A Sense of Place in Lagerlof and Cather

Alright, slight raving side note: The Story of Gosta Berling, by Selma Lagerlof is one of the most beautiful novels I've read in a very long time. I could do a month of posts on this book. I may do one or two more, and make you all so sick of this book I'll ruin your opportunity to discover the beauty of Selma Lagerlof's beautiful vision. So, I'm trying to restrain myself here.

One of the things I loved about this novel (and there are several others) was the powerful feeling of place - I commented to a few people while reading it that it reminded me of Willa Cather's sweeping powerful Nebraska and New Mexico, and the farther I got into the book, the more I felt this - both Cather and Lagerlof leave me with a deep nostalgia for a place I've never been. Thomas Hardy has this feeling for me in his books somewhat, as well, but I don't feel his love for the place he's talking about as much as his horror at the absence of the place. Victor Hugo makes me feel this way about Paris - but in Paris, he is in love with the city, and a city is in many ways just an expression of human beings (another book that feels this way to me is Moby Dick, but with a ship instead of a city). Lagerlof and Cather make you feel in love with something much bigger than you, with the earth itself, I suppose. In Cather, they are these wild places that humans are trying to find an uncomfortable toehold in - in Lagerlof it is a country that has been settled for thousands of years, but where nature and the man-less world lives just outside the edges of day-to-day life. And in both, you see the country exhibit itself in the souls of the people who live there - but not as a sort of clumsy allegory, but rather in the way that we really that people really DO entwine themselves with their native land.

This is particularly powerful to me, because I don't HAVE a 'native soil.' I love my upbringing in this sense, I love that I could see so many places as a child, I think it was good for me. But, at the same time, I would love to truly know and love a place, to be married to the soil in the consummated way that some people are (less so in America, these days, which I think is interesting). That feeling of deep intimacy with a place makes one feel, in some ways, like a perpetual outsider.

It's strange, because the closest I can come to this feeling of deep and powerful intimacy with a place is with the internet itself (ah, yes, insert laughs here, it's okay). I've lived in the soil of the internet now for almost two decades, at some level, and for most of the time, the internet has been a deep and intimate part of my life. Like Cather knew the sweep of the blank prairie, and the way the earth grows beneath it, the way it bites back angrily at the plow, I know the ether of the web, I know the way an empty palette gnaws at a new piece of code, the way that a refugee can stare at it and hunger for their native land, but also dream deep and strong of what they can make of their new home. The way that Lagerlof knows the wolves, the winter wind, the water that comes in the spring floods, I know the angry rises and falls of this pseudo-landscape, the way worlds will form and dissolve with the impartial fury of a decimating blizzard. I know the way that this land can take a person and gnaw them until it leaps one day to devour them whole, and the way that it can cradle up someone lost and yield a little hole for them to make into a home. I've seen it in people I love, in stories that already feel so strange and elemental to be like folklore, I've seen it in myself - like a land, the internet proves it's veracity by being a place where one can be all the selves one is, at the same time.

The strangeness of this realization was that it feels, to me, more like Cather than Hugo - the internet feels like a land, not like a city. IT's inhabitants feel like they are connected to the earth, not cooped into metropolitan finality. It's the sort of place where I can imagine stories living of their own power, instead of simply as currents in a river of human existence (This is not to say that a city isn't just as beautiful, in it's own way). Sadly, I can't WRITE like Lagerlof or like Cather, but I've wondered how long it is until the Cather of the internet is born, telling the story not of the heroes of the land, but of the land itself, the writer who will see this ether plucked from ourselves almost unwilling as a character instead of a setting.

The power of Lagerlof is that she loves her land so much that she loves it's sins and horrors. Her Gods and Heroes are of the ancient cast, the kind that are equal measures of good and evil - how do you tell that story in a world where opinion is, in some sense, the root of identity?

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Hippocrates, and How Science is Born

(Short Summary for those who do not know: Hippocrates is widely considered a forefather of medicine. His collected writings include the Hippocratic Oath, variations of which are still administered by pretty much every medical institution on earth, but also include a broad array of observations and advice on a wide variety of topics of health. Hippocrates was usually thought of as a sort of wise, practical country doctor, who did not get cauhgt in esoterics, but who nonetheless laid the groundwork for medicine and medical theory)

I entered reading Hippocrates fully expecting a laugh. This medicine is OLD. This is before there was germ theory, before there was an understanding of the circulation of blood, before the advent of sanitization, and still in the depths of the four humors theory of physical health, sort of one step above magic.

And in many ways the book did not let me down. A few choice exerts:

  • "A woman does not become ambidextrous" (but men do!)
  • "If you wish to ascertain if a woman be with child, give her hydromel (mead) to drink when she is going to sleep, and has not taken supper, and if she be seized with tormina (acute pain) in the belly, she is with child, but otherwise, she is not pregnant"
  • "A woman with child, if it be a male, has a good color, but if a female, she has a bad color."
  • "[Delirium and tumors] more frequently occur on odd than on even days"
I'm guessing here, but I'm not sure these statements were rigorously tested before being accepted as fact. Other things were just horrifying - though possibly effective treatments given the constraints of the times. And the long descriptions of the various colors, textures, smells, consistencies, etc of urine, bile, feces, sweat, and mucus were, if certainly indicative of a highly observant mind, not the most exciting way to spend one's evening.

But, I DID learn things from Hippocrates, this is what really surprised me. In the first case, he says a number of extremely keen-minded things, things we forgot often today:

  1. Many physicians seem to me to be in the same plights as bad pilots, who, if they commit mistakes while conducting the ship in a calm do not expose themselves, but when a storm and violent hurrican overtake them, they then, from their ignorance and mistakes, are discovered to be what they are, by all men, namely, in losing their ship. 
  2. The vulgar, indeed, do not recognize the difference between [charlatans] and their common attendants, and are rather disposted commend extraordinary remedies
  3. The [medical] art consists in three things: the disease, the patient, and the physician. The physician is the servant of nature, and the patient must combat the disease along with the physician.
  4. I look upon it as being a great part of the art to be able to judge properly of that which has been written (good advice, in fact, for those reading Hippocrates...)
My favorite quote, though, and the one that sums up how I felt about the book is this: 
I say we ought not to reject the ancient medicine as if it were not and had not been properly foudned because it did attain accuracy in all things, but rather... to receive it and admire its discoveries, made from a state of great ignorance, and as having been well and properly made.
What was really awe-inspiring about Hippocrates was to realize how like a scientist he really DID try to be with so very little. Hippocrates throughout the book is basically making up the scientific method out of his head (making mistakes, of course along the way), when it was quite easy to make a living in his field by simply making stuff up, lying, and making excuses for your failures (he even acknowledges this last to be the case, and offers a very compelling argument for both education and for the institution of laws against malpractice - what doctor is doing THAT today?). Some of his observations, from the vantage point of a society that has many, many giants upon whose shoulders we stand, are really very clever: He notices, for instance, that eunuchs do not tend to go bald, or that sneezing can cure hiccups (I had never noticed it, but it really is true!), or that obesity tends to reduce life-span. He goes into great detail not only about how one ought to relocate almost any dislocated joint in the body, but also why his method will work better than others of the time. And all of this he points out with only Aristotles vague, ethereal theory of humors and elements, and a history of glorified magicians to back his practice up.

One thing this DID point out to me that I thoguht interesting is that we (quite rightly) do not use Hippocrates as a medical reference anymore. He's simply out of date. He wouldn't be upset about this (and the mistake of much of the middle ages in fact was to assume that these proto writers were writing inspired things that must be followed to the letter, that wisdom is immutable). However, we still think of, for instance, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle as being immutably, eternally valuable, and not simply as a building block. Reading Hippocrates, one is naturally led to see his mistakes. But when we are taught ancient philosophers or literary writers, we are taught to gloss over or contextualize their out-of-date parts and respect the underlying wisdom of what they were saying - the same, but more extreme, could be applied to scripture and it's study in modern religion. I'm still mulling over what this difference means - is 'progress' shaped differently in fields that are not science? OR is it simply that we want to believe people then knew something we don't know now? I don't know.

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'Magical Disadvantaged'

So, I finished reading Dune recently, and I want to emphasize that this is not a review of Dune. I love Dune, it's a fascinating, complex book, full of strange considerations of the nature of human history, the relationship between state and faith, and the mixture of banality and magic that goes into making someone a hero-messiah. So there.

But, reading it now, as I'm older, some of the issues in it arise (this happened when I reread Lord of the Rings now that I'm older, too), and one of these issues is something that I've heard talk of elsewhere, when someone referred in a movie review (maybe it was was Roger Ebert?) to the 'Magic Negro'. The Magic Negro or the Wise Old Negro is the stereotypical old black man that appears in many movies, films, etc, and whose main purpose is to say wise and itnelligent things, despite being poor, undeducated, usually a janitor or something. Well Dune doesn't have any African Americans in it (there's no America anymore, either, mind you, though some of the characters I suppose may very well be black). But there are magical women, and magical (future approximates of) arabs, and magical arab women, and etc, etc, etc. Dune has a taste for the isn't-it-awesomeness of the exotic, and when the exotic are rather close parallels to actual human groups, this can get tiresome and feel a bit stereotypical. Like the 'Magical Negro' thing.

But, if I were only venting about this, I wouldn't write a post - I still love this book, remember, and I do think he lays out an interesting case (though one I don't agree with) for the magicalness of these groups. But more than this, beause it bothered me, I wanted to think about why these characters get written.

The reason this interests me, in fact, is because there is a part of me that feels bad for hating the magical minority writers - because, in some part of me, I know the feeling. It's a natural reaction, and in some ways even a positive one. When you have a disadvantaged group, members of the privileged group are taught largely to take the inferiority and disadvanatage of these groups for granted. So, when one does the work of stepping out of one's shell to examine the relationship with the disadvantaged group more honesttly, there is a natural tendency to become fascinated. I've done this, for instance, with the Romany - growing up, the tacit message is that Romany aren't, like, REAL people, they're just gypsies, characters in films that do spooky things and make for good villains. So, at one point, a part of me said 'you know, this seems to convenient, that there would be a group that acts like this' (of course this oversimplifies the process of facing one's inbron biases, but I hope you won't think my parents just taught me to be a raging bigot), and so the easiest way to love a group is to study it. So I did some reading, and of course, the Roma are FASCINATING as a people, historically, culturally, all of that.

At this point, one is tempted to lionize and make up stories about the group - not because one is trying to put them in a 'wise old negro' box, but simply because one has just learned how fascinating a group is - one has learned as it were the wisdom that one MIGHT have from living the life of a poor african american, or a Roma, or a woman, or whatever the disadvantaged group. And so one assumes this sort of sageness on everyone.

A good example of this would be Oroonoko, by Aphra Behn. It's HORRIBLY racist, with it's crude word-drawings of a 'noble savage' African prince, with a fancy sounding exotic name, and with all the amazing and inhumanly extrmee characteristics of his nobility. But. It's also one of the least racist books of it's time, or at any rate, the most anti-racist. To an extent, in the attempt to learn about a new culture, mistakes were made. A perfect knowledge (in Behn's case, even a functional knowledge) of a group that is traditionally separate from you involves forming a narrative of that people, and forming a single narrative of an entire people by definition gives a fairly skewed idea of what individuals in that race might look like. This is why, for instance, people discussing the Old TEstament can say things like 'You know, the Jews in Sinai under Moses could just be so stupid and selfish'. Consciously, of course, one knows that these Jews were individuals, and that there was variety in these individuals. But it's the story of a race, and so the individual humans just become drops in a sea - and looking at individuals as drops in a sea makes one predisposed to forget their humanity in one way or the other.

So, yes, it's very frustrating to look at these magic negro, or magic woman, or magic arab, or magic gypsy narratives - but it is a sign that people VERY IMPERFECTLY are TRYING to grapple with the idea that there is something beautiful in the group their culture is ignoring or opressing, something is there worth preserving. PErhaps, sometimes the effort towards telling this blinds the teller. It's difficult to tell stories about a group to which one does not belong. But does that mean we should fault people for trying?

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Sexual Heterogeneity

I've mentioned before on this blog, I come from Mormon stock - from the perspective of my family history, then, the polygamy in 'So Long a Letter' did not have an exotic factor to it for me. My birth name is Roper, and the first of the Ropers in America was a woman who crossed the Atlantic from Great Britain in order to pull a handcart across the American prairies to Utah, where she was the plural wife of a Mormon man there. In fact, the only thing I know about this plural marriage was that she didn't like the way the man treated her with the other wives, much like the characters in Ba's book.

Polygamy, when growing up was (albeit only historically) a given to me. It was something people used to do - and not in the sense of ancient Israel (in fact, the whole Abraham and Hagar thing has always struck me as probably a somewhat skewed account, and not a great indication of Abraham's good virtues). There are echoes of this polygamy even now: no, to be perfectly clear, Mormon men are no longer allowed to marry multiple wives, but, for instance, a man can, if he is widowed (and even if he's divorced in some cases) be sealed to a second wife for time and eternity, whereas a woman cannot - because men can have multiple wives in heaven, while women can have 1 (or, in some sense, part of 1) husband. This struck me as unfair, but then, marriage in general struck me as unfair to one party or the other, usually.

Because the pioneers who practiced polygamy are the mythic great fathers of the Mormon stock, though, it was remarkably difficult to get a real approximation of what it must have actually FELT like to be a person in a polygamous household. I always wanted to know, both the practical details (so, do the women all have seperate bedrooms? Did all the wives and the one husband - in my very chaste childhood image - just sleep in one really wide bed?), and the more profound ones (if you're a multiple wife, do you feel married to the other wife, too? Do you feel like sisters? Rivals?). In that sense the book was deeply interesting - though I do not know that the logistics of the multiple marriage in Islamic Africa were the same as Utah. 

The interesting aspect, to me though, is this: so, the relationships in this book were unhealthy, but is it possible to have a healthy polygamous relationship? And what would that feel like? Maybe if it was a true menage a trois, emotionally and/or physically, instead of a man who has two women, who both have one man. Or maybe that would make it worse. Or maybe if women had more rights in the culture. At some level, though, one is left to ask, is a man being allowed multiple wives a bad thing for women? Does it make women 'disposable' without any social stigma, the way that occurs in the book, and that seems to have occurred to my ancestor?

In this sense, one sees perhaps an argument for the laws in the United States that outlaw polygamy. And we ARE Afraid of polygamy here! (I don't know how this is in, say, Europe, I'd be interested to hear in the comments?) In fact, when people object to Gay Marriage, one of the arguments is that it would lead to a slippery slope where someday we'd have to legalize polygamy - and frankly, any practice that is used as an example of somethign scarier than Gay Marriage for Americans must be very scary indeed. And, it's worth pointing out, that what examples there IS of polygamy that make it into the news, these days, are not pleasant ones - generally religious cults (particularly fundamentalist Mormon splinters). Many of these communities seem to have problems with yougn girls being wedded off at a language that would be child sexual abuse, and women certainly don't seem to be respected - though even here, the vision we get of the communities is awfully skewed by the OHMIGAWD, and THEY TOTALLY HAVE MORE THAN ONE LADY TO SLEEP WITH shock coverage of the news. So, who knows.

So, then the question is this: does an anti-bigamy law protect  anyone? And is it an ethical law to have? I don't know. It's not as if, for instance, we ban people from preaching from the Pauline Epistles, which are certainly bad for women in parts - of course not, people have the right to believe what they like. After all, it only hurts them, right? 

Only, it doesn't. IT affects those people's children, if nothing else, no? So, at what point should we legislate to protect the auxilliary people? 

So, look at the question from a different direction: many radical feminists, particularly on the left, felt like 'normal' marriage was damaging to women, in the precise same way that we think of polygamy, now. There argument isn't even an awful one - it's one I can see the merits of. So, if marriage could be illustrated to be as damaging to society as polygamy, should it be illegalized? And how woudl you even measure that? At some level, I'm inclined to one of two possible end scenarios.

First, we could simply legalize any relationship between consenting adults. Yes, this would be complex. Yes, many forms woudl have to be rewritten. But, at some level, we let people have sex with whoever they want anyway, so if three people want to make a home together, under what right do we prevent them from doing so? The implications for US law are complex - how do you file taxes? But in a sense, this complexity exists now, it is simply hidden. IF three people are polyamorous, and truly love each other equally, now, if one member dies, then only of the remaining partners retains the protection of US law for the same things that homosexuals lack now - and if nothign else, bringing polygamy out of the shadows would, I would think, allow any healthy forms of it to flourish - in the shadows, only sickness grows.

The other option, of course, would be to stop legislating marriage and partnership, altogether. Why not? At some level, it's rather odd that we DO stick our nose into it as a country. IF two people want to sign a contract with each other not to diddle anyone but each other, perhaps we as a coutnry shouldn't spend our energy enforcing this contract - considering its impossible to enforce fairly, anyway. Then, people could simply make whatever agreements they like, as long as noone is put in a situation of nonconsent. 

Both of these solutions have problems - but both point out, to me, that there is a lot more sexual heterogeneity in the world than the rest of us are willing to admit - polygamy in the traditional sense, is simply the most obvious form. I'd love to hear what other people think: why is polygamy so scary? Are the problems in it problems of polygamy or society at large? And how SHOULD it be treated by society?

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The Relationship Between Significance and Nonsense

I recently read Wicked, which if you haven't read it (that is, you are the only other person on earth, it seems, besides me), talks about the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, from her own perspective. Honestly, I expected this to be a smirky, silly kind of book, sort of like the children's book where the Big Bad Wolf tells about how he was misrepresented by the three little pigs, only for grownups. In the end, I REALLY enjoyed it (though the end felt a bit forced), and want to read the two sequels now, eventually.

One thing that was VERY interesting to me in the book was how Elphaba (the wicked witch) found meaning in the events around her. If you are like me (I don't know how universal this sentiment is, honestly), there are particular events, concordances, unexpected turns, etc in your life that take on a powerful significance. Some of these events are obvious - if one has, say, a very traumatic event, it becomes significant. Others are not. 

What I loved in the book - and this is something I love in MANY of my favorite books and movies, probably because it is so common to tell a story deceptively to the opposite - is that really, these events, these glimmers of meaning, do not interrelate in a way that one can make a single, sensible narrative of. This feels so personal and familiar that finding it in a book is like finding a piece of myself in someone else. 

Humans are a mythmaking species. For all the trouble this practice has caused us over the years, I think it is, to some extent, intrinsic to who we are - I think for instance it is the root of the idealistic leaping I talked about with Ms Wollstonecraft. There is the macrocosmic version of this of course - religion. But the microcosm exists as well. I think most people gneerate their own personal mythologies, stories they construct about their own internal gods and heroes. For me, at least, time ceases to exist without a narrative to lay it across, and some of the bleakest, most horrifying moments of my life have been those in which I saw my life stretching ahead of me, devoid of any particular story-thread, simply a span of indifferent years and directionless existence, even if this is the more honest way of understanding my life.

The problem, of course, is that life does not always tell a good story. Sometimes, life's stories are kind of awful - not awful like scary and miserable, but awful like, they wander around and make no sense, and at the end you wonder if the author was even paying attention, or if maybe you just were paying attention to the wrong narrative. Like Ulysses (joke. Well, kind of a joke). But we NEED them to make sense - just like our ancestors NEEDED there to be some REASON that the Nile flooded every year and the sun rose, and the winter was cold and harsh. Because without a reason, first of all, the awful things of the world are unbearable, and second of all, the future is scary and unpredictable. In our own lives we do the same thing - how many of us, for instance, comfort ourselves with some variation of "everything in life has a purpose?" In the paraphrased words of Christopher Hitchens, we simultaneously believe ourselves to be the most insignificant of worms, but also that the omnipotent universe has a plan for each of use individually, that the universe loves and directs us as single humans. Maybe this is true, maybe it isn't. IT feels too... easy to be true, I guess, sometimes.

And, yes, this mythmaking makes terrible messes, it makes us do terrible things. What is the classic 'midlife crisis' but a realization that our identity does not match our own narrative? I have done too many things, too many terrible things, because it felt like the way the story should go. Others are better about this than me, but I don't think it's a completely unique behaviour.

At the same time, mythology was a precursor to magic, and magic was a precursor to science, and science a precursor to real knowledge (alter this sentence according to the dictatates of your worldview). And, after all, in some sense, the 'story' that is told by, say, modern astronomy is any ways as awe-inspiring, beautiful, and meaningful as any sun and moon and stars myth, the tale of evolution lists a human destiny as compelling as Ragnarok. Maybe this is the way personal mythologies must work - as a sort of alchemy by which we learn our personal chemistry. But life is so short, so short, and the time to know the weight of your own atoms is so long...

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Vindicating Rights is Messy Business

I began writing this post in my cold little academic tone, and I stopped. It would be very easy. Ms Wollstonecraft was alive a very long time ago, and some of the things she said in her book, in retrospect, feel pretty out of date, even wrong-headed. Some of them even bothered me. But, writing a post about the ways we've grown as a culture since then wouldn't have been possible for me - it would have ended up being a post about how clever I am.

And it wouldn't have done much good. There are a lot of people doing the Feminist Classics readalong, right now, and I suppose the direct analysis of what Wollstonecraft said will be done far better by someone else. And to be honest, the thing that strikes me most powerfully about Wollstonecraft has nothing directly to do with her ideas.

The thing that's most haunting to me about Mary is how ideals can betray you.

All of us are children of our time, all of us, no matter how much genius we might possess. Everything we think is, in this sense, trapped inside a time, it is impossible to say anything that is completely 'timeless.' There's no such thing. This feels like a strange thing for me to say, because I read classic literature, after all, I sit and read books that are advertised as 'timeless classics'. IT's a lie. Shakespeare, if we drop our reverence for a moment, is terrifically dated. Look at, say, how all the women  in his plays fit a short list of basic types. Look at his fawning adoration of kings and aristocracy. And as beautiful as the language is - there's a reason we don't enjoy it until we learn it - because, it's dated. Or the Odyssey: as grand and sweeping and epic as it is, to be perfectly frank, if it were published today, it wouldn't be terribly successful. I honestly don't think it would even be published, and at some level, this is because it isn't really that great for our time in some ways. IT is an artifact. Mary was, too.

And the great pain of literature and poetry is that, after all, for a lot of writers it is a sort of search for immortality. For some this is simple arrogance, they want to continue to be praised, even after they are dead. But not always. There is something innately human in a desire to find absolute truths, to find those things which can be relied on and really truly 'known'. Mythology was born this way, science was born this way, literature was born this way, most great human endeavors are part of this search for pure, incontrovertible truth.

In mathematics, perhaps, this is possible. Euclidean Geometry is as true now as it was when Euclid wrote it. Even in the less 'pure' sciences, perhaps there is some shadow of personality. I'm reading Hippocrates now, and one can feel in his writing, for all that it's largely guesswork and incorrect correspondences, at least the birth of a way of looking at health and medicine, that does continue on today, in some form. But in literature? No. There is no absolute literary truth. There is no provable conception of beauty. Philosophy has this fault, too, so does political science.

But, despite all this, more souls through history have stood and declared in defense of unprovable ideals than will ever stand in defense of Euclidean geometry. More souls have willingly died at the flag of the vague and misinterpreted than will die defending Newton's laws (this is not to attack the power and passion of science mind you). This is why we keep having Wollstonecrafts, and Shakespeares, and Virginia Woolfs, all in retrospect perhaps wrong in some ways, but nonetheless awe-inspiring in their defense sometimes of their very wrongness.

And who knows? Underneath all the veneer of wrongness (I do not think that modesty, for instance, is some great ideal of feminism that should be a measure of the success of women's liberation), there are germs that FEEL so incontrovertibly true, that you want to think there is something absolutely true to them. But, the moment you verbalize or systemize it, it will betray you.

This is what happened, after all, to Mary herself. Her husband, William Godwin, was himself a starry-eyed idealist, one of the early forerunners of the anarchist movement, which was for many years, the gold standard of wild idealism - at it's core, after all, anarchism seems to rely on the supposition that people, when left to their own devices, will do good instead of ill. And Godwin believed this, right down to the middle. So, when his wife died, he wrote a book, telling the truth about her life, because he genuinely and honestly believe his wife was the heroine of her life.

Was Godwin naive? Did he really think this book would not tarnish his wife's reputation? He had to have known. Godwin was an idealist, but he wasn't stupid. He had to have known that what he saw as a heroine, the world's standards saw as a a villainess, or even worse in the world's view, as a despicable, whorish, hysterical woman. At some level, it's difficult for me to grapple with this. His wife was dead, and he sacrificed her public memory to his own ideals. People, his reasoning went, SHOULD like her story, and to lie about it would be to betray the things he believed in. It was a quixotic joust at a windmill - only his used his wife as the lance. Quixote may be knocked off his horse in that situation, but the lance gets snapped in half.

But then, maybe that's how it should be. Mary was herself an idealist, after all, and the idealist is infamous for being willing to give up everything for the cause - everything. Even things that maybe are harder to give up than life. What would Mary think? Would she have been ashamed, if she were alive? Would she have been angry? Angry at her husband, or at the world that wouldn't accept that she acted as bravely as she could under the circumstance? She after all, acted similarly with a sister, who she encouraged to leave her husband, plunging her afterwards into horrible poverty. She was no stranger to the grand gesture.

I know this isn't the same for everyone, but this part of what I love in classic literature: seeing the grand gesture, the grand, quixotic leap towards the unreachable. Every single author falls - when you leap toward the sun, after all, the best you can hope for is that you stay in the air as long as possible. The sun will. not. catch. you. And there is something morbid and discouraging at seeing the places where these great lost souls fall to the rocks, the shapes and texture of their broken bodies. But, before they hit the ground - before that, you see the arc of the flight, the twist of the limbs, the thrust forward of the breast, as if that extra centimeter might be just enough to carry you... somewhere. And that curve, that twist, that sturggling hopelessness, there's no beauty quite like it. IT almost makes my own, tiny worthless little twists and arcs and thrusts seem, in dim reflection, perhaps to have their own traces of dignity

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Romantic Friendship in the 19th Century

I just recently finished the book "Cold Mountain", a book concerning several people in the South during the Civil War (as a side note, I found the storyline about the man kind of dull and overcooked - I am curious is me and my proclivities, or if other people felt this way?). Two of these people, Ada and Ruby, are women living in a little town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's deep into the war, at the point when almost all men are engaged in the war, and the women are, as it were, left behind doing the work they've always done, plus the work, in their case, of running a farm. Ada is a former rich girl who has no idea how to do these practical things, Ruby is a sort of societal cast-off with an amazing (and let me say, deeply intriguing) drive to work, who moves in on equal terms with Ada, to co-run the large farm Ada has ended up with on her hands and let fall into disarray. The two grow extremely close, both of them, in many ways, teaching the other how to live an adult life, in different ways. This aspect of the book I found very moving. At one point after Ada (inevitably) finds the man, who was her fiance before he went off to war, there is a moving scene, understated, and sad, where Ruby tells Ada that she doesn't need to marry the man, that they can run the farm without him. Ada tells her that she knows, but the she wants the man. And Ruby smiles quietly, and sets up for them to have a bit of time alone together.

Reading the scene was the most powerful moment in the book, because I could feel how palpably Ruby wanted things to stay just as they were, particularly because Ruby, a child born in abject poverty and forced to shift for herself all her life really has no other moment in the whole book where she lets her guard so completely down. She is, in a very valid way, a woman deeply in love, who knows that their relationship won't stay the way it is.

But, and this is what was so powerful to me, when I say in love, I don't mean romantically, not at all. She is sad things are falling apart, but I never feel like she is jealous, per se, of the man, or that she is attracted to Ada in a physical way. The relationship is what we now call 'only platonic'. I think the 'only' in this is a sad reflection of our times.

Before the latter half of the 19th century, it was actually remarkably common for people to have deep, powerful friendships with people of the same sex. It's interesting, because historians read the artifacts of these friendships now, and the assumption is, frequently, that the relationship was homosexual. Abraham Lincoln is an excellent example. Lincoln and his friend, Joshua Speed, spent years sharing a bed, and remained lifelong friends, exchanging letters that, in many ways, feel more like what we think of as love letters than anything he ever exchanged with Mary Todd. Emily Dickinson's life-long devotion to her sister-in-law is another example, or Shakespeare's many poems written to an unknown man or men.

This is not to denigrate or disprove the many historians who suggest that some of these relationships were sublimated homosexual relationships, or even covers for actual physical relationships. I imagine this happened at the time. At the same time, I think that some of them WEREN'T romantic relationships. And I think that's wonderful (as a sidenote, I would suggest that some of the poems written about women by men, and vice-versa, may similarly have been the admiration between extremely close friends).

Such a relationship cannot exist easily anymore, of course. A man hugging a man now is a joke, a byword, something funny in movies because it's uncomfortable. IT's something we mock because it's frightening. I think this is tragic. Friendship has become something that must retain a certain distance and boundary. In some ways, this is perhaps healthy, and a sign of the increasing equality of the genders. A hundred years ago, men's and women's worlds were so seperate that they practically spoke different languages, and it must have been very difficult to communicate across that chasm on some levels. Perhaps in some ways, the romantic friendship was for some people a way of feeling parts of closeness and intimacy that society did not account for between men and women. At the same time, it leads one to wonder - we have to an extent fetishized sexual-romantic love to the point where we presume it is the power more binding than any other - after all, can you imagine a romcom about two people who loved each other deeply but without a hint of sex between them? And I think that in a sense this makes it difficult even within marriages - because the assumption in a marriage is that the romantic aspect of the relationship (in our newer conception of the word romantic) is the penultimate expression of closeness, and I would suggest that this is an illusion that does nto hold up long in many relationships. The friendship aspect of marriage - that one should marry their best friend, and foster that friendship throughout - becomes the sort of adorable side note, the humdrum, uninteresting part of the relationship (again, how many romcoms involve people who don't really like each other falling in love in spite of that?). To some extent one wonders if perhaps it would be easier to marry by choosing someone that they are close friends with, whatever the gender or appearance, and just letting sex follow on from that (I'm a bit biased since I fell in love over letters that had nothing to do with sex...). I don't know. I don't mean to make little of romantic, erotic love. It is what it is. But I think we've forgotten that we can care, deeply and powerfully and madly and beautifully, even foolishly sometimes, or jealously, or desperately, for someone without it being a call of hormones.

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