“Is this the Region, this the soil, the clime,
Said then the lost archangel, this the seat
That we must change for Heaven, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: farthest from him is best
Whom reason hath equaled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free;”-Paradise Lost
Upon initial viewing, it’s hard to define John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Paul Brunick begins by noting it “is an unclassifiable collage of archival footage, canonical literature and severe winter landscapes. Conceptually ambitious and oblique in the extreme, it’s an experimental work that is difficult to unpack critically but impossible to engage without context” and then he immediately tries to help us “get it”.The juxtaposition of an “anonymous black figure”, wandering the Alaskan wilderness in a neon raincoat with found footage of mid-century Britain gets the message across eventually, even to this clueless white American. It’s the viewer’s responsibility to engage with the film until we understand what Akomfrah is trying to say. The parts that remain opaque might be things we’re not entitled to know.
A man wanders alone in Alaska, surrounded by nothing but snow and cold. It doesn’t take much “context” to eventually understand that this is an allegory for the immigrant experience in Britain, presented in an incredibly sensory way. The found footage feels almost like a trick of memory or observation and the differences between the film quality, colors and era create a sense of detachment. It’s as though the wanderer has been present for these experiences, but only as an outsider, observing without participation. They are not his, and yet they are. The bright colors of the raincoat against the stark white seem like an homage to the yellow suit Caryn mentioned before we watched the film as a class, something lively and part of the fashion landscape back in Africa, but strange and alien in drab post-War Britain. A further separation.
To me, the most striking thing about the film was the use of what the New York Times calls “landmarks of Western literature”. The images are accompanied by the words of Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and even Nietzsche. The Western Canon is daunting and highly valued, and mainly comprised of dead white men. As the wanderer walks, we hear excerpts from what we are taught is Great Literature. I wonder if this is Akomfrah speaking to us about his own outside challenges as an artist. Surely it is daunting to set out and create work as a person of color, marked and with a pervasive sense of being an outsider. What is the point of creating new and daring work when we’ve already decided what’s “good”, when what you’re doing is so different. Especially when your upbringing spans two continents and you may not be sure where you “belong”.
Even more telling, Akomfrah did not hire actors to read these works. Instead he used books on tape. An interesting and undoubtedly intentional choice, it further reinforces the idea of the artist and the outsider. When the credits roll it’s surprising to see some big names in western dramatic arts among them, present in this work only because they happened to read the widely available audiobook. It again adds to the feeling that the canon is set, we have decided what few (white, male) people are “good” or talented. What kinds of people get to contribute, get to echo in our ears, and that none of them have last names like “Akomfrah”.
The use of John Milton’s Paradise Lost seems especially important, chosen even for the film’s trailer. In a way, it’s use subverts the established narrative who the “good artists” are and the parallels between the Paradise Lost and the immigrant experience are not hard to draw.
It’s not feasible to read and absorb all of the 480 page epic poem from the 1600s for a four page paper about something else. Luckily, there’s a strange corner of YouTube where hot dudes review books. Cliff Sargent, of Better Than Food Book Reviews explains that within the poem “The most humane character, with the best lines and monologues, is not God, is not Adam and Eve, is certainly not Michael the archangel. It’s Satan. The quintessential angel/slave turned King of the Damned…Like Odysseus, he plunges into chaos outside of Hell and goes and travels to the surface and the unfortunate thing about this is that God has this whole omnipresent ability so he can totally see Satan swooping on his wings into the Garden of Eden”.
It’s not hard to see the Satanic figure in Paradise Lost as British Colonialists. We spoke of African immigrants lured to Europe with misled expectations, that Britain was a “mother country”, a place that wouldn’t seem so alien or be so cold in weather and in reception. Maybe the grass was greener back home, warmer in many ways. I imagine leaving warmer, friendlier lands for England would feel a little like being lured from the Garden of Eden by a charming serpent, unaware it’s a colonialist in disguise. However, Satan, the charming, rebel outsider, almost presented by Milton as misunderstood, could also be representative of the immigrants themselves, while the colonialists, God like, watch their every move.
Sukhdev Sandhu, reviewing The Nine Muses for The Guardian, suggests that the film is telling us that “stories normally seen through the lens of postcolonialism could just as easily be seen in existential or mythic terms.” Indeed, Akomfrah has taken these literary giants and appropriated them for his own work. In his hands their meaning completely changes, presented with the detachment palpable throughout the film. Yet they also gain a new relevance. One line, from Samuel Beckett’s Three Novels echoed in my mind after viewing The Nine Muses: “The sea refused me, the sky didn’t see me. I wasn’t there”. Watching the lone figure wander an icy, empty, landscape, interspersed with images of “progress”, we can certainly understand why he feels like he wasn’t.
Writing in 1972, Joan Didion found feminism distasteful. Surely some feminist readers of her essay, “The Women’s Movement”, found her distasteful as well. Unlike many, Didion is able to log her complaints about the movement with nuance, assessing its weaknesses with strong examples and dry humor. She doesn’t bother to shroud her own identity anywhere in The White Album; as a result, this assessment of “Women’s Lib” is unmistakably her own, conveyed in how she writes as well what is written.
Didion seems generally skeptical of progressive movements headed by white people. In an earlier essay she views the student activists at San Francisco State University warily, doubtful of their intentions. “Here at San Francisco State only the black militants could be construed as serious…Meanwhile the white radicals could see themselves, on an investment of virtually nothing, as urban guerillas (39).” “Minority” activists, as Didion calls them, are invested in their causes by necessity (…it developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals” ). White activists are able to pick and choose their outrage, able to try on causes and identities with little investment, like picking something from a catalogue. Didion sees it as inherently capitalist, wrapped up and sold as fashionable Marxism.
Second wave feminism strikes the author as overly simplistic. “To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism” (113). Meanwhile, these “social idealists” have a long list of hyperbolic complaints but no solid goal, “the popular view of the movement as some kind of collective inchoate yearning for ‘fulfillment’ or ‘self-expression’, a yearning absolutely devoid of ideas” (110). When ideas do manifest they’re still undefined, capitalistic and aspirational. The activists gloss over ambiguities, going so far as to call for sexist Western fiction to be destroyed. Anything offensive is immediately without merit, a view that doesn’t sit well with Didion.
These tenants are reductive and infantilize women. Feminism’s main complaints with the status quo, reduced to dishwashing and catcalls in Didion’s estimation, are not only trivial but classist. On the issue of catcalling, she notes “(This grievance was not atypic in that discussion of it seemed to always take on unexplored Ms. Scarlett overtones, suggestions of fragile cultivated flowers being ‘spoken to’ and therefore violated by uppity proles’)” (113). It’s almost as if you can see Didion shrugging off these complaints, suggesting that some people have real problems. “Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children” (116). She takes down the movement’s strawmen just as hyperbolically as they are presented to her, a tactic that is undoubtedly intentional, to criticize their glorification of victim mentality. Why not take enough time to think and realize that you can turn off the television or stay at hotels with more than doughnuts on the room service menu, or avoid pointed shoes? Truly oppressed people don’t have such options.
Didion values sincerity and finds very little within second wave feminism. She resents their use of meaningless words and how they ignore words with great meaning. Shulamith Firestone asserts that second wave feminism is “the most important movement in history” (109). Phrases like “rap session” and the “click! of recognition” are thrown around. What the hell is a “consciousness raising”? Time wondered if they were hurtling into a time of “fewer diapers and more Dante”, yet when the movement’s constituents found themselves in the media “they were being heard, and yet not really. Attention was finally being paid and yet that attention was mired within the trivial” (113).
Above all, Didion isn’t feeling sixties feminism because it is dismissive and unrealistic, escapist. “The astral discontent with actual lives, actual men, the denial of the real, generative possibilities of adult sexual life somehow touches beyond words” (118). They seek “fulfillment” yet eschew men and sex, family and children. And yet reproduction is the most biologically fulfilling possibility, home and family life the most fulfilling in society’s estimation. Feminism’s unfulfillable goals ignore reality. “These are converts who want not a revolution but ‘romance’, who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life” (118). We return to capitalism again, wanting things not because they are attainable, but because the system leads us to believe that “romance” and “fulfillment” are real, and that we are entitled to them at all times.
I suspect that inconsistency and insincerity are not the only reasons Didion reacted against “the women’s movement”. Their beliefs go against her own, beliefs deeply held that she champions through writing. She sees a kindred spirit in Georgia O’Keefe, who “…seems to have been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it” (129). The way this version of feminism saw it, “Cooking a meal could only be ‘dogwork’ and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s forced labor”. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their ‘freedom’” (113). She doesn’t name her own domestic values within this essay, but other hints can be found in The White Album and throughout her greater body of work. She recoils at the lifeless, impractical-and worst of all, uninhabited- governor’s mansion, remembering its former incarnation as a home to be lived in and enjoyed, with a kitchen to cook in. Her references to her family within The White Album, as well as the books she wrote in reaction to the death of her husband and her daughter show she did not reject family life, though hers was not always so traditional (“We are here on this island in the Pacific in lieu of getting a divorce…). She loved them, yet she was never trapped with or dependent on them.
Whether we agree with her or not, Didion’s beliefs are not unexamined. Perhaps the sexes have always been divided and had difficulty understanding each other. Or perhaps “women as a class” was an invented construct, successful in its divisive intentions. “That many women are victims of condescencion and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package” (118). Didion considers herself to be one of those “other women” and urges us to pay close attention to what we choose to buy.
This is what I wrote in class on Friday when we had to choose our resonant artists:
Sebald has been haunting my thoughts since we read The Rings of Saturn. Turning over his themes in my mind, there were a few things I was incredibly struck by. Man’s efforts to conquer nature was a big one, particularly the descriptions of Somerleyton, the house that blurred the lines between indoors and out.
And of course, his ouroborus (can’t take credit for this, someone else said it in seminar!) of meaning and matter.
We read Fanny Howe’s The Wedding Dress in my class last quarter and a particular line in “Bewilderment” really attached itself to me- “After all, the point of art-like war-is to show that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t”. The first time I read that line I re-read many, many times. I sensed that it contained a profound truth but I couldn’t quite decipher it. I filed it away in my mind, hopeful that time would help me interpret it.
Reading The Rings of Saturn helped me synthesize Howe’s idea a little more. It contains the same tones of life in the face of, in spite of, destruction. What matters, and why does it matter, and why does mattering matter? What even is “meaning”? (Oh God, that word). It felt to me like a book written to show, without telling, what Howe had condensed into a single line. The questions aren’t answered but the possibilities continue to expand.
Funnily, I had already written about Sebald’s influence on my project in my Mid-Project Review. His structure was what I was aiming for before I knew he existed. It feels a little miraculous. I wanted to write the story of this woman I’m researching but as I try to do a “hard historical facts!” type of thing I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s not really about Harriet. She might be more of a symbol of other things I want to explore through this piece.
Like Sebald, I want to create a dreamlike experience, wandering through a land I know all too well and examining the structures and stories it contains.
(After we got into groups a fellow Sebaldian asked “like a psychogeography?” and I suddenly realized that was exactly what I want to do).
My first inclination was to remove myself completely from the story, afraid to risk pretension. Now it’s swinging another way. The journey continues.
Here is an attempt at turning my research into writing:
She was known as Harriet Henderson when she came to town. She was 22 or so, her oldest child 4. She had married John Leland at age 17, back home in Harrisburg, Oregon.
Olympia was small and Washington still a territory at that point. It was 1878. The “Indian Wars” hadn’t been fought too long ago. Back then they kept a cannon in the middle of the town square to defend themselves against the natives. In her lifetime, town square would become Sylvester Park and they would put a statue of the park’s name sake where the cannon used to be. The Neuffers built a storefront in sight (now a florist and banh mi shop). The Neuffers also found a baby on their porch, and Harriet just might’ve been the one who left it.
I read a quote from someone who lived between Harriet and I, maybe in the 1940s, who declared the statue “bad”. I’d never noticed anything amateur-ish about the statue of Old Edmund all the times he’s gazed over me- at “Music in the Park” when I was really young, or when I finished the last Harry Potter book beneath the park’s trees.
He still stands there, still in time, and I try not to pass through his park anymore. It’s the domain of the forsaken, the afflicted and the addicted. Speedheads and junkies riding tiny bikes. I feel bad for them but I’m so tired of being yelled at just for passing by.
Weirdly, I feel safest passing through Sylvester Park at night.
Daniel Bigelow is credited with establishing the residential eastside. He was the enterpriser that spanned the gap between exploratory commissions and cannons in the middle of “town” and the industrial slide into modernity. He is adequately remembered and honored for his role in Olympia’s history. His house still stands, a gingerbread cottage perched on the slope down to the water.
It’s obscured by a large bloc of replicated waterfront condominiums, buildings that exude a vibe of single living in the glamorous 1970s. I do not understand who the hell lives in these condos- I’m one degree seperated from every living thing in this area most of the time and nobody has ever mentioned to me that they live there, let alone invited me over. But there are so many of them, how is it possible?!
But the many patios facing the bay, punctuated by bobbing white boats, betray occupancy with their windchimes and plastic chairs. Surely they change but their adornments are so prescribed, so similar, so slowly evolving, that I’ve never bothered to notice.
Long before all that, though, that land was the Bigelows’ and they filled it with fruit trees.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve been facing with this project is how to structure it. I did a lot of experimenting in my journal. Here’s a sample.
A lot of us cast our eyes back to prohibition only to view it romantically. Maybe that’s because it’s so hard to break the habit of thinking about our interactions in terms of television shows and Hollywood films. The Capitol Theater throws a “Repeal Day” party every year, where people dress as flappers (even though prohibition ended in 1933 and austerity had already come back into fashion with the stock market crash) and drinks gin cocktails to “honor the past”. Film versions of The Great Gatsby and cheap Halloween costumes contribute to our perceptions of the past just as much as anything that actually happened.
It’s a weird appropriation of history, to drink cocktails from cheap plastic cups and pretend to dance the Lindy.
I suppose it’s romantic revisionism that leads us to believe that all the booze was taken away by boring religious fanatics. I mean, it was, but there’s more to it than that, I’m coming to find. There’s a bunch of factors at play- attitudes about sex (women hate it, but the men gotta release it somewhere!) So prostitution is legal in the West for way longer than a modern person would expect. But then the men are getting wasted and bringing home “V.D.” and beating their wives. So the wives and sympathetic men-folk suppose it’s about time to outlaw booze. If I was a booze-beaten wife in 1910 Olympia I’d probably call for it to be restricted, too.
Will I stick to this structure or try something else? What does prohibition have to do with this class? All these questions, and more, answered in my final project (hopefully!)