August 2011 Archives


The most surprising thing about reading Mary Douglas's 1966 anthropological classic Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, was my sheer enjoyment of the thing. This is a theoretical work, written less for a lay audience than for Douglas's fellow cultural anthropologists, and yet her style is clean and lively, with barbs of wit to keep things interesting. ("This fashionable presentation," she quips at one point, "was supported by no evidence whatever.") As a result, it was far more entertaining than I had anticipated, and although Douglas's approach is now out of fashion for being overly rigid and/or simplistic, she introduced me to some ideas and dichotomies that will be worth thinking about during my ongoing disgust project. (On which subject, I haven't forgotten that second post on Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, but it occurred to me that the Douglas may be relevant to Gaitskill, so I thought I'd post on Douglas first.)

That said, there is a lot contained in this slim book, and I'm sorting out exactly what relation it may hold to analyzing disgust in non-ritual settings. Essentially, Douglas is writing about ritual cleanness and uncleanness, and the role that rituals of purity and pollution play in both "primitive" and "advanced" societies. Since her focus is on ritual cleanliness and pollution, she is only addressing certain kinds of situations in which disgust may or may not arise, and the disgust itself is not her main focus—something that makes William Ian Miller's dismissal of her points a bit unfair, in my opinion. Her overarching claim is that ritual pollution tends to reinforce the structure of a given society, defending the boundaries of that structure when they're threatened. As such (although this idea is more mine than Douglas's) the idea of pollution is fundamentally conservative, helping to maintain the status quo in the face of whatever forces may the threatening it.

For example, in one chapter she analyzes the esoteric food restrictions in the biblical book of Leviticus. Here the link with disgust seems relatively strong: foods forbidden the Israelites are described as unclean abominations, even when, to the casual reader, there seems little difference between them and the permitted foods. Following her usual pattern, Douglas first debunks a couple of previous schools of thought that attempted to explain the food prohibitions: she is satisfied neither by the idea that the prohibited foods are those associated with neighboring "heathen" clans (since the Israelites often incorporated foods and behaviors from their neighbors elsewhere), nor by the notion of an allegorical reading of these prohibitions (since it's possible for a reader to construct an allegorical reading of any combination of animals, and nothing of the sort is mentioned in the actual text). She neatly pokes holes in both theories, and is even more dismissive of the idea that these prohibitions rested on a pre-knowledge of modern hygienic requirements.

She suggests instead that the prohibited animals are those which exist at the uneasy boundaries of animal types, and which therefore are unclassifiable, seen as hybrid or monstrous. What makes her argument so persuasive, at least to this theological innocent, is that this is actually what the text itself says, whereas other interpretations are deductions away from textual evidence. For example, Leviticus specifically states that the category of animals which chew the cud and have cloven hooves are permitted for eating. If this is a distinct type of animal by the Hebrew classification system, then animals which have only one of these traits (cud-chewing or cloven hooves) would be seen as odd border-cases and possibly contaminating. And indeed, "unclean" animals include "the camel, the hare and the rock badger [hyrax], because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof...and the swine, because it parts the hoof but does not chew the cud." Similarly, animals which move by "swarming" are forbidden because the Hebrew word for "swarming" is an intermediate form of locomotion somewhere between walking and slithering, and can be applied to both earth-bound and water-bound creatures—disrupting more boundaries. Thus, in Leviticus,

[I}n general the underlying principle of cleanness in animals is that they shall conform fully to their class. Those species are unclean which are imperfect members of their class, or whose class itself confounds the general scheme of the world. (55)

Through declaring certain animals unclean for eating, the Leviticus author was helping to "create and control experience," (65), which Douglas argues is a key role for all ritual, both religious and secular. And indeed, she argues passionately that many of the dichotomies used by previous anthropologists working in this area are either totally misguided (the separation of "magic" from "religion," for example, which Douglas sees as residual Protestant bias against Catholics, and establishes a dichotomy unsupported by actual conversations with tribal people) or irrelevant to the questions she is asking. In both primitive and modern cultures, "dirt" occupies a similar systemic niche:

[D]irt is essentially disorder. There is no such thing as absolute dirt: it exists in the eye of the beholder. If we shun dirt, it is not because of craven fear, still less dread or holy terror. Nor do our ideas about disease account for the range of our behaviour in cleaning or avoiding dirt. Dirt offends against order. [...] For I believe that ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. (2 - 4)

Thus ritual, and the ideas of purification and cleanliness, hold power to impose order against the threatening chaos. Despite Miller's complaints against Douglas, this is essentially the flipside of his own argument: he claims that a major component of our experience of disgust is a confrontation with the ever-changing, chaotic flux of "life soup," itself the perfect symbol of Douglas's "essential disorder." Yet "life soup" also holds huge amounts of power and potential—in fact, one of the threatening things about it is that it reminds each of us that our bodies and brains are only temporary organizations of matter. In the chapter "Power and Danger," Douglas analyzes this idea on the level of social structures:

Granted that disorder spoils pattern; it also provides the materials of pattern. Order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is infinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognise that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both power and danger. (94)

She goes on to elucidate who, in a given society, is likely to be endowed with the conscious use of the power of disorder (often termed witchcraft or sorcery), and who is likely to be thought to inflict the danger of disorder unconsciously. This section seems particularly relevant to Veronica and to modern disgust in general, since our disgust is so often directed toward those in the margins (homo- and bisexuals; the homeless; the visibly mentally ill), and their contagion is often felt to endanger those around them without any conscious malicious effort on their part. This accords with Douglas's analysis: in the tribal cultures she cites, conscious and directed use of sorcery is usually associated with those who possess structural power: chieftans, kings, patriarchs. The magic associated with those on the structural margins is often thought to emanate from them without their conscious intention. In this passage, which strikes me as profoundly relevant to Mary Gaitskill, Douglas moves from general points to a discussion of Maori boys undergoing an initiation rite into adulthood:

Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others. The danger is controlled by ritual which precisely separates him from his old status, segregates him for a time and then publicly declares his entry into his new status. [...] To behave anti-socially is the proper expression of [the Maori boys'] marginal condition. To have been in the margins is to have been in contact with danger, to have been at a source of power. (96-97)

I'm drawn to this idea of the disordered margins (source of so much of the disgusting) as both dangerous and powerful or compelling. And it's not just people passing through one stage of life into another: those who occupy ambiguous or double roles in a social structure are sometimes thought to be sources of dangerous pollution by the mere fact of their existence. Douglas brings up a number of examples in which groups or individuals who in practice hold some level of unacknowledged or uncertain power (Kachin wives, Jews in England, Joan of Arc, or the serf-like Mandari "clients," all of whom occupy uneasy, intermediate power positions) are thought to be involuntary sources of witchcraft.

[The witchcraft] may lie dormant as they live their life peacefully in the corner of the sub-system in which they are intruders. But this role is in practice difficult to play coolly. If anything goes wrong, if they feel resentment or grief, then their double loyalties and their ambiguous status in the structure where they are concerned makes them appear as a danger to those belonging fully in it. It is the existence of an angry person in an interstitial position which is dangerous, and this has nothing to do with the particular intentions of the person. (102, emphasis mine)

"An angry person in an interstitial position": surely a useful formula to keep in mind.

There are certainly problematic elements in Purity and Danger. Probably the section which gave me the most pause was Chapter 5, "Primitive Worlds," in which the author searches for a principle to distinguish "primitive" societies from those properly classed "advanced." And there's a reason I've used some variation of the word "structure" so many times in this post: Douglas is a proponent of high anthropological Structuralism, which has since fallen out of favor for its reductionism and simplification of human societies. She herself is not unconscious of these criticisms, though, and does address them in the book. And although her Anglo-centrism is grating at times to a modern ear—when she uses the word "we" it is always synonymous with English Protestant, as if she expects that these will be her only readers—she also makes a genuine and respectable effort to demolish many of the more egregious assumptions made by early 20th-century anthropologists and psychologists about "primitive" peoples. Her chapter debunking psychology's equation of primitive rituals with infant and childhood stages of development is particularly scathing. So, as I said, surprisingly enjoyable as well as very thought-provoking.

I am left with some questions vis-à-vis Douglas and my own project. Principally, what is the relationship between a person in a ritual state of pollution, a person who is disgusted, and a person who is (to some third party) disgusting? Is pollution synonymous with, or totally unrelated to, disgust? Obviously, given that I've spent this long writing about Douglas, I don't believe the two are irrelevant to one another, but neither do I believe they're identical. For one thing, pollution as Douglas is describing it is almost by definition a codified element of a social structure. Whereas the circumstances of the disgust emotion are socially constructed as well, it's not formalized in the same way, and it seems to me more individualized as well. There are things whole societies will find disgusting—indeed, there are things almost all humans, cross-culturally, find disgusting—but there are also many idiosyncratic quirks to the disgust reactions of individuals. There's no equivalent of Leviticus to tell us what's disgusting and what's not. In any case, teasing out exactly which of Douglas's writings on pollution are relevant to disgust, and what the relationship between the two might be, will be interesting fodder for future thought. In the meantime, I can't resist closing with one more quote, this one from Douglas's rich final chapter, examining rituals in which dirt and filth are sometimes re-contextualized as creative, positive forces. Those concerned about finding Douglas insensitive to the complexity of human society should rest easy:

Of course, the yearning for rigidity is in us all. It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts. When we have them we have to either face the fact that some realities elude them, or else blind ourselves to the inadequacy of the concepts.
      The final paradox of the search for purity is that it is an attempt to force experience into logical categories of non-contradiction. But experience is not amenable and those who make the attempt find themselves led into contradiction. (162)

Veronica (Part 1)


I picked up Mary Gaitskill's 2006 novel Veronica as part of my ongoing disgust project, and indeed it is a rich repository of fascinating uses of disgust. Yet I find I can't bear to write simply about the disgust in the book, without addressing its greater appeal. I consciously avoid pronouncements about the Canon, which books are Great and which merely Good, or anything of the kind—and yet, I am beset by a strong desire that Veronica be studied, written about, appreciated, revisited. It is not a book for everyone, and not an easy read, but it is a book that will be important to some. And although I haven't written fiction or even songs in years, Veronica is the kind of book I wish I could write: utterly unsentimental, yet deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking, harsh and even crass at times but finely crafted and never cynical to the point of hopelessness.

So this will be a discussion of those non-repulsive aspects of Veronica, to be followed in a few days by a discussion of Gaitskill's many and intriguing uses of disgust. This novel contains a cesspool, but I don't want to leave you with the impression that that's all it contains.

No indeed, there's so much more. The surface plot elements revolve around the narrator Alison, a former model and pretty-girl who has lost her looks and her health, and has washed up, sick and in pain, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Now that she is ill and unattractive herself, she finds herself remembering a pivotal friendship—or at least, a friendship that has since become pivotal in her memory—from twenty years before, with a frumpy, provocative, and often obnoxious copy-editor named Veronica, who died in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

But stop right there, because here are some things this novel is not "about." It is not "about" modeling, or the fashion industry, either to romanticize that world or to vilify it. The modeling world as Gaitskill portrays it is sleazy and destructive, sure, but not any more sleazy and destructive than Veronica's relationship with her boyfriend Duncan—and neither set of relationships is lacking in humanity, even faint appeal. Neither is the novel "about" HIV/AIDS, although it certainly evokes some of the terror and bigotry in the air as the first and second waves of infection were breaking. Veronica's setting, although in a sense specific—Gaitskill paints millennial Los Angeles and 1980s New York in visceral detail—doesn't come off as illustrating an exception, but instead as presenting a more universal picture. In other words, Alison is a sick and selfish person, not because she fell down the rabbit-hole of modeling and drug use, but because human beings are generally infirm and selfish, and despite this they go from day to day doing the best they can, occasionally making genuine yet flawed contact with other human beings.

As opposed to so many meteoric-rise-and-fall stories which deal in "if only"s (if only she hadn't gotten hooked, if only he hadn't been drinking before getting in the car, if only their families had realized in time), Gaitskill presents struggle, compromise, and disintegration as inevitable, while at the same time according her characters total free will. There is nothing pre-ordained about Alison's choices to move to Paris or New York, to quit modeling or start up again, to ask Veronica to the movies. She suffers (and occasionally triumphs, and often slogs) because of her choices, but based on the evidence of the characters around her, she would have faced a similar ratio of suffering and triumph if she had made the opposite choices, as well.

Take Alison's sister Sara, who is locked in an uncommunicative battle with her suburban setting and probable mental illness. Or Alison's father, who attempts to communicate his regrets via music to which nobody listens anymore. Or Veronica, who decides that her semi-abusive relationship is so much a part of herself that she doesn't stop sleeping with her partner even when she knows he has AIDS. All these characters, however glamorous they may or may not look from the outside, struggle with similar levels of alienation and distress, similar levels of discomfort with the world around them, and a similarly inevitable downward trajectory. Veronica is one of the least moralistic novels I've ever read. Only you can decide your own trajectory, it seems to say; but whatever trajectory you choose, it will be difficult; and whatever trajectory you choose, you will stumble and fall. This is the problem with Alison's father's refusal to feel compassion for the early AIDS sufferers based on the argument that "they had choices." Everyone makes choices, and everyone suffers for them; and since suffering implies no sin or judgment but only the inevitable process of living a life, our imperfect treatment of each other is all we have.

And indeed that treatment will be imperfect, even if we are doing our best. Alison's relationship with Veronica is hardly a feel-good, Sex and the City version of female friendship. Alison is often self-congratulatory, often resentful; she often spews platitudes at Veronica and tells her what to do rather than listening to her. Her attempts at communication and communion often fall flat. Veronica, in turn, is often extremely grating, and only gets more so as she becomes ill. Gaitskill has much to say here about privilege—in this case, the privilege of the beautiful and the healthy person, to whom the experiences of the ill or unattractive are invisible until she too is sick or ugly. Looking back, Alison can see her own contempt and dismissiveness, her belief that she was in some way fundamentally different from Veronica—all things which were invisible to her at the time.

I said it with disdain—like I didn't have to be embarrassed or make up something nice, because Veronica was nobody—like why should I care if an ant could see up my dress? Except I didn't notice my disdain; it was habitual by then. She noticed it, though.

In one way, of course, all this is a huge downer. In another way, it's oddly reassuring. Because Gaitskill doesn't conclude, based on the suspect motives and often-unsuccessful results of attempts at human connection, that they are not worth making. Rather, despite Alison's recognition of her own bad behavior, of her own suspect agenda and Veronica's own obnoxiousness, her relationship with Veronica becomes a pivotal, and legitimately redemptive, experience. Even though most of the time she does a poor job at being Veronica's friend (and at general person-hood), her efforts to connect with Veronica still end up making a huge difference to both women—especially Alison herself.

One of the concepts that struck me most forcibly in Veronica was this combination of the invisibility of the habitual or privileged, and the rapidity with which the outward forms of privilege (and who possesses privilege) can change. These two themes are addressed frequently in fiction, but I'm not sure how often I've seen them together. So often we see the entrenched privilege of race or sex that perpetuates itself from generation to generation, and there is certainly some of that here, in the form of homophobia and sexual exploitation of women. Yet there is also an acknowledgment of how slippery privilege can be; how it can be founded on trivialities and superficialities that we nonetheless mistake for core realities. Early on in the novel, Alison introduces the concept of a "style suit," while looking at a series of photographs taken by her friend John:

Most of them don't have good bodies, but they are looking at the camera like they are happy to be naked, either just standing there or posing in the combination of relaxation and sexual nastiness that people had then. They all look like people whose time had given them a perfect style suit to wear: a set of postures and expressions that gave the right shape to what they had inside them, so that even naked, they felt clothed.


There is always a style suit, or suits. When I was young, I used to think these suits were just what people were. When styles changed dramatically—people going barefoot, men with long hair, women without bras—I thought the world had changed, that from then on everything would be different. It's understandable that I thought that; TV and newsmagazines acted like the world had changed, too. I was happy with it, but then five years later it changed again.

This is more than just an observation about the fickleness of fashion. It's an examination of the ease with which people who have lucked into a well-fitting style suit assume that the privilege and ease they enjoy inheres naturally in their person-hood, and that as a result there must be something fundamentally wrong with those who don't fit into the dominant suit. And as Alison remarks above, it's similarly easy to believe that the suit reflects the way things substantively are—and that when those superficial elements change, it means a sea-change in peoples' inner beings as well. Yet even when the style suit favors looseness and naturalness, that preference itself can be very strict, and if any one suit actually does happen to fit someone's innate personality, the next, equally-strong suit is almost guaranteed to squeeze and discomfit them, transforming them into an outsider and even an object of pity or repulsion in the eyes of those who subconsciously believe the world to have progressed in a meaningful way. Together with the idea of invisibility, the style suit and the effects of seeing difference play into Gaitskill's many uses of disgust.

More on Veronica in a few days; I'm far from done thinking and writing about this book.

The Dead


That James Joyce and his final paragraphs. I have to hand it to the man, he sure knew how to end a book. The final passage of Ulysses is justly famous for Molly Bloom's orgasmic "Yes I said Yes I will Yes," but it's possible that the somnolent incantation of snow-blanketed Ireland in the final pages of The Dead is just as strong, with its repetitions and inversions ("falling softly"/"softly falling") and its vast but muted vistas. It's certainly one of those passages, like Mrs. Dalloway's "What a lark! What a plunge!" or The Unnamable's "I can't go on, I'll go on," whose echoes I hear in my head on a regular basis, triggered by a fragment of casual conversation, an everyday action, or another written phrase:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: the snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Thus Gabriel Conroy, would-be cosmopolitan and darling of his elderly aunts, drifts off to sleep after attending the aunts' annual Epiphany dance. Having tipped the caretaker's daughter, gotten into an awkward conversation with a nationalist colleague, expertly carved the goose, and made a speech, he then leaves the party and experiences an attack of longing for his wife, only to find out a long-kept secret about her youthful past. This time through, I was surprised that most of what I remember as powerful, including Gabriel's lust for Gretta, her story and his pre-sleep musing—happens in the final fifth of the novella, with the rest being devoted to the Epiphany party. Bibliographing Nicole had a similar trick of memory, which sounds maybe more extreme than mine.

Knowing what was coming, it was interesting to re-read the long party section for elucidation of what comes later. Gabriel, for example, though the golden nephew in his aunts' eyes, is several times severely discomfited when women challenge him, or react to his pleasantries differently than he expects. The caretaker's daughter Lily makes an unexpectedly dark comment about men in response to Gabriel's teasing, and Gabriel "coloured as if he felt he had made a mistake," awkwardly making amends by slipping her a coin. Later on, he's similarly ill at ease when his colleague Miss Ivors confronts him for having (in her eyes) insufficient pride in his Irish heritage—deciding to alter his annual speech out of deference to her. In fact, he spends a good deal of the party worrying about his speech, about whether it will come off conceited or whether he will alienate his audience if he quotes poetry too sophisticated for their palates. Like Stephen Dedalus after him, Gabriel is too self-conscious to feel natural in his own skin most of the time. Even his yearning for Gretta late in the book is beset by similarly uncertain moments, intermixed with a powerful warmth of memory and strength of desire. This makes her final revelation, which seems to exclude him from an important part of her inner life, that much more of a blow—for Gabriel, if not for the reader.

And indeed, I was thinking throughout this reading of a debate I got into in a British Modernism class once, about whether Gretta's sadness at remembering the death of her young lover actually does invalidate somehow the years of warmth and memories that Gabriel is remembering just before she tells him the story:

Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory. A heliotrope envelope was lying beside his breakfast-cup and he was caressing it with his hand. Birds were twittering in the ivy and the sunny web of the curtain was shimmering along the floor: he could not eat for happiness. They were standing on the crowded platform and he was placing a ticket inside the warm palm of his glove. He was standing with her in the cold, looking in through a grated window at a man making bottles in a roaring furnace...

At the time, I felt very strongly that a single tragic incident from Gretta's past does not "trump" the years of quotidian connection between husband and wife, however jarring it might be for Gabriel to hear his wife's story when he is in such a different mood. My own prejudice remains one that would privilege Gabriel's stockpile of seemingly mundane shared experiences over a more Romantic tragic love story. Now that I'm less invested in the idea that Joyce must necessarily be expressing my own feelings, though, I can see both sides. To take my original position, we are not presented with an incompatible or unhappy couple. Gretta's gentle ribbing of Gabriel as they arrive at the party, about the care he takes of their children and the way he makes her wear galoshes to keep her from getting a cold, makes clear their mutual affection. So too, Gabriel's indignant thoughts when he remembers that his mother never quite approved of Gretta, and always thought that he married slightly beneath him, would vouch for the store he sets by her even if his later lustiness did not. So it still seems to me that this is a portrait of one melancholic night in a more or less successful marriage—or, more generally, of the way in which we can never achieve complete knowledge of another person, even if we are close to them—rather than a picture of an unhappy woman putting on a brave face as she secretly pines away for her lost lover.

Still, Gabriel definitely has his self-deluding moments, in large part due to his insecurity. He is cold with Gretta when she says she would love to see Galway again, because he has just been made to feel uncomfortable by Miss Ivors and he doesn't want to hear enthusiasm for Miss Ivors's plans. He's unable to access Gretta's own excitement, and it's only when he sees his wife look melancholy and romantic that he feels the desire to reconnect with her. Even then, his desire takes a kind of scripted form: he wants to "defend her against something and then to be alone with her"; or to spirit her away to a never-never land far from their daily commitments. Perhaps some of his devastation at hearing the tale of Michael Furey speaks to his own investment in Romantic tropes like that of the of gallant male savior and damsel in distress, or that of the great tragic love that ends in death. Although Joyce's own commitment to these tropes might be significantly less (and given Ulysses it's hard to think differently), his portrayal of Gabriel's disillusionment is still affecting.

Revisiting that closing paragraph, I was struck by the odd-seeming sentence, "The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward." I hadn't remembered it, I'm still not clear exactly what it's doing there. It seems, in the context of the novella's title and Gabriel's mood, imbued with intimations of mortality, as if traveling west would be synonymous with starting down the road toward death. (Possibly this is backed by religious and/or mythic traditions of which I'm not aware?) Alternately, it could tie in with the scene in which Miss Ivors proposes that Gabriel and Gretta come with her on a trip to the Aran Islands, which are in the far West of Ireland (as opposed to the eastern-situated Dublin, where the action is taking place). Gabriel, would-be man of the world, prefers to take his holidays on the Continent, in France or Germany. In a subsequent conversation with Gretta, as noted above, she's more enthusiastic than Gabriel about visiting western Ireland, as she would "love to see Galway again"—the city in which she lived during her youth. Thus western Ireland is presented as particularly Irish, being both the favored destination of the nationalist Miss Ivors and the hometown of the slightly earthy Gretta. Perhaps Gabriel's journey "westward" is one of coming to terms with the Irishness he has been trying to escape, in addition to a journey in imagination back to the site of his wife's youthful tragedy.

Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here)

Since I've started the disgust project, this is the first thing I've read in which I neither felt any disgust while reading, or noticed any characters feeling disgust. A disgust-free read, unless I'm missing something, for those who aren't as fascinated by the disgusting as I am!


I re-read The Dead as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. It's the fourth of six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series that I hope to read over the course of August.

This novella was consumed in a sleeping bag on a camping trip, and alas, no beverages accompanied it. Given Gabriel's long pulls on a dark Irish porter during the party, however, I can only suggest that a pint of Guinness is the obvious choice here.

Freya of the Seven Isles


I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Joseph Conrad, with his tropical marine settings and his thoughtful, melancholy narrators. Spending a sunny afternoon with Freya of the Seven Isles kindled my interest in revisiting Lord Jim, Victory and Heart of Darkness, and in exploring the rest of his work that I haven't read.

Freya is a classic tragedy of the kind the reader sees coming from the opening pages due to the flaws-which-are-often-actually-virtues of the characters, yet still hopes will turn out right in the end. As we open, the narrator tells us he has just received a letter from an old sea buddy of his, who asks if he remembers "old Nelson"—an Englishman and former settler in the Dutch East Indies who, it turns out, is actually named "Nielsen." The narrator continues to call his old acquaintance by both names—"Nelson (or Nielsen)"—throughout the novella, and the this double moniker, marking him as somewhat English, or at least cozy with the English (Nelson) but also somewhat Scandinavian (Nielsen), turns out to be key to his character and the unfolding action. Nelson (or Nielsen) is Scandinavian enough to be permitted to settle in the Dutch-controlled Seven Isles group, but not Dutch enough to feel secure there, and is so perpetually terrified of the Dutch "authorities" that he allows himself and his daughter Freya to be walked all over by a petty officer named Heemskirk. Add into the mix the pride and attractiveness of Freya herself; the high-spirited English man she actually loves and who loves her; and the failure of the characters to communicate at key moments, and you have the makings of an inevitable love-triangle-cum-disaster. In case we were not getting the message, the narrator gives us passages like this one, in which he's talking with Freya's secret fiancé Jasper Allen:

"Mind you don't come to grief trying to do too much," I admonished him. But he dismissed my caution with a laugh and an elated gesture. Pooh! Nothing, nothing could happen to the brig, he cried, as if the flame of his heart could light up the dark nights of uncharted seas, and the image of Freya serve for an unerring beacon amongst hidden shoals; as if the winds had to wait on his future, and the stars fight for it in their courses; as if the magic of his passion had the power to float a ship on a drop of dew or wail her through the eye of a needle—simply because it was her magnificent lot to be the servant of a love so full of grace as to make all the ways of the earth safe, resplendent, and easy.

Oh man, the kid is doomed. "Nothing could happen to the brig," indeed. It's pretty plain that the earth will not remain for him safe or resplendent, and least of all easy. Still, with his parallel constructions and heightened imagery Conrad manages to elicit (in me, at least) a bit of the soaring feeling Jasper describes, even as my gut sinks with the dismal knowledge that his confidence is about to be crushed.

In contrast to Jasper's romanticism we have Freya's supposed "sensibleness," which her father believes will prevent her from falling in love with anyone in the first place, and which in reality means that even when she has fallen in love, she still wants a well-planned and executed elopement rather than a rushing off pell-mell into the wide blue yonder. Conrad's attitude toward Freya's seeming sensibleness is interesting to me. The narrator seems to admire it, contrasting it favorably with the "absurdity" (fearfulness in Nelson, jealousy in Heemskirk, impetuousness in Jasper) of all the men around her, and in a way it's refreshing to read a 1911 novella where the most down-to-earth character is the single woman. On the other hand, though, one wonders about how positive this quality really is; after all, had Freya simply consented to run away with Jasper earlier in the book, the couple would probably have had a happy life together—or at least some kind of life, which is more than either one ends up with in the end. Freya is a managerial type, and although her insights into others' characters—her father's likelihood to descend into anxiety attacks if she tells him her marriage plans ahead of time, for example—are spot-on, her fatal flaw is, perhaps, taking too much on her own shoulders and failing to communicate to any of the other characters until it's far too late. As the narrator laments,

And yet there was something she might have told a friend. But she didn't. We parted silently.

Freya's extreme self-sufficiency is part and parcel of her sensibleness, and is indeed opposite of the frailties so often laid at female doors (hysteria, clinginess, indecisiveness, etc.). Yet Conrad depicts even this as something that can be taken too far, however admirable it might be.

Notes on Disgust
(for more information on the disgust project, see here)

Disgust is mentioned twice in Freya of the Seven Isles, and in both cases it's used to underline the mutual aversion felt between the Dutch and English traders. As in Pamuk's Snow, this is very much a disgust marking the boundaries of "us versus them." In the first instance, the narrator is speaking about the Dutch attitude toward Freya's lover Jasper:

They considered him much too enterprising in his trading. I don't know that he ever did anything illegal, but it seems to me that his immense activity was repulsive to their stolid character and slow-going methods.

One senses here that the narrator is being slightly flip here: the Dutch are probably not literally repulsed by Jasper's level of industry. Still, as Willian Ian Miller points out, the rhetoric of disgust is still strong even when used in jest. The Dutch may not quite retch when they see Jasper approach in the Bonito, but they are averse to him; they distrust him. His way of being in the world does not accord with their own. To the Dutch "we," in other words, he is a "they." The narrator's own lightness in this paragraph perhaps mimics Jasper's own lack of seriousness around Heemskirk and the Dutch in general, while at the same time foreshadowing the tale's tragic end. In any case, the reader is certainly not supposed to share the Dutch disgust for Jasper. The boy may be a little foolish, but he's essentially a sympathetic, if doomed, character. Thus the Dutch revulsion against him makes them less sympathetic generally, or at least signals a tragic lack of understanding between the two parties.

In the second instance, Freya thinks of Heemskirk as "odiously...absurd" and a "grotesquely supine creature" as he sits sulking that she prefers Jasper, and she avoids going to talk with him, instead sitting down at the piano to play. Here the reader is meant to share her revulsion, especially since we have seen his thoughts and they are petty, selfish and vindictive. Disgust here marks true moral flaws in the person eliciting the disgust, reflecting our own opinion of Heemskirk and confirming Freya as a good judge of character. Given the passage quoted above, it's probably not irrelevant that Heemskirk is Dutch and dark-complected (that is, in opposition to the fair-haired, attractive English characters who would otherwise find happiness on the island). Conrad isn't above a bit of jingoism (infamously). Still, he makes Heemskirk a sufficiently loathsome and petty little man in his own right that I felt justified in sharing Freya's view. At the same time, her disgust in this scene prevents her from sweet-talking Heemskirk out of his funk, which might potentially have saved the entire progression of events from veering out of control.


I read Freya of the Seven Isles as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. It's the third of six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series that I hope to read over the course of August. And thanks to Nicole for sending me this Melville House copy of Freya for my shelves!

As for drinks pairings, I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon sitting on my patio, reading Freya, and sipping iced mango black tea. Fresh-brewed as needed at double-strength, steeped for four minutes and immediately poured over ice and enjoyed. It seemed to combine the refreshing and the exotic in just the right combination.

The Anatomy of Disgust


A big thanks to everyone who offered such thoughtful suggestions for additions to my Disgust Bibliography! It's now at over 60 works, most of them book-length, so I'd better get reading. (For those just joining us, I'm doing a long-term project on the literary treatment(s) of disgust, and if you have anything to add to the ever-growing list, I'd be delighted to hear about it.)

In the spirit of getting this show on the road, I'm finally writing up my thoughts on William Ian Miller's 1997 The Anatomy of Disgust. This is the first disgust theory book I've tackled, and it was incredibly helpful in giving me some useful frameworks for my thinking about disgust. While there were a few areas I felt Miller's logic breaks down (for example, in his claim that the sensation of finding someone or something cute necessarily involves having contempt for that being), all in all it was very worthwhile. For the rest of this post, rather than critique Miller per se, I think I'll focus on recording the elements of his argument that I think most likely to be helpful to me in the future.

So, first of all, Miller agrees with pretty much every other source I've researched in putting together the bibliography, that disgust developed as a way to police the boundary between "safe" and "contaminating" states. At the most basic level this means that the feeling of disgust prevents us from eating and coming into contact with things that might contaminate us—eating rotting food, for example, or touching someone's running sores. Unsurprisingly, although the exact set of disgusting objects varies cross-culturally and with the individual, there are certain things that are pretty much universally disgusting, and others that show a strong tendency to disgust across cultures. Miller spends a large part of his opening chapters breaking down some general cross-cultural trends as far as categories of things we're likely to find gross: viscous things are generally more disgusting than solid or liquid things; tepid things more disgusting than hot or cold; wet things more disgusting than dry; organic more disgusting than inorganic; animal more disgusting than plant; many more disgusting than few, and so on. Again, there may be exceptions to all of these rules, but in general the more disgusting qualities are connected with what Miller calls "life soup": the writhing sites of generation and decomposition, birth and death. In his view these states are disgusting, "Not because all ends in death, but because there is no fixed point. [...] there is too much flux for fixed structures to get a grip on all the turmoil."

Perhaps inevitably, the direct physical variety of disgust long ago spread into the moral realm. As illustrated in Orhan Pamuk's Snow, disgust often manifests when we're confronted with other people who we perceive to be members of a "them" category: "they" are nearly always more disgusting than "us," especially if "they" are perceived as coming from a lower social position. Miller spends a lot of time dissecting this very rich set of issues: traditionally, women have been disgusting to men, Jews to Christians, the sick to the healthy, the poor to the rich, and so on. In a fascinating section on the medieval European Christian disgust toward both Jews and lepers, Miller writes

But one might distinguish a difference of emphasis between the disgusts and styles of loathing prompted by Jews and those prompted by lepers. More than lepers, who were associated with rotting flesh and cadavers, Jews were associated with excrement and menstrual blood. Such was the Christian demonization of the Jew—and the uncomprehending Christian horror of circumcision—that the Jewish male was believed to menstruate. Jewish men were thus feminized and all women were thus Judaized to make both more disgusting, more dangerous than they had been before. Without pushing the distinction too far one might notice that physical disgust at appalling sights and odors of lepers led to a belief in their moral loathsomeness; whereas the Jew's assumed moral loathsomeness led to a belief that his body must then be as disfigured as his soul.

This kind of "othering" disgust, which is a presumptive yet still hugely visceral combination of moral and physical disgust, presents some serious ethical problems. The presence of disgust is often processed as proof that the disgusting object is inherently wrong or objectionable—in the minds of the medieval Christians, Jews were objectively disgusting, both physically and morally. (Indeed, as Miller points out, Christian culture often found Jews more disgusting than lepers: although those aspiring to sainthood would willingly expose themselves to leprosy in order to mortify their flesh, there are no records of anyone converting to Judaism as self-flagellation.) This anti-Semitic disgust seemed to them just as rooted in reality as their disgust at leprosy, although from a modern perspective it seems clear evidence of religious bigotry.

Disgust is thus a persuasive yet unreliable witness. Not only does it suggest to us that the physically deformed or ill must also be morally flawed; it can actually elicit a visceral feeling of repulsion in us for someone "contaminated" with various kinds of otherness. And more than most other emotions, like love or jealousy, it seems to present us with objective fact about the object that disgusts us. Witnessing something disgusting, the temptation is strong to believe anyone would find that object similarly repulsive—yet in many cases, that assumption is unfounded. Miller writes:

The avowal of disgust expects concurrence. It carries with it the notion of its own indisputability, and part of this indisputability depends upon the fact that disgust is processed so particularly via offense to the senses. It argues for the visibility, the palpability, the concreteness, the sheer obviousness of the claim. Disgust poses less of a problem for intersubjectivity than perhaps any other emotion.

That is, it is easy for an outsider to imagine what we mean when we say we are disgusted. However, the claim to "sheer obviousness" does pose a problem when, for example, a person who finds menstrual blood infinitely more disgusting than feces, extrapolates this feeling into a universal claim that everyone shares this hierarchy of disgust-feeling (as Freud does in Civilization and its Discontents, following his traditional practice of not consulting any women before drawing his conclusions). The "sheer obviousness" aspect of disgust feelings are also a problem when the feeling of disgust is used as a rationale for justifying oppression, as in the example of the medieval Christians and Jews, or the more modern-day example of those who oppose allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military, because the heterosexual servicepeople may find the idea of homosexuality disgusting. To those feeling the disgust in these cases, it seems like evidence of an obvious fact—because the person in question causes me to feel disgust, there must be something wrong with them. Such is not necessarily the case, yet a visceral disgust is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Miller argues, in fact, that the dehumanizing and ostensibly self-evident qualities of our experience of disgust present ongoing challenges to our democratic ideals.

One more theoretical construct offered by Miller promises to be particularly useful: he breaks down disgust into two basic types, the disgust of repression and the disgust of surfeit. Most attention, he claims, has been paid to the former. Freud and his followers explain disgust as a "reaction formation" in which our unconscious desires (leftovers from earlier stages of our evolution from animals to humans) are repressed, and the feeling of disgust is a mental roadblock convincing us that what our unconscious mind finds attractive is actually repulsive. Freud being Freud, most of these forbidden activities are sexual in nature, and our initial disgust actually functions to build tension so that we experience greater release and pleasure upon finally overcoming these mental barriers. The foul is revealed to be fair. In this type of disgust, we are initially revolted, but that revulsion is often coupled with emotions of attraction as well: fascination, curiosity, and so on, which draw us forward even as our aversion is pushing us back. On the flipside, the disgust of surfeit—the feeling following overindulgence in greasy or sugary food, alcohol, or similar—reveals something that initially seemed fair, to in fact be foul. In this type of disgust there is no push-and-pull; the source of the satiation appears utterly unattractive until the effects of the overindulgence have worn off, and all we want is to have it removed from our presence. There is a neat and appealing symmetry between these two types of disgust—perhaps too neat, but one I'll definitely keep in mind as I progress through the project.

Jacob's Room


Except for Flush and The Voyage Out, which I have yet to read at all (!), Jacob's Room is one of Virginia Woolf's titles with which I'm least familiar: this is only my second time through. The first one came shortly after my initial, world-changing discovery of Woolf, and I remembered the novella as being quite minor, a bridge work between her "apprenticeship" novels and the full-blown genius of her mid-career work. I had fallen in love with Mrs. Dalloway's rare but brilliant flashes of true communion between two people—the reunion of Peter and Clarissa, for example, or the hat scene with Septimus and Rezia—and by contrast the isolation of souls presented in Jacob's Room was a disappointment. Re-reading now, though, over a decade later, I quickly revised that low assessment. While perhaps not quite as finely-toned as Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, perhaps a little wilder and less perfectly-controlled, Jacob's Room is its own project, different from that dyad of novels and stunning in its own right. This time through I was intoxicated as always by Woolf's language, and also intrigued by the questions this novella raises about the impossibility of knowing another person. Woolf delves into the ways in which the subjective reality of a human life compares to the evidence that life leaves behind—the high water-mark of physical and emotional detritus that remains after a human being has washed through the world.

What Woolf gives us here, after all, is Jacob's room—not Jacob himself. That's not absolutely true: we do catch glimpses of Jacob Flanders himself as he grows up; goes to University; gets a job; dies in the Great War. Direct contact doesn't happen very much, however. In the whole course of the novel, Jacob actually speaks only 29 times—and most of these are seemingly trivial remarks along the lines of "About this opera now..." or "Shall I hold your wool?" We get inside Jacob's head at even more infrequent intervals: he is said to have "thought," "wondered" or similar only 22 times, and most of these thoughts are similarly fleeting (though there are other passages in which his consciousness seems to be coloring the narration to some degree). It's as if the narrator, a roaming third-person voice who is far from omniscient—whose view of events is partial, and prone to infection by the perspective of any character she approaches—is struggling toward Jacob through a thick sea of information, washed this way and that when she encounters the thoughts of Jacob's friend, or the midnight walks of his neighbor, or the wicker chair in which he was sitting not two hours ago. On those few occasions when the she does manage to strive forward until she finds herself actually inside Jacob's mind, the feat lasts only a moment or two, and the thought she manages to extract gives the artful impression of chance—as might happen if one accessed another mind with no warning, at no time in particular. "A rude old lady, Jacob thought." Or again: "The dinner would never end, Jacob thought, and he did not wish it to." These thoughts fail to express any great depth of individuality or soulfulness, certainly.

The vast majority of the narration, then, focuses not on Jacob himself, but on his wake: rooms he has just left; artifacts he has used and abandoned; essays he is halfway through writing; and the thoughts and actions of people with whom, be it intimately or ever so slightly, he interacts. Much of Jacob's Room consists of details that Jacob himself would likely deem unimportant, toward which he is either unconscious or apathetic, such as the faded letter from his mother, sitting on the hall table:

Meanwhile, poor Betty Flanders's letter, having caught the second post, lay on the hall table—poor Betty Flanders writing her son's name, Jacob Alan Flanders, Esq., as mothers do, and the ink pale, profuse, suggesting how mothers down at Scarborough scribble over the fire with their feet on the fender, when tea's cleared away, and can never, never say, whatever it may be—probably this—Don't go with bad women, do be a good boy; wear your thick shirts; and come back, come back, come back to me.
     But she said nothing of the kind. "Do you remember old Miss Wargrave, who used to be so kind when you had the whooping cough?" she wrote; "she's dead at last, poor thing."

One of the things I so love about Woolf is her complex understanding of how truly roundabout human methods of communication can be—how most of the time, the words we actually say or write bear no resemblance to our actual meaning, as when Betty Flanders writes words describing the death of Miss Wargrave, but the meaning of her missive is the silent plea "come back, come back, come back to me." When you consider that the letter's recipient brings his own set of associations and preoccupations to bear, it's remarkable that humans manage to communicate anything at all—and this is what makes the flashes of successful communication in Mrs. Dalloway so glorious.

But it's also what gives Jacob's Room much of its pathos. How to sum up a human life? One can deduce a certain amount by examining a person's home, and the items they owned; by retracing the paths they walked and the places they visited; by eavesdropping on their conversation; by surveying the thoughts and feelings of the people who knew them. But in the end, it's impossible to enter into the being of another person. There is an emptiness at the center of Jacob's Room, which could only be occupied by the missing person: Jacob himself. And Jacob is gone forever, in a moment and a place which are themselves completely absent from the novella.

Although Woolf's brother Thoby Stephen died of typhoid rather than war wounds, he was undeniably the model for Jacob Flanders, and Jacob's Room performs a kind of mourning work for a lost sibling as well as for an entire generation of young men killed in the trenches of the Great War. And it occurs to me that Woolf's novella makes an interesting juxtaposition to a more recent work on a similar subject, Anne Carson's Nox. Both works deal with the loss of a young man, a brother, and both touch on the essential inability of one person truly to comprehend and make sense of another. Both too, in my opinion, verge on masterpieces.

It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this and much more than this is true, why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us—why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.
     Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.

Notes on Disgust

In a move with which I have deep sympathy, one of the two mentions of disgust in Jacob's Room refers to moral disgust with a bowdlerizer:

Professor Bulteel, of Leeds, had issued an edition of Wycherley without stating that he had left out, disembowelled, or indicated only by asterisks, several indecent words and some indecent phrases. An outrage, Jacob said; a breach of faith; sheer prudery; token of a lewd mind and a disgusting nature.

Here the strength of Jacob's condemnatory adjectives demonstrates to the reader his intoxicated (on ideas, and possibly also alcohol) undergraduate enthusiasm and allegiance to the great and mediocre men of English letters. Here is a boy who cares enough about seventeenth-century English drama, or literature in general, that he is uses the rhetoric of disgust to express his feelings when someone monkeys with the text. Jacob also demonstrates in this passage the phenomenon whereby an overly fastidious person—a prude, or a censor—can actually elicit disgust in people observing his or her prudish or censorious behavior. The censor's tendency to perceive filth everywhere he looks (his own overactive disgust reaction) begins to suggest to the his acquaintances that the censor himself has a dirty mind, and is by extension generally dirty and disgusting. It's a similar mechanism to how people who perceive sexual subtext in everything they see often come to be regarded as perverts. (This is, by the way, a pitfall of choosing to write about disgust and something I hope doesn't happen to me!)

One of the only other hints of disgust comes later in the novella, when Jacob visits the prostitute Laurette:

Altogether a most reasonable conversation; a most respectable room; an intelligent girl. Only Madame herself seeing Jacob out had about her that leer, that lewdness, that quake of the surface (visible in the eyes chiefly), which threatens to spill the whole bag of ordure, with difficulty held together, over the pavement. In short, something was wrong.

The brothel's veneer of respectability, although largely convincing, is thus called into question by the faint tinge of something disgusting about its madame. William Ian Miller writes in The Anatomy of Disgust about the ways in which disgust polices the boundaries between fair and foul, but does so in contradictory ways that sometimes imply that what seems foul is really fair, and at other times hints that what seems fair is really foul. It seems to be the latter that's going on here: Jacob dimly perceives that the attractive façade conceals a "bag of ordure, with difficulty held together."


I re-read Jacob's Room as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. It's the second of six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series that I hope to read over the course of August.

As for drinks pairings (perhaps the most unique portion of the Art of the Novella Challenge), I read this line and knew that Jacob's Room deserved something lovely:

...and without book before him intoned Latin, Virgil and Catullus, as if language were wine upon his lips.

So I decided to open this, which is one of three special bottles David got me for my 30th birthday. A remarkably full-bodied, black-fruit-and-leather Pinot noir from Oregon's own Dundee Hills (about an hour from our house). Delicious.




In the common run of things, I read and enjoy many books often criticized in the wider world as "boring." Omnibus editions of abstract contemporary poetry? Bring them on. Tomes of existentialist biography? Among my favorite books around. Histories of textile crafts? Can't imagine life without them. I generally consider calling a book boring to be a failure on the part of the reader, and when I read an essay that levels this criticism I am often left with a shrewd suspicion that the book under review is one I'll appreciate.

All of which said...I must admit that every time I picked up Orhan Pamuk's Snow, I was overwhelmed by sleep. Literally. I had trouble reading more than ten pages at a time without nodding off, so strong was the novel's soporific power. When you note its 440-page length, you'll have some notion why my post on Pamuk is overdue. This is especially disappointing because the book has so much potential, and sounds like irresistible literary candy to me rather than the mildly interesting but narcotic slog it turned out to be. I went into it expecting a Turkish version of the tight, labyrinthine plot twists in Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, but without the magical realism and with a sinister pinch of David Lynch added. (Amazing, in other words. Do any of you know a novel that is actually like this?) Alas, it is more like a twelve-hour version of My Dinner with André, transposed into a Turkish tea-house and with occasional random shooting thrown in.

So many things about Pamuk's premise are intriguing to me. We have a frame narrative in which the unreliable narrator "Orhan Pamuk" pieces together, from interviews and documents, the story of his late poet friend Ka, and in particular a pivotal three-day trip Ka took to the provincial town of Kars, four years before his death. Ka is supposed to have composed his final book of poetry in Kars, although the manuscript has since gone missing. Orhan's romanticism, feelings of inadequacy, sorrow at Ka's death, and incomplete information lead him to draw conclusions about the poet's brilliance and seriousness that the reader will probably not share. Likewise, Ka's own set of biases and behaviors—including his childhood nostalgia for Kars, to which he is returning after many years; his infantile notions of love at first sight; his capricious and vacillating relationship to God and religion; the extreme, dream-like density that overtakes him at key moments; and his simplistic pursuit of the feeling he calls "happiness"—make him deeply untrustworthy as well. There are some clever moments that make use of the unreliable, un-self-aware narration, especially early in the book. I liked the description of the bus Ka rides in on, and the atmosphere as the falling snow gets heavier and heavier:

Fear had already fostered a strong fellow feeling among the passengers, and before long Ka also felt at one with them. Even though he was sitting just behind the driver, Ka was soon doing the same as the passengers behind him: whenever the bus slowed to negotiate a bend in the road or avoid going over the edge of a cliff, he stood up for a better view; when the zealous passenger who'd committed himself to helping the driver by wiping the condensation from the windscreen missed a corner, Ka would point it out to the man with his forefinger (which contribution went unnoticed); and when the blizzard became so bad that the wipers could no longer keep the snow from piling up on the windscreen, Ka would join the driver in trying to guess where the road was.

On one hand, we have probably all experienced that sensation of fellow-feeling that results from being in an enclosed area with other people during an emergency. On the other hand, it's pretty plain here that while Ka may feel "at one" with the other passengers, they probably don't feel at one with him. All his actions allow him the illusion of belonging, but no one else is responding to him: the wiper of the windshield either ignores his contribution or doesn't even realize he's there, while the driver can hardly benefit from Ka sharing in his attempts to guess the position of the road. It's a nice foreshadowing of the challenges Ka will meet later on in the town, and his over-confidence in his own impressions, even when those impressions veer wildly from one extreme to another from moment to moment. Orhan's narration seems to realize some of Ka's foibles (he points out the ignored input on the windscreen, for example), but also seems to buy in, at surprising moments, to Ka's own illusions.

In any case, this tricky double-blind narration is accompanied by yet more promising elements. Take the classic locked-door setup: all roads into Kars are closed due to heavy snow just as Ka arrives. Or the sinister provincial theater troupe which arrives on the same train as Ka and strikes him as oddly familiar. Or the dueling shady law-enforcement agencies leaning on the town paper, which reports events before they happen. Or the multiple tragic and spooky background events of Kars (an epidemic of young women have been committing suicide; a sherbet vendor may or may not be poisoning her customers; a small-time political coup will soon erupt on live television; a minister of education is gunned down in a pastry shop). With this great line-up, how could the book lose?

Through near-glacial narration, for one thing. See the passages on sleep, unavoidable sleep, above. I suppose one could view Pamuk's super-slow pacing as a clever reference to the fact that the town is locked down by ice, but in practice it very much drags by. Also, Pamuk's approach to politics strikes me as clumsy. Unlike in, say, The Moor's Last Sigh or Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral, where the political concerns are reflected in the events and fabric of the narration, in Snow we get chapters on chapters of people actually sitting in the various hotel rooms and tea-shops of Kars, and conversing about the relationship between the West and the East, the atheists versus the Islamists, and so on. I'm not saying there isn't a way to write an engaging novel made up largely of conversation, but in my opinion Snow is not that novel. The result here ends up feeling more like an author's notes on themes he wishes to address in a novel, than the novel itself. Add to that a similarly half-baked attempt at addressing gender issues, which pays lip service to the fetishization of female beauty but nonetheless fails endow its female characters with much depth beyond their opinions on whether to wear headscarves, and you have a frustrating execution of a stellar concept.

Notes on Disgust

Other than a few passing references to things most readers will find mildly disgusting (one character remembers a time several years ago when some religious high school students threw a bucket of sewer water over a statue, for example), the explicit mentions of disgust all involve the radical Islamist character Blue. As a Westernized Turk and rumored atheist who has spent many years in Germany, Ka is already the object of Blue's contempt, but when Ka displays these Westernized traits openly, Blue's emotions cross the line into disgust. Pausing in his "reminiscences" about a German couple he knows (he is actually making the whole thing up), Ka notes that "Blue was now eyeing him with open revulsion." Later, when Blue has been manipulated into collaborating with people from different factions from his own (Kurds and Westernized atheists), we have this scene:

Holding her father's hand, Kadife tried to make sense of the disgust and contempt she could see in Blue's face. Blue felt that he had walked into a trap, but, fearing what people would say about him if he left, he remained, against his better judgment.

In the first scene, disgust functions as a clear-cut policer of us versus them: Ka is revealing himself to be a proud member of "them" (Westerners), and Blue is repulsed because he considers members of "them" to be less fully human than members of "us." The role of Blue's disgust in the context of the book is to demonstrate to the reader his strong, dehumanizing opinions on Westerners.

In the second scene, some of Blue's disgust is turned inward: he is disgusted with himself for having allowed "them" to contaminate him to the extent that he has agreed to collaborate. Without doubt he is also disgusted at being in the presence of so many people he considers "them." Possibly, he might also be disgusted with himself that he cares enough about "what people would say" to let it influence his actions. For the reader, Blue's disgust in this scene further cements his stand-offish and volatile character. It increases the tension in the scene by convincing us any collaboration involving Blue will be unsuccessful, while making a larger point about the dehumanization of our political opponents. Or at least...that's what I think it's trying to do.


Snow was July's pick for the Wolves reading group. Please join us the last weekend in August for Lydia Davis's The End of the Story!

And thanks to Stefanie of So Many Books for kindly sending me this copy of Pamuk's novel. Despite the fact that I didn't love the book, it was still very nice of you! :-)

The Awakening


I don't know if high school was this way for y'all, but there came a time in my late teens when it seemed like I did nothing but take tests. Advanced Placement tests, SAT tests (both general and subject tests), college placement tests: you name it, I took it. Standardized tests, mostly, but also the "writing" versions of same—canned essays written out long-hand on a book of the student's choice, in response to an anodyne question such as "Which is preferable: competition or cooperation? Cite examples from literature"; or "Demonstrate a character's changing relationship to family over time." Our teachers recommended that we have one or two books fresh in our minds, ready to adapt to the structure of whatever prompt we happened to receive. I'm betting you see where I'm going with this: that book for me was Kate Chopin's The Awakening. I must have written five, six, even seven facile timed essays on Edna Pontellier and her sad fate. Luckily for my current self-respect, those essays were taken away when the buzzer rang and never given back to the hapless test-takers, so I will never know how truly horrible they were. I do remember that by the summer of my senior year I was deathly tired of pointing out the low-lying symbolism and nascent feminism in Chopin's 1899 novella, and hoped never to read it again.

But times change. And now, having butchered Chopin in 25-minute chunks for the better part of a semester, I welcome the opportunity to write about her in a more leisurely—and hopefully complex—fashion.

The first thing I noticed, reading Chopin at thirty (when people have started asking the childless if they plan to reproduce) instead of seventeen (when people fervently hope the childless will remain that way), is the emphasis in this novella on childbirth and motherhood, and its acknowledgment of the difficulty for women who are not naturally nurturing types, in navigating the social and literal perils of motherhood. While the blurbs and reviews I've read of the book often point to its portrayal of marital infidelity—casting Chopin as a precursor to DH Lawrence as a sympathetic portraitist of sex out of wedlock—Edna's crisis of existence and reputation revolves at least as much around her role as a mother as it does around her role as a wife or lover. As a teenager I gravitated toward the storyline that takes Edna through the pangs of semi-unrequited for Robert Lebrun, and less on passages like this, which play her off her friend and Angel-in-the-House Adèle Ratignolle:

It would have been a difficult matter for Mr. Pontellier to define to his own satisfaction or any one else's wherein his wife failed in her duty toward their children. It was something which he felt rather than perceived, and he never voiced the feeling without subsequent regret and ample atonement.
       If one of the little Pontellier boys took a tumble whilst at play, he was not apt to rush crying to his mother's arms for comfort; he would more likely pick himself up, wipe the water out of his eyes and the sand out of his mouth, and go on playing. [...]
       In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-women seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. [...]
       Many of them were delicious in the rôle; one of them was the embodiment of every womanly grace and charm. If her husband did not adore her, he was a brute, deserving of death by slow torture. Her name was Adèle Ratignolle.

Apologies for the abridgements here, but I wanted to show Chopin's clever trajectory over the course of a couple of pages. Although the narration throughout The Awakening is omniscient third-person narrator, the sentence beginning "It would have been a difficult matter..." privileges Edna's husband's point of view (or at least, his hypothetical point of view, should anyone have asked him how his wife failed in her motherly duties). The comments that follow, on the behavior of the Pontellier boys, presumably form part of their father's viewpoint as well: he feels this self-reliant attitude on their part reflects poorly on Edna, on her lack of motherly warmth or nurturing impulse.

Does the declaration that Edna "was not a mother-woman" derive from Mr. Pontellier as well? As the paragraphs progress, and particularly as the last section of this quote is followed by a long paragraph praising every physical virtue and charm of Adèle, we start to suspect that the narration is drifting away from Mr. Pontellier. (This is confirmed as the description of Adèle transitions into a scene in which Edna and Adèle are present but where Mr. Pontellier is absent.) Nevertheless, a trace of his influence still remains. So that when we get to the claim that "Many of [the mother-women] were delicious in the rôle," there is a distinct flavor of the male gaze. "Delicious" obviously requires an audience to find them so, and said audience is plainly not the children. Chopin raises the question of just why a non-maternal woman is a failure in the turn-of-the-century bourgeois South. Is it because she is depriving her children of necessary guidance and care? Is it because she is depriving the men around her of a pleasing spectacle that conforms to their notion of womanhood? Or is it simply because the entire society is unable to imagine a template of "womanhood" that diverges from this model, or in which these two sets of obligations might come into conflict?

Chopin's subtle wit (another aspect I didn't appreciate at seventeen) allows her to get away with things in The Awakening that would come off as blatantly preachy without it. In the scene just following the above quoted paragraphs, for example, Adèle has shown up to an afternoon hang-out session equipped with the pattern for a winter-weight baby romper of some kind, which she reckons Edna might want to whip up even though a) Edna's kids are both old enough to run around playing on their own, and b) Edna is not currently pregnant with any future babies. What's more,

Mrs. Pontellier's mind was quite at rest concerning the present material needs of her children, and she could not see the use of anticipating and making winter weight garments the subject of her summer meditations. But she did not want to appear unamiable and uninterested, so she had brought forth newspapers, which she spread upon the floor of the gallery, and under Madame Ratignolle's directions she had cut a pattern of the impervious garment.

To me, at least, Chopin's wit is what allows her, in this scene, to avoid letting anyone off the hook, and yet making no one the object of contempt either. Maybe it's silly of Adèle to be inflicting winter-weight romper patterns on her friend, but her genuine enthusiasm about the cleverness of the pattern, is born of a deeply-felt maternal solicitude. Likewise, maybe Edna is a little spineless (to cut out the pattern she's not going to use) or vague (to resist planning for the future), but she's just trying to spend her time as pleasantly as possible while at the same time safeguarding her own private thoughts.

And (spoilers here and throughout the next paragraph) it's this need for privacy and autonomy, and its conflict with a socially-constructed vision of motherhood that did not allow for the scandal of divorce or separation, which is really at the heart of Chopin's novella. Edna realizes, even as her lover leaves her, that his memory will eventually fade. She does not kill herself for love, but because she knows that she can't choose to live out her life in the stifling society in which her family moves, and she can't bear to inflict the scandal of any other lifestyle on the reputations of her sons.

Notes on Disgust

There's very little physical disgust in The Awakening, and even Edna's growing spiritual disgust at the blind adherence to social convention that dominates the world around her, is generally overshadowed by emotions like depression, exhilaration, impatience, lassitude, and so on. The one scene that explicitly mentions disgust takes place between Edna and Alcée Arobin, the lover she takes out of boredom when Robert Lebrun gallantly removes himself from her vicinity. After clutching Arobin's wrist where it is scarred on the inside, Edna recoils, saying "The sight of a wound or a scar always agitates and sickens me [...] I shouldn't have looked at it." He then apologizes, saying "It never occurred to me that it might be repulsive." If Edna does actually feel disgust in this scene (if she is not just covering up a spasm of desire), it may be that the scarred inner wrist reminds her of mortality, even of suicide. Arobin claims to have received it in a sabre duel, but its placement suggests an oft-publicized mode of killing oneself. This scene could be read as a subconscious recognition, on Edna's part, of her own suicidal thoughts, still unacknowledged at this point in the novella although deducible to the reader by her drastic mood swings and periods of dejected hopelessness. Her liaison with Arobin itself suggests the degree to which she has compromised with herself and is falling into depression. Disgust as recognition of unacknowledged desire/fear?


I revisited The Awakening as part of Frances's Art of the Novella Challenge. My goal is six novellas from Melville House's Art of the Novella series over the course of August.

Oh, and part of this challenge is to include drinks pairings for the novellas. While I have been slightly under the weather and so did not consume alcohol while reading Chopin, the obvious choice for drowning your sorrows along with Edna is a strong Southern cocktail like those invented by her father the Colonel or quaffed by the characters while betting on horses at the track. A mint julep (Kentucky) or a sazerac (New Orleans) leap to mind as very apropos.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography