Thursday, September 30, 2010

Domination, Even Before Colonization Occurs

In J.M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, colonization is thought to be the power struggle that occurs. This, however, does not seem to be the first case of a dominant force ruling over a submissive body within the novel. Early in the book, the narrator describes the relationship between her mother and father, where her father clearly is the only one to represent power: "My father's first wife, my mother, was a frail gentle loving woman who lived and died under her husband's thumb. Her husband never forgave her for failing to bear him a son" (Coetzee 2). Two major instances (specifically dynamics) of power are presented here, the first being the power that the father has over the narrator's mother. Due to the extreme stresses the narrator's mother faced as being a wife, including excess amounts of sexual demands, she becomes too frail and fragile to live any longer. There is also the instance of "failing to bear him a son," speaking to the dynamic of (more broadly than the first dynamic) men and women in this context. This speaks to the concept of "double colonization," where women not only face oppression as the colonized but also face general discrimination as women. The narrator's father does not want daughters because only a son would make a worthy "boy-heir," showing the type of gender hegemony that is present within this society. In this hegemony, of course, the women are subaltern, meaning they are the inferior group that cannot enter into the group of power.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Math and the "And Next?" Dilemma

Of the many threads running through In the Heart of the Country, I want to analyze what I have found as the “And Next?” dilemma. The narrator says on page 21 (that is, in section 42), “Would that all my life were like that, question and answer, word and echo, instead of the torment of And next? And next?” She wants a word and an echo, a cause and effect, a beginning and an end. Indeed, she wants anything to pull her out of her pointless present.
I am no mathematician, but I see this as a Cartesian dilemma: the narrator’s life lacks the necessary balance of two cooperating planes, time and choice. As I see it, ideally a person’s life can be structured neatly as follows: infinite time running along the x-axis, infinite individual choice along the y-axis; life beginning at point (0,0), following a course staked across sundry points on quadrants I and IV, and finally reaching a definite endpoint somewhere six feet below ground. An echo heard is a small point on the graph left by a word spoken. Cause and effect exists because these two planes cooperate.
For our narrator, however, these two planes never do meet; that is to say, time passes with no regard to her decisions, and she sees no need to make decisions with regard to time. On one hand, she has no hope for the future: she will never redeem her lost youth, she will never have children, her father will never love her, and no one will ever care. But on the other hand, this gives her enormous personal freedom, basically allowing her to do whatever she wants, whether that be murdering her parents with an axe (hypothetically, thank goodness) or changing her physical appearance. She fashions these together in a meaningless philosophy: because "life will continue to be a line trickling from nowhere to nowhere, without beginning or end" (96) a person ought never to be "more than whim" (115). Essentially, nothing will change, so nothing matters; therefore, let's all do crazy stuff and see what happens.
Of course, this doesn't work out so well for her. She finds herself trapped within the indefinite bounds of a "black hole" (85), or "a yawning middle without end” (89), thus denied any form of definition. She knows instead only an asymptotic existence in which she “can expand to infinity…[or] shrivel to the size of an ant” (Section 96).
This novel is many things, but it is at least an exploration of this kind of unbounded, pointless existence. The narrator neither knows her past nor wishes to accept the pointless “And next?” future that lies ahead of her. She yearns for definition and meaning, for anything that might take her off a pointlessly winding path and give her direction. This seems clear, both textually and mathematically. The next task, then, is to determine the causes of why she was lead down that path in the first place. (See close-reading assignment.)

Women Just Can't Win

I must admit, during the first twenty or so odd pages of J.M. Coetzee’s “In the Heat of the Country” I had no idea what was going on in the story. Reading the abstract of the book I expected the story to have the traditional themes of a post-colonial text; which was composed of white dominant characters ruling over the black characters. I was completely wrong! The main character of the story Magda Johannes deals with physical and psychological oppression that leads to her rants, which are unbelievable and indescribable. As Austin stated, these types of actions can be attributed to the effects of double oppression. The effects of oppression expressed on page 71 when Magda is running through thoughts in her head and she states, “I want a second chance! Let me annihilate myself in you and come forth a second time clean and new… I was all a mistake!” The oppressive life that she has lived has placed her in this subaltern start. When see the effects that this state has on her when the roles of power shift between herself and Hendrick. However, this seemingly shift of power could be the male dominated society “righting the wrong” that was caused by her father’s death, and putting everything back to the way it should be where her life was dictated by a man.

Women Just Can't Win

I must admit, during the first twenty or so odd pages of J.M. Coetzee’s “In the Heat of the Country” I had no idea what was going on in the story. Reading the abstract of the book I expected the story to have the traditional themes of a post-colonial text; which was composed of white dominant characters ruling over the black characters. I was completely wrong! The main character of the story Magda Johannes deals with physical and psychological oppression that leads to her rants, which are unbelievable and indescribable. As Austin stated, these types of actions can be attributed to the effects of double oppression. The effects of oppression expressed on page 71 when Magda is running through thoughts in her head and she states, “I want a second chance! Let me annihilate myself in you and come forth a second time clean and new… I was all a mistake!” The oppressive life that she has lived has placed her in this subaltern start. When see the effects that this state has on her when the roles of power shift between herself and Hendrick. However, this seemingly shift of power could be the male dominated society “righting the wrong” that was caused by her father’s death, and putting everything back to the way it should be where her life was dictated by a man.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Not Every White Man Prospers in South Africa

Reading J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, I was continuously reminded of the protagonist’s poverty. And by poverty I not only mean economically but also emotionally. Here we have a young girl abandoned and alone with the death of her father, which not only leaves her in want of money and sustenance but also a need to be loved and appreciated. She loses control of her servants and cannot sustain the farm to provide food and money. But her loneliness and longing to be loved is more important in driving this story in which she references countless times. One such reference includes her longing for a husband and that if she would find one it would make her emotional poverty disappear: “If only I had a good man to sleep at my side, and give me babies, all would be well, I would perk up and learn to smile, my limbs would fill out, my skin glow, and the voice inside my head stutter and stumble into silence” (40). Unfortunately, no such husband presents himself, and she is forced to accept shallow, unloving sexual intercourse from the servant Hendrick, who does not so much as even look at her during the act not to mention love her. When the servants finally leave her alone on the farm she resorts to trying to gain companionship from the twelve-year-old messenger boy, who promptly runs off at her mention of sex.
As an English colonist to South Africa, she has endured great hardship not only financially but also emotionally. Her situation helps attest to the weakening of the British Imperialism of the mid to late 20th Century. With other colonist like her enduring hard times and unable to not only cope with harsh financial situations but also the emotional hardships of being alone in a strange land, the influence of Britain on their colonies would indeed wane and give rise to growing independence movements in South Africa and elsewhere.

Vacant Inner Space: Internalized Oppression and the Female Form

What struck me about this book is the extent to which the main character recognizes the extent of her oppression yet perpetuates that oppression through self-deprecation. I believe negative self-awareness is the product of internalized oppression. In the binary of colonizer and colonized, the former works to instill a subversive mindset in the latter in order to establish hegemonic rule. By asserting their own political and cultural superiority, the colonizer systematically places the colonized in a subaltern state. The colonized then judge themselves in relation to their perceived "superiors," thereby internalizing the notion that they are lesser. This internalized oppression seems to be evident in the behavior and thoughts of Magda. Her own perception of her body indicates a degree of self-deprecation through oppression: "I move through the a hole, a hole with a body draped around it...I am a hole crying to be whole" (41). Magda uses the image of a hole as the central focus of her bodily construction. She asserts that the female reproductive organ stands as a signifier of lack. The vacancy inherent in the female anatomy translates to a feeling of insufficiency. She craves a male partner in so far as he will make her whole by filling this physical void. By comparing herself to the figure of her father, whom she describes as "a knifeblade cutting the wind, or a tower with eyes," she defines herself as inherently lesser. The phallic descriptions of her father's form implies a measure of internalized oppression. Because she requires a male organ to be physically whole, Magda cannot recognize her female form as being anything other than a "protectrix of vacant inner space."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Patriarchal Absurdity

"...the whole edifice of female governance is based on that foundation stone; chastity is their jewel, their centre piece, which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of." (Woolf, 113)

This quote begins to get at the heart of Woolf's critique of sexism during not only her period of life, but also a period that stretches much further back. Her novel Orlando, a fictional biography of the main character by the same name, strives to illuminate the absurdity of patriarchal beliefs such as the one expressed in this passage.

Orlando is a satirical look at gender, its “norms” and expectations, that stretches 400 years. It begins with Orlando as a man in the 1600’s and ends at the beginning of the 20th century, Orlando having since been transformed into a woman. At this point in the novel, Orlando had been a woman for sometime, but she is just now realizing the extent that this will alter her life. She begins to notice new restrictions on her dress and behavior. She is required to spend large amounts of time in the morning preparing herself to be seen in public—to do otherwise would be inappropriate or even obscene.

By the time of the quote I have chosen Orlando sits on the deck of a ship heading for England. She is amazed to realize how easy life has become for her. The captain of the ship dotes on her and she understands the frenzy she can cause among the crew by exposing even her ankle. The biographer interjects my chosen passage in his/her attempt to quantify some of these feelings Orlando is experiencing. Orlando cannot flirt to her heart’s content, instead she must be careful, for to lose her chastity would be socially damning.

Looking at the quote itself, Woolf is obviously being very satirical. The meaning behind the statement is innocent enough, but the language Woolf uses to convey the biographer’s thoughts are another matter entirely. The first words “…whole edifice of female governance…” are very revealing. “Edifice” means “any large, complex system or organization,” (Webster’s) and plays on the common male belief that women are far too complex to understand. The “edifice” of “governance” begins to toy around with the complex ways in which women are expected to behave, or govern themselves. The convoluted and overtly “intellectual” language of just the beginning of this statement further compounds this notion of complexity and the redundancy begins to hint at the sarcasm of this statement.

Woolf really hammers this home, though, immediately after when this complex complexity rests on one simple thing—a stone. All that was previously difficult to understand becomes immediately understandable in a stereotypical way. “…chastity is their jewel, their centre piece…” Woolf has the biographer describe this immensely feminine thing, the notion of female chastity, in a way that all men could understand; chastity is a piece of jewelry that women yearn to protect, it is an expensive centre piece on a dinner table. Woolf uses the most absurdly feminine stereotypes to describe a feminine stereotype, obviously this isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

If it was taken seriously, though, Woolf uses the end of the sentence to make certain that no lingering doubts of her sarcasm exist. “…which they run mad to protect, and die when ravished of.” The notion that this biographer could make such a broad and all inclusive statement regarding women and their beliefs of the importance of chastity has left the realm of satire and has begun to knock on the door of absurdity. Women are being treated as, at best, as victims—as poor souls to be pitied when their chastity is stolen from them.

It can certainly be assumed that the biographer was intended to be male and that this sentence was Woolf’s stark criticism of men’s beliefs about women. It is a relentless attack on stereotypes and misconceptions, on a patriarchal belief of passivity and victimization.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Orlando's Nature Sanctuary: No Longer a Future Heaven.

"She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the tough heather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could not rise. But there she lay content…” (182)."

With these words Orlando the woman escapes once again to her Never-Never Land beyond time and space. She lies in an English moor outside London and traverses decades and oceans alone, lying comfortably on her back. Anne McClintock might disagree, however, with the nature of Orlando’s so-called escape. Her chapter on gender and nationalism (Ch. 4 “No Longer in a Future Heaven”) describes an escape of a rather different sort, claiming that often through history, in literature as in nations, women
Haunt analysis as an elided shadow—deferred, displaced, and dis- remembered…and are thus effectively deferred to a no-where land, beyond time and place. (95)
When Orlando falls contented in her secret moor, then, it’s a bit shortsighted to consider the action a comfortable escape. Rather, she has been thrust there, like a dust mop set roughly in its place in the closet under the stairway. This is supported in the description of Orlando’s almost helter-skelter jaunt through the woods. The heather roots don’t coax her gently down, they fling her, even breaking her ankle so that she can’t rise back up. If Orlando is forced to find contentment in a place where there can be no real contentment, McClintock is justified. Her sanctuary, isolated from society as it is, is still a no-where land that can bring her nothing.
Further connection between Orlando and McClintock's text is provided, of course, by Orlando's remarkable ability to flit through time and place. I like McClintock's use of the word elide in her analysis. The term packs an underhanded implication: behind its dictionary definition, "to omit", stands the result of the omission, a slurring of something- often speech- or in Orlando's case, identity. McClintock is implying that women have not only been exiled into social no-where land, they have been denied a corporeal self they might call their own. Both an omission from society and a slurring of identity across time and place is readily visible in Orlando. As she lies fugitive in her wooded sanctuary, Orlando progresses, we might imagine by textual hints ("Tick-tock, tick-tock, so it hammered, so it beat" (183)) several years, perhaps even decades, through time; and as she does so, she significantly alters her life philosophy, insert: identity, ("I am nature's bride") unto passionate love with Shel (184). Though these events in a fictional novel are by definition quite unreal, a visible elision of Orlando the character is, according to McClintock, an everyday reality for women everywhere, and therefore something always worth a further look.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Problems with the relation of sex and gender in "Orlando"

As Orlando sails to England after transforming from a man into a woman and leaving the Gypsies, she evaluates her new status as a woman. After reveling in the delights of the flirtatious games men and women play, such as the slight resistance she puts up against the captain's offer of serving her some fat with her corned beef, she playfully fantasizes that she may throw herself overboard just to be rescued [115]. She then, however, reflects upon what she, when she was still male, would think of a woman that did such a thing. She continues to examine her general expectations for women in general:
She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled. "Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires," she reflected; "for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented, and exquisitely appareled by nature" [115].

Orlando then continues by listing what she must do in order to be seen as publically acceptable by men, or to be "feminine." In the quote above, she realizes that those characteristics are applied to women because of their sex and because of a man's view toward them, not because those can be called naturally feminine. At this realization she declares that she will not be a slave to such views of femininity. However, she eventually succumbs to societal pressures and she conforms to them through most of her life, besides when she begins dressing as she did when she was a man and prowling the streets of London.
However, the simple biological transformation does not change Orlando internally. She still takes comfort in nature and in her poem, "The Oak Tree," and striving to find what to do with herself. Those aspects of women seen as femininity cannot strictly be applied, and in the time at which Orlando considers them, are almost requisite for a woman. Though at one point Orlando does resist, only to fall back into the norms forced upon women. But what is argued is that these gender norms labeled as feminine or masculine are not naturally male or female, but are taught and forced on those sexes.

Oppression, Categorization and the Feminine Emergence

“Woman are but children of a larger growth… A man of sense only trifles with them, plays with them, humours and flatters them…” (214) Society plays a huge role in the defining of who we are as people and how we look at ourselves as a part of society. In this quote taken from Lord Chesterfield, who, as this quote shows, may be a bit of womanizer, (note my subtlety in the accusation) has a higher social role than most. His interpretation, which may be along the lines of many men of this period, is that women are inferior. The social norms of the time revolve around the idea that men are the dominant figures of society and women are the keepers of the home and bearers of children. Becky Francis states in her article, “Engendering debate: how to formulate a political account of the divide between genetic bodies and discursive gender?”, inequalities, such as these, between assigned male and female behaviors and expressions have constituted the basis for feminist analysis.
Even though there is a huge gap between the date of publication for Orlando, 1928 and the date of publication for the Francis article, 2007, the prospect of categorization of gender and the feminist emergence lingers during the time frames of each piece’s production. During the period in which Orlando was written, women were categorized, as Lord Chesterfield stated, “children of a larger growth”. Looking through the lens from the opposite side, men would be categorized as the parents of those children, who merely “play” with the children. The actions that followed this quote by Chesterfield state that Orlando “plopped” sugar into Chesterfield’s tea before exiting outside to the garden to be alone. The simplicity of plopping sugar and walking outside was a major action for that time period. Woman of the time were subject to such treatment and usually dealt with it but Orlando, who is far from usual, did not allow the normative, oppressive words and beliefs of Chesterfield bring her down.
Throughout the novel there is an array of actions that deal with feminism and its emergence. Woolf illustrates her main character changing sexes and then manipulating the idea of sex altogether by constantly changing from male to female by a change of clothes. There is no doubt that there was comedy in Orlando, but the feminine stand against the categorization and social norm oozes through the words of Woolf and the actions of Orlando.

Reconstructing the Meaning of Gender: Becky Francis and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando"

After reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, many contemporary social norms can be called into question, especially those that are assumed to be uncomplicated. Becky Francis recalls a distinct observation made by many researchers, such as Kessler and Butler: “Not everyone falls easily into the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’, for a variety of reasons. Yet despite this, sex is usually assumed to be unproblematic, ‘common-sense’ categorization” (Francis 211). Reading this quote easily puts Orlando’s gender transformation in my mind. Though it is effortless to state that Orlando transformed from man to woman, it may be proven more difficult because of Orlando’s sexuality. This can be seen when Orlando finds true love with Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. When each discovers that the other is not the gender that is outwardly portrayed, a conflict ensues that is not described in the text: “Never was there such a scene of protestation and demonstration as then took place since the world began. When it was over and they were seated again she asked him, what was this talk of a South-west gale? Where was he bound for?” (Woolf 184-185). Though there is obviously a conflict that occurs, the speaker decides not to portray it within the novel. This may be because it occurred so briefly and thus deemed irrelevant. It also may be because the characters are obviously so unfazed by the conflict because of their immediate love, even though Orlando is revealed to be a man and “Shel” is revealed to be a woman. Orlando, admitting that though he is now a woman is still attracted to women, proves to defy the concrete meaning of the word “gender.” Though he is now outwardly perceived as female, his love for a woman, who is outwardly perceived as male, entangles the social norms that define gender.

Society's Performative Expectations: Woolf, Butler, and Gender Identity

Having lived life in the body of both a man and a woman, Orlando possesses a broad understanding of the disparate roles of the sexes. Upon undergoing the transformation into a female form, she often experiments with the fluidity of gender by garbing herself in clothes which confuse her biological sex. In the guise of a man, she ruminates the what it was like to be held by society's behavioral expectations for a male. As a boy of noble birth, she was expected to act in accordance with the masculine virtues of pomp and competitiveness. After Orlando becomes a woman, the nature of gender performance continually vexes her. She ruminates the behavioral shift she will have to make in order to fulfill her role as a woman: "I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth...all I can do, once I set foot on English soil, is to pour out tea, and ask my lords how they like it" (Woolf, 116). Orlando is commenting on what Judith Butler call the performative nature of gender. Butler posits that "if gender is the cultural meanings that the sexed body assumes, then a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way" (Butler, 9). This argument complicates the strict binary between the biological notions of male and female. Butler suggests that it is society that dictates what it means to be a man or a woman, not biology. Men and women are expected to perform in certain manners based on these social preconceptions. Orlando's is ambivalent because she is forced to assume a new identity to match her morphed body when all she has known is the life of a man. The fact that these two genders are, in the eyes of society, so fundamentally disparate complicates Orlando's transformation. She must perform in such a way that her behavior matches her bodily signifiers.

Vita Sackville-West’s Split Background in Orlando”

“…the words echoed in Orlando’s sad heart, and she felt that however much landing there meant comfort, meant opulence, meant consequence and state, still, if it meant conventionality, meant slavery, meant deceit, meant denying her love, fettering her limbs, pursing her lips, and restraining her tongue, then she would turn about with the ship and set sail once more for the gypsies” (Woolf 121).
Reading this quote from Orlando through the eyes of Kristie Blair and her article “Gypsies and Lesbian Desire: Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis, and Virginia Woolf”, helps me see that Orlando is indeed Vita Sackville-West and the greater significance of the book to the life of Virginia Woolf. According to Blair, Vita’s grandmother was half gypsy and half aristocrat, and Vita had always been proud of her gypsy heritage. Here we have Orlando who in a former life was a young aristocrat, is now a gypsy woman returning to her former life as an aristocrat in England but with some reservations. She is afraid of the social implications of being a woman, even and aristocratic woman, in England and how they will limit her in her freedoms of expression, speech, and love. Reminding herself of these things, some faint desire for the gypsy lifestyle she was so quick to leave behind is rekindled.
The significance of this book to Woolf’s life is better explained after reading Blair’s article, and the importance of the gypsy Orlando is explained when she says “that the gypsy—and, as we shall see, the Spanish gypsy in particular—haunts texts about desire between women in the period” (Blair 142). Vita was a Spanish gypsy and casting her as Orlando who is also a gypsy is Woolf’s way of writing about their real-life love affair. Though it sounds like a stretch, it was a discrete way to write about this lesbian love affair and make it public without the immediate public backlash.