By Henry Longfellow
One of Mrs Thatcher’s attractive features was her unpretentious love of poetry. She hardly ever quoted a line or title correctly, as she would if briefed to do so, but mangled it slightly, suggesting genuine mis-recollection. Philip Larkin was famously pleased that she mis-remembered the line “Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives”, calling Deceptions, the one in which that girl’s ‘mind was full of knives’. Here’s another occasion.
In the first volume of his official life (p 191) Charles Moore mentions a speech to the North Finchley Bible Society in 1966. Referring to the recent Aberfan disaster, and the horror of losing a child, she said that David’s lament for his dead son Absalom was a favourite Bible passage. But there isn’t much lament for Absalom in the Bible; just the single verse 2 Samuel 18, v 33.
“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Nor was she thinking of his lament over Saul and Jonathan, the one that ends “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!” Neither Saul nor Jonathan were David’s children. I bet she had this poem in mind. The title refers to the the place where David went to grieve after the rebellious Absalom had been killed by the King’s own forces.
The Chamber over the Gate
Is it so far from thee
Thou canst no longer see
In the Chamber over the Gate
That old man desolate,
Weeping, and wailing sore
For his son, who is no more?
O Absalom, my son!
Is it so long ago
That cry of human woe
From the walled city came,
Calling on his dear name,
That it has died away
In the distance of to-day?
O Absalom, my son!
There is no far nor near,
There is neither there nor here,
There is neither soon nor late,
In that Chamber over the Gate,
Nor any long ago
To that cry of human woe,
O Absalom, my son!
From the ages that are past
The voice comes like a blast,
Over seas that wreck and drown,
Over tumult of traffic and town;
And from ages yet to be
Come the echoes back to me,
O Absalom, my son!
Somewhere at every hour
The watchman on the tower
Looks forth, and sees the fleet
Approach of the hurrying feet
Of messengers, that bear
The tidings of despair.
O Absalom, my son!
He goes forth from the door,
Who shall return no more.
With him our joy departs;
The light goes out in our hearts;
In the Chamber over the Gate
We sit disconsolate.
O Absalom, my son!
That ‘t is a common grief
Bringeth but slight relief;
Ours is the bitterest loss,
Ours is the heaviest cross;
And forever the cry will be
“Would God I had died for thee,
O Absalom, my son!
The BBC’s menopause advice
Is odd (click here), and not just because they chose three men to deliver it; “Imagine I’m a woman” says the interviewer!
For the series Trust me, I’m a doctor the BBC interviewed two doctors with opposing views about long-term menopausal hormone therapy. Klim McPherson an epidemiologist from Oxford, presented the conventional view (click here); it carries increased risks of breast cancer, strokes, and heart disease and therefore should be used for symptom relief only, and in the lowest dose and for the shortest time possible. The absolute risks are low, so women whose symptoms persist may choose to take it for longer, just so long as they know the risks. But hormone therapy should never be used for “health promotion”. Few would quarrel with that.
But the producers wanted controversy, an “expert” who would downplay the risks and say that hormone therapy is good for you. They found John Studd.
Studd’s early enthusiasm for menopausal hormone therapy was at least based on the evidence available at the time. It was hardly his fault that drug companies had concealed adverse cardiac events, and that the “healthy user” effect made observational studies misleading. But his passion did rather run away with him. Here he is from 1988 (quoted in “Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause 2011 by Louise Foxcroft here).
“[There is now] little serious controversy about the devastating effects of oestrogen deficiency or the beneficial effects of hormone replacement therapy in post menopausal women. Pockets of resistance remain, more spiritual than medical, but fundamentally the news concerning heart attacks, strokes and carcinoma of the uterus is good. Some minor skirmishes concerning the dose and route of oestrogens, and the correct progestagens for the prevention of endometrial pathology remain, but essentially the battle has been fought and won.”
As Foxcroft wrote, such “hideously inappropriate, crusading language of prophets and wars” hardly suggested a disinterested seeker after scientific truth.
She was right. When the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) trials (click here) were suspended because the hormone therapy harms made it unethical to continue, Studd couldn’t, or wouldn’t, alter his opinion. Instead he doubled down on his belief that hormone therapy is good for you, bad mouthing WHI overall, while selectively quoting those subgroup analyses and secondary endpoints which supported his ideas.
His reputation suffered. In the last century his papers regularly appeared in BJOG, the BMJ and Lancet. Now he’s pretty much confined to obscure menopause journals supported by industry and run by his friends. But pharma loved him, and put him on their advisory boards and flew him round the world to spread the word.
Before long he had turned into a single issue campaigner advocating estrogen therapy for everything. On his website (click here) he cites “10 reasons to be happy about HRT”, and even castigates psychiatrists for not treating depression with hormones! His “10 reasons” include making women more beautiful, more randy and nicer to live with!
Studd performed as the BBC hoped (click here). When asked about the increased risks of breast cancer he first avoided the question, and segued into his polished riff about the WHI trials which, according to him, studied “the wrong patients, with the wrong drug, by the wrong route, using the wrong dose and came to the wrong conclusions”. Of course he’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s him who’s wrong; no-one who knows anything about clinical research would agree with him. The two WHI trials studied more woman for longer than any other, and in the latest Cochrane review (click here) were among the minority accorded a perfect score of 7/7 on trial design.
When the interviewer pushes him, and asks about the claim that long-term HRT doubles the risk of breast cancer he denies that anyone thinks the risk is that great, and suggests that even the most anti-hormone experts only quote a relative risk of 1.1 or 1.2. This provokes incredulity in the interviewer who had just recorded McPherson stating the risk was doubled (click here. It’s at 55 seconds). McPherson is right. The relevant Cochrane review (click here) gives a relative risk of breast cancer death after long-term hormone therapy of 1.98.
When asked if he ever takes women women off hormone therapy, Studd replies: “No, I don’t take women off HRT.” Women must be thankful that he no longer works for the NHS.
Thank you to my colleague Susan Bewley who pointed out this poor choice of “expert”, and persuaded the BBC to add a sentence to indicate Studd’s conflict of interest:
“Professor John Studd now works entirely in private practice, specialising in HRT-based treatments.”
I think this is inadequate. I think the BBC should remove Studd’s interview altogether. If they won’t do that, they should add a much stronger conflict of interest statement. Here’s a suggestion.
“Professor Studd has a conflict of interest. He has received funding for travel, lecture fees and payment to sit on their advisory boards, from many manufacturers of menopausal hormone therapy. He no longer works for the NHS, instead running a private clinic where he advocates and prescribes estrogens, either alone or in combination with other hormones, for pretty much every woman who comes through the door.”
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
A Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop
The Argonauts (click here) is not your usual baby book. According to Maggie Nelson’s faculty page at the California Institute of the Arts it is:
a work of “autotheory” about gender, sexuality, sodomitical maternity, queer family, and the limitations and possibilities of language
Nelson is a lesbian-ish poet and writer. Her partner, Harry Dodge, a female to male transsexual film maker and actor. Her politics are far left – the anti-capitalist rhetoric sometimes grates – but she is a wonderful writer. Her subject is not just sex and babies, not even the complexity of human sexuality, gender roles and reproduction, although she takes the reader to some wilder shores. Nor is it even about individual complexity, how so many of us, can hold mutually opposing opinions at one and the same time. Nelson’s real subject is the difficulty of writing about all that. How it is impossible to put the truth about our feelings into words, but that still we must try. Words are the best we have. “Words are good enough.”
She describes caring as a step parent for Dodge’s son, and the conception, pregnancy and birth of their shared son, Iggy. The conception was of course complicated, but the rest was normal; spontaneous labour at 39 weeks, some unspecified pain relief, amniotomy at full dilatation and an unassisted vaginal birth. At six months Iggy “was stricken by a potentially fatal nerve toxin that afflicts about 150 babies out of the 4 million+ born in the United States each year”. She doesn’t name the disease; “I am not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin”, presumably that’s for her next book, but elsewhere we are told it cost $47,000 to be treated with an “infusion of rare antibodies harvested from other people’s bodies”. My guess is immune globulin for infant botulism.
But this is all background. The interest lies in dozens of loosely linked vignettes about life and attitudes in a fluidly gendered community in present day California. Here’s a few.
Nelson rages against the mother of a transgendered child, a pupil, likening the child’s sex change to a bereavement, until Dodge reminds her of her own fears about how he would change with testosterone.
Dodge explains that it takes a female to male transsexual to see the ways men acknowledge each other publicly; the nod as we pass in the street that women never make. Nelson notes that we presumably do it to reassure other men that we have no aggressive intent; throughout most of history a strange man was a threat in a way a strange woman rarely was.
She works herself into a lefty lather about being “forced” to work in a smokers bar, albeit long before she was pregnant, but admits to enjoying the company of the reckless smokers and drinkers she met there.
The sex seems to have been good. “You pretend to use me, make a theatre of heeding only your pleasure while making sure, I find mine.”
Most shocking is her description of an extraordinary attack (p 48) by art historian Rosalind Krauss on the feminist Jane Gallop. I don’t know anything about Krauss, but Gallop was to become famous with her controversial Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (click here). Nelson doesn’t mention that later book, although it’s surely relevant.
The seminar was at the City University of New York (CUNY) in October 1998. The topic photography. Gallop, a newlywed young mother, spoke of studying it from the point of view of the person photographed, illustrated her talk with slides of her naked self with her baby, and spoke happily and un-academically about sex with her new husband. “Heterosexuality always embarrasses me” notes Nelson parenthetically, but she is attracted to Gallop’s method, despite the tentative nature of her ideas and the incompleteness of her analysis. She is also attracted to Gallop, to her vulnerability, her unfashionable dress sense. And then Krauss, sharp, classy, Ivy League, responds with, as Nelson recalls it, a vicious unsparing academic take down of Gallop’s temerity.
The lashing Gallop received that day stood for some time in my mind as an object lesson. Krauss acted as though Gallop should be ashamed for trotting out naked pictures of herself and her son in the bathtub, contaminating serious academic space with her pudgy body and unresolved self-involved thinking (even though Gallop had been perfecting such contamination for years).
The tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind – besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting.
Shocking, particularly for those, who in equivalent debates on birth itself, side with the Krauss’s of this world; rolling our eyes at soft midwifery-based mother and baby talk, when what is needed is manly science. Nelson describes how generally she also sides with the hard-edged academic. But …
In the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.
She’s right. Gallop can talk nonsense, e.g. this from her home page (click here) “[…] The project brings together crip theory, feminist aging studies, queer temporality, psychoanalysis, and anecdotal theory. I consider how disability that begins in midlife and/or the entrance to middle age are [sic] lived as a threat to one’s sexuality and one’s gender, but also how these perspectives can supply us with alternative models of sexual temporality.” Lord save us!
But, like Nelson, when she draws from personal experience – A Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment is just that – she writes beautifully. Accused by two female students with whom she had flirted, Gallop got off with a warning from her university, and then jumped into print with this book. It’s not just a defence of her own actions, but a closely argued claim that sexual harassment rules in university have gone too far. Not only are they impossible to police – people start relationships at work all the time – but they harm academic discourse. Flirtation brings energy and intensity. Without sexual possibility universities would be grey and chilling.
Only a woman with rock solid feminist credentials would dare make such a claim – sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious and ongoing problem. But Gallop goes further. She describes previous escapades where she as a student fucked her teachers, and other occasions when as a more senior academic she flirted with, and sometimes fucked, her students. Apparently none of them complained.
She argues that even if she had gone all the way with the students who complained, she should have had no case to answer, just so long as the students had remained willing, and she had not unjustifiably discriminated against them academically. She even protests at the students legal attempts to prevent her writing about the story. It’s a racy read – not the sex itself, albeit both straight and lesbian – but the thrill of a woman writing so openly. And on the substantive issue Gallop surely has a point, although the line between constructive flirtation and harassment is a fine one, and tiny misreadings of intent can easily cause trouble, even for a sophisticated navigator of these choppy waters.
I can’t hope to do justice to either of these two short and brilliant books, and not just for lack of space; my words are not good enough.
Iris Murdoch on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Petit air
In the middle of The Philosopher’s Pupil, John Robert Rozanov, the ageing philosopher, persuades the unbelieving gay priest, Father Bernard Jacoby, to tutor his grand-daughter Hattie. The tutoring is part of Rozanov’s plan to keep Hattie secluded from society in the hope that the young Tom McCaffrey can be persuaded to marry her. It doesn’t go well. Discovering that Hattie’s German is better than his, and getting into a muddle with Dante, he reaches desperately for a favourite poem, the first section of Mallarmé’s Petit Air, and asks her to translate.
An unwise decision. Not only are naked lovers swimming hardly a suitable discussion topic for repressed gay priests and teenage girls, but Mallarmé is pretty much impossible to translate. Nevertheless the comedy Murdoch gets out of Hattie’s efforts at translation and the priest’s fantasies explains the poem:
[…] He had intended to choose a less difficult poem, but the book had opened automatically at one of his favourites […] he realised that although he could ‘sort of’ understand the poem, and liked it very much, he could not construe it. […]
Hattie’s attempt at a literal translation began; ‘A sort of solitude without a, or the, swan or quay reflects its disuse in the look which I abdicated, or removed, from the glorious – no, the vanity – so high it can’t be touched, with which many skies streak themselves with the golds of sunset, but languidly wanders the white linen taken off a sort of fugitive bird if it plunges -‘ […]
‘You read it aloud as if you understood.’
‘Well it’s beautiful – but whatever does it mean?’
‘What do you think it’s about, what sort of scene is the poet evoking?’
Hattie looked silently at the text, while Father Bernard admired her smooth boyish neck over which tendrils of pale-fair hair from the complex bun were distractedly straying.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Since he says there is no swan and no quai, I suppose it might be a river?’
‘Good deduction. After all it’s a poem!’
‘And there’s a wave at the end.’
‘And – nue?’
‘Someone naked, perhaps someone swimming naked.’
‘Yes. It’s a kind of puzzle picture, isn’t it.’
‘He’s turning away from the gloriole that means sort of false showy something, doesn’t it, which is too high to touch because then longe wouldn’t be right – I think – so I suppose regard is the subject – but -‘
‘Oh never mind about the subject -‘
‘But I do mind! The solitude, the uninteresting solitude, reflects its swanless desolation in the look which he had turned away from the false glory, too high to touch, with which many skies dapple themselves in sunset golds – perhaps he thinks sunsets are vulgar – then, or but why but? – something or other, either his look on a fugitive bird, no I see, his gaze coasts languidly, no, langorously, along like white linen taken off – that can’t be right – has longe got an object, could it be the bird? – perhaps the bird is like the linen, maybe it’s a white bird that plunges – like the – the clothes which – no, no, surely the jubilation plunges – and the langorous gaze coasts along the jubilation – I mean – then “but” would have sense – it’s all rather dull until my gaze langorously – no – if a (but why if?), if a bird plunges like white linen taken off, my gaze langorously follows, exulting beside me, or it, in the wave that you have become, your naked jubilation – oh dear! that can’t be right -‘
Hattie had become quite excited […]
Father Bernard was excited too, but not by the grammatical quest. […] What was the subject of what? Who cared? The general sense of the poem was perfectly clear to him, or rather he had made his own sense and hallowed it long ago.
He said, ‘Let’s get the general picture. You said there was a river and someone swimming naked. How many people are there in the poem?’
Hattie replied, ‘Two. The speaker and the swimmer.’
‘Good. And who are they?’
‘Who are they? Oh well, I suppose the poet and some friend -‘
Father Bernard’s imagination had, in taking charge of the poem, taken advantage of the fact that the sex of the swimmer was not specified. In the blessed free-for-all of fantasy he had pictured the charming companion, whose underwear slides off with the languid ease of a bird’s flight, as a boy. The final image was particularly precious to him of the young thing diving in and rising into the wave of his plunge, tossing back his wet hair and laughing. And all about the green river bank, the sunshine, the warmth, the solitude …
‘Do you think it’s a love poem?’ He asked her.
‘Well it could be.’
‘How can it not be?’ He almost cried. He thought, she is unawakened. ‘The poet is with his -‘ he checked himself.
‘Girl friend, I suppose,’ said Hattie stiffly. She was feeling shocked at Father Bernard’s evident indifference to the pleasure of finding out main verbs and what agrees with what; and she had not failed to notice his dismay at her outburst of German.
‘Girl friend! What a phrase. He is with his mistress.’
‘Why not his wife? said Hattie. ‘Was he married?’
‘Yes, but that doesn’t matter. This is a poem. We don’t want wives in poems. He is with a lovely young woman -‘
‘How do you know she is lovely?’
‘I know. Just see the picture.’
Hattie said more kindly., ‘Yes, I think I can – it’s like that picture by Renoir – La baigneuse au griffon – only there – well there are two girls, not a man and a girl.’
‘This did not interest Father Bernard, at any rate he did not pursue it, but the evocation of the lush greenery and the Impressionist painter accorded with his racing mood. ‘Yes, yes, it’s sunny and green and the river is glittering and the sunshine is coming through the leaves and dappling, that was a good word you used, the naked form of the -‘
‘The sun doesn’t dapple the girl, it’s the gloriole, no it’s the sky or skies that dapple themselves with-‘
‘Never mind, you must get the sense of the whole – the linen, white like the bird, slips away -‘ The image which had now, with magisterial charm, risen up in the priests mind, lily-pale and glowing with youth, was that of Tom McCaffrey.
The philosopher’s futile attempt to control Hattie’s developing sexuality is undermined – ‘We don’t want wives in poems’. Hattie’s image of the poem as a voyeuristic lesbian scene, albeit undeveloped, is a lovely contrast to the priest’s gay fantasies. Here it is in the original French, in an English translation by EH & AM Blackmore.
Petit air. I.
Quelconque une solitude
Ici de la gloriole
Mais langoureusement longe
Dans l’onde toi devenue
Little ditty. I.
Some kind of solitude
from the vain pomp too high
but languorously skirt
your naked bliss should plumb
Here is the picture it reminded Hattie of, Renoir’s La beigneuse au Griffon. The Griffon is the dog at the naked woman’s feet, the model was Renoir’s mistress, Lise Tréhot, and the painting is in São Paulo Museum of Art.
Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto & Iris Murdoch
The title comes from Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love (above left in Rome’s Borghese gallery), a painting which is notoriously ambiguous about which of the clothed or naked women depicts which type of love. In the novel Murdoch also repeatedly unsettles the reader as to whether Harriet and Blaise Gavander’s 19 year marriage, or Blaise’s nine year clandestine affair with Emily, is the sacred relationship. Before the novel opens, their neighbour, crime writer Monty Small, who has colluded with Blaise, has already loved, hated and been widowed by his possibly adulterous actress wife Sophie. Was his love sacred or profane?
Harriet’s relationship with Monty, and her decisions to forgive, and later not forgive, Blaise’s affair and love child, drive the plot.
Early in the novel, dumped in the National Gallery while Blaise visits his mistress, the still unsuspecting Harriet looks at “Giorgione’s picture of Saint Anthony and Saint George”. Presumably this is Il Tramonto (The Sunset), which the gallery acquired in 1961 (above middle).
“There was a tree in the middle background which she had never properly attended to before. Of course she had seen it, since she had often looked at the picture, but she had never before felt its significance, though what that significance was she could not say. There it was in the middle of clarity, in the middle of bright darkness, in the middle of limpid sultry yellow air, in the middle of nowhere at all with distant clouds creeping by behind it, linking the two saints yet also separating them and also being itself and nothing to do with them at all, a ridiculously frail poetical vibrating motionless tree which was also a special particular tree on a special particular evening when the two saints happened (how odd) to be doing their respective things (ignoring each other) in a sort of murky yet brilliant glade (what on earth however was going on in the foreground?) beside a luscious glinting pool out of which two small and somehow domesticated demons were cautiously emerging for the benefit of Saint Anthony, while behind them Saint George, with a helmet like a pearl, was bullying an equally domesticated and inoffensive little dragon.”
A lovely, albeit rather inaccurate, description of the painting, but an even better metaphor for her state of innocence before discovering her husband’s ménage.
Later, reading Blaise’s letter confessing all:
“She remembered an Annunciation by Tintoretto in which the Virgin sits in a wrecked skeleton stable into which the Holy Ghost has entered as a tempestuous destructive force. Only Harriet was not glorified by ruin. Her house was destroyed indeed.”
But not at first. Harriet rallies, forgives the lovers and takes charge. But it’s not easy. Emily wants her man. Blaise vacillates. There are children involved. Outsiders interfere. The plot twists and turns, but it turns relentlessly against Harriet. Eventually she and her house are “destroyed indeed”.
Tintoretto’s Annunciation (right above) is in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.
Iris Murdoch. The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. Chatto & Windus. London. 1974
By Michael Ondaatje
Ondaatje’s themes, embracing the whole of the other, moving beyond jealousy, are grown up emotions. In her autobiographical memoir, The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson, who had not yet reached that exalted state, described sending this to her much tattooed lover Harry Dodge, in the hope that it might help her one day accept his previous lovers. She had a lot to get over, but it probably did.
Fragment 24, in the series Rock Bottom, from The Cinnamon Peeler; Selected Poems (Bloomsbury 1989). “Skin boat” is also the title of a series of more substantial poems, including the famous title poem (click here), in the same collection.
Kissing the stomach
kissing your scarred
skin boat. History
is what you’ve travelled on
and take with you
We’ve each had our stomachs
kissed by strangers
to the other
and as for me
I bless everyone
who kissed you here