Sunday, November 18, 2007

Some notes on recently read children's books

1. Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Sherwood Ring

I read Pope's The Perilous Gard when I was a child. It was a Newbery Honor book, and I liked it a lot, although I don't know how it would hold up to adult re-reading. The Sherwood Ring is entertaining, but not as good, and most of the time Peggy's actions are just an excuse for ghosts to narrate more of their own stories. The sexism in the novel is... very 1958. Appallingly so. At least Pope got the humanities scholar=poverty thing right. She was a humanities scholar herself, and probably knew from experience.

2. Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series

I've read two of the books in this series, and right away I was annoyed by the days-of-the-week conceit. Okay, seven days of the week, seven wacky adventures. This is, of course, no worse than the Harry Potter seven years in school, seven wacky adventures. Still. Seven keys to the kingdom is like six Signs of the Light, and like Will in The Dark Is Rising, Arthur keeps being directed by magic beyond his understanding, which, I am sorry, is irritating.

Nix's cosmology is interesting, filled with pastiche but in a self-aware way. Grim Tuesday reflects slightly (not deeply) on the meaning of pastiche and originality in art. The cosmic and the comic intertwine playfully in this series, which is much different from Sabriel's high seriousness.

Sabriel seemed to be Nix's Oxford School shout-out, deeply tied to land, kingdom, lineage, and law. The Keys to the Kingdom is also in love with the law, but the rightful heir is (thankfully) no longer part of a particular blood line. Arthur is chosen as the rightful heir nearly randomly: asthmatic, he is chosen because he is on the point of dying (or so the chooser thinks). Unlike Sabriel, whose Ancelstierre is clearly a fantastic England, Arthur apparently lives in Australia, slightly in the future (Monday features email; Tuesday has "luminescent e-paper").

I'm always fascinated by Nix's representations of text. In Sabriel, text is lex, an emanation of both reality and law (the two are nearly interchangeable in that series). In The Keys to the Kingdom on the other hand, text is either completely banal, i.e. telegrams, receipts, memoranda, and endless records which are filed and can never be found, or the embodiment of will. Which is to say, there is a legal will, which is a volition in and of itself, and is moreover an actual character in the series.

It's hard to tell the two kinds of text apart; there's a critical moment in Monday in which Arthur and Suzy have to work alone, because a pit of "bibliophages," adders that will annihilate any text-bearing thing, separates him, the Will, and Suzy from Mister Monday's lair. The Will cannot cross because it is, ultimately, just text, "entirely composed of type" (interestingly enough), and in that sense indistinguishable from the label in Arthur's shorts. It also has no real medium and no materiality; in Monday it inhabits the body of a frog, and in Tuesday it takes the form of a woman and a bear. These media are incidental to the actual Will, which can flit about as disembodied type if necessary.

There is, of course, a unique codex, the Compleat Atlas of the House and its Immediate Environs, but in spite of its foreign, hand-written text it resembles nothing so much as Wikipedia, for Arthur always opens it seeking specific answers, and gets them (although, as with Wikipedia, some entries are more helpful than others). The textual world of The Keys to the Kindgom is that of the information age, ephemeral, abundant, both banal and all-controlling.

I need to think more about this approach to text in comparison to that of the Sabriel trilogy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Victorian Domesticity and the Queen of America

In Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), there's a remarkable passage in which an enslaved woman, seemingly out of ignorance, articulates a political vision in which a "Queen of America" subjugates the President of the United States and emancipates the slaves:
Even the most ignorant have some confused notions about it. They knew that I could read; and I was often asked if I had seen any thing in the newspapers about white folks over in the big north, who were trying to get their freedom for them. Some believe that the abolitionists have already made them free, and that it is established by law. One woman begged me to get a newspaper and read it over. She said her husband told her that the black people had sent word to the queen of 'Merica that they were all slaves; that she didn't believe it, and went to Washington city to see the president about it. They quarrelled; she drew her sword upon him, and swore that he should help her to make them all free.
That poor, ignorant woman thought that America was governed by a Queen, to whom the President was subordinate. I wish the President was subordinate to Queen Justice.(44-5)

What does it all mean?

Incidents famously marshals the discourse of domestic fiction (my class played "name that text" this week with quotations from Incidents and Pamela, and it was not easy). But it's also explicitly political, engaging both what Nancy Armstrong calls the "sexual contract" and the social contract. The Queen of America passage is a moment where the two models collide.

Domesticity -- the model of the home as unit, wherein man and woman play complementary roles -- is purportedly the great good in Jacobs's narrative. Jacobs repeatedly denounces slavery for the way in which it destroys both black and white domesticity, writing that
...the husband of a slave has no power to protect her. Moreover, my mistress, like many others, seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their own; they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress. (38)
Slavery disallows black domesticity by tearing apart black families. The black woman is not allowed to be a domestic woman: she can't take care of her own children, keep her own house, or maintain her chastity, while the black man is similarly denied access to domestic masculinity, since he cannot provide for his wife and children, act as their agent in the political and economic world, or protect them from harm. But similarly, slavery destroys the white family, since the master is free to rape his slaves, have children by them, and sell his children, destroying the nuclear husband-wife dyad. Slavery, according to Jacobs, is the enemy of domesticity, and for this reason must be opposed.

But where slavery destroys one kind of family, it constructs itself as another kind of family, a perverted domestic family, what Jacobs sarcastically calls "a beautiful 'patriarchal institution'" (74). Slaveholders repeatedly present the kinship model of slavery as a justification for its continuation, most disturbingly when Dr. Flint, who has spent several chapters seeking to rape Linda (Jacobs's narrator), seeks her acquiescence on the basis that he, filling a paternal role, knows better than she, a mere child. "You know I exact obedience from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child," he tells her (83).

But Jacobs does not introduce the perverse family of slavery merely to contrast it with the virtuous domestic family. For whereas one family, the domestic family, is constructed as "good" and the other, the "patriarchal institution" of slavery, as "bad," both models reproduce the social contract, in which the subjugated members gain protection from the governor to whom they have ceded power.

And in both models, the contract is revealed as a sham, imposed by tradition and force and beneficial to one party at the expense of the other. Just as the well-being of the women and children of the domestic household is guaranteed only by the good will of the father who is their economic and political agent, the well-being of the slave is only guaranteed by the good will of the slave-holder. Should that good will fail, woman, child, and slave are left without recourse; as Jacobs puts it, when her children's biological father repeatedly fails to emancipate them, "I was powerless. There was no protecting arm of the law for me to invoke."

Thus, time and again, attempts to work within the domestic model fail, not only because of slavery (as Jacobs herself sometimes suggests), but also because of the inherent flaw in the social contract.

Linda's grandmother, the ideal domestic woman, finally gains her own home and freedom after being repeatedly cheated by white people. But she never gains the freedom of her children, and, in spite of her moral authority in her community, she never has any legal redress. Even the ideal domestic woman has no ultimate standing.

Similarly, slaves are constantly cheated by their owners, who are supposedly filling a "parental" role, because promises to them never have the force of law behind them.

Even white women are powerless if attached to a father or a husband. Among southern white women, only an orphaned woman (50), a widow (99), and an elderly spinster (11) succeed in giving real aid to slaves by acting as their own economic agents.

In the end, the moral authority and power of the domestic woman has its limits, and at that limit, force and legal redress must replace the dubious promises of a paternalistic system.

But how can an American woman acquire political power? It is sixty years before women can even vote, much less run for political office. In America, there is no figure of female political power; the President of the United States is by definition male.

In the same period, however, there was an important figure of female power: Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.

The parable of the Queen of America, spoken by the most oppressed subaltern, an illiterate female slave, envisions female power legitimized by a crown and enforced by a sword. Running counter to the discourse that glorifies domesticity and its sexual contract, Jacobs suggests that the emancipation of slaves is possible only by a rupture in the sexual contract, in the form of a female seizure of political power.

In that sense, British monarchy ironically becomes a figure of liberation.* Of course, Jacobs was naive to hope that white women would always look out for black women's interests, just as white feminists of the period were naive to hope that their alliance with male abolitionists would be repaid in support for women's suffrage. But as the narrative closes, Jacobs remarks, "my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage" (201) Despite her frequent invocation of the domestic home, the ultimate aim of the marriage plot, Jacobs finally posits freedom as domesticity's alternative.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Enlarged Edition, Ed. and Introd. Jean Fagan Yellin. 1861; Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000.

*Elisa Tamarkin's article on "black Anglophilia" has more and better things to say to this figure, which is not unique to Jacobs.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Thursday, November 1, 2007

La beauté et la bête

One of my students wants to write about love in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast. It occurred to me that “love” is perhaps the central concept of the film, since the film’s premise is that a prince is under a curse that can only be broken by love.

Ah. But what is “love”?

In the introductory sequence, narrated in voice-over against a visual sequence of pseudo-medieval stained-glass windows, we learn that the prince has turned an old woman seeking shelter away from his door, into the storm. The old woman warns the prince that things are not always what they seem, but he refuses her entry. The old woman then transforms into “a beautiful enchantress,” declares that there is no love in the prince’s heart, and puts the curse on him, turning him into a beast. He must learn to love another, and have "her" love him in return, within ten years, or he will remain Shrek a beast forever.

Thus the question of love -- What is love? How does one acquire it? Or, as the voice-over narrator puts it, “Who could ever learn to love ... A BEAST?” -- is positioned as the central problem of the film.

The old woman is a kind of wise Loathly Lady, but with a difference. She is not the cursed but the curser, and clearly powerful. Her appearance as an elderly woman (coded, of course, as sexually repulsive) is really a subterfuge on her part, and completely under her control. She is never really a poor old woman, and she never really needs shelter from the storm. She shows up, seemingly without motivation, to test the prince, and then to punish him for failing the test.

Why he must take the test in the first place is never questioned by the film. The film seems to suggest that there is a moral lesson embedded in the test; it doesn’t hold up, however. After all, the injunction to see beyond appearances to “the beauty within” only suggests that it’s acceptable to turn elderly mendicants into the cold, so long as you’re sure they aren’t covertly “beautiful enchantresses.” It is beauty, hidden or revealed, that is the condition for receiving humane treatment, not humanity.

The moment of the enchantress’s revelation is at once a revelation that this is a movie about beauty. For the key transformation here seems not to be from powerless to powerful, but from ugly to beautiful – or rather, the transformations are effected simultaneously, but it is only the latter that is effected in reverse on the prince, suggesting that the transformation from ugly to beautiful is a transformation from (sexually) powerless to powerful.

What, in the film, is love? It’s whatever breaks the curse. Magic vets the quality of love.

It is indeed another beautiful woman who will break the spell, who “could learn to love a beast,” reversing the effects of the prince’s failure by passing the test herself.

But we must understand that this is a different test, a sexual test. To prove that he has “love in his heart,” the prince is asked to let an elderly woman in from a storm. Although we are told that the prince turns her away because of her appearance, it is somewhat difficult to see how her appearance really enters into it; we know that the prince has a large castle and a large staff; he need never look at her. The prince’s failure is a failure of charity.

Belle, on the other hand, is asked to make a life-altering (and potentially cross-species) sexual decision. “Love” here is no longer agape (or better, caritas), but eros; the price for male inhumanity must be exacted in female sexual freedom.

The danger with Belle is not that she will fail in charity; this is never even a possibility, since from the beginning we see Belle (madonnalike, clad in virginal blue and white, she ultimately reclaims the rose) positioned as a maternal figure toward her father, towering over him and giving him pep talks about his inventions like a mom praising her kid’s science fair project. Charity is what she does. The danger is that she will make the wrong erotic choice: that she will let beauty determine her object of desire.

(Although we get a long song sequence at the beginning of the movie that establishes Belle’s enormous desire for “much more than this provincial life,” there’s no suggestion that she might, say, move to Paris and take up a career. Her much-trumpeted desires are quickly narrowed to a quasi-moral sexual choice between two competing avatars of masculinity.)

Belle, with the clarity of a Mary facing an annunciation, “chooses” rightly and the Beast is saved. The breaking of the curse tells us that Belle has also found true love, and this is a Good Thing, surely the very thing she longed for when she stood up on that hill and sang about adventure. But the real resolution is that the Beast regains his beauty, the real Beauty of the film’s title.

In an ironic turn, Belle must then stare into his face until she can decide, “It is you!”

The film asks, "What is love?" It answers: That which restores (male) beauty.