Monday, December 27, 2010

Henry James: Burned Before Reading

I was required to read Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in school.  I didn't like the former and didn't understand the latter.  But over the last few years I've discovered that writers whom I enjoy reading have said good things about Henry James.

Granted, these were more likely to be good things about him as a person than good things about his elephantine verbal style.  E.F. Benson has a great story, told by James, about how he went out to run some errands and when he came home and opened his front door, something advanced towards him down the hallway.  He said it was "something black, something canine."  As Benson points out, anyone else would have just called it a black dog.  (A friend of James' housekeeper had come to visit and brought her dog.)

Be that as it may, I finally braced myself and plunged into Henry James.  And I'm glad I did.  Of course, the real reason I wanted to read him is that I found out he was queer.  When I referred to "writers whom I enjoy reading," the two I mainly had in mind are Benson and Gore Vidal, who presents Henry James as a character in his novel Empire and makes him seem charming, if long-winded.  Benson knew James personally and bought his house sometime after he died.  And of course, Vidal is openly gay and Benson and James  . . . give off very strong signals, shall we say.

In fact, I don't understand how anyone could enjoy James' writing, or even comprehend what he's on about, without interpreting it as coded homosexual content.  Why is he so allusive, so elusive, so reluctant to come right out and call a black dog a black dog?  What is the unspoken thing, buried under tons of words?  Thomas Hardy once said that James had "a ponderously warm way of saying nothing in infinite sentences."  But the truth is that nobody says "nothing," especially not someone who wrote at such length and with such care.  There is meaning in those infinite sentences: so what was it?

The James story that most struck me is "The Jolly Corner."  It was written close to the end of his life.  It's about a man named Spencer Brydon, who returns to his childhood home in New York City after spending thirty-three years abroad.  Everyone else in his family has died, and he inherits the big old house.  Although he refers to this house as "the jolly corner," he also believes that it's haunted, and one of the ghosts is his own: the ghost of the person he could have been, if things had been different.  (What things?  Here James is elusive again.)

The passage in "The Jolly Corner" that really caught my attention occurs when Brydon is wondering what he could have been:
Only I can’t make out what, and the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened.  I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter.
I want to know:  who destroys important letters without reading them?  How often does that happen in real life?  Moreover, how would you know it's important without reading it?  The only clue you might have is knowing who it was from.  And so we have the image of a man receiving messages from some significant person - messages which he knows are important although he refuses to read them, messages which he has some knowledge of even without reading them - messages which must be deleted.  Messages about himself, which he regrets not reading.  These letters burned unopened are the quintessential symbol of life in the closet.

Brydon starts going back to his old house at night.  But he doesn't want anyone to know what he's doing.  When he leaves his hotel, he says he's going out to dinner:  but he goes to his house.  Other nights, he leaves the restaurant, saying he's going to his hotel:  but he goes to his house.  And even though he has a key, he's afraid of the cop on the beat seeing him enter or leave his own house.  He spends the dark, lonely hours hoping and fearing to encounter the ghost of himself.

James wrote another short story, "The Beast in the Jungle," which many people have interpreted as being about a closeted gay man.  In that story, the main character believes that someday something special will happen to him, or he'll do something extraordinary.  He doesn't know what, or if it will be good or bad, but he spends his life waiting for it.  I find it interesting that a story about what someone might do is more likely to be classified as "homosexual" than a story about what someone might be.

But these two stories have something else in common:  the presence of a sympathetic female character.  In "The Jolly Corner" she is so attuned to the male protagonist that she dreams about his ghost before he has ever seen it (and this despite the fact that they have been separated for thirty years; she stayed in New York while he went to Europe.)  Her affection for him is almost maternal; she seems to represent a refuge from the frightening, fascinating male figure that haunts him.

Critics of "The Beast in the Jungle" have theorized that she stands in for a close female friend of James' in real life.  But I have a different theory.  One of James' close male friends was a young sculptor named Hendrik Andersen.  James wrote the following words to him, as part of a letter of condolence on the death of his brother:
Let yourself go and live, even as a lacerated, mutilated lover, with your grief, your loss, your sore, unforgettable consciousness.  Possess them and let them possess you, and life, so, will still hold you in her arms, and press you to her breast, and keep you, like the great merciless but still most enfolding and never disowning mighty Mother, on and on for things to come.
The woman in "The Jolly Corner" saw Brydon's alter ego in her dream. She pitied him and didn't hate him, even though Brydon himself is sure that he is a "wretch" and a "horror."  "'[To] me,' she said, 'he was no horror.  I had accepted him.'"  Those are the words of the Great Mother.

Recommended Reading

The Henry James collection I've been reading is The Portable Henry James, published by Penguin.  It contains a wide assortment of his work:  fiction, travel writings, literary criticism, letters, memoir.  Also for some reason a list of character names which we are supposed to find amusing.  I could not stay focused on the travel writing at all (although it was interesting to observe his different writing styles,) but I really liked his essay on "The Art of Fiction."  It was a bit of a shock to discover that he apparently thought of himself as a realist writer. What is realistic about The Turn of the Screw?  That one still baffles me.

E.F. Benson's story about Henry James and the black dog is found in his book As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show.

Henry James on Project Gutenberg

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Unusual Family

(Or, how many eccentric people can I fit into one blog post?)

I own a book, a sort of Who's Who, which lists a large number of movie stars and their spouses and children.  (It lives in my bathroom.)  I was flipping through it one day and came across the entry for Dame Margaret Rutherford.  It said that she and her husband adopted several adult children, one of whom later turned out to be transsexual.  This naturally interested me and I wanted to know more.

According to Wikipedia, Rutherford's father was mentally ill.  He spent a number of years in an insane asylum.  While on vacation from the asylum, he killed his father and was recommitted.  Later he was released and started a family, with the woman he got married to before his first mental breakdown.  When Rutherford was only three, her mother committed suicide.  About ten years later her father went back into an asylum and seemingly remained there for the rest of his life.

With this background of violence and tragedy, it is not entirely surprising that Rutherford became a comedienne, playing such parts as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest.  She married a fellow actor whom Wikipedia describes as "openly bisexual" and as mentioned above, they adopted four adults.  Why, I do not know.  One of them was the writer and transwoman Dawn Langley Hall.

Dawn was born to an unmarried teenager in England in 1922.  Later her mother married and her parents became servants at Sissinghurst Castle, owned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.  Thereby hangs a tale.  The Sackville-Wests were scandalous aristocrats.  Vita's mother was the illegitimate child of the second Lord Sackville and a Spanish dancer called Pepita.  Somebody on the Internet claims that Dawn and Vita bear a strong resemblance to each other and speculates that Dawn was Vita's child.  This is implausible.  Vita had no reason to conceal a pregnancy and more importantly, aside from her husband she preferred women.  But there were other Sackville-Wests around and Dawn did feel a connection to the family.

In 1968 Dawn changed her name to Dawn Pepita Langley Hall, got sex reassignment surgery and began presenting herself as female.  "Pepita" obviously harks back to the Sackville-Wests.  Either Dawn believed herself to be related to them or she wanted to invoke their history of illegitimacy.  (Pepita herself was once believed to be illegitimate but apparently this was not the case.)  The fact that Vita's mother and her four siblings were illegitimate was widely known, for reasons which I won't go into here.  But if you haven't read Portrait of a Marriage, Vita's memoir which was edited by her son, Nigel Nicolson, then you really should.

In 1928, Virginia Woolf fell in love with Vita Sackville-West and wrote a book for her called Orlando, about a boy who turns into a woman.  We are told that Dawn later saw herself in the story of Orlando, but I have to mention that Vita was well aware of her own androgyny (as was Woolf) and she was the original Orlando.

Well.  Dawn roamed around England, Canada and America and had various adventures.  She spent a year teaching on a Canadian Ojibwe Indian reservation and wrote a book about it with the completely politically incorrect title of Me Papoose Sitter.  In 1969 she was living in South Carolina and married a black man, John-Paul Simmons.  This was the first interracial marriage ever performed in that state and naturally it caused a lot of uproar.

In 1971 she gave birth to a daughter.  Or at least, she said she did.  In reality, no transwoman has ever been able to conceive and bear a child.  (Medical science hasn't advanced that far.)  In her first autobiography Dawn said she was intersexed and had both male and female genitalia.  I don't know if someone with that condition can conceive a child or not. It does seem more likely that the baby was her husband's child by another woman.

It was not a happy marriage, unfortunately.  Simmons was physically abusive and was eventually committed to a mental institution (like Margaret Rutherford's father.)  Dawn died in 2000.  She wrote three autobiographies, none of which I have read.

Illegitimacy.  Mental illness.  Sexual transgression.  Gender transgression.  Dawn was doubly illegitimate:  once for the circumstances of her birth and once for her transsexuality.  One gathers that she told a lot of stories about herself which were not true.  She had to create her own reality, because the "reality" society had assigned her to was unacceptable.

Illegitimacy has lost much of its stigma these days.  "Bastard" is now a minor insult.  It's okay to use the word on television.  And if I call someone a bastard I don't literally mean that their parents were not married to each other.  (I wonder how many people are unaware of what "bastard" really means?)  Maybe someday the stigma of transgender will be diminished as well.  And what we now think of as "reality" will be gone.

References:  This post here about Dawn Langley Simmons.  I'll let you look her up on Wikipedia yourself.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Butch Homage: The Middle Mist

Like many people, I enjoy reading about people who resemble me. Like many people who are members of marginalized groups, it's hard for me to find representations of people like myself, in fiction or non-fiction. Like many people, I will put up with some lack of resemblance, or some problematic elements in a book, just to read about someone like me. For that reason, I have a soft spot for the book The Middle Mist by Mary Renault.

Mary Renault is best known for her Greek historical novels. She also wrote a few novels set in the modern era, of which I have read The Charioteer and The Middle Mist (which was originally published under the title The Friendly Young Ladies.  But my American edition calls it The Middle Mist and that title is appropriate too.)

The Middle Mist centers around the adventures of a young butch called Leo.  Because at the time this book was published (1943 - set in 1937) gender-nonconformity and lesbianism were held to be shocking, almost unspeakable subjects, there is a certain amount of equivocation in the way the story is told.  The main character is Leo's younger sister, Elsie, who has been brought up with no knowledge of any facts of life and lives in a romantic dream.  Somehow she decides to run away from home and join her older sister, who also ran away from home a few years earlier, under circumstances which Elsie never understood.

Elsie finds her way to a pub near Leo's house (which is actually a houseboat) and starts asking around for her sister.  It turns out that one of the young men playing darts in the pub is in fact, Leo.  Leo takes her baby sister home to the houseboat where she lives with a beautiful young lady named Helen (who is, in fact, so perfect that she might have been born from a swan's egg.)  Elsie never figures out that the two women are lovers. Actually Elsie gets hold of the wrong end of the stick about pretty much everything.  I wonder if the readers of this book were supposed to be as ignorant as she is.  But I digress.

Leo lives her life exactly as she pleases (with a few concessions to the closet.)  She makes her living by writing cheesy cowboy stories about a place (the American West) she's never been.  She hates to put any female characters or any touch of "romance" into these books.  In some ways she is like a little boy who never grew up.  But, although it's dangerous to do so, Renault also portrays her confident sexuality - and her sexual fears.  Leo is happy as a lesbian . . . but she's also a little obsessed about trying to have sex with men.  That is to say, she tries to have sex with men, but she always panics and refuses to go through with it.  Then she tries again.  It appears that she's trying to confront her fears:  that the butch thing to do is to have sex with men, precisely because it's so frightening.

Many lesbians hate this book, because it's so coy about homosexuality, and because Leo ends up going off with a man.  But I don't really see the ending as some kind of generalization about lesbians going straight.  For one thing, the man Leo goes off with is not a man.  He's way too perfect to be human.  He's some sort of god.

Joe, the leading male character, is an English intellectual and also a cowboy:  he was brought up on an American ranch, later went to Oxbridge, and gives Leo plenty of tips on her stories while at the same time writing novels of his own which we're told are deep and meaningful and much better than her stuff (we don't get any actual quotes.)  He's caring, sensitive, and knowledgeable about people.  He may in fact know everything.  He's been friends with Leo and Helen for a long time and is not homophobic about them at all.  If he has any flaw I can't recall it.  He and Leo are best buddies -  he enjoys her masculinity (and if two masculine people fall in love with each other, isn't that a little queer?)  By contrast, the other male character, Peter, is a self-centered doctor who believes he's God's gift to women. The scenes where he attempts to seduce Leo, for her own good of course, are hilarious, and certainly cast doubt on the idea that the author accepted unquestioningly the superiority of the heterosexual male.

There are some things I don't like about Mary Renault's writing.  But one thing I do like is her depiction of characters struggling with the complexities of life, with things they don't understand, with their own inexplicable selves.  Does Leo make the right choices?  Maybe not.  But she's vibrant, courageous, and determined to live her own life.  Those things make her an admirable butch.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Stevenson

I finally got around to reading the original story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I became interested in it when someone on a blog I visit commented that the story is badly written.  Personally I would not say it is badly written, but the author's goal is quite different from the goal (for example) of the many film adaptations.  Stevenson wanted to conceal as long as possible the knowledge that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person.  So the story is told from the point of view of various characters who see Hyde coming and going from Jekyll's house, but they don't know who he is and they're afraid to ask.  It's not until the very end that we read Jekyll's explanation of what was going on.  (Hyde never gets to speak for himself at all.)

Many years ago I read someone's theory that the theme of Jekyll and Hyde was homosexuality.  Either Hyde and Jekyll were lovers, or Hyde represented Jekyll's closeted gay side; I don't remember which.  But I didn't see either of those in the story.  It's true that when one of Jekyll's friends tries to tactfully find out what the bond is between Jekyll and Hyde, Jekyll says "it isn't what you fancy; it is not so bad as that" - which might suggest homosexuality.  But the major reason why Jekyll and Hyde cannot be lovers is that they can never spend any time together.  In the real world, everyone knew that Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas were inseparable companions.  Many people knew that Edward Carpenter and George Merrill were life partners - you could visit their house and see them together.  But Jekyll and Hyde are forever separated.

As for Jekyll's sexuality - he admits freely that he wanted to liberate his "evil" self. To many of us that suggests sexual indulgence.  Naturally he provides no details about his exploits.  He writes, "The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified; I would scarce use a harder term."  Does "undignified" mean "sexual?"  I don't know.  More importantly, we see Hyde performing two or three acts of violence.  We don't see him in any situation that directly implies a sexual encounter.  (Although of course you can read sex into anything.  Quite possibly Jekyll/Hyde were sadomasochists.)

To me the tragedy of Jekyll and Hyde is one of isolation.  No one was intimate enough with Jekyll to be able to figure out what was going on.  His friends didn't really want to know.  (When one of them discovers the secret, the shock of it kills him.)  Jekyll has a houseful of servants, but even they can't put two and two together.  We're told that everyone found Hyde repulsive; no one wanted to get to know him.  But in the final analysis no one wanted to know Jekyll either.  This is why Stevenson structured the story in such a seemingly-awkward way:  we always see Jekyll and Hyde from a distance.

There is no homoeroticism in Jekyll and Hyde.  There is no eroticism of any kind, because there is no human connection.  Stevenson was actually capable of writing about sex (within Victorian constraints) but he didn't do it in this story.  I do recommend his short stories.  They cover a wide range - funny, scary, happy endings, sad endings - but almost always with a touch of the macabre.  Isolation is also a major theme.  Interestingly, his liveliest and most confident character is Prince Florizel of Bohemia, who benefits from the devoted service of a trusty sidekick, Colonel Geraldine.  (Geraldine, you ask?  He is a man, and a brave one, although in one story he is described as effeminate.)  They have each other to rely on; they are not isolated. But their favorite pastime is to disguise themselves as ordinary people and wander the streets of London or Paris.  They don't want anyone to know who they are.

The one interesting thing about the original story of Jekyll and Hyde is that Jekyll points out that his goal was to separate the "good" and "evil" sides of a person. In theory, he could have liberated his good side instead of his evil side.  Mr. Angel instead of Mr. Hyde?  That would make an unusual story.

Recommended reading:  the works of Robert Louis Stevenson on Project Gutenberg, especially the stories about Prince Florizel of Bohemia, which are collected in The New Arabian Nights.

Monday, November 8, 2010

More Musings on Anger

I recently blogged about my anger.  It was a short piece, partly because I didn't want to get carried away.  But I've been thinking about anger, and my changing relationship with it, for a while now.

Let me start off by saying that I believe anger is fundamentally a response to injustice.  Sometimes it covers up another emotion, as when we get angry because we don't want to feel sad, or afraid.  But the root cause of anger is, something happened that made us angry.  And I tend to believe that that root cause is valid.

The problem with anger is that we often express our anger at people, or things, who are not the root cause of our anger and don't deserve our hostility.  "I got into an argument about X because I was really angry about Y" - that happens a lot.  I also believe that most of us are discouraged, or forbidden, to express our anger.  Anger is a privilege reserved for the few, the higher-ranking members of a group (unless you can sneak onto the Internet and express your anger there without anyone finding out it's you.)  Or unless you've been given permission to get angry at a certain Really Bad person, or group of people.  We've been hearing a lot about anger in the media recently.  How much of that anger is misdirected? Is [fill in the blank] really responsible for whatever those people are angry about?

I once read a story about a man who was in jail for attacking women.  I can't remember now if he killed them or what, but the prison psychiatrist provided this reason for his behavior:  he was angry at women because his father used to beat him up and his mother and sister never tried to stop it.  It seems to me that the person you're most likely to be angry at is the person who's actually hitting you.  But for whatever reason, this boy felt that his father was not an acceptable target for his anger.  Women - all women - were an acceptable target instead.  (And the prison psychiatrist didn't question this!)

That's an extreme example of a case in which anger was diverted onto innocent bystanders.  Anger is a dangerous thing, there's no doubt about it.  And many people try to repress their anger . . . but that's not really a good thing either, if only because repressed emotion does have a habit of erupting in uncontrollable ways.

When I was younger, I believed it was okay for me to get angry at people; that expressing anger was healthy.  But now I regret the way I behaved; I feel that I took my anger to extremes, and certainly I got excessively angry about things that really weren't that important.  I indulged myself by getting angry and I hurt people's feelings.  Then in another phase of my life I found myself getting uncontrollably angry about one particular thing.  Whenever I thought about it, I got angry and lost the ability to do anything else or think about anything else.  It was sucking up all my energy and I finally had to make myself stop.  Was my anger justified? I believe that it was.  But it was too much for me.  It wasn't doing any good.

I took a break from anger for a while, until just a few months ago when I realized that I was angry again, about something different this time. And now I will admit that I am always angry.  I'm not getting angry at the people I love anymore - I think I can honestly say that.  It's not them.  I'm angry at the injustice in this world and the lies I was led to believe.  Getting angry at individuals does no good. But denying my anger would do no good either.

Anger is like fire.  It's hot and bright.  There's something beautiful about it. It can be more destructive than anything else.  But it also keeps us alive.  I have lit the votive candle of my anger.  And that tiny flame shows no sign of going out.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Arab Folktales

I've been reading the book Arab Folktales, edited by Inea Bushnaq, which is part of the excellent Pantheon Fairy Tale Library series.  I'm crazy about fairy tales, folk tales, and mythology of all sorts.  And although it's not fashionable to say so, I've always had a certain admiration for Islam and Arab culture.  Perhaps it started with Lawrence of Arabia, whose exploits I read about as a child, with no understanding of their colonial agenda.*  (Standard disclaimer:  "Arabic" and "Muslim" are not exactly the same.  Not all Arabs are Muslim, and tons of Muslims throughout the world are not Arab.  But in general - and throughout most of this book - they do go together.)

Bushnaq finds it appropriate to start off the book with tales of the Beduin (also spelled "Bedouin,") the desert nomads, who are the real, most authentic Arabs, in both their own eyes and those of the rest of the Arab world.  Camels, oases, the harsh beauties of the desert . . . we've all been there, at least in our imaginations.

Generosity is the primary virtue of the Beduin.  It is usually expressed in terms of food:  feeding the stranger, the visitor to your tent, or the members of your community who have less than you do.  Some people are rich, owning vast herds of camels, sheep and goats, large tents and fine tent furnishings.  Of course, since everything they own has to be carried on camelback, they probably don't have much of the kinds of possessions we house-dwellers have learned to value.  And wealth is measured, not by how much money you have in the bank or how many houses you own, but by how much you are willing to give away.

Bushnaq points out that any Beduin, even the wealthiest, can be impoverished in one season if his animals are wiped out by drought or disease.  I think it's significant that in these stories there are no examples of such natural disasters.  Instead, people impoverish themselves through generosity, by feeding everyone who comes to their tent even if they have to kill their last camel in order to provide hospitality.  If misfortune can strike at any moment, you might as well preempt it by giving away your wealth before it can be taken from you.  At least that way someone will benefit.

In our world, the world of Western materialism, the world where people live in houses and hope to save for retirement, there are two moral guidelines that don't exist in these Beduin tales.  One is the myth of the deserving poor.  The other is the myth of the deserving rich.  A prince of the desert doesn't ask, "Are you really hungry?  Did you lose all your money betting on the camel races?  Why should I give you anything?"  He serves up the best food that he has, and takes his guests under his protection.  In these stories there are no undeserving poor.

Likewise, in this world we expect people to continue on an upward trajectory.  You work hard and you are rewarded with financial success.  You get to keep your house and your 401k.  The stock market only ever goes up . . . right?  You get to hold onto your possessions. And therefore, by the same logic, you don't have to share them with anyone.  You don't have to be generous, because you have what you deserve, and the poor have what they deserve, which is nothing.

The truth is that no matter where you live, or in what era, misfortune can strike you.  You can lose everything.  Here in America that fact is becoming more and more apparent.  Good fortune can also strike you, whether you deserve it or not.  That's why most of the folktales in this book have happy endings, and the impoverished sheiks end up rich again.  Because Allah is generous too.

*Even at that young age, however, when his biographer tried to defend him from insinuations of homosexuality on the grounds that "he has many women friends," I knew that was a dubious line of reasoning.  But I digress.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Three Rules

  1. Everyone's truth is valid.
  2. No one's truth is universal.  (In other words, no one's truth is anyone else's truth.)
  3. People are frequently mistaken.  But when you find your truth, you will know it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exploring a Small Library

My regular library is closed for renovation, so I've been going to a different one.  It's quite small - only one room - but as Jane Rule says, every library has its treasures, and I found some entertainment just by checking a few shelves.

I found a Diana Wynne Jones book I had never read before (wonder if I should add it to the Super DWJ List on my old blog) and a novel by one Gyles Brandreth, featuring Oscar Wilde as a detective.  It's always enjoyable to read about one of my favorite historical eras, and I have no doubt that Mr Brandreth adores the late 19th century as much as I do.  However, he and I don't always see eye to eye.  I don't really like Wilde as a person (so I suppose it's my own fault if I dislike a book about him.)  He was intelligent but Brandreth has turned him into another Sherlock Holmes, all observant and logical and stuff.  I don't really see the point of that. 

Ironically, Arthur Conan Doyle also appears in the book - he and Wilde are portrayed as friends, which again I'm not sure is historically accurate.  They met at least once, and in fact The Picture of Dorian Gray would have appeared in the same magazine as Conan Doyle's second Holmes story if Wilde had been interested in making the deadline, which he wasn't.  Brandreth crams as many unusual Victorians into the book as he can.  Sometimes he exaggerates their eccentricities, as when he describes Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper as a pair of cross-dressers.  It's true that they were lovers, sometimes addressed each other with male nicknames, and wrote together under the name of Michael Field, but their biographer Emma Donoghue does not mention that they did any literal, as opposed to spiritual, cross-dressing.

Brandreth also brings another interesting fellow into the story:  Ernest Hornung.  He married Conan Doyle's sister, and in what appears to be a spirit of friendly rivalry, set out to surpass the popularity of Sherlock Holmes by creating the character of master thief A.J. Raffles.  Raffles has his Watson - a bumbling accomplice - and the Raffles stories are definitely fun to read.  They're also more homoerotic than I remember Holmes and Watson being, although I started reading them when I was fairly young and oblivious.  Watson is protected by his heterosexuality, as demonstrated in frequent references to his wife (or wives - Sherlockians disagree on how many there were) and Holmes is too cerebral to be interested in sex.  Raffles "seduces" his old school chum (always referred to by his school nickname, "Bunny") into a life of crime . . . but I don't actually believe that Hornung put a double meaning into those passages.  They sound suspicious to a biased ear, but not like they were written by someone with something to hide.

This brings up the oddest thing about Brandreth's Oscar Wilde mystery novels.  I gather he's written several of them by now and never does more than hint at Wilde's homosexual tendencies.  Lord Alfred Douglas appears frequently - so does Wilde's wife Constance - and Wilde spends a lot of time proclaiming his love for his wife, and not coming home at night because he's off gallivanting with Lord Alfred.  What are we to think?  Maybe it's meant to be a realistic portrait of Victorian life.  But there is a certain lack of honesty in it, which I believe would have appealed to Wilde, and seems to appeal to Brandreth, but is no longer fashionable in the 21st century.

Incidentally, the back cover of this book informs us that Brandreth wrote "a much-admired biography of Oscar Wilde," but I cannot find this biography listed on Amazon or anywhere else.  He did, however, write a play about The Trials of Oscar Wilde, in which Tom Baker (of Doctor Who fame) played the lead in 1974.  That would have been something to see.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How Much Do I Have to Lie?

At a very young age I decided that the only way to be safe was to avoid attracting attention.  And I got really good at it.  I believe I'm better at blending into the wallpaper than anyone else I know.  Hopefully it helped.  It did not protect me from all unpleasantness, and certainly as I grew older it became more and more of a problem.  You cannot get jobs, friends or lovers without attracting attention from someone.

Is concealment the same as "lying?"  I don't really know.  What I do know is that the best way to lie is to believe what you're saying:  to conceal the facts even from yourself.  Of course, I didn't know I was doing that.  It was a perfect cover-up.

For years I believed that I didn't care what people thought of me.  And it's true that even though I never talked to anyone, I still set out to go my own way and do my own thing.  The big secret was still a secret.  Other things I never told anyone but I knew they were true.  It seemed to me that I had enough issues to work on.  The most persistent and ongoing problem that I was consciously aware of is the question: "Do I have any right to exist at all?"  And maybe that still is more important than the question:  "Do I have the right to be trans?"

I was trying to carve out a space for myself . . . and considering where I started from I've done pretty well.  At last I felt safe enough to reveal the big secret.  To myself, I mean.  As soon as I realized I was trans, I instantly understood what a huge coward I am.  I thought I was this big non-conformist.  Ha.  I thought I was honest.  I thought I cared about honesty more than anything else.  But I had been lying to myself for years. And I didn't see any way that I could tell anyone.  Horrible things would happen if I did.

So.  This blog is, among other things, an attempt to explore what it means to be trans.  (Terminology management:  I identify as transgendered. Some people identify as transsexual.  "Trans" is short for both of those.  Some people write "trans*" but please.  I save my geekiness for where it might do some good.)  I admit I still get distracted sometimes.  I spent years thinking about other things . . . and a lot of those things are still important. 

My transgender is central to me, in the sense that I carry it around in my heart.  But it's not the only thing about me.  And of course, I do want people to understand that trans people are, as we all keep saying, Just. Like. Everyone. Else.  So it doesn't hurt to write about other things too.

I'm digressing.  To get back to the title of this post:  how much do I have to lie?  We all have things to conceal.  We all encounter situations where it's socially advisable not to say what you really believe.  So perfect honesty is not desirable (if only because it gives the false impression that someone who is always honest is always right.)  But speaking as someone who learned never to admit anything to anybody . . . expressing yourself is a good thing too.  When it's safe.  Perhaps it's cynical of me to believe that the only function of society is to keep us all lying to each other.  But really:  what's the point of that?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sanditon and other stories

For all aficionados of Jane Austen, I heartily recommend the "Everyman's Library" edition of Sanditon and other stories, comprising what appears to be all of her unpublished works:  two unfinished novels (which will drive you mad with frustration and outrage, since they stop just as things are getting interesting,) juvenilia, the novella Lady Susan (which is available elsewhere, and I have written about it before,) etc.  They are all much racier than her published work.  The juvenilia especially feature mercenary young women marrying unpleasant old men for their money, a form of immorality which Austen almost never allowed into her published novels.  We also discover that as a teenager she had a major crush on Mary Queen of Scots.

I will conclude by giving you an example of how much fun the writer was having, with a story she wrote for (one may even say "about") her older sister Cassandra.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Early Human History in Africa

So a few months ago there was this guy on Jon Stewart, he had written a book about evolution or something.  I don't actually remember what the book was but at one point he said, "The human race has lived in Africa longer than it has lived anywhere else.  We lived there for about a million years."

Technically I knew that, in the sense of, I knew the human race evolved in Africa.  I'm still a bit fuzzy about the number of million years involved.  But somehow that comment made me think about the actual history involved, and I wanted to learn more.  It's hard to find information on this period though.

These are the books that I read:
  1. Origins Reconsidered, by Richard Leakey, 1993 (a sequel to Origins, published 1982.)  This book is an overview of evolution, and it's not what I actually wanted to read about.  Like I said, I already know about evolution.  I want to know what happened afterwards.  But it's still a fascinating book, especially when he talks about all the things we don't know.  Apparently we have found just enough fossils to be able to say that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa but we don't have anything like a complete timeline - there are huge gaps - and the fossils that have been found have not all been categorized into species. There were a series of species between the non-human ancestor of apes and humans, and Homo sapiens itself, and all of the other hominid species died out.  Anyway, paleoanthropologists say things like "We don't know which of these species was an ancestor of Homo sapiens" and "We don't know if these two fossils come from the same species or not." You'd think they would know.  One problem is that everybody wants to discover a new species.

    Leakey himself makes interesting reading.  He went through a long period of rebellion against his parents' legacy, he wasn't going to follow in their footsteps, but then he did.  And I agree with most of his opinions, which is always pleasant.
  2. I read some book about African rock paintings, because I know rock paintings are old, but the problem was that this book was old too.  It resolutely refused to date anything, except the most recent paintings.  The most informative part of it was some gruesome descriptions of genocide practiced against native South Africans by the Boers.
Then I discovered the works of Graham Connah, an archeologist based in Australia who has been studying Africa for at least four decades.  Even his stuff didn't go back much further than three or four thousand years, but it was still completely amazing. His goal is to show, as he puts it in one of his books, that "Africans didn't all live in huts."  He also addresses the related myth that when there was any sign of civilization in Africa it must have come from outside. 

Having said that, one of the signs of a vibrant civilization is that it interacts with its neighbors, and the history of interaction between Africa and the rest of the world is also fascinating.  The third myth about Africa is that it was "undiscovered" until Europeans (which in this case means Christians) found it.  This is an injustice to other parts of the world besides Africa.  One of the things I learned from reading these books is that most of the coast of East Africa engaged in trade with Arabia, India and even with China.  I was also reminded that North Africa has long been part of the Mediterranean community.

I liked these books, not only for the reasons above, but also because I like reading about stuff.  Physical objects.  They built dams.  They worked in iron, bronze, gold, copper and silver.  They had elaborate burials.  They had coinage!  (Some African cultures made their own coins.  Other sites yielded coins from as far away as China.)  They had houses with indoor toilets!  (Connah is very conscientious about mentioning places that had good sanitary facilities.)

These are the books by Graham Connah that I read, in order of how relevant they were to my subject:
  1. Forgotten Africa: an introduction to its archaeology, 2004.  In some ways this book is unavoidably superficial.  It sets out to cover 4 million years of history, on a huge continent, in less than 200 pages.  But it was the only book I could get ahold of which contained any information on the time period I was interested in.  And although it is a series of vignettes, they are magnificent vignettes.

    I will mention only two bits.  First, giraffes in China!  About 600 years ago the Chinese sent an expedition to Africa and brought back a giraffe.  You can see a picture of it here.  Second, on page 43 Connah gives this example of the limitations of archeological evidence:
"It is remarkable that the earliest evidence for cultivated sorghum [in Africa] is only about 2000 years old.  This indigenous African cereal must have been domesticated much earlier, because it was already being cultivated in Saudi Arabia and India, where it was not indigenous, some 4500 years ago."
  1. African Civilizations: an archaeological perspective, 1st ed., 1987 (a second edition was published in 2001, but InterLibrary Loan sent me the old one.)  This is a slightly more focused version of the book listed above, in that it covers only 3,000 years and eight specific areas, in about the same number of pages.  If you are impressed by cultures that were able to build huge buildings, you should read about Ethiopia and Great Zimbabwe.  The country Zimbabwe was named after some large towers, called "zimbabwes," built of unmortared stone on a plateau in southeast Africa.  Fans of Egypt (and who doesn't love Ancient Egypt?) might be interested to learn about Meroe, a city-state that existed at about the same time somewhat further up the Nile.
  2. Three thousand years in Africa: man and his environment in the Lake Chad region of Nigeria, 1981. This was the most "academic" of the three books and I have to admit that I only skimmed it.  He does mention that even though the area he excavated contained nothing that was older than 3,000 years, nearby sites yielded artifacts that were at least 39,000 years old, and he's certain that his area must have been inhabited by humans for just as long.
Obviously I cannot do justice to the history of the human race in Africa in one blog post.  But there was one other thing  that struck me.  According to Graham Connah, one of Africa's major exports has always been slaves.  I have the impression that the European slave trade decimated Africa - how is it, then, that thousands of years of human trafficking apparently didn't make much of a dent?  Were the numbers not really that large?  We're told that the Christians needed slaves for labor on their American colonies.  But the interesting thing about that is that Islam colonized Asia too. Did they not need slaves?  Was there some essential difference between Christian and Muslim colonization?  That question applies to Africa too, of course.

I hope to do more research on the topic of Africa. There seems to be an awful lot we don't know.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    Coming Out

    The recent story about Ken Mehlman, formerly George Bush's campaign manager and one-time chairman of the RNC, announcing that he's gay has caused me to reflect.  Some people have doubted his assertion that he didn't know he was gay.  I didn't know I was trans - or rather, I knew but I didn't want to know.  It was a thought in my mind, never consciously acknowledged, free-floating like some scary shadowy thing in the depths of the ocean.  And even though I never made a living out of demonizing GLBT people and denying their human rights, I used to believe a lot of transphobic stuff.

    Mehlman wants people to "understand" the plight he was in, and I do understand.  I know how hard it is to come out.  How terrifying it is to come out.  I know that he was afraid of losing his livelihood, his friends, and the love of his family.  I know that he may even have feared for his life.  I can believe that he believed that homosexuality is wrong.

    Nor do I envy him for coming out in public.  It's not because of the anger and disdain he's gotten from gay people - he deserves that.  It's because coming out is a long process.  First you admit it to yourself.  Then you think about telling other people.  Then you actually do start telling people, which is a huge step, but it's not the end.  Probably Mehlman will continue to adjust his views.

    In fact, the stages of coming out are kind of like the well-known "five stages of grief:"  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Maybe they don't go in the same order.  Denial comes first, obviously . . . but I'm inclined to think that bargaining is an essential stage, both before and after the official announcement.  Mehlman says "I'm gay but I'm still a Republican."  That's bargaining.  He's trying to compromise with the world, and especially, I suspect, with his personal and professional associates.  He's saying "You can still approve of me, I haven't changed all that much!" 

    And it's true that he's still the same person.  It's true that all of us make compromises with society between our desires and what is socially acceptable.  Many people, for example, work at jobs they hate when they'd really rather run off to Tahiti and paint naked people.  Maybe they compromise by covering their bedroom walls with Gauguin prints.  But for GLBT people it's a lot harder to negotiate our social compromise, because until recently everything we want to do, everything we are, was completely forbidden.  The answer was always "No!" and there really weren't any valid tradeoffs.  In a lot of cases the answer is still no.  You can't do that, you can't be that, no sane person would want to do that, you must be sick.  But we're trying.

    One last note:  when I compare coming out to the stages of grief, I'm not saying it's a bad thing.  It's just that no one likes change.

    Thursday, August 26, 2010

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    I'm Angry

    About a month ago, I heard about Alan Hart for the first time.  He was an American doctor who helped to solve the problem of diagnosing and curing tuberculosis.  His work saved thousands of lives.  As it happens, he also wrote fiction.

    The reason I'm angry is that Alan Hart was a transsexual. The reason I'm angry is that I never heard of him before.  The reason I'm angry is that on the rare occasions when we learn anything about trans people, they're always depicted as freaks, living ineffectual and unhappy lives (like Michael Dillon, whom I blogged about previously.)

    The reason I'm angry is that I had to live my life, first in ignorance and then in shame.

    Alan Hart lived from 1890 to 1962.  There is reason to believe that he was happy.  His professional life was certainly fulfilling.  He was married twice - the first marriage ended in divorce, the second marriage lasted 37 years (until his death.)

    Maybe someday that will not be unheard of.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010

    Towards a new model of mental health

    This is another thing I've been thinking about for a while.  Would it be better if we thought of mental illness the same way we think of physical illness?  Some examples:
    1. Everybody gets sick.  We catch colds, sometimes we come down with more serious diseases or injuries.  It's part of life.  And it seems to me that mental illnesses are acquired in much the same way.  But the common stereotype is that everyone is always in perfect mental health, except for crazy people.  And they always seem to be incurable.  Perhaps we make an exception for bereavement - that's seen as something that pretty much unhinges people while they are grieving, but eventually, hopefully, they get over it.
    2. The importance of first aid. We all have some basic knowledge of first aid and triage (how to distinguish between serious injuries vs. minor ones.)  What constitutes mental first aid?  I don't know.  I don't think anyone else knows either.
    3. Healthy diet and exercise. I don't just mean that diet and exercise can have an effect on your moods, although that is true.  I mean, what constitutes a healthy mental diet?  What constitutes psychological exercise?  Prevention falls into this category as well.  The only form of mental-illness prevention I've ever heard of is, "don't think about bad stuff."  But in fact that doesn't work.
    4. Regular checkups.  How come we don't go for regular psychological checkups, along with physical and dental checkups?  I have occasionally had medical doctors ask me about my mental state (somehow, just typing those words makes it sound like they saw something suspicious in my behavior) but of course they were not mental health professionals, and not really qualified to diagnose or treat mental disorders.

      Might it be possible to develop tests for mental illness, to "catch these things early," the way doctors hope to catch cancers early?  There is some work being done with brain scans to detect signs of mental illness, but of course these scans are only run on people who have already flipped out.  If mental illness could be detected sooner, that would help a lot of people, and even save lives.
    5. The immune system.  As I mentioned about grief, above, sometimes we feel bad about stuff, and sometimes we get over it.  Sometimes, as with chronic depression, we can't heal ourselves without extra help.  But I do in fact believe that our psyches have a natural immune system, a natural sense of what's right, what's best for us.  It doesn't always work perfectly.  (In fact, it seems to have a tendency to overcompensate, like physical autoimmune diseases in which the body starts attacking its own cells.)  But if, as I hope, good physical health is our natural state, then good psychological health ought to be our natural state too.
    Of course, the big difference between mental health and physical health is the stigma attached to mental illness.  That's why people are reluctant to seek treatment until things get really bad.  (That's why, in America, health insurance does not always cover mental health issues.)  That's why people who are seeing therapists or taking medication are often reluctant to let anyone else know.  Can you imagine not telling anyone that you had to have your appendix removed?

    The other difference is that our notions of what constitute good mental health are somewhat skewed.  Our definition of physical health is straightforward: if we feel good, we're in good health.  We rely on our bodies to tell us how they feel.  But good mental health is defined, not by how we actually feel, but by how we're supposed to feel.  Certain feelings and thoughts are off limits. 

    Our mental health is constrained by our culture's morality.  There are numerous examples of this:  I'll pick one that I've used before. When homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness, it didn't matter how well-adjusted you were - it didn't even matter how decent, upstanding and generally moral you were.  Homosexual equaled crazy, end of story.  (And you better not be well-adjusted either, in fact, you should be as neurotic as possible, because homosexuals should be unhappy.)

    I strongly believe that our model of mental health needs to change.  And this is my suggested replacement.

      Monday, July 12, 2010

      The Model of the World Inside Your Head

      I've been thinking for a couple years now, off and on, about the fact that we rarely interact with the real world.  Instead, we construct a mental model of the world, and base our behavior on that model.

      Here's an example:  the first time you travel to someplace you've never been before, you pay a lot of attention to the route and the things that you see along the way.  You don't want to get lost, and you have to be able to find your way back.  Once the route becomes familiar to you, however, you stop paying as much attention.  You've constructed a mental model of the route, and you follow that.

      Some philosophers have argued that, since the world only exists for us insofar as we can perceive it, the model of the world inside our head is actually the "real" world.  If a tree falls in the forest, etc.  (This is also my understanding of Buddhism:  that the world we think we perceive is only an illusion.)  It's a fascinating idea, but ultimately, I think, unhelpful, for this reason:  our model of the world is frequently inaccurate.

      In some cases, it's due to sheer ignorance.  I've never been to Australia; my model of Australia is therefore incomplete.  Not only that, but I've heard people talk about Australia, and I've seen lots of pictures, but that doesn't mean Australia is real, now does it?  It's not real to me.  In fact, our experience of the world is so very limited, in time and space, that anyone with a little intelligence must realize just how little they know.   How limited our models of the world are.

      In other cases, our false models of the world are created when we are fed false information.  If someone told you every day, for example, that you were stupid, you'd start to believe it, whether it was true or not.  If you lived in a country where black people and white people were required to use separate bathrooms, separate restaurants, even (as I learned recently) separate parking lots, and your parents told you there were good reasons for this segregation, you'd believe them.  Maybe at some point you'd start to question.  Maybe not. Your model of the world would be a segregated world.

      Is it possible to change your model of the world?  I believe so, but it is incredibly hard work.  The mind is a stubborn thing.

      How can we live with these unavoidably flawed mental models?  I've come up with two guidelines:
      1. Accept that your mental model is imperfect.
      2. Realize that, limited though it is, your mental model is actually more complex than you are consciously aware of.
      That second one may seem like a non-sequitur.  Let me talk about some of the ways our mental models are more complex than we usually realize.

      We often subconsciously notice things that we weren't aware of at the time.  We may remember them later, or we may not - but either way, they do enter our subconscious and they do form part of our mental model of the world.  To go back to my first example:  once you've created your mental model of the route you take on your daily commute, you usually notice when something has changed.  Maybe you never consciously noticed that detail until did change, but it attracts your attention because your subconscious mind is in fact keeping an eye on things.

      Another example: dreams.  Have you ever had a really weird dream?  Where did that come from?  In many cases, your subconscious assembles a number of details from the recent (or not so recent) past, "juggles" them and comes up with an amusing, or perhaps significant dream.  It seems likely to me that this mental activity is somehow related to our models of the world.

      It's because our models of the world exist largely on a subconscious level that they can be so hard to change.  The conscious mind simply doesn't have the ability to alter the subconscious.  But I also, personally, find it hopeful to imagine the subconscious mind constantly processing its model of the world.  It never stops and it will keep ingesting all the new data it comes across.  As we know, there are infinite possibilities out there . . . and infinite possibilities inside as well.

      Tuesday, July 6, 2010

      To welcome hurricane season

      Someday the marshes will return
      bright emerald green, floating land, white herons

      Someday, the trees of the upland:
      red oak, shortleaf pine, magnolia

      Someday the rain-bearing winds will come roaring, soaking the land that is already wet.  The reeds and palmettos will tremble, lie down, and come back again.

      Someday the world of water:  the swamp, full of strange noises and hot shade.

      The dry land floods; the wet lands only get wetter.
      That may sound like a joke, but it's not.
      The world of water is not our world.

      Someday all the work of the bulldozers will have been for nothing.

      Thursday, June 24, 2010

      What it Means to be Irrational

      First of all, I have a confession to make:  I've been going to church. But it's okay.  It's just the Unitarian Universalists. It's not a real church.  And by that I mean, that they don't require you to subscribe to their beliefs (whatever those may be.)  Essentially you can bring your own beliefs.

      Last Sunday, a member of the congregation shared with us his thoughts on Father's Day, and related issues.  Father's Day is, to put it mildly, not my favorite holiday.  But nonetheless I enjoyed this guy's sermon.  One of the things it made me think about is different types of irrationality.

      Here are two of the anecdotes he shared with us:

      One day he was visiting  . . . Colorado I think? . . . and, sitting on top of a mesa at sunset, he had a mystical experience.  You know the drill, surrounded by nature, huge expanses of sky and desert, one human being seems so small out there.  And yet he felt there was a presence there with him; he was alone and not alone.

      People find these sorts of experiences very memorable. And in his case, it became extra memorable when he found out that, at approximately the same time he was having this beautiful experience, his father was dying of the heart disease that had troubled him for many years.  He could not help but feel that there was a connection.

      He then went on to tell us that his father's father died prematurely, and to share a story about that.  His father was then twelve years old, and he said to God, "I will give you my new bicycle if you keep my father alive."

      These are examples of two different types of irrationality.  Mystical experiences are irrational because they cannot be explained to anyone.  They cannot be reproduced at will, especially not in a laboratory.  They have no objective reality.

      The idea that God (if god exists) would be at all interested in possessing a bicycle, or a sheep, or one's firstborn child, that God ever would, or ever has, make bargains with people, is irrational because it's simply not true. If it happened on a regular basis, we would know about it. Where do people get this idea from, anyway?

      Some people say that mystical experiences are imaginary.  Some even say they're a form of mental illness.  Personally, of those two types of irrationality, I prefer the subjective, internal experience to the flat-out lie.  There's a difference between things that cannot be proved to be true, and things that can easily be proved false.

      Monday, June 14, 2010

      A Non-Trans Privilege Checklist

      Privilege checklists make a lot of people uncomfortable.  They usually start in about how "I have that problem too" or "that's not a real problem" or "you have no right to complain!"  (What is a privilege checklist?  Basically, it's meant to be a list of privileges that you don't get to have unless you're one or more of the following:  white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc.  This is said to be the first privilege checklist.)  I got the list below from Ampersand's blog.

      The purpose of a privilege checklist is not to make you feel guilty.  Nor am I posting it because I want everyone to know how oppressed I am, poor me, my problems are worse than everyone else's.  The purpose of a privilege checklist is to make you think about your life experience, and hopefully to recognise that a) other people have problems too and b) if you had to put up with this sh*t, you'd think it was totally unfair.

      A Non-Trans Privilege Checklist

      1) Strangers don’t assume they can ask me what my genitals look like and how I have sex.
      2) My validity as a man/woman/human is not based upon how much surgery I’ve had or how well I “pass” as a non-Trans person.
      3) When initiating sex with someone, I do not have to worry that they won’t be able to deal with my parts or that having sex with me will cause my partner to question his or her own sexual orientation.
      4) I am not excluded from events which are either explicitly or de facto* men-born-men or women-born-women only. (*basically anything involving nudity)
      5) My politics are not questioned based on the choices I make with regard to my body.
      6) I don’t have to hear “so have you had THE surgery?” or “oh, so you’re REALLY a [incorrect sex or gender]?” each time I come out to someone.
      7) I am not expected to constantly defend my medical decisions.
      8) Strangers do not ask me what my “real name” [birth name] is and then assume that they have a right to call me by that name.
      9) People do not disrespect me by using incorrect pronouns even after they’ve been corrected.
      10) I do not have to worry that someone wants to be my friend or have sex with me in order to prove his or her “hipness” or good politics.
      11) I do not have to worry about whether I will be able to find a bathroom to use or whether I will be safe changing in a locker room.
      12) When engaging in political action, I do not have to worry about the *gendered* repurcussions of being arrested. (i.e. what will happen to me if the cops find out that my genitals do not match my gendered appearance? Will I end up in a cell with people of my own gender?)
      13) I do not have to defend my right to be a part of “Queer” and gays and lesbians will not try to exclude me from OUR movement in order to gain political legitimacy for themselves.
      14) My experience of gender (or gendered spaces) is not viewed as “baggage” by others of the gender in which I live.
      15) I do not have to choose between either invisibility (”passing”) or being consistently “othered” and/or tokenized based on my gender.
      16) I am not told that my sexual orientation and gender identity are mutually exclusive.
      17) When I go to the gym or a public pool, I can use the showers.
      18) If I end up in the emergency room, I do not have to worry that my gender will keep me from receiving appropriate treatment nor will all of my medical issues be seen as a product of my gender. (”Your nose is running and your throat hurts? Must be due to the hormones!”)
      19) My health insurance provider (or public health system) does not specifically exclude me from receiving benefits or treatments available to others because of my gender.
      20) When I express my internal identities in my daily life, I am not considered “mentally ill” by the medical establishment.
      21) I am not required to undergo extensive psychological evaluation in order to receive basic medical care.
      22) The medical establishment does not serve as a “gatekeeper” which disallows self-determination of what happens to my body.
      23) People do not use me as a scapegoat for their own unresolved gender issues.

      Tuesday, June 8, 2010

      Out of the Silent Planet

      C.S. Lewis is one of those writers whose talent I admire, while finding their ideas more or less repugnant.  (Other examples include Robert Heinlein and Joss Whedon.)  Lewis' writing style was so very original that I can't understand why he relied so much on Christianity for his themes and plots.  Did he not want to be original?

      I up and read a biography of him, by A. N. Wilson, who makes the very interesting assertion that Lewis was completely lacking in "self-awareness" and "introspection."  I do not quite understand how Wilson deduces this, but if true it would explain why I dislike Lewis so much.  "Introspection" means a lot of things.  To lack introspection is not to lack imagination, which Lewis certainly had.  And one can be thoughtful without being introspective . . . although it's interesting to consider the things that Lewis was not very thoughtful about.

      For example, although he wrote several books about Christianity, according to Wilson he was no Biblical scholar.  So, when he says in The Problem of Pain that Jesus "was either a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way.  If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, then you must submit to the second," he is referring to "records" that don't actually exist.  There is no proof either way - there cannot be - and the Bible is not a historical document.  (Not to mention that Jesus was often reluctant to proclaim himself the Son of God.)  But Lewis didn't care about any of that.  He constructed an argument and he stuck to it.  It's an odd combination of logic and pure irrationality; add in his hectoring insistence that he is right - "there is no middle way" - and you have something that I find completely distasteful.

      And yet.  The novels.  I recently returned to the Silent Planet trilogy, not having read them since my teenage years.  The plots are as follows:
      1. Out of the Silent Planet:  our hero accidentally travels to the planet Mars and meets the various inhabitants.
      2. Perelandra:  our hero travels to the planet Venus and fights the (Christian) Devil. 
      3. That Hideous Strength:  our hero fights evil here on Earth.
      You'll notice that the first book is very different from its successors.   It is still about good and evil, but the protagonist is a lot more passive . . . and as far as I can tell, there is nothing explicitly Christian in the first book.  We learn that each planet has its own ruling spirit, or incorporeal entity, and above them all is the great being called Maleldil.  Earth is called the "silent planet" because its ruler rebelled against Maleldil and it was put under a sort of blockade.  (The idea that Earth is under the control of an evil demigod actually reminds me of the Gnostic version of Genesis, which I'm willing to bet Lewis did not do on purpose.)

      When I was younger, That Hideous Strength was my favorite of the three.  I still think that it has some great writing, although the plot and, again, some of the ideas are a bit dubious.  Now I appreciate Silent Planet more, for its imagination, lack of pretentiousness and anti-colonialist critique.  I mentioned that the protagonist arrives on Mars accidentally.  The two men who travel there first discover gold and intelligent life.  They plan to take the gold and kill the inhabitants so that "Man" will have a new planet to live on when he renders the Earth uninhabitable.  But they get the impression that the natives want a human sacrifice, so they go back to Earth and kidnap one Elwin Ransom, with the intention of trading him for gold-mining rights. 

      On Mars, Ransom escapes and meets up with some of the inhabitants on his own.  He's a philologist, and when he discovers that they have language, his first thought is how exciting it would be to publish an English-Martian dictionary.  I am not making this up.  He also gets seasick when riding in one of their boats . . . none of this is very heroic.  In the later books he gets more and more . . . special.  He's not some bumbling fool anymore, which appeals to me a lot less.

      Indeed, in the later books Ransom gets more and more saintly and the bad guys get more and more evil; also more powerful.  In Silent Planet, they have the technology to travel to another planet but they don't really understand anything about the world they've discovered.  They assume the natives are backwards and stupid, and they are easily defeated.  (Hope that's not a spoiler.)  In subsequent books Lewis raises the stakes; maybe it's just a fictional convention, to create antagonists who are pure evil and almost omnipotent, but I dislike it.  And from a theological point of view. . .  Lewis seems to me to spend more time dwelling on the power and malevolence of the Devil than on the power and benevolence of God. 

      In fact, the whole point of the last two books is that the Devil makes people do bad things.  Or rather, they choose to work with him, but he has powers of his own and he's constantly tempting and manipulating people.  I don't believe in an external Devil; I think it's irresponsible to promote the idea that "the Devil made me do it;" and I believe that this actually gets back to Lewis' lack of introspection which I mentioned at the top of the page.  He didn't want to examine his own unconscious motives, or admit that he had unconscious motives, or an unconscious mind at all.  All of that stuff is not part of him - it has to be moved elsewhere, and the Devil makes a handy receptacle for those parts of ourselves we don't want to acknowledge.

      Ironically, That Hideous Strength depicts two characters going through tremendous amounts of self-examination.  It's as if Lewis was willing to dip his toe in the wading pool, but not to go any deeper.  And his conclusions are, for the most part, so perfectly conventional.  At one point, one of the characters says, "Anything might be true.  Heaven, Hell, the afterlife . . ."  It's odd that even though anything might be true, the only possible truths these people can think of are the Christian ones.

      In both That Hideous Strength and in the biography, it says that Lewis was very fond of the Normal, the plain, ordinary, boring comforts of an uneventful life.  (One might speculate as to the ways in which he had been deprived of the Normal, leading him to appreciate it so much.)  As the novel puts it, the Normal is a man's cosy memories of his wife, "fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing . . . he was having his first deeply moral experience.  He was choosing a side:  the Normal."  And it just so happens that the Normal is synonymous with the moral, the good, the Will of God.  According to Lewis, science, psychology, Progress and progressive ideas of any sort are not Normal.  He was deliberately and anachronistically old-fashioned.  (And yet he wrote three science-fiction novels.) 

      Science and technology do have their drawbacks; in that much I can agree with him.  Although I suspect that for him, for example, destroying the environment is bad simply because the environment is something that already existed, and we're not supposed to change stuff.  I'm not sure if he was aware of the extent to which damage to the environment damages humans too. He criticizes science for its hubris . . . but he also almost seems to take science at its word, to believe that it has all the know-how it claimed to have.

      C.S. Lewis seems to be one of those people who never really grew up and never wanted to. Again, that's not me.  There is something charming about the simplicity of childhood . . . of safe and happy childhoods, anyway . . . but there comes a time to put away childish things.  Especially if you're going to go around claiming to Know the Truth.  You can be simple-minded, or you can be smarter than everyone else.  Can't be both.

      Tuesday, May 11, 2010

      Walt Whitman: Even Stranger Than You Thought

      So I noticed that the author of the Mark Twain biography I read recently, Justin Kaplan, also wrote a biography of Walt Whitman. And I liked Kaplan's style well enough that I decided to read that book too.  What do Twain and Whitman have in common?  They were both banned in Boston.  That's about it.  It says something about American puritanism that sex (Whitman's stock-in-trade) and laughter (Twain was known in his own time as a "humorist") are considered to be equally reprehensible.

      I already knew that, when John Addington Symonds (about whom I blogged a couple months ago) pressured Whitman to declare he was gay, Whitman not only denied it but boasted about his illegitimate children as proof of his heterosexuality.  I was, perhaps, even more astonished to discover from Kaplan's book that these children may never have existed.

      Walt Whitman wrote poems about sexuality and the body that were outrageous at the time, and still shocking today.  But he also fiercely protected his privacy, burning most of his letters and papers before he died.  We know a few of the people he was close to, but very little about their actual relationships; nor do we know which relationships were sexual and which were not.  He never married and never lived very long with anyone outside of his family.

      Whitman's family was a little unusual.  As Kaplan says, "Of the eight Whitman children who survived infancy one was a mental defective and three were psychic disasters; three were normal . . ." and one was Walt Whitman.  In later years his brother (one of the normal ones) said that none of them had ever known what to make of Walt.  They apparently didn't read his poems.  Nonetheless, the people Whitman was closest to were his mother and his favorite brother, Jeff.

      As a young man, for reasons that are not clear to me, Whitman began to think of himself as a surrogate father to his younger siblings.  (Their father was alive and living with the family.)  In 1844, when he was twenty-five, he published an essay called "My Boys and Girls," describing six of his siblings.  (He left out his older brother, whom he seems to have disliked, and his retarded brother, but included a mention of one who died in infancy.)  The first sentence of this essay is "Though a bachelor, I have several boys and girls that I consider my own."  Kaplan notes that he echoed this sentence when he wrote to Symonds in 1890, "Tho' always unmarried I have had six children," but he doesn't explicitly make the connection between the six siblings and the six children.  As I said, we have no other information about these alleged children:  he never named them or their mothers, and no one has ever come forward claiming to be Whitman's child.

      Women who had read Leaves of Grass wrote love letters to Whitman, in some cases offering to have his children.   He does not appear to have taken any of them up on their offers.  I haven't read all of Leaves of Grass myself (it's a bit overwhelming) but it seems clear to me that his affections for women were not sexual, and that he lingers on descriptions of men's bodies and "the love of comrades."

      At the age of twelve, in 1831, Whitman began working for a Long Island newspaper, the Patriot.  He spent much of his life involved in journalism and politics.  At that time the two political parties in America were the Democrats and the Whigs, and the issue of slavery was dividing the country.  Whitman's attitude towards slavery seems paradoxical today.  He believed in "Free Soil" - which meant that as new states were added to the Union, they should not have slavery - but he was not an abolitionist.  Why was it okay for the Southern states to have slaves?  I don't know and this book doesn't explain it.

      On more than one occasion Whitman said, "Slavery is bad but lots of things are bad.  Why should I get more upset about slavery than anything else?" and he vehemently opposed letting black men vote.  He believed that whites were superior.  (Incidentally, Kaplan doesn't mention Whitman's views on female suffrage, but it wouldn't surprise me if he supported white women's right to vote.  He was definitely a feminist ally.)  Kaplan tells us that Whitman's great-grandparents owned slaves, and that slavery was abolished in New York state when Whitman was eight, but he doesn't tell us when or how the Whitmans divested themselves of their slaves.*  He does mention, however, that some of these slaves were Native American as well as African-American, and that Whitman referred to both races as "degraded, shiftless, and intemperate."

      When his brother was wounded in the Civil War and sent to a hospital in Washington DC, Whitman came down to look after him and ended up staying to take care of many more wounded soldiers. After the war ended, he got a government job and formed a close friendship with a former Confederate soldier named Peter Doyle who was twenty-eight years younger than himself.  It seems that Whitman was afraid of his own feelings for this young man, his own "adhesiveness," a term used in the nineteenth century, probably corresponding to what we today would call "desire for intimacy."  I can't believe that the man who wrote, published, and assiduously promoted the blatantly sexual poems in Leaves of Grass would have been afraid to express sexual feelings.  I believe it was love which tormented him.

      He did not censor Leaves of Grass as much as he censored himself in this passage from his notebook:
      To give up absolutely & for good, from the present hour, this feverish, fluctuating, useless undignified pursuit of 16.4—too long, (much too long) persevered in,—so humiliating——it must come at last & had better come now—(It cannot possibly be a success.)

      Let there from this hour be no faltering, no getting [word erased] at all henceforth, (not once, under any circumstances)—avoid seeing her, or meeting her, or any talk or explanations—or any meeting whatever, from this hour forth, for life.
      The original manuscript shows that Whitman changed "him" to "her" on this page.  "16.4", the sixteenth and fourth letters of the alphabet, are "P.D."  Despite this feverish resolution, Doyle and Whitman remained friends until the poet's death.  However, in later years Whitman moved from DC back to Camden, New Jersey and there became attached to another young man, Henry Stafford.  They also had a tumultuous relationship.  At one point Whitman offered Stafford a ring.  He refused it but later wrote, "I wish you would put the ring on my finger again, it seems to me there is something that is wanting to compleete our friendship when I am with you.  I have tride to studdy it out but cannot find out what it is.  You know when you put it on ther was but one thing to part it from me and that was death."  (The spelling mistakes are in the original.  Stafford was largely uneducated.)  Whitman gave him the ring again but a few years later Stafford got married.

      Walt Whitman died in 1892.  Three years later Oscar Wilde had his little run-in with the law.  It's interesting to compare the two.  Whitman pursued fame but also guarded his privacy.  He said that he only wanted his poetry to be famous, not himself.  Wilde, on the other hand, was all about self-promotion, and he was sadly lacking in caution.  Incidentally, Wilde came to pay homage to Whitman in 1882,while on his American lecture tour, and later boasted to a friend, "I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips."

      Whitman was arguably more famous in England, especially among gentlemen of a certain persuasion, than in America.  William Michael Rossetti (brother of the poets Dante Gabriel and Christina) published an expurgated edition of Leaves of Grass in England, leaving out the obscene poems and also the "tedious" ones.  It seems a little sad that Whitman never went to England.  I believe that he never left the American continent. He wrote poems about California but never saw it in person.  He also wrote many poems about the ocean and sailing ships, but as far as I can tell he never saw the open ocean.
      O to sail to sea in a ship!
      To leave this steady unendurable land,
      To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,
      To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
      To sail and sail and sail!

      Relevant Links:

      Leaves of Grass on Project Gutenberg
      A Biography of Peter Doyle
      Walt Whitman: A Life by Justin Kaplan

      * Update: some info on emancipation in 19th century New York, from What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe.
      The state of New York had adopted a program of gradual emancipation decreeing that slaves born after the Fourth of July 1799 should become free at age twenty-eight (for males) or twenty-five (for females). This is would allow the owner who bore the cost of rearing the children reimbursement with several of their prime working years. . . . But in 1817, the New York legislature sped up the emancipation process and decreed that on July 4, 1827, all remaining slaves, whenever born, should become free. Masters would receive no financial compensation from the state but did have one more decade to exploit their chattels unpaid labor.

      Monday, May 3, 2010

      Mark Twain's Dream: a Cautionary Tale

      I've been reading a biography of Mark Twain (by Justin Kaplan.)  He was a very angry man.  It's not clear to me exactly what the sources of his anger were, but he was angry at society, at certain individuals, and at himself.  Many people described him as meek, mild, and apologetic—most of the time—but prone to sudden eruptions of absolute rage.  In 1886 he wrote, "Yesterday a thunderstroke fell on me.  I found that all their lives my children have been afraid of me! have stood all their days in uneasy dread of my sharp tongue and uncertain temper."

      His enemies list contained people who had cheated him, but also those who had committed such crimes as being more successful than himself, or failing to cope with his incessant and unreasonable demands.  As for society, he hated it, or claimed to hate it, because it would not let him speak the "truth."  But he censored his own writing on several occasions (for example, when he chose not to publish a book on lynching because he didn't want to lose his white Southern audience) and, even more frequently, told various lies of one kind or another:  humorous or self-justifying, as he saw fit.  His commitment to the truth was variable at best.

      I came to the conclusion that he had no strong understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.  This is also demonstrated by his susceptibility to con artists and get-rich-quick schemes.  Even though he was a great writer, he spent much of his life not writing, but chasing after diamond mines, faith healers (he was a Christian Scientist briefly, before adding Mary Baker Eddy to his list of villains), and superb inventions.  Even after his writing had made him rich, he was still looking for "the sure thing" (which writing was not, apparently) and he poured unbelievable amounts of money into a mechanical typesetter which never worked correctly and was superseded by the Linotype machine.  It almost seemed that he wanted to be taken advantage of; even in his writing career.  After discovering that his first publisher had been cheating him, Twain nonetheless stayed with him until he died, at which point Twain signed a new deal with a man whom many of his fellow writers complained about.  He could have found someone with a good reputation . . . but for whatever reason, he didn't.  (I will add here that Twain's father and older brother were also addicted to get-rich-quick schemes.)

      In 1896, at the age of 61, after his oldest daughter had died (at the age of 24, of meningitis) and he had, thanks to years of diligent effort, finally achieved bankruptcy, Twain began writing about and exploring his dreams.  He had always been fascinated by the notion of "the shadow self," the forbidden self, Siamese twins (representing the two sides of a person), and impostors.  Obviously, his dual existence as "Mark Twain" and "Samuel Clemens" brings up the question, who were these two men?  The biographer also remarks on the interesting similarity between the words "twain" and "twin," as well as "Clemens" and "claimants" (as in, false claimants to an estate, another of Twain's favorite subjects.)

      This was his dream:
      I was suddenly in the presence of a negro wench who was sitting in grassy open country, with her left arm resting on the arm of one of those long park-sofas that are made of broad slats with cracks between, and a curve-over back.  She was very vivid to me—round black face, shiny black eyes, thick lips, very white regular teeth showing through her smile.  She was about 22, and plump—not fleshy, not fat, merely rounded and plump; and good-natured and not at all bad-looking.  She had but one garment on—a coarse tow-linen shirt that reached from her neck to her ankles without break.  She sold me a pie, a mushy apple pie—hot.  She was eating one herself with a tin teaspoon.  She made a disgusting proposition to me.  Although it was disgusting it did not surprise me—for I was young (I was never old in a dream yet) and it seemed quite natural that it should come from her.  It was disgusting, but I did not say so; I merely made a chaffing remark, brushing aside the matter—a little jeeringly—and this embarrassed her, and she made an awkward pretence that I had misunderstood her.  I made a sarcastic remark about this pretence, and asked for a spoon to eat my pie with. She had but the one, and she took it out of her mouth, in a quite matter-of-course way, and offered it to me.  My stomach rose—there everything vanished. (from Mark Twain's Notebook, edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, pp. 351-352)
      This beautiful black woman is a perfect example of a Jungian archetype.  She is the Earth Mother, the ground of being, sitting in a grassy field, providing nourishment (in the form of apple pies—surely a nod to Eve.)  She is also, of course, the symbol of all that Twain's society defined as despicable:  black and female, sexual and happy, the source of all evil.  And even in a dream (where, supposedly, nothing is forbidden), he rejects her offer, which is so "disgusting" he has to use the adjective three times.  He enters into a battle of words with her; in both dreams and real life, words were his weapons—if only we could know what they actually said to each other.

      Or indeed, what currency he used to pay for the pie with.  Somehow the pie is acceptable, because he did pay for it, the nourishment that he wanted, just as he wanted love, fame, and social approval from his fellow humans.  But the Black Goddess reminds him again that the only way to enjoy these things is through her.  He still needs that spoon, and it emerges from her mouth, just as other things emerge from other orifices, and this "disgusts" him so much that he has to wake up.

      Twain recovered from bankruptcy (by which I mean that he paid off all his creditors, 100 cents on the dollar, and became rich again.)  Nothing could bring back his daughter, or his youngest daughter, or his wife, all of whom predeceased him.  But he still had plenty of enemies, one or two friends, and a huge number of fans.  He had his writing, his anger, and his bitterness, and as the years went by he constructed an increasingly fictional version of his life.

      Personally, when people in dreams offer me things, I usually say yes.

      Thursday, April 29, 2010

      Gender Identity Disorder in the DSM

      Okay, time to demonstrate that this is a transgender blog, after our recent foray into fantasy.  You may not be aware that rejecting one's biological sex is officially a form of mental illness.  Here is the DSM listing.

      There is a double standard in place regarding children with GID vs. adults with GID.  Essentially, when children announce that they are really the opposite sex, many parents and therapists believe that this is a delusion which can be cured, and they implement "reparative therapy" in an attempt to make the children conform to their socially assigned gender.  Kenneth Zucker is perhaps the best-known reparative therapist practicing today.  It's important to note that, back when homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a mental disorder, similar techniques were used to eradicate patients' homosexual tendencies.  Most people now consider this to be unacceptable.

      However, when adults announce that they are really the opposite sex, the official "therapeutic" position is that this is a delusion which has become incurable.  At this point the gender-nonconforming person is granted the right to modify their bodies to match their personal gender identity. Why is it that adults are allowed to choose their gender, while children are explicitly discouraged from gender experimentation?  Is this fair?

      Ironically, despite the highly controversial, not to mention insulting, nature of the DSM diagnosis, many adult transsexuals want GID to remain as an official disorder, because it allows them to get insurance coverage for their sex-reassignment surgery.

      The newest version of the DSM - version 5 - is currently under review.  Many people are actively trying to reframe the definition of GID; but there are two camps, one which wants to make it less punitive and the other which, as far as I can tell, wants to solidify gender roles and gender-conformity prejudice.  My attention was recently directed to this organization, GID Reform Advocates, whose motto is "our identities are not disordered."  That is something I can get behind.

      One last thing: when being transgendered is considered to be a mental illness, you get arguments like this one against ENDA:
      Similar problems abound in this bill, which treats a conscious decision to choose a new or different sexual identity as if it were an inherent, unavoidable condition. But it's not. It's actually a psychological disorder, officially listed as such by the current American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Our children and our co-workers should not be forced by law to be held hostage to such disorders, nor should employers be forced to have psychologically troubled persons as the public face of their businesses.
      I would not want to work with anyone who thought I was mentally ill.  And many people still consider homosexuality to be a mental illness, even though it's been removed from the DSM.  But it would make me happy if transphobes, as well as homophobes, had one less leg to stand on.

      Thursday, April 22, 2010

      The Problem of Community

      I've been thinking a lot about community lately.  People always seem to talk about it as though it's a good thing, all comforting and supportive and "one big happy family."  But much of my experience has been with communities that ostracize, that enforce conformity, that give certain people special privileges and expect unquestioning obedience to authority.

      In these modern times, communities which value diversity, tolerance, and individual freedom do exist.  (I've even heard that there's a very large community which was founded on the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.)  However, communities do not become diverse and tolerant just because people in the community say, "We are diverse and tolerant."  It takes more than lip service, more than an intellectual belief in equality.  I believe that even an honest desire to be tolerant is not enough.

       Way back in 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon delivered a speech which probably said all there is to say about community and diversity.  She referred to it as "coalition" and made it clear that it's hard work.  I can't even choose my favorite quote from that speech - go read it yourself.

      When I think about community, I find myself asking the question:  "How does this community handle difference?"  Different life experiences, different sexual orientations, different races, different genders and gender identities, plain old differences of opinion of every sort.  The sad fact is that even if you could surround yourself with people who look exactly like you, who profess the same religious and political beliefs, who grew up in the same town, went to the same schools and read all the same books as you, you would still find differences of opinion and some of those people would still refuse to behave the way you think they ought to behave.

      Difference is inescapable.  You have to either reject it or respect it.  The means of rejection are many:  if anyone disagrees with you, they're wrong/lying/stupid/crazy/immoral/selfish/out to destroy civilization.  Or maybe they just hate you personally and are trying to make you look bad.  In any case, their opinions don't count.  Some people find difference to be extremely threatening . . . as if the presence of another opinion in the universe completely invalidates their own worldview.  As if their own sense of self is so fragile that it can't sustain the notion of other ways to live one's life.  (And in many cases it seems to be pure jealousy that other people get to do things that are supposedly "forbidden.")  I bet people like that hope and pray that they never have to pay attention to anyone who's different from them.

      I just realized today that all my life I've had to deal with people who were very different from me.  I've always felt like a freak.  It's easy to sit around and complain that "nobody understands me."  Today it dawned on me that I never understood them either.  That causes just as much difficulty as being misunderstood - maybe more.  On the one hand, I got really tired of people expecting me to conform to their rules. On the other hand, I had to face the fact that we're all different. They're not going to change their ways.  I'm not either.  And if I want to be respected for who I am, then I have to somehow find a way to respect them too.

      Ironically, respecting difference entails the recognition of what we have in common:  we're all human.