Tag Archives: Toni Morrison

(Burying) bodies

30 Sep

I’ve done some hardcore reading this week. Novels, articles, textbooks, a little bit of poetry thrown in to lighten the mood. It’s been intense. I won’t go into the marxist/feminist discourse and the consideration of the stationary self vs the moving others (although I will some other day, if you fancy) but I am going to talk about the novels I read. Not in a ‘reviewing’ way, as per usual, but in a personal, relational way.  

These novels – Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and Landscape for a Good Woman, by Carolyn Steedman, were recommended reading for my module on feminist cultural theory. I was all prepared for them to be – well, frankly – difficult. While neither of them could be described as ‘light’, however, they were certainly fascinating, and all the more so for being read one after the other. 

Both books are explicitly about women and, marginally less obviously, their relationships with their daughters. Beloved is the story of an escaped slave; Landscape a semi-autobiographical account of two eras of womanhood. Both are fundamentally about female ownership of the body and the extent to which a child is of that body. Landscape enunciates this with scholarly precision: relationships require giving and taking. Frequently, women have nothing to give but themselves and the possibility of a future. In a society that continues to disempower women, a woman’s only bargaining chip is herself and her potential for children. Beloved repeatedly suggests this through more subtle means; the main character, Sethe, ‘pays’ to have a word inscribed on a headstone for her dead child with her body; her body is the only thing she can give when she is ‘married’. Bodies are commodities and bodies can be given away dearly or cheaply – bodies are everything. 

While we may like to kid ourselves that we live in a free and equal society these days, it’s impossible to deny the force that a body can still have. In the interests of research (naturally) I was sat in front of some terrible daytime television with my housemates this afternoon. Before we found the cookery programs, we were watching dating shows. It’s incredible how many people respond to the physical nature of a person before they consider anything else about them. ‘He’s well buff, I’d definitely go on a date with him’, etc. But the thing is – what does a body tell you about someone, these days?

Bodies are so subject to change. Of course, you can work on your personality, too, and you can certainly be selective in how you choose to behave around certain people (consciously and unconsciously) but I don’t think it’s quite the same here. The sculpting and presentation of one’s body is a particular privilege we enjoy (or not). Invariably, the way we choose to present our bodies say something about the value we place on them. Of course, everyone has their own value systems; having a lot of piercings might evoke squeals of disgust from some middle class yummy mummies, for example, but that may be your way of expressing your own identity and self-worth. The way you present your body may indicate your desire to stand out, or it may be a camouflage you use to blend in. The thing is, we think we can control the value of our bodies by the way we present them and the way we use them. In most instances, I believe, that’s true. 

But. What these books suggested to me is that a body is not just how it looks, but how it is used. We can make our bodies into portraits of how we’d like to be seen, but if we don’t use them in keeping with those images, what then? What counts more, intention or act? And if creating the body as we’d like it to be seen is an act of authorship, can we apply the premise that meaning is created at the point of reception? Are we scripting our bodies for a multiplicity of readers, or are we doing so for the ideal one? Is our ideal reader, in fact, ourselves? 

Maybe this is all getting a bit weird now. I think the point I’m trying to make is this: ultimately, you are in charge of what your body does and this is far more important than what it looks like. Use it wisely, grasshopper. It can still be a powerful thing. 

 

 

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July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!