Monday, November 26, 2007

Reflective Response

I'm not writing an essay along with you, but I have still been thinking a lot about identity, perception, and the gaze of others. I've been working on this poem this quarter - it's not finished I don't think, but here it is so far. It's a sort of response both to our themes this quarter and especially to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.


I see myself

Standing in new shoes in the church

Wondering at the questions
Do I take you
Do you take me

Later, laughing at how awkward it seemed
To share a bed
All elbows and knees

Your eye met my eye
You said to me,
So this is you.

I see myself

Standing barefoot at a cradle

Wondering at this small, soft thing
This of me
This of you

Later, smiling at how sweet it was
To feel this body between us
A warm center

Your eye met my eye
You said to me,
And this is you.

I see myself

Standing in old shoes in summer baked, crumbling earth

Looking out over the stretch of garden established
By me
By you

And laughing at this year’s bumper corn
Finally, so high
So green

Later, feeling the calloused coarseness
Of your hand as it fit so neatly
Into mine

Your eye met my eye
And the bright sun,
For a glancing instant
Reflected my eye
In yours

I see myself with you

Standing at the end of our long drive

Stopping for breath together
As we looked out towards the darkening mountain

Later, walking slowly, the sturdiness of your arm
A warm familiar
Under mine

Dear eye met my eye
And the old sun,
In its last glowing,
Caught and held my eye
In yours

But now

A dark eye cannot meet my eye
Cannot see,
Cannot say,
Cannot mirror to me,

And I forget how to be
How to see
Without your gaze
On me

I am
and falling

I am not


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Harvest of Words

"Harvest" is such a rich word, isn't it? One though that I think has lost much of its richness in our 21st century world. When I was growing up, my mother always had a vegetable garden. I remember those lazy days in the summer, grazing in the garden - picking a handful of peas and sitting on the grass to pop them open and eat them or tugging up the biggest looking carrot and washing it with the garden hose - or maybe just wiping it off on the grass - and munching away.

I suppose we had a kind of a harvest at the end of the year - digging potatoes, picking squash. It wasn't really a true harvest though - the garden was wonderful, but a kind of a luxury, not really a necessity, not the kind of thing we all toiled as a family over from spring through summer. Not the kind of thing we labored to gather in and store for the winter. We're not really used to that kind of seasonal labor, the kind of seasonal labor that's necessary to produce the food we need to survive. I'm not sure that I wish for that kind of hard life again, but I do regret that certain kinds of language lose a certain resonance and joy when they become merely abstract, merely things tied to the past. I suppose that's partly what I love about literature - language is kept alive, language comes alive, makes us remember, remember even the things we've never experienced.

I've been listening to the poet Seamus Heaney read Beowulf this week in bits and pieces (my way of protesting the movie) - and the language is amazing. It's a poem that ought to be listened to, not read and struggled over - most poems ought to be listened to, I suppose. My sisters-in-law have a tradition of inviting several couples over for a Harvest Dinner each autumn - they serve a meal and ask everyone to bring a reading or a poem. We're not quite used to reading poems aloud, are we? It felt a little awkward, but I wish we were a culture that could reacquaint itself with that habit. To hear each other's voices, to savor our language, its sounds, its meanings. It's a way of connecting with one another, connecting with our past, with our present. I love words.

Here is a poem for you:

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chesnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
"We are," they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it's still a strange pageant,
Women's dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
--Czeslaw Milosz

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Dream and a Terror

Have any of you seen trailers for the new movie Beowulf? In theory, I like the idea of taking great literature and translating it into film. The problem, though, is that I'm almost always disappointed and then I get depressed. I've not seen Beowulf, but I've just watched the trailer - and I find it distinctly disturbing on two levels. First, Beowulf is a classic piece of English literature, the oldest full piece that we have - its language is beautiful, rich, layered, mythic, heroic - it evokes another world, another time. The movie, however, looks like a video game at worst and at best, like the recent poorly-reviewed movie 300. It looks to have very little carry over from the richness of the original text. "Buff man meets monster, kills monster, buff man meets second monster and dragon, fighting ensues. The end." Let's just pull the heart out of the piece and stomp on it, shall we?

So after taking a lovely thing and making it cheap, it gets worse. Featured quite prominently in the trailer and in movie posters is the lovely Angelina Jolie, and I find Adrienne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken" may have a great deal more carry over than I thought. Her complaint, you remember, is that in literature male writers only ever portray women as a dream or a terror, an angel or a monster, a redemption or a threat. And in the end of her piece, Rich also refers to the grindhouse movies of the 70's. One would think we've moved beyond those days, that literature, those films, but I don't know if we've moved at all beyond those exploitative grindhouse movie days when sexy women were victims who became terrors who then took particular pleasure in killing men. Jolie plays Grendel the monster's mother - and guess what? She gorgeous, sexy, semi-naked, and she seduces men into her lair, so she can kill them. They didn't make Grendel's mother a monster, they made her a beautiful woman. No wonder Rich was angry.

Here's the beginning of one of her poems:

A woman in the shape of a monster

a monster in the shape of a woman

the skies are full of them

Are our theaters full of them, do you think?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Through the Lens of Our Selves

I've just finished watching Grizzly Man again in preparation for our viewing it in class on Tuesday. This is the third time I've seen it, and I think the experience of it only gets more extraordinary. The film is about Timothy Treadwell, but I love how present the filmmaker Werner Herzog makes himself in the film. In most documentaries, the filmmaker tries to remain hidden, tries to keep his or her own opinions out of sight - doing so, I suppose, in the interest of objectivity or at least, in the interest of seeming to be objective. But Herzog openly tells us what he thinks. He is the narrator - we hear his voice - we know it is he who is, in some sense, fashioning and shaping our vision of this grizzly man. He tells us that Treadwell had a "sentimentalized view that everything out there was good and the universe was in balance and in harmony,” and then he says of himself, "But I believe the common denominator of the universe is chaos, hostility, and murder." In the end of the film, too, he says that he believes the footage Treadwell took “is not so much a look at wild nature as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature . . . and that, for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to his life and to his death.” He tells us how he personally interprets Treadwell's life and death. His use of "I" and "me" is refreshing because we can try to be objective, we can pretend to be objective, but, surely, we can never be truly objective. Our subjectivity always intrudes. We always gaze at the world, at others, through the lens of our beliefs, our individual quirks, our likes and dislikes, our education, our family history, our selves. That is not to say I think everything is relative, that nothing can be known for certain, but I do believe we must acknowledge our own subjectivity and recognize it in others to begin to see with clearer vision.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Identity Search

Last night, my husband and I and some friends went to see the film Into the Wild. It's the fictionalized account of a true story, a real person - a young man, Chris McCandless, who, after graduating with honors from college, gave all of his money ($24,000.00) away to charity, shredded his ID (social security card, driver's license), and took off, travelling the country without so much as a hint to his family or anyone who knew him that he was leaving. He travelled for over two years - first by car, but mostly by walking and hitching rides. As he travelled, he kept a diary in which he wrote about himself in the third person, calling himself "Alexander SuperTramp," and he introduced himself as such to everyone he met. His goal, in part, was to leave all social conventions and just be "out there," scrounging for survival, testing his limits, creating an identity for himself that had nothing to do with the family he grew up with or with the parameters Western society expected. He ended up in Alaska, alone, far from human contact, far from the gaze and expectations of others. The tragedy is that after a stay of about a month or two, he decided to leave his "Alaskan Adventure" as he styled it and to reconnect with the human race, but he found himself trapped, unable to cross the raging river, full of early summer's melting snow and ice. He ended up starving to death - dying alone in the wilderness. Before he died, he records in his diaries he loneliness; he wanted, in the end, to be back in human community, and his last note, written to whomever might find his body, was signed, not with the identity he had taken in in his two years of travelling, but signed, "Christopher McCandless," the name his parents had given him, the identity he thought he'd wanted to leave behind.

I'm not sure exactly how this fits in with our ideas about perception, our questions about how important others' perceptions are of us - but I think there's a connection somewhere here. It was important to Chris, in this re-creating of himself, not only to re-name himself, but to tell others his new name, to make sure their impression of him was of someone without ties, without family, without parents, siblings, even friends. He wanted to be a free agent - unconnected and unaffected by those closest to him, even to those he met in his travels. But in the end, he longed for that connection - but the realization that he even had that longing or need came too late. I think in many ways, we, too, want to feel we are free agents - only affected by others when and how we want to be affected. But as with Joan Didion, when her husband died, as with Chris, when he came to his own death, they both realized that their identities, who they were, were bound up in the lives of others. And that when that bond was ripped from them, they almost could not bear the loneliness of it. I suppose the fact that our lives, our identities are so bound to others is both a joy and a terror, a blessing and a burden. We cannot live without it, and in certain moments our fellowship with others - their gaze upon us - is one of the greatest of joys. But at other times, the gaze is a great weight, and Chris came to a time when he did not want to live with it. So what do we do with these two halves ourselves?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Through the Eyes of Others

About six months ago, I read Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking - it's an extraordinary account, an account of grief, grief in the face of the death of a beloved spouse. I did not realize that in reading that book I would not come away unscathed - it is a book that burns, burns because it is both so extraordinary - how many significant writers can you think of who have spent an entire book describing such a grief? - and so ordinary - will not all of us, at some point, face the horror of the death of someone dear to us? Since I read it, I feel in some ways, I'll never really be the same - there's a kind of knowledge that changes you, and Didion has that dangerous giftedness that all eminent writers do to get inside you, inside your experience of life.

As we've been talking about perception this quarter - how we perceive, why we perceive in the way we do, how we perceive others, how and why we don't perceive others - and I realize that much of my own perception of the world is shaped in significant ways by books. Certain books, not all books. Didion's book has forever changed my perception others of who are grieving, my perception of death, my perception of myself and others as a mortal beings, and my perception of my connectedness to those closest to me.

One thing that Didion wrote has particularly haunted me - she writes, "Marriage is memory, marriage is time. . . . Marriage is not only time: it is also paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age. This year [the year of John's death] for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I realized that my image of myself was of someone significantly younger" (197). Is this not an observation almost that cannot be tolerated? (And yet, I revel in the despairing truth of it. Isn't this the joy and pain of great writing?) We do not realize, I think, how much the eyes of others, particularly of those closest to us, affect our perception of ourselves - and if we are with a dear other for years upon years, is it not inevitable that that "other" vision becomes so much a part of who we are that if it is torn away, the shock of it, the abrupt awareness of new eyes looking at us, might be too much to bear?

When my grandmother died after 55 years of marriage to my grandfather, my grandfather at once became much older. I noted it then, but could not really make sense of it. He became a different person. I cannot say for certain that his dementia and the rapidity of his physical aging was a direct result of my grandmother's death, but saying that it was, at least in part, makes a great deal of sense to me. Without her vision of him, he, in some way, lost himself, I think. I do not mean to be so grim here, but I feel I must respond to Didion's book in some way, for it touches us all so nearly. Her book - with this insight into death, and grief, and into how the lives of others are so intertwined with our own - is a gift - a terrible one perhaps, but nonetheless, a gift.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Looking in the Mirror

It's interesting how life works sometimes, in that, often when you begin thinking about a thing, that thing crops up everywhere. We've been talking about perception, about the way that our physical senses lead us to believe certain things, particularly, as shown in the film Crash, things about others. My 6-year old daughter was telling me about a new girl that's just come to her class. She quite carefully explained to me her process when she encounters new people - "first," she said, "I look at their faces - I look to see if they're pretty - and if they are pretty, then I like them." At first, I was so shocked and horrified - have I been teaching her this?! That this is the way we judge others? But as we've been thinking about perception in our class and watching a movie like Crash, I wonder, is this, rather than a product of my training of her, merely a human trait? Isn't what she does what we do in some way or another? We do look at people, we look at their faces, their bodies, to see what they look like, to make a judgment about their "prettiness," as my daughter phrased it. Our senses give us these impressions of others - as adults, I guess, we learn to hide the reactions we have to what our senses tell us about others - we learn to suppress those reactions - we learn to remember to look beyond the surface. But my daughter's comments and the claims that Crash makes force me wonder just how much we actually do dismiss our senses and look beyond the surface in the attempt to sympathize, understand, and love.

We are physical beings, but isn't that rather strange? Don't we sense and resent the dichotomy sometimes? How much does our physical structure actually represent who we are inside? I think it was the writer Simone Weil (or perhaps her contemporary Simone de Beauvoir) who once said something to the effect that 'every beautiful woman looks in the mirror and accepts the image, and every ugly woman looks in the mirror and knows that it lies.' I understand what she meant, I think; who doesn't?

I recently listened to an interview with the writer John Updike - he's struggled his whole life, apparently, with psoriasis- an unsightly skin affliction that can be treated, but never cured. He said, "It's a strange thing, isn't it, to be born into a certain body rather than an ideal body . . .[and] the whole idea of a face is slightly funny. If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment, [to see] these faces we carry around, the holes -- the shining holes, the dark holes, the one that shows a lot of teeth -- [it] is all odd beyond belief because it's my face, but it isn't really my self." And so we've been given these bodies, skins, faces and we are in some part judged by others because of them, but we are not sure how they are actually "me." Plato seems to think we can move beyond the senses, we can move to a reality which contains only an abstract ideal, but I don't know just how far we can do that - we, our beings, are both physical and abstract - what do we do with those two halves of ourselves?

(The cool picture in this blog, by the way, isn't mine - I found it on - here's the link: