revenge" tactics against men come across as petty--she and her model friend wiping their butts on the photographer's motel pillows,  the two of them throwing the man out of a car. Re-enacting, even if in lesser ways, the humiliation and fear one has suffered no doubt remains a common reaction to trauma--and also keeps it spreading, like a disease.

Amy, the damaged child, presents as childlike. It's not clear what her living situation is, but she appears to occupy her childhood bedroom, complete with a white bunk bed, stuffed animals and toys. The only job she has is one more appropriate for a high schooler: dressing up as a giant chicken and handing out flyers to promote a chicken restaurant, obviously an attractive position for someone who likes to dress in costume. 

At first, I thought Amy was a high schooler or even middle schooler, only gradually realizing she must be an adult over the age of 21. Outside of bar hopping, however, we never see her engaging in what normally be understood as the adult world. Instead, she comes across almost as a victim of pedophilia, as if she is a sexualized child with her thin figure, lack of make up, and a predilection for running around parks, playing dress up and surrounding herself with toys.

It would be a violation--and repugnant-- to try to impose a redemptive or even edifying (meaning a main character achieving some self-awareness) grid on to this story. If this is Amy's story, this is Amy's story, and we can appreciate the pain it conveys--appreciate that it communicates that rape is, as the title indicates, felt (the title is also apparently a pun on the material Amy uses to fashion her penises). It would be false, and in some way, horrible, to insist on Amy opening a rape crisis center to show she "grows" or to witness her "learning to forgive." On the other hand, Amy's character, childish, vengeful, castrating, self-obsessed and unable to break out of sexual objectification--a person who continually objectifies her own body as much as any Marilyn Monroe figure, if in different ways--re-enacts many negative stereotypes about women.

One longs for a film in which Amy doesn't give up her anger and doesn't adhere to a fake script, but yet ...  could grope towards a constructive way to cope with her trauma that could begin to break her out of the socially constructed cycle of objectification. We long to catch a glimpse of the Amy behind the "man suits," the Amy who has mind and a heart and soul as well as a body. It is hard to imagine rape erased all of this in her. And it could be too easy for men (and women) to dismiss this movie as about a crazy, angry, emotionally arrested woman  rather than an indictment of rape culture--to, in fact, blame the victim.

As she opens up to her boyfriend, Amy shows him one way she is channeling her anger: she has created a toy Hitler fetus, which she says she has aborted. 

I have now just read Ellen Moody's excellent blog on Artemisia Gentileschi, an extraordinary 17th century Italian artist who also suffered from rape trauma.

I am struck with the similarities between Amy and Artemisia's experiences and anger, and the way both women enact violent fantasies against men through their art. This speaks to reality of the suffering rape causes, though I don't want to ahistoricize it by somehow "equating" the two women's experiences.

Ellen also mentions Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," also an apt connection to this film. "The Dinner Party," like Felt, uses vaginal images. The painting, however, subsumes them: they both represent the uniqueness of the woman's perspective and experience, and yet do not define the totality of that experience: the women's contributions bloom out of that center and become greater than that center without ever erasing it. Likewise, Artemisia is able to channel her anger and injury into extraordinary art through an ability to achieve a distance from her own experience.

Emily Dickinson's place setting in "The Dinner Party." Beauty flows from a woman's center but the center (the vagina) doesn't confine her. 

Felt was a little less fresh and certainly less polished than either Artemisia's work or "The Dinner Party." Showing genitalia, for example, is far less provocative in 2015 than in 1979. Yet the film has power. 

The movie is powerful in depicting rape victims not as a class made noble by suffering, but as people like Amy, ill-equipped to deal with trauma and so wholly trapped in the culture's cult of sexual objectification that while the film might parody it (and clearly Amy's man suit is a parody of male potency), it can't break out. Perhaps trauma leads to narcissism, but Amy's narcissism also reflects the lack of empathy that characterizes the worst side of our culture, the effects of a culture that hardens us. Amy's narcissism also mirrors white middle-class culture: Amy's suffering is all important, the only thing that counts, and the movie doesn't make any connection to how much more routine rape might be in less empowered circles--and seems utterly oblivious to the privilege it represents. And while it clearly wasn't made as a political film, it does function politically by presenting rape as an atomized affair, a violation against one white woman. 

 The movie matters, however, because it focuses attention on the harm rape does, whether or not the victim is privileged. Women don't necessarily "move on," or "get over it." The pain is felt. That message needs to be heard. 

Felt did remind me of Warhol's underground films (and Jane Austen) in one way: showing the petty meanness, verbal cruelty and aggressive one-upmanship that surrounds much of ordinary life, something Hollywood films almost universally gloss over. Hollywood works hard to hide that reality--"good" characters are almost never deliberately cruel to each other in small ways (if they are, it is depicted as a great lapse brought on by extraordinary stress and routinely followed by an "apology moment")--and while we see mean talk in bad characters, it is almost always meant as a prelude to the bad acts that define the characters. We can almost measure how ubiquitous and destructive this verbal culture of cruelty is by the efforts mainstream media goes to to hide it--and appreciate the indie film world for articulating this discourse. And clearly, the "surround" of this kind of discourse--demeaning and dehumanizing--becomes a prelude to rape and exploitation.

Warhol's underground films also show the offhand cruelty of human encounters

I found Felt a good conversation starter. I am glad we took my 20-year-old son, a college student who said he has thought a lot about sexism and the rape culture. The film generated a thoughtful discussion of these topics, and what it means to treat a woman as fully human, a being with a mind, heart and soul as well as body.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

New York, Bury St. Edmunds, London, Prague

     In early June, Roger and I headed for Europe, and as these things happen, Roger's 98-year-old father died while we were abroad. Eight days into our expected 12-day trip, we flew home from Prague rather than returning to England as we had planned. The trip--and hence this blog entry--are marked by absences, including the planned excursion to Bath and Chawton we didn't take, the hoped-for day at Monks House, Virginia Woolf's country home, that never materialized--and my father-in-law's death, representing perhaps the biggest absence of all. Because life doesn't rhyme, we were simultaneously saddened by the death and yet enjoyed our vacation.

Me at one of the many outdoor spaces with views of Manhattan at the new Whitney. I already posted this photo to Facebook, but it was available, so I used it again. The Hudson is in the background. 

In England, we stayed at first with our friends Jane and Clyde, who moved last winter to Great Barton, a village outside of Bury St. Edmunds. We had coffee, scones and clotted cream at a little shop in Bury with the very British name Really Rather Good, then looked at the ruins of St. Edmunds Abbey.

Ruins of St. Edmunds Abbey, a wealthy Benedictine Abbey,  Rioters who resented the Benedictine's power destroyed it during the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt, but finally came to an end as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, a timely topic for those of us who have been following Hilary Mantel's novels on Thomas Cromwell. 

A Street in Bury St. Edmunds near where we ate at Really Rather Good. The man with the book and the white hair blowing in the breeze is Clyde.

We also saw the rebuilt St. Edmunds abbey church.

And learned about St. Edmund, who the heathen Danes shot full of arrows and killed for refusing to renounce Christianity.

Whimsical modern painting of the death of St. Edmund.

The next day, Jane and Clyde took us to the little byways near their home, including quintessentially English churches off tiny country roads and a manor house where Jane almost rented an apartment for her family.

I can see the temptation to want to rent an apartment here.
Jane and Clyde by a disused church near Great Barton.

We attended the historic Quaker meeting in Bury, where congregants offered many messages about death.  Clyde also shared a recent near death experience, one actually very comforting as in it he met with his father before "returning" to life. All of this foreshadowed what was coming.

In London, we stayed at the George B&B (HT: Diana Birchall) in Cartwright Crescent in Bloomsbury. We often ate locally at the many little restaurants near the B&B: Indian, Italian, a British fish house.

In London, reports from home became more dire. While we cancelled plans, we still managed to see some sights.

Roger, looking harried, on the phone with his brother in the States as we ate a late lunch overlooking the Thames near St. Paul's. 

Me by the delphiniums in St. James Garden near Buckingham Palace.
In our B&B neighborhood, we visited the British Museum, as well as the Dickens museum, actually a townhouse he lived in for two years early in his married life, and much improved since I last toured it in 1979. We also stopped at the new British Library and saw MS pages from Jane
Austen's Persuasion. 

I was much taken by a whimsical metal sofa at the British library, formed as an open book.
Roger on the book sofa. He loved being in the new British library.

I don't want to make this a travelogue, but we were able to see, among other sites, the Tates Modern and British, as well as St. Paul's, and took an excursion to Forest Hills in south London to see Bonhoeffer's parish church and parsonage house.  

Rare books imprisoned at the British Library. I know books need to be kept safe, but it seems a sad metaphor about our times: too often safety conflates with sharp restrictions.

What most impressed me after a long hiatus from visiting the city (our most recent vacations to that part of the world have taken us to northern England and Ireland) was how it is prospering. I have never seen it so bursting with vitality and people. When we got to Prague, it seemed like a sleepy small town in comparison, so I looked up population stats. Prague has more than a million people, but London has 8.6 million, finally matching its 1939 high water mark. This seems significant to me, as if the city has finally bounced back from World War II and has again truly become an international center.

Although we received word of Roger's father's death while in London, we flew to Prague as scheduled, awaiting word on the funeral. When we heard the service was Saturday, we spent our first afternoon in Prague rearranging all our travel plans.

Candle we lit  in St. Paul's in memory of Roger's father.

We enjoyed our B&B, and I was most taken with our host's story that he and his wife alternate running it with his brother and his brother's wife: each couple is on for two weeks and off for two weeks. With this schedule, they all do well financially and have the leisure time for frequent travel: to the US, Indonesia, Africa, around Europe, etc. I suspect this kind of life -autonomous, prosperous, self directed--is what the ruling class fears. It's encouraging to witness an alternative to long hours, little time off, people living in fear and uncertainty.

Our Prague B&B: Ikea furniture

Prague was a lovely city, though, as is usually the case, not entirely what I expected, more folkish than sleek. Roger and I spent an evening and a full, full day, dawn to almost midnight, sightseeing and cramming in what gift buying we were able to do.

View of Prague from the old section

Prague had a bustling tourist scene at St. Wencelas Square and much graffiti everywhere.

We returned home via Stockholm, which I discovered is due north of Prague. We reached our motel in York, Pa.  by 3 a.m. and made it to the funeral on time, where we simultaneously mourned a death and remembered a long life well lived.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Eating violets:Remembering a Poetry slam from a Month Past

For weeks, violets bloomed everywhere in Barnesville.

A month ago I attended a poetry slam, and that might as well be an eon past in a wider culture structured to rush ceaselessly onward. We live in torrenting rapids, which threaten to smash to bits anything that can't keep pace. We hurtle into the latest event, temporal proximity lending to whatever is newest a heightened, if false, importance. 

I say this as a way to note I am very late in writing about this slam. I recognize, however, that endless haste is a form of illness and will chose to live in the eternal Now, in which a poetry reading outweighs events much closer to us in time and (seeming) importance.

At the poetry slam, I was impressed by Lee Tran's recitation of Brenna Twohy's  "In which I do not fear Harvey Dent." 

Lines from that poem, which likens coping with mental illness  to being a superhero,  still leap out at me: 

"you have never seen me out of costume,would not even recognize me outside of this armor

When you have mental illness, society tells you your only power is your invisibility.
Tells you that they would save you if only they could see you,
but of course they cannot see you,
of course they will not save you, no matter how bright you sew your cape.
Invisibility is not a superpower,
it is the best weapon of a broken system
desperate to make their streets look clean
I know what it is to fight monsters.I know how strong an ordinary human has to be." 

Joe Kingery read a poem called "A New Addiction Please" by John Brehm, which spoke eloquently to how upside-down our society is, asking why, instead of oil, we can't become addicted to the sun and the wind. Lichen Yang recited William Blake's "To See a World,"  going beyond the often quoted opening: 

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

to the darker condemnation of human cruelty:

A dog starvd at his Masters Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State 
A Horse misusd upon the Road
Calls to Heaven for Human blood 

to the observation

Joy & Woe are woven fine 
A Clothing for the soul divine 
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine 


Some to Misery are Born 
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to Endless Night.

    I learned at almost the same time as the poetry slam that humans can eat violets and that the leaves are high in vitamins A and C. For weeks, the violets were interspersed with the grass, and I added the bright flowers to salads. They tasted mild, faintly sweet, and seemed like a metaphor for the poetry slam: With the seemingly fragile and ephemeral, we are touched and fed.