Tuesday, March 31, 2009

In Praise of Old English Aerobics.

Not some weird fitness program...erase image of guys in smocks doing step ups to a four line beat...but the website:


which accompanies Peter Baker's Introduction to Old English.

Which leads to the observation that since it's got harder to find a course in Old English the possibility of teaching yourself has improved. I did three years at university and learnt very little; the methodology was to throw Sweet's Primer and Reader at us, give us chunks of grammar to memorise and wads of text to translate and to expect something magical to happen. It didn't. Not only was the "teaching" primitive, but I don't remember anyone suggesting the poetry was actually worth reading as poetry. Which is one of the reasons why I'd gone there in the first place.

I suspect I learnt more from Stephen Pollington's First Steps in Old English, which for a small fee (no joke, a small fee) can be converted into a correspondence course. In fact I suspect if you were determined enough you could start knowing nothing, and work through Stephen's book and end up being a competent reader of OE. You'd also be fairly comfortable going the other way, from Modern English to OE.

The Old English Aerobics site is also excellent. An interactive course based on Baker's book. Sadly it's never been finished, but even so, the exercises allow you to review and revise and they never have that look your teacher has when you get the same thing wrong three times in a row. The Anthology, with its point and click dictionary and grammar functions, allow the acquisition of vocabulary without endless page turning in a print dictionary.

In fact, reading the chronicle entry on the Death of William was actually enjoyable.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday's S.U.R.G

This photo of the hospital at the top of Eccles street in Dublin.

In the offices of S.U.R.G. we follow Bloom as he sets out on his longest day. Weird juxtaposition, vivid memories of Dublin, of walking along Eccles street, of the deeply creepy front door preserved in the Joyce Centre and the clouds moving across Surfers in the distance, the high rise buildings disappearing as the rain moved in from the Pacific.

To which Joyce’s syntax could probably do justice.

Each reading differs. This time I pick up the lost key, the left open door, the ten years of marital abstinence echoing Ulysses’ ten years wandering from Troy. The fact that he keeps his card in his hat. We speculate about the Blooms’ relationship, about how the book doesn’t judge it, although Critics have. Most of all, we enjoy Bloom and the language. The humour.

And of course the skill.

Mrs. Marion Bloom.

It’s neat.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Dan Gerous and E. Mergency seek the Mad Ness Monster

I grew up with Dan Gerous, that well known French Canadian outlaw and his friend E. Mergency. There was also Fatty Gew and Cal Iber. The Mahogany Gas Pipes I never understood (Until I read Last Night’s Fun), and the Stew Barbed Wire and Rhubarb was confusing.

A love of verbal play:

If you mean to insinuate that I will tolerate such diabolical insolence from a such a miserable specimen of anatomy as yourself, you are wrongly governed by a misapprehension of false ideas;

and a delight in nonsense:

One Fine day in the middle of the night
Two dead men got up to fight
Three blind men to seek their way
Four dumb men to shout hoorary!
A legless Donkey walking by
Kicked the blind man in the eye
Knocked him through a nine inch wall
Into a dry pond and drowned them all.

(although to be honest, the last four lines of the above have always seemed sinister).

It’s tempting to ascribe the word play to the Anglo-Irish tradition, point an accusing finger at Joyce, and god knows they were all great talkers when they got going, fine story tellers, masters of the digression, but you can also trace the pleasure in verbal nonsense through English culture too; think Shakespeare, Lewis Carol, the Two Ronnies:

Lady Olivia swept down the grand staircase in her ball gown and then she dusted the china.

and those wonderful, awful music hall puns:

I say I say I say. My Wife’s gone on holiday to the West Indies
No, she went of her own accord.

Or the Goons:

How do I get out of here. The door is locked.
Turn the nob on your side
I haven’t got a nob on my side!

But I think that it’s partly the migrant’s revenge. Unable to escape the normalizing effects of English, with all its class and racial assumptions built into syntax and diction and accent, you could at least shrug it loose occasionally by turning it back on itself and underlining its own absurdities.
Nonsense in children is play; nonsense in adults is subversion or madness. But it’s a Dan Gerous game. If you can imagine the legless donkey walking by, you're not far from Mad Ness(That little known scotish loch):
“If I should return during my absence keep me here until I come back”. (Quoted in David Cooper: ”The Language of Madness”.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Syntax and style#2

Do you very want to be engaged in love, but does not can? Purchase itself magic pills!

(I didn't make this up, it was a spam header.)

I like "very want".

I also like the way that my reading makes sense of the syntax. On first Reading I didn't even notice where very was. I read, automatically adjusting my expectations, until I arrive at the apparent impossibility of "purchase itself". It's like trying to keep your balance and keep moving on one of those shuddering plank walks they used to have in "Haunted Houses" at the fair ground. You wobble along to the end. As Lecercle would point out, although this string of words destroys the normal logic of syntax and semantics, it still "makes sense". Someone wants to sell pills that will help me "engage in love".

To say that I all I do is engage in a form of translation, shifting this back towards a "formal" grammar which would allow me to rephrase the sentences as "meaningful", perhaps against a store of remembered sentences which allow me to rapidly compare and proceed, misses the point that I would have to "translate" or interpret "engage in love" anyway.

It also avoids confronting the deeply disturbing idea that I know what it means even though it doesn't say what it means?

Where's the dooferlacky thingy?
I think. I think I Put it on the whatjamallit
NO, you didn't it's on the microwave.....

Syntax and style

Le style, pour L'ecrivain, aussi bein que la colour pour le peinture, est une question non de technique mais de vision.

"I'd like a language that is above all languages, a language to which all will do service; I cannot express myself in Englsih without enclosing myself in a tradition.(cited Thompson, 'The language or Finnegans Wake" sewanee review(1964) no 72 pp72-79)

Anno 2009. Her Bligh rice onfeng

So Qld elects the first woman premier in Australian history...bout time too.(And without the weird Hilary Clinton I'm a woman, you're a woman, why aren't you voting for me ploy.)
But that phrase from the Chronicle, in this year x came to power/acquired the Kingdom/come into the ruler ship...reveals the problem not so much of translation but of understanding.
Imagine Godwin or Leofric, Harold or William the Bastard, resurrected to watch the election campaign. They were astute men used to the getting of power. But would they have had a chance of understanding or appreciating what was happening? The juxtaposition, the image of them sitting in the commentary box sending dispatches home as the election unfolds, reveals the problem.
Those nouns and verbs in Old English which describe power can be easily translated into modern English. And t'other way round. You could explain things like Parliaments in terms of Witan or Moot, and the idea of election wouldn't have been too alien (certainly not to Harold). But the translations mask the realities. To rule, to govern, a kingdom, a nation, a state, a King, even "to be elected" don't mean the same thing now as then, can't mean the same thing now as then.
SO our encounter with the past, which is irremediably other, is domesticated and familiarised simply though the effect of language. Not just the vocabulary but the syntax too, of which much more later.
Hardly an original thought, but enough for a Sunday morning...
So Qld elects the first woman premier in Australian history...bout time too.(I like that, said Offa, sing it again!)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lady G gets to ride and play with the Big Boys

Jane Holland's article "Drinking Beowulf’s Blood: The Influence of Old English on Contemporary Poetry" has very nice things to say about Lady G. It's almost at the end of the article, but the article itself is too good to skip through...

I like her conclusion about the possible uses of OE poetry in modern verse and hope she won't mind if I quote it:

"If we look to Anglo-Saxon remnants for some kind of primitive tribal identity, we will be disappointed, for whatever is reflected back appears to be, rather mundanely, ourselves. Yet we may find inspiration there, and possibly some comfort too: self-aware, heroic epics like Beowulf may earn a place in a war-torn twenty-first century, but so too should the Anglo-Saxon elegies — elegies for the lost, the fallen, the innumerable dead — and their enduring love poems, steeped in the numinous. Embracing the themes and alliterative force of Anglo-Saxon poetry need not entail a dissolution into the ‘ur-bark’ of Paterson’s cautionary tale; instead, it has the potential to empower us in creative terms, bringing contemporary poetry into contact with its own dynamic past and reconnecting it with those fragments of Old English still very much alive at the core of the language."

Tennyson’s Lady Godiva 1842 #5 An however reading

So, I think this finishes off Tennyson for now.

The frames include the fact that Tennyson is in explicit control of the material: he tells the story, and keeps his distance. (A thing some of his earlier critics took him to task for.)

and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this

The actions he described are completed, something “ancient”, existing in a past where miracles happened in a way they don’t in the present. Besides, he’s not telling us a factual story. “Ancient legend” explicitly undermines any truth claim the tale might have and once more invites us to see this on the level of a story about monsters or heroes. A story about Lady Bloggs, who rode naked round the streets of London in 1840, to help the poor of the city, would be unbelievable. Just as we're not invited to consider the long term consequences, we’re not invited to consider the reality of a real woman riding naked in a real city in the West Midlands of England.

Within the poem there are other frames to contain the action. Spatial: She rides to the gate, and returns. Temporal: She knows she must be back by Midday.
Above all, she steps out and uncovers herself, with her husband’s express permission, painfully aware of the shame she risks in her actions, and at the end of the ride she hurries back:

but even then she gain’d
Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d,
To meet her lord, she took the tax away,
And built herself an everlasting name

She removes the signs of her status as married woman but she rides out and back, she gets to the gate and turns, and turns within a set time limit. Her position hasn’t been changed, she has merely been allowed to do this thing. Any real power here is Leofric’s: he sets the terms of her actions, even though he does it negatively, and gives permission to her to transgress social and cultural norms of behaviour, for a limited time. She exposes to the world what is his; her body, she makes public what language describes as private. But she is trapped. She finishes off robed and crowned, the earl’s golden eagles presumably back round her waist. as she began, wearing the signs of her husband’s ownership; a feme coverte. Her act of individually has been sanctioned and contained: the commonplace of “her lord” casually reinforces her position in the feudal hierarchy of their marriage, and the fact that Tennyson tells us nothing about Leofric’s reaction suggests he is unchanged by it all. If Lady G is an icon, she is an icon of subservient action. Sanctioned rebellion is no real rebellion at all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St Patrick's day

The Poet and Piper. With notes by Ciaran Carson. Followed by some Joyce.

Tennyson’s Lady Godiva 1842 #4 An however reading

While the poem seems to present Lady G as a representative of feminine independence, operating in the masculine world to effect social change, her actions are carefully constrained so that the power imbalance remains unaltered.

Just as the picture frame prescribes a space where a naked woman is acceptable, but absolves the viewer from the charge of purience by establishing an “aesthetic” context, so the poem sets up a series of frames to contain the explosive potential of Lady G’s act. Had the woman who posed for the painting at the top of this blog, could not have walked naked past her picture in the art gallery in Tennyson’s time. (I’m not even sure she’d get away with it today.) For years a “Lady Godiva” annually rode through Coventry at the head of a procession, however, she was always represented by a woman who had been dressed up to appear naked (or earlier on, by a boy who had been dressed up to look like a naked woman.) Kenneth Clarke says the nude is one way of putting the body “beyond desire and time”. In a sense it anesthetizes by aestheticissing (Then again Clarke had obviously not met Leopold Bloom)

1) It’s a poem.
The first frame of containment is that this is a poem, a conscious piece of “High Art” validated, even early in his career, by Tennyson’s name. It immediately establishes a sense of aesthetic distance from the reader. If we were reading an Anglo-Saxon charter which had been authenticated by a posse of quarreling experts in which Earl Leofric remitted the taxes of the people of Coventry because his wife had ridden naked round the town, we would read this story differently.

2) Within the poem a series of interlocked frames minimise and contain the subversive potential of the ride. The most obvious one for the reader is that it’s consciously “historical”. We are distanced from the action by Tennyson’s casual introduction; “I hung with”, which puts us “amongst grooms and porters” at that technological wonder of his age; the railway. He’s too good a poet to snap the poem shut by returning to his grooms and porters at the end, but “an everlasting name” withdraws from the immediacy of the telling as though the camera suddenly shifted into a long shot.

This initial frame and final drawing back suppresses any urge on the reader’s part to extend the act’s consequences beyond the relief of the tax. We are not invited to consider how Leofric’s peers would have responded to the news that his wife had ridden naked round the town. Nor are we asked to speculate about the way the story might have been reported in non-clerical circles, or the slanderous rumours that would have quickly developed about the ride. Nor are we asked to think how lady g felt the next time she met the good people of the town.
The poem “protects” them all by snapping shut.

More later...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Lady G reviewed#2

Lady G is reviewed in the latest Horizon review Click Here

Reading Asser’s life of Alfred

In an edition with no notes, no critical apparatus, which is to say reading it for the fun of it. It’s been too long since I read the life of Charlemagne which is supposed to be its model. I can’t help but like someone who uses such overblown metaphors to say “I’ve drifted off my subject”. Why he didn’t go back and delete the digressions in his draft is a moot point. Either he couldn’t be bothered, or the whole thing is a rhetorical strategy to have it both ways. But I like him. I like the way he squirms round the fact that the king holds him in high esteem, and he obviously thinks Alfred is Great, but he’s still doing his best to sound “objective”. And I’m sure someone has argued that “him” isn’t really Asser and this is just Wessex propaganda, but this time I don’t really care.

But above all that sense, as with all dark age texts, of language being used to map a version of the world, giving it coherence and shape it essentially lacked. Those words: King, Ruled, Kingdom. With all their modern connotations, of process, law, organization, predictability, don’t quite capture the huddle of cold dirty men standing together in the wind, watching the Vikings burning another settlement. Under Asser’s tales of Alfred’s love of learning and his struggle with piles is a world of ongoing brutality and violence. What must it have been like for Alfred’s family, for the families of his ealdormen and thanes? How must it have shaped the simplest of relationship or friendship? When he’s not inventing time pieces and translating, Alfred is hacking Danes, or planning the hacking of Danes and trying to avoid being blood eagled by Danes.

If there was a poetry of the abattoir, it would be like this; and you have to look at it slantwise, eyes half shut, to see and hear the messy reality under the rhetoric.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday afternoons are time for a S.U.R.G

From time to time a detour from the middle ages or versions thereof are necessary and where else to go but Dear Old Dirty Dublin. So I walk into town for the occasional Southport Ulysses Reading Group. Their offices have great views.

If we had a logo it would be two blind eejits reeling merrily along Sandymount strand, giggling uproariously and bumping against reality every once in a while.

But the beauty of the Blue Book of Eccles is that it is resolute and friendly enough to welcome us in and survive our visits. We laugh at the jokes, admire the language, puzzle over the references. We digress. It’s such an anecdote to the way we are supposed to teach English. “Analyze the discourses in this text”. Any one like to try that on Ulysses?

How good is "I'm Almosting it"?

My pattener in climes against culturally accepteddy finations of sanity clams Ulysses is more a bobby than a hook. I tink it’s what the sweaty Jock personal fatness roaches bang on about: “a healthy lifestyle choice”.

You lift weights: I’ll follow Stephen and Bloom into the labyrinth of Joyce’s imagination and out into the possibilities of language. And when it gets a little claustrophobic, one can always take a holiday and read Beckett's novels or work on the Anglo-Saxon grammar.

Tennyson’s Lady Godiva 1842 #3 A reading

Tennyson tells his story within his own cultural assumptions about the role,status and behaviours appropriate to a 19th century upper middle class woman. His past is the fictionalised no when, set in a noplace conveniently labelled "Coventry".

Initially Lady g is moved by her “feminine instincts”. Her response to the starving poor is purely emotional. She doesn’t criticize the system or analyse the economic imbalance, nor is she apparently aware of her role in the imbalance. She is simply moved by pity. As such she is typical of Ingham’s previously quoted description: she is a: domesticated, middle-class wife far less rational than a man but intuitive , emotional with a natural maternal instinct and an equally natural nurturing ability.

She crosses the boundary from passive feminine empathy to masculine action by trying to effect a political change.

She doesn’t try to argue from economics or better production figures and she does it in the domestic sphere of female influence often described as “nagging” Eve did it, Lady Macbeth did it, but here we have our first transgression. Female influence in non domestic/political affairs is often presented in modern (post renaissance) literature as negative. Here, the influence is presented as being for the good.

Ironically, her husband reacts emotionally, in a non masculine manner. He reaches for the impossibility. Instead of saying “No”, or “Not till hell freezes over” he says ”when you ride naked though the town ”. Lady G now exhibits courage, which is a neutral quality, both men and women had courage, though male courage is typically physical, she rides out, she moves from private to public, domestic to political, and she makes a political change.

The illustration Holman Hunt did for the poem captures Lady G at a crucial moment.
She has removed her crown (referred to at the end of the poem) and is about to unbuckle her belt.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath
She linger’d, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud:

In Law, remember, for Tennyson and his readers, she is a feme coverte, a hidden woman, a woman covered by her Husband’s rank, station, personality, little more than a possession. She steps out from under the covers, and she does it by removing the “Earl’s gift”, iconically the predatory eagles who grasp her round her waist, linked to the polysemic “wedded” which precedes them. Her status as “Lady”, her wealth, whatever distinguishes her from the poor of the town, are the “Earl’s gift”; hers by right of marriage. By taking off the signs: the crown, the belt, her rich robes (and presumably the earrings?) she steps out as her self: dissolves the plural pronouns, the grammars of possession, the feudal hierarchy of marriage. In becoming naked, she sheds the cultural trappings, the insignia of her subjection. The crown is presumably here to mark her status as “lady”, but it is a status conferred on her. This leaves her “in the raw’ and raw to the sense of her own discovered individuality. It takes courage to get out of her Husband’s house, from under his shadow:

Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d
The gateway;

Her sense of her own exposure is such that even the buildings seem to be staring at her. But she is protected in her enterprise. Presumably because of the nobility of her cause? The wind holds its breath (so as not to disturb her hair?) and Tom is blinded for thinking about peeking. She is able to return before the clock strikes twelve, to her position in society and culture, unharmed and, more importantly, undiminished. She has ridden clothed in “chastity” and effected change.

This is the crucial aspect of the story that attracted her later commentators and made Lady G an icon for the later nineteenth century woman’s movement. In a society where, for the middle and upper classes “reputation’, especially a woman’s reputation, was almost a social capital to be drawn on, Lady G preserves her essential femininity, which is after all on show to the whole town. She rides forth. Because she crosses from the feminine sphere to the masculine without abandoning her femininity, and for reasons that are recognizably feminine, she offers a role model to the countless women who were too intelligent and frustrated to accept the role society was trying to give them. Her model suggests you can have both an active life and a domestic one.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Taking a break from the Wake on Friday the 13th

I like Zombie movies, Vampire films, Ghost stories, Asian “Extreme Cinema”. When I go to watch a film I don’t want “intellectual” or “arty” I want to be entertained. Gimme zombies, Kinski doing Vampires. Asian Ghost stories. Or surrealism. I don't like the new wave of gratuitous sadism (who needs plot, we have torture scenes) and don’t ask me to leave my brain at the door. Good horror films work as generic art. Some, like fairy tales, rise above themselves.

The great wave of late seventies early eighties “splatter films” arrived just as I was looking for somewhere warm to spend an afternoon when I couldn’t afford to heat my bed sit in Birmingham. A strange girl friend had introduced me to horror films and Half Price Mondays kept me from hypothermia and introduced me to Halloween, Suspiria, Halloween 2, The Fog, Dead and Buried, The Hills Have Eyes, Alien…and a host of horrible horrors that I have mercifully forgotten. In the days when I lived quite literally between a graveyard and a lunatic asylum, the test of how good the film was was how long it took me to turn off the light.

Never did like Friday the 13th. Cheap Halloween rip off. Halloween had everything it needed: mythic resonance, creepy camera angles and the best Last Girl Standing in Laurie Strode. She bright, she’s brave, she’s resourceful and she kills MM three times. (Even in H2o, which is a sad film, she goes hunting him.) It’s up there with Suspiria and Nosferatu as three films that escape themselves and go somewhere else.

Friday 13th was a crass rip off, lacking a plot, characters or even logic. Characters you couldn’t care about in a sequence of events that seemed a frail excuse to have teenagers stripping off to shower, have sex and then die.

So why we ask ourselves do they “remake” such films. The recent Halloween remake missed the point of the original. It looked pretty as a film with a huge budget could, but its desire to fill in the back story, to take what is suggested in the original and drive it into the ground meant it was instantly forgettable. The Fog remake lost Carpenter's claustrophobia and blew the ending.

So perhaps the new Friday 13th would do something with the idea that ten? sequels hadn't managed; perhaps we’d care about the characters, perhaps for once it wouldn’t be a bunch of forgettable or obnoxious sex crazed pretty things. Perhaps there’d be a plot that didn’t require you to leave your brain at the door.

Usual sacking and hacking. Usual screaming and running. Where was La Strode when we needed her. What happened to the aggressive fighting spirit that has made America despised in so many parts of the world?

Usual bunch of America’s finest teenagers: rich, selfish, spoilt, unlikable and utterly stupid. (Didn’t we meet in House of Wax/Jeepers Creepers/Texas Chainsaw Massacre…?) A Token Black (he’s supposed to be funny?) and Token Asian(he’s supposed to be a funny looser?) male characters. Two generic blondes who just wanna have fun: for the sacking and hacking. (Though one has the funniest death in any Friday the 13th film, it occurs just after the Jaws Shot. And the death of her partner, which is one of the genuine shocks of the film.)

If not screwing each other or trying to, our heroes drink, smoke dope and prepare to masturbate: the overlong sex scenes have no plot purpose. Heads fly off. The police arrive and are killed off. The hunky hero dude looks for his lost sister. Who is chained up underground. (Didn’t we meet in one of those Hills Have Eyes Remakes?)

What am I doing watching this? Well, I didn’t pay. And I’ve been reading Finnegans Wake so it was enjoyable to sit and watch utter nonsense unrolling in front of me. 95 minutes and none of it really over long. The violence still simple and restrained by modern standards (there is one gratuitous piece of sadism which is not in keeping with the usual F13 modus v and suggests a failure on the part of the script writers). For a moment I thought we might have the nice people escape which would have been a novel twist, but no: the one almost like able girl gets speared. (Which does break the usual "if you keep your clothes on you live" rule"..) The brother and sister team confront the bad dude, She kills the bad dude. Then they prove they are utterly utterly stupid and and…well..you know what’s going to happen next…

No possibility of any “reading” which could elevate this above the intellectual level of a Big Dipper Ride. But even big dipper rides have their place.

Now back to The Wake.

Tennyson’s Lady Godiva 1842 #2 Cultural background

The legal rights enjoyed by Godgifu were greater than any of her female descendants until the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. By Tennyson's time, cultural assumptions about the nature, role and status of women, were so firmly embedded that they shape the story.

The Lawes Resolution of 1632 allowed a man to: “beat an outlaw, a traitor, a pagan, his villain, or his wife because by the law Common these persons can have no action.”

Legally, a married woman was a non-person. As Sir William Blackstone put it in the 1760s.
By Marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law French a 'feme covert'.( Qtd Ingham, Patricia :The Brontes. Authors in Context Oup 2006 p 51)

The implications of this assumption, were that once married, a woman could not litigate except through the medium of a male person. She had no control over money that was previously hers or which she had earned, if she could earn money, during her marriage unless a special legal settlement had been made before the marriage. It wasn’t until 1853 that the assaults act could convict violent husbands, and not until 1857 a new matrimonial court came into existence recognizing women’s rights to release from abusive marriage.

It’s not surprising that Tennyson reads the power imbalance between Godiva and her husband the way he does. At the same time Godiva’s story was taking on a new attraction as there was a perceptible slide towards prudishness in middle class society, making her gesture seem even more daring.

The 19th century was probably the first time in English History that a large part of the population could be assured of privacy at home. “It was especially significant to married couples who could afford houses with the architectural separation of rooms to sleep, bathe and dress in without fear of intrusions.” Donoghue. True, the working class were living crammed together in industrial slums, but they weren't Tennyson's audience.

Which lead to a new and famous prudishness (THink "white meat", think "drumstick) and nervousness about the body and to increased Gender divisions in society:

• There is an increasing sense of social respectability and individual sensibility.
• There was an increasing idealization of the domestic/private world for women and the business/public world for men.

John Ruskin: Sesame and Lillies (qtd by Donahue, 82)
Now the man’s work for his own home is, as has been said, to secure its maintenance, progress, and defense; the woman’s to secure its order, comfort and loveliness. Expand both these functions . The man’s duty, as a member of the commonwealth, is to assist in the maintenance, in the advance, in the defense of the state. The woman’s duty, as member of a the commonwealth, is to assist in the ordering , in the comforting, and in the beautiful adornment of the state.

It’s also worth noting that women promoted this belief as well. There are handbooks for young women, written by women, which make the same point:

”What is your position in society? As women, the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men-inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in strength” Ellis Sarah, The Daughters of England: their Position in Society, Character and Responsibilities (London.. Fisher 1845) 11-12

This assumption that biology was destiny and women were thick carried on into the twentieth century.

In a lecture given as late as 1931, Emma Jung could state, discussing “the real thinking of women”:

It is well known that a really creative faculty of mind is a rare thing in woman. There are many women who have developed their powers of thinking, discrimination, and criticism to a high degree, but there are very few who are mentally creative in the way a man is. It is maliciously said that woman is so lacking in the gift of invention, that if the kitchen spoon had not been invented by a man , we would still be stirring the soup with a stick!
The creativity of woman finds its expression in the sphere of living, not only in her biological functions as mother but in the shaping of life generally, be it in her activity as educator, in role as companion to man, as mother in the home, or in some other form.

Jung Emma Animus and Anima Spring publications Zurich )1957_ quotes from fourth printing 1972

These assumptions about female/male private/public appropriate/inappropriate were not simply “cultural assumptions” that floated freely in poems and polemics. They were grounded, negatively, in the law, in absence and silence. They were also grounded in the science of the day. It wasn’t simply a question of “opinions”, and we miss the full importance of these binaries if we dismiss them as “outdated opinions”. As Thomas Lagueur has argued in Making Sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. (Harvard paperback 1992) Culture always precedes sex. He doesn’t mean you visit art galleries and have coffee or wine first, he means assumptions about gender shape the way biology is read and understood. Today we might acknowledge that there are people who think women should play an exclusively domestic role and shrug our shoulders, if we’re being generous, and say “that’s their opinion” or dismiss them as outdated and lunatic. But in the nineteenth century it was much more difficult. Once belief and expectations about behavior are grounded in science, then someone who doesn’t act in the expected way is not “rebellious” or “different” or “an individual” but “sick”. And “therapeutic surgery” or “medical treatment” or “institutionalization” were used to remedy the “problem” as though they suffered from a damaged limb.

All this does lead back to Tennyson. More later.

Tennyson’s Lady Godiva 1842 #1

I WAITED for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To match the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city’s ancient legend into this:—

Yo freddy dude, hanging with ya porter homeys...whoops...

In Tennyson’s version, mothers bring their starving children to Lady G, who goes to her husband and asks him to remit the tax. This conversation follows:

‘You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?’—‘But I would die,’ said she.
He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;
‘O ay, ay, ay, you talk!’—‘Alas!’ she said,
‘But prove me what it is I would not do.’

(Prove here means test)

He says: “ride naked through the town”, and strides off with his dogs. Inspired by pity she agrees, sends out heralds to make sure everyone stays locked in doors until midday and rides out. One “churl” (The story is so well known Tennyson doesn’t need to name him.) tries to look and is blinded by "the Powers" before he can see anything. She gets back as the town clock strikes twelve and the tax is remitted. In Tennyson’s handling of the poem, the story’s oddness is evident. OF all the things that Leofric could ask her to do, why does he choose this one? None of the versions of the story adequately explain this choice.

The town architecture is voyeuristic.

The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame: her palfrey’s footfall shot
Light horrors thro’ her pulses: the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared:

In one sense this highlights how acutely exposed she feels, but in another reading it displaces the voyeurism of the poem on to inanimate objects and one scapegoat. I don't see how this works myself.

Two things at least, are odd about Tennyson’s Lady G. The first is that her husband implicitly accuses her of hypocrisy, when he plays with the diamond at her ear, the implication is “this would stop them from starving; your wealth is based on their starvation”. And why she doesn't simply offer to pay the [fictional]tax remains unaswered.

The second is that realistically she risks very little. The townsfolk, whether for love of her or simple self interest, have a huge incentive to stay indoors and the “Powers” (not God incidentally) look after her to the point of blinding some poor churl before he even gets to peek. So what does she risk? How is she heroic? One answer is that her only cultural capital, which she risks to prove her courageis her reputation and her reputation is tied inextricably to her body.In fact her body is her only cultural capital. So a man might prove his courage by fighting, or by climbing mountains, all she can do is strip off and ride naked round town, risking shame in a good cause.
More later.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lady G reviewed

"This beguilling, intelligent sequence of poems is set in Coventry, home of the famous titular-so to speak-character. Gold Coaster Guilar divides the book into one section dealing with Godiva's story, including Peeping Tom, and another imagining the experience of migrants in Coventry after WWII."

Gold Coast Bulletin 28th Feb 2009