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.