On the fiction of funerals, and the reality of fiction.
m.snowe thinks she’s been reading too many books. Or something.
m.snowe had the rather dubious task of attending the wake and funeral of a loved-one in the past few days. Anyone who spends all four hours at the wake and an entire day at the mass, burial and assorted family functions will tell you that the points of grief ebb and are often punctuated with times that are completely incongruous with the actual events taking place. And this is a good thing–we can’t be crying the entire time. But in those moments of introspection separate from mourning, m.snowe got to thinking about funerals in general. And the overarching sentiment she came to terms with was this: Bogus.
Why so bogus? First, the misrepresentation. m.snowe has an irrational fear of not being understood, or somehow being misinterpreted to ill effect (solipsistic, yes, but true). While this may be a personal fear projected onto her view of the scene, m.snowe couldn’t help but think that most people (unless ridiculously horrible human beings) would like to be presented accurately as themselves, and remembered as themselves. Nothing annoys this blogger more than the phrase “so-and-so would’ve wanted it that way,” and the like. No, so-and-so may not have, and you just have to accept that you’ll probably never know what they wanted. Many people have a fear of the indeterminate, and perhaps that’s why funerals are so necessary–they solidify things into a compact, two-day affair, where the family and friends gather around and decide that this was all worth it.
But m.snowe could not reduce a life down to the five french memory boards that held pictures from eight decades on them. And when she heard the priest say something about the departed’s personality that she knew to be false, she couldn’t help but cringe–despite the priest’s valiant efforts to laud a man or his life, isn’t it better to truthfully understand a man than hear reassuring pleasantries? It felt like the contrite narratives of check-out line mass-market fiction–written to a formula with slightly different characters. Why do all the stories have to be the same, just rejiggered to (hopefully) fit the person being mourned? There is no way to make sense of the experience of a life into a ritual of two day’s time–yet we try to, and fail beautifully. There is no such thing as closure. There is no such thing as a meaningful exit. Our book ends are not matching, nor do they hold steady.
What does this have to do with fiction? Well, m.snowe was often schooled that a writer’s work is never really done, and the only way to know for sure that it is, is with their death (comments on death being an “excellent career move” via book sales aside). This may or may not be accurate, but the actual book itself–the novel, or the short story, or the play or poem–once it is bound or published, once it has entered the reader’s head, it has become a perfect little life, independent of its writer and the question of their mortality. Like Aristotle said, the piece of writing has a beginning, a middle, and an end, no matter how it tries to forgo convention. It is at once a living work, and a dead one that is able to define itself perfectly with no ritual, incense or false memories. There is no flux, although the interpretations may change and the original meaning of the author may have slipped away. Fiction is more real, and surely less temporal than we are. Of course there are exceptions to the rules, but m.snowe is hard pressed to relay them…
Also, it can’t be a coincidence that so many of us are obsessed with writing, and recording, and documenting, and creating these works of fiction. Because although no work can encapsulate us, our writings have the ability to become some unchanging fermament–a sunny day we can choose to make our own, and always revisit, with no fear of misrepresentation or miscalculation. Fiction is our best eulogy.
To the negative ten readers of this blog:
The last post was full of typos. Twenty lashes with an interweb wet noodle, m.snowe!
From a literal and rhetorical standpoint, m.snowe has some concerns.
Viagra. Cialis. Etc., Etc. Doing a quick browse through some of the many drugs approved by the FDA, one finds almost no drugs with names that actually hark back to the use of said drugs, i.e. ‘viagra’ isn’t called ‘elong-gra.’ But that all changes with Plan B (or Levonorgestral). Somehow, the makers and marketers of this drug in particular thought it advantageous to call it “Plan B.” The message is clear: this is what you use when you have an accident with your birth control or have unprotected sex.What the name assumes is that women are well aware of the other options available to them, and that this is indeed the course of action you take when the first options fail. This bothers m.snowe, and for a while, she wasn’t sure why–because clearly Plan B should in fact be a backup option that is used in circumstances when the pill or a condom might not have been effective. But then she realized that in isolation, that wasn’t the problem–it was thinking about drug names specifically for males (and gender-neutral drugs too), and their neutrality in terms of why and when men take them, that ticked m.snowe off. No brainy marketers at pfizer suggested to the board room (full of likely end users) that viagra be called “limp-lift,” or “second shift.” Also, Plan B clearly delineates that the person taking the drug has made a mistake…when in fact it is just as likely that the man (who may or may not have needed the help of a purple pill) could just as likely be the culprit. Yes, there probably was a malfunction of some kind–but let’s hammer home the point that you, the female, messed up–because the trama of a broken condom, or a rape or sexual abuse of some kind isn’t traumatic enough–now you have to make the woman feel like a “B” or second-class citizen. But what is even more obnoxious is that the namers of this drug probably didn’t intend any of these things–they probably named it such so as to try and appease opponents, and assure them that this was a last-resort pill that only should be taken if all the other options should fail (i.e. women should not view the advent of this drug as an excuse to be more promiscous, because high school girls especially will do so and it will create chaos…right…). Let’s look at the facts–the only people using this drug (mostly) are the women informed and savvy enough to understand that it is in fact a last resort–and are able to purchase it (which at $50 a pop is not something teenagers would do often). Because the humiliation of going to a local pharmacy, and waiting in line to declare you need Plan B, getting out your ID as if you’re trying to engage in under-age drinking and letting everyone else in the store know that you have had sex within in the last 72 hours, well, m.snowe can’t imagine a local small town kid who’s family knows the pharmacist finding that an easy task.
But all that rhetoric is kind of beside the point–it just got m.snowe thinking more about the bigger issues surrounding Plan B, after she read this report, concerning lowering the age of availability without parential consent to 17. It took m.snowe a few days to find out this was lowered. And m.snowe regularly visits feminist-bent blogs, and keeps generally aware of the major reporting in the larger press. Why was it so hard to learn, and why didn’t the current administration laud it? For one thing, probably to keep it out of the already testy debates going on, ex. international diplomacy, etc., etc. But the problem is that m.snowe is an informed and aware citizen when it comes to her reproductive rights, and many of the people that could really benefit from this drug are not going to seek out this kind of information (which m.snowe professes to having a monomanical focus on). This is a problem to be wrestled with–m.snowe and many others love feministing, but shouldn’t we wonder whether we understand that any movement of thought is meant to inspire those outside it–not preach to a choir? The same thing happens in the music and literary communities–we become so focused with impressing and one-upping and commenting on each other’s work, the sense of enjoyment to a general population gets lost in the shuffle, and the very work done to promote the field ends up alienating and disloding it further from social consciousness. So maybe we can still call it Plan B–but can we come up with a campaign of awareness? A Plan A?
(where m.snowe ponders what we’re doing now, did before, and might do later).
m.snowe has a problem she feels many people might share with her. When in a moment that is good, she has a tendency to take herself out of it in her head, and thereby create an internal/external discord between present time and present consciousness. Here is a rather basic, un-complex example of this phenomenon: while enjoying a perfect, sunny afternoon, the realization that it will soon be over creeps ever-so-unsubtly into your head, and soon your imagination has taken you away from the enjoyment of the present, and thrust you, unwillingly, into the vague and overcast skies of a potentially rainy tomorrow. Another example: having a few minutes or hours doing something momentous or spending time with someone who fulfills you, but knowing that those moments cannot be replicated in the future. This makes the present intensely wonderful but impossible to experience without recognizing the sound of its dying echo as the time encroaches, and the present recedes into memory.
Most agree that one major difference between our consciousness and that of other mammals’ awareness is that we have a far-better developed sense of foresight. We see into the future whether we are actually given one or not, and have the wherewithal to plan and engineer complex systems to hopefully better our way of life in the long-term. But, because we have this wonderful gift of being able to adapt and prepare, we simultaneously have been burdened with the knowledge that the ephemeral is just that. We are not jungle cats hunting, concerned merely with our next available prey and subsequent full stomach–we worry about all the prey we will ever get to sink our teeth into…thereby making the carcass we’re munching on right now taste nowhere near as satisfying, though sustaining nonetheless.
m.snowe doesn’t mean to say she’s looking for everlasting things, or the ability to live completely in the present–that would be horrible, and utterly mundane. But what she would like are more balanced proportions.
Yesterday, Slate posted an intriguing story about female supreme court justices, and the question of gender and its effect on the decisions of the court. The article starts with the basic idea that (hopefully) Obama will at least consider a (long) shortlist of extremely qualified female candidates to appoint to the bench, should the inevitable vacancy occur within his term of office. What bothers m.snowe about this idea is the simple notion that Obama should just appoint a woman to make it “more fair” or “balance out” the court. While m.snowe would be ecstatic to see a kick-ass female judge on the court, she bristles (actually, more like shivers up a storm) when she reads that somehow, a woman “judges differently” than a man. Yes, it is a given that because a woman is in fact a woman, she will not be able to set aside that fact (because as any group that is not the privileged straight white man knows, you are constantly reminded of what causes your subjection), and she will be prone to a better understanding of the issues that come along with being the more discriminated-against sex. That, however, (as Sandra Day O’Connor has said many times) should be something that is separate from the law.
One of the other things that bothered me about this article was its woman-centric focus. As the article tries to highlight for a moment, it’s the unique individual experiences of the justices that ends up making an effect on the other judges…they use the example of Thurgood Marshall, and his experiences which opened the other judges’ eyes in terms thoughts on race. It’s a contentious argument, but it is fairly reasonable to assume that no one can fully understand a minority’s situation unless they have experienced it themself–as a woman, a person of a different race, a person of a different sexual preference, etc. (This is separate from having the compassion and acceptance and empathy for all people–which is essential.) And so, while m.snowe would like to see a few more women on the court, she believes that this is only the starting point. m.snowe would like to see some more ethnic diversity. And, just maybe, some sexual preference diversity. M.snowe doesn’t pretend to know what it’s like to be of a different race or preference than her own. And that’s why she looks to other intelligent people and their experiences to help inform her own efforts. What would be better than some guidance from the highest court in the land? Perhaps the senate and house would follow? Because honestly, the diversity in the legislative branch is fairly scant, too.
What m.snowe would like to stress is this: despite a woman’s ability to be aware of discrimination against women, just as any minority or subjected group might similarly be able to grasp, the differing opinions and moral codes within genders, sexual orientation groups, ethnic minorities, etc., etc., are far more diverse even among themselves. You can find any viewpoint you’d like to if you poll enough people. And this grouping, this idea that somehow men rule differently than women (that a woman is more likely to emotionally sympathize, etc.), and making that your argument for having more women on the bench–that is just not on. Obama and his sucessors should evaluate the abilities of candidates regardless of sex. And perhaps that will provide the most parity. m.snowe wants the best judge for the job. Sadly, opportunities for women to get to the highest positions in government, and especially in judicial branch jobs, have been thwarted in the past, present, and sadly, the future (just look at what O’Connor and Ginsburg had to go through–O’Connor could only find a job as a secretary after graduating in the top tier of her law school class). Let’s hope that Obama is given the shot to at least consider and hear about some of the most qualified female candidates, not to mention those candidates of all shapes, sizes, colors, orientations, beliefs …
where M.Snowe talks of Lolita.
Lolita/Lolita is a lot different than what m.snowe was led to believe prior to opening the book. And by that, m.snowe means both the whole book as well as the character of Lolita.
This phenomenon should really be studied more often: the idea of a book before reading it, to the actual experience of reading and then the feeling you are left with once you finish (reading it the first time, that is). Novels have a way of surprising readers, unlike most other mediums of art, because of the sheer length, and the different voices of different authors. Picking up a book by an author you have never read before is always an interesting pursuit–because no matter what expectations, or research you did beforehand, nothing competes with the act of reading the text.
Okay, so most readers, staring at the cover of Lolita, would know a few things, just from its permeation into the realm of pop culture, of which we’ve all been steeped since we were zygotes: Lolita is this small, young little mischievous sex pot who causes the downfall of a much older lover. In comedy, in references, Lolita is shown as a clever minx who dresses scantily, and has her wits about her–she uses her sexual guile as power. Perhaps m.snowe has been misreading all the references to Lolita, but this was her impression before opening the book. Yes, there was the messiness of pedophilia always lurking towards the back of these references, but it was never made so prominent so as to disturb the image of this lustful young girl. The last real reference m.snowe saw that evoked Lolita was a scene from Broken Flowers with Bill Murray, where a lithe teenage daughter of Murray’s ex lover walks around in front of him, naked. Oh, and her name is Lolita. Very subtle, people.
But the Broken Flowers instance is a perfect example of the largest misconception people have before they read the book–Lolita as seducer. She is not. She is, even by Humbert’s submission, too young to fully understand, and is forced to do things she certainly would not choose to do. but even if she was a seducer, we would have no way of knowing, because the entire book (except the introduction) is written from the perspective of Humbert. And not only that, but Humbert makes it quite clear, even through all his lies, double entendres, and sheer lunacy, that Lolita indeed rejects him, and never seriously considered their sexual behavior as consummate. Perhaps m.snowe is reading it “wrong,” but she thinks not. This bothers m.snowe’s sense of fairness–how is it, that a book about an obsessed pedophile becomes an instant classic, enters the cannon and thereby mass culture, and then Lolita is culturally turned into villain, or at least into the stand-in campy seductress? Lolita surely deserves the acclaim, but Lolita the character got a bum rap.
There’s another part of Lolita that the outside observer might never have known without at least reading a very astute summary of the book: it’s hilarious. It’s hilarious in so many ways: the word play of Humbert, his dark and bitter commentary of others he meets, etc., etc. When people think to quote Lolita, they often quote the opening lines, which are very memorable, but they are also the most sincere, and really are the at the end of Humbert’s life. It is not representative of the whole. Humbert is appealingly (and yet paradoxically) frank. And this frankness, we believe in one instance (ex. when he judges women) and disavow in another (ex. when he pleads his case for sanity, or tries to qualify his lust for nymphets.) And that is the other great triumph of Nabokov’s work, surely: the person of Humbert, the narrative he weaves that makes us completely secure in the story, while simultaneously not believing a word that comes out of his filthy mouth. Humbert (and by extension, Nabokov) is very careful in his insanity to gloss over what the reader would be shocked to hear–and although there is bitter honesty contained in the book that might make the reader blush or be affronted, it is never so gross as to detail the deepest reaches of Humbert’s pedophilia.
M.snowe recommends you read Lolita, if, like her you’ve been putting it off. If for nothing else, to reevaluate what pop culture told you it was about. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised how beautiful an ugly story can be.
a silent tillbox parched with barnacles
nipping at the edges
and fighting pulls against the skin.
how could you be
and say and do
those oceans spilling
a packed sand junctured by a new tempter.
how is it you can make me
not make but enable
a crooked stairwell irony
creaking down and up again
fluid motions you promised no.
unbelieveably irrevocably simple
that blue water
those white swirls
the voice, drowned
fear lopped up
upon the crags.
Oh the Midwest–that vast span of green-fielded conservatism that rifts east and west, and sets it asunder. Not so fast. At least Iowa did this today. Who knows how long it will last (the article says at least two years), and if it will serve a simultaneously counterproductive purpose by getting all the right-winged conservative crazies out to fight the bad fight against same sex marriage.
But face value: way to be, Iowa (or at least the Iowan court that made the ruling).