Thursday, 24 February 2011

On Forgiveness, Sex, & Love

Remembering arguments with Luke (for which she sometimes hungers, the narrator tells us), she says, "We were both feeling miserable. How were we to know we were happy, even then?" (202) For all of this novel's ambiguities, I definitely feel that Atwood equates happiness with freedom, or with certain freedoms--all relative, of course, she reminds us.

The narrator and Luke were happy then, as they prepared an escape, I presume, because they still had choices--a sense of agency, freedom, and control in their lives. "This does not seem as if it ought to be the true shape of the world," she soon tells us, reflecting on the present in contrast to the past (212). Even as the narrator relinquishes some of her self and much (or all?) of her power to this new regime, she knows and acknowledges that the world before was a markedly better world; that is her small bit of agency left, all that remains.

Chapter Thirty-Two closes with the line, "I feel buried" (223). The narrator increasingly loses ownership of her self--a kind of dying a slow death.

After she talks with Ofglen about Janine, the narrator comments, "People will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning" (227). Atwood seems to suggest throughout the novel that meaning in our lives comes from intimate relationships (with partners, children, friends) and from having some say in who we are and what we do. It is without these things that life has no meaning, as life for the people in Gilead has lost or is rapidly losing its meaning for inhabitants--at least for the women. (The Commander seems reasonably happy with his life.)

While the Commander describes women and girls "saved by childbearing", the narrator reflects on what is absent when sex is merely a woman's duty and when the fertility and productivity of her body are her only worth (233). Nuns, celibate and therefore outside the world of sex altogether, are treated like witches in Gilead and forced to recant or go to the Colonies. They are broken. This society uses sex as function and the dehumanization of women to control them. Women are without agency. Without any at all (save the confines of their own minds, we hope, though even there, our narrator is losing ground).

The Commander makes love sound "trivial", like "a frill", "a whim", but in fact, the narrator reverses his definition, saying, "It was on the contrary, heavy going. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself" (237). This is one of the central paradoxes in Atwood's book: even though falling in love sounds like a loss of self, it is in fact one of the greatest demonstrations of the human capacity for agency--choosing to be vulnerable, allowing oneself to love another. I share Atwood's admiration for the human ability to 'fall in love' and the ways in which it can be distinguished from a loss of power or a loss of self (all of which reminds me of Boland's poem 'Against Love Poetry' and its acknowledgment of the inherent contradiction in loving someone deeply and keeping all of yourself for yourself). Maybe love is both at once: a loss and a gain. Maybe we best express our humanity in this willingness to exert strength (emotional, spiritual, psychological) in the direction of loving another human being.

Along these lines, in my view anyway, sex is loving and healthy and good when it is a choice for both people involved, when it is an expression of love or intimacy, when there is freedom to give and to receive (and when both happen), and when both people have the freedom to engage or disengage. I think closeness (intimacy), committed relationships, and communication can be ideal in sex but not that these are absolute requirements. I would venture to say that the most important aspect of good sex is a balance of power between parties--even if roles and power balances are exchanged as part of the shared experience. When and if ever sex happens as one person's assertion of power and control over another to the extent of making the dominated person feel unsafe, uncomfortable, unhappy, or inhuman, I would be extremely skeptical of a view of the interaction as positive for anyone (the dominator, the dominated, the society).

As for forgiveness, I wonder if practicing forgiveness is an even greater demonstration of agency--the greatest, even, of all (as the narrator suggests earlier in the story).

Friday, 18 February 2011

On Forgiveness in 'A Handmaid's Tale'

One of my favorite passages in this novel arrives suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere in Chapter Twenty-Three:
"Forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. 

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing" (144-145). 

Nothing about this novel seems to do with forgiveness so far, and we're about half way through. Why, then, does the narrator (Offred for now) present what seems to be a pivotal, climactic statement about a seemingly disparate theme?

This is what Atwood does in this story, though. The mood is unsettling. So is the language. We never fully know what is happening, what has happened, or what to make of it all. We both know the narrator intimately and fail to know her. She believes in contradictions. She speaks in paradoxes.

Perhaps one place where we have indeed seen forgiveness so far has to do with Luke and the notion of fidelity. When the narrator bumps into Nick in the night, illegally, she finds that she is physically attracted to him, but she says, quickly, to her husband, "'Luke, you'd know, you'd understand'" (110). In other words, Luke would forgive a transgression of this kind. Soon she adds that "It's lack of love we die from" and that there's "nobody here [she] can love" (113). So the story in part is about whether or not a person can forgive his beloved for a physical betrayal and about whether or not that betrayer can forgive herself...

I wonder, too, if this introduction of forgiveness as a significance in the story raises questions about whether or not this society can be absolved--whether or not individuals, people, whole cultures can be forgiven for what they do.


Monday, 14 February 2011

On Owning Your Own Mind, If Nothing Else

We have just started reading Margaret Atwood's work of speculative fiction, The Handmaid's Tale. The dystopian world with which we become quickly acquainted in early chapters is a place of oppression and fear, a place where people conform to the system or hang from ropes on The Wall, white bags over their heads, making them faceless and strangely doll-like.

I am reminded of other things I've read, namely George Orwell's 1984 and the Charlotte Perkins Gilman story I read again recently for this class, "The Yellow Wallpaper". In both narratives we meet oppressed characters trying to hang onto their sanity, at least within the confines of their own minds (if in no other way).

I am struck by this character (like Jane and like Winston) into whose mind we have access; as readers, we are privy to the thoughts therein.

On one hand, she says in Chapter One, "I try not to think too much"; on the other, her "longings" break through the narrative from the beginning, whether or not she intends for them to: "I long for [such talk]", "I hunger to commit the act of touch", "I looked at the cigarette with longing", and "such moments are the rewards I hold out for myself" (17, 21, 21, 24, 31).

The narrative is also punctuated by the words "I remember", as if remembering and longing are distinctly personal and distinctly human--as if they might keep her from losing herself entirely.

By Chapter Seven, she is more explicit about the power she reserves in her own mind: "The night is mine, my own time, to do with as I will, as long as I am quiet [...] The night is my time out. Where should I go?" (47) In this case, she describes the power to time travel back into memories.

In an oft-quoted passage, she juxtaposes these contradictions: "It isn't a story I'm telling" and "It's a story I'm telling, in my head, as I go along" (49). The narrator both needs to believe her experience is only a story and knows that she cannot, that it is not. This is a particular kind of managing sanity, it seems to me.

Perhaps we all need to practice.

Memory indeed aids the narrator and gives her power (if of a limited variety). For example, remembering that Luke, her husband, told her about Mayday coming from the French M'aidez (meaning "help me") provides a certain solace (in terms of remembering her beloved) and a certain empowerment to do with language--the words themselves for "help me" (54).

At this point in the novel, I am nervous about the Commander, nervous about the Wife, nervous about the powers behind this entire system, and nervous generally about the narrator, who--we learn soon--is called "Offred" in her new post.

As with Winston and Jane in those other stories, I most want this narrator to survive, to endure and prevail because she is able to keep herself real and alive and honest within the confines of her own mind, because no one (I hope) can take that from her.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

On Perfectionism & the Personal-Political Blur

Sometimes I think the only thing not political is the natural world. I like to read Mary Oliver's poem 'Wild Geese' over and over again (and when it's not in front of me, to try and say it to myself--always a bit wrong and a bit out of order, but maybe that's her whole point; it's okay).

Maybe we could just read some nice Bronte novels for this class and call it a day. But I don't know. I don't know if we can. Whenever I start peering very closely into women's literature, I find myself up against that mantra of the women's movement: that the personal is political. In other words, these aren't just individual stories full of random and isolated ideas or incidents; these are people, ideas, and incidents to do with the very culture in which we live as well as its governance, written and unwritten.

One of the prevalent issues on a broad scale in this literature, it seems to me, is a cultural insistence on perfectionism, imprisonment by perfectionism, hatred of the self and others as a result of perfectionism, and violence against the self and others as a result of perfectionism (just to begin the list). And this perfectionism feels to me like a woman's issue more than a man's. (This isn't to say that it is a woman's issue more than a man's. In my experience as a reader and as a person so far, this has seemed true while I fully acknowledge that there are probably many prevalent, even related challenges to do with being a man these days.)

In cultures like ours--in schools like ours--it seems to me a particularly girl-focused demand for perfectionism (though I've certainly heard about boys straining under similar pressures as well). To speak in very broad terms, during my own years in schools like this one, it seemed that there was a more generous allowance in terms of expectations for boys to be messy or angry or inconsiderate or slobbish or tired or whatever at times, while girls labored under tighter expectations for neatness, kindness, tact, prettiness, and perkiness. (I could be wrong.) Girls at my college suffered eating disorders in droves and seemed to throw themselves more recklessly than boys into their do-or-die mission to win perfect GPAs. It all made me wonder what we've told girls to be and whether or not we've given guys a bit more room to be human. (Yet now I question both.)

Thinking back on growing up in my home, I see that both of my parents, mother and father, were trying pretty hard to be perfect, actually, but according to different definitions. The one for my mom went something like: sacrificing, domestic, beautiful, thin, put-together, persevering, unflappable, endlessly hopeful and positive, unfailingly kind, pure, and modest. The one for my dad went something like: strong, capable, problem-solving, bread-winning, clear-headed, fit and healthy, controlled, powerful, wise, doggedly loyal, and totally omniscient. I'm not sure which list I'd rather have. They're both horribly impossible.

I can't help but wonder when I look around what messages kids (and maybe all of us) are getting about what it means to be good. What messages have parents accepted about what it means? What messages are all around us all the time without our knowing? I worry about this.

So for myself (again), for my students, and for all our parents, here it is:

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Friday, 4 February 2011

On 'Black Swan', Repression, & 'The Yellow Wallpaper' (2)

After the narrator (in 'The Yellow Wallpaper') says, "You see he does not believe I am sick!"she follows: "And what can one do?"

Variations of this question become a kind of mantra in the story. Yet every time the narrator utters one of these dismissive phrases, her Shadow counters with something like: "But I must say what I feel and think in some way -- it is such a relief!"

It is, at first, not the narrator (she thinks and we think) behind the wallpaper but a "shape", "like a woman". But increasingly, we learn that it is, in fact, "a woman", until the narrator says quite explicitly, "...but now I am quite sure it is a woman." Even then, it is not the narrator (she thinks and we think) behind the wallpaper until the narrator increasingly mirrors the behaviors of "the woman" in the wallpaper, until she "[gets] up and [runs] to help [her]".

At last, we hear that she has "come out of the wallpaper". In the final lines, she says, "I've got out at last."

As ever, I wonder about the story after the story.

Nina dies from the shard of glass she has shoved through her tutu.

The narrator in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' presumably keeps "creeping" over her husband John, who has fainted, "every time!"

Yet what happens after Nina's body goes lifeless at the back of that stage--the white tutu blooming with her blood--for her, for her "mommy", for the director who pushed her (at least in part) to this place, this death?

And what happens to Jane, if that is indeed her name, when John comes to from his swoon?

On 'Black Swan', Repression, & 'The Yellow Wallpaper'

My novelist friend Selden really loves Carl Jung. (I got him a Carl Jung action figure once, actually, from Urban Outfitters or some funky little shop in Santa Barbara; I can't remember which.) And Carl Jung, I learned from Selden (and later from reading), has this thing about The Shadow: that part of ourselves that we learn is not desirable and so cram into the depths...

I think about this a lot. Once you know about the Jungian Shadow, you want to figure out what yours is and help it out. But sometimes you don't know how. (And sometimes people get to helping theirs 'out' without meaning to at all.)

In the film 'Black Swan', Nina, always a white swan, begins to explore her Shadow (her black swan) for her lead role in 'Swan Lake'. I'm struck by the factors and presences pushing and pulling Nina into and out of her Shadow: namely, her creepy, infantilizing mother and her abusive, seducing director. (All of these roles are brilliantly well played.)

Nina doesn't get to explore her proverbial dark side in any remotely safe or healthy ways. Her mother has trapped her inside a pink, endless childhood--her bedroom full of stuffed animals, her mother physically dressing and undressing her, with Nina calling her 'mommy' in a needy, babyish voice (the only thing, it seems, that will talk her mother back from the extreme edge of her bouts of rage).

Nor can Nina explore her Shadow in the world of the ballet--dominated by the forceful and dangerous director and a cut-throat group of ballerinas, many of whom seem to share Nina's eating disorder and her willingness to do anything to be on top in the company.

So from the beginning, is there any chance for Nina? At the end of the ballet, the swan queen can only find freedom in death: a fate that Nina shares. I watched an interview (from The Telegraph, I think) with Natalie Portman, who expressed her own commitment to Nina's breakthrough in the story, her realization that she can only aim to please herself.

Huh? Natalie Portman, this is not a happy story. As in Greek tragedy, Nina's fate is sealed from the beginning (and as in Shakespeare, we still want to watch it unfold, even though we know).

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famous short story, written in 1899, the narrator, like Nina, can only lose herself entirely or free herself (in part) by creating an alternate reality in her own mind. She is fighting the same losing battle. Or is she?

All over literature is the suggestion of freedom through death, suicide, or madness. Shouldn't we all be terrified? The Jungian Shadow, we understand, will sometimes claw its way to the surface and demand a place--like Mr. Hyde does with Dr. Jekyll.

The narrator gets out of that damned wallpaper, even at the cost of her former self. When Nina crosses over to the dark side ('perfection' in the film) and becomes the black swan (literally and metaphorically in the film), she (like the swan queen) falls to her death. Is this a kind of escape similar to the kind of escape for Gilman's narrator?

More on this shortly...

Tuesday, 1 February 2011