It was a cold day and I went for a walk around the grounds of Calke Abbey. Herds of Roe and Fallow Deer roamed around the parkland while Ducks slipped across the ice on frozen lakes. There are a few hides dotted around the estate and I could quickly see a lot of different Birds; Siskins, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Reed Buntings, a Nuthatch, a Tree Creeper, a Marsh tit, a Woodpecker and a Water Rail. Nature was similarly evident in a visit to Shugborough Hall, where long horned cattle roam the grounds and chickens are in the farmyard; no Tamworth Pigs yet though. A few days later and I visit Middleton Lakes, a wetland nature reserve populated by wild horses. The main thing here is the discovery that Robins will eat out of your hand if it has mealworms on it.
I’ve been reading Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. It come over as Beat literature after the fact; like the Beats, Acker, sees sex as a revolutionary act against a puritanical society. But she also writes about how capitalist materialism has commodified sex and separated pleasure from feeling. When re-writing a version of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, it leads her into praising the Puritans for being less materialistic if more socially repressive than her time; it’s not quite a view I can imagine Burroughs or Kerouac quite articulating.
I generally tend to be somewhat suspicious of historical novels; the further events recede from living memory, the greater the resemblance becomes to a form of ersatz science fiction, irrespective of how well researched the depiction may be. In the case of novels set in the Victorian period this is compounded by the tendency for the contemporary author to sit in judgement of Victorian sexual repression and the extremes of inequality and poverty endemic to the period, as can be clearly seen in novels like Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is, in truth, no exception to this.
The novel revolves around the relationship between a working class prisoner, Grace Marks and a middle-class proto-psychiatrist, Simon Jordan as he attempts to penetrate her amnesia to determine whether she was complicit in a murder. Jordan’s masculine attempts to dominate and discover the truth are counterpointed by her tendency to narrate unreliably and only tell him what is fitting for him to hear. In both cases, Atwood’s central concept is the dichotomy between the Virgin and the Whore. Jordan discusses the idea of female irrationality at one point with a colleague, dismissing the idea that prostitutes could be regarded as hysterics, given the strength needed to survive under such circumstances; equally the background of the 1837 rebellion creates a tendency to view the lower class as irrational beasts as much as to define it by gender. But events critique much of this, with Grace’s narration depiciting upper-class men sleeping with servant women. Jordan himself becomes entangled in an affair with his down at heel landlady, proving shocked at her descent from respectability into sado-masochistic frenzy that leads her to suggest a plot to kill her husband. Like Grace, he becomes an amnesiac after serving in the American civil war, and therefore becoming an unusual Victorian figure; a man exhibiting the same traits of mental illness as a woman. In the case of Marks, she presents herself as a sexless being who is frequently shocked at the coarseness of other people. Her account of events presents herself as a passive victim who neither participated in the murders nor did anything to prevent them. Under hypnosis, a second personality emerges, that of the coarse and sensual Mary who had previously died after a botched abortion and who fully implicates herself as an active agent in the murders; as often in such novels there is a degree of anachronistic Freudianism in the presentation of such things; the novel is structured with each chapter named after a single panel from a quilt, suggesting that a whole can only be made out of fragments.
Something similar applies to Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys, where the Easter Rising is used as a backdrop to a romance between two working class boys, centering something that would have been historically marginal. I’m not entirely sure it works; paralleling the development of a nationalism to the awareness of sexual orientation seems an awkward juxtaposition.
Like Pedro Lemebel’s My Tender Matador, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman describes the love of an effeminate gay man for a straight Marxist revolutionary. Of the two, Puig’s is the rather more interesting. As a text, it eschews conventional narration in favour of dialogue (it reads like a film script) and a series of intertextual references to a series of other texts. The novel is structured like One Thousand and One Nights, with Molina taking the part of Scheherazade as he recounts various films he has seen, such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (clearly Puig and I shared taste in horror films). Just as Scheherazade sought to defer her execution, Molina seeks to defer the completion of her mission to extract intelligence from Valentin. Each film has dialogic relationship with the main text; from the suppressed sexuality of Cat People to the implicit sexual jealousy directed at Valentin’s lover Marta through the re-telling of I Walked with a Zombie. Many of the films depict a hero or heroine dying nobly for a cause, but the cause varies from Marxist guerrillas through to Nazi propaganda; Molina claims throughout to be disengaged with politics, and the ending is ambiguous as to whether her death is attributable to a sense of drama, as Valentin suspects or any genuine commitment. This ambiguity also extends to the sexual politics of the novel; Valentin critiques the way in which Molina’s sexuality manifests as a sense of submissiveness as much as a sense of effeminacy, but he arguably exploits this when asking for messages to be passed outside the prison. Conversely, as the title implies, Molina powerfully manipulates many of the novel’s events throughout, arguably up to and including her own death. One of the other dialogic aspects of the novel that relates to this lies with the citation of a mock academic treatise on homosexuality at the end of many of the chapters, arguing that homosexuality is initially normal but also vital in playing a socially disruptive role that is implicitly revolutionary (something suggested by Valentin and Molina’s sexual encounters, unlike the forlorn longing in Lemebel).
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is an autobiographical text that moves constantly between the concrete instance of her and her family’s experience and a theoretical strata layered around it. As a means of offering its own commentary on its events, I found difficult to avoid a sense of dissatisfaction with this approach. Although Nelson does have a certain hagiographical way of referring to theory (I defy anyone not to roll their eyes at her horror at Sedgwick’s admission that she had undergone therapy to become happier, as if referring to some sort of disgraced prophet) she is certainly willing to critique it; for example, she correctly lambasts Zizek’s transphobia, notes that she finds Freud and Lacan unhelpful to her own experience of maternity and notes that the Foucauldean tendency to seek to avoid labels or to simply create a form of self from the trap one finds oneself in is a form of political disengagement. More tellingly, she criticises an academic who had attacked a colleague on the grounds that her “maternity had rotted her mind,” with much of Nelson’s thesis being to deconstruct the binary division between the maternal and domestic on the one hand and life as someone who does not conform to hetero-normative expectation.
Reading Nelson, I found myself thinking a lot about Hal Niedzviecki’s thesis that modern society has made rebellion and individuality into a new form of conformity, only for their expression of rebellion to typically manifest in highly stereotyped ways. For example, a discussion on, of all things, an X-men film leads to a dialogue about her partner’s sympathy for revolutionary versus assimilationist politics, one that is substantially undercut by their own rush to marry when proposition 8 was set to restrict same sex access to that right. It’s equally noticeable that any discussion of the lgbt rights beyond this is absent, figuring only as a form of assimilationist guilt rather than out of any sense of engaged struggle. Similarly, there isn’t any discussion of the alignment between revolutionary politics in this sense and the conservative establishment. For all of the book’s fetishisation of the transgressive or the radical there is no real political programme there, unless one really does want to embrace Francis Bacon’s regret that the death penalty was not available for the homosexual acts he himself participated in. By contrast, Nelson’s guilt at Army Service men saluting her as a pregnant mother seems somewhat piffling while her snobbish dismissal of Pride Parades becomes more than mildly irritating.
Reading Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, a particular paragraph did give me pause. Much of her thesis rests on the ways in which imputing metaphorical dimensions to illnesses that should have none acts as obstacle to sensible treatment. In the case of AIDS, that meant that the view of it as a gay plague (even though in most countries it was not) led to the advocacy of false solutions like abstinence. But at one point, Sontag does describe the sexual culture of gay men in the seventies as the most efficient machine for sexual consumption ever devised, linking it to the prevalence of consumerism as the central aspect of social life. It seems a rather jarring note that undermines much of the book’s central arguments.