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Objectifying matters

Joined a writers’ group of a dozen odd people about four months ago and have read every week from a novel I’m attempting or a book of short stories I’m finalizing for publication.

It’s a good group, attentive and encouraging, whatever the merits of the particular writer or her particular story. (I’m the only guy in the group, which I sometimes call, tongue in cheek, 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) There don’t appear to be overt hostilities or agendas. They will see and say what they think about your piece.

But I read a story yesterday, written some years ago, called “The Bathers.” It’s one of a series of stories that involves male voyeurism, if you want to use that word, or, less tendentiously, a man seeing a woman naked. This man may have an artistic interest or vocation, or at least admire painters whose subject matter includes female nudes, for example, Manet, Renoir, Titian.

Actaeon and hounds
In “The Death of Actaeon” by Titian, the goddess Diana has transformed Actaeon into a stag and his own hounds tear him apart.

The protagonist in the story compares himself implicitly to Actaeon, who spied upon the hunter goddess Diana naked at her bath and was ripped apart by her hounds. After I read the story and the women reacted, I joked about the (poor) male writer being ripped apart by feminist readers, and these feminist readers chuckled.

The comments about the story were helpful, most of them. They concerned formal matters I might not have handled convincingly. In the draft I read, why does the protagonist attribute an interest in art to the wife, not himself? (The wife works for an insurance company.) Why is the goddess Diana mentioned early in the story when the reader doesn’t yet know that the protagonist has looked on his friend’s wife naked?

These and other questions of form are fine. They are occasions for learning about your art
— what you have and haven’t done to put together your discrete ideas into a seamless whole.

But questions about life values and morality tend not to be helpful, I think. One of the readers said the male is “objectifying” the female here — the friend’s naked wife is presented as a cut of meat, in effect, the usual banal feminist objection.

First, the comment is not accurate. The female character is seen naked — a plump and muscular woman — but she’s seen also as a friend and as a professional, a zoo vet who knows how to keep animals healthy and repair them when they aren’t, and that may include the male animal.

Second, and more important, objectification is a fact of daily life. We all see each other first, and maybe even last, as objects. We are subjects, and we look out on a world of objects, and that world is defined by what we see: fat or thin, tall or short, fair or dark, hesitant or bold, blonde or brunette, quick-witted or stolid — kind of like the series of choices we’re presented at the eye doctor’s during the exam, “This one? Or this one?” Not simple polarities, finally, but narrowing and defining choices that correct our vision and comprehension too about the objects we’re considering. We also make our worlds via what we hear and through the other senses, all the senses, before we can begin to make a whole of the parts, or an abstract or moral  world out of all the puzzle pieces.

To call a character or author “objectifying” is a remark out of a moralistic system. And whether the system is feminist or Marxist or Christian or whatever, a system manufactures labels which are applied then, lazily, to the objets d’arts at hand — you know, those art objects that are objectified by criticism.

A system, in the hands and mouths of most adaptors, becomes rigid and derivative. It uses and reinforces cliches. If I’m a feminist, I don’t need to know more than the few standard phrases produced by feminist criticism. If I’m a Marxist, I will trot out “The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.),” to use the now rather dated examples supplied by Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”

But it’s Orwell who hits his bloody head against the nail of the trite and predictable. It’s politics in his view, and other forms of ideology, that corrupts language, that makes thinking in any new, fresh, significant way impossible. We belong to a political party and speak its language, its code, its cliches, its drivel. And if we do, we are in the service of that political party, in fact, not art or truth.

There’s another, prior problem too. How can any criticism of a creative piece be other than derivative? Doesn’t criticism, vis-a-vis creativity, tend by its nature to be incommensurable? It speaks another language and, in fact, another system. It appraises, evaluates, judges. But can it be creative in itself? (This is a big question, and I’ll come back to it.)

“The Bathers,” at any rate, belongs to a collection of my short stories called “Not Calling Margaret and Other Tales without Redeeming Social Value.” Redeeming social values are matters for churches and political parties to promulgate, not art. Not my art, anyway. If I want morals or politics, I’ll go to church or a party meeting. If I want art, I’ll make it — by the sweat of my brow, the blood in my veins, the pride even hubris that I take in my originality.

 

Sleep, sleep, sleep

Sleep — our need for it, our longing for it, our discontent.

When we’re young, we need sleep in order to recover from the school day and all its stresses. When we grow into adulthood, it’s the job and family that impose stress. When we’re old, as I am now, alas and alack, and retired, hooray, it would seem you can sleep as long as you like.

But that’s not my case. I’ve always been a nervous, and perhaps reluctant, sleeper. There’s so much going on — especially in the head. How can we just hit the pillow and close our eyes to it? Life whirls on, in the brain, pokes and prods us, stimulates, suggests something we might have done in the past but didn’t, something we might do in the future.

Of course, this kind of restlessness is pretty fruitless. We can’t change the past by tossing and turning, digging it up like a moldy old potato. We can’t control the future by dreaming of it as a glorious and confirming thing.

I envy those who hit the pillow and it’s lights out. Those who sleep easily, soundly, “the sleep of the just.” Maybe this old phrase, or moldy potato, suggests I am not just, or fair, or moral? Something is troubling me? Some vague sin? Some forgetfulness? Some thoughtlessness? 

Or that I must keep watch, as my name Gregory suggests? (The Online Etymology dictionary glosses the name so: “from Late Latin Gregorius, from Greek gregorios, a derivative of gregoros ‘to bewatchful,’ from PIE root *ger- ‘to be awake’ [cf. Sanskrit jagarti ‘he is awake,’ Avestan agarayeiti ‘wakes up, rouses’]. ) Whether neurotically or morally or whatever, I must keep awake in the watches of the night!

Still, I could turn myself in as a sleep study subject. They’d put wires on my head and have me sleep in a dark room. I’d toss and turn, yank out the wires, scream. Help! help! Are you kidding me? killing me? It’s not worth the measly $75 you’re awarding! Take me back home, where I love to toss and turn in my own bed, keeping my wife awake half the night!

Of course, as the Shakespeare says, “our little life is rounded by a sleep,” or as Emily Dickinson puts it, about the longer sleep we fret and worry to the bone:

A long, long sleep, a famous sleep
That makes no show for dawn
By stretch of limb or stir of lid, —
An independent one.

Was ever idleness like this?
Within a hut of stone
To bask the centuries away
Nor once look up for noon?

The Mastery of James Joyce

James Joyce
James Joyce, about the time of the publication of Dubliners in 1914.

Have started re-reading Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners. Never studied these in a class or taught them, as far as I remember, with the possible exception of the great last story in the book, “The Dead.”

But even the first two stories, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” are great in their own way. With a few deft strokes, they nail the relation of a young boy growing up in a country, Ireland, paralyzed by the church (Catholic) and the state (England).

The first is about an old priest, Father Flynn, who has had several strokes and then dies. Told from the point of view of a young boy, his protege, the story offers one of Joyce’s typically sly and elliptical looks into the church. A powerfully Catholic country, early 20th century Ireland was rich in catechismal instruction, in other words, rote learning and unquestioning belief. The priest, retired from his duties after a stroke or two, catechizes the young boy, on the distinctions among mortal and venial sins and “only imperfections.” The boy sees him as a dying old man, in offputting physical terms:

  • heavy grey face of the paralytic
  • lips … moist with spittle
  • pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately
  • big discoloured teeth
  • tongue lie upon his lower lip

And yet the boy’s aunt remarks, talking to the priests’s sisters, “No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.”

Of course, Joyce is putting his finger up his nose and thumbing it, too, at the Catholic Church, which already by his day was as good as a corpse.

In the second story, “An Encounter,” the boy encounters another creepy old man. This one is not a priest but some kind of pederast or pervert whom the boy and his pal meet while playing hooky one day. The boys are sitting in a field, when an old man with “ashen-grey” mustache,” bids them good day. He talks about the weather, then the writers Moore, Scott, and Lytton. He suggests that Lytton is not suitable fare for young boys, and then, from “the great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth,” interrogates them on how many “sweethearts” they have.

There was nothing he liked better, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair [though] all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew.

After which, “the queer old josser,” as the boy’s friend calls him, moves to the other side of the field and evidently masturbates (no description provided). Then comes back and regales the boy if not his friend (who’s run off after a stray cat) with talk about how bad boys should be whipped.

He said that if he ever found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls.

The boy has played truant in order to have an “adventure.” Though he thought, naively, at first — like most of us, of whatever age, today — that having an adventure meant going to foreign lands, like the sailors on their ships at the quay, he finds out that the “queer old josser” was an adventure in his own right. The kind of adventure that we may not be seeking but that, however darkly or perversely, opens new vistas to us.

Last ball game of the year

Arvest Ballpark
Arvest Ballpark, the Naturals’ home field, in Springdale, Arkansas.

Last night went to my third Northwest Arkansas Naturals’ ball game of the year, for the second time with friend Russell. His wife and mine both abhor baseball, or are bored to death with it, and like to see us go out and not get into too much mischief. (Hanging on the street corner, for example, with switchblades or guns.)

Another lovely evening, though awfully still. Until about the fifth inning there was hardly a breath of air. The flags hung limply on their center field poles, though the fans’ hopes quickened in the bottom of the first when the Naturals scored two runs to take the lead 2-1.

The final score was 7-4, Naturals, the highlight being a sixth-inning two-run homer by our catcher that hit the foul pole in left field. The home plate umpire ruled the ball foul at first, but was overridden or dissuaded by the other two umps … and the Naturals’ manager, who came charging out of the dugout at the call.

Russell and I didn’t keep score. (How many do these days?) Our eyes loped along, from our excellent perch behind home plate, taking in the slow and then quick spectacle. Our mouths took in beer as an antidote to the stillness of the air and the sometime slowness of the game.

In fact, though R’s wife Diane had fed us before the game, at their usual happy hour in the driveway (wine, beer, and in this case a gigantic pie, with sausage and spinach — a quiche on steroids), we snacked too during the game. R ordered nachos, and I thieved a bag of peanuts from under the seat of the fans just in front of us. (Well, hey, the bag was just lying there even before the game. When I saw four fans file back into their seats, I dropped the bag under the seats again; but no one touched it for five innings, so I grabbed it again and R and I gobbled a goodly number of goobers, scattering the shells around us.)

I had to leave two innings before the end to pick up another friend at the airport. But I entrusted Russ with the victory, and like a good reliever this fine guy and admirable baseball fan came through.

Three games attended this year, as I say, and three glorious victories!

Ho hum. What to do during the off season? How now can we reclaim the fluid rhythms, quick and slow, of life the pastoral?