Road Trip Reads

In Books on June 9, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I was called to the glittering, bustling metropolis of Turlock for a conference, which is a charming seven-hour drive through LA from the cow-town I call home, so Jane volunteered her trusty heat-seated Honda and we peeled out at 4:45 a.m.  After a pit-stop in Castaic, where I was informed that I would not be allowed to order my breakfast burrito sans gravy and cheese, we scooted up the 99 and I took out Curiosities of Literature, by John Sutherland.  (Traffic on the 5 and lack of coffee make Jane really edgy, so no Atlas Shrugged for us.)

I opened up the book and decided to read the first chapter that I came to, which was Sex and the Victorians.  (How refreshing.)  It was here that we learned that sex began in 1964, and that considering Ian McEwan’s TMI descriptions of a Victorian couple’s wedding night, it was probably close to 1984 before the veil of feminine mystique was finally lifted before his pathological eyes.[1]  There were a few other gems of literary interest, such as the fact that George Eliot’s second husband (twenty years her junior) attempted to commit suicide on their wedding night and that Gabriel Rossetti deposited a few poems addressed to a prostitute in his wife’s coffin, only to later have her disinterred so he could get them back.  Jane and I had a spirited debate about the desirability of a wedding night wherein one’s groom to attempt suicide in contrast to the post-mortem insult of having him leave poems he’s written to his trollops in one’s final resting place.

Thrilling as it was to read about the influences of sexual dysfunction in Victorian literary society (since we know nothing of that in this enlightened age), I decided that maybe chronological order was the better way to go, so I flipped back to Chapter 1 after lightening the atmosphere with Florence and the Machine.

Chapter 1: Literary Baked Meats.  Spam, it turns out, has a long and intellectual history, beginning with E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, when Len and Jacky sit down and enjoy ‘soup square and freckled tongue’ (read: a boullion cube and pre-The Jungle tinned, processed-meat with a square of fat), and that Bovril’s name finds its etymology in the Latin word for meat (‘bos’) and the quasi-electrical body-fluid (‘vril’) of the flying, quasi-reptilian alien females portrayed in Bulwer-Lytton’s practically-unknown novel, The Coming Race.[2] 

From the consumption and marketing of various food products, the author (logically, if not tastefully) takes us to the history of their digestion and defecation among the literary greats, citing Henry James’ chronic constipation and the poignant death-scene of the poet Robert Henryson.  Henryson, who was succumbing to the ravages of dysentery, had, in his extremity, called in a medium.  Her inspired and original prescription for his ailment was to tell him to walk around the whikey tree in his yard, chanting, ‘Whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this fluxe from me.’  Infuriated by this facile suggestion, he used what little strength he had left to sarcastically inquire if it wouldn’t do as well to walk around his kitchen table the same number of times, chanting, ‘Oken burd oken burd Garre me shite me an hard turde.’[3]  Being an author himself (and therefore mindful of just how great is the influence of one’s reputation on one’s royalties), Sutherland assures us that there was nothing improper in the fixation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, et. al. with their bowels, and even cites Martin Luther’s less-well-known one liner: “Warum rülpset und furzet ir nicht, hat es euch den nicht geschmecket?”[4] 

Not wanting even the faintest remnants of my girlish illusions about these heroes of the English language to remain intact, I crossed my fingers and said, “I hope we get to talk about vomit next!”  I didn’t get my wish, but I did get something rather like it, as I happened upon the legend of Thomas Hardy’s heart, which says that the coroner left his heart in a biscuit tin, which was prised open by his cat, Cobweb, who ate the heart.  Apparently, the gravedigger found out about it, wrung the cat’s neck, and buried it in Hardy’s place.  Sutherland here evinced keen deductive skill (not commonly found in novelists) and debunked the legend by pointing out not many cats possess either the willpower or dexterity to be able to prise off the lid of a biscuit tin.

 Here are some other little known facts:

  • Ian Fleming plated his typewriter in gold.
  • John Stuart Mill’s housemaid deliberately burnt up the first 261 pages of Carlyle’s manuscript of his The French Revolution.  When it was due to the publisher’s in a week.  And he hadn’t made any copies.  FHL.
  • Tolstoy’s wife, Sophie, copied out War and Piece 7 times.  560,000 words.  7 times.

[1] Ian McEwan was the author of On Chesil Beach and Atonement, the latter of which was made into a film with Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy.

[2] Bulwer-Lytton was the guy who said, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’

[3] ‘Oaken board oaken board go on and s*** me a hard turd.’

[4] “Why do you not belch and fart; did you not enjoy the meal?”


Brooke and Jane (Eyre) Go To The Movies

In Books, Mental Mai Tais on March 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Jane Eyre and Ray La Montagne opened a few weekends ago to limited release.  I had to see it first before anybody else, so Jane and I got all tarted up, grabbed Sarah and drove to LA.  I had three Diet Cokes that morning, so I wasn’t fit to drive, which is how I got put in the backseat, and since I couldn’t move, I talked.  That’s how Sarah got the video – once I’ve edited out the profanity (Jane talks like a trucker on the third day of a junk-food fast), I’ll post it.

Adapting a classic novel into a film is an epic suckfest for any director – you’re either going to try to do something wholly original and alienate at least fifty percent of your demographic; you’re going to try to remain faithful to the book and want to claw your skin from your face because your highly-paid, highly-sensitive actors are going to feel as though they’re not free to express themselves, or you’re going to try to create a commercially successful film which will elicit endless sniping from the op-ed columnists and absolutely kill your Rotten Tomatoes percentage.   It’s not easy to repeat the triumph of A&E’s Pride & Prejudice, and to be brutally honest, I really hope no one does.  For reasons best known to someone smarter than me, that damn film has somehow been granted canonical status, and nearly every bit of resulting fan-fic has somehow managed to incorporate it into the author’s pathetic attempts to recreate Austen’s characters.  I have no interest in watching that happen with Jane Eyre, and for this reason, I’m disposed to being super-lenient when it comes to critiquing film adaptations.

We thought it was pretty well done.  I, for one, think that Joe Wright ought to get a cut of the profits, because Cary Fukunaga blatantly ripped him off – there was enough soft lighting to satisfy Loretta Lynn on her worst day; every third shot of Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane) was backlit (apparently someone told him lifestyle shots are chic, now) – he even used the same composer.  Easily the most unsubtle attempt at cinematic-plagiarism I’ve ever seen.  He did mix it up a bit by telling the story in a non-linear fashion, which was both refreshing and appropriate, considering how Jane’s character develops over the novel, and he stayed pretty true to the book.

It’s too bad that Jane didn’t take my bet, because there was no wet-shirt scene.  Instead (in between snippets of Gretchen Wilson and Fleetwood Mac [someone didn’t put their iPhone on silent]), we got treated to a scene of Mia Wasikowski (voss-eh-KOV-ski) trying to sneak a peek at Michael’s boy-parts, which I thought was terribly rude.  I didn’t see him ogling the twins; if she’d have caught him trying to watch her button her chemise she would’ve slammed the door in his face.  Dame Judi Dench didn’t get nearly enough air time (though Fukunaga did try to do more with her character by making her less austere and more matronly), but she did well, as we knew she would.  I can’t say that I thought the gentleman who played St. John Rivers quite handsome enough to do the part justice, but he did a good job portraying the well-meaning, ascetic hierophant who tries to win Jane to a life of religious passion.  His foil, the Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst, was also well-done, but came across as more awkward than cruel and domineering (directors heretofore have usually cast him as a straight-up sphincter [no pun intended], so perhaps this was Fukunaga’s way of attempting a more charitable interpretation of the character).

Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) did a great job as Rochester – he made very good attempts at rudeness, curbed vulgarity and a rough manner; he has an expressive face and can portray fierceness, levity, and charm in good turn; he was sarcastic and bitter, winsome and genteel, all without missing a beat.

So why Fukunaga decided to sack him and have Ray LaMontagne do the reunion scene, I’m not quite sure.

So, Jane Eyre has just paid the modern-day equivalent of the taxi-driver the modern-day equivalent of his month’s rent to take her from the modern-day equivalent of a Howard Johnson to the modern-day equivalent of a house in the Hamptons.  She stumbles along, eyes blinded to the beauty of an English countryside spring, looking for her lost love, and what does she find?

A hipster.

A bona-fide, dyed-in-the-wool, I-used-Arcade-Fire-for-my-documentary-soundtrack-in-2007 hipster, complete with the comb-over and the jeggings and the most magnificent beard you ever saw.  Sitting bolt upright (no angsty slouch for Rochie), oxfords at an appropriate angle, hand resting on a cane so vintage you never even missed the pipe.

I was really grateful that the entire theater started sniggering, because no amount of Jane’s pinching and Sarah’s exasperated eye-rolling was going to get me to stop.  I mean, I know we’re aiming for a certain look and attitude with the rain and the mist and gloom and the Seasonal-Affectiveness Disorder, but damn – I half-expected him to whip out a Fender and start crooning ‘Rock and Roll Radio’.  It was at this point that I heard Stevie Nicks and the rest of the gang start shouting, ‘You can go your own waaaaayyyyyyy, go your own waaay-eeeaaaaaaayyyyy…’  and I really lost it, and as Jane was getting seriously pissed, I excused myself and went out to covet the theater’s display of the Criterion Collection.

Girl Talk (The Non-Greg Gillis Sort)

In Books on March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

(Dorothy Sayers was pretty cool – she wrote mystery stories, hung out with C.S. Lewis, enjoyed a good pipe and sherry, and was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford.  Two of her lectures, compiled in a small book (and by ‘small’, I mean a good freaking gust of wind will blow it down to 5th Avenue, so be sure to sit inside the coffee shop when you read it) entitled Are Women Human? are the subject of the following essay.)

I was playing with my friend’s pipe in the bookstore where he’s a manager, alternately staring into the tobacco bowl and pointing the shank at him emphatically.  I had just popped it between my teeth when one of our professors walked in.  He started for a moment, as this was the first time in our four-year acquaintance he’d seen me with a pipe in my mouth.  “Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “do you smoke?”  “’Course,” I said, in a bald-faced lie.  “I’m a good Presbyterian girl.”  He laughed.  “Just like Dorothy Sayers, huh?”

I knew that Sayers was a good friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I hadn’t known that she smoked – or that she was a Presbyterian (she wasn’t).  That she smoked is understandable, certainly – a woman who spent a great deal of time with British academics in the 1930s had to learn to like the smell of tobacco, whether it was considered ladylike or not.  Since Sayers had already singled herself out by graduating from Oxford, dabbling in popular theology and spending the majority of her time in the company of men (singularly gifted men, at that), she may not have considered pipe-smoking the most extraordinary thing she’d ever done.  Being ordinary was never really her scene, so it’s always fascinated me that the ‘ordinariness’ of women should have been a particular theme to emerge from her writing.

It’s that very subject that’s the focus of her essay, ‘Are Women Human?’  In this address, given in 1938 to an unidentified women’s society, she writes that much of the confusion that has lately arisen regarding the role of women in society would be easily dispelled if people would simply refrain from determining the spectrum of women’s interests by their sex.  Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t follow that she may not wear pants, study Aristotle, or become a mechanic – her essential femaleness is not, in itself, an inhibitor for her doing any of these things.  Much has been said about the psychology behind the recent phenomenon of women’s participation in activities that have commonly fallen within the province of men, and Sayers writes that the most popular explanation for their interest is that ‘women are just copying men’.

Her first response is to deny this – certainly, women may be ‘copying’ men in the sense that the men wore pants and went to university first, but (if they are reasonable women) their reason for doing so is that (like men) they find pants more comfortable than skirts, and their particular intellectual interests have compelled them to further study that can only be had in a university.  The fact that they’re pursuing a path generally trod by their brothers hasn’t factored into their decision.  But even supposing that assertion to be true, what else would you have women do?  Sayers asks. The domestic vocations that have traditionally occupied them (i.e., growing and preparing food, managing their estates, designing and manufacturing clothing) have all been appropriated and industrialized by men.  Their ‘estates’ have gone from self-sufficient farms to two-bedroom flats.  Even if all of them wanted to remain at home and raise their families, the lack of necessity for constant attention to home-maintenance and the inability to comfortably house a large family makes their confinement to the hearth unreasonable.

Moreover, Sayers writes, there’s nothing very extraordinary about a woman’s wishing to pursue a professional (as opposed to a domestic) vocation.  While it’s true that many of them choose not to study biomedical engineering or a career in the money market, (and indeed, are not suited to doing so) the appearance of a woman in these fields shouldn’t generate controversy.  A common trait is just that – a common trait, not a universal constant.  True, most women prefer to marry and raise children – but it doesn’t follow that a woman can or ought not, by virtue of her femininity, to enter academia and business.  Women are human beings, like men, and have the same needs and desires that expect fulfillment.

It’s this last point that Sayers belabors to an almost fatiguing degree – ‘women are human beings’.  This staggering revelation forms the bedrock principle behind her entire argument and (from the fact that she brings it up every two paragraphs) is the material point that she believes deserves the greatest consideration – the fact that women are human beings. Since women share common physical, intellectual and emotional needs with men, it shouldn’t surprise them (men) that they want to do the same things that men do.  They need food, shelter, and exercise; they desire ‘interesting occupation, a reasonable freedom for their pleasures, and a sufficient emotional outlet.’  Women may seek to fulfill these needs and desires in different ways, but the ultimate object remains the same.

This is all very well, and I agree with her – men and woman are both human beings, and certainly share similar desires and interests.  My objections are not with her argument per se, but with the suppositions upon which she builds it – first, that there is such a thing as a non-sexual human being (as though one could contemplate a human that was both not-man and not-woman), and second, that it’s by virtue of the similarity of female humanity to male humanity that women ought to be accorded the same respect and opportunities as men.

While both sexes are human, I think it particularly important to the dignity of both to remember that there are male humans and female humans, and that while there’s much we share, there’s much we don’t.  Sociologists, feminists, and citizens of the Ivory Tower are very fond of harping on the ‘socialization of the sexes’, and how our differences are greatly exaggerated by the ideals propagated therefrom.  This is very true, and has certainly caused trouble in ages past.  However, I don’t think it in our best interest, having hit one end of the spectrum, to spin about and go sprinting down to the other end – while society does tend to exaggerate our differences, it didn’t create them.  The answer is not to boil each other down to our lowest common denominator and relate from there – it’s to learn how to appreciate one another’s differences and be willing to work within the parameters that they create.  To do otherwise degrades the unique qualities of both and fosters the false belief that if we could just rid ourselves of our disparities, there’d be a significant decrease in the amount of friction in many male-female relationships.  Our problem is not our differences, but rather the sinfulness that insists upon their mortification for the sake of the individual.

Sayers’ exhaustive illustrations of the many ways in which women are similar to men almost led me to believe that her argument was founded not upon her firm belief that women are human beings, but upon her demonstration that women are human beings in the same way that men are. That is to say, women exemplify their humanity in the same way that men do, therefore, they ought to be afforded the same opportunities and considerations.  This is true, certainly – Sayers demonstrates that effectively – but it’s a poor argument, since it unconsciously affirms the very thing that Sayers would like to deny; namely, the superiority of the humanity of men above the humanity of women.  If I understood her correctly, she appears to have held male humanity as the standard against which the dignity of female humanity was judged against.  It would better serve her purpose to argue that the dignity of women does not lie in the fact that they are human in the same way that men are human, but in the fact that like men, they too bear the image of the living, triune God.  While female humanity shares much with her male counterpart, that oughtn’t to be the reason for which she’s granted the right to pursue whatever life she will.  To do so is to impose an essential hierarchy (where we are told that, in Christ, none exists) and to hold women to a standard they can’t attain to.

Sayers’ aim in this essay is to establish the point that women, by virtue of their humanity, ought to be accorded every appropriate courtesy and opportunity to express their intrinsic natural needs and desires.  They are not superior to men; neither are they inferior, and while the majority of them may choose to satisfy the essential urges of their humanity in a manner different from that of men, it doesn’t follow that all of them must do so.  If a woman evinces herself capable of doing a job traditionally performed by a man, she ought to be allowed the opportunity to do it, and not denied on the grounds that she’s a woman.  While I have some reservations about the latter part of this thesis, I have no argument with it generally.

My concern lies with the premises supporting the conclusion – the premise that the dignity of women is founded in their shared humanity with men.  Sayers’ presence was welcomed in the Inklings’ discussions because she showed herself to be Lewis’ and Tolkien’s intellectual companion, but part of what distinguished it was the fact that hers was a female presence.  Her sex set her apart, not because she was a sensitive woman and Lancelyn Green, Barfield, et. al. were a lot of quasi-anencephalic brutes, but because her person, intellect, and conversation all testified to the glory of her Creator and the equanimity with which he dispenses his gifts.  While her femininity certainly didn’t determine her opinions on Dante or the method with which she analyzed Malory and Beowulf, its influence leant a perspective and nuance to her interactions with texts and authors, which (judging from the fact that they welcomed her repeatedly over the course of several years) they probably appreciated.  She, in turn, likely reaped treasures untold from her fellowship with men who were celebrated for their wisdom and piety as much as their literary accomplishments.  These are the sorts of rich rewards that are to be had when men and women take care to respect and appreciate one another’s humanity, not because our similarities make it reasonable, but because we see Christ in our differences.