July 2010 Archives

The Venetian gardener

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In Roberto Bolaño's novel, 2666, an acclaimed, reclusive novelist, Benno von Archimboldi works as a gardener in Venice. 

Bolaño acknowledges the unlikeliness of Archimboldi's day job - it sounds like a joke, like being a trash collector in Antarctica.  But, no, Bolaño maintains that Archimboldi really is a gardener in Venice, employed by the municipality to tend to its public parks, however few in number or small in square footage.

Having just traipsed around Venice for the first time, I have a fresh appreciation for the disbelief that ought to greet any claim to be a gardener in Venice: the city really doesn't have any plants. 

Indeed, I believe I have identified what has to have been Archimboldi's workplace.  Pictured above is the only public park space I saw: four or so trees, clustered with some shrubs, by the Ponte della Accademia.  An enterprising Venetian municipal official might consider installing a plaque, "Here worked the mysterious and brilliant novelist, Benno von Archimboldi, according to that other mysterious and brilliant novelist, Roberto Bolaño" - or setting up a walking tour of Venice's public plants, similar to Stockholm's tours of points of interest from the Millennium trilogy.

That said, having seen Venice (however briefly), I now feel that Archimboldi's job was not a joke: it was a metaphor. 

Venice is a has-been metropolis.  Its dwindling population survives on the skimpiest of economies: short of seasonal tourism, the city has no industry, no offices, no business, no livelihood.  Its buildings are constantly decaying; upkeep and restoration efforts cannot hope to outpace the destructiveness of the rising salt-water.  A monument to a Renaissance pinnacle, the city is currently close to a tomb, a symbol of the absurdity and hopelessness of resistance to mortality.

Nonetheless, Bolaño doesn't grieve Venice's fate.  Everything has its span of existence, and Bolaño doesn't respect attempts at exceeding these limits.  Throughout 2666, Bolaño mocks stabs at immortality, whether through his repeated references to burned books or his antipathy to fame:

Until that moment Archimboldi had never thought about fame.  Hitler was famous.  Göring was famous.  The people he loved or remembered fondly weren't famous, they just satisfied certain needs.  Döblin was his consolation.  Ansky was his strength.  Ingeborg was his joy.  The disappeared Hugo Halder was lightheartedness and fun.  His sister about whom he had no news, was his own innocence.  Of course, they were other things too.  Sometimes they were even everything all together, but not fame, which was rooted in delusion and lies, if not ambition.  Also, fame was reductive.  Everything that ended in fame and everything that issued from fame was inevitably diminished.  Fame's message was unadorned.  Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.
(p. 802.)  Like fame, immortality is "rooted in delusion and lies."  Immortality is almost always twinned with ambition.  And it is reductive; to be immortal is to be diminished, the color stripped from the Greek statues, the music lost from the Greek dramas, the social context irrevocably severed from the surviving fragment. 

For Bolaño, literature is not about authors who reverberate through the centuries.  Rather, tthe point of literature is to help us to accept mortality, to benefit from its gifts, and to husband our energies so that we can avoid wasteful resistance to the inevitable.  In 2666, Bolaño suggests that mortality doesn't diminish life, but resistance to it does. 

Thus, he sends Archimboldi into the world's most beautiful monument to such resistance, Venice, to nurture life and growth in the midst of this blindingly gorgeous hollowness.  The task Bolaño gives Archimboldi is one either futility or nobility. 

In any event, it is the task of any brilliant novelist today.

Giving American women readers their due

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American women readers are the consumer backbone of the publishing industry.  (By some reports, women compose 80% of the market for novels.) 

Publishers think they're catering to women by publishing chick-lit and women-friendly novels (the kinds with "sympathetic" female protagonists, dealing with issues familiar to readers). 

Never mind the homogenizing impact this approach has on newly-published literature.  Never mind the narrowness and condescension implicit in this publishing strategy.  Never mind that some women - myself included - have no interest in these types of books.

Never mind that publishers might get better returns from their female consumers if they followed another strategy.  My vote is for publishers to follow the lead of the Renaissance Venetians: put a naked man outside the door of every bookstore or library.  I can't think of a better way to prime the ladies for furious book reading and thank them for their patronage.

(Photograph of the entrance to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, off Piazza San Marcos in Venice, by Maya Alexandri)

It's a chicken's life

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Naturalis_Labor_Chicken1.jpgThis evening, Teatro Astra in Vicenza (where I happen to be at the moment) presented a dance performance by Naturalis Labor, a local dance troupe.  Called "Chicken," the piece featured two dancers, Silvia Bertoncelli and Marta Bevilacqua. 

The dance began with the women showcasing the possibilities for modern dance based on chicken behavior.  Although entertaining, I wasn't totally convinced: why, I kept thinking, would anyone want to confine themselves to chicken-hood?  A chicken, after all, is not a lion or a wolf or an antelope; an aspirational animal it isn't.

Naturalis_Labor_Chicken2.jpgAfter documenting clucking, pecking and fluttering, the dancers depicted other limitations: flightlessness, cantankerousness, violent temperament, bloody claws.  And egg laying.  As one of the dancers ecstatically laid eggs around the stage, the other woman emerged from the wings clothed as a peasant woman.  First, she gathered the eggs.  Then, she began cracking and beating them manically, faster and faster, until the other dancer (who'd fled before the egg holocaust) reentered the stage, also dressed as a peasant woman, and carrying two trays of eggs.  A "peasant egg dance" ensued.

Naturalis_Labor_Chicken3.jpgTruthfully, I still didn't get where the dance was going.  Peasant women, I thought.  How kitch. 

But "Chicken" had bigger eggs to fry, and when the dancers yanked away a feather-covered cloth, their political agenda became impossible to ignore: across the back of the stage stretched several metal cabinets featuring props from the industrial processing of chickens.  Gone were the soft feathers and gentle clucking or indignant squawking of the farm-raised chickens; in their place, rubber, skinny, squeaky and dead, were caged chicken carcasses. 

Naturalis_Labor_Chicken4.jpgPossibly, the dance was about vegetarianism.  More likely, it had a "slow food" subtext.  But most definitely, the dance was not primarily about chickens: it was about women.

The situation of women in today's society bears uncomfortable comparison to industrially processed chickens, parallels that "Chicken" took pains to elucidate.  Clothed, first, in padded leotards and, second, in dresses that appeared to be made from sacks for transporting agricultural products, the dancers in the final part of "Chicken" illustrated that brutal, provincial and pre-modern can look pretty good, if the other option is the organized violence of industrialized modernity. 

Naturalis_Labor_Chicken7.jpgWomen, like chickens, are mass produced: packaged, stripped to their skin until the maximum level of conformity is attained.  The women's/chickens' connection to nature: broken.  The striving for flight: forgotten.  The ecstasies of egg laying: eradicated.  As the chicken goes, so goes our females.

Personally, I'm sanguine.   The darkness and shock of "Chicken" are both alien to my outlook.  And men, as well as women, suffer from the severing of relations between humans and nature, and from the industrialization of the process of putting meat-on-the-plate. 

Naturalis_Labor_Chicken6.jpgBut despite the atavism and inflexibility of its politics, and regardless of the pedantic quality of some of its choreography, "Chicken" made its argument more compellingly, and entertainingly, than I've seen in a long time.  The performance deserves a bigger audience than its getting at Teatro Astra in Vicenza.




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Shakespeare: climate change denier

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Titania&Oberon.jpgI have one question for climate change deniers: have you considered the possibility that climate change-related phenomena are the work of fairies?

Shakespeare makes a strong argument for this position in A Midsummer Night's Dream.  When confronted by her husband, Oberon, with the accusation that she's taken the mortal, Theseus, as her lover, Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, retorts:

    These are the forgeries of jealousy:
    And never, since the middle summer's spring,
    Met we . . . .
    But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.

In Plain English: "You're nuts with jealousy, Oberon.  I never had a chance to get it on with the man because you were constantly interfering."

    Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
    As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
    Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
    Have every pelting river made so proud
    That they have overborne their continents:

IPE:  "As a consequence, the winds have blown fogs from the ocean onto the land, causing the rivers to overflow."

    The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
    The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
    Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
    The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
    And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
    The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
    And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
    For lack of tread are undistinguishable:

IPE:  "The fields have been flooded, crops lost, fields untilled."

    The human mortals want their winter here;
    No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
    Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
    Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
    That rheumatic diseases do abound:

IPE:  "The humans have ceased singing and blessing the night, so the moon is in a bad mood and causing disease to accompany the flood."

    And thorough this distemperature we see
    The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
    Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
    And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
    An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
    Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
    The childing autumn, angry winter, change
    Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
    By their increase, now knows not which is which:

IPE:  "All of which disturbance is causing the seasons to change.  Frost is coming in spring, and buds are blooming in winter.  The seasons are swapping characteristics, and nobody knows which is which."

    And this same progeny of evils comes
    From our debate, from our dissension;
    We are their parents and original.

IPE:  And this climatic mess is OUR FAULT.  Because you (Oberon) and I (Titania) are having a fight, the climate is going to hell.

Shakespeare's description of current climatic events is so compelling in its accuracy that I can only  think that his diagnosis of its cause is equally astute.  Rather than perpetuating the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, shouldn't the nations of the world invest in some marital counseling for Titania and Oberon, so they can stop fighting, and we can enjoy normal seasons again?

(Image of Titania and Oberon from BBC's website)

Giving chance a chance

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Richard_Powers.jpgIn his most recent novel, Generosity, Richard Powers expresses frustration at the role of the novelist:

I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.
Michael Dirda, writing in The New York Review of Books, quotes this passage, and then continues:

He [Powers] confesses that he would really like to write the kind of story that "from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there's no choice like chance."
Dirda doesn't think much of Powers's aspiration - he calls it "more portentous than clear" - but I felt an immediate intuitive connection with Powers.  Having just finished a novel, I am currently traveling around the world in a relaxed and unplanned way.  Where am I going?  Wherever my friends or family are - or wherever my curiosity takes me.  When am I going?  Whenever it's convenient for my friends or family to see me.  How long will I be traveling?  I don't know.  What will I do afterwards?  I don't know.  

Why am I undertaking such a journey?  To this question, I have a solid answer: because I felt like it.  I had a strong, un-ignorable sense that this trip was the right way to fill my time at this stage in my life.  

Up until now, I've passed my days in a highly self-directed manner.  I decided what to do, and then I did it.  I wasn't easily distractable (I'm not one of those people who goes online to look up the spelling of a word and ends up frittering away two hours on trivial explorations).

For reasons that I can't explain, but which exerted powerful visceral force on me, I felt convinced that now I must change my approach.  I must surrender self-direction and float, like a jellyfish, wherever the ocean currents take me.  I must allow my life, from one day to the next, to break free; to invent itself out of meaningless detail and thin air.  Rather than deciding what to do and then doing it, I must accept that there's no choice like chance.

Powers' dilemma as a novelist is no different from anyone's challenge in crafting his or her life.  Humans make sense of their lives in stories, and each of us is, in a sense, penning a lived novel with our life choices.  Each of us is caught between allegory and realism, as we struggle to choose between actions that are symbolically meaningful and those that are practical.  Each of us ping-pongs between fact and fable, as we select the bases for our decisions.  Each of us struggles to keep creativity and non-fiction in balance in our lives.

I have just written a novel that was more planned than anything I've previously written.  I didn't allow myself the luxury of not "quite mak[ing] out what . . . to do" with my characters.  Practical in the extreme, the novel was strategically constructed to sell.  It's a fable that studiously ignores inconvenient facts; a creative act that required all the strength of a daily grind.  

Maya_Alexandri_swinging_from_a_tree.jpgLike Powers, I felt some frustration with this process.  But the character at loose ends by the end was me.  And the story that I wanted to allow to break free was mine.  For the sake of satisfaction in my life, and for the benefit of my writing, I needed to (re)invent myself out of everything in the world that I never allowed to distract me.  

Unscheduled time, chance, joblessness, disconnection from the rat race - these are the flotsam and jetsam of the modern world.  I am discovering what stories they yield . . . while I swing from a tree.

(Image of Richard Powers from Minnesota Public Radio website)
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In a previous blog post, I discussed the issue of power imbalances between (a) photographers who document people in humanitarian disasters, and (b) the subjects of those photos.  I myself am a photographer and videographer who engages in such work, and at the time of that last blog post, I had the pleasure (and luck) to be able to report that, "I have found the experience [of photographing people receiving humanitarian aid] uniformly rewarding."

In the intervening months, however, I had a negative experience making a short documentary about a Kenyan NGO, and my experience provoked a good deal of additional thought about engagement with disadvantaged and marginalized groups. 

The root of the trouble arose from the fact that, after photographing, videotaping and interviewing people participating in and administering the NGO's programming, I took almost a year to finish editing the video. 

My overriding reason for the delay was that I needed about a week of free time to focus on the video in order to finish it, and I didn't find the time until I was about to leave Kenya, almost a year after I began the project.  For six months of the year in question, I had a full time job and was researching a book on my weekends; and for the other six months I was writing a book. 

Multiple times, I told one or another people from the NGO that the delay was simply because of my work schedule, and that I'd finish the documentary as soon as I had the time.  My expectation was that, since I was volunteering, I could complete the video at my convenience.

My expectation did not accord with those of the NGO's founder.  In a series of increasingly unpleasant phone calls, he told me that, in the past, people (foreign whites) who had worked with the NGO had not delivered on their promises, and he made clear that he expected me similarly to fail the NGO. 

He also claimed to be under pressure to deliver the video from the parents of the children who participate in the NGO's programming, and he said he was going to subject me to the "same same" pressure that he experienced.  He also made some statements that I considered extreme: he suggested that I should be giving him money for the opportunity to do volunteer work with his NGO, and he told me that his mother's life would be jeopardized if I didn't finish the video immediately.

Each of these calls with the NGO's founder made me feel appalled and miserable, and they eroded my motivation to finish the documentary.  Indeed, I regretted that I'd ever become involved with the NGO. 

Then, ten months after I'd initially begun the project, the founder told me that he didn't want my documentary, and I felt extraordinary relief.  A month later, I completed the documentary and delivered it to another of the NGO's administrators.

I finished the documentary first, and foremost, because I'd committed to do so, regardless of the intervening unpleasantness with the NGO's founder.  Also, the NGO's end beneficiaries were children, who were receiving drawing and painting instruction from the NGO, and I felt obligated to finish the project for them.  In addition, I felt that I bore a big part of the responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the NGO's founder, and I didn't believe that my mistakes in communicating with the founder were an excuse for not finishing the work I'd undertaken.

I probably shouldn't have started this project if I couldn't finish it quickly (although I didn't initially realize how difficult it would be for me to finish it rapidly), but once time began elapsing I badly miscalculated how the NGO's founder would view the situation.  When (as has happened) someone tells me that work is eating up their time for a volunteer project on my behalf, I nod understandingly.  I might try to cajole them into a schedule for completing the work, but I'm friendly about it; I try to support them; I take opportunities to express my gratitude; I don't doubt that they'll do the work.  And, if I do eventually conclude that the work might never get finished, I may grumble, but eventually I shrug my shoulders: I don't feel entitled to free work, and I don't feel like I can force someone to do work for free.

But this NGO's founder didn't seem to share that perspective.  He acted like, if the project wasn't completed quickly, I would never do it.  I don't know if he's ever had a full time job (his work with this NGO is on a volunteer basis), but he didn't seem to relate to my objection that I had paying work to do in the time he wanted me to be editing the documentary.

Possibly, he was inclined to disbelieve me because I'm white, and he's black.  Certainly, he acted like he expected me to follow his commands because I'm a woman, and that my failure to comply with his orders was a blow to his ego.

Moreover, my status as a middle-class white American volunteering my time in a Kenyan slum didn't seem to earn me any goodwill.  My status didn't seem to cause the founder to assume that someone in my position would be acting with good intentions.  On the contrary, he appeared to think that anyone with resources owed him a share.

I had not anticipated his sense of entitlement, nor his willingness to make my life unpleasant.  Also, I discovered experientially what I'd known intellectually: that, while he may be a marginalized or disadvantaged person, he is not without power.  Moreover, his code for exercising that power diverged widely from mine.  I felt a responsibility to act in a morally justifiable way in respect of him and his NGO; but he used tactics of coercion and manipulation against me.
 
I did not expect gratitude or accolades from him, but I believe I deserved to be treated with the same basic respect and courtesy that colleagues and friends have a right to expect.  (Possibly I received the same treatment he shows others in his orbit; maybe I couldn't have done anything that would have made the situation easier.)  Nonetheless, I think I should have acted differently:

  • I should have been more wary of volunteering as an individual without an association with an established NGO or other organization;
  • I should have managed expectations better, perhaps by giving the NGO a timetable of my projected delivery date;
  • I should have liaised with other members of the NGO when communication with the founder became difficult; and
  • I should have put aside everything and finished the video immediately before the breakdown in relations became hostile. 
In writing this blog post, I am not trying to badmouth the NGO or its founder; nor am I indulging in any guilty white liberal confessional.  My desire is to offer a fair account of a difficult exchange that probably could have and should have been less fraught, as well as to extract the lessons learned from that interaction and offer them for the benefit of others committed to engaging across divides (be they of culture, class, nationality, language, race, gender, etc.). 

On the positive side, this uncomfortable experience hasn't dulled my desire to work in this sector.  Rather, it has sharpened my sense of both the perils and necessity of continuing to engage. 

(Photo of children participating in a drawing class given by the NGO taken by Maya Alexandri)

It's Our Turn to Read

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Michela Wrong's book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower is not readily available in Kenya.  As Jeffrey Gettleman explains in The New York Review of Books:

But what could be a sorrier commentary on the state of Kenya today than the fact that it is exceedingly difficult even to find this book in Kenya? It's probably easier to buy an ounce of cocaine in Nairobi--or a stash of illicit ivory--than a copy of It's Our Turn to Eat.

Booksellers are terrified to touch it. The very culture of corruption that Wrong reveals--the vast, ethnic-based patronage networks and the danger of exposing Kenya's leaders--is still as firmly entrenched as ever. Most of the men who fill the pages of her exposé, from the current president, Mwai Kibaki, on down, are still in power. Kenyan booksellers are afraid of provoking them and getting sued for libel. About the only place you can find this book nowadays is in the middle of Nairobi's traffic-plugged streets, sold by street boys with little to lose. The American embassy and a Kenyan church group are subsidizing the sale of the book, trying to get copies in the hands of as many Kenyans as possible, which is how the street boys get theirs, and how I got mine.

Gettleman is right to decry the situation and to view the book's inaccessibility as a symptom of the power structure it condemns.  That said, the underlying context of the book's lack of availability is potentially more debilitating and sad than the political pressure being exerted to keep the book out of Kenyans' hands.

As Kenyans have told me, and as I've mentioned in a previous blog post, "There's no reading culture in Africa."  Discussions with numerous Kenyans, including Tim Banda of Kenya's leading newspaper, The Nation, have suggested several reasons for this state of affairs:

  • books are too expensive
  • literature is not part of the school curriculum in Kenya
  • many Kenyans are only two or three generations removed from oral societies, and habits of literacy haven't taken root
  • people grow up reading only text books
  • reading is a solitary activity that's seen as anti-social in Kenya's communal society
  • most books are for and by white people and don't interest Kenyans
In this context, private book stores exist largely to source text books for schools.  (Indeed, one of the largest general interest bookstores in Nairobi is called Textbook Center.)  General readers are not the bookstores' core constituency, and It's Our Turn to Eat is simply not a book relevant to the mainstay of the bookstores' consumers.  Political expediency aside, most bookstores have as little business incentive to stock It's Our Turn to Eat as they do to carry the collected works of Bertolt Brecht (which, though I've not read It's Our Turn to Eat, might be more politically empowering for Kenya's populace).

Another aspect of Kenya's book-selling market that bears on the issue is the predominance of Indians.  The major booksellers in Nairobi - Textbook Center, Savanni's, Book Stop and African Book Service - are all Indian-owned.  And although they have substantial economic stakes in Kenya, Indians have been largely marginalized by the tribal conflict that characterizes Kenyan politics.  In the current struggle between the dominant Kikuyu tribe and insurgent Luo tribe (represented by President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga respectively), the Indians are on the sidelines or behind the scenes.  Given this political posture, bookstores in Kenya may be declining to stock It's Our Turn to Eat, not because of the political risk of angering the politicians criticized in the book, but out of a reflexive impulse on the part of the Indian community in Kenya to avoid injecting itself into tribal tussles.  (That said, I saw It's Our Turn to Eat for sale at Book Stop.)

Finally, making an interesting gloss on the assertion that "there's no reading culture in Kenya," is the indisputable fact that newspaper readership in Kenya is high.  From my informal inquiries on the issue, I found that most people who don't read books nonetheless read the newspaper thoroughly each day.  Kenyans are already familiar with the story of It's Our Turn to Eat from news coverage at the time.  As Gettleman noted (about a different scandal on Kenya's political scene):
  
The front pages of Kenya's biggest papers alternated between pictures of the well-coiffed politicians incredulously denying the charges and people in the hinterland with their rib cages exposed. None of this is secret. There have been countless studies of corruption, thousands of headlines about it, and intense scrutiny of Kenya from the World Bank and organizations like Transparency International, which recently ranked Kenya the most corrupt nation in East Africa. A survey done a few years ago indicated that the average urban Kenyan pays sixteen bribes a month.
Although It's Our Turn to Eat no doubt provides information, perspectives and analysis different from the contemporaneous new reports, to a large extent, Kenyans know what's going on in their country.  They tend to be politically engaged and energized.  (Nonetheless, they are stymied in their options for realizing good governance.)  Knowing this, booksellers in Nairobi may be opting to downplay It's Our Turn to Eat because it's a non-Kenyan (white person)'s account of events in Kenya that everyone has already learned from the country's (black) press.

All of which is to say, notwithstanding Kenya's corruption and political machinations, what's ultimately keeping It's Our Turn to Eat from bookstore shelves may not be strong-arm political tactics, but popular will: Kenyans have yet to say that it's their turn to read.

(Image of Michela Wrong from The New York Times)  

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

A warning to the ostrich readers

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Jacob_Jordaens_King_Candaules_of_Lydia_Showing_his_Wife_to_Gyges .jpg
Mario Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother is a slim, nasty novel about the devastating consequences of allowing oneself to be too bedazzled by gorgeous painting.

The story charts the spectacular destruction of the marriage of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, a middle-aged couple in Lima who marry despite Donna Lucrecia's concerns about becoming a stepmother to Don Rigoberto's son, Fonchito.  Don Rigoberto focuses so completely on his rich fantasy life - a fantasy life augmented by his reproductions of smutty nudes by the likes of Titian and Jordaens (left) - that he doesn't notice the hazards that cause Donna Lucrecia anxiety.  For her own part, despite her awareness of the dangers, Donna Lucrecia doesn't know how to manage the risks and so falls prey to Fonchito, who first seduces her and then exposes her to  Don Rigoberto.

The novel contains lovely reproductions of the paintings that animate Don Rigoberto's and Donna Lucrecia's sexual fantasies.  These fantasies involve detailed narrative accounts of the naughty doings that the paintings portray, narratives that - in their attentiveness to the minutiae of the visual art - contrast starkly with the couple's myopic view of encroaching (and menacing) reality.

In his portrayal of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, Vargas Llosa is not merely mocking people who devote more energy to their fantasies than to their flesh-and-blood lives.  Rather, he takes aim at the narrowness and lack of ambition of the lives (and, consequently, the imaginations) of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia. 

Don Rigoberto, for example, engages in an elaborate, nightly pre-sex ritual, during which he secludes himself in the bathroom and devotes obsessive attention to one part of his body each day of the week.  One night - ear night (removing wax and tweezing unwanted hairs) - Don Rigoberto muses:

"Happiness exists," he repeated to himself, as he did every night.  Yes, provided one sought it where it was possible.  In one's own body and in that of one's beloved, for instance; by oneself and in the bathroom; for hours or minutes on a bed shared with the being so ardently desired.  Because happiness was temporal, individual, in exceptional circumstances twofold, on extremely rare occasions tripartite, and never collective, civic.  It was hidden, a pearl in its seashell, in certain rites or ceremonial duties that offered human beings brief flashes and optical illusions of perfection.  One had to be content with these crumbs so as not to live at the mercy of anxiety and despair, slapping at the impossible.  Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears, [Don Rigoberto] thought, in a mellow mood.

(p. 29.)  I had wondered why Vargas Llosa (and his publisher) had gone to the trouble of reproducing the paintings in In Praise of the Stepmother, since doing so inevitably made the book more expensive.  But when I read, "Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears," I had my answer.  Anyone who can gaze upon the art slipped between the pages of the novel and yet still conclude that happiness is as confined a condition as may be experienced from wax-free ear canals deserves to have his wife seduced by his son.

In Praise of the Stepmother is a condemnation of the Philistine, and particularly of aesthetic pretensions of the nouveau riche.  Like a snubbed Yahweh smoting some unfortunate idolaters, Vargas Llosa deals pitilessly with this hapless couple, allowing them to ignore that the powers unleashed by great art are complex and uncontrollable, and ultimately crushing his protagonists under the weight of their ignorance.

Though Vargas Llosa's vengeance is confined to the imagined world of his novel, In Praise of the Stepmother stands as an unmistakable warning to those who, rather than blind themselves with paintings, bury themselves in books.

(Image of Jacob Jordaens King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges from National Museum of Sweden website)

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