Posts Tagged ‘privilege’

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter undergoes a transformation here, and I’m not sure if people talk about it. In Book Three, having become fed up with his nonmagical family, he grabs his school things and wanders into the night. He takes a bus to London and puts himself up in a public house for a week or two, at the age of thirteen. Harry is no longer a poor boy who suddenly finds himself with money; he’s a rich kid who didn’t have access to his accounts over the summer. The Dursleys are no longer the permanent reality; they’ve become a temporary inconvenience while he waits to get back to his ‘real’ life. Harry has begun to act privileged. And while I love this book a lot, it might be my favorite of the four I’ve reread this year, I don’t really have a whole bunch to say about it.

In the fourth book Hermione responds to the privilege being enacted around her by trying to unionize the house-elves. There’s some discomfort here in Rowling’s portrayal – it’s a common thread in British literature that some people are born to be servants and they’re only happy if they have a firm master who knows how to keep them in their place. We often call it colonialism, though it seems to apply to Dickens’s servants as well. There’s less of a sense of personal obligation and affection with the house-elves, but it’s just as alarming. They are almost all happier as slaves because their sense of identity comes from their service. Without a master, a house-elf sees herself as nothing, a failure. Winky is so programmed this way that of course she ends up an embarrassing drunk.

I also wanted to complain about the message of gender roles that the film teaches that isn’t supported in the book. In the book, there’s a mix of genders from both of the foreign schools, but in the film Durmstrang has boys and Beauxbatons has girls. Why? Is it so inconceivable that Fleur Delacour could be chosen as a champion when she’s competing against boys? Are Frenchmen unfilmable? Their movie industry would lead me to believe that isn’t true, nor does being French make a man effete. I also don’t think there’s anything especially masculinizing about Eastern Europe – their women are strong and beautiful, quite the equal of women from any other part of the world. Okay, so now I can’t remember any moments with Durmstrang girls in the book, but if there is sexism in the selection process we can blame it on the fact that Karkaroff is a bad guy.

Just a quick review – in Book Two the government responds ineffectually to a crisis; in Book Three two innocents are condemned to death and the main characters help them escape; and now in Book Four the highest government officials refuse to accept what is happening in front of them and begin the policy of denial that leads to so much trouble later on. It’s not often a series of children’s books represents this type of authority figure as being neither good nor evil, just stupid in a realistic, non-cartoonish way. It reminds me of the importance of choosing the right people to lead the community, as if living in the United States for the last three years hasn’t been enough of a lesson in that.

 

The Coming of the Quantum Cats (Friederik Pohl)

I was really disappointed by the lack of interstellar feline companions in this book. The title comes from Schroedinger’s cat, the thought experiment about how observation influences reality. By now, most of western culture is familiar with the idea of multiple dimensions of reality, or the multiverse: every time you make a choice, reality splits to create two parallel worlds, one where you turned right and one where you turned left. In this book Pohl explores the idea of travelling between these alternate realities. When we first meet Dominic Desota, he’s a mortgage officer in a world where North America has been taken over by Arabs. He gets arrested for taking his shirt off at a public swimming pool. There’s another world where he’s a senator, and a third where he’s a quantum physicist, and a fourth where he’s a mid-ranking soldier. Major Desota’s America has decided to invade and colonize the other realities, which makes the boundaries between thinner and thinner, so that people, objects, and weather events start slipping into the wrong reality. It’s really interesting to see the same group of characters cast in different roles, but when things get going Pohl pulls a deus ex machina out of thin air, so the plot ended up being disappointing. The bad thing about Cold War-era environmental novels is the idea that there’s always somewhere else we can go. If we screw up this planet, we can just blast off in a rocket to another. If we damage this reality, there’s always an unspoiled Eden dimension we can shift to. In the 1980s we never had to learn from our mistakes, no matter how destructive they were.

 

The City and the City (China Miéville)

Now, remember all that alternate reality stuff and imagine applying it to just one city. At some point in the past, we’re not sure how or why, the city bifurcated into two realities – Beszel is eastern European and Ul Qoma is southwest Asian, but they overlap. Some areas of the city are completely one or the other, and some are crosshatched. There are strict laws about crossing from one to the other, so people have developed a set of visual cues to establish their reality – colors and mannerisms are defined by which city you’re in. The people train themselves to see only their reality, and they ignore (unsee) the people and buildings in the other. Protagonist lives in Beszel, but an Ul Qoma commuter train goes right by his front windows, which he is partially aware of some of the time, as the commuters are only ever partially aware of him. There is a border crossing with customs agents and everything, but you can shift between cities if you start noticing what you’re not supposed to see. It’s illegal and the mysterious secret police will come, but you can do it.

All that being said, this isn’t a sci-fi book like the Pohl was. This is a Raymond Chandler-style noir murder mystery. The critics invite Kafka comparisons, but I think that’s out of place. Orwell is a little nearer the mark, but this isn’t a representation of where we could be going, and I guess you could make arguments about immigration and open borders, but it doesn’t seem closely related to our world at all. Miéville does follow the dialectic structure – Thesis/Beszel, Antithesis/Ul Qoma, Synthesis/Breach – but the government isn’t the primary antagonist like it is in 1984. It’s much more of an old-school mystery than it is anything else, so as ever, just ignore the quotes from critics that are chosen to convince you to buy the book. Besides, comparing any author to our cultural monoliths does him a disservice. If you spend your time thinking about how similar (or not) he is to Kafka, you don’t notice how great he is in himself. This is a fantastic, compelling book in its own right, a fascinating mashup of two of my favorite genres, so let’s celebrate that.

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This book is ideal for those people who have left Christianity, but feel nostalgic about the shitty inspirational fiction.

“Cade, do you ever feel trapped in your life?” asked George instead.

Cade paused and smiled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean … I feel like I’m just headed down a path I can’t change. It didn’t happen all at once. It crept up on me. First you get a house, then the kids come along, and suddenly I’ve got major responsibilities. And one day I wake up and my life is half over. I mean, my life hasn’t been horrible, but I feel like I’m just along for the ride.”

Shitty inspirational novels often follow a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress pattern, where Everyman is guided through the trials of life by someone who moralizes a lot and stands in for his conscience, or God, or the Church, or whatever is meant to guide people through the trials of life. Kuhn’s guide is Shiloh, a physicist with an intense aesthetic sense. While he sees beauty and wonder in everything, Shiloh’s biggest message is about order and chaos. He argues that we need both, and that life is all about managing the balance between the two. He talks about culture as striving for this balance: rock and roll music, soccer, science, whatever he likes he sees as having achieved the perfect mix. If there’s something he doesn’t like, it’s either too structured (like baseball) or not structured enough. The thing that irritates me about this guide, other than the condescending attitude all these guides take, is that he is so subjective. George takes him to a baseball game and talks him through the theme and variations, so he becomes a bit more reconciled to it, but who decides how much order is enough? Shiloh does. He doesn’t have a god to blame it on, but really, it seems that his main concern is teaching George about his worldview and insisting that his personal tastes have cosmic significance.

The protagonist is the other essential piece to this puzzle. George is represented as an Everyman, someone who staggers blindly through life, content to let entropy take over as he falls into deeply ingrained habits of self-centeredness and insensitivity, until he meets the guide. First off, I don’t believe that everyone is like George. He’s a cishet white male, so he has a lot of advantages that most people don’t. He’s also quite comfortable with regard to his income, so to me, most of his problems are illusory. Yes, bad things happen to him, but he has a much wider safety net than I do, wider than most people I know. This sort of protagonist in this sort of allegory always makes me wonder about the author. How much privilege is necessary to see George as representative of anyone?

As I implied above, things change when the protagonist meets the guide. He’s been insensitive to his own feelings and those of everyone around him for years, but suddenly he becomes unusually articulate about his emotions. Overnight he drops the mental defenses we all have and becomes able to say exactly what he is feeling and why, without disguises or misdirection, to a man he barely knows. This aspect of the books is in my opinion less realistic than the sci-fi elements we’re going to discuss in a minute. It takes a lot of time to work through the mental blocks we create to protect our innermost selves. In a society where vulnerability is harshly punished, especially in heterosexual men, this style of opening up takes a long time to achieve. If someone does open up suddenly, it’s usually a misdirect designed to gain approval. George has had the same best friend for twenty years or more, but after chatting with Shiloh on the train a couple of times it’s somehow easier to talk to the comparative stranger than to Cade, despite their long history. These protagonists turn into a bizarre mixture of petulant immaturity and intense self-awareness.

And speaking of privilege, how many first marriages last twenty years? His wife is presented as perfect, the exact combination of capability and submission that gives conservatives confidence in themselves and in the perpetuation of the human race. With women like that at home, we can move forward in business and politics, knowing that all failures at home will be made up for by the stay-at-home mom. She’ll take care of the house and kids so that the men don’t have to raise children or clean up after themselves. Since Everyman is supposed to be a good guy, he’s going to try to wash dishes or talk with his son, but he’s going to do it poorly because the penis disqualifies him from recognizing dirt or giving appropriate emotional responses. There’s a daughter too, with whom he does marginally better <sarcasm> because her needs are so much simpler. We all know that girls only need a few trips to the mall with their friends to make everything all right. </sarcasm>

Another vital component of the shitty inspirational novel is cartoonishly extreme suffering. George has some trouble at work and might get fired, but then his daughter is in a car accident where she breaks a couple of limbs and loses an eye. Then his son gets alcohol poisoning and major counseling. Then his wife gets cancer and dies. It’s a bad year, but no one has this many bad things happening to them in this short a period of time. I suppose it’s the intensity of the suffering that gives him all of those emotional breakthroughs, but it’s so forced.

The final element is the supernatural. Christian shitty inspirational novels focus on God, or angels, or Jesus, or finding a mystical shack in the woods. Here, the supernatural is replaced by technology. Shiloh gives George a watch that transports him between dimensions. He’s really interested in string theory and all that multiple dimensional stuff, which he claims is the only solution to some of the observed phenomena out in space. I guess loop quantum gravity doesn’t exist in Shiloh’s world (Leslie Winkle forever!). So, George gets a chance to travel back in time, to parallel dimensions, so that he can relive his days. At first he tries to recapture glory, but then he turns to fixing his regrets. The changes don’t affect his life, but they do change him, giving him more hope and a stronger sense of self-efficacy.

The moral of the story, because even agnostic shitty inspirational novels need a moral, is that we should all be kinder to one another, so I should probably stop calling these novels shitty. I mean, they are – about a quarter of the way in I asked myself why I was having such a hard time with this book, and I realized that it was because it’s poorly written – but it’s not kind to say so. I agree with Kuhn that being kinder is the best hope we have to make the world a better place, even if I have a hard time with his vehicle.

What really sparked my interest was at the end, when George has a chance to go back and live his whole life over. I would love that. I’d lose most of the people I care about because I would go back to before I met them and make different choices, but I would prioritize my happiness from an earlier point in my life. I would come out of the closet sooner, exercise more at a younger age, choose a new profession, and generally explore parts of myself that I’ve left neglected this time around. The chance to do everything over again, and do it differently, appeals to me strongly.

I’m an overly sentimental person when it comes to fictional characters, so I stuck it out and even got appropriately weepy at the end. Agnostic inspirational fiction is such a weird category, but that is definitely what this is. Perfect for people who can’t stomach Christianity but miss the poorly written novels. It’s like being uplifted against your own will.

I do love the television series based on Charlaine Harris’s novels, True Blood and Midnight, Texas. So when I saw this one in a used bookshop, I grabbed it right up. It’s the first of Ms Harris’s stories I’ve read, so I didn’t know quite what to expect.

As ever, the dramatized version and the written version are quite different. The two most obvious and pervasive changes are the level of action and the level of competence among the characters. On television, each of the many characters has her own story arc and exciting moments of action. The book focuses on Bobo Winthrop’s storyline, so I’m not sure if the other narratives are in the later books of the series or if they’re inventions of the screenwriters. So, Bobo is a nice guy living in this small town in Texas, and Act I introduces us to the town and its residents through the eyes of new arrival Manfred Bernardo. Act II begins with the discovery of the body of Aubrey, Bobo’s missing girlfriend. He gradually learns that she was involved with a white supremacist terrorist group looking for a large supply of weapons and money that he supposedly inherited from his grandfather. He admits to his friends that his family was into the racist stuff but that he left them behind to get away from it. Eventually the townspeople discover the real murderer and take care of it without involving professional law enforcement. Bobo’s friend Fiji gets kidnapped, as she does on the show, but it’s by one guy who takes her back to his parents’ house, and she uses magic to freeze the family and escape (instead of being held underground by a biker gang, getting drugged with a Fentanyl patch, and nearly suffocating). So, all that stuff in the TV series about Olivia’s father, Lem’s past, Manfred’s grandmother, and the demon after Fiji are not present in this first book. Maybe that’ll come later.

Compared to the show, the characters in the book are babies. Fiji only has one or two tricks up her sleeve, the freezing spell and a healing potion. Manfred comes up with one vision of the dead, but is otherwise powerless, just an internet faker who tells people what they want to hear. None of that hanging out in an RV with his dead grandmother. And the actor who plays him is eleven years older than the character in the book. The other characters are still pretty mysterious, their natures hinted at rather than revealed. The reverend delivers a weird sermon on human/animal shape-changers in a restaurant during dinner, but we don’t see him transform, and Joe and Chuy likewise seem pretty normal for a gay couple in small-town Texas.

Speaking of ethnicity, in the book it’s easy to imagine that everyone is white, either Hispanic white or traditional white. And yes, in the United States our obsession with race means that I have to identify myself on official forms as White (non-Hispanic), because listing Hispanics as simply White would mean that they are the same as us, which erases their unique culture (offensive to them) and affords them the same privilege that I receive (offensive to white supremacists). Yet, their genetic material is frequently similar to that of other southern European groups that are simply White, like Italians. It’s a weird, convoluted situation, product of a weird, violent past. I lived in rural Texas for a year without seeing very many people of color, so Harris’s town feels pretty accurate to me. On the show, Lem has very dark skin, but in the book he looks more like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fiji has light brown hair, so it’s unlikely that she also has light brown skin as in the show. She is also described as being a bit out of shape and has a harder time with physical activity, so I’d guess that the television Fiji is also rather thinner than the one in the book.

As the new guy in town, Manfred seems like the obvious protagonist. He also appeared in a few of Harris’s other novels, the Harper Connolly series. But his perspective is limited, and he’s not that bright, so a good many scenes have to come from someone else’s point of view. Fiji is the other central character, and the two of them come into contact a lot, but not as peacefully as they do in the show. A woman in her late twenties who devotes her life to women’s spiritual and emotional health is not likely to be entertained by the self-centeredness of twenty-two-year-old boys.

She looked back at him, her eyes narrowed and her hands clenched. She huffed out a sound of exasperation. “Listen, Manfred, would it kill you to say the magic words? And sound like you mean them?”

Magic words? Manfred was totally at sea. “Ahhh . . .” he said. “Okay, if I knew what they were . . .”

I’m sorry,” she said. “Those are the magic words. And yet no one with a Y chromosome seems to understand that.” And off Fiji stomped, the drops from the previous evening’s shower blotching her skirt as she passed through the shrubs and flowers.

“Okay,” Manfred said to the cat. “Did you get that, Mr Snuggly?” He and the impassive cat gave each other level stares. “I bet your real name is Crusher,” Manfred muttered. Shaking his head as he crossed the road, he was relieved to get back to his house and to resume answering queries for Bernardo.

But he stored a new fact in his mental file about women. They liked it if you told them you were sorry.

And yet this stored fact doesn’t alter his behavior. In the end, he’s about as clueless as he was in the beginning.

The bookstore has a label that identifies this book as Paranormal & Steamy, but there is nothing steamy about this book. I don’t know what her other stories are like, but there are very few sexual encounters in this book, and the only one I can think of gets a parenthetical mention while the narrative is focused on something else. That parenthetical mention only says that Joe and Chuy are “fooling around” without going into what that means. I like the sexiness of the show, but it’s not here in the book. Manfred and Creek don’t get together, and neither do Bobo and Fiji. Olivia and Lem may have something going on, but we never see it, just as we rarely see them at all. Maybe that will come in the other books, but I can’t speak to that just yet.

In both the show and the book Joe and Chuy share a business as well as a home and bed, and in both Chuy’s side is a nail salon. But the show changes Joe’s antique store into a tattoo parlor, which I find strange. I’ve come up with two possible reasons for this. (1) People outside the South may not find it realistic to have both an antique store and an extensive pawnshop in the same one-stoplight town. I’ve lived down here most of my life and I can assure you, this is completely realistic. I have no idea how we keep so many antique stores open, but we do. Southerners like tradition, and that means loving old-timey stuff, even if it looks like garbage to me. (2) Portrayals of gay characters in American mainstream media have not caught up with the realities of gay life in America. There was a time when being openly gay limited one’s options to Wilting Flower or Leather-Obsessed Biker, a caricature of one gender or the other. These days, while those two stereotypes still exist, there’s a much wider range of expression for male homosexuals. Most of us are pretty normal, at least where I am now. The older crowd I ran with in Dallas relied on the polarized model of self-expression, but they came out back in that time when that was their reality. So, how do you persuade America that Joe is a masculine human being who is in love with another man? Make him “tough”, because moving furniture all day doesn’t do the trick. It’s easier to force Joe and Chuy into traditional gender roles if Joe draws pictures on people’s skin instead of selling them century-old teapots. I would like to say that the actors don’t portray them as inhabiting gender extremes; that seems to come from somewhere else.

There’s a thing here that bothers me, so I’d like to mention it briefly. Fiji and Creek go to Aubrey’s funeral, but they get there early and don’t know anyone else there, so they sit in the car for half an hour playing around on their phones. I realize that they are in a church parking lot in broad daylight, but I still worry about this being unsafe behavior. Hanging out in cars is a way that women become targets of violence. Most of the violence prevention programs I’ve been a part of reference this habit specifically. When you get to where you’re going, get out of the car and go into the building immediately. When you finish your business inside, get into your car and leave immediately. Many women who loiter in their automobiles become victims; I’m not blaming them for that, but it worries me when people I care about (real or fictional) engage in behaviors that I perceive to be unsafe. I also know that I do this myself, and there are times when I even go to sleep in my car, but I’m a white man and the ability to sleep in my car in a partially darkened gas station parking lot is part of my white male privilege. I also drive a twenty-year-old car with paint beginning to chip, which lets potential thieves and murderers know that I have nothing worth taking.

In the book, life in Midnight is dramatically more peaceful and normal than it is in the television series. The book is a nice comfortable little Southern murder mystery with an honest look at social problems and just a hint of the supernatural element. I really enjoyed it, and I’ve already started looking for the others in the series. And if I want more after that, Harris has a ton of publications, so I should be well satisfied for quite a while.

I do love my dystopian fiction, perhaps a little more than most. This novel is different than your classic dystopias because instead of presenting us with a new dystopian world, Eggers starts with a world very similar to ours and shows us how dystopia develops, or how it could develop from where we are now.

The basis of society’s transformation is The Circle. It starts with electronic health records, which we’re already moving toward in the United States, and joins them with banking and credit card information. Thus, each person has an online identity for purchases and prescriptions, a TruYou, which sounds sort of convenient in a creepy way. Now, imagine that all of this information is linked to Facebook, so your friends can Like and Comment on your dental cleanings and physical examinations.

The next step is SeeChange, a system of cameras placed everywhere. It’s sort of like the CCTV in London and other major cities, but the live feeds are broadcast on Facebook, with facial recognition software that automatically tags you so that people can watch you, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Also, it’s not the government posting cameras, it’s regular people. Imagine that you’re a regular customer at a kayak rental. You’re there enough that you have a fairly close relationship with the owner. You have a really hard day and need some serious paddle time, but it’s late at night and the shop is closed. You know the owner won’t mind if you borrow a boat, so you jump the fence and take one out. The time on the water does you a lot of good, but by the time you get back to shore the police are waiting to arrest you. You have them call the owner and she tells the police to let you go; she’s not going to press charges even though it is technically a theft. When you get to work in the morning, everyone is talking about your near-arrest, including your immediate supervisor and the president of the company. A number of coworkers don’t care about the crime but are hurt that you haven’t joined their kayaking groups on Facebook.

The kayak incident is the climax that drives us into the second half of the book, about transparency. The classic dystopian formula is in three parts, Thesis Antithesis Synthesis, but because Eggers’s story is not a classic dystopia, his book works differently. It is divided into three books, but the third is more of an epilogue. Transparency joins the ideas of TruYou and SeeChange – you wear a camera around your neck that broadcasts everything you see, say, and do, all the time. You can turn the sound off in the bathroom and you can take it off when you’re asleep, but otherwise your life is a reality show where friends and strangers can watch you at any time. There is one level of embarrassment at walking in on your parents having sex; there is a whole other level where you walk in on your parents having sex and accidentally broadcast that to forty thousand people on Twitter, where people comment on how great it is for two people at their ages and with their medical backgrounds to continue being interested in sexual activity. Politicians pick up on transparency and use it to virtue-signal to their constituents; it’s a snowball where once one representative goes transparent, they all have to or they look untrustworthy. There’s also a movement to move voting online and to make it mandatory, the sort of direct democracy a lot of people think they want to live in. It’s actually pretty horrible. I mean, politicians are people that we choose to make decisions for us – there are too many issues in this country for each citizen to inform themselves fully on each issue and make an intelligent decision. This is what representative government is all about. In the end, transparency alienates our protagonist because her friends and family can’t act naturally when everything they say becomes so very public.

So, let’s talk characters. Our protagonist is Mae, a bright young recruit at The Circle. She doesn’t immediately get into the idea that the company wants to own her entire life, but she eventually gets into it. She becomes the public face of The Circle, the first average citizen to go transparent. We’re told that she’s smart at the beginning of the book, but in time it becomes clear that she’s a pawn in bigger schemes. Supervisors keep manipulating her into having epiphanies about the everyone-together-all-the-time corporate culture, until she distills that culture into a few Orwellian sound bites. Her ending is totally 1984.

Mae turned to look at the three lines together. She blinked back tears, seeing it all there. Had she really thought of all that herself?
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Mae’s throat was tight, dry. She knew she couldn’t speak, so she hoped Bailey wouldn’t ask her to. As if sensing how she felt, that she was overcome, he winked at her and turned to the audience.

“Let’s thank Mae for her candor, her brilliance, and her consummate humanity, can we please?”

She can seem inconsistent, but I kind of understand her. A lot of her decisions are based on expediency – her dad will die without her company’s insurance, so she will do pretty much anything to keep the job. Add to that social pressure to go with the group and her capacity to commit to a decision even if she thinks it’s a bad one and kind of forced on her. She’s also controlled by her need for public approval, as manifested by Likes on her posts. So I think it’s understandable that she makes short-sighted decisions that seem random and inconsistent – she’s being indoctrinated in a cult-like atmosphere, so think of her more as a cult follower than a normal employee.

Mae’s best friend Annie got her the job at The Circle. Annie spends most of her time doing higher-level work with foreign governments while Mae is stuck in customer service. Annie’s life is ruined when she gets tapped as the pilot for PastPerfect, The Circle’s extension into family history. When people find out her British ancestors had Irish slaves, it’s pretty bad. When people find out her American ancestors had African slaves, it’s even worse. When a video surfaces of her parents watching someone die, it’s the end. Privilege has become a terrible word in American society, and it defines her family for thousands of years.

Mae has three boyfriends to deal with. Mercer is the ex that her parents still love. He hides from the spread of technology and has a John the Savage ending, though it’s not the climax like it was in Brave New World. Francis is the kind of supernerd who makes sense in a tech company but would have a hard time in the real world. Mae gets frustrated with his persistently premature ejaculations. Kalden is secret and shadowy, somehow inside The Circle but without espousing any of its ideals. He’s the kind of well-endowed lover that leaves Mae daydreaming, but it’s hard for her to trust him.

There are three heads of The Circle, and at one point they bring in three marine animals that sort of represent them. The seahorse is Ty – he hides at the bottom, guarding his children, which in this case are his ideas and inventions. He has very little contact with the public. The octopus is Eamon Bailey – he stretches out his tentacles in an effort to know and understand the world around him. He’s the warm fuzzy that people see – he wants to know people, and don’t we all want to be known? The shark is Stenton. He controls the money and therefore more than anyone else really understands or admits to themselves. Like Google and Apple, The Circle presents this image of a company that likes learning and exploring ways of connecting people to each other in an effort to mask the fact that they are profit-based institutions. Stenton is kept in the background as a sort of necessary evil, but he’s a shark. When they put all three animals in a tank together, the shark eats the other two. That’s what sharks do.

Whenever I see a group of three like this, I try to fit it into the Mind-Body-Soul symbolism, but these seem to be working in opposite directions. With the boyfriends, Mae rejects Mercer/Body, betrays Kalden/Soul, and ends up with Francis/Mind, which is disappointing. With the executives, Stenton/Body and Bailey/Soul make Ty/Mind unimportant, but the implication is that eventually Body will overpower Soul and reign supreme. Either way, a balance is impossible to sustain.

There was a film last year, with a lot of really big names like Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Glenne Headley. But even though Eggers was working on it, it seems to have fared much worse than the book. I think the movie’s failure has to do with the very ideas the story addresses: the ending was changed to make it more marketable, and they had to reshoot several scenes because test audiences didn’t find the protagonist to be very likable. Since my theory is that Mae was chosen for her malleability and need for external approbation more than for her intelligence, I think Emma Watson might be too smart to play the character. I find it interesting that a film based on a book that is against crowd mentalities ruined the message by trying to appease the crowd mentality. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not fond of faithless adaptations, and I’m not so in love with the book that I’m ready to see the story as plastic.

The recent news about Facebook makes this book all the more timely. It seems that four or five years ago, a company called Cambridge Analytica stole data from thousands of Facebook profiles and used it to manipulate people’s ideas, pushing for unnecessarily conservative events like Brexit and the Trump election. Facebook is backpedalling as much as it can, but the information gathering was allowed under the privacy policies in place at the time. In related news, Facebook has been experiencing a decline in usage figures, so maybe this is the beginning of the end. Personally, I like the interface and the fact that most of my friends and family members are there – it’s a low-effort way for an introvert to maintain relationships. That being said, I don’t think it’s perfect either, and I have complicated feelings about putting personal information on my profile. I am curious, though – if Facebook falls, what will rise to take its place?

Above all, this is a book about privacy and the difference between our real selves and our public personas. I believe that all people need times and places where they are unobserved, where we can rest from the need to perform for others. We need a break from all that approval. The Circle presents us with a quick and easy path from where we are now to a world with no privacy, no relaxation, no disconnecting. For an introvert like me, this world is a nightmare. I’ve heard that this is a generational difference, that people of my generation are more individualistic while the kids born in the late 1990s and early 2000s are more communal, and if that’s true then many of them wouldn’t see the problem this book presents. And I suppose part of the problem with both book and film is that this is Generation X’s perception of what Millennials believe, which may not be accurate. But it’s interesting to explore these ideas and decide whether privacy is a big deal, and how important it is to us.

As a final note, I’d like to point out that in this book no one’s identity is stolen. A lot of us think that the main problem with online identities is that they can be falsified and the information used fraudulently, but that’s not the big problem for Eggers. It’s the ideas inherent in social media that are the problem, the Ding an sich and not the abuse of it.

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.

This is the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.

 

This is a short collection of short pieces, some of them very short. When I finished, I honestly felt as if I hadn’t read anything; the most characteristic quality of the text is evasion. It’s a book about the inability to express oneself, so by the end I felt as if she hadn’t. I mean, one of the longer pieces is a transcription of conversations overheard as people pass by a spot in Kew Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. It could be the beginnings of a story, the source of a novel, but in isolation, it feels as if there’s no story at all. When we sit in public and eavesdrop, it may pass the time, but it doesn’t satisfy. We get a few seconds of dialogue with no context; we may invent a story for them, as Woolf does again in “An Unwritten Novel,” but it feels fake. I once tried to get a Brazilian to tell me the Portuguese word for eavesdropping, but the best he could come up with was “lack of education,” their way of indicating “bad manners.”

Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so there are some things we know to expect, like beautifully descriptive passages:

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? or now, content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

But they don’t really go anywhere, here. The heron doesn’t lead us to truth. Monday or Tuesday is like having dinner with a famous writer when she really has nothing to say.

The most famous piece from this collection is “The Mark on the Wall,” a stream-of-consciousness essay in which Woolf stares at a mark on the wall and wonders what it is, letting her attention wander down different paths but without reaching any destination. She always returns to that mark, which might be a bit of soot, or a protruding nail, or a snail that wandered in out of the garden. She says a number of things that are right and true and beautifully expressed and almost instantly forgotten.

The piece that hangs in my memory most firmly is “A Society,” Woolf’s version of Rasselas. A group of women decide to infiltrate the institutions of men to determine if they produce good men and good books. Some have to go undercover; one of them ends up pregnant. But the end is alarming, and disappointing.

But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker.

It seems clear to me that men don’t answer because it would expose their privilege in uncomfortable ways; indeed, privilege-exposing is one of the ways people use the internet a lot, but it doesn’t seem to gain them any friends. I have one friend that I felt close to in high school who frequently makes me feel ashamed of myself for white cis-male privilege, even though some of that privilege is canceled by poverty and homosexuality. And that’s a weird identity to have; spending time with the gay community makes it seem like coming out is a luxury of the wealthy. And yet Woolf’s women don’t speculate on male privilege, or how their incomes and ethnicity make them privileged as well. [Mental note: check on immigration figures in the early twentieth century. How much exposure would Woolf have had to Asians or Africans?] I can’t say for sure why these women stop talking; all I can say is that the answer to their questions, are men good and do they produce good books, eventually becomes unsayable. I suspect that the answer is no, but they don’t say it. The more Woolf’s women know, the closer they get to the sources of power, the less comfortable they feel criticizing ineffective social institutions. In this story, education and experience do not give women a voice the way that modern readers expect; they rob women of their speech. Maybe they do see their privilege and don’t yet have a vocabulary for it; maybe they see their privilege and don’t yet have a solution for creating a more equal society. Or maybe they don’t want to implicate people they’ve grown to love and respect. They say that innocence and purity are hardly worthwhile goals, but ignorance can feed self-satisfaction in a way that education and experience cannot.

Stranger still, after Woolf died, her husband rereleased this collection and cut “A Society” from it. The more I think about things, this fact seems stranger and stranger: the author of A Room of One’s Own at some point changed her name because of a man. Maybe she loved him, maybe she wanted to get out of her father’s house (when I try to think of what I’ve read about the relationship between her and her father, I get it confused with Maria Edgeworth), maybe society dictated and she acquiesced, I don’t know. But for a woman who writes so passionately for women’s voice and independence, it seems strange. Maybe it would have been just as strange to call her Virginia Stephen, since her maiden name is a man’s first name [Try starting a sentence, “Stephen says that women . . .”].

It’s a weird collection. They’re not quite stories and they’re not quite essays. They don’t really seem to fit well together. It’s like one of those Russel Stover samplers – here are some little bitefuls of Woolf. We hope you like them.

Enfin, here’s a bit from the end of the “Kew Gardens” piece:

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.