m.snowe is reading this. So fair, not so bad. But one thing that’s slightly jarring is the haphazard, or perhaps randomly selective use of obscure ways of describing things. Chances are Diamant is littering a few strange words here or there in order to keep her readers aware that this book is set in a completely different, biblical era (i.e. Old Testament). Okay, fine. But one thing that is talked about a lot, and a word that is used quite a lot in the book is “sex.” Yes, there’s a lot of the actual sex act going on in this book. However, Diamant chooses to use the word “sex” not only as the act of having sex, but also as the noun referring interchangeably to either female or male genitalia. (Example: “The women sang all the welcoming songs to her while Rachel ate date honey and fine wheat-flour cake, made in the three-cornered shape of a woman’s sex.”)
It takes a lot of reading down the long entry for “sex” in the OED to find anything close to this uncommon usage:
One thing m.snowe really likes about using “sex” instead of the specific male and female names for the body parts is that it serves as an equalizer, there is no distinction between male and female when you use the word. Also, the clinical aspects of the technical names are discarded, and the idea of “sex” is relegated to the actual body parts of one’s sex, not the outer idea of sex as a way to describe the whole body/person. It becomes just a small part (some smaller than others, LOL), and therefore sex (in terms of being male or female) is defined less by some idea of gender and more mechanically.
But, it’s still jarring to hear an actual, physical thing be described using the same word as, essentially, what it does. You have sex with your sex. You do not have arm with your arm, or brain with your brain. I’m confused. Where are we?
Sure, there are lots of words out there that are both nouns and verbs or describe both an action and a thing, but usually they’re very distinct from each other, and you can tell within the context (Ex. A bear in the forest is different from how you bear a child; you don’t bear a bear, unless you’re a bear). How would we distinguish what the hell was going on?
Here are some weird example sentences:
I opened my kiss and used my chew to have a bite.
I opened my lips and used my teeth to have a bite.
Her walk was tired. She put her seat on the chair.
Her legs were tired. She put her backside on the chair.
Okay, these are kind of crap examples. But you get what’s going on here, right? Anyone else come across this phenomena, where an author intentionally misuses, or uses an obscure definition of a word through the breadth of their work in order to invoke a false sense of the arcane? And does it succeed, or just make you annoyed?
Last night, m.snowe was sucked into the twirly, tornadic cultural zeitgeist and watched the last two episodes of Lost (that twirly zeitgeist is kind of like the smoke monster, FYI). Apparently, Lost has a penchant for inserting literary/philosophical references into the show, and sometimes even uses them as clues into what might possibly happen to the characters. But more often than not, the characters themselves engender the ideals of what they value, or are connected with. In one of these episodes, a character references Of Mice and Men as his favorite book. Of course, knowing the character fairly well, somehow I couldn’t see him as the type to actually sit down and really enjoy some Steinbeck.
But we’ll disregard that for a second. Why is it that fictional characters need to define themselves by their allusions to other fictional characters? And why do we take these cues and also declare our favorite books for similar reasons? The Favorite book question can be a daunting thing–selecting one or two books that people will absolutely judge you by, whether they admit it or not. In a fictional setting, this type of judgment is helpful to the author (ex. the character likes Hemingway, therefore they are justifiably terse or stoic). One character’s or novel’s mood can be used to apply to the other. This might be helpful, but it can also cause the reader/viewer to misattribute things or try to fit together pieces like some sort of puzzle, even if that puzzle doesn’t exist in the creator’s mind. (Which is one of the biggest exercises of those who watch or read stories like Lost). This kind of theorizing will inevitably happen with every piece of art, but more so when we are asked “to get” all these quasi-intellectual references. This exercise usually does one of two things: it can artificially evoke an intimate familiarity with a text through other texts, or it can completely alienate the audience by relying on a body knowledge the audience does not have. Also, m.snowe just thinks that sometimes, it’s cheating. You rest on the shoulders of others to try and give your story relevance–but who’s shoulders were those stories resting on? And is it fair to bog down an audience with so many connections in order to distract them from simply enjoying/evaluating the story right in front of them? This feeling of dissatisfaction happens every time m.snowe reads a story that riffs off of something else in a major way–essentially, the story is reliant on the stories it references–but if your kernel is crap, then how can you be blamed for a story based off of it? And if it’s brilliant, then aren’t you just expropriating? And how much allusion is too much? All stories borrow from the traditions before it, but direct comparisons, or lifting plotlines and characters are another. thing, and much less respectful…right? These are all questions m.snowe doesn’t have answers for.
m.snowe doesn’t know what’s in the water over at the NYTimes, but she’s not about to question it (well, she might be). First we got stories about how ladies can improve their lot through sport, now we have this awesomeness–the first ever production at the Globe of a female playwright’s work. Brilliant. Of course, it could be said that highlighting this is only a cheap marketing trick for the theater, but honestly, we’ll take it if it gets exposure that’s warranted anyway.
Here’s a trend lately: women “doing conflict,” as Nell Leyshon phrases it in the article. (Leyshon’s play, Bedlam, is all about a crazy-well-known London mental facility that must’ve been pretty brutal). Women are creating a lot of “non-traditional” stories in terms of “gender expectations.” Or, at least more women are getting noticed for formulating “hard-hitting” or “serious” things–Bigelow’s Hurt Locker being a stand-out in this respect. Of course, they’re hard-hitting and serious because they either are about traditionally male activities (war, politics) or they just have a lot of brutality in them.
m.snowe is all about ensuring the acclaim and attention is paid when it’s due, but also doesn’t like the idea that it must be in some ways harder or more extraordinary that these women are able to successfully write about, direct, etc., these traditionally male things. People might shake their heads and say: “You’re annoyed when these women are given attention, but also when they aren’t–dammit, can’t you just be happy about something positive for once?” The answer to that is No. At least, not totally, until the issue of sex is a nonissue.
Some further reading on the imaginative ability of any person to create realistic, practically breathing fiction, whether they male or female, gay or straight, etc. and so on. Best excerpt here:
The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen. I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type.
(Sports are key, but Title IX still isn’t perfect, in fact, it segregates. Remember how that whole “separate but equal” thing didn’t work out? Same applies here, but it seems like no one is willing to admit that’s what is happening…especially, according to this article, in the southern states.)
From Marco Roth’s essay in n+1 on “The Rise of the Neuronovel”:
“Many scientists and philosophers acknowledge that they understand more about how damaged brains work—or, rather, don’t work— than about the neurochemistry of the normal brain. And yet, in its popular journalistic form, the new reductionism can or will soon describe all human behavior, from warfare to soul-making. The British physician, philosopher, and neuro-skeptic Raymond Tallis has summarized the doctrine: ‘A convergence of evolutionary theory, neuroscience, and other biological disciplines has led countless thinkers to claim that we are best understood as organisms whose entire panoply of behavior is directly or indirectly related to organic survival.’”
Why we like this paragraph:
–m.snowe is fascinated with the idea of illustrative contrasts in fiction. From biblical Genesis on, the idea of a story fabricating/dreaming up dichotomies to better understand virtually unknowable quantities has always been there. We tell ourselves lies to see truth–and more so, we fictionalize one pole to make out its oppositely-inclined sibling. We leave the garden in order to understand paradise.
–It’s just neat to think that we understand psychosis more than we do the natural “healthy” state–we can tell what’s wrong but can’t conceptualize what’s entirely right, or at least what a rightly functioning consciousness looks like. This could be expanded in infinite ways.
–It implies what m.snowe usually finds true–characters whose behaviors are perhaps neurologically “damaged” are a pretty hot trend right now, and while she finds these characters interesting, sometimes the reader feels alienated because their psychoses are in some ways too reductive.
Why we like other parts of this essay:
–It discredits crap like “The Female Brain,” which, if you don’t remember, m.snowe didn’t respect. Mostly, the idea that “my hormones made me do it” made m.snowe’s gag reflex operate of its own accord.
–It does highlight a growing, albeit sometimes frightening, sometimes brilliantly executed need among writers to get lost completely inside the brains of their characters, while placing it in the literary traditions of the past and giving credit where credit is due (Dickens, Woolf, etc.).
This is taken from the first paragraph of a NYTimes review of the new 6-hour play “Gatz,” based on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:
“What happens between a novel and a consenting reader is usually a deeply personal activity, occurring behind the closed doors of individual minds. It is arguably more intimate and subjective than sex.“
So, Mr. Brantley, what have you been reading lately? Because m.snowe would like to get all up in that. Actually, no, m.snowe disagrees with your characterization. Reading a good novel isn’t just a little more intimate than sex–that metaphor doesn’t seem close enough to the truth–because sex, although subjective and intimate, is still always a shared experience. So basically, m.snowe thinks Mr. Brantley was just too shy to say it: reading a novel is autoerotic. There. Now it’s been said. Sure, the novel was written by an author, but they don’t participate in your reading experience. They just provide the initial mental stimulation, if you will.
We all like to get off intellectually, whether on the train, during lunch breaks, or at home, alone on the couch. Why? Because we can.
m.snowe talks about (mis)appropriation.
The NYTimes ran this piece the other day, which is basically an interview with the marketers behind the new EA video game, “Dante’s Inferno.” That’s right, a video game based on the chthonian cantica of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. This game has a lot of marketing juice behind it–a quick Google search for “Dante’s Inferno” and the top results will be for the video game, not the epic poem. A couple weeks ago, m.snowe made fun of another epic poem, or at least the ever-increasing modern-day attempts to translate very old literature into something that resonates with/mashes up pop culture. Of course, that was still a reading experience. This is a video game.
At first, m.snowe was angry. She wanted to send the EA game programmers to the ninth circle. But then, after descending to the deepest depths of holier-than-thou-literary-snob-hell, she’s come to think that well, basically, there really isn’t much of a reason to be pissed off about the video game. The initial irk of realizing a classic text has been filched for a marketing scheme is grating, but after that? A story itself may be static on the page, but the people reading it don’t have the luxury/curse of living in a vacuum. This is the inability of art to be complete, or our inability to fully grasp an artist’s impression. There’s nothing wrong with this, but if we open the gates to allow some leeway for interpretation, then naturally some people with less respect for literature will swoop in and exploit it. We cannot claim to read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and fully understand everything he intended people to think when he wrote it. We aren’t Medieval folks. So we approximate. Our experience of reading a text will always differ, both on the personal (what am I thinking about when I read this?) and on the collective (where, when, how do we as a culture live?) levels.
As much as people might enjoy killing demons or whatever the hay they do in this game, most players will never actually sit down and read the poem, or they will be “tricked” into buying the book, thinking it’s about an action hero, and be quite surprised by what they find (gasp–they might even like it!). In any case, some publisher is getting some revenue. Also, even though the video game bastardizes the original story, it in some sense keeps it alive. If you asked m.snowe to recite what she remembered from reading Dante’s Inferno, she would have little to say about Dante–she would regale you with descriptions of Paolo and Francesca, or Count Ugolino. The fact that people are angry about this game proves that the text still has relevance, and the people that will love the game now have been exposed, if even in a shallow way, to classic literature. This is why the initial bristle of a video game based on the epic poem wore away–it’s not like a mashup of Dante’s classic in epic-poem form. It’s a new way of looking at the epic poem, but it’s also completely separate. To be angry at this would be to also get angry every time a movie based on a book is made. Who has that kind of energy? Plus, borrowing/stealing is a part of most if not all art–and a very important part.
So given the choice between complete abjection and pop culture displacement, m.snowe chooses displacement. (She cowers in the virtual corner as some of you shake your heads). This doesn’t make m.snowe wants to create an action video game with Madame Bovary as a Lara Croft-type character (Help Emma defeat Rodolphe while avoiding arsenic! Collect the right teacups and ascend the social ladder to the highest echelons!), but if nothing else, it means people are still reading, and books aren’t being thrown completely by the wayside with each newer, more impressive technology. It’s comforting to know that despite the format, we tell ourselves the same (though shifting) stories.