Where is thought?

A third of the way into W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, my attention was snagged by a phrase. Given all of the insights he excavates, it seems especially odd that this one stuck: “follow one’s thoughts.” It’s a commonplace expression easy to dismiss. But on the day I encountered it, I found myself wondering if it were even possible to follow a thought. Can a thought really get ahead of one? 

If this seems a bit too literal, my excuse is that the phrase appears in Sebald’s novel (itself, about a journey) at a point when he’s describing a room he finds especially conducive to reflection. Fittingly, it’s a sailor’s reading room. Where better to let the mind rove? (And compound the metaphor.) It hadn’t occurred to me before this that thought might have a geography. A trajectory certainly, but one led by the mind, not followed.

So, I tried. But I found myself lapsing into ‘what’s next?’ Should I do the laundry? Take a walk? Continue reading Sebald? I chose to walk, but nothing emerged from the leafless trees and straw-colored fields I passed. Nothing I could follow.

Metis, goddess of thought, under Zeus’s throne

After a few days of fruitless searching, I realized that I was being followed. Sebald’s ‘thought’ was dogging me. My only option was to turn around and face it – literally put a face on it. Turns out she has one. The ancient Greeks called her Metis. Classicists tell us that she represents “a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing.”(1) Metis earned her mythological bona fides by defeating the Titans with Zeus.

Zeus, it seems, had a strange way of acknowledging her help. After victory was secured, he ate her. He wasn’t about to take the risk that she’d outwit him in the next Olympian conflict – and there would always be a next. However, unbeknownst to Zeus, Metis was pregnant. Her fetus grew inside him and emerged from his head as Athena, another goddess of wisdom, to which she added war. Meanwhile, Metis lives on as a voice in his head (2) – as do all mothers. Or so they say.

The way Zeus sees it, Metis is the embodiment of a different order of intelligence, one that is closer to cunning. (Hence, the scholars’ caveat that she is a ‘type’ of intelligence.) Because Metis has been subsumed into his body, she has to resort to trickery to be heard.(3) Sorcery and the feminine thus become fatally intertwined. Should a woman refuse to be cast as a manipulator, should she speak out, Ovid tells us that the gods will mess with her head.(4) She will become grotesque. She will become Medusa. 

Medusa

So argues Jay Dolmage in “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.”(5) In tracing millennia of misogyny (as well the rejection of bodies like that of the crippled Hephaestus), Dolmage follows the thought of thought and ends up in the body. Specifically, the body as thought.(6) This is body language understood not as gesture but as the totality of appearance. Metis’s murder – the mythological catalyst for the split between the orderly-masculine and disorderly-feminine in both body and mind – still reverberates in our socialized neurons. 

Lauren Bacall

Emerging from this rabbit hole, I’m still wondering if I have any of my own thoughts to follow. Maybe one. I’ve often wondered about my attraction to certain contemporary mythological figures: as a young girl, the very young Lauren Bacall, and today, the confidently mature Charlotte Rampling. I suspect that they owe something to the fierceness of Metis – and probably more to her daughter Athena, who broke through her father’s skull.  Of course, I was unaware of the origin myth. I only knew that my father believed that what he called ‘smarts’ transcended gender. And that those actors embodied them.

Charlotte Rampling

My father saw something in me that mirrored his sense of self, which was inseparable from the idea of ‘intellect.’ His thought (that I had one), compounded with my mother’s idea that I wasn’t suited to frills, made me think I was supposed to be a tomboy. Except I wasn’t. I couldn’t read while running around; and reading was my father’s way of releasing me to realms outside of his (and mine), outside of suburban New Jersey. No Zeus, he. He pushed me into the world when the world was telling girls not to stray far from home. And he did it with the help of his literary gods: Fielding, Bronte, Austin, Thackeray — half of whom were women.

So I adopted ‘toughness’ as a style, after the fashion of my heroines. I became competitive and insistent about joining conversations that didn’t include me. It has worked to a point. But I can’t shake the feeling that in the end I am a parasite, feeding off the thoughts of others, not quite free enough to follow my own. (Just count up the footnotes.) In any case, there’s no question that Sebald’s, and every novel that resonates, seems to have found my thoughts for me. Maybe that’s enough. And maybe the operative word in the phrase that triggered this essay is not “follow” or “thoughts” but the possessive “one’s.” The idea that we have thoughts solely our own is seeming less and less likely. For what could come out of our skulls if they weren’t impregnated? Metis may be less a metaphor for the imprisonment of female bodies and their thoughts and more a figure of thoughts yet-to-be, regardless of whose head they hide in.

  1. Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, Jean Pierre, “Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1991)in Dolmage, Jay. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review 28, no. 1 (2009): 1-28. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.
  2. Dolmage, Jay. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza , Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review 28, no. 1 (2009): 1-28. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. (Austin: University of Texas, 2005) 58. In Dolmage. Accessed March 26, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/25655927.

(not) Flatland

People often write about stitching as therapeutic. The concentration it requires repels all thought but that to do with where to place the needle. Anxiety goes for a nap while we’re at it. True, but incomplete.  The movement between hand, eye, and brain has more to do with building than blunting. More to do with addition than subtraction. 

Piercing a piece of cloth is a spatial gesture. The hand guides the needle through the spaces in the weave or knit of the cloth at hand. From there the finger tips guide the slender missile up, down, across, over, and under it, creating a nest of colored threads and the most shallow of constructions. It is the sensual nature of sewing that makes it so addictive. One more stitch, like one more word, holds the potential for the state of grace that’s always out of reach.

Hausfrau

‘wild’ darning

Finally, a hausfrau. After doing respectable work, or work that I hope is respected, for all of my adult life, I am reveling in what are quaintly called the domestic arts, even those I usually avoid like cooking. (Baking is another matter altogether.) It helps that the Coronavirus has us all in self-imposed quarantines. I was already used to the silence. I need it to write. But then silence isn’t really the point: time is.

I’ve never felt it to be so accommodating. Usually the hours are an obstacle course of obligations, self-imposed for the most part. But now there is no sense of inappropriateness if, at say 10 a.m., I choose to darn a woolen scarf and keep darning until I find the peculiar pattern I wasn’t expecting to see. The knitting I’d kept on the evening margin of the day comes out whenever the stitching gets boring. In between there is the laundry to do and letters (a.k.a., emails) I want to write, like this one to myself. And eventually, the floor will get swept and the bathroom scrubbed, but when I want to, not on any schedule.

Of course, a legitimate hausfrau would be far more organized and watchful of the clock. After all, the word is German. I use it because my father used it. He said it with a measure of affection (his mother was an Austro-Hungarian hausfrau) but also with bit of caution. I was not supposed to be one, even though I was put through domestic boot camp. My sister Chris and I would help my mother dust and mop. In those years (the late 1950s) before the next three children came, cleaning was done on a schedule: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were light cleaning days; Saturday brought out the heavy artillery of vacuum cleaner and cleansers. Plus, we had to go over every surface again, but even more thoroughly. (This always puzzled me; I really resented cleaning when you couldn’t see any dirt or dust. To this day, dusting is something I only do when we have people ‘over’ and that is virtually never now that we’re in retreat from each other.)

The training of a young girl in the household arts, however, wasn’t restricted to domestic hygiene. Thankfully, it also included learning to embroider, knit, crochet, and sew. Walking into a fabric store rivaled going to the library. There was so much temptation, so much choice: printed velvets, roughly woven tweeds, fine woolen plaids. Though, often as not, sheer material attraction proved stronger than any sense of appropriateness. When I think about the dress I made out of a yard of navy and Kelly-green corduroy, I cringe. (I knew it was wrong even then. But you didn’t waste money. You wore your mistakes.)

First sweater (1963)

In any case, I was grateful to my aunt who taught me to knit the Continental way, for it put me in the company of her mother and hers before her. I couldn’t have known when I knit my first sweater at the age of 13 that I would have to put away my needles and embroidery hoops as a child puts away her toys. Coming of age in the late 1960s meant trading them in for a new consciousness. Hence, the caution in my father’s use of hausfrau, early feminist that he was. In fact, one of his much repeated refrains at the time was, “Any fool can get married.”

Only 17 when I first heard him say it – along with the caveat that if I did get married in college, any tuition support would end – I was mildly disconcerted. Everything I’d seen in movies and heard on the radio. Songs like “Cherish” by The Association had promised a future of gowns with sweetheart necklines and a man who would cherish me. I wanted to be loved. Now the only thing on offer was ‘free love’ without commitment.

The concomitant move from A-line shifts to peasant dresses signaled you were less uptight, though in fact you were probably not much more liberated than the wenches who wore them first. (Women’s liberation was actually more men’s.) Nonetheless, being a competitive sort, I was damned if I was going to be kept behind by my bourgeois hankerings for decorum. And, in fact, after weathering the years of sexual revolution, I emerged thankful to my more radical counterparts, whose insistence on women’s rights insured that I would work long and happily outside of the home while having a home. Still, I have a vestigial feeling of having missed something, which I suppose is why I take inordinate pleasure in my resumption of needle and threads. Now there’s time for that too.

Killing it.

Sandra Oh as Eve Pilastri and Jodie Comer as Villanelle in “Killing Eve”

I never truly understood fashion until I watched Killing Eve. The British television series written and produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,* follows the neurotically symbiotic relationship of MI6 spy Eve Pilastri (Sandra Oh) and Russian assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Their mutual fascination builds up around a vortex of casually grizzly murders and frenzied responses. The violence is made palatable, and more than that seductive, by the script’s wickedly black humor, the actors’ physical comedy, and a mesmerizing deployment of fashion. Killing Eveis a whole new genre of costume drama.

Eve is the foil to Villanelle’s fashioned excess.  The American MI6 agent’s wardrobe is a study in neutrals, while her counterpart’s is as highly keyed as her sociopathic personality. Villanelle fears nothing, certainly not color. Her wardrobe is as eclectic as Eve’s is predictable. But then Villanelle’s costume changes are part of her job. A succession of new targets in different locales – Tuscany, Vienna, Berlin, and so on – requires adopting a new persona and a different outfit. Every hit is designed. The Amsterdam kill is especially disturbing: she wears a pig’s head mask with a wench’s peasant dress. In other thrillers, the ensemble would be called a ‘disguise.’ In Killing Eve, Villanelle’s games of dress-up (with all the naiveté the phrase implies) are an extension of a cheerfully disturbed personality. However, this isn’t a case of schizophrenia. We’re watching the psychodynamics of compartmentalization, for which her wardrobe is the perfect metaphor.

Villanelle in Alexander McQueen vintage mourning dress, Season 2, Episode 5

However, Villanelle’s outfits aren’t only worn in the service of a hit. They are also the objective of the hit. She works for these indulgences. How else could she afford them? Though for all her hard work Villanelle doesn’t have a style or a look. She wears fashion. That was my epiphany: The point of a Molly Goddard bubblegum-pink tulle dress or a black Alexander McQueen mourning dress is that it shatter norms and normality (which is precisely what Villanelle does to Eve). I already knew this; I’d just never felt it.  

Villanelle’s sartorial intelligence mirrors her cunning. Together they whip up a maelstrom of psycho-sensual effects. Fashion is hyper-present, but not self-consciously serious, no more than the character, herself. To wit, in one scene an injured Villanelle flees from a hospital in a pair of bright blue, outer-space-themed pajamas borrowed from the boy in the next bed (before she kills him). The pajamas make a cartoon of both violence and fashion. 

Villanelle preparing her hospital escape in pajamas, Episode 1, Season 2

Jody Comer’s flamboyant portrayal of Villanelle charges every scene with Sandra Oh’s Eve, who is taunted by the Russian’s uncanny ability to insinuate herself into her life, when it should be the other way around. The reversal of roles starts early in Season 1 when Villanelle sends Eve a spaghetti-strap dark blue dress that fits her perfectly. At this point they’ve yet to meet, so it’s uncanny that Villanelle knows her size. In this power-play-by-fashion, the tacit message is ‘I know you. I know you better than yourself.’ Eve is given a sliver (the dress really is slinky) of the forbidden fruit that Villanelle offers:  absolute freedom, a state of being promised by fashion and reached by narcissism.

For all that, the show doesn’t devolve into the sinister. Villanelle wears her crimes like her dresses – lightly – leaving Eve to feel frustratingly inadequate, even though she has the higher moral ground. Sandra Oh describes the dynamic in more familiar terms, saying: “A lot of people wish they were more fearless and more confident and a lot of people wish they had a lot more style.” Though most of us don’t wrestle with our envy so literally. Not because most of us can’t afford ‘fashion,’ but because we have a harder time surrendering to its dominion. 

The remarkable thing is how Jody Comer (a.k.a., Villanelle) conquers fashion so thoroughly. I wonder whether another actor could animate them so powerfully. Or am I confusing the actor with the character? Can they even be separated in the mediated moment? It takes a particular body to infuse the clothes with the risk they represent.  Otherwise, I would have figured out fashion long ago, at least by virtue of seeing it in a museum.  Clearly I’ve never seen it truly worn.

*Waller-Bridge also wrote and starred in Fleabag, for which she wonthree Emmys and a BAFTA Award in 2017. Season 3 starts April 26 at 10 p.m. on both BBC America and AMC. The show’s costume designers are Phoebe de Gaye (Season 1) and now Charlotte Miller.

Social Reading

Book Cell, Matej Krén

I’ve never joined a book club. Churlish as it sounds coming from someone who just published a book about literature and design, the prospect of sharing the relationships I’ve made through the intimate medium of the page seems like a violation. To be clear, I’m not opposed to talking about books and the ideas they proffer. It’s just that the book-in-my-head has no need of a public autopsy — unless it’s my public autopsy. (Yes, I’m not only churlish, I’m also a bit of a hypocrite.)

Passing judgments on characters’ choices, plot directions, and alternative scenarios strikes me as disrespectful of the author. Such speculations reject the gift of literature as it is given. They refuse “the politics of the primary” (Steiner, Real Presences, 6). In other words, the immediacy of a close reading. This is the kind of attentiveness which allows us to respond directly to an author’s words, rather than talk around them. If, instead, we ruminate about whether the plot is feasible, or what might have been written, or what’s ‘behind’ the novel or poem at hand, we turn a blind eye to what is right there on the page. This kind of domesticated reading fragments and undermines the integral nature of reading — a composite of the order and tone of words on a page, the time, spaces, and beings those words evoke, and the images that they form inside us.

The book-in-my-head is a narrative in another form. It is a disorderly composite of recollections of what I’ve read, colored and perfumed by other experiences. This internalization, this possession of the book, accounts for my urge to safeguard the integrity of what and whom I envision. I don’t even mind if my suppositions are flawed; that’s what re-reading is for.

Reading may happen in silence but it isn’t solitary. There are the women who struggle with their respective confusions in Magda Szabo’s novels set in postwar Hungary; they manifest themselves to me in very specific ways, making direct appeals to my sympathies. Likewise, the protagonists of Anna Burn’s Milkman in Ireland and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead in Poland, just two cite two new additions to the cast of characters (and places) that accompany me. They are animate enough for me to think of them as companions and co-sufferers with whom I’ve formed a kinship – even when that relationship is antagonistic, as it is with Cesar Aires’ gluttonous priest in “Acts of Charity.”  I suspect it is precisely because I recognize my own foibles and good intentions within the women-and-men-of-the-page that I am reluctant to subject them analysis by committee. Plus, I doubt any committee would want to have someone so committed to her narcissistic version of things.

Paradoxically, I still view reading as social. Not only is the experience of reading an experience of near visceral encounters with people-of-the-page, but those encounters also shape our interactions with people-off-the-page. Our conversations with the latter are enriched, even if only tacitly, by stories that have entered our consciousness – stories we have ingested, not merely digested. Only then can we share them because then they are our stories.

1957 Violet House

When my parents moved us from our apartment in Clifton to our first (and last) house in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, St. Catherine of Siena elementary school was still under construction. So this meant that I had to go to public school for second grade. It was a brief hiatus in my otherwise uniformed education; and in hindsight, it offered me an edifying taste of permissiveness that I wouldn’t re-experience until high school. Though, by then, that permissiveness was closer to anarchy.

In 1957, the year in question, I didn’t consciously register the fact that Miss Berry’s classroom was freer than Sister Mary Clare’s back at St. Andrew’s. No one spelled it out for me. The relative license of public school was subtle in the mid-50s, but it did begin to seep in, first in the person of Miss Berry, soon to be Mrs. Armstrong. She looked like the “Breck girls” in the shampoo ads that then set the standard for conventional prettiness, which I mistook for glamor. Her blond shoulder-length hair and her brightly striped dresses spoke to pleasures that I could only imagine came with being ‘engaged.’ Certainly they were nothing like the black and white habits I was used to seeing in front of the blackboard in the short two years I’d been sitting at a child’s desk.

This was the year that I was introduced into the eros of color – and not just in the form of a twenty-something second-grade teacher, who was clearly in love.  I was primed for the seduction early. My first grade pencil case was cordovan leather. Like my father’s brief briefcase, it carried the status of serious work. Its power didn’t rest in the pencils it carried, it emanated from its confident red. I had started making sense of my world by color, whether it was the dark maroon plaid dress that I thought made me studious or the green iridescence that changed Japanese beetles from creepy to collectible, albeit in jars filled with formaldehyde.

So when Miss Berry gave us the most ordinary of assignments and asked us to draw a house, I didn’t hesitate to make mine purple – violet, actually.  I still remember the rich, dense crayoned surface I laid down on the paper.  More than that, I remember being told in no uncertain terms by the boy working next to me that there was ‘no such thing as a purple house.’

He had never seen one, of course. Nor had I. But I was convinced that there could be, since I knew that houses were painted all the time and not made out of ‘color.’  I also felt that there should be such houses because I was convinced that there was (and is) no more compelling color than that which he’d disparaged as ‘purple.’ It was really the velvety aubergine of pansies, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to say so, nor did Crayola.

I realize now that we weren’t really talking about color at all but about the possibility of color, the possibility of the unseen-before.  It’s not that I was a child who was prone to fantasy or determined to be contrary. Just the opposite. I have to think that my own ordinariness was simply overpowered by the sensation of violet, which was strong enough to make an act of faith in what-could-be.

2020

Perpetual Calendar, 1594, Cooper-Hewitt Collection

The view out my window is no different than it was a few days ago in 2019.  It is a rebuke to all this fuss about the ‘new year.’  I’m not really sure why we need to break the year up into chapters. I suppose the obvious reason is death. In contrast to nature’s cyclical resurrections, human lives are understood to be linear. (Though I suspect geneticists would disagree, given that our dominant and recessive genes infuse us with the past). In any case, human lives are certainly finite. Hence, the reason for calendrical markings and the calendars we depend on to keep us honest, meet our commitments, and position ourselves in time.

But only perpetual calendars are truly honest. We are mere points within their concentric circles. Everything we do to refute the insignificant scale of our time on the calendar is a tactical defense against the inevitable. Our foretold fate explains why what we do is urgent – maybe not to anyone else but to ourselves. How else to make sense of this sentence stolen from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Inadvertent (and which he stole himself): “I write because I am going to die.”