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:
January 21, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ve wanted to wait for a while before talking about what it’s been like for me to go back to school, just in case things aren’t as nice as they seem at the outset (but to follow that logic, I should hold off at least until the first round of midterms!). Here’s my initial impression:
It feels like I’m in the first weeks of a study abroad program–I find myself itching to explore new parts of campus, chase down new experiences, and take full advantage of all that the university has to offer.
Which is pretty weird, right? Considering that I a) was born and b) grew up in Chapel Hill, then c) spent four years here as an undergraduate and d) the better part of a fifth as a post-baccalaureate in Classics. Exact same town, exact same university, exact same small constellation of friends and family, ceteris paribus–it’s been less than two years!–and yet my experience of the university is drastically different.
I’m older, of course, and changed. I’m in entry-level science lectures instead of graduate-level humanities seminars. I’m paying to go to school (with the ample, but finite, amount my parents saved for me) instead of getting to go for free.
But mainly, I have a clarity of vision and steadfastness of purpose that I’ve never felt before, and I’m thankful for it. All through university, I bore the low-grade anxiety of looking around at all that was offered and possible, worrying that I was missing out, that I’d chosen the wrong things to do, and helplessly faced the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do it all, have it all–that’s the dark side of “you can do anything!”. Now, older, I’m calmer: I know what I want, and I have, in hand, some syllabi that tell me exactly what to do in order to get there. I’m bowled over with gratitude and delight to rediscover whole buildings and departments worth of professors, lecturers, teaching assistants, learning assistants, labs, online homework, instructional videos, tutorial centers, and office hours–there’s so much pedagogical apparatus built up in the sciences, and it exists for one purpose: to teach! Me! Let’s not even start talking about the university more broadly–all the libraries, the events, the research facilities. I don’t think there is a more noble project.
I’m lucky that this return has been possible at all–by living in Virginia, I’d lost my North Carolina residency, which put the cost of school far out of reach. Reapplying for residency was by no means a sure bet–it would have been a long and miserable wait if I’d been rejected.
Something that goes hand-in-hand with this new self-assuredness, I think, is a sense of anonymity. I’m able to be more comfortable with this radical redefinition in part because I’m in classes with 250 freshmen. I stay in the science buildings, and, as a result, no-one I know sees me–and, while this identity as a scientist, a pre-med student is still fresh and un-crystallized, I’m glad to not be recognized, defined, or pinned down.
It’s so different, this second time around, and I’m glad that it is. Here’s to reawakened possibilities.
January 8, 2013 § 15 Comments
Carl Larsson, Blomsterfönstret
I do not know a more pitiful sight than to see a woman tatting, knitting, embroidering–working cats on the toe of some slipper, or tulips on an apron. The amount of nervous force that is expended in this way is enough to make angels weep.
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in a passage that has haunted me ever since I think I read it as an already-crafty little girl in So You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?
It’s the night before school starts for me, which makes it as portentous a time as I can hope for. I’ve been feeling badly about my silence here, especially because that silence–which I’m now breaking–isn’t exactly without cause. My friends, 2013 will be the year in which I will not knit a stitch. (What now, old knitting blog old pal? You’re not exactly the travel blog you were born to be. You can be something else.)
I haven’t (recently) had some cataclysm of disenchantment, and stand here shocked, splattered with epiphanic muck. Nor have I lost the use of my hands in some unspeakable accident. But, over the past six months, I’ve lost the need to read knitting blogs, keep pace with my twitter feed, or know which patterns are in the Ravelry Top Five.
But it isn’t just Internet fatigue–it’s not just that I’m tired of trying to drink from this bundle of fire hoses. I’ve noticed that in my case–and I’m speaking only for myself–that that kind of knitting I find myself doing is a bad habit, a pernicious habit.
Them’s strong words. But hear me out.
It’s commonly been said (here, by me, all the time) that knitting is an apotropaic act–that it’s something we do in times of trial in order to keep hard times at bay. It’s something concrete and pragmatic to do in a crisis, a means of rehabilitation, and a welcome distraction from life’s other demands. It’s making warmth and building community.
It’s certainly been that for me. I didn’t want to move to a new town when I was 15, but couldn’t do anything about it, so I knit a bed worth of blanket squares. I was frustrated in love, so I knit a sweater. I worried about my research, so, instead, I knit a pair of socks. I was in love with another boy, so I knit a stuffed-animal cat and some stuffed-animal birds (true). I worried about traveling to Germany and knit a blanket. I rode my bike across Germany and knit 6 pairs of socks. I resented a roommate’s boyfriend and made a shawl. I worried about exams and made another shawl. I resented another roommate and made another shawl. While I worried about graduate school applications, my place in the academy, and the academy’s place in the world, I churned through endless pairs of socks, gloves, and a dress.
And so on.
It isn’t that every work I’ve wrought is a full-blown exorcism, laced with my poisonous feeling du jour (“Here, friend, have a hate-sweater.” I promise, neither my blood nor my choler is on your gifted knitwear.). My full-to-bursting pine chest of sweaters, hats, and socks isn’t a Pandora’s box of embodied anxiety. But I’ve found that, for me, knitting acts as a form of stress amplification instead of stress relief. Instead of distracting me from my worries, it gives me the mindspace to endlessly brood over them, all while providing visual proof–in the form of a physical, useful, item, no less–that I’m getting something done.
Plus, I’ve spent six years voraciously learning everything I could about knitting. At the end of all the unlocked achievements (cast ons, bind offs, finishing, stranded and intarsia colorwork, double knitting, aran cables, Bavarian twisted stitches, Estonian lace, all the Barbara Walker, two-socks-simultaneously like in War and Peace, knitwear design, spinning, dyeing, shepherding) was, as you’d guess, a satisfying fluency in the craft. But something had changed. I could read all I wanted–it was all beautiful, but nothing was new. I understood it all. Knitting, to me, wasn’t art or self-expression any more. It was a compulsive habit that had become something that felt a lot like that self-imposed slavery, addiction.
I’ve got an incredible ability to focus and a dogged, enduring sort of energy. Like everyone else, I’ve also got a nearly infinite capacity for anxiety. Knitting, for just about as long as I’ve been doing it, has been a perfect, enormous energy sink–procrastination masquerading as productivity. I think I’ve known it all along, in the back of my mind. All that I mulled and fretted over as I stitched, I could have been working to fix and change. Instead, I’ve sat in passivity, and wound up with more handmade accoutrements than I could ever need. And this handmade life I’ve been living? I haven’t found that it imbued with one more ounce of meaning and grace than any other (No, really, no, not at all. SO, whence meaning and grace? A: Other people.).
You know how at the end of Matilda, Matilda isn’t able to move things with her mind anymore? Instead of discharging her excess mental energy via eyeball-zapping telekinesis, she’s finally got harder schoolwork, which uses it up. And that’s a good thing. I think I’ve been using up a majority of my focus, energy, and creativity in my knitting (Zap Zap, four sweaters for Christmas presents). I mean, have you seen my output? It is incredible, not because I’m incredible, but because I’m relentless.
But, tomorrow, I’m starting on a path that will take my every ounce of work and devotion. So, until I’m ready to come back, I quit.
December 10, 2012 § 8 Comments
You all know that I am basically only capable of expressing my love in one way.
But did you also know that, when I knit, I’m strong enough to bend steel needles? I didn’t.
November 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
Did I ever tell you that Zac and I were hand-piecing and hand-sewing a quilt together?
It’s the Irish Chain pattern from Modern Quilts, Traditional Inspiration.
Just in case the sentimental factor isn’t sky high enough, I stole Zac’s rattiest work shirt and cut it up, so it’ll be the accent bit of blue.
The very idea of co-quilting a quilt is, in my mom’s words, “DisGUSting!”
“Is it a divorce-quilt?” asked a friend of mine, over drinks, when I told her about it.
But I think they both meant it in an affectionate way.
I mean, it isn’t yet.