Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

Stop Thinking, Start Living (Richard A. Carlson)

This is the recent rebranding of Carlson’s first book, You Can Be Happy Again! The premise is that all you need to do to be healed of your clinical depression and anxiety is to stop remembering that you have them. Well, actually, he starts by saying that all you really need to do is have an epiphany, but you can’t force yourself to epiphanize, so everything after the first few pages is an effort to guide you into a purposefully serendipitous experience.

For ages now I’ve been going back and forth as to whether depression is something that is inborn and I just have to put up with, like coeliac disease, or whether it’s something that is done to me, like a respiratory virus. Carlson introduces a third option – it’s something I’m doing to myself. Of course I don’t like this option because it means that I have to change, and I don’t like change.

Fortunately, Carlson gives me a lot of reasons not to listen to him. First, he attacks his entire profession. If all you have to do to cure depression is quit thinking about it, then nearly all psychotherapists are selfish gold-digging charlatans. Second, he attacks his readers as well. He keeps calling us who are depressed and seeking help for it silly and ridiculous, and he blames us for all our mental problems. Third, and clearly the most important, there are no double-blind tests or any other efforts to do quality scholarly research. Nor is there any secondary research. His points are seldom backed up by any evidence, and what evidence he presents is purely anecdotal. There is no reason for anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills to believe anything he says. Fourth, it’s so repetitive that eventually you start to believe him just because he keeps saying the same thing over and over again.

When you stick with it and get close to the end, things get better and he starts to acknowledge that there are some traumas that really do need professional attention, and maybe some people have problems that need more than purposeful ignorance. Because, you know, it’s not always the best thing to just ignore problems and hope they go away on their own while you’re waiting for your epiphany.

This came out way bitchier than I intended. Sorry about that. This is what happens when people blame me for my problems, however justified they might be.

In the Ring (James Lear)

This author usually writes his gay porn as James Lear, and he has a real name that he uses for more reputable work. And normally I don’t write here about the erotica, but the Dan Stagg series starts to drift away from the strictly porn. Lear is focusing a lot more on story in this book, and First-Person Narrator even desists from describing a couple of sex scenes because he thinks we must be bored of reading about him fucking (we’re not). This is the third in the series – in The Hardest Thing, he was hired as a bodyguard, and in Straight Up he was solving a mystery for some of his military friends. This is much more James Bond-ish, with Stagg hired by the CIA to go undercover in a boxing/organized crime thing. Yes, there’s still some graphic sex with super-muscle-y athletes and spies, but it’s seriously de-emphasized. So, more of an action novel than a gay sex romp, but still a good quick read with some scenes that make me happy.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Marlon James)

This book is amazing. It’s a graphically violent horror-fantasy, so a bit Tolkien and a bit Clive Barker, but instead of being based in British mythology, it’s all Africa. So there are spirits that do all sorts of mystical stuff, sometimes called demons, and there’s some vampire content, and people turning into animals. Quest narrative with a nonstandard ending, doors that appear in midair, government corruption, evil creatures who walk on the ceiling, a girl made of blue smoke, a man who becomes a leopard, and a tracker with a powerful nose and an eye that’s borrowed from a wolf (he’s the first-person narrator).

Someone has already purchased the film rights, but I wonder. One of the main thrusts of the book is to normalize QBTIPOC, and it’s hard for me to trust people. Is he planning to make a film of this, with all the gay sex between Africans who haven’t been corrupted by nonexistent Europeans, or did he buy the rights to stop anyone else from making the movie? Just to be clear, most of the main characters are gay men, but there’s a lot of homophobia too. I mean, it’s not like American homophobia, where they call us a bundle of kindling which means that the best thing to do with a gay man is light him on fire. They just call them boy-fuckers, which is at least descriptive of what they actually do. There’s also some of that internalized homophobia where tops get more respect than bottoms, but if you look at their abilities and nonsexual actions, there’s really no difference in masculinity. As he says close to the beginning, blaming a man for which way his dick points is kind of like blaming a compass for pointing north.

People who are religious are advised to turn away, because there’s a lot of profanity, and Tracker’s favorite way of swearing is to say Fuck the gods. There’s all sorts of wishing for the gods to go get fucked, which I enjoy but you might not.

Seriously. I loved this book. It’s gripping and adventurous and paranormal and awesome. It’s supposed to be first in an upcoming trilogy, so that’s going to be great. I recognize that it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

Sacred Paths for Modern Men (Dagonet Dewr)

This is sort of like a pagan man’s Wild At Heart, the Christian book about how we should all be Braveheart. Instead of the one archetype, Dewr gives us twelve, pulling examples in a Golden Bough fashion from the classic mythologies, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Tolkien, and a splash of Judeo-Christian. The result is an examination of the nontoxic bits of masculinity that have always been a part of our culture but that we’ve ignored. It’s good to know that the pagan world has inspirational nonfiction, and I enjoyed this bit of it. I’m looking forward to reading more, as a sort of gearing up for the deeper study of what this community believes, searching for what I believe.

Each archetype has a couple of rituals, one for private study (often with arts and crafts projects) and one for groups. I haven’t practiced any of them yet, but it’s good to know that they’re there when I’m ready. I’m very interested in symbols, so rituals are very meaningful for me.

It’s a good book, about possibilities. The author spent a lot of time at the ManKind project, so he plugs it rather frequently. One of the things that interests me the most is that he refers to his flavor of faith as Storytelling Wicca, and that is definitely a concept I want to learn more about.

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As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

As I’ve been thinking of things this week, I’ve realized that there is an astonishing amount of rape in Greek mythology. It seems like a third of their stories are, “Fleeing from a man about to rape her, a woman is transformed into a feature of the landscape,” and another third are, “Having been raped, a woman flees from the rapist’s jealous wife and is transformed or killed.” Women’s bodies are mutable and disposable, and men are powerless to control their constant erections. The story of Pan is no different: He chases a girl who doesn’t want to sleep with him, she gets transformed into a reed, and he cuts a group of reeds (hoping to get her) and makes them into a musical instrument. Pan seems to be defined by his sexual appetite – I’ve even seen a statue of him fucking a goat, but instead of the goat standing on its legs (the more practical approach), he’s got the animal on its back, which seems to imply consent but also the idea that this is unnatural. Hamsun only explicitly mentions Pan in one short scene, but the protagonist seems modeled on him, the man who lives in nature and is sexually irresistible.

pan

This is a story of the Nordland summer, when instead of the night nearly equal to the day, the sky blushes as the sun approaches the horizon for a kiss and a little touch before shooting back up into the air. It’s mostly the first-person account of Lt Glahn’s loves during that summer, but there is a short narrative from another voice at the end that shows us a little about him.

When I met him in the autumn of 1859, he was a man of thirty-two – we were about the same age. At that time he had a full beard and wore woollen hunting shirts with excessively low-cut necks, and it happened also that he not infrequently left the top button undone. At first, his neck struck me as being remarkably handsome; but little by little he made me his deadly enemy, and then I did not think his neck any finer than mine, even though I did not show it off as much.

Glahn lives in a little hut close to the woods, and I’m honestly a little envious of how easily he manages his sex life. Girls just seem to show up at his hut, ready to go, as if the warm weather activates a magnet that draws partners to his cock. For all his good looks and self-confidence, though, he’s still a wild man of the woods, sort of useless in polite nineteenth-century Norwegian society.

I have written this now just for my own pleasure and amused myself as best I could. No worries weigh on me, I merely long to go away, I know not where, but far away, perhaps to Africa or to India; for I belong to the forests and the solitude.

Much as he enjoys spending time with Henriette and Eva and the other girls who pop in to the hut, Glahn is interested in, and gradually obsessed with, Edvarda, the local rich girl. She won’t sleep with him, but spends the entire summer playing this elaborate come-here-now-go-away thing that I personally would not have put up with. I don’t understand the pursuit of someone so irresolute in her actions; Edvarda likes the power of having a handsome man in love with her, but I don’t think she actually likes him, she just can’t bear to have him like anyone else. Edvarda’s father pays Eva to do some work for them, so she gets angry and mocks Glahn for talking with ‘a servant,’ or ‘the help,’ but to Glahn they’re both just women, and all women are equal. Or at least, they’re ranked according to beauty and attraction to him, not according to wealth or social standing. Edvarda plays with a couple of other men that summer too, a Doctor and a Baron, both of whom Glahn abuses, both of whom Edvarda compares him unfavorably with. And he does some pretty insane things out of love for this girl – she says that the Doctor is a better man than he even though he’s lame, so Glahn shoots himself in the foot and has to spend weeks recovering under the care of the Doctor he’s so jealous of. He doesn’t end up lame, though, just a little arthritic when the weather is ready to turn.

This is the nineteenth century, though, so a book about casual sex and the misery of denying it will, of course, involve a lot of dying. So I wasn’t surprised so much as saddened at the end. I like to think that sex can be good and happy, not leading to madness and death.

Although I lack Glahn’s confidence in my own attractiveness, I identify with a lot of what he says. He has a number of elaborate descriptions of nature and the effect it has on him.

From my hut I could see a confusion of islands and rocks and skerries, a little of the sea, a few blue-tinged peaks; and behind the hut lay the forest, an immense forest. I was filled with joy and thankfulness at the smell of the roots and leaves and the rich, fatty redolence of the firs, so like the smell of bone-marrow. Only in the forest did all within me find peace, my soul became tranquil and full of might.

This is, of course, why I love North Carolina so much. It’s a place of forests, where I can spend time with the trees, breathing in the rich life of their oxygenic exhalations. In the woods there is an ecstasy, a rapture, that doesn’t belong to any other place.

I lay on the ground as I ate. It was quiet over the earth, just a gentle sighing of the wind and here and there the sound of birds. I lay and watched the branches waving gently in the breeze; a diligent little wind was bearing the pollen from twig to twig and filling each innocent blossom; the whole forest was in ecstasy. A little green caterpillar loops its way along a branch, without pause, as though it could not rest. It scarcely sees anything, although it has eyes; often it rears up and feels the air for something to catch hold of; it looks like a bit of green thread slowly stitching a seam along the branch. Perhaps by evening it will have arrived where it wants to be.

For all his attention to the outward world, though, Glahn is rarely self-aware; he doesn’t identify or admit what he is feeling and why. When he tells a girl he loves her, it rings false because I’ve just read an entire chapter about shooting a couple of birds, roasting them over a fire, and eating them, but he hasn’t mentioned her or himself thinking about her, and he’s either fucking or mooning over other girls at the same time. I suppose it could be not so much a lack of self-awareness as an unwillingness to commit his awareness to paper, but his actions make me think that he’s not great at thinking things through or planning ahead.

I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.

After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. ‘It is the moon,’ I say softly and passionately, ‘it is the moon!’ And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble – God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest.

I struggle for a little while against a heavy stupor; with mind worn out by agitation and weary as death, I fall asleep.

Which reminds me of my own experiences of the divine in this world, and the way that for me the sacred and the sexual and the natural are all intimately tied together. Perhaps my unsatisfaction with my sex life is caused by not giving enough attention to those other two areas. Maybe Glahn’s confidence comes not from staring into a mirror but from touching the trees and shunning human society. In this book, the sense of powerlessness comes from other people – solitude in nature revitalizes the protagonist until he’s glowing with life. There are no faux pas in the forest.

For it is within ourselves that the sources of joy and sorrow lie.

Glahn tells us this at the beginning, and then tells a story where he forgets it, trying to extract these emotions from a woman instead of just accepting them as they come up within himself. I believe that the statement is true, that our true happiness comes from ourselves rather than our external circumstances, but there are external circumstances that support creating joy. For me, those include trees and aloneness, but for others those could be the sea and a crowd, or the desert with one special man. But whatever those circumstances may be, it’s important not to lose sight of them as I tend to do. These last few months I’ve been trying to engage more with people, but that means that I’m not taking care of my self, or my soul if you’d rather, like I did when I was so far away.

There is, of course, one other important feature of the Pan myth: he dies. The rest of the pantheon is cursed to endure, forgotten, faded, and immortal, but Pan dies. His death signals the end of Greek polytheism and the beginning of the Christian era, where there is only one god and he only impregnates one girl (who consents) and everything is single instead of multiple. Not only is rape punished now, but so are masturbation, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery. That sentence really makes it sound like I’m somehow nostalgic for a society in which rape is acceptable, but I’m not. I’m all for sexual license, but only as long as the consent of all parties is obtained – nothing sensual if not consensual. Pan’s death marks the end of rustic pleasure and the beginning of a policed society. Similarly, Glahn’s departure seems to be the end of an era – civilization has taken over. Nominally Christian morality has taken over, people have been sorted into classes, and economic power has replaced emotional connection as the motivator of human behavior. The cities have defeated the forests – in nineteenth-century Norway. In my here and now, the antagonism between the two seems to be passing away. A number of cities are incorporating greenways, large parks, and other acknowledgments that people need nature to survive. I’ve seen forested bridges that allow animals to cross highways in safety and landscaped roofs of conference buildings where executives can walk through a garden between meetings. The library where I work is halfway buried in a hillside, and while that means there are no windows on an entire side of the building, it also means that, as every book was once a tree, ours are rooted in the earth. Perhaps I love libraries so much because they are the forests where we keep our knowledge and experience, the collected memory of our species. And perhaps I’m spending less time with the trees because I’m spending so much more time with the books.

mythologies

I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

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Sometimes I get to the end of a book and joy lodges in my throat like a stone I can’t breathe through until I’ve undammed my eyes and tears flow as freely as love. This one was different. I wasn’t crushed by happiness; I still had to stop reading and give the emotion space, but it was an expanding joy, as if my chest contained the entire universe still gently growing, my heart a world in a sea of constellations, the infinity of space the air I breathe. I loved this book the way I love my own freedom, the limitlessness of my potentiality, the vastness of experiences I have yet to taste.

This book is part of the same project as Byatt’s Ragnarok, which I still love as my favorite book, but this takes a different myth. Winterson explores the story of Atlas, he who carries the world on his shoulders. She pictures him not just as the strongest man in the world, but as a gardener and a father who guarded too jealously what he thought of as belonging to him. So he loses everything he had and has to support the weight of everything that was never his.

Atlas has a role that never changes, so there aren’t many stories about him. There’s his origin, but once he starts carrying a planet he’s stuck. There’s just one other story – the time he meets Heracles. The great hero, in Winterson’s telling, wanders the world with a weapon in one hand and his dick in the other (it’s a short book, shorter than a lot of films, but he beats himself off in front of others twice). She doesn’t see him as being especially bright, but good at tricks and possessing an immense vital energy. Heracles takes the burden so that Atlas can perform one of his tasks for him, then drops the world back on him and scampers off. You can tell Heracles is working-class British by the way he compulsively calls Atlas ‘mate’, as if it’s a conversational tic that doesn’t mean anything, like the way the Brazilian gauchos call each other ‘tchê’ or Americans who grew up in the 1980s call each other ‘dude’. This is the first time they’ve met; what claims to friendship is Heracles trying to invoke?

Heracles also brings Atlas a question, Why? Why must we accept the decree of the gods and submit to Fate? Hera nudges the question forward a bit by reminding him of all the possibilities that every moment contains. But Atlas feels responsible, and old habits are hard to break, so he keeps holding the world on his shoulders. This resonates with me in a lot of ways, but right now I’m thinking of professionally. I never got into education because I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to read books and talk about them with people, preferably people who would have something intelligent to say in response. For a while it seemed that becoming a literature professor would be a good way to manage that, so I started teaching composition as a way of building toward that, but my applications for doctorate programs were never quite good enough, so I got stuck bearing the weight of teaching. Many people fall into careers tangentially like this and end up loving them; I haven’t. I like to learn, so I read up on teaching methods and styles and such, but unlike when I read novels, in education articles the words turn into a sea that my eyes can float on the surface of without penetrating the depths. I’m working at a library now (in addition to, not instead of, teaching), and in many ways I’m finding it more personally congenial. But with one of my colleagues retiring at the end of the year, I’m being confronted with a choice: do I apply for the full-time teaching job, which would offer financial security the likes of which I have never known, or do I apply for library school and continue to chase the new experience? A good part of this year has been about reassessing priorities and living according to what I love and not what is merely expedient or easy, which probably means that I’m going to choose library school over a teaching career. Thinking in terms of Atlas, teaching is a weight I would gladly shift onto someone else’s shoulders.

Winterson discusses the story in terms of her emotional weight, as an adopted child rejected by the parents who once wanted a child they could not have.

I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run. Why then, did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried?

My burdens and rejections are different to hers, but the pattern fits. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been saying No more than Yes lately, and Winterson uses this same phrasing, but while I do want to say Yes more often, I still think it’s important to take care whom and what I say Yes to. It’s taken me some time to get comfortable saying No, so it seems like that word is a gift from the universe right now, allowing me to choose rather than drift along in the currents of time. No is the rudder I use to steer my ship of Fate, and while I may never reach the harbor I’m aiming at – I may never reach one at all, harbors being as illusive as horizons – manning the helm is my job and I’m not giving it up to impersonal forces or supernatural entities that have no stake in the results. It’s my life, and I’m going to own it.

Which leads us to the Russians. In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as the only astronauts, forgetting that it was the cosmonauts that inspired us to shoot for the moon. The Russians lost a dog in space and were about to put it down when Atlas rescued her. He also loved the space station Mir, which is a word that can mean either peace or the world, which implies that for the Russians the two concepts are blurred.

Atlas spends his immortality staring into space, watching the rocks on Mars, seeing the stars turn in their constellations, galaxies moving through infinity, the entire universe whirling like an Eastern Dervish. Staring at cosmos and wondering why he submits to gods that the world itself has forgotten, Atlas never asks the question, Where did the world sit before I held it? Why is it essential for the world to rest on him? What kind of hubris demands that he carry so much weight? Atlas doesn’t look back to prehistory; his concerns are solely with the future – he only asks, What catastrophe will happen if I put it down? And that question keeps him stuck in his old patterns for millennia. His belief in the catastrophe is his prison. Heracles keeps wandering free, he even liberates Prometheus, but Atlas stays, until Laika the Russian dog shows him the new world he couldn’t see.

Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog. Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

I love this book. It’s weird (Deianeira worrying that one day soon men will no longer want to rape her), it’s funny (Heracles stepping off the world to offer Atlas a hand job), and it’s beautiful (Atlas and his dog walking away from the world into the universe). I wish there were stronger and more descriptive words I could use – everything I think to say seems too dull a tribute.

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.

It’s Christmas Eve. John Rivers, a grandfather in his late fifties, is talking with a novelist friend about the night he lost his virginity. No section breaks anywhere, just a hundred and fifty pages of that.

At the age of twenty-eight, Rivers was a moralistic mama’s boy. He finally broke from his mother and went to work in a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s laboratory. The Genius is famous all over the world for his brilliant mind, but Huxley is more interested in showing his physical side. He has frequent asthma attacks, which his family ignores. His children are little more than short people whom he acknowledges to live in the same house. And his wife is everything to him – a weird mix of mother and . . . I really want to say whore, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Probably because I’m uncomfortable with the word. It feels disrespectful, and those women deserve much more respect than they get. Anyway, the Genius has a safe in his bedroom where he keeps his gun, some money, the current draft of his next book, and his Victorian pornography. Rivers has a hard time understanding how Miss Floggy’s School for Finishing Girls can coexist with physics research, but it makes sense to me. People are a balance; strength is counterweighted with weakness, and being brilliant as a scientist is, in this case, placed against a certain sexual infantilism.

Rivers is invited to live with the Genius, and he gets on well with the family. The teenaged daughter has a crush on him, because he’s a handsome older man living in her house and she’s fully prepared to be fallen in love with. She writes poetry and wears too much makeup. There’s a little brother, but he’s hardly significant. The maid is a racial stereotype – I keep expecting her to scold Clark Gable for not being nice to Scarlett. But the mother is a Goddess. Rivers is completely in love with her, but too priggish to do anything about it. By Goddess, of course, I mean she’s a woman with gumption. She keeps the house running in order, despite the absent-minded professor and the overly romantic daughter. Despite the amount of work she puts in, she retains her beauty and inner light, the spiritual heart of her home.

Then the Goddess’s mother gets sick and she has to go away for a while. The daughter really starts in on her campaign for Rivers, having read too much Wilde and Swinburne without having any experience of love or sex to give meaning to their words. [Jack White: If you think a kiss is all in the lips, you got it all wrong. If you think a dance is all in the hips, go on then and do the twist.] Ruth does the work of sexualizing Rivers for the reader, though he won’t take advantage of a girl half his age. I don’t know what the age of consent was in St Louis in 1923, but no matter the legality. It would just have been wrong. Then Genius Henry sexualizes Goddess Katy – he convinces himself that she’s sleeping with her mother’s young doctor, and describes all the crazy shit she’s done with him. Poor Rivers has to face the idea that his Goddess could also be a wild animal between the sheets.

Henry’s bonkers enough to make himself sick from a few weeks of jealous celibacy, so when he’s at death’s door they call Katy away from the bed of her dying mother to come sit at the bed of her dying husband. When she gets back, the light’s gone out of her. All this care of others is wiping her out, erasing/effacing her. When she gets the phone call telling her that her mother’s finally dead, she comes to Rivers’s room.

Shaken by sobs and trembling, she pressed herself against me. The clock had struck, time was bleeding away and even the living are utterly alone. Our only advantage over the dead woman up there in Chicago, over the dying man at the other end of the house, consisted in the fact that we could be alone in company, could juxtapose our solitudes and pretend that we had fused them into a community. But these, of course, were not the thoughts I was thinking then.

And the handsome young assistant has sex for the first time. In some ways it’s kind of sweet, but in others not. His fifty-something self sees the event gently, as something nice that two people did for each other. His younger self was too religious to be anything other than nauseated. He keeps saying that it has to stop, but they keep doing it until the Genius heals up. Every time he says that it’s wrong, Katy shushes him. It’s not that she feels guilty or uncomfortable, it’s that she thinks his religion is immature and uninteresting. She takes the lead throughout the affair, and it doesn’t end until she’s ready for it to. Which is when the spurned poetess starts to make references to adulterers burning in hell forever.

I think it’s unfortunate that something as nice as sex has to be surrounded by so many cultural prohibitions. Katy seems innocent, and sleeping with Rivers turns her inner light back on. She’s full of grace again; she gets the strength to take care of her sick husband by fucking the lodger. It’s healthy. Then Rivers makes it less than it could be by going on about the wrongness of it, then the daughter becomes threatening, and it’s like an overripe fruit rotting from its own sweetness. What was beautiful becomes tragic.

“And to think,” said Rivers, “to think that once we were all like that. You start as a lump of protoplasm, a machine for eating and excreting. You grow into this sort of thing. Something almost supernaturally pure and beautiful.” He laid his cheek once more against the child’s head. “Then comes a bad time with pimples and puberty. After which you have a year or two, in your twenties, of being Praxiteles. But Praxiteles soon puts on weight and starts to lose his hair, and for the next forty years you degenerate into one or other of the varieties of the human gorilla. The spindly gorilla – that’s you. Or the leather-faced variety – that’s me. Or else it’s the successful businessman type of gorilla – you know, the kind that looks like a baby’s bottom with false teeth. As for the female gorillas, the poor old things with paint on their cheeks and orchids at the prow . . . No, let’s not talk about them, let’s not even think.”

Yes, let’s ignore the attitudes that keep women imprisoned. Katy is a goddess like Hera, or a bitch in heat, but never a human equal. Both Henry and Rivers either keep her on a pedestal or in a ditch, but neither of them really treats her like a partner. She has a specific function, and God help us all if she has to do something else, like attend to a dying woman in a distant city. I’m sure that part of the reason for the affair is that she needs a sense of freedom, a feeling of control over her own life and choices. She needs a connection with life, not death. So of course the novelist kills her. No other satisfactory way out of the situation. And thirty years later John Rivers (I wonder if he’s named after Jane Eyre’s cousin) reminisces about her and his summer of love. I feel like there must have been more to her than Huxley shows us. But no. We only see her through an aging man’s memory, with its necessary distortions. With all the tragedy of this short book, this one feels like the most egregious: we miss the chance to know a truly extraordinary woman, a human being whose intelligence and devotion live inside her beauty and sexuality, someone complex and wonderful but who sees life as simple and acts simply, a person too natural for 1920s American society. I suppose a happy ending was too much to hope for.