October 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
Recently I watched the last two episodes of series one of The Fall and read the last 50 pages of Natsuo Kirino’s Out on the same night, before I went to bed, and predictably stayed wide awake. If in Out the male sadist, torturer and killer of women is identifiable by his pathology, not in some overt way but just in the way he is, so much so that both men and women feel afraid or out of sorts when in his presence, then in The Fall the exact opposite is true—the serial killer of women is practically nondescript, ordinary and regular, a loving father and husband. Along with the many “nice guys who rape” articles that proliferate the internet, or maybe not so much articles as incessant chatter on Twitter and Tumblr, I wonder what it is about this cultural moment that needs to depict the violent man who rapes and kills women as an Ordinary Guy, a Nice Guy even, and what this means. What does it mean when the trend is to focus on the pathological misogyny of ordinary guys? When you look at The Fall, and maybe in some way it’s an answer that’s too big for this question, is that this male character is ordinary in the sense that he’s white and almost inoffensively middle-class, and played by an actor who previously made a living off the images of his beautiful face and beautiful body. In The Fall, however, Jamie Dornan’s attractiveness is made non-descript, almost—yes, inoffensive—nothing of his face and body here is reminiscent of the well-oiled god that Eva Mendes wore as a second skin in the Calvin Klein ads. I mean, it’s the kind of beauty that isn’t terrifying, until it is. In scenes in The Fall we see Dornan’s body, or rather the body of his character, Paul Spector, shaped and transformed into a kind of weapon, how he works out and runs and builds his upper body strength, and what is posited as the current ideal—the long, lean, well-muscled male—is next seen tying women up to their beds and strangling them to death.
How unsettling it is, when you google Jamie Dornan, because you haven’t seen him in anything before, only to realise that you have seen him in those ads with Eva Mendes. And to scrutinise those ads differently, now, to see how both bodies are oiled and glimmering, shining in media-approved perfection, how he holds her wrists down and what’s meant to be erotic play, meant to titillate, takes on a whole new meaning once you realise it’s the same face and body that you’re meant to believe is a serial killer on a TV show, and it all comes full circle, these images of sex and violence and bodies on display; something that’s always lurking beneath these highly stylised images of heterosexual sex or potential sex is the spectre of male violence—
And then keep in mind also that what makes Paul Spector a loving father and husband is exactly what he does without his family’s knowledge—kill women. Being able to kill women without his family’s knowledge—obviously—is what makes him a good father and husband; if he wasn’t killing women would he be like one of the other characters in the show, a working class husband from the wrong side of Belfast who beats and rapes his wife but who doesn’t kill women? So is The Fall trying to tell us that misogyny must have an outlet, and this is how it works?
I’m not sure. It’s a TV show. Maybe The Fall just wants to entertain us.
What’s also important to consider is that even though he is a working father, Paul Spector has the space and time to become a serial killer. Try to imagine a working mother and wife having the time and space to become a serial killer, and you cannot, imagination fails you, WHEN WILL SHE HAVE THE TIME, you think—and you realise the work of the serial killer, in The Fall, is literally made possible by the reproductive labour of the women in his life: his wife (who is also a nurse, a professional caregiver), and the teenage babysitter (who also has a crush on him). So when Paul has spent a whole night killing and is exhausted, forgets to feed the kids breakfast, the wife, returning from a night shift, also exhausted, will feed the kids. Being a parasite, sucking the life out of women, doesn’t exactly rejuvenate Paul, and this comes as a surprise, he has all the time in the world to stalk his prey on the internet, write and draw gruesome things in his journal, quote Nietzsche—but poor guy, being a killer is also exhausting.
I started watching The Fall because GILLIAN ANDERSON AND ARCHIE PANJABI IN A SHOW, TOGETHER. Then I was troubled by this Nice-White-Inoffensive-Middle-Class-Guy-as-Women-Killer trope, because I’m not sure what this trope is doing, what work is it doing, that it wants to present a dangerous violent psychopath as ordinary. Does it want to warn women that all nice guys are potentially harmful? That the harmful guys might also appear nice? That misogyny is banal and it kills? Or is it about how nice-looking white men who may or may not have come from bourgeois propriety but who definitely aspire to it are also kind of bad? Really bad, even? Imagine that. What does this say to women, except to always be afraid and be on guard? So when Gillian Anderson’s character, Stella Gibson, asks Archie Panjabi’s character, Tanya Smith, what she will tell her daughters in order to keep them safe, Smith answers, “Not to talk to strange men,” and Gibson goes, “Strange men?” (as in, presumably, what does that even mean?) and Smith amends her answer: “Not to talk to men.”
Tthere it is: if even someone who walks, talks, and looks like Paul Spector is a killer, then be wary of all men.
So the relief of Natsuo Kirino’s Out is that the killer, Satake, who orgasms while raping a woman he’s simultaneously stabbing, a man who confesses to feeling closest to a woman when he can share her pain, and get inside her, literally, when he sticks his fingers into her wounds—all told in Kirino’s spare, unvarnished prose—a man who achieves pleasure that he cannot even put into words at the precise moment a women is about to die, is presented as not a nice guy, or an ordinary guy, but a marked man, his violence inscribed onto his body and words and mannerisms, so that some women are drawn to his sad eyes and charisma while others are repelled and want only to stay away … there’s some relief there, to know that a violent killer bears some signs of being not-ordinary.
I’m not saying that my sense of relief about this is right, or good; in fact I know it’s dangerous, because killers and rapists don’t come with a warning.
But what about the women who are drawn to Satake? Who don’t heed some form of instinctual warning about his sad eyes that seem to mask something else? There’s no pat answer to these questions in Out and this is what drives me crazy, because when it comes to crimes like these I want someone to hold my hand and fix things and tell me that everything will be all right, somehow, in the end.
Satake meets his match in a woman, Masako, who has never killed anyone before but who has butchered dead human bodies (I would tell you more but this is the plot of the whole novel). The ending in Out is not redemptive, whatever that means, but it does allow possibility for a continued existence for the female character. She’s not snuffed out, or silenced, or reintegrated back into the dominant narrative. At least, not when we leave her at the end of the book.
In the finale of series one of The Fall, when Stella and Paul confront each other, not face-to-face but through the phone, Stella tells Paul some things are rarely uttered in films or movies, like “What you’re doing is plain old misogyny”. Time stops, for a little bit, when she says that, because when was the last time you heard that word on TV, from a woman to a man. And there is something there to the way Stella robs the serial killer’s actions of its mystique and pseudo-philosophical bullshit (does it come as a surprise that the serial killer is a former literature major who still quotes Nietzsche, or more disturbing, are viewers not meant to be surprised that Spector didn’t have an “ordinary” upbringing but grew up instead in various care homes?). Stella robs Paul of his own self-created misogynist spectacle when she cuts short Paul’s prattle about “being really free” (i.e. women-killing as the last frontier!) and tells him that he’s just another guy and reminds him of the banality of his misogyny. She lets the killer know that there’s nothing special about his killing, nothing to inspire a thousand documentaries and pop-sociology crime books, because it is a familiar hate—women already know all about it, so shut the fuck up, Paul.
The Fall is a BBC show so maybe we can’t expect too much. It still individualises Spector’s pathology while throwing words like misogyny around. I mean, we do see it in action but in a particular context: bad German criminals beating up an escort during a night of sex, working class Belfast men beating their wives about. I don’t know very much about Belfast but Spector’s white male ordinariness is a blessing, here, a privilege, yes—he gets to stalk the streets of Belfast at night dressed in a black hoodie and is unnoticed. Nice-looking whiteness does not inspire alarm, as it turns out. As for nice middle-class white men, Paul Spector is the aberration—the worst kind, as it turns out, which is what is troubling about the show. Does it, in the end, make a spectacle of (white) (middle-class) male violence even while trying to portray it as banal, ordinary? In Out, in contrast, misogyny is everywhere—from sons to husbands and police officers and factory supervisors. The only “nice guy” in this story, perhaps, is a migrant worker—who isn’t also entirely free from how misogyny structures the behaviour of men who do not actually hate women; so deprived is he of sexual contact with a woman he thinks it’s okay to stand in the dark and pull a woman close to him, even if he’s not going to hurt her.
Of course, The Fall is a cop show. Justice is meted out via a very compelling feminist female police woman with great hair and silky blouses who eats cheeseburgers while drinking red wine and has sex with whoever, whenever, and is also kick ass. The character is a liberal feminist dream in one sense, with echoes of governance feminism—the only kind we get in law and order shows. In contrast, in Out, the female characters, whether they exact vengeance or not, are not a part of the brutal police machinery and legal system; they are always the victims of it, and Out never lets you forget this.
But what does it also mean for our cultural moment, fascinated as it is with the nice guy as rapist and killer, that the same face that plays a killer also sells you (or used to sell you) brand names and fashion, a face meant to incite both pleasure and consumption? One face indistinguishable for another; the same face but different, the same body, positioned and conveyed in another manner.
Who or what is the nice or the ordinary guy?
September 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I reviewed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah for Pop Matters awhile back, and would like to say more but writing the review exhausted me because there was so much to say and I didn’t even articulate a tenth of what I wanted to say and what’s the point of words, even. I mean, in the hands of people like Adichie, you get the point of words, but what’s the point of a reviewer’s words?
But the wonderful Sridala reminded me of this Junot Diaz interview, where he talks about decolonial love and though Americanah is about many things, the romance between Ifemelu and her white boyfriend is one of the more complex aspects of the book that really got to me. It’s not that Curt is an Evil American White Man; it’s just that he’s an American white man. Although Ifemelu’s African American experience is very different from the African-American experience, the central question that Junot asks—“Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power person?”—is I think one of the central questions of Americanah, even if it’s not consciously articulated.
So is decolonial love a kind of radical love? And is it possible? Not just in romance, but in friendship? Or in romantic friendships? (I want to have hope, or have the ability to imagine a time when YES is possible, but all I can think right now is, No.)
The review in full:
I came to the end of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent novel, Americanah at the same time the verdict to acquit Trayvon Martin’s killer was passed. While immersed in this vast, sprawling book about uncomfortable, unpleasant, and often unmentioned truths about racism in 21st-century America, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer seemed a kind of judgment about America itself, the America that not-white Americans and immigrants have been telling us about America for years, decades, centuries.
As a novelist, however, Adichie is not interested in passing judgment, which is what makes her a likeable writer. What makes Americanah powerful, however, and ultimately quite devastating in parts, is its refusal to refrain from pulling punches. Like her previous award-winning novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s main focus is on middle and upper class university-educated Nigerians; similarly in Americanah the protagonist, Ifemelu, comes from a respectable middle-class Lagos family.
Through various circumstances shaped by political and social factors, Ifemelu travels to the US for a university education and ends up staying. It’s a familiar situation for most post-colonial third worlders—inevitable, practically—this idea that some form of the good life must be found outside the borders of their corrupt and backward birth country: preferably in the West, in the lands of plenty, where years of imperialism and colonialism have enabled its subjects to enjoy Freedom™, drinkable tap water, and partake of a seemingly unlimited bounty of foodstuff in grocery stores and supermarkets.
Or so it would seem, seen from the outside.
As in her previous novels, commentary on political and social circumstances is folded delicately into layers of the personal. In Americanah, Race-in-America is as much a character as Ifemelu and her first love, Obinze. Made up of seven parts, Americanah begins and ends as a love story, but it’s a love story that travels and migrates and sees and learns, so that when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, in the novel’s final pages, they’ve been so shaken and turned inside out by the forces outside of themselves that they’ve shed and accrued different layers. It’s a most believable kind of love story, and a kind of triumph, the kind that left me crying because it seems to be the kind of love that no one dares to believe in, anymore.
Weaved into the dominant love story are the narratives of racism, displacement, migration, border-crossing and borderlessness, liberalism, Nigerian middle class apathy, Nigerian ruling class exploitation, colourism and its cousin, hairism, and white American do-gooders. The novel begins with Ifemelu’s point of view, and maintains it save for a few sections that allows us a glimpse of Obinze’s thoughts, and from the start we know that Ifemelu is not one to be trifled with and not one to trifle with us.
When she notices a fat woman in a miniskirt, Ifemelu feels admiration, an admiration that would not be there had it been a body that fit normative beauty ideals because “It was safe and easy, after all, to display legs of which the world approved”. When we meet Ifemelu she’s a successful blogger who has achieved some amount of fame blogging about racism in America, even earning herself a fellowship in Princeton. In fact, we meet her in Princeton, where on the very first page she tells us that in “… this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else”—but not really herself, the self that wears natural hair, since she’s on her way to Trenton to braid her hair because there are no braiding salons in Princeton.
If Americanah wrangles with perceptions of race in America, it’s because Ifemelu is unused to the concept, which is a very shrewd commentary on the hegemonic functions of American thought. So much of what passes as discourse on “racism” is a very specific view of racism that pertains to the American experience, exported globally like Coca-Cola and military weapons. This raises some troubling moments, not just between Ifemelu and unapologetically racist white Americans—or the more forbidding kind, unconsciously racist and well-meaning white Americans—but also between her and black Americans, particularly her boyfriend Blaine and his sister, Shan. In a conversation about how American white men and European white men view black women differently, Ifemelu tells Shan she gets “a lot more interest from white men than from African-American men”, and Shan tells her it’s probably because of Ifemelu’s “exotic credential, that whole Authentic African thing”, a statement that leaves Ifemelu angry, but not exactly in full disagreement.
It’s these prickly territories that Adichie covers so well, because Americanah is interested in laying bare all the hypocrisies of the liberal American elite.
When she starts dating a wealthy, attractive white man, Curt, she takes note of his mother’s disapproval and the looks directed her way from other white women, the look of people “confronting a great tribal loss”. As Ifemelu explains, it’s not just because Curt was white; it was “the kind of white he was, the untamed golden hair and handsome face, the athlete’s body, the sunny charm and the smell, around him, of money”, that seemed to be the problem: why would a white man like that date a woman like her? Ifemelu takes note of the easy kind of subjectivity well-off white Americans are allowed to slide into, “all easy limbs and white teeth… people whose lives were lived always in flattering light, whose messes were still aesthetically pleasing”.
And Curt, while he loves Ifemelu for who she is, who she is is also part of the allure. Cocooned in white male privilege and wealth, he, a free-spirited and do-gooder white American presumably well aware of his country’s history, asks Ifemelu “Why do you have to do this?” when she comes back after a hair-relaxation treatment with a singed scalp.
Ifemelu is that rare thing: a woman who doesn’t hide that she’s quite secure in her own sense of attractiveness and worth. She knows she’s beautiful, but Adichie deftly shows how racism works to undermine even Ifemelu’s sense of confidence with all the banalities of the everyday comments and stares about her hair and what people take to be her projection of Africanness. When Ifemelu writes on her blog, and announces at a dinner party, that “the simplest solution to the problem of race in America” is “romantic love”, not the “kind of safe shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable”, but “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved”, Adichie brings the novel’s ruminations on race and desire to its fruition.
She leaves this radical notion of love open to interpretation and disagreement, and foregrounds it against Ifemelu’s awareness that while that some white American men might find her intelligent, funny, and beautiful, they don’t really see her, don’t allow themselves to see her, don’t desire her, because of how race has shaped and disciplined their sense of desire. Rather, race trains them to see only some as loveable, and it’s definitely not meant to be a woman who doesn’t look at all like a woman shaped by the ideals of white supremacy. As Blaine’s sister, Shan, remarked earlier—it’s a problem that not’s limited to white American men, and Adichie’s many readers around the world can probably bring their specific experiences with colourism to bear onto this notion of radical love across racial borders vs. sexual fetish and/or temporary this-will-do-for-now romance.
As it turns out, Obinze, the most America-obsessed among Ifemelu’s crew of high-school and college friends, is the one who doesn’t get to go to America when she does. It’s a twist of fate, “fate” otherwise known as politics and the ramifications of 9/11. In this, too, Adichie is superb in depicting the variables in migration narratives along gender lines: how monstrously fucked-up the situation can be for black and brown men travelling to the US or Europe, and where black and brown women (with some amount of money and connections, at least) may have a better go of it. Post 9/11, it’s never a good time to be a man of colour, and so Obinze ends up in London, trying desperately to avoid being deported, only to end up being deported.
Obinze is the only male character—the only one of Ifemelu’s lovers—whom the readers get to know. It’s easy to see why: he’s the only one who matters to her (and to us). But through Obinze, Adichie is able to show the post-9/11 situation of migration refracted through gender, and because Obinze is also in some ways less brash and more gentle than Ifemelu, not so much more thoughtful but more inward, some of the more effective commentaries on the politics of travel and border-crossing comes our way by way of Obinze. Working class white British men note how Obinze speaks “African posh”, and Obinze spells it out for himself and for us when he attends a dinner party filled with his Nigerian cousin’s white friends: he knew “they understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”, why people like him end up in London in a deportation holding cell, people like him “who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look inwards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else.”
It is Obinze too, now back in Nigeria and newly-wealthy, who notes the contradictions of Nigerian life under capitalism and legacy of an artificially imposed time-lag of modernity that was the gift of colonialism: “Remember this is our newly middle-class world. We haven’t completed the first cycle of prosperity, before going back to the beginning again, to drink milk from the cow’s udder”, he tells Ifemelu, explaining to her why restaurants in Lagos preferred to serve “imported frozen fries” out of a bag instead of fries made out of freshly-cut and fried “real potatoes”.
Adichie is perhaps the kind of educated “well fed and watered” writer from the “postcolonial” third world who might make someone like Aijaz Ahmad grit his teeth, as when he talks about how imperial dominance shapes “even the way we think of ourselves”, and the valorisation of literature produced by the bourgeois class of the postcolonial third world country that becomes “more of a condition of the soul” unrelated to the material facts of life, as he writes in In Theory. But Adichie turns a gentle, satirical eye upon other liberals like herself, particularly when she (gently, gently) pillories the Nigerian returnees who like her spent many years abroad in the civilised West, only to return to Nigeria and find the roads full of potholes and the restaurants devoid of vegan dishes.
Ifemelu doesn’t hold back when it comes to the skewering of liberal notions of race; one only wishes that she would have done the same for class relations. Similarly, when Obama wins the election and she and her boyfriend and their circle of friends celebrate, she touches upon a truth that resounded with many people across the globe in the significance of seeing a black man as the President of the United States. As her cousin American cousin Dike puts it, “My president is black like me.” And while only black Americans could own that moment and all its various nuances, to really know and feel just what it meant, for people as far away as Malaysia or Indonesia or India, believing in Obama and hoping that this time things will be different was in some ways a way of showing solidarity with black Americans, to acknowledge the historical value of that moment, a way for those outside of the US to say to black Americans, We see who he is and what it means to you, or what Eduardo Galeano, in this interview with Gary Younge, aptly refers to as the “symbolic resonance” in a country “with a fresh tradition of racism”.
Adichie underscores the value of that moment, but the material realities of Obama’s presidency, the imperial and military might of the American empire under his helm—the wars, the torture prisons, the surveillance and spying and arrests without detention, the drones dropped on Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the continued economic exploitation and advancement of capitalism through war and “free-trade” agreements, the laws that set killers of young black men free, the prisons that imprison young black men, (the list goes on and on and on)—is untouched. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from Americanah, which is already a massive achievement on its commentary on American race relations and late-capitalist Nigerian life. Perhaps these concerns might irritate Adichie, who doesn’t and probably wouldn’t, ever, one presumes, set out to write an explicitly political book.
But I could be wrong—if Obinze says accurately of Ifemelu that she is hard to predict, as a reader that’s what interests me most about Adichie. In an interview with Aaron Bady for the Boston Review, Adichie talks about Half of a Yellow Sun and its reception as a political and historical novel in Nigeria, versus its reception outside of Nigeria, where she says it was seen as “just a novel”. Maybe we might meet Ifemelu and her criticisms of the Obama presidency and American imperial and military policies in a future story.
For right now, however, we have Americanah to grapple with. And what a frustrating, challenging, and rewarding gift it is. A momentary but necessary salve for the soul, like the protests that broke out across the America in memory of Trayvon Martin, suggesting that a different life can be imagined and made possible.
August 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Taking this blogging thing to a whole new level and putting up a review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself some three months later. #awkwardblogging
This originally appeared in Pop Matters:
In her book of short critical commentaries and interviews with ten contemporary writers, Voices of Russian Literature, Sally Laird describes the women and girls who populate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s stories as hapless and ill-suited to even the most basic machinations of life. They seem to lack “even the rudiments of pride or strategy,” and on the surface, as Laird points out, “many of Petrushevskaya’s heroines appear to live their lives ineptly.” Nothing better describes the heroines of the stories in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself.
These girls and young women are average-looking or sometimes outright unattractive, as in the case of the protagonist in “Give Her to Me”: “Karpenko… was one of those unfortunate creatures forced to compensate for their appearance with a pleasant disposition and a carefree attitude.” They’re barely visible to the world outside of their cramped apartment shared with family members. “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else,” begins one story, for example. “Until Clarissa turned seventeen not a single soul admired or noticed her—in that respect she was not unlike Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling,” begins another.
Motherhood is a central theme in these stories, and mothers loom large over these inept, awkward daughters. But these daughters then grow up to become inept, awkward mothers. This pattern keeps repeating itself throughout Petrushevskaya’s stories. That the parents are practically indistinguishable from their children is one of the key tropes in this collection.
In her interview with Laird, Petrushevskaya is keen to emphasise that she doesn’t regard herself as a women writer.” As she says: “I write above all about children, not about women; the land I inhabit is a land of children, not of grown-ups.” These love stories are as much about women trying to find their lost or dead babies in grown men as it is about love between two adults or supposed “equals”.
If Petrushevskaya’s women are hapless, then the men are clueless. But if there is a war of the sexes in Petrushevskaya’s stories, however, it’s a war between two losing sides. Husbands have lost their jobs, money, and teeth, and their wives plot to escape to another apartment inherited from dead aunts. Husbands and wives scream at each other over dinner and stomp off to bed; they wake up the next day and show up to perform the same ritual all over again.
That’s because they have nowhere else to go. Another central theme in Petrushevskaya’s stories is that of space or the absolute lack of it—the key characteristic of the Russian kommunalka. Petrushevskaya’s stories make no overt mention of politics, but her characters are constantly manoeuvring their way around the cramped spaces of communal apartments; the concept of privacy is literally impossible, barely even imaginable. The space of the communal apartment organises the behaviour of the inhabitants; it mediates their social interactions.
Petrushevskaya may eschew overt discussion of Soviet communism in her stories—all the action tends to take place “inside”, in these apartments and in offices, bus stops, grocery stores—but the Soviet-era administration of space haunts each and every personal encounter. In “Young Berries”, one of the collection’s most poignant and formally-inventive story with its alternating first and third person point-of-view, a young girl finds that she’s unable to have the phone conversation she wants to have with her crush because “the apartment’s entire population now stood in the hall… The conceit was that everyone was waiting to use the phone after me.”
More central to the story, however, is how the girl’s stay in a sanatorium—with its autumnal park and lush trees, with all its space—is what she comes to miss the most after she returns to a crowded apartment shared with one too many family members. “By the time the girl reached fifth grade, of course, all Soviet citizens were proletarians.”
To the extent that this collection features “love stories”, however, love is a mangled, ugly thing. Despite love’s viciousness, manipulations, and violence, however, Petrushevskaya’s characters are lonely, and they want some of the sweetness it brings: human contact, warmth, an elevated sense of self, the idea that there must be something better out there than life as they know it. Often, it’s a means of escape—a way out of those damn communal apartments, for one thing (and into another, as it often turns out), but for children, it’s primarily a means to escape the pressing weight of their parents.
In “Father and Mother”, for example, Tanya leaves her bickering parents’ home with her lover after deciding that she’s had enough of them, and she never looks back: “Everything that happened to her afterward—homelessness, then a landlady who drank nothing but kefir and tried to hang herself every March but was rescued by her son—all this adversity she considered happiness, and not a shadow of doubt or despair ever touched her.” In the hands of a different writer, the bleakness of these stories would be overwhelming, its black humour enervating or merely “ironic”. But Petrushevskaya wants her characters to have a better life. She’s not sure if they can, given the fact that the world is a pretty shit place, but she’s not going to give up on them.
It’s this aspect of Petrushevskaya that American reviewers seem to adore, perhaps assuming that this reveals a kind of liberal humanism that has seen the worst of Soviet communism and whole-heartedly refused it. And perhaps it does. Petrushevskaya is well-known playwright and writer in her own country and has been writing since the ‘70s, although it was only after the implementation of glasnost under Gorbachev during the ‘80s that her prose writings began to see light of day.
Meanwhile, she became well-known to American readers (and by proxy, readers in other parts of the world) after the publication of a collection of “scary fairy tales” by Penguin Books, ,i>There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, in 2009. While Petruskhevskaya, in Laird’s interview, says, “I’ve never concerned myself with politics—it doesn’t interest me at all, for all sorts of reasons,” this strikes one as a particularly disingenuous statement because while it’s never overt, there is a sense of resistance or criticism to forms of communal living, and by extension, the Soviet communist project at large, in all her stories. This seems to indicate a particular political position, even if it’s not explicitly articulated.
In this light, then, her characters’ absolute lack of drive, ambition, or self-transformation is particularly interesting—their incompetence at life becomes more of a political stance and less of a quirk of the “the mysteries of human nature” variety for which Petrushevskaya’s stories are often praised. As Jochen Hellbeck points out in his study of diaries written during the Soviet revolution, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin, “The concern with self-transformation, shared by the Communist regime and these Soviet diarists, was rooted in the revolution of 1917, which promoted a new thinking about the self as political project… Talking and writing about oneself had become intensely politicized activities. One’s ‘biography’ had become an artifact of considerable political weight.”
Petrushevskaya, whose forebears were part of the Old Bolsheviks and comprised the Russian intelligentsia, lived a life of poverty and neglect. Anna Summers writes in her translator’s introduction that as a young girl in Moscow “Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her insane grandfather’s room, while occasionally renting cots in nearby communal apartments,” while in the interview with Laird Petrushevskaya talks specifically about wanting to write the stories of “ordinary people” outside of the circle of politicians and intellects that she knew grewing up.
The characters of her book don’t keep diaries or ruminate on their innermost thoughts—they are consumed by detail and the minutiae of the everyday life; in those cramped apartments, they barely have space to think. This fulfils one common narrative beloved by liberal capitalists about life under Soviet communism: people are so victimised they barely even know how to have thoughts! On the other hand, as Hellbeck points out, Soviet diarists came from varied backgrounds and occupations, and many were wrestling with the summons to “internalize the revolution” with a personal attempt to write themselves into “the revolutionary narrative”. In this sense, while it was a Communist dictat that the people should write their lives and transform themselves into ideal revolutionary subjects, indicating a certain form of political and social coercion, people retained a sense of agency in their writings and sought to shape their troubled, conflicted individual narratives within a larger, collective one.
Petrushevskaya’s stories of “ordinary people” are ambivalent and unsettling because while people show up to help each other, they seem unaware of their own actions or the impulses, desires, and reasons behind it. Petrushevskaya wants her characters to come out on the other side, still surviving, but this concern for her characters can be as forceful, patronising, and muddled as the love parents have for their children. In her introduction, Summers wants us to see that Petrushevskaya “wants us to be strong, and clever, and resourceful, like the Russian people she loves.” But if the characters in her stories stand in for the Russian people she loves, then these are a people who are exhausted and perplexed, sent out into a world they don’t quite know how to navigate, subject to love, luck, and brutality by the incomprehensible energies of an indifferent universe (or, depending on your point of view, a gifted and shrewdly manipulative writer). There’s a sense that some readers can take some form of comfort from that, but for others, these stories merely suggest business as usual—only bleaker.
June 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
Jane Winston, “Marguerite Duras: Marxism, Feminism, Writing” in Theatre Journal (Vol. 47, No. 3, Oct 1995)
I was reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover again a few weeks ago. It’s so weird, how political this book is, in its exploration of white femininity and colonialism and poverty. Weird because appreciation of The Lover, or criticism of it, tends to depoliticise the book—it’s often reduced to generalised descriptions of “female desire” or “love” when the crucial thing about The Lover is how her desire and her gaze is refracted through poverty; her poverty shapes it and give it its energy. How the gaze is that of a poor woman, but also that of a white French woman in colonial Indochina. Poor colonial women among the natives. How that makes of also a monster of sorts, and not through her own making. Sour maternal love and the regime of brotherhood and property-less girls and relations shaped and defined by a cold colonialist-capitalist logic, the relation with her lover that both mirrored that logic and exceeded it.
Winston writes, “there was nothing really revolutionary about the claim that the desire and sexuality at issue in Duras are ‘feminine’.”
There really isn’t. That’s why it’s that claim that has gotten the most traction.
June 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
Why capital doesn’t like single women:
A woman of marriageable age who is neither wife nor mother, or who for some reason does not become fully a part of the housework labor-force, is under-employed. In other words, she carries out housework in a more limited way than her potential work capacity would allow. Hence single mothers — who do not reproduce a husband/male worker — are under-employed; so is a married woman with no children, who reproduces only a husband; and so also is the divorced, separated or widowed woman who has not remarried. The woman who is of marriageable age but remains single is, however, “non-employed”: she reproduces neither husband nor children. (“Unemployed” cannot really be used here, because every woman living under capitalism who does not live on unearned income, must always reproduce at least her own labor-power.)
From Leopoldina Fortunati’s The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital.
Let’s get #reproducingneitherhusbandnorchildren trending on Twitter!
I’m too dumb for Fortunati but I press on. I was bingeing on Trixie Belden books and Josephine Tey mysteries for the last week because I needed comfort reading, where I wanted to read and couldn’t read and so I read things where everything followed a convention, a formula. And so, dear reader, I discovered that you must not go from Trixie Belden to Italian autonomist marxist feminism just like that — you gotta ease into it.
Despite that, Fortunati is, as the kids say, blowing my mind. (Do the kids still say that?)
March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body.[i]
The younger of the two, who is happy to tell people “I’m the IT guy”, taught me how to download YouTube videos on my overpriced, overvalued smartphone, and now the gadget puts me to sleep, too. Over the last week I’ve been downloading Jem and the Holograms episodes and watching them before bed. I haven’t watched the cartoon in years, probably decades, but I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and while I used to want to be Jerica/Jem mainly because of her access to Synergy (by way of really funky star earrings), now I watch Jerica/Jem being perfect and I want to vomit. I see The Misfits driving tractors through mansions and I feel a true fellow-feeling of solidarity. The Misfits “are allergic to work” say one of the members of the Holograms, and they all smirk, because the Misfts are mean and they’re lazy, but I can relate. All I want to do these days is have big hair, sing shit songs with my shit-sounding nasally voice, drive tractors through mansions, refuse work, and scream.
Jem and her friends are so earnest. I want to ask them why they abide by the rules that were made by someone else. Do they think they will be granted a space in hologram heaven? And if so, what does it mean to them to be good girls in the here and now? Do they get the boyfriends? The record contracts? The cool earrings? The mansion? The legacy from dead daddy?
(All of the above.)
Just when I want to write a Marxist reclamation of the Misfits, I remember that the “leader” of the group, Pizzazz, is basically a rich twat. This complicates matters, because her group-mates all come from a poor(er) backgrounds. The Misfits are made to appear “tacky”—loud, brash, uncivilised and unladylike in comparison to the docile, polite, and pastel-attired Jem and friends, who speak proper English, not slang, in modulated voices. Jem and the Holograms are a band of Kate Middletons. Even if they are not well-off, or orphans, they come from good stock. They have a claim to a legacy of good breeding. But the Misfits are always destroying things, even property.
Property is the problem. Even for Tom Branson, the sexy Irish chauffeur-revolutionary turned sexy Downton Abbey husband. Downton domesticates; it wants to tame Branson’s wild side. Alas, Branson was found to be present during a protest at a Dublin castle, a protest that involved burning the said castle. The Earl of Grantham, hitherto utterly nice and utterly useless, has now found his raison d’être, or rather the raison d’être of his entire class: to be really really really angry about the destruction of property. He’s really angry, the Earl. I mean, he was almost resigned to losing his property but now it is saved, and so he knows about real tragedy, the Earl, and it is with this full force of the pain of an almost-lost Downton Abbey that he takes it out on Branson. He is really angry. ALSO, HE IS AGAINST VIOLENCE AND WANTS TO KNOW IF BRANSON IS AGAINST IT, TOO? Branson capitulates; half-revolutionary, half-son in law. Yes, Branson was at the meetings where the planned this attack, but no, Branson does not condone the burning of property and violence against harmless aristocrats. Really, Branson? THEN WHY WERE YOU AT THE MEETINGS?
The writers of Downton Abbey can’t come up with anything so nuanced or sensitive as such an answer might require, so they leave us with silence and the face of Allen Leech, hoping that his sad, beautiful eyes will distract us.
It does, but only for a bit.
Branson is also uncomfortable being in Downton Abbey—first as tragedy servant, then as farce family. He wants to hightail it out of there.
Then why marry the Earl’s daughter? Don’t you know that the Earl’s daughter comes with the Earl’s family and however many centuries of dead ancestors? How did you think you were going to outrun that, foxy Branson? One look at this family, Branson, should have reminded you of Marx’s words: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Luckily, Branson’s wife dies, leaving behind a young daughter. Branson gets to live out the life that his wife would have wanted for him. He knows this is the life she would have wanted for him because everyone else tells him this. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes—not a fan of the rich, as such, but like all the servants in Downton, committed to and invested in class difference—tells Branson not to be embarrassed that he’s a rich fuck now, and part of a rich fuck family. She uses different words, but the message is the same. Mrs.Hughes tells him that he has “come so far”, and it’s a good thing.
This is a relief, as the formerly Marxist Branson is now co-manager of the vast estate Downton estate. He can forget about the people, think about profits, raise his baby, enjoy stately bedrooms, be waited on hand and foot.
He has come quite far.
I’ve been thinking about witches and spinsters and property. Once I started reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner I realised it spoke to my unmarried spinster witch self in a way that so many books by women don’t, anymore, because: 1) now it’s important to show how women are a hot mess in a sexy way (i.e. you must be a mess but sexually available to men, and not that those stories are wrong and shouldn’t be told, but the underlying premise is that you must be sexually available to men and you must perform your femininity in this socially idealised ways and above all, please be pretty, try to be pretty); and 2) “modern” stories also remove the extended family from the equation. The assumption is that all single women the world over live lives like those of American or European women in big cities—where they’re single in a way like Charlize Theron’s character is single in Young Adult. It’s interesting to me that the character of Lolly Willowes is given a brother as patriarchal gatekeeper after her father’s death. I quoted this bit out of Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Regime of the Brother on Tumblr while I was reading it and I’m quoting it again because it’s relevant:
What then does this son enjoy in replacing his father? Well, he gets to act as if, without having to take any action. A father-figure, he mimes, selectively, the father’s features. But he also gets to imitate and mock up relations to all other family members, too: not only is he the “father” (but only metaphorically) he is the mother’s lover (the object of her love, but only in her dreams) and he is his brother’s lover (but only rhetorically—the brotherhood of man). But most of all he is his sister’s boss, and really so. It seems that what he “enjoys” is the power to distort and center all familial relations on himself alone, warping the world into a fiction of fraternity, the dream of a universal, which becomes the nightmare lie of the family of man. Agent and sole heir of patriarchy’s most negative features, he creates as many false leads and artificial ties as he needs to cover his destruction of his real familial roots and relations. And he thus absolves himself of any obligation toward them. He does not have to fill the father’s role any more responsibly and positively than the tyrant had: he is only acting, after all. It is he who is a pro forma father, without a communal or global species-saving goal, a despot, a mute sovereign, the (only) one who really enjoys.
If there’s one thing you learn about being an unmarried woman in a Tamil family is that Tamil culture really needs the sister to be bossed around; if not her father who is sadly now dead, if not her potential husband who is sadly nowhere in sight, then a brother or an uncle will do in a pinch.
What relatives don’t want to talk about when they’re exhorting you to get married and “start a family” is that you’re out of place, overstaying your welcome in your original family, because inevitably it’s about property. You must belong to a father or a husband but not exist in a liminal state of belonging to no one, especially if you’re doing it on family property. (How about belonging to yourself, you might ask, and others will laugh—we all belong to someone, if not a husband for life, then maybe a corporation.) So Lolly Willowes, in the world of 1920s Britain, is shunted about from one brother’s home to another brother’s home because as a genteel woman she is not meant to work for a living.
The thing about being a witch woman like Lolly is that there is a still a male presence in the form of the Devil. Clearly the Devil is interchangeable with capitalist patriarchy. There’s no escaping the male power. When I see the Misfits driving a tractor through the property of a rich man I feel satisfaction even while I recognise that their brand of liberal feminism is thoroughly self-serving: they are not even there for each other. Their manager is the one rubbing his hands together in glee, thinking of publicity and future sales. Behind every so-called misfit is a male manager/disciplinarian waiting to make a profit. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes it’s an investment in souls.
More from The Regime of the Brother:
The way it works in traditional Oedipus is that the woman is the living embodiment of a deficient male identity: wanting physically and emotionally. The girl-child is supposed to assume an identification with the father and then be left with/as nothing—unless or until she becomes a mother, her only acknowledged relation to sexual difference. But the mother is precisely what Oedipus rejects and is designed to reject, so the cycle begins anew.
The girl under patriarchy is faced with an inhuman choice: to do without an identity, or to identify with what she is not (it amounts to the same thing).
she can demand no special love—except according to a male agenda, set by a father, a husband, or a son.
This mother desires only a phallus (a baby, a son, power) and forgoes other options for her desire.
Under the modernized Regime of the Brother, however, the father/son relation ceases to have centrality. Woman potentially comes into her own.
the “patriarchy” in modernity is less a symbolic than an imaginary identification of the son with the father he has completely eliminated even from memory. He has thrown off the one—God, the king, the father—to replace it with the grammatical and legal and emotionally empty fiction of an I who stands alone and on its own: “his majesty the ego.” Self-created, however, he is only a figment of his own and not the father’s desire. This is the dilemma he simply refuses to acknowledge: he makes the law.
The brother denies his sister her identity, affirming his own. This is not just in the abstract, no mere question of repressed instinctual desire. Because the brother cannot recognize his absolute reliance on her for his identity, her place and her desire are “not there.” While the mother of Oedipus might want her son and the phallus, the post-Oedipal sister is permitted to want nothing. To regulate woman’s desire—and thereby her identity—was always the way of the patriarchy; to outlaw it and do away with her identity is a cardinal feature of the Regime of the Brother.
In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the brother permits his sister to want nothing. It becomes quite clear how patriarchy nurtures (produces?) the regime of the brother with its careful disciplining of women’s bodies. Clarissa is kept to her room for not performing her duties as daughter and sister and marrying the man the family has decided upon. The brother is an engineer of both her punishments—the potential marriage to a man she finds repulsive, and the current punishment where she is kept mainly to her room and ostracised by her family who won’t see her directly or talk to her. Clarissa seems content to see her problems as her own, which is perhaps not her fault—surrounded by her odious family members on all side and increasing lack of agency/independence, she can hardly be faulted for not seeing some commonalities between the personal and the political. Her friend, Anna, to whom she writes, is clearly the only feminist killjoy of the story we can hope for, thus far. Anna zeroes in on the mother’s role in Clarissa’s predicament:
Your mother tells you, ‘That you will have great trials: that you are under your father’s discipline.’-The word is enough for me to despite them who give occasion for its use.-‘That it is out of her power to help you!’ And again: ‘That if you have any favour to hope for, it must be by the mediation of your uncles.’ I suppose you will write to the oddities, since you are forbid to see them. But can it be, that such a lady, such a sister, such a wife, such a mother, has no influence in her own family? Who, indeed, as you say, if this be so, will marry, that can live single? My choler is again beginning to rise.
Why all the fuss about marriage if a mother can only subject her female child to the whims of the father, the brother, and the uncles? Who indeed , if this be so, will marry, that can live single?
How brothers (sons?) are inducted into the regime.
I’m not a mother, just as aunt, but I can see how boys grow into young men, and how the ideal of masculinity means that boys often have to suppress the part(s) of them that are sensitive, tender, loving, affectionate, in order to “become a man”. And when you notice how it becomes a requirement for boys to hurt others in order to achieve this ideal—then you truly realise how men are made. Hurting others is part of the deal; it is how men are defined as men. To put others in their place and to claim their space as yours. And it hurts to watch young boys who have been taught not to hurt others struggle with the full force of societal expectations that makes it (implicitly or explicitly) known that they will have to hurt others in order to become men.
The eternal problem: We need to talk about sons/we’re always talking about sons.
There has been “unrest” in Sabah for the last few weeks. Property is the problem. Who “owns” Sulu?
The Malaysian twitterati, its bourgeois heart ever in its proper place, is grieving over the death of Malaysia’s policemen involved in the “clashes” with “armed militants”. Malaysian policemen have died while trying to take out these intruders/militants/insurgents (i.e. they were protecting the nation). What’s interesting about the nation that is protected is that we still don’t want to think about how some of us are more protected than others. Sabah, on the East Coast, is one of the poorest states in Malaysia; there is no protection, it seems, from economic impoverishment. But there are tweets from the West Malaysian public thanking the “security forces” for their service to this country. There are tweets praying for their souls in heaven or wherever they might be. Everywhere on Twitter people seem to be simultaneously praying and wishing violence upon the enemy. This ritual is meant to keep the good ones, we the citizens, safe.
The police. The soldiers. Law and order. There are self-proclaimed Progressive Activists ™ who bring the MILF into the picture and cry out “the militants are everywhere in Sabah!” with every tweet. The macho politicians and lovers of Malaysia who cheer on a “military offensive” with encouraging, optimistic tweets like, “Kill or be killed” or “Just gas and smoke ‘em”.
Malaysian Defence Minister, Zahid Hamidi, tweets about the military assault as a “clean-up operation”. (Tweet is in Malay.)
People might be of a land, but there are false borders now demarcating different nations and these borders may not be trespassed.
Meanwhile: “Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.”
Profits. Economic development. Who “owns” Sulu and who profits? Malaysians don’t really care, but “we” are here now, and “they” are not; property is for those who claim it by any means possible. And perhaps the Sulu sultanate is also flexing its muscles. As for the people who are put to work on these lands?
“Filipinos living in the tension-gripped Sabah territory in Northern Borneo said they have been segregated according to tribe and that their movements have been limited and closely monitored by Malaysian authorities.”
“A farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed men was turned back by the police early on Monday.
Police feared the food supplies he was carrying could fall into the hands of the gunmen.
The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm for his twice-a-month harvest.”
According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.
At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.
The Malaysian twitterati is not impressed with how our government for its soft-handed approach. They have ideas, these Malaysians, and it involves Malaysia flexing its military might. We must let the intruders know that “they” are on “our” soil, and the military will convey this message. Men on Twitter berate our ineffectual Prime Minister, exhort him to “be a man” and protect this country, take action. I have no interest in defending our Prime Minister, and as much as I might want to write a separate 3,000 word essay on gender performance and construction, this is not the point (although it’s part of the point). But this demand of a Prime Minister to be a man, a father figure, to exercise force and violence if he must, to defend his property is so chilling precisely because these demands are not self-aware. Malaysians on Twitter—a good number of them of the upwardly mobile, “educated” and comfortable, their lives mediated by gadgets and social media, are okay with owning property and being property—tweet about the stupidity of feudalism and think capitalist democracies are the best thing, the ultimate manifestation of human progress. Yet, they want to be protected by a violent patriarch. They want a “man” in charge, not in form necessarily, but in spirit.
They have no time for history, or maybe it’s just an inconvenience in a time when we have to be militarily efficient. Improve border control. Prioritise domestic security. Stamp out terrorist activity. Enemies are everywhere. We must smoke ‘em out.
Be a man. This land is your land.
[i] Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media
January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I am sorry, once again and for always, for the absolutely crap blog post titles.
I have three reviews out in Pop Matters:
- Joanna Luloff’s The Beach at Galle Road: Stories from Sri Lanka
- Aman Sethi’s A Free Man—this one messed with my head a little, or a lot, and thus the review is an incoherent mess; it just seems difficult to rate a book about poverty, written by an educated journalist from a different class, as “good” or “bad” or profound or moving or well-done or whatever, without implicating oneself in the consumption of these narratives.
- Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff—this is the first book I’ve read by Lewitscharoff and she has such a great style, strengthened by the bleakly funny, whip-smart voice of the protagonist, and this book has about a billion frustrating and revelatory Eurocentric anxieties and neuroses to wade through, or drown in.
Is it in bad taste to link to one’s own reviews and then rant about someone else’s review? Probably; all the more reason to do it.
I was reading the review of Sheila Heti’s latest in the LRB and I was (am) so perplexed:
Much has been made of the fact that How Should a Person Be? passes the Bechdel Test (two named female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man, invented by the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel), but its woman-centredness also hints at feminism’s dirty secret: that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves, even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt.
“that feminists might be feminists because they are supremely interested in themselves” – this is such a coy argument. Is the reviewer objecting to or applauding the narcissism of Sheila Heti’s character? Does the reviewer think that feminism—FEMINISM IN ITS ENTIRETY—only exists because feminists are supremely interested in themselves? Does being “supremely interested” in oneself preclude the desire/ability to be “supremely interested” in other things? Is this form of supreme self-interest only to be found in feminism and/or woman-centred narratives, although the reviewer seems to think these are interchangeable / mean the same thing? Is this state of supreme interest in oneself a problem or not a problem, reactionary or revolutionary? Why is Sheila Heti, or the Sheila Heti of the book, a stand-in for feminism? Whose feminism?
“Woman-centredness” = “feminism” = feminists “supremely interested” in themselves (“even if that interest is in the shape of self-doubt”).
I think it’s interesting that this review takes the book’s “woman-centredness” and presents it as feminism’s “dirty little secret” without making an explicit value judgment, although much of its judgment, or what it thinks of “woman-centredness”, is contained within its use of the phrase “dirty little secret.” How nice to be able to mime at making an argument without making an argument. It’s such a useful way to say something provocative and yet distance oneself from the implications. In this way, it becomes nonsense. And the arrogance in the assumption that a broad movement like feminism, with its multiple global proliferations and histories, can be assessed and diagnosed by narrowing it down to how two (fictionalised) North American women, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson, relate to each other.
Not just a secret, but dirty, too.
January 15, 2013 § 8 Comments
One of my friends texted us in a group chat about the Golden Globes awards show and its unbearable celebration of whiteness. As this Tumblr post puts it: “The Brave White Artists of the USA”. The white culture industry congratulating its white industrially cultural self. Most of us love to watch it and talk about it because we’re saturated in it and even though I hate it so much I enjoy watching people watch it: a meta-spectacle. I mean, Debord wrote about this. Debord said it all. Everything shit will come to pass, said Debord.
I just had the best time looking at this twitter feed throughout the thing:
I watched Les Miserables because a friend wanted to see it. I’m no fan of musicals. Or opera. At all. I had some familiarity with Les Miserables the musical because we put on bits of it for a concert when I was in the English Literary and Debating Society in secondary school. Yes, that’s really what it was called. The English Literary and Debating Society. I have stage fright, so I was never on stage but always in the background running around doing important things for the people on stage, but this has nothing to do with anything, really. Or does it?
Where Les Miserables the musical is concerned, I never understood why poverty had to be romanticised, aestheticised, into a feel-good musical. You might ask the same question of the novel itself, which I haven’t read, but then I’m biased—I majored in literary studies. Maybe I think the novel can do important things. So kill me now. I don’t know, this novel thing is a big question. I read Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production and still understand nothing. That is, whole chunks of Macherey’s text were incomprehensible to me.
(The all-pervasive fear, a daily check in: How stupid am I? Is my stupidity increasing?)
Can the musical do important things? Perhaps it can—if so, I’ve yet to see a musical that felt like there was something there, but this makes no sense because as a general rule I avoid musicals, so I wouldn’t know a good musical if it came and warbled in my ear.
It’s hard to take anything seriously when people are singing about it to you, although certain scenes had its power. The “End of the Day” sequence with the faces of the workers, the poor, the underclass. The opening scene with the song “Look Down”, again primarily because the camera honed in on individual faces of prisoners. Because Hugh Jackman didn’t look like Hugh Jackman the celebrity. But then he “reforms” and becomes an honest man by becoming a capitalist—a factory owner, to be precise. He also became a philanthropist. A good-hearted capitalist with morals and God. So an honest man is a man who stops stealing and starts openly exploiting workers—the women in his factory. As soon as he becomes an honest man, i.e. a capitalist, i.e. a man with money, Jean Valjean looks like Hugh Jackman and he even has Hugh Jackman’s teeth.
I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I wonder if this ideal of white womanhood is a problem in the book, too. This ideal of the virtuous, pure, good-hearted, moralistic, and dreary woman played by the likes of Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. Particularly in the case of Seyfried’s Cosette, the heir to her mother’s beauty and goodness: Good skin, good hair, good teeth, sparkling eyes, good health, good disposition, perfect for breeding. The way in which Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne (the reason I finally gave in and watched the damn movie) falls in love with Cosette is so tiresome. So tiresome I don’t even have the energy to be angry anymore—most heterosexual love stories just put me to sleep these days.
Then there is Eponine—finally, an intriguing female character!—who pines for Marius, becomes a boy for a day, then dies. Imagine if instead of continuing to pursue Cosette, Marius starts to look anew at Eponine! Imagine a story where Marius nurtures his revolutionary, radical spirit and finds his soul mate in the woman who fought beside him! Imagine a story where Marius doesn’t put his own beliefs aside, temporarily, to follow the dictates of his penis, running after a normative, ideal vision of womanly perfection to “settle down” to a life of “happiness”. Jean Valjean, now an honest capitalist and honest patriarch, has a role to play here in ensuring his ward’s happiness. She must have the man! And how fitting that Marius, too, comes from money. The rich man will have the beautiful woman! And how fitting that Cosette’s mother was so virtuous that she is now a dead angel. 100% pure extract of Good Woman, is Cosette, and a good man will have her.
This Les Miserables is such a reactionary film. After the fighting and the death, things go back to normal. The barricades are now manned by the dead figures of revolutionary past. The future is with these two youths who are now married to each other. Their individual blonde European beauty is reflected in the other. Beyond that—who cares.
I have no idea why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role, by which I mean I guess I know why Anne Hathaway was nominated for a Golden Globe for this role: This role is award bait. The culture industry loves a good woman in trouble, especially if she’s beautiful and has the good sense to weep for her child, sing sad songs, and die prettily. (They should have given her a nomination for the Batman film, instead, where between her and two seconds of Cillian Murphy they made the excruciating thing watchable.)
So Hathaway shaved off her hair for Les Miserables, but did you know that Cillian Murphy shaved off an eyebrow for Peacock? Where is Cillian Murphy’s award? Where is Cillian Murphy?
In Red Lights, as it turns out, which is not award bait. Red Lights is about the ever-rational, all-seeing, white bourgeois gaze and how it tries to impose itself upon the world. It fails, to some extent, and the result is that blood splatters all over Cillian Murphy and he looks really good—Cillian as Carrie/Jesus hybrid, basically—but I digress. I think maybe the movie is itself conflicted about this gaze. I say “think” because this movie is a bit of a mess, or a lot of a mess. Not the kind of mess that I like, because I generally am quite fond of a really good mistake, but because it’s a smug, self-approving kind of mess.
I watched Red Lights in the cinema, alone, because I do like to watch movies alone for the most part but also because I have A Thing for Cillian Murphy, and I’d heard that Red Lights SUCKED SO BAD, so it was a matter of embarrassment and self-preservation. I can’t watch Cillian on-screen without feeling as though my face was melting into itself and my face can’t melt while people I know are with me. More so if the film is supposed to be bad.
So alone I went.
The thing about the gaze is interesting here, because Robert De Niro’s character is supposed to be blind, but because he apparently has psychic powers, he can still see. Isn’t that how colonial/imperial white supremacy tries to convince itself and others? That even though it can’t see and it can’t be everywhere, it can still see and know more than you would ever know. He is blind but fortunately he is a rich white man who can claim visuality, what Nicholas Mirzoeff in “The Right to Look” calls “the authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look.” When he first meets Cillian Murphy’s character and runs his fingers over his face it feels authoritative and assertive, almost like a violation.
But Red Lights didn’t need De Niro. Maybe it would have been less of a smug mess without him. He plays the character of Simon Silver, a charismatic superstar psychic, with absolutely zero charisma. One imagines that De Niro might have possessed some charisma at some point—so many people seem to love him—but that charisma is gone and you’re left with De Niro and his superstar-psychic soliloquies. With De Niro now you get a superstar playing an actor playing a superstar psychic. Something was lost along the way, and I think the something is Feelings. What happens to male actors who are great (or considered great?) They ossify and become spectres of themselves. This is what awards shows like the Golden Globes “honour” year after year. Ghosts. While real people like black women and women of colour try to find roles that don’t demean them too much.
De Niro is not there, he’s never there; to compensate he tries to be there too much. His performance is embarrassing yet his face is right in the middle of the Red Lights poster, signalling some kind of great cosmic, Hollywood-star significance. Right away you know this film stars a great white man playing a great white man, and who cares if either one of these great white men is ultimately revealed to be a hack? He still commands crowds, makes money, gets to make his way in the world and be attended to by a coterie of power-hungry next-in-line soulsuckers. Which is the culture industry in a nutshell.
Sigourney Weaver is the key authoritative figure of the film, and this is nice until she dies because then there you realise that the first authoritative figure to die is a woman. What a coincidence! Sigourney’s character is one who knows things, the one who is wise and yet not afraid to admit that she’s afraid of doubt; the one who’s conventionally successful and yet not a walking shell of herself as so many successful women are often required to be, emptied out of all feeling.
She and Cillian have intriguing chemistry. When I think about the movie now I think about the scenes where they’re together, particularly the one conversation where she tells him that she’s afraid of Simon Silver because he was the first person to make her doubt. Cillian just listens and looks at her, and that look was something—a combination of love and respect. The right to look devoid of the need to claim authority over the object of one’s gaze. And I just thought about how that’s rare in most contemporary movies, especially if it’s between straight male and female characters who are not invested and/or interested in each other sexually, especially if it’s between an older woman and a younger man.
There was real energy between them, energy that I think would have pushed the film into new/different/interesting places than where it finally ended up. De Niro now seems like such an uncharitable actor in this film. He never plays off the energy of the other actors and in the denouement, he’s like a parasite sucking all intelligence and heart out of the movie with his belligerent ranting. And there’s poor Cillian, beaten to a pulp, bloody, without his Sigourney, having to be both Carrie and Jesus at once to De Niro’s entitled superstar. (In some of behind the scenes footage I found on Tumblr, De Niro is shown calling Cillian “Sillian” which to me is astonishing—the authority to mispronounce your relatively less-famous co-star’s name just because you’re De Niro and you can. You’re working with this person and you could care less that you don’t have his name right.)
But the thing about Sigourney’s character is that she makes an unkind remark about housewives that Cillian’s character picks up on. “I like housewives”, is what his character says, if I remember correctly, because he was just caught watching a reality show about housewives. Cillian says this line as if he’s unsure if it’s meant to be delivered straight or in jest. Which I suppose is the feminist conundrum of our times. Are successful women supposed to hate housewives? Are men supposed to be feminist or post-feminist or just sexist as usual in their opinion of housewives? Discuss. Write a series of articles about for The Atlantic. Write a book. And so on.
As for Cillian? Someday JR is going to write “The Meaning of Cillian Murphy” but until then I will stumble about trying to figure out why his performances, even when he’s cast in some truly atrocious movie, consistently unsettle me. This was the case in Red Lights, too, until the ending—an ending that really did make me laugh because it was filled will all kinds of shit lines, shit lines that were recited in Cillian’s wondrous, melodious voice, sure, but still—SHIT LINES. “We are who we are” or “We have to know ourselves” or whatever, I mean, please. I think Cillian did a superb job of shading his character in various tones of ambiguity but then perhaps I’m biased, or maybe that’s why I’m a “fan”—he’s always got a quality of excess, or disquiet, about him, like he’s about to jump out of his skin or melt into his bones or float off the face of the earth. I don’t feel safe watching him. I get the sense that acting is, for him, a means of working out or through anxiety about something (many things) (everything). I’m never bored when I watch him and this is important to me. So many actors are the walking dead. I mean, here’s Cillian Murphy next to Robert De Niro and without making any sort of qualitative judgment—which boils down to taste, which is a long story—there’s just a clear difference between the living and the dead.
Red Lights almost becomes yet another crisis of masculinity film and no doubt Leonardo DiCaprio could have sleepwalked through it like he did in Inception but Cillian never does (or can’t do?) conventional masculinity by the book and this redeems this movie. Somewhat.
But the film itself undermines Cillian’s character, because there are so many things it could have explored but stayed away from in the interest of giving us “a thriller”. Because ultimately it’s a film that questions or has its doubts about absolute rationality but opts out of the complexity by trotting out soothing, pop-selfhelp speak: “Know yourself” and all will be well. The film spends a good amount of time trying to prove all libidinal energy as anti-logic that finally it has to contradict itself, and Cillian’s character comes to embody the kind of emotional excess he has tried to disavow/reject/ mock. I’m wondering if hysteria is always feminised, that I’ve internalised this sexism that even when I see a male actor perform it I’m thinking about how his role is feminised, made precisely unstable because of its lack of conventional masculinity (which must always be rational). I’m not sure. Red Lights could have gone another way, but it needed to soothe is audience with optimism, progress, and realism. In the end, Cillian’s character must make meaning out of his madness. Thus, the movie ends with a truly atrocious voiceover where Cillian is made to mansplain his hysteria to himself and the audience.
There are a few non-white characters who pop up for a few seconds, as seen through the rationalising white gaze, hovering at the edges of the film as figures of dread or alarm. There is the requisite Tall Black Man who gives wee Cillian a scare. He looms up as a figure of terror until Cillian and the audience realises that he’s just part of Simon Silver’s mini security apparatus. There is one black lady dressed in tattered clothes who gives Cillian the evil eye and spits in his face after he almost (accidentally) runs her down. In that one scene she’s shown to be Really Scary and Possibly “Crazy”. The film doesn’t do well with these people living on the fringes of respectable bourgeois life—they’re shown here to be desperate and unsound of mind, often both—and the one instance with a black family who was convinced their son was manifesting special powers through his drawing was just awkward and strange, with Cillian and Sigourney as the two sensible white interlocutors observing and later, passing judgment on them while giggling in the car on the drive back.
Perhaps Red Lights would have been award bait if it was better made, smoother, slicker. Maybe it needed an American director or the backing of major studios. There have been a zillion reviews panning the movie. The critics went to town. I wonder if these are the same critics who later included Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in their year-end best-of lists. Almost as if it’s a requirement to be an Empire apologist if you’re going to be a film critic. But what’s more stunning, or vomit-inducing, is the general critical consensus. How they know which films to collectively mock, and which ones to collectively swoon over? Does it involve actual thought? I mean, Peter Bradshaw was practically having an orgasm over Django Unchained in The Guardian. And right on cue these films go on to be nominated for awards.
December 18, 2012 § 5 Comments
It would seem like after I wrote that last blog post I exhausted myself and my capacity to spew words and collapsed in a crumpled heap near the bottom of my closet while looking for something decent to wear but no, that is not what happened. At least I don’t think so? I have been reading a lot of books lately and wondering why I have a stupid blog, i.e. business as usual. Or maybe more so than usual, especially since you can find any number of comments online about how people want other people to bring back the copy editors because so many articles these days read like crummy, messy, awkward, shit-as-hell, hell-as-shit blog posts.
A blog is a much-maligned thing.
Hug your blog today.
Pet it, stroke it, maybe even write in it.
Can we talk about the fetishisation of edited writing? What are the magical powers of editing that will make a piece of writing automatically better (suited to consumption)?
I neglect to put up my Pop Matters reviews as they go up, so this is delayed self-promotion in one post. (And that’s a funny thing about self-promotion. It’s never eschewed, only postponed.)
1) Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam
This was dense, long, and really fascinating. Probably because it’s such a vast topic –there is so much history to sift through and situate—the book is very disciplined, never straying far from the outline of each chapter. I kept wondering about the women, who were mentioned so rarely. How did they see religion?
How did Maymuna know God? Women were illiterate, we see from this example, but they weren’t silent. How do we know which words were their own, which were put into their mouth? And if their words weren’t recorded or archived then how would we know how they saw God? This book takes its title after Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, who makes a cushion (here Elias tells us that in another account, it was curtains) that troubles the Prophet because of its images. Aisha’s artistry in keeping house and making household objects for her husband is a domestic problem, a spiritual problem, a metaphysical problem. In both examples of Aisha and Maymuna, women pose a problem or they neutralise a problem. Men reign, men look, men decide, men theorise, men historicise, men write and this is not so much Elias’ fault as it is a huge gaping hole, a glaring silence, a substantial lack. Aisha’s Cushion is all men, all the time.
2) Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home
I’m pretty sure I said enough about this book in my review. I couldn’t shut up and keep it brief, but I will add that I enjoyed reading about Hausa popular literature just as much as I enjoyed reading the novel. Although “enjoyed” is a term not without its problems—there was too much to relate to, on the level of the operations of patriarchy through familial and social institutions—that it was a bitter pill to swallow, or more like cough syrup: deceptively sweet but ultimately unpleasant. I’m still wondering what Saudatu thinks of her marriage. I also want to know how the women see, how they look at their men. Yakubu is pretty clever in how she manages to depict instances of masculinity that come off as, in the words of Aaron Bady in this tweet, beyond satire. (And this is also due, no doubt, to Aliyu Kamal’s translation.) The world of Sin is a Puppy is a world that’s too-familiar because most straight men actually want others to believe that their intentions, thoughts, and actions are produced and defined by their hard-ons. They spy a beautiful face, a comely figure, and they are ready to disavow previous wives, existing kids, current jobs and social and political positions. AND THEN THEY’RE LIKE, SHIT! WHY ARE THINGS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT? This is basically the position of Rabi’s husband, who really doesn’t need a name because he’s All The (Straight) Men We’ve Known Before. I was pretty happy to read Aisha’s review because she was similarly troubled by the book’s complexities: I am not alone in my discomfort! I admit I am pretty chuffed, because Aisha is smart and wonderful, and it’s good to be of like mind.
3) Kate Zambreno, Heroines
This is another long-ass review where I couldn’t shut up. Heroines is troubled and troubling; I’m frankly quite puzzled by reviews that seem to consider it a superficial or simplistic look at constructions of femininity. It’s also a ridiculously quotable book, and if I were allowed to write like 10,000 words I’m sure I would have quoted multiple passages. Zambreno seems to be circling around mothers in her work—on her blog she has talked quite frankly about her relationship with her own (now deceased) mother: her relationship to her mother, her relationship to her death. There’s a great line in Heroines about “panopticon mothers”, one that echoes a line from her first book, O Fallen Angel: “Maggie was born in a repressive regime (her mother has policed her since birth).” We don’t talk enough about the mother’s all-seeing gaze. (Do we? Is it all-seeing?) What happens to the daughters of panopticon mothers? I also feel like the proper review of Heroines would have entered into the spirit of the book like Helen McClory’s review, because it feels like she really engaged with the form and spirit of the book, although the style of it is still distinctly Helen’s own. But I’m sure this book will continue to ooze out of me in the months to come, in blog posts and other kinds of writing. I would like it to ooze; I’m sick of the capitalist mode of literary production, after all, quite sick, so it’s only expected that books will ooze and fester.
September 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
My review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? went up on Pop Matters awhile back and I’ve been tardy in doing one of these exciting blog updates where I tell you that The. Review. Is. Up #breakingnews
The short of it is I reallyreallyreally did not like it. I wanted to talk more about why I did not like it but it occurred to me that I have written a review about exactly that. So I will put up a Fiona Apple song instead as a fine, tongue-in-cheek, clever example of feminine discontent that Sheila Heti is unfortunately not:
Michelle Dean, whose Slate essay is otherwise spot-on about how sexism works in book reviews and definitions of what counts as Serious Lit, draws a comparison between Heti and Apple which I quite obviously disagree with. Heti’s whole book is determined to absolve Sheila, the (fictionalised) character. I mean, as Jessa Crispin points out, she compares herself to Moses—this was either meant to be flippant and subversive (as in, why can’t women characters lay a grandiose claim to greatness like men often do in their books?) or serious and earnest (as in, look, Sheila is like Moses). Either way I can’t help but feel so strongly against the style of the book, which I suppose means that I dislike the writing, which probably means that I dislike the thinking. As Jessa writes:
But the Heti is sneakier. Part of it is the self-help aspect. The way she compares herself without blinking to Moses. The way the book gets historical fact flat-out wrong. The selfishness and the lack of awareness of the real world, and the certainty of it all. The girlishness. The, god help me, tweeness of it all. And then, behind all of that, a tone of cynical “just kidding!” to protect itself from criticism. None of this is necessarily frustrating in and of itself, at least not in an intense way. It should have just been a “not for me” book that I set aside after two pages.
I disagree with Jessa about the girly aspects of the book; or rather, that girlishness is somehow always-already twee and fluffy and shallow. I just don’t think Heti’s exploration of female subjectivity is at all compelling or interesting or new or challenging or bold or anything. And this is where I do agree with Jessa’s comments: the “tone of cynical ‘just kidding!’ to protect itself from criticism”—yes. That’s why I mentioned Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl in my review, because Green Girl is about female subjectivity, girlishness, hysteria, sensitivity, emotions, but it’s bold and strongly-written; it doesn’t shy away from its subject, whether it’s shallow or unintelligent or whatever, it plunges right in, and as a result it is a ferocious, tentative, vulnerable, intelligent book. Heti’s tone, in contrast, is coy in a way that I really can’t stand; I don’t know if this just boils down to taste, and if so, what that says about me.
(Anyway, I’m generally in agreement with most of Jessa’s thoughts about How Should a Person Be? and also way too thrilled that she linked to my review. #notahumblebrag #anoutrightbrag)
Meanwhile, Fiona Apple is fucking up and making a mistake and telling us that she “sure had fun”. And that’s why she’s different from Heti, who compares herself to Moses. (Also, Apple is just a few years older than me and I’ve been a fan since her first album, so I feel like I “grew up” with her and I cannot bear to see her compared favourably with Heti, just nonononopleaseno.)