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

Waiting for the light with Rosario Castellano · 19 November 05

Dear Marianne,

Tonight seems to be taking a long time. Some nights speed past. I put my head on the pillow, and the next thing I know it’s morning. Other nights feel unending.

At 11 I was sitting amidst a group of lovely books—Carol Shields’s Swann; Chantal Thomas’s Origins of the Myth of Marie Antoinette (remarkably good); Lady Anne Wilson’s Letters from India (picked up in a thin aging bookshop in London this summer): not to omit Gillian Tindall’s Célestine: Voices from a French Village (I can’t tell whether she wrote it in French first and then translated it into English or vice versa) and several more. There were my favorite periodicals with stories I longed to enter into, among which in the NYRB, Michael Massing worries the preponderance of blogs are rightist reactionary and frightening an anxious commercial press. Even Victorian Studies looked good. But it was no good. Too tired, my mind wouldn’t work, wouldn’t absorb for real. I know I should wait until I was more tired, but I was disheartened, sad, had cried earlier. I didn’t know why.

So I went to bed a wee bit too early—and kept waking. I know this means I’m troubled and having deeply unpleasant dreams which I wake from rather than live through. I couldn’t reach any last night; that is, when I would wake I would not remember what I was waking from. I could’ve gotten up and read—as I often do, snatching Time back from Morpheus’ realm—but the air was chill, dank. I much prefer this to pills which erase the mind’s powers. Take pleasure in the mind, live rather than chose oblivion, dull, medicalize, slow down the imagination and (appropriately enough) fatten the body. Sleep after all is brother to death (so said Samuel Daniels, Elizabethan poet).

But Edward and I turn the heat down at night sharply: it saves money and we find we are too hot if we keep it at daytime levels (68 degrees fahrenheit in the cold seasons of the year). A leftover from living in England in unheated rooms. I do turn the heat up and the light in the front room on once I get out there, and soon enough it’s warm and cozy and deliciously quiet, but I seemed not to have the ambition. Sometimes this quietude in bed with time so long and my mind working brings bad thoughts, and then I am driven to get up. But not tonight. Or they weren’t so very bad. It was just a sort of waiting, waiting, and then I’d fall back to sleep for a while.

I’d say it’s paradoxical how time seems to take so long for this or that stretch and yet life is so very short. Except I remember Feynman’s comment "’paradox" is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be’." I am just registering the complexities of mental experience.

Edward brought Isabel home last night, and she and I will go to the latest filmic exploitation of the title and story of Pride and Prejudice and the fame and snob appeal of "Austen" (the name) this Sunday. All three of us (and we’ve invited Laura) hope to see The Libertine (with John Malkovitch as Charles II) if it comes to our area in the next few weeks. We’ll go into DC if necessary. All three of us also have decided to go on Monday to the Austrian Embassy to see a dramatic reading of one of Elfriede Jelinek’s plays, Bambiland—I hesitate to think of how savage it probably is; her Women as Lovers (as Englished by Martin Chalmers) was one of the most bleak, desperate yet truthful books I’ve ever read about women in love—Jelinek makes visible how shallow, instrumental and indifferent to women is Coetzee’s portrayal (to go to my real bête noir, how stupid D.H. Lawrence’s).

Yesterday I spent studying Rousseau’s Julie in the context of how women presented and saw themselves in the mid-18th century: what is the real private or hidden life of little girls, of women—does anyone know? has anyone told?). Today I thought I’d alternate between Thomas’s Souffrir and Cottin’s Matilde. In my car I am enough absorbed by the hard-sinewed pernicious grotesquely picturesque mythologies of Scott’s Talisman. After Tuesday no teaching for a week; perhaps Laura will come over for a chicken (from Wegman’s) later in the week for this ritual holiday.

I’ve got my schedule for the coming spring and summer. Endless Advanced Comp in the Natural Sciences and Technology (3 sections and then 2) which frees me up for my projects, and leaves me with bright older science students. I’ll do Primo Levi’s Periodical Table with them; LeCarré’s The Constant Gardener, along with my usual Feynmans, Trimble, and nowadays Wit and Olson’s Mapping Human History. I’m not really satisfied with Ofri’s Singular Intimacies but will go for it one more season. (No one seems to get into print who really criticizes the medical establishment for the exploitative mostly uncontrolled capitalism it is.) Edward is fine.

So what troubles me? Aging? The darkness itself? Wondering what these projects I do are for? Whether this gearing the self to wards writing for publication is a wise way to shape my time? New despair at my suddenly awakened and aware vision of society as little knots of networking and patronage? A vivid sense of how few read any particular book and how even fewer want to or can understand it in the way it was meant? And so what?

Politics? I don’t write politically regularly. Well, while the present US administation is so egregiously, shamelessly brutal, doing all it can to grind down the vast majority of people in the world for the benefit of a very few; torture is now open and institutionally encouraged; soon many more US women with no money or wherewithal to leave the states may have to endure compulsory pregnancy (admittedly many don’t seem to mind; this way they hope to nail some man to them?); but this is really more of what’s been developed by US institutions since WW2. Bush did get enough votes to steal the two elections. I am literally sickened and disgusted—amused too as they clearly dangerous and absurd—by the gross SUVs which make driving harder, and parking a nightmare: you can’t see over or beyond them. Road pigs, no warts getting fatter and taller every year; yesterday at Kaiser’s parking lot two couldn’t get past one another in a lane.

The world we have is the world human beings as a group allow, seem to want. What did Maistre reply to Rousseau’s "Man is born free, but everywhere in chains": To say sheep are born carniverous and everywhere eat grass would be more just ["Dire, les moutons sont nés carnivores, et partout ils mangent de l’herbe …"]. Edward would voice the hopelessness of trying to get enough women to stop buying diet coke for their brain (the mass-produced anodyne vanity-ridden power fantasies of chick-lit) through this proverb: "Never try teaching a pig to sing. It wastes your time, and it annoys the pig."

The season draws in. I see the dawn light a chill yellow-red mist at the bottom of the sky and a light blue grey sky above, with the trees turning from black to variegated colors and green.

And I begin to remember some poetry, and how I’d like to write a "foremothers" posting for WomenPoets. Beginning to read and to explore in my library, I come up with 3 English translations of Spanish poems by Rosario Castellano:

One says what "the solution" is not:

Meditation at the Threshold

No, the solution is not
to jump beneath a train, like Tolstoy’s Anna,
nor to swallow Madame Bovary’s arsenic,
nor to wait on the barren plains of Avila
for the visit of the angel with the javelin
before tying the scarf around one’s head
and beginning to act.

Nor to deduce the laws of geomery by counting
the rafters of the castigation cell,
as Sor Juana did. The solution is not
to write, when visitors come
to the living room of the Austen family,
nor to shut oneself up in the attic
of some house in New England
and dream, with the Dickinson Bible
under a maidenly pillow.

There has to be some other way that isn’t called Sappho,
or Messalina, or Mary of Egypt,
or Magdalene, or Clementina Isaura.

Another way to be human, and free.

Another way to be.

English text by Kate Flores



They say that plants don’t talk, nor do
brooks or birds,
nor the wave with its chatter, nor stars
with their shine.
They say it but it’s not true, for whenever
I walk by
they whisper and yell about me

‘There goes the crazy woman dreaming
of life’s endless spring and of fields
and soon, very soon, her hair
will be gray.
She sees the shaking, terrified frost
cover the meadow.’
There are gray hairs in my head; there is frost
on the meadows,
but I go on dreaming—a poor, incurable
of life’s endless spring that is receding
and the perennial freshness of fields
and souls,
although fields dry and souls burn up.

Don’t gossip about my dreams:
without them how could I admire you? How could
I live?

English text by Aliki and Willis Barnstone:

I’ve got this one in Spanish:

A Nocturne

Para vivir es demasiado el tiempo;
Para saber no es nada.
A que vinimos, noche, corazon de la
No es possible sino sonar, morir,
Sonar que no morimos
Y, a veces, un instante, despertar.

and as translated by the woman who did the Woman Troubadours volume I used for information in my blog which included the Countess of Dia’s poetry, Magda Bogin:

Time is too long for life;
For knowledge not enough.
What have we come for, night, heart of night?
Dream that we do not die
And, at times, for a moment, wake.

Another time I’ll type out her "Daily Round of a Spinster," which begins, "To be solitary is to be shameful," and ends on her "smiles at a dawn without anyone at all." It’s very good, very hard bare imagery of a Spanish landscape. Jelinek stuff—only not sexualized. In another (longish) the poem’s speaker is engulfed by a new born child who came through or as "a wound, a hemorrhage." Critics say (ever so stiltedly, solemnly) in her poetry she explores "alienation" and "solitude." More than that.

A little about her: born 1925 in Mexico, she was daughter to wealthy people, well-educated and well-connected. She was a poet, and became a diplomat (ambassador to Israel from Mexico) and professor, and she wrote novels. She grew up on a ranch in Chiapas, is said to have been the first woman from there to publish a book.

Upon her parents’s death in 1948, Castellanos published her first collection of poetry (Trayectoria del polvo), and was able to go to Europe. So she too had that trip away, back to Europe, so important to women writers. She is said to have studied Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir while there. In 1950 in Mexico, she defended a master’s thesis, "Sobre cultura femenina" (On feminine culture), and perhaps clawed her way to director of cultural programs for the State of Chiapas? Perhaps no one else wanted it :). A brief marriage (1957-1961); one son, Gabriel (1961), and then teaching at the National University of Mexico in the 1960s. For those who read novels there are two in English: Balún-Canán(1957), translated as Nine Guardians by Irene Nicholson; The Book of Lamentations (1962), translated by Esther Allen. Her famous book is The Eternal Feminine.

My "Women Who Dared" Calendar features contains an appealing
photograph of Rosario Castellanos: a black-and-white photo shows a young woman with her hair pulled tight back and plainly into a knot at the nape of her neck; she wear a plain white T-shirt and pinafore or jumper of soft material. She leans on a desk with a book near her; at her back are shelves of books and folders. She has a straight-forward look, slightly dreamy on her face.

A sad (I can’t resist saying ironic) sudden ending: she died in Tel Aviv in 1974 at the age of 49 after accidentally electrocuting herself while doing her hair.

And now the sky is whitening, yellow golden light has come across the world, into this room and the house. Frost on the hard ground. Yellow gold-green leaves. Izzy is up. "Good morning" she says. I’m glad she’s home.

I look forward to the day, to writing to my few friends and communicating with other acquaintances on lists.

Elinor in cyberspace

Posted by: Ellen

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