this book is so good. so so good. it is one of those books of which i ask myself, how did she do it? how did she come up with a story like this? what...more this book is so good. so so good. it is one of those books of which i ask myself, how did she do it? how did she come up with a story like this? what tremendous formal control does it take to write such a seemingly simple story and pack it with so much stuff?
the beginning is a bit Middlemarchian, in that a rather naive girl marries an older man who is passionate about his scholarship (we never learn whether his scholarship is any good) and also tremendously narcissistic, manipulative, and abusive.
maybe this is self-conscious because the young woman is called dora (Middlemarch, dorothea) -- but then again dora is such a fraught name in 20th century literature.
murdoch wrote this in 1958 but it could well have been written yesterday. scared of her husband, dora leaves. this is the first line of the novel: "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him." i think it should be among those great beginnings that get listed occasionally in some venue or other.
while away from her husband, dora frolics sexually with another guy, a hippy-ish kind of guy who is both a lover and a buddy and asks nothing of dora. which leads dora right back into paul's arm.
so here's the first theme of this novel – the grip that narcissistic, manipulative, abusive men have on women. i know a couple of those personally. i testify that it is true. but, and i'm jumping ahead, these narcissistic manipulative abusive men also have the entire world on their side: their wives who don't understand them; they abandon them and hurt them; because they are so nice; so sweet; so defenseless. narcissistic manipulative abusive men have the world wrapped around their fingers, because the world is a constellation of countless planets that rotate around the suns of narcissistic manipulative abusive men.
the tentative, delicate, ambivalent evolution of paul and dora's relationship is one of the delights of this novel.
the story takes place in a lay religious community attached to a nuns' monastery (anglican benedictine) where paul goes to do research on ancient manuscripts. the nuns are cloistered but one can ask for audiences and mass is said every day at the monastery that outsiders can attend, though the design of the chapel is such that the nuns are invisible to the outsiders. dora, imprisoned in her own dreadful marriage, is horrified by the nuns' self-imposed exile and fails to see, at least at first, that they are in fact quite free and fulfilled.
the lay community is a thing of beauty. it is led by a most captivating character, a gay man with a mixed past in which sexual trouble and a strong vocation to the priesthood battle each other. the community is situated in a large country mansion, run down but still beautiful, architecturally connected to the monastery, and edged by a lake. there are bridges and boats and one cannot really get out of there without using one or the other. there is also a small town one can reach on foot.
the small lay community is only one year old and populated by a motley crew of idiosyncratic folks, about 10 in all. there are two leaders: michael, the real leader – a reluctant one – and james, his second in command, a man less sympathetic than our friend michael. james is a man of certainties. michael is anything but. but james means well and they all mean well and they are trying hard and deeply believe in what they are doing. they work the earth, grow their own food, have meetings, pray, share meals in silence, and enjoy the quiet and comtemplativity of their lives.
the crux of the novel, it seems to me, is that religious afflatus is inevitably erotic, and this eroticism needs to go somewhere. people who are celibate by religious choice work on it all of their lives and when they work on it well (the nuns in the novel are a really good example here) they get to be lovely human beings with a purity, simplicity, youthfulness and joy that is quite beguiling. i do not actually believe that all of this comes from chastity itself. lots of married folks with the same qualities. i believe it comes to the giving of one’s life, freely, to the spirit, radically, in a way that isn’t driven by neurosis or bitterness or repression but true calling) the negotiation of the cravings of the body and the cravings of the soul in the name of love can mold people into a sort of perennial youthfulness.
i love the way in which murdoch delves deeply inside the members of the lay community’s fumblings with their exalted religiosity and their inevitably exalted eroticism (don't take my word for it; read the writings of the saints). male homosexuality is front and center here, and murdoch deals with it in a way that i found very modern. there is some inner torture in the characters, but none of it is endorsed by the author and the most balanced among them are really quite fine. in other words, this is not Giovanni's Room, which was published only two years earlier (this may have something to do with the fact that murdoch was not a gay man, though she certainly was a woman-loving woman).
towards the end things move fast and there is also a great deal of set-piece comedy, until the comedy goes away and things go back to being serious. but the book never stops being warm, and affirming, and hopeful, and if you are a religious person, or a person interested in religion, and maybe also a queer person, you will find murdoch's dealing with all this simply mind-blowing. (less)
i would like to review this book here for you all but i can't, because GR is bullying everyone, taking away our right to be, and showing itself to be...morei would like to review this book here for you all but i can't, because GR is bullying everyone, taking away our right to be, and showing itself to be profoundly ungrateful to people who have provided content here for years for free, and my buddy octavia, may her lovely soul rest in peace, would most definitely be against bullying and ungraciousness. so i'll tell you a story instead.
the author of Donald Davidson, philosopher Simon Evnine, used to live in west l.a. and when he lived there he had this absolutely unreliably mustang. i knew nothing from nothing so i was duly impressed when he told me that a mustang was a really cool car to have, that mustangs were fast and powerful cars, that mustangs were prestigious cars. i was so impressed that i really didn't care that the car wouldn't go more than one block without stalling, bucking, sneezing, coughing, and being stubborn, which, on hindsight, and with a better knowledge of the english language, i see was an entirely appropriate behavior. the mustang also released really bad fumes, which, even in hindsight, i can't find any appropriateness for (unless you want to equate fumes=poop, and i'm not willing to go there). (reader beware: this is a gun that won't discharge.)
one day Donald Davidson's author and i took a trip to san francisco, in the mustang. it was thanksgiving and the california hills and valleys could not have been more beautiful.
unlike the california valley of The Grapes of Wrath, however, this valley was as dry as a bone. in fact, when i say that it could not have been more beautiful, it is my readjusted memory that's talking. at the time, i was so utterly confused by the mere existence of such a landscape, and so utterly bereft by the lack of proximity of real mountains (where real mountains=the alps), or, in other words, so fucking homesick, that my reaction to the landscape was one of incredulity and dismay. what was i doing here? what were these burnt hills with no vegetation except stubbly yellow grass and the occasional isolated tree? where were the lush green, the vineyards, the old curvy roads, the ancient dry rock farmhouses that in my mind designated life on the planet earth?
so, you see, i wasn't in the best of moods. one could even say that i was pretty despondent.
and then i saw that this earth, this yellow dry-as-a-bone moonlike earth had cracks. largish genuine cracks, like the heat and dryness were too much and, like unmosturized skin, the earth has simply cracked open. the cracks were big enough for maybe three people to stand comfortably inside them. at least that's what it looked like from the car. i had to stop the merry chat Donald Davidson's author and i were merrily conducting to ask, "simon, do you think there are snakes in the cracks?"
being a man who doesn't pronounce even tentatively on things he has no way of knowing, Donald Davidson's author responded, not unreasonably you might think, "i have no idea."
i, being a person whose belief system and speech is made up entirely of untested hypotheses and flights of fancy, asked again, "but what do you think?"
Donald Davidson's author couldn't understand the question. please do realize that he didn't know me well at all, and he had never in his entire life been pushed to give an opinion about something he knew nothing about.
an exchange ensued. i would call it an argument, even a very heated argument, but that would be airing dirty laundry in public so i'll just leave it at conversation. the gist of it was:
but you can guess!
but i don't have any basis on which to guess!
there was born the "are there snakes in the cracks?" trope of our micro-civilization. when Donald Davidson's author doesn't have any opinion at all about something but is pushed, by me, to pronounce, he remembers, "are there snakes in the cracks?" and assuredly says "yes" or "no," depending on his mood, on butterflies batting their wings in asia, the vicissitudes of el ninõ or some such (non) random phenomenon. me, i'm entirely satisfied.
a proper review of this book will be provided when i finish reading the third volume of the trilogy and it will be posted on Booklikes. i will provide a link, so come back!
THIS REVIEW IS CLEARLY IN VIOLATION OF ALL THAT IS SACRED IN THE WORLD, NOT TO MENTION THE GOODREADS' TOS. PLEASE FLAG IT FOR BEING ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT TO THE BOOK IN QUESTION, FOR ATTACKING A GR AUTHOR AND FOR ITS GENERAL CUSSEDNESS AND INAPPROPRIATENESS. THANK YOU.
for jakaem: this is the second installment. (less)
this is so good. so so so good. i'm going to say, first of all, that the quality of the artwork is amazing. great drawing, sometimes really simple, so...morethis is so good. so so so good. i'm going to say, first of all, that the quality of the artwork is amazing. great drawing, sometimes really simple, sometimes really complex, with great utilization of über cool graphic devices (notably, a spiral notebook that seems like the real thing, ellen's real notebook, photographed, and may or may not be).
when i first got the book i quickly scanned it and saw that it dealt with bipolar disorder solely in medical terms, i.e. as something the only effective treatment of which would be the right medication cocktail. now, i don't like that. at all. i really believe that mood disorders are a very complex mixture of genes and environment -- i believe that in everything human you can never take the environment out of the equation -- so i was sorry to see that the book kind of sold medication as the only approach to ellen's terrible pain.
the book sat on my shelf for a while and then it sat in a friend's house for another while and now i read it, and it's really not like that. i mean, it is like that, but, also, it isn't. yes, ellen only sees a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist's only overt contribution to her well-being is finding the right meds (which she eventually does). but the book is also very complex about the relation between ellen and karen, the psychiatrist, in that they have regular sessions for 13 years (and counting, i suppose), and in these sessions ellen really finds an anchor, a warmth, a haven of acceptance, love, and help.
also, the whole role of medication is problematized, analyzed, discussed, investigated, studied. this is cool.
ellen definitely comes out in this extraordinary memoir as well-rounded, interesting, and intriguing. this is the perfect companion to Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?: bechdel approaches her pain through psychoanalysis, fornay through medication, but there is the same level of complexity, engagement with one's life, and intelligence. seriously, this is brilliant and captivating and it was hard to put it down.
it seems to me increasingly important, as i think about these issues, to understand that there are things that work for someone and things that work for someone else. there's a strong strain in the "survivor" community that is virulently anti-drugs. i think it hinges on some people's disastrous experience with drugs. drugs can have terrible consequences on some bodies, and positive consequences on some other bodies. when you are someone whose life has been ruined by psych drugs, you tend to totalize your experience and proclaim them the devil. but they are not the devil for everyone. there are people whose life has been saved by psych drugs.
the other thing is that ellen's experience of psychiatry is incredibly gentle. her psychiatrist seems absolutely fabulous. this is not a common experience. many psychiatrists (all too many) are dismissive, arrogant, and belittling of their patients. this happens all the time. so if you work on getting better with a psychiatrist who actually listens to what you say, takes in what you want, and honors your experience with respect to what does and does not work for you, medication might be a much better experience than if you deal with a psychiatrist who simple decides what you should take/do/feel/etc.
i had a student once whose psychiatrist regularly mocked her. whenever she had something to say for herself, he'd say that she was being manic and to calm down. this was a kid. a college kid. i told her, why don't you change psychiatrist? but when someone gets into your head and makes you feel that he is god and you are an ant, you keep going back.
anyway, great book. thank you ellen for writing it. i don't know how you guys (you, alison, etc.) do it. this stuff must be harder than hell to put down on paper. so, again, thank you. (less)
this book is beautifully researched and just a gem. the introduction is a good and interesting contribution to queer studies, with an interesting anal...morethis book is beautifully researched and just a gem. the introduction is a good and interesting contribution to queer studies, with an interesting analysis of the "sister arts" of the 18th century (poetry, painting, and then landscape) as they were appropriated by women (nice pun ensues) to be 1. reinvented, 2. used to "make love" to each other and 3. used as ways for women to form their own creative circles. in great queer fashion, women reinterpret the sister arts to include shell-painting or shelling, collage, needlework, art collecting, gift-giving, flower collecting (live or in herbaria), and all sorts of inventive lovely things. some of these women are aware of encroaching upon male territory (not with the needlework, but definitely with the garden design), but do it anyway, because they love it and because they have each other as champions and supporters. the parminter cousins, who managed to escape marriage and spend their lives lovingly and happily together, even designed their own home and had it built. they made sure to include in the design almshouses for elderly "spinsters" (a term proudly reclaimed by queer feminism) and a school for girls, and these almshouses stayed in use until recently. how awesome is that?
unfortunately, with few exceptions, the beautiful gardens designed in this booming time for garden design by english women were left to die, whereas gardens designed by men are the lovely gardens we all know and frequent. oh well.
i had never quite thought of it even while being aware of various of its texts, but there is long-standing tradition of friendship-theorizing which, again, concerns only men. male friendship ennobles the soul, promotes virtue, etc. (there are two strands of it, one originating with cicero and one originating with aristotle, but i don't quite remember the distinct features of each now). of course, female friendship has no place, zero place, in this big friendship studies tradition. moore, and doubtless others, rectify this a little, but this book is obviously just a beginning. moore in particular focuses on the erotic features of female friendship -- with a nice if brief detour into queer melancholia, the queer elegy, and the queer monody (107 ff; the chapter on the fierce anne seward is my favorite).
so there are several traditions these women break into and make theirs: garden design, friendship literature and art (letters, diaries, journals, works of art dedicated or addressed to friends), and botanical drawings (drawing flowers in a way that their center faces the viewer was considered too risqué for women, especially after linneaus came around and decided to catalogue flowers and plants according to their reproductive apparatus).
i found it lovely to see how these women managed to stay deeply close, and often live together, sometimes through marriages, sometimes between marriages, sometimes dispatching with marriage altogether (hence the respect of and attention to the "spinster"). and i find it so profoundly interesting that, whereas amorous exchanges between men and women would unproblematically be read as romantic, amorous exchanges between women are looked into with a magnifying glass, with endless questions about "how far" the woman in question went with each other. but what is romantic love? when two women miss each other madly when they fail to see or talk to each other for a week, or mourn each other desperately when one of them dies, or delight in each other's company so much that all of their art is a song of love to the other -- do you really need to know whether there was "genital contact?" (less)