Kike Maillo’s “A Perfect Enemy”

A Perfect Enemy.

Spoiler Alert [this review contains information about the central plot twist in this thriller]

I never thought I would be quoting Jacques Lacan to make an argument, but the French psychoanalyst provides the basic premise for Kike Maillo’s film about the return of the repressed. The unconscious, Lacan told us, is “structured like a language,” and it gives us “the discourse of the Other.”

Those concepts came to life as I watched A Perfect Enemy, with its two protagonists, a Paris-based architect named Jeremiasz Angust, who has gotten away with the murder of his wife, and a young Dutch woman named Texel Textor. “Texel” is one of the Dutch Wadden islands, off the coast of the Netherlands. Textor, as the twenty-something from Amsterdam reveals, comes from the Latin “textere,” meaning to weave. In other words, her name signifies what she calls “words woven together,” though she would prefer to have it signify “the one who weaves text.” “It’s a shame I’m not a writer,” Textor tells her weary, mildly annoyed interlocutor, who responds that she can always start.

And start she does. Texel begins weaving plots, telling autobiographical stories about disgust, fear, love, all permeated with violence and homicidal rage. Each story she tells resonates with something in Jeremiasz’s past, memories of childhood violence culminating in the murder of Isabelle, the women beloved by both Texel and Jeremiasz.  And killed, first in a story told by Texel, then in an account related by Jeremiasz. What?  That the duo are in fact doubles, one real and the other the embodiment of twenty years of repression, takes some time to register. For me, it was the uncanny moment at the Charles de Gaulle airport, when Jeremiasz strides through the airport, followed by Texel who mocks him by mimicking his every gesture and his body language.

The reveal, which comes late in a film that takes advantage of tropes from “The Sixth Sense” to choreograph its central illusion/delusion, suddenly makes sense of Texel’s name and of the encoded plots she weaves. Presto! The stories she weaves, her “lies,” turn out to reveal a higher truth. She becomes not just the voice of the conscience, speaking in the symbolic language of the unconscious, but also the enemy within that will prevent Jeremiasz from committing the perfect murder (even if he may still elude the criminal justice system).

What is fascinating to me is that the film evidently changed the gender of the uncanny Other from male to female (and the name from  Textor Texel to Texel Textor). And in line with a literary and mythological tradition that genders justice, revenge, and nemesis (along with all manner of furies) female, the embodiment of Jeremiasz’s guilt emerges as a sassy twenty-something, a woman who could be the child  whom  Isabel, not coincidentally on her way to Amsterdam, was carrying. And what are the weapons of this lethal figure but those that women have been wielding for centuries in the name of justice: words and stories, images woven, and plots spun.

Helen of Troy Talks Back

 

Helen of Troy

 

Read the Agamemnon, and see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra.

Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”

 

Odd isn’t it, that so many see me as evil? My life has been turned into a cautionary tale, a warning about the toxic effects of beauty. What did I ever do to deserve that kind of treatment? Today I picked up another one of those books about Greek “mythology.” They now take our history and our religion, put them between the covers of a book, and promote “myths” as entertaining and instructive reading for the young. In the “lavishly illustrated” volume of Greek myths that came into my hands, I was given the usual totalizing identity treatment. I’m a woman of “legendary” beauty with “mythical” reach. I’m turned into a “lethal beauty” or “femme fatale.” One writer claims that I may be the most “fatale” of “femmes,” the deadliest woman of them all. After all, I led Greeks and Trojans alike into fierce rounds of fighting, as they deployed slings and hurled javelins and spears at each other in a massacre lasting ten long years. How on earth could my beauty, or any kind of beauty at all, unleash that kind of violence? And how in the world did my life story become a fable for educating the young?

Let me clear things up. Remember Peleus, the mortal who married Thetis, the sea nymph who gave birth to Achilles?  When Zeus threw a wedding party for the parents of Achilles, Eris was excluded, and guess what?  The goddess of Discord (wasn’t that name a tip-off to avoid insulting her?) got wind of the festivities, she crashed the wedding and plotted her revenge. What could create more ill will than an improvised beauty contest? “For the fairest”—that’s what Eris inscribed on a golden apple (τῇ καλλίστῃ), and, the next thing you knew, the apple landed among the guests.

No one caught the beautiful piece of fruit, a real work of art, but Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each claimed it as their own. And dutiful goddesses that they were, they turned to Zeus for a decision. No fool, Zeus was not about to get involved, and he handed the apple over to his messenger Hermes, who promptly delivered it to Paris, the son of Priam. The King of Troy had been told that a son would one day bring ruin to his country, and, after his wife gave birth to a boy, he sent Paris off to Mount Ida, where he stayed out of trouble, living a perfectly contented life as a shepherd. Zeus declared that Paris would have the last word in that famous beauty contest. The goddesses would accept Paris’s decision, he added in his message, knowing full well that at least two of them would turn against the judge of the beauty contest.

Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite were also no fools. When Paris arrived to judge the beauty contest, they stripped down for him, whispered sweet nothings in his ear, and, when that didn’t work, they dangled bribes. Hera promised political power, telling Paris that she would make him ruler over Europe and Asia Minor. Athena offered wisdom and military power. As for Aphrodite, the goddess of love, what did she offer but beauty and love? She promised to help him abduct me, the world’s most beautiful woman, as I was known. True, I was already married, but all Paris had to do was travel to Sparta, and, as soon as King Menelaus left the house, he could whisk me away to his ships. That’s what Paris did, and before long a thousand Greek ships set sail, headed for Troy to bring me back home.

Maybe it will be helpful to know something about my birth. Guess who my father was? Yes, Zeus, and, as usual, he was up to his pranks. My mother, Leda (yes, that Leda), was the wife of King Tyndareus. She lived in Sparta and was renowned for her beauty—white as snow, lips red as blood, and eyes black as pitch. Sound familiar? Zeus thought it would be a good idea to disguise himself as a swan in this instance, and he forced himself on Leda, who soon found herself carrying four children: two by Tyndareus and two by Zeus (they say she slept with both husband and god in one night). The product of those unions? Castor and Clytemnestra (mortals whose father was Tyndareus), and then my brother Polydeuces, also known as Pollux, and me (Zeus was our father).

But there’s a juicier version of that story, one that I’m glad never made it into the PR on me. Zeus evidently had an interest in Nemesis, the goddess who punishes hubris, the pride that my culture found so intolerable. Nemesis was not willing, and she used her powers to shapeshift, turning herself into a goose. That’s when Zeus outsmarted her, turning herself into a swan and assaulting the goddess, who evidently then produced the egg from which I was born.

My sister Clytemnestra married young. You remember, she’s the one who threw a net over her husband Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, and then stabbed him to death. My father had a hard time arranging my marriage. Suitors lined up in droves, asking for my hand. Suitors! Why call those opportunistic brats suitors? Most of them are just hoping for an advantageous alliance, with a cash payout that I’ll never be able to touch. While they were milling around, Odysseus, who was also in the running, whispered a suggestion in my father’s ear, one that would avoid the possibility that those gathered would turn on each other. That man of twists and turns did not need to resort to convoluted logic in the plan he proposed. Just get all the suitors to agree that the man you choose will be supported by all the others, in times of peace but also in times of war, that is, if some fool tries to abduct the beautiful Helen. And sure enough, Paris showed up in Sparta, waiting until Menelaus had left the house to take me captive.

They say Eros shot an arrow through my heart when I set eyes on Paris, but that’s sheer nonsense. I didn’t “elope” with Paris. Did I have a choice? What would you do if armed soldiers appeared at your door, nodded politely, took you by the arm, and ordered you to follow them? Would you hesitate? Slam the door on them? Spit in their faces? No use calling for help. With Menelaus away, there was no one there to countermand their orders. Did I really want to risk a struggle that would most likely leave everyone in my chambers dead? And so I was obedient, following the men to the ship that took me to Troy. When we landed at last, I was slumbering peacefully in the arms of Paris.

You are “an exquisite agent of extermination,” one scholar whispers in my ear. I am heralded as the “gold standard” of outer beauty, my name used by Helen of Troy Ltd. to distribute beauty products. But I am also dangerous, an embodied paradox that combines power with vulnerability, perfection with destruction, a woman who arouses lust and revulsion alike. Have they forgotten my backstory? I was a girl when Theseus raped me. And then he left me locked in a fortress while he went off to chase Persephone. Thank goodness for my brothers, who rescued me and then, in retaliation, invaded Attica, laying waste to the country and enslaving Theseus’ mother. Oh yes, even as a child, I became the causus belli, the origin of conflict, violence, and bloodshed. The beautiful Helen, much admired and much reproached. Reproached for what?

Men chase me, abduct me, make love to me, rape me, and then they blame me. After all, it was my beauty that aroused them. I turned their heads, seduced them, and led them astray. It’s all my doing. Just like that exasperating creature named Eve, who lived in in the Garden of Eden and then stupidly talked Adam into taking a bite of forbidden fruit. Sure, it was fruit from the tree of knowledge, but everyone knows she was really barking up the tree of carnal knowledge and that she and the snake were up to no good. After all, she was responsible for bringing sin and evil into the world.

Just look at what the Church Fathers say about Eve. Look at Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve, with Eve posed like Venus, an apple in both hands, the snake hovering over the apple. Artists love nothing more than naked women, and my favorite painting of Eve is John Stanhope’s “Temptation of Eve,” There she stands, next to the tree of knowledge, the snake, entangled in the bountiful tree, whispering into her ear, while  she plucks an apple from the tree. She’s almost a twin of the anthropomorphized snake—a kindred spirit at the least—and at times you can’t tell whether it’s her long locks or its slithering body wrapping itself around the vertical figures. Snake, branches, hair, it’s all a phantasmagoria that makes me think of poor Medusa and her venomous locks. We are the serpents.

But there is one voice that stood up for me. For the ancient Greeks I became a symbol of “shameless beauty” and “betrayal,” a sharp contrast to my cousin Penelope, praised for fidelity to her straying spouse. I’m the treacherous wife, the libertine who chose pleasure over family. Yes, there is a counter-narrative, a story revealing that there was no real basis for the myth Homer—that blind bard—constructed. Truth be told, I never left home. Stesichorus, a sixth-century poet from Sicily, is the man who rehabilitated me. He once went along with the same old story, the one Homer told, and was struck blind for slandering me. And then, he recanted, and, presto, his sight was restored, unlike Homer, who remained forever blind. He tells god’s truth—I never sailed for Troy. The Greeks were fighting over my eidolon, a ghost, a shadow, an image of me. Stesichorus has the courage to stand up and say that the Trojan War was not fought for a woman but for a woman’s image, a mere fantasy, a will-o’-the-wisp, a delusion. After all, maybe the siege of Troy was driven by the greed of the Greeks, their eagerness to loot a city renowned for its resources, a treasure chest of shiny things to keep drowsy Emperors awake.

 

Homer: Not sure what all the fuss is about. I was just telling a story about war, and, yes, it all started with that reckless move by Paris, so cocksure that he could get away with kidnapping Helen. Dante, my friend, why do you insist on torturing her?

Dante: Well, there’s a place for her kind, and it’s right in the Second Circle, the place inhabited by the lustful, those who gave in to carnal desires.

Alexander Ross: She was a strumpet, not just in her younger years with Theseus but also when she was married to Menelaus. She became Paris’s whore and betrayed the city of Troy. She may be beautiful, but without any inner beauty at all, she is just a gold ring in a swine’s snout.

Ovid: You’re all wrong. I blame Menelaus. What did he think would happen when he left his wife alone with Paris, the two under the same roof with an absent husband? Do you trust a hawk with doves? Do you leave a wolf with sheep? I absolve Helen of all blame.

Sappho: Get real, guys. It was Aphrodite who led Helen astray. After all, golden, muscular Paris was irresistible, especially next to Menelaus.   Of course Helen sailed away, abandoning her child and her parents, forsaking all others. What is more powerful than desire, and how could Helen possibly resist?

Colluthus: You’ve got that right. But there are two ways of looking at that story, and I captured both in my little poem about the abduction of Helen. First, I described how Helen could not take her eyes off Paris. She fell under the spell of those “sparkling eyes” and the “splendors” of his face and ordered Paris to take her to Troy. Then I gave a different account, the one dreamt up by Helen’s daughter Hermione. “Don’t blame me,” Helen insists. “The man who came yesterday was a deceiver who abducted me.” It was a clever move on my part. I made sure that no one will ever know the truth. Maybe it happened one way, maybe another. And by the way, each time the story is told, zest and flavor is added, another ingredient in the great cauldron of tales. I doubled the pleasure with my poem, and what’s more, I gave the Greeks something to talk about, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. And guess what? She’s still the talk of the town.

 

 

“Succession” and Its Aesthetic of Excess & Excess of Ethics

Brian Cox on Succession Season 3, Playing Logan Roy, and the Series Endgame

Watching “Succession” reminded me and many others of the famous opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own.” “Unhappy”—the Roy dynasty gives new meaning to that word with its hyper-dysfunctional family headed on a downward spiral that gives the lie to the title of the series devoted to it.

One recent critic compared the show to a British sitcom, but “Succession” feels to me more like a soap opera on steroids, a hyped-up mix of myth, fairy tale, and melodrama in the mode of “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” and other shows about the superrich.

Let’s start with fairy tales, and the telling surname of the family: Roy, close to the French roi, or king. Yes, Logan is the king, but he is also a mythical figure, a Kronos bent on devouring his children before they have him for lunch. Who knows how it will end, and Roman wonders out loud about who will climb up Mount Olympus “to be the new Dr. Zeus.” What fairy tale and myth do supremely well is to invest their plots with transcendent moral meaning. The stakes are high in the battles they stage between good and evil. Fairy tales famously end with virtue rewarded and vice punished, a happily ever after that provides closure. In “Succession,” by contrast, evil is forever winning out, in large part so that the show can go on.

“Succession” gives us an aesthetics of excess, with its overblown rhetoric, its sanctimonious snark, its self-conscious reaching for the sublime (the latter all-too-often takes the form of those embarrassingly thrilling shots showing caravans of black cars, whirring helicopters, and speedboats—cue the trademark music). Melodrama has its own logic, and “Succession” is a series that, despite its existential gloom, nihilistic outlook, and contemptuous cynicism, gives us an ethical framework for thinking about virtue and vice, as well as about restoring meaning and coherence to a world that has lost both in the drama unfolding before our eyes.

[to be continued]

 

Ghosts of Harvard

Like every good heroine these days, Cadence “Cady” Archer in Francesca Serritella’s Ghosts of Harvard is on a social mission, one driven, in her case, by the desire to understand why her brother Eric committed suicide. True, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but Cady feels sure that there were other forces in play—people who might have pushed him, literally or figuratively, over the edge.  Like her parents, Cady is guilt-ridden, tormented by the thought that her brother’s suicide could have been prevented. Newly arrived at Harvard as a freshman, she begins her detective work, piecing together the story of her brother’s death in an effort to begin the process of healing, for herself and for her parents.

Cady has her own demons, and they manifest themselves as a trio of disembodied voices from Harvard’s past: J. Robert Oppenheimer, who graduated from Harvard in 1925 and went on to become the “father” of the atomic bomb; Bilhah, an enslaved woman who died in 1765 while “in service” at the residence of Harvard’s president; and finally an undergraduate named “Whit,” who longs to participate in the war effort as an aviator. Deftly woven into the narrative arc of Cady’s search for answers about her brother, these three figures take on a life of their own, reminding us that every tragic event in the history of institutions like Harvard is entangled in a web of narratives, some known, some forgotten, and some calling out to be told for the first time.

At a service commemorating the lives of Bilhah and three other enslaved people who had labored at Harvard, President Drew Faust noted that “the past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore.” And John Lewis reminded those present for the affixing of a plaque on Harvard’s Wadsworth House in honor of Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba that, as a nation, we have tried to “wipe out every trace of slavery from America’s memory, hoping that the legacy of a great moral wrong will be lost forever in a sea of forgetfulness.”

Heroines from times past used words and stories to repair the fraying edges of the social fabric as well as to mend, heal, and make whole. The auditory hallucinations that haunt Cady are both a disturbing sign of possible derangement but also a genius way of channeling voices from the past, retrieving their stories from Lewis’s sea of forgetfulness. In her poem, “i am accused of tending to the past . . . ,” Lucille Clifton told us how “the past was waiting for me / when I came” and how “the faces, names, and dates” of History, once nurtured, become “strong enough to travel” on their own. In Ghosts of Harvard, they do just that, waking us up and reminding us that there is value in tending to the past.

Double Trouble: Medusa and Embodied Paradoxes

perseus-medusa

Medusa’s name derives from the Ancient Greek Μέδουσα, which means “guardian” or “protector,” and yet, in a stroke of tragic irony, Medusa was unable to shield herself from harm. She ended up first as a literal shield for Perseus, who used her decapitated head to petrify adversaries, then on the shield of Athena, the goddess who had betrayed her. Ovid tells us in the Metamorphoses that Medusa was once a beautiful young woman with stunning tresses. She had the misfortune of catching the eye of Poseidon, who raped her in sacred precincts, desecrating a temple built to honor Athena. The enraged goddess took out her anger, not on Poseidon but on the victim, turning Medusa into a monster with the power to petrify anyone who beholds her face and venomous locks.

It is worth going back to Ovid as a stark reminder of just how blind we have been to the facts of Medusa’s origin story (or at least in the canonical version told by the Roman poet):

She was very lovely once, the hope of many

An envious suitor, and of all her beauties

Her hair most beautiful – at least I heard so

From one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune

Found her and raped her, in Minervaʼs temple,

And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes

Behind her shield, and, punishing the outrage

As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents,

And even now, to frighten evil doers,

She carries on her breastplate metal vipers

To serve as awful warning of her vengeance. (IV, lines 774-803)

The backstory of a woman who is raped and demonized resonates powerfully with what we see in the headlines today. As Christobel Hastings writes in Vice, Ovid’s account reads less like an “ancient myth” than a “modern reality.”

How has Medusa resurfaced today? Not so much as a shining example of victim-blaming and punishment (no one bothers with her backstory, in part because they are so rivetted by her face), but as a monster who threatens to undermine the political and social order. Hillary Clinton, whose severed head was brandished as a trophy by a triumphant Trump in several campaign memes, was just one of many women politicians to get the Medusa treatment. Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Margaret Thatcher (“We’ve got to shoot her down,” the British pop band UB40 sang in “Madam Medusa”): their features have all been superimposed on Caravaggio’s snake-headed Medusa.

Why are we still talking about Medusa? Classics professors remind us that the most enduring legacy of Ancient Greece does not take the form of their democracy but of their belief system or mythology, which often guides our thinking in ways more powerful than biblical wisdom. Many children today grow up with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and graduate to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in high school. Like the familiar fairy tales from times past, Greek myths have migrated into the literary culture of childhood. Yet they also haunt the adult cultural imagination, and, as Mary Beard tells us: “More often than we may realize, and in sometimes shocking ways, we are still using Greek idioms to represent the idea of women.”

How do we account for the staying power of gods and goddesses, mortals and monsters, and all the other fantastic creatures of Ancient Greece? Athena, Zeus, Odysseus, Achilles, Circe, Arachne, and Medusa are as familiar to many of us as Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Part of the answer turns on how Greek myths take up what the French anthropologist Claude-Lévi Strauss referred to as cultural contradictions—conflicting binary terms such as life/death, compassion/hostility, nature/civilization. Myth processes these contradictions in symbolic form, through metaphorical substitutions and forms of mediation that “resolve” the conflict, at least provisionally. Cooks, for example, operate as mediators between the “raw” (shorthand for nature) and the “cooked” (products of culture), transforming what is found in its natural state into something consumed by humans

Medusa, like many of her mythical cousins from the Minotaur to Medea, is an embodied paradox, with the name already controverting her fate. In this instance, nomen is not omen, but rather a retraction or negation of what has been enunciated in it. Medusa cannot protect herself and is instead weaponized by Perseus, who then passes on her gory head to serve as an emblem on Athena’s shield. It was Athena who transformed Medusa from a beauty into a monster, once again underlining that mortal woman’s status as a living paradox. In addition, Medusa herself is a grotesque hybrid of human/animal, tressed to kill, as it were.

Beyond the paradoxes of Medusa’s name and embodiment are the contradictory ways of reading her story. A victim of Poseidon’s assault, she becomes the target of a goddess’s wrath, while the sea-god remains free to engage in one dalliance after another. Is it perverse to think of her snaky appearance as a way of punishing the gaze of male predators, disabling them with her own deadly gaze? But then again, it is Perseus the man who immobilizes his enemies with the severed head of Medusa. This is a story that challenges us to enter a dizzying funhouse that is also a hall of mirrors, one that exaggerates and distorts and gives us endlessly new perspectives on a seemingly simple story that is in fact the expression of complex thought.

Is it any wonder that Einstein told us to read fairy tales to children—that is, if we wanted to raise them to become intelligent. Like fairy tales, myths draw us into a universe that challenges us to make sense of what is nonsense and make-believe, yet always also deeply fundamental and foundational in the making of beliefs.

Time to Reboot Philanthropy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talk the Talk: Philanthropy Vocabulary · Giving Compass

When I was writing The Heroine with 1,001 Faces, I thought long and hard about the cluster of words we use to describe our connection with those in pain. In our culture, we have enshrined “empathy” as our highest virtue, and it is a term used far more often than sympathy or compassion, with the one too muted and the other too fierce and all-consuming an emotion. The model of female heroism that emerged in the course of my research had nothing to do with a journey–women could only rarely respond to a call for adventure–but a set of traits that included curiosity, care, and, well, something like empathy or compassion, a form of being directed to others. It was only yesterday, when I looked at the word philanthropy and thought about its etymology, that I realized I had found my third attribute.

Philanthropy has gotten a bad name in the past year. Ever since the Varsity Blues scandal and our dawning awareness of how charitable trusts and donations have shielded the rich from paying taxes, philanthropy has become associated with the super-rich and their strategies for dodging paying their fair share to the IRS. Nearly a century ago, Bertolt Brecht captured the paradox at the heart of philanthropy when a worker in his play St. Joan of the Stockyards asks, in all innocence, about the men walking with the great “meat king and philanthropist” Pierpont Mauler. “Those are detectives,” is the answer. “They guard him so that no one will knock him down.”

The word philanthropy comes from Ancient Greek, a combination of phil- (love) and anthrōpos (humankind). In 1749, Fielding captured the meaning of the term in his novel Tom Jones, which records the “great and exquisite Delight” found in “parental and filial Affection, and indeed in general Philanthropy.” At the time the term was equated with “goodness” (one citation in the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “dogoodery”) and the disposition to promote the happiness and well-being of others. Only in the last century has it come to denote generous donations for good causes.

Curiosity, care, and philanthropy–that’s now my trio of attributes for describing the features of heroines from times past, women who paid attention to injustices, cared enough about them to right wrongs, and understood the value of being directed towards others. They engaged in a form of what Martin Hägglund calls secular faith, a belief system that recognizes the fragility of life and seeks to mend, repair, heal, and secure justice.

 

 

 

 

 

From the Trojan princess Cassandra to the British Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra”

When I last read “Middlemarch,” I was a high-school senior, without much knowledge of Victorian culture. But I feel sure that Dorothea’s words and thoughts, as she surveys the marital home in which she will live, made a deep impression on me. Last night, I read the chapter in which Dorothea sinks into silence and feels some disappointment that there will be “nothing for her to do in Lowick.” She almost hopes for “a larger share of the world’s misery” in the parish where she will live, because that means she will have something to do.  “I have known so few ways of making my life good for anything.”

I could not help but think of Florence Nightingale’s “Cassandra,” an essay in which the woman who would take over the management of a British military hospital during the Crimean War and save countless lives describes herself as “shrieking aloud in her agony,” not because of her ineffectual prophecies, but because of an “accumulation of nervous energy, which has nothing to do during the day.” Nightingale was tormented by the thought that “the inability to exercise ‘passion, intellect, and moral activity’ would doom British women of privilege to madness.”

It is worth recalling that Cassandra, the daughter of the Trojan King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was wooed by Apollo, who tried to win her over by promising her the gift of prophecy. There are many versions of the story, and the one told by Hyginus in his Fabulae, reports that Cassandra spurned Apollo’s advances (he approaches her while she is sleeping), and the god retaliated by turning his gift to her into a curse (in some versions by spitting in her mouth).

It was genius of Florence Nightingale to recognize how closely aligned Cassandra’s lack of credibility aligned with the plight of Victorian women.  Only a hundred pages now into Middlemarch, it becomes evident how Miss Brooke is never taken seriously and the target of constant condescension for her misguided aspirations to do some good in the world or to broaden her knowledge by trying to keep up with her husband’s broad reading. No surprise that the philanthropic efforts of women like Dorothea are mercilessly mocked by Charles Dickens through the figure of Mrs. Jellyby, with her “telescopic philanthropy” that is invested in charitable causes in Africa even as she neglects those in her domestic orbit.

“Middlemarch” captures the deep frustrations of privileged women with nothing to do, and George Eliot captured in fiction what Florence Nightingale described with such eloquence and passion in “Cassandra.” It’s fascinating to me that I grew up in a culture that saw heroism in Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. Today, it’s old-fashioned to invoke their names and histories, but rediscovering them this past year left me in awe of what they accomplished in a world that was telling them to stay at home and have children.

 

 

 

 

 

Ashley’s Sack

Ashley’s Sack, an object handed down across three generations of Black women, tells a story about the beauty of courage and care and how women’s handicraft was deployed not just to adorn but to express feelings not found in the historical record. Here is what Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered on the seed sack given to her by her mother, when she was separated from her and sold at age 9. “It be filled with my love always.”

In One Modest Cotton Sack, a Remarkable Story of Slavery, Suffering, Love and Survival - The New York Times

As Tiya Miles tells us, “the past seems to reach out to us” through this fabric. Before women and enslaved peoples had access to the instruments of writing, cloth became a medium for for preserving the “mythohistories” of entire groups. Ashley’s Sack reminds me of Philomela’s tapestry and other ancient story cloths that documented atrocities yet also revealed the fearlessness and love that could not be vanquished under the most oppressive circumstances. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich refers us to the “mnemonic power of things,” the evocative force of stories hitched to homespun or handmade everyday objects. “We have made art out of pain,” Miles writes, “sustaining our spirits with sunbursts of beauty, teaching ourselves how to rise the next day.”

 

 

Why are Justice and Revenge Represented as Women?

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma.jpg

 

How ironic that in times when women themselves never operated in legal systems and did not have access to institutional resources, justice itself was, more often than not, embodied in female figures. Create a mental image of justice, and you will no doubt imagine a woman dressed in flowing robes, a blindfold over her eyes and a scale and a sword in hand.  That’s what we see in three iterations at the building housing our Supreme Court. And that’s also how the Greeks and Romans envisioned Justice in her various incarnations at Themis, Dyke, Prudentia, and so on.

How can we explain why female figures adorn buildings housing the seats of authority and prestige? Is the presence of women at the portals of power driven by the need to soften patriarchal authority through maternal images to negate the coercive features of social institutions?  Marina Warner tells us that “we are living now among female forms who have adapted the allegorical language of the past, but are not reproducing it in stone or plaster or copper, but enacting it live.” In other words, those monuments, strategically placed where power resides, are unconsciously shaping women’s behavior today,

But since women were so often excluded from the judicial arena in times past, they slipped into another role, making appearances as goddesses of vengeance, retribution, and implacable justice. Remember Orestes and the Erinyes? Alekto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, representing anger, rage, and destruction, hounded Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra. And then there is Nemesis, who carries a sword and a whip, out to get us all for any of our lapses and missteps. And if you want to get truly scared straight, just take a look at Kali, the Hindu goddess who destroys the forces of evil. Incidentally, her stuck-our tongue inspired the tongue and lips logo used by the Rolling Stones. And the first issue of Ms. magazine featured an image of Kali, her many arms representing the multi-tasking demanded of women.

Here are my questions: Is our newfound commitment to social justice driven by the increasing representation of women in the labor force, in other words, the social and economic empowerment of women? Are women now doing precisely what Marina Warner suggests, enacting the roles found in the statuary that adorns our legal institutions? And will the legal system find  ways to address the current extra-judicial means used by women (for example, the #MeToo movement) to secure justice, not just by disavowing public accusations but hearing them in a judicial setting.  Or are shaming and arraigning destined to remain separate and distinct forms of securing justice?

[edited July 19, 2021]

Curiosity and Care & How One Doc Operates

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

“Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all? Aren’t you curious? Good God, man, something very crucial is going on in this house. Aren’t you at all curious?” 

“It’s not my place to be curious about such matters, sir.”

“But you care about his lordship. You care deeply, . . . If you care about his lordship, shouldn’t you be concerned? At least a little curious.”

I came late to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which famously takes us inside the mind of a British butler, a “myth of England that was known internationally” (as the author put it). Ishiguro’s portrait of the butler reveals the disastrous self-deceptions by which Stevens, butler to Lord Darlington, lives. And, not to give anything away, it enshrines care and curiosity as alternatives to the treasured dignity long embraced by men like Stevens.

A few days after I put the novel down, I spoke to a physician who had been treating a patient who had developed odd lumps in his feet. A podiatrist had proposed surgery to remove them, and, of course, there was the fear they were cancerous. These days health-care plans dictate 15 minute appointments. The perplexed physician had never seen anything like the lumps on the patient’s feet and called in colleagues to take a look. They too were stumped. That would have been the end of the story for most doctors. But this one cared about his patient and sat down at his desktop and began researching until, after an hour of searching symptoms, he discovered something called Ledderhose disease, a rare ailment in which connective tissue builds up and creates lumps on the bottoms of the feet.

Because this doctor was curious, he was able to care for his patient. Or maybe because he cared about his patient, his curiosity was aroused. I’m reminded of how curiosity and care are co-dependent, each requiring the other to flourish and thrive.