Fatal Vexation

We must cherish joy where we find it in these dark times. For me, today, that has meant savoring the fact that David Hume, in his magisterial six-volume History of England (1754-61), records no fewer than seven people in English history as having died from vexation and / or disappointment. 

These are their (somewhat abrupt) stories.

  • “Aldred, archbishop of York, who had set the crown on William’s head, had died a little before of grief and vexation.”
  •  “The affliction for this disaster, and vexation from the distracted state of his affairs, encreased the sickness under which [King John] then laboured; and though he reached the castle of Newark, he was obliged to halt there, and his distemper soon after put an end to his life.”
  •  “Harris, an alderman of London, was indicted, and died of vexation before his trial came to an issue.”
  • “The high-spirited nobleman [Southampton] retired from the council, and soon after died from vexation and disappointment.”
  • “Drake himself, from the intemperance of the climate, the fatigues of his journey, and the vexation of his disappointment, was seized with a distemper, of which he soon after died.”
  • “[Walter Devereux, first Earl of] Essex died of a distemper, occasioned, as is supposed, by the vexation, which he had conceived, from his disappointments.”
  • “That gallant Englishman [Sir John Norris], finding that he had been deceived by treacherous promises, and that he had performed nothing worthy of his ancient reputation, was seized with a languishing distemper, and died of vexation and discontent.”
  • And, just to end on a high note, a non-fatal case of vexation:
    • “But though he [Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, son of Walter—so genetic predisposition to fatal vexation] affected to be so entirely cured of his aspiring ambition, the vexation of this disappointment, and of the triumph gained by his enemies, preyed upon his haughty spirit, and he fell into a distemper, which seemed to put his life in danger.” But then, Elizabeth I sent him “some broth” and “a message” and Essex was “restored in his health”!!! (True, he is executed the following year, at age 34, having “given reins to his ungovernable passions, and involved, not only himself, but many of his friends, in utter ruin.” But still.)
simonet

Detail from engraving by Jean-Baptiste Simonet, illustration from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther

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The Well Wrought Bun

I’ve been fiddling around a lot with my hair recently—mostly pinning it up in various configurations. Partly, it’s because my hair has grown really long in quarantine. Also, until quite recently, I’ve been between knitting projects and braiding hair is soothing in a similar way to knitting yarn. Most of all, my threshold these days for what might be considered a diverting indoor activity is very low. I’ve been inspired, in the various hairstyles I’ve attempted, by a number of iconic updos that have featured in recent movie nights. My kids like Star Wars for the epic battles but I’m in it for the epic hair. I’m not crazy about the original side buns; but I really like Leia’s (much more flattering) braided bun in the ceremony at the end of the first movie. People always pan Return of the Jedi but, in hair terms, it will always and forever be my favorite because of its rich interplay of braided updos, and, also, Ewoks.

Now the kids and I are half way through the Hunger Games film series—which is set in a dystopian world that did not quite so brazenly mirror our own when I read the books back in the 2010s. If only we had the Mocking Jay. Katniss Everdeen: an excellent shot; also a very strong braid game. And braiding your own hair is hard—even when you’re not also in a life-or-death reality show. Braiding your own hair demands considerable upper-arm strength. That’s probably why Katniss is so good at them. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe she’s good with a bow and arrow because her arms are so strong from all the intensive braiding.

Both Katniss and Leia in Return of the Jedi wear a version of the style I’ve most often attempted lately: two braids—just regular pigtails—pinned across the top of my head. This hairstyle, the internet insists, is called “milkmaid braids,” which is gross, and makes the look sound less woman warrior more Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which is not what I am going for. That being said, it is a hairstyle that I associate with both falling and shame, so maybe the identification with Hardy’s tragic fallen heroine is apt. Until recently, I hadn’t worn “milkmaid braids” in decades. But it’s a hairstyle with which I have an intimate and somewhat traumatic history, because it was the regulation hairstyle during my two years at the Royal Ballet School in London, which was, as its name signals, no rustic barn but, rather, an extremely forbidding and rarefied institution.

The “Junior Associate” wing of the Royal Ballet School (for students between eight and eleven), which I joined in 1981, is also, I should say, a genuinely illustrious program in the history of ballet. The School was created in 1948 by Dame Ninette de Valois, a renowned ballet dancer who danced with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes before going on to found the Royal Ballet and its affiliated school. I recall her (quite vaguely and possibly unreliably) as a romantically witchy long-haired old lady (kind of like Mags from The Hunger Games) who would occasionally sit in on our classes along with Jocelyn Mather, who was the head of the program, and whom I recall as having a more forbidding Margaret-Thatcher like aura. When they visited our class, it was a big deal. Also—and this may have been the most thrilling aspect of the program—our classes were actually held backstage in the Sadler’s Wells Theatre—I was, in fact, I just learned today, part of the first year of students who took classes there. My Mum would drop me off and I would dash in the stage door of the theatre, saying hello to the doorman on the way in. This aspect of the program—the feeling that I had been granted entry into a magical secret world—I treasured.

But it was also a world that had an extremely rigid set of codes and customs (perhaps all magical secret worlds do). As such, the school’s insistence that all girls wear their hair in “milkmaid braids” was very much in keeping with the school’s general philosophy. Although simple in concept, so-called milkmaid braids are not a simple hairstyle to create. First of all, it is a style that demands symmetry: a severe center parting from the top of the forehead to the nape of the neck (my hair has always resisted—and still does—parting down the middle). Then, the two braids—or plaits as we call them in Britain—had to be aligned so that the band they made across the head when pinned up would not be lopsided. Finally, the braids had to be pinned in place across a fidgety and impatient child’s head. Suffice to say that it required a great deal of maternal labor, as well as hairspray, to hold my plaits in place. And then—and this is where the true perverseness becomes apparent—then the braids had to stay neatly coiled on top of my head for the duration of a ballet class: a class in which there would be piroutteing and leaping. The more I think about it, the more perverse the regulation milkmaid braids seem, and the more inevitable their public fall.

Pride comes before a fall is the theme of a long narrative account of my days at the Royal Ballet School that I recently found in an old box of papers. The account is loftily titled “My Training,” and I wrote it when I was twelve for a school project about dance. I explain in the narrative how my ballet teacher “suggested I go for an audition at Sadlers Wells for the Royal Ballet school.” I continue:

“My mother agreed partly because it was near where I live. There were two auditions and most of the dancing was quite easy. A lot of it were [sic] teachers twisting you around to see how flexible you were. I was very excited when I got into the final audition for hundreds of girls and boys applied each year. When I’d finished that audition there was a wait of maybe a month or two to see if you were excepted [sic]—I was!”

Once, I got in, though, I did indeed feel excepted as well as accepted: that is, I felt like I didn’t fit in and I chafed at the school’s strictures:

There were two classes a week in the Junior associate course and I had a nice teacher. The only thing I didn’t like was the DIARY. The DIARY was a diary you had to write after each class saying which exercises you had done and what had happened. Mostly we did the same exercises each week so I usually put something like, “we did the exercises the same as last week except for the pliés. Then we did stretching exercises—if you want to know what sort look at last weeks page.” It would have been a very boring diary to read, we were also meant to keep dictionaries in which we wrote down the new french terms for exercises that we had learnt.

When the next year came around another audition came around and it turned out that exactly the same people as last year had got in except now there was one extra girl. [This was the Royal Ballet School’s version of the Hunger Games: you had to re-audition competing against hundreds of other children—every year, just for the privilege of being allowed into the classes—which, to be clear, my parents also had to pay for.] This year I had a teacher called Miss Young whom I didn’t like so much so my diary also changed, now it was more like, this, “I think Miss Young picks on me on purpose—she keeps blaming me for all the exercises that go wrong” or “Miss Young was actually nice to me today—she probably isn’t feeling well.” The teachers were meant to check the diaries once but that one time mine wasn’t among them, and the person who won the prize for the best diary was the only one who had kept her diary up to date.

The school’s regimented ethos was most visible in the precise and unforgiving nature of its uniform:

The uniform was a white leotard, pink socks, pink ballet shoes with pink elastic. You wore [a] belt according to how old you were. First year I had [a] white belt, second year [a] blue [one]. Your hair was worn in plaits across the top of your head with bows matching your belt on each side. On my first ever class my hair fell down in two long plaits—in front of everyone.

Oh the shame of it! I can still see it in my mind, although what I see is myself as if I’m outside of my own body and I can’t tell if it’s because I am remembering myself as I looked in the studio’s mirror or because I’m seeing myself from the point-of-view of a very stern impartial spectator. Probably both. This is what I see in my mind’s eye: I’m standing in a line of other girls in white leotards (white leotards!)—it is the end of the class and we are doing some simple sautés in the center of the room, and we are doing it line by line, which means that there are other girls on the side watching. As our line jumps together, I see my own face, rosy and shiny with sweat half smirking-half frowning as the two plaits tumble down and bounce on my shoulders as we finish the exercise and the girls watching from the sides titter. I know I wanted to cry but I don’t remember if I did.

The feeling that your hair is about to fall loose when you are dancing is a very particular feeling. I would liken it to another feeling with which I’m also familiar, one that I suspect is more familiar to women than to men: it’s the feeling when you are walking, carrying, say, a computer bag in your left hand and with a purse or shoulder bag slung over your right shoulder; you are carrying a very full cup of very hot coffee in your right hand and you suddenly realize that the shoulder bag is about to slip down your right arm causing you to drop the coffee but—and this is crucial—you realize this in time to perceive the exact chain of events that are about to occur but not in time to stop them from happening. It is a similar feeling when you are doing posé turns across the studio, and you can suddenly feel quite distinctly that the crucial pin, the one that is keeping your bun together, is about to come loose, and that, when it does, the whole thing will fall apart. It’s like a game of Jenga or, even more so, like that game Kerplunk (which I remember finding as a child much too stressful to be fun) where you have to remove plastic straws from a plastic dome without allowing any marbles to fall through the lattice made by the interlacing straws. By contrast, the feeling of a well-wrought bun is immensely comforting: instead of feeling either weighed down by the bun’s gravitational pull or pinched and pulled by hairpins, you feel, instead, buoyed, secure.

Twelve-year old me doesn’t say anything further about the hair incident in my written account. Instead, after recounting the humiliation of my hair’s Fall, I begin a new paragraph:

At the end of the second year I or rather my mother got a note saying I was growing wrong—(my body was getting too long for my legs—) and I probably wouldn’t get in at the next audition. I decided it would be better (or rather my pride did) if I just left at the end of the year without going in for the audition at all—so endeth my Royal Ballet career.”

Reading these lines now, I feel a lot of compassion for—and also anger on behalf of—the twelve-year old me trying to lightly play off an experience that was in fact very painful to me at the time. I didn’t quite get it right here; there was no “note” saying I was “growing wrong”; rather, as I see from the correspondence that I also found recently while going through old papers, at the bottom of the acceptance letter my parents received telling them I had been admitted for a second year of study, Jocelyn Mather added a rather ominous note asking if she might “have a word” with my mother “at the beginning of next term.”

mather note

I don’t know exactly what she said to my Mum during that conversation, but I suspect that what my Mum was trying to emphasize, in communicating to me that it had to do with the way my body was growing, was that the School’s concerns were not to do with the way I danced.

Nonetheless, I remember being devastated—feeling rejected and humiliated. At the same time, I also didn’t feel terribly surprised; and part of me even felt relieved. I had always felt slightly out of place in the program, and also guilty that I didn’t enjoy the classes more when they were so special and rarefied. My Mum was not like the other “ballet mums”—almost all of whom seemed completely immersed in the ballet world—and I was not like the other Junior Associates either—for one, I did not like to smile while I was dancing nor being told to smile, as I think is evident from the group pictures below. (Also evident: I am not pulling my stomach in and in the second picture I am not holding my arms in first position and I have a large band-aid on my right knee.) For another, I was also the only girl in my class who wasn’t white, a fact that tended only to be obvious when I was tan from a family holiday. “You look almost black!” I remember one of the girls whispering to me once, her eyes wide—was it in shock or awe? I smiled uncertainly, suddenly self-conscious at the stark contrast between my brown limbs and white leotard in the mirror.

royal ballet 81royal ballet 82

I am wearing the braids now. No bows. No Royal Ballet class through which my pinned plaits must hold their shape. No bow and arrow either; no battle royale through which my braids must hold steadfast. But I do feel that they are holding me steady, nonetheless: hugging my scalp, holding my head together—not too tightly, not too loosely, not perfectly wrought but well-wrought enough, which, perhaps, is just right.

braids June 2020

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juvenilia

I’ve been going through a lot of old papers recently and today I came across a lot of artwork I produced in my teens. (Be forewarned, then, that what follows is simply a sampling of the artwork I encountered, and that, like most children’s artwork, it is unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than my Mum and me.)

For me, though, this was a really exciting discovery–it had been at least twenty years, maybe more, since I opened these sketchbooks and folders. In viewing the contents I found myself marveling–not at the work itself, but at how much time I devoted to making art, and in recalling the combination of freedom and discipline that constituted my art instruction.

The practice was to spend time, a long time, looking, really looking, and making marks on the page that were as authentic as possible to what you observed. That was it.

The objects we were encouraged to draw included: still life (the art room always had objects and plants in various shifting configurations for this purpose); the human body (we had life models who would pose for us at school, and we were also encouraged to draw ourselves); and landscape–in this case, the urban landscape of North London. I remember the many hours I spent, to my Mum’s slight concern, hanging around King’s Cross in the years when it was a pretty barren and seedy area in the midst of huge construction. My friends and I would take the bus from school and then park ourselves somewhere on the building site and spend hours making drawings of piles of rubble and half-demolished buildings.

We were also encouraged to spend time making sketches of art objects, whether images of artworks we found in books or objects in museums. Many times, we’d show up for art class and our wonderful teachers would encourage us to go and park ourselves at one of London’s museums all day and just draw for as long as we could. Those were well-spent hours.

at the British Museum

east pediment

 

Assyrian spirit

at the Victoria and Albert Museum

victoria and albert purse box

drawings from books

Seurat

Degas

schiele black ink

Dancers

I took ballet classes very regularly throughout my childhood and teens. Although the sketches below were made from photos, I also remember observing some classes and making very quick sketches from life. Drawing dancers while they are moving is really really hard.

greek dancersdancers

Life drawing

One day I want to write more extensively about the I think fairly unusual fact that in my mid teens (15, 16) I spent a lot of time making pictures of the naked human body, not least my own. We regularly had life models in our art classes at school. I drew myself naked all the time. I happily posed for my (female) friends in my art class. My friend from college, Sarah Jane, tells how, when she met me, she was startled by how much I seemed to like my own body–which I still do–even though it never did look in the least bit like the bodies of models I saw in magazines.

I think now that although at the time I happily embraced Sarah Jane’s notion that I just had a naturally “healthy” body-image, the truth is slightly stranger. For me, the combination of practicing ballet and painting made me regard my body almost as an abstract aesthetic object: a form that could be endlessly rearranged to make beautiful shapes.

I’m struck now by the fact that, in the third picture below, where I’m sitting cross-legged, my breasts look really uneven. Everyone’s bodies are, of course, asymmetrical; both my body and face are quite strikingly so and, while I’ve certainly felt self-conscious about this at times, I don’t think it ever occurred to me when I was making these drawings that what I was seeing was anything other than a pleasing combination of curve and line and light and shadow. Maybe that’s what comes from hours gazing at Grecian ruins in the British Museum.

The technique, by the way, in the brown-colored sketches before is one I only have ever used in secondary school. The head of the art department, Joe Kusner, had developed this technique: he would brush liquid potassium permanganate onto brown paper. We would then make sketches on the paper using charcoal and use lemon juice (which would bleach the potassium permanganate solution) to add light. I still really love the atmospheric effect it creates.

tendu self-portraitcross legged self-portrait

cross leg lemon

portraits and self-portraits

This is a watercolor I did of my Mum in Iona in 1994–so the summer I turned 20. I think it may have been the first time we went back to Iona after my Dad’s death.

Mum watercolor

I find both the self-portraits below quite strange, but I like them as a pair: one ethereal, one earthy, almost as if my face is made of clay. I think I was maybe 14 or 15 when I made both of these.

self portrait potass lemonself-portrait acrylics

things from home

I still have the waistcoat from which these details are taken. I actually wore it at my father’s funeral, when I was 18. I probably bought it at Camden Lock market.

Pakistani fabric

The two items below remind me so strongly of home. My parents were both devoted drinkers of Lapsang Souchong tea. Loose tea was kept in the Japanese-style caddy (made in Sweden)!

tea

chocolate bar design project

For one of my GCSEs–the two-year courses that, in England at the time, you took between the ages of 14 and 16–I chose a graphic design course. It was probably my favorite course, besides English, and this project–designing a chocolate bar–was my absolute favorite. It involved a lot of “research” consisting of buying and consuming the full spectrum of chocolate bars available at the shop around the corner from my house. Honestly, what I love most about the image below is the border, of which I was especially proud. I drew it in black and white and made photocopies and hand colored each page individually using felt-tip pens, which I remember finding incredibly soothing.

choc final idea

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belongings, collected

  • Shoeboxes containing Christmas tree ornaments individually wrapped in newspaper, two
  • Plastic water bottles, the kind you might use while hiking, two
  • Box containing some kind of insulating tiles for soundproofing (maybe?), one
  • Carry-on sized suitcase, one, in which was packed the following:
    • Dog bowls, two (one plastic, one wooden)
    • Ceramic bowl decorated with dogs that the kids bought him one year for Christmas, one
      • Was it meant for humans or dogs to drink out of? We could never tell. It was from Anthropologie, so I don’t think it was ever intended to have any use-value as such
    • Zip-lock bag of dry dog food, one
    • Black white bandanna, one
    • Pair of Williams sweatpants, one
    • Monogrammed residency graduation jacket, one
    • T-shirts, two
      • striped, one
      • with some kind of nihilist quotation on it, one
    • Bills, two
    • Long letter his ex-girlfriend wrote him after he met me and broke up with her, one
    • Contact lenses, an odd number—which is always irritating with contact lenses, isn’t it
    • Clothing that belonged to his Mom that I kept after we went through a bunch of her old clothes and were deciding what to give to Goodwill, three items
      • fleece socks, one pair
      • Cream-colored linen dress that I kept because I thought it was pretty, but I never wore it, one
      • Her wedding ring, which I zipped in the right-hand pocket of her fleece jacket; at first I put it in with the contact lenses in a zip-lock bag but that felt wrong, one
    • Beach umbrella, one
    • Boogie boards, three (three!)
    • Beach chair, one
    • Foldable cart for carrying beach gear, one
    • Beach bag, one, in which I housed:
      • Several Russian dolls, well-used and well-loved in this house. They will be missed

 

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Six Feet Over

In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,

And solitude; yet not alone, while thou

Visitest my slumbers nightly, or when morn

Purples the east: still govern thou my song,

Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 7, l.26-31).

 

Just a quick note to say that I’ve temporarily decamped to a new space: https://sixfeetover.blog

Why would I create another site when I have a perfectly adequate one here? Did I need another blog? Did the world?

Of course not! And do I need to eat dinner at a restaurant, or to hug my friends, or to travel to faraway places to see far-flung loved ones?

No, I do not need any of these things in the sense that I can survive (I am surviving) without them. Such activities do not constitute the necessities of life. But how sorely I miss all those things and many more that are not necessities but which make life so much sweeter.

In making another site—another blog—then, I was giving expression to the impulse I articulated in my previous post: the impulse for more than enough, for what is superfluous, gratuitous.

So, if you’re not in the mood for any content right now that gilds the lily or over-eggs the pudding, you should definitely not subscribe to Six Feet Over here.

Because if you’re in the market for useful information, top tips, or proven data, Six Feet Over is definitely not for you. Subjects explored in recent posts include: a Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth dance number performed to a song by Cole Porter; Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation procedure; the uncanny eighteenth-century genre of eye portraits (I even tried making one myself—see below!); sewing inspiration from The Sound of Music; a taxonomy of masquers; and much more.

You see? All utterly useless.

Oh, actually, I take it back. I did have some tips for mitigating the coronavirus catastrophe on a global scale.

I know the prospect of venturing beyond the duck-rabbit hole’s cozy confines may seem unappealing in these troubled times; but you can rest assured that, those tips for global-catastrophe-management aside, Six Feet Over’s content is not viral in theme; moreover, its readership is so very small that its potential for going viral is negligible.

I hope to have assuaged any qualms you may have, and to see you there. I’ll be keeping an eye out for you.

warm eye

Govern thou my song, Thalia, and fit frivolists find, though few.

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Fattening the Curve

“… wherever, for the sake of the necessary motion of the parts, with proper strength and agility, the insertions of the muscles are too hard and sudden, their swellings too bold, or the hollows between them too deep, for their out-lines to be beautiful; nature most judiciously softens these hardnesses, and plumps up these vacancies with a proper supply of fat.”

(William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753)

 

Remember when you didn’t know what “flattening the curve” meant?

Like you, I am now all too aware that the phrase refers to slowing the speed at which a virus spreads, and that, in our current moment, the phrase is usually invoked in reference to social distancing as a practice that it is hoped will diminish the rate at which COVID-19 is devastating the world.

But cast your mind back, back through the mists of time to February.

Back then, I, for one, would have taken the phrase “flatten the curve” for a Hogarthian term of art in reference to the necessary measures needed to correct a “too bulging” line.

plate 49

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1, Figure 49

Or perhaps, along the same lines, I might have taken it for a mantra used in a barre class to be repeated under your breath as you contract your abs.

“Abs.”

The other day, after her bath, the younger was standing in the hallway in just her underwear admiring herself in the mirror.

“I have a 4-pack!” she announced proudly. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” she added.

I rolled my eyes and pulled up my shirt.

She examined my torso, frowning.

“Are you tensing?” she asked.

“Umm, I think so?” I said, uncertainly.

Finally, she declared, “I don’t see much.”

“A 1-pack?” I suggested.

“Let’s say a 2-pack,” she said generously and then added, consolingly, “don’t worry, I know you’re still really strong.”

This was more than a week ago, before I’d really settled into to my daily supining regimen, which has since become a full-blown lifestyle.

Now, this lifestyle, to be sure, comes more naturally to me than to others. You could say I have a gift for it. Remember how in Working Girl (which I just re-watched, and recommend you do the same) Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) tells Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) that she has a head for business and a bod for sin? [1]

Well, I, rather less impressively, have a head for blogging and a bod for slothing. [2]

In days gone by, if I didn’t have to go to campus, I could easily spend 75% of my day supine on my sofa, which is where I do the bulk of both reading and writing (yes, I’m there right now). But these days I’m really cultivating that muscle: the supining muscle, which you develop by relaxing into the posture.

You know how in yoga when you’re standing in Tadasana, your instructor will intone, “Feeeeeeel the soles of your feet siiiiiiinking into the earth”? Well, cultivating your supining muscle is like that that except you have to feeeeeeel your bum siiiiiiiinking into the sofa.

Maybe this doesn’t appeal to you. But too bad, because this isn’t for you, it’s for the public good. So suck it up and lie down.

I might be wrong, but “fatten the curve” has a lot of potential as a new public health slogan. Like:

Fatten The Curve To Flatten the Curve.

And then there could be a little illustration. See, I’ve made a rudimentary prototype:

 

The stick person on the right is, yes, a bit bigger than the one on the left. But that is on purpose, you see, because the person on the right is fattening the curve.

The benefits of committing to this form of inaction are, I submit, both ethical and aesthetical.

Let me be clear; I am not advocating for complete atrophy. Strong muscles are important; I am myself, as my daughter observes, very strong. Moreover, there is surely no supine sweeter than the supining of muscles fatigued by extreme exertion. So do whatever you enjoy—I recommend dancing like there’s nobody except the people you live with watching, because there isn’t—unless you’re live Instagramming your performance to the world—to keep your muscles supple and your blood flowing.

But the hard-bodied physical ideal that reigns supreme—here in Los Angeles at least—feels impoverished. It’s an ideal that, as Milton says in Paradise Lost (admittedly in a slightly different context) “perverts best things” by reducing their value “to their meanest use.” Hogarth reminds us that it is “for the sake of … necessary motion” that muscles are “hard” (my emphasis). But we are not beholden to necessity. Nature, given a chance, “most judiciously softens these hardnesses”—and supining your self is one way to encourage her softening effects.

People pay plastic surgeons to fill up their vacancies with a proper supply of fat (I know; I’ve marveled at the results on Montana Ave., back when I used to walk on Montana Ave.). But you can achieve superior results for free and in the comfort of your own home by reclining on your sofa.

We all need a proper supply of fat to plump up these vacancies—to fatten the curves of our bodies but also to flesh out our daily trajectories—trajectories that, these days, feel increasingly skeletal, reduced to the bare outlines of existence.

In my case, the existence contained within those outlines is comparatively luxurious: I’m still getting paid; I can easily work from home; I have a yard, for which I have never felt more grateful. And, although (my prolific blogging and Instagramming of late notwithstanding) I am “working,” it seems wrong to use the same verb to describe what I’m doing and what essential workers and others adjusting on the fly to alternative modalities are enduring.

So I feel aware that a paean to the fat of life might seem glib or jarring at the present time; if there was ever a moment when needs must, this is surely it.

And yet.

(One of my supervisors at Cambridge once wrote dryly in the margins of one of my essays, “Thank God for “And yet”!”; he noticed that I tended to rely upon the locution when I had written myself into a corner and needed to get out of a tight spot.)

Where was I? Oh yes, and yet, it’s a grim irony of the way our world is organized that even as some people are literally working themselves to death, others, like me, have copious amounts of unstructured time on their hands. And this is why I find myself here, writing this entirely gratuitous essay. This is the fat that is helping me to plump up these meager, vacant days. I hope, if nothing else, it softens the hard edges of your day too.

 

Notes

[1] I was struck while watching Working Girl—which features a lot of both Griffith and Ford semi-clothed—that there is a beguiling softness to both of their bodies, a softness that—even though in many ways we see a much broader range of bodies onscreen now—is rare these days.

[2] I can’t believe “slothing” is a real word! But it is! I just found it in the OED!

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Rendezvous At The Counter: A Tale of Forbidden Touch

I decided last week that I need a new knitting project, not because I need to remain “productive” in this period of social isolation, but because knitting has proven an effective method of self-soothing in the past. However, I find myself in an awkward position: on the one hand, my knitting skills remain … rudimentary. On the other hand, I am really bored of knitting rectangles, i.e. blankets and scarves.

I put this problem to Dr. Lake and she suggested that I knit myself a poncho, which was a good suggestion since a poncho is basically a rectangle with a hole in it. And I’m already a pro at holes—have made several in my previous knitting projects without even trying! After perusing possible poncho patterns, however, I started to feel that I am not a poncho person.

That is, I was not inspired as I scrolled through pictures of poncho-clad ladies strolling carelessly on the beach living their best poncho lives until, all of a sudden, I read the words midnight rendezvous capelet and my heart skipped a beat, because it struck me that perhaps I am a midnight rendezvous capelet person.

In a gesture of radical hope, therefore, I have decided to knit myself a midnight rendezvous capelet.

I describe this as a project of radical hope because embarking upon it entails committing to at least three debatable propositions.

  1. That I have the knitting skills to make such a garment (Louise, what do you think? Mum has her doubts. If you don’t think I’m up to it, could you recommend, shall we say, a more basic capelet? Something in the line of a happy-hour-with-colleagues-capelet? Or perhaps an elevenses capelet?).
  2. That rendezvous—that is, a meeting of at least two people, in which at least one person has to leave their home—will be an existent social practice at some time in the future.
  3. That I and also other people with whom to rendezvous will exist in the future. (One might ask: is a midnight rendezvous capelet still a midnight rendezvous capelet if there are no vous with whom to rendez? But let’s not ask that question.)

Even if all of the above conditions were to obtain, it remains true that I’m really only “a midnight rendezvous capelet person” in an aspirational sense; I’m usually tucked up in bed by 10pm. I’m trying to recall, in fact, the last time I stayed out after 10pm and I honestly can’t remember. Have I ever stayed out past 10pm, I wonder? Anything that happened more than a fortnight ago now feels indistinct, bathed in the sepia-tinted glow of yesteryear.

Ahh, the very very very early 2020s. It was a simpler time, wasn’t it?

EHA, do you remember how, in the olden times of Before March, we’d rendezvous at midday for lunch on Montana, and we’d often sit outside, sometimes at a table just 2 or 3 feet away from other people?

Katie, do you remember how, Before March, we went to plyojam and got all sweaty in a room with other people and then we went to Trader Joe’s and we didn’t have to queue somberly outside before entering and I didn’t even wipe down the cart handle?

KJ Rabbit, do you remember how, Before March, we had a midday rendezvous at that place on La Brea and when you asked if you could get something left off your sandwich the woman at the register was a bit snippy, like, “Umm, do you have an allergy or is it, like, just a preference?”

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a snippy person at a counter now!

And, speaking of counters, remember when surfaces were just useful things to put other stuff on, and not death traps needing to be constantly wiped down like the sneeze-droplet-filled-germ-lairs that we all now know them to be?

That’s how I know that all those pictures of poncho-clad ladies are from Before March: they’re all languorously draped over various pieces of furniture without a care in the world! One woman, who clearly has a death wish, is leaning on a banister, and there’s no Lysol in sight. Doesn’t she know banisters are high-touch areas?

Knitting a midnight rendezvous capelet would also, then, express another hope: that we will at some point in the future once again inhabit a world in which, we will not only rendezvous, but, by God, we will also sidle up to counters and blithely lean on them with wild abandon.

 

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Lock up don’t shut up

“ … they locked themselves up and kept hid till the plague was over; and many families, foreseeing the approach of the distemper, laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased, and then came abroad sound and well.”

(Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722)

“P. 145: Robinson Crusoe called “formulaic, repetitive, boring.” WHAT have you been smoking? BORING? You’re breaking my heart. FORMULAIC? Defoe INVENTED the formula (not the same as previous shipwreck narratives–radically different)–a formula subsequently imitated in tons of fiction. REPETITIVE? For very good & original reasons. See Defoe and Fictional Time. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five. No penance could be easier & more fun, right?”

(from Paul Alkon’s notes on the manuscript for Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder. Email correspondence, 2013)

 

I have been thinking a lot recently about my friend and fellow dix-huitiémiste Paul K. Alkon, who died suddenly in January. Mostly I’ve been thinking about him because he was my friend and I miss him, but I’ve also been wondering what he would have made of the current moment in which we find ourselves.

Paul had an extraordinary range of passions and fields of expertise, but one of his earliest and abiding interests was in Daniel Defoe, and Defoe’s influence on later science fiction writers. In The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), Paul shows how early nineteenth-century attempts to render “the phenomenology of apocalypse” like Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 epic poem, Le dernier homme and Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man, drew upon Robinson Crusoe as a “saga of isolation” (167, 190).

Of course, it was not only Crusoe but also Defoe’s vivid portrayal of plague-ridden London in A Journal of the Plague Year that left its imprint on fictions like Shelley’s Last Man, which portrays, as Paul describes in his 2002 book, Science Fiction Before 1900, a “devastating plague set in a twenty-first century future” (25). The line of influence here is clear enough; less obvious, perhaps, is the affinity Paul observes between Defoe’s Journal and Horace Walpole’s genre-making gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), both of which Paul characterizes as experiments in historical fiction in the mode later developed by Walter Scott (25).

Paul’s discernment of something gothic in Defoe’s realism also, I think, informs his observation that it was not Defoe’s lunar voyage narratives but rather Robinson Crusoe that gave later writers a compelling account of “alien encounter” (24). As Paul writes, “the print of a man’s naked foot” in the sand that terrifies Crusoe marks the possibility of a presence that is “both human and alien (24).

Paul doesn’t describe this moment as uncanny; but, given that he discusses Crusoe as an instantiation of Darko Suvin’s concept of cognitive estrangement—an effect in which, as in the uncanny, the familiar is made strange—I think he might have allowed that part of what terrifies Crusoe about the footprint is that it is at once alien and familiar. As such, the footprint raises the possibility that the alien that produced the footprint might be Crusoe himself, who owns that he is not in his right mind but “like a man perfectly confused and out of myself … mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.” [1]

Note, by the way, here, the importance of the simile: what Crusoe admits is not that he is “out of [him]self” but that he is like “a man perfectly confused and out of [him]self.” That like is the only thing standing between Crusoe and madness, and, as such, it operates as the linguistic equivalent of the footprint, which is also a likeness, a delicate similitude that at once aligns Crusoe with and distinguishes him from the specter of the other by which he is haunted.

That iconic footprint in the sand dramatizes what I think of as being the gothic’s most unsettling twist: the barbarians are always already inside the gates. [2] I don’t mean that this idea is unsettling because of the xenophobic fear that the trope of barbarians-at-the-gates stirs up—even though, clearly, that trope is explicitly at play in Robinson Crusoe: the footprint indicates to Crusoe that a foreign other—whose barbarity is presumed—has already set foot on the island. Rather, I’m thinking of the idea that the novel also raises—both in having Crusoe express his own doubts as to his own sanity, and in having him eventually acknowledge Friday as the better Christian—that Crusoe himself is the real barbarian. And if it is Crusoe who is the barbarian who is already inside the gates, he is also a Manfred, that is, a version of Walpole’s usurping king who begins to suspect the jig is up in The Castle of Otranto.

When the barbarians are already inside the gates, the question is only how far inside (see A Stranger Calls, Us, Parasite, and any fiction featuring evil alter-egos from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde onwards). This uncertainty feels particularly palpable at this moment, in which, as in Defoe’s Journal, we feel, all of us, in the impossible position of trying to escape an enemy whose presence we can’t detect until it’s too late. Tell me you don’t relate when you read this passage from Defoe’s Journal:

It was very sad to reflect how such a person as this last mentioned above had been a walking destroyer perhaps for a week or a fortnight before that; how he had ruined those that he would have hazarded his life to save, and had been breathing death upon them, even perhaps in his tender kissing and embracings of his own children. Yet thus certainly it was, and often has been, and I could give many particular cases where it has been so. If then the blow is thus insensibly striking—if the arrow flies thus unseen, and cannot be discovered—to what purpose are all the schemes for shutting up or removing the sick people? Those schemes cannot take place but upon those that appear to be sick, or to be infected; whereas there are among them at the same time thousands of people who seem to be well, but are all that while carrying death with them into all companies which they come into. (Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year).

When I read this passage, I imagine I see something of the affinity that Paul might have seen between Journal of the Plague Year and The Castle of Otranto. As portrayed in this passage, the infected person inadvertently “breath[es] death” upon his own children.” As such, Defoe’s “walking destroyer” embodies the qualities Walpole later personifies in the villainous Manfred, whose capacity for destruction surprises even himself when he mistakenly stabs and kills his own daughter. [3]

It’s a terrifying thought: not the thought that you might accidentally stab your daughter when you were actually trying to stab your daughter in law—that’s on Manfred—but rather the thought of kisses and embraces being unknowingly weaponized. I’m haunted by the idea that we might, any of us, find ourselves turned murderers through some similar act of careless negligence.

I find myself hugging and kissing my children even more frequently and tightly now, somewhat to their bemusement. They are not here this weekend, and the prospect of the days that stretch before me that won’t include any human touch is bleak—though not as bleak, I know, as the prospect facing those of you who live alone full time. But it’s that sense of anticipatory loss and isolation that I think has moved me to write and post this dispatch this weekend. I know no-one can hug me through the ether—which seems deeply unfair, by the way, since apparently the virus can transmit itself through the ether. But still, locked in as we all are, we can’t completely shut ourselves up or off.

I find myself taking comfort in Paul’s mock-stern injunction to me to revisit his 1979 book Defoe and Fictional Time: “just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five.” He was being facetious—sort of; he, after all, he had just taken the time to read, very carefully, my own book manuscript—but I also like the way his injunction imagines locking yourself away, not as a retreat from the world but rather as an act of devotion to the particular kind of intimacy that comes from reading and rereading someone else’s words.

Defoe and Fictional Time

I don’t actually own Defoe and Fictional Time, though I have read it before—sort of, meaning, I’ve read it the way I read a lot of books while writing—by browsing the index, scanning the opening chapter, and picking, gingerly, scavenger-like, through the rest. Defoe and Fictional Time is partially available on Google books, and I started reading it today—actually reading it, from the beginning. I turned eagerly to the Acknowledgements—usually my favorite part of any scholarly monograph—sure that Paul’s wit and style would be on display. But his Acknowledgements were disappointingly terse and impersonal and I felt a pang of grief that I wasn’t going to find the Paul I knew in these pages.

Nonetheless I pressed on and kept scrolling past the references and abbreviations and on to the first chapter. And then I started laughing and laughing and almost crying. And then I texted my beloved friend Emily, to whom Paul introduced me it must be 15 years ago now, because I was just pregnant with my now 14-year old son, and she immediately texted back and she and I laughed together over text.

The first sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is:

 

“Defoe often mentions time.”

 

And all of a sudden there he was: wry and deadpan and alive on the page. I’m actually crying as I type this; I think all kinds of grief: old, present, anticipatory, are becoming rolled together; but it’s OK.

The second sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is: “He makes the reader’s hours interesting.” Now I felt chastened and heard anew Paul’s indignant, “BORING? You’re breaking my heart” as defending not only Defoe’s words, but also Paul’s own words, here.

To make the reader’s hours interesting; isn’t that what we all want, as both writers and readers? We certainly have a lot of hours ahead of us now to fill even as hours are now the largest unit in which I feel confident predicting the future.

Exchanging words feels like one of the few kinds of intimacy left to us now. I’m going to keep writing in the hours and whatever-longer-units-of-time that lie ahead. I hope to keep reading too. Paul, in the person of “Paul K. Anonymous” was this blog’s most avid interlocutor. It saddens me to think that I can no longer look forward to the whimsical and witty responses he would often post in response to my posts.

Where are the bloody rest of you? Don’t tell me you don’t have time: I know you have time. It’s criminal, is what it is, the non-reciprocal nature of this blogging racket.

You’re breaking my heart.

But don’t worry; it’s not too late. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take yourself into a room, lock the door, and write and re-write your musings, carefully, four times. Make that five. And then press “send.” No penance could be easier & more fun, right?

 

Notes

[1] Paul might have allowed this; on the other hand Paul certainly took issue, in his notes on my manuscript, with my sometimes fast and loose invocation of the concept of estrangement: “unless distinctions of degree are made,” he scolded, “saying estrangement is inherent in the phenomenology of reading is about as useful as saying there is always weather.”

[2] It’s not clear where the phrase “barbarians at the gates” comes from; but it’s an image that Edward Gibbon invokes in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) in reference to the Goths (the northerners who overthrew the Roman empire), the OG barbarians. The sense of Goth meaning “one who behaves like a barbarian” becomes current in the eighteenth century (OED).

[3] Manfred doesn’t mean to kill Matilda; he’s just not paying attention: “I took thee for Isabella,” he explains to her. Oops!

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Social distancing, vintage edition

“ … all these Reflections are just History of a State of forc’d Confinement, which in my real History is represented by a confin’d Retreat in an Island; and ‘tis as reasonable to represent one kind of Imprisonment by another, as it is to represent any Thing that really exists, by that which exists not.”

(Daniel Defoe, Preface, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1720)

 

The LIfe

Further adventures, forthcoming.

 

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Day 218: a capacity for withdrawal

I was reading a book recently (Helen Thompson’s Fictional Matter (2016)) that cited a line from John Locke I couldn’t stop thinking about: “What sort of outside is the certain sign that there is, or is not such an inhabitant within?”

The line is from Chapter 4 of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), “Of the Reality of Knowledge.” Locke poses this question in the context of considering whether the shape of a body necessarily reflects its essence. Locke does not think that shape is a reliable index of a substance’s essence; but he notes that, in general, we are apt to conflate shape with essence: “people do lay the whole stress on the figure, and resolve the whole essence of the species of man (as they make it) into the outward shape,” he observes. Locke notes that this tendency is particularly pronounced when it comes to making distinctions between species. We assume, falsely, Locke believes, that “these two names, man and beast, stand for distinct species so set out by real essences, that there can come no other species between them.”

The duck-rabbit would seem to perfectly illustrate Locke’s point about the fallacy of such an assumption. The fact that it can switch between two distinct species shows that shape does not determine essence. Moreover, the duck-rabbit’s identity as neither duck nor rabbit but as duck-rabbit vividly illustrates Locke’s point that the range of species concepts available to us does not determine that there might not “be a species of an animal between, or distinct from both.”

Let me now rephrase Locke’s question: if a duck-rabbit is your outward sign, what does that tell you about the inhabitant within?

I don’t know the answer to that question; but I have reflected recently that my insides and outsides feel much more closely aligned than ever before. For much of my life I felt that my insides were just too much—too soft (which, come to think of it, they are, not to mention gooey and bloody), too desirous, too fearful, too selfish, too scattered, too lazy, too sentimental—and that, lest anybody suspect such a frightful mess lurked just beneath the surface it was important to project an outside sign—serene, thoughtful, happy, competent, disciplined, altruistic, hard-working—that might plausibly suggest—and might even conjure?—those traits within.

My midlife crisis (my first midlife crisis?), I realize in retrospect, consisted of the revelation that this exercise wasn’t working out terribly well. I was arranging my life in ways to fulfill the desires I attributed to the person I wanted to be, not the person I was. I began cautiously experimenting with voicing thoughts outside my own head that chipped away at the exterior persona I had built. I remember how truly terrifying it felt to say, haltingly, ashamedly, in my first appointment with the referring psychiatrist I saw, “I’m … not … happy.”

In the past five years, this blog has been one way I’ve experimented with exteriorizing my insides, an experiment that has mostly been deeply rewarding. But lately I’ve also had the nagging feeling that my insides and outsides have become too closely aligned. I feel like a Momus glass, as if everyone can peer in and see the maggots within. I look good stark naked, but still. The line between feeling seen and feeling exposed is a fine one.

One of my favorite essays by Winnicott is “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” (If you would like to read it, let me know, I can send you a pdf.)

Winnicott tells a story in that essay about a patient:

The patient said that in childhood (nine years) she had a stolen school book in which she collected poems and sayings, and she wrote in it ‘My private book’. On the front page she wrote: ‘What a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’. In fact her mother had asked her: ‘Where did you get this saying from?’ This was bad because it meant that the mother must have read her book. It would have been all right if the mother had read the book but had said nothing. Here is a picture of a child establishing a private self that is not communicating, and at the same time wanting to communicate and to be found. It is a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek in which it is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.

Sometimes this blog has felt like the perfect version of this vision: I write “my private book” and you—a you that includes sometimes my actual mother and other people I know intimately but also those I know less well or not at all—read it but generally don’t ask me about it; and so I can feel seen and hidden at once.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hide and seek lately. I remember how, when I was very young, I believed that if I covered my eyes, whoever was seeking me wouldn’t be able to find me. (I believe this is a common belief among preschool age children). Sometimes I think the same illusion has sustained my writing in this blog; I can’t see you, dear readers, so I have a hard time believing that you can see me.

This relationship between blog-writer and blog-reader is a version of “parasocial interaction,” a term and concept I learned about from Elaine Auyoung’s wonderful book, When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind (2018). Sociologists coined the term “parasocial” in the 1950s to describe the kinds of non-reciprocal social relationships audiences have with radio or television performers—or, as Auyoung explores (in an application of the concept I find very suggestive), the relationships readers have with fictional characters. I’m interested, in my scholarly work, in thinking more about the parasocial aspect of readers’ relationship with literary characters. But I invoke the concept here for a different reason: because writing this blog can feel parasocial in the opposite way—like I’ve been having a five-year correspondence with an implied reader. I’m teaching A.S. Byatt’s Possession at the moment, and I was struck today by the observation the Browning-like Randolph Ash makes in his correspondence with the Rossetti-like Christabel LaMotte: Browning refers to himself as “an author of Monologues—trying clumsily to construct a Dialogue—and encroaching on both halves of it.” That’s me, that is.

Later in his essay on “Communicating and Not Communicating,” Winnicott observes that, “in the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” For Winnicott, what is important is that both needs are acknowledged as healthy—which means valuing not only the ability to communicate but also “the acquisition of a capacity for withdrawal.”

What is it, exactly, that I’m trying to communicate in the post? Search me. I’m honestly not sure where I’m going; but I do feel as though I am at a threshold.

I am not sure if I will continue to write this blog or not, but, for the present, at least, I’m going to make Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole private, which means you’ll only be able to read it if I add you individually as a “reader.” If you are already subscribed to Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole in some fashion, I will go ahead and add you, unless you tell me not to do so. If you are not subscribed, but you are reading this and would like to be able to read any future posts, please let me know, and I will add you before I allow the Notes to sink back into the hole from whence they came.

I thought of concluding this post with a drawing of a duck-rabbit leaping back into its hole, cotton tail stuck in the air, webbed feet akimbo. I’ve been drawing and erasing, re-drawing and erasing. The back end of a duck-rabbit is surprisingly tricky to render. I thought I could make it silly and charming but instead, in my sketch, it’s trite and graceless: I see now that it’s best left unseen.

 

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