Feminist Book Report: Les Évangiles des Quenouilles

“It is true that a woman’s desire is more burning than a man’s, but, as true as the gospel, fear always moderates excesses.” 

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In the wake of Hobby Lobby and universities claiming its students never get raped and general waves of discussion regarding the unceasing violence against women–against our legal rights, our bodies, our sexual lives, our ability to speak–let me share some recent reading, which reminds me that it has always and ever been thus.  

(I don’t know if that’s supposed to make any of us feel better).

I recently greatly enjoyed Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: Fairy Tales and Their Tellers, a history of fairy tales, mother-wit and how the figure of the female teller (they are mostly female) transforms over history (from Nattering Old Wife to Jolly Mother Goose), as well unpacking the major tropes of fairy tales themselves.  Reading it, I felt like I was 18 and taking Women’s Studies all over again.  Like a virgin touched for the very first time by feminist theory.

Warner led me to Les Évangiles des Quenouilles (The Distaff Gospels in an edition translated and edited by Madeleine Jeay and Kathleen Garay), a popular and widely published and disseminated 15th-century collection of “women’s wisdom”.  

The Distaff Gospels are framed as an old lady’s hexameron:  during the week between Christmas and New Years–a time when women would gather over the long dark evenings with their spindles and distaffs to work and gossip–the ladies beg a scribe to come and document their conversation.  Each night for six nights, one older woman in the community takes charge, sharing her particular reservoir of knowledge:  tips on pregnancy, cure-alls and potions, child-raising, the management of husband and husbandry.  

Parody as Control

While the work remains for us a kind of encyclopedia of medieval women’s beliefs, it was rendered safe (to men) through a parodic, anti-feminist sensibility enforced by the male writer’s voice.  

The old ladies speakers presented are midwives, former prostitutes and procuresses and priest concubines, herbalists, suspiciously from towns known for their occult and heretic practices.  Speakers have names like “Transeline the Hooker” and “Gomberde the Sorceress”–in attendance are Badly Screwed, Perrett Dangling Breasts, Jennette Big Box, and Little Perry Stink Hole. 

Each “chapter” of advice has a “gloss”, a response by another woman in the room; unlike Biblical commentary which interprets and proves the truth of text, these glosses often slyly subvert and undermine the wisdom in the form of supporting it.  

The author states of the gathering that “in reality, it really looked like a market where nothing was sold but talk and discourse, conversations of little consequence and value.”   He then proceeds to document all of it.  And isn’t that what happens? his clear desire for such information masked by the contempt for it–the need to write it and share it while undermining everything for which it stands.

All of this parody points to the real framing device–of this and the Hobby Lobby decision.

Masculine Anxiety  

Things that men find threatening:

  • Women liking sex.
  • Women talking about sex
  • Women gathering and talking to each other honestly about their lives.
  • Midwives for their knowledge of the mysterious workings of the interior body.
  • Even the woman’s main tool after which the book is named, the distaff, is dangerously phallic for a woman to wield–

“If a man is journeying on horseback and comes across a woman who is spinning, it is a very bad encounter: he must turn back and take another way.” 

Masculine Anxiety battles Desire.  Part of a book like this (and this provides interesting framing to say, a whore’s dialogue) is the erotic power of being in the room for womens’ secrets.  

Part of the selling point of a book like this is the sex.  These women are bawds (interestingly distinct from now.  I feel like our culture doesn’t have bawds.  Sluts, but not bawds).  

Those long winter evenings post-Christmas was a time of almost carnival festivity, boys and girls spending a lot of time together, sexual tension and intrigue.  

“Young women shouldn’t play with their suitors at eating the last cherry because usually the one who eats the last one will be the last one of all to marry.
Gloss.  Dame Sebile des Mares said then that young women should not eat their soup playing “hide the ladle” with their lovers, because their husbands will usually have affairs on the side.” 

Women describe experiences waking mid-embrace with incubi covered with “pretty silky hair”; there are several mentions of the friendly merchants to whom you bring your chickens at market, (“I often got presents from a certain merchant, which would not please my husband if he knew about it.”

I loved this one:

“When a woman has sore breasts, the only thing she needs is for her husband to make three circles around them with his member.
Gloss.  Saintine Tempremeure said that it must be understood that these three circles should be done at the end of the stomach, a little below the waist.”

They are for real about sex.  

“When a sexually inexperienced young man marries a young virgin, their first child is bound to be simple.”  

Virgins produce imbeciles!  Love it!

And yet, women’s desire triggers legal control.  

Medieval Legality

In the notes, I learned that:  

  • Women’s rights had increased in the 12th and 13th century, but then started decreasing as men regained legal control over their wives.  Backlash, 14th-century style.
  • The increased control over their wives, who became their husbands’ wards, meant it was entirely legal for men to beat their wives up to the shedding of blood if it was “necessary to amend her conduct.”  And even if he beat her until she bled, justice could not intervene.
  • In the case of adultery, a man could institute criminal proceedings against his wife; while the woman could only institute civil proceedings for redress against a cheating husband.
  • And in terms of the admissibility of women’s testimony—two women’s testimony was needed for every one man’s testimony.

Even in the bawdy, sexy, parodic text itself, the vulnerability of women’s lives breaks through.  

Tips on marriage revolve around vital issues of “money, power and infidelity.”  One chapter states:

“It is the gospel truth that a man who does something without informing his wife is, in conscious, worse than a thief, for even a thief would not dare to behave like that.”

The impotence of such an attempt to wield shame points only to the inability to actually do something about such a husband.  Other chapters include desperate attempts to control husbands’ feelings, not only towards them but towards their own children.

“If a woman wants her husband to love one of the children more than the others, she must have him eat one of the tips of his dog’s ears and give the other one to the child.”

Or

“If a woman wants her husband to love all the children beyond measure, she must take all the children’s clear, clean urine and, without his knowledge, have him wash his face and hands in it for nine days: without fail, he will love them beyond measure.”

And then there’s this:

“If a man beats his pregnant wife or traples her with his feet, she will deliver with great difficulty, and often she is at risk of losing her life.”

The only way to solve this one is for the wife to find the shoe with which he kicked her and drink from it.  Which leads to the most important part of this reading, at least for my purposes.

Magical Solutions 

Because women had no real power, no reach choices, they are left with magical solutions or divine punishment or divine threat.  

A man who comes to his wife or mistress with stinky feet will have a boy with stinky breath or a girl child with a stinky butt.  If a pregnant woman’s food cravings are not satisfied, baby could be born without some vital organ.  God will strike down the husband who does not take his wife’s advice about financial affairs.

Womens’ tools are mostly symbolic.  And often, communicated with narrative.  So they get together to gossip and share their wisdom and their stories.  

Perhaps still, magic is all we have.

#MayaTaughtMe

What I want to say doesn’t fit into a tweet, quite–but I remember quite clearly what Maya Angelou taught me.  

That people’s attempts to obliterate me have no bearing on whether they get to tell my story.  I get to tell my story.  It’s my story.  In time, those people will become merely passing side characters; those violations and cruelties will become events–sometimes, minor events–against the grand narrative of a life’s journey.  As a young woman who often both targeted and also had big dreams, this was so important to me.

Also that for an artist, the life’s journey can always hold around the corner unimaginable and astonishing adventures–no matter its small beginnings or even present humble exigencies–sometimes even within those small, banal places.  

Maya Angelou’s biographies had the sweep of the female quest narrative (itself a rare occurrence–I mean, who do we get?  Alice in Wonderland?  Dorothy in Oz?)–but against the backdrop of a real life.  The tremendous chutzpah and moxie–courage–that it took for her to tell her own life’s story in that way–will always remain an inspiration.  

Belated Maternal Musings

My three year old child is regressing in swim class, and it has triggered in me a cascade of anxieties.

Let me state for the record that I know this is insane.  I staunchly believe the New Maternalism of my generation barely masks the New Sexism. Women, mothers, are constantly told–by each other, by political, professional, economic and culture-producing systems in which we are embedded–that we are not enough. Between the cultural contempt our society has for mothers, the resulting internalized self-hatred mothers have for themselves, and the basics of what our biology inspires in us, no wonder we go nuts.

So fine.  I am all about being the Good Enough Mother.  My faults and failings–the ways my personality comes into conflict with my child and his needs–will inevitably impact him.  My husband and I set up a system that works for us; and we try not to actively fuck the kid up.  Past that, I refuse to worry about it.

Or at least I try.  But clearly, the monster roars within me and giving myself permission to be good enough remains a constant battle.

Ziv has been in swim classes for over a year. We started him because he loved the water. Wanted nothing more than to be in the water—really be there, wholly abandoned.  He didn’t want to wear a floatie, didn’t even want to be held—just wanted to feel the water over his whole body. His lack of fear and Southern California’s preponderance of pools drove us to the Lenny K Swim Academy where many of our anxious, professional cohort have successfully sent their children. Initially, he loved it. But in the past four months, he started balking at back floats (the gatekeeper skill of swimming) and now he gets scared about things he used to do by himself and joyfully—leaping in the water, diving in from platform to platform.

His teacher said that this arrival of fear was a standard part of the process. (Side note: His imagination has come online strongly in the past few months, and it’s fascinating to witness that with the imagination comes fear.)

But we’ve seemed to have stalled out hard.  Recently, a new YMCA opened in our neighborhood, and because classes are cheaper and closer we’re moving him over. Saturday, we took him to the Y to get assessed for his appropriate level.

He grabs the swim instructor when she pulls him into the water. He struggles against her when she tries to get him to back float. He won’t jump in. My stomach clutches, my breath comes short.  I can hardly watch. Our child is assessed at the beginner level of swimmer—a Pike. Not an Eel or a Ray. A Pike. After over a year and hundreds of dollars, it’s like he never took a swim class.

I feel actual shame, like this is my fault–the weeks we missed class, or moved to his current teacher who was a more convenient time slot but babies him, our own inconsistency, my lack of willingness to end my workday early once a week to drive halfway across town in one direction to pick him up then go halfway across down the other direction during rush hour so he could go twice a week.

I feel pain—my joyous water baby, my little fish, has become a different person. When we go to the pool later, and I try to force him to jump in without holding on to me, to push off from seated on the edge of the pool, he actually shakes in fear; when I roll him onto his back, he stubbornly clings to me for dear life.

It seems like a regression of such a startling magnitude. Does he need a break? Am I pushing too hard?

I go on the internet. A website states that when kids hit a moment of plateau or regression in swimming, it signals a break in confidence. Oh, God, where do I even start with that? What have I done to bring on my three year old’s first crisis of confidence?

I’m too tough on him. We were in a pool the weekend before and I made him to push off to me by himself and he didn’t want to but I wouldn’t fold…

…He’s sensed my anxiety around his swim regression, he’s heard me talk to his teachers about my concerns. I shouldn’t talk about him in front of him…

Ziv has always had a charisma that makes people around him respond (he’s happy, preternaturally verbal and good-looking in a way only mixed-race babies can be)…Is it because he gets so much love from everyone, that one challenge undoes him? Does everyone coddle him to much? Do I?…

…No, I don’t coddle him enough. I am profligate with kisses and hugs but more reserved with compliments. They don’t work anyway–stung by that Internet site’s “break in confidence”, I told him he did great after his final Lenny K class. No I didn’t, he responds flatly, before begging me to pick him up.

I protect my space too much…I was always a bit of a loner, and that gets tested by a husband and kid. Even now, as I’m writing this, I just want to be writing this. But Ziv and Ben want to go to the pool, and I guess I have to go with them...How awful–for Mother’s Day, I just want to be left alone…

Oh, God, he knows it…Lately, Ziv has really needed me, wanted me.  He’s passionate, he’s Oedipus.  He wants to hold my hand and hug me and touch me and be with me. When I do things he doesn’t like, he tells me to go away, and when I go away, he lets out an anguished howl.  Encouraging him to do things by himself because “you’re a big boy!” doesn’t work.  In fact, he pre-empts me by saying he’s a baby, a big-boy-baby–like he sees the end of it and wants one last hurrah.  I cuddle him and baby him when he asks for it, he’s mostly himself–but he still seems to need something that can’t be satisfied.

How strange it is, to be loved so entirely by this little creature who will someday be a grownup and resent me and see me as the root of all his neuroses. Being a mother is fucked up.  Just an utterly hopeless position.

Perhaps he’s too easy.  Some little kids have a hard time encountering the world.  Ziv never has.  At every stage, he’s gone with the program, generally cheerfully.  A thriver.  So much so that perhaps I can fool myself into thinking I’ve been doing a good job as a mom—a Good Enough one, at least.  One challenge emerges, and I fold into an echo chamber of self-abnegation and inadequacy.

I know Ziv’s “swim regression” is a phase.  In a year, I’ll be laughing at myself.  I’m laughing at myself now.  I still wanted to write this down.  Not because it’s a big deal, but because it is a window into my own mother’s madness, it’s a window into my own future, when my child’s crises of confidence speak danger, when more things are at stake.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Man on the BART Train

Large man on BART train.  Not fat, large.  Tall, wide, he sits in the double handicapped section and though someone could fit in next to him, no one would.  On top of his own bulk he wears a thick cobalt blue pea coat, black pants, black socks, shiny black leather shoes.  Knit cap.  Glasses.  Calm demeanor.

I notice he is also wearing light blue latex gloves.  He has with him a dark blue milk crate settled on the ground, between his knees.  The opening does not face up, but faces him.  The crate isn’t empty, yet magically and mysteriously, none of the objects fall out of the opening in front.

The man pulls out a white carton of generic-brand orange juice, the kind with a plastic spout, green.  He places the orange juice on top of the milk crate like it’s a table.  Pulls out a white paper napkin.  He wipes the mouth of the carton, definitively–once with the green spout cap on, one with it off.  He then carefully wipes his own mouth.  All this wiping takes time, he is doing it assiduously, patiently.  The suspense is riveting.  The man then, finally, picks up the carton and takes a couple of small, careful sips.  He puts the cap back on the spout, and the carton back in the crate.

For a couple of stops, the man doesn’t do anything.  Just sits.  I can tell he’s not done.  He then pulls out a string cheese stick and a small plastic bag of cashews.  He pulls the plastic wrapper down the cheese stick like a banana peel so he can hold the stick by the plastic and not directly touch the cheese.  He takes a couple of meditative bites.  He eats his nuts, but I can’t remember how, I just know all of this is done with such care.  The gloves stay on.

We are sitting perpendicularly, so I can pretend to be not watching, leaning back in my seat and facing forward, while I am, in truth, noting every thing he is doing.  At some point, he must know I’m watching, because he glances as me and gives me a small smile.  As I leave the train, he nods to me politely.  I nod back.

Proof of Concept (The Anti-TED)

My friend Rinku once said she thought TED talks were fascist.

I don’t know that they are that, exactly–but I understand why she said it, given the way they manage to absorb all sorts of things–scientific research and business innovations and journalistic narratives including sometimes tales of horrendous personal tragedy and survival–and then insidiously re-present it under a kind of hopey-changey Stuart-Brand-y progress-as-panacea propaganda branding.  Not to put too fine a point on it.

TED-talks stand for something–a particular performance that reflects the dilemma of our present moment.  Frankly, I think of it as positivist capitalist New World Order propaganda that doesn’t reflect the values shift needed to actually save the world.  When I think of how we are failing in our society, I feel like TED talks and Fox News are two sides of the same coin, two poles that reflect a basic underlying lie:  that our world can be repaired without a change in our lifestyle.  That we can have all our technological conveniences and have a better more healthful more “sustainable” world, we can have our cake and eat it too.   It’s the fantasy upon which Silicon Valley exists, something I’ve been thinking about for years.

It shifts the Great Leader of Fascism to the Great Innovation.  Shifts racial nationalism to a fantasy of global community that acknowledges suffering peoples, but doesn’t shift daily life to incorporate those people into our daily consciousness.

Several articles came out this week, none of which are about TED, but which, taken as a collection, resonate for me as the anti-TED, which, taken together as an outline, reveal the hollowness of the claims of TED-talks-philosophy.

Princeton study concludes that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy.

Review of Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital, which pits capitalism against the hopes of democracy.

Article in the NY Times Magazine on a radical environmental activist who essentially has given up.

Silicon Valley settlement talks between software engineers and four major corporations about manipulating the system to exploit their labor.

Performance Tonight for RECAPS: Rethinking Environment at Human Resources LA

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Tonight at 8:30pm I’ll be doing a performance–a Scrapping Ceremony–as part of RECAPS Magazine’s fantastic weekend of programming around Rethinking Environment.  Come on by!

Human Resources
410 Cottage Home Street
Chinatown Los Angeles!

 

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James Turrell and the Body at Notes on Looking!

I am delighted to share my essay on James Turrell and the body, up today at Geoff Tuck’s wonderful Notes on Looking.  The marvelous Maura Brewer and I each wrote an essay challenging the discourse around the past Year of Turrell in New York and Los Angeles to mark the closing of the LACMA retrospective.

Read both and let me know what you think!

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The Honda-pocalypse at the Awl

Check out my piece on Honda’s recent attempt to pander to Millennials at the Awl!

The Years of Lyndon B Johnson

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At some point I was sucked into making profile on Goodreads but don’t really keep up with it–never got into making those notches on the bedpost.

And yet I feel like I must somehow commemorate the occasion of having just binge-read my way through all four currently published volumes of Robert Caro’s magisterial Years of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Not out of some humblebrag.  I don’t feel like it is an impressive achievement–the books are so entirely gripping, pleasurable, riveting, I can only compare how I felt reading them to how I felt watching The Wire.  It stands out as one of the outstanding reading experiences of my life.

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Some find Caro repetitive over the long march of the series.  I didn’t–I found his leitmotifs musical, the events and interviews whose reiteration allows the reader absorb them, make them such familiar touchstones that she can begin to wrap her head around the extreme contradictions that existed and fought for expression within LBJ’s outsized personality, the yawning gaps between his cowardice and his heroism, his expediency and his risk-taking, his confidence and his paralyzing fear.  LBJ, the power-hungry grotesque, political savant, coward and risk-taking visionary, ass-licker to his superiors, sadistic brute to his subordinates, wretched husband and great statesman, a man whose moral code only came into play when it matched up with his desperate, bottomless ambitions–and yet when those did match up, was able to take risks, be bold and brave and strategic in ways that Kennedy never could have.

I’m sure this has been written a million times but the sweep is Shakespearean–LBJ is right up there with Lear, Falstaff–all the more so when you read with the knowledge that you are being set up for the tragedy of Vietnam blighting the enormous legacy of the Great Society.  Caro manages to make so much material whose outcome is known so entirely suspenseful–from LBJ’s 1948 Senate win to the transition into the presidency.

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Then there are the juicy contextual nuggets, the berries and cream in studding the cake, the awesome rocks around which the river flows.  The books follow the years of LBJ–and those years include biographies-within-the-biography of Sam Rayburn, Richard Russell, Coke Stevens, JFK, RFK, Alice Glass, Lady Bird, Hubert Humphrey (who really felt like the love interest of Master of the Senate).  A 100-page institutional history of the Senate, a minutely detailed description of women’s life in the Hill Country before rural electrification, the corrupt years of Washington politics that birthed the necessity of the New Deal, the turn of the century Populism through the lens of Sam Johnson, LBJ’s father–all of it made me feel like I was learning American history for the first time.

Every one of the books ends with Debts, acknowledgements to his colleagues and collaborators–and a journey through the Sources that made the book possible.  Especially in Path to Power and Means of Ascent, the Sources chapters are must-reads for any student of journalism.

Books that have piled up over the past three months but am having a hard time starting because I’m just walking around, processing this material–I’m kind of at a loss with myself. Instead I read essays on the details Caro missed, interviews in which he promises the fifth and final volume (hopefully soon, Jesus Christ, the man is pushing 80), crappy toffee Kennedy tell-alls I’m buying off Amazon for one cent.

What do you do when something like this has happened to you?

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Artists Read Baldessari: A Tally

Often, when issues of inequity come up–whether on the Hollywood screen, or in Congress, or in publishing, people take tallies.  Tallies can be illuminating.  Artist Micol Hebron has been recently taking such tallies of the art and gallery world as a way of trying to have some hard conversations about continuing gender inequity in art that we would prefer to think no longer exist.

So here’s a tally from yesterday’s For Your Art event, Artists Read Baldessari, a celebration of a new two volume set of John Baldessari’s writing edited by Meg Cranston and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Of the 51 artists who read:

  • 33 were men
  • 18 were women

So almost twice as many men as women.

And also, of 51 artists who read:

  • 47 were white
  • 4 were people of color (there was one woman of color.  ONE.)

The overwhelming majority of the artists who read were young, under 40–all Los Angeles artists.  What’s going on here?