Harnessing Stereotypes – Woolf and Steinbeck (7/8)

The inclusion of Steinbeck’s “The Harness” alongside Woolf’s “Women Must Weep- Or Unite Against War” feels conflicting. Where Woolf’s essay withholds few punches against male-dominance culture, “The Harness” responds with an overtly literal symbol in the inverse: the protagonist (Peter) is forced to wear a “web harness that pull[s] his shoulders back” (Steinbeck 744), a contraption that his wife Emma forces him to wear as to appear to be stately and masculine. This literal imprisonment is cast off when Emma, the stereotypical sickly, frail wife, dies from one of her many illnesses. Peter swears to never wear it again, professing his newfound freedom in anger-fueled chords reminiscent of a man starving: “I’m hungry for everything, for a lot of everything” (Steinbeck 745). While both pieces briefly touch on a woman’s domestic influence, “The Harness” slides the heavier weight to a woman’s control over men. For Peter, Emma’s death meant freedom in a myriad of senses. He no longer wears the harness, he’s free to drink and trudge in mud, and he can finally gamble on his sweet pea crop. 

Having read Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums,” which is also set in Salinas Valley, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Steinbeck generally portrays gender this way. In the aforementioned text, the naive protagonist is painted sympathetically when a strange man discards the flowers she holds in such high esteem, leaving them abandoned on the side of the road. In this piece, Steinbeck shows the plight of a woman’s desire to bring about peace, to encourage others to plant seeds that might grow into something beautiful, but it’s left in a heap by the men who purely seek transaction. Her innocence likewise thrown away. “The Harness” does little to generate sympathy for Emma, though, aside from being perpetually sick. Perhaps Steinbeck sought to portray complicated relationships, instead. For Emma may tightly lock down her partner, but Peter’s new opportunities after her death end in sadness, the character reflecting that he ought to install lights in his house because “Emma always wanted electric lights” (Steinbeck 749). Peter wants to make his wife happy just once more. He misses her because he truly loved her, despite feelings of confinement.  

A more metaphorical reading might posit that there was never a harness whatsoever. Emma’s requests don’t seem especially ridiculous, outside of wearing the harness, of course. She wanted him to stand up straight, be respectful in public, limit his use of alcohol, keep the floors clean, and operate judiciously with his crops–their sole income. Perhaps psychologically, Peter felt as though he wore a harness, since his impulses scraped against her desires. In this lens, Peter casts off the harness as one might cast off a ring, never to put it on again but always to know that some part of their person will always belong to someone else.  

If Woolf and Steinbeck seem to clash here, it’s because they do. But they also converge on many points. They both stress the importance of influence in the domestic relationship. They both seek to dismantle unfair control. And they both attempt to deconstruct enforced gender roles.  

Absent Photographs (7/8)

Maggie Humm's essay focuses a lot on the absent photographs within Woolf's Three Guineas. A lot of the narration centers on people (mostly women) in some form of distress. For Woolf, much of the distress is financial, but she also acknowledges the people dying in the Spanish Civil War. Instead of using images of those situations, however, Woolf uses images of men in power while in their ceremonial and required attire. While the scenes in SPain may have been described thoroughly, as Humm points out, Woolf draws attention to the root cause behind it all by only showing images of those in power. While it can be argued that Woolf is removing attention from those who are suffering, I find it more interesting that Woolf is placing blame and directing attention to who ought to be making decisions to improve situations. I have tried to think about how adding in those pictures from the Spanish Civil War and the streets of England would do, but I do not think they would add much. The ones Woolf includes speak directly to her argument and provide prompts for readers to think about. 

These images are also connected to memory, so putting these images of men  in power in Three Guineas actually starts to form these new connections in reference to the pictures. I did not know who the men were prior to reading this novel, but they are now connected in my mind to the words Woolf wrote. She, in a way, shifts the legacy of these people and institutions by giving people a new way to associate with them and placing their image into a new context (especially a critical context). This decision also kind of makes Woolf's choice of excluding the other images a little more clear. She avoids altering the meaning and associations of those in distress by keeping their images clear of associations with her words.

Three Guineas and Woolf’s Spatial Imagination

A Room of One’s Own was the first Virginia Woolf text I read and, as the title implies, it was invested in the importance of spatiality to Woolf’s program of equality. This spatial imagination is just as pronounced in Three Guineas, with Woolf using proximities, cartographies, geographies, and movements to situate her addressee into the spaces necessary for Woolf to answer how it is that women could help prevent war while existing in the structures of patriarchy.

For one, Woolf plays with the binaries of inside/outside, public/private to discuss how we need to look outwards from these spaces and see their relation in order to transcend the structures they construct. I’m drawn to one particular quote towards the end of the essay, where Woolf writes: “For such will be our ruin if you, in immensity of your public abstractions forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual, for they are inseparably connected” (169). Woolf advocates to keep an eye towards both the inside and outside; anything less would be to perpetuate the current systems of oppression.

We’ve also talked about the importance of spatiality and the transatlantic throughout this semester, and Woolf places us in and on these recurrent transatlantic spatial motifs such as bridges, rivers, war zones, and government buildings. One especially recurrent setting is the bridge as a point of precipice and vantage. From these bridges, Woolf encourages a transitional thinking and places the addressee in a liminal state in order for Woolf’s investigation of patriarchy to have rhetorical resonance.

Woolf also demonstrates a mastery over the techniques of proximity by her recurrent setting of the reader at the metaphorical “table” where her pictures are laid before the reader—pictures augmented at times with reproductions of photographs and at other times existing as a solely linguistic visual. Woolf is able to slide her reader from their seat at the table in front of her to the war-torn streets of Spain, to the processions of the emergent Nazi regime, and throughout the professional and collegiate spaces of England. This use of proximity, which is underscored by the intimacy of the epistolary form, allows Woolf to create a stronger resonance in her explorations of what conditions would be necessary to exist in the spatial topography of England for women to help prevent war. This spatial metaphor allows Woolf to engage in both the intimacies of her letter-writing address and the macro, international scale that allows her inter-personal argumentation to move from a discussion of a specific request from a treasurer to one that encompasses and analysis, critique, and hypothesis for how an international patriarchy functions and may possibly be dismantled.

Virginia Woolf

I enjoy the various examples Woolf gives to provoke thoughts on the war, like the Wilfred Owen lines or letters from soldiers in the beginning. Her doing this aids tremendously in dissecting sentiments towards war, and where those sentiments may stem from depending on who you are. She writes, "let us then refer the question of the rightness or wrongness of war to those who make morality their profession - the clergy" (19). She goes on to say that they (clergymen) are also of two minds, and no singular opinion or answer prevails on the topic of war. She does include that one Bishop of London claims that "the real danger to the peace of the world today were the pacifists. Bad as war was dishonour was far worse." Another Bishop was a self-proclaimed pacifist. Woolf highlights that there is not a job, role, or indicator of position in life that directs peoples' will regarding war. She identifies comparisons and examples like these throughout. 

Even though I agree that no group of people is of one mind because they are a men, women, or clergymen - I do see how certain patriarchal standards and norms very easily, and even involuntarily, affect the perception of war in the West. The Bishop's quote shows a common sentiment, that even if war is awful, the idea of dishonoring oneself or one's country is worse. To me, that idea is enough to ignite a flame within a large part of the population, because in society there exists this unspoken rule that one must prove themselves, often times physically, to be considered a man. If we apply that to an entire country, then it can be expected that people will want to prove themselves, even more so for those who are patriotic. Often times, that flame is fanned by people of higher status who want to go to war for unseen reasons, whether for financial gain or political agenda, though that is not always the case, it does exist. Regardless, going to war still calls for young people to answer a call which could subject them to injury, death, and a myriad of other consequences of war. I can see how people might see where they come from as an extension of themsleves. If the heteronormative standards that an entire society abides by calls for men to be protectors, to defend their honor, then going to war can certainly fall under that category. In addition to societal expectations at play, war is historic and extends so far into the past that people see it as a necessity of life, one which has always existed. Woolf's book has reminded me of just how layered this argument on war truly is. 

Three Guineas (Blog 6/8)

Three Guineas is an essay novel where Virginia Woolf is responding to an unknown person that asked for her help in preventing war. The unknown person suggests that women can help in three ways, and I find all these, like Woolf, to be ridiculous. 1) write letters of protest to newspapers; 2) join an anti-war society; and 3) donate money to anti-war causes. These suggestions from the unknown person show their lack of reality and inability to comprehend what steps need to be done to prevent war. Maybe it was mentioned that the correspondent was a man or woman, but I don’t remember reading it in the essay novel. It leads me to think that the correspondent is a man unaware of the limits that women have in society and how ineffective this is in preventing war. 

While Woolf fills a book with her essay response, her repetitive argument for why the correspondent ideas won’t work is repeated over and over again. This repetitive argument shows that society will have to be reminded of the unfairness of women again and again. This form of writing gets boring for me to read, but i get why it was written like this and why Woolf needed to repeat herself. 


Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, or She Kept the Receipts (6/8)

If Virginia Woolf is any gender-specific trope, it is the exhausted, overburdened woman, and she would surely expose the underpinnings of that stereotype as well. Woolf is tired of war, and she’s more tired of excuses; her lengthy response demonstrates just how frustrated. For Woolf, societal frameworks are merely just that: frameworks–a subjective construct from which men during her historical moment may subjugate women. “Oh, what could we possibly do?” the perpetrators of war insist; so, she turns to the receipts: scrapbooks consisting of “clippings on war, the rise of fascism, and the treatment of women in the labor force, education and the church” (xlv). She turns “What can we do?” into “Look what we have done!”.  

Woolf’s response in length alone is a rhetorical device. As the introduction posits, the wealth of documentation is enough to overwhelm the average reader, especially one reading during her moment. Rather than citing research papers or scholarly articles, Woolf shifts her focus to the community and asks, what is actually going on in her social sphere? How can a social/emotional understanding contribute to overarching change? To answer, Woolf doesn’t simply pull the receipts, she organizes them in a scrapbook; she creates a material artifact as a new model of understanding the world, so she can “‘Use her own reason, and come to her own conclusions” (xvii). And in the scrapbook’s assembly, she follows her very same rule from page 114: “Read at least three different papers, compare at least three different versions of the same fact” (Woolf). Woolf teaches the reader how to conduct viable research by modeling the pedagogy herself. She embodies her first guinea, education, and in so gives a lesson to her readers. If they are concerned with preventing war without, they should be concerned with education within, first.  

Moreover, the scrapbook echoes Rebecca West’s experience watching the death of the King of Yugoslavia on film. The rise of photography/film reconstitutes Romantic depictions of war, violence, and horror into “crude statement[s] of fact addressed to the eye” (Woolf 14). Aesthetically, the scrapbooks help, also, to present a clearer image of war. Not only do images justify the reality to which Woolf points, but by situating biography, news clippings, photographs, and letters in relationship to each other, one can start to see the pattern emerge: women are criminally mistreated, underpaid, and perversely controlled, thus the war violence continues.  

Disastrous Unanimity

“If we encourage the daughters to enter the professions without making any conditions as to the way in which the professions are to be practiced shall we not be doing our best to stereotype the old tune which human nature, like a gramophone whose needle has stuck, is now grinding out with such disastrous unanimity? ‘Here we go round the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree. Give it all to me, give it all to me, all to me’” (71-2).

I am drawn to the quote mostly for its use of the gramophone as instrument of destruction—a flattening tool. But then again, I’m not sure if Woolf is suggesting that the gramophone simile is about destruction but historical loops and revolutions. Is she referring to the grooves in records becoming worn over repeated listens, or is she referring to a broken record, forever looping? For me her simile imagines the destructive needle, reckless as a wrecking ball, defacing the grooves that give the record meaning into “disastrous unanimity.”

Of course, the needle is “stuck,” which, along with the repeated “round the mulberry tree, give it all to me” suggest that the record is looping. The grooves in a record aren’t destroyed in a loop, though (at least most of them, I think). So instead of the physical space of the grooves being affected, the record’s playback—its time—is affected. This is likely an arbitrary distinction, and I’ve pushed Woolf’s simile too far. My point is, while using a musical simile as she criticizes chauvinistic professionalism, Woolf also makes a deft point about recorded music. She suggests a recorded song is a mere stereotype that at once can suggest a flattening of time and space.

I’m interested in how this take, coupled with others’ takes, like Eliot or even Adorno, think about the novelty of recorded music (distinct from radio) before almost all music was electrified, amplified, or otherwise technologized as it is today.

3 Guineas (Blog 5 of 8)

Virginia Woolf makes the case that she agrees with the sentiments of her countrymen on the desire not to be at war. 

“And we echo your words. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped.” (14) 

However, she also does some leading by the hand as it is impossible to help in the effort for women: 

“We have no weapon with which to enforce our will.” (16) 

As women are valued less in society at that time, so too will their voice and opinion also be less valued. Empowerment is important because without it women have no leverage with which to how society will act. Virginia Woolf goes on to compare being a woman to slavery, having no rights in important decision making, and the ill effects that can have. It's hard to imagine a woman at this time period, especially Virginia Woolf, comparing herself to a slave. Is this overdramatic? They do have some things in common, and could be treated terribly, but the stigma is very different.  

I also wonder if the timing of this book was really the best on the eve of the war. While the comparisons are apt, war is such a massive abyss that everyone was sucked in, and women’s rights were kind of swept to the side until the fight was picked up afterwards. Was she judged harshly for writing this? Would it have been better for the suffragette movement if she timed the book after the war instead? 

I’m also interested in the idea of treating people like currency, guineas versus a sixpence. One has more value and weight than the other. So often this happens in real life, even now. We’re judged by how much money we make or our success rather than if we are good people or contribute to the community.

Common Knowledge (8/8)

In many ways, Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas is an attempt to bridge two perspectives or introduce another reality into the one perceived by those with power in government, church, and press. Reading the collected newspaper clippings that were often written by knighted men or judges helped me understand, as much as someone who studies but never experiences an era can, how that reality was so irrationally superseded.

"If she is an employed person her employer may object to employ her on the ground that she is a married woman just as he may object to employ a one-eyed man." - Wives the laws favorite

"In law she [a married woman] has forfeited little, if any, freedom. Her husband in law has little, if any, control over her."

"Official football circles here regard with anxiety the growing popularity of girl's football."

Woolf's essays undertake what is almost like a thirteenth labor of Hercules, and while it may not be impossible to communicate with the victims/perpetuators of a dominant history how their majority's vision is skewed, it almost feels that way. Many of the narratives and perspectives addressed in Three Guineas remain all too present and often encountered. I found myself frenetically highlighting and ALSO considering chucking this book at certain acquaintances' faces; violent urges aside, this reading invited me into a new visual history and another perspective on how the societal disposition to war might develop.

And lastly, to address one more quote (tangentially):

"In any case it is clear that the author of the pastoral epistles, be he St. Paul or another, regarded woman as being debarred on the ground of her sex from the position of an official 'teacher' in the Church, or from any office involving the exercise of a governmental authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12)."

I believe this is an interesting discourse for me because the rhetoric above is clearly sexist, and I have had the opportunity to research translation with its imposed biases on certain scriptural passages which then become employed toward exclusion. Although it seems like a random departure from literary study of Three Guineas, isn't narrative manipulation (and one-sided interpretations of the world) what it's all about?

To minimize my soapbox time, I'll keep it brief:

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." (1T 2:12)

Ultimately, the greek word Didaskein (teach) NEVER appears up in the source greek. Not to impose my own opinion, but the word used throughout is Authentein (associated with control or misused authority) which implies far more agency already. Hēsychia (lack of disturbance) would not at all seem to imply "remain[ing] quiet" and being barred from contributing equally. In addition, the verb preceding Authentein is Entrepō, which is temporary and conditional. Again, I'll leave these dots to be connected themselves, but all of these original greek meanings paired with the fact the word for man (Anēr) is often used for a husband imply a different interpretation than the one that has been so often employed in the ways Woolf describes. To encourage said dots after they've been separated for so long: I argue that this passage might have more to do with a specific social moment in one community and a request for a woman (who possessed authority to exert) not to, in the literal translation, "verbally assassinate" their partner when it isn't an appropriate moment, for the sake of public gathering. A reading like this does not exclude women from teaching, leading, or taking part. It might even imply agency and authority that is at the very least equal. Lastly, I would like to add this passage should never have become a permanent or universal statement; its tense is temporary and conditions-based.

I believe Virginia Woolf might have appreciated this possibility for novel interpretation; this is why egalitarian authority is so essential in the pursuit of truth. When biases are imposed and unchecked, realities shift from their foundations. In this way, an analysis like this ties into the idea of perspectives lost and reasserted. Common knowledge is not to be taken for granted; truth takes work, especially in scenes of power imbalance.




Testament of Youth 5/8

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is a story that follows a wealthy middle-class lady through her years in college, War World I, and politics. There is an intentional focus on her experiences as a woman trying to make it in a man’s world and build her own sense of purpose. Her early years are self-absorb, which leads to her ignorance of life outside of her world. This environment was created by her isolation and her father’s belief that a women’s goal is to get married. Due to this sheltered life and inability to imagine other’s life, she is shocked by the poor food choices when she goes to Oxford. Furthermore, when she becomes a V.A.D. nurse, she realizes her inability to boil an egg is an embarrassment. “Among other facts of life, my expensive education had omitted to teach me the prosaic but important essentials of egg-boiling, and the Oxford cookery class had triumphantly failed to repair the omissions” (165). As a lady of privilege, Vera didn’t have to worry about where or how her food arrived. “To me, whom meals had hitherto appeared as though by clockwork and the routine of a house had seemed to be worked by some invisible mechanism” (165) makes the reader think that Vera never walked into a kitchen or went into town to interact with other people. Her sheer revelation of food is also a sign of her growth throughout the war.

Her novel is about change that you can and not control. While she learns to boil an egg and cook for herself and fight for women’s rights, she cannot control war or death.

Surviving and the Necessity of Helping

*I had just finished reading this piece when I received the email about the shortened version, so I am not sure where we are cut off. I may write about sections not assigned.

Testament of Youth is far from being a celebration of youth; instead, the pages are filled with trauma and guilt over surviving when all others close are dead. Youth is supposed to be something to look upon with nostalgia, but this book shows how it became a nightmare for an entire generation. Vera Brittain describes the state of her heart during this period: "Sometimes my heart feels very tumultuous, full of passion and fierce desire; at others it is possessed by a sort of blank and despairing resignation to what one feels must be inevitable" (173-174). Already, the scene of her early twenties are becoming characterized by the blank state the novel ends with. The suffering of this war, to Brittain, is not redeeming or refining--it is simply destructive suffering. She describes suffering: "At first, pain beyond a certain point merely makes you lifeless, and apathetic to everything but itself" (193). This effect of suffering is clearly scene in Brittain's own letters and narrative as she explains all that takes place upon the death of those she was closest to. Brittain does not blossom because of her pain and turn into a saint. Instead, she becomes a shell of the girl she was.

When Brittain is spending time with her mother, who is ill, she begins to become aware of how little work she has done for the war effort. She writes, "I felt myself a deserter, a coward, a traitor to my patients and the other nurses" (433). Brittain is looking over a letter from her friend, and it reminds her of her own supposed duty in the war. It is not a patriotic or religious duty for her. The duty she feels appears to be one connected to her own knowledge of the soldiers' circumstances and those she lost. She even states: "I did not propose to submit to pious dissertations on my duty to God, King and Country. That voracious trio had already deprived me of all that I valued most in life" (450). Though she may work in a religious hospital for a governmental agency, Brittain is spurred on by letters from other nurses and her own experiences.

Nationalism, psychology, and sentimentality (7/8)

Rebecca West, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, expresses the need for an honest "mode of life" that is more than what England offers, and this drives her towards Yugoslavia as a novel space in which to explore her worldview. While sentiment-driven, her intuitive thoughts often prove more evocative than more cautious, vetted observations. Her worldly knowledge blends with the feeling that motivates her analysis. I found this approach reminded me of surrealist theory. Her subconscious (or sentimental) self offers an honest mode of thought, even if this mode falls victim to what initiated it.

West seems to have reallocated much of her "nationalism"  to a nation... and those with whom she cannot identify outside her context as an observer. Her external gaze provides clarity, but then also leans too hard into romanticism: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon can somehow address the dangers of ethnic zoning (which would be relevant in the upcoming war) and also limit the Slavic nationality to its pre-globalization "purity." Critics in the introduction address this pitfall, because her fea that sameness has caught up to her is a product of psychological need. The black lamb is arguably a symbol of national identity, youth, loss, and sacrifice all in one. In exploring the symbolic so directly, West reveals what she wants to protect in Yugoslavia. The diverse population appears divided in her writing, resulting in the ideological death of the Ottoman Empire. Lacking in agency, a nation as its people has become the "sacrificial lamb" without agency instead of the "priest" who controls the ritual (war). 

Bryher and Brittain both address this idea of psychological need in different ways. One describes war in the present (situated memories) and recalls the effects on the mind and the young. Identity, packaged in nationalism and a higher education community built on the discussion of historic ideals, drives one soldier to hope he will reflect well on his college whatever happens to him individually. Bryher says, simply: "Fascism and Communism alike respond to primitive, psychological needs." The global culture shifts pre-WWII, whether that is after avatism and the sentimental nationalism; modern media like film, aimed for social evolution; or a different system of government, hyper-national identity. 


The Space In-between in West's "Journey"

In the introduction to Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing, James Duncan and Derek Gregory outline major concepts related to travel writing. One in particular caught my eye: “as descriptions move from one place to another… they circulate in what we have called ‘a space in-between’... In general, and as Venuti (1993, 210) points out, translation [in this case, translating experience from foreign climes and customs, etc.] is either a ‘domesticating method, an ethnographic reduction of the foreign text to target language cultural values, bringing the author back home’ or a ‘foreignizing method, an ethnographic pressure on those values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad’” (4-5). Travel writing, then, can be understood as making the foreign familiar or foregrounding foreignness-- of a place or people, say. Yet as the text attempts to make familiar/foreign, it never quite resolves into one or the other; it exists in-between. It’s with this frame that I considered West’s chapter, “Journey.”

The “space in-between” in this chapter exists in a couple of places. The first is in its relationship to the genre of travel writing. The chapter title, “Journey,” suggests an exoticness and a certain excitement that a more accurate title, like “Train Ride,” would elide. Even in the content of the chapter, West ironically plays on the genre of travel writing. She is concerned with the social politics within the train car more than she is the Yugoslavian landscape or culture without. A few instances pop through, as when the “snowfields” appear or discussions of food take place. These elements typical of the genre are humorously deflated and overshadowed, as when the scenery is easily forgotten as the passengers enact justice on the second-class ticket holder or when West falls into a consideration of taste and nationalistic food superiority. The space in-between here creates tension in the narrative, made all the more humorous (darkly humorous) by the weighty topics alongside which they are placed (in West’s narrative but also in the sensibilities of the Europeans passengers).

The other space in-between is in West’s consideration of the German passengers. In many ways, the Germans are the subject of West’s attention. She asks us to sympathize and pity them for their imprisonment within Nazism, yet they exhibit a moral failure in their willingness to eject someone else from the train car while justifying their own rule breaking. There is uncertainty in this scene, I would argue, as West humanizes the Germans: they are people who quibble over small inconsequential things and run into typical problems. This familiarization is broken by the end, though, as they become “incomprehensible” but also “exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known” (37). Even in the ending, the Germans maintain both their illegibility and foreignness and their familiarity. One could argue that West’s “journey” is one of observing German tourists, fellow travelers who despite their familiar quirks and characteristics become legible alongside the foreign Nazi regime.

The chapter ends on an innocuous note, albeit a funny one, as the Germans “[break] into excessive cries of exasperation and distress” because the train stop is several miles from Zagreb’s city center. While this scene works as a humorous retribution, the key to West’s ending is her witnessing an elderly man searching for “Anna.” This sad but sweet scene is immediately recognizable and familiar to West: “I was among people I could understand” she writes in the final line. West becomes at several points a defender of Yugoslavian worth as a country, namely through a defense of their local food and hotel accommodations. And she closes the chapter in this very way. The space in-between the foreign and familiar is dispelled as the Germans leave, taking with them a sense of foreignness and incomprehensibility. What is left is West looking out the window at a stranger in a foreign country. Here is where she finds the familiar.

West's "Supa Hot Fire" (5/8)

Rebecca’s West’s prologue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is intricately political, though it is connected by a bloody thread of gory violence and passionate drama. Rulers beget rulers, terrorists slay those rulers, families fight each other, and West verbally obliterates most of them with her–I have to say–relentlessly savage insults. Any of the following alone are enough to warrant a ‘hands on cheeks, mouth wide open’ reaction: 

  • “She was a great slut” (6) 

  • “She was always thrusting the blunt muzzle of her stupidity into conclaves of state, treading down intelligent debate as a beast treads down the grass at a gate into mud” (6) 

  • “[she was] a very fat and plain little girl” (7) 

  • “His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome” (15) 

Together, they show an author not withholding her biases, an author willing to simply state the ways things look (to her, of course). In this vein, dismembered fingers, thrusted stilettos, and bullets in a crowd all converge to the prologue’s climax: the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia. Yet in West’s poetic descriptions of the king’s murder, which she watches countless times through the medium of film, she constructs an especially telling and absurdist image with her same characteristically candid quips. After “innumerable hands'' fondle the dying king, the camera catches a royal official fleeing the scene. In the official’s hasty exit, West recalls the “special ridiculousness of middle-aged men, who have the sagging, anxious faces and protruding bellies appropriate to pregnancies” (West 15), and while this absolutely merciless diss is damaging enough to envision gifs like “supa hot fire,” her forthright opinions in juxtaposition to aforementioned murders (coupled with a cinemographic record) deromanticize this particular violent moment. In other words, West’s propensity to ‘end people’s whole career,’ per se, works to de-deify the situation. The king himself is tired, the assassin is sloppy (and promptly beaten to death by the crowd), and the royal accompaniment looks like fat, pregnant old men. West philosophizes that “It would be a superb ending for a comic film” (15), yet it is West’s paradoxically comedic descriptions in contrast to the senseless violence that elevate this scene to the genre of absurdity. It’s funny and sad, sensible and senseless, and serious and stupid. West recognizes these contradictions; the reader (in retrospect) can, too. West’s blunt but amusing honesty positions the reader in the same contradictory space as the king. And like Hitchens posits in the introduction, through these tensions–in this absurdity–one can feel the next lingering, unnecessary irrationality: “the shadow of the encroaching swastika” (Hitchens xxxvi).  

The Mad Train and Salvador Dali 4/8

Did anyone else read this passage slowly or was it just me? Comparing The Mad Train by Henry Poulaille with The Origins of Surrealism by Charles Moffat, edited by Suzanne MacNevin; I find that Poulaille mirrors some of the views of Salvador Dali where the “three constants of life were sexual instinct, the sentiment of death, and the anguish of space and time” (Ballard i). I feel that Poulaille’s work is more on the side of Veristic Surrealists as opposed to Automatists and that his subconscious images have meaning.  

Maybe this is grasping, but Poulaille’s story may not be about sexual instinct, but more about both sexes dying during the war. This is a clear intentional focus as men were mostly the ones in the trenches during WWI. Women lose men through death and the returning men are lost to PTSD, which disrupts society, brings confusion, and “no one will escape” (Poulaille 41) in this post-WWI world. Poulaille and Dali relate more with death, space, and time.

Poulaille expresses that the destination is “death, collision” (Poulaille 44), and “the passengers are mute with horror” (Poulaille 46). This makes me think that society is still dealing with post-WWI trauma with no solutions. He also gives meaning to the dream by saying “the train is crossing a land of nightmares. Everything has lost its character” (Poulaille 41). I feel like all one thousand passengers are trapped and they can only watch from the inside as their fate is decided by the two men in the cabin. I guess this would be similar to how a military battle scene would work for a soldier. A soldier is given a command and they follow the orders unable to change their path. The focus here seems to be the inability to make your own choice, you are at the mercy of the cabin boys or the war commanders. I wonder if this increased the opposition to the draft? 

Poulaille displaces space and time similar to Dali, in that the passengers are confused, silent, and paralyzed. Maybe this dream is a reenactment of a specific war scene and the landscape that is rushing by is like the bullets flying over your head. The train goes a “kilometers [every] half [a] minute” (Poulaille 44), which is 74.5 mph. In the 1920s the Ford Model T would travel at 20-28mph, so this train’s speed would seem unstable and lead to the reader questioning the reality of time and space. The illustrations like the lake appearing to go "out like a glow-worm” (Poulaille 44) gives the image of fantasy. I wonder if this leads the reader to get an out-of-body feeling. At this point, the reader might be questioning how all this is possible or what is reality. 

This last comment is a little off-topic, but why is the number one thousand mentioned 6 times in this story? What is the significance of that number during the 1920s? Is it biblical?