Posts Tagged ‘slut shaming’

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

THE NONEXISTENT KNIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CLOVEN VISCOUNT

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

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

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

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.