More Vivian

Dear Millicent,

There’s more Vivian Maier to look at, this time a smart collection of self-portraits, and it’s all wonderful. What’s better than a woman’s angular shadow looming on a lawn of grass? I’m a sucker for it. I want a movie, with Emma Thompson starring.

Yours,

CF

[Via Kottke]

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Netflix Deathmatch 1: Interrupted Weddings

Dear Millicent,

You know how you sometimes absorb a novel or movie and let it become an unspoken part of your decision making process? Like, I have had a baggy red sweater for 12 years mostly because I thought a similar one looked so charming and relaxed on Juliette Lewis in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

I’m pretty sure I spend most of my time trying to live in a novel or movie, and most probably, a novel or movie that my brain absorbed between the ages of 4 and 19. Maybe all generations experience this cultural nostalgia, where the timepieces that shaped y/our expectation of the future are so special because they are so specifically y/ours. People even 6 years ahead or behind you have an entire different set of references. There must be a very squishy age (9?) where we absorb all that magic, and the cultural timepieces lock in.  My Tribes is another person’s Square Pegs is another person’s Degrassi High . 

Obviously, we don’t live in movies, blahblahblah, but I do think something interesting happens when we get two conflicting cultural imprints.  This would be the equivalent of absolutely wanting the Lewis red sweater, and then seeing something else that confirmed red sweaters were the stuff of bad, un-Depped, lives. But, on a much larger scale, of course.  This whammy happens to me a lot.   For example, tet’s take a favorite topic of mine, weddings!

This might be my all time favorite wedding scene ever:

Conclusion: it is good to follow your heart, and whatever you do (as pounds of movies have told us) is DO NOT MARRY THE SAFE GUY. Meg Ryan is also very good at proving this (Greg Kinnear, the safest man in cinema?).  Also, the promise that TRUE LOVE OUTS, ALWAYS.

And then we have this famous doozie:

Both narratives are in agreement about one thing, ADULTS SUCK. And both make fun of the same system that, by getting married, the youth are signing up for in the first place.  But we get that in The Graduate, the whole situation sucks some balls. Growing up sucks some balls. Plastics suck some balls.  And, well, ending up with Benjamin as your Dwayne sucks some balls.  He’s a stalker. He slept with your mom.  Elaine…it’s not too late for you, but you should probably grow up to be a sexy single lady who owns a bookstore.

The conflict: Both are iconic, closely related scenes in my head, but one promises bliss and certainty, and the other promises that grand gestures can be as empty as what they hope to work against.

I also like to smack Howards End  in the middle of this Netflix deathmatch, because well, it swings its weight both ways. Margaret marries the safe man, the rich Mr. Wilcox, and it’s terrible. But Helen follows her heart and fully abandons herself to passion, and it, too, is kind of terrible. And poor Leonard Bast. All he got was some sex and misery in his life.

So who wins–what will get to be the grand narrative that wins in my brain? Of course neither, because luckily I can handle conflicting narratives and their ambiguities, but what if they had to? What if we had to either join them all together in some mad life lesson, or at least make some peace with their differences?

Then I would say we snuggle up to EM Forster as much as possible, and let the other two float in the ether. Partnering for comfort or lust is probably a bad idea. I think Forster would approve of Elaine’s escape and Whitley’s change of heart.  Interestingly, they all work on class lines too: if you’re a gal, DO NOT MARRY THE RICH GUY unless you really want to sleep with him and he likes your brain, and for guys, DO NOT MARRY THE POOR GIRL OR OLD LADY, you were probably just with her because you were horny. True love = breaking class expectations. If you’re a guy, SAVE YOURSELF FOR THE RICH GIRL. She’ll probably go ahead and break your heart anyway, but it will be morally correct. At least, it will this time in the annals of Carla Fran’s Culture Clash, or what I like to call The Media Closet of Our Lives.

Join us next time where we take on reproduction: Lost in Translation vs. Friday Night Lights!

Yours,

CF

PS. All movies agree, never marry a cop.

Revisionist Graffiti

Dear CF,

I caught a graffiti artist on video the other day. She was working on the only woman on the whole building–a buxom blue-skinned lady with no face and a theoretical bikini. I’d seen the blue gal many times and scowled a little at her faceless boobage.

Here’s the artist at work. She let me film her after she put on huge sunglasses:

I came back later to see what she did:

Fondly,

M

The Glenn Beck Decoder

Dear CF,

I was trying tonight to read Glenn Beck’s website in an effort to better understand his point of view and failed at the most basic level. The language feels foreign, inexact, like reading a pirated translation. (I read this April 1, 2011 entry three times before giving up—if you can explain it to me, I’d be grateful).

So I turned to Wordle for enlightenment, figuring it might do the work of an across-the-aisle Babelfish. That all Americans—even the uninitiated and the elites—might be able to follow our Paul Revere, I transformed four of his texts into beautiful word clouds.  (Wordle turns any text you paste into the window into an attractive arrangement of words whose relative sizes reflect the frequency of word usage.)

These statistical charts don’t just show the development of a great American thinker over time; I think you’ll find they also show which words he used most.

Let’s start with his 2008 article for CNN, “America Needs a Twelve-Step Program“:

The most frequently used words here make a haiku:

America, think!

Power step! (Country-guy way).

Life-government words.

Next up is “Obama’s socialist climate czar,” from 2009:

I did not choose this color scheme, by the way. It’s like the Wordle knew that Socialism is red Communism by another name.

In this case the message is clear, stripped of any namby-pamby attempts at a Japanese and frankly unpatriotic poetic form.

Know new global international socialist, Obama!

(Notice the kicky homophone, there for camouflage–lets it seem like he’s speaking to Obama, telling him “No new global international socialist!” while in fact he’s warning the world to know the one we already have in our midst. Apposition masked as a direct address.)

We pass to his response to the earthquake in Japan:

The meaning seems clear at first glance:

God continued saying Beck well.

God and Beck are in harmony. God pronounces the shibboleth (“Beck”) beautifully, and the two great beings are at peace. But might this cryptic statement hint at underlying tensions?

Consider a differently punctuated version:

God continued saying, “Beck, well…”

Hints, here, of mild disagreement.

Or, more ominous still:

God continued saying “Well, Beck…”

which obliquely suggests that God is tired of talking to Beck on the phone and tactfully trying to wrap up the conversation. Trouble in Paradise?

All signs point to yes: next up is Beck’s announcement on Fox of his departure.

Believe something, like business!  Know! Want! Take!

Powerful parting words. From behind the camera, a producer indicates that his time is up.

Wait! Beck says.

Time? he asks.

Going, he grumbles, and walks sullenly off.

Fondly,

M

Diorama of a Migraine

Fondly,

M

The Best of Millicent and Carla Fran

So, our “Best of” category currently republishes all the posts we like in their entirety. It’s been kind of tough to navigate, so we’re experimenting with other ways of organizing old posts. This is going to be an updating work in progress, but this post should work as a sort-of-helpful index to the site.

Here, in no particular order, are some posts we regard as decentish:

The “Sloppy Jane” or “Nu Woman” Series (the advent of the awkward female in film and television)

From Carla Fran:

From Millicent

Masculinity and Media

On Nostalgia

The INTERNET series

On Consent

The “Women’s Reproductive Health” series

Feminism

Millicent’s “Selfish Women” series

Delightful Historical Flotsam

Movies

The Women on TV Series

Carla Fran on Hollywood Series

Millicent on the weird racism at the Oakland Zoo.

Carla Fran’s “Weddings” series

Millicent’s “Arcane Scholarship Applied to Contemporary Issues” series

Death and Mourning

Writing

Books

Millicent’s “Christianity” series

The “Memory” Series

The Eugenics Series

Millicent’s Natural Disasters and How They’re Told Series

On the 2009 UC Berkeley Strike

Sex

How to Tell Whether You or Your Husband Are Infertile: Pee on Plants

When I was a kid I did a science project that involved growing bean sprouts under different circumstances: in sun, in shade, next to a big homemade electromagnet. The idea was to see which set of conditions fostered the most growth. Little did my father and I suspect that we were doing a slightly modified version of a 1600s fertility test.

Nicholas Culpeper’s 1652 Directory for Midwives is a gem, and I’ll have more to say about it hereafter. It’s a delightful document, surprisingly egalitarian in many respects. In the following excerpt on ways to test “accidental” infertility (i.e., that which isn’t “natural”), Culpeper rages  against all the physicians who blindly follow Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen, “little gods-amighty” whose theories he dismisses as unsubstantiated and laughable. In lieu of their solutions, he offers the following test:

The most rational way of knowledge in this Point, that ever I read in this Case, I shall quote, and give my Reasons for it, if it do hold true, well and good; if not, I cannot help it. It is this.

Take a handful of barly (or any other Corn, that will quickly grow, will serve the turn as well) and steep half of it in the Urine of the Man, and the other half in the Urine of the Woman, the space of four and twenty hours: then take it out and set it, the Mans by it self and the Womans by it self; set it in a Flower-pot, or something else, where you may keep it dry; then water the Mans every morning with his own Urine, the Womans with hers, and that which grows first is the greatest sign of Fruitfulness…

These, in case you wondered, are the circumstances under which husband  and wife might start urinating on their plants as a sort of competitive marital sport. It’s important, too, that we imagine the domestic tensions that might play out in the course of this experiment: would one party start secretly watering his/her plant with water or fertilizer? Would the other start eating lots of parsnips or dumplings to temporarily boost his/her fertility?

When Mr. Millicent gets home, we are starting a garden. I intend to win. In preparation, I’m off to strengthen my womb with a draught of boiled white wine steeped in stinking Arrach. See ya.

Christian Boys on How Girls Can Stop Making Them “Stumble”: (Hint: Don’t Move. And Make Sure You’re Not-Moving On Purpose.)

I love the smell of sexism in the evening. Are you ready for “The Rebelution“? Where teenagers “rebel against low expectations”? Sociological Images published the results of a survey of 1600 Christians on how “modest” they consider various articles of clothing and behavior (and the corresponding “value” of the wearer/actor). Boys and girls took the survey and the behaviors of both genders were up for discussion. It was a productive conversation wherein both sides got to express their points of view and their spiritual and physical struggles with desire.

Ha. I kid.

Here’s what really happened: the only gender subjected to the “Modest or Not” test? Women. (Sorry, “girls.”) The 1600 respondents invited to minutely inspect and judge every aspect of female behavior, attire and deportment? Men. (Correction: “guys.”) The theological dimension? None—unless you count “stumbling,” an undefined expression the survey uses to describe a temporary lapse, always by a male in response to female lures.

The “Modesty Survey” got its start when a young woman suggested an “anonymous discussion on modesty” between boys and girls. The survey counts itself a rousing success at achieving this (potentially quite useful) goal. The number of female respondents? Zero. Girls were apparently encouraged to ask questions, just not answer them.

Respondents were given statements with which they could agree or disagree. The good part: the Christian boys often seemed to be quite a bit more thoughtful than whoever put this survey together. The bad part? Whoever designed it seems to have wilfully ignored two truths—boys have self-control, girls feel desire—and one claim: neither sex has any business policing the movements of the other.

Here are some sample statements boys are invited to have an opinion about. They can Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral [not a verb, that always bugs me], Disagree, or Strongly Disagree:

  • Playing with jewelry, such as a necklace, is a stumbling block.” (Result: 58% “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree.” Phew!)
  • A purse with the strap diagonally across the chest draws too much attention to the bust.” (Result: 47% of respondents “Agree” or “Strongly Agree.” According to that bunch, messenger bags are  for whores.) To be fair, some guys were a little more sensible. One comments: “This is a case where if the guy is staring then he should check himself on that. I wear a messenger bag myself, so I can’t hold a double standard. I can, however, hold myself to a higher standard and just not look.”
  • Others had detailed procedures; some were ready to break out the measuring cups:

    “Depends upon how heavy the bag is. If the strap pushes on the shirt such that the breasts are separated as one looks down, it’s immodest.”

  • “Playing with hair is not a stumbling block.” 61% agree! Girls can play with their hair, but by gum, THERE ARE LIMITS:

    “Not in of itself, but if you spend a lot of time playing with your hair it makes a guy wonder if you aren’t trying to attract attention.”

    And if a guy is [count the qualifiers] wondering whether you might be trying to attract attention, you are conclusively IMMODEST. Someone else offers the following clarification:

    “Technically, it’s a flirting technique.”

    According to this young man, “flirting techniques” are not “stumbling blocks” in the pursuit of Christianity. An 18-year old respondent, however, does “find it hard to imagine a beautiful and modest woman doing it. It does perhaps exceed the bounds of propriety.”

Try this one on for size:

  • It is a stumbling block to see a girl lying down, even if she’s just hanging out on the floor or on a couch with her friends.” (22% agreed.)

Or this one!

  • Seeing a girl’s chest bounce when she is walking or running is a stumbling block. No running, ladies. Or walking, unless you have strapped your boobs down like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. In sum, cross-dressing might be best.

How about this?

  • The lines of undergarments, visible under clothing, cause guys to stumble.” (72% Agree or Strongly Agree). As this is virtually impossible with the majority of bras, you may want to dispense with them altogether. Or cross-dress (see above).
  • Seeing a girl take off a pullover (i.e. a shirt that must be pulled over the head) is a stumbling block, even if she is wearing a modest shirt underneath.” Here’s a fascinating comment:

    “It kind of depends, if she is careful it is not a problem, but most girls don’t think about it and so it becomes one. It’s not that they don’t care, it just isn’t something they think usually think of.”

“It isn’t something they think usually of.” Amazing how much real understanding that shows, and how radically it goes off-track. That statement says something true about a basically “modest” existence—a perspective so pure  it doesn’t even suspect that the behavior in question might provoke lust—yet contains within it the injunction that she should “think of” the lust she is always in danger of provoking.  In other words, it’s not enough for her to be innocent. She needs to be intentional about her refusal to arouse. But not too much, because if she shows she understands too well, she’s in danger of (oh devilry!) abusing that knowledge to “get attention.” Not to court attention is insufficient: she should “be careful” when she takes a sweater off.  She needs to actively, deliberately not-arouse. She should become self-conscious, limit her movements, regard herself not as a thing that exists and sees, but as a terrible catalyst that can at any moment tempt men to their eternal damnation.

That’s not enough, of course. In order to understand how not to arouse her Christian brothers, she must first understand what does. (Like messenger bags.) To protect them properly, she has to become not just conversant but fluent in all possible masculine sexual fantasies. She has to learn their origin and derivation. She has to study how men can possibly convert an innocent movement (like walking) into an erotic stimulus. In fact, she has to become a virtual Ph.D. on masculine sexuality; she has to become a fantasizing male-by-proxy in order to avoid tempting any such male. She must call on all her resources, her empathy, her understanding, to imagine what it is like to be male and incorrigibly sexual. And she should perform these empathic acrobatics without having any sexual thoughts of her own.

Now, this is all ostensibly to protect the souls of her “Christian brothers.” What about her soul? From a Christian point of view, can there be a better recipe for temptation than to force a human being to become a theoretical expert in precisely the imaginary prurient scenarios that ostensibly jeopardize the souls of men?

Back to the survey. To state the obvious, here’s what all this teaches boys: All that matters is your reaction. The difference between a modest behavior and an immodest one is the desire it stirs or doesn’t stir in you. Ideally, a woman will fully understand her awful power and control it responsibly; if not, it’s her fault. But since a woman’s (I’m sorry, “girl’s”) intent is unknowable, what determines her success or failure at “modesty” is the effect she produces on you. Moreover, Christian boys, your subjective state of arousal at a particular moment trumps a “girl’s” liberty to exist freely (the way you do). Women should actively police their behaviors, their movements, their clothing and their faces so you don’t have to spend the occasional (and unavoidable) tempted minute staring into your own soul. And rest assured: girls feel no desire or temptation themselves, so you are free to be as attractive and flirtatious as you like without feeling a moment’s guilt. Your relationship to your body can be joyous. It doesn’t fall to you to labor under the metaphysical mindfuck of being told that your body—YOUR body! the one you were born in, the thing you are!—shares in the guilt it provokes in others the minute it takes any pleasure in its God-given beauty. Boys, you needn’t know that your beauty is also your disease (as a result of which you may end up among the damned; in the absence of which you may end up alone).

To state something equally obvious: none of this disaster of a philosophy is the boys’ fault. I have no doubt the Modesty Survey respondents have good hearts. They’re grappling with one of the great human problems: how to deal with the fact that you live in and through a body, and how to understand the complicated dance between desire and its fulfillment or diffusion. These are all large and complex issues of personhood and it is certainly not the boys’ fault that this survey invites toxic answers. (By virtue of its structure, the survey excludes any other kind). The fault lies with the pernicious idiots who invent “tools” like this one, tools that claim to measure but actually perpetuate the dehumanizing idea that one gender gets to dictate what the other one does.

Here is the real image for the survey. I wish I were kidding:

Maybe when Christians adopt the veil we’ll finally have world peace.

Or maybe, instead of turning girls into stones by making them feel guilty for the physics of their bodies when they walk, we can teach each sex not to blame the other when it “stumbles.” We could all work on getting better balance.

M

Why Women Don’t Make Top Ten Lists: Prose on Prose

Dear CF,

Laura Miller’s article on Publishers Weekly’s top ten list led me to Francine Prose’s article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1998.  It’s not available to nonsubscribers but it’s a formidable piece and relevant still, though it’s equally interesting to think about the ways in which some things have changed. I want to rescue it from the archives and reproduce some parts of it here for consideration as we pound our way through the month of November. My summaries are in brackets and italics.

[Prose notes that all in all, sales are up for women writers and there are more women readers than men. Taking the broad view, all’s well.]

“So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year–which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson–most of the book-award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.”

[Prose meditates on why this might be:]

“How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write ? Diane Johnson–herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy–observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear–especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women–or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”

[While many little boys staunchly refuse to read stories about girls and will own up to their reasons for doing so, it’s difficult, of course, to find any adults writing on the subject. The assumption that women writers might have less to contribute to great literature than men seems to tacitly exist but is rarely articulated. Luckily, there’s always Norman Mailer:]

“If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am some. rimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”

“Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a ‘hyena in petticoats’ to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Bronte as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that ‘this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers….’ More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, ‘Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,’ and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s ‘bitchiness’ and ‘relentless cattiness,’ terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.

But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by ‘lack of range–in subject matter, in emotional tone–and lack of a sense of humor…. the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; Iyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God….’

[Speculating that Mailer’s “balls” refer to ambition and scope, here is Prose on the critical reception of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in 1991, which weighs in at 750 pages and which I haven’t read, though now I will:]

“From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.’

“In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers: ‘I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree…. Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost.’ The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: ‘At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian.’ And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, ‘So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously.’

“Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it–or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as ‘a book that must be dealt with’–that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the ‘shattered mind of an atavist.'”

[Throughout the essay, Prose provides several passages of writing and asks us to identify the gender of the writer. Her point is usually that the qualities ascribed to “female writing” are equally present in the prose male writers. But the most effective example, in my opinion, is the one that troubles this premise of interchangeability:]

“But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear–unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on the difference between the bedroom and the wet dream. Here, then, one final pair of quotes, on the theme of how power and control shift under the most intense and intimate pressures:

I was dealing, it seemed, with some kind of masochist, or bully, or combination…. To me belonged, as big as a thumb held up to the eye, her pallid moistened body with its thousand jigales and many membranous apertures. … I love the passive position, the silken heavy sway above me of pendulous breasts, the tent of female hair formed when her Olmec face lowered majestically to mine, the earnest and increasingly self-absorbed grind of an ass too big for my hands. Being our second time, it took longer, giving me ample opportunity to keep moaning her name. “Ann Ann! God, Ann. Oh Ann, Ann. Annnn”–the “n”s, the “a.” She took it in stride by now, making no comment; she had slept with enough men to know we’re all, one way or another, kinky.

She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.” . . . This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her…. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily…. He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her.

“No one will be fooled this time. The author of the first passage is inarguably a man, since women rarely think of the female body in terms of its ‘many membranous apertures.’ And few women, I imagine, define ‘kinky’ widely enough to include a male taking the bottom position and engaging in some spontaneous, if not exactly erotic, verbalization. The second passage goes a bit further. A breast is bitten, it’s not clear who is calling the shots, and the male character has a truly nasty moment of realization about the nature of sex. This realization so closely resembles female paranoia about male sexuality that we may suspect the writer is a woman. But that hardly matters, since in its extreme acuity it attains a shocking verisimilitude. We recognize the man’s perception not only as true of a few men, or of many men on a few occasions, but as a truth we have always known or suspected and have never before seen, quite so crisply and boldly, in print.

The author of the first passage is John Updike, known for his lyrical-ribald, celebratory, and honest depictions of sex. The second is Mary Gaitskill, a gifted younger writer who, one can’t help noticing, is rarely invited to give her opinion on quite the range of subjects that the media routinely solicits from John Updike. Indeed, Updike is considered a pillar of our literary culture, whereas Gaitskill–whose talent is widely admired–is perceived as slightly transgressive, even slightly nutty, on the subject of sex.

As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, ‘the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.'”

Prose suggests that good writing manages to transcend the accident of gender; I don’t know if that’s quite true, nor do I think people are as forgiving of Styron (for example) as she thinks. But her main point stands: I think it is the case that when a man with a way with words produces a convoluted mess with literary and transcendent aspects, it’s greeted with an assumption of readerly inadequacy. The mess is intentional and artful unless strenuously shown to be otherwise. The burden of proof is on the reader. The converse is true for women, for whom stridency and expansiveness (firecrackerness, too) are undesirably marked qualities. Not bad in themselves, but noticed and questioned. The fact that Beloved tops the Best American Novels list the NYT published some years ago only proves my point. Morrison’s book is a mess that only pretends to be messy: it’s actually obsessively neat, neat to the point of compulsiveness. Every symbol, every apparently stray word, every unpunctuation is part of an overdetermined attempt to create the illusion of mess while betraying an absolute and frankly (to me, anyway) exhausting penchant for authorial control.  Not surprising: the burden of proof is on Morrison: she needed to be able and ready to show her work.

One of the most interesting things about writing a novel (as opposed to a short story) and writing it so quickly is that one has a rather Pynchonian or Silkoian right to mess. And mess is fun. I’m taking the month to write it.

Fondly,

M

Letter From a Sterling Institute Ex-Friend

Thanks to Hank for writing in about how his friendship with a longtime family friend changed as a result of the Sterling Men’s Institute (Hank’s comment originally appeared here):

I’m a veteran of men’s gatherings ala Robert Bly’s “Ironman” and was invited by a longtime family friend to participate in The Sterling Men’s Weekend (for $900.00). My friend cautioned me NOT to look at anything on the web about Sterling…which only lead me to do just that: research the “Weekend”. Frankly, I was totally turned off that Arnie Rabinowitz (or whatever) changed his name to “Justin Sterling” and that he got plastic surgery to improve his appearance. LOL! Arnie has been through one or two nasty divorces, too, and relies heavily on volunteers to do the Institute work while he takes in the dough and reportedly lives a million-dollar lifestyle. Yeah. This is just the kind of group I want to get involved with…NOT!

So I told my friend what I’d found out about Sterling and he quickly ceased to encourage me to do the Weekend. In fact, he doesn’t say much of anything about it to me anymore although he’s been involved with Sterling and subsequent Sterling-esque splinter groups for several years now. I’ve met a few of his Sterling buddies (or as HE refers to them: “his men”) at bonfires he has in his backyard and I can’t seem to shake the impression they give off as being “losers” of a sort. My friend’s marriage has been shaky for many years (he’s a gay man in a heterosexual marriage but his wife knew that when she wed him…) and the Sterling men I’ve met at his bonfires seem to either be divorced or on the verge of it.

Another particularly annoying characteristic that my friend has taken on since getting involved with Sterling is answering his cellphone IMMEDIATELY at all times. This means during dinners (where he and Mrs. are our guests), in the middle of concerts (and talking loudly to the dismay of those around him) and while supposedly spending time with me/us. His cell phone trumps everything else. It’s weird.

Last summer he had planned to go camping/hiking with “his men” to a large mountain in the northeast. It just so happened that a once-in-thirty-years reunion with his old friends (me included) was also happening that same weekend. When the forecast predicted high winds and driving rain on the mountain, he opted to change his plans and attend the reunion. From what he told me “his men” berated him repeatedly for failing to live up to his commitment even though extremely poor weather was forecast and actually happened. I’m sure they had a lousy time up on that mountain and they managed to prove the old adage “Misery loves company.” LOL!

Lemme see, what else. I know he has a 5AM conference call with his men every Sunday. Five-friggin-A-M on a Sunday. I’ve certainly noticed that he helps out with domestic house chores WAY more than he ever did and, I get the feeling, that he’s learned to do that so that he can go away on his Sterling jaunts and not have to answer to his wife. He’s been unemployed for quite some time and there doesn’t seem to be any job on the horizon YET he seems to invest plenty of time in Sterling stuff. Yep! He’s always there for His Men!

He’s invited and cajoled a number of other men in our circle of friends to do the Weekend. Most have declined but one did take the bait and I’ve noticed that he’s not around much either because HE now has commitments doing things with HIS men.

Whatever!!!! Whatever floats your boat, I guess. IMO, steer clear of scam artists like “Justin Sterling”. Unless, of course, you want to help ol’ Arnie Rabinowitz keep up the masquerade AND support his comfortable lifestyle.