Saturday, January 31, 2009
Damsels in distress are deep in the bones of Western literature at this point—maybe Virgil didn’t feel he needed a blonde woman going “Save me!” but by the time we get to the 13th century, they’re pretty firm fixtures. Your hero has a woman he fights for—a lady fair. Oh, there are variants: sometimes she’s really ugly. Sometimes she’s treacherous. Sometimes he needs her more than she needs him. But she’s always there, getting into scrapes and thereby allowing him to demonstrate his masculine prowess.
And there are reasons it works—reasons far too deep and lengthy and controversial and hard to express to get into here—but let’s all admit that it is so satisfying when Edward saves Bella from the potential rapists in Port Angeles; or when the Doctor shouts, “Now there is no power on this earth that can stop me!”; or when Mr. Darcy pays for Lydia’s wedding so that Elizabeth’s life won’t be ruined…on and on and on, all the incarnations. At its best, the tradition of the damsel-in-distress can do some very nice things to develop a character or a relationship. What jump-starts a confession of love better, for example, or proves its sincerity, than a perilous rescue?
The weaker-vessel-female thing also has some very lovely manifestions, in ballet or figure skating or fairy tales. There’s also a fun strain of irony in those manifestations, as we all know (or should know!) the strength and physical prowess it takes to be a ballerina, or the hardiness of heart required to survive a fairy tale. So the illusion of weightlessness in such stories is always just that—she only appears to be a creature of glass. If we don’t forget that it’s an illusion, it can be a fun game to play among ourselves.
“If we don’t forget.” But oh, how we forget. And the damsel in distress becomes so very problematic.
The first problem you probably saw coming a mile away. In many of the traditions, the damsel has no character. She becomes nothing more than an object to be won, a cipher for the hero to project himself onto. In actual fact, medieval romance perpetrates this kind of bland commodification much less often than 1930s heroic films or Walt Disney movies, but that’s neither here nor there. Remember the ridiculous women of Errol Flynn films, or to take a more elevated example, Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. I love A Tale of Two Cities, please don’t mistake me, but does that woman have any characteristics besides golden beauty and undiscriminating goodness?
And you’d be surprised how quickly the cipher damsel can take on darker characteristics. Take all the collective fantasies about sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise immobile women—Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pygmalion—who must be restored to life. In a lot of the original versions of these stories, it’s not a nice little kiss that awakens these women, either, but fully fledged sexual conquest. I’m not of the camp that says these stories should be utterly jettisoned, as I think there are many interesting things going on in them besides a necrophilic impulse, but the pathological passivity of these women in many of their cultural incarnations—particularly the Disney ones!—shouldn’t be overlooked.
Or look at this Fuseli painting again: It’s not hard to see that while the source of the horror is supposed to come from the dark powers encroaching on the pure woman, there’s quite a voyeuristic sexual charge coming out of the threat to her as well. Why save her, when you could watch what happens next?
Then there are the scores and scores of Victorian poems involving ladies fair who die, the countless pre-Raphaelite paintings of dead or dying women, the images of Leda all painted from a masculine perspective in which the woman who is raped by a swan gazes lasciviously out of the canvas while it happens. Sorry to disturb you, but this is the heritage of anybody who writes in the Western tradition. Granddad left us more stuff up in the attic than the Mona Lisa.
So where does that leave a writer?
Contemporary adventure films always have to confront the damsel-in-distress tradition. Often, I think, they do it extremely unsatisfyingly, even when writers are clearly trying to be PC. Indiana Jones gets plucky companions, but the scriptwriters seem to mistake shrill shrewishness for feminine strength. As far as I’m concerned, this is just another form of misogyny. Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates franchise is also clearly a direct attempt to circumvent the damsel-in-distress tradition (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset!”), but to me and almost everyone else I know, she registers only as irritating. And as for the tough-and-rough women of sci-fi (Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider? Charlize Theron’s assassin in Aeon Flux? River Song in Doctor Who?), with their lycra costumes and dominatrix overtones, they’re fantasies just as disturbing as all the sleeping princesses in all the towers you could imagine.
Where's the good news, Michelle? Well, despite all appearances, I do actually think that this isn't a hopelessly screwed up motif. There are some examples of fiction, ancient and new, that offer some possibilities for hope.
The best and most broadly applicable answer is probably just to write rich characters. As I said earlier, if the damsel tradition is used judiciously in a relationship that is developed sufficiently in other ways, it can be very moving. If the damsel motif is so deeply ingrained in the Western tradition, then it stands to reason that it’s pretty deeply ingrained in the Western man, and that this is one way that a character born and raised anytime after the 13th century would communicate love. So, yeah, Edward wants to save Bella, and as long as he’s not objectifying her, we can and should accept it as an expression of love. Similarly, it doesn’t bother me that the Doctor is always trying to save his companions in NuWho (that’s kind of his thing, anyway); that Darcy gets all protective of Elizabeth; that Tristan comes swooping in to keep Yvaine’s heart from being cut out…etc, etc, etc. I’d sure appreciate that if my heart was going to get cut out, after all, and all the women saved in these stories have sufficient personhood that we experience these moments as expressions of feeling rather than defense of possessions.
Another contemporary film that has effectively dealt with the damsel issue is, bizarrely, The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiscz. The filmmakers let the man demonstrate his physical prowess as he’s always done, but provide the woman with a definite character and unique contribution to the situation. So, Brendan Fraser got to swoop in and save a woman who’s as hopeless in a crisis situation as I certainly would be, but she’s the one who is able to figure out what was going on by virtue of her archaeological expertise. (Again, though, this requires script development: it’s not enough just to put Jessica Alba in glasses and a lab coat and say, “See? She’s a scientist!")
There are also older stories that complicate the issues very satisfyingly. Jane Eyre springs to mind, with its constant fluctuation of power between the two protagonists, ultimately leading them beyond questions of power into love. In The Lord of the Rings, too, I love the character of Eowyn, who clearly can save herself with a sword but also suffers from a deeper spiritual distress (totally lost in the movie). Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale also portrays a woman who triumphs by the strength of her own character even as we wait for her to be reunited with her warlike husband. If memory serves, Chretien de Troyes’ Eric and Enide is also interesting on this score, as is Book III of the Faerie Queene, featuring Britomart, the female knight who is questing for her beloved.
Possibly it just says more about my personality than anything else that I prefer stories that work within the tradition to enrich and subvert it rather than stories that declare open war on it. Still, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White prove, the good and the bad in culture can be inextricably tangled.
That is certainly the case for all those poor damsels in distress. Let’s save em, shall we?
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Monday, January 26, 2009
Deresiewicz summarizes a history of solitude in Western civilization very succinctly and lucidly, from the prophets and saints who drew greatness from solitude to the contemporary 15-minute celebrities. He also, a little predictably but probably correctly, is concerned about the effect of Facebook, text messaging, and---the horror! the horror!---blogs on our ability to be alone. Some highlights:The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
[W]e no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness...The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.
Losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness."
I do think Deresiewicz oversimplifies at times. He seems to labor under the misapprehension that all young people are explicating their inner souls on their MySpace pages, sending 100 text messages a day, and are terrified to be alone. I think the tension between solitude and community, too, is a somewhat eternal one, independent of (post)modernity and the temptations of the internet.
Deresiewicz quotes Emerson at one point, who said: "He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions."
Fair enough, I suppose, but consider what Marley tells Scrooge to remember before it's too late: “It is required of every man...that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide."
Only you can decide when you are supposed to walk abroad and when you are supposed to go out to Walden and bait your hook with darkness, but at least Deresiewicz raises the question.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
We interrupt our regularly scheduled blah blah blah to tell you that....[drumroll]
Jillian and I are excited to welcome another writer to Daedalus Notes! Coming soon, look for posts from Maren, who is (you guessed it ) another writer. We’re excited to see the different viewpoint she will bring to the blog, and you’ll be excited to see how she will probably not post as often about Doctor Who as Jillian and I do!
It’s not something I’d like to emulate, but I have to confess that I sympathize with him. I want to be one and whole, but as a writer, I feel subject to warring impulses of all kinds. I’ve got enough desires for several lives, not just one. Does anyone else experience this?
I haven’t got them all categorized—and I doubt that anyone would be interested in hearing the definitive catalog anyway—but my crew of Michelles, responsible for getting my life to safe harbor, argue constantly among themselves. There’s Ambitious Michelle, who ferociously wants to get her writing published and be part-of-the-world, constantly at war with Private Michelle, who doesn’t want to make an exhibition of herself and is happiest on some lost floor of a university library. There’s Writer Michelle, who doesn’t understand that Physical Michelle must eat and have health insurance. Don’t even get me started on Domestic Michelle and what that means for Adventurous Michelle. I want to be, well, everything, and I am often extremely discontent that I just can't be.
Contrary to all appearances, I’m not posting this as an opportunity to navel-gaze ad nauseam. (Believe me, I can do that without posting.) It’s just that I think that it might not be just me who can’t reconcile all these impulses. I think a lot of artists experience this. Everybody has contradictions, but artists, who tend to feel and think whatever they feel and think so intensely, practically have multiple selves to deal with.
Even characters can be a bit like multiple selves—I’ve got whole populations and races of people jostling around in my imagination, clamoring to get out! And they all have bits and pieces of me, of course.
I’m not particularly fussed about this. I’d like to think I’m a better captain than Jack Sparrow—nicer to all my little constituents, for a start. I took a walk yesterday, and I didn't kill the Workaholic Michelle who was protesting like mad; I just politely asked the other Michelles to sit on her head.
It also seems to me that it ties in nicely to Plato’s diagnosis of the soul: we have Rational Souls, Appetitive Souls, and Spirited Souls. Happiness is a matter of bringing those souls into balance. I imagine that it’s much the same with the artistic life—none of those Michelles get to run the show, but none of them should be shunted aside either.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous for saying that an artist is someone who can hold two opposed views and still function. When I looked it up, it turned out that he actually said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I guess the jury is still out on the subject of my intelligence, and it remains to be seen if I will “retain the ability to function.”
But I’ve got 169 pages of a novel and I love my family: my hopes are high. I hope yours are too.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
"My advice to Titania and Oberon? Leave the forest. It's this place. It gets into your head. I mean, all this nature...it's not natural, is it?" (Puck)
"If you don't get it right, I'm going to turn you into a novelty key chain." (Oberon to Puck, of course)
A Misummer Night's Dream, written by Peter Bowker; starring Bill Paterson, Imelda Staunton, and Johnny Vegas
Much Ado About Nothing, written by David Nicholls; starring Sara Parish, Damian Lewis, and Billie Piper
Macbeth, written by Peter Moffat; starring James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes
The Taming of the Shrew, written by Sally Wainwright; starring Rufus Sewell, Shirley Henderson, and Stephen Tompkinson.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
For those of you who don't know, for months after David Tennant announced he would be leaving the show, a long list of possibilities emerged to replace him as Doctor Eleven. Before Matt Smith was confirmed, there was an interest expressed by several (including Russell T Davies) to have Catherine Zeta-Jones take over the role.
I will be frank. The day the re-creators of Doctor Who decide that he will regenerate into a woman, I will be done with the story. Why? I do not believe this is an issue about feminism or politically correct sentiments. This is a basic tenant of the Doctor's identity. He has been a man for ten regenerations from personality to personality from Time Lord to Time Lord. It is not the same issue as the Doctor asking Rose (right after he regenerated into David Tennant): "Now be honest, how do I look?... Am I ginger?" It is not so simple. In fact, it is complicated... perhaps too complicated. When you change the gender of a character, everything changes. And that is not simple a "rule" that applies to the Doctor and James Bond, but to any character.
I have come to believe that masculinity and femininity are simply not interchangable. And the Doctor so far this revival has not exactly been sexless. Out of the many episodes where the Doctor and Rose struggle with their relationship, or Martha pines away because the Doctor won't even look at her... with a girl in every fireplace... a smarty pants, a lady-killer... the "fire and rage" and the broken soul of a lonely wanderer, a father without children... all these and more point to the reality that the Doctor is undoubtedly a man. In nearly every episode, the inevitable question about the enigma of his identity must be asked: "Who are you?" His answer has been expressed in a variety of ways, but one definitive answer that pops into my head in this moment is from "The Girl in the Fireplace": "I'm the Doctor! And I just snogged Madame de Pompadour!"
The Doctor is an enigma, multiple facets brought out by many different men. The mystery deepens around his name, the lives he's led, the people he's met, the enemies he's battled, the people he's lost. We see him clearer with each mystery. He is many men. And once, you could even say he was a woman - when Donna absorbed his regenerative energy - we did have a taste of this particular what-if. But there can't be more than a question. The Doctor is a fixed point in his story. Perhaps he reflects pieces and echoes of the companions that have shared the TARDIS with him over the years. But he retains a few fixed points of his own. And this has to be one of them.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Today's subject of intrigue: typewriter art by Keira Rathbone! Literally pictures, portraits and landscapes brilliantly rendered from ink strokes and letters on a typewriter! It creates this brilliant metaphor in my head - of words threading themselves together into a tapestry to create an striking picture, creating layers, hidden messages... ah! Not to mention, I wish I had an old typewriter... not necessarily to create pictures (I'll leave that to Keira's amazing talent), but to connect with words in that special way. Perhaps the next time I venture to a garage sale or an antique shop! Wonderful, wonderful whimsy!
Thank you Daily Telegraph! You are my inspiration!
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Today's topic: names and the wonder that is behind them. Reader, you may snort a little at such a trite observation, but 'tis true. As a writer, I am obsessed. I have been known to ruminate over the names of my characters for months, only to settle on the one that will feel essentially right. I find myself wondering how people I meet in random situations were named the way they were... especially if they are unique... or if there is a particular story behind it. Names are, after all, identifiers. Even if your parents could not predict what you would be like as an adult, they chose names that were meaningful in some way to them. It is one tiny thread of a person's identity that shapes them and continues with them throughout life.
I have enjoyed creating names out of existing ones for my more wayward and fantastical stories: Annara (a combination between Anne and Sara); Rurac (a version of the Celtic surname Rourke); Shadow (nickname for a man named Brey); etc.
But I continue to balk at the growing trend of name-changing and children given utterly bizarre or offensive names. To change your name is your decision, but what, ultimately, does that look like? People have been known to change their legal names to domain names, advertisments and other sorts of meaningless tripe. Meaningless? Yes. Meaningless. Done on a whim to satisfy spur-of-the-moment impulses. Honestly, "Thor, God of Thunder" might appeal to you now, but what about in ten years? Do you really want that on your marriage license? Your diploma? Your death certificate? Or are we really not thinking that far ahead anymore? I have begun to appreciate the fact that we do not, in general, choose our names. We grow into them, we learn to tolerate them or find some way around them (via fun and interesting nick names). But it says so much about our character if we are able to honor the people who gave them to us. Being named after a grandparent or your mother's favorite Jane Austen character might actually give the opportunity to redefine that name with your own life. What good is a journey with the name you were given if you give up? (Think along the lines of a "Boy Called Sue" by Johnny Cash.)
What about children who are given bizarre and unflattering names. And I'm not actually referring to, say, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner's newborn daughter Seraphina... which is actually quite pretty, if you ask me. There has been a recent story floating around the news media in recent months about the Campbell family out of New Jersey whose 3 year old son, named Adolf Hitler Campbell (not kidding), and was refused a birthday cake with his name on it. "Adolf" apparently has two little sisters with similiarly themed names: JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and Honslynn Hinler Jeannie. His father, in a video interview, expresses his apparent disgust with the dismissive comment, "They're just names." I am sitting here with my mouth dropping open. Just names? All right, this is a little worse than the "Boy Called Sue". As if Hitler was just an ordinary person. The implication is that the origins of those names do not matter and that everybody else needs to be "tolerant." It saddens me that he can be so careless.
A few scenarios:
The name John was taboo when it came to the English monarchy. John, you ask? Remember the cruel, greedy, awful King John - whose barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta (or evil Prince John from the Robin Hood stories)? He was the cause of so much grief in 13th century England, with his murderous rampages and conflicts with France that caused him to lose much of the land that was once considered English soil. I consider it to be no coincidence whatsoever that there has not yet been a King John II.
Switching to Doctor Who, the Doctor actually has a name other than Doctor. Trouble is, no one knows what it is, and I've heard that Time Lord names are forgotten once they've chosen their designation. (Anyone well-versed in Time Lord culture, please feel free to correct me!) There are a few episodes in Series 4 that touch on the secret knowledge of the Doctor's name - as the difference between the trust of strangers and being chucked out of a car ("Midnight") or the identification of a person he hasn't met yet ("Silence in the Library"), but might be the most important person he ever meets in his life. Further, there are other little identifiers in Doctor Who which seem like nothing, but are actually carry earth-shattering importance. If a mysterious blonde woman appears from a parallel universe, carry with her the key phrase "Bad Wolf"... we know it can be no one but Rose Tyler.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf has many, many names... all of which carry different meanings: Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf the White, Storm Crow, Mithrandir... he goes by all of them and yet they are all, essentially, him.
In Return of the Jedi, (I smell a pattern) Darth Vader responds to the utterance of Anakin Skywalker: "That name no longer has any meaning for me." To which his no-doubt miserable son returns, "It is the name of your true self you've only forgotten."
In the pilot episode of Criminal Minds, FBI agents Hotchner and Gideon get into a conversation about how difficult it is for Hotch and his wife to choose an appropriate name for their unborn child, because any innocent sounding name makes him think of an infamous serial killer. That, apparently, is not a burden Hotch wants his son to carry with him.
Obviously, Mr. Campbell, it isn't merely a name if the world still shudders when they hear the name Adolf Hitler. I feel for his little son who doesn't know any better. When he is older and in school with other Timothys, Adams and Brians how will he discover the dreadful history of his name? It really is a burden already weighing. Names shape us. How was Adolf Hitler meant to shape him? Or was it merely an identifer of his parents... and their questionable political leanings?
Forgive me if I've burdened you with this flood of words. Names are art to me, and it makes me sad - and, I admit, less articulate - when people see them as nothing more than gibberish or an advertising space. Names make us human, connect us to our history and make the steps we take distinctly ours. We are characters in a larger story, and no character is meaningless. Why should their designations be any different?
Tell me, am I totally overreacting or this a legitimate defense of art?
From the treasure trove at Den of Geek, Here's an interview with James Moran, another screenwriter, on the joys and perils of screen-writing. Moran has written for such sci-fi gems as Torchwood and Primeval, but to be honest, what makes him cooler than most of us is that he wrote the Pompeii episode in Series 4 of Doctor Who.
Be warned: he does occasionally talk about things like how hard it was to get to the screen, which is not what this blog is for. So, if you feel that may depress you, no one will judge you if you do not read the interview.
Friday, January 9, 2009
What he intended to do...was mostly to daydream, though he wouldn’t have put it that way; to court, on long wool-gathering rambles, Psyche his soul; put two and two together, and perhaps write down the sum, for he would have sharpened pencils in the pencil-well of the desk and a clean pad before him. (p. 315 of the Harper Perennial edition)
Thursday, January 8, 2009
I post this in case any of you, like me, have trouble remembering this.
This has the obvious meaning, of course, that the point of writing (or any other kind of art-making) is not to achieve adulation. But it also applies on the micro scale, I think; for example, yesterday, I was worrying that I wouldn't achieve or accomplish anything by the end of the day if I took the time to try to get my back (currently tied in multiple knots) to relax. That was when my sister pointed out that at least in relation to my art, I shouldn't be trying to accomplish but to create.
I find this a very rich idea, the notion that creation is an act different in kind from "getting something done." If you think about it, "achievement" is all about finishing something (e.g., "demolishing" your to-do list, "completing" your tasks) but creation is about bringing something new into being. Adding rather than subtracting.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
However, if you visit the PBS website here, you'll find a link to an online conversation with the screenwriter, David Nicholls, at barnesandnoble.com. He is answering questions about the issues involved in screenwriting (particularly, adapting classics) until January 12. This is something that does interest me intensely, and I'd highly recommend checking it out.
Nicholls (IMDB profile here) also penned an extremely deft modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing for the Beeb in 2005, as well as the quirky Starter for 10 starring James McAvoy.
Friday, January 2, 2009
For those of you who were intrigued by the Renaissance idea that salamanders live in fire, I finally found that Thomas Browne reference. I'm on a mild pre-modern science kick, as that quote from Plutarch's Moralia also indicates.
Anyway, Browne, writing in 1646 or thereabouts, is actually debunking this idea with his "new science," but in so doing he describes the previous belief. Here we go, from the fantastically named Pseudodoxia Epidemica:
That a salamander is able to live in flames, to endure and put out fire, is an assertion not only of great antiquity but confirmed by frequent and not contemptible testimony...Pliny assigns the cause of this effect: an animal (saith he) so cold that it extinguisheth the fire like ice.
It hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible and napkins...which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of salamander's wool [how cool is that?!]; which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part, or tegument of the salamander. [Browne goes on to explain how in antiquity the bodies of kings were burned in "salamander's wool" to keep their ashes pure. Goodness knows if this is true.]
There you go. A particularly arcane piece of whimsy to start off 2009. With the holidays behind, I hope to start posting a few more substantial things soon. But meanwhile, enjoy some eggnog!
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