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

2 Amfortases, many Kundries; or, On Punishing Women · 27 February 06

Dear Anne,

Thank you so much for your letter. You’re right of course. I need not wait until I have pictures by and have written about another woman artist to write to you. We share so much beyond that. The other day Lady Russell came to visit and regaled the Admiral with tales of how she, you, and I used to sit and read and talk about Byron together by the hour. I do have poetry to send tonight and a favorite picture, but I need first to yoke two apparently unlike experiences together as preface and/or framing.

As you’ve probably heard, the South Dakota legislature and governor have now banned abortion. No woman can get an abortion for any reason whatsoever: rape, incest, dire threat to her life. Yes, it’s a way of manipulating someone to go to the supreme court and there see abolished a woman’s ability to protect and control her body and future, and yes it’s symbolic since for the last few years there’s been but one place in South Dakota a woman could get abortion (Sioux City) and that once a week (some brave doctors would fly in). But it will have consequences, and it’s a measure of the ferocity of hatred, distrust, and fear of women that a legally-elected body of people are willing to go public with a measure that will prevent a woman from protecting herself from death and compulsory pregnancy through rape or incest. How much more punitive can some groups in this country get towards independence for women?

I yoke this together with the story and characters of the opera the Admiral and I saw this afternoon at the Kennedy Center: Wagner’s Parzival. The music was performed with exquisite feeling and taste and was beautiful, and the actor who sang and performed the shattered Amfortas deeply moving. Still I was bothered by how the only roles for a woman, Kundry, in this vast metaphysical statement about the experience of life are treacherous slut, siren seducer, and abject slave (the erased mother is a variant on this), from which the one escape is death. There is a chorus of clinging anxious flower maidens: all they do in life apparently is wait around to be fucked by their lords. Our last vision of Kundry is of her submitting to the men, washing their feet, kneeling, and then laying down to die on the floor. Only when totally submissive and without agency or desire is she presented as good. Then she smiles. Only then is she given a decent dignified garment to wear.

We’re coming to an end of our 5 weeks of reading and discussing the poetry, prose and life of the 20th century Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova on WWTTA. Now in her we see a real Kundry. She likens herself to Mary Magdalene & Cleopatra, and was vilified for her sex life, but her two marriages, long-time relationship with a third man (really to have a room to live in), near marriage to a third respectable type (who at the last minute was persuaded to drop her) are not what was important about her story. Nor even that her mother-in-law mothered her son when he was growing up.

Until very late in life Anna Akhmatova lived the life of an outcast haunted person, derided, humiliated, literally starved, watching person after person she knew destroyed, sometimes slowly and (from the destroyer’s point of view) with enjoyment, and sometimes swiftly. She makes visible what the communitarian ideal is in reality. I’m impressed how strong she must’ve been within to hold onto her sense of herself and how she survived through eluding others. Nothing apologetic, no need to assert herself uselessly either. People make much of her "decision" to stay in Russia. Where would she have gone? How escape? Who would’ve taken her in?

To Wagner’s Kundry’s crazed frantickness I connect how in the past, and in some traditional societies still, people have not been allowed to move anywhere internally without a passport. This business of controlling people’s movements goes way back. She can’t get out. Go where? Into the desert?

In Lidiia Chukovskaya’s journal of Akhmatova’s life Anna has a savage sense of humor conveyed wryly, dryly and indirectly through brief bitten-off kinds of replies: they too come out of terrible desperation. She is presented elsewhere as having immense personal dignity. Not so much here. As I read them aloud, the Admiral suggested that Akhmatova was profoundly depressed. She never cleans; she goes around in clothes that are torn and unsewn. She stops in the middle of a street unable to walk on. She is frightened of the coarse male drunkenness (for whom she would be a free target) and wants a woman companion in the streets with her. To see Akhmatova as suffering on the edge, cold, with derangement not far off is to me to feel I’m getting close to the presence who wrote the poems. She was not wrong to be depressed or paranoid. The atmosphere and structuring on ordinary people inflcted by the more powerful is persecutory, punishing in the extreme.

Here are two poems from Akhmatova’s famous cycle called "Poem without a Hero" as translated by Judith Hemschemeyer. The first is the dedication which shows her waiting on the long line outside the prison; the second, after her son has been taken away.


Mountains bow down to this grief,
Mighty rivers cease to flow,
But the prison gates hold firm,
And behind hhem are the “prisoners’ burrows”
And mortal woe,
For someone a fresh breeze blows,
For someone the sunset luxuriates
We wouldn’t know, we are those who everywhere
Hear only the rasp of the hateful key
And the soldiers’ heavy tread.
We rose as if for an early service,
Trudged through the savaged capital
And met there, more lifeless than the dead;
The sun is lower and the Neva mistier,
But hope keeps singing from afar.
The verdict . . . And her tears gush forth,
Already she is cut off from the rest,
As if they painfully wrenched life from her heart,
As if they brutally knocked her flat,
But she goes on . . . Staggering . . . Alone . . .
Where now are my chance friends
Of those two diabolical years?
What do they imagine is in Siberia’s storms,
What appears to them dimly in the circle of the moon?
I am sending my farewell greeting to them.

March 1940

"Mary Magdalene"

The Sentence

And the stone word fell
On my still-living breast.
Never mind, I was ready,
I will manage somehow.

Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again

Unless… Summer’s ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window.
For a long time I’ve forseen this
Brilliant day, deserted house.

June 22, 1939

As for the picture, it comes from the 1996 film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s poetic The English Patient (screenplay by Anthony Minghella). Here is a rare joyous moment of release in the rain:

As I was watching Parzival it came to me that the paradigm of the profoundly wounded decent man, the sensitive soul in the destroyed body, around whom other decent, rarely kind and intelligent people attempt to form a brief community of caring is found in this Ondaatje’s English Patient. Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes in the movie) is a modern Amfortas carried on a stretcher. Ondaatje’s women are not evil, but they are secondary to men: there is Hanna, his all-caring music-loving nurse (Juliette Binoche), who we are told early on had an abortion to free herself of someone she was involved with; and Katharine Clifton, Almasy’s beloved over whose body he weeps uncontrollably in a remarkable desert scene, when alive a physically aggressive sensual domineering woman (Kristen Scott Thomas). His male friends are also lovers, deep friends, sappers (struggling to turn the world’s bombs off and occasionally blow up in the attempt), also tortured, a loyal faithful but frail band.

I’m not mad, Anne, at least not alone in my madness. In his Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: A Reader’s Guide (Continuum Contemporaries), John Bolland shows how many motifs from the fisher-king myth and wasteland are to be found in Ondaatje’s English Patient.

And I have to say it: I preferred both film and novel, The English Patient to Wagner’s Parzival. Wagner may have lines about compassion and recognition of the self in others as the core of enlightenment. He may write beautiful music. But the myths and types Wagner presents and upholds justify and uphold cruelty. Ondaatje and Minghella’s don’t.

Besides which, as an opera, Anne, Parzival is dull. It took 5 hours and the Admiral kidded the conductor had taken it a bit fast. At the Met James Levine carries on with Act I for 2 hours, at least. The first act holds together as a magnificent masque, but nothing is doing in the second. In Mozart’s Magic Flute, the hero and heroine really do go through an active ordeal. The ordeal of the second act is Parzival manages not to succumb to the wicked Kundry’s "charms." The third act is a reprise of the first. The Admiral liked the Russian costumes the Kirov used, but to me they were signs of the return of Czarist norms. Klingor was dressed like something out of a Flash Gordon movie. Since the original does not allow anyone to notice all this talk about spears is about penises, at the same time as this is so obvious, there is something unconsciously funny as the actors fling the giant silver penises about. When I respond metaphorically to the play as an analogue of the sufferings of the world, this is in a way perverse. And I’m erasing the Catholicism and atavistic ideas churning through the piece. Jim said Neitzsche made much fun of this aspect of the opera1.

I now wish I had finished listening to the dramatic reading aloud of Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost—also about pernicious uses of archeaology in today’s world. And if I ever get another chance, I’ll assign the two English Patients to classes of college students again.

I hope it’s not as cold in your part of England as it is in ours. Bundle up, my dear and tell my brother to be sure to keep those drafts out of the bedroom. Jim is still suffering that painful neuralgia in his shoulder and arm. I tell him we should keep the curtains on the bed partly closed when we sleep. Also he might put a shawl on the bedcovers and wear a nightcap too. But the Admiral will not listen!

Much love,

1 It appears that Miss Austen never gave Admiral Crofts a first name. So I will use James or Jim.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Julie V on WWTTA remarked:

    "like Cather, find music terribly valuable. Unlike her, however, I am not a fan of Wagner. He does disturb me. – And perhaps I fail to appreciate his music ‘as I should.’
    (No ‘shoulds’ being quite allowed here. :)"

    Which gave me the chance to reply:

    I loved the music of the opera. Jim is a real lover of music. My taste is not educated like his & I prefer good show music (I love Sondheim), country and various modern groups (like an older folk group called The Pentangle). My favorite CDs are by Nanci Griffiths, Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, and a variety of popular musicals (West Side Story is one) and classical CDs too.

    Jim did say of Parzival though he thought it was an opera which would do better to be performed in concert. But that if it were, it would not get the audience it does. And he could do without some of the surtitles. He quoted Nietzsche making fun of the opera’s theatrical religiosity but I can’t remember the line any more.

    chava    Feb 28, 12:46am    #
  2. Fran wrote in response on WWTTA too:

    "I think Nietzsche had quite a lot to say about it, but one quote I remember is that it was ‘Rome without the text’. I think it was their differences over Parzival that caused a final rift."

    chava    Feb 28, 8:37am    #
  3. You said Sophia and then Sophie. Are those the same person? Is Sophie pronounced the French way? You should use James; it seems to fit better. And you use Jim when you write as Chava, so it would be a different name. But why do you need a first name instead of saying the Admiral or Admiral Crofts?

    What you said about women being submissive reminds me that my parents, I think especially my dad, didn’t like the idea of the man getting on his knees to propose to the woman, because that means they are unequal. He said that both of them should be on their knees. One time, my parents were both on their knees for an unrelated reason, and that’s how they knew they were going to get married. One of my friends or maybe it was my brother’s friend, asked my parents which one of them proposed to the other, and they said there wasn’t really a proposal.

    Now I will tell you about the social psychology article I read that I’ve been wanting to tell you about for a month, but I haven’t had a chance because I’ve either been writing other comments instead or I didn’t have time to comment at all.

    The article said that women like women more than men like men, and they wrote about hypotheses.

    The article says that men have a higher status than women, so people associate the male gender with power. It says that usually high status groups strongly prefer their own group, for example whites prefer whites over blacks. It says that gender groups are the exception to the rule, because women strongly prefer women and men are neutral.

    It says that men depend on women for child bearing and domestic labor, which gives women dyadic power (what do they mean by dyadic power?) and women rely on men for protection, economic stability, and social status.

    The article says that neither sex should have a preference for either sex, because they idealize the other sex. That doesn’t make sense, but oh well. I am going by the notes I took on the article, not the article itself so maybe it would make more sense if I had taken better notes. My notes also say love and physical intimacy, but I don’t know how that is connected.

    And if I had labeled my notes hypothesis 1, hypothesis 2, etc, it would have made more sense, because I think this is another hypothesis: Men associate women with negative traits incompetence, weakness, coldness, and subordinance. And then I wrote in my notes that men lack a psychological mechanism, but what psychological mechanism? I found the article online, but it doesn’t really make sense, "our first hypothesis was that cognitive balance would only influence women’s (not men’s) implicit gender attitudes. If so, an important caveat to the unified theory would be observed. More important, sex differences in balanced gender identities would help to explain men’s weaker in-group bias. Women’s (typically high) self-esteem and gender identity promotes own group preference because their implicit cognitions are balanced. If this is not true for men, men will lack a psychological mechanism that bolsters automatic in-group bias. That is, an absence of balance would indicate that men’s (typically high) implicit self-esteem and gender identity is rendered moot vis-à-vis their gender attitudes. The expected result would be stronger automatic in-group bias for women than men." Does that make sense to you?

    The third hypothesis is that both genders prefer women because they associate women with warmth, because they were raised with maternal bonding instead of paternal bonding. But earlier, they said that men don’t prefer women, and they said that women are associated with coldness, so that’s a contradiction.

    The fourth hypothesis is that people prefer women because they are less threatening than men.

    The fifth hypothesis is sexual conditioning. Men associate sex with women, so the more they like sex the more they should like women. Men like sex more than women like sex. So they will like women more and have a weaker in group bias.

    Then my notes say that they found support for all hypotheses but the gender stereotypes hypothesis. I’m not sure I remember which hypothesis that is, but I’m not going to spend time rereading the article.

    I think it was later in the article that it says that men are afraid of homosexual labeling, so they don’t like men as much as women like women.

    It also says that people in lower groups bond, so women like women because they have a lower status than men.

    If you want to read the whole article I can either e-mail it to you or tell you where I found it. I want to know what the date of the article is. Let me see, it’s October 2004.

    I think the article is interesting, but I don’t really like some of their hypotheses. They seem a little unlikely.

    Is my guess that men have a stronger separation between friendship and romance than women have correct? Friendship seems similar to romance in my life, because when I like people romantically I would do anything for them, and I would also do anything for my friends, so the feelings seem similar, but they are different. And I also want to hold people I like and I also hold my friends, but it’s not romantic when I hold my friends. But men don’t hold their friends. Except that my guy friend and I were holding each other. So I guess they hold their women friends. I hold girls and guys, girls more often, probably because more of my friends are girls than guys. My guy friend said that he hasn’t held any of his other friends, because the only other friend he hangs out with is Matt, and I said that if he held Matt, Matt would think he was gay. Maybe the difference between my feelings for my friends and romantic feelings is that the thoughts are the same but the feelings are different. With both I think "I would do anything for this person" but I feel romantic feelings for some people and friendship feelings for other people. A few of my friends think I don’t know the difference between frienship and romance. Sometimes when I talked about guys I liked, my friends would say it sounded like I just liked them as a friend. But I do know the difference between friendship and romance.

    Time for breakfast and then class. I’ll talk to you later. And later is more likely to mean tomorrow than later today, but I could write another comment today.
    Jennica    Feb 28, 8:41am    #
  4. Dear Jennica,

    It’s all very complicated.

    Unfortunately many qualities men associate with women are associated with powerlessness and weakness; people fear this in our society and so want to disassociate themselves from this "womanliness." At the same time (as the poem, "Transcendental Etudes" by Rich suggests), these very same qualities are what makes for love, joy, tenderness, happiness.

    It’s generally thought that intimate friendships between women are a sustaining force for them. Men have friendships with men too, but in many cases where the male friend is heterosexual, he may fear his friend is homosexual, or that the real flexibility of sexuality itself and the lack of inhibition where men are concerned, will tempt them to have sex with one another.

    Many people do seek to associate with those with higher status and avoid those with lower. Those with higher status also treat those with lower status worse so those with lower status avoid those with higher so as not to endure small humiliations. Most people are most comfortable with those whom they perceive as having the same status as they have, but that does not mean they will necessarily treat one another with real respect.

    You probably summarized the article very well for me.

    My feeling is for many couples there is no formal proposal scene. Somehow an understanding develops. When there is a real proposal, it may be half-comic or very self-conscious. This to guard oneself against rejection.

    On men and women: men have power and prestige: power from owning land and property and being in charge of positions and places which enable them to pass laws; they own control of media. Laws and customs kept women subordinate to men even in the west -- quite thoroughly.

    Sex is central here: the male wants to control the female's sexuality for his own benefit and prestige; she is to give up her life for motherhood, in return for which she is promised support and power (contingent both on pleasing him and his salary if she has none). In an individual relationship a given women may be able to dominate a man, but she has done it despite adverse conditions. I talked of the three phases of feminism since the mid19th century on one of my blogs.

    Women are losing ground again badly -- the vulnerable often do in bad times. They suffer particularly badly when violence is not controlled.

    When I wrote you about posting before 9 in the morning and after dinner, I was worried lest you write on the Net too much. I can see that you are not overdoing and are keeping up with your schoolwork just fine.

    chava    Feb 28, 11:37pm    #

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