Christ’s Foreskin and Other Gifts

Dear CF,

I’ll see your foreskin-inspired puffed sleeves and raise you the seventeenth-century’s idea of a holiday gift: Christ’s bleeding prepuce.  I wrote awhile back about Beowulf and the contractual dimension to male (and female) gift-giving. Today? Foreskins, and what they represent.

(By the way, a great overview of the conversations happening around female circumcision is here. Warning: there is, in fact, an “Adopt a Clitoris” program with a website called “Clitoraid” (h/t).)

Robert Herrick, who we know best for his cavalier poems on Julia’s clothes and the liquefactions thereof, wrote a poem called “To his Saviour. The New yeers gift” in which he makes the following request:

That little prettie bleeding part

Of Foreskin send to me.

There is in fact a genre of seventeenth-century “circumcision poems.”  Milton wrote one (“Upon the Circumcision”). Herrick wrote several. And Crashaw? Well. I’ll save Crashaw for last, because let’s face it: we’ll never top that.

So. What do we do with this category? The practice (which obviously precedes the poetic genre) seems to spark two big debates. The first is the extent to which the foreskin constitutes a contract. (Catherine of Siena famously related her mystic marriage to the infant Christ, in the course of which she received from him a wedding band made of his foreskin.) The second is the extent to which circumcision was meant to be understood metaphorically (as a “circumcision of the heart”) as opposed to physically.

Let’s start with the contract. In his article “The Wit of Circumcision, the Circumcision of Wit” (published in The wit of seventeenth-century poetry, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth), Jim Ellis states that “Christ’s blood in the circumcision poems is always simultaneously something else: a balm, a gift, rubies. He argues that

the poetry of the circumcision calls for a changed reading practice, one that can be identified as a circumcised wit, that reads the body in a particular way. … From its origins, circumcision has worked both to demonstrate submission to the law and to establish membership in a community. The practice among Jews was initiated, says the Bible, by Abraham, who was circumcised at the age of ninety-nine. In Gen. 17:10-11 God says to Abraham: ‘This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between you and me.’  Calvin emphasizes above all else the status of the sacrament as a seal, comparing it to “the seals attached to government documents and other public acts.” The force of Calvin’s argument is to give the sacrament the status of a signature on a contract under which both parties have obligations. …

Lancelot Andrewes, who personally oversaw the translation of the Authorized (or King James) version of the Bible, reads the circumcision as “the signature of Abraham’s Seed,” which is written on Christ’s flesh. Christ voluntarily submits to the ritual, “That so He, keeping the Law, might recover backe the chirographum contra nos, the handwriting that was against us; and so set us free of the debt.”

“The legal language here,” Pebworth and Summers say,”

is typical of discussions of circumcision: the reading from the Epistles for the Circumcision in the Book of Common Prayer, for example, quotes Rom. 4:14, which states of God’s promise to Abraham’s descendants that “if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.”

Now you may be wondering about the terms of this contract. Luckily, the Bible (and Herrick) can help. Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart” and “The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart.”

And if we read the rest of Robert Herrick’s poem requesting Christ’s foreskin, we learn that he is in fact proposing a trade: his bleeding heart for Christ’s bleeding netherbits:

That little prettie bleeding part
Of Foreskin send to me:
And Ile returne a bleeding Heart,
For New-yeers gift to thee.

Rich is the Jemme that thou did’st send,
Mine’s faulty too, and small:
But yet this Gift Thou wilt commend,
Because I send Thee all.

This is in many respects a Beowulfian tit (ahem) for tat. Christ’s rich foreskin for Herrick’s small, faulty heart. Obviously metaphorical size is an issue here—Herrick’s heart, his all, can’t compare to this tiny part of Christ’s body. The trade emphasizes Herrick’s inadequacy. But it’s also a request for literal sacrifice in exchange for metaphorical faith—not exactly a bargain, on Christ’s end.

The Christian debate over exactly what the foreskin and circumcision meant devoted a lot of energy to this problem. Generally, the Christian scholars tried to argue that this was in fact a fair trade—that too literal an interpretation ran the risk of Jewishness, and that what was meant by circumcision of the penis was actually circumcision of the heart.

James Shapiro writes (in Shakespeare and the Jews) that the biblically available conflation of foreskin and heart (in Deuteronomy, for instance) was accentuated by Christian thinkers who wanted to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the Jews. In one of his sermons, John Donne reasons that “the principal dignity of this circumcision was that it … prefigured, it directed to that circumcision of the heart.”  Jewish circumcision, moreover,  “were an absurd and unreasonable thing if it did not intimate and figure the circumcision of the heart.”

One reason why Shakespeare’s Shylock is so monstrous, Shapiro argues, is that he doesn’t actually want his “pound of flesh.” What he wants instead is to penetrate Christian resistance to physical circumcision and “cut his Christian adversary in that part of the body where the Christians believe themselves to be truly circumcised: the heart.”

Shylock’s threat gives a wonderfully ironic twist to the commentary on Paul’s Romans that ‘he is the Jew indeed … who cuts off all superfluities and pollutions which are spiritually though not literally meant by the law of circumcision.'”

Paul was pretty interested in distinguishing Jew from Christian by breaking the genealogical link and reformulating the contractual stuff—the covenant—as a tension between letter and spirit.  But nobody actually knew what he meant, and the heart/foreskin confusion created all manner of trouble for Christian interpreters. (Shapiro has lots to say about this.)

To make matters worse, Paul introduces the idea of uncircumcision.

Even if a faithful Christian were circumcised in the heart, what if one’s body still carried (as Paul’s did) the stigmatical mark that revealed to the world that one was born a Jew? The seventeenth-century Scottish preacher John Weemse recognized that the early Christians were embarrassed by this Judaical scar: “When they were converted from Judaism to Christianity there were some of them so ashamed of their Judaism that they could not behold it; they took it as a blot to their Christianity.” Uncircumcision, then, was the undoing of the seemingly irreversible physical act that  had been accomplished through the observance of Jewish law, and it was a topic that Paul would return to obsessively (in large part because it was a pressing issue within the new Christian communities he was addressing).

One has only to look at Paul in Romans to see how confusing this gets: “if the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature (if it keep the Law) condemn thee, which by the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the Law?”

Two kinds of circumcision, two kinds of uncircumcision. And to crown it all (heh), here is Crashaw, that great bad bard of bodily liquids, who sidesteps the metaphorical and dives straight into the blood and the knives of the thing, inviting us to imagine tasting the blood from Christ’s foreskin as a sort of aperitif preparatory to the crucifixion and Communion:

Our B. Lord in his Circumcision to his Father.

To thee these first fruits of my growing death
(For what else is my life?) lo I bequeath:
Tast this, and as thou lik’st this lesser flood
Expect a Sea, my heart shall make it good.
Thy wrath that wades here now, e’re long shall swim,
The floodgate shall be set wide ope for him.
Then let him drinke, and drinke, and doe his worst
To drowne the wantonnesse of his wild thirst.
Now’s but the nonage of my paines, my feares
Are yet both in their hopes, not come to years.
The day of my darke woe is yet but morne,
My teares but tender, and my death new borne.
Yet may these unfledg’d griefes give fate some guesse,
These Cradle-torments have their towardnesse.
These purple buds of blooming death may bee,
Erst the full stature of a fatall tree.
And till my riper woes to age are come,
This Knife may be the speares Praeludium.

Fondly,

M

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Noms de Plume

Dear Carla Fran,

I hope Leticia writes you or sends you some classy pumps. While you are being plagued by mail for a potentially whole new You who vacuums and complains about noise, I’m deliberating on whether or not to befriend an old Me.

It’s funny you should mention this, as just this morning I was thinking of a time—you may remember—when I developed some mail problems of my own. Due to an error on a change of address form Mama Millicent and I temporarily became one person in the eyes of the U.S. Mail, and it was disastrous and impossible to extricate our two separate selves back into Millicents Sr. and Jr., and I found myself on the brink of changing my name not because I was married, but because it suddenly seemed necessary—in an urgent and practical sense—to distinguish myself absolutely from my mother.

Had I gone through with that plan, I might have taken the name of an alter-ego I’ve cultivated over the years, an avatar of sorts who wrote Amazon.com reviews, had a Myspace account, and conducted all manner of questionable activities online. This alter-ego was in danger of becoming a nom de plume—I liked the name because it was ungendered and seemed like it might shield me (should a book ever materialize) from the color pink. This alter-ego was generative and hermit-like. It was unfrivolous and proudly unconstrained by society. It even started a blog. When I gave my husband-to-be an engraved engagement gift it was the alter-ego (which I keep wanting to spell altar-ego) that gave it.

My husband-to-be-that-was (it’s getting complicated) had an alter-ego too, in whose name he wrote songs and circulated albums. Let’s call him Harry. This gift was dedicated to Harry. To Harry from alter-Millicent, is more or less what the thing said.

I haven’t thought about my alter-ego in quite some time, but recently, when I idly clicked into the Facebook universe, among the list of “People You May Know” was my other self, still faceless, still genderless, with the little cowlick curl on top.

I don’t remember how to get into the account. I don’t actually remember creating the account. And no matter how many times I click the little X to dispose of that particular suggestion, it comes back, much like Leticia’s mail.

As for Mr. Millicent, he felt, I think, that Facebook was rather beneath him. He joined briefly, but he and I were never Facebook friends and he subsequently deactivated his account. Harry, however, has cropped up—as a person—commenting on the profile of someone we know. Mr. Millicent-that-was is nowhere to be found—he is still safely above the fray, one supposes—but Harry is around and kicking.

I assigned my students the project of creating a fictional character and starting a profile for them on one of the more prominent online dating services. They’re supposed to write a scene that incorporates as a character someone who expresses an interest in their fictional persona and writes back. Maybe a slightly cruel exercise, but it’s fitting, I think, that the doppelgangers on whose behalf my engagement gift was given and received are floating around in the Facebook ether. It helps to think that the contracts we made and the alliances we contracted were made in other names. Poor Harry and alter-Millicent were so pumped with great art projects, they had no idea what they were actually authoring.

On reflection, after rejecting her so many times, the way one does reject the People You May Know—as they usually consist of People You May Know But Rather Wish You Didn’t—I’m thinking of giving in and adding her as a friend. I wonder what she’ll say.

Fondly,

One of the Millicents

Negligees, Nighties and Naughties, Oh My!

Dear Carla F,

Once, my beloved aunt called me and her daughter into her room. “Yoo-HOOOOO!” she said, “I brought you something!” B. and I were nineteen or so, greasy and a little smelly from an entire day spent playing Nintendo. “What? What?” we said. My Tia—who dresses in pantsuits and sensible shoes–reached into her plastic bag and pulled out two black lacy entirely translucent teddies. The sheer cups were absurdly small for my breasts. The back was a thong. Here and there, stray threads stuck out, stiff as the bristles of a fake Christmas tree. “PAJAMAS!!!!” she said, beaming. “Aren’t they adorable?”

My cousin to this day describes that as one of the worst days of her life. This is my Aunt of choice—the one to whom I address the sorts of letters you describe. I still have the funny thing, which I have never ever worn, not once.

So delighted with your enumeration of the niggles that plague us when buying lingerie. Really it does come down to whether you’re wearing the thing or it’s wearing you. This becomes much harder to control with underwear, particularly if one has to any degree incorporated irony into one’s dress. It’s very hard to be ironic about being naked. Possible—your tats plus red lipstick plus 50s housewife kitsch is an example—but think for a moment about the effort our hypothetical girl had to go to achieve that image! Absurd, I say. Exhausting. It should be easier than this.

I tend to fall on the other side of the spectrum from you in one regard (which is why I found your breakdown so fascinating): I don’t really see the gradations in lingerie. Barring crotchless panties (and I do), I’m essentially blind to the distinctions you notice. I find it all faintly hilarious and also REALLY REALLY exciting in that five-year-old “We get to wear shiny ooh-la-la things!” kind of way. I wonder if this is because to a certain extent I had the kind of feminine coaching you didn’t: while my mother relentlessly brainwashed me about the evils of sex and forced me to carry “reminder” letters in my purse with strictures on the importance of a woman’s virtue, she regularly bought me very cute satiny pajama short sets. Never scandalous, but definitely silky in that Blanche Devereaux sort of way. Also little spaghetti-strap nighties with plunging V-necks.

In retrospect, I think she was trying to get me to throw away the faded cotton Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid nightshirts I’d had since the age of 8 and which, to be fair, had developed a smell.

In other respects, I think our upbringings were alike. The sex talk? Seeds Are Planted. The End. Shaving was discussed but strictly forbidden. It would grow back in thickets. Tampons? Out of the question. It took me awhile to even figure out what they did. Makeup was limited to experiments in foundation to try to disguise the raspberry yoghurt my complexion had become. Generally, however, my mother did tend to try to make me skew feminine.

My relationship to lingerie started out fun. I begged my parents for a bra in fourth grade and, after laughing uproariously (I made the request in purple flannel footie pajamas) they agreed.

My first bra was two tiny triangles of white fabric with a delicate starred pattern that was barely visible, kind of like mattelasse, with a small blue flower in the middle. It was a lovely delicate little thing, and might have shaped my lingerie aesthetic forever.

Then things took a turn. My breasts gazongaed right at the braces/zits/awkward-hair-but-haven’t-hit-vertical-growth-spurt stage of the proceedings. As you know, dear CF, I am a small person. They were all out of proportion to my size. I was warned by bra-ladies the world over that without proper support they would fall to the ground before my thirtieth birthday. Here’s the thing: pretty bras didn’t come in my measurements. All my bras from this period (and the decade after) are industrial garments—marvels of engineering rendered in subdued hues and grandmotherly fabrics.

Maybe this explains my lack of discrimination. At any store they MIGHT have four items in my size: three full-coverage monstrosities in shades of oatmeal and one shiny fuchsia demi-cup with straps the width and texture of duct-tape. To use a highly offensive metaphor, my relationship to bras was like a refugee’s relationship to food. I couldn’t be overly picky.

The first line to really experiment with lingerie for larger-breasted women was Felina. I loved Felina. Yes, there was a lot going on…frills and netting and two-tones and padding to support and drum up that cleavage. But it was FUN and OH I needed that.

It’s probably apparent that most of my lingerie-focus gravitated toward bras. This is still where my interest lies. I’m with you on the sheer underwear and thong issue. It’s hard to make them look good, they require extensive grooming (which I’ve taken to doing these days, and admit to liking largely because I DON’T fret as much about this underwear issue), and in any case I get uncomfortable having my hoo-ha stared at, whatever the context. It is shy and prefers to remain demurely Under Wraps.

(Incidentally, I recently read a Dear Abby in which she’d polled readers about thongs. Several men wrote in saying they liked them (on themselves), and bemoaned the fact that they don’t get to wear pretty or exciting underwear. Lucky us?)

I now have a sizeable collection of truly lingerie-ish things, many of them bridal shower gifts. What’s interesting about the bridal shower is that you really get a menagerie of other people’s sexual personas or—which is equally interesting—their guesses about yours. I have tried several of them out. To wit:

  • A lovely sea-green silky set of pajamas–tank top and pants, with delicate pink lattice-work at the bodice. Tasteful and lots of coverage, but soft and elegant. I LOVE this.
  • An astonishing hot-pink polyester creation with no shape at all, but string straps and lots of orange splotches. To wear it properly I’d need curlers and a cigarette. Not a contender.
  • Black baby-doll with matching thong (bow on the butt!) and hot pink lacing. Good in theory, actually makes me look pregnant and stumpy. In addition to which, I feel a bit artificial in a thong—a garment that my bottom will never find comfortable.
  • White leopard-print boy-short set with spaghetti-strap tank and turquoise lace at the sides and top. Little silver cat charms hang off both. (I try not to think about this.) While I’m not a fan of animal-print, this is, in shape, anyway, the sort of thing I might wear anyway.
  • Long white silky nightgown with corset-lacing down the back, which dips dramatically to the butt-crack. Fits well—could actually be an awesome dress in different circumstances—but really does scream Virgin Being Deflowered.
  • Baggier long white sheer nightgown with sheer sheath on top, understated butterfly embroidery. VBD.
  • Lovely long-sleeved white men’s-style pajama set—thin cotton, nearly translucent—with embroidery and lapels. I love this, but don’t think it quite counts as lingerie. I might be wrong. Verdict TBA.
  • Pale pink short shiny silky sheath (say THAT three times fast!) with big Georgia O’Keefey flowers and soft sheer straps. In this look I like (as you brilliantly put it) shrimp-like. And odd.

My biggest issue with the whole question, as I’ve mentioned to you, is the theatrical part of it. It’s not the clothes themselves, it’s the attitude the clothes seem to be demanding of us (and of our men). Bras and panties may be fun and also inconvenient, but above all they are Bossy. “React To Me!” they scream, while we—the mere humans—try, usually unsuccessfully, to live up to all they promise.

However, this is something we can figure out. Now that the boobs have gone down a bit I can experiment more, and I intend to. Let’s figure this lingerie thing out! Let’s find your fantasy negligee! And mine! And make them fit into our flawed but affable lives! To Oz!!!!

Fondly,

Millicent

(Carla Fran’s original post, “Panties and Bras,” is here.)

Oversharing

Dear CF ,

I’m incensed by the word “overshare,” so I only glanced at the Jezebel piece, which seemed concerned more with the graphic and anatomical variety of the phenomenon than with the stripping bare of a life. I’m firmly in favor of the former—felt, in fact, that Sadie’s approach to the subject was quite like our own. The blood-and-guts guffaws are right, so much so that I fail to see why this is even a point of interest. Men, God bless ’em, have been talking frankly and jovially about their members for a long time. Take Erasmus cackling about penii in The Praise of Folly:

Let me ask you if the head or the face or the breast or the hands or the ear, all of which are reputed the more seemly parts of the body, actually beget either gods or men? Not as I see it; it’s that other part, so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker, that propagates the human race. That is the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence….

I guess I have a more anxious relationship to the other kind of Oversharing. Just now, searching for the original Salon article, I came across an October 18, 2008 article about this very issue which said the term was coined by ex-Gawker writer Emily Gould. Suddenly my case of the cranks made perfect sense.

In the spirit of camaraderie I’m taking a deep breath and a moment to overshare my thoughts on the occasion of Ms. Gould’s retirement. The following is a direct transcript of my Notes to Self on the date she quit the old-school Gawker. It’s fitting, p’raps, that she quit with an overly personal (perhaps overly dramatic, but nonetheless interesting) final post.

Ahem:

Came back from a party at R’s house feeling twinges of regret, as I always do. What sort of honesty is appropriate at these sorts of gatherings? I feel I always choose the wrong one. Small breakthroughs: wrote the piece defending sloth. But really an invitation to consider a spiritual crisis as represented by Sloth, the Capital Sin, as described by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. The fact of the sigh we give when we are deprived of spiritual truths. The inability/struggle of the mind to produce “good.”

The big question in writing, as at parties, is who to sacrifice to the audience.

Is the Gawker phenomenon so explosive because it’s the cocaine  of blogging? Everything is sacrificed for the sake of the reader’s microsecond of thrills. Mothers, siblings, lovers. The columnists willingly burn the bridges of what they’ve been and will be; the question is–do they do this knowing that they will grow into what they mock, and are they prepared to deal with the self-loathing of having all this on record? Or do they think they’ll successfully avoid it all?

Emily Gould and Choire Sicha quit Gawker today. Last night she was at the party at n+1, while I was at their reading here. To go or not to go to the party tomorrow?

Take that, Hamlet. (I’ll spare you the suspense: I didn’t go.)

Let’s face it: this kind of oversharing is boring. The other kind—the kind I worry about here—is terribly, terribly risky.

The author of that first Salon article I stumbled on, AV Flox, does some lovely work articulating what it is that blogs have done, and how they’ve eroded levees and flooded the neighborhoods of real life. It’s blogging, I think, that made it possible for her to write the following to her aunts in an e-mail:

I have decided that a man’s libido must have an invisible umbilical cord that connects it to the New York Stock Exchange; I have no other way to account for the fact that I don’t recall the last time I was intimate with my husband…

She describes the embarrassment she felt a moment after sending it, but decides, in the end, that suburban silence is more pernicious than candor.

“So,” she concludes,

when people ask me how marriage is, I say it’s a pain in the neck. It’s like taking care of a giant, ancient machine that can help you accomplish a lot of tasks in the emotional fulfillment department, but which constantly needs maintenance and calibration.

At the risk of further boring you, dear friend, I Overshare two other things I found in that same notebook, from when I was trying to calibrate my own marriage.

On a day when I woke up (warning: TMI ahead omg!) wanting sex:

It was the Cal-USC game. X looks good in his cowboy hat. The kitchen was clean—I did it late last night. X picked the living room and bedroom up a bit. Oh, environment.

Norman Mailer died. An assistant killed Linda Stein with a yoga stick. A girl in Italy is being held for helping to kill her roommate in some sort of sexual context. Benazir Bhutto is out and about. Mark Danner is in the Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I listened to David Bowie. And Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. Nazis were the other dominant story theme. Made my first Itunes purchase—2 episodes of The Office.

Saw D, N and Baby yesterday. Very cute, but so far from what I’m prepared for, and X is much farther still. Thinks it’s conformist and conventional to have one, doesn’t feel he wants one but feels the inevitability of it.

The powder for beef onion gravy does not make tasty beef onion soup. This should not be surprising. But I thought of Ramen. My high school reunion was today—that just occurred to me.

On another Day, following a dream in which I yelled at two manicurists in a large white warehouse (calling one of them—and I was proud of this—“Barber Barbie”), I find that I was already struggling with this problem of Gifts and Work in Marriage and had in fact unconsciously developed the solution I suggested to you—namely, turning everyday things into the gifty currency:

Why do some old men always wear dark glasses? How do some people always offer to do the dishes, even when it isn’t a real offer?

What’s an offer? To make an offer. What does that mean? A coffer is a container for expensive things.

A Coffer of Offers

  1. a neckrub
  2. to do the dishes
  3. to vacuum a room
  4. to leave the apartment for 1 1/2 hours
  5. to sweep up the porch
  6. to edit a paper for you
  7. to read an article you enjoyed and talk about it
  8. to read a story you enjoyed and talk about it
  9. to make the bed
  10. to clean the bathroom
  11. to shake out the bathroom rugs

It’s a terrible little list.

But what did YOU make of the Oversharing, dear CF?

Fondly,

Millicent

Beowulf and Marriage, Gifts and Work

Dear heart,

I have indeed been at sea, but miss you and am sipping Tippy Assam tea and staring in befuddlement at a lovely bouquet of flowers much like the one you left me last time you visited. I’ve been thinking about gifts, you see, and am feeling a little seasick as a result.

I did read the articles on American Mothers, the bitch/nag problem, and have been pondering the complications you mention because a guest in my home is thinking of cohabiting with her boyfriend. We’ve had some frank discussions about the Unexpected Tensions that arise and arrest the pleasures of a shared life, sort of how a shoelace catches on a nail while racing into your backyard kills the spontaneous onrush of childlike whimsy.

This guest has a tendency, even now, to occupy the Nag niche, which arises in response to a partner who does respond to some prodding. An example: he proposed that they move together to another country so that he could study something for two years. She had a fit because in making the proposal he failed to think out a single step of the plan—not how they would pay for plane tickets, or what she would do there, or how they would live  (she doesn’t speak the language), or how the gap might affect her own very successful career trajectory.

The fight that ensued seems fairly typical of the NYTimes article dynamic: he was startled and hurt by her outrage. He claimed he was merely floating the idea, wanted her input, was very much considering their life together: he was asking her what she thought, wasn’t he? To him, the conversation itself was a gesture of inclusion, a move toward some sort of togetherness. She felt oppressed by the practical dimensions of the situation which he clearly hadn’t considered, and which by default she assumed. So while he intended the gesture to be inclusive, she ended up feeling not only alone, but also weighed down by work, the demands of two lives instead of one.

I bring up the backyard-run because the concept to me encapsulates one of the sweeter red herrings in the myth of domestic life. It seems like marriage  should aspire to that kind of ease: both parties are eager. There’s momentum, there’s desire and there’s that slightly embarrassing sentimentality or fresh-faced optimism that forces couples to hide their pet names and schlocky-but-tender rituals.

How does this all fit into your work, dear CF, and marriage generally? I suppose, like the reality (vs. the romance) of being a Writer, the real thing ends up being quite a lot of determinedly schlubby Work. So much bending is actually required on both sides in order to lay down peacefully and rest at the end of the night.

I drag gifts into this because I’ve been thinking about them a great deal in relation to the problem of work in my own life. I still haven’t read Hyde’s The Gift. I want to, because (thanks to you) it crosses my mind more than any unread book really ought to.

I have, as you know, recently been given some rather large gifts by someone very kind and quite lovely. However, my idea in pursuing this particular relationship was to experience something informal, light, and casual. The gifts were ostensibly given in that spirit, and yet they’ve done quite a lot of work weighing the whole enterprise down with the Ghost of Girlfriendhood Future.

Now, Beowulf. (I promise there’s a point buried in here. Bear with me.) The poem is about many things: kingship, the problems of aging, arbitrating between the competing value systems of Christianity and warrior culture; it’s about civilization vs. barbarism, truces and revenge.  To be cast out of the mead-hall, in B’s world, is to be condemned to death or to become monstrous. Not unnatural—nature, in this poem is monstrous, lethal, and hostile to human habitation. So any creature that can survive it (like Grendel and his mother) is by definition inhuman but also natural. What’s valued here is artifice, work. The work of building something solid and beautiful and absolutely unnatural together against the wilderness.

Most importantly, it’s about the bonds that hold a civilization together—a civilization structured (literally—the architecture of the mead-hall is hugely important) around male companionship. And the male bond between a king and his thanes (or other tribes) is cemented through a) the exchange of women through marriage, which always fails, and b) the exchange of gifts.

The gifts in question are incredibly worked. They are gold. They are beautiful and heavy. They come in sets. They are earned—and this is problematic—in battle. (They are in fact plunder.) But despite the emphasis on work, artifice, and the beauty of the object, the point is never the gift itself—rather, it’s the gift’s ritual function in cementing  a relationship.

A good king in the poem, Hrothgar, starts out a warrior (in other words a plunder-collector) and ends up a “ring-giver,” a giver of gifts. Beowulf dies in the end because he fails at this transition as he ages. No longer the warrior he was, he nonetheless decides to confront the dragon alone—a dragon who incidentally only turned on B’s kingdom because a banished man stole a gold object from his hoard to win back Beowulf’s favor.

The point is, he fails, and his mead-hall—which, like Heorot, is called the “best of houses”—fails too, because of misdirected effort. Work gone awry.

This illustrates something important, I think, between gifts and work. You know how the universe is created out of matter and energy? Relationships, I think, and houses, and families, and civilizations, are created out of gifts and work. Just as matter and energy are finally the same thing, gifts and work are interconvertible.

The key is, the gifts must matter to the recipient, and must be recognized as gifts. There must be a moment of ritual reckoning, a presentation, even, when both giver and receiver understand what is being transacted and why. What happens, I think, to these American moms (and it certainly happened to me in my marriage, and has happened to my own parents, and to my guest too) is that women often eagerly participate in this gift-giving economy with an idea of selflessness or modesty. They give “freely” of their time, their effort, their energy, sure that the results—a clean bathroom, Valentines for the kid’s classmates, space for the spouse to work—are noticed and appreciated.

This “free” giving makes sense for children, but not for spouses. It’s not really free, and the minute the giver realizes that the recipient didn’t even NOTICE the gift, much less appreciate it, a conversion happens: the gift retroactively turns into work. It’s a debit, not a credit. The result? Instead of achieving the exalted status of giver, the offering party becomes merely a worker. And the recipient incurred a debt when he didn’t even know he was shopping.

There’s a reason gift-giving in Beowulf works (and marriage doesn’t): it only happens between men. I think men are better at making a song-and-dance about gifts than women are. The culture raises them that way: the gesture, the bouquet, the ring. The new car for the kid. Women are NEVER taught to give in this way. Somehow women tend to opt out of the gesture-thing, the meadhall presentation of gifts. So we tend to offer smaller gifts without a lot of pomp, which (from the men’s point of view) pretty much invalidates the function of the gift since it’s the ritual meaning, not the gift itself, that matters.

The result is a weird disparity where everybody’s giving what they themselves would like to receive. The small thoughtful embroidered scarf vs. the anonymous Ferrari. It’s the absurdity of the Golden Rule. (Quick digression: A recent study found that men’s necks are approximately 10x less sensitive than women’s. Therefore, when a man kisses your neck, he’s unwittingly delivering 10x more pleasure than he himself feels when you kiss his. Because he doesn’t know that, he might not kiss your neck that often, or quite believe you when you tell him how good it feels.)

I can’t believe how rambly this has gotten. Sorry.

Back to my situation: the gifts I received from this kind person have turned out (for me) to be quite a lot of work because I SIMPLY REFUSE TO BELIEVE that he’s not participating in this Beowulfy gift economy where the point of the gift is the ritual and not the gift itself. He’s a warrior of sorts, and I just can’t convince myself that he’s really truly opting out of an economy that’s so firmly rooted in ritual. (You can’t get more Beowulfy than the military.) I refuse to believe that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a television is just a television, a bouquet is just a bouquet, because it flies in the face of everything I know to be true about men and their gifting ways.

Is it possible, I wonder, that he’s really truly transcended his own model and is participating quite insightfully in mine? It’s all very confusing, because while there was no ritual, no grand presentation, the object itself does amount to quite a large gesture that doesn’t quite compare to the quiet gifts of vacuuming every day or (in your very difficult case) putting off your work to accommodate his plans.

In your case, dear CF, I wonder if a small part of the solution is not to view your choices as Gifts, because they so often get converted in your head to Work. Relationships are work—they’re gold-roofed mead-halls that protect us from the wilds of nature—and it’s the work that invests them with value. But the work they demand is enough. There’s really no need to overachieve. I’ve already—just by agonizing about my own situation as much as I have—put in way more work than was warranted or appropriate or necessary or right, and am sucking all the fun out of it.

So: as far as the things that invite one to nag, I guess I’m suggesting an Experiment: If they are Gifts, proclaim them, celebrate them, build a fire and present them in full diamond-hand regalia. If they aren’t, don’t make them. For awhile, maybe try to stop yourself from making those invisible offerings, because they’re costing you too much and Mr CF is—through no fault of his own—maxing out his line of credit.

For what it’s worth, I think you’re both working hard, I think your meadhall is glorious, and I think you’re both fabulous ring-givers. How this work relates to your own work is, of course, an entirely different question, and God knows this has gotten long enough.

Fondly, and at sea (or, to use a kenning, on the whale-road),
Millicent

(This post responds to “Le Marriage et Le Travaille,” available here.)