Writing and being involved with the Ubyssey has been such a great experience and has given me a really good view of what is happening on campus and has given me a chance to learn a new way of writing and professionalism.
My role as a residence advisor has been very fulfilling and full of learning, even though it has been challenging at times. I decided to apply to be an RA last year after talking with my RA about it. She encouraged me to apply and I did, because I look up to her and I hoped that I would be able to help contribute to a great first year experience for first years the next year. I was (and still am) so happy that I got the job!
I have learned a lot about how to plan events that would appeal to first year university students, who can be a bit of a difficult crowd to appeal to. I have also learned how to work in a team of other residence advisors to build a community within the house, as well as how to manage my time between all of my work in rez life and my academics. That has certainly been a challenge, but I think I’m improving upon it as well.
Here are some pictures of me doing things with my residents!
This is an ethical dilemma involving a situation at a food bank. Michelle, the director of a neighbourhood house, also oversees the food bank services at the neighbourhood house. She has decided to remove and decline all donations of processed food from the bank because she has noticed the people who use the food bank becoming increasingly unhealthy. As a result of this, however, the shelves of the food bank are beginning to look bare; Tim, Michelle’s associate, asks her to change this policy. Even though he sees where Michelle is coming from, he believes that the bad consequences of this (being low donations) outweigh her reasoning.
In order to mediate this disagreement between Michelle and Tim, I will look at the values that motivate the both of them and come up with ways that they could potentially resolve their dispute.
Michelle and Tim both share the value of helping people through providing with them with food. This can be seen as being part of Homer’s heroic code, being good people (kalo k’agathos), because they help strangers and resist hubris (Griffin, AT1, 1). It seems that from there, they differ in their approach.
Michelle’s decision to remove processed food from the food bank seems to be motivated by her caring for the people who go to neighbourhood house and for their health. This can be seen as a concern for their eudaimonia, as Aristotle talked about in Nicomachean Ethics. The meaning of eudaimonia is, at a simple level, “happiness” (Griffin, AT 4, 6). A better description of what it means would be “flourishing” or “fulfilment” (AT 4, 8). She seems to be looking out for the long term eudaimonia of the people. After all, if they are in poor health, it would make it more difficult for them to flourish and live better. She also seems to be more concerned with quality over quantity, although it is much more difficult to procure donations because of this. Overall, she demonstrates aretê (“to be a speaker of words and doer of deeds”) (AT1, 1) – she does what she says she would do.
Tim, on the other hand, seems to be most concerned with the short term consequences of Michelle’s decision. Although he sees where Michelle is coming from, he thinks that the bare shelves and lower donations is more detrimental. In a way, it can be said that Tim is more concerned about quantity over quality. I would not go as far as to say that Tim does not care about the people’s eudaimonia, but he certainly approaches it differently. He is not incorrect though – a food bank with bare shelves and low donations would not be sustainable either – after all, wouldn’t it be better to have a food bank, albeit stocked with unhealthy options, than no food bank at all?
Both Michelle and Tim, again, share the value of wanting to help the people who go to the neighbourhood house and they both try to achieve that although in different ways. It would follow that Michelle, by wanting to provide healthy food options to them, it would help them more in the long run; it also follows that Tim’s desire to keep the food bank well-stocked also helps the people who can’t always afford food. I think that there are several ways that they could resolve their disagreement while taking both sides into consideration.
One way to resolve this would be to somehow elevate the amount of donations that are healthy and more nutrient heavy. This could be an advertising and education campaign, highlighting the need in the community for healthy food. This could also be an opportunity to establish a partnership with a fresh food grocer who could provide fruits and vegetables that they could not sell. This way, it satisfies Michelle’s desire to provide the people who use the food bank with healthier options and also Tim’s concern with empty shelves.
Another way they can deal with this dilemma is to have a conversation about what they value and envision about the food bank. Is it just a place for people to get sustenance? Or should it aim to be a more sustainable option and promote healthy food choices? Should it be their concern to worry about the physical health and dietary choices of the people who come through the food bank? Perhaps in that way they can come up with a solution that might rebrand the food bank, or at least come to an agreement about how to deal with the issue at hand.
The last solution I would suggest to Michelle and Tim would be to have a conversation with the people who use the food bank at the neighbourhood house and get an idea of what they value more – healthy food options and a small stock, or less healthy, but plentiful selection. After all, they are the ones who directly benefit from the food bank. Their input should matter.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Michelle and Tim’s values differ that greatly, but certainly the way they approach the issue is different. Both of them mean well, but to ensure the eudaimonia of both the food bank and the people who use it, it would benefit them to consider some of the solutions I suggested.
Griffin, Michael. Athenian Reader: (1) Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar. N.p.: n.p., n.d. PDF.
Griffin, Michael. Athenian Reader: (4) Plato and Aristotle. N.p.: n.p., n.d. PDF.
PHIL385 – Existentialism
This was one of my courses this semester that, as you could probably tell from the course title, dealt with existentialism. The prompt for this essay was “What is the self?” In the end, the feedback I received was that I hadn’t quite answered the question, but that it was a good essay to read.
In my creative writing class last year, we were told, “Write what you know.” I’m not convinced that that’s not a load of crap. It takes a lot of gall to write as if you know anything about anything, because you’re making the treacherous assumption that you know anything at all. What happens when you wake up at three in the morning with the dreadful realization that you know absolutely nothing? Because isn’t that the reality of humanness – that we think we know things to some degree of certainty until we are humbled by the fact that to know anything takes hubris and pride that we ought not to have?
Being asked to write about who you are is the same journey of profound internal conflict of having to reproduce my Self on paper as I know it. It’s asking me to write about what I think I know at this point in time with the point I am in my menstrual cycle with the amount of caffeine I’ve had and how decidedly irritated I am with the world. We’re also asked to apply the lens of some dead white men’s thinking – in other words, philosophy – to what we think of our Selves. How much more obscured can this vision of my Self be then!
Nonetheless, I suppose I am getting ahead of myself. This paper will be my attempt at explaining who I am whilst considering and relating to the philosophy of existential thinkers – I have selected Pascal and Dostoevsky. I will first look at Pascal’s misery-diversion paradox and how it plays a role in my life. Then I turn to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man to demonstrate misery, and to lead into my exploration of an existential crisis. In casual conversation, “having an existential crisis” has become almost a joke among my peers. It’s not uncommon, I have found, to hear university students say that they are having existential crises and that they don’t know what they’re doing with their lives. I know this because I, myself, have made this joke, too. What, then, does it mean to have an existential crisis as a modern day student and how does that influence who I am? In other words, what is an existential crisis in today’s context, how does the Self experience it, and through this experience, how is it shaped by it? I will synthesize Pascal and Dostoevsky’s concepts, then, to argue that what makes up this juvenile existential crisis is the same stuff as the misery-diversion paradox and the deep frustrations and pleasures of suffering. I will say, by the end, that all things considered – none of it is all that bad. I should begin, then, with myself as a specimen of a Self.
I will admit from the start that I have a shopping problem. I just really like buying things, and owning things, and as a result I have not only racked up too many pairs of shoes and a bursting wardrobe but also shame and debt. It would be easy to chalk my penchant for shopping to poor budgeting skills – and perhaps it is part of the problem – but I must reflect on why it is I derive such pleasure from owning material things. Truly, it is strange being a “shopaholic”. I am aware of my problem and so the feeling of dread and guilt plagues me every time I’m in the stores, flipping through racks of clothes I don’t need. It’s as if I feel the regret before I even hand over my money, and yet I proceed to make those purchases, feeling satisfaction but in a sick way, in a masochistic way. Under Pascal’s analysis, I would be partaking in a paradox of misery and diversion: in being faced with my own mortality and flawed existence, I seek temporary joys to escape self-reflection. As he wrote in Pensées, “…diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death” (aphorism 171). (As a sidebar, I find this line fascinating, particular in the word “unconsciously” – it can be read that the Self is unaware of the fact that diversion is leading us to death or that the Self is literally unconscious and unfeeling of its own misery. Both apply, I suppose.) In this way of understanding the Self, my compulsive shopping is simply a way for me to distract myself from myself. And yet, Pascal would say that the reason I can never simply have enough is because “we never seek things for themselves, but for the search” (aphorism 135). This I can interpret in two ways in regards to shopping – one is that I do not shop for the item itself, but for the experience of shopping; two is that I do not shop for the sake of shopping, but because it satiates my need for comfort. Pascal’s interpretation seems hopeless, because of the fact that if my method of escape were not shopping, it would be something else – be it alcohol, or sex, or even just work and academics. There is no way to escape escapism, unless I decide to face my miseries. Misery, as Pascal describes, arises from a single fact: “that they cannot stay quietly in their own chambers”. We are in a naturally wretched and unhappy condition, but the fact that people seek to divert their attention away from ruminating about it, only serves to exacerbate our misery. What does this mean for the Self? Are we simply doomed to be stuck in this hapless loop until death or are we saved if only we sat in our rooms and thought about things? Certainly if I spent more time sitting around and thinking about things, I wouldn’t be spending it at the mall. But does it do me any better to simply wallow in my naturally wretched condition as a human being? If I shopped, at least I would be wallowing in my naturally wretched condition with nice clothes.
I turn, then, to Dostoevsky and the Underground Man. A self-proclaimed sick, spiteful man, he is a prime example of wallowing in suffering and enjoying it. Despair and the misery of the human condition, to the Underground Man, “has its moments of intense pleasure, intense delight, especially if you happen to be acutely conscious of the hopelessness of your position” (Dostoevsky 199). He later gives the example of the pleasure in groaning when you have a toothache – “They are groans mixed with malice. And it is the malice here that matters. By these groans the sufferer expresses his pleasure. If he did not feel any pleasure, he would not groan” (204). What a liberating position it must be to feel pleasure in suffering. Certainly if it were the case that suffering alone may not be as hopeless as Pascal made it out to be, then it may not be so bad to have an existential crisis. Of course, it can also be taken back to my question of being obsessed with shopping – the sick pleasure I take in spite of the knowledge of my impending guilt for not saving my money. Or perhaps it is the sick pleasure I take because of the knowledge of my impending guilt. As the Underground Man seems to find pleasure in groaning at his toothache out of spite and malice, perhaps it is the case that I find satisfaction in self sabotage, simply because I can. Why? Maybe because I am bored, “confoundly bored” as the Underground Man put it (207). Indeed, the monotony of everyday life leaves me feeling nothing out of the ordinary, so why not spice it up with self-induced guilt and shame? Or perhaps I partake in consumerism simply because I can – or, as Dostoevsky writes, “just because [I want] to have the right to desire for [my]self even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible” (218). It would be reasonable to save money and it is expected of me to not spend frivolously. It is a virtue, after all, to be frugal. But I have the luxury and privilege of being able to buy a new dress. So I buy the dress now and worry about existentialism later. To hell with reason and virtues.
But what does this all mean? If it is the case that I am stuck in a loop of misery and diversion, but that suffering can be pleasurable or actually funny, then what is the point of all of it? Is my shopping problem really a problem if it’s a matter of constant diversion? If I am aware of my misery, then is it really that bad? It seems to me that these questions have to do with the Self – my Self to be specific. You will see in that first question above that I’ve combined Pascal and Dostoevsky, which is what I am interested in exploring for the remainder of my paper, especially in a context of an existential crisis. I will try to create a picture of an existential crisis by synthesizing their concepts.
As I was conducting research for secondary sources, plugging “existential crisis” into the academic articles database returned all sorts of papers. The term seems to have filtered into every discipline, ranging from medicine to politics to business. But what does it mean, exactly? Obviously it stems from the philosophical school of thought that is existentialism, which is a study of the individual’s existence (to put it ineloquently). An existential crisis then is an internal crisis regarding existence. I have always found the term puzzling, because crises are usually loud and dramatic – so to reflect that inwardly must be something profound and affecting. Questions of identity and the purpose of the Self all only scratch the surface of the crisis – because to have an existential crisis is to experience the feelings of anxiety and lost-ness that comes with bearing the weight of life. Kierkegaard seems to sum this up: “…to have a self, to be a self, is the greatest concession, given to man, but it is also eternity’s claim upon him” (50). This jarring realization, compounded with the misery-diversion paradox and the reality of suffering, can produce a crisis – one in which the Self becomes acutely aware of the fact that they are doing everything for the purpose of diverting their attention from their mortality and being-a-Self, whilst continuing their diversion behavior because it’s pleasurable and nothing really matters anyway. I see this in myself, with my compulsive shopping. I see this in some of my peers, who would prefer to drink themselves into oblivion than to deal with the burden of reality. I see this in the media and in politics, where it is preferable to inflate egos and to produce realities that are temporary and ultimately mean nothing. As I sit in this library trying to finish this paper, I am aware of the other students here, some meandering around, others staring blankly at laptop screens and textbooks they paid too much for. But it also occurred that others in this room have probably also experienced similar realizations of each other. This internal crisis of the Self becomes a shared experience amongst all Selves. Does it then become something to be valued? If we are all aware of our mortality and of our miserable natures, then is it really that miserable? Especially in the case of being aware of the meaninglessness of life and being okay, that despite Pascal’s seemingly devastating outlook on misery, that even though being conscious in itself shocks the Self, the ensuing existential crisis may in fact be beneficial in creating a Self that is deeply upset but one that is not alone in its misery.
In closing this essay, I realize that I still have not quite answered the question of who I am as a Self. I have thought about this extensively, but yet keep returning to the question I started this paper with: why should I know? I realized that it is paradoxical in that, if the Self doesn’t know the Self, then no one else does. Somehow, I’m okay with that. I accept that I don’t know and that maybe tomorrow, I will be completely different simply because I can be and am at liberty to be. What I do think I know at this point in time with the point I am in my menstrual cycle with the amount of caffeine I’ve had and how decidedly irritated I am with the world, is that if we are all having existential crises and we are all aware that nothing matters, then it’s probably okay for me to buy a new pair of shoes.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. From Notes from the Underground. 1992. Basic Writings of Existentialism. Comp. Gordon Daniel Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. From The Sickness Unto Death. 1980. Basic Writings of Existentialism. Comp. Gordon Daniel Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2004. N. pag. Print.
Pascal, Blaise. Pascal’s Pensées. Ed. John Hagerson, L.N. Yaddanapudi, and Juliet Sutherland. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg, 27 Apr. 2006. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
CRWR205 – Introduction to Creative Writing Non-fiction
This is one of the final personal essays that was due at the end of the term. It’s in a format called a segmented essay, where narrative is broken up by other styles – you’ll see what I mean when you read it. This is an essay about my life growing up with a single mother and as a Canadian-born Chinese.
Like many kids of immigrants, I have two names: My name in Chinese is 海伦, which, if read aloud, sounds suspiciously like my English name, Helen. I’m not sure which one my mother decided on first, my Chinese name or my English name. I also don’t know whether it was a convenient coincidence or a part of her master plan for me — that I should have the same names in the two languages that I would inevitably have to straddle, like she thought that having both names would be like have a passport to two different worlds. In either case, I was cursed from the cradle to be kind of one thing, kind of another, but not quite one without the other.
It is strange the kind of double life that I lead as a child of an immigrant. I’m 海伦 at home and Helen everywhere else. I switch from speaking English to (stuttering, broken) Cantonese at home. My diet consists strictly of rice and Chinese side dishes at home, and when I go out, I avoid Chinese food like the plague. It’s like when a superhero strips and changes costumes, but I can’t say that my own double life included capes or supervillains.
It does, however, include some stupid questions, lots of soul searching, and a dash of the muddy substance we call racism.
• • • •
THREE THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN SAID TO ME REGARDING “WHAT I AM”
- “You act pretty white for a Chinese girl.”
Variations of this has been said to me several times throughout my life and every time, I find myself at a loss for a response. Once, I replied, “Thanks?” I mentally beat myself up later. Since when is being white a compliment? What does “acting white” even mean?
- “You’re like a Twinkie — yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
I remember this being said to me in middle school, where half of my class was made up of Chinese kids. Other versions of this I’ve heard include: Oreo, “black on the outside, white on the inside”; coconut, “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. In hindsight, not only do I resent being compared to a disgusting, cream-filled pastry, I also feel fantastically uncomfortable with being described as being “white on the inside”. As if I’m a white person trapped in the shell of a Chinese one. As if I’m innately white and am supposed to be white.
- “Are you sure you’re not adopted?“
• • • •
In 1994, my mother uprooted her comfy life as a schoolteacher in China and relocated to the foreign land of Canada with her husband and parents. She rebuilt her life out of nothing, as thousands of immigrants do when they leave behind their homes in hopes of a better life for their kids. She worked two jobs, seven days a week, washing dishes at two different Chinese restaurants. She tried to learn English, but eventually gave up, because she was exhausted by two full time jobs. In a country where the winters are cold, not speaking the language dropped the temperature another ten degrees.
• • • •
To Chinese people, I’m what they call a “C.B.C.” — a Canadian-born Chinese. There’s a phrase for it in Chinese, usually accompanied with an undertone of patronization, mockery, and disapproval.
Once, I met a family friend who started speaking Mandarin to me. My Cantonese is good enough that I can understand bits of Mandarin if its spoken slowly enough, but on this occasion, she spoke rapidly and in long sentences.
My uncle jumped to my rescue. “She’s a C.B.C.,” he said in Mandarin. That was apparently an adequate explanation, as the family friend proceeded to repeat what she said, slowly and enunciating every word as if I were a child.
To the native Chinese, I’m a new breed. Mutant. Not Chinese enough.
• • • •
Yet in a room full of white people, I stick out like a sore thumb. I do not look white. I am not white.
As a woman of colour, I make 86 cents for every dollar that a white woman makes*.
As an East Asian woman, I navigate the dangerous waters of stereotypes that I’m supposed to be passive, exotic, and delicate. I see the media represent Asian females like me as the nerdy best friend, the tiger mom, and the submissive girlfriend of the white hero.
When a room full of white people look at me, they see an ideal of what I should be, based on a definition they have readily constructed for me.
• • • •
During a group project where I took the lead and delegated tasks, one of my teammates said to me, “Whoa, you’re pretty bossy for such a tiny little Asian girl.”
That year, I became student council vice-president and in the following year, president.
• • • •
THREE RULES I GREW UP WITH
- Get straight A’s
Nothing else matters if you don’t get good grades. If you get good grades, you’ll go to a good university, and then you’ll get a good job, and therefore have a good life.
- Don’t waste money
For Christmas, while the other kids received dolls and flip phones, I received books. For lunch, while the other kids had Lunchables and pouches of Fruit Gushers, I had a thermos of rice and leftovers. For summer vacation, while the other kids went to Cuba or summer camp, I went to the library and rode laps around the neighbourhood on my bike.
- Always be available to translate
I answered the door, picked up the phone, read letters, and translated at parent-teacher interviews. That was my duty.
• • • •
A few years ago, my mother was doored by a careless teenager as she biked home from work and the paramedics called me.
She lay in the ambulance by the time I arrived, head bleeding slightly and barely conscious. I held her hand and asked her how she felt.
“I’m fine,” she responded in a small voice. “Stupid drivers.”
On the way to the hospital, the paramedic asked me some general questions about her health and told me that the hospital may want to keep her overnight. When I relayed this to my mother, she looked up with as much energy as she could muster. “But I have to work tomorrow! I’m fine, let’s go home!”
I chose not to translate this to the paramedic.
At the hospital, the doctors whisked her through a series of tests and scans. The majority of the eight hours we spent there was in the waiting room, though, where she switched between holding a supplied ice pack to her head and cursing her bad luck. By the end of the night, the doctors concluded that she was fine and should just take pain killers.
When I told her what the doctors said, she rolled her eyes and said, “See? I told you. What a waste of time.”
I smiled. “Okay, okay. Let’s just go home.”
But I couldn’t get the image of my mother bleeding in the ambulance out of my head. She was not a weak woman. Seeing her in a state that was not her usual, energetic one terrified me. Parents are supposed to be invincible.
• • • •
I was a baby when my father left my mother high and dry, right before she gave birth to my younger brother. He has never called. We don’t exist in his world.
• • • •
THREE TIMES I REALIZED JUST HOW BIG OF AN IMPACT WHITEWASHING HAS
- My “world history” course in high school focused mainly on European history, with the exception of ancient Egypt. Asian history was never once mentioned.
- When I realized that whenever I read books, the characters were always automatically white in my mind, unless otherwise stated. For some reason, my mind decided that white was the default.
- Before high school, two of my friends decided they would be trading their Chinese-phonetic English names for “real” English names. ZiYuan became Elise. XiaoFan became Yvonne. They never told me why.
• • • •
Over the years, my Chinese name has been used less and less. My grandparents are the only ones who use it consistently now. My mother has picked up a little more English after working in a Canadian restaurant for ten years and she now only calls me 海伦 once in a while.
I’m forgetting bits of Cantonese, which had been choppy to begin with. And it will probably keep worsening as I spend the next four years away from my family.
I’m missing Chinese traditional celebrations while I’m 6000 kilometres away. Worshipping the ancestors, burning incense and fake money as my grandmother mutters blessings under her breath. Eating mooncake and admiring the full moon. Making sticky rice for the beginning and end of summer.
The few ties I’ve had to my heritage are dissolving little by little and I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring them back.
• • • •
I am not a Twinkie. I am not “white on the inside”. I am not white. I have grown up in a Western society, immersed in Western culture, but that does not make me a white person. I will never be white. I have no desire to be white.
And I may not be Chinese “enough”. I do not speak, read, or write the language. I know very little about Chinese history.
But my family is Chinese. My ancestors are Chinese. I grew up being taught Chinese values.
Therefore, I am Chinese. And being born in Canada, I’m Canadian.
But I am not a Twinkie. My identity is not to be packed neatly into a cellophane package, predetermined by who you think I am and who you think I’m not. Let me decide on that from now on.
• • • •
The first and only time I saw my mother cry was alarming. After years of weathering crashing waves and howling storms, she had never complained.
But when she cried, it was because I was growing up and soon to leave the nest.
海伦 means “ship”, built strong and tenacious. I like to think that my mother chose this name in hopes that I, too, can weather the storms.
(Preface: This was originally a comment on Jake’s original blog post which can be found here, but it turned out to be reeeaaally long, so I thought it would be easier and more appropriate to publish a separate blog post. That’s why I talk in second person in this.)
You have a a compeling argument here and I can see where the desire to show John (I don’t consider myself his friend or all that sympathetic towards him so I’m reluctant to call him Scottie) in a more flattering light comes from. I still have some objections to what you say though.
In your first point, you say that John didn’t have a fetish with Madeleine’s image but instead wanted to change Judy because she WAS Madeleine. You seem to imply here, then, that John knew from the beginning that he knew that Judy = Madeleine. I really doubt that is the case, because a) why did it take him until Judy put on the red necklace to have the epiphany that Judy = Madeleine? and b) why didn’t he just straight up confront Judy? He could have so easily come out and made his case. He was a lawyer to begin with, after all. Why didn’t he do just that? And if your theory about him not fully believing that Madeleine was dead, is correct, then all the more reason to ask Judy straight up. Instead he goes to rather extreme lengths to buy the exact same dresses that Madeleine wore for Judy. He forces her to dye her hair blonde, and, when she comes back from the salon visibly upset and reluctant to pin her hair up the way that Madeleine did, guilts her into going to the bathroom to do so. And it is after this (and only after this) final touch that turned her into the exact image of Madeleine that he kisses her feverishly and passionately. I can see nothing detective-y about all of this and I certainly disagree that he is not overbearing or controlling.
I do, however, agree that Judy is not a passive woman and yes, she was perfectly capable of denying John’s coercion. And she did. She protests and asserts herself throughout the shopping scene and the hair scene. But like you said, she ultimately wanted the happily ever after with John and the cost was to transform herself into the image of another woman, and so she does. And she’s clearly happy once John finally seems to love her (“I finally have you, don’t I?” 1h59m-ish). Does this mean that Judy more or less consents to the treatment she got? Perhaps. Does that make John’s actions not overbearing or controlling? No. In fact, I would argue that John was aware of the power he had over Judy and abused it in order to get what he wanted. He knew that Judy just wanted him to love her, but he also wouldn’t kiss her on the lips until she had fully transformed into Madeleine’s image (up until then, he only briefly pecked her knuckles and cheek), therefore withholding his love until she did what he wanted her to do. Furthering my point that John is absuive, he even physically had her in a grip when they go back to the church, and when Judy tries to turn back to the car, he jerks her back and pretty much shoves her up the stairs. And then he attacks her, interrogating her about the truth and pushing her around violently. It was honestly such an uncomfortable experience watching that, as a female.
So yes, clearly I think John is a controlling man to say the least, but, as established, Judy is not passive. So he in fact not only controls, but abuses a woman who protests and resists his advances. I seriously cannot see him as simply a detective who wants to solve a case. He just goes way too far and clearly his motivations seem far beyond simply wanting to resolve a case. I mean he goes back to look at the scene of the crime, fine, that’s something a detective would do. But to literally drag a woman up the stairs and throw her against the wall once they reached the very top?
I can, however, see him as a mentally and emotionally unstable person who just wants to be free. I propose, instead, a third option: that John turned Judy into Madeleine in order to recreate the traumatic scene at the church so that he could resolve his vertigo. He actually even says before telling Judy to run up the stairs like Madeleine did: “I tried to get to the top, but I couldn’t. One doesn’t often get a second chance. I want to stop being haunted. You’re my second chance, Judy. You’re my second chance.” (2h02min) It would make sense in relation to the beginning as well, when Midge says that a way that the doctors say could resolve his vertigo is to have another traumatic experience. The first time, with Madeleine, he couldn’t push himself all the way, but when he saw Judy, he grew obsessed, perhaps not only because he thinks he found a dupe for Madeleine but also because he can try again to get better. And when he reaches the top, he proclaims the truth, retelling the real story. Perhaps that was part of the cleansing, an experience of catharsis that was part of the cure. He is, after all, a detective and detectives bring the truth to light. And don’t they say, “the truth will set you free”?
Still, at the end of the day, he clearly is exhibiting signs that he’s disturbed and needs help. Yes, he is abusive, controlling, and manipulative, but maybe it was beyond his control.
Surprise, surprise, I’m talking about something feminist for my presentation, what else is new.
I thought Berger pointed a lot of very profound things in the book, but chapter 3, the chapter in which he evaluated women in paintings, struck me particularly. Firstly, it was the voice that it was written in. It was surprisingly full of conviction, especially considering this is written by an elite-educated, privileged, white male. In fact, it was almost an awkward reading experience as I couldn’t stop remembering that what I was reading was written by a man. But so many parts of what he said made me have those “oh DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMN” moments.
And yes, men can be feminists. I don’t doubt that. I wish more were. I’m just saying, I was pleasantly surprised.
While he does point out many, many things that I agree with and also felt strongly about, one thing that I wish he could have gone into was why. Why are men the “ideal viewers”? Why are women posed in these paintings to appeal to men? Why are women portrayed so submissively in European art? I realize that this text is meant to be art criticism, but I think it’s still important to think of what he says and question some of it.
Alternatively, we can think about art that portray men in the nude. For example, consider Michaelangelo’s David (yes, it’s a sculpture, not a painting. Whatever.) Are men still the ideal viewers in this context? Is this sexualized in the same way that nude women are? Why or why not?
And then what about the notorious Abercrombie and Fitch ads featuring chiselled, tanned men on the beach? (I was going to include one here but I didn’t want to go into citing it somehow.) How do we see those differently? How is that more or less violent than seeing women in those positions? Why are women sexualized to the point that their nipples are taboo and censored while men’s aren’t? Who are those ads supposed to appeal to?
When I first approached The Bloody Chamber, I admittedly probably got way too excited. This being our first feminist text in Arts One, I wanted to read into everything and I wanted to see all the bits of feminist commentary that is slipped between the lines. Naturally, I wanted to believe that Carter was making some revolutionary and challenging statements about the treatment of females in society, etc., etc. To be fair, she does. She does seem to be making some strong statements about how women are viewed, about sexuality and the beastly, domineering male figure.
However, for some reason, I worked from the impression that Carter was trying to make some overarching, moralizing, feminist statements, and because of this, much of the book confused the heck out of me. Because while Carter was making some hints at feminism, she also seems to put a lot of her characters in the socially constructed boxes that I thought she would be trying to break free from.
Of course, as I have realized, Carter is anything but straight-forward. Clearly the objective of simply breaking free from stereotypes and social constructs would just be far too easy. After lecture on Monday, I walked away from Allard Hall with my head spinning, because there was just so much good content in those 2hrs. Even as I look back at my notes now, I’m, like, “Yes. This is all yes. I love all of this.” All the stuff about female virtue being valued because it restricts women to simply “being” and not “doing”, females being the makers of history rather than slaves, “a free woman in an unfree society will be a monster”, the absurdity of a universal female experience — SO GOOD I WANTED TO SCREAM.
But okay, back to the topic at hand: as Professor Mota pointed out, Carter did not write these stories with the sole purpose of just proving that WOMEN AREN’T JUST ONE DIMENSIONAL DISNEY PRINCESSES WITH NO DESIRES OR INTERESTS OF THEIR OWN. She did manage to achieve this, but she also threw in some curveballs that pissed some of her readers off. None of the women in the stories were really free from the prospect of marriage or living free from the shadows of men. The violent, sexual violation of dead girls. The girl in “The Bloody Chamber” did not actively try to escape from her fate on her own, instead relying on the piano tuner and waiting for her mother. The emphasis on purity and virginity. The fraility of the vampire in “House of Love” waiting for someone to save her. The selling of the girl’s body in “Tiger’s Bride”. How could all of this be included in the book but still consider itself a feminist piece of work, I pondered before the lecture. And still pondering it now.
Professor Mota mentioned that Carter resented the notion of “a universality of female experience”. Then, if you relate that to the four dichotemies of female roles in fairy tales, you can see why Carter possibly chose to rewrite fairy tales – she’s rejecting the idea that females can be put into such positions in the first place, because once you box characters into shells of “The Good Girl” or “The Evil Queen”, “The Madonna” or “The Whore”, etc. it makes it difficult to see the characters in any other ways, therefore stripping of the power to deviate from their descriptions. The princesses in these fairy tales – Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, etc. – they’re certified “Good Girls”. They’re pretty, pure, and virtuous. They just want to save their fathers, or visit their grandmas, or find their One True Loves. Carter takes these Good Girls and gives them sexual desires, self-interests, even murderous intents. But she also does not remove them completely from the Good Girl descriptions. They retain their status as commodities, things to be passed from parents to husbands, and as desiring to be saved, and as sexual objects, but only desirable if they are pure.
What could Carter be trying to do by doing this? Why create unconventional female characters just to restrict them yet again? Why are you so complex, Ms. Carter?! I have a few ideas about all of this, but I can’t wait to hear what you all have to say on this as well. Feminist discourse gets me so heated, but I will do my best to contain myself. When I woke up late on Wednesday, I was literally so upset and I ran to class in record time without putting on makeup. THAT’S how seriously I take this book. Anyway, can’t wait for more discussion on Friday! It’s going to be a good one, I can feel it in my bones.
I haven’t finished reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter yet (about thirty pages to go!), but let me tell you about what I’m feeling because I’m feeling a lot of things.
First of all, FEMINIST INTERPRETATIONS ABOUND and this makes me so very happy. Notice that all of the books and movies we have read so far have been by old, snooty, white men (and we will continue to only read books by snooty white men except with this and Toni Morrison – c’mon Arts One, step it up!), so I’m so very pleased that we’re reading something by a woman that’s focused heavily on a female perspective and has so much underlying feminist commentary.
Second, this prose throws Conrad out the window. Like, wow. The writing is gorgeous, cloaked in a rich, gothic atmosphere. It, admittedly, gets too caught up in its prose-y-ness at some parts and gets hard to figure out what exactly is going on (see: The Erl-King), but that’s cool. I don’t always know what’s going on in life, but I, too, pretend to know what I’m doing behind a facade of pretentious adjectives. So I definitely feel you, Angela Carter.
Third, I am a 7 year old girl at heart. I will always love fairy tales, as objectionable as they are. I just love the idea of a bloody, sexual rewrite of fairy tales, especially as they have been bastardized and made cute by Disney, bless his heart.
I have lots to say on pretty much every story I’ve read so far, but in this post, I’ll just ramble a bit about”The Snow Child” because it’s short, but punchy and just has so much going on. If you haven’t read the story yet, go read it. It will take literally 3 minutes. Go. I’ll wait.
Alright, so what the heck, right? There’s a lot going on and a lot to think about, but I’m not sure what to make of it all.There’s the element of competition between women for the affections of men, for sure. Why did the Count desire “a girl”? Was the Countess getting too old for the Count? Not enough sexual satisfaction? It’s weird because the Count asked for a girl and originally, the queen in Snow White wanted a daughter, so I drew the link between that and the Count wanting a daughter, which is innocent enough until it turns uncomfortable.
Speaking of wanting a daughter, how is it that the Count lists the things he wants in a girl and poof, there she is, naked and ready? Some weird witchcraft going on here, but I won’t question it too much. It kind of reminds me of the rosebush they eventually come upon though – “They came to a bush of roses, all in flower” (Carter 92). It is winter and there is snow all over, as established at the beginning, so how can there be a random bush of roses in bloom? Can we parallel the roses to the girl? Hmm…
Speaking of the girl, it seems significant that she be naked when she appears because she will eventually strip the Countess of her clothes. But why? What’s with the transfer of the Countess’ furs and boots to the girl and what does that represent? The Count’s love being transferred? The Count’s sexual desires? But why the clothes? Being naked can represent being newborn and therefore being pure (which seems to be something Carter tends to play on a lot), so perhaps the girl becoming tainted or socialized by being clothed. But what would it mean for the Countess to lose her clothes? I thought maybe it had something to do with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, so I decided to consult Brandon. He explained to me that after Eve and Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they realized that they were naked and that they felt shameful because of it, so they fashioned clothing out of fig leaves and loincloths. In this way, clothes represent the hiding and covering up their bodies, which are a source of shame. Relating this back to the Countess and the girl, perhaps this can be seen as the Countess’ growing shame that she was “losing” to the girl, and her shame becoming more and more exposed. Somehow I’m not convinced that this is the way to look at it, but that’s all I have for now.
And for the rose, what is the significance of it? What does it symbolize? I drew the connection between the girl and the rose bush earlier but I’m not convinced that that’s the way to interpret it. It was the thing that killed the girl and at the end, the Countess touches it and drops it, claiming that “It bites!” (92) So with that, I thought that maybe it represents jealousy – jealousy was what led to the girl dying and it certainly hurts, so that’s definitely a possibility. Or maybe it represents the Count’s love or, to take it to the next level, maybe the patriarchy. In the context of the story though, the rose was what the Countess wanted the girl to pick for her; the Count, taking pity on his wife, lets the girl pick the rose; the rose kills the girl; and the Countess touches the rose and drops it, despite it being what she what she asked for. The strange thing is, when the Countess told the girl to pick up her gloves or fetch her diamond brooch, she has some pre-conceptions about how the act would kill the girl. But when she asks her to pick the rose, she doesn’t say anything about how the rose might kill the girl. So either she knew that the rose would be the girl’s undoing (the previous two times, she “meant” or “thought” that going to pick up the gloves or the brooch would kill the girl) or she didn’t know or mean for that to kill the girl and just simply wanted a rose. That would change the meaning of the rose altogether, but I’m not sure how to interpret it. And why did the rose bite at the end? If it’s a symbol for the girl, it could simply be the girl taking revenge, but like I said, I’m not sure that’s what the rose is symbolizing. I have no idea.
And then I just have so many questions about the necrophilia. If the Count meant for the girl to be his daughter, then the sex takes on a whole new edge of incest. And perhaps pedophilia, if the girl was a child (which, as the title says, she probably was.) But why did he do that and what does it mean? As if it couldn’t get weirder, the Countess stands by passively and watches him do the deed, not stopping him or anything. You would think, considering her jealousy, she would react differently, but it’s all good. It seems that as long as the girl dies, she’s fine with it – which comes with the idea of women and competition amongst each other, again, and women destroying women. As for the Count, the sex seems to either be his end goal or he has a corpse fetish. He either wanted to have sex with the girl all along and did it to her even though she was dead, OR he has a thing for dead girls and did it because she was dead. Also, how can we relate this thing to the contruct of masculinity and the patriarchy? And why doesn’t the girl ever get to say anything? What’s the connection between a creepy necrophiliac, his murderous wife, and a mute girl they manipulate and kill? I’ll have to think about this a little more, but I’m sure there is a rational explanation for ALL of this.
This is getting super long, but it’s amazing how much can come out of a tiny little one-page short story. I just had a lot of thoughts I needed to deposit somewhere and try to make sense of. I’m doing a presentation on Bloody Chamber in the coming week, but I’m not even sure I will be talking about this story because there’s just so much I want to talk about. For now this is just a collection of thoughts and maybes.
Thanks for reading my ramblings once again and if you didn’t read them, tl;dr what the heck is up with “The Snow Child”?! Hope you’re enjoying The Bloody Chamber as much as I am and I’m so looking forward to the discussions that will come out of it!
AMENDMENT (Jan 25th): I just went through our Arts One texts and counted. We’re also going to be reading David Dabydeen, Stephanie Strickland, Laura Mulvey, and Osamu Tezuka. Still, out of 31+ texts and movies, only 6 are by women or racial minorities…
In my last paper for this term in Arts One, I went the feminist-y route (my preferred route 124856% of the time) and wrote about the problematic representation of women in “The Sandman” and “Little Snow-White” (particularly with the importance beauty and appearance rather than brains). I wanted to also write about “Earthquake in Chile” but, one, I was dying; and two, I didn’t have much material to work with in terms of appearance and beauty. But I thought I had a few decent points about “Earthquake…” so consider this like a “deleted scene” from my essay.
(Preface: I’m probably going to focus on Josefa here, and it will not be focused on beauty at all. Mostly just the problematic representation part.)
First of all, I thought it was interesting that they put Josefa in the convent when her family found out about her affair. It seems like it’s common practice for women to be put in a nunnery if they deviated from or went against social norms. In Josefa’s case, it’s a way for them to rein in her sexuality, by putting her in a place when chastity was enforced. And I’m a little confused about the timeline, but it seems like Jeronimo wasn’t put in prison until after he got Josefa pregnant? It’s very vague, but I understand it to be that Josefa was put in the convent, Jeronimo somehow (“through a lucky accident” (5)) got into the convent, got her pregnant, and was then put in jail. In that case, it rubs me the wrong way that Josefa was punished and restrained for her desires while Jeronimo wasn’t (until later). Product of the times, probably. Still.
Next, there’s this passage:
“In the streets along which the procession would pass, […] the pious daughters of the city invited their girl friends to attend the spectacle offered to divine vengeance at their sisterly side” (7)
Contextually, this is the part where they’re talking about Josefa’s execution. Strange how they make a point to only mention women when discussing Josefa’s punishment and how gleeful they seem to be to be witnessing the destruction of another woman. It reminds me of the Queen in “Little Snow-white” and how determined she was to cause the downfall of Snow-white because of her beauty. It’s representative of the competition amongst women to simply be better than one another. In the Queen’s case it’s beauty, but in this case, it appears to be about piety and purity – the “pious daughters” are more chaste than poor old Josefa. Of course, especially in the context of this story, chastity is important in religion. However, if we take the religious part of it out, it comes down to the male gaze (see tangent). Beauty and chastity are both traits that are valued for being desirable to men. With beauty and the Queen, sure it probably has something to do with vanity, but beauty is a very patriarchal thing. There are a lot of really interesting articles out there, but in terms of the male gaze, the beauty standards that women are condemned to are based on what is attractive to men (and it leads to the competition and comparisons, etc.) In terms of chastity, then – have you ever thought about the obsession society seems to have with virginity? Again, thanks patriarchy! It’s about purity and the fixation on wanting to imprint on women who haven’t been tainted by another man already (hard to explain without talking about all the other baggage, such as this superiority complex between men and women, and men and other men, the objectification of women, and the overvaluing of purity, and I really WANT to talk about it, but this is already a feminist rant with too many clauses so just go and read some articles. Just take my word for it for now and roll with it.) The competition in this case is the one in which the women here compare each other for chastity and for reasons that stem from the patriarchy (and religion).
(Tangent: I realized I could have WENT OFF about the male gaze in my essay when I got Christina’s comments back on it, especially with the focus on eyes in “The Sandman”. I totally could have linked beauty with the male gaze with Nathanael with the eyes being symbolic of the male gaze. Oh my god. Christina, can I rewrite. Please. This is too good to let go.)
Speaking of punishments, they first sentenced Josefa to burning (until it was changed to beheading, “much to the indignation of the matrons and maidens of Santiago” (7) – again, see above!). I’m assuming they would be burning her at the stake, as it’s the most popular burning method of punishment we know of that they did back in those days, which is usually associated with witch hunts. I did a veeery quick google search on punishment in the 17th century and stumbled upon this site, which listed burning at the stake as a popular method of punishment for “heretics, witches, and suspicious women”. I’m assuming for Josefa, it would be because she had a child prior to marriage – or giving in to sexual temptation to begin with – which would be heresy (so much to say about restraint of women’s sexuality and chastity here but I will hold off). Interesting to see that burning at the stake seems to be a way of punishment reserved for women though. Also interesting that there was no mention of a punishment or sentence for Jeronimo…
Further interpretations can be made about the presence of motherhood and gender roles in the story, but my thoughts in that area are kind of half-baked and not directed – although none of this, really, is directed. Take this as more of a musing about a few aspects of the story I wanted to think about more. I hope you can make some sense of it and maybe let me know what you think!