Happy New Year! I know we had ourselves a little hiatus there, but I’ll tell you all about it in the following paragraph. Also in this post: some other weird projects, Angela Carter, and possibly more pathos than you were expecting.
Soooo about that pathos, and that little hiatus. My family learned in late 2014 that my father has lung cancer, advanced to stage 3. This is not good, to employ litotes (it’s the internet, look it up, damn you). I spent several weeks in a state I would also describe as “not good,” and several more weeks climbing up out of that with the help of a few oddities:
- Friends, duh.
- The live action GTO.
- Several grief counseling sessions
- Listening to Tig Notaro do stand up comedy about her (then) just diagnosed cancer.
- The inability of the human nervous system to sustain a fever pitch about anything for extended periods of time.
- Diving into a casual but earnest Buddhism reading list, featuring a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh.
- Haranguing my students about Rian Johnson’s Brick and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (and being amused as one class began to build mental structures connecting Brick and the work on Hinduism we did afterwards).
So insofar as I am responsible, since I’ve tacitly promised to be here every week, I apologize for just disappearing. However, you know, I had shit to deal with. If you’re interested in the current situation, Dad’s having his final prep meeting this week, so hopefully treatment will begin soon after. The doctors have been reticent on how well they think things will go, but see the point above about the human nervous system — I am mostly optimistic right now, and Dad is, as usual, a blend of pragmatic and fatalist that means he doesn’t talk much about it now that the news is out on the table.
However, I promised you other things, and I intend to deliver.
First, I have taken up calligraphy. I am left-handed, so this is a particular challenge, and since most of my letters go unanswered I needed a way to practice. So I have started retweeting people by hand-lettering their tweets. Here is possibly the one that’s gotten the most laughs where I can hear someone responding to it. So if you’re not already reading my twitter and that seems funny, well, you should go read my twitter now.
I am also prepping to do something similar on tumblr, responding to the text written out in such a way. If you didn’t know I had a tumblr, it’s over here.
Now, the fairy tale part of my subject line. I am reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I was considering using one of her stories in class next semester (I am teaching a postmodernism class). I am no longer considering it, because I read “The Bloody Chamber” and I am damn well using it now. If you’d like you can read the story here. You should.
The collection is basically crazy retellings of fairy tales. They are usually read as feminist texts, which is fair, but you could do a lot of other things with them as well. “The Bloody Chamber” is a version of Bluebeard, which I actually didn’t realize until an hour or so after I was finished and thinking about it some more, since that’s not one of the stories I’m most familiar with from the traditional fairy tale “canon.” The story of Bluebeard is basically that a nobleman marries a new woman frequently and then suspiciously needs to find a new new woman. Spoiler: he’s killing them. The Carter story focuses on the strange sexuality implicit in a relationship that is guaranteed to end in violence, where everything the lord does to his poor music prodigy fiancee (and then wife) is leading up to making her “step out of bounds” so he can “punish” her.
The “stepping out of bounds” is going into the one room she’s forbidden to go into… after he gives her the keys and leaves for six weeks. Naturally, as soon as the next day comes he’s back and there’s a chemical on the key that proves she went in.
The big feminist thing about the story, other than the focus on the sense of helplessness traditional marriage can and often does impose on women, is that the person who rescues her is her mother, who we learned early in the story adventured in India and killed a tiger at point blank range with an old service revolver, which she always keeps with her. Naturally she shoots “Bluebeard” right in the forehead. There’s a male “rescuer,” a blind piano tuner, but naturally he can do very little since he’s blind — he does, however, open the gates for the mother. The mother rides in like, well, like a fury from a fairy tale, the only figure in the story to seem like a fantastic character. Even the murdering husband, with his dungeon full of the corpses of his previous wives, is less fantastical as the mother in that moment.
What do we get from this, other than incredibly well-told story (seriously, did you go read it? Go!)? Well, my maxim is, as always, that one can use literature to transform oneself. And there is a thread through the story one could possibly aspire to: I’ve already mentioned the mother’s bravery. But the narrator says, upon entering the titular bloody chamber, that she had not thought she had her mother’s bravery, but found she had. She examines everything, even checking a corpse only to find it has been embalmed, something she presumably wouldn’t have known otherwise. The mother comes to her daughter’s rescue because she knew herself capable of it and knew her daughter — she says she came because her daughter cried on the phone, and she didn’t know her daughter to cry lightly. And all the daughter could talk about was the golden taps of the bathtub, nothing to cry over.
That’s a very strange detail in the story, — not necessarily the taps, but also those. I mean how the mother knows about what’s going on. It’s a kind of knowledge of self and of those around her, which the daughter achieves when she enters that chamber and realizes what she’s stuck in — because she realizes, almost simultaneously, there’s no reasonable way to escape, as the tide cuts them off half the day and the servants must be tacitly supportive of their lord’s violence. She does everything she is able to do, as does her mother. What does her mother lose by rushing there? She might be embarrassed, but that’s it, if everything’s fine.
So what one can learn here is one of the ways to dig down into one’s own self and see what’s really there, in order to act on it properly when the situation is right and the need arises. A lot of things programmed into us by accident or carelessness distract from what’s down in that “deep heart’s core.” The narration and events model ways to dig past all that, as the narrator finally digs past her desire for wealth (she grew up poor) and the natural sexual urges she experiences, even though she is not actually attracted to her husband (she is confused and guilt-ridden that she would feel that way at all, at first).
Nearly being killed by your spouse isn’t practical for all of us, but that’s why the story exists! To model it for us so we may see ourselves.