Archive for December, 2012

Clear away the barricades/And we’re still there! (Thenadiers) …

But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder … (a lyric in one of the quieter songs) ….

There’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables. Now my friends are dead and gone …

The 2012 film had last year’s Occupy movement in mind

Ensemble, Signature Theater, DC/Virginia 2008

Dear friends and readers,

Christmas day we (Jim, myself, Laura & Rob, and Izzy) went to see the musical movie version of Hugo’s Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, an adaptation for commercial film of the original book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil, Englished and made Dickensian by James Fenton and Wm Nicolson (lyrics Herbert Kretzmer), produced by at least 9 people, some original (Cameron Mackintosh), some film types (Eric Fellner), featuring most notably and successfully Hugh Jackman as Jean ValJean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Izzy said later that after a while all she had to do was she Hathaway and she began to cry):

Raped, stripped, her very teeth taken from her

Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche (this Artful Dodger provided the most unexpected totally alive moments of the production),


Eddie Remayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the young revolutionaries on the 1832 barricades (representing the 1870 uprising which was put down with more killed than in the whole of the 1792-3 so-called Terror), Samantha Barks as Eponine were as a group stronger and more effective than the first quarter or so of the film. I suspect Hooper felt more at home with them than the wildly romantic pursued Valjean. He changed Fantine to be sexual in lieu of a gamine — for me this did make Hugo’s tale relevant for women. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thenadiers were faultless but over-directed into exaggerated grotesquerie, and Jim felt that their lines, some of the rawest most powerful in the whole piece, were placed so as to lose the central impact they were meant to have.

Thenadiers with young Cosette

I found Tom Hooper’s production of intense interest as film, as an instance of what contemporary computer, non-naturalistic and symbolic theatrical, on location, close-up and aggressive film-making can tremendously effect. I’d like to see it again to study how the camera was daringly used to turn the vision of the novel into world-as-nightmare.

The music is as stunningly piercing as ever: I was again unbearably moved by the destruction of Fantine, the heart-break of Eponine, the nobility of Jean Valjean and the soaring revolutionary defiance of Marius and Enjolras. At first I thought Marius the actor who played Bingley in Joe Wright’s P&P (2005) and Enjolras, Elliot Cowan as Darcy in Dan Zeff’s Lost in Austen (2008), both deeply appealing types.

The film’s Eponine (Samantha Barks) dying in Marius’s arms — both elegant, white, archetypal mainstream in looks

By contrast, Jim said no one could sing (!) and they all held their notes too long, Hugh Jackman was miscast (not so) and the whole production (which he said serious reviewers all agreed with) “a mess,” but apart from Russell Crowe who tried hard but just could not get up the seethingly pro-murderous law-and-order evil of Javier I thought them all stirringly effective and recognized that we had here a typical faithful BBC production. I’ve read about 3/4s of Norman Denny’s translation of Hugo’s novel, and unlike the musical, this film adaptation seemed to go through the book phase-by-phase. I don’t say the film had the original coherence, taste, brilliance of Hooper’s Daniel Deronda for the BBC (2002) or even the poignancy of The King’s Speech (2011), but it not intended to be subtle, but rather to sock its cri de coeur of the disenfranchised and powerless to wide varied audiences, and make huge returns in money.

Jackson as Jean Valjean, the tender-hearted caring for Fantine, promising to bring up Cosette, her daughter


I know I need say no more as so many have already, since there have been so many reviews not only on this musical film (among them Miss Izzy), and the many productions, French, the original London, the Broadway one, various intermediary as well as concerts versions, but the straight dramatic films and the musical version Jim thought and still thinks the outstanding best, Eric Schaeffer’s Signature version, with Greg Stone the closest to Hugo’s conception of Jean Valjean I’ve seen:


and Felicia Curry as an inspired Eponine type:


But I think we can contribute to the ongoing conversation about Les Miserables. We have now seen or perhaps I should say heard the musical four times. Jim did once read about and attempt to sort out the original pre-production show from its first staging and I’ve also read Notre Dame de Paris (in French this time), and Hugo’s powerful anti-capital punishment novella (The Last Day of a Condemned Man (an English translation). And I watched two recent “straight” films.

Le Repas des Pauvres 1877 by Alphonse Legros 1837-1911
Alphonse LeGros, Le Repas des Pauvres (cover illustration for Hugo’s novel)

The soul in darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who causes the darkness (Denny’s translation of Hugo)


Before the musical was ever produced it was changed to include an overt providential patterning, religious emotionalism, and images of family types sticking together, with the Thenadiers as hypocritical aberrations we are expected to be amused by.


Thirty years ago, Alan Boublil and Claud-Michel Schonberg decided to write a musical adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. By 1980, they had a demo tape, themselves the sole performers: voice and piano. They took it to London and got sufficient backing for John Cameron to orchestrate what they had written and to record it with actual performers. This record is commercially available: call it “the French text.” Both Cameron Macintosh and James Nederlander of New York were interested in producing it, with changes. Nederlander actually optioned it, but the option lapsed.

By some later point in time Macintosh had talked Trevor Nunn into directing it. He brought in the RSC and John Caird. Herbert Kretzmer was hired to write the English lyrics, after James Fenton’s attempt was abandoned. The Macintosh/Nunn/Caird/Kretzmer collaboration was produced, first by the RSC as part of their London season at the Barbican, then by Macintosh in the West End, in 1985. Call this “the English text.”

Three major changes mark strong differences between the French text and the English text: the English text is more religious; the English text is, if anything, conservative politically where the French was more à gauche (to the left); the English text is a much bigger show. Nunn seems to have been responsible for the religious emphasis. The French text had scarcely mentioned God: a couple of “God knows how” sort of phrases and two mentions in Jean Valjean’s final lines, closing the piece.

La lumière, au matin de justice,
puisse enfin décapiter nos vices
dans un monde où Dieu pourrait se plaire
s’il décidait un jour de redescendre sur la terre.

Cosette, aime-le
Marius, aimez-la
qui aime sa femme
sans le savoir, aime Dieu.

Nunn added the scene with the Bishop of Digne; the scene where Jean Valjean wrestles with his conscience: “Who am I”; “Stars”; “Dog eats dog”; “Bring him home” and the dreadful scene where the spirits of Fantine and Eponine flank Jean Valjean as he dies (memory claims they were even dressed in white, but memory is unreliable and sometimes exaggerates for effect).

I add that Hugo is anti-clerical; the priests who harbor Valjean are pariahs and despised by all the other church people we meet. There is no afterlife. “Les Miserables” means not just the wretchedly poor but miserable in a more general sense and includes the outcasts, underdogs, rejected of society, and radical critics and rebels (who often do very badly economically and socially). Take, Book 2: Book 2, “The outcast.” The opening sequence of the movie follows this — prison for no crime at all, cruelty in a long sentence, hounding afterward with no forgiveness or any opportunity to be a productive member of legal society.

In case anyone might think this kind of thing can’t happen, he or she need only read a newspaper or journal article about who goes to prison in the US, for what, for how long, the typical use of extreme solitude (which Atul Gawande in a persuasive article in the New Yorker argued is a form of super-expensive torture): very long prison sentences, no reprieve, for small crimes having to do with drugs. Inside may be a step up for some, but it’s very bad socially. Women’s prisons are even worse than men’s, for they are subject to sexual harassment, parted from their children ruthlessly. Meanwhile bankers steal billions, flout the law and are not even brought to trial.

But the musical takes Hugo in the direction of Thatcher’s 1980s:


Some of the depoliticizing between the French and English versions may have been unconscious, the result of removing specifically French references. In the French text, the students are carefully organizing coordinated risings:

Au Pont au Change, toutes les sections sont prêtes
Grantaire attend à la Barrière du Maine
les sculpteurs, les marbriers
tardent à se joindre à nous
mais les maçons de Montreuil
seront tous au rendez-vous

In the English text, they seem to take it on themselves to rise, because who wants to confuse the audience with the masons of Montreil. But “Empty chairs and empty tables”, added for the English text, clearly condemns the students: “Don’t ask me/What your sacrifice was for.” More, Javert, in the French text, is not really to be taken seriously. In the English text, thanks to “Stars”, he’s the second leading man.

Nunn also made Les Misérables a grandiose show. DCist in its theater preview wondered how Signature would fit it into “much smaller quarters than usually house the famous turntable-style set.” Nunn had added choruses, he added scenes, some, like “Turning”, quite unnecessary. Nunn justified “Turning” on the grounds that the women didn’t have enough to do otherwise. Of course he then used the revolving set to manage the quick scene changes. All these changes made the show worse.

I don’t mean to say that in all aspects the English text is worse than the French text. Many of Kretzmer’s lyrics are much better than those of Boublil/Schonberg. The bridge of “I dreamed a dream”, for example: “But the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder.” There is nothing remotely like that in the French text. The best line in the show, from Madame Thénardier, I’m sorry, Mme. La Baronne Thenard, in “Beggars at the feast”: “Clear away the barricades and we’re still here” (perhaps the profoundest line in contemporary theater), was added. “Beggars at the feast” is the reprise of “Master of the house” which bulks up and makes rollicking — and Dickensian. Nunn had directed Nicholas Nickleby — “Devise d’un cabaretier” where Thénardier complains he is one “qu’une destinée contraîre a planté dans ce canton” and thus has become, perforce, an innkeeper)

The 2008 production had La Boheme not Dickens A Tale of Two Cities in mind

Jim had gone up to Eric Schaeffer, to say this Signature production was better than the London production we had seen years ago. “This sounded better than it was, since the London production had left me rather cold.”


Schaeffer managed, in the Signature production, to minimize these changes. He could do nothing with the religion and politics that are baked into the English text. One cannot not sing “Stars” or “Bring him home.” And Javert did take the penultimate curtain call. But he could and did de-emphasize at least some. The business with the saintly Bishop of Digne went quick. In the final scene, Fantine and Eponine sang with Jean Valjean, but they stayed on catwalks leading to the stage (and neither dressed in white).

And he made the show intimate. The MAX theater is a black box. For this production it seated around 250. It was set up as a thrust stage, with two catwalks leading to the corners of the box, screened at the back. Sliding doors in the screen allowed mass movements onto the stage (for choral entrances or the barricade). The orchestra (two winds, five brass, three keyboards, guitar, bass, two percussion) was set on a balcony behind the screen, the conductor’s image on two screens visible from the stage. The audience, then, was on three sides. No more than six rows on any one side. Every member of the audience was closer to the cast than any member of the audience would have been in a conventional proscenium theater with the orchestra in a pit between the audience and stage.

In this setting, he brought out the quiet elements of the score. There are many. Of the 28 numbers, a majority are either soliloquys or conversations. We eavesdrop, up close, on them. The actors eavesdrop with us. In “A heart full of love”, Eponine is on the catwalk, members of the audience on either side of her, as she overhears Cosette and Marius (the same location, exactly, as she will occupy in the second act finale). She is suddenly lit as she reacts. We do not know how long she has been there. She is us. And we sympathise. Schaeffer doesn’t shrink from the noisier numbers. “Master of the house” is duly rollicking. He accepts the Dickensian parallels: Cosette in Paris reminds us of no-one more than Lucy Manette.

But the heart of this production are the quiet lyric pieces: “I dreamed a dream”, “Who am I”, Fantine and Jean Valjean’s duet around her deathbed, “Stars”, “In my life”, “A heart full of love”, “On my own”, “A little fall of rain”, “Drink to me”, “Bring him home”, Javert’s suicide, and, yes, the second act finale.


To conclude,

There have been 19 (!) film adaptations, most recently a French mini-series with Gerard Depardieu as Valjean and John Malkovich as Javert, and in 1998 an English, with Liam Neeson as a noble Jean Valjean; Geoffrey Rush as Javert (hard and steely), Uma Thurman as Fantine (the raped Cecile in Les Liaisions Dangereuses), Hans Mathisen as Marius (deeply felt), Ann-Marie Duff (wry, realistic) the last two also in Davies’s adaptation of Dr Zhivago. Depardieu practically stands for France (remember Martin Guerre) and Malkovich (Valmont, Jekyll-Hyde) has had a long career playing evil types; the English cast shows the connection between Zhivago and Hugo. Five translations into English are available.

The story, characters, events are a parable for our time.

To turn it into a film musical with the whole repertoire of montage, location, psychological in-depth acting is to make it more available to everyone. On Christmas day almost every seat in the auditorium was taken. We were just in time and had to sit in the front row.

I remember that in London Patti LuPone sang Fantine, but she was far away — we were in the back of the orchestra. Anne Hathaway is right on top of us, close up, the story made utterly contemporary. When she sang the pain goes on and on I found myself remembering my own anguish. I was rooting for Enjolras all the way.


Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!

(I wish).

Izzy is right. You need not see this version probably. Jim is right too: perhaps another would be more thrillingly sung. This was over-produced and not controlled enough. But I would say not only don’t miss it, but also read the book, go on to Notre Dame de Paris and then The Last Day in the Life of a Condemned Man. Les Miserables‘ vision is more than of the wretched of the earth; he shows how such wretchedness is made deliberately and what it feels like to be hunted down, scorned, fearful, alone. Don’t skip the supposed digressions (Waterloo for example): the history, analysis of how society is organized into exclusionary cliques, the skewed values of church and courts passionately laid out and as relevant today as ever.


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Edouard Cortes (1882-1969), Boulevard des Italiens (c. 1900)

Gentle reader,

In case you were wondering: yes I changed my header from Antoine Watteau’s Shop-sign of Gersaint (now more fittingly at Austen Reveries, a blog for Austen & the 18th century) to one of Edouard Cortes‘s many depictions of Boulevard des Italiens, one of Paris’s four major boulevards at the turn of the century. Lately I’ve had a strong preference for later Edwardian, early 20th century (fin-de-siecle?) paintings. I’ve enjoyed all the great world-cities I’ve managed to visit. Books, plays, films, opera, art, music, all need the rich terrain of the city to be realized.


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John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) A lady in a garden by moonlight (1882)

From BBC film adaptation of M. R. James’s The Ash Tree, 1975

Dear friends and readers,

This Christmas I revived on all three of my list-servs reading and discussion of Christmas ghost stories — or, failing ghosts (the case of Anthony Trollope, too strong a sceptic for this kind of thing), just stories meant for Christmas (we read “Christmas at Thompson Hall”). It is a long custom-sanction’d habit to tell ghost stories at the Winter Solstice, and I’d read some with others a few years ago for a couple of years in a row, and made a gothic section on my website for some of our conversations (see. e.g., Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Lost Ghost”). On two lists people read with me, and on a third a couple of people watched the YouTube presentations I had found.

So, on the evening of this (fulfilling as it happened) Christmas Day I thought I’d re-tell one, offer a brief synopsis and YouTube of another, some links to powerful ones and an explanation from whence this urge to tell ghost stories Winter Solstice derives.

I found myself reading a-new, finding new qualities in Margaret Oliphant’s “Old Lady Mary.” Oliphant’s most powerful fiction is a ghost novella, The Beleaguered City, where, as in “Old Lady Mary,” part of the power of the story comes from the desire of the dead beloved and loving person to reach one another, in response to a shared loss and loneliness.

A Beleaguered City
19th century illustration of Beleaguered City

The story as I first understood it (here’s the online text):

In brief: a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. Lady Mary resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. She does however write a codicil, leaving everything to the girl, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

This begins the story which then takes us through the young girl’s fear, loss, humiliations at the hands of the family who takes over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house — they don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. She is now their servant. At the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is in a coda and is not important.

The story is told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, retrieval is too late. Her presence is felt but the living act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable. The story is aimed at Dickens’s Christmas Carol, by then an iconic story where all can be undone, retrieved, redeemed. Not so, says Oliphant. Less seriously, she has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories.

The curious effect is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously. This is no silly story for people who want titillation or reassurance.

These are certainly besides the point to Lady Mary who is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. But, she supposes that she wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She
has convinced herself her attempts her unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision of the young girl. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts, the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second sees Lady Mary who feels she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all she discovers she needs no nothing more. That’s it. We get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind. Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much.

The last enigmatic line of the story: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’.

Re-reading: I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had Dickens’s one benign and perhaps other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgive and forgetfulness (modern term “Healing”). But I felt this time that Old Lady Mary however stumblingly and ambiguously did retrieve the situation and felt she reached the young girl she now realized she had loved so.

She does not get to reach out to young Mary directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. In life she could have made sure young Mary understood she was sorry for how she had behaved in life, what she had done in death, but still we are told the old woman managed to reach someone and point to where the will was and the will is found. The understanding and forgiveness are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but enough is put before us to assume so. How life-like.

I realized how much it’s a heroine’s text. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind and that is very unusual. I want to stress that. I dare say almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare as Dickens, but with Dickens we do not enter the ghost’s consciousness. And show the ghost failing to reach.

Her story in this way shows belief in an afterlife and ghosts around us. The ambiguous wispy signals of seances you see are ghosts trying to reach us and unable to as God has made it too late. I think we may take it that this is how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey is the Scots housekeeper’s retort to the lady’s maid’s conventional appeal,

“Don’t you believe in spirits?”
“I do not believe they play boardgames.”

By contrast, Oliphant has it, it’s that God will not let the dead reach us. She was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a much more moving story than I did the first time round.


Michelle Dockery could play the part of young Mary very well. Now known for her part as Lady Mary Grantham in Downton Abbey, she was much better as the unnamed governess in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Turn of the Screw)


BBC film adaptation of “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale” by M.R. James

It should be said most ghost stories are instances of female gothic, many have been written by women, and they are often ways of presenting the real vampirage over women by men and societies in general. This was a speciality of Edith Wharton whose “Kerfol” I reread last week. The writer need not be a woman, and the vulnerable figure can be a man (as they just about all are in M.R. James’s stories (“The Stalls”). But the one I read from 3 I chose by M.R. James all set in the 18th century was such a story, and gentle reader here it is online and as a YouTube

The film features a very young Edward Petherbridge, and with his and other actors’ help, the BBC group has brought out the terror and power and high violence of an MRJames story usually there, but in muted subjective form. The film version brings out the terror and horror. It’s the story of an 18th century squire-aristocrat who has returned to his estate and country house is haunted by the ghosts of women beaten, tortured and then hung as witches and that this is who the ghosts are that destroy him by their hideous tales only emerges slowly.

What I like particularly about the whole of this early series from the BBC is instead of the usual prettied up 18thcentury (say of faithful Austen films) we see the raw realities of rural life. It’s not a story for the weak stomached if you can get it up to full screen.


From the cover of an anthology of ghost stories by women written at the turn of the 19th into 20th century: Restless Spirits

Gentle reader, it’s not hard to find potted explanations of the origin of ghost stories as matter for Christmas. But it’s often-half-hearted. How did this habit emerge?

I’ve a different explanation than most I’ve seen. This festival comes at the end of each year. Says John Donne: “‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s …” It’s natural to look back, to remember, indeed that’s one of the functions of this ritual time. And in many years of our lives, we lose people. Before the 20th century death was ubiquitous for young and old. This year my mother died. I was first drawn to ghost stories after my fathere died, irretrievably gone, and I could not make up wrongs that had happened. Psychologically I would feel his presence in my mind lurking.

This year I found myself remembering more cheerfully a good friend I met here on the Internet, who joined in various reads, who discussed, and who I was lucky enough on one fine night to spend an evening in Brooklyn with at a party with two of her close friends, Linda Ribas. She died in summer, too young to have left us. She read some of these stories with us on WWTTA, Henry James on Trollope19thCStudies, an 18th century novel by a woman on EighteenthCenturyWorlds. She especially loved pictures, John Atkinson Grimshaw a favorite, and landscapes, and I’ve included one by Grimshaw, and another favorite of hers by Nell Blaine. We miss her on WWTTA

Nell Blaine (1926-96), Winter Trees from Studio

So ghost stories come from this kind of remembering, not that in my case at any rate I think we are going to reach anyone after death. Death is annihilation. But we can remember them. And then the ghost is picked up and becomes a vehicle for entertainment, instruction, artful absorption, a suspension of disbelief.

I often assigned ghost stories when I taught the gothic and found students were fascinated by this sub-genre (mode) of a subgenre (short fiction for magazines) — for ghost stories are very artful configurations.


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A winter scene: George Bellows (1882-1925), Hudson River, A windy winter afternoon (1926)

I wish all those who come to our blog a merry merry Christmas and peaceful good year to come.

From Longfellow:

‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
       And wild and sweet
       The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

There is no YouTube for this one but there is John Lennon’s Happy Christmas the War is over, one Christmas song I do love and wish were played in malls:


The reader may recall one of the artists whose magnificent pictures I wrote about this year George Bellows. I’ve kept up with my vow this year to try to make my blogs shorter, but gentle reader if you want more, a meditative attempt at why this can be such a fraught time see my Snow Reveries and Doing Christmas.

Monet (1840-1926), Road to the Farm, Saint Simeon, Harfleur (1867)


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… it is the words into which she is translating, not those from which she is taking her leave, that create her problems … [she] must keep the receiving language even more in mind than the original one …Horace is one of my favorite poets, though I frankly prefer to read him in translation — Burton Raffel, How to read [and write] a translation,” The Forked Tongue

‘Speech,’ she said, ‘is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken — George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

A translation is an acceptable match for an utterance made in another tongue — [but then what is a match, acceptable, & what must the text crucially match] — Bellos

A pre-Internet multilingual translation dictonary — useless because it contains too few words from particular languages, sold to bargain-hunting people not serious translators, who don’t understand the art of translating for real

My copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, which I’ve owned since age 13, recovered twice, and is the one book I have I could not do without; words are grouped into terrains

Dear friends and readers,

As the year draws to a close, I know there have been several books I read important to me, that helped change the way I think about reading, writing and life too, but I’ve not blogged about them because often it’s precisely such books whose significant matter is hardest to convey. One such is Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel (it enabled me to write a proposal for a paper on Trollope’s imagined maps); another egan to be John Desmond’s Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature. Meant for students, this one had directions for essays that enabled me to push students into comparing films and books on a concrete literal basis, no impressionism and I was beginning myself to learn and teach before I was cut off from teaching.

I hope Bellos’s has a happier fulfilled conclusion. It’s a third. David Bellos’s Is that a Fish In Your Ear? is not just brilliant but fun (fun to read). In a way he doesn’t say much beyond what I intuitively would agree with and might even get to think myself, but he explains why most talk and expectation about translation is still so wrong. (We are improving on our understanding of film adaptations of books.) I’ve been wanting to write a blog on his book because many of his insights are these sudden utterances with accompanying paragraphs that I’d like to keep in mind and refer to. The book is there but not in my mind in a state that’s useful to me, only on my desk physically. And to go through the book this way is to make nonsense of it, asking to looking for sparkling needles in a haystack

David Bellos’s Is That A Fish In Your Ear is thus hard to grasp — like his title, apparently an allusion to a line in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe which include a Babelfish: if you put a babelfish into your ear, it instantly translates all languages into whichever one you want. When I bought it, partly attracted by the witty title, I thought he was referring to how when you machine translate a phrase you can come up with utter nonsense since the context of an utterance is central to how we understand its meaning, both literally and suggestively, how we use it to.

An outline of the book’s story or argument moves through the topics of general areas of prevailing misunderstandings of what translations are, how they function, what is a good translation, how one goes about translating, laws and customs governing publishing translations. He begins with the idea that we can’t avoid translations most days of our lives and that we don’t most of us know what a translation is, nor why it is that a given utterance can have many different translations (use different words using the same receiving language) and yet all be valid as translations. There are at least 7000 languages in the world; in practice many of these small groups of people also know one of 80 vehicular languages, a language learned by a larger group of people which enables them all to communicate with one another. Nine of these are spoken by a large majority of people; add 4 more to get to 13 and you’ve covered most of the people of the world.

Learn 13! One of these is English, the second most common French and after that German — the three most translated-into languages in the world.

He then goes on to make the obvious observation (but important) that different kinds translation are appropriate for different texts and situation (say a legal report versus a poem; or a subtitle in a movie versus a novel). At the end of this section he offers a translation of a poem and asks us why we call it a translation since if you look carefully most of the words have been changed into words of another language that have a different literal content — so the above dictionary would not have gotten you to them. A thesaurus would be much more helpful. Groups of words occupying the same terrain of meaning. And the book has barely begun.

His highway (main argument) offers information on why the particular languages most texts have been into and when, why these choices. Not only are translations influential (and still invisible — we pretend we have read Tolstoi when we read Constance Garnet) and can change the language translated into a (target or receiving language) but the language which has been translated (source language). “Continuing waves of translated works in particular fields leave the receiving language … in a different shape” (p. 187). Consider the impact of the translated Bible on Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.

It matters whether you are translating a text into a dominant language (up) or less prestigious language (down). Translations into prestigious languages (up) erase the source’s foreignness; translations into less prestigious languages (the less widely disseminated vehicular) try to keep a residue of the source.

More important to me — who can only translate into English and only from French and Italian anyway — are the paths that move away from and return to the road. In these he drops remarks and demonstrates important truths not paid sufficient attention to. What I want to do is go through the book typing out the brilliant convincing passages or utterances (as he might call them). Partly it would be good for me to have these nuggets before me as I study, evaluate or write about translations. Bellos gives me courage and helps me know my views are valid even if in most places I read contradicted by what others assert, including (especially perhaps) academic circles where the crib is still what’s wanted and thought to be the aim of a translation. He offers me insight into how to go about it too. Look at translation as a equivalent, a replacement text, originally creative in its own right with its own language’s arts. …

Film adaptation a particular kind of translation

To offer a few:

How should the foreignness of a text best be represented in the receiving language? (p. 41). This depends on the nature of the languages you are translating from and into. If it’s from English to French, w/o being perceptively anomalous, give a sense of the French phrases in the source by some literalness P. 50)

Our first learned language is the one we begin to speak when very young; it’s conveyed by the people who surround us intimately when very little. Our operative language is the language we speak when we go to school, read, learn to write to be comprehended by others.

An adequate translation reproduces the meaning of an utterance made in the foreign language (p. 67) it should contain not just the information you need to grasp not so much what is actually or literally said but what is going on in the saying of it (p. 69). Meaning does not inhere solely in specific words. (My paraphrase: you relive the utterance in the receiving tongue at its strongest even if that does not literally correspond to the source tongue; indeed differences in language means you often cannot or should not try to literally correspond.) What is literally said is only a fragment of what is going on (p. 72)

How can you tell if an utterance is meaningful. Chomsky said you can make grammatical sentences which are not meaningful: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” but students wrote paragraphs which explicated the phrase. Bellos: you can see whether an utterance has a meaning by testing whether it can be translated into another language (p. 80).

The lack of exactly matching words is not a problem for a translator because words are not at bottom names for things or ideas. The idea that words are names of things or ideas comes from dictionary making. Yes he fingers the 18th century as a century which produced dictionaries which solidified the idea that words are names for things (despite Swift’s satire). We use words to stand for classes of things and ideas (like the word “head”), and there are many things, ideas, groups that have no specific name. We often use one word for another to explain it; translators are finding the other word in another language (pp. 8589). It’s hard to say what a word is. They are not just units in social practice. He suggest that “to know a language is to know how to say the same thing in different words [with ease]” (p. 102, my addition)

There is no such thing as a literal translation. None can be that. You can word a text, word for word as they come but it will appear gobbledy-gok except for those who know the source language (that’s my paraphrasing Bellos (p. 117) Nabokov’s famous demand is him dissing translation.

Translations can be scary: when induced by powerful people to genuflect (pp. 131-32) However, we must adapt to circumstances and context and what the translation is for (this is called adaptive translation). No language is an island (p. 203). This is the business of translating from an intermediary translation and yet producing a readable living text (Marco Polo) (p. 204)

For a few more insights and elaboration, see comments.

He has charts: I have a hard time understanding charts. One on books translated between 7 dominating languages (p. 210): Swedish, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, French, German, English. Top four source languages: English, French, Russian, German (p. 216)

All very puzzling so let me say just that English is the medium as source or target for 75.12% of all translation acts (p. 217) and culture of translation (and publishers) are concentrated in France, Germany, Britain and US.

Important realities: French has been the most widely taught foreign language in the English speaking world. France has tradition of openness to foreign cultures (will translate). Germany a cross-raods for little studied languages. Middle Ages the lingua franca was Latin, and Arabic pivotal for Greek and Hebrew; while Japanese a relay language for translations of Russian into Chinese (a prestigious language). (pp. 218-20)

It’s not a coincidence that I found a French thesaurus some years ago but can find no Italian one: Le Robert has no section from English to French (which is such a waste), it’s all in French & as in Roget’s English Thesaurus it’s families of words, words inside a terrain. It’s become an important book for me.

Example study: “To translate seemed to me a beautiful thing to do: Translation as Matching Creative Act”.

The Wool WinderPussycat1759forYahooblog
Detail from Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), The Wool-Winder’s [touching] Cat (1759): her poor ear isn’t in good shape and her body frail, wispy

What I’ve loved to do best is translate Italian poetry by women with a French intermediary text. Part of the joy is this vehicular text (Italian is not one of the world’s 13 vehicular texts) because know French better and love it more. A while back I found on the Net Elsa Morante’s Italian poem, “Minna la Siamese”. I also found an English translation which presented itself as the whole poem but left off the final stanza and was somewhat inaccurate. I did put it on my old life-writing blog because my cats are comforting creatures when trouble arises and bought a book said to contain this poem. When it came I discovered it had several poems on cats, and the language facing the Italian texts was French. Well with an intermediary text in French by Jean-Noel Schifano I produced my own translation, using my cat’s name:


I’ve a small beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, l name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

It needs improvement but Bellos’s book has made me feel my translation is finer poetry than the one on the Net and not because mine is more accurate and includes the last stanza. I’ve made a vow to myself I shall translate all her cat poems.

Bellos doesn’t mention it but I know that when western men were taught Latin, western women were taught French (and in the 19th century Italian); that women began to publish through translation as masks


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The bell Martha (1748-1782), white wife of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) used to summon Sarah Hemings (1773-1835, Sally), given to Sally by a dying Martha: Sally was among those who tended Martha during her death agon

Dear readers and friends,

I read on about what I find I must call Jefferson’s women and men after
finishing Kierner’s biography of Jefferson’s oldest white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph , and watching and reading about the sources for the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film, Jefferson in Paris. By chance during the more than 3 weeks it took me to read G-R’s Hemingses of Monticello Henry Wieneck’s Master of the Mountain was published and prompted yet another spate of denunciation of Jefferson.

The Hemingses of Monticello is an excellent, eloquently written, thoroughly researched, convincing (perhaps over-argued), and although rightly often quietly indignant and even angry (under control), judicious and yes balanced (sigh) book. It’s as much about slavery and the beginnings of US cultural life in the 18th century, the early colonization of Virginia, the life of Jefferson’s class of people as about members of the Jefferson, Wayles and Hemings kin. The name Hemings honors (as did her children), Elizabeth or Betty Hemings, the woman who was the mother of (at least) 4 wholly African children by a black man, 6 mulatto (as they were called) by John Wayles (Jefferson’s father-in-law) and 2 mulatto by two other white men. She is the patriarch of a large ensuing clan.

I found the book compulsive reading. It’s about American earlier history and race relations today, the origins of some of our excruciating norms and fault-lines. G-R writes eloquently & honestly, nothing falsely upbeat, bringing out fully what is often presented discreetly or not at all. Most compelling in her book were discussions of norms and social and economic circumstances limiting, making people then and now.

G-R has a complicated story to tell and carries several threads and purposes through at once, which I here separate out in order to summarize, epitomize (I will tell stories) and try to evaluate clearly. Her central problem is she must rely on too little documentary evidence, and tries to make up for this by too much speculation at length so the book occasionally becomes repetitive.

She tells of how slavery came to be institutionalized. It was not necessarily in the cards that the western hemisphere would be taken over to make money and grab land and found families on the basis of slavery. Indeed the British driving the French Acadians so brutally from Canada wanted to have non-slave labor in Nova Scotia. But it was too tempting to get someone for free and there was a long tradition before of slavery in the world (seen as mitigation of war — after all the person was not just murdered or as a woman raped and abused until she died), plus in Africa the very bad land for growing (two huge deserts) made it more economical and profitable for African tribes to go to war, enslave the losers and sell them.

The Western Hemisphere set up a different basis for slavery by using race as the central marker of the person who would be enslaved for life. To use the color of someone’s skin was to use a visible marker. Early on then there arose the problem of what happens when a white man fathers a child on a black woman. Is her child a slave? People went to court (black people who hired lawyers too) and those arguing not lost quickly because Roman law was used: that said that if the woman was a slave, her child was a slave in perpetuity. The law favored men having sex when they wanted and other men not losing their property by this. That was a bad day for black people and black women. The difference that one was a slave forever unless you could buy yourself out was the main different between indentured servants who were white and early on every effort was made to allow poor whites to despise and exploit black slaves.

To understand what happened to the Hemings as a result of being literally owned by by white people is the whites did all they could to deprive them of personhood. I own three books on and by Jefferson: Adrienne Koch, ed., introd., Life and selected Writings of Jefferson, Vol 5 of Jefferson the President (on his second term, 1805-9) by Dumas Malone, and Jefferson in Love (the lover letters of Jefferson and Maria Cosway), ed, introd. John P. Kaminksy. In each Jefferson is treated with unqualified respect. We are told of his humanity towards others, his compassionate respect, originality of thought, decency, his real strength of character. In only one (Kaminsky) are his slaves mentioned; in none is justice done to the centrality of his relationship with them.

Jefferson was humanly speaking their brother-in-law (through his first wife), uncle, cousin, of Elizabeth Hemings’ children and grandchildren, the father of 5 children by Sarah (Sally) Hemings. He kept all these people near him, educated the men to be skilled tradespeople, freed his cohort when he felt he had his his moneys’ worth of training them or at the end of his life (after they served him utterly when he needed them with his needs given all priority); and he freed his children by age 21. Sally lived her life from age 14 next to him; was always there for him until he died; she had her own room in his private quarters, was taught to read and write (she spoke French for a while at least); was dressed respectfully, was in effect freed and given wherewithal to live with dignity upon his death. But never once did he write her name down, never once acknowledge what was his relationship with her. He was (as far as we can know) never openly loving as a father to his children by her; he rarely referred to them in writing and then always in coded language.

There is no a single picture of anyone but Isaac Jefferson, the son of Ursula Grainger, who had been Jefferson’s wife’s wetnurse. Like Madison Hemings (Jefferson’s second son by Sally) Isaac was interviewed by a reporter and the resulting writing has come down to us as their memoirs. That’s significant. Most of the people were not photographed until granted the status of people and the right to be remembered.

It will be said he protected his relatives and (in effect) friends this way; given the virulence of hateful prejudice (especially violent because the whites of this culture were so horrible in behavior to these people), he and his white family were also at risk. But never once is there a discernible gesture left of his granting them full person-hood in his eyes. G-R will write that James when freed asked to be treated with dignity and reciprocal need and was not. She suggests that John Hemings found he could not create a self-respecting life of his own after Jefferson died. That the code was never to acknowledge their existence as people around them in writing. Jefferson did clearly treat them as people but quietly, silently and without admitting it. The Hemings are to be erased, not remembered.

And in acting this way he violated something profoundly important in bringing up and interacting with them. as far as we can tell his white relatives behaved similarly. This was his searing sin as chance and his own choices — especially the taking of Sally’s life as his to have — had given him the power over them to have done more right by them.


A chair carved for Jefferson by John Hemings, Elizabeth’s youngest son — his poignant life story emerges late in the book

We begin with Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807, Betty), a mulatto (to use the term used then) woman. Her mother Parthena, a black woman was impregnated by an English captain named Hemings. We know about this by a memoir; he tried to buy her and her infant (his child) out of slavery but Francis Eppes, the owner was not selling. G-R says one reason that most freed slaves found in the US were mulattoes is that often white fathers did feel something for their children and did try to educate or free them occasionally. Parthena and Betty were sold to John Wayles. It seems that Betty was very very pretty — this was important — and also smart. As far as we can tell she was always a house servant. By the time she was in her early teens she was being impregnated by black men — it’s fair to say she was being used as livestock.

John Wayles’s life, character, and economic success is put before us: he was a brutal ruthless determined man, began life in England as working class, a servant and brought to the US and rose to become a lawyer — he had enough education to put out a sign, just. We see how he finagled and the people he had to deal with. When Betty was 18, he took over her body. He had three wives of his own beyond her. His first wife was an Eppes mother of Martha, Jefferson’s wife and when she married she took these half-brothers and sister (not called that of course) into Jefferson’s household and that’s how Jefferson came to own them all.

Elizabeth Hemings is called Wayles’s concubine until he died and then joined the Jefferson family. She was not his common law wife as slaves were outside the law; she did not (as her daughter did) live as a hidden substitute for a wife either. The norm then was to pretend white men didn’t take black women to bed with them as a regular thing. No one discussed it and it was done privately — at night, or discreetly. Jefferson differed in that he didn’t hide Sally in the way others did; at the same time he never wrote down anywhere that Sally was in effect a wife, her children were his & Elizabeth’s were related to his wife as half-siblings. This was part of the code.

The code was to erase black people. They didn’t matter. Who and what they were didn’t count. I see this as relevant to the way class and illegitimacy works today. We — many of us — many have come across cases of illegitimacy where no one writes it down and no one admits to it, sometimes where the child has as a father a kind of cover, the mother’s husband. Socially, as social knowledge, everyone knows who the father is (by time, circumstances, resemblances), but by not admitting to the reality you can hide behind the protections of legal fiction. It also renders powerless the woman involved (white too); the only person who deserves protection will be the biological father and the legal one.

What G-D’s research did was break through this code. She was aided by Jefferson who again did treat the Hemingses differently than his other slaves, not like free people, and not like his legitimate daughters and sons-in-law: whites inherited your property, were your companions in public social life. Black people were unacknowledged intimate companions whom Jefferson rewarded with education and skills and minimum coercion (he expected the system to do that for him). Some white fathers did treat their biological children more decently (like Jefferson) but since records are so sparse even for him(we are dependent on his farm books, these reinforced at long last by DNA studies), it’s very difficult to find instances to study in detail. That’s why the Jefferson and Hemingses are such a gold mine.

I want to stress the class bias too. Wayles was originally a servant who became a lawyer; I said he rose by force of brutal personality, by intelligence and luck. Again and again we see that he was quietly despised by those Virginians who arrived earlier and came from gentry in England. He defended a man, John Chiswell, accused of killing Robert Routledge during a quarrel in a Williamsburg tavern. Snide references to Wayles abound; he is forthright in his own defense; the business was brought to a halt when Chiswell killed himself but the documents show the class side of these world. Very like ours.

When Wayles died, it was against the law in Virginia to free slaves except in cases of “considerable merit” and the standard was high and had to be approved by a governor and council. If you tried to free the negro, the churchwardens of a parish could try to snatch the person and put him or her back into slavery. That’s interesting: it suggests some people did want to end slavery and free their slaves. To do so remember meant depriving your children of considerable amounts of property and people really do want to leave their children what they can. Here she does not mention buying your freedom.


Items Jefferson carried in his pocket

When Jefferson enters the picture, G-D takes time out to give his story. Kierner told too little of Jefferson. It’s important to know his mother was a Randolph. In Virginia this family is still not gone from high social life. We have Randolph-Macon college and Randolph college in mid-Virginia. Jane Randolph was Jefferson’s mother. It’s been said he didn’t love her, or was cold somehow towards her since few papers by him about her survive. G-D suggests they could have gone in a fire, but it is true he was far closer to his father. He was early on recognized as highly intelligent, capable. and educated accordingly. He was close to a sister, Jane. We are told of the men who became his mentors and his patrons and how they pushed him forward. How they knew Wayles from courtrooms and thus Jefferson meet Martha. He was very creative, loved to do mechanics, liked working with his hands, an architect himself and builder. He educated his sons, Beverley, Madison and Eston (by Sally) under the tutelage of of their uncle John Hemings (Elizabeth’s son) to be carpenters. Jefferson would walk round with a compass and other gadgets in his pockets. He read enormously,very verbal, loved music — as did his first wife.

Jefferson was ambitious and from his early days we see a radical thinker. He lost a case because he offended a judge. Samuel Howell brought suit to be freed from indentured servitude. As a punishment for having a child out of wedlock by a black man (get this), Howell’s white grandmother was fined and her child (Howell’s mother) was born out for servitude for 31 years (an average life span); Howell was born during this mother’s servitude. Jefferson worked with extreme diligence to search for any legal precedence or theory that might aid him. His brief included these words; “all men are born free and everyone comes into the world with a right to his person and to use it at his will. This is what is called personal liberty and is given him by the author of nature because it is necessary for his own sustenance.” We are not far from “inalienable rights” here. The judge cut him off in mid-sentence and the man lost the case. Jefferson gave Howell money and soon after Howell ran away and was never heard of again in that area of the US. On the legislation punishing women for having sex with someone of the other race, Jefferson wrote these strictures were to “deter women from the confusion of species which the legislature seems to have considered an evil.” Seems to have is a strongly sceptical note here. (pp. 100-1)

Before he married Jefferson wanted to life his status, and that’s why he began the first Monticello. He and Martha lived on the site in a small house, a sort of one gigantic room where they did everything. It’s apparent that they socialized and networked from the very beginning even in these small quarters. That’s why they needed servants. This house meant a lot to him, so too did spending money and living well. (Thus the later debts.) He did just love Paris and the time he spent there.

Jefferson did quickly single out Elizabeth’s sons (his wife’s half-brothers), Martin (by a black father), Robert and James to travel about, learn trades, hire themselves out and keep their money. He freed Robert and James during their lifetime – they were Sally’s close brothers. He freed all his children by Sally as young adults so they had their lives ahead of them. Three others he freed (more distantly related to him or them) he freed when they were older – and had “earned” it.

He treated black women as feminine, which by his standards means they were not to work in the field and do hard labor. They were house servants and encouraged to dress nice, ornament themselves — like white women. But since they were slaves, the real result of this was they ended up being sex partners of the men in the house. The place was rather like a stereotypical new Orleans: white males pursuing and attaching themselves to light-skinned black women. The norm for black women slaves was to refuse to recognize their ‘femininity” as European standards saw this — so you could work them hard in the fields, endlessly impregnate them and demand they get up and work the next day or so, sell their children and them at will. Jefferson remarked on European peasants how shocking it was that women worked in the fields. In Africa women worked in the ground too. But of course these women were not slaves, not subject to rape.

There is much sympathy for whoever is the underdog throughout. G-R does make us aware of how much his white wife Martha suffered from these yearly pregnancies and how she didn’t have to die at 35

It was a great grief to Jefferson and he really collapsed over it, went into weeks of depressive behavior – stayed alone, couldn’t sleep, would talk to himself. Partly he knew he was partly responsible for her death, since it was he who kept impregnating her. As she lay dying, she asked him not to remarry so as to not put another stepmother in charge of her two girls. This suggests her father’s second and third wives had not been good experiences. He didn’t remarry. Perhaps like Edward Austen and others I’ve come across Jefferson couldn’t see his way to use some form of contraception (other practices beyond full frontal intercourse were known and among others, used by Fanny and Alexandre d’Arblay) or keep away or control himself or treat his wife other than as someone he must use sexually to the full.

Jefferson had also suffered badly as governor. He had been unable to cope with the military part of his office (perhaps partly because he and Washington did not have sufficient funds to cover all the areas they had to) and was for decades afterwards harshly criticized for not using local military to fight Cornwallis in Virginia. When he didn’t, Richmond and then Charlottesville fell to the British and he had to flee and his family too. He had wanted to retire before this — again not understood at all by people of this generation, especially other men. These bouts of retirement recurred after the first wife’s death so they were not just the result of wanting to be with her and his family (his rationale).

G-R tells of how the Hemingses experienced the American revolution. She has some memoirs, oral traditions, and some papers Jefferson kept too, and a later interview of a great-grandson of the Hemingses’ Among other things, when Jefferson fled he left the house in the care of Martin, Elizabeth Hemingses’ oldest son by an unnamed black man. Martin stood up to Cornwallis and would not tell where Jefferson was at threat of death. This is sometimes interpreted as see the loyal black slave. It was actually in his nature, unflinching and aggressive and the kind of person who would rise to be the one in charge were he not have been enslaved. There’s one of this hide the treasures stories. Martin hid Jefferson’s silver and as the soldiers were coming in could not let another black man out in time so Caesar had to stay below for a couple of days and nights.

We see Robert and James, Elizabeth’s sons by the white Wayles, accompanying Jefferson and how they were educated.

Finally Elizabeth and her daughters did the work of the house and were the people who cared for the wife as she lay dying, the hard work of all this. They are never mentioned in white accounts as if they weren’t there, as if Martha did the work. No she ordered them to and probably didn’t closely supervise .That was Elizabeth’s job.. G-D tells of how (ironically/) Martha the white wife signaled out Sally before she died to give Sally a hand-bell as a memento. An ambiguous thing to us as it was this hand-bell Martha used to call Sally by. It does show a particular regard.

Revolving bookstand made in Monticello Joinery in later years

James Hemings, a Provincial Abroad (in Paris)

Not Jefferson, not Patsy his daughter. I’ve not mentioned that one real obstacle G-D has is lack of documentation. So in this chapter where she builds a picture of James’s life in Paris, 1783-87 (and beyond when Sally and Polly arrived, and Jefferson was having his affair with Maria Cosway and Patsy living at the convent still), she has to theorize and use what is known about black people in France in general in this era. (I had to do the same for Anne Finch in my chapter on her girlhood; I talked about what was done usually, what was done in the place and schools she might have gone to.). She suggests that James bought the cloth or clothes for clothes-making. She suggests it was an eye-opener to James to see Jefferson and his daughter outfitting themselves. They had been the high ideal in Virginia. The house probably startled him – and the varied interesting company (which dazzled Jefferson and he loved it.) She tells a couple of stories of other black people that have come into the records and documents, for example John Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart” (about whom I had heard a talk in an EC/ASECS conference at Penn State).

G-D succeeds in persuading us James Hemings had an almost equivalent experience of a white young man who goes on a grand tour. His eyes were opened, his experience enormously widened. His letters of introduction were the apprentice papers that took him to several palaces and several chief French chiefs. He had freedom of movement; Jefferson paid for “all found” (daily food, his lodging in Hotel of course, his clothes). The rest was his.

Did he have free movement? The trouble was racism even in France but this in conflict with “the freedom principle.” Some people wanted to keep blacks out of France (much fewer than in England, some 4-5,000 out of 30 million while in the UK it was 10,-20,000 out of 9 million) and others wanted to free them. The law demanded Jefferson register James’s presence; if James stayed more than 3 years, he was automatically freed. Jefferson got round that by not registering James and we have notes in his handwriting advising others to do the same.

But he did not need an escort of an older white person around as he had in Virginia. No one would beat him up, no one snatch him. Yet the one note we have beyond the apprenticeship noted in Jefferson’s diary is Jefferson’s note sent indirectly to James’s mother: “James is well. He has forgot how to speak English, and has not yet learnt to speak French.” A light kindly joke.

Jefferson’s spectacles and other items Sally kept and handed on to her children

Sally at the Hotel de Langea

Annette G-D says Jefferson did not want Sally to bring Polly; he wanted an older woman. Thus we cannot say he was looking to bring a concubine to Paris for himself. But once he came, that is what G-D thinks he after a little time made Sally into. Inoculated against small pox, while his daughters had typhus, put to stay with a friend she was apparently given nothing to do. G-R says the unusual thing about Sally is she’s never mentioned with any concreteness. He quarrels with Martin, comments on James, sends directives to just about every Hemings but Sally. She is suggestively in one place only said to be his “female chambermaid.” There’s the negative response of Abigail Adams: upon seeing the girl, she urged Jefferson to send her home as not of use, as a little non-effective or puzzling a a 16 year old too old. Abigail thought her 16; she was 14.

So Sally was taken in for the next four decades as Jefferson’s mistress. There are signs she was given French lessons and there are orders for very nice cloth for her. At another point she seems to be included in a group of servants sewing. Women sewed. She did stay in the house most of the time. She was not registered as a slave and this way he could keep her beyond the 3 years without having to worry she’d be free. The convent he put his daughters in freed slaves left there. Keeping them in the convent was also convenient for keeping them out of the way.

He has already begun his dalliance with Maria Cosway and their apparently famous correspondence has begun. I saw a copy of the letters for $1 so I’ll be reading that slender book soon.

For Sally we may postulate she spent time with James down in the kitchen, that she saw and enjoyed what was available through windows. Her life circumscribed like that of her half-nieces, Patsy and Polly. I am struck by the use of euphemism for her in later accounts (which G-R uses): they remind me of the way Eliza Austen’s mother, Philadelphia Austen is discussed as well as the probable illegitimacy of Eliza. Gender makes all women one when the male is powerful and gentry educated.

she does seem to have gotten an allowance — like James. Disposable income. When Jefferson did not need her, she was free to wander about — had to be careful that’s all mainly because she was not registered. (Had no papers you see). (My own comment: there is no record of hats made; I wish there had been.) Oral tradition in Hemings family was she talked of Paris to her dying day; made a huge impression, perhaps like Jefferson himself a very happy time for her. We may even imagine them coming together if not in love as not equals, but both having this good time, older man, younger girl, after all movie not so wrong

Thomas, James, Sally and Patsy go home

Photo of Monticello, 1890

Jeffferson returned to the US thinking he would return soon; he was asked to be Washington’s secretary of state and he could not turn that down — if only for the sakes of others who were attached to him. He also persuaded James and Sally to return with him. Martha was thwarted in love and went perhaps expecting a continued debutante life. Her father married her off within 2 months, to the son of a friend.

She persuades me that the explanation for Sally going home when she could have been freed, and in the paragraph pointed this out to Jefferson, is the relationship was one of trust, affection, and satisfying to both, very much. She had not been raped, though her position shows she could not easily have said no. Once there he treated her very differently than just about all known relationships of white masters and black concubines: she was set up in Monticello, in the house, in the central quarters and lived there (one stray remarks shows this. When there was another illness, she was not called upon to nurse (that’s the second stray phrase). He depended upon her to be there; he wanted her the way a man wants a stay-at-home wife who he is congenial with and comes home to rest by. There are such relationships.

G-R also tells by contrast of terrible relationships: one Celia, age 14 also, this one a rape by a master, put in a cabin of sorts, and raped regularly until she murdered him, burnt his body, and gave the ashes to a grandson. We know about this because there was a court case and interestingly her side was told (by an abolitionist leaning lawyer). She was hung.

She tells of ordinary ones we can track — the white woman kept away or made to work with the other slaves, even if her children were treated better or eventually freed. Very common the older man taking the pubescent girl.

And she tells of Jefferson’s white women. His daughter married off at not quite 17. Now we are told more frankly of Martha’s husband’s violence, and how he came to be over-shone by Jefferson and Martha as much Jefferson’s non-sexual wife as he was Thomas Mann Randolph’s sexual one. Even if they didn’t get along after a short time, her life was one of yearly pregnancies. The girl Nancy shifted over young to a Randolph branch who became the mistress of Randolph’s cousin and the infanticide. Especially the brutality of Martha’s oldest daughter, Anne’s husband, how he beat her and impregnated her to death and nothing much done to stop him. Anne too married off at 16. G-R quotes Kierner to the effect that Martha, Jefferson’s daughter did after that one marry her daughters off much later — or not at all. The non-marrying becomes almost a deliberate choice or option for Martha’s daughters (though at the end they did have to open a school).


With Sally settled into Monticello, Thomas Jefferson is off to New York with her brothers. He is going to be secretary of State to Washington and takes up residence a couple of blocks away from Washington. Their long journey in the snow by carriage. Robert has been spending a lot of time away from his “master” and continues to be given “general passes” (which were frowned on by other whites). He had married a woman named Dolly while Jefferson was in Paris and shortly after they arrive in NY he leaves to visit her. He never asked Jefferson to buy her as Jefferson did buy the spouses of other slaves. He apparently preferred to keep her and his life apart, and he pretty quickly also began to hire himself out. He seems to have led a remarkably independent life — for a slave.

He never ran away. Jefferson’s rule was to sell all slaves who ran away and could be brought back. Not before flogging them harshly and telling the person who bought them not to keep them beyond immediate need but sell again. Not kindly there, was he?

James settled down to being chef. In the film Jefferson’s attitude is voiced: he felt that James owed him a couple of years of being a chef and to train others before he freed him. He was again given an allowance. Both NYC and Philadelphia were places where the nature of liberty and freedom were part of life and ardent discourse. NYC had a sizable number of black people, some free. The talk was a spillover of the French revolution going on just now — as well as reaction to what was happening in England (strong repressive measures as well as war and depression).

Jefferson also began to have usual illnesses, psychological in origin these, migraines. James is mentioned each and every day of the diary; it was he who went and got Jefferson his medicine. She makes the point that James and Sally Hemings probably knew Jefferson intimately as well perhaps better than anyone else.

High Street, Philadelphia, 1799: James lived on this street in the 1790s

But soon the capital was moved to Philadelphia and so Jefferson and now 4 servants (2 non slaves) moved there. He felt he was going to be permanent enough so Jefferson never seems to have moved anywhere without full scale renovation. He began this – always the big library and something like 89 boxes of books. (I begin to identify though not with the renovation and moving.)

G-R presents a much more positive view of Jefferson than she could have; her purpose was to persuade as many readers as possible to take an interest in, respect the lives of the Hemingses and that’s served best by judiciousness.

In Paris, there are often conflicts between servants and also would be between slaves and servants and from some of these emerge information and insight into James Hemings’s life — because white people left documents. One French servant’s wife, Seche, alleged another indulged in “sodomy” and that he loved men. Petit demanded Seche’s wife get out. Since Jefferson’s longer relationship was with Petit, and he needed Petit’s services, more the Seches had to leave. We have a letter from Jefferson showing him using a confidential direct personal note with Petit. Petit refers in a letter back to “Gimme” (James) and “Salait” (Sally). Jefferson did not hing about this taboo behavior — as he never appeared to try to punish or ostracize his son-in-law’s sister, Nancy when her brother-in-law impregnated her and participated in an infanticide.

This keeping his cool is characteristic of Jefferson. There exists a correspondence from these years between a black free man, Benjamin Banneker, from Maryland; Banneker presents an almanac to Jefferson who write back with great respect and sends the almanac to Condorcet and then helps Banneket get a place (job) as an assistant in surveying land for the Federal District (p. 475). This was going beyond just courtesy and helping quietly.
Now 18 years later it was charged that Jefferson helped Banneker in his superior almanac and then became a target of those who hated his support for the French revolution, his mild anti-slavery and when Banneker and his friends printed Jefferson’s correspondence with this man, Jefferson simply kept quiet about it (p 477)

G-R suggests at the time of the original correspondence Jefferson might have told James Hemings about it.

Jefferson had no problem in offering common courtesies to black people in public. He once rebuked a grandchild for not bowing back to a black man who bowed to them in the streets (p 477). He referred to servants as Mrs, so Henrietta a washerwoman was called Mrs Gardiner , p 479. Things like this count. A lot. There’s a stray remark by someone later on (oral tradition) that Sally had her own room apart from Jefferson at Monticello. Her own space.
I’ve been snubbed and know how much it hurts. I can’t bear when someone calls me by my last name without the title; it’s disrespectful, abrasive. It would’ve cost so little to the person doing the snubbing is what I keep my eyes on. But to have given her a room of her own goes beyond this.

The story of how the three black men who were so close to Jefferson finally left him — were freed – is ambiguous too. The chapter is called Exodus (the allusion to the Bible). Mary, Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest daughter by a black man was sold to Colonel Bell, the white man who had become her substitute husband. Jefferson believed all women ought to be under the control of a white man. But he only sold with her her younger children; he did let all her family go, her “older” children, including Joseph Fossert then 12 and his sister, Betsy, 9, stayed on as slaves. Joseph was a talented artisan. To understand this takes a lot of trouble since the language used to describe it in the letter is so coded.

Elizabeth’s oldest son, Martin, called “the fierce son of Betty Hemings” by Lucy Stanton (a later reporter), the man who held Jefferson’s house together while Jefferson fled during his time as governor during the revolution, quarrel, and Jefferson writes that he will sell Martin at Martin’s request to a man Martin approves of — Jefferson’s tone is of one furious. In another note (earlier the selling of Martin is referred to as the equivalent of selling a chariot). But in fact this did not happen (tempers cooled?), Martin stayed on in Monticello for 2 months and then went to NYC (or DC). He was quietly freed and heard of no more in the documents.

The second son, Robert was just as bad. When the quarrel occurs Jefferson says James is “abandoning” him. It’s been told that a deal was worked out where Robert’s wife’s owner bought Robert and then Robert from his saving re-pay Stras and thus be free. Again Jefferson felt this was somehow dumped on him unexpectedly; that he had expected more years of services, and you see hurt and anger. A kind of bitter lament referring to what he had taught Robert (including barbering). Jefferson thought one could build emotional capital with a slave but he does not realize at no point can Robert really assert his identity or what he is or choose freely. All is given and he is to be grateful; much is demanded and he to be quiet.

A tense struggle occurred at the end of Jefferson’s time with James show Jefferson expecting reciprocation from James and (like many powerful people who are higher than you say) not understanding how James must’ve seen the relationship. Jefferson’s notes about James have phrases like his “desiring to befriend” James. Jefferson wants James to stay on as cook after they go home from Philadelphia after the ordeal of his time as secretary of state.
Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, much younger than any of the others is sold to James Munroe.

Elizabeth herself retired to a cottage much as Sally did at the end of her life. It was an arrangement which freed her in fact but where the Jefferson carried on paying her expenses and protecting her from “snatching.”

The analogy G-R uses much earlier is a propos: Baldwin says that when someone would give him a small version of what Baldwin felt others (whites) got much bigger how it embittered him; it was not a reconciler. I understand that too. You are not grateful. G-R “they did not want to give their very lives to him any more than he would have wanted to give his life to them.” The shows of devotion while slaves are not to be taken at face value and Jefferson could not understand this. He was also unusually powerful and respected and they knew this. He could and would help him. but to be with him was “emasculating” too says G-R — as it was for Martha’s husband, the son-in-law.

The one person who did not leave was Sally. Her decision to return to France permanently fixed her in his orbit until he died.

Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s other plantation, a retreat for all, black and white, late in Jefferson’s life

Continued in comments.


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Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother (Matthew MacFayden) and Kostya Levin, the 2nd major contrast to Anna (Domnhall Gleeson)

Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley): a cut off promotional shot (not in film) of her in a long red robe, filmed from afar (as described); she’s fulfilled the promise of Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of Carribean (2003), The Duchess (2008)

Friends, readers, if you see one extravaganza of costume, virtuouso acting, stunning shots, from a brilliant book, let it be Wright and Stoppard’s Anna Karenina. Stoppard and Joe Wright have translated Tolstoi’s masterpiece into a filmic masterpiece which uses a theater combined with far shots on location (contradicting what is led into and out of) and substituting stylized comedy and at times operatic rushes of scenes for Tolstoi’s realism, with a great deal of effective help from Keira Knightley (she ought to get the Oscar for this), Matthew MacFayden (is there a type left he has not played), Jude Law as Karenin (another actor who escapes typing and as the unimaginative yet intense and idealistic husband searingly hurt is not recognizable)

Law dissolves into the blackness of this brooding shot;

and luxury casting for minor parts (Olivia Williams as Stiva’s mother; Shirley Henderson as a very nasty woman at the opera who humiliates Anna for sitting by her in a box; Michelle Dockery as the frozen friend who will be seen with Anna anywhere, everywhere because society is all:


What made it was Stoppard’s use of the theater (to be expected from Stopppard, given his oeuvre) together with Wright’s Lawrentian sexual drenching and effective juxtapositions of crashing and still scenes. The film opens in a theater, ends in one; at the same time into the theater (which is again and again redone) is projected the most realistic of happening, people, animals events and they are used with striking insight and effect. Sometimes the characters are wandering about in a deep backstage where they meet other characters and suddenly the scene switches to a real house, or field, or street or the train. Then inside the theater Anna walks into a blended home environment and is asking permission of Karenin to visit her incorrigibly promiscuous brother, Stiva, in order to persuade Stiva’s many-timed pregnant wife, Dolly —

Kelly-MacDonald-in-Anna-Kareninathewifewho acceptsblog
After Anna goes to live with Vronsky, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), says she wants to invite Anna to hers, but she does not — utterly conventional and kindly throughout and this a normative moment, common film-making

— to forgive him. Anna then walks out into a train, powerful real, a trip where she meets Vronsky’s mother. This first one ends suddenly someone throwing himself or be mistake getting caught under; we return periodically to the train station and of course end there is a terrifyingly held moment as she stands there just before the final leap.

Here’s a six-minute clip offered by Wright online to show his film: his theatrically staged sequence.

The film’s worst flaw is seen here: the wooden acting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky until about half-way through the film when he seems to become an electrifying center of whole scenes — as when he drives a horse across a stage too roughly, the poor animal falls with a crash, moans, groans, and as Vronsky T-J shoots the beast. The character is so real in the novel, so fully examined, as a very ordinary man whom the singular Anna is attracted to for his sweet easiness, congeniality. In Tolstoy, Anna’s guilt preys on her and makes her prey on Vronsky. Karenin has a depth of feeling, but is emphatically rigid once he sees his husbandly devotion goes for nothing with Anna. After conquest, Vronsky grows irritated as Anna becomes frantic with her losses.

Perhaps the film-makers thought this paradigm nowadays would not be liked so they made their Vronsky sustainedly in love. He is driven to throw Anna off when the society’s treatment of them and her suspicions of him because he is accepted and goes about with beautiful women still tear them apart. T-J may have been picked because he is nearly as beautiful as Rupert Freud (he was that type). Anna pretends not to care about the ostracizing, but she does. She misses her son. Where T-J is effective is after Anna (as it were) goes mad and he can match her inner wildness with a distraught aggressive sensuality.


So as the movie progressed, the whole experience of film-making may have engulfed T-J and he came up to it. He did what he needed to do in the scene where he furiously and meanly drives a horse to the ground and then shoots it to death. This is the most savage scene in the film and montage, placement, are intended in filmic ways to make a woman stop and think before marrying a man such as Vronsky.

Keira Knightley has become a great actress and Matthew MacFayden has again proved himself one as insouciant comic Oblonsky. She is actually somewhat heavier than she used to be. She now has upper arms. Her wardrobe is just spectacular. More than that it’s aesthetically right in so many scenes.

One stands out in my mind: she’s in a scarlet red robe standing by a window, everything else dusk or grey and white light. She’s smoking and staring out the window. Vronsky In some of the traumatic scenes beginning in the last quarter her face begins to take on a new look. You would not recognize her. I long to see it again the way I did her in The Duchess. I’d say The Duchess (based on Amanda Foreman’s take on the life of Georgiana Spencer) was self consciously feminist and that came out of the material adapted.

In the movie the material is proto-feminist: the point is made repeatedly that Anna cannot escape Karenin, she cannot take her child; it is she who is ostracized, she who is powerless to act freely. An emphatic contrast is made between her brother, Oblonsky whose casual adultery with a governess (of course fired) the film opens with; she visits his wife, Dolly (Kelly MacDonald) and with no trouble really gets Dolly to forgive him, and by the end of the film Oblonsky is back having affairs again. Neither his appetite or job is at all disturbed until the last moment of the film, when he and his again devoted forgiving and pregnant wife have Levin and his wife, Dolly, to stay with them. We see Stiva (of all people) grieving behind a door.

It’s quite different from Tolstoi’s novel, some of departures necessary to make a somewhat misogynistic religiously seen adultery accepted The primary moralistic Levin story in the book (it ends the book) is made tertiary in the film. Levin is sucha an other as Eliot’s Adam Bede. In Stoppard’s version Levin has much to learn from Kitty who when she first saw him was a shallow ancient regime flirt. Levin who works alongside his peasants (troubling them by so doing according to Tolstoi) would have ejected his alcoholic brother, who have been bankrupted by gambling, especially with his ex-prostitute wife. After Kitty realizes Levin’s “worth” and marries him, and comes to the farm, Kitty sponges down the brother with the help of this “whore” and she and her sister-in-law become linchpin types within a family and agricultural system. This is in Tolstoi (minus any concern for reform).

The medium itself throughout, reasserting itself: a theater:

Are we on stage? in the lobby? in a street with snow? it’s a fantasia


But for me Anna’s story is what matters: in Stoppard she is an open rebel at first — after meeting Vronsky; she is not a cow, not a sowing instrument. Both Tolstoy and Stoppard’s Annas want an individual life, companionship, conversation and yes good sex.

In these novels, a long period of erotic awakening turns into a similar slow burn of disillusion and then, despairing, self-destruction. Amidst this we keep our souls alive.

To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive. — R. L. Stevenson

Anna_Kareninathe dancingblog

In Tolstoi Anna does not stand for these principles — or they are presented as evil and perverse, unreal, disguises for sinful appetite. I read the novel as I do Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves where the princess has fallen for a Jungian animus. Vronsky is a type descending also from Austen’s S&S (Willoughby), and includes motifs like Trollope’s Burgo Fitzgerald’s cruelty to his horse in CYFG? signalling what he would be to a wife or mistress.

The whole paradigm originates in the 18th century and is usually presented as a warning lesson for the awakened woman. This is how Roger Shattuck in his Forbidden Knowledge sees it. He inveighs against the alternative view which urges women and men to liberate themselves. Recent women’s novels use the paradigm to show women’s lack of freedom, e.g.,. Sarah Waters’ (Affinity); A. S. Byatt’s Possession. When gone into personally with no imposed lessons it’s still verboten, and you can find women novelists using pseudonyms; one great one is an Italian novel, the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment.

One long swoon


I expect that Wright and Stoppard are hoping to have this Xmas hit (remember The King’s Speech?), to win over Les Miserables. I did love the costumes and far shots. This is a favorite, again a cut-off shot from the Net but in the film we see a wide scene of a platform, snow, mist, hear the sounds, and then zero in on her in that outfit:



It’s not happening as yet in my local moviehouse. The theater was only half full. Why? it’s a woman’s story as told, not a man’s. Recently I’ve watched a series of films by women: Agnieska Holland’s The Secret Garden and Washington Square were among them. Again, both make explicit the tabooed point of view that is left implicit in the original text and by viewers sometimes overlooked or denied, with a far greater delicacy of approach. Here is a more delicate moment which might make us remember a cutting painful scene in Emma: Wright and Stoppard opt for playfulness; Levin and Kitty try to reach one another through alphabets:

Kitty (Alicia Vikander) and Levin

What makes this a male film out of a male book? In Tolstoi is the great sympathy Wright gives the conventional male (that’s why Levin survives into the film too). In this clip that Wright authorized on line we have both males, Vronsky and Karenin; in Tolstoi it’s Anna who is contrasted to Levin; here the contrast is Vronsky (macho promiscuous male) versus Karenina (Mr Knightley under great strain in an amoral court world). The film ends with Levin and his wife sitting down to dinner with Oblonsky (who has to retreat for a moment) and his and Karenina who ends up in the meadow with his and Vronsky’s child, with Anna under the ground.

Shall we feel for male who holds society up, Karenin or the male who disrupts it, Vronsky? and it’s not fair that Stiva, however he loved his sister, gets away with it. (D. H. Lawrence stuff; see also Atonement). By contrast, Tolstoi’s book is with Anna (ultimately the most moral character in the book) and Levin (the second most, on a conventional plain) as his tragic and hard-working poignant cynosures; they are sincere, authentic. They do not resign themselves like Oblonsky’s wife Dolly.

It is a woman’s film because it dwells on women, how they look, we are invited to gaze at them again and again as women and as men.

I’ve never read the whole novel. As with Moby Dick where I skipped alternative chapters: I was so irritated by Levin I passed all chapters with him as focus. That left me with a much slenderer novel, half the structure. I’m also not sure whose text I read, who was the translator. Nowadays that makes me ashamed — not the reading every other chapter.

This film makes me want to read the whole novel, slowly, or listen to a great reader read it. Does anyone know of any powerful great reader who has done this on MP3s available generally?


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Gustavo (Marcelo Alvaraz) and Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky

So, friends and readers,

They sang their hearts out and acted the parts superbly well. To begin with what what is most memorable, second most and so on: Dimitri Hvorostovsky as the sexually betrayed husband best friend to the king, Count Anckarstrom (Renato), baritone in his role in the third act, was shaking from his controlled hysteria at his wife and decision (just) not to kill her when he’d done his magnificent long aria.

Count Anckarstrom, Renato (Dmitri Hovorostovsky)

Stephanie Blythe as the sybil Ulrica, as her name reveals a Scott like mad prophecy moment turned into the nervous cynical court fortune teller was superb; her entrance in trailing coat and sleuth-woman hat which she then took off they improved on what in the opera has become cliched stuff. She was attention-getting with her pocketbook with its large gold clasp, cigarette and flask (liquor):

Ulrica (Stephanie Blythe), Gustavo, Oscar, Gustavo’s page (Kathleen Kim)

Suddenly I wish I knew what Scott was available in Italian and what the Italian texts were like. The graveyard scene (contradictory as were they all with its Icarus ceiling and white walls):

Amelia, Gustavo, Renato

Act 3 is songfest, from extraordinary alluring thrilling melodies, to ominous choruses. The set as a whole, symbolic on top, walls, including the soprano in a slip falling against a white wall with a single large symbolic object nearby reminded me of Willy Dekker’s Traviata. David Alden was the producer and Saul Steinberg the set designer and they have clearly been influenced by Euro-trash (as it’s called operas) as well as Broadway too.

Stark was the aim, simplify and symbolize the mode.


The opera does have problems. One could say of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito there’s more there; they could do this or that. This one is what it is. It feels ungrateful to say that but it’s more dated than Traviata: the complicated plot for example. And the depiction of women’s chastity with the implication that if she had had a full sexual relationship with the king, she would have been abhorrent is deeply anti-women — especially as the opera is ultimately based on a real 18th century king and his court, Gustavus of Sweden who took the wife of his chief supporter and courtier for his mistress. Many plays of the Jacobean era show this was common; other sources show the way a married couple could rise in court was that she become the king’s mistress. They also show inevitably often the “cuckolded” man became humiliated and sometimes killed the wife and/or the king or tried to (e.g., Beaumont and Fletcher’s King and No King). The original, Una vendetta, had political matter which is feebly reflected because of the censorship. At the real court there was a fortune teller, who when she told of the king’s death and it came true, was shunned.

It is true that had Verdi been able to explore some truths about politics at court, this would have been a sizzling important opera. Had he been able at least to present as aspect of where revolutions come from, court coteries, ditto. If we knew something of his preoccupations, something never gone into or rarely during intermissions. As he was not, and they do not, the opera remains contradictory, half-baked partly senseless antics leading nowhere. It feels ungrateful to say this but it should be said. As Clement says in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women or Kerman in his Opera as Drama, the content of the opera matters.

It is what it is, and the Met did its best to make the emotions that are believable effective, resonate. They provided absorbing entertainment through the masque background, costumes, and intermission material.

So I enjoyed it and was glad we went. I really feel it was the first time I truly saw it. I understood it for the first time, the subtitles of course did that, and the staging underlined what was happening inwardly. So for the first time I was roused by the music — having understood the content of the lyrics and what the gestures of actor-singers meant. Sondra Radvanovsky: first time I ever saw her; she effective.

Amelia in her chair Hamlet-like over a skull, Ulrica behind her

During his interview Dmitri Hvorostovsky swaggered and preened, and looked out at the audience and camera instead of at Deborah Voight, but he sang so well and is attractive. The tenor Marcelo Álvarez had a feel for it as an Italian opera, and that’s what it is, complete with comic fishermen, smugglers, men laughing at a cuckold, patriotic choruses. Oscar (Katherine Kim) didn’t make any sense in his white suit with white wings, the job was to provide a coloratura soprano throughout. I’m glad we went even if in insight into the human condition this was the equivalent of a pop melodramatic movie of 1950s TVm a proto-Sopranos.

Middle career Verdi. The soaring of Traviata, Rigoletto (a new production coming up this season), La Forza del Destino, Trovatore. Who can resist these if well done?

What the roving camera shows before the opera, during the interviews, just afterwards central to experience

It is real fun, an education, fascinating to watch the crews during most of the intermissions. (There are some where there is little for stagehands to do.) The stage is somehow not quite de-mystified. You are in on what’s happening behind the screen. We love that. This time we witnessed (if you were watching a small spat between the chief carpenter, head of the crew, and one of his people protesting apparently against being asked to clean the mirror-glass. Beneath his dignity, not important enough.

It takes hundreds of people to put up the scenes the curtains open up on. You learn a lot about staging as you watch them.

You feel part of the here, now alive aspect of things because the camera shows us the audience. They cannot see us, but we see them.

I can find no shots online of Deborah Voight (soon to be Cassandra in Les Troyens) as hostess for the interviews this time. I didn’t expect to. Nor probably Susan Graham (soon to be Dido in Les Troyens). None of the tech people and crews moving, pulling down, putting up pieces of staging.

The interviews and watching the crew set up the stage are part of what we the movie-house audiences are offered — and cannot be seen by the live people in the house. It adds a lot — pace each hostess’s mantra about how much better it is to be in the house, I’d say from the second tier up it’s not. We are taken to the costume shop, to the dressing rooms, hear taped interviews with composers and directors that can be informative, watch rehearsal sessions.

So a little on these.

Digital Camera
Bootleg photo of intermission scene that I found on the Net — possibly by someone using a cell phone

This time, as I say, Deborah Voigt did it; she frequently has (as also Renee Fleming). They are personable and seem comfortable, feel like they are ad-libing, are comfortable and can cope with whatever their interviewees say or do. At one point the camera allowed us to see Deborah chatting with the two people she was about to interview from afar (while we watched the sets set up — and hard physical labor it was too) and I could see she had a teleprompter with the words she was to say facing her. That with its words is usually unseen by movie-house viewers.

The ability to be hostess (or host) takes a very different kind of talent to that of singer-actor within the opera play-world. Sondra Radvanovsky was the hostess I saw for the Otello, whose behavior was so cliched and absurd, so frozen. She could not get herself to react spontaneously enough — or seem to — the interviewed. So as a singer-actress I’d never have identified her as the same person. She certainly didn’t remind me of the stiff cliched inappropriately (for her body) overdressed, over-sexed hostess. Joyce Didonato was marvelous as Sycorax and in the interview done “at sea-level” in this production of her practicing Maria Stuarda promises a stunning performance. She was a very poor hostess, dull, lifeless.

As hostess (or host), you don’t have the mask of “being in your character” and you come out as partly yourself. So no or not-as-much hiding. Since inveighing against Radvanovsky’s super-tight, super-sexy outfit, I’ve since realized that the clothes the host or hostess wears (and jewels the hostess wears) are provided by the Met. There are credits saying Miss so-and-so dressed by. I didn’t know that. So Radvanosky was dressed by the Met that way.

Jim tells me that Radvanosky is said to have a gay following (fans who refer to her as Sondra); this kind of thing is known. Maybe she was dressed that way because of this perceived following. Renee Fleming by contrast has not. I’ve noticed what I’d call snobbery towards Fleming among people who go to opera; they call her vulgar! vulgar. Opera itself, the whole thing, including house is an extravaganza of vulgarity on one level — crass, unashamed revelling in luxury, in the apparatus of wealth: let’s pretend to be aristocrats going to a palace. But I grant Fleming may be is perceived as “wholesome: and her roles and outfits as hostess are all traditionally feminine.

Photo of Fleming from a story telling of how she is gone to for hostess type help

I would believe that the women singers especially have some say in what they are going to wear too. The older ones do have this problem of ideals of youth and real slimness. I’ve been told that Deborah Voigt had the operation where you have your stomach stapled to make herself thin enough to do the heroine role in the Ring. I can see that Radvanosky is still playing sexy young or youngish women. She may feel — as some women do – that dresses that are youthful and tight make her look younger and thinner. I should probably on principle sympathize (feel for “my sisters”), but I’ve a real distaste for clothes that announce people as super-rich and glamorous and my experience is looser things that swirl around your body make you look smaller at least and maybe thinner. But these sort of looser clothes are not glamorous. Those who dress the actress-singer and she collaborating study carefully each choice of clothes.

Deborah Voight is dressed slightly mannishly in suit-like outfits, shoulder-length blonde hair in a flip page-boy.

Telling: the hosts just wear tuxes, much less trouble and yet despite the women having troubles such as I’ve suggested, for the 4 year period we’ve been going I can count on one hand how many times there has been a male host. Three times is all I remember. The first time we went: Thomas Hamsen was personable, handsome, but he never did it again of those I’ve gone to. We have gone to a concert of his at the Carnegie.

Eric Owens, the brilliant black singer who was so marvelous as Alberich in Wagner’s Ring: he seemed embarrassed to do it, determined to come out all sweetness and light, utterly harmless. So he was countering myths about black men — by contrast, let’s recall he had played Alberich using from deep within himself his own felt resentments as an outsider. On the stage as singer he has a mask; not as host.

And once Placido Domingo. He was charming and unashamed in asking for money. I could imagine his pitch at fund-raisers. But he was a bit unusually stiff, watching himself. Too much is riding on the success of these HD productions? more than money perhaps?

Photo of tech crew backstage found on the Net

To conclude, I had an exchange of email letters with a friend who has been going to these HD operas for about 6 years and (like us) goes to the European operas transmitted by HD. He buys a season ticket to the Met nowadays and this year is going to several operas from La Strada, the Royal Opera House and elsewhere in NYC movie-houses. He wrote: “I have the busiest opera schedule this season I’ve ever had.” He’s even nowadays going to the New York City opera “something I haven’t done in years. Most of this is due to the fact that HD productions are the greatest thing since macaroni.”

Us too. Jim is planning several of these Eurocinemas. We’ll get to see Lohengrin, two more operas with the very handsome Jonas Kauffman, two more with the magnificent Simon Keenleyside. We nowadays go to Opera Lafayette, in summer Castleton in Virginia and Wolf Trap. I seems we hardly have a month without an opera. It’s hard to find time to go to an ordinary movie. And I remember years where we never saw one opera, especially when PBS goes through periods of not doing them — lest they put off an audience who never watch PBS anyway.

I read some in the audience in the Met theater are resentful. They complain they suspect the staging is nowadays done for the movie-houses. (They can see the cameras this year.) Why should they (those who do) pay $300 a seat, when we poor plebs pay $20. This is not the first time technology has made available to many what was once available only to a few. And this has changed what’s available — often with some disadvantages coming in.

I’ve no doubt this new technology and all the new kinds of staging, scenic design, half-Broadway productions will bring in a much bigger traditional audience of classical music lovers, usually older people with time and money to go on weekends and weekdays or evenings. It will bring in younger people too: again and again I see Izzy so charmed by the younger singers in the present productions as well as the more modern operas. She loved The Enchanted Island. Doing so many a year will exert pressure to expand the repertoire into the baroque and modern. It already has. Everyone must really act. The production design must be good and appropriate. All this may cause new 20th and 21st century operas to be mounted, and then more written. These can speak to us the way a Un ballo en maschera can’t.

As to the disadvantages, they have not yet emerged — except the pressure on singers to look conventionally young and beautiful. That was happening already.


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‘They are surely happy,’ said the prince, ‘who have all these conveniencies, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts.’ —Samuel Johnson, Rasselas

… still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments — Jane Austen of Anne Elliot, Persuasion

What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. if we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”—— Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Emma Thompson as Carrington in the 1995 film of that name, Jonathan Pryce as Lytton Strachey, scripted & directed by Christopher Hampton, adapted from Michael Holroyd’s biography — today she’d be on the Net, and a laptop might be in front of him too

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve had several thoughtful responses and have been moved to write again taking on a new aspect of the topic, or at any rate, a different perspective and emphasis.

I wrote my paper in 2006 and would like to think there has been progress in the area of understanding cyberspace experience itself as well as how cyberspace impacts on physical local (so to speak) space and vice versa. That people continue to try to understand the first, the interaction between physical/local space and what happens in cyberspace is so; this morning I saw a Call for Papers whose subtitle is “The Digital Turn” and its interest is how cyberspace is affecting book history studies; what they are after is how power relationships are changing and thus what’s written about. They are not concerned with cyberspace experience in and of itself. People who are those who would not be interacting with others the way they do if not for cyberspace and are listened to (say bloggers who are political but not hired by conventional newspapers or political organizations) are partly to blame for this, for that’s how they justify their presence on the Net. They are there for influence and social connection. To be sure, the latter is a strong part of why all people are on the Net, but it does not go anywhere near far enough in understanding what happens here.

And that’s hard. It’s one thing to say that content is only part of what’s happening and maybe not the most important, especially surface content; it’s another to try to articulate what are the equivalents to physical of what’s happening that influence content and make people behave on the Net the way they do. It’s easy to describe this through connection. Women learn early on to fear violence and humiliation; ergo, they are afraid, and rightly for them safety is the central issue. For men not so much; my experience here is men say (in off-list communications is where you learn this sort of thing) they don’t trust the other person posting; they can know too little for sure about them unless they’ve met them face-to-face or have some certain history about them and know this is their identity. This trust connects to holding onto a job and promotion and pride (saving face) — issues central to manliness, respect as a man as understood by our society.

And it’s not hard to take what is known about women’s psychology growing up — the real importance of intimate friendship as a support mechanism — and try to see how this works. The woman one commenter mentioned who pretended to be a male is escaping these continual influences or pretends she is. This woman was apparently (someone known to all) a tenured professor. I suggest therefore she is also successful because she is credentialed high. Katha Pollit has that and it makes a big difference in how people react to her postings on the Net.

Two responses were about false identities on the Net. One friend I know revels in games where he says that in fact these false identities are aspects of ourselves that we get to be, or act out (using the common life is a stage metaphor) there where we can be them nowhere else. Another inveighed against it when the identity was presented as real on a list-serv or blog. Said she was “very offended,” a phrase I note that is not much in use in physical local space but is a common way of beginning a debate or quarrel with someone on the Net. It’s put in polite terms but what it means was “you piss me off” or “how dare you,” a stance people don’t dare face-to-face unless they are willing to take the argument very far (into something physical or vengeful).

I do dislike intensely the false identities on the Net but know from the get-go, in its origin, people immediately began to take advantage of that, and a lot of people appear to love it. Those who play games don’t seem to care in the least that what they are doing will have nothing to do with what happens in real space. At least they hope so. (Sometimes they are caught up and find they are badly hurt in the real world because they have believed a false identity). I find it to be cheating, a fundamental lying but that’s because I want experience on the Net to count, though it need not in regular physical space to count.

The reality is there are a whole group of peculiar circumstances on the Net not replicated in regular physical space which are at work (how is it she speaks to me? knows something, though not much, of me? she does), elements which keep some people from posting (all these unknown make them nervous) and which encourage others to post (I’m more comfortable and freer when I am not looking at someone’s face, can speak so much more freely). The largest is it’s a writing space; you have to have a writing self, love writing and not be bothered with revealing this self which is a more private self than the social one.

In my paper the best book was Technology and Women’s Voices: Keeping in Touch (ed. Chris Kramarae) and after that Women@Internet (ed. Wendy Harcourt) because they really genuinely looked at women — for example, that we are so much less technically educated, so much more uncomfortable with technology — but both and (from the title you see this) Communities in Cyberspace essays (ed Marc C. Smith and Peter Kollock) include one on women tenants empowering themselves to fight a local landlord) (are often most on about how cyberspace and regular physical space interact. A slew of individual essays in periodicals were very good too but I no longer remember which was most helpful. For me whose identity is partly that of an academic these were Jill Arnold and Hugh Miller, “Same Old Gender Plot? Women Academics’ Identities on the Web,” paper presented at Cultural Diversities in/and Cyberspace Conference, University of Maryland, 2000; Jill Arnold and Hugh Miller, “Academic masters, mistresses and apprentices: gender and power in the real world of the web,” Mots Pluriels, 19 (October 2001).

My husband Jim taught Information Technology: he’d have 1 or 2 women to 11or 12 men every time. Conferences are 90% male and the women there are often in personnel. The kind of talk men indulge in as social grease is highly sexist and makes women uncomfortable. Men don’t want these women there so they can carry on that way.

I concluded that the internet was an equivalent of the railway in the 19th century in changing our world because I took on that aspect too. People using the railway did not get to say where it would stop or how be organized. That’s what women are today still.

But today I want to begin to dwell on another aspect, one as or more crucial. You can see it’s ignored because most photos on the Net are of people apart from their home environment, on a laptop, shown in business places, out on the street (buying hotdogs as a joke), and mostly with other people around, people in rows with laptops. That’s not accurate. Yes the cell phone has become a little computer in our hands, but that’s someone phoning someone else, acting pragmatically most of the time, killing time too, distracting themselves as with crossword puzzle. It’s not computer cyberspace experience that leads to blogs, websites, web-rings, list-servs.

Much of that time on the Net is spent at home, alone outside (it can be a common room, a library, a coffee place where you can sit for hours), ensconced in an individualized environment.


People’s computers and laptops are at home, an essential part of the whole environment, but just one part

It needs someone or a group like that of Freud and his early disciples to really delve this new area of life, new way of communication. A great deal of what people write is about how a newspapers and communities in regular conventionally organized physical space are impacted by someone who has the courage to break social and political codes, manners, and tell real truths or falsehoods on the Net. It’s not just a matter of finding analogies for family life. Maybe it seems impossible to do but in the 1880s it would have seemed crazy to come up with Freud’s theories and nowadays it’s all commonplace and some of it essential to understand what happens to us. My intuition tells me we have to begin with a new experience of solitude (with others there and not there), how this is recuperative. Then how people feel when they are alone in the pre-cyberspace way, and how much this empowers some when they know they are alone (and hence as women in the immediate sense safe) and how these feelings are transformed into something new. What kind of person does it empower? why? what has been their background to make them feel so? we have to get over dismissing the very real urge of people to be asocial at crucial moments of their lives.

We need to think about how much we can reach on the Net and why it is so vital to keep it un-exclusive. How much information and insight one can have in a day by reading on the Net it would not just take years of books to have, but would not be in books. What are the conventions of postings, list-servs, blogs, webrings that make them so different from what is put into still unchangeable print.

We need to think about why face-book where people do identify themselves and form small but distant groups is so enjoyable. Not scold people and despise them as delusional. They are not. We need to understand the dysfunctional nature of a lot of physical local life and how hollow it can be, impossible to find any satisfaction in. What happens at twitter? Why is this place important to the people doing it, not the important people outside the Net quoting and writing about it.

We need to be frank and examine the hurts people experience on the Net. What are the specific circumstances each time? how did the relations unravel when they would not have in physical local space apart from not being face-to-face. What was allowed and what came out? What were the results? If we cannot tell them aloud to others on the Net individually, think individually and then generalize.


Finally, two people, one the same as the above, brought up the issue of gender lying. Both women. I wonder if men would bring this up. It’s a separate issue. She said to watch a woman, say Sally, pretend successfully to be a man, discuss football, sex as a man, be aggressive and be respected (and perhaps help Sally’s life outside the Net) made her want to be a man intensely. It is possibly true that a woman can and experience power because on the Net she can have an imaginative experience of being a man, and in cyberspace that’s as good as physical experience. There is such a thing as internet sex. For my part, I would never want to be a man, never have. I don’t know how usual or unusual that is for someone who is a feminist. I don’t care that being a woman gives me much less power in most areas because my experience is this particular lack is not much worse than my class (which I saw robbed me from the time I could understand my environment), who I was born to, how little money or connections I had in growing up or after.

It’s not just the old Austen saying (Anne Elliot) that we like ourselves best after all and do not want to trade (see epigraphs at the top of the blog). It’s that I know myself fundamentally as a woman that’s what I want to be. I do think of myself first as much a woman as a person. Frankly (Rhett Butler stuff) I’m relieved that I never have had anyone tell me I had to support a family, had to have a certain kind of job to do so. I’m glad to have options women are given like staying home if I have another source of income beyond marketplace work remuneration. I’m glad to be free by option of having to do well in social interaction to rise to power. It’s not expected of women and they can survive without it and (if they have brains) even now when masculine values have taken over women’s worlds, can still ignore or cast it aside. I dislike and reject some of the disadvantages. I felt under no obligation whatsoever to have children. But then I basically regard life as in itself meaningless and all these things are unreal and one can if lucky pick and choose — and can try insofar as each of us can (what are our genes, where born, to whom, what gender, race, class). Like Woolf, I see that women don’t have identities in the same way at all as men; our gender cuts across all these and cuts us off from much power that comes with this or that identity.

But then gentle reader I do prefer women’s books to men’s, women’s films, women’s poetry.


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Dear friends and readers,

We’ve gotten into a for once (well to me) enlightening thread on a Women’s
Studies list-serv (WMST-l)
. It began over in Wompo (women’s poets) and slid
across lists because Katha Pollitt is on both list-servs and got irritated
with a couple of contentious threads which had turned into quarrels (still
mild), at which one woman complained at the contention and said she would
get off or fall silent. Katha’s posting was (to me) a form of scolding: she
basically said men’s way of being in cyberspace is superior to women’s
because supposedly they don’t mind quarreling in public. She wrote in terms
that were insulting to women, but attention catching. By mistake she put this posting onto Women’s studies where the people are more reasonable — it’s a more academic style list with more women academics on it.

I’m very interested in the realities of women in cyberspace and how theirs differs from men’s behavior. Obviously, I spend enormous amounts of time on the Internet, and my experiences here have helped me to mature, become more socially active (go to conferences, meet with friends) I wrote a paper on this which the listowner of WMST-l put on line as part of a permanent set of papers. I’m so bad at nuts and bolts I can never reach my paper over there, so for those who want to see (or read it later) , here it is on my website: Women in Cyberspace.

I had the courage to counter Katha on Wompo and nothing reasoned in response to my posting was sent. Instead I got misspelled mild jeering (using CAPs). At the close of my last posting, I just said, “Come, go ahead, abuse me … ” And one woman did, but the thread died after that.

Katha had said to ignore the posting on WMST-l and two of her friends (women
with credentials like hers, Marge Piercy among them) backed her on this,
but what she wrote was significant. Here is the core:

Before the internet, I never believed the truism that women have trouble disagreeing openly because they place such a high value on harmony, fitting in, not standing out. Having been on numerous women’s lists I see how true this is. They ALL have the same dynamic: sugary mutual admiration, with occasional outbursts of snark that cause conniptions. Yerra makes a personal remark, Joyce slaps her down by appealing to ‘the spirit of the list,” Yerra takes her marbles and goes home. On a coed list, or a mostly male list, a slightly snarky remark would have just been one of those things that happen. A reprimand would be be read as impossibly stuffy, and a threat to leave would be a joke.

I’ve been on wom-po for ages, and let me tell you,with all the mutual flattery (complemented by back channeling of expostulations and eye rolls) and self congratulation for our female wonderfulness it’s pretty boring. I barely take part any more, This is a list so scared of open discussion that “political” posts have to be labelled so the frailer flowers can avert their petals and the illusion of harmonious sisterhood be preserved. Oh no, someone mentioned abortion rights! help!

Can we please put on our big girl panties and talk about things like grownups?


I want instead to cut to the quick, the sudden idea I saw. I often say that the content of a posting is only part of what’s happening the way the content of our words in physical space is only part of what’s happening. For the first time I was able to see how the posting itself functions differently (than say all the stuff that is added on in real space). It’s that we see the posting primarily as either by a man or either by a woman. That comes first. The way writing is primarily seen as either by a man or women (that’s why 90% of what is published in mainstream publications is by men).

Second, the reason men can quarrel openly and not get upset really is they
fundamentally respect one another as men. They can insult and jeer and yet
they are respected and respect one another. I put it that we women don’t
fundamentally respect one another as women. We are taught not to. We may
respect a credentialed woman but she is still a woman. A male homosexual is
respected as a man and identifies as a man first. Lesbians are at the
bottom of a heap of gender types because they are also women.

The books I cited in my first posting tell how much friendships mean to women growing up, how badly women feel betrayed when their friend goes off with boyfriends or drops the other woman for her new “family” or connections. How it hurts. The sense of betrayal.

So when women quarrel it’s not childish.

And the results of quarrels — as the results of rape or any complaint are differently for men than women. Women are punished when they complain and the results of quarrels they are taught will be bad. They will lose the respect of important connections. The punishment meted out will be denied; it will be presented as reasonable behavior. This is where masochism comes in. Women seem to be masochists and accept what happens because they find if they don’t things get worse for them.

My Women Writers Across the Ages, a Yahoo list-serv carries on discussing feminism calmly is we have so few men, the men here are a congenial bunch who agree with feminist values. And a woman list-owner. All of this is highly unusual.

Women quarreling in cyberspace are often quarreling because one or both feels her gender has been betrayed.


Conversation, Susan LaMonte

If anyone wants to read the more essay-like email versions:

1) I don’t think there’s anything wrong in the way women behave differently from men on lists — as I don’t think there is anything wrong with the women behave differently in life. To find the male model preferable is to prefer a whole host of values and norms that at least some of us have wanted to not to be the prevailing code. The classic and still important book on this is Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice; also about why women quarrel so bitterly, Lyn Mikel Brown, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development;and Girl Fighting: Betrayal and Rejection

Women complain how we never seem to make any progress. Well there are these three books which analyze the phenonomena that Katha has castigated/scorned without looking to see why women behave like this except to imply “coward” or silly emotional creature who bores me. Cyberspace experience is obviously only analogous to real physical life, physical encounters where names and all sort of information are there right away to make the others accountable. Not only empathy and understanding is required to understand why women need moderators on lists, thrive better in some lists than others — it might be recalled that men simply refuse to get onto lists run by women often and get off certain kinds of list-servs that attract women. Does that mean those women’s lists don’t count or are inferior? Men simply disdain what is not consonant with how they are encouraged to behave in our society.

My study of women in cyberspace which is written in a way that looks to find ways to enable women to cope with the experiences they find on lists which are often analogous to what puts them at a disadvantage in life. It should also be remembered women don’t forget what happens in real life — like rape (frequent). I’m upbeat, constructive as that’s what’s wanted in social and public life:

I seek to present material to help us think about what are the obstacles to women using cyberspace effectively, and what can be done to construct cyberspace experience so as to make it more appealing, hospitable and usable for women.

Here though I will break code again and say that indeed the public encounters in front of a whole group of people, most unknown, with no way to manipulate the encounter to your set of values or norms (feminocentric) is analogous to rape (virtual) because it’s public and people looking on are in the position of voyeurs (the term lurkers is a telling one here).

Another aspect I don’t bring up in the paper is that women value friends, they value contacts; they don’t want to lose them, and given their real knowledge of other women’s psychology and their own plus experience of men, they retreat into silence as the really wisest way to cope given the present misogynistic environment. When will we ever stop celebrating the war mentality (which aggression, competition and the rest of what has been put before us as better and more fun)?

WMST-l itself is a list run by women, with women moderators, it has the typical list of rules one finds in women’s lists (not men’s) which are resorted to and I like it because of this and much else.

How are individual women to be heard is the question.

On Wompo I miss Annie Finch’s explicit point of view in how she saw this list as a place for women where women’s values and norms and experiences and knowledge would prevail.

2) The second email adding to original points:

I want to speak again to this one. Much as people still try to deny this, what happens in cyberspace matters — people might acknowledge various govt’s reactions to whistle-blowers, bloggers, privately-sent emails (one-to-one) emails. It also is increasingly central to local affairs. I had thought not to since Gail Dines reiterated what I was going to repeat with more details. That saying women have just got to accept aggression won’t do since many forums in cyberspace replicate the realities of physical space. Men are in charge. I was forced off a listserv (Inimitable-Boz @ Yahoo) last week, and I’m no melting flower on list-servs (or blogs or other venues in cyberspace). It did become impossible to stay because what was implied and not spoken about what I had been writing and what was explicitly said simply ignored everything I had said and the explicit talk became rawly insulting (the attempt was made to shame me), not just snide or a matter of innuendo. The terms of the aggression were misogynistic but if I dared use that word or any like it, I’d be laughed at as a foolish feminist.

Where men are not in charge but constitute the working majority of those who post (and in cyberspace when men become numerous on lists they have been shown to become the active members with only a couple of women maintaining a presence), the same sort of thing occurs, perhaps more muted if at least one of the list-owners is herself a woman. The gender matters. The woman can be very different politically but I’ve observed and experienced nonetheless she will understand and give crucial support to the women poster (sometimes, not
always). It’s like Republican women are mostly pro-choice, and they vote
for shelters for women and children.

We don’t accept the terms in which rape is discussed which (as we saw a
couple of summers ago) allowed in at least three high profile cases, the
case to be dismissed (the Muslim housekeeper in NYC who was raped) or
humiliated and lose her case (the young executive who was intoxicated and
made the mistake I’d call it of phoning the police) and the supreme court
fining parents whose daughter accused frat young men of raping her. We
don’t say we’ve just got to accept this. We try to alter the basic understanding of what’s happening.

It is not a matter of putting “on our big girl pants and talking like grownups.” I talk like a grown-up all the time, even to my cats. The phrase was an irritant.

So I’ve come on this second time because I want also to counter it first
under the aegis of the idea that “older women” are to be assumed to behave
differently in this than younger ones necessarily which is dismissive or
that anyone was being childish. It assumes the problem is the deference of
older woman. I’m not deferent. Another aspect of this particular thread is
some of us come on with more credentials. Not quite the same thing as being
a man (nothing beats that — I’m sarcastic here) but part of power plays. I
speak to Katha the way I do to others — or Barbara Bergson or anyone with
more credentials. This fault-line of age versus youth divides and conquers
us again. In a way being older and who I am and am not frees me (like
Janice Joplin line, freedom’s just another word for nuthin’ left to lose”).
The paradigm of the second wave is implicitly brought in here, but it was
in the second wave people used the word “liberation” and talked about sex
openly. I got myself into trouble (get myself) because I’m not deferent to

And second, women do squabble a certain way but it’s not because they are
childish. The understanding of quarrels and their meaning is different from
men’s. The way women treat one another as girls, what their friendships
mean to one another and how they disrespect one another on lists is different from men’s. I suggest at some level men respect one another as men fundamentally. And women often do not respect one another fundamentally as women. All of us are taught not to – by the society. Look at ads for a start. And they feel betrayed, angered really.

Third, women’s experience of the results of quarrels very different. Third
and fourth wavers (if there is a fourth wave), post-feminists experience
punitive results which teach women silence is the wise policy because of
self-interest works the same. The punitive nature of the result is
frustratingly denied the way rape is called a false accusation (as in you
consented). That’s one of the sources of so-called masochism.
I’ll cut off here as I’ve gone on far too long but I feel these points are
important and need to be dealt with, even if solutions are not easy to see.



Of course most of the replies either ignored my points or saw what I wrote in quite different terms, but one I did think useful for what I was saying.

I think history has given us TWO inadequate models for dealing with conflict, each model loosely associated with a gender role, but available to anyone. In life, we probably all “mix and match” elements of these two inadequate models. On the one hand, there is the “feminine” style of handling conflict (conflict avoidance; conforming to the “feminine” gender role by avoiding direct expression of aggression while channeling aggression into “mean girl” behaviors such as gossip, isolation, manipulation of alliances and social status, etc.). On the other hand, there is the “masculine” style (handling conflict in ways that deny the value of interdependency and rely on inequality/hierarchy; fighting verbally or physically to avoid shame and loss of status by shaming the opposing point of view).

Both of these ways of handling conflict are inadequate. They temporarily stifle conflict rather than truly resolving it, so the conflict usually resurfaces and becomes part of a cycle. There are other, more constructive ways to handle conflict that can lead to better resolutions. Conflict should be seen as a positive and inevitable product of equality. Conflict is inevitable; the only question is how we handle it. If a group can resolve conflict only by silencing it or by creating inequality (“I’m right, you’re wrong, so shut up; your point of view has no place here”), the group has failed. We are products of our culture and our culture has tried to teach us that conflict is threatening to us personally and to our social order. And it has tried to train us to turn to authority figures (ultimately the police or the state) to resolve our conflicts rather than teaching us the skills to resolve them in ways that strengthen us individually while also enhancing our ability to function collectively.

There are occasionally conflicts where logic alone can reveal a “right” and a “wrong”; a “winner and a “loser.” But deeper, more intractable conflicts are not just rational disagreements. They reflect some damage done to the communal bonds holding people together, and mending that damage often requires attention to things such as the quality of communication, and the creation of a group dynamic trusted by all. When Audre Lorde says that our culture has “misnamed difference as a threat to unity” and when she envisions “the creative function of difference in our lives,” I think she is talking about what feminism could potentially contribute to our understanding of conflict and conflict resolution (micro- and macro-) if we look for alternatives to the two inadequate, gender-coded models of conflict “management”/irresolution.

Leah Ulansey


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