Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Cruelest Month

The massacre at Virginia Tech in April has somehow achieved a disturbing normalcy for North Americans. As horrific as it is, somehow it now fails to shock. We seem to expect no less from American society (or Canadian society to a lesser extent - because we are not without our own sins in this area).

A template for sorrow seems to be developing: the bewildered roommates anxious to give their version of the story, the long shots of trembling hands clasped in prayer with heads bowed, tears streaming down the faces of the affected students, the innumerable flowers and memorials, the media converging like locusts to interrogate the survivors. Perhaps we have all just accepted that this is the new norm in the 21st century?

Then there is the inevitable handwringing and finger pointing: movie and TV violence, excessively violent video games, sadistic pornography, liberal parents. As a Canadian you may think, as I do, perhaps finally, the Americans will do something about the proliferation of guns, the easy access to firearms, the speed with which you can acquire a gun despite your past criminal or medical/psychological history. There is a brief tumult of emotion and angst in the media, denials from the NRA and conservative politicians about the need for gun control and then … nothing, absolutely nothing.

Karen Von Hahn's insightful article, Tacky balloons and rotting flowers, in the Globe and Mail on May 5, 2007 appears equally mystified by the new rituals of mourning surrounding the school massacres (and other death rituals which she cites in her column).

And as a writer, you start to wonder how much the homicidal rantings of the killer on paper fueled his behavior - did it provide the impetus to act, or was it “merely” a manifestation of his disturbed mind? Certainly those writing professors who read his work at Virginia Tech were sufficiently disturbed to try and intercede on some level but to no avail.

I recall in past writing groups or workshops reading the work of fellow classmates in which there was some pretty disturbing material - fairly explicit depictions of rape, torture or murder. Does it become a safety valve for certain writers? Does to commit the act on paper eliminate the need to commit the act? We, the primarily female readers of the work, all tiptoed around the writers in our critiques. In all instances the writers were male (I’m not making a comment on the male psyche here, that’s just how it happened to be in these particular instances). One writer was, I’m not making this up, a postal service employee and perceived to be quite strange by the majority of us.

And I always thought how odd, if a fellow female writer wrote an explicit story about disfiguring a male, or killing a male, or torturing a male, the rest of group would be very disturbed, quite anxious. Would we be more vocal in our critiques?

The women in the writing groups remained quietly diplomatic in their analysis, perhaps there was a raised eyebrow or two and a look that passed around the room amongst the women. No one wanted to appear to be a prude or over react to the work it seemd to me - in most instances the writer himself appeared normal enough, whatever that means, and, I seem to recall, a little bit surprised if someone raised the issue of the gratuitousness of the violence. What did we do when we read the disturbing stories: we raised our eyebrows, looked covertly at each other in a meaningful way, muted our comments and shrugged. Why, because, secretly, we think this is what men are? That this what they, not so secretly, think about?

Of course, one can never know when the creator of the work is merely expressing him or herself or quietly setting the stage for future actions of violence (obviously in almost all instances they are not acting on these ideas). I think that whether the writer acts on his or her impulse or not, his ability to put it down on paper will not push him into a horrifying scenario such as we witnessed in Virginia.

But why this propensity in Americans specifically? Violence is not particular to America only. Open a newspaper on any page, scan the headlines on any news website … But why do such specific, formulaic explosions of violence occur there specifically in a school setting? To perpetrate violent crimes against people who really have no bearing on how you have lived, or suffered, in your life?

Americans are, indisputably, the most indulged, the most privileged people on the plant earth with the highest, most unrealistic expectations of success, fame and wealth (even the transplanted "nationals" such as Cho). And with such an inflated sense of what they can, or should accomplish, when they fail in the most mediocre way as we all do, every day of our lives (we can’t find a girlfriend, we are not the best in class, we didn’t get the job we wanted, we have trouble making friends, we hate our roommates, our lives are boring), they want to register their misery in the most graphic and explosive way possible. To ensure that when they go down they will go out in a blaze of glory.


Monday, April 23, 2007

For all the fools and all the defeated

And the dreams that you have, alone in an empty room, waiting for the door that will open, the thing that is bound to happen ... Good Morning, Midnight (1939)

Jean Rhys (1890-1979), born in Dominica in the West Indies, seems to have always existed on the periphery of literary greatness. Few seem to know her but those that do often love her work (I am one of those devotees - we are an ardent and devoted sect). I was reminded of her again when reading Heather O'Neill's book Lullabies for Little Criminals as she cites Rhys as one of her influences. Her work has been described as "more or less autobiographical" and often dealt with the theme of a helpless female, an outsider, an alcoholic, who is "victimized by her dependence on an older man for support and protection". More biographical info is available on the link above.

Lovely, troubled, and nomadic, she flitted restlessly throughout England and Europe. She moved to England at the age of sixteen and studied briefly at the Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Rather than return to Dominica when her father died she worked as a chorus girl in a touring musical company and then volunteered in a soldiers' canteen during WWI. In 1920s Paris she was, for a time, under the patronage of the writer Ford Madox Ford. Perhaps that is too gentle a euphemism but he did seem to be genuinely supportive of her both emotionally and financially for a time. Their relationship is immortalized in her 1939 novel After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (for his version of the affair see When the Wicked Man (1931)). If you look into the biblical phrase from which that title is derived you might have a sense of his take on the whole relationship.

She was thoroughly modern in that she did not cloak the often mercenary nature of men and women at their worst in their pursuit of sex, money or status. Her writing reflected her immense sorrows and losses unflinchingly. In Good Morning Midnight, the protagonist Sasha says, while she is being humiliated by a supervisor in the small shop where she works briefly, in a long interior monologue, "You have the right to to pay me four hundred francs a month. That's my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray ... We can't all be happy, we can't all be rich, we can't all be lucky ... There must be the dark background to show up the bright colours."

Earlier she cries, at the sight of an older balding woman, a prospective customer, fitting various pieces of costume jewellery, combs and feathers to the remains of her thinning hair, while the woman's daughter impatiently urges her to leave, embarrassed by her vanity perhaps. Sasha bolts from the room and cries senselessly "for all the fools and all the defeated". Mistreated, rootless, victimized ... these are often words used to describe Rhys' life and that of her characters (often they appear interchangeable). One can't help but see the scrawny, abused kitten that Sasha takes in in the novel Good Morning, Midnight as a metaphor for Sasha herself even as the kitten, shooed away by the exasperated Sasha eventually, is almost instantly killed by a taxi.

But Rhys is more than these things. She is brave, wounded by, but unafraid of, society's judgments, truly fearless. It's fair to say that the plots and sentiments are disconcertingly similar and bear the stamp of bitter experience. The same lost women seem to haunt every novel and the short stories. Marya's husband Stephan is imprisoned for fraudulent activities and she is taken under the wing of the well meaning Heidlers in Quartet (1929), a not so veiled nod to to what actually happened to Rhys when her French-Dutch husband was imprisoned in the 1920s. Her affair with Ford began then while he was married.

Julia Martin searches for love after her relationship with Mr. Mackenzie ends (again the lover is patterned on Ford Madox Ford) in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931). In Voyage in the Dark (1934), the book chronicles the misadventures of Anna Morgan, a West Indian born girl who comes to England and becomes a chorus girl. Tigers are Better Looking (1968), a collection of short stories, depict women living in despair, often recovering from failed romances and too much alcohol.

Only one character that I've come across in Rhys' oeuvre, Antoinette Bertha Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) modeled on Bertha Rochester from Jane Eyre, destroys the template by immolating herself while locked in Rochester's house. And she almost succeeds in destroying Rochester himself. Perhaps this was fitting as this is the book that received the most acclaim for Rhys after a life of relative obscurity.

Rhys' work remains dark, disturbing and true. Perhaps she suffered too much from what she described as:
"The perpetual hunger to be beautiful and the thirst to be loved which is the real curse of Eve." ~ from the short story "Illusion", The Left Bank (1927)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Rosewater and Cake

I think many readers such as myself hold only a rudimentary knowledge of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, beheaded during the French Revolution in 1793. She is most famous, or notorious, for her alleged retort, "Let them eat cake!' when asked what the poor of France should do without bread during the terrible years prior to the Revolution. This remark and many, many other things attributed to Marie Antoinette are revealed, once again, as falsehoods and ugly distortions of the true nature of the Queen as researched by Antonia Fraser in her book Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

Fraser tackles the biography from a more humane and explicitly feminist perspective: specifically claiming that the teenage queen quickly became a scapegoat for the excesses of the monarchy, French hatred towards the Austrians, and a vicious misogyny directed towards her and anyone whom she appeared to favour.

Insensitivity to the poor may be the one of the lesser evils she was charged with by the libelistes of radical France. Vicious pamphlets (18th c. France's extreme version of the tabloids) accused her of adultery with numerous lovers who plotted against the state, incest with her beloved son, lesbianism with royal favourites (one accused woman ended up with her head on a pike), engaging in countless orgies, siphoning off badly need funds to her Austrian homeland, treasonous activities against the state, undue influence of King Louis, etc ... The degree and vehemence of the accusations are mind boggling - none of them proven, none of them substantiated aside from accusations of extravagance.

Although printed a number of years ago the book has gained a certain resurgence of interest as it was cited as the inspiration for Sofia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette. It is a pretty confection which fails on so many levels although it is mesmerizingly beautiful to look at. The film does convey a few important points though: that Marie Antoinette, an Austrian Arch Duchess, a member of Hapsburg royalty, was married off at 14 to the Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France, and used as pawn by both sides until her horrible death during the revolution. It also conveys the sweetness of the Queen, her gentle and maternal nature as well as her love of extravagance. She came to epitomize the worst excesses of the ancienne regime. The film is shot as if through the lens of a pretty, slightly vacuous young girl obsessed with shoes, gorgeous pastries, parties and beautiful clothing.

As a revolutionary notes in Fraser's book: "Revolutions are not made from rosewater!" Indeed, they are not. And the institution of monarchy was a wasteful, profligate, convoluted mess of protocol and vanity during the reign of Louis XVI; however, dragging men, women and children from their beds, subjecting them to degradations and abuse, imprisoning them, beheading the royals and one of the queen's closest associates, orphaning the children of royals, only to have one die of tuberculosis in prison, is not one of the ideals of progress and democracy.

Luckily, for those interested in the history of the French Revolution, we have Fraser's dispassionate and sensitive eye to compassionately present the excesses and tragedy of Marie Antoinette's life and death.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Death (and Rebirth) of Venus

The April 14, 2007 edition of the National Post recently featured a short article on the disappearance of the Venus Florist signage on Roncesvalles Ave. in Toronto. This brings to mind a long ago vow that I made to one day walk around the city and and document all the old signage in Toronto that appeals to me and that will eventually disappear. The Venus signage would certainly have fallen into that category.

The Venus signage reminds me a great deal of Hamilton where I grew up during the 70s. Parts of the city have (or had) a real small town feel with signage of this type. The decay and lack of maintenance of the sign certainly fueled that feeling of nostalgia. I remember my pre-teen meanderings through the downtown core. The Lister Block was directly across from the Eaton's Store with its exquisite Christmas window and right around the corner from the Farmers Market. I regularly window-shopped along the the ground floor of the Lister Block where there were a number of small retailers of various wares: shoes, clothing, food, books. Small and charming, if a bit down in the heel.

The current controversy about preserving the Lister Block in downtown Hamilton is a sad reminder of the deterioration of the downtown core of Hamilton. You may read a bit of the history at this link above. It was erected by Joseph Lister on the corner of King William and James St. in 1886. Since then it has suffered a series of setbacks, most notably three separate fires in 1996. The building, although owned by the Laborers' International Union of North America (L.I.U.N.A.) since 1999, is apparently abandoned and uninhabitable at present.

In early April 2007 it was reported by the Hamilton Spectator that the city is awaiting a funding proposal from the province of approximately $8 million to refurbish and maintain the building.

I write this from a tiny Japanese restaurant on Baldwin St. in Toronto which is not bereft of its own charms. Here's to preserving our history, taking action and taking out our cameras before there is nothing left to photograph.

Great News!! I just got this message on April 26, 2007 from Andrew regarding the Venus signage: "What became of the Venus Florist sign is an odd story ... we saved it six weeks ago from being demolished. We are opening a new shop on Roncesvalles in the next few months and will likely install it there in hopes of returning it to the community. I agree with you about the shocking lack of interest in the fate of our visual icons and architectural history."

Please keep us posted Andrew!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Lullabies Indeed

Heather O'Neill's Lullabies for Little Criminals has garnered a great deal of attention, particularly after it was selected as the 2007 winner of CBC's Canada Reads.

The enormous hype aside, there is always a frisson of shock in reading something that feels immediate, real, new. That's what Montreal writer O'Neill brings to the book. The misadventures of 12 year old Baby, the pre-teen protagonist being fitfully raised by her heroin junkie father in Montreal hits a nerve even in the reading of the most absurd and strange details of Baby's life whether it is her time spent in foster homes, in the company of petty criminals on the street or with other children, like Theo, who seem permanently damaged by the lives they have lived.

Supposedly inspired by a similarly sporadic life spent with her father when O'Neill's mother could no longer manage the care of her three children, she seems to capture life on the street, a life completely unfettered by rules or commonsense on the part of the adults in Baby's life.

You read with a growing sense of unease as adults (mainly men and boys) notice that Baby is maturing. The casual violence of their language and gestures towards her is unsettling and utterly believable. The pimp Alphonse's slow, predatory conquest of Baby; Jules refusal to dress his growing daughter appropriately, and, the general creepy interest in the girl by all concerned is very unsettling.

It reminded me of how vulnerable girls are as the develop into women when even going outside seemed to be fraught with potential peril (or maybe that is more a product of my upbringing in my Hamilton neighborhood?). It reminds me of the near misses and catastrophes of my own very young sojourns into downtown Hamilton. My mother had a job downtown; I usually accompanied her on Saturdays but often ventured out on my own (at nine! I can't even imagine it now) and was left to my own devices. I met some unsavoury characters and just barely managed to avoid any real trouble. I had little street sense but a deep suspicion of people in general which I think now was a saving grace.

Although, I am only half way through the book now, Baby's gentle acceptance of the bizarre and violent, her seeming naivete is extremely disturbing. It is off putting, even maddening to read. You yearn for an appropriately angry response from her. But reading the "About the Author" section in the back of the book, learning about her real life experiences, hearing her voice as she reads passages from the book on the CBC website, even merely admiring her photo (she looks like a Julia Margaret Cameron portrait or the young Vanessa Bell, sister of Virgina Woolf) provided with her book - it all seems to fit. It feels genuine, created from very early unfathomable sorrows and now reproduced with humour and dispassion.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Mask and An Unveiling ...

Inspired by my new friend, the talented and generous Maria Scala, I have ventured to create my own blog.

The writer E.B. White once said that “all writing is a mask and an unveiling” and an essayist “must take his trousers off without showing his genitals”. Ahem, well, substitute the noun blogger for essayist and I would say the goals are virtually the same for this blogger.

My work will include, hopefully, thoughtful pieces on literature, art, film and theatre.

I welcome your responses!