Friday, April 11, 2014

The Odyssey of Remedios Varo

            Remedios Varo came from Andalusian-Basque heritage, which is significant given the vast distinctions both cultures make from each other.  From her father’s Andalusian side came the love of art, frivolity and emotionalism.  He was pretentious, socially liberal and irreverent to the church.  He claimed a noble heritage and his desire for this claim was passed on to Remedios.  Needless to say, his imagination stimulated her and he was more encouraging of her artistic development than her mother was.
            Varo’s father was a perfectionist when it came to her abilities as a painter, and he painstakingly instructed her in all aspects of the craft.  From a carpenter’s and architectural perspective he instilled a “strong foundation of artistic discipline” (15).  While she found him very dominating, she valued the technical skills he taught her, and it is because of this that her perspective drawing is so masterful.
            Remedios Varo’s mother was quite the opposite.  Her Basque cultural heritage was of strict Catholicism, practicality and reservation.  Varo was much more like her father, but because of his domineering personality, she valued her mother’s feelings more. 
            As a child, Varo went to a Catholic convent school run by strict nuns.  During this time schools that were considered “free” – that is, independent of the church – were not common and considered to be controversial.  Her father wanted her to go to a more up-to-date liberal institution, but being a devout Catholic, her mother insisted on the convent. 
            The strict codes of the school did not mesh well with her mischievous temperament and she became rebellious, doing things like sprinkling sugar on the floor in front of her bedroom door at the convent to track the footsteps of people who might be spying on her.  She sought out novels of adventure by authors like Alexander Dumas and Jules Verne, which was considered very unladylike. 
            In her adolescent years, she became interested in the occult and indulged in intense fantasies.  She had a hard time discerning between reality and dreams, and she began developing this frame of mind by writing fantastical stories that she had to hide from the nuns beneath the stones of her bedroom floor.  This action fueled an obsession with a secret life existing “under floors, behind walls and in furniture” (18).
            The paintings she made in her later life demonstrate this obsession.  They also demonstrate, better than any of her other paintings, how she viewed her childhood.  In 1960 and 1961 she did a series of three paintings that she saw as a “triptych” (18).  This series mocked the strict convent education into which she was forced. 
            The first of this series is Toward the Tower, in which she has painted herself as a group of identical girls fleeing from a tower where they have been held captive.  It is dark and a little sad, but also whimsical, as you can see by the girls’ bicycles being made from their clothing.  All the girls sort of gaze listlessly ahead, but one of them is looking directly at us – a form of rebellion from what Varo called, “the hypnosis” (18).
Toward the Tower (1960)
            The second in this triptych is Embroidering Earth’s Mantle.  It has the same girls trapped in their tower, working away as they embroider “the mantle of the world according to the dictates of a ‘Great Master’” (19).  This represents the work done most at the convent, where needlework was considered to be the most appropriate skill for young women of culture.  Again we can see indicators of Varo’s rebellious spirit, as one of the girls has embroidered herself in with her lover; this is only barely visible and upside down in the fabric that flows from her table.  This tower imprisonment acts as two metaphors – that of her religious confinement, and of her liberation of herself. 
Embroidering Earth's Mantle (1961)
            The third and final painting in her triptych series is The Escape, in which she is seen fleeing with her lover.  This surreal and fantastical painting acts as an autobiography representing her marriage to another artist in 1930. 
The Escape
            The themes of the paintings of her later years all represent the emotional state of her youth.  Confinement and feelings of being scrutinized and smothered permeate these works of art.
            The paintings of her youth were much more rooted in fairy-tales and a preoccupation with accuracy.  She painted and sketched family members with great detail and tenderness.  By the time she was fifteen, she was studying with Salvador Dali at the Academia de San Fernando, which was the most prestigious art school in Madrid.
            Even though the academy focused primarily on rigid precision and discipline, Remedios Varo was far more interested in experimenting, and used Surrealism to express herself imaginatively.  She took to what is called “the spirit of innovation” that was the life for Spanish bohemians of the 1920s, completely rejecting conformity.
            During her academy years, Surrealism exploded in Madrid and out of its conception were born philosophers, writers, architects, composers, filmmakers and poets.  When Varo was twenty-one, she married a fellow artist named Gerardo Lizarraga, and it was in marriage that she finally felt free, because she was able to leave home and embrace the bohemian world she had always longed to be a part of. 
            After she graduated, the threat of civil war erupted in Spain.  The Monarchy fell as King Alfonso the XIII fled and reform was in the air – but the romance did not last long.  Spain was divided and violent attacks ensued.  Varo and her husband escaped the bloodshed by heading to Paris. 
            Once in Paris, Varo started taking classes at La Grande Chaumiere, a very popular free art school.  She quickly dropped out because she didn’t want her learning to come from an academic institution.  She and her husband lived the bohemian lifestyle of Paris, but after a year they returned to Spain, settling in liberal Barcelona, as it was the city most like Paris.
            In Barcelona, Remedios Varo met Esteban Francés, a young Catalan artist, who helped her to get more involved with the city’s Surrealist movement.  Even though she still lived with her husband, Lizarraga, she and Francés became lovers.  It was because of this open relationship that she felt she was finally able to sever herself from her strict moral upbringing.  From then on she juggled many open sexual relationships that developed into lifelong friendships.
            Varo and Francés got into a group game that was popular among the surrealists called The Exquisite Corpse.  The game initially began as a collaborative word game, during which each player would write a word or a phrase on a piece of paper – that paper was then passed to the next person who would do the same.  This exercise brought about bizarre juxtapositions and associations.  The name came about from the first round ever played by the Surrealists – the phrase that came forth was, “the exquisite corpse will drink the young wine” (40).  The game evolved and eventually included drawing – where each player would draw a body part until they had created a full figure. 
            During the summer of 1935, Varo and several of her Surrealist friends spent a lot of time playing The Exquisite Corpse.  Varo and Francés developed the game even further to include collage, and eventually she got into creating collages all on her own.  While there were several unsigned collages, Catalog of Shadows (1935) is suspected as being hers, as it includes the fixation on furniture design that will show up in her later work.
Catalog of Shadows (1935)
            Barcelona that summer had erupted in violence – the civil war was escalating.  It was a scary time.  There was more violence in the street than on the front lines of the war.  Not only were there political and religious murders, but you also never knew if someone from the right or left was going to wake you up in the middle of the night to “take a little walk” (45), because one of your friends sold you out.  Nobody felt safe, including Varo and her family, especially when they lost Luis, Remedios Varo’s younger brother – a soldier who died from typhoid due to the intense heat, exhaustion and bad food that Franco’s army were forced to endure.  His death scarred Varo, who said that it was a “bitter shock that her brother, her beloved playmate, should side with the enemy and die while still so young” (47). 
            It was during this violent time that Varo met Benjamin Péret, who was a French Surrealist poet and an anarcho-communist who believed in the teachings of Leon Trotsky.  He was also an active member of POUM (Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification).  In June of 1937 “the POUM was declared illegal, and the secret police began arresting anyone associated with the party” (53).  This put not only Péret in danger, but also Varo, being that she was his companion.  Still married to Lizarrega and seeing Francés she, in a fit of passion, returned to Paris to live with Péret.  Unfortunately, because Generalissimo Franco closed all the Spanish borders that had Republican ties, Remedios Varo was forced to stay in Paris, cut off from her home and her family.
            With Péret, Varo was able to live among the Surrealists; however, she felt intimidated and awe-struck by them instead of feeling as if she were one of them.  She was so insecure that during her entire adult life she lied about her age – making herself five years younger – because for a woman, age and wisdom was a death sentence.  The image of woman in the Surrealist movement was one of naïve innocence, called the woman-child, or the femme-enfant, and she wished to encompass that image.  Surrealists felt that this frame of mind brought women closer to the “intuitive realm of the unconscious” (56).   Women were considered to be the “prime source of artistic creativity” (56), a concept that was controversial among feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who felt that it presented “woman as an object of male definition, as Other rather than Self, leaving little place for the real women among the Surrealist group to develop independent creative identities” (57).
            Like Varo, most women in Surrealist circles felt as if they floated around the outskirts, and, having allowed the limitations of male ideas about youth, innocence and creativity to permeate their lives, aging left little to be desired.  Luckily for Remedios Varo, the Surrealists found merit in her work, and while she was never officially accepted as a member of the Surrealist group, they allowed her work to be shown in “their international exhibitions and reproduced in their major publications” (63).
            It was during this time that Remedios Varo struck up an affair with Victor Brauner, another Surrealist painter, while she was living with Péret.  Sexual independence was quite common among the Surrealists, and everybody pretty much slept with everybody without much disruption.  However, one night at Óscar Dominguez’s studio, when everyone was drinking, things took a turn.  It is suggested that Esteban Francés, one of Varo’s boyfriends, yelled at her for all the affairs she was having.  Dominguez rose to defend her. 
            Brauner restrained Francés and Dominguez managed to free himself from whoever was holding him back.  He picked up a glass, meaning to hit Francés with it, but instead hit Brauner, “who collapsed to the floor, dazed and covered in blood, only to learn from his horrified friends that the glass had torn out his eye” (67).  A weird coincidence that surrounds this incident is the fact that prior to this, Victor Brauner had completed several self-portraits where he depicted himself as either having only one eye, or having one eye being torn from his face.  It is as if he prophesized the accident.
            In July of 1939, Varo’s life was once again hit by war when the city of Paris was evacuated, but the Surrealists stayed behind.  While Hitler invaded the surrounding countries, foreign refugees fled to Paris, and all non-citizens were forced to carry identification.  Not only were Jews being persecuted, but also foreigners were being ostracized.  It was dangerous for Varo to remain, as she was also associated with Péret, which, as “an outspoken communist, only made things worse” (69).  Péret was eventually arrested. 
            More weird coincidences surrounded Varo and her friends.  One day she went to the movies with a Hungarian photojournalist friend, named Emerico (Chiqui) Weisz, to see a project that Weisz had worked on – a documentary about French concentration camps.  In the movie, Varo saw Gerardo Lizarraga – the man who was “still legally her husband” (70).  He had been an anarchist fleeing Franco rule, escaped into France as a Spanish refugee and was captured like many others.  Varo and her friends were able to secure his release.
            In 1940, Varo was arrested.  She neither left any account of her incarceration, nor did she ever tell anyone where she was or for how long she was there.  Her friends indicate that the experience was devastating and “left Varo terribly traumatized and shaken” (71).  In June of the same year, following the Nazi occupation of France, Varo fled Paris before she was able to find out where Péret was being held and whether or not he was to be released.  She ended up in Canet-Plage, which is a small fishing village on the Mediterranean coast.  She lived there with Victor Brauner for a while until she left for Marseilles, where she stayed with a bunch of artists. 
            Péret joined her after a few months.  For a few years they remained there and attempted to revive their Surrealist bohemian lifestyle, but a lack of food and the growing fascist regime forced them to flee France altogether.  Péret eventually arranged passage to Mexico, as in June of 1940 “the Mexican government had offered its protection to all Spanish refugees” (81).
            Again Varo and her friends attempted to revive their bohemian lifestyle, but while Mexico welcomed refugees, the Mexican art community was less than hospitable.  Artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo held Mexico’s roots firmly “in the indigenous Indian culture, involved [in the] rejection of foreign ‘colonializing’ influences” (87).  Rivera and Kahlo saw the foreign Surrealists as “false artists” who perpetuated “the semi-colonial condition of Mexican culture by imitating European modes” (87).  Of the Surrrealists Frida Kahlo said:
“They make me vomit.  They are so damn ‘intellectual’ and rotten that I can’t stand them anymore… I’d rather sit on the floor in the market of Toluca and sell tortillas, than to have anything to do with those ‘artistic’ bitches of Paris” (88).
So the Spanish and French Surrealists who settled in Mexico created their own community where they held on to the European bohemian spirit.
            In 1942, Remedios Varo and Peret were married.  It was during this time that Varo and an English woman painter named Leonora Carrington developed a deep friendship.  Their relationship was built upon their “shared belief in the mystical and the powers of magic” (93).  This belief motivated them to pursue the occult, and it was in the “fertile atmosphere” of Mexico that they studied “witchcraft, alchemy, sorcery, Tarot and magic” (96).  They spent more time writing stories than painting – short stories and fairy-tales, and Varo wrote a lot of letters to strangers:
“My dear sir,
            I have allowed a prudent amount of time to pass, and now I see – that is – I feel certain that your spirit is in an advantageous state for communicating with me. I am a reincarnation of a girlfriend you had long ago. She was not exceptionally favored, speaking in terms of physical appearance: large nose, freckled skin, red hair, and a bit underweight. Fortunately, my current incarnation has only conserved the red hair as a physical feature. The friend, hot stuff! Greek nose, seductive curves – without being fat, I benefit from unparalleled abundances and, bottom I have a few wrinkles? An insignificant detail equivalent to the noble patina that all objects of good quality attain.
            This reincarnation wasn’t simple.  After traveling first through the body of a cat, then through an unknown creature belonging to the world of speed – that is to say, one of those who pass through us at more than 300,000 km/second (which is why we don’t see them), then my spirit poured itself, unexplainably, into the heart of a piece of quartz. Thanks to an abominable storm, the electrical phenomena turned in my favor and lightning struck said piece of quartz, rescuing my spirit, which spiraled out to rest in the body of a woman of ample flesh who happened to be around. I am satisfied with my current circumstance, so I am taking a chance, writing you with the hopes that you haven’t forgotten me” (Reincarnation of Remedios). 
            For work, Remedios Varo hand-painted items like furniture and toys for children.  She also designed “costumes for theatrical productions” and “extraordinary hats” (98).  These costumes later showed up in her paintings.  In Woman’s Tailor (1957), she “pictured a fashion showroom in which a tailor has his models parade his latest creations before a potential client” (100).
 Woman's Tailor (1957)
            In 1947, Péret returned to France and Varo, traumatized by the war, did not want to leave Mexico – and she could never return to Spain as long as Franco was still in power.  She loved Mexico and made it her home. 
            In 1949, Varo and her long time friend, Walter Gruen, got close.  He had been in concentration camps in France and Germany and when he was living in Austria he had been a medical student, “until Hitler put an end to his studies” (119).  Living with Gruen, Varo was finally able to fully flourish as an artist.  He supported her emotionally and financially until she was able to contribute money from the work she sold.  She worked several hours a day, sometimes for months on one painting, and then she would start another one – her style maturing, her technique becoming meticulous.
            In 1955, she had her first exhibition in Mexico, and the paintings she showed were indicative of the themes that were to inspire her work for the rest of her life.  One of her paintings shown in this exhibit, Sympathy, “explored the relationship between women and cats” (122).  Varo explains of the painting:
“This lady’s cat jumps onto the table, producing the sort of disorder that one must learn to tolerate if one likes cats (as I do).  Upon caressing it, so many sparks fly that they form a very complicated electrical gadget.  Some sparks and electricity go to her head and rapidly make a permanent wave” (123).
Sympathy (1955)
             The title implies the “sympathetic bond between the woman and her cat” (123).  The “electrical force field [is] set up by the emotional vibration between them” (123).  Her original title, Madness of the Cat, implies the other nature of the animal – its fierceness and the disorder it causes by jumping up on the table and spilling the glass of milk.  It is an example of how Varo liked to turn mundane home life into intense and “emotionally complex scenes” (124).  In other words, she liked drama.
            Another painting Varo showed in this exhibition is called Solar Music (1955).  In the painting, she depicts a woman draped in a grassy robe that comes directly from the ground – she is playing a stream of sunlight as if it were a violin.  The face of the woman is like that of Remedios Varo, and it is suggested that, “having so recently experienced the release of her own creative powers, she projected herself onto the persona of the woodland musician in awakening and coloring nature” (125). 
Solar Music (1955)
             This exhibition, which only boasted four paintings by Varo, took Mexican critics by storm.  They were so awed by her imaginative and wonderfully technical pieces that she outshone all of the artists at the show.  She used decalcomania, which, in Surrealist painting, is a sort of blotting technique – you spread the paint thick on the canvas and then cover it with another material.  The material is removed before the paint dries and the left over pattern becomes part of the finished painting.  This technique was developed as a method for Surrealist painters to create imagery that arose from the “chance patterns of decalcomania” (128); however, Remedios Varo used it in a predetermined manner – to exercise “artistic control” (128). 
            This was one of the ways she was distancing herself from the group she once strived so hard to become a part of.  She was exerting her independence, and her work exploded in a proliferation of sophistication.  The critics loved her, and she received the praise of fellow artists, including Diego Rivera, whose opinion on art seemed to be most important in Mexico at the time and who at one time, along with his wife, denounced all the European artists living in Mexico.  After her next show, she had collectors and buyers beating down her door for a chance to purchase one of her works. 
            For the rest of her career, Varo had regular exhibitions and won awards.  She was commissioned for paintings of the children from prominent families, which she “profoundly disliked” (136) because of the pressure to complete her work in a timely fashion – something she found difficult to do, as her meticulous technique required her to paint quite slowly. 
            The last ten years of her life were spent traveling through her own psyche, exploring “the possibilities of metamorphosis, growth, and change” (147).  She grew to despise physical travel, but turned this journey into a metaphor, which emerged in the narrative of her work to touch on “the constraints of tradition, memory, fear and isolation to seek power, creativity, spirituality and magic” (148).  In a sense, Remedios Varo was continuing her everlasting search for personal freedom. 
Her paintings are small, intimate and personal, and, “grounding the extraordinary in the ordinary, she chose the most mundane objects and environments… as the locus for transcendent moments and miraculous discoveries” (148).  In Visit to the Past (1957), Varo paints a simple room, sparsely furnished, in which her “self-portrait character stands at the entrance” (148).  It is a room from her past, a room that has been lived in by many, but as a visitor, “she finds it haunted by her own presence” (148).  She sees these ghosts of herself in the wall, in the table, in the chair.  Visit to the Past was painted after visiting a dying Péret in Paris.
A Visit to the Past (1957)
            This piece shows how heavy the weight of the past laid on her.  In her search for
independence, Remedios Varo had to abandon a lot – her family, the role that had been cast for her as a woman (and as the daughter of a devout Catholic) – and, while her paintings depict her as someone who is scrutinized, the faces of those looking back at her are in fact her own, which “suggests that the scrutiny has been internalized.  She may turn her back on the house of her past, but she is haunted by her own disapproval” (149).  Ultimately, she came to the conclusion that true independence is an illusion, and she depicts this epiphany in Vagabond (1957), a painting in which a man wears an elaborate outfit that is also a vehicle of sorts.  He thinks he is autonomous because of all that he carries with him.  Of this she says:
“…The man is not liberated:  on one side of the outfit there is a nook which acts as a living room.  Here there is a portrait hanging and three books.  On his breast he wears a flowerpot with a rose growing in it, a finer and more delicate plant than those he finds in these woods.  But he needs the portrait, the rose (nostalgia for a little garden in a house) and his cat; he is not truly free” (151). 
Vagabond (1957)
This painting can be seen as a self-portrait of sorts, as even though Varo fled to Mexico with “only what she could carry, she, too, found it difficult to free herself from the past” (151). 
            Varo felt that it was important to embark on this painful journey because the alternative would be worse.  “She feared even more the paralysis that apathy would invite” (158).  In her painting, Mimesis (1960), her self-portrait character is an unmoving woman sitting alone in a room, who is surrounded by anthropomorphized furniture.  Varo describes the woman in the painting as having “remained motionless for so long that she is turning into the armchair…” (159).  The painting seems silly (the chair in the background is perusing through a drawer), but it “conveys desperation” (159).  The animation of the furniture outshines the woman, who sits in submission and her “apathy surprises even her pet cat,” who watches in shock from a hole in the floor (159).  Varo wanted to raise the issue of how women lose themselves in “domestic isolation” (160). 
Mimesis (1960)
            In the height of her career, and before the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City was able to tell her that they were thinking of doing a massive exhibition in her honor, Remedios Varo died suddenly of a heart attack.  Her work has touched many, including other artists like Thomas Pynchon, who “included a description of Varo’s Embroidering Earth’s Mantle in his 1966 novel, The Crying of Lot 49” (230).  He used the painting as a symbol for the emotional state of his main character, “who is moved to tears on confronting those ‘frail girls prisoner in their tower’ who embroider their voluminous tapestry ‘seeking hopelessly to fill the void’” (230), a void Remedios Varo spent her whole life seeking to escape. 
 Works Cited
Kaplan, Janet A.  Remedios Varo:  Unexpected Journeys.  Abbeville Press, New York.  2000.  Print.
Zoe in Wonderland.  The Reincarnation of Remedios, 2014.  Web.  April 10, 2014. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Feminine Stereotypes in "Heart of Darkness"

It is said that Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness fails to represent (or succeeds in misrepresenting) women by reducing them to mere stereotypical descriptions.  Considering the novel has been observed from various perspectives in terms of racism and colonialism, we have to accept that the same should also apply to the issue of femininity.  We must read closely in order to gauge whether the description of the women in Heart of Darkness should be taken literally or as a criticism of – or at least a commentary on – how women were viewed at the time.  I posit that the latter is the case and that these characters must be viewed as ironic, or at the very least as an observation of naïve, privileged European women who perpetuated such views.  If the novel is misogynistic, it is only to reflect the misogynistic state of mind of the culture in which Conrad resides.
            We not only view women through the eyes of the character, Marlow – whose goal it is to become a captain of a boat – but through his observations of other men’s views.  The first woman we meet is Marlow’s aunt, who wants to help him get a job on a steamboat working for the Company - an Imperialist outfit in the Congo dealing in slavery and ivory.  She naively feels his idea is a “glorious” one and is “determined to make no end of fuss to get” Marlow “appointed skipper of a river steamboat” (23). 
            Marlow’s aunt is very proud of him and glorifies his position.  Before leaving for the Congo, he is made uncomfortable by her ignorance of his job with the Company, and he expresses this to the men on the boat by saying, “it’s queer how out of touch with truth women are” (27).  Unfortunately, this is not just Conrad being mean or misogynistic, or even simply how women were viewed at the time – it was how they were raised to be.  As Mary Wollstonecraft said in A Vindication of the Rights of Women:
...Men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 229).
Not only did men keep the truth from women out of the idea that women “live in a world of their own” (27), but also women perpetuated this sexism out of a desire to keep men happy.           
            Some women were so pampered that they held their positions with haughtiness and an air of authority, like the women at the Company’s office who “knitted black wool feverishly” (25).  These women helped keep the momentum of the Company’s interests flowing with indifference.  “The old one sat on her chair.  Her flat cloth slippers were propped up on a foot-warmer, and a cat reposed on her lap” (25).  She scrutinized “the cheery and foolish faces” of two newly employed youths with “unconcerned old eyes.”  This woman knew these boys would probably not come back alive and she didn’t care.  It is an apt description of the European privilege at the time; however, it does not follow Marlow’s ideal of the feminine fantasy world.  The old woman is aware of the “truth,” but she remains aloof from it.
            In the Congo, where people are brutalized and die, Marlow needs to believe that women live in a world of their own, because it means that the real world hasn’t completely ruined everything.  In the midst of chaos in part two - after a man is killed and Marlow reacts nervously by throwing his shoes overboard and manically worries that he will never get to “hear” the mysterious Kurtz – there is much talk about this idealistic man who works for the Company, and Marlow has been looking forward to meeting him.  He starts rambling about Kurtz’s “Intended,” or his fiancé.  “She is out of it – completely.  They – the women I mean – are out of it – should be out of it,” Marlow says, grasping, “we must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse” (63).  Marlow sees the kept innocence of women as a beacon of promise and hope in a world gone mad. 
            His desperate attempt to hold on to the belief that all women are blind to reality is ironic, because his own ideals are not completely in sync with the real world.  In a sense, Marlow himself lives in a fantasy world where all women are innocent and ignorant, but that vision is shattered when he sees Kurtz’s mistress.  With her “measured steps” that tread “the earth proudly,” the Mistress carries “her head high” and “her hair [is] done in the shape of a helmet.”  She is clothed in brass and is seen as “ominous and stately,” and “her face [has] a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve” (76-77).   It is clear this is not just some female stereotype.  She does not represent the naïve and privileged dreamer.  This is a warrior and her power clearly upsets the pilgrims and the Russian who are on the boat with Marlow.
            The Mistress thrusts her arms to the sky and with this motion her tribe lines the river and surrounds the steamboat.  When she disappears into the bushes, the Russian nervously says, “If she had offered to come aboard I really think I would have tried to shoot her” (77).  Her power is “too much” for him and he is so threatened that he wants her dead.  This woman has turned the classic European Colonial sexist ideal on its side.
            Back home, Marlow is once again with his aunt, who is oblivious to precisely what he is going through.  While she wants to “nurse up his strength,” it is really his “imagination that [wants] soothing” (87).  Perhaps if he had told this woman what really had happened she would not have believed him or taken him for crazy?  Who knows, because Victorian sensibility did not leave much room for men to give women the benefit of the doubt.
            While at first Marlow seems incredulous about the naiveté of women, and then in “the horror” of the Congo he desperately clings to the idea, when he meets Kurtz’s “Intended” fiancé he seems to simply want to protect the innocence.  Back then, women were raised to be like children, and it was this expectation that kept them naïve.  Marlow seems to feel for her not in spite of her innocence but because of it.  He bows his head “before the faith that [is] in her, before that great and saving illusion that [shines] with an unearthly glow in the darkness” (92).
            He feels protective because of her naiveté, and while he has been shown by the Mistress that women in general may be capable of seeing the world for what it is and living in it with the strength and power of a man, most “civilized” women are not.  While this may indicate man’s willingness to perpetuate woman’s weakness, it does not mean that he does it out of a patriarchal fantasy, but out of a societal necessity. 
            I would be remiss if I didn’t make the claim that the cycle needs to be broken.  The Intended is clearly blind to reality, and Marlow doesn’t stop to think that perhaps speaking the truth would show her that her thinking is small-minded, that there’s a greater tragedy than Kurtz’s death, and that is the death of a continent.  The way she raises her hands to the sky is reminiscent of the Mistress’s anger; however, the intended weeps for only one man, whereas the much less ignorant Mistress weeps for an entire nation.
Works Cited
Conrad, Joseph.  Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism:  Heart of Darkness.  New York: Beford/St. Martin’s, 2011.  Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Longman: Harlow, 2000.  Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature Volume 2A: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. Longman: New York, 2003.  Print.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The House of Leaves on Ash Tree Lane

 My final paper for my Study of the Novel class was about House of Leaves.  It is the most experimental paper I have ever written - and I did it unconventionally, because HOL is an unconventional novel.  I have shared it here because I'm a narcissist and I think it's really good.  I hope you all enjoy it.  Please leave me comments as I always welcome feedback and constructive criticism.  Also, if you loved it I'd really like to hear that, too.  :-)
            House of Leaves is the wrong book to write about when you’ve been assigned a 3-5-page essay. The concept is too dense; it is far too complicated and layered, and there is no way anyone could pluck one simple idea from the book to write a short paper without constantly being bombarded with tangents, shifts in perspective, or convoluted ideas; unless, of course, I wanted to write a high school-caliber dissertation on What I Loved Most About House of Leaves.  It would be better suited for a 60-page masters thesis, but I am compelled to write something about it. 
            I would like to say that House of Leaves is nothing but an elaborate exercise in self-indulgence, an ego-driven masturbatory masterpiece from a narcissistic writer grieving the death of his genius filmmaker father.[1]  I would also like to say that Mark Z. Danielewski is so obsessed with his own vast knowledge that he had to jerk us through 709 agonizing pages using a blind narrator, named Zampano, to detail an analogous version of Danielewski’s life – a simple story of a family torn apart (albeit living in a house that is growing on the inside), to the bewildering and often incoherent ramblings of another narrator, named Johnny, (who is descending into madness after he finds a box of journals, clippings, drawings and other random things from Zampano, which detail a film Zampano allegedly saw about the family who bought the house that is growing on the inside [this is the House that Jack Built]), who turns to drugs and sex to over-compensate for the lack of a consistent and strong maternal influence in his life, until Danielewski finally dumps his load all over our faces as we stare back in disbelief – just to see that it was all (probably) just an elaborate deconstruction of the idea of literary analysis and a reason to mock the publishing system. 
            Danielewski even almost goes as far as to tell us how countercultural he and his book are by couching his opinions in what Zampano says the “Navidson film” is “destined to achieve” and how “good story telling alone will guarantee a healthy sliver of popularity in the years to come, but its inherent strangeness will permanently bar it from any mainstream interest” (7).  In some parts I’m even reminded of Virginia Woolf’s metaphor for writing in To the Lighthouse when the narrator, Johnny, mentions his disgust for a story he made up for some women at a bar and “how fake it is” and that “it’s like there’s something else, something beyond it all, a greater story still looming in the twilight” (15).  As bold as Mark Z. Danielewski is, like all of us, he still hears the Critic’s Voice loudly. 
            I could also say that House of Leaves is a love story to the author’s black and white ideals of men and women.  Danielewski’s men are heroic even in their neglect (personal and otherwise) and irresistible to women.  His female characters are otherworldly in their beauty and mystery, but cold and distant at heart.  Will and Karen Navidson are said to have bought a house in Virginia, built on the bizarre land of Jonestown.  Navidson is a world-renown photographer who remains faithful to his wife, Karen, even though every woman he meets wants to have sex with him.[2]  Karen, an ex-model, has spent her life hiding behind a “hard and practiced smile” (58), and “hardly gave up the promiscuous behavior that marked her 20s.  She only became more discreet” (16).   
            In this house that the Navidsons bought, there is a labyrinth that grows out of a hallway.  I could go on and on about how the dark labyrinth is a metaphor for the unquenchable sexual desire of men, and how Karen’s claustrophobia is her fear of rape (or even simple sex for that matter).  The wheelchair bound character, Reston, even refers to the uncanny ability of the house to change size as “a goddamn spatial rape” (55). 
            Karen and Navy’s strained relationship is connected strongly to a lack of sex in their marriage and at one point Navidson says, “if she keeps up this cold front, you bet I’m going in there”(63).  If the house’s labyrinth could be seen as man’s unquenchable desire for sex (or desire to rape), one could interpret Navy’s words as meaning, “if she doesn’t give me sex, I’m going to take it.”  Or perhaps the labyrinth is a metaphor for existential angst – the dark abyss of the psyche, subconscious repression.  Either way a psychoanalyst could have a field day.
            If I were Johnny’s therapist I’d say that it’s all a lie.  In fact there is no Johnny (not in the way the narrator wants us to think); there is no Zampano; there is no House.  Karen and Navidson (what kind of fucking name is that, anyways?) and their children are all made up, too.  What we have here is a repressed drug addict who is losing his shit and writing a twisted manifesto of a madness he himself doesn’t even understand and it was all triggered by the death of his mother. 
      For one thing the character, Zampano, the one who allegedly got his hands on a film called, The Navidson Record, and who was writing a book about it is blind.  There is no way a blind man would be able to detail the events that take place in a film with such clarity if he couldn’t even see.  The narrator, Johnny, who supposedly finds all this work that Zampano has done, claims “we all create stories to protect ourselves” (20). 
            The story that Zampano is telling is full of things that could be directly related to Johnny’s life – particularly his childhood.  The character of Holloway Roberts, an explorer and rival of Navidson, is reminiscent of Johnny’s foster father, Raymond.  Being “broad and powerful with a thick beard” (80) he is visually similar to Raymond who has “a beard rougher than horse hide and hands harder than horn” (92).  Holloway is also used to taking charge, like Raymond who is “a total control freak” (92).
            There is also a similarity between Navidson and Karen’s son, Chad, and Johnny as a child as he “turns out to be the most problematic.  He spends more and more time outside by himself” and he “returns home from school with a bruised eye and swollen nose” (91); this indicates that like Johnny, he spends time fighting.  These are only a few details that make it seem as if Johnny makes up The Navidson Record.
            Johnny also admits that he is guilty of “shifting and re-shifting details, smoothing out the edges, removing the corners, colorizing the whole thing or if need be de-colorizing” (92), indicating to us that he is clearly an unreliable narrator.  Knowing this we can chose to disregard everything he says and when he tells a girl about a poem called, “Love at First Sight” having been “written by a blind man… the blind man of all blind men, me” (117), it becomes quite clear that he possibly could be Zampano.  Or maybe not.  We can’t know for sure.  The only thing we really know is that Johnny is obsessed with women.
            From the beginning of the book we see that Johnny has severe issues where women are concerned.  He falls in love with every woman he talks to and when we meet Johnny, he’s “getting over this woman named Clara English” (xii), with whom (we later learn) he only spent one night. 
            From Clara he jumps into love with a stripper he calls, “Thumper,” to whom he can barely speak and when he looks at her his “desire suddenly informed by something deeper, even unknown, pouring into” (52) him, indicating to me a sort of Oedipal complex.  Throughout his supposed love for Thumper Johnny runs the gamut of sexual conquests.  He writes about all sorts of women he sleeps with (because no matter how nasty and smelly he is, he gets ALL THE CHICKS) and sprinkled amidst all his exhausting convoluted drug-addled prose we see subconscious references to his past and his mother. 
            While he is at a bar with his best friend, Lude, thinking about blindness and echoes, he refers to what seems to be a nightmare and “her toiling fingers wet with boiling deformation” and “the silence then of a woman and an only son” (49), which speaks directly to when his mother accidentally drops boiling oil on his arms, scarring him for life.  At one point after a paragraph about the explorers in the labyrinth using thread to help find their way back, a footnote discusses common metaphors for thread, one of them being an “umbilical cord, for life, and for destiny” (119), which is relevant if we think of the house’s labyrinth as a metaphor for Johnny’s inability to cope with his mother’s death.  Johnny himself admits that he “constantly craved the comforts of feminine attention” (129) and this is because of his repressed subconscious desire for his mother – not necessarily in a sexual way, but in the dark edges of the mind unrealized emotions can manifest themselves in weird ways. 
            Johnny is aware of the weird ways “desire and pain communicate in the vague language of sex” (265) and how the “emptiness in one night stands” is just another way of living in “darkness” (265), and that all of his encounters “added up to so very little, hardly enduring, just shadows of love outlining nothing at all” (265) – like the house and its labyrinth, which ultimately is a figment of Johnny’s tortured imagination. 
            He has experienced so much and has witnessed so much “atrocity” and is so utterly tortured by the madness of his mother and the horrors she had to endure – “unknowable rapes?” (299) – that his guilt drives him crazy.  It permeates his sleep, like when he dreams of a woman whose “face glows with adoration and warmth and her eyes communicate in a blink an understanding of all the gestures” he has ever made and “all the thoughts” he’s ever had (405) who tearfully tries to chop him to pieces and the only woman who ever really felt that way about Johnny is his mother.  This dream directly relates to a wrong memory he has of his mother trying to choke him to death – a lie she told him in an insane attempt to keep him from loving her, in order to protect him from her inability to be there for him.
            It is this dream that seems to bring Johnny one of the rare moments of clarity he has, he sees that he needs to let her go and he manages to start that business by getting rid of the necklace she left him.  The “idea of getting rid of it was no longer enough” he had to hate it, because he felt the “horrendous weight” around his neck – even when he wasn’t wearing it – was killing him.  The memories were too heavy.  He needed to heal himself the only way his broken self knew how.
            His mother told him “words will heal” his heart (598) and he believed her.  This is why he wrote everything – a book from the point of view of a blind old man, named Zampano, a description of a movie that nobody has ever heard of let alone seen, his own stream-of-consciousness writing.  He knew that if he ever came “to disregard everything” she told him he should believe that his “words” and “only” his words would heal his heart (598). 
            There’s so much more that could be discussed about House of Leaves, but it would be impossible to encompass it all in a short paper.  The various layers of this story could be analyzed and picked apart for years (they already have), but ultimately I think we have to accept that there is no one single meaning and that, like the house, it takes on a new form every time you "enter" it.  

[1] According to Wikipedia, Mark Z. Danielewski’s film director dad, Tad Danielewski (of No Exit fame), died of cancer back in 1993 and in a Random House interview Danielewski said, “My father will be remembered for a lot of things but by some, TZD--as some of my friends called him--will be forever known for his passionate consideration of the art of cinema” (Cotrell, “A Conversation”).  Danielewski speaks of time with his father as magical and from him he received a “magnificent and strange education” (“A Conversation”)

[2] I know I read that, but can’t find the page for reference!

"Tad Danielewski.” 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Cotrell, Sophie. “A Conversation with Mark Danielewski.” Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. Toronto: Random House, 2000. Print.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Innocence and Exploitation in a Patriarchal Society

So Monday I'm off to the United Kingdom for my honeymoon!  I have been scrambling to get all of my homework done before this weekend so that I have nothing to do but enjoy myself for sixteen days.  One of those items was a paper for my British Literature class.  I liked it so much I decided to share it with you here.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. (All quotes taken from the Longman Anthology of British Literature:  Volume 2A - the Romantics and Their Contemporaries, Second Edition.) 
            In William Blake’s poems about innocence - The Chimney Sweeper and The Lamb in particular - we can see that being a child in Blake’s world was a dangerous thing if you were impoverished or without parents.  This was because of the profiteering off of their innocence and weakness.  Children were encouraged to lead precarious lives, to be exploited and used for commercial reasons, a patriarchal design condoned by the church.  This exploitation of the innocence of children is reminiscent of the way that women were expected to behave and be treated, a trend that was criticized by early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft. 

            William Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweeper, speaks of little orphan boys who are used to climb up into chimneys to clean them out.  Their little bodies could fit, but also got stuck, and many were left to die of suffocation or diseases of the lungs and testicles.  In the poem poor little Tom is told, “if he’d be a good boy, he’d have God for his father and never want joy” (122).  According to Blake, The Church clearly supported this practice; little boys were brainwashed to believe they were doing God’s work. 

            In The Lamb there is a trichotomic juxtaposition of the word “lamb.”  There is the animal, the child, and the child version of God – or Jesus.  The child tells the lamb, “He is meek and he is mild, he became a little child” (120).  This indicates to us that like God (and like the lamb) little children are to be “meek and mild,” or submissive and quiet. 
            Both of these poems could be seen as analogous to the patriarchal idea of female submission and the innocent devotion to what the church teaches can be seen as the naïve and ignorant submission to male authority.  In his poem, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, presumably his response to Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, he links “sexual tyranny and oppression to slavery, including the ravages of colonialism and the exploitation of children” (149).  This is an idea that Wollstonecraft argued about.

            Wollstonecraft saw that the cultural ideal was that women should be kept in a perpetual child-like state.  In A Vindication of the Rights of Women she “deplores that women, in particular are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion” (232).  She attributes this to a “false system of education” that only focuses on etiquette and how to catch a man (232). 
            As a result of poor education, Wollstonecraft says, women have no ability to reason.  They are taught manners, not morality; are expected to speak softly, and are “treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species” (232).    She argued about the dangers of placing this requirement upon women, because if they were without money or a husband, they would be literally left in peril, unable to support or care for themselves, and like orphans, forced to live in the street and exploit themselves just to make a living.  Because of these expectations Wollstonecraft is left at a loss for “how women are to exist in a state where there is to be neither marrying nor giving in marriage” (247).

            While Blake and Wollstonecraft are alike in this seemingly feminist and anti-ignorant way of thinking, they differ on the subject of reason.  Wollstonecraft was severely against women having romantic notions.  She felt that women “waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been” (246) with a husband who would love them passionately.  She reasoned that a woman would be no unhappier with a bad husband than she would be pining away for a good one. 
            Wollstonecraft even went as far as to openly treat other women “like rational creatures instead of flattering their fascinating graces” (233).  She refused to treat women “as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (233).  She pleaded to women to “acquire strength, both of mind and body” and that their quiet and submissive natures were “synonymous with weakness” (233). 
            Wollstonecraft believed that the submissive expectations of women and their lack of any ambition for anything other than that which pleases men, and the denial of “civil and political rights, to remain immured in their families groping in the dark” was a form of slavery (230).  To Mary Wollstonecraft, without total devotion to reason and the snubbing of all romantic notions, women will never be free. 
            In William Blake’s poem, Mary, he made reference to the expectations of women to be “weak as a Lamb & smooth as a dove” (274).   He clearly sympathized with her plight of not being “born like this Envious Race” (274).  While he evidently believed that women should have the same freedoms as men, he believed in “imaginative freedom over psychological inhibition” (113), because when you are ruled by reason alone you miss out on what it really means to be human – all the emotions, good and bad.
            In his letter to Dr. John Trusler, Blake expounded that the world “is a world of imagination and vision” (155).  The idea that one should place so much importance in “visions of fancy” (155) is not one that Wollstonecraft would have agreed with, but then again, William Blake was a man and Mary Wollstonecraft was only a woman.