Thursday, November 19, 2009
I've just finished reading Carol J. Adams' The Pornography of Meat ; an eco-feminist analysis linking the low status of women in society with our abominable treatment of animals we farm for food.
Written in 'accessible', non-academic language, Adams' book is an engaging read - if a little confronting. The Pornography of Meat not only discusses groups who Adams sees as oppressed, but it also serves as a wake-up call regarding the invisible privileges of whiteness, maleness, and humanness.
Adams uses anecdotes, statistics, and visual images ranging from restaurant menus, advertisements, and pornography, as well as graphic photographs from abattoirs and factory farms to illustrate her point.
In The Pornography of Meat, the layout of text and images is subtly timed for maximum impact. A large text ad screams: 'Live Nude Lobsters', while Adams informs us that, “pleasurable consumption of consumable beings is the dominant perspective of our culture.” The 'tasty chick' burger ad pops up a few pages later, alongside Adams' thoughts on strip clubs and the objectification of women.
This link between The 'othering' of women with the 'othering' of animals, is fully brought home with the image of the 'turkey hooker', an ad featuring a ludicrously sexualised cooked bird wearing high-heels and striking a 'come thither' pose. Women's bodies, Adams' images tell us, have become symbolically aligned with meat products. The plight of women and the plight of animals is one and the same.
The symbolic connections between women and animals may seem fairly obvious. After all, it is quite common and socially acceptable for women to be called by all kinds of animal names; ie, (sex) kitten, (playboy) bunny, and chick, as well as less desirable, but still commonly used names like dog, bitch and cow.
While the above images and language may be socially acceptable - seen by some as light-hearted, jokey, 'no big deal' - other images in this book bring to light sinister aspects of patriarchal naming. For example, a cover from Hustler magazine showing a woman being put through a meat grinder, or a picture of a naked woman's body divided up into portions labelled 'rib', 'loin', 'rump', and 'chuck'.
By the time I've seen these pictures and read the accompanying text, the take-away chicken outlet back in Hobart with the mysteriously sexualised name and logo, Legs 'n' Breasts is seen in another light, and I shudder to remember how another popular Tasmanian fast-food chain, Nando's, inexplicably featured a pole dancer in one of its advertisements.
Unfortunately, The Pornography of Meat is written with more passion and good intentions than care and skill. Adams is often repetitive, and many of her sentences are poorly constructed. For example, on the subject of slavery-themed pornography, she writes, “They posit that black women have an animalistic sexuality that must be controlled, otherwise they are dangerous.” The clunkiness of this sentence risks obscuring the relevance of Adams' message. Clumsy syntax is not the worst crime in the world (it's not as bad as clubbing a baby seal, for example) but it is disappointing. Adams' ideas are more powerful when she makes the effort to express herself eloquently.
Also troubling, are Adams' rather large generalisations about men and women. For example, she writes, “Men talk about women... as sexually active and available to them; a piece of ass, or a whore... Men with other men look and talk about women" and, "By body chopping a woman, a man can position himself as a successful sexual predator in the eyes of his peers.” One could be forgiven for thinking that Adams believes that all men watch porn, enjoy killing animals, and are responsible for endless exploitation and subordination of women and animals. On one level, I respect Adams' hard-core stance, while on another, I feel she would reach more people by being less essentialist and more open to varying interpretations of gender.
Overall though, The Pornography of Meat is well worth a read. Adams' ideas are poignant , far-reaching, and highly relevant. If at some stage you feel as though you are being brainwashed, remember that in the end, it is a far less harmful brainwashing than the usual kind one is subjected to. Just think of prime-time television's latest stellar representation of gender, Beauty and the Geek: where beautiful women in bikinis are matched with brainy, yet ugly, men, or, the Bachelor where desperate, lonely, women subject themselves to countless emotional agonies all in the name of love, wedding bells, and reality television. And then of-course there's that wonderful Nando's chicken ad I mentioned, where an erotic-dancer slides up and down a pole in an effort to sell some fried chicken.
Adams' militant vegan eco-feminism will look pretty mild in comparison.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Lucy Snowe, financially and emotionally bereft, bravely journeys to the town of Villette to offer her services as an English teacher at a girls' boarding school. Here, she coincidentally meets up with old friends; the wealthy Brettons- Godmother, Louisa Bretton, her son, Graham Bretton- now a doctor; and the beautiful and accomplished Paulina, who Lucy had known as a precocious child. Finding partial solace in renewed friendships, Lucy is nonetheless deeply lonely and is acutely distressed by appearences of the ghost of a nun said to be buried beneath the school. The Brettons are caring but rather self-absorbed and often forget her. By the end of Villette, the ghost will be revealed as a childish prank, Graham and Paulina will marry, and Lucy will finally let love into her life in the form of tempestuous colleague, M. Paul, who enables Lucy's financial Independence in the form of her own school. M. Paul's work takes him overseas, but he promises they shall marry when he returns. Tragically; indeed, horribly; he is killed in a shipwreck on this return journey.
The painfully unhappy and socially maligned Lucy Snowe makes something of an anti-heroine for this tale. Her isolation and sense of homelessness throughout Villette is almost palpable, contrasting the smoother, more self-assured narratives of the other characters; namely, the wealthy, accomplished, Paulina, and the close family unit of the Brettons.
Lucy Snowe is a woman trying to make it entirely on her own, and Bronte's tale effectively illustrates the difficulties 19th Century women experienced supporting themselves and finding a place in society.
My favourite part of this novel is a bizarre, dreamlike, scene where Lucy, under the influence of narcotics, leaves the convent at night and wanders the streets of Villette; chancing upon a garishly lit fete.
If you have read Villette you will know how much intense looking, observing, spying, knowing, and 'being known' occurs. These are major themes of this novel, and here, they come to the foreground.
Below, Bronte's sudden change from past tense to present tense takes Lucy's night-time walk into the realm of the fantastical:
I took a route well known, and went up towards the palatial and royal Haute-Ville; thence the music I had heard certainly floated; it was hushed now, but it might re-waken. I went on: neither band nor bell music came to meet me; another sound replaced it, a sound like a strong tide, a great flow, deepening as I proceeded. Light broke, movement gathered, chimes pealed—to what was I coming? Entering on the level of a Grande Place, I found myself, with the suddenness of magic, plunged amidst a gay, living, joyous crowd.
Villette is one blaze, one broad illumination; the whole world seems abroad; moonlight and heaven are banished: the town, by her own flambeaux, beholds her own splendour—gay dresses, grand equipages, fine horses and gallant riders throng the bright streets. I see even scores of masks. It is a strange scene, stranger than dreams.
When Lucy reaches her destination, it seems all notable town characters are decked out for her perusal. Lucy observes them with her usual, hungry, possessive, gaze, from under the cover of a large straw hat. Then, she chances on Graham Bretton, who recognises her but apparently decides she is better left alone. Bronte writes:
Why, if [Graham] would look, did not one glance satisfy him? why did he turn on his chair, rest his elbow on its back, and study me leisurely? He could not see my face, I held it down; surely, he could not recognise me: I stooped, I turned, I would not be known. He rose, by some means he contrived to approach, in two minutes he would have had my secret: my identity would have been grasped between his, never tyrannous, but always powerful hands. There was but one way to evade or to check him. I implied, by a sort of supplicatory gesture, that it was my prayer to be let alone; after that, had he persisted, he would perhaps have seen the spectacle of Lucy incensed: not all that was grand, or good, or kind in him (and Lucy felt the full amount) should have kept her quite tame, or absolutely inoffensive and shadowlike. He looked, but he desisted. He shook his handsome head, but he was mute.
Throughout this novel, Lucy's invisibility to others is a key part of her loneliness and isolation. Dismissed by pupils and colleagues alike as an eccentric foreigner, there are few characters in this novel who really 'see' Lucy for who she is. Graham is not one of them. However, the above excerpt also makes clear Lucy's comfort in invisibility, and indicates that perhaps she is a co-conspirator in her social isolation.
An important character who does 'see' Lucy, is M. Miret, a local bookseller and friend of M. Paul, who, as a resepected member of the community, is key to the eventual success of Lucy's school.
Strange to say, this man knew me under my straw-hat and closely-folded shawl; and, though I deprecated the effort, he insisted on making a way for me through the crowd, and finding me a better situation. He carried his disinterested civility further; and, from some quarter, procured me a chair. Once and again, I have found that the most cross-grained are by no means the worst of mankind; nor the humblest in station, the least polished in feeling. This man, in his courtesy, seemed to find nothing strange in my being here alone; only a reason for extending to me, as far as he could, a retiring, yet efficient attention. Having secured me a place and a seat, he withdrew without asking a question, without obtruding a remark, without adding a superfluous word.
Miret not only easily recognises Lucy, but is also unconcerned at her strange clothes and lack of escort. His actions of fetching her a chair and making room for her amongst the townspeople are cited by critics as symbolic of Lucy's acceptance by the community of Villette.
The ending of Villette is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Lucy's long, difficult, journey. Bronte renders this part of the novel oddly ambiguous. Possibly aiming to soften the tragedy of her conclusion, she urges readers to:
"trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope... Let them picture a union and a happy succeeding life."
While holding no illusions regarding M. Paul's survival, I refuse to think of Villette's ending as all doom and gloom. Lucy's school is successful, and she is accepted into the community. And perhaps a future suitor looms on the horizon in the form of M. Miret, who Lucy describes as very similar to M. Paul, and who evidently respects and likes her.
In any case, a 'happy ending' already exists in the triumph of Lucy's achievements; she has found a means of supporting herself, and secured a position in society.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
"I woke the next morning with three things in my head- a pair of swollen eyes, a heavy pain, and a fixed determination to write a book."
This line is from Miles Franklin's 1899 novel, My Brilliant Career (discussed previously), which goes on to describe the young 'Authoress', Sybilla Melvyn, scribbling at her book in the dark of the night; hiding it from a conservative family who little understands her need to create.
A similarly ambitious 'scribbler' is Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women series, first published in 1868, about thirty-two years before the gutsy Franklin put pen to page.
Jo March is one of the saving graces of Alcott's somewhat preachy series of novels about the March family. A deeply flawed and thus profoundly human character, Jo is strong minded and fiercely independent. She struggles with herself as much as with the restrictions of outside world.
The passage below (one of my favourite parts of this novel) gives us a portrait of Jo the writer:
Every few weeks [Jo] would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and `fall into a vortex', as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace. Her `scribbling suit' consisted of a black woollen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, "Does genius burn, Jo?" They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo.
She did not think herself a genius by any means, but when the writing fit came on, she gave herself up to it with entire abandon, and led a blissful life, unconscious of want, care, or bad weather, while she sat safe and happy in an imaginary world, full of friends almost as real and dear to her as any in the flesh. Sleep forsook her eyes, meals stood untasted, day and night were all too short to enjoy the happiness which blessed her only at such times, and made these hours worth living, even if they bore no other fruit. The divine afflatus usually lasted a week or two, and then she emerged from her `vortex', hungry, sleepy, cross, or despondent.
(from chapter IV of Good Wives, Part Two of Little Women)
These paragraphs clearly show the euphoria brought on by writing. I've been reading a bit of Alice Walker lately, and I'm almost tempted to use a phrase like 'ecstatic creation' to describe Jo's writing process.
Jo declares a space for herself in which she can be an artist and then assertively defends it from her family. Her unusual clothing signifies the internal changes she undergoes as she writes, letting the Marches know that, temporarily at least, she is no longer the dutiful daughter of the house.
Like a mad professor in her 'rakish' cap, she grumpily rejects the mundane realm, taking to a private space to perform mysterious acts of creation. Escaping the endless domestic clatter, she claims, in Virginia Woolf's timeless words, "a room of one's own".
Considering the era's ambivalent attitudes to literary women, Jo's family seems unusually supportive of her artistic inclinations. Perhaps, though, they see Jo's writing not as a serious pursuit, but as an extension of her eccentricity and tom-boyishness. An obsessively scribbling daughter is something of a 'cross' for the saintly Marches to bear.
This attitude is also indicated by how, earlier in the series, Jo's writing takes place in a garret. Garrets are spaces of marginality, traditionally inhabited by dusty old furniture and bric-a-brac, not to mention the odd ghost, or mad wife. Jo's literary career is therefore pushed to the outer fringe of the household, perhaps symbolic of its perceived 'oddness' by the March family.
A vague anxiety about Jo's writing also exists in Alcott's likening it to a 'fit' or 'attack'. Jo enters an almost feverish state where she declines all nourishment, provoking worry from her mother and relief once the 'attack' has passed. Victorian novels often depict heroines falling ill of 'brain fever' after excessive mental strain. I can't imagine Alcott believing such twaddle, of-course, but I do have to wonder if this idea crept in unawares.
These quibbles, are, however, small and do not stack up against evidence that, by and large, Jo's family genuinely encourages her literary career. So much so, in fact, that it makes me wish Sybilla Melvyn could have gone back in time about thirty years, emigrated to America, and moved in with the Marches. She probably would have had to undertake more bible-study than anyone should ever have to, but on the up-side, I'm sure Jo would have given her a corner of the writer's garret for her very own...
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Today, I played the album Catalpa, by Jolie Holland, and remembered just how it is that I've survived five Hobart winters, debilitating heart-lung disease, and a persistent sense of impending doom (brought on by the last two things, as well as by global warming, the Liberal party, politics in general, and most of all, the dark and troubled soul of my recalcitrant Persian cat, Mr Blush...)
Holland is an American musician, singer, and song-writer whose eerie, spell-binding, musical-fables have long acted as my 'chicken soup for the soul'. Some people pray to a deity, some people read self-help books. For emotional and spiritual solace, I listen to Jolie Holland.
Right from the beginning, Catalpa envelopes you in its dreamy warmth. Listening to this album is like slipping into a steaming bubble bath and wallowing for hours, careless of the world and the worry it brings. Harmonicas, banjos, bells, a musical saw, guitars, and the delicate pickings of a ukulele combine to build a subtle soundscape steeped in gloom, yet somehow tinged with spectral light.
Catalpa's folk genre as well as its lyrical images of country roads and lonesome whippoorwills have the potential to create a stagey, hokey, kind of nostalgia common to many such 'Americana' styled albums.
This is not the case here, or in Holland's other three albums. In Catalpa, reference to the past only serves to give glimmering depth to the present. Holland's music creates warm, carefully excavated caverns that you can climb inside: familiar, safe, dark, and dripping with centuries of meaning.
This first album of Holland's is the least polished - you can actually hear her coughing on one of the tracks - but nonetheless remains my decided favourite.
Mr Blush is also quite fond of Catalpa, and I'm sure would love to find the lonesome whippoorwill (pictured below) so that he could eat it...
Thursday, June 18, 2009
The afternoon sky huddles darkly against the window, while steam from a pot of brown rice boiling on the stove rolls along my kitchen ceiling like great swathes of mist along a river. I read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin a few weeks ago, and now, the steam gathering in the ceiling reminds me of mist and rivers, and the bush.
But this book has significance well beyond its evocative and lovingly wrought descriptions of the Australian bush. My Brilliant Career is the honest and intelligent outpourings of a young woman dismayed at the narrowness of her future, and determined to defy conventions.
Stella Miles Franklin's potential to be a brilliant singer and pianist was crushed due to her family's reduced financial circumstances. Amidst the grinding poverty and unrelenting labour of her family's drought-stricken dairy farm, she wrote both prolifically and honestly of her disappointments, frustrations, fears, and aspirations, channelling them all into the fictional character of Sybylla Melvyn, who is similarly trapped by circumstance and gender.
At the age of eighteen, she manically 'scribbled' (as she called it) at My Brilliant Career for about six months before sending it off to several publishers with no success. Finally, she sent it to Henry Lawson, who took it to an agent responsible for notables such as H.G. Wells, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. And thus, by the time she was twenty-two years old, Stella Miles Franklin's brilliant career was launched...
Miles Franklin was one of those rare individuals able to think outside of what society perceived as 'normal'. This is most clear in her literary creation, Sybylla, who cuts a most unusual figure amongst the placid, ringletted, self-sacrificing maidens who populated much Nineteenth Century fiction. Franklin's outspoken and ambitious heroine rips away at the very fabric constructing these stereotypes.
Sybylla radically challenges even contemporary notions of gender. She is self-centred, sharply intelligent, strong-willed, and has a clear notion of what she wants out of life. Her realistic flaws, her youth, truthfulness, and courage make her one of the most endearing characters in Australian literature
Her stubborn refusal to marry stems from an all too real threat faced by women of her time. With no birth control, marriage meant endless pregnancies, possible health complications, many children, and economic dependence on a male. The negative implications of marriage are illustrated in Sybylla's unhappy, and trapped mother, who has nine other children and a feckless, alcoholic husband.
Sybylla, naturally, envisions a better future for herself. But more than that, she sees that she has the right to claim space in the world for herself, to realise fulfilment well beyond the boundaries of the domestic sphere and their small-minded rural community.
Finally, narrative tension in My Brilliant Career hinges on Sybylla's willingness to compromise; will she bow to the immense pressure on all sides and accept her 'fate' as a woman, or will she stubbornly continue: independent and free, but alone and unloved?
It is interesting then, how this key tension in the novel played out in Franklin's real life. In the novel, Sybylla essentially has to choose between her career as a writer, and her suitor, Harold Beechum. In real life, Stella Miles Franklin must choose between conforming to her family's needs, or striking out on her own.
Tellingly, after the novel was published, Franklin was effectively cut off from her family and community, most of whom were scandalised by the book as they wrongly assumed it was purely autobiographical.
Franklin never fully repaired the rift with her family, but nonetheless led a full, brave, and vibrant life, as a writer, committed feminist and social activist.
Eventually, Miles Franklin was yet again forced to make a harrowing decision; between continuing the much needed fight for women's rights, or devoting herself body and soul to writing...
Monday, June 15, 2009
It was Hobart's never-ending rainy weather that finally prompted me to drag my wet laundry down the street to the laundromat; a place I hadn't visited for over five years. Inside: the most wonderful of all things: warmth - and free warmth at that - most important in these chilly days of steadily rising Electricity bills. Also: that divine smell of laundry powder and heated fabric, reminiscent of clean sheets and freshly made beds.
While my laundry was whizzing around the insides of a rather clanging and cavernous dryer, I sat down to wait, opening my copy of Villette, by Charlotte Bronte.
Villette is a gorgeously evocative, and deeply engaging novel that also happens to be somewhat dark and depressing, continually touching on themes of loneliness and social isolation. Bronte uses images of snow, coldness, ghosts, and empty attics to portray the internal feelings of her chronically unhappy heroine, Lucy Snowe.
What I found interesting about Villette this morning, was the excerpt I read while sitting in the laundromat. Here, Lucy Snowe visits an art gallery and stands for many minutes contemplating what is easily identified as a typical Nineteenth Century Orientalist painting. I read:
It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude, suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher’s meat—to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids —must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She, had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material—seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery—she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans—perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets—were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name "Cleopatra." (186 - 187, Bronte, 1853)
Griselda Pollock, in her book Differencing the Cannon, wrote that Bronte's painting is not based on an actual work, but rather on a combination of images around the notion of 'Cleopatra'.
Orientalist paintings often portrayed decadent, sexualised, women idling away their lives in Harems. They were part of a Western and very racialised discourse about the exotic 'far East', one that Bronte engaged with in Villette, as well as in Jane Eyre.
The below painting, Leila, by Frank Dicksee, was painted in 1892, and is therefore obviously not the painting pondered by Lucy Snowe. It is, nonetheless, a perfect example of an Orientalist work and readily came to my mind as I read Bronte's description of the fictional 'Cleopatra'.
Describing Lucy Snowe's strong aversion to this painting, Bronte sets up a clear divide between the values represented by 'Cleopatra' and the values treasured by her heroine.
Straight-laced protestant Lucy condemns, in Pollock's words, the painting's "gross physicality, indecency, and indolency: coded signs of an unharnessed sexuality." Cleopatra signifies a sexualised, decadent, 'other',the antithesis of Lucy's characterisation.
Throughout Villette we are often told via the confiding first-person narration of Lucy, that decadence, sensuality, and frivolity are foolish and useless. These ideas seem a key message of the novel.
However, Lucy's authority as a narrator is continually undermined by her characterisation. Miserable, alone, cold, and aloof from others, she constantly watches people with a possessive, hungry, gaze.
Names are often significant in Nineteenth Century novels, and Lucy's surname is no exception, evoking a chilling sense of desolation. Snow is also blanketing and concealing, and Lucy's strong, vibrant, character is hidden from those around her who are, for the most part, too caught up in their own lives to take much notice of the eccentric school teacher.
The most telling image in Villete is the ghost of a nun said to be buried alive beneath the school. This resonates strongly with the character of Lucy, telling us that her isolation renders her symbolically buried alive.
Such images and themes make me think that perhaps the novel's key message is not a moral diatribe against decadent culture, but the very opposite: that enjoyment of and fulfilment in life are vital to emotional and mental survival.
I haven't finished this novel yet, but when I do I will certainly update about anything else that strikes a chord with me in this novel, or any changes of opinion about what I have discussed today.
I think the cold weather and the darkness of winter have made me think about Villette and the troubled Lucy Snowe with something approaching empathy.
Curious ones, you can check out the synopsis of Villette, here:
and even read the entire novel online here:
Sunday, June 14, 2009
My intentions for this blog are as follows:
- Some delightful, entertaining, and (hopefully) insightful commentary on the World At Large.
- Accompanied by (and inclusive of) observations regarding that dense, glittery, fairy-forest of popular culture haunted by the rapacious ghosts of two centuries of Literature...
Hopefully I won't make too many spelling errors in the process. In the mean time, for lack of any divine inspiration right this very second, have a poem:
The Song of Wandering Aengus
William Butler Yeats
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
And just for fun, a link: