We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Post-Modern gothic and wit: Ending Up Out, or Buried · 16 July 05

My dear Fanny,

I’ve not been keeping up with simply keeping a record of books finished. I meant to use this blog for that, a diary of reading.

So recently I finished:

Jennifer Wallace’s Digging the Dirt: The Archeaological Imagination;

Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night;

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table as translated by Raymond Rosenthal; along with (as a form of explication as these brilliant sketches are really also about real chemistry, Albert Stwerka’s A Guide to the Elements, Oxford Revised Edition, 1998);


Mara Selvini Palazzoli’s Self-Starvation: From Individual to Family Therapy in the Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa as translated by Arnold Pomerans.

Wallace’s book is a work of deep poetic insight into the subjective
basis of modern archeaology. She points out that the site for geologizing and archeaologizing is no longer external merely or even primarily. Instead of running off to the desert sands, caves, or delving frozen mud, Cavalli-Sforza and his followers take blood samples. We carry our history in our DNA. It’s a fine book which were it taken seriously and read by many common readers could help reshape the popular understanding of what scientific and literary writing together can explore.

Science turns into the gothic in Walllace’s very contemporary book. Her meditation on sacrifice rituals and how in freak-show modern tourist places (the realities behind Carter’s mausoleum in her Nights at the Circus) in modern London and malls too around the world ought to be assigned reading in geology classes. She demonstrates how difficult it has proved to get living people "to treat mummified, archaelogical bodies in an ethical way."

She includes brilliant sections on the World Trade Center and how it has been excavated and may be used. She shows how quite a number of sculls and corpses we happen to find where put there as a result of cruel sacrifice rituals. These included depriving the then living person of certain kinds of food for months, of tying them up in certain ways, killing them slowly.

For eighteenth century people, there’s a long section justifying Stuckeley’s work and insights about Avebury in Somerset, and a section on later 18th century archealogical digs in Pompeii. A central map for Robert Wood, an antiquarian, member of the Society of Dilettanti and its first director of Archaelological Ventures, who came to Pinarbasi, a village near Hisarlik (now thought where the citadel of Troy was), determined to discover "concrete facts" was Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Ilidad, notes, and especially, Pope’s map of Troy. In 1720 Pope drew a map which Wallace describes as "bizarre and geographically-impossible," "exuberantly fanciful, people with warriors and ships and tents and other characters from the Iliad, busily doing things." This map it was which became the guidepost for the people who first poured over the site "scientifically." Poetry by Shelley, Byron, and Wordsworth is shown to be prophetic and explanatory of archaeological insights today too.

I wondered what Samuel Johnson would have written could he have seen and understood what he was looking at. Johnson did understand (in his Journey to the Western Islands) that there had been a time on the earth and Northern Europe particularly when there were few people and one way to trace the history of mankind’s migrations was to study the history of language development. He would not have been surprized at Merritt Ruhlen’s The Origins of Language.

I mean to assign Wallace alongside Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and our Common Origins for this coming fall.

Alas Wallace could give creationists & Christian fundamentalist types their field day, but such exploitation can only come if 7/8s of the book’s literal text (all about the realities of evolution, geology and so on) are resolutely ignored. In my classes this may be a trouble, because ordinary readers are quite capable of ignoring 7/8s of a text to light on what they want to hear and repeat. Still I’ll happily risk it.

Primo Levi’s masterpiece should need no comment form me, but in case you’ve not read it, it’s a work of subtle witty sceptical and deeply pessimistic genius. It is part autobiography, and includes sketches from his time in concentration and extermination camps, as a slave worker in German laboratories and mines in the later 1930s and 40s. Among its finer intuitions (there are so many I can’t begin to record them) is that central one that chemistry is really playing around with gop, burning oneself, making a mess in a laboratory or cave or mine, stuff dredged up from these or bodies of water and mud. He says he deliberately eschewed all flashy presentations of capitalist industry. There’s no slick advertising jargon or presentations here, gentle reader.

As opposed to Se questo è un umo/La Tregua (both essential reading for any person alive today), this is a healing book. I don’t know quite how he manages to maintain such a gentle compassionate tone when he shows us just how wretched and cruel and irrational life often is, but he does. The book is shaped by a comic spirit which carries its despair lightly. Human beings are these narrow troglodytes networking away in their little lairs. Yes he is a good mixer of impurities which is what we are. I should like to remember:

"to do work in which one does not believe is a great affliction";

"the frightening anesthetic power of company papers, their capacity to hobble, douse, and dull every leap of intuition, and every spark of talent;"

on the human spirit which controls much social intercourse: "stupid matter, slothfully hostie as human stupidity is hostile, and like it strong because of its obtuse passivity";

as a chemist he did not "feel much different from the remote hunter of Altamira who painted an antelope on the rock wall so that the next day’s hunt would be lucky."

Like Wallace, Levi shows us that we are in a world of the dead, of graves, of the past which is in the grass under our feet; of a vicious murderous bully who seemed on top when Levi was waiting to be murdered (casually probably), "it is strange, absurd, and sinisterly comic, given the situation at the time, that he lies now for decades in some out-of-the-war cemetery and I am here, alive and substantially unharmed . . . "

Hill’s The Bird of Night is a startlingly absorbing pair of subjective disjoined narratives by two male lovers, one of whom, Francis Croft, is continually subjected to periods of frightening, terrifying anxiety and horrific outbursts of violence. He is the poet of the piece and may stand in for elements in Hill’s own character as creator which she can only express this way. The second, Harvey, is the sane tonic quiet scholar who gives up his job working at the British Museum where he is producing a worthy monograph on Egyptology. I can’t recommend this one too highly to anyone interested in the vulnerabilities and needs of the mind. They know intense joy fleetingly. Hill uses Venice as a setting; she knows it’s a code place for a gay relationship.

Hill’s book connects to my last, Palazzoli’s Self-Starvation. Both delve the masochistic impulse, the solitary soul whose personality structure is unable to socialize readily or even much at all. This is part of the aesthetic of female romance; according to Deleuze, masochism is the primary impulse, not sadism, as it’s the victim who seeks out the dominating presence who may end up a torturer a wife-beater, a femme fatale type in real life, or if the victim-type (imagine Kafka) is lucky, find him or herself taken care of for life by the person who is content to wield power gently (Hill’s Harvey and perhaps Primo Levi himself).

Palazzoli has helped me much. I was anorexic (I believe I’ve said this before) from age 16 to 21, weighing on averge through that period 78 pounds. I’m 5 feet two inches. Much I did understand before, but she has added to my understanding of how the fierce aggressive competitive and terrific ordeal placed on young women by our relentlessly masculinist society turns sexuality into something to be avoided as potentially utterly destructive. Hilary Mantel’s essay in the LRB, "Some Girls Want Out," is the sanest and a rare non-hostile reading of the condition to read. A girl in one of my classes was astonished after reading Hilary; after weeks of research and remaining puzzled by this "freakish," condition, suddenly all was understandable, even natural. I knew about how my mother (and other mothers) turn eating into a vicious contradictory contest, forcing, bullying the girl into overeating and then nagging her to be thin. I understood how important is the jeering and mockery and remarks about a girl’s body during her teenage years.

I had not, though, seen how the family dynamics around the anorexic turn her to their advantage, in fact make her into such a passive isolate. In particular she reveals the father’s role and I do indeed see how my father fits into this patterning of domination, using the daughter as a substitute companion-wife, but immediately deserting and turning on her when called upon to do something, to recognize what’s been happening instead of your usual "killing pretense" that nothing’s wrong at all which a little eating won’t help.

What neither Hill nor Palazzoli nor Levi can bring themselves to write about is what to do on behalf of the lonely yearning self who becomes a target or is pushed aside as not instinctively useful for and able to play the social games of life—except maybe in a time long ago when from a vulnerable family group or when he or she annoyed some powerful person or was an old man or woman or perhaps a cripple, such people became a victim for sacrifice rituals. A witch to burn. Like Claude in Cather’s One of Ours or her Paul in her "Paul’s Case," such people when not otherwise protected were not matter which is readily coopted into becoming "one of us" in life.


Posted by: Ellen

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