Friday, December 28, 2012

Singular Thinking

A colleague at work recommended Michael Cobb's Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (2012), and although this book is probably the last thing I need to read (after all, Cobb had me at "hello"), I picked it up.

Cobb is a specialist in queer theory and gay and lesbian studies, but his book explores the concept of "the couple" in American culture at large. It was inspired by his own experience after the death of a friend from brain cancer. As Cobb writes in the acknowledgements,
If writing this book has taught me anything, it's that a single person doesn't have to be lonely, which matters because sometimes we'll each have to confront the worst heartbreak, in our own solitary way. When that happens and when you need to literally regroup, you're lucky if you can see and embrace the wide world of friendship, interest, work, pleasure, and love that might just help you not collapse.
Cobb examines the extent to which American culture as a whole renders that "regrouping" and solitariness inordinately difficult. We've become a culture premised on "the couple," a society that operates on the assumption that, if you're not someone's "better half," you're no one.

And we all act accordingly. In my own experience as a happily, permanently single woman (yes, I'm sayin' it), I've been surprised by the lengths to which people will go to insist that I must be quite unhappy, really, deep down. That I must be putting a brave face on it, but really, don't I just wish that...

And then comes the fairy-tale. The mythological "guy" who is like no guy anyone has ever seen before, except in fiction and cinema. The Jane-Austen hero-guy.

For the record, Jane Austen never married. She was happily single her entire life. She did get engaged for all of about 15 minutes at one point, but then she woke up one morning about 2 weeks later, had a full-blown freak-out, and called it off.

So even she knew that such guys were fictional. She momentarily caved to the social pressure, but then she got a grip and articulated the shape of her own life.

And we all benefitted as a result.

Cobb attempts to examine and deconstruct the hegemony of the couple as an ideological value, an exclusive and exclusionary way of viewing the world that shapes the way so many people think of themselves and their lives.

The sad irony is, even in the throes of a misery that was patently obvious to absolutely everyone who comes within half a mile of them, many couples repeatedly express--for the most part angrily and spitefully, but occasionally pityingly--their assurances that their experience together is inherently "better" than singleness could ever be, and that singletons must be "jealous" and "envious" of "what they have."

They are "a couple," after all.

Actually, couples like this do appear in Jane Austen's novels, but we frequently give them no airtime and no notice. One of the reasons we fail to do so is because we prefer to pose "the couple" as the "solution" to a state of singleness that is predeterminedly configured as "lonely" and "unhappy."

As Cobb points out, however, this figuration assumes that the state of being "single" is both inscrutable and incomprehensible. The assumption of a necessary state of "Coupledom" creates a sociological blindspot that locates "singleness" at its center.

As Cobb notes, "Lurking within the logic of these worries is the notion that the development of a self has a particular goal: relationships with others." On the surface, such a logic initially makes sense.

How else can one develop feelings of empathy, compassion, kindness, and love, if not in interactions with others?

And yet, the logic that assumes that such self-development can only flourish in the form of the dyad or the couple is inherently flawed. Many couples demonstrate a total lack of empathy, compassion and kindness--both towards each other and towards the world at large.

Examining Hannah Arendt's linking of loneliness with totalitarianism and terror, Cobb notes that "The loneliest of us are not necessarily those of us who are actually alone but rather those of us trying our hardest not to be alone."

"Solitude" and "abandonment" are in no way the same thing. Yet we have constructed a social logic that presumes that they are and that defines a state of "aloneness" as necessarily a state of "loneliness." As Cobb argues, "relationship status turns us into characters, into forms, that have dramatic impacts on our lived experiences and self-understandings."

What would it mean to find out who we are, individually, without the assumption of the couple guiding our thoughts about the logic of our lives and its ultimate destiny? What would this look like? Cobb suggests,
I want to think about the isolated figures of the "single" who are misconstrued as lonely and pathetic figures but who are actually much more. They may not be lonely--they may just want to be antisocial, or they may just want to relate to others outside of the supreme logic of the couple, which has become the way one binds oneself to the social, otherwise known as the crowd.
Such an examination goes beyond the trite, popular, self-help cliche of "learning to love yourself first," a process that, as Cobb points out, always assumes as its end result the idea that one will be better able to become part of a couple.

In the end, this change in perception will require a very singular kind of thinking, something unlike anything we currently possess.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

One Day in the Life

This week was a wonderful week, topped off by a great day today. 

I woke up this morning with a million things to do to get ready for the holidays, and truth be told, I felt like doing none of them.  But I did them ALL.  So I'm all set tomorrow for traveling and decorating, and if all goes well, I'll have a nice, relaxing Christmas.

I even had time to swim a mile and stack firewood.  I'm almost finished with the article I'm writing, so I'm 100% certain I'll be able to send it on its way next week.  Then, I've got one more to get finished up, and by then, classes will be starting again.

I must say, gulag literature is a great motivator.  Right now, I'm rereading A Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I first read it about 30 years ago, when I was 14.

Yes, right around the time I was reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  I was an odd child.

Ivan Denisovich is the gulag novel that everyone reads who reads any gulag literature.  I suspect that's because it's short, unlike The Gulag Archipelago, which is actually on my Classics Club list, so it's on my reading list for this January.

Returning to Ivan Denisovich after all these years, I like it okay, but I confess, I like Shalamov's Kolyma Tales much better, and I find the oral histories more compelling (although they're less aesthetically structured).

Ivan Denisovich's day is organized around work and survival which, obviously, is how the day of any gulag inmate would have been organized--and yet, the oral histories and Shalamov's works tend to capture the sense of random danger far better.

Reading it now, with a broader context and background, Solzhenitsyn seems to be depicting gulag life as worrisome and depressing, but his novel definitely lacks the violence and brutality of other depictions.  The cynical side of me can't help but suspect that this is why his novel was the one that Americans picked up on. 

He softens the blow a bit, I think.

And as I said, the texts are great motivators.  It's unlikely that I'll ever complain about minor housekeeping tasks again.  At least I have a house.  It has heat.  I have adequate clothing.  And food.  I can contact friends and family.  I can blog.

Life is good.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gulag Survivors

I spent the week reading Jehanne M. Geith and Katherine R. Jolluck's Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (2011).

I know to some people, this sounds... terribly depressing.  But really, it's no more depressing than seeing the news out of Newtown, CT over the past week.  Or listening to Wayne LaPierre insist that the only reasonable response to senseless violence is to return fire.

Geith and Jolluck's volume attempts to capture narratives about inmates' experiences in the Soviet Gulag that might otherwise go unrecorded.  As Geith and Jolluck note,

Dokhodiaga (Goner)
Drawing by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, former Gulag prisoner.

Courtesy of Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia Foundation, Moscow.

"Estimates of how many people died in the Gulag range from several million to 15 million.  Lower estimates tend to be based on archival sources and limit their consideration of the Gulag to the years of Stalin's rule, while higher estimates use a combination of oral and documentary sources, with a heavy emphasis on eyewitness accounts, and consider the Gulag to last from the 1920s to the 1980s." (5)
As Geith and Jolluck point out, a volume devoted to recording the oral histories of  Gulag survivors faces particular challenges.

On the one hand, there is always the issue of memory and its distortions.  Stories are being told years after the fact, by individuals who suffered extreme emotional trauma and physical abuse.  In several cases, the narrators are quite elderly--they often openly admit that they simply can't remember details from 30 or 40 years previously.

On the other hand, as Geith and Jolluck point out, when it comes to stories of the Gulag, "remembering and telling were dangerous for at least two generations" (7).  To speak of the Gulag or of one's arrest and incarceration in the Gulag was to risk additional punishment, or even death.  People learned not to talk about it; children learned that, for whatever reason, it was not to be spoken of.

Such habits are difficult--if not impossible--to break.  They permanently shape both an individual's voice and the voice of the culture at large.  One (surprisingly outspoken) survivor,  Larisa Mikhailovna Lappo-Danilevskaia, observes about her time in the Gulag, "at that time, I couldn't even think what I wanted to think; it was bad enough not to be able to to talk, but to think!  I couldn't think, you see!" (85).

Reacting to Gorbachev's policy of perestroika in the 1980's, Lappo-Danilevskaia remarks,
"Under Gorbachev I was already thinking differently, I could already think, you see?  I didn't just keep quiet, I could think as well!  You understand, it's more frightening when you mustn't think.  It's one thing not to talk, but--when it's forbidden to think!  (85)
How different would each of us be today if we spent years of our lives unable to simply think what we wanted to think?  Not simply not speaking about those things, but deliberately training ourselves--or being trained by others--not to even think of them.  

Giuzel Gumerovna Ibragimova, whose parents were incarcerated when Imbragimova was only two years old, describes her mother's reaction to the experience of the Gulag:
And she buried him [her husband] and brought us everything in order, the letters everything, everything, everything there was.  She took his manuscripts.  You understand ... deep terror.  The terror of repetition.  The deepest terror.  It was subconscious.  All the time, she'd say, "Don't keep letters.  No material evidence.  Don't talk in public places.  If there are more than two of you, don't discuss any political themes."  It was simply terror.  And this terror, by the way, didn't leave her even at the end.  So much time had gone by, right?  She basically didn't tell us a lot about her life so that we would know less and discuss less.  [Gulag survivors] had a very immediate sense of terror and panic.  A panicked terror that this might happen again.  And cripple our fate. (137)
What is left behind, in the wake of such experiences, are official documents that constitute their own kind of code regarding events and their significance.  As Geith and Jolluck argue, "In Western contexts, documents are generally considered to be the more reliable, objective source, but in Russia, oral testimony has long been regarded as truer than official history, which was consistently distorted in the Soviet period for ideological and propaganda purposes" (7).

Children of Gulag survivors face a complicated bureaucracy of lost, mis-filed or simply mistaken paperwork, of things unspoken, of memories too terrible to relate.  Generations were changed by the Gulag in ways that, in many cases, we can't even begin to know, much less comprehend.

The publication of Gulag-memoirs and literature in the 1980s and 1990s has changed the landscape of this history as well, merging the strands of oral history with documented accounts.  In many cases, survivors whose oral histories are recorded by Geith and Jolluck are aware of the existence of Gulag-memoirs.

As a result, "many people now tell the stories of other's memories as if they are their own" (8).  Terrible individual memories are repressed or recast as a collective story of suffering.  In such instances, what constitutes "the truth"?

What is particularly interesting in Geith and Jolluck's volume, I think, is the way in which oral narratives unfold very differently from written narratives.  In writing, the author has time to revise, rethink, select the right word, tailor the narration of the experience to an envisioned audience.

In oral histories, words are repeated, verb tenses shift, anger and sadness erupt unexpectedly, things that might need to be said simply can't be said after all.

And, of course, the presence of the interviewer him- or herself shapes the encounter as well.  Speaking to someone--particularly someone from another place and time--and attempting to explain traumatic and essentially incomprehensible life experiences is very different from writing about them.

At times, Geith and Jolluck organize and abbreviate, in an attempt to maintain coherence and give the reader a sense of the tempo and significance of the interview as a whole.

And in the end, this too is a shaping of oral history, a process in which the erasures are often as telling as the words themselves.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One Headlight

I went out last night and, as I was parking my car, I noticed a woman walking to her car.

Instead of simply continuing on her way, though, she stopped and began hanging around my vicinity, as if she were waiting for me to shut the car off and get out.

In my inimitably humanitarian fashion, I noticed this and briefly wondered, "What's her problem?"  Then I cut the ignition and got out.

She was waiting for me.  She wanted to tell me my headlight was out.

I masked my internal reaction of "Shit" with a hearty, "Hey, thank you!  I thought it seemed kind of dark..." or some such stupid comment, a reaction which provoked an equally friendly and far less stupid response on the part of this Good Samaritan.

And then we parted ways forever.  Two ships that passed in a night that, unbeknownst to me, had been rendered slightly darker because I only had one functioning headlight.

I confess, after she left, I checked to make sure, because hey, you never know.  Maybe it was her eye.  Maybe it was just that one time that the headlight just kind of fritzed out, you know, in an electrical way, but then when I restarted the car, it would "get the juice" and be okay again.  Maybe I'd have the headlight that only seemed to burn out that once, but that was really okay all along.

It was out.

So I drove home later that evening and, as it turns out, it's true what The Wallflowers sang: we can in fact drive it home with one headlight.  Actually, if you're like me and paranoid about how bad things come in a minimum of threes and therefore firmly believe that you are 3x more likely to get ticketed by a cop for driving with a burned-out headlight within mere hours of discovering said problem, you put the highbeams on and pretend you don't know any better.

I had it all planned.  If stopped by Fate in the form of a Statie, I was simply going to tap into centuries of gender-stereotyping, open my large eyes wide and say, "My HIGHbeams are on?  Gosh... I didn't know...".

Because I hate to say it, but guys can be suckers for the "I'm just a girl" routine.  Like I somehow didn't realize that the big blue light in the shape of a big blue headlight right there in front of my big green eyes means that my highbeams are on.

I had no plan in place if I happened to be stopped by a female cop.  I think I probably would have just told her, "Yeah, you know, the sonovabitchin' thing blew out on me an hour ago" and hoped for the best.

Anyway, I got home and decided this morning that I would try to fix the problem myself.

Admit it: you saw this one coming.

So I went online and began watching videos about how to replace a headlight.  First off, I would simply like to send a big "HOLLA" out there to all of the good people making such videos.  You are helping each and every one of us stick it to The Man, and by "The Man," I mean all of those car manufacturers who know full well that they have most of us over a collective barrel when it comes to car repairs.

A few initial observations.  At one point, one of the steps of the process was openly identified by absolutely everyone as "tricky."  I confess, I felt a sinking sense of despair when I repeatedly saw, read, and heard this.  I immediately articulated that despair by thinking, "Shit," and this time I even said it out loud.  (I don't believe in bottling up my emotions.)

In my experience, when any set of instructions identifies any step in any process as in any way "tricky," you are essentially being warned that this step may well prove to be nearly impossible to complete.  You're being told in nice, roundabout way that you may end up huddled in a fetal position somewhere, quivering and whimpering, "I just couldn't... I didn't know how...". 

It seems to me that auto repair is frequently marked by all kinds of little secrets that only those "in the know" are allowed to know.  This bothers me immensely.  For example, it was pointed out that I should avoid touching the low-beam bulb itself because the oil from my skin would ultimately cause it to burn out faster.

Are you kidding me?  Who would just "know" that?  And how?  Where does one go to learn such things?  Tibet?  Detroit?  That's like... dermatology and auto repair, COMBINED.  I have a Ph.D.  I live in school.  I read all day long.  I didn't know that.

But it was the next point of the process that really had me punctuating my sentences with an expletive that rhymes with "duck."  Apparently, the "tricky" step of the process would be "tricky," I was warned, because to remove the burned-out headlight, I'd be "working blind."  I'd have to "do it by feel."

Having never felt up a low-beam light bulb, I was really not sure what to make of this.  It seems to me to be something quite characteristic of the automotive industry.

Who designs a machine such that you can't see what you need to see in order to repair it?  Apparently, a low-beam headlight bulb is held in place by a little clip, but if you don't know about the existence of this clip beforehand, you can't actually see it when it's in place--and therefore you can never actually learn of its existence on your own.

You'll just keep wondering why the DUCK the bulb won't come out.

This sounds to me like the kind of thing the Unabomber would design--and be quite proud of, in fact.

So that made me a little bit mad, actually, and as anyone can tell you, you don't want to make me mad.  One of my friends commented this summer that watching how my determination to fix my bathroom sink increased exponentially with each indication that I would probably have to call a plumber was "a little disturbing."  (She later told me, gently and kindly, "Normal people give up."  To which I immediately replied, "But I FIXED it."  To which she replied, with a sigh, "Yes, you did.")

In this case, I simply told myself, "Hey, come on try a little, nothing is forever.  There's got to be something better than in the middle," recognizing that in this case, "in the middle" meant "sitting at the garage for an hour and paying $50 for a $5 part that takes less than 2 minutes to replace, if you know what you're doing."

I took deep, cleansing breaths.  I made a mental note of the fact that, in some ways, the existence of that tricky little clip could be seen as analogous to faith in the existence of God. (Both are unseen, both potentially hold everything in place.) 

Then I high-fived my kitty cats (imaginatively), went outside, and just did it.

And wouldn't you know it, me and Cinderella (that's me too, in this case), we put it all together.  I no longer need to drive it home with one headlight.

Monday, December 17, 2012


Well, it has been a hectic and crazy week, but it's DONE.

The exams and office hours are finished.  The grading is finished.  The letters of recommendation are finished.

The yard is raked, the wood is stacked.  The house is cleaned, the laundry is done, the windows are winterized.

It's raining in RI and I am DONE.

What will I do now?  Get ready for the holidays of course.  Got cooking and presents to do.  But my time is officially my own, and in typical thinker-fashion, I have a stack of books, both real and e-form, about Soviet gulags. 

I can't wait.  Don't worry, I'm sure I'll be blogging about them.  Just in time for the holidays.

In the midst of all of the finishing-up activities, I also finished Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which was on my Classics Club List.  FYI, the Classics Club will be hosting its very own, very first Readathon on January 5, 2013.  

Of course I'll participate. 

Tenant was actually a re-read for me.  I read this novel for the first time years and years ago, when I was about 15.  I remember that I thought it was wonderful, romantic, deep, a real page-turner.

I was 15.

Oh, the times, they have a-chang-ed.  On one level, I draw deep, abiding comfort from the realization that my romantic ideals are no longer those of a 15-year-old girl growing up in a working-class town with a population of 4000. 

In the eighties, there was a popular self-help book for women called Smart Women/Foolish Choices: Finding the Right Men, Avoiding the Wrong Ones.  

There was also one called Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He'll Change.

Helen Huntingdon, the protagonist of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, could really have benefited from having either one--or both--of these books loaded into her e-reader.

Prior to hitting the dating scene, Helen gets a straight-up, no-holds-barred bit of advice from her wealthy aunt: "Don't marry a douchebag."  Helen responds to this bit of homespun advice with great condescension, asserting that her overwhelming powers of rationality will ensure that she is no easy mark for airy dreams of white knights and castles.  (Or nights at White Castle, for that matter.) 

She promptly marries the biggest douchebag the world has ever known.  The guy has "I'm a pig and an idiot" metaphorically stamped all over him: the red flags fly up all over the place whenever he strolls into the room.  In the course of about two pages, Helen falls madly in love, and wouldn't you know it, within a month, she realizes, "I'm married to a pig and an idiot who is also the biggest douchebag the world has ever known."

Despite its painful plot, Brontë's novel is interesting for the very fact that it confronts the idea of bad marriages and the men and women who make them.  Helen is officially, legally trapped: in 19th-century Britain, divorce is unheard of, and a woman suing for divorce from her husband?  Well, it just didn't happen.

Women in the early 19th century lost all legal right to own, buy or sell property.  Whatever had been theirs, was theirs no more.  They officially possessed no legal identity: they were "covered" by the law of coverture, which meant that, upon marriage, the husband's legal identity became the wife's as well.  His interests were, by definition, hers.  

In any child-custody dispute, the children "belonged" to their father.  And if a woman went so far as to dispute this idea, it would only serve as further proof that she was an unfit mother.  

What wife can't keep her husband in line?  What wife can't morally reform her significant other through the very example of her chaste, devoted, loving, patient self?   Booze and opium and gambling and hookers are no match for such a vision of domestic perfection--everyone knows that.

This makes all of those lovely romance plots of Jane Austen's novels look a bit different, doesn't it?  No wonder you wanted to marry nice and rich and find a guy who thought you were smarter than he was and who would love and defer to you in all things at all times.

It was not until the Married Women's Property Act in 1882 that a married woman's legal identity was restored and considered (potentially) separate from that of her spouse.

So Anne Brontë's novel is, not surprisingly, about what can happen when you let your heart rule your head. Strolling the beautiful grounds of Pemberley may not be all that great after all, if it turns out that your Mr. Darcy was just a guy playing a role to get himself a smart, good-looking wife.  

He may not even own Pemberley.  In fact, it may be mortgaged to the hilt.  He may be up to his ears in debt.  He may like booze and prostitutes and he may have simply taken a shine to you because he heard about your credit score.

It's hard for a 21st-century female reader to connect to a character like Helen Huntingdon.  She relies on her faith and her sense of Christian duty to enable her to take the high road and put up with her asshole of a husband.  Her life revolves around ensuring that their young son doesn't fall prey to her husband's influence  (Daddy likes to teach Junior to cuss like a sailor and drink gin)  and praying for her reward in the hereafter.

No, I'm not kidding.

Brontë's novel employs a really interesting narrative structure, however.  We don't find out Helen's story until well into the novel, because it's framed by another narrative, a series of letters written by Gilbert Markham to his friend, designed to tell him about his encounters with the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall--a young widow who has moved into the mansion next door.

Although the plot of Wildfell Hall had me rolling my middle-aged eyes quite a bit and wondering aloud, "GIRRRLLL, what were you THINKING?!!", the fact is, the novel addresses themes and issues that were by no means openly talked about in mid-19th-century England.  Like Wuthering Heights, it addresses issues of alcoholism and domestic abuse; unlike Wuthering Heights, it dares to envision what might happen when a woman decides enough is enough.

In short, what happens when she realizes she's DONE. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012


I spent the weekend reading In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), by Nathaniel Philbrick. 

I was supposed to be grading, of course.  I picked up Philbrick's book on Thursday night, to unwind for a while after my drive to RI.  I couldn't put it down.

Full disclosure: as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm a fan of Melville's novel, Moby-Dick (1851).  Friends have speculated that I may very well be the only woman on the planet who is, but so be it.

I cried at the end of the novel.  Again, friends often point out that plenty of people cry during their reading of the novel, but that it's usually from sheer boredom, and that this typically occurs somewhere in the middle of all of Melville's whale-talk, not at the end.

The end, for most people, is usually marked by a sense of joyous relief that the experience of reading Moby-Dick is finally over.

So call me crazy, but I like the novel and it makes me cry.  The first time I read it and realized that Moby Dick was going to attack the ship, I started to cry.  I didn't care if he chomped Ahab into small bits, but not the ship.

Because, if the whale attacks the ship, I speculated, they'll all die.  There's no way they'll be able to get home.

I won't spoil Melville's novel for those of you who haven't read it (or seen the movie).  Instead, I'll simply tell you that Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is a non-fiction account of the incident that inspired Melville's description of the whale attacking the ship at the end of Moby-Dick.

In November of 1820, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was in the Pacific, hunting whales, when it was rammed by a very large whale.  Although the crew members claimed that the whale "attacked" the ship, it is also entirely possible that the "attack" was simply an accident. 

Owen Chase, the ship's first mate, was in the process of repairing a damaged whale-boat.  To do this, he was hammering nails into the wood, and the sound would have traveled through the wooden whaleship and into the ocean.

It may have sounded like the "clicks" that whales make to communicate with each other and to engage in echolocation.  As Philbrick observes,
Whales ... use clicking signals to communicate over distances of up to five miles.  Females tend to employ a Morse code-like series of clicks, known as a coda, and male sperm whales make slower, louder clicks called clangs.  It has been speculated that males use clangs to announce themselves to eligible females and to warn off competing males. (87)
So although Chase and the other surviving crew members of the Essex assumed the whale's behavior was an aggressive attack, this perception may have been colored by their own highly aggressive occupation.  (In later years, it did appear that whales had caught on to the fact that the sight of little Quaker men in tiny boats meant trouble and that they began to respond accordingly and aggressively.)

Philbrick's account begins at the end, with the discovery of one of the whaleboats used by the surviving crew members of the Essex.  In February of 1821, the whaleship Dauphin was cruising the Chilean coast and came upon a makeshift boat: "[t]he boat's sides had been built up by about half a foot.  Two makeshift masts had been rigged, transforming the rowing vessel into a rudimentary schooner" (xii).

What they found in the boat was the stuff of nightmares:
First they saw bones--human bones--littering the thwarts and floorboards, as if the whaleboat were the seagoing lair of a ferocious, man-eating beast.  Then they saw the two men.  They were curled up in opposite ends of the boat, their skin covered with sores, their eyes bulging from the hollows of their skulls, their beards caked with salt and blood.  They were sucking the marrow from the bones of their dead shipmates. (xii)
One of the men was George Pollard, the captain of the Essex.  The other was Charles Ramsdell, a shipmate.  About a month previously, Owen Chase (the first mate) and two other shipmates had been found, alive, but starving and severely dehydrated, in another one of the Essex's whaleboats.  Three other members of the crew were stranded on Henderson Island, a coral outcrop in the South Pacific.

In total, eight crew members survived.  Several of them committed cannibalism in order to do so.

Philbrick's account is fascinating, not simply as a story of survival, but for its attention to the details of whaling life and the role that whaling played in the history of Nantucket.  In many ways, the crew members of the Essex were not simply victims of circumstance.  As Philbrick observes, their reaction to the disaster was constantly shaped by their heritage, their community, and their spirituality--and by the way that all three of those factors intertwined.

When the Essex sank, the crew was actually not all that far (relatively speaking) from the Polynesian Islands.  If they had headed west, they probably could have reached them before their supplies of food and water ran out.

They decided to head east, however, and attempt to reach the coast of South America.  In making this (disastrous) decision, they were influenced by rumors circulating among whalemen that the islands in the South Pacific were home to tribes of cannibals. 

If you're thinking, well, so, it's a bit farther to South America, so what?, you should bear in mind that the winds in that region are called the "Southeast Trade Winds" for a reason.  They blow from the southeast.

And the currents there flow in a westerly direction.

In short, they opted to sail against the current AND against the wind.  Not only did this add thousands of unnecessary miles to their voyage, it meant that they spent a great deal of time sailing southward, parallel to the coast of South America, while their supplies of food and water steadily dwindled. 

All to avoid those (non-existent) cannibals on the Polynesian Islands.

Philbrick examines the inherent irony in the fact that, while terrified of cannibalistic "natives," American whalemen nevertheless understood that acts of cannibalism on their own part, while not generally acceptable, of course, were often required in survival situations.  The story of the Essex is not unique in the history of American whaling.

Philbrick attempts to understand what happened to the crew members both psychologically and physiologically as they slowly starved and became increasingly dehydrated.  Having established the terms of the elaborate social, political and spiritual networks that made up the 19th-century community of Nantucket whalemen, Philbrick's account reveals just how fragile such moral communities really are.

Philbrick cites the observations of a University of Minnesota experiment on human starvation supervised by Ancel Keys during World War II: "Many of the so-called American characteristics ... abounding energy, generosity, optimism--become intelligible as the expected behavior response of a well-fed people" (159).

As Philbrick points out, the whalemen of the shipwrecked Essex quickly found themselves in what anthropologists would call a "feral community."  Normal rules do not apply.

Philbrick also examines the role that effective leadership plays in survival situations.  While Ernest Shackleton's miraculous accomplishment is often held up as an example, Philbrick notes that Shackleton's achievement is in many ways atypical of survival situations.

When basic survival depends upon a perfect storm of human community, leadership, psychology, physiology, and circumstance, the odds are very much stacked against us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Alias Grace"

"What does the past tell us? In and of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word, and, even so, listening means telling, and then retelling." --Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood. In the mid-90's, I read quite a few of her works--Cat's Eye, The Robber Bride, Lady Oracle, The Handmaiden's Tale.

So it was with a trembling sense of joyous anticipation that I picked up Alias Grace (1997).

I was not disappointed. This novel is now officially My Favorite Margaret Atwood Novel of All Time.

Alias Grace is a novel based on one of the most sensationalized crimes in Canadian history. In July of 1843, two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, murdered their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery.

Nancy Montgomery was also Kinnear's mistress. McDermott ultimately claimed that Marks was in love with her employer and jealous of Nancy Montgomery. He claimed that Grace Marks helped him strangle the housekeeper.

At trial, McDermott claimed that the murders were Grace Marks' idea, and that she put him up to it. Marks, who was only 16 at the time of her conviction, claimed she had no memory of committing the murders, that she knew McDermott had killed Kinnear but didn't know that he had also killed Montgomery, and that she played no part in the deaths of either of the two victims.

She claimed that she had been kidnapped by McDermott, and that she feared for her life. According to Marks, this was why she helped McDermott ransack the Kinnear household and fled with him to the United States, where they were arrested.

She denied that she and McDermott were lovers.

Marks and McDermott were found guilty of the murder of Thomas Kinnear and sentenced to death. As a result, they were never tried for the murder of Nancy Montgomery.

James McDermott was hanged in November of 1843. Ultimately, Grace Marks' sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1872, she was pardoned, released from prison, and relocated to upstate New York.

There is no record of her after 1872.

Atwood uses the motif of quilt blocks and quilting to organize her narrative. Needless to say, I LOVED this technique.

Quilts are made by stitching together patterned squares of fabric: each block has a particular design which is named after what it is meant to symbolize.

For example, here is the quilt block for a pattern called "Broken Dishes":

Quilt blocks are typically a simple combination of squares and triangles, in patterns of light and dark. Here is another quilt block pattern, called "Puss in the Corner":

Taken individually, the combination of shapes doesn't seem all that different. Taken as a whole, however, the patterns appear quite different. Here is an entire quilt using the "Broken Dishes" pattern:

This is an example of a quilt made using the "Puss in the Corner" pattern:

As you can see, the overall pattern belies the simplicity of each individual square. Quilts patterns are always double: they look one way if you focus on the light colors, and another way, if you focus on the dark colors.

Quilters not only choose their own colors: in the 19th century, quilts would often be made from scraps of worn-out clothes. So what might simply appear to be a beautiful bedcover would literally be embedded with scraps of the quilter's past--memories associated with clothing worn in another place and at another time.

Quilts were also hand-stiched. The stitching itself testified to the skill and artistry of the quilter, a detail that the general public might not notice but that an experienced quilter would.

Atwood uses this motif to reflect on the narrative complexities inherent in any retelling of Grace Marks' story. While she sticks to the available facts, her novel is nevertheless shaped by the many sensationalized newspaper accounts of the crime (most of which were riddled with inaccuracies and improbabilities) and by the accounts of witnesses who saw Grace in the hours after the murders and said she seemed quite cheerful.

They said that Grace Marks was wearing Nancy Montgomery's clothes.

Atwood's account is also shaped by McDermott's claims and by the various (contradictory) confessions given by Grace Marks herself. McDermott was known locally as an outright liar.

Grace Marks was young, she was Irish, she was a servant, and she was beautiful. Atwood contextualizes the seemingly simply (but ultimately inexplicable) story of the murders against a complex background of gender, social class, and politics.

To accomplish her purposes, Atwood creates the fictional character of Dr. Simon Jordan. A specialist in the newly emerging science of psychology and psychiatry--an "alienist"--Dr. Jordan arrives at the Kingston Penitentiary in 1859 to interview Grace Marks in order to determine whether she is sane or insane, innocent or guilty.

He's there to listen and sort out her story. He's there to arrive at the truth. He's been asked to interview Grace Marks and offer his professional opinion of the case, on the assumption that his judgment might go a long way towards determining whether she deserves to be pardoned.

In creating the fictional character of Dr. Jordan and then piecing the complex true-crime narrative of the Kinnear murders (and its equally complex social and political context) around the figures of the doctor and the prisoner (the novel is told alternately from the perspective of Grace Marks and Dr. Jordan), Atwood is able to reflect upon the position of both the writer and the reader with respect to narratives that purport to tell us the "truth" about events.

Is Grace guilty? Of what? Is she innocent? Is she lying, and if so, when, and why? Is she simply telling the story that the doctor wants to hear? Is she tailoring her story to her audience?

Or has she too fallen victim to the inaccuracies of newspaper accounts and public perception? Is she telling the story that she herself wants to hear and to believe--a story pieced together from her repeated reading of the stories of her own story?

In identifying Dr. Jordan with the figure of the writer who is also, by necessity, a reader and a listener, Atwood questions the interrelationship of listening, telling and retelling in our quest to understand the events of our personal and collective past.

Will we hear only what we want to hear? Or will we hear the truth?

Is there a difference, and if so, how will we know?