Monday, February 21, 2011

Meri Chand-ka-Tukra

Confinement, it turns out, is just another word for Waiting. A LOVELY passage from Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children comes to mind; Saleem narrates his gestation during the monsoon in the summer leading up to Indian Independence:
By the time the rains came at the end of June, the foetus was fully formed inside her womb. Knees and nose were present; and as many heads as would grow were already in position. What had been (at the beginning) no bigger than a full stop had expanded into a comma, a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter; now it was bursting into more complex developments, becoming, one might say, a book--perhaps an encyclopaedia--even a whole language... which is to say that the lump in the middle of my mother grew so large, and became so heavy, that while Warden Road at the foot of our two-storey hillock became flooded with dirty yellow rainwater and stranded buses began to rust and children swam in the liquid road and newspapers sank soggily beneath the surface, Amina found herself in a circular first-floor tower room, scarcely able to move beneath the weight of her leaden balloon.
Endless rain. [...] Trapped beneath her growing child, Amina pictured herself as a convicted murderer in Mughal times, when death by crushing beneath a boulder had been a common punishment... and in the years to come, whenever she looked back at that time which was the end of the time before she became a mother, that time in which the ticktock of countdown calendars was rushing everyone towards August 15th, she would say: "I don't know about any of that. To me, it was like time had come to a complete stop. The baby in my stomach stopped the clocks. I'm sure of that. Don't laugh: you remember the clocktower at the end of the hill? I'm telling you, after that monsoon it never worked again."
Rendering the gestation of the fetus as punctuation marks that soon wiggle into words which then worm into larger linguistic passages until the baby is a book: this is a trope that appeals to me very much, but only intellectually. At a sensual or corporeal level, I find the trope impotent. Why? Perhaps because language is the only access that men have to the mode of creation that women's bodies are capable of, but language alone is insufficient to capture all the sensations associated with growing a life inside. The trope of baby-as-sentence, and then encyclopedia, calls to my mind Anne Bradstreet's poem "The Author to Her Book". Here, the woman poet likens her hard-won literary product to "ill-formed" and fatherless offspring, a homely metaphor reflecting the difficulties that early women writers underwent to be taken seriously as writers. For Rushdie, who mediates the world through such a masculine density of word play pyrotechnics, the trope seems somehow gutless, or maybe just unearned.

Better than punctuation: Amina continually refers to her growing baby as her little chand-ka-tukra (Rushdie kindly translates the affectionate nickname for English-only readers as piece-of-the-moon), the crescent moon image a more luminescent iteration of Saleem's own image of the fetal comma. Here are some of the little things I've been stitching for meri chand-ka-tukra.

Folks who know me will not be surprised to note that a cross-stitch has begun to evolve. First there was one mouse, and then there were two:
Then Bib-apalooza 2011 started. The bear bib is backed with calico and quilted; the bee bib uses trapunto to make the image stand out (a trick Grandma Adele taught me when I was about seven), then it is backed with more calico from my incredible basement stash.
Finally, a stork!
The stork pattern came from a book called Sew It, Stuff It! by Rob Merrett--a little something I picked up at the Los Angeles library after an MLA interview at the Biltmore last month!

Monday, February 14, 2011

"I wish she had not yielded!"

It has been just over two weeks of bed rest; forced confinement affords me the opportunity to catch up on my reading and start some new crafty projects. Without further ado, then, here's a blog entry that has been percolating for some time about Tennyson's glorious poem The Princess (1847).

Every time I read Middlemarch, I get mad at Dorothea all over again for marrying Mr. Casaubon. Now I find myself nurturing a similar grudge against Tennyson's The Princess in which the titular heroine, Ida, ultimately capitulates to the Prince (and to the wishes of both their fathers, powerful kings), relinquishing her grand ambitions of universal female empowerment in order to become his wife and helpmeet. Like Eliot's novel, Tennyson's poem contains a fascinating set of mixed messages about marriage and features a range of modern marital faux pas. Specifically, The Princess features arranged marriage and child betrothal, intimations of bride capture and breach of promise, and it is formally structured, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's analysis suggested, as a bulgingly polyandrous narrative: “One Bride for Seven Brothers” (i.e. the poem’s primary feudalistic plot about the princess's nuptial future is framed by a more modern tale in which seven male friends share the storytelling/connubial responsibilities, each taking on the first person narrative of the prince, at the behest of the virgin-like Lilia).

In The Princess, Ida uses her privileged position as a princess to physically separate herself from the patriarchal world of her father and start a university for women, a fortress of learning from which all men are excluded. In pursuit of this lofty feminist goal, Ida breaks off the betrothal that her father had contracted with a neighboring King. The poem’s plot revolves around this singular question: can the princess escape this arranged marriage?

The arrangement itself derives from a medieval European custom involving the proxy wedding of royal children. The prince tells us, "she to me / was proxy-wedded with a bootless calf / at eight years old" (I.32-34). Lucky for me, my edition of The Princess was intended for the literature student: the editor, Yale Professor Albert Cook, in 1902, culled from eminent Tennyson critics and included bits and pieces of their analysis and contextual resources in instructional footnotes to the text of the poem. Apparently the eminent critics balked and bristled at this allusion to the parentally arranged child marriage customarily taking place in the ostensibly civilized (albeit feudal) western world, for the note for line 33 reads as follows:

…Dawson says (p. 63): ‘The Princess is sound in her law. She says, Book V., that at the age of eight there could be no consent…’ [note here the critic's apparent concern about the bride's age, probably a reflection of the later nineteenth-century Age of Consent debates…] The ceremony is described in Bacon’s History of King Henry VII., the marriage there referred to being that of Maximilian of Austria with Anne of Brittany in 1489. The marriage by proxy was a public ceremony, where, as stated above, the imperial ambassador appeared as the proxy, or representative, of the groom, probably standing with the bride, and signing the marriage contract in the king’s name.
In this case, as in the wedding of the Princess, the bride was not only publicly contracted, but a private ceremony followed, in which the ambassador was received by the bride in the presence of sundry noble personages, men and women, and with certain formal ceremonies…
Charles Astor Bristed says (Amer. Rev. VIII (1848). 37), ‘Where was the need of allusion or reference to this … custom of a dark age? You can’t say it was introduced to preserve historical accuracy, for there is no historical or chronological keeping in the poem.’

And the anachronisms don't stop there! When the prince's father learns that the princess refuses to marry his son, he advocates the good old custom of bride capture: "he sware / that he would send a hundred thousand men, / and bring her in a whirlwind" (I.62-4). Marriage by capture was supposed to have been one of the barbarous forms of marriage made obsolete in the western world by the medieval era, though still practiced in the uncivilized world, according to ethnographers and legal historians like Sir Henry Maine (e.g. Ancient Law, 1861). The prince takes a more progressive, if not transgressive, approach: he and two of his bosom buddies dress up like women and infiltrate Ida's sanctuary of female learning to see if he can get to the bottom of the princess's refusal to marry him.

Some juicy bits of debate occur between the "lady-clad" prince and Ida. For instance, after the "maidenlike" prince sings a lover's serenade in order to entertain the princess, Ida stoutly rejects romance and marriage (alluded to here as the Greek god of marriage, Hymen):

Love is it? Would this same mock-love, and this
Mock-Hymen were laid up like winter bats,
Till all men grew to rate us at our worth,
Not vassals to be beat, nor pretty babes
To be dandled, no, but living wills, and sphered
Whole in ourselves, and owed to none (IV.125-130)

Unfortunately, passing as maidens proves difficult for the prince and his pals; they are discovered and thrown out of the princess's university fortress. The prince meets up with his father, who has been holding Ida's father hostage. The prince's father threatens to start a war with Ida's father if the princess does not fulfill the marital contract. And so it goes. It's like one big medieval Breach of Promise suit, except probably less amusing to witnesses.

Ida's side wins the war, but she surrenders to the pressure to open up the university as a hospital for the wounded soldiers (*including the fallen prince*) and to transform her students into nurses. Events in Part VI mark the beginning of her capitulation to marriage. The lyric inserted between Parts VI and VII is, significantly, a monosyllabic drone foreshadowing the princess's repugnant obligation to nurse the wounded prince back to health:

Ask me no more; the moon may draw the sea;
The cloud may stoop from heaven and take the shape
With fold to fold, of mountain or of cape;
But O too fond, when have I answered thee?
Ask me no more.

Ask me no more; what answer should I give?
I love not hollow cheek or faded eye;
Yet, O my friend, I will not have thee die!
Ask me no more, lest I should bid thee live;
Ask me no more.

Ask me no more; they fate and mine are sealed;
I strove against the stream, and all in vain;
Let the great river take me to the main;
No more, dear love, for at a touch I yield;
Ask me no more.

Nursing the men magically makes the maidens prettier, and romance blooms in the "sacred halls" of learning. Evidently due to peer pressure, Ida finally yields to all of the prince’s wishes: she literally "stoops" to kiss him while he's lying prostrate and emasculated. The kiss transforms her from an ambitious scholar and women's university founder—her "falser self"—into a real "woman, lovelier in her mood" (VII.146, 147). The prince's condition magically improves, too. The seven-storyteller medley ends with his final bidding: "Indeed I love thee; come, / yield thyself up; my hopes and thine are one; / accomplish thou my manhood, and thyself; / lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me" (VII.338-45). And so the tale answers its own question: the heroine cannot escape her arranged marriage; even a princess (maybe especially a princess) cannot outrun Hymen.

Just when I get sick to my stomach at this turn of events in the reading, the young Walter Vivian's voice breaks out of the conclusion of the frame tale, exclaiming, "I wish she had not yielded!" I found Walter’s dissent at the end of such a conservative tale to be something of a relief—I too wish Ida had not yielded! But Tennyson was no Florence Nightingale, and The Princess is no Cassandra.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Strange twists of fate: post-MLA update

I had started writing a blog post a couple weeks ago about the post-MLA blues, detailing my anxiety about getting campus visits. I had three successful interviews at MLA in January, and one promising Skype interview with a fourth school a couple weeks ago. Then, one of the MLA interview schools, a SLAU in NJ, invited me to visit campus. The post-MLA blues lifted, somewhat.

I was supposed to be there today. I withdrew my candidacy.

I had several reasons for doing so. For one thing, the interview committee expressed a racial preference (a desire to interview "candidates of color" as they put it) during our interview. I was outraged at this, but when the school invited me to campus in spite of my obvious whiteness, my valued colleagues pressed me to check out the school anyway to see if the entire department shared this tendency to racialize the ever-present identity politics of faculty hiring. I had other misgivings about this visit which I shall not detail here. Because the most important reason I withdrew my candidacy for this job has to do with some unforeseen circumstances: I was hospitalized last weekend for pre-term labor. That's right, dear readers! I Am My Own Wife is soon (but hopefully not too soon) to become Someone Else's Mother. Our scary episode caused me to reassess my priorities. Traveling to NJ dropped to the bottom of the list, soon followed by teaching for the remainder of this term.

Being on bed rest myself, I am now, of course, researching historical sources and literary representations of "confinement" in the Victorian Era.