Monday, 28 May 2012

Call Me Clarissa (a prose poem)

(in memory of my sixteenth year & in memory of Sally)

It was almost June in London--What she loved; life; London; this 
moment.  Beauty was everywhere; beneath and within; all around
the air; one could breathe it in (as she would do, again and again--
as she always had--remembering the way breath felt that summer
as never again it would; it would be rich; it would be stimulating;
but it would never again wake the heart from its sleeping depths).

What a lark! What a plunge! had it been at sixteen to come alive
to the summer around her; to hear music as if for the first time; 
to lavish summer air and heat against her own skin; to be afraid
of the rush, the radical, racing ride of feelings she had never felt;
to wonder if they would vanish just as quickly, like a dream: such
was her darknessThere was an emptiness about the heart of life; 
an attic room: literally an attic room, with her great-grandmother's
day bed tucked against the low window, the moon peering in; 
pooling against the splintery floor; washing her skin in silver
light. She would light up a cigarette, stashed between cushions
and drag deeply on the filter: it might be possible that the world 
itself is without meaning, she thought. She would hug her knees. 
It is the privilege of loneliness; this late hour when everyone else
is sleeping; in privacy one may do as one chooses. The light has
a kind of caress (and wasn't she craving being touched?); freedom
in silence and stillness and the low hum of insects--this summer,
the summer she learned to drive; the whole world pouring over
her forehead and through her hair on those winding roads; music
all her own (the first bands she'd adored) and how possible every-
thing seemed. (Blues Traveler would sing, "The sun is warm
as the day is long, and I just got the feeling I could do no wrong.")
Everything was heat and pressure and waves and waves of feeling;
all was feeling; was there anything else? How unbelievable death 
was!--that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know 
how she had loved it all; how, every instant... She tucked her toes
into the crevices of the day bed, fiddled with the half-empty lighter, 
looked into the open arms of the trees, their heavy silhouettes against
the sky's unearthly blue (like the light in those El Greco paintings
in Art History class; what did Dr. Myers say?--"technicolored
clouds"); What is it? she wondered aloud, softly.  Where am I? 
And why, after all, does one do it? Are we not all prisoners? She
drank of the cigarette, wanting to savor the smoke, remembering
how from that first weekend they'd all tried it at Christy's she hadn't
--couldn't enjoy what she'd hoped would be sublime but seemed
instead to burn in her throat. She rubbed out the burning tip against
the edge of the sill--discrete ash to blend in with the insect carcasses 
and bits of screen. That was it; all of it: What she liked was simply life

Nearly June in London, and she thought only of the unseen part of us;
the great unfathomable space inside each person--all that we feel; all
that we love; all that we do and think about every day; things we do
not say. But--but--why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she 
could discover, desperately unhappy? It washed back over her; Sally
was gone forever, the Kiwi girl with freckles from lower school she 
had so enjoyed whenever they were out with Carrie and the others--
gone with so much lost; so much unfinished; so much unsaid, undone,
left behind. That's it: absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.
So what is this terror? what is this ecstasy? How immense it all is, how
gone in an instant--the whole colossal weight of it undone, vanished
to dust. How it is certain we must die and how valuable, then, how
gorgeous this precious, tiny, whole, extraordinary, ordinary moment. 

So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect 
and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more 
and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies 
in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says 
the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden 
to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows and renews, 
begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing 
bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.

*everything in italics is directly borrowed from Mrs. Dalloway

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Call Me Clarissa

--> I'm gathering lines of text I love for my final double-post. My plan is to write a prose poem of my own, incorporating many of these borrowed lines from Mrs. Dalloway. In the poem, I will explore some of the big ideas in our course. 

"What a lark! What a plunge!" (1)

"What she loved; life; London; this moment of June" (2).

"such was her darkness" (20)

"There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room" (26)

"So on a summer's day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying 'that is all' more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking" (33-34).

"What is it? Where am I? And why, after all, does one do it?" (45)

"Beauty was everywhere" (61).

"that extraordinary gift, that woman's gift, of making a world of her own wherever she happened to be" (66)

"it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning" (77)

"But--but--why did she suddenly feel, for no reason that she could discover, desperately unhappy?" (106)

"What she liked was simply life" (107).

"... how unbelievable death was! --that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant..." (108)

"it is the privilege of loneliness; in privacy one may do as one chooses" (134)

" know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places" (135)

"the unseen part of us" (35)

"Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life" (144).

"...every one was unreal in one way; much more real in another" (151)

"how it is certain we must die" (155)

"Are we not all prisoners?" (170)

"What is this terror? what is this ecstasy?" (171)

Dear Ms. Wollstonecraft

Dear Ms. Wollstonecraft,

I am so moved by what you had to say about and for women in 1792 (in your Vindication of the Rights of Woman). Your call for women who tend towards frivolity "to obtain a character as a human being" is profound, especially for a time when I'm picturing corsets and pantaloons and swooning (5). Maybe you intended a cry to all women, actually. I can only imagine how infuriating it must be to look around you and see women without real or rigorous educations calling them to "a nobler ambition" (2).

I am writing to share a few key points from Vindication that resonate profoundly with me in 2012. First and foremost, I love your notion that "the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex" and have certainly found this to be true (25). I often admire feisty, daring women, whose priorities and strengths have more to do with ideas and action than looks and passivity. You ask, "How then can the great art of pleasing be such a necessary study?" noting that "it is only useful to a mistress" (22). The great art of pleasing, it seems to me, continues to play a significant role in the world today--mostly in negative ways (for women and men). Your Vindication calls us to be authentic, thoughtful, and deeply rooted in a solid sense of self. Indeed, "Liberty is the mother of virtue" (37). What a powerful message for all readers--thank you!

Furthermore, Ms. Wollstonecraft, I appreciate your writing, "I love man as my fellow" (36). All waves of the Women's Movement have taken such a lashing for being (ostensibly) man-hating. (And sure, some feminists have been and are man-hating, but most aren't!) Also, the word "fellow" is so lovely. As I enter into marriage this summer, I love thinking of my partner and husband as my "fellow."

And, as you say, "Every individual is [...] a world in itself," inviting us to "cherish such a habitual respect for [human]kind as may prevent us from disgusting a fellow-creature for the sake of a present indulgence" (58,85). On the whole, Ms. Wollstonecraft, your profound message is about mutual respect and human rights--WAY before your time.

After re-reading Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth recently, juxtaposed with a re-reading of your Vindication, I am so glad you've included all the emphasis on a woman's mind, and not her looks or her age. You write about "the more important years of life, when reflection takes place of sensation" (21). Imagine that--reflection being more prominent than sensation! This, it seems to me, is a higher calling and ambition for us all. I DO value reflection over sensation, but I'm struck by the beauty of your language and the context of this particular part of this message.

Without any further ado for now, Ms. Wollstonecraft, I will say that I am moved by your prose and most of all by your innovative, striking, and deeply influential ideas.

With great admiration & gratitude,
From (& for) many years into the future,
Meghan S. Tally
London, 2012

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Vagina Monologues: Laugh, Weep, Change the World

Every time I read "The Vagina Monologues," I am moved by its plurality. Ensler doesn't take on one story but many stories. She doesn't speak with one voice but many voices. She doesn't speak to one of us but all of us. I think monologues, facts, notes, and dedications fragmented and juxtaposed make it possible to begin "to say the unsayable" and to demystify the language around women's bodies.

I am haunted by the end of Ensler's Introduction: "In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered" (xxxvi). Isn't that just it?

When I first read this play (before I'd seen it), I wasn't expecting violence. Sure, I was expecting raucous humor, shock value, words like "cunt" maybe, but I wasn't expecting violence. I hadn't yet made the connection between the fact that we don't talk about our "down-theres" and the shame and anguish and guilt that accompany the collective experience of women and girls around the world.

I love how, in spite of horrific violence and extraordinary pain, anything is possible in this play... even healing... even changing the world. Maybe it's because of the chalice--a vaginal symbol, so it's appropriate in more ways than one.


The chalice is open, collaborative, communicative, and plural (as opposed to its opposite and counterpart, the closed, individual, and linear blade). These are pagan symbols, representative of long-held notions of femininity and masculinity, yet I'm struck by how relevant they are to Ensler's piece.


Friday, 27 April 2012

On Megan & Bella (III)

Alright, so I admit it. I like Megan now. (I can't really say about Bella so will wait for the next "Twilight.")!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_635/image.jpg

She is a bit of a child, but she's in her twenties in the Sixties, so maybe that's understandable. She is, in other ways, definitely an adult. In recent episodes, we learn that she cares about her job, her colleagues, her work itself, friendship, and real love in marriage. If she is pouty or silly at times, maybe my annoyance is more about me than about "Mad Men."

I feel a lot of compassion for Megan in the recent Howard Johnson's scene, especially knowing that when Don drives off and leaves her there, she is hugely at risk. When he comes back to find her but can't, as he panics, we panic. And when they reunite later in the apartment, his relief is our relief. It is also undeniably clear (for me, for the first time), when he says, "I thought I lost you," grasping her around the waist, that these two people deeply love each other and want to protect and honor one another.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

How Do We Get There? (II)

In her concluding chapter of The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf offers some ideas for a way forward. First, she says, "we must now ask the questions about our place in our bodies that women a generation ago asked about their place in society" (270). I am in awe of the list of questions she suggests, among them: "Is 'beauty' really sex?" and "Does a woman's identity count?" She goes on to encourage us to "separate from the myth what it has surrounded and held hostage" and tells us what some of those things are (271).

I'm relieve to hear Wolf say that she is "not attacking anything that makes women feel good; only what makes us feel bad in the first place. We all like to be desirable and feel beautiful," she says (271). On the next page, she develops this idea: "we must see that it does not matter in the least what women look like as long as we feel beautiful" (272). Wolf isn't tell us to give up everything that makes us feel beautiful; in fact, she wants us to reclaim a range of ways to be beautiful, to make it possible for more women and girls to love ourselves and our bodies, and doesn't that, in turn, mean that we'll have more love to give, which is better for everyone on earth?

After all these pages of research, theory, and detailed experience, Wolf distills her message into a punchy, truth-talking conclusion with lines like: "The real problem is our lack of choice" and "The actual struggle is between pain and pleasure, freedom and compulsion" (272, 273). We should not have to choose between being "sexual" and being "serious."

I've noticed more recently while watching the BBC London News and Channel 4 News that I tend to note the women's appearances in much more detail than the men's. Although I love his flashy ties and socks, I don't really care what Jon Snow looks like, just about what he has to say. I'm much more distracted, I'm sorry to admit, however, by Cathy Newman's tiny arms, facial features, or stilettos. Maybe noticing that I do this is the first step towards breaking it apart. As Wolf notes, "the choices we make about our appearance [are] no big deal," but I have clearly been trained to see them as though they matter a lot (273). What if I could learn not only to diminish the significance of Cathy's appearance in my own mind but also to celebrate what she has to say to others (men and women)? Wouldn't that be a small kind of progress?

Re-reading Wolf's book has reminded me all over how strongly I don't want anyone in this culture (or on this earth, truly) to be hungry, to be violated, to be judged unreasonably, or to be imprisoned inside his or her own body. If we really want a world in which everyone can be free to live, to love, and to be "fully human," we have to first deconstruct the pernicious and pervasive beauty myth that keeps us all down. King said, "A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The same goes for freedom.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

How Do We Get There?

We were talking today in class about some voices in various waves of the Women's Movement that have been and are critical of a range of institutions, like religion and capitalism, and we began discuss some of the challenges involved in changing our world.

During the Civil Rights movement in America, Dr. King articulated what for many of us was and is the dream, but people disagreed (and continue to disagree) about how we get there. I have always been sympathetic towards some of the ideas in Black Power literature, articulated by the likes of Malcolm X. And certainly Anti-Apartheid leaders like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela fall into this category for me. It is inspiring to listen to voices representing an oppressed people, calling us to find a way forward, and in some cases, showing us that way. The violence of both of these race-based movements was and is highly political and controversial. I do not have the answer, but I understand why our questions are so fraught.

For me much of the same is true of the Women's Movement. Various leaders, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Gertrude Stein, have inspired me with their articulations of women's collective experiences and have rallied women and men alike in their cries for a different world. This does not mean--I'm sorry to report, in some ways--that I have burned my bra or absolutely stopped wearing high heels. It does mean that I am more tuned in to gender issues, for better and worse. Perhaps I am more troubled by what I see because I have learned to notice and interpret it. Yet, I hope at least, perhaps I am also, in some small way, empowered to be a part of the solution as we take small steps towards a better and more equitable future...


Friday, 20 April 2012

Some Key Lines from "Killing Us Softly 4" --> Reflection

"Just about everyone feels personally exempt from the influence of advertising."

"[Ads] create an environment we all swim in... a toxic cultural environment."

"Ads sell more than products... They sell concepts of normalcy... They tell us who we are and who we should want to be."

"Women of color are only considered beautiful if they approximate the white ideal."

"Women's bodies are constantly turned into objects."

"Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person."

"The obsession with thinness is about cutting girls down to size."

 "We have an epidemic of eating disorders."

 "Eating has become a moral issue."

"The ultimate impact [of a single version of beauty] is profoundly anti-erotic."

"[If there's only one way to be beautiful on offer], it can hardly be considered a choice to choose it."

"Public health problems can only be solved by changing the environment."

What we can do / What we need:
--become aware
--citizen activism
--media literacy
--"[to become] a public that thinks of themselves as citizens rather than primarily as consumers."


I've been thinking a lot this week (while reading on in The Beauty Myth) about Kilbourne's belief that our sex-obsessed ad culture is "profoundly anti-erotic." Wolf talks about how the ad culture "depends on sexual estrangement" and "is fueled by sexual dissatisfaction." I'm not sure if this makes me want to cry or laugh out loud--probably a little of both. How utterly ridiculous it is that "what they sell is sexual discontent"! (143)

Some of my dearest friends, Gaby & Selden, who live in California, achieve more than anyone I've known what Wolf describes as "real mutuality--an equal gaze, equal vulnerability, equal desire" (152). For them, human beings are human beings, male and female alike. They are aware citizen activists with high media literacy who prize discussion. They think of themselves primarily as citizens, not as consumers (all as Kilbourne suggests is necessary to be free and healthier).

I've also been thinking a lot about the environment and how, as Kilbourne says, "[Ads] create an environment we all swim in... a toxic cultural environment." I knew in high school that girls' and women's magazines were not healthy for me overall, that they were not contributing to a better life or sense of self and so forth, so I gave them up when I was sixteen. Similarly, a couple of years later, I stopped watching television as a college freshmen (which lasted with very few exceptions for fourteen years until my surgery this winter made television more appealing)! Yet I wouldn't say that abstinence is the answer; nor would I say that it really works. Quitting beauty/glossy magazines and television certainly meant I was less exposed to beauty imagery ("beauty pornography"), but it did not mean that I was immune. In my experience, unless you live alone on an island, beauty imagery finds you wherever you are.

I think violence is the most distressing and urgent manifestation of the beauty myth. As Kilbourne states, "Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person," and most of the images we see turn women into things. Wolf, too, will talk more about violence soon--an upcoming chapter is called "Violence"--and we've the presentation(s) from "Solace: Women's Aid" to consider as well as our course continues...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

On Bella & Megan Continued

Back to "Twilight"... I'm worried about two main things in the most recent film: the violence against (and victimization of) Bella and her total emaciation to the point of death. I will say, however, that it's complicated.

Bella has a Jane Eyre-esque sense of self. She is determined to be strong and independent in many ways, determined to make her own choices. She chooses, against Edward's will, to carry their vampire baby. (Yes, if you don't know the film or books, you heard that right.) But Jane and Bella are caught in the same default dependence on men--partly (though not entirely) determined by their circumstances. Mr. Rochester enjoys the immense benefits of his station, and while acknowledging Jane as an intellectual equal, he also manipulates her (expecting her, for instance, to wear the jewels and dresses he selects and purchases) and lies to her (about Bertha, his wife in the attic).

While both Edwards (the vampire and Mr. Rochester) have many attractive qualities, they are confined and conditioned by some hyper-masculine ideology, partly because they are physically strong and luckily wealthy, but also because they are unable to use reason and imagination to free themselves (and to be part of freeing their partnerships) from social constraints (norms and mores).

Edward the vampire seems distraught when he hurts Bella during sex on their honeymoon (ostensibly because he is such a strong and virile vampire that he can't help it), but did the writers and filmmakers consider their complicity in a long sequence of images of brutality against women and girls? I'm worried about this. Bella says it's okay, and I think we're supposed to believe her and/or agree with her, that she is bruised and marked because she wanted to have sex with Edward and isn't upset about the injuries she sustains.

Isn't Jane better off collapsing on the moor without a friend in the world to help her? Not necessarily... because she would die without food or shelter, as we all would. And unfortunately, it is into the manipulations (and patriarchy) of St. John Rivers that Jane is "saved." Only when she inherits money does Jane truly own her life, her self, and her choices.

Things get worse for Bella. Although it seems admirable in many ways for her to choose to carry the baby--after all, we want women and girls to be able to make choices about their own bodies--Bella is physically attacked, battered, and blood-sucked by her male fetus, a perplexing development, to say the least. Edward seems powerless to do anything, while Bella steadily disappears, her gaunt face and skeleton the signs of impending death.

I'm intrigued by the solution: drinking human blood. Blood is associated with many things, including menstruation, womanhood, life, childbirth, sex, religion, and death.

To say the least, I'm staying tuned for the next installment and don't know yet if Bella Swan is really more like Jane Eyre or Ana Carolina Reston (the supermodel who died last year from anorexia).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

On Twilight's Bella & Mad Men's Megan

With my American iTunes account, I was able--I realized last night--to upload the hour-and-a-half series five premiere of "Mad Men" and stayed up until two in the morning watching it. In the aftermath of sunshine the next day, I can't stop thinking about it--especially Megan in the intricacies of her new married role (to Don Draper, that is).

Marriage is on my mind, of course, and all the things that come with it. The quick list for me includes: name changing or keeping, perceived and real power, sexual attraction and disinterest, work (or not), and babies (or not).

My initial reactions to Mad Men's Megan-as-Don's-Wife include that she:
--seems like a child (especially in her "Zou Bisou Bisou" performance, which made me cringe)
--is perceived to be powerful at the office only because she's married to Don
--toys with Don (as in her psuedo-tantrum in her underwear the day after the party)
--pouts to get her way (leaving the office mid-day because Don didn't like her party)
--is hated by most other women because a) she is a babe and b) she "snagged" Don
--is interesting and exciting to men (and incidentally, Sally) because she is a babe
--changes her name (of course, it's the sixties)
--frightens babies because maternity and sexiness are often portrayed as mutually exclusive

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually think Bella Swan of the "Twilight" series in her recent marriage to Edward is both more powerful and more interesting.

Bella seems to be having an anxiety attack as she walks down the aisle. (Her recent nightmares have included an altar strewn with bloodied dead bodies. She is, after all, marrying a vampire.) Yet Bella's nerves reflect a kind of seriousness, I propose, about marriage; they serve to acknowledge the hugeness, scariness, and difficulty of committing to another person--the magnitude an profundity of marriage.

Bella does have a few things in common with Megan: she changes her name (at least Edward calls her "Mrs. Cullen" on their island honeymoon) and her (for the most part) conventionally perfect looks are a huge emphasis of the film.

Yet Bella prefers bare feet to the awkwardly tall heels Edward's sis gets her to wear, and--perhaps most importantly--she and Edward seem locked in a kind of shared-power partnership, each keen to love and protect the other, each keen to remain a strong and intact individual, making his or her own decisions. (Alright, so I actually kind of buy it.)

Some distressing elements around gender role do develop, however--like in Edward's control over Bella's access to Jacob, Edward's ownership of the honeymoon plan (a secret), and Bella's total fragility compared to Edward's super vampire strength...

And it gets even more interesting on the honeymoon...

More on sex, pregnancy, and death in a coming post, bringing this all together around Wolf's Beauty Myth and perhaps some related ideas from the other Woolf...

Friday, 23 March 2012

My Annual Beauty Myth Crisis

At Klingenstein a few years ago, one of my teachers said, "I was having my annual Huck Finn crisis..."

I experience a version of this myself (and it isn't even to do with The Vagina Monologues), and it's happening now. You could call it my annual Beauty Myth crisis.

Will my students hate the sassy, feisty voice of Wolf for the next three hundred pages? Will this push us simply too far into feeling that the voice of feminism is "femi-Nazi" (a term I still find chillingly offensive)? Will they reject Wolf outright for being tedious, or too full of angst, or--worst of all--boring or irrelevant?

I care so much, perhaps, because I feel that so much is at stake, whether or not my students like Wolf.

Grappling with these gender issues--beauty, work, culture, religion, sex, hunger, and violence--is essential, I believe, to an educated, mindful personhood, male or female, in today's world. If we are to be global citizens, citizens of humanity, we have to look (and look hard) at this list, especially in terms of its social and economical implications.

Wolf asks (in 1990), "Do women feel free?" and through her own research suggests that the answer is no. In a passage about psychologist Daniel Goleman's work, Wolf says, "The costs of these social blind spots [...] are destructive communal illusions" (17). Communal in this case means all of us--men and women. What role, I wonder, in 2012, do the media and advertising play in our collective sense of freedom (or lack thereof)?

If, as Jean Kilbourne suggests, the media and advertising teach us to hate ourselves and hurt our bodies, then what Wolf calls "the beauty myth" is a danger to everyone. In fact, even if the myth still hurts only or mostly women, our whole society is both responsible for and affected by its perpetuation.

Quoting Betty Friedan from 1960, Wolf says, "That caricature [of the Ugly Feminist], which sought to punish women for their public acts by going after their private sense of self, became the paradigm for new limits placed on aspiring women everywhere" (19). If images serve to "destroy women physically and deplete us psychologically," we need to pay serious, collective attention to these concerns, to transform our culture for all our sakes.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

On Love, Partnership, & Identity

In my thirties, I'm fascinated by the reports far-flung or ancient friends and old boyfriends send (usually via email) about their current relationships. As more and more people I know marry (and sometimes divorce and remarry), we report on our lives to one another with quick notes about partners: "Loving life with Brett and Ella (our puppy)," "Alex is a great dad," "My daughter's mother, Sarah, is finishing a degree, doing triathlons," "Matthew has a new job with Google," and so forth. They read like mini-resumes, distilled reports on character, extensions of my friends themselves.

How do we tell the world about our partnerships, about something as intimate as love or intimacy? From what I understand, on sites like Facebook, people post their "relationship status," a handy identifier, neatly describing this part of ourselves and our lives.

Isn't it a bit strange, though? I suppose we've always had a shorthand for this; we've just spoken these sound-bytes as opposed to writing (or Tweeting or whatever) them.

I know that I've developed a kind of shorthand for former relationships and know many people who have. One boyfriend becomes "the skier" and one "the guy from grad school," ostensibly for my girlfriends to be able to keep them straight in our conversations. Yet I wonder if this shorthand, effectively, does more than that subconsciously... there is some reduction, some compartmentalization here.

Jasmine has a version of this, except that her emphasis is on the shorthand version of herself relative to each major relationship she's had. Perhaps this is both more accurate and more honest. Wasn't the skier boyfriend about the version of myself (or the time in my life and journey) when I organized my life around skiing? Isn't calling someone "the guy from grad school" to a friend really a way of naming a version of myself, the one attached to the grad school phase of my life?

Freud, among others, identified our narcissism along these lines. To some extent, however, I think our narcissism is only human...

At the end of Mukherjee's novel, she writes, "I am not choosing between men. I am caught between the promise of America and old-world dutifulness. A caregiver's life is a good life, a worthy life" (240). Jasmine's choices involve her partners, but they are about her. Especially as a person with fragmented lives, names, and selves, Jasmine is trying to identify and negotiate a self, a personhood, through all of the breaks, losses, and endings.

The part of this novel I keep thinking about and going back to, mulling over, wrestling with, is the VERY END:

There is nothing I can do. Time will tell if I am a tornado, rubble-maker, arising from nowhere and disappearing into a cloud. I am out the door and in the potholed and rutted driveway, scrambling ahead of Taylor, greedy with wants and reckless from hope (241).

Mukherjee enjoins us: Is Jasmine indeed greedy and reckless? Is it greedy and reckless to choose life, to choose freedom? Jasmine DOES hurt people in the process. This is hard. I'm always torn. I want her to be happy and free, to be able, for the first time in her life, to direct her own fate entirely, make her own adventure, so to speak. My friend Selden says, "The hero always says yes to his adventure." Does it logically follow, then, that the heroine always says yes to hers?

Before Darrel kills himself, Jasmine says to the reader, "What I'm saying is, release Darrel from the land" (229). Wylie was free to leave with Stuart; Du was free to go to California to see his sister; Darrel was not free to leave his family's farm and does not survive as a result. I think Mukherjee uses these other characters to complicate our sense of rightness, to make us work hard with our justifications, and to examine how we make them--for Jasmine and for ourselves.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Agency in Women's Lit

One of the things that keeps surfacing in Women's Lit this semester is the notion of agency. In what ways and to what extent do the women and girls in these texts direct and control their own lives and selves?

For instance, we kept wondering whether Offred (in The Handmaid's Tale) is being brave enough. Does she have options? Is she able to be brave? Moira is brave and ends up tortured and broken, a prostitute happy enough with her hand cream.

Now we are asking similar questions about Jane/Jyoti/Jasmine. Her childhood world is entirely limited and controlled by men: her father, her brothers, the man who predicts her future under the banyan tree. She marries Prakash at fifteen. In her hellish journey to America after Prakash is murdered, Jasmine is entirely dependent upon strangers, raped by a man she calls Half Face, taken in by a savior of a woman named Lillian Gordon...

It seems in the U.S. that Jasmine's fate is still heavily determined by the men in her life: first Taylor in Manhattan, then Bud in Iowa (and to a lesser extent, Darrel and Du as well). Jasmine "shuttles between identities" because she has been many different people already in her young life (77).

At times it seems to me that Jasmine is quite willing. As Half Face leads her to her doom, she says, " What was fated to happen would happen" (111). As she continues on her journey after killing him, she notes, "My body was merely the shell, soon to be discarded" (121). At times like these I wonder about Jasmine's sense of self. Does she believe in her own right to govern her life, her body, her direction? I'm not sure.

As the novel goes on, however, if I remember correctly from previous readings other years, Jasmine increasingly claims agency, empowered in many ways by Taylor to do so, which raises further questions. Without Taylor would she begin claiming her own life, or is this still just another variation of patriarchy?