Friday, September 23, 2011

Sexual Sucker Punch: A Review

Wow, it's been awhile. Anyway, I'm back for today with an analysis of the film Sucker Punch! (Hella spoilers.)

Sucker Punch is a 2011 film from director Zack Snyder. The film’s pitch line was “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns”, and it certainly delivers. It’s a movie about sanity and sexuality in which five institutionalized girls, in an unspecified but decidedly vintage time period, battle against their oppressors in a fantasy world. Their victories and failures in the imagined world translate to the real world; and so the film is less an actual supernatural action movie and more a movie about image and interpretation, where real-world monsters are explicitly framed as combat enemies.

The film has three clear layers: first, the actual mental asylum, where the girls wear dirty smocks and where the color scheme is grey and washed out. The second layer is the club/brothel: high contrast and glittering. The third layer is the combative fantasy world in which the girls fight their battles.

Each reveals something about the previous. The club imagining of the asylum reveals Blue’s sexualization of the patients; it’s implied at the end of the movie that he’s been molesting the girls. The scene where Rocket is assaulted by the cook also shows that the patients are subject to abuse from the asylum staff. The club also shows the business-like nature of the asylum. In the first layer, Blue accepts bribe money from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski’s signature and get Babydoll a lobotomy so that she can’t rat her stepfather out to the police.

The fantasy battleground maintains the sexualization of the girls via their skimpy costumes, but it also is a world in which they are powerful. The fantasy world is also on the verge of steampunk, combining old-fashioned settings such as the WWII trenches and medieval castles with high-tech weaponry. In this way, the girls take down vintage ideas of femininity and sexuality with their futuristic technology. They access this world through Babydoll’s dance sequences, which are all “gyrating, moaning and titillation” in the second layer, the club layer. The peep show exhibitionist dancing puts women in control in the hyper-sexualized club world (and, I think, the real world outside the film). In the fantasy world, that control translates to weapons and strength. They are physically invincible. They are never wounded or hurt, and rarely cornered. Even when one girl is, the other girls are there to assist. In the fantasy world, they have the bonds they are discouraged from forming in the previous two layers; bonds with each other, and with the Wise Man.

There are three main male figures in Sucker Punch: the stepfather, Blue, and the Wise Man. The film gets into some quintessential “Daddy issues.” The girls in the asylum/club have all been orphaned, abandoned, or ran away from parental figures. The three male characters represent three archetypal parent molds: the imagist, the realist, and the guide.

The Imagist
Babydoll’s stepfather is the innocent, “I did my best” parent, who claims to have been a good and nurturing father while secretly being neglectful at best and actively abusive at worst. For the stepfather, image is everything, because if Babydoll reveals that he was anything other than the image he’s put forth, he goes to jail. His re-imagining as a priest in the club layer reinforces this idea—he is pure, clean, and blameless. Except, we know he isn’t.

The Realist
Blue takes the stance of the realist, the man who knows what the big, bad world is really like. He tries to position himself as a guardian, a protector, and convinces the girls that however bad life is with him, it’s infinitely worse without him: “I try to give you all a good life. I try. I do. And all I ask for in return is just for respect.” This is of course not actual realism, but is very successfully defined that way thanks to just how bad it is in the club and how bad the girls’ experiences were before being institutionalized. What’s interesting is that Sweet Pea, the one who “never really had a problem with Mom and Dad” and who knows that Blue is a liar, is the one who is reluctant to escape. This is mostly for the safety of her sister Rocket, but perhaps she’s adapted a little too well to her new life, being the only one who really has the necessary mental ability to adapt to change.

The Guide
The Wise Man represents the good, real father figure the girls never had. He is an older man who keeps his distance and never sexualizes them, unlike the men of comparable ages who frequent the club (such as the Mayor with his stogies). He doesn’t act as a guardian or claim to be a protector, like Blue does. The girls are beyond the age where that’s what the father should be—Babydoll’s age is said to be 20 at the beginning. What girls this age need is a guide, someone who gives them direction and then gets out of the way. The Wise Man is with them at the beginning of each of their missions to offer them advice, like “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and even distinctly parental bits like, “Try and work together.” His frequent “Oh yeah, one more thing”s are also reminiscent of a dad who is constantly thinking of more things to impart.

He’s even re-garbed as a bus driver, a guide, at the end. But when it comes down to it, he still knows his fatherly duty to protect his daughter from predators: like at the very end, when he saves Sweet Pea from the troopers. To reinforce the fact that he does not sexualize them, he doesn’t even touch Sweet Pea when she gets on the bus and he comfortingly tells her to take a seat near the back and try to get some sleep.

Therapy is the treatment of a disorder. In the first layer, the asylum, Dr. Gorski uses music to help the girls evoke the memories of their abuse so that they can discuss the damage, get it out. In the second layer, that therapy becomes each girl’s dance, where Madame Gorski again provides the music. Their therapy then becomes their peep-show performances.

A frequent post-feminist claim is that women hold power through their sexuality. In the club layer, this is true. Men are transfixed by Babydoll’s “titillating” dances, which Sweet Pea calls impersonal. As I said earlier, the dance sequences become the fantasy world in which the girls hold actual, qualitative power: they are skilled with weapons and physically invincible. Even Rocket’s death takes place outside the fantasy world. The fantasy world is a place where there is no male supremacy. Babydoll is even able to cut an enemy’s sword in half in her first battle, symbolically severing the phallic weapon being used against her.

In the club layer, Gorski says to Blue, “I teach [the girls] to survive YOU.” She’s referring to the dances she teaches them and the show that she directs. She teaches them to use their sexuality, to own it, because it gives them some small vestige of control when they otherwise would have simply been the victims of the men who abuse them. In a very, very twisted way, being in touch with themselves as sexual beings allows the girls to participate in the club and keep a measure of themselves intact. Not recommended, but in certain situations I suppose you have to work with what you’ve got.

In addition to the dance/therapy issue, there’s the framing of lobotomy as paradise. A lobotomy is a procedure that consists of “cutting the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex” of the brain and was used as treatment in the first half of the 20th century for the violently or untreatably insane. In Sucker Punch, the lobotomy turns Babydoll into a vegetable, rendering her unresponsive and placid. Blue refers to that state as “paradise.” Babydoll no longer feels pain or indeed, experiences anything, This is a throwback to the idea that women are happiest when their lives are simple, when they are sheltered and restricted to the home and don’t participate in any grand or complex ideologies. It’s a farce, clearly; Babydoll’s lobotomy has rendered her effectively dead, and so are similarly sheltered women. Even in the club layer, with that weird measure of sexual ownership, Rocket says “We’re already dead,” as in dead inside and dead to the world.

Sweet Pea narrates the end with the following monologue (emphasis added by me):

“And finally. This question. The mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in a dance? Who drives us mad, flashes us with whips, crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that tells all these things? Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we'll never die? Who teaches us what's real, and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live, and what we'll die to defend? Who chains us, and who holds the key to set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.

There are lots of things to talk about in this, but I’m focusing on the two bolded lines. The obvious reading is that humans can put themselves through ridiculous and contradictory psychological torment. This makes sense with the final line, where Sweet Pea says that “you” are wholly responsible for your experience of the world.

However, it is also possible to read these lines in terms of the contradictory male reactions to femininity. I wish I still had the library’s copy of The Rise of Enlightened Sexism to quote (thanks Chels :P), but this kind of thing is easy to see in real life and extrapolate. Men seem to worship the female: her body, her charms, her love. Like Sting says, “Every little thing she does is magic.” Yet politically, female empowerment is a terrifying thing to some male leaders. Look at the recent political attacks on Planned Parenthood, the persistently lower wage earned by women for the same jobs as men, and the attempts in the media to strip female political figures of their legitimacy, either by de-feminizing them (as with Janet Reno) or by hyper-feminizing them (as with Sarah Palin). In the former case, for example, Janet Reno was allowed to be a capable political figure because she was seen as mannish. In the latter case, Sarah Palin was NOT allowed to be a capable political figure because she was seen as simultaneously sexy and motherly, not to mention her airheadedness.

So clearly, based on these and countless other examples I’m sure you can pull from your own lives, men love women but are also scared of women. So the lines, “Who drives us mad, flashes us with whips, crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we'll never die?” can take on a new meaning. Think about it. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011


I've been reading quite a bit in the few weeks since I last posted, though not all of it will end up here; but let's get back into things with a look at Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba" (or, La Casa de Bernarda Alba), a "Drama about women in villages of Spain," according to the tagline.

The play, written in 1936, takes place in (surprise!) the house of Bernarda Alba, an elderly woman with five aging, unmarried daughters. After the death of her second husband, Bernarda declares that her family's mourning period will last eight years. This plot point is sort of forgotten in favor of a love hexagon between Pepe el Romano, the handsomest man in the village, and all five of Bernarda's daughters. Twenty-five year old Pepe is engaged to the eldest daughter, thirty-nine year old Angustias, because she is the only daughter with money; her dowry was left to her by her father, Bernarda's first husband. The middle three daughters lust after Pepe, but twenty-year-old Adela, the youngest, becomes his lover, sullies the family honor, and sends the family into a tailspin of crazy.

There are a number of interesting things about the play, and the first one of note is that there's not a single male character. No man is ever on stage at any point, not even Pepe, who seems to be at the center of the drama in Acts Two and Three. This brings up an intriguing point about the tagline: it's a "drama about women" in that all the characters we see are female, but it's a male character who forms the epicenter of the drama itself. So is it really about women, or about what men do to women? What women do to each other?

Whatever perspective you choose, it's clear that for Lorca, female behavior is inextricably linked to men. "Good" female behavior means staying away from men, and "bad" female behavior means fornicating with men. This isn't just Lorca's idea, though. It's an age-old mentality that persists today in the "prude or slut" dichotomy that inspired this independent study. Why is it that we can't observe a woman without relating her back to men? A female CEO: "She does/doesn't do this job as good as a man," etc. Even when we compare two women and say that one is more beautiful than the other, why is that something we notice? Because more beautiful women get more attention from men.

It's difficult to combat because it's difficult to notice. In the play, the women would rather tear each other apart than recognize that they are more than virgins who don't sleep with men and whores who do. Bernarda is obsessed with the honor of her house and her daughters. The family is a big fish in a little pond financially, which is why the daughters weren't married sooner; Bernarda didn't think there were any men in the village of their status. So, rather than marry her daughters down, she shut them up and kept them virgins. Part of this is the time period and the culture, sure; but the same thing happens today to lesser degrees.

Another main point of the play is the theme that sexuality is subversive. For the first half of the play, it's not clear what's happening. Pepe's engagement to Angustias is revealed fairly early, but is immediately followed by the explanation that it's purely financial. There's tension from the unnaturalness off the union, along with extremely subtle quips among the sisters that reveal the atmosphere of jealousy. The one who participates the least is Adela. As one sister says, "Because [Adela's] the youngest, she still has dreams" (15). She seems aloof, above the quibbling; probably because, as is later revealed, she's been with Pepe the whole time. By the end of the play, she's manic in her dedication to her idealistic romance, planning to elope rather than wait for Angustias to make a widower out of Pepe.

The tension builds, each woman in the house like a rubber band being slowly stretched to its limit. Bernarda feels it, but stubbornly ignores it, her obsession with honor making her blind to the sinkhole she's created in her house. Her maid, La Poncia (whose name apparently means Pontius, possibly a reference to Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus' crucifixion--puts an interesting spin on her role) attempts several times to force awareness on Bernarda and fails each time. Meanwhile, the daughters' un-channeled sexuality courses through the house, tearing down the order of the family. "They're women without men, that's all," Poncia says on page 42. Bernarda has intentionally suppressed the sexuality of her daughters, and that built-up energy is now threatening to overthrow her.

While it's certainly possible to read the play didactically, it's a slippery slope because Lorca doesn't show or seem to believe in a balance between virgin and whore. Again, this seems to be cultural. In the Mann translation, at least, there's no strong commentary on Adela's behavior; it's too subtle, and comes from the mouths of her jealous sisters. However, it does seem clear that nine women living together in celibacy for extended periods of time is sometimes unhealthy.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Despite saying that "Every woman has the right to maternity," (Loy's "Feminist Manifesto"), Mina Loy does not seem to have a favorable experience with it herself. Most of her poems relating to motherhood seem to be about childbirth and abortion, while there seems to be distance between her and her real children. Loy describes her nine-year-old daughter Joella as a beautiful Italian statue, a youthful Madonna: "But this small image of maternal plentitude was a temptation. "I must run away from it," Mina remembered thinking. Ambivalent feelings about mothering and being mothered--who was the parent and who was the child?--rose to the surface in a moment of panic [...] Parting may have resurrected the anguish of her first memory--of exile from home and the enchantment of beauty" (Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, 193-194).

For Loy, motherhood seems to be both a thing of beauty and a thing of pain. Her "Feminist Manifesto" reads favorably towards maternity, saying that the "complete woman" is both the mistress and the mother, and that "it is to your interest to demolish ... the division of women into [these] two classes" (154). According to Loy, "the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother" because "the woman who is so incompletely evolved as to be un-self-conscious in sex, will prove a restrictive influence on the temperamental expansion of the next generation" (154). Un-self-conscious may be read two ways: i.e., confident and the opposite of modern self-consciousness, or conscious of self. In Loy's case I think it's the latter.

She goes on to say that "Every woman of superior intelligence should realize her race-responsibility, in producing children in adequate proportion to the unfit or degenerate members of her sex--" (155). In other words, if you are a complete woman, you should produce as many children as the incomplete women of your generation, to balance out the bad with the good. So she appears to be a staunch believer in maternity.

Her poems reflect the darker side of her ideology, and show the pain of pregnancy and childbirth. Parturition (found all the way at the bottom of that page) is an intense depiction of not just childbirth, but creation in general:
"Locate an irritation without
It is within
Within" (4)
Two things. First, yes, she did just refer to the coming infant as an irritation. Second, this sounds to me like the itch you get when you need to write and can't find the words, and nothing inspires you because whatever you're trying to say is completely internal. So this poem is not just the parturition (which means the process of giving birth) of a child, but the parturition of itself. It follows the progress of the birth, the stanzas are ideas strung together as Loy works out what she is trying to say. They are only loosely connected, jumping around with each emotion that she feels. The connecting idea is pain and her struggle to overcome it. Some examples:
"I am the centre
Of a circle of pain
Exceeding its boundaries in every direction
Pain is no stronger than the resisting force
Pain calls up in me
The struggle is equal
I am climbing a distorted mountain of agony
Incidentally with the exhaustion of control
I reach the summit
And gradually subside into anticipation of
Which never comes" (4-5)
"Songs to Joannes" is rife with allusions and sometimes outright mentions of abortion. See these two lines from the second stanza of number XVII:
"Red a warm colour on the battle-field
Heavy on my knees as a counterpane" (60)
Or the second stanza of III:
"We might have given birth to a butterfly
With the daily news
Printed in blood on its wings" (54)
"The procreative truth of Me
Petered out
In pestilent
Tear drops" (62)
So what we have in Loy's prose versus her poetry is a dichotomy between ideology and reality. Theoretically, maternity is just as full an expression of a woman's self as sexuality, and vice versa; but the theorizing forgets the pain of pregnancy, abortion and childbirth. Loy is still favorable of maternity:
"Mother I am
With infinite Maternity
I am absorbed
The was--is--ever--shall--be
Of cosmic reproductivity" ("Parturition" 7)
But in the real world, it comes with an edge. So maternity, childbirth, is both beautiful and painful. It is infinite, but comes with a price.

And speaking of that price, interestingly, at the end of the "Manifesto," Loy says this: "Women must destroy in themselves, the desire to be loved--" by men. In other words, they must focus more on their children than their husbands. While a complete woman must be both a mistress and a mother, as discussed earlier, these two states are apparently not concurrent for Loy.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

XXXIV: Love -- -- -- the preeminent litterateur

I know this entry looks long, but don't worry; it just quoted poetry, which takes up a lot of space. This week, we're moving from theoretical texts to poetry: the poetry of Mina Loy. Another contemporary of Gertrude Stein, Loy is practically impossible to place within any of the literary and artistic movements of the early 20th century. She just skips among them all intermittently. She is most obviously a feminist, but even that title is questionable based on her reverence for virgins and mothers, both states of being typically rejected by the feminists of the age.

For this entry, I'm going to focus on a set of short poems collectively entitled "Songs to Joannes" or "Love Songs," generally understood to be the disjointed narrative of Loy's relationship(s), especially with a man named Giovanni Papini. A number of the fragments/stanzas are reproduced here, though without Loy's spacing and mostly mis-numbered; I also read this essay, which is a very interesting close reading of the poem.

Thematically, it's sort of difficult to understand "Songs" because Loy uses extremely ambiguous language. Interpretations may be plausible but rarely concrete. Yet, in anticipation of the young adult literature I'll read at the end of the semester, I will venture to consider the adolescence of the poem's speaker and subject. Mina Loy was 33 when she began writing "Songs," but there is throughout the fragments the feeling of hesitance and disillusion that comes with young love and young sex.

The first fragment (I, found at the "Primitive Modern" link) sets this up, citing such typical romance stand-bys as Cupid and "Once upon a time":
"Spawn of Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
"Once upon a time"
Pulls a weed white star-topped
Among wild oats sown in mucous-membrane"
The speaker is the weed, a virgin "white star-topped" which Pig Cupid pulls "Among wild oats": men. She is lured by the fantasies, the once-upon-a-time, into the sexual world. The next stanza shows the cosmic attraction of this world, open, expansive, starry; but Loy says "These are suspect places/I must live in my lantern/Trimming subliminal flicker/Virginal to the bellows/Of Experience". So the speaker determines to remain virginal.

But not for long. See fragment IX:
"When we lifted
Our eye-lids on Love
A cosmos
Of coloured voices
And laughing honey

And spermatozoa
At the core of Nothing
in the milk of the Moon"
Again, there's the cosmic imagery of a Love fantasy which then shifts in the second stanza to become the sarcastic reality of insemination: "And spermatozoa/at the core of Nothing/in the milk of the Moon". The fantasy has ended in pregnancy, and the speaker is disillusioned. Interestingly, this comes after fragment VIII, which seems to show the speaker's state of mind post-impregnation:
"I am the jealous store-house of the candle-ends
That lit your adolescent learning
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
Behind God's eyes
There might
Be other lights"
This fragment features some bitterness on the part of the speaker for her involvement in the young man's "adolescent learning", for which she pays the price and for which she is the "store-house," the pregnant uterus. The last three lines also speak to the disillusionment in the cosmic love fantasy: "Behind God's eyes/There might/Be other lights".

This theme continues in XI: "Dear one at your mercy/Our Universe/Is only/ A colorless onion/You derobe/Sheath by sheath/ Remaining/A disheartening odour/About your nervy hands". The cosmic love universe is an onion, the boy smells funny, and his hands shake. The last stanzas of fragment XIII show a conflict between the cosmic love fantasy and the patriarchal realities as the two young lovers struggle to understand what they're doing:
"Where two or three are welded together
They shall become god
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- ---
Oh that's right
Keep away from me Please give me a push
Don't let me understand you Don't realise me
Or we might tumble together
Into the terrific Nirvana
Me you -- you -- me"
The third possible person for welding refers to the fetus, the child. In the last stanza there's this fear of depersonalization, of losing identity. Pietroiusti argues that this fear is the man's fear rather than the female speaker's, based on the conversational rhetoric: "Oh that's right" (34). This is supported by the "Please give me a push," which seems to indicate that the female speaker is unwilling to keep this barrier between them. Like Dworkin, the speaker sees sex in which two bodies become one as ideal: "Where two or three are welded together/They shall become god".

I had trouble identifying themes in the beginning, but the more I read "Songs" the more there is. There is so much more to discuss, and if I were writing a paper on this set of poems (which I very well might) I could go on forever; but for the sake of this post I'll start to wrap things up. There are multiple references to the abortion of the unplanned pregnancy, which features in the linear story but which really deserves its own examination. One of the last fragments, XXIX, appears to look back remorsefully and plea for the prevention of young love.
"Let them clash together
From their incognitoes
In seismic orgasm

For far further
Rather than watch
Own-self distortion
Wince in the alien ego"
The fragment pleas against the merging, welding love earlier favored--probably because in this instance, it failed, and the speaker's disillusionment with the cosmic love fantasy is complete. The last fragment is the title of this entry: "Love -- -- -- the preeminent litterateur". The speaker is resigned to the idea that all of this has resulted in a good story.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


So tonight, we're moving on to some chapters from Luce Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One. The book is primarily a critique of Freud's psychoanalysis by Irigaray as a modern psychoanalyst. I'm not terribly interested in psychoanalysis personally, though the intellectual relationship between Freud and Irigaray is interesting. That aside, as I read more, a pattern emerges that's also consistent with Dworkin's work. This pattern is two-fold:

1. Female sexuality is constructed in terms of male sexuality.

We talked in the last entry about how women's bodies are designed to be entered by the penis, thus giving men irrefutable dominance. For Dworkin, this biological arrangement of intercourse created the basis for women's status as inferior to men. Irigaray takes a psychological approach, characterizing the penis as "active" and the vagina as "passive." Even the "activity" of the clitoris is attributed to its status as a little penis.
"In these terms, woman's erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a hole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self-embracing" (23).
Fairly self-explanatory. We've all heard this argument before.

2. Male pleasure precludes female pleasure.

Irigaray addresses the above problem of phallomorphism with the concept of female autoeroticism: "Woman "touches herself" all the time, and moreover no one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact" (24). So, far from being passive, the labia and vaginal walls participate in constant self-caress. Now, obviously we're not all in a constant state of arousal because of this perpetual touch; rather it represents the plurality and fullness of female sexuality and being. When Irigaray chose the title C'est sexe qui n'en pas un, she meant that women have more than one sexual organ; a biological truth often neglected in phallocentric discourse.

Male pleasure is that phallocentric discourse: its focus is penetration, the envelopment of the penis. As we discussed before, penetration for Dworkin represents the invasion of the female body. For Irigaray, penetration disrupts the autoeroticism described above:
"the brutal separation of the two lips by a violating penis, an intrusion that distracts and deflects the woman from this "self-caressing" she needs if she is not to incur the disappearance of her own pleasure in sexual relations" (24).
For both authors, male pleasure, derived from the penetration of women, precludes female sexual pleasure by depriving her of self-caress, by invading her inner being as experienced through her body--or often by simply not lasting long enough.

Like I said, psychoanalysis isn't really my thing, but these two ideas can be related to other discourses. The first one still seems like a hot topic; the second one is perhaps a little less relevant by today's standards, what with the expansion of sexual positions that give women more control and by the growing societal acceptance of female masturbation. Ah, well; take it for what you will.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Violation and the Power of the Female Orgasm

"Violation is a synonym for intercourse" (154).

So says Andrea Dworkin in today's chapter from Intercourse, "Occupation/Collaboration." In this chapter, she begins her discussion of the body by saying that it is inviolate. Women, however, are penetrated during intercourse, and that "The discourse of male truth--literature, science, philosophy, pornography--calls that penetration violation. [...] At the same time, the penetration is taken to be a use, not an abuse; a normal use; it is appropriate to enter her, to push into ("violate") the boundaries of her body" (154). Women's bodies are designed to be entered; the vagina is like a curtain, which, even when closed, can be easily pushed open.

Female roles, social and biological, have been built around this assumption that penetration/violation of women is "normal" and "appropriate." If we think of it in the basest terms, it is only through penetration of women that the human race can continue; therefore, it is necessary to some degree. For hundreds of years, into the present even, women are defined by their childbearing ability, but the reproductive power has only in the last few decades been given to women. Previous to widespread birth control and pro-choice laws, it was men who controlled which women they penetrated and impregnated. Marriages and pregnancies were economic. A woman's purpose was fulfilled by the penetration of her by a man.
"There is a deep recognition in culture and in experience that intercourse is both the normal use of a woman, her human potentiality affirmed by it, and a violative abuse, her privacy irredeemably compromised, her selfhood changed in a way that is irrevocable, unrecoverable. And it is recognized that the use and abuse are not distinct phenomena but somehow a synthesized reality: both are true at the same time as if they were one harmonious truth instead of mutually exclusive contradictions" (154).
Yet, as Dworkin points out in the above, society also recognizes that penetration changes a woman. There are psychological components to having something inside oneself. Sometimes they're positive, with feelings of welcoming, trust, fulfillment, satisfaction, intimacy. Sometimes, they're negative: violation, pain, invasion, betrayal, derogation, humiliation. As modern women, we tend to think of the distinction as clear, with laws of consent and such; but is it? Remember the "Hazards of Duke" article: Karen Owen was humiliated by a one-night stand she consented to. Even with a partner one trusts, some positions and methods of intercourse are considered more derogatory to women than others by society.
"...that slit that means entry into her--intercourse--appears to be the key to women's lower human status" (155).
As I said earlier, women are designed to be entered, occupied, as it were--and Dworkin likens the situation to occupied countries, dominated by a foreign army. Out in the world, it's all political, superficial even, but when used metaphorically to describe the situation of women it is intrinsic. Unlike an occupied country or subjected race/ethnicity, women can't throw off male occupation, refuse male penetration, without being viewed as deviant. "Intercourse is a particular reality for women as an inferior class; and it has in it, as part of it, violation of boundaries, taking over, occupation, destruction of privacy, all of which are constructed to be normal and also fundamental to continuing human existence" (156).

So what can we do about this? If women are biologically made to be dominated, how can we be free, equal? Dworkin quotes another feminist and sex researcher Shere Hite, who argues that it's through orgasm: "the ability to orgasm when we want, to be in charge of our stimulation, represents owning our bodies, being strong, free, and autonomous human beings" (158). Interestingly, Dworkin does not discuss this quote--I guess she's more interesting in doom-and-glooming--but I find it to be one of the most important things in this chapter.

The female orgasm is a strange and mysterious thing. It seems impossible to quantify; you just know when it happens. These days it seems to be sought by men and women alike ("Was it good for you, babe?" You know what I mean), but in the past it was largely ignored, passed over, or diagnosed as hysteria. Remember Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the modern women who had to be "active" if they wanted to achieve orgasm. Connie (at least in the beginning of the novel, before she submits to rough male domination) seems like someone Dworkin would approve of: a woman who keeps herself aloof from sexual submission and who takes charge of her own stimulation when the man falls limp.

Fundamentally, female orgasm means that we're getting something out of sex too; it's not just the man invading and taking what he wants. It becomes two people working together so that both can be satisfied. In terms of give and take, female orgasm means that we're taking something from the man/he's giving us something too. It creates balance. So I agree with Hite: orgasm returns our bodies to us--so go ye forth and be satisfied, ladies.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


This week, we're reading selections from Intercourse, by Andrea Dworkin (referenced in at least one, if not both, of the Atlantic articles from last week), This Sex Which Is Not One, by Luce Irigaray, and if we have time, the last chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses.

The first chapter we're reading from Intercourse is called "Skinless," which is needless to say an attractive image to start off with. Dworkin's powerfully sensual style lends itself to descriptions of how the skin dissolves in the act of sex. The skin represents physical boundaries and personal identity, both of which are lost during intercourse: "The skin is separation, individuality, the basis for corporeal privacy and also the point of contact for everything outside the self" (26-27).

So that's the title of the chapter. As it relates to sex and sexuality, nakedness reduces us to our most basic humanity: "Sex is the dim echo of that original nakedness, primal, before anything else that is also human" (27). According to Dworkin, men and women respond differently to nakedness:
"The men are tortured in their minds by the meaning of being naked, especially by the literal nakedness of women but also by their own nakedness: what it means to be seen and to be vulnerable. [...] The women are at ease being naked. ...being naked does not unnerve or expose her. [...] Men's nakedness is unbearable to them without the nakedness of a woman; men need women to survive their own nakedness" (40-41).
Dworkin maintains that men's inability to reconcile their nakedness is due to their obsession with identity. Men are self-absorbed; therefore, their sex is wrapped up in abstraction, in looking without touching, in thinking rather than feeling. Men can't really touch because touch is real, and what is real may not be what the man wants. Since men can't really touch, they can never really dissolve their skin, lose their boundaries, and fuse with another person. Throughout the chapter Dworkin examines these ideas in the work of author Kobo Abe, and one of her examples is a man who barricaded a woman in a house with him and shut off the electricity so that in the dark, as long as he didn't touch her, he could pretend she was naked and be comforted, because:
"The women are the escape route from mental self-absorption into reality: they are the world, connection, contact, touch, feeling, what is real, the physical, what is true outside the frenetic self-involvement of the men, the convulsions of their passionate self-regard" (42).
So female sexuality, female nakedness, is earthly and corporeal. Women live in the body while men live in the mind, according to Dworkin. This is interesting to consider because depending on the context, this is either in keeping or in opposition to the widely held belief. Our modern romantic ideas perpetuate the image of women being the aloof lover, the abstracting lover. Women relent to men's demands of physicality indifferently, reluctantly, and only partially. Men require touch and body and often don't think beyond it. However, in religious stories like that of Eve, Lilith, and Mary Magdalene, and in historical perceptions of women, the idea that females were constantly at risk of falling off a sexual precipice prevails. Men were enlightened, rational, leading "the mental life," while women were emotional, subject to fits of hysteria (in other words, excessively physical) and had to be chaperoned whenever men were present lest they abandon themselves to passion.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Today we're moving on to the second Mary Butts piece, "From Altar to Chimney Piece." Hopefully it will make a little more sense than "Brightness Falls." Last time I forgot to give a bit of background, so here are the basics now, right from Wikipedia: she was a British modernist writer and lived from 1890 to 1937. After her death, her work fell into obscurity, revived in the 1980's with the reprinting of her memoir. She lived in Paris for much of the same time period as Stein, and it is with post-WWI Paris that "From Altar to Chimney Piece" begins.

The first few pages of the story describe the quarter of Paris known as Montparnasse, and it sets up a clear conflict. We're introduced briefly to Vincent, a young man (an English soldier, we're led to believe) who falls in love with a female-personified Paris, specifically Montparnasse. It serves as a "supreme tonic" for the health of body and spirit:
"He found a quarter in a princess of cities where people were being good because they were being happy, because, after the lost years, a small tide of earthly joy was rising gently in that place. Or winding in and out of it like a little stream no evil thing could cross. A place where, even if people suffered, a touch of rapture, as though the pain was about something real, a necessary part of something like immortal life. A place where men and women were beginning to live again, beginning to make up for the years that the War had taken" (234-235).
These people are the artists and the lovers and they love the old delights: "love of a party, work, solitude, study, indolence, or an exhilarating row. Love of loving Paris, of good wine, good food; love of one's friends, one's enemies, one's beloved. The lovers went..." (236) and with them the tonic provided by Montparnasse. They're replaced by "imitators and failures" who effectively create a tourist trade:
"parasites on all the arts and all the passions, the men and women harlots and the fashionable purveyors of sexual excitements disguised as art. And with these, their panders, not of social or sexual tastes, but the neurotic vices which follow fashion and have nothing to do with desire. Also the men and women whose hell had not been occasioned by any dislocation of our society, but by the putrid state of their subconscious selves, occasioned by fear, by over-indulgence and sometimes by the intolerable repression of american life." (236).
These parasites are seeking the tonic, but instead of adapting themselves to the quarter they adapt the quarter to them, completely defeating the purpose.

After this introduction, we return to Vincent, and his life is described as never quite full after the War: "He did his duty as a small country gentleman, kept up his classics, his science, his contemporary letters, his friends. Had neither--and he noticed the omission--either love-affairs or any work that implied creation. Not up to the limit of his powers. [...] "They castrated me, after all," he used to tell himself" (238). Though gentle, he's no hero, no extraordinary figure.

There's an anecdote of a dream Vincent has where he is a fish explaining why he doesn't mind that he's unemployed, and as he runs away, he turns into the little mermaid from the original Hans Christian Anderson story, for whom walking on two legs was like walking on knives: "But that was for love's sake. For what love was he bearing a life-time's loss of honorable employment? For a love which had left the earth?? Gone off somewhere behind a space-time curtain into the inconceivable?" (240). Very interesting.

The next sentence is: "It was this that drew him and his friends to artists." This, this sense of absent but still influential love. Montparnasse and the lovers and artists there were his tonic, his answer to what that missing love was: remember the list of "old delights" quoted above. Or perhaps he envies the artists for their "essential health." It seems that Vincent is sometimes envious of full people and their ability to live: "He sneered, as near as he ever came to a sneer, at [life] and his inability to yield to it" (242).

The rest of the story goes something like this: Vincent meets an American girl named Cherry, falls for American girl, loses American girl to a bad crowd, moves on with his life. Interestingly, though, the bad crowd meets in a salon like the ones Stein and her brother would hold for the famous and would-be famous artistic and literary figures of Paris. Is Mary Butts implying that Gertrude Stein was some kind of evil gang leader? Hard to tell.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


So I've been reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, aka the autobiography of Gertrude Stein, not closely, but just to get a sense of the woman to inform my readings from Mary Butts' short story collection, From Altar to Chimney Piece. As I said before, the essence of Stein seems to be her perpetual amusement. Not to say that she can't be serious, but she's so endlessly amused by life. Also, the story of Stein's life is as much about her friends' biographies as hers; her history is a timeline of people she's met. As for the style of the book, there are a lot of digressions into various anecdotes. It's the autobiography of a gossip.

Someday, I will finish the whole thing. But now, on to Mary Butts. The first piece is a short story called "Brightness Falls." First of all, the style is really sort of in your face; fast-paced and repetitive and conversational, like an excited rambling person. Also, on the first page we get this:
"When all's said and done, we do hang together against our women, and not wholly from rational reasons. All one finally discovers is that, when they urge us, the loveliest and wisest become all one with the slut" (203).
Interesting. Though it's not yet clear, I'm assuming the first-person narrator is male; and what's represented here is related to the prude-or-slut dichotomy which inspired this independent study.

I'm having a little trouble picking out things to talk about; there's been so little actual content thus far. It's like a drunk person telling a story and giving you all the irrelevant facts. So this post might just be a festival of quotes.
"It is getting more and more inopportune to suppose that women have no secrets unconnected with sex" (210).
Or just the above. I rather like it.

So having now finished, this is what I can gather. The story is a man named Max relating something to the unnamed, thus far un-gendered narrator, and that something has something to do with his wife obsessing over assonant sounds in "Corandel," "Coromandel," and "parallel." She hears these sounds, picks them out everywhere; she seems to have some psychicness attached to them: she wants to intercept her friend Cynthia with Dr. Corandel at the Lincoln Inn, and she knows "it [will] be in Lincoln's Inn, because in Lincoln's Inn there was a map of the Coromandel Coast" (211). Very strange. On 213 Max describes his wife: "Parmys looked coarse; and again that was because Parmys was like an archaic goddess stored with raw power. Not my wife, not Cynthia's friend and belle-femme, but something that is in the foundation of wise woman and child." So there seem to be some connections to female mysticism. This is reinforced by the conclusion to Max's story, in which Parmys and Cynthia have somehow prevented Corandel and his assonant sounds from invading a "place," apparently some parallel dimension, that travels along with and slightly ahead of them. Max is briefly able to "see" this place.

I'm going to be frank; this story is hella confusing. Fascinating to consider narratively, but since all the information is secondhand the most I can glean is that women have almost preternatural connections with the world and each other, and men only understand sometimes.

The One Insane Taboo

Today our reading is an article called "Hard Core" from The Atlantic. The article explores the relationship between porn and our sexuality, and I suggest you read it for yourself. I think the best way for me to approach discussing this is to take just the quotes that stand out to me.
"MEn, so the conventional wisdom goes, tend to desire more than women are willing to give them sexually. The granting of sex is the most powerful weapon women possess in their struggle with men."
We saw a bit of this in the Duke article from yesterday, as we see it in our daily lives. It's rare to find a man, virgin or not, who wants to "wait" in a relationship. We know this not just from stereotypes, but from personal experience. Only once have I personally known such a man; and
we're not talking about men who will wait until the woman is ready, but rather the man who tells the woman that he is not ready.

As for the granting and withholding of sex being a powerful female weapon, that's true too.

"But the reactionary political correctness of the 1990s put forth a proposition even more disastrous to women than free love: sexual equality."
The article argues that sexual equality, and the idea that by communicating our boundaries we could teach men to respect female sexuality, is an "intellectual swindle that leads women to misjudge male sexuality, which they do at their own emotional and physical peril." The argument that sexuality is not neutral stands in direct opposition to my pipe dream from the last post, but I'm okay with that; in our generation and the next couple at least, it's true. Societally, we embrace egalitarian sex because it makes us feel better, but:
"Internet porn, on the other hand, shows us an unvarnished (albeit partial) view of male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression."
Porn, according to this article, shows us not a hyperbolic version of male sexuality, but the real thing, the brutishness that really underlies what we encounter. I find this a little extreme, but not impossible; the best sex, which stripped them of their shame, that Connie and Oliver had in Lady Chatterley's Lover was undoubtedly the roughest and least tender. The article says that this kind of sexuality is "unattractive" and sometimes "dangerous," but not deviant. Porn is not the source, but the result.
"It’s the clash between vulnerability and indifference that transpires after sex that is so savage. This is what Kael called “realism with the terror of actual experience.” The most frightening truths about sex rarely exist in the physical, but instead live in the intangible yet indelible wounds created in the psyche."
The article seems to wish porn were less pervasive, and I'm not sure I agree. I think the furtiveness with which sex and it's attendants have been treated in the past have contributed a lot to this vulnerability and indifference: fear of getting caught, pretending it didn't happen, etc. etc. We've achieved sexual openness. What hasn't happened yet is the combination of acceptance and morality to that openness. We know porn exists, but like sex, do we really think it's okay? Or do we just pretend to because it's the modern thing to do? We still lock the door, pull down the blinds, and test our headphones just to make sure no one but us will hear.

I don't have too much to say on this subject. It's exhausting.

I'm reminded of a quote from Lady Chatterley's, and that's what I'll leave you with:

“It’s the one insane taboo left: sex as a natural and vital thing” (291).

Monday, January 24, 2011


We're now into the second week of classes, and time is a precious commodity! The reading of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is going slowly; Stein's style is dense. It doesn't feel complex or confusing to read, but I find myself crawling through the pages, so "dense" is the only descriptor I can think of. It's like wading through caramel: delicious, but a serious ritardando compared to Lady Chatterley's and especially Goblin Market.

So we're going to take a break and look at two articles from The Atlantic. The first is called The Hazards of Duke and discusses the "thesis" of a Duke University student named Karen Owen, who slept with 13 Duke athletes and then created a dense PowerPoint with her observations. Her exploits are what we think of as the typically extreme college hook-up, styled after the techniques of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell author Tucker Max; their impetus was the worst possible kind of one-night stand--short, rude, unfulfilling.

I think the article isn't focused enough to be easily discussed, but the snippets of feminist discourse throughout did catch my eye. As Karen's project progressed it seemed to expand beyond just sex acts into favors; she was described as a fraternity's "ideal pledge," I assume by virtue of her complete submission to the boorish athletes she selected. The following quote stood out to me:
"If what we are seeing in Karen Owen is the realization of female sexual power, [...] What rotten luck that the first true daughter of sex-positive feminism would have an erotic proclivity for serving every kind of male need, no matter how mundane or humiliating, that she would so eagerly turn herself from sex mate to soccer mom, depending on what was wanted from her."
There's a long legacy of female power being subversive, behind the scenes; we have phrases like "Behind every great man, there is a great woman," and a favorite from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, "The man may be the head [of the family], but the woman is the neck." In that way, Karen's behavior is not so unfamiliar--but her kowtowing seems purposeless. What is the result of it? Nothing is preserved but gender roles, and nothing is changed but her reputation. We've been to these dark sexual places with Duke University before (remember the 2006 rape charges levied against three members of the lacrosse team?), so nothing is exposed. I don't understand her motivations.

The article argues that Karen is playing out an old story with her escapades: that she is trying to get revenge on the man (Subject 2 of her study) who took advantage of her, and her shame is manifesting itself in repetition of the humiliation. How does this sort of thing begin? In our liberation from curfews and segregated education and our practice of constantly striving to appear at our most [sexually] attractive, women, the article says, "have ended up with the protections of neither the patriarchy nor those old-school, man-hating radical feminists."

I long to live in a world where women don't need to be protected, but I believe it can only come with a radical change in perception and shift to gender-neutrality. Biologically speaking, women tend to be smaller and have less muscle mass than men, especially in the upper body. This will not change without some kind of physical catalyst and centuries of evolution. To counteract this disparity of actual, quantifiable strength, emphasis must be placed from birth on gender-neutrality. Dolls can't be bought for girls because they are girly, and trucks can't be bought for boys because they are boyish. The decor and toys surrounding a child can't be preemptively arranged or purchased, but only procured after discerning a positive reaction to it from the child. Language and attitudes would have to be closely monitored for leanings; a parent couldn't say "boys don't cry" or "girls don't yell."

Those are just some examples. It's unrealistic, however nice it might be to live in a world where from birth we define ourselves. For it to occur, an entire generation of childbearing adults would have to rigidly check themselves against unwittingly assigning gender, and for full realization, all previous generations would have to die out. Popular media would have to be completely retooled, etc. etc, etc. I believe that is the only way to keep women safe: if men never generalized women as weak, if women never generalized men as strong, protection wouldn't be required.

Unfortunately, I will probably never live to see a world in which I don't have to prove myself to a male population.*
"In [the past], we relied on our own good judgment to keep us safe, but also—and this is the terrible, unchanging fact about being female—on the mercy of the men around us."
Tomorrow, Hard Core.

*I'm obviously speaking in huge generalities. I have many close male friends from whom I have never lacked respect.

Friday, January 21, 2011

This is not about love.

The semester has now begun, and that means that some things about the blog are going to be changing. Since my readings now are compressed (a week for one-two novels, roughly speaking), I won't be able to be as thorough as I was with Lady Chatterley's Lover. This means I'll skip a lot of plot summaries and things, but I'll send you links when available of summaries from Sparknotes, Google Books and Amazon, etc., for those of you reading vicariously through the posts.

Our next set of readings includes The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein, and two short stories by Mary Butts, "From Altar to Chimney Piece" and "Brightness Falls." The Autobiography is interesting so far. According to Donald Sutherland's review on the back cover, Stein wrote the autobiography "largely to amuse herself," and that impression is evident. Stein as perceived by Toklas appears to be outside the world, looking in and laughing coyly at what she sees. I'm really reading the novel to get a sense of her, so it's less a subject of study for me; instead, I'll use the background to inform my readings of Mary Butts, who was a contemporary of Stein's.

So until my next update (probably sometime this weekend, on two articles from The Atlantic: "The Hazards of Duke" and "Hard Core," if you'd like to read ahead of time), enjoy one of my favorite Fiona Apple songs, one I'm beginning to think of as a sort of theme song for the blog:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


So, when we last left the sisters of Goblin Market, Laura was cut off from the goblin fruit-sellers. She begins to waste away just like Jeanie, the girl in the story Lizzie told. Lizzie watches her sister's declining health with fear, and finally makes a decision:
"Till Laura dwindling
Seemed knocking at Death's door:
Then Lizzie weighed no more
Better and worse;
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kissed Laura, crossed the heath with clump of furze
At twilight, halted by the brook:
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look" (33).
Lizzie previously had always covered her eyes and plugged up her ears, ignoring the sight and sounds of the goblin men and their cries. Now, she's seeking them out, opening her awareness, as it were, to temptation. The goblins cackle at the sight of her and scurry up: "Hugged and kissed her:/Squeezed and caressed her:/Stretched up their dishes,/Panniers and plates" (36). Lizzie tries to buy fruit in bulk to take back to Laura, but the goblins urge her to stay and eat with them. Lizzie stands her ground, though:
"'Thank you," said Lizzie: "But one waits
At home alone for me:
So without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I tossed you for a fee."--(39-40)
The goblins react badly; they drop their charming airs and snarl at her. They attack her, "Held her hands and squeezed their fruits/Against her mouth to make her eat" (42) in a scene that rings clearly of rape, with Lizzie "Like a royal virgin town/Topped with gilded dome and spire/Close beleaguered by a fleet/Mad to tug her standard down" (43). Despite it all, Lizzie keeps her mouth closed, "But laughed in heart to feel the drip/Of juice that syrupped all her face" (44). The semen imagery is clear, but Lizzie sustains herself throughout the attack and is not penetrated by the fruit or juices. Eventually, the goblins disappear and Lizzie hurries home.

When she gets there, she offers herself, covered in pulp and juice, to Laura: "Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices/Squeezed from goblin fruits for you" (49). Laura leaps up and kisses her sister for her perceived sacrifice and tastes again the goblin fruit.
"Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue,
She loathed the feast:
Writhing as one possessed she leaped and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast" (51).
She's consumed entirely by the fruit again ("Ah! fool, to choose such part/Of soul-consuming care!" 52), her senses fail her and she collapses: "Pleasure past and anguish past,/Is it death or is it life?/Life out of death" (53). Lizzie keeps watch over her through the night, and when dawn breaks, Laura wakes and is as she was before she ate the goblin fruit. The last stanza is an epilogue in which Laura tells her children of her ordeal, and how her sister's virtue saved her.


Goblin Market is surprisingly explicit in its erotic imagery, what with all the sucking and the fire in breasts and everything. Rossetti depicts sexual desire as something evil, something which possesses and consumes a person, which makes sense in the context of Victorian morality and Rossetti's Anglican upbringing. The same flame that Oliver Mellors and Connie Chatterley embrace as a symbol of their love tears Laura apart. Despite its graphic description, this is all in all a more typical message of sexuality, more along the lines of what we expected from "classic" literature.


So, we've finished Lady Chatterley's Lover! What a journey that was. Our next book is actually a fifty-eight page poem called Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti. It was first published in 1862 and was very well received. Rossetti's brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is a famous pre-Raphaelite painter, and his works are featured alongside the poem in the edition I have. His Proserpine (pictured left), a depiction of a woman from Greek mythology more commonly known as Persephone, is featured on the cover of the book and embodies the themes of forbidden pleasures in his sister's poem.

The poem begins with three goblins trying to tempt the beautiful, virginal sisters Lizzie and Laura into buying their fruit. The fruit becomes a clear metaphor for corruption, as in the Persephone story and the Biblical story of Adam and Eve:

'"No," said Lizzie: "No, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us"' (7)
Lizzie then runs away so as not to be tempted. Laura, however, stays and observes the goblin men as they approach her somewhat suggestively:
"Brother with queer brother;
Signaling each other,
Brother with sly brother" (10).
As they offer her fruits and flower-wreaths and other delights, she longs to accept, but says she has no money to pay with. The goblins urge her to "Buy from [them] with a golden curl" of hair (13). So she gives them a lock of her hair and in return, they give her fruit:
"She sucked and sucked and sucked the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She sucked until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away" (14)
Doesn't that just sound dirty? Upon her return home, her sister Lizzie upbraids her for lingering:
"Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men.
Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Plucked from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew gray" (15-16)
Jeanie died from want of the fruit of the goblin men. Laura, however, pays no mind to Lizzie's warning, regales her with the wonders of the fruit, and promises to buy more for both of them tomorrow night. They spend the next day, "Lizzie with an open heart,/Laura in an absent dream,/One content, one sick in part" (22). When the evening comes and they go into the glen again, Laura is "most like a leaping flame" (22). In Lady Chatterley's Lover, Oliver in particular was described as experiencing a leaping flame in his bowels when arousal first hit him, and he refers to his and Connie's love in the end as the "little flame" between them (331).

At length Lizzie hears the goblin's cry, but Laura does not:
"Laura turned cold as stone
To find her sister heard that cry alone,
That goblin cry,
"Come buy our fruits, come buy."
Must she then buy no more such dainty fruit?
Her tree of life drooped from the root:
She said not one word in her heart's sore ache;
So crept to bed, and lay
Silent till Lizzie slept;
Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnashed her teeth for baulked desire, and wept
As if her heart would break" (26-27).
So it appears Laura is out of favor with the goblins, and like Jeanie, she craves the "fruit" again. Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion of Goblin Market in the next post!

"Be tender to it, and that will be its future."

“It’s the one insane taboo left: sex as a natural and vital thing” (291).

Chapter seventeen details the beginnings of Connie’s trip abroad. She gets very little enjoyment out of the atmosphere, the landscape, and the diversions: “This tourist performance of enjoying oneself is too hopelessly humiliating: it’s such a failure” (281).

But there are two developments: Connie finds out that she is pregnant, and Oliver’s wife returns to claim him. He rejects her, but upon hearing the news Connie begins to have doubts:

“She felt angry with him for not having got clear of a Bertha Coutts: nay, for having ever married her. Perhaps he had a certain hankering after lowness. […] It would be well to be rid of him, clear of him altogether. He was perhaps really common, really low” (290).
But no worries; she comes to her senses:
“Oh no! I mustn’t go back on it! I must not go back on him. I must stick to him and to what I had of him, through everything. I had no warm, flamy life till he gave it to me. And I won’t go back on it.”

Things will be rough for Connie and Oliver in the last two chapters. Bertha, upon being rejected, began spewing all kinds of nasty slander about her sex life with Oliver while they were married, and claimed that Oliver had had lovers since their separation (pot calls kettle black, continued on page four). Based on a set of initials she found on the charred remains of her and Oliver’s family portrait, she even went so far as to accuse Connie of being the lover. Connie was still abroad, but Clifford took legal action, and Bertha’s gone into hiding. But Oliver has been sacked, and is leaving for London the same day Connie returns from Venice.

On to chapter eighteen!

Chapter eighteen begins to wrap up the scandal. Connie and Oliver agree to get divorces from their spouses, keeping clear of each other during the proceedings, then getting married and living together to raise their child. Though Oliver has misgivings about raising a child in a world he hates with an uncertain future, Connie says: "Be tender to it, and that will be its future" (306). They have sex, with this lovely sentiment: "And as his seed sprang in her, his soul sprang towards her too, in the creative act that is far more than procreative" (307).

Chapter nineteen!

In chapter nineteen, after receiving a letter from Connie asking for a divorce, Clifford really goes a bit insane. His relationship with Mrs. Bolton becomes quite perverse; he acts like a child with her, but fondles her breasts and kisses her. It's extremely weird, especially for Mrs. Bolton:

"And while she aided and abetted him all she could, away in the remotest corner of her ancient healthy womanhood she despised him with a savage contempt that knew no bounds" (321).

He demands to see Connie again at Wragby. Connie, afraid, enlists Hilda to go with her to help convince Clifford's delusional mind that the child is not his and that she is leaving, and convince him to agree to the divorce which he is threatening to withhold. As they argue, Clifford says he will never divorce Connie because he doesn't believe in love, and therefore her love for Oliver can't be more important than the routine at Wragby, of which she had been a part. So Connie doesn't get her divorce, but she and Oliver proceed with their plans anyway, and the novel ends with Oliver working on a farm to prepare for starting a farm of their own when the child is born.


I very much enjoyed Lady Chatterley's Lover. In the beginning we saw that "a woman could yield to a man without yielding her inner, free self" (4), but as the novel progresses we see that that seems to be the very problem. Connie doesn't really find peace, for lack of a better term, until she and Oliver share the "sheer fiery sensuality" that strips them to their "final nakedness" together (273), where they are both shameless and tender with each other. In between is the struggle to find self-sustaining tenderness and awareness, the two things that were lacking in her life and other relationships. Lack of tender touch and true intimacy diminish a person's humanity and reality, which frustrates their chances for happiness. It is through her sexual relationship with Mellors that Connie finds a tender awareness that flows back and forth between them, reinvigorated with every passing.

Fascinating stuff. Up next, Goblin Market, an epic poem by Christina Rossetti.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Chapter fifteen, as we remember, was all about embracing one's body and reveling in the physical self. In chapter sixteen, Clifford tries to explain to Connie this new scientific theology he's become a fan of. The idea is that "The universe shows us two aspects: on one side it is physically wasting, on the other it is spiritually ascending" (256). To put in the terms we've been using, the physical life is deteriorating while the mental life rises and expands.

Needless to say, Connie disagrees. "Give me the body. I believe the life of the body is a greater reality than the life of the mind: when the body is really awakened to life. But so many people, like your famous wind-machine, have only got minds tacked on to their physical corpses. [...] The human body is only just coming to real life. With the Greeks it gave a lovely flicker, then Plato and Aristotle killed it, and Jesus finished it off" (258). (Remember the Greeks from the last entry?)

To which Clifford says: "The life of the just the life of animals."

And to an extent, Connie agrees: "[Men] are all dogs that trot and sniff and copulate" (273). But humans who embrace their physicality/sensuality/sexuality may rise above the state of animals through "Sheer fiery sensuality, not messiness."

Connie discovers this through one night of such passion, where she is cleansed by Oliver's "piercing thrills of sensuality, different, sharper, more terrible than the thrills of tenderness, but, at the moment, more desirable" (271). She lets him pursue this sensuality, gives him his way, and
"It was sensuality sharp and searing as fire, burning the soul to tinder. Burning out the shames, the deepest, oldest shames, in the most secret places. [...] But it took some getting at, the core of the physical jungle, the last and deepest recess of organic shame. The phallus alone could explore it. And how he had pressed in on her!
And how, in fear she had hated it. But how she had really wanted it! She knew now. At the bottom of her soul, fundamentally, she had needed this phallic hunting out, she had secretly wanted it, and she had believed that she would never get it. Now suddenly there it was, and a man was sharing her last and final nakedness, she was shameless.
What liars poets and everybody were! They made one think they wanted sentiment. When what one supremely wanted was this piercing, consuming, rather awful sensuality. To find a man who dared to do it, without shame or sin or final misgiving! ... What a pity most men are so doggy, a bit shameful, like Clifford! Like Michaelis even! Both sensually a bit doggy and humiliating. The supreme pleasure of the mind! And what is that to a woman? What is it, really, to the man either! He becomes merely messy and doggy, even in his mind. It needs sheer sensuality even to purify and quicken the mind" (271-273).
And that's how one really awakens to life.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Body's Real "Core"

"Because the root of sanity is in the balls." (239)

What Oliver means in the above quote from chapter fifteen of Lady Chatterley's is that what makes people human is in the genitals, and without their humanity, their "spunk," they become empty shells without grounded rationality. They become insane, offering up each other to survive a little longer in the money machine of industry. This makes sense in a lot of ways. The genitals represent an instinctual part of the psyche; consciously or unconsciously, they can also be a core--something reliable. Our genitals are the anchors of our physical selves.

Oliver places a lot of faith in the "human reality" of genitalia and the myriad bodily functions they entail: "I don't want a woman as couldna shit nor piss" (245). Connie is a "real" woman because she inhabits her physical self, her body, her genitals. Obviously all living women expel bodily waste, but Connie isn't shy about her body. She and Oliver spend a lot of time naked in this chapter, in blatant acknowledgement of their flesh.

In fact, they're so excited about their nakedness that they decide to run around nude in the thunderstorm that's raging outside. Between the chill rain and the heat from their bodies, "the rain streamed on them till they smoked" (243). They have sex naked in the middle of the woods, then run back into the cottage to bask in the realness of their bodies.

It's all very pagan (here meaning pre-modern, Grecian, etc), this naked romping and this adoration of the body, when the society all around them promotes the mental, industrial, inorganic life. This imagery persists as Oliver goes outside and comes back with flowers:
"He had brought columbines and campions, and new-mown hay, and oak-tufts and honeysuckle in a small bud. He fastened fluffy young oak-sprays round her breasts, sticking in tufts of bluebells and campion: and in her navel he poised a pink campion flower, and in her maiden-hair were forget-me-nots and woodruff. [...] And he stuck flowers in the hair of his own body, and wound a bit of creeping-jenny round his penis, and stuck a single bell of a hyacinth in his navel" (250).
He's adorning their bodies for the "wedding" of John Thomas and Lady Jane (their genitals, respectively). In many pre-modern traditions, many kinds of plants and flowers were used in such ceremonies, both as decoration and occasionally because of the plant's perceived special or magical properties. There are countless Greek deities, for example, who are depicted with plant adornments, with Dionysus being perhaps one of the most recognizable. He is often shown wound with ivy and holds a thrysus, which is a stalk of fennel or vine.

There are many other examples of flowers in any mythology, and I'm sure you know just as many as I do, so you get the idea. By draping themselves in plants and flowers, Oliver and Connie are harking back to a different time; they are removed from the modern, mental society and embracing the physicality of older traditions.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Conversations with Other Penises

Well! I read three chapters of Lady Chatterley's Lover today whilst sitting in a Panera Bread. They went very quickly, and I only made a couple of notes; while I'd like to say I could fit it all into one post, knowing me, the chances are not high.

So, in chapter fourteen, we get something really exciting: backstory from Oliver! He spills the beans on his former relationships and their effects on him. Oliver's difficulty has been finding a woman who wants and enjoys sex, and more specifically wants him as much as he wants her. He lists off types of women on page 223:
  • most women want a man, but not the sex; "but they put up with it, as part of the bargain"
  • "The more old-fashioned sort just lie there like nothing ... the actual [sex] itself is nothing to them"
  • sly women who "pretend they're passionate and have thrills. But it's all cockaloopy."
  • "the ones that love everything, every kind of feeling and cuddling and going off [...] except the natural one", who "make you go off when you're not in the only place you should be, when you go off"
  • "the hard sort, that are the devil to bring off at all, and bring themselves off"
  • "the sort that's just dead inside"
  • "the sort that puts you out before you really 'come,' and go on writhing their loins till they bring themselves off against your thighs" (aka, lesbians.)
That last one there leads him to comment that "It's astonishing how Lesbian women are, consciously or unconsciously. Seems to me they're nearly all Lesbian." Hmmm. Save that one for the comments.

Oliver is of the firm opinion that real sexual satisfaction is impossible without two engaged and enthusiastic participants who come at the same time: "I wanted to have my pleasure and satisfaction of a woman, and I never got it: because I could never get my pleasure and satisfaction of her unless she got hers of me at the same time. And it never happened. It takes two" (226). Even with his wife, who wanted sex and wanted him, their marriage collapsed because of power dynamics. They couldn't work together, in sex or in life, to come off together in anything. They each used sex to have power over each other.

One morning after Connie and Oliver have slept together at his cottage, with the sunlight streaming in the window, Connie observes Oliver's penis, "So big! and so dark and cock-sure!" (230). And then, Oliver proceeds to have a little conversation with John Thomas.
"The man looked down in silence at the tense phallus, that did not change.--"Ay!" he said at last, in a little voice. "Ay ma lad! tha'rt theer right enough. Yi, tha mun rear thy head! Theer on thy own, eh? an' ta'es no count o' nob'dy! Tha ma'es nowt o' me, John Thomas. Art boss? of me? eh well, tha'rt more cocky than me, an' tha says less. John Thomas! Dost want her? Does want my Lady Jane? Tha's dipped me in again, tha hast. Ay, an' tha comes up smilin'.--Ax 'er then! Ax Lady Jane! Say: Lift up your heads o' ye gates, that the king of glory may come in. Ay, th' cheek on thee! Cunt, that's what tha'rt after. Tell Lady Jane tha wants cunt. John Thomas, an' th' cunt o' Lady Jane!--"
Firstly, see what I mean about reading the dialect? Second, Oliver has personified the genitals as "John Thomas" and "Lady Jane." It's an interesting reminder of the difference in their classes (common John Thomas/Oliver Mellors and aristocrat Lady Jane/Lady Chatterley) from a man who seeks sexual equality.

He also, unsurprisingly, gives his penis its own consciousness, which I've heard as part of many, many apologies in the past.