Posts Tagged ‘gender’

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

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I know that normally I skip the introductions, but here’s a good bit from Fromm’s:

I wish to express my gratitude to my wife not only for the many suggestions which have been directly incorporated into these chapters but, far beyond this, for what I owe to her searching and penetrating mind which has so greatly contributed to my own development and hence indirectly to my ideas about religion.

The 1950s were a time when women couldn’t get a lot of recognition, so I’m glad Fromm gives credit where it’s due. It’s unfortunate that when he talks about all of humanity he uses masculine pronouns – it was standard practice back then, but now we recognize that it excludes somewhere around half of the population. I know that there are slightly more women than men, worldwide, but I’m not sure if those figures account for transpeople, and I don’t know whether there is a statistically significant difference in the number of transmen and transwomen. So yeah, the book is all sexist and transphobic, but that’s the time Fromm was writing in.

This book is a continuation of Man for Himself, Fromm’s book on psychoanalysis and ethics that I read back in June. He refers back to Escape from Freedom a lot as well, so it really seems like he’s building each book on the previous writings published in English, so this business of reading his books in order of publication was probably a good idea. This one is also really short, so it could be considered a final section to the previous book on ethics. As ever, he uses a lot of italics, so the italics in the quotations below are all his, not mine.

He issues a caveat close to the beginning, that even though we usually associate the word religion with Christianity in this country, he doesn’t intend that connotation.

For lack of such a word I shall use the term religion in these chapters, but I want to make it clear at the outset that I understand by religion any system of thought and action shared by a group which gives the individual a frame of orientation and an object of devotion.

Which means that, for the purposes of today’s discussion, anything can be a religion. Writing about literature, for instance, or the pursuit of romantic love. I’ve been getting agitated with facebook recently, and I think it’s because my friends are getting so insistent on their secular religions. Even my friends who embrace a belief system tend to orient their lives around a secular concept to which they give their devotion. To some it’s patriotism and the flag, which I disagree with completely because I think dividing people into nations is useful in governing them but dangerous in the tendency to nationalism and partisanship. To some it’s guns, and I explicitly unfollow these people. But to others it’s social justice, and while I’m in favor of that, their passion and extreme devotion to the specific aspect of injustice that bothers them is difficult for me. I have people posting that not enough of us are talking about Puerto Rico, but I feel like a third of the things I see are about the disaster there. I see so many terrible things in the news that I’ve become less sensitive to tragedies that I don’t see with my own eyes. There are so many tragedies that I’m exposed to that I seem to have lost the ability to be surprised by them, and without the element of surprise I don’t get shocked, angry, or passionate about things the way my friends do. I feel like I’ve lost some essential human element in my personality – it often feels like a physical pressure bearing down on me, that I don’t care enough about people-first language or injustices that don’t affect me personally. Think about the metaphor for feelings from Brave New World – a pipe with one leak builds up a lot of pressure and shoots that water pretty far, but the more leaks there are the weaker the pressure. My facebook newsfeed is like this leaky pipe, and every fresh injustice pokes a new leak, so that I feel like I don’t have any empathy left over for people outside the gay community. The demand to care about every single person on earth is draining, and it leaves me feeling tribal and misanthropic. It makes me think that the world is an awful place full of horrible people, which includes everyone I know. I don’t actually believe that, and it hurts to have those ideas pushed into my head. I am already in pain; stop poking my bruises with sharp sticks.

In some ways, I was better at loving people en masse back when I was more explicitly religious. I was raised in an authoritarian version of Christianity, and as an adult I tried to embrace a more humanist version, but after reading Fromm I’m not so sure whether I was successful. According to Fromm, the authoritarian/humanist divide cuts across all faiths, and he clearly favors the humanist side. In describing the effect of authoritarian religion, of projecting authority and virtue to a being outside of ourselves:

When man has thus projected his own most valuable powers onto God, what of his relationship to his own powers? They have become separated from him and in this process he has become alienated from himself. Everything he has is now God’s and nothing is left in him. His only access to himself is through God. In worshiping God he tries to get in touch with that part of himself which he has lost through projection. After having given God all he has, he begs God to return to him some of what originally was his own. But having lost his own he is completely at God’s mercy. He necessarily feels like a “sinner” since he has deprived himself of everything that is good, and it is only through God’s mercy or grace that he can regain that which alone makes him human. And in order to persuade God to give him some of his love, he must prove to him how utterly deprived he is of love; in order to persuade God to guide him by his superior wisdom he must prove to him how deprived he is of wisdom when he is left to himself.

I’ve lost God, but I haven’t recovered the parts of myself that I gave up ten years ago. Maybe in some ways I still feel like a sinner, but one that is no longer penitent. If I’m a sinner, then I love the sin in me as well as the virtue. The Ex never could quite understand that there were some things that I believed to be wrong, but that I did anyway because I enjoyed the wrongness of them, and maybe that’s still true of me. These days I damn myself through projection differently, thinking and saying that my kids have the best parts of myself, as if I lost some virtue in giving it to them. But this is illogical, because that’s not how genetics works. When I see my personality traits in my children, but without the anxiety, I get excited and happy, but those traits are still present in me, and I want to be better at recognizing my strengths and not only my limitations.

When he gets into talking about love, I do see my limitations quite clearly.

The command to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, with only slight variations in its expression, the basic principle common to all humanistic religions. But it would indeed be difficult to understand why the great spiritual teachers of the human race have demanded of man that he should love if love were as easy an accomplishment as most people seem to feel. What is called love? Dependence, submission, and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable,” domination, possessiveness, and the craving for control are felt to be love; sexual greed and the inability to stand solitude are experienced as proof of intense capacity for love. People believe that to love is simple but that to be loved is most difficult. In our marketing orientation people think they are not loved because they are not “attractive” enough, attractiveness being based on anything from looks, dress, intelligence, money, to social position and prestige. They do not know that the real problem is not the difficulty of being loved but the difficulty of loving; that one is loved only if one can love, if one’s capacity to love produces love in another person, that the capacity for love, not for its counterfeit, is a most difficult achievement.

[…]

Psychoanalysis also shows that love by its very nature cannot be restricted to one person. Anyone who loves only one person and does not love “his neighbor” demonstrates that his love for one person is an attachment of submission or of domination but not love. Furthermore, anyone who loves his neighbor but does not love himself shows that the love of his neighbor is not genuine. Love is based on an attitude of affirmation and respect, and if this attitude does not also exist toward oneself, who is after all only another human being and another neighbor, it does not exist at all. The human reality behind the concept of man’s love for God in humanistic religion is man’s ability to love productively, to love without greed, without submission and domination, to love from the fullness of his personality, just as God’s love is a symbol for love out of strength and not out of weakness.

As I think over my relationships, I think that Fromm is more correct than I want him to be. In fact, I feel a bit like he’s pulled my pants down in a public place – not embarrassed exactly, but exposed to the possibility of being perceived as inadequate. I do sometimes wonder if the emotion I excite in people is not love so much as pity, since I do very little to hide my suffering, and I seem prone to suffer at the least inconvenience. And while my relationship with him may have started in a good place, it ended up in possessiveness, dependence, sexual greed (on my part), and the inability to move away from the familiar “stable” (on his part). Then I think about my life here without him, and I’m shy about meeting new people because I’m concerned about not being thin enough, or wealthy enough, or cultured enough, or interesting enough, or handsome enough, and it’s a well-documented fact that our community focuses more on the external than heterosexuals do. A friend told me recently that there’s nothing quite so attractive as a rich, handsome lawyer in his jogging outfit. So maybe what I really want is not love, but just to find someone who will touch me. I’m not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but they do present a very different focus, and probably a different approach (if I knew anything about locating men for either purpose, I could be more specific about this).

I was chatting with a medium I know – practicing my tarot readings, learning more about the symbology – and she introduced me to a divination schema I had never heard of before. The main takeaway point I got was the idea that this instability and restlessness that I’ve been suffering from my whole adult life is not a trial; it’s who I am. The argument is that for me (not for everyone, mind you) it’s my desires for stability and domesticity that are culturally determined and foreign to my nature: the ease with which I get bored isn’t a flaw that I need to correct, it’s just me. Some of us just have explorer personalities, which means that I’ll be better and happier, more my natural self, if I stop thinking of my journey as having a destination and just focus on making sure it doesn’t end. For me, the joy will have to be here and now, in the temporary and elusive, because the permanent will always leave me unsatisfied and the future will never look as I think it will. I was talking it over with another friend, and she pointed out that this doesn’t mean I have to keep up the nomadic lifestyle. It just means that I have to keep looking for something to explore, something new. Life always has something new to offer – new activities, new ideas, new disciplines of study, for example. This self-evaluation meshes well with my Gallup Strengths Finder results and my Myers-Briggs type, which is why I think it’s worth relating. I know that astrology isn’t science and there’s no logical reason to believe in it, but I left that conversation feeling more comforted, more at peace with myself than I have in weeks, and I’m not going to let the logical voice in my head take that away from me.

As with any book about religion, Fromm has a clear goal for us and our belief systems, and I think it’s a good one:

Our unconscious – that is, that part of our self which is excluded from the organized ego which we identify with our self – contains both the lowest and the highest, the worst and the best. We must approach the unconscious not as if it were a God whom we must worship or a dragon we must slay but in humility, with a profound sense of humor, in which we see that other part of ourselves as it is, neither with horror nor with awe. We discover in ourselves desires, fears, ideas, insights which have been excluded from our conscious organization and we have seen in others but not in ourselves. It is true, by necessity we can realize only a limited part of all the potentialities within us. We have to exclude many others, since we could not live our short and limited life without such exclusion. But outside the confines of the particular organization of ego are all human potentialities, in fact, the whole of humanity. When we get in touch with this disassociated part we retain the individuation of our ego structure but we experience this unique and individualized ego as only one of the infinite versions of life, just as a drop from the ocean is different from and yet the same as all other drops which are also only particularized modes of the same ocean.

Or, more concisely:

The psychoanalyst is in a position to study the human reality behind religion as well as behind nonreligious symbol systems. He finds that the question is not whether man returns to religion and believes in God but whether he lives love and thinks truth. If he does so the symbol systems he uses are of secondary importance. If he does not they are of no importance.

One of the reasons that this book is so short is that Fromm circumvents a lot of the religious debates by focusing on the issue of his previous books, authoritarianism. As mentioned, authoritarianism exists in all religions, and he finds it more productive to focus on this difference than the differences between Buddhism and Catholicism, or between Mormons and Muslims. And I think he’s right, that the outward trappings of belief statements and whether you say ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ are really unimportant, far less important than whether your faith leads you to love yourself and others or to hate yourself and others. Any faith group where people are increasing in love is okay with me, and any in which people are sowing the seeds of destruction is not. The fact that the same group can have both tendencies just makes it complicated, and reminds me that it’s not my job to judge someone else’s beliefs.

I do want to disagree with Fromm on one point: he argues that secularists don’t have rituals, and I disagree. I may have given up prayer as an individualized ritual of finding comfort through communing with my subconscious, but I’ve switched to tarot readings, which for me have very little sense of mysticism and more to do with the logical application of symbols. There are other rituals I do every day, like flossing, brushing my teeth, and rinsing with mouthwash before going to bed. Or, I fasten my safety belt, put the key in the ignition, press and hold the brake, turn the key, release the parking brake, and then shift into gear before releasing the brake. These may not confirm my position in a group, but they are established patterns of behavior that I hope will bring me safety and good oral health. We all have our rituals, but I guess in 1950 it was a little harder to recognize the secular ones for what they are. Fromm only recognizes ritual in the community sense, as in taking Communion as a congregation.

The shortness of the book does make me wonder how comfortable Fromm was writing on this topic. However, the shortness of it also means that I read it in one day, even though it’s taken me three more to write about it. Life is getting busy. Sometimes a shorter text serves as a good introduction to a writer’s thought, but because this one relies so heavily on the ideas in his other two books, I’d still recommend people start with Escape from Freedom.

I’m always a bit curious as to why Penguin feels the need to demand sixty-page introductions of the editors in its Classics series. Generally I skip over them, and I think this is a good practice if you haven’t read the book before. In this case, though, the introduction is longer than the text itself, so I gave it a go. While not as interesting as the Ding an sich, it serves its purpose, explaining where the text comes from and some of the larger decisions the editor made.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is really really old, so it exists in a very fragmented state, and there are several retellings, so the work of the editor is rather significant, as it is in Hamlet or the Dead Sea scrolls. She has chosen a prose translation, or rather compilation, as she admits that the source material is in a few different ancient languages that had already been lost by the time Homer was singing of Odysseus. There are a few different meticulous translations already published that give all possible variants of meaning for each word, but they are prohibitively dense for the casual reader, and this is her intended audience: those of us with enough education to understand references to the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but who are not interested in getting a doctorate in ancient Middle Eastern dialects. There is a little repetition where the stories don’t align exactly, but I think Sandars has done a great job of giving us an approachable text that will satisfy the merely curious and serve as a gateway to the truly passionate.

As with Fenimore Cooper, Gilgamesh’s story is of two journeys: one to the Country of the Living, and one to the Garden of the Gods.

Journey number one. Once upon a time there was a king, two-thirds god and only one part man, and he was wise and beautiful. This part of the book tends to go on about how perfect his body is, which makes me curious about the Sumerian idea of the perfect body. I have to question his wisdom here, though, because as king, the gods gave him the right to have sex with any woman he wants, virgin whore other man’s wife whatever, so of course he exercises that right. The people get sick of him fucking every woman in town – and not just the husbands and fathers, the women themselves are sick of not having the right to refuse – so they pray to the gods to fix this problem. The gods decide to send him an equal, someone whose love will give him focus. He has a few dreams about this man whom he will love as a woman, and that phrase is repeated several times, so I’m guessing there was something sexual here.

Enkidu is a wild man living in the forest, messing up all the traps and setting the prey animals free. The trapper asks Gilgamesh for advice, and he sends a prostitute out to seduce Enkidu. It works, and she spends a week fucking him into civilization. Here we see the Middle Eastern prudery about sex – after ‘polluting’ himself with a woman, Enkidu can’t return to the forest because the animals no longer recognize him as one of them. He’s lost his innocence, and with it the wisdom of the wilderness. Now he has to go live among people. He hears the stories of Gilgamesh and decides to go stop him from having all this indiscriminate casual sex:

In Uruk the bridal bed was made, fit for the goddess of love. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Then Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook, they snorted like bulls locked together. They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown. Then immediately his fury died. When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men.’ So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.

Yes, you are sensing the flavor of ancient homoeroticism. Some stories play up the master-servant relationship between them, but Sandars tells the story as if they were equals, brothers or lovers. So Gilgamesh is settling down sexually, but he still needs some kind of conquest or adventure. They set out to destroy a great evil in the Country of the Living, apparently so called because it is directly over where the Anunnaki judge the souls of the dead. It’s a place of abundant forests, compatible with the biblical description of Lebanon (cedars). It’s not clear of what the evil consists, but the forest guardian’s name is semantically linked with the word for Evil, so he must be killed. After some psychological struggles upon entering the forest, Gilgamesh cuts down the sacred trees that give Humbaba/Huwawa his power, and the evil giant begs for mercy. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have none, and behead him for the good of the world. How this is good for the world is again unclear, except maybe he wasn’t letting people cut down the trees to build houses with. They had been doing just fine with bricks, so again, I don’t get the reasoning, but it’s not my culture.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu return victorious with the rare commodity wood, and people are really happy, except for the god of the wind and earth Enlil, who was on the giant’s side. Then Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, tries to marry Gilgamesh, but he points out her commitment issues and tendency to transform her lovers into animals and refuses her. She takes her rage to the gods, and it is decreed that Enkidu must die. There’s a lot of suffering in this part, especially for Gilgamesh, who has to watch his friend/brother/lover die slowly from an illness with poorly described symptoms. Gilgamesh is compared more directly to a woman here, in his weeping. Like Macduff, he has to express his man-sized grief before doing something about it.

Journey number two. Gilgamesh is now deathly afraid of dying. In our culture, people see death as a reunion with the beloved departed, but not in Sumerian. Gilgamesh doesn’t have any hope of seeing Enkidu again. But there are stories of a man who lives forever, the one who survived the Great Flood – Utnapishtim, not Noah. Gilgamesh defeats a bunch of lions and tunnels under a mountain for twelve days to reach the Garden of the Gods, where he sweet-talks the goddess of wine and wisdom into telling him how to reach Utnapishtim. She directs him to the ferryman Urshanabi, who becomes his new sidekick (definitely not an equal like Enkidu was, but it’s nice to have a companion anyway). Urshanabi takes him to Utnapishtim, and they learn the story of the flood. It’s pretty standard flood-narrative stuff, people were too evil so the gods decided to destroy them all, but Ea liked Utnapishtim and told him to build a boat big enough to hold the seeds of all life. Utnapishtim and his family and friends ride out the storm and rebuild the world after the water recedes. Enlil is pissed off about this, but the other gods actually like people and won’t let him kill the survivors. Instead, Enlil ‘blesses’ Utnapishtim with eternal life and makes him live way out at the edge of the world, where the Ocean drops into nothing. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to stop hunting for immortality, because it’s both impossible and unpleasant. Instead, he directs Gilgamesh to an undersea flower that restores youth, but on the way home a snake eats the flower and that’s why snakes shed their skins. And why people don’t have a magic flower to make them young again.

After the second journey, there’s nothing left to tell. Gilgamesh rules wisely for the rest of his days, and he dies surrounded by his wife, son, and concubine, to the great lamenting of all. They do the sacrifices to the gods and everything else people did for dead kings back then.

In terms of theme, I’m always alert to gender roles and sexual fluidity, so that relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is really interesting to me. They have romantic feelings for each other, and they seem inseparable even in private time, but it doesn’t diminish the virility of either. I’ve had people tell me that in homosexual relationships, ‘They can always tell which one is the man and which one is the woman,’ which I find terribly offensive, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I’ve seen gay couples where one is obviously more effeminate, but frankly, that’s sort of rare for me. We become like the people we spend time with, so when I meet gay couples who have been together for a long time, they seem equally masculine or equally feminine, and frankly it is none of my business which one is the top and which one is the bottom, or whether they like to trade off, so I don’t ask. I think the need to assign homosexuals to heterosexual roles indicates a deeper discomfort with homosexuality; it’s like these people’s brains are somehow completely different from mine, as if for them gender binaries are more important than love or compatibility of spirit.

The theme of divine retribution is important, as well as divine favor. Shamash the sun-god helps Gilgamesh all the time, but the hero is always getting Enlil upset with him. Gilgamesh’s problem is that he doesn’t have all the facts about who or what is important to Enlil, so he frequently blunders into offending the god. That may not say much for his supposed wisdom, but he’s only (one-third) human. This seems to be the Sumerian idea of life on earth: we blunder around accidentally offending gods who take their revenge on us. It’s not a simple case of karma because we can’t know what will offend the gods and what won’t. There’s a fatalistic sense that the gods are to be placated (with or without hope) rather than loved. This idea makes sense to me, because I agree that the universe is a chaotic place where good and bad things happen to everyone regardless of whether I think their actions are good or bad.

This is a good little edition, as I said, great for intelligent people who aren’t scholars in ancient Middle Eastern studies. There are others with the more advanced scholarship, but if you don’t need all that, stick with this one. And it’s a good story, but sad. Fortunately, it’s also too short for me to be so involved with the characters that I get upset – it’s not like The Last Chronicle of Barset, which left me weeping as if I had just seen someone in my own family die. Epic heroes die, it’s what they do, like Beowulf, so it wasn’t traumatic. It’s how this sort of story works. You could see the tragedy as excessive, but these people lived five or six thousand years ago. The story has to end.

I’ve been in the mood for this book for a while, and I think it’s because my subconscious has been trying to remind me of this:

I never think those men wise who for any worldly interest forego the greatest happiness of their lives.

And this is precisely what I’ve been doing, accepting the fragments of love from someone who has been financially useful to me, finding jobs far away from my children, seeing my dearest friends on Facebook instead of in real life. Now, my life in the last five years has been amazing – reading Gone with the Wind in a New York subway station at two in the morning, kissing the man I’ve loved since I was nineteen (and watching him run away), flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara, seeing the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel Tower with a handsome North African, watching an enormous religious pageant in Nauvoo with a group of gay Mormons, attending The Big Gay Church in Dallas with more than a thousand strangers, playing house with a Midwestern man who is determined to be as conventional as possible – but my happiest times have all been right here in North Carolina. I don’t know if this is the residence I’ll settle down in, but this is clearly the best place for me. As I was looking back through the summer’s entries last week, it struck me that my search for happiness has been a dominant theme these past months, and I hope that I’ve found it. I’m underemployed, and threatened with eviction if I don’t find more work, but I don’t feel nearly as frantic as I should. There is a feeling of deep contentment here, which I have missed. This move may have been foolish from a financial standpoint, but there are other considerations which I hope will prove this to have been a wise decision.

There is nothing more difficult than to lay down any fixed and certain rules for happiness; or indeed to judge with any precision of the happiness of others, from the knowledge of external circumstances. There is sometimes a little speck of black in the brightest and gayest colours of fortune, which contaminates and deadens the whole. On the contrary, when all without looks dark and dismal, there is often a secret ray of light within the mind, which turns every thing to real joy and gladness.

Perhaps some day I will meet a man who will give me such a secret ray of light, but I can assure you he is as yet hypothetical.

Fielding is writing in 1751, which means that while his earlier novels were delightfully bawdy with a few too many lurid details, he is more reserved now. This is after the Fanny Hill trial, which proved that writers can be fined and imprisoned for obscenity. In many ways this story is much more serious than Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, with more sharply pointed satire. Think of it as a predecessor of Bleak House. Our protagonist, William Booth, is always falling into some legal scrape or another – I think he ends up in jail three times – and his devoted wife Amelia is always (indirectly) rescuing him. Booth’s problems generally come about because he trusts people and institutions, and only in the end do others figure out how to make the system work for him.

Fielding has dropped much of the mock epic from his style, but there are several allusions and quotations to the ancient Latin and Greek authors, and our story is divided into twelve books like the Homeric epics. We also begin in medias res, with Booth being brought before the justice, and we get the backstory later, Books 2, 3, and 7 being taken up with flashbacks. The editor claims to have corrected Fielding’s spelling, or at least modernized, but he changes the spelling of ‘gaol’ to ‘goal,’ which is a very different word and even an indifferent Enlightenment scholar like myself recognizes the mistake. He does, however, preserve the variations on Amelia’s name, which are more due to sound than spelling – she can become Emily at a moment’s notice.

This is a book about sex and money, the different ways that one can be exchanged for the other. As I said, the racy bits are all glossed over in such a way that even the most prim reader would be hard pressed to find something to complain about, though I imagine that if the most prim reader were reading eighteenth-century novels, she actually wouldn’t mind a little hard pressing.

Booth gets locked up in Book 1 because he’s poor. The justice examining his case knows and cares little about the law and always sides with whoever looks richest. There, he runs into an old flame, Miss Matthews. He tells her about his happy marriage with Amelia, despite their difficulties, and Miss decides to sleep with him. Because this preliminary type of jail is co-ed, he spends the better part of a week fucking her while she pays for the room and food. He feels terribly guilty about it, but not guilty enough to stop, and not guilty enough to confess when Amelia finds him and brings him home.

Booth’s major problem is that he’s poor. He was an officer in the army, but a couple of injuries sent him back to London on a fraction of his former salary. He spends this latter two-thirds of the book trying to find favor with powerful friends who can effect a return to gainful employment by using their influence to get him a new commission. While Fielding’s satire is mainly directed against his own profession, the law, this system of patronage comes under close scrutiny as well. Booth doesn’t know how to do anything except be a soldier, but in order to get that sort of job again, he has to bribe the right guy, whether a higher ranking officer like Colonel James or a peer like the unnamed lord, and then hope that his patron’s word is good enough to get him into a good position, or any position at all. As a result, Booth spends most of the book in debt, too afraid of the law to leave the house. He does get arrested for debt twice, but Amelia is keeping a closer eye on him this time, so he doesn’t get to spend his jail time in another woman’s bed.

Booth’s major obstacle to advancement is, unfortunately, his wife’s chastity. These guys keep promising to help Booth get ahead, but once they meet his wife they decide not to move on his case until they can move on her. She’s innocent, but her friend Mrs Bennet gives her a timely warning. Book 7, her backstory, is a rather sad story which feels a little too modern for comfort. The unnamed lord promises to help her poor husband advance, all out of deference to her, then engineers a situation where the husband is out of town and the wife is invited to a masquerade. At the masquerade he slips an Enlightenment Rohypnol into her drink and rapes her while she’s too impaired to resist. Apparently this has been the price of preferment all along. When the husband finds out, the stress kills him and she’s left with nothing. Using this story to demonstrate the evils of patronage seems timely to us, but Fielding does stick with some conventional misogyny, using her learning of the Latin classics in the original language to lampoon the idea of women getting a decent education. This is an eighteenth-century novel, after all, so the castoff mistress gets married to a sidekick, eventually deciding that it is better to have a husband who loves her and has common sense than one who can keep up with her in a literary discussion. Indeed, the men who can match her in learning have so entrenched an idea of women’s inferiority that they spend their time insulting her instead of respecting her.

Well, when Amelia finally figures out what’s been going on, why the peer has been making gifts to her children and promises to her husband, she gets out of that trap right quick. And then the colonel tries the exact same trick, with the exact same success. The last few books involve men tricking Booth into debt so that they can imprison him and try to date-rape his wife. Fortunately for Booth, his wife’s fidelity is stronger than any man who tries to tempt her, even after she knows about the affair with Miss Matthews. As a reader, I feel a little cheated that we don’t get to see her reaction to this, but when Booth finally confesses she tells him that she’s known about it for a while now, and already forgiven him. This seems to be the crux, the issue that proves she’s a perfect wife: quick to forgive her husband for straying, but absolutely determined never to stray herself. The double standard feels outdated to me, but in the twenty-first century we have different expectations for women and chastity.

Another significant character is Doctor Harrison, Amelia’s priest. He’s always hovering around, disapproving of Booth, Mrs Bennet, and nearly everyone except Amelia. He represents the voice of Christian morality and all its weird biases. Booth and Amelia spend a lot of the earlier part of the book laughing at other people, but the longer Doctor Harrison is around the more inclined they are to be serious. Booth spends most of the book as a sort of closet atheist, saying things like,

Compassion, if thoroughly examined, will, I believe, appear to be the fellow-feeling only of men of the same rank and degree of life for one another, on account of the evils to which they themselves are liable. Our sensations are, I am afraid, very cold towards those who are at a great distance from us, and whose calamities can consequently never reach us.

Which Doctor Harrison would be quick to contradict with his words and confirm with his behavior. Personally, I think Booth is right. In my life, I have found that living is more bearable if I limit my awareness of the world’s ills. There is so much wrong with the world and so little I can do about it that I used to get depressed over this all the time. I had to learn to stop caring so much about people I will never meet and can do nothing to assist. I need to focus my emotional life on what’s immediately around me or I will drown in the sea of suffering that is 2017. This may sound cold and selfish, but it’s how I attend to my own survival. Compassion has to have its limits, or the one who lives it will destroy herself.

The ending feels a little tacked-on, as if Fielding knew he had passed five hundred pages and needed to end the book quickly. Booth gets reconverted to Christianity in jail, a minor character from Book 1 reappears with the key to Amelia’s fortune, Doctor Harrison pushes his testimony through the court system and they all end up rich. Except for the bad people, who end up unhappy, dead, or both.

This book is great for people who are into dramatic serials, but aren’t intimidated by eighteenth-century language or excessively frustrated by eighteenth-century gender roles and morality. Betrayals, shifting alliances, and sex, it sounds like an HBO show. There was a BBC serial in the 1960s, but it’s been lost. Maybe now that viewers are demonstrating more interest in this type of story, it’s time for a new film. I know I’d watch it.

This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Calvino, and I was not disappointed. These two novellas are a bit allegorical, and as you can see from the titles, they’re set in the distant past. Calvino’s style is translated in a way that is really accessible, and his cultural tradition is similar enough to mine that the stories, though new, felt familiar.

THE NONEXISTENT KNIGHT

In the days of Charlemagne’s campaigns, when his greatness is a little past but he hasn’t quite retired yet, there exists in his army a knight who doesn’t exist. Agilulf is literally an empty suit of armor, endued with the strictest sense of duty according to the chivalric code. He is everyone’s conscience, which makes him unpopular when the soldiers are relaxing after a large battle. He speaks, but he has no heart to feel with other men. He sees his lack, but like most of us, he doesn’t know how to change.

Raimbaut is a young kid set on avenging his father on the field of battle. Battlefields are notoriously smoky, and wearing the armor of the time limits one’s field of vision, so he doesn’t succeed. But he insists on learning from Agilulf, whether the nonexistent knight likes it or not. There’s another young guy named Torrismund who is a bit more cynical about everything.

But these guys don’t make an interesting story by themselves: they need a girl.

We country girls, however noble, have always led retired lives in remote castles and convents. Apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we have had no experience. What can a poor nun know of the world?

Bradamante is fantastic. She fights alongside the men in full armor and saves Raimbaut in a battle. He falls desperately in love, but she doesn’t. She admires men who know what they’re doing, who have the skill and discipline to succeed in the violent world they live in – the type that get called ‘a real man.’ The problem is, when she gets a real man into bed, he’s always disappointing. All that work ethic and self-restraint disappear with the trousers, as the men she’s been with just want to ride her hard and get off as soon as possible. I can see her point, that one wants a partner who will concern himself with the satisfaction of both parties and not just his own, but I can also see things from the men’s perspective – all the discipline and hard work need a counterbalance, and sex can provide the opportunity to be completely unrestrained. But she’s turned on by restraint, so it always leaves her feeling a little flat. Her observations of Agilulf give her hope that he will finally be the man who will fuck the way he fights, by the book and with great success.

Tragedy strikes when we start to examine origins. When did Agilulf become a knight? He saved a woman from being raped by highwaymen, but Torrismund claims that Agilulf didn’t earn his knighthood because the woman wasn’t a virgin. This part of the story doesn’t take long to relate, though it took a long time to perform: a journey all over Europe to find this woman and get proof that she was a virgin fifteen years ago. Because the feudal code of men that we call chivalry is based on women’s chastity. I suppose a woman’s safety was only significant if she was unfucked, as if along with the hierarchy of men based on the accomplishment of brave deeds, there was also a hierarchy of women based on their not having accomplished anything. It’s a bit surprising to someone from the twenty-first century, with all our talk about the importance of every human life, to see social structures that are based on slut-shaming and double standards so widely accepted even while so nakedly exposed. The story is narrated by a woman in a convent, so she always points out such things. She’s like Bradamante, taking the pen/sword out of a man’s hand and using it prove women’s power in a world that considered them powerless. And when her worth is proved, Bradamante is considered more of a curiosity than as a proof that women have an equal claim to the active professions. A man waves a sword about, and he shows that all men are powerful; a woman waves a sword about, and she shows that she’s weird, unfeminine, and probably willing to have sex with anyone who looks at her.

If you think times have changed, rephrase ‘waves a sword about’ to ‘looks in a microscope’ or ‘starts her own company’ or ‘goes to sniper school’ or ‘builds a robot’ or ‘plays Dungeons & Dragons online.’ My sister majored in a STEM field at the university, and she had to carry a dart gun to class to convince the male students to speak of and to her with respect. I guess it’s hard to look virile when a girl half your size lands a plastic dart in the middle of your forehead from across a lecture hall. [Actually, I don’t know if the US army will let a woman go to sniper school. Yes, let the institutionalized misogyny rise from that last sentence like a foul odor.]

THE CLOVEN VISCOUNT

The young viscount was off fighting a war when he jumped in front of a cannon and got blown to bits. Not the hundreds or thousands of bits you’d expect, just two. He’s cleft in twain, and this goes for his personality too. It’s another representation of the Jekyll and Hyde idea, separating the good from the bad in a human, only this guy is visibly separated in two. One side goes about wreaking evil throughout the domain (what is a viscount’s domain called? A viscountry?), while the other side goes about doing good. The evil is absurdly, cartoonishly evil, and the good is inhumanly, implacably good. They meet a girl and each tries to force her to marry the other. The evil tries to force her to marry the good by threatening her and her family; the good tries to manipulate her into marrying the evil by appealing to her parents and her supposedly good nature, as if she wants to save the evil half or something. She moved to a cave in the woods to get away from him, so of course she really wants to marry and reform him. [Sarcasm. Angry-at-misogyny-in-the-supposedly-good-man sarcasm.] As with other stories of separation, the only good result is healing, not dividing. They get stitched back together in the end, creating one person with good and bad qualities, like all of us.

I’ve dealt with quite a bit of my own internal separations, and healing and hugging seems to be the only way to help. For example. I meet a Jesus Freak who acts a little dominant toward me, and my subconscious starts fantasizing about fucking him into submission. It’s not rape because in the fantasy he participates and enjoys it, and rape is a horrible thing that damages everyone involved. I don’t try to run out and seduce a straight Christian, obviously, but I don’t stop at rejecting the fantasy and condemning the behavior. I ask, Why does my subconscious want to do that? It’s because I feel like his religion threatens me, and indeed this is a religion some of whose followers want to deny me basic civil rights, and some of whose branches literally teach that my only hope for salvation is to live a lonely life and to die as quickly as possible. I get so upset by this religion because for most of my life I did let it take my power away from me, my power to choose what life I was to lead and how to live it. In short, it really has little to do with the JF himself, who actually did his best to be kind and understanding and helpful, and if he judges me for being gay, he keeps that information to himself. It’s hard for me to trust Christians since the ones in Texas tried to get me fired – again, nothing to do with this specific JF. Now, why did my subconscious show this specific behavior? Why not another form of power? Because my sex life is leaving me dissatisfied, so I want more control over this area of my life too. The fantasy combines two areas of my life that have been at odds with each other, and combines them in a way that leaves me on top, in a position of power, in control of the situation. Now that I understand what’s wrong with me, I accept the parts of me that feel powerless and love myself even though I don’t have all the control I want. Then I look for ways to feel more powerful that don’t involve hurting other people.

But this is drifting away from Calvino. His book exposes misogyny and injustice, but its aim is reconciliation, combining duty and passion, cruelty and kindness, accepting both ends of the dichotomies as human traits that only exist in community, never in isolation. It’s a symbol of loving all that we find in ourselves, the good and the evil, because it takes both to make a complete human.

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

I’m always fond of book recommendations. I like to see what the people I love love to read; it’s a way for me to approach them more nearly, since books are easier for me than people. This rec comes from Virginia Woolf, who mentions it several times in The Common Reader even though it doesn’t get its own chapter. I also saw several references to it back in grad school when I was reading a lot of ecocriticism, because there are not that many Victorians who worked with nature as extensively as he does.

After making a hasty meal at the house, I started, full of pleasing anticipations, for the wood; for how pleasant a place it was to be in! What a wild beauty and fragrance and melodiousness it possessed above all forests, because of that mystery that drew me to it! And it was mine, truly and absolutely – as much mine as any portion of earth’s surface could belong to any man – mine with all its products; the precious woods and fruits and fragrant gums that would never be trafficked away; its wild animals that man would never persecute; nor would any jealous savage dispute my ownership or pretend that it was part of his hunting-ground. As I crossed the savannah I played with this fancy; but when I reached the ridgy eminence, to look down once more on my new domain, the fancy changed to a feeling so keen that it pierced to my heart, and was like pain in its intensity, causing tears to rush to my eyes. And caring not in that solitude to disguise my feelings from myself, and from the wide heaven that looked down and saw me – for this is the sweetest thing that solitude has for us, that we are free in it, and no convention holds us – I dropped on my knees and kissed the stony ground, then casting up my eyes, thanked the Author of my being for the gift of that wild forest, those green mansions where I had found so great a happiness!

Hooray for Victorians! Hudson was born in Argentina to English-speaking parents, so when he finally came to Victorian London he spoke a weird mixture of English and Spanish, but in his writing most of the Spanglish is gone, and he sounds halfway between Stevenson and Dickens. The Argentine literary tradition claims him also, as Guillermo Enrique Hudson, even though he wrote in English.

You may think that growing up in South America would give him a sympathetic view of people of different races, but some people travel all over the world only to find that their culture really is the best and most enlightened. You can’t always heal ethnocentrism with cross-cultural contact. Our protagonist is from Caracas, and while Spanish speakers are always referred to as white and therefore normal (different from modern United States usage, where Hispanic White is a separate category), he has nothing kind to say about the natives. They’re dirty lying superstitious murderous savages, even when they take him in and feed him for several months. This racial tension is the context that drives the main action in the story. The other important context is the white tendency to possessiveness that we see in the passage above. He sees something he likes, he wants to own it completely.

Enter the bird-woman. Hudson was an ornithologist and wrote a few nonfiction works on birds, so naturally the love interest in his romance is extremely bird-like. Protagonist starts spending time in those woods he likes so much, and he hears something that sounds like a bird but isn’t quite one. It turns out that no one hunts there because they believe the wood is protected by a spirit, daughter of the river-god or some such. Protagonist is not very interested in native religions, so he doesn’t explore the mythology. So he spends time in the woods, and learns to recognize the emotional content of the bird-speech, and eventually he meets her. In fairness to the natives, she does get seriously angry if any animals are harmed. She’s a total vegan, and makes a shimmery dress for herself from spider webs.

Like a good sensation novel, we get her background information about two-thirds of the way through the book. Once upon a time, there was a Spanish guy who fell in with a bad crowd. They were running from the law through the woods once, and run across this cave. There’s a young woman inside, and in trying to catch her, the bad guys fall to their deaths. The single good guy takes her out of the cave and they go to live in civilization. (Sound suspicious? This guy tells his own story, and I tend not to trust narrators. Salient facts: seven or eight guys go into a cave, but only one comes out, and he brings a woman with him. What happened in the cave and why the girl is pregnant are a matter of conjecture.) He passes the girl off as his daughter, albeit a weird daughter who only speaks in this bird language that no one else knows. She learns Spanish and gives birth, which kind of makes Rima look like an immaculate conception from nature itself. Rima learns her mother’s language as well as Spanish. When the mother dies, her supposed grandfather takes her far away from the people who think she’s a witch. They live in the greatest seclusion somewhere in the jungle probably on the southern part of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. She spends most of her time alone in the woods, chirping like a bird and hanging out with the animals. Grandpa takes his dogs and goes to a hunting shack, far away from where she lives, so that he can eat some meat. Not all people take to veganism.

The love affair between Abel and Rima is as weirdly Victorian as it gets. Two beautiful people meet each other, and he is the first man of her ethnicity that she’s seen since before puberty (Grandfather doesn’t count). She thinks he listens to her and treats her as more than just a ghost, even though he never really understands her. He sees that she is beautiful, so he wants to force her into his model of a conventionally beautiful woman. He doesn’t bring her a literal corset, but continually asking her to explain things in Spanish instead of her preferred language is like a mental corset. Language is a very important part of a person’s identity – when I first got back from Brazil, it was still hard for me to talk about emotional subjects in English, but I could open up more easily in Portuguese. There are some concepts that make more sense in other languages – every word was once a poem, and other languages blend meanings differently than we do in English. Even though we translate, the flavor of the meaning changes. Abel refuses to learn Rima’s language; he just keeps insisting she speak Spanish. He tries to control her in other ways too, like wanting her to walk next to him instead of running all over the place like a bird circling around him. She wants to be understood, but he can only understand through dissection.

Victorian modesty strikes a false note here. This girl has wrapped herself in spider webs, but how does she perform essential bodily functions? I’m particularly concerned about menstruation, which apparently never happens. Abel talks in vague terms about the loveliness of her form, but for her to be wrapped in spider webs and still climb trees and do the other things she does, that dress has to be sheer and tight up top and either split like trousers around the legs or considerably looser in the skirt. These details we ignore; he talks about the opalescent shifting colors, but not the shape. And then, nature girl meets the guy she wants to keep for life, and they never have sex. Her distance from society should make her less bound by sexual mores, but no. She’s as chaste as a Dickens heroine, and more chaste than some of them. I suppose you could read it that she’s so far removed from conventions that she doesn’t even have conventional desires, but it seems unnatural in a character so tightly bound to nature.

In some ways, Rima could be read as surprisingly feminist because she resists so much. The modesty and affinity with nature are classical indications of femininity, but the conflict between her and Abel is because she refuses to adopt the passive role with him. She won’t speak only in Spanish because she wants him to learn her bird language. She can travel faster and farther than he can with less food, so she goes off on a journey and leaves him to follow at his own pace. She also recognizes the landscape after having only seen it once, so even after traveling across all of Venezuela, parts of Brazil, and into Guyana, she can get home in half the time it takes him. And she is independent enough to do it. Unfortunately, the solitude that results from this leads to her death, but this relationship wasn’t going to end happily anyway. In the time and place that the novel was written, leading female characters had three options, to be wed, mad, or dead, so death was probably the best choice because it means she doesn’t have to compromise who she is in order to please some man. Rima is hunted down and killed for being different, and there is no man to save her because no man is her physical and spiritual equal. She seems like an entirely other species, one better adapted to the environment but poorly adapted to human society.

Abel reacts to her death the way you would expect: he goes to a neighboring tribe and starts a war that kills the entire tribe that killed her. Everyone who knew her and consented to her death dies. Such a white man thing to do. So much the opposite of anything she would have wanted. Then he goes off and lives like a crazy hermit in the woods, nearly starving to death before finally settling in Georgetown.

This issue of solitude is important to me. As Abel mentions in the quote above, when we’re alone we are free from social conventions and expectations. When you grow up in a difficult family situation, of the type that I did, figuring out what people want and giving it to them quickly is an essential survival pattern. It gets deeply ingrained at a very early age, so now people are hard for me because as I age I become less interested in conforming to what is expected of me. There’s often a dissonance between what I do/say and what I want to do/say, like watching his daughter’s shows with the family instead of reading by myself, because he thinks something is wrong if we aren’t all together in the evening. And he is similar enough to my dad in size and personality that I’m kind of afraid of making him angry, which is probably why I haven’t yet told him that I’m moving out in four weeks. That conversation needs to happen soon, though.

I need to find someone who makes me feel so accepted that I don’t have to be afraid of disagreeing with him. Or in other words, someone I can trust. I have friends like that, so I know such people exist, I just need to locate one who’s interested in me romantically.