Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale

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Margaret Atwood is hands down one of my favorite authors.  The first book of hers that I read was The Robber Bride, and after that, I pretty much devoured everything she wrote.  When I discovered The Handmaid’s Tale in college, it was a revelation.  I was 21 and filled with naive and righteous indignation.  Needless to say, I thought I saw many many parallels between Atwood’s Gilead and late 20th century America.  Fast forward a few years and I’m busy working on my thesis for my MA in literature.  I’m writing all about feminist dystopia and once again, Atwood is front and center.  I once drove an hour and a half to go to a book signing at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver, just so I could have Atwood sign my copy of The Bind Assassin.  Every time, for the longest time, when one of her books would come out, I was first in line to buy it in hardback. (I still haven’t read the 2nd and 3rd books in the Oryx and Crake trilogy, but I’ll get on it.)  I only mention all this because I’m not some Johnny-come-lately/fair weather Margaret Atwood fan.  Cat’s Eye is one of the most brilliant explorations of the cruelty of female friendships ever written.  Ever.  So I love Margaret Atwood, my daughter’s middle name is Margaret (seriously!), and she is my gold standard for good writing.  But I swear on all that is holy in Gilead that the hyperbolic narrative surrounding the release of the Hulu series, coupled with some liberties the script writers are taking with the novel is seriously going to kill this book for me.

For the past month or two my Facebook feed has been filled with articles from Salon, to Slate, to Vox, to Vanity Fair all extolling the virtues of this upcoming series, calling it “timely,” and “eerily prescient,” and “chilling in light of current events.”  And, yes, we all hate Trump and we all agree that he’s a pig man with tiny hands who feels like he has the right to “grab women by the pussy” whenever he wants.  And yes I weep for American that we elected this monstrosity as our president (although, truth be told, I wasn’t all that jazzed about the alternative). However, the liberal commentariat are seriously becoming unhinged.  For instance, because the US elected Trump it’s a “referendum on whether or not women are people,” and a sign that the Republic of Gilead is just around the corner.  Kellyanne Conway is a modern day Serena Joy and a warning to conservative women about colluding with the patriarchy. Really? All this hyperbole only demonstrates that American feminists are at worst driven by blind partisanship and at best impossibly blind to their own privilege.

But my biggest irritation with the series right now are the little extra’s that the script writer’s are filling in.  There’s a scene where Offred and Moira are jogging on the street in shorts and sports bras and when they stop to get coffee, the man who refuses to serve them looks at them disdainfully and calls them sluts.  And there’s a horrifying scene where Ofglen is accused of being a gender traitor and during the trial she’s convicted on the basis of Biblical law (some verse in Romans).  Then her lover is sentenced to death and brutally hung in front of her.  And most disturbing of all is the final scene of the third episode when we see that part of Ofglen’s punishment for gender treachery (they’re not going to kill her since she has viable ovaries) is having a clitoridectomy.  All these atrocities, of course, are supposed to show us the audience what happens when Christian fundamentalists take over and we are ruled by some theocratic state based–I can only assume–on a form of Christian Dominionism headed by… Trump? Again, really?

Of course the big elephant in the room is that it’s not fundamentalist Christians who are out there mutilating women and girls’ genitals. It’s not the predominately Christian countries where women and girls are getting regularly assaulted for showing too much skin and not having their heads covered.  It’s not the United States where vast swaths of religious people want sentences decided based on outdated laws in their holy books.  And it certainly isn’t Christians who are out there putting gay people in concentration camps and throwing them off of buildings. In no way does any of this absolve Christians from needing to clean house and examine their own rhetoric. I just find it hugely disingenuous that so much of the media is using The Handmaid’s Tale as a warning for what happens when Christian fundamentalists take over a country all the while ignoring and defending real and actual oppressive religious regimes.  It’s just obnoxiously and willfully blind. Frankly, I’d be a little less irritated by modern feminists if I saw less hang wringing over Trump and more outrage over the above mentioned atrocities.

But all this aside, The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just about religious fundamentalism.  It’s more complicated than that.  In Atwood’s book armies of guerilla Baptists are out there fighting against this new state.  Once again it’s Quakers who start an Underground “Femaleroad” to smuggle women over the boarder and into Canada.  It’s not Christianity “full stop” that is the problem.  Other things are at stake here.  There’s a powerful scene in the book where Aunt Lydia is telling the soon-to-be handmaids at the Red Center that “What you had was ‘freedom to.’  What we’re giving you is ‘freedom from.'” And therein lies the problem.  We as a society have been more than willing to abdicate certain liberties in the name of  “freedom from.”  We don’t want freedom to say what we want; we want freedom from speech that offends us.  We don’t want freedom to make our own choices or to do business with whom we please; we want freedom from the effects of certain choices and we want businesses whose politics we disagree with driven into the ground.

And here’s my rambly point:  The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just about Donald Trump.  It’s bigger than that. It’s about how suddenly fascism can take root even under the guise of the greater good, something that liberals and conservatives desperately need to learn.  It’s about how quickly liberty and freedom can go away and how quickly we all come to accept it as normal.  It’s about how so often women are the first to have their liberties curbed under oppressive and totalitarian regimes and how easy it is to turn a blind eye to those oppressions.  My fear is that this awesome and incredible novel, one that pretty much turned me on to dystopia in the first place is going to be hijacked by a myopic political agenda that refuses to acknowledge any strains of fascism, sexism, and totalitarianism in its own house.

So here’s to hoping that this series doesn’t just get turned into a talking point for one side of the political spectrum.  Indeed, art can and should be a political and revolutionary exercise.  However, the gap between honest social critique and propaganda is slim and I would hate for Atwood’s novel to be relegated to the latter.

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ignored this book when it came out five years ago, assuming it was nothing more than over-hyped, YA emotional death porn. Honestly, that’s what so much YA lit is these days. You have overwrought teenagers who are satirical and cynical, wise beyond their years. And there’s usually death, because what’s more Deeply Moving than teenagers struck down in the prime of their life, especially when they leave their One True Love behind. No, thank you. But about three months ago, I was researching the Harlem Renaissance for one of my online classes and ran across this fabulous YouTube series called Crash Course Literature. And suddenly here I was mesmerized by this goofy looking thirty-something guy giving these completely fabulous run downs of great literature. He throws in history, biography, some rudimentary but utterly insightful critical theory, and pretty much in the space of a ten minute video distills the book’s essence into this concentrated kernel of awesomeness that would inspire even the most jaded of high school kids to pick up and actually read the book. These videos actually pissed me off because they were so good. I’m sitting in front of my computer watching someone do what I do and they are doing it 10,000 times better and, yes, I’m inspired and awestruck, but at the same time just pissed at myself for sucking so hard. In short, his videos made me want to be a better teacher.

Anyway, somewhere in the course of me binge watching two and a half hours of YouTube videos, I notice that every once in a while he mentions that he’s an author, and that piques my interest and I Google him. And holy crap! He’s The Fault in Our Stars Guy. Dammit. Now I have to read it, and of course, it really is a good book. In fact, it’s great. Green takes the standard tropes of YA lit, but ends up writing this book that’s about existence and hope in the face of nihilism. This book made me cry, and not because of the star crossed cancer kids. It spoke to those moments when I’m laying in bed in the middle of the night, listening to my family breathing in our silent house and I feel the dark abyss of eternity pooling under me, pulling me down. In that moment I begin to panic and want to scream out (to borrow some language from the illustrious Mr. Green):”Notice me, Universe! Notice me! This life has to mean something.” And then there is silence…

So, yes, Hazel and Gus are just a little too witty at times, and, their Big Romance was a little too young-adulty (very similar to another YA emotional death porn book If I Stay). However, Green manages to transcend all that. First, his love of literature oozes off of the page with his allusions to Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, and the Gospel of John. My favorite passage in this book is when Hazel is in excruciating pain, her head in her mom’s lap has her dad drives them to the hospital. As she’s trying to block out the pain, Hazel realizes that “The only solution was to try to unmake the world, to make it black and silent and uninhabited again, to return to the moment before the Big Bang, in the beginning when there was the Word, and to live in that vacuous uncreated space alone with the Word” (106). Here infinite nothingness is a welcome respite; it’s the blank space creation was spoken out of. Over the course of this book Gus and Hazel learn to stare into the abyss and to feel wonder that they even exist at all and in whatever capacity. They carve out this little eternity for themselves and fall inside of it. And it sucks and it’s painful, but in the end being alive is good, and that has to be enough.

There aren’t any easy answers in this book, no last minute miracles or eleventh hour redemptions. There’s no big lesson to learn from pain, from cancer, from death. To quote one of my desert island top five favorite movies, The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.” Indeed. But there is also joy and love and champagne and literature and sitting on the couch watching movies with your husband and when you think about it, that can be all the meaning that you need.

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Passing

PassingPassing by Nella Larsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I discovered this slim volume while perusing UCLA’s list of African-American novels, a dangerous activity since usually I consider myself pretty well read–that is until I stumble across a list of great authors, half of which I’ve never even heard of. I’ve taught my high school students about the Harlem Renaissance for years, but until discovering Nella Larson, the only woman writer from that time period I was familiar with was Zora Neal Hurston and the only one of her books I’d read was Their Eyes Were Watching God (I now need to put Mules and Men on my reading list). So thank you UCLA English Department for pointing out my inadequacies. I will now work to remedy them. Seriously, though, Passing is a beautifully written, albeit disturbing, novel about what would now be considered the archaic practice of “passing,” when light skinned African-Americans would pass themselves off as white in order to have access to the privileges that white people enjoy as a matter of course. Larsen doesn’t just focus here on race, however. Through the characters Irene and Clare, Larsen spotlights cultural anxieties surrounding class, sexuality, and the often cruel world of female friendships and betrayals.

In Irene Redfield, Larson has created one of the more interesting and complicated protagonists in American Literature. Irene is just riddled with contradictions. She admits that she often “passes” when her darker husband and sons aren’t around and doesn’t mind doing so in order to enjoy things like theater tickets and the ability to enjoy tea on a fancy hotel rooftop without having people question her. She is also very much offended by Clare who doesn’t just “pass” for white sometimes, but who has totally passed over into white culture, even going so far as to marry a bigot who openly professes hating black people, doesn’t know his wife is black, and calls her “Nig” because her skin darkens in the sun. In fact, after ruminating on the afternoon when she had tea with Clare and her bigoted husband, Irene says, “The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folks as well” (51). But Irene does the same thing. She uses her light skin to her advantage when it suits her and then completely dismisses her husband who has legitimate concerns and frustrations about raising his sons in racist 1920’s America. He wants to leave and move to Brazil where presumably things are more progressive, but Irene won’t hear of it. She won’t even let her husband discuss recent lynchings and American race relations with their sons. So I don’t know what to do with her. Is Larsen trying to showcase the hypocrisy that seemed to be embedded in the upper-middle class black community in 1920’s Harlem? And most importantly (Spoiler Alert!) did she push Clare out that window or did Clare fall? Clare is the one who says “to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away” (81), but it seems to me that this is a more accurate description of Irene.

This book shows quite effectively how racial identity is so difficult to classify. What makes Clare African-American? She’s described as blonde and golden and often as pale, but she has black eyes. Is race physical and biological or is it cultural? Irene seems to be making the case that it’s cultural. At the Negro Culture League Dance she explains to Hugh Wentworth, a white character that Larsen apparently based off of a real life novelist, that you can’t tell someone’s race by “looking.” Then she goes on to describe how she knew that a famous white singer was definitely truly white after talking to her: “Not from anything she did or said or anything in her appearance–Just something” (77). So race is clearly more than skin deep in Irene’s mind. She also goes on to say, “It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured” (78). And why is that?

I couldn’t help but think about the Rachel Dolezal fiasco when I was reading this book. She was universally derided for lying about her race and essentially “passing” as African-American. She lied about it to her employers at the NAACP and apparently lied about it to most of the people in her life. But is what she was doing “passing” or “appropriating” and what is the real difference between the two? I think what Irene was getting at in the previous quote is that if you are a member of a minority race you inherently lack privilege or power and there is an awareness of your own lack of power even when you are trying to “pass.” It’s this lack of awareness that Irene notes in the white singer. It’s an ease and an entitlement. Conversely, if you’re white, you can’t just throw off your privilege. It’s bred into your very being. So even though Dolezal wants to identify as black, she will never be able to discard all the privileges that go with being white in America–no matter how hard she tries. At least that’s my admittedly white and privileged take on it.

This is definitely worth the read and I’m only bummed that I didn’t know about Nella Larsen until now. She provides a unique take on the Harlem Renaissance and it’s interesting to think that this book takes place a hop, skip, and a jump from the word of The Great Gatsby. It would be interesting to read those books together since they both deal with wealth and class. However, when Gatsby deals with race, it’s by its absence or by the racist remarks of characters like Tom Buchanan, who is totally John Bellow’s (Clare’s husband) doppelganger. And both novels deal with the elusive American Dream. Irene’s husband knows he is locked out of it and the only way Clare can attain it, much like Jay Gatsby, is by denying her past.

So many essays to assign, so little time…

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Catch-22

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had absolutely no idea what was going on for the majority of this novel. It was kind of like stumbling around in the dark, but every once in a while blinding white lights would turn on and I would see everything, think I was good to go, but then without warning, Heller would turn the lights off again and I would run face first into a wall. So, yeah. That’s what reading Catch-22 was like for me. However, even though I was confused pretty much up until the last ten chapters, this is one of the most interesting satirical works I’ve ever read. Heller is definitely up there with the Neoclassical satirical greats like Swift and Voltaire, and while this novel is most often discussed as a classic anti-war text, I see it more as an indictment of the bureaucratic state in general and a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that the state or government can ever be anything but grossly incompetent and dehumanizing.

I do think this is a great book and deserving of its place in the canon of great war literature. This is one of those books where I can appreciate it on an artistic level. I can definitely see why it is revered in so many circles, but for me personally, I wasn’t really all that in to it. I had to go back and re-read chapters a few times, and it was almost impossible for me to keep track of all the different generals and colonels and all the bombardiers who all get their own chapter and end up either cut in half, blown to bits, or smothered to death by a cat. And then every time a new chapter starts time re-sets and I wasn’t sure if it was before or after the event that caused Yossarian to walk around naked (backwards half the time). Like I said: reading this book is like walking around in the dark, stubbing my toe as I go.

I also noticed quite a few parallels between Catch-22 and Voltaire’s Candide, but the most interesting one was between the character of the chaplain and James the Anabaptist. Both these characters have a moral compass or at least believe in ideals and Christian charity, but their ideals end up and do nothing for them in the end. And, of course, the chaplain is an Anabaptist and goes around reminding people of that fact every time someone calls him “father.” In Catch-22 there isn’t any room for conscience or for actual honesty or sincerity. In Candide, James the Anabaptist drowns and in Catch-22, the chaplain basically joins in with the rest of the bureaucrats in trying to get Yossarian to take the final deal that will allow him to go home. If I were still a mean, nasty AP teacher, I would totally make my students write an essay comparing these two works. I’m sure they’d hate me for it (and I’d hate myself for assigning it because then I’d have to read them all).

Parts of this book are laugh out loud hilarious, and parts of it are just jarringly horrifying. The chapter where Doc Daneeka is declared dead because of fouled up paperwork is mind-blowingly funny. And the scene where Kid Sampson gets chopped in half by airplane propellers came right out of left field. It was so meaningless, and perhaps that is Heller’s point all along. Our soldiers are real people and no amount of rhetorical dressing takes away from the fact that a big incompetent bureaucracy has control over whether they live or die. However, on the whole I had to work pretty hard to get though this one and that in and of itself knocked it down a star on my never-to-be disputed rating system.

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Ariel: The Restored Edition

Ariel: The Restored EditionAriel: The Restored Edition by Sylvia Plath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Ariel all the way through–any version–is brutal. The Restored Edition, however, definitely has a different feel to it. Ted Hughes took out some of the poems that Plath had originally intended and then added some that she hadn’t included in the original manuscript. It’s the poems that he left out, though, that add a whole other layer to this edition. Poems like “Thalidomide” and “Barren Woman” were all eventually published in her Complete Works, but reading them here, interspersed between favorites like “Tulips,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy” puts them in a different context. Images of wombs and deformity and violent birth haunt these poems, and these images change the thrust of her overall themes. I can’t help but think that Plath is writing about how the creative process plays out in motherhood and art and how her relationships with men perhaps both contributed to and stymied both processes.

In both “Thalidomide” and “Barren Woman,” Plath conjures up images of birth thwarted. “Thalidomide” throws out one brutal image after another in these stilted, aborted stanzas, the first three which end with Dickinson-like dashes. It’s like those jarred fetuses that Buddy Willard shows Ether in The Bell Jar, except here they are grotesque “dark Amputations” that “crawl and appall” with “indelible buds/ Knuckles at shoulder blades” and “half-moon” faces. It’s nightmarish stuff, and in the middle of these monstrous images the speaker (can I just say Plath?) wonders “What leatheriness/ has protected/ me from that shadow–” How did her “blood-caul” (amniotic membrane) protect her from such a fate? In the end the speaker describes how “all night I carpenter/ a space for the thing I am given.” She describes birth and gestation with a masculine term like “carpenter,” which makes me think of builders or artisans, not birth. She’s a craftsman, someone with skill. She’s creating space for this new “love,” a baby that she describes almost indifferently as “two wet eyes and a screech.” And in the end this imagery rots and becomes grotesque too. She ends with images of rotten fruit, broken glass, and fleeing mercury (another substance that causes birth defects). In this poem Plath juxtaposes birth and creation with deformity and rot and it’s unsettling and frightening.

And this same theme is present two poems later in “Barren Women.” Except now instead of all this gushy, organic, liquefied rot that she conjures up in “Thalidomide,” she describes this white, hard Grecian building. An “Empty” woman walks through a museum that’s bare, “without statues” but filled with “pillars, porticoes, and rotundas.” So there’s not even human statues in this sterile place. Just a vast empty room with ancient architecture, but in the middle there’s a fountain that “sinks back into itself.” It doesn’t go anywhere or feed anything. The water is sterile too. In fact, she describes it as “nun-hearted and blind to the world.” The fountain is chaste and virginal, the exact opposite of water as a life-giving force. And then in the next stanza she imagines herself as the mother of “white Nike” (the goddess of victory) and “several bald-eyed Apollos.” But she quickly realizes that this image too is false: “Instead the dead injure me with attentions and nothing can happen.” She’s sterile and barren and locked inside a lifeless place. She ends this poem with the image of a silent moon that “lays a hand on [her] forehead.” However, it’s not the warm hand of a mother or the energizing touch of a muse; it’s a “blank-faced” and silent nurse. Is the speaker here a barren women because she’s infertile or because she can’t create art herself?

So, yes. This is an interesting edition, and was Ted Hughes right to change this book the way he did? I have no idea. I honestly have no dog in the fight in the Plath/Hughes wars. Frieda Hughes (Plath’s daughter) writes an interesting forward where she discusses what it was like growing up under the shadow of her mother’s suicide and all of the angry feminist hordes who flung so much blame and vitriol at the father she loved. It must have been excruciating. Of course, she also has to get in one last dig at the creators of the movie Sylvia, staring Gwyneth Paltrow, a movie that could’ve been amazing except Hughes refused to give the creators of the film permission to use her father’s or mother’s poetry. And she has to slam Kate Moses’s awesome book Wintering, a fictional imagining based on the last months of Plath’s life. So part of me questions the motivation for putting this edition out (the aforementioned Kate Moses wrote a pretty scathing piece on all of this drama for Salon a while back). And was it really necessary to include copies of the actual typed pages that are basically identical to the published work, minus a scratch-out here and there? I don’t see what they add expect pages to what should be a pretty slim volume.

All this said, it’s still Plath, and it’s her last volume of poetry the way she left it on her kitchen table. In a way it feels like her last words, her suicide note all bound up for her readers. These poems go on living and breathing with all the creative force and energy that was obviously oozing out of her in the last months of her life. The barren, creative angst that seems to be present in so many of these poems ironically contradicts the fact that in this collection Plath ended up and produced one of the most important, honest, and brilliant collections of poetry to come out of the 20th century.

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Break, Blow, Burn

Break, Blow, BurnBreak, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Five star books for me are books that on some level reshape my thinking or become a part of my psyche and intellect on a seminal level. They also are books that I constantly find myself coming back to over and over again. This one fits the bill. I’ve used essays from this book with my AP classes as examples of what close reading and rhetorical analysis looks like when done by a master, and I dip into these essays anytime my latent love of poetry needs reviving. Paglia rescues poetry from the hordes of postmodern/poststructuralist/deconstructionist academics who with their pitchforks and torches have strung up and brutalized so many classic texts with their tortured criticism or who have just flat out dismissed them because these texts no longer fit into whatever cultural hobby-horse they are currently riding. Paglia is a brilliant close reader who just loves poetry and that comes across in every single one of these 43 essays.

Her readings of the metaphysical poets Donne and Hebert are flat out brilliant. Paglia is able to point out the beauty, complexity, and subtle juxtapositions that crop up in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, especially his use of the language of courtship and wooing that Petrarch used in his love poetry and show how Donne transposes that same language onto his experience of Christ. Donne casts himself in the role of submissive lover who wants to be ravished by Christ (“Holy Sonnet XIV”). And what I find even more refreshing is how an atheist like Paglia can read sacred poetry and be fluent in the language, symbolism, and mythology of Christianity without being dismissive of it. In fact, she reads poetry with reverence, as though the reading and writing of poetry is itself an expression of divinity. Her readings add depth and detail to these poems that I’d never quite considered before. Her unpacking of Donne’s use of “Adamant” at the end of “Holy Sonnet I” is just one example. She notes how the word “marks the spot where the quester, a tainted heir of old Adam, sees the face of God” and “is drawn towards [His] adamantine touch, which turns iron into spiritual gold” (29). She notes not only the symbolic use of the term, how Donne plays off the idea of Adam as the first man and Christ as the last Adam, but also its physical location within the poem. It’s just awesome. Her readings of Herbert’s sacred poetry are equally impressive and eye-opening. Paglia has no problem celebrating the greats of Western poetry.

Paglia works her way through Western poetry beginning with Shakespeare, touching on the Metaphysical poets and then Romantics like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake. Next she crosses the pond and offers some brilliant takes on Whitman and Dickinson (I wait with bated breath for Paglia to write an entire book dedicated to unraveling Dickinson), and then switches gears a bit to focus on some moderns like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke; Harlem Renaissance poets like Toomer and Hughes; and confessional poets Lowell and Plath. Interestingly, she ends with Joni Mitchel’s “Woodstock” as homage to the death and unrealized longing of the hippie generation. In her essays Western poetry becomes one continual conversation that responds to and feeds off those that come before. It’s like Whitman’s lines in “Oh Me! Oh My!” come to fruition: “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Each poet here contributes their verses in this eternal conversation of “life and identity.”

And I have to admit that I get a kick out of her not-so-subtle digs at feminist academics and over-anxious PC types. In her absolutely fabulous essay on Plath’s “Daddy,” she says with gusto: “Some Plath disciples seem to think that a litany of grievances, accompanied by sullen mutterings about patriarchy, is enough to make a poem,” and then she goes on to point out how Plath marinated herself in great male writers and had a “studious approach to writing” (176).  And Blackburn’s awesome poem “The Once-Over” that feminist critics like to interpret as an example of the violent male gaze is rightfully shown instead to illustrate how “it’s not she, but the men who are being ‘assaulted’ or invaded; their longing gaze proves their pitiable weakness, not (as feminists would later claim) their oppressive power” (189). Paglia is a powerful and bold reader and she isn’t afraid to fly in the face of current academic and social orthodoxy, which accounts for all of those old professors of mine (and current Social Justice Warriors) who hate her.

This book reminds me why I have basically given up on politics. It’s myopic, it’s unsatisfying, and in the end, it’s transitory. In her reading of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (a poem that I can’t read without Walter White’s voice in my head now) she points out how “Art is long; politics short” (74). In the end, all of our great monuments will be buried under sand like Shelley’s colossus, and only the words will remain. For me, I’d rather take part in a conversation that crosses millennia instead of getting mired down in the current details of our ridiculous age. This too shall pass, but poetry will live on.

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The Bell Jar

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How many times have I read this book? At least six, I think. I read it multiple times in my mid-twenties when I was on a Plath binge. Back then I related to Esther Greenwood’s absolute inability to make a decision as to which direction she wanted to take her life and her total separation from those around her. Now reading Plath in my 40s, I’m just sad. I’m sad that she wasn’t able to keep the bell jar from descending in the end; I’m sad for all the novels and poetry she was never able to write; I’m sad for the children she left behind, one who also struggled with mental illness and ended up taking his own life; and I’m sad that ultimately she was never able to find a way to merge the life of a public, intellectual writer/poet with her private desires for home, family, and motherhood. Ultimately, I think it was the constant conflict between her public and private desires coupled with her mental illness that was her undoing. And it’s just so, so sad.

It’s impossible for me to read this book as straight fiction or to separate the character Esther Greenwood from the author Sylvia Plath. She herself wrote to a friend that “she thought of The Bell Jar ‘as an autobiographical apprentice work which I had to write in order to free myself from the past'” (261). It’s that merging of truth and fiction that makes this novel so powerful and it’s why I can easily forgive any literary missteps–Esther hemorrhaging after losing her virginity, for example–and just give her credit for everything she was attempting to do as a young writer trying to free herself from a past that she doesn’t want defining her. And as to that overwrought, bloody virginity scene, this time around I was totally reminded of a lecture I heard Tim O’Brien give about his conflation of truth and fiction in The Things They Carried. He explains to a bunch of disappointed college students that much of The Things The Carried, is total fiction; “It’s made up.” And then he says, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” So what is the truth of that bloody virginity scene? People criticize Plath here for being totally unrealistic. Women don’t bleed a river of blood that fills their shoes after having sex, but that doesn’t matter. For the entire novel Esther/Plath sees men, sex, and motherhood as a violent act. If she succumbs to these 1950s demands for purity, everything she wants will be destroyed. Conversely, if she lives the life of a radical intellectual she will also be violently ripped away from this desire for cozy domesticity. These conflicts are ripping her in two, and I think she illustrates that violent ripping by having Esther gush dark, black blood after her first sexual encounter. Interestingly, Esther goes into that encounter with this sense of total control. She’s been fitted for a diaphragm, she picks the man, she’s rearing to go. But even with that illusory control, she still sees herself as ripped apart. She can’t escape the consequences. Sex and domesticity will obliterate her.

My absolute favorite scene in this entire novel is the heartbreaking description of the fig tree. She describes how each fig represents a possible future: famous poet, publisher, mother, intellectual, and many other possibilities that she just can’t quite make out. But here she sits paralyzed because she can’t choose which one she wants: “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet” (77).

God, that sucks. And I totally get it. The irony, though, is that she was doing it. She wrote much of The Bell Jar with the support of a grant which she used to pay a nanny and her rent so she could write as a young mother. And most of the Ariel poems were written in the early morning hours while while she had two babies under two. She was doing it. And I don’t blame Hughes’ affair or the patriarchy or anything else that feminist critics lay at her grave. Plath was strong enough to overcome all of those obstacles. Mental illness is a beast and that is what ultimately what ripped her apart. She said it herself: “How did I know that someday–at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere–the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” (241).  And sadly for us and the family she left behind, it did.

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