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A proper answer to Marianne

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A philosopher fallen to betting is hardly distinguishable from a Philistine under the same circumstances: the difference will chiefly be found in his subsequent reflections . . . .
George Eliot, Middlemarch 644 (1871-2, 2006).

Reading this quote immediately put me in mind of a conversation I'd had with a Kenyan friend, Marianne, about my interest in Karen Blixen, Denys Finch-Hatton, and their social set.  "They weren't like the 'Happy Valley' crew that came in the decade after they arrived," I'd told her.  "The 'Happy Valley' group just got drunk and slept with each others' spouses."

"Which is what they [Blixen and friends] did, too," she replied, challenging my categorization criteria.  

"Well, yeah," I admitted, recalling Bror Blixen's alcoholism and philandering, Karen Blixen's affair with Denys while she was still married to Bror, Deny's affairs while he was with her, the wine-swilling, dope smoking and opium taking that went on in Karen Blixen's parlor . . . .

What could I say?  Yes, Blixen & Co's behavior paralleled that of the Happy Valley entourage, but Blixen et al. were . . . cultured?  Karen and Denys read poetry and listened to classical music?

The question needled me until I read that above-quoted passage from George Eliot, and then I understood my own reasoning.  The colonists of Blixen's generation - perhaps because of their proximity to the Victorian era and its endorsement of exploration and discovery, especially by amateurs - were remarkably reflective about their lives in Africa.  An astonishing number of them wrote books about their experiences: Bror (African Hunter), Karen (Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass), Llewelyn Powys (Black Laughter), Beryl Markham (West with the Night), Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (My Reminiscences of East Africa), to name but a handful.

By contrast, the Happy Valley menagerie - Idina Sackville, Lord Errol, Diana Delamere, Alice de Janzé, Sir Jock Delves Broughton - bore a much closer resemblance in their conduct to Los Angelinos in the 1980s.  They were too busy being drunk, stoned and otherwise zonked out of their minds - and in-and-out of each others beds, trousers and every other locale and crevice - and shooting each other - to do much reflection, never mind writing.  Though a number of books have been written about them - White Mischief, The Bolter - reflection is not a characteristic attributable to their modus vivendi.

Yet reflection - that most distinctly human activity - is what interests me.  The critical mind that perceives, questions what it perceives, and experiments in the arrangement of those perceptions into coherent narratives - along with the benefits and limitations of such an approach - is what captures my attention.  

However much damage the colonists of Karen Blixen's era wrought - ecological destruction, biodiversity diminishment, discrimination, denial of human rights, theft of land - they were reflective about their actions.  Why those philosophers were unable to prevent themselves from being as harmful (to themselves, and to Kenya) as the Philistines that followed - and whether their reflectiveness made any difference - is a question worthy of reflection.

Fiction thwarts facts in Karen Blixen's tales

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When reading fiction, the temptation to finger some fact or occurrence as "the truth" is strong, and those writing about Karen Blixen are apt to capitulate to it.  Judith Thurman, Sara Wheeler and Errol Trzebinski all do it, citing some snippet of her fiction for a clue about how she might have thought or felt or responded to x or y situation.

Reading Winter's Tales, I myself felt the pull of such interpretive methods.  "The Pearls," for example, dares you to understand the story as an account of her marriage.  The groom, Alexander, in "The Pearls," has a twin sister; Karen Blixen's husband, Bror, had a twin brother.  The bride, Jensine, is happy to honeymoon with her husband in the wilderness; Karen and Bror no sooner married than they were living in Africa.  "The gossips of Copenhagen would have it that [Alexander] had married for money, and [Jensine] for a name" (p. 108); and, indeed, such gossip circulated about Karen and Bror - he, who was always in debt, and she, who was in love with being called "Baroness."

These correspondences lead the reader (or at least, this reader) to draw similar parallels about other nuggets in the story.  "[V]ery soon after he marriage, Jensine realized - as she had perhaps dimly known from their first meeting - that he was a human being entirely devoid, and incapable, of fear."  (p. 110.)  Ah-hah, I thought, upon reading this passage: so that's what Bror was like.

"[Jensine] recalled the fairy tale of the boy is sent out in the world to learn to be afraid, and it seemed to her that for her own sake and his, in self-defense as well as in order to protect and save him, she must teach her husband to fear."  (p. 111.)  An insight into Karen Blixen's attitude towards her husband, no?

By the end of the story, when "[t]o her own deep surprise . . . . Alexander . . . had become a very small figure in the background of life; what he did or thought mattered not in the least.  That she herself had been made a fool of did not matter" (p. 123), I was inclined to believe that I was reading Karen Blixen's personal opinion about having been married to an adulturer who'd humiliated her in front of Nairobi society.

Had I read "The Pearls" in isolation, perhaps my opinion of Karen Blixen's marriage would have settled into that comfortable category of "stuff I know without needing to retain citations" that resides in a hazy corner of my memory.  But I kept reading.  And, annoyingly, characterizations resurfaced, but now in less comfortably identifiable situations.

For example, in "Alkmene," the title character is a gorgeous girl adopted by a childless couple.  "The first thing [Gertrud, Alkmene's adopted mother] told me about [Alkmene] was that she seemed to be altogether without fear. . . . So [Gertrud] made it her first duty as a mother to teach her child, as in the fairy-tales, to know fear."  (p. 200.)  Uh-oh.  Is Alkmene also supposed to be Bror?  Because later on in the story, Alkmene dresses up in a regal silk gown and parades around the woods - and dressing up, as well as theatrical behavior, were characteristics of the young Karen Blixen.

This coincidence of fearlessness in a character reminded me that extracting facile assumptions about the author's life based on her fiction is crap-quality literary criticism, a lesson I should've known so intimately from my own writing that I'd be in no need of reminding.  From my own creative methods, I know that facts are an input to a process - the inner workings of which are veiled even to me - the outcome of which is (hopefully) entertaining, (hopefully) linguistically acute and (hopefully) insightful into the human condition, but never reliably accurate a reflection of my own biography.  I don't "hide" my truth in the novels I write, but instead transform the raw factual material of reality into stories.

If Karen Blixen did anything similar, then the only conclusion to draw from her fiction is doubt about the possibility of extrapolating backwards from her fancy to the facts that formed its basis.

A biography reader's lament

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Too_Close_to_the_Sun2.jpgI don't write biographies - reading them is enough of a strain on my leisure time - but even I know that, in the absence of new information, writing a biography of someone whose life has already been so documented is not advised.

So I am now doubly dumbfounded at Sara Wheeler's choice to write Too Close to the Sun.  As I noted in a previous post, Finch Hatton didn't leave enough of a record of his life - in writing or in accomplishments - to enable a biographer much scope . . . never mind leaving enough room for two biographers to maneuver.

In my prior post, I had incorrectly assumed that, prior to Too Close to the Sun, Denys Finch Hatton hadn't been subjected to the biography treatment.  I'd been wrong.  Not only was a previous biography in existence (if not in print), but Silence Will Speak, by Errol Trzebinski, covered exactly the same ground as Too Close to the Sun.
Despite the paucity of the historical record, however, Wheeler had an opening to apply a critical perspective to Finch Hatton's life - an opportunity which she squandered.  Both she and Trzebinski, decades after the man's charred remains were laid to rest, appear to be enthralled to Finch Hatton's supposed charms.  Although both women duly note that Finch Hatton had a solitary streak and was subject to depression; that he left Karen Blixen notes apologizing for his foul moods; that he had earned among the Africans the nickname "Makanyaga" (which means "to tread upon" - was he, perhaps, rude to the help?); that he was dismissive of his brother Toby; and that the word "immature" seemed appropriate - both biographers pass lightly over these facts, refusing in-depth analysis and anchoring their works in the realm of hagiography. 

That they should have done so is disappointing because a reassessment of Finch Hatton casts Karen Blixen in a fresh, more sympathetic light.  Rather than being a possessive woman who ruined her relationship by smothering Finch Hatton - as Trzebinski portrays her - or as being a selfish monster living in a fantasy world of self-deceiving lies - in Wheeler's version - Blixen could, in fact, have simly been a woman passionately in love with a man who was never able deeply to commit.

While one worshipful (of Finch Hatton), bitchy (to Blixen) biography seems justifiable, two is a bit rich, even accounting for Finch Hatton's aristocratic lineage.  As much as Wheeler no doubt needed some occupation for her time, rewriting Trzebinski's biography has led to a waste of mine.

(Pictures courtesy of Australia and Amazon)
Kate_Hepburn&Bogart_in_African_Queen.jpgI think I've seen The African Queen.  If I did, it was something on the order of 20 years ago.  My father would've rented the video.  I have a memory of Katherine Hepburn cutting her hair - a scene that doesn't occur in the book (if, in fact, the movie I'm thinking of is African Queen and not, say, The Snows of Kilimanjaro).  In any event, I think it's time for a remake, not just because it's a terrific story about ingenuity, the awakening of consciousness, and exposure to new geography, but also to remind ourselves that, in our current state of gender relations, we are falling sadly short of reasonable projections based on a 1935 baseline.

C.S. Forester's heroine, as depicted in his excellent book from that year, is strong in body and quick in mind.  She combines "powerful arms" and a "powerful wrist" with "[t]hose big breasts of hers" and "the ripe femininity of her body."  While she's steering the boat through rapids, "her mind [is] a lightning-calculating machine juggling with currents and eddies."  She is "the captain of a raiding cruiser," adventure makes her "really alive for the first time in her life," and she "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."  She is emboldened by success:

There was a thrill of achievement.  Rose knew that in bringing the African Queen down those rapids she had really accomplished something, something which in her present mood she ranked far above any successful baking of bread, or even (it is to be feared) any winning of infidel souls to righteousness.  For once in her joyless life she could feel pleased with herself, and it was a sensation intoxicating in its novelty.  Her body seethed with life.
(p. 107.)  Her beaux, Charlie Allnut, meanwhile has a "slight body" (or, four pages later, a "slender body") and is "not sufficiently self-analytical to appreciate that most of the troubles in his life resulted from attempts to avoid trouble."  (p. 54.)  Although he's a skilled mechanic, he suffers from extreme anxiety and a lack of confidence - "mercurial spirits [that] could hardly help rising rising under the influence of Rose's persistent optimism. . . . [I]f she had not been with him . . . [he] might . . . not [have] rais[ed] a finger to help himself."  (p. 126.)

This delightful pair bring out the best in each other and - although "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided" - they are a lovely (imagined) illustration of the possibilities for human accomplishment and satisfaction that emerge when men aren't intimidated by strong women, and women aren't put off by inadequate hygiene and malarial swamps. 

I must have seen this movie, and it must have had an inordinate influence on me . . . I wish it had been required viewing for my male age mates.

(Picture courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica)

A different kind of inauspicious start

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Much has been written about the importance of the beginning of a novel.  Notwithstanding the volume that's been written on this topic, the essential message rarely varies: 

Undoubtedly good advice, but in this thicket of mono-messaging writers may lose sight of another risk that lurks at the opening of a novel: captivating the reader's attention with the appalling limitedness of the writer's point-of-view.

Such was my experience reading the Prologue of Errol Trzebinski's Silence Will Speak: A Study of the Life of Denys Finch Hatton and his Relationship with Karen Blixen.  First sentence: "It was dawn."  Not good, but not going to make me put the book down, either.  Trzebinski's first sentence sets the scene.  It's concise.  (Personally, I wouldn't start a book with the word "it," since "it" is supposed to refer to the foregoing noun, and by definition, at the first word of the first sentence of a novel, there's no foregoing noun - but whatever.)

No, the trouble in earnest started with this sentence, on the following page:  "The African sitting in the back of the truck reached forward to the woman and lightly touched her shoulder extending his other hand to point out what he had spotted, with his inherent native instinct, more swiftly than she."  My concern was not so much the omission of the comma after "shoulder" (although that bothered me, too), but the inclusion of the phrase "inherent native instinct."  Sorry, but the book was published in 1977 by The University of Chicago Press.  Hello editor?

The issues only multiplied from there.  Although I like to think of myself as someone who reserves judgment, I was fully turned off within the next two sentences, when Trzebinski describes a lionness feeding on the rotting carcass of an "obscenely prostrate bull giraffe" as "looking up from her vile feast."  (p. 2.)  I mean, really, it's one thing to be racist (e.g., Margaret Mitchell; still imminently readable), and quite another to be critical of the diet of wild animals.  What does Trzebinski want the lioness to eat?  Linguini alfredo?

Passages like these shift the nature of reading for me; I no longer continue to turn pages to find out what happens, but to see just how demented the author is.  With 309 pages of Silence Will Speak to go, however, I'm wishing silence had less to say.

The evolution of "Eating Penis in Beijing"

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In the most recent version of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, Pip Alonzo begins writing a book called Eating Penis in Beijing, which is her exploration of the unique way that China is modernizing.  The title, of course, is also a joke, as well as an allusion to the many ways in which Beijing's expatriate residents are brought to their knees by the formidable city.

Reader response to Eating Penis in Beijing, and to the scene in penis restaurant that inspires that title (in The Swing of Beijing, as well as in real life), has been such that when I was brainstorming locations for a short promo for The Swing of Beijing, Beijing's actual penis restaurant, Guoli Zhuang, was the obvious choice.  We -- that is to say, me, Matt Forney, and Josh Chin -- filmed the promo yesterday.  (I'll post the link here once the promo is finished and up on the web.)

The conversation that Matt and I had about The Swing of Beijing on camera, as well as our lunch of horse, donkey, dog and ox cock (horse was the best, in case you're wondering), made me think back to the many iterations of Eating Penis in Beijing that have appeared in The Swing of Beijing over the many drafts.  Below, I reprint the penis restaurant's earliest appearance in The Swing of Beijing, in an article that Pip writes in defiance of her editor, who wants her to cover the penis restaurant with a non-analytical, "isn't this gross?" agenda.

In this early version, Pip gets to use her full name, "Lapis Patricia Alonzo," for which "Pip" is a nickname (a detail that's been axed in later versions), and her explanation includes a detailed analysis of the social meaning of status foods.  As in later drafts, however, Pip's analytic focus remains the same: why penis?  Why now?

Sure, The City's Called "BJ," but Eating Cock in Beijing Isn't Just About Sex
By Lapis Patricia Alonzo

    Guolibian, Beijing's first penis-in-every-dish restaurant, is a development of note.  Though penis is not an ingredient foreign to Chinese cuisine, and consuming it is reputed to have health benefits ranging from virility to improved skin tone, Guolibian's singularity and lack of competitors raise the questions:  Why penis?  Why now?

    Pointing to the omniverousness of "the Chinese" doesn't explain Guolibian.  Vague stereotypes about all the world's animals (and their many parts) ending their lives in a Chinese wok is a racist canard, albeit one embraced by the Chinese themselves:  Northern Chinese complain that Southern Chinese will eat anything.  "Three squeaks," a dish of live newborn rats - so named because the ratlings squeak once when they're grabbed by chopsticks, a second time when they're dipped in sauce, and a third and final time when popped in the mouth - is a common example offered by Northern Chinese to prove the uncivilized natures of their Southern countrymen.

    In fact, the food consumed by most Chinese is pretty pedantic.  Putting aside the approximately 700 million Chinese peasants who subsist on staple foods, like rice and fried bread, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 million Chinese qualify as "middle class."  And, at least in Beijing, they eat jiachangcai:  literally "food often eaten in the home" (although increasingly Beijing's middle class eat jiachangcai in restaurants).  Typical of this cuisine is stir-fried tomatoes or cucumbers with eggs, braised eggplants or tofu in brown sauce, and boiled dumplings stuffed with pork and cilantro.

    That said, Chinese banquet cuisine, reserved historically for imperial personages (or, in more recent times, for Communist cadres and their relatives and business partners), has always encompassed the extremes of culinary experience:  bird spit, camel humps, frog ovaries, hairy crab roe, jelly fish, rabbit ears, scorpions, shark's fins, snakes and - yes - penises.  These ingredients became delicacies for the same reasons that transform any odd food - caviar and uni; Vieux Boulogne; haggis; sweetbreads - into a treasure in need of an acquired taste:  they're rare or expensive, require special expertise to prepare, taste good and/or impart coveted health benefits.

    Why penis?  It's a benchmark delicacy food.  It's rare - there's only one on every male, and whether because of anthropomorphism or scarcity, everyone acknowledges that it's valuable.  It requires special skills to prepare because, as the female readership already knows, every penis is different.  And, not to belabor the knowledge of our female readership, it tastes fine - particularly when doused in chili or sesame sauces.  Perhaps most endearingly, Chinese men really believe that it enhances sexual performance.  Across the world, Viagra has found grateful customers for a $9 pill that can cause debilitating headaches, priapism or - even worse - nothing at all.  Eating penis is (depending on the species) cheaper, tastier and risks fewer side effects - and if it has a placebo effect, even better.  

    Simply put, penis is a status food in China.  And this is the answer to the second question:  Why now?  Perhaps nothing is so important in China as face, but face is precisely what the Chinese, as both individuals and as a nation, feel they've been deprived of for the past century.  Pre-Communism, rampant wars and invasions, opium, political vacuums and natural disasters left the Chinese impoverished and their country an international whipping boy.  Post-Communism, ideology, bad policies, corruption and environmental degradation have left the Chinese impoverished and their country an international pariah.  

    For the first time in more than a century, the Chinese are on the brink of enjoying genuine status.  Quality of life is improving in a stable political context, and the nation is enjoying unprecedented attention on the world stage.  Hosting the 2008 Olympics is the capstone of national status, the proof positive of the nation's emergence as a power that commands face; eating penis is the personal equivalent.  Eating penis shows that you're rich, virile, and feasting on the food of kings.

    But status and the Chinese quest for it doesn't entirely explain an all-penis restaurant like Guolibian.  Acknowledging that eating penis shows wealth and virility and commands face still begs the question:  Commands face from whom?  Plainly, not from the West, where eating penis is viewed as abhorrent and uncivilized.  So why, just when China is about to win international acceptance, and the Chinese people to enjoy heretofore-unknown personal prosperity - benefits attributable to China's adoption of Western economic methods - would the Chinese embrace penis cuisine?

    This restating of the questions doesn't merely reflect Western incomprehension of a desire for difference.  The Western revulsion of penis consumption is grounded in more than narrow-mindedness.  Western respect for the individual has historically correlated to a practice of ascribing sacred or symbolic meaning to certain body parts:  Oedipus gauged out his eyes; Achilles' downfall was his tendon; and Jesus gave his blood to save humanity.  Consumption of eyes, tendons, blood, and other parts emblematic of the person, like hearts, brains and genitalia, has - precisely because of that part's close association with an individual's identity - long been linked in the West with barbarism.

    And while it's easy to critique Western sensibilities as those developed in conditions of prosperity - bones, organs, and sinew that constitute trash in the West are, elsewhere in the world, whole meals - the truth is that conservative consumption practices are safer.  Human cases of bird flu in Viet Nam have been traced to the practice of using raw poultry blood as a condiment in porridge.  SARS was unleashed when the Chinese mania for eating wild animals to demonstrate status led to increased consumption of civet cats, whose bodies harbored the virus.  HIV, originally a disease in monkeys, may have leapt the species barrier when humans hunted, prepared or ate bush-meat, while the degenerative neurological disease, kuru, afflicted New Guineans who ate brain.

    For these reasons, the Chinese enthusiasm for eating penis at this historical moment is significant.  What explains a penis emporium, like Guolibian, is the Chinese rejection of Western values in favor of establishing continuity with more traditional Chinese mores and practices.  The Chinese have little use for the Western investment in the sanctity of the individual or the West's fanatical attention to safety, and the Chinese now have the confidence and security to dismiss these Western obsessions.  When the Chinese tuck into a penis, they're not trying to keep up with the alienated, urban Joneses in New York or London.  Rather, they're aligning themselves with their ancestors, reintegrating themselves into the context of their clans, and establishing a communion with an ancient belief system that posits that eating the penis of a yak imbues a man with the animal's prowess.  

    The Chinese are unfazed by the contradiction inherent in having achieved the prosperity necessary to enjoy penis-eating as a status ritual only by embracing Western economic reforms.  What the Chinese want, and think they can have, is the benefits of modernity - wealth and conveniences, stability and respect - while maintaining the feudal, famial- and communal-orientation that sustained them through their two thousand year history as a nation under imperial rule.  

    Eating penis in Beijing, then, represents "modernization with Chinese characteristics."  As with most slogans - "democracy with Chinese characteristics," "transparency with Chinese characteristics," "Internet with Chinese characteristics" - the last three words tend to obliterate the first one.  Recognizing that incompatibility, however, isn't within the scope of "self-awareness with Chinese characteristics."  And for the time being, at least, China's massive labor resources, steaming economy, and manipulative bravado allow China to get away with telling its naysayers:  "Eat me."
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