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
Murdoch’s Rose, Tintoretto’s Susanna, and Daniel chapter 13
Iris Murdoch’s sixth novel, An Unofficial Rose, opens with the funeral of Fanny Peronett. Her widower Hugh, a retired civil servant, stands by the grave. He is now the sole owner of a beautiful and valuable painting, which Fanny had brought to the marriage; a preparatory study for a priceless Tintoretto, Susanna Bathing. He glimpses his ex-mistress Emma Sands, across the churchyard.
Emma has become a successful novelist but remained single. She is living in an intense relationship with Lindsay, her beautiful companion. Lindsay is younger, poorer, and on the make. Hugh soon discovers that his son Randall, a successful rose breeder, is in love with Lindsay. Randall’s teenage son Steve has recently died, and Randall has all but left his wife Ann to run Grayhallock rose nursery and look after Steve’s highly strung sister Miranda alone. Miranda’s Australian cousin Penn is visiting for the summer. Anne’s neighbour Mildred, the complaisant wife of Humphrey, Hugh’s civil service colleague, whose otherwise distinguished career has been ended by a gay sex scandal, and her brother Felix, recently home from the army, live nearby. Mildred secretly loves Hugh. Felix loves Anne. Minor characters circulate.
The crucial scene plays out in Hugh’s London flat. A thunderstorm rages as Randall asks advice. He needs more than his father’s blessing. Lindsay will only elope if he has money, a lot of it, and Randall has a suggestion, sell the Tintoretto. Hugh is shocked, but tempted. Years earlier he had failed to leave Fanny for Emma. Giving Randall the money will free Emma for himself. When he asks Mildred’s advice she is torn in a different direction; selling the painting will free Anne for her brother Felix, but lose Hugh for herself.
The painting is sold and it releases the lovers. Randall and Lindsay elope and, with Mildred’s pushing, Felix reveals his love for Ann, which is reciprocated. But there are complications. Miranda also loves Felix, and he has a French girl pining for him in India as well. Penn loves Miranda but he’s young and messes up his seduction. The second time around, Hugh makes less headway with Emma than he had hoped.
The novel is driven by the female characters. While Anne remains passive at its centre, the other women act. Emma manipulates Lindsay and Hugh. Lindsay manipulates Randall. Miranda engineers her mother’s rejection of Felix, and Mildred gets her man. As the novel ends Felix, Mildred and Hugh are on a slow boat to India. Felix to meet up again with the French girl. Hugh, though he doesn’t yet realise it, to end his days with Mildred.
The novel’s preparatory Tintoretto is fictional, but Susanna Bathing is real; a star exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Vienna. It depicts a voyeuristic bible scene. The apocryphal Daniel 13, omitted by protestants for some reason, tells a simpler story of illicit sex, albeit with higher stakes.
Joakim, whose house was also used as a courtroom, marries Susanna, a chaste and beautiful girl from a good family. Soon two of the old judges grow lustful having her around. First they catch each other trying to spy on her. Then they team up and hide in the garden until Susanna comes for her bath. The painting shows the moment after Susanna has sent her maids away, but just before the old men pop out and demand sex under threat of accusing her of having an affair. Susanna is trapped, but refuses to yield. She screams, the servants return, the old men carry out their threat, and in due course there is a trial. Despite her previously impeccable character, the fraudulent testimony of two men trumps that of one woman. Susanna is led away to execution.
But then Daniel speaks up, and somehow persuades everyone to let him conduct a retrial. By interviewing the men separately, he exposes their lies. One says he saw Susanna and her boyfriend under a tiny mastick tree, the other under a huge oak; they had not got their stories straight. The tables are turned, the old men executed and Susanna saved.
So why did Murdoch chose that painting? She surely wasn’t making any direct comment on the novel’s love tangles. Perhaps she just liked it, a beautiful piece of medieval soft porn, just right for an adultery facilitating trade.
Cutting the lingual frenulum, or the uterosacral nerve “because it’s there”
Frenotomy to treat breast feeding problems makes little sense. Some people can stick their tongues out further than others but, apart from a tiny minority with other problems, the ability is unrelated to health. Even if it was, cutting the frenulum, the midline fold of skin which we all have under the tongue, is unlikely to alter function. The tongue is a big muscle; why would cutting a thin fold of skin in front of it matter? Orthopaedic surgeons don’t alter a muscle’s action by trimming round the edge, they remove it from its bony attachment and reattach it somewhere else. Even if the frenulum limited tongue movement, scars contract; cutting is just as likely to reduce mobility. You need z-plasties or similar to prevent contractures.
Empirical trials don’t support frenotomy either; most trials cut patients in the control groups within 48 hours so they could only measure the effect on very short term maternal pain (click here). The only trial which delayed cutting controls for two weeks was negative (click here). So why do up to 10% of babies get their “tongue ties” cut? Because it’s there.
Open the baby’s mouth and anyone can see it. Naive parents easily believe the story that it is limiting tongue movement. Cutting is easy, the baby can’t fight back, and complications are few. If the breast feeding problems resolve, the parents credit the operation. If they don’t, the surgeon can claim it was done too late, needs repeating, or doesn’t always work.
Not so long ago laparoscopic uterosacral nerve ablation (LUNA) was the gynaecological equivalent of frenotomy for painful periods. Cutting the nerves to the uterus is not straightforward; an extensive plexus of nerve fibres lies deep in the retro-peritoneal space alongside the ureters and large arteries and veins. A proper nerve cutting operation, pre-sacral neurectomy, is difficult and risky; a last resort for women with disabling pain which can be treated in no other way. The results are modest at best.
But laparoscopy allows even ordinary surgeons to have a go. The uterosacral ligaments don’t contain many nerve fibres, but they need no fancy dissection to identify, and contain no important blood vessels.
Any surgeon who could clip a Fallopian tube could do LUNA. Poorly designed studies suggested it might work, and it became a common and lucrative operation. Since most pelvic pain resolves with time many patients were convinced they’d been cured, and some surgeons made good money. A few women had complications, but if it works … .
Eventually a group of researchers the LUNA Trial Collaboration, did a proper randomised trial – including a sham incision on controls, vital to avoid a placebo effect (click here or LUNA trial full report. Full disclosure – I was a participating surgeon).
Result – absolutely no effect from LUNA. Looking back it was obviously going to be so. There was no underlying logic. It was popular because it was there, and any old surgeon could do it. LUNA has pretty much died away from embarrassment.
Come on NHS. It’s time for one well-designed trial to send frenotomy the way of LUNA.