April 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Well, God, glad that’s over.
In the interest of talking about the most normal, friendly, innocuous things, here’s a picture of my friend Maggie wearing the sweater I knit her for Christmas to work:
It’s a Kristen Johnstone pattern; I knit it in the mountains this past fall.
More of the wonderfully banal:
- guy’s coming to fix the sink tomorrow
- meatballs for dinner
- 1 week left of classes
April 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
PRAISE THE LORD!
Hello, this is Keith Chesterton–you’ve got the right person at the wrong time, but if you leave your name, number, and a brief message, I will impress upon my heart to call you back immediately.
You have a blessed day, now.
And, by the way: I’m praying for you.
April 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I keep thinking about Plato’s description of man–a featherless biped–and here comes Diogenes, you know, with this plucked chicken, and he throws it on the ground and says, Here, here’s what man is to you?
The definition was amended.
Skinny little chicken legs, though. How they snap so easily. So many weird, indigestible bits to the biped: tendons and cartilage, fasciae and bursae.
And so I have begun to wonder when (not if) my legs will snap, to look down feel a dread compulsion to get a move on before it happens.
March 21, 2013 § Leave a Comment
It’s the second day of spring and forty degrees. Buds belonged to last week, we’re on to crimped wet leaves and forsythia.
I have been thinking about plants (vines, trees, houseplants, leaves) nonstop. What I did for my Spring Break: dreamed about plants. I don’t know how I should classify this agglomeration of ideas–it’s loose.
1) This verse from towards the end of Pindar’s 8th Nemean Ode. It’s used as an epigraph to Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness, and that’s how I first read it, but I turn to it over and over for the freshness of its imagery:
χρυσὸν εὔχονται, πεδίον δ᾽ ἕτεροι
ἀπέραντον: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἀστοῖς ἁδὼν
καὶ χθονὶ γυῖα καλύψαιμ᾽,
αἰνέων αἰνητά, μομφὰν δ᾽ ἐπισπείρων ἀλιτροῖς.
αὔξεται δ᾽ ἀρετά, χλωραῖς ἐέρσαις ὡς ὅτε δένδρεον ᾁσσει,
ἐν σοφοῖς ἀνδρῶν ἀερθεῖσ᾽ ἐν δικαίοις τε πρὸς ὑγρὸν
αἰθέρα. χρεῖαι δὲ παντοῖαι φίλων ἀνδρῶν: τὰ μὲν ἀμφὶ πόνοις
ὑπερώτατα: μαστεύει δὲ καὶ τέρψις ἐν ὄμμασι θέσθαι
Some pray for gold, others for boundless land:
But I pray to delight the people in my town
until I cover my limbs with earth,
praising praiseworthy things, but sowing the seeds of reproach against the wicked.
For virtue grows, like how a tree darts up to fresh dews,
uplifted among wise men
and just ones, towards the liquid sky.
But there are all sorts of needs for dear friends:
and in the midst of struggles most of all.
But joy also seeks to place trust
before its eyes.
2) I decided back in January that, if I shouldn’t have pets, I’d have houseplants, and that has been a great decision. I bought Tovah Martin’s The Unexpected Houseplant one week ago, and have read it cover to cover three times. I was afraid it might be dumb, fluffy, and skew photo-heavy/info-lite, but it’s great. My plant scheming is constant (my pinterest boards would be overflowing, but it creeps me out to see public caches of folks’ deepest desires. That’s personal.), and I can’t wait to see how they all look in 5 years. The goal is, of course, an indoor forest.
3) So, the word tender is both an adjective (soft, delicate, young), a verb (offer formally), and a noun (person-who-watches). Comes from the Latin verb tendere, to stretch or reach out, like young vine tendrils (the first two are pretty clear, but the last one: the person who tends reaches out with her mind to encompass the thing-tended).
That is so poignant. Also it is my favorite vegetable cookbook?
4) The sticky little leaves in Dostoevsky by way of Puskin
The baffling tenderness in Tsvetaeva
Hildegard von Bingen’s use of viriditas and femininity.
5) So, naturally, reading Life of a Leaf and Plant-Thinking, visiting the Arboretum in the weekdays and the Botanical Gardens on the weekend, contemplating an inane DTH op-ed, Oda a los jardineros (“Gosh, guys, Grounds does such a good job!”).
March 20, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Yesterday, I wrote about women and working, but, really, social and economic debates aren’t what I came for. I’m here, today at least, for the literary criticism.
Virginia’s Woolf’s 1931 lecture Professions for Women, which would later become the book Three Guineas, contains very many savory parts (“What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits?”) but is most considerably spiced by a life-and-death battle between Virginia and The Angel in the House (I guess we have also called it The Feminine Mystique, and today have our endless rounds of Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, and, Is [x] A Feminist?).
But, fighting the angel, killing the angel!
The inclusion of that image is insane, because the only other place in literature I can think of where a human fights an angel is in Genesis–the ur-text of patriarchy–when Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
Jacob walked out of that fight with 1) a limp & a new Jewish dietary restriction, 2) a new name and identity, and 3) a blessing from God, which, pretty good. Virginia’s fight with the angel looks different:
The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room. Directly, that is to say, I took my pen in my hand to review that novel by a famous man, she slipped behind me and whispered: “My dear, you are a young woman…” And she made as if to guide my pen.
I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her.
…whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe; it took much time that had better have been spent upon learning Greek grammar; or in roaming the world in search of adventures. But it was a real experience; it was an experience that was bound to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
Actually, if I had to pick an analogous fight from the list of famous-wrasslin’-matches-of-classical-literature, I’d say it looks like Hercules’ fight against Antaeus, the giant who is unkillable so long as he remains in contact with the earth, his mother. He was also always creeping back when thought dispatched.
We, some of us (white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied and -minded), are lucky enough to only have to kill off the Angel in the House, and not have to also contend with the host of distorted, demonized caricatures that illustrate any and every deviance from that ideal. This Virginia v. Angel battle is really just the expo round of a struggle in which each of us will have to personally engage:
If I have laid stress upon these professional experiences of mine, it is because I believe that they are, though in different forms, yours also. Even when the path is nominally open–when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant–there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way.
What does it mean to wrestle against an Angel of the Lord, versus the Angel in the House (…versus a pre-human chthonic giant who makes skull-temples)? To win through tenacity, or by liberal use of the inkpot, or by getting an understanding of how the thing works? To hang on, despite the breaking of the day and hip-dislocation, despite it being a waste of time (better spent learning Greek grammar, agreed), despite its eternal recurrence (until, that is, you figure out the trick)?
To say, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me? and to walk out of the fight, fundamentally altered?
March 19, 2013 § 1 Comment
Here is what I am so, so, sick of hearing about:
- Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer, Hillary Clinton or Anne-Marie Slaughter
- the 50th anniversary of 1) the publication of The Feminine Mystique, 2) Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and the unholy union that is their mystifying conflation
- glass ceilings & sticky floors
- motherhood (y/n), parenting, division of household chores (“the final feminist frontier”)
- putting all these discussions in journalism’s pink ghetto (“Men, y’all go ahead and skip this part. Now, women: you’re doing it wrong.” Discussed here.)
But I did have a few good conversations last night about this algorithmically-perfect (and therefore utterly awful) piece from New York Magazine about (yawn), this one rich lady in New Jersey who quit her job one time to be a perfect, happy wife and mother.
We all love a story of renunciation because it’s escapist–we get the catharsis of trash-talking current situations (“You go to the woods, Thoreau!” “Renounce that worldly wealth, St. Francis!” “You quit that miserable job, lady!”) without a) running any of the risks or b) engaging in real criticism about things as they are (I mean, I don’t want to think about it, either).
The utterly safe route is, at the end, to flip the renunciation–”that isn’t so great either, but now she’s stuck with it!” If seeing through one construct is good, then seeing through two is better, and it leaves the reader and writer allied in the static knowledge that both choices are pretty crummy ones, and they’re too smart for either. Doubling-down on debunking is pretty pleasant, and leaves a nice taste in the mouth: Thank goodness I didn’t fall for that. (Unsaid: I have yet to make any real choices. and Unthought: But why are there only two choices, and why are they both crummy?)
So Kelly, the Retro Housewife, is backhandedly presented as pretty boring and maybe dumb (she spends hours upon hours doing things that would make another kind of woman scream with boredom), retrograde and culturally barren (mining their grandmothers’ old-fashioned lives for values they can appropriate like heirlooms, then wear proudly as their own, best barb in the batch), not even a good homemaker (laundry explosion), willfully blind and morally bankrupt (She resented working with 12-year-old rape victims, and instead misses getting dressed for work in clothes that have buttons and hems and sexy shoes to match). If it weren’t too low a blow, we’d probably get the intimation that young Connor and Lillie are turning out to be dimmer than hoped.
Laborious recusatio aside, I don’t want to talk about Kelly–she’s written in such a way to send us through the cathartic wringer–but I do wonder what about our writer, Lisa Miller, is doing. She alternately rails against and luxuriates in the fantasy of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out:
I press her on this point. What if Alvin dies or leaves her? What if, as her children grow up, she finds herself resenting the fact that all the public accolades accrue to her husband?
How delicious might our weeknight dinners be, how straight the part in our daughter’s hair, how much more carefree my marriage, if only I spent a fraction of the time cultivating our domestic landscape that I do at work.
And I was most interested what was she wrote between lines like these:
But what if all the fighting is just too much? That is, what if a woman isn’t earning Facebook money but the salary of a social worker?
In the tumultuous 21st-century economy, depending on a career as a path to self-actualization can seem like a sucker’s bet.
A lot of the new neo-traditionalists…regard Sandberg’s lower-wattage mini-mes, rushing off to Big Jobs and back home with a wad of cash for the nanny, with something like pity.
And so I couldn’t help but wonder: Why does the workplace rub so many women the wrong way?
Just kidding, guys, that’s a rhetorical question.
ETA: Okay, Emily Matchar (who is awesome! read her blog! I’m so excited to read her book! We live in the same town, so I have this fantasy that we’ll, like, meet at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market and, I don’t know, sneer at the artichokes together or something) has answered a rephrased version of the question I was feeling too–anti-pessimist?–to answer.
Instead of “Why does the workplace rub so many women the wrong way?” it’s “why does American society rub so many women the wrong way?”
I quote liberally:
They’re reclaiming traditional women’s work in the name of environmentalism, sustainable living, healthier eating culture, anti-consumerism.
What they shared was a conviction that America was messed up, and that all-out careerism and materialist values weren’t working anymore. They believed that a different way of life—a slower, more handmade, more family-focused life—was the key to happier, more sustainable future.
Okay, yes, fair. But then Matchar shows where the argument to stay at home & save the world takes a turn for the Tea Party:
These people are taking the bumper sticker sentiment “all change begins at home” quite literally, which is a natural outgrowth of DIY culture and the longstanding American belief in the power of personal agency. Don’t like the public school? Homeschool your kid. Don’t trust the food system? Grow your own tomatoes. It’s a reaction to record-level distrust in government and institutions, to the gloomy economy, to worries about climate change, to fears about food safety.
All too often, the movement ignores broad social change (workplace reform, school reform, food reform, etc.) in favor of a DIY approach. That’s a lot more work for mom.
Is the moral of the story POLITICS? I mean, who were the Luddites? They were knitters.
March 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In Love, by Alfred Hayes.
It’s the wrong week for it. It’s been just colder and lonelier than I’d like–uncomfortable, bright, windy–which means that I maybe didn’t mean to spend the weekend reading a contemporary paraklausithyron, and I don’t know who recommended this to me in the first place. It’s a beautifully shadowy book, a story with nameless protagonists that appears in black and white, set in 1930′s or 40′s New York. It very realistically could been read as the dysfunctional denouement to the goofy, hopeful Paperman (which I liked. reservedly): Il Penseroso and L’Allegro, I guess.
There’s our man, 40′s, a writer, content to have his loneliness eased and his evenings occupied, maybe a bit of a failure. There’s our girl, 22, beautiful and vaguely melancholy, loves tarot cards and afraid of living alone in the city, divorced with an off-screen daughter, 4 or 5 already. She is unable to “gouge out…her own private ingot of happiness,” until, enter the rich guy, Howard, a friend of a friend who offers her $1,000 to go to bed with him.
The story is in motion. We know how it ends.
This seed having been planted, our writer watches her slow, drifting absorption into another life, pulled into orbit by the undeniable honeyed gravity of financial security. They break up and he hates her, he suffers (“I found myself horribly susceptible to small animals, ribbons in the hair of little girls, songs played late at night over lonely radios.”), wishes he could “really cultivate some impressive vice.” It’s almost boring, until she calls him back. Their spontaneous vacation to Atlantic City is the miserable, grating climax of the whole thing–with a backdrop of wrong hotel, wrong furniture, raw nerves, and bad sex (…rape? It’s neither no-means-no nor yes-means-yes, but horrible to read), we watch hopeful reconciliation harden into fatigue, annoyance, old resentment. They drive home the silent five hours home in the middle of the night. She’s gone, “happily bedded down with a textile company and a couple of chemical subsidiaries, which of course wasn’t the gentlemanly thing to say.”
There’s an economized metonymy throughout–you want to use terms like gem, novella, and refined–but I’m not sure if the end result of all this craftsmanship is anything but the flat deep impression of bleakness. The images that remain are the sexual elisions–the curl of hair in the bedsheets, the horrible discovery of toothmarks beneath a black turtleneck–but stronger by far is the feel of sulky antagonism.
Could you even write a book like this, now? So much is different, but, on the other hand, so much still boils down to money, feeling safe.
Beautiful. Total downer. Maybe bad to read in the pre-spring underworld weeks of March, and, warning: if you’re an overactive empathizer, you a) might have to guard against letting the antagonistic sulks bleed into your real life, and b) will hallucinate an old boyfriend somewhere in public exactly one (1) time while reading.
February 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A few weeks ago, in genetics class, we went over pedigree analysis. The most famous family tree in genetics is Queen Victoria’s–specifically her descendents’ royal inheritance of hemophilia.
It’s a family tree I’ve looked at all my life–reading a children’s book about the Princess Anastasia, in AP European History, in previous genetics classes–and for good reason: the health and reproduction of royalty was (and remains) a topic of the utmost importance, and so we have plenty of good data to illustrate our lessons. For the lulz, we also had a gander at the pedigree of the Ptolemies, because, when it comes to royalty, there really is only one joke. And that’s inbreeding.
I’m not sure if it’s my new HIPPA compliance training, a Greek-philosophical discomfort with the ugliness of the sick body, or an old-fashioned, Southern sense of propriety, but the collision of the medical and the world-historical, and the way we picked at its intersection as a means of jokey introduction, left me feeling a little gnawed. I think it does still shock me that the royal and the physical actually intrude on other another, and, moreover that we have license to comment on that intrusion. And yet they do, we do.
Last week, Hilary Mantel kicked up a hell of a good fight on the Internet (I think the last one this fun was the week before: Did ugly Lena Dunham really just have sex with that good-lookin’ dude on TV?) with her LRB lecture Royal Bodies. By good, I mean a) everyone wants in on the action and b) everyone, yea- and nay-sayers alike, seems to be having a good time. Lots of vitriol and you ugly jealous old bat on one side, and lots of smarm and but you haven’t even read the thing! on the other, so, really, a pedant’s dream. And since we Americans are increasingly Anglophilic, we get to weigh in, too, despite having zero dogs in the fight (NB: it’s a fight, but not between the persons of whom you might think).
The aspersions cast? Mantel, carefully couching her own well-turned phrases in the glossy-but-not-quite-smearproof language of seeming and appearing to, placed the (still-living) Duchess of Cambridge in the historical pantheon of utterly-scrutinized royal bodies, frozen and objectified, wholly reduced to their ability to produce royal offspring: Henry VIII, his wives, Princess Diana, Marie Antoinette, and, even Prince Harry. “Kate Middleton, as she was, appeared to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished,” Mantel said, and the world damned her.
Mantel’s lecture sits upon central dogma of royalty and unspools its fundamental paradox: royal persons, male and female, are set apart from, above, their existence as persons by virtue of the very blood in their veins. “Royal persons are both gods and beasts,” Mantel says. “They are personal but they are supra-personal, carriers of a bloodline: at their most basic, they are breeding stock, collections of organs.” And although we are centuries past L’etat, c’est moi, we are less than a week out from the head of the British government interrupting a diplomatic tour of India in order to denounce Mantel’s essay (at which the academic chorus mocks, Oh, David, since you’ve weighed in, will you join our LRB reading group? What did you think of Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s piece on Syria?).
The crucial caveat, unmentioned in this essay, is that Kate’s blood isn’t royal–she only became royal by choice, via royal marriage (if, in Mantel’s estimation, the “crux of the matter is this: a royal lady is a royal vagina” can we just as well say that a royal man is a royalty-bestowing penis? Another topic.). Either way, Kate having been born
Muggle non-royal lends her both agency and interest–her performed princessy perfection wouldn’t be so consistently fascinating to us if she had been born that way. “One is compelled to look at them,” Mantel says, “to ask what they are made of, and is their substance the same as ours.” With Kate, this compulsion is raised to an infinitely higher power, because we know that the answer, impossibly, is yes.
It’s also important to note that the bodies under scrutiny aren’t exclusively female. Henry VIII, fat, decrepit, and dying of (possibly) McLeod syndrome and osteomyelitis, learned what “historians–and, I’m afraid, doctors– underestimate”–the power of chronic pain to “sour the temper and wear away both the personality and the intellect.” Once-magnificent, watching others watch his deterioration, “he was quite unable to keep private what was happening to his own body. The royal body exists to be looked at.” Prince Harry, Mantel points out, learned this same lesson of scrutiny the hard way in Las Vegas–that “adulation can swing to persecution, within hours, within the same press report.”
Royal female bodies, however, are peculiarly able to “focus the rays of misogyny,” especially in the matter of their fashion choices. Just as Marie Antoinette and Princess Diana’s clothes, hairstyles, and physiques were subject to endless debate and critique, pored over for meaning and searched for inconsistency, Kate cannot wear a thing in public without it being a) named, b) linked to, c) interpreted, d) cross-indexed against all the clothes she’s worn in the past, and e) sold out within a few hours. (An interesting confluence of d and e results in articles admonishing Kate for wearing the same thing twice, ever. Don’t you want to help the British economy?) I have to admit that I am very excited to see the Dutchess in her maternity-wear–if the rumors of a Sarah Burton collaboration are true, we only have to look at the 2013 pre-fall collection, a magisterial high-church fantasy, to get an idea about the clothes that will swaddle the Royal Baby Bump. In Mantel’s words: I roll her back onto the bolt and price her by the yard.
Mantel doesn’t go in for any of this–she warns strongly against it. “Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty,” she warns. “It can easily become fatal…I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.” What
non-readers the media has characterized as an attack on a nice, pretty princess by a fat, barren hag is really Mantel’s eloquent and erudite version of “Leave Britney Alone“.
Some people–those who read the essay and found it lacking–felt that Mantel’s protective tone was condescending, that her cruel descriptions of the perfect Kate are too well-penned to be have been conceived in anything but hate. Mantel, they argue, is concern-trolling. She might not be jealous, but she sure does think Kate’s dumb, which, in this modern age, is just as damning. Or, at the very least, they argue, she thinks Kate’s made a dumb choice: why else would a normal girl choose the frozen life of a plastic pablum princess?
It’s funny, because the only thing Mantel is cheerfully curious about is what Kate reads. “It’s a question,” she states mildly. The question of what Kate reads, how her story will be written, and its relation to the royal stories Mantel writes: this is the masterful ringform underpinning of Mantel’s entire essay–Kate’s reading, for Mantel, is the question. What does it look like when a surveilled person reads, when, in front of our eyes, she escapes? The popularity of images of celebrities reading attests to our collective interest in the question. In these pictures, we afford the subject interiority, headspace: a means of escape from both the precise eye of the camera and the compulsion-bound body that is the locus of that surveillance. At the same time, we scrutinize and examine that escape: what does I’m not there look like? Does Marilyn yet know that she will die? Are we seeing the moment when Ulysses changed her life?
All these questions swirl around the perfect, unknowable figure of the pregnant Duchess who chose her story, and will live it. Kate herself did not reply to the article and went out to as planned, her bump wearing a MaxMara jersey wrap dress, now sold out.
February 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I know about as much about China as, apparently, the average book-club member, and through exactly the same venues. Somewhere around middle school, I hit a vein of popular contemporary Chinese literature at the Watauga County Public Library, and so it was that I read and fell in love with Jung Chang, Adeline Yen Mah, and Yu Hua.
I mean, I didn’t follow up with it at all–I didn’t study the language in school, and shied out of conversations about Chinese politics and history whenever they came up. Aside from what I’ve read in novels, China’s a country I don’t know much about.
For some reason, though, over the winter, I bought Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962. Since it was released in English right around the time of Mo Yan’s Nobel win, the two kept coming up in reviews, often placed in opposition to one another.
This was, of course, a tombstone of a book: heavy in my backpack and in my mind, cold and dispassionate in its presentation and analysis of facts, and nuanced enough to present the different faces of famine as they appeared in different provinces, devastating year after devastating year.
I stood in awe of the twenty years of illicit archival research performed by Yang Jisheng, and in awe of his final estimate: 36 million dead.
What particularly drew me in–aside from the constant stream of folly, blindness, torture, death, and cannibalism–was his analysis of the causes of the famine: “The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism.” The only things I’ve read on totalitarianism, really, are Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and also Xenophon’s Hiero, which barely counts. But it was amazing, having read Arendt’s analysis of Nazism and Stalinism, to lay that theory over Yang’s portrait of the destruction caused by Maoism–to see where it fit, and to see where it didn’t. Statements like this one:
“In the face of a rigid political system, individual power was all but nonexistent. The system was like a casting mold; no matter how hard the metal, once it was melted and poured into the mold, it came out the same shape as everything else. Regardless of what kind of person went into the totalitarian system, all came out as conjoined twins facing in opposite directions: either despot or slave, depending on their position respective to those above or below them.”
absolutely blew me away. The relationship between famine and government (“food politics”? “hunger studies”?) seems so complex and interesting, but also utterly fundamental. And obviously very important. I have some reading and thinking to do.
The diagnosis of the famine as an urban v. rural conflict was also something I found noteworthy (but not surprising). I don’t know much about how the Great Leap Forward contributed to the development of the Cultural Revolution, but I wonder how much a role urban/rural tensions played. I mean, that particular problem is with us still, today. I was also struck by how boldly he talks about “the degeneration of the national character of the Chinese people” (is that why we can paint Chinese anomie with such broad strokes? or, maybe, condescend a bit?), but how little is said about the current system of government. We have this in the introduction:
“I firmly believe China will one day see totalitarianism replaced by democracy. And this day will not be long in coming.”
But we also have this, the last sentence in the book:
“…the very people who are most radical and hasty in their opposition to autocracy may be the very ones who facilitate the rise of a new autocratic power.”
Then again, he lives. In China. And Tombstone is, of course, banned there.
ETA: looking at all of this in light of what’s purportedly going on in North Korea takes this pretty firmly out of the past.
January 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
A few weeks ago, I went to the Stone Center (a first) in search of a book. I can’t remember how I heard about it–bell hook’s Belonging: A Culture of Place–but, whatever the referent, it contained a nearly irresistible trifecta of associations:
- bell hooks, as I understand things, is credited with having one of the best (‘best’?) description/definitions of intersectional feminism. That’s an interest of mine.
- there’s an interview with Wendell Berry somewhere in there.
- She’s currently Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea, which, I don’t have to tell you, is an amazing place that gives me hope whenever I think of it. Zac’s parents met there.
Belonging is a collection of essays that intentionally cover the same ground, over and over. They’re circuitous because they’re about her origins, and her ending-up-back, in rural Kentucky. “Hearing the same story makes it impossible to forget,” she says, “And so I tell my story here again and again.” She writes about land and land ownership, about black people and their (mostly) elided history as black farmers and landowners, and about the intersection of racism, capitalism, and environmental degradation in the Appalachians.
I ended up spending the rest of that morning in the library (now my favorite library, due to its perfect light, quiet & peaceableness).
I guess that would take about two weeks. I’m not an expert on these matters–I’m just one girl who’s read one book (to admit an appalling fact, I cannot remember the last book I read written by a black person. I think it might have been Things Fall Apart, in the 10th grade, which is pretty shameful). I don’t think I’m qualified to analyze what bell hooks is saying here (haven’t done the reading, so I’m scared to write the paper, you know?), so I think the most I can do is quote the passages that stuck out most to me. These are all things I have never thought about before.
Nature as ‘the place of victory’:
What we had learned in the hills was how to care for ourselves by growing crops, raising animals, living deep in the earth. What we had learned in the hills was how to be self-reliant.
Nature was the foundation of our counter-hegemonic black subculture. Nature was the place of victory. In the natural environment, everything had its place, including humans. In that environment everything was likely to be shaped by the reality of mystery. There dominator culture (the sytem of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy) could not wield absolute power. For in that world nature was more powerful. Nothing and no one could completely control nature. In childhood I experienced a connection between an unspoiled natural world and the human desire for freedom.
and the trauma of being forcibly cut off from nature & animals:
Separating black folks, especially black jockeys, from the world of Kentucky horse culture went hand in hand with the rise in white supremacist thinking. For us it meant living with a culture of fear where we learned to fear the land, the animals, where we became fearful of the moist munching mouths of horses black jockeys would rarely ride again. This separation from nature and the concomitant fear it produced, fear of nature and fear of whiteness was the trauma shaping black life.
On black farmers, working with & in nature, who created an ‘oppositional consciousness’:
We have forgotten the black farmer, both the farmer of the past, and those last remaining visible farmers who still work the land…they are the ancestors who gave to black folk from slavery on into reconstruction an oppositional consciousness, ways to think about life that could enable one to have positive self-esteem even in the midst of harsh and brutal circumstances. Their legacy of self-determination and hard work was a living challenge to the racist stereotype that claimed blacks were lazy and unwilling to work independently without white supervision.
and who knew that, to survive, they needed to create their own peace, happiness, and joy:
Creating joy in the midst of adversity was an essential survival strategy. More often than not peace and happiness was found in the enjoyment of simplicity. The pleasure of ripe fruit, a good tomato, smoking tobacco that one had grown, cured, and rolled into cigarettes, hunting, or catching fish. These simple pleasures created the context for contentment. Calling to mind these earlier times in African-American life and culture is not a sentimental gesture or an expression of empty nostalgia, it is meant to remind those of us grappling with the construction of self and identity in the present that we have a legacy of positive survival skills and identity in the present to draw upon that can teach us how to live with optimal well-being, regardless of our circumstance.
Suppressing these insights, erasing the agrarian roots of African-American folk, was a strategy of domination and colonization used by imperialist white supremacist capitalists to make it impossible for black folk to choose self-determination. Equating freedom solely with economic mobility and material acquisition was a way of thinking about life that led black folk to seek to distance themselves from their agrarian past…Fleeing their agrarian roots, most blacks left behind the oppositional values that had been a source of power, a culture of resistance based on alternative ways of living on that valued emotional intelligence.
There are also a two really wonderful chapters about her grandmother’s quilting that I neglected to except from, but I’d be remiss to not mention.
But, I mean, is this right? Is it true? Is this how it is? Do other people–black people–view their past like this? What are other viewpoints? I’m pretty familiar with how urban/rural tensions play out in mainstream (white) culture, but how does that conflict look from a black perspective?
I guess I don’t have anyone I can talk about this to, but, I know, that’s my fault: I’m insular. If I want good discourse, I ought to do some legwork.
As usual, I’m left with an long list of follow-up reading: