All entries for July 2007

July 27, 2007

Leamington Floods!

Jephson Gardens Under Water
Jephson Gardens Under Water
<Leamington Under Water
Raging River in Leamington

July 20, 2007

Interesting Words: Gallimaufry

I am collecting interesting words that I haven’t heard before. Here is the most recent one:

gallimaufry \gal-uh-MAW-free\, noun: meaning a medley or a hodgepodge; originally meaning “a hash of various kinds of meats”. It derives from from the French galimafrée, from the Old French galer, “to rejoice, to make merry” (source of English gala), and mafrer, “to eat much,” which in turn derives from the Medieval Dutch maffelen, “to open one’s mouth wide”.

July 17, 2007

Memory and Mourning

Not rated

Portrait in Sepia picks up where Daughter of Fortune left off with Eliza Sommers accepting the apothecary, Tao Chi’en, as her husband after a long quest to find her childhood sweetheart who is lost forever. If Daughter of Fortune is all about the chances taken in youth, Portrait in Sepia is far more regretful manner even while it is told from the point of view of a youthful narrator: Eliza Sommer’s grand-daughter, Aurora del Valle. The narrative of the book revolves around loss, as it maps out Aurora’s mourning for her beautiful dead mother and her missing grandparents, Eliza and Tao, all lost when she was an infant. Similarly, her real father, Matias de Santa Cruz is missing and her adopted father Severo del Valle gives her name and an inheritance but no real relationship. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about the gifts in shrugging off family and belonging, Portrait in Sepia considers the terrible loss when family life is snatched away too soon.

The one anchoring force in Aurora’s life is Paulina de Valle, mother of her real father and aunt to her adopted father, who also appeared as the shrewd businesswoman of Daughter of Fortune. It is Paulina who must take up the task of bringing Aurora up, initially in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of nineteenth century California and later in Chile against a magnificent backdrop of political machinations and war. Cloistered from the world through her grandmother’s riches, Aurora tells the story of this period in history through her own interpretation of the events in the lives of others. For example the description of Severo del Valle’s experience of the War of the Pacific is grotesque, frenzied and gut-wrenching. This capturing of others and their stories encompasses the significance of the title, Portrait in Sepia, which also refers to Aurora’s interest in photography which acts for her as a way of remembering and preserving experience. Aurora is a memory keeper and an inheritor of the family history, which, as she states that she will never have children, stops with her. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about moving outwards to find new chances and new opportunities for life and freedom, Portrait in Sepia is a movement towards home, preservation and history. The novel is also an interesting companion to The House of the Spirits and some of the characters from that book, such as Nivea (Clara’s mother), appear as youthful versions of themselves to remind us of the next stage in Chile’s history. The heroine of The House of the Spirits, Alba, has much in common with Aurora, and they seem to exist as parallel versions of a particular heroine, since both of their names refer to the dawn. Aurora is almost a prototype for Alba, although Aurora has less freedom and Alba experiences more suffering.

Another View of Passing in Butler’s ‘Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytical Challenge’

Follow-up to Thinking About Passing from The Midnight Heart

Butler begins her essay by criticising Luce Irigaray’s claim in An Ethics of Sexual Difference that ‘the question of sexual difference is the question of our time’ (Butler, 167). Butler wonders whether this privileging of sexual difference puts a ‘taboo on homosexuality’ and she suggests that it works out of ‘a complex set of racial injunctions which operate in part through the taboo on miscegenation’ (167). Butler asks ‘how might we understand homosexuality and miscegenation to converge at and as constitutive outside of a normative heterosexuality that is at once the regulation of a racially pure reproduction’ (167)? Butler points to Marx’s comment that the ‘reproduction of the species’ emerges as ‘the reproduction of relations of reproduction’ or ‘the cathected site of a racialized version of the species in pursuit of hegemony through perpetuity, that requires and produces a normative heterosexuality in its service’ (167). In this view, heterosexuality simply pays service to hegemony and helps to perpetuate the status-quo.

Butler believes that it is important to consider how the areas of gender, race, sexuality and class intersect and to analyse cases where one factor cannot be examined without reference to one of the others. Butler wonders whether this might be the case in Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, and she directs us to a scene in which the heroine, Irene, (who sometimes, supposedly unconsciously, passes for white) walks downstairs in her house to find Clare (who continuously passes for white) being examined by Irene’s husband, Brian. Butler suggests that when Irene ‘finds Clare’ in this scene, ‘Brian […] appears to have found Clare as well’ and the result is that ‘Irene […] finds Clare, finds her beautiful, but at the same time finds Brian finding Clare beautiful as well’ (168). Butler notes that Irene’s exclamation of admiration for Clare’s appearance is stifled on finding Brian on the scene and she suggests that there is some confusion about ‘who desires whom’ (168). Butler wonders, who is finding who as they ‘mirror each other’s desire’ (169)? This is one scene in which Irene is unable to express her feelings – rather the omniscient narrator hints at them – and Butler notices that when Clare dies, even the narrator is silent.

Public speech and secret desire are themes in the book and Butler suggests that this ‘is linked with the larger question of the dangers of public exposure of both color [sic] and desire’ (169). Butler suggests that what is so fascinating about Clare is the way in which she both flaunts and hides in her passing. Because of Clare’s passing for white, Irene refuses to interact with her by meeting or letter and expresses ‘a moral objection’, but Irene herself engages in passing even if it is by accident. Butler suggests that the problem with Clare for Irene is that she ‘goes too far, passes as white not merely on occasion, but in her life, and in her marriage’ and this daring is sexual according to Butler as ‘Irene finds herself drawn by Clare, wanting to be her, but also wanting her’ (169). Butler argues that it is passing itself that is so seductive: ‘It is the changeability itself, the dream of metamorphosis, where the changeableness signifies a certain freedom, a class mobility afforded by whiteness that constitutes the power of that seduction’ (170).

Butler now begins to think about Clare’s white husband, Bellew, and the explosion of violence at the end of the book when Clare falls from the window with Irene standing conveniently near. The scene is precipitated by Bellew’s appearance at a Harlem party and his realisation that Clare is passing. Butler notes that for Bellew, Clare’s presence at the party ‘is sufficient to convince him that she is black’ (170). Butler suggests that this is because ‘[b]lackness is not primarily a visual mark […] because what can be seen, what qualifies as a visible marking, is a matter of being able to read a marked body in relation to unmarked bodies, where unmarked bodies constitute the currency of normative whiteness’ (170-171). It is only when Bellew associates Clare with blacks that she ‘becomes black’ and Butler notes that there is a presumption that ‘if he were to associate with blacks, the boundaries of his own whiteness, and surely that of his children, would no longer be easily fixed’ (171). However, Butler notes that even when Bellew is ignorant about Clare’s passing, he calls her ‘Nig’ and Butler concludes that ‘although he claims that he would never associate with African-Americans, he requires the association and its disavowal for an erotic satisfaction that is indistinguishable from his desire to display his own racial purity’ (172).

When Clare is revealed, she dies and it is unclear who was the culprit or was is suicide? Butler wants to consider this conundrum in psychoanalytical terms drawing together readings of the text through its historical context in the Harlem Renaissance and via ‘the psychological complexity of cross-identification and jealousy’ (173). Butler surveys some of these readings such as:
- Claudia Tate’s foregrounding of psychological ambiguity;
- Cheryl Wall’s elision of psychological ambiguity and race;
- and Deborah McDowell’s addition of homoeroticism to these other factors so that ‘the muteness of homosexuality converges in the story with the illegibility of Clare’s blackness’ (Butler, 175).
Butler gives some thought to language in Larsen’s text and she notes that the word, ‘queer’, is associated with ‘a longing to be freed of propriety’ and it ‘works as the exposure within language – an exposure that disrupts the repressive surface of language – of both sexuality and race’ (176). Queering is often ‘what upsets and exposes passing; it is the act by which the racially and sexually repressive surface of conversation is exploded, by rage, by sexuality, by an insistence on color [sic]’ (177). Recognition of passing can be the beginning of ‘erotic absorption’ as when Irene notices Clare staring at her when they are both passing and although at first, she finds the gaze to be ‘a kind of inspection, a threat of exposure which she returns first as scrutiny and distrust only then to find herself thoroughly seduced’ (177). Irene is uncertain about Clare because of her own ambivalent feelings in connection to race and sexuality, which later manifests itself when Irene convinces herself that Brian loves Clare and he becomes an instrument for her desire.

In thinking about the intersection between gender, race and sexuality, Butler challenges the assumption ‘that there is a relationship called “sexual difference” that is itself unmarked by race’ (181). Butler reads Larsen’s Passing as ‘a theorization of desire, displacement and jealous rage that has significant implications for rewriting psychoanalytic theory in ways that explicitly come to terms with race’ (182). Larsen’s final implication of Irene in Clare’s death seems to suggest a need to destroy the source of difference that would have exposed her in the public sphere: ‘Her passion for Clare had to be destroyed only because she could not find a viable place for her own sexuality to live’ (185).

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London: Routledge, 1993.
McDowell, Deborah. ‘ “That nameless… shameless impulse”: Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand’. Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory: Studies in Black American Literature. Ed. Joel Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker Jnr. Vol. 3. Greenwood: Penkeville Publishing Company, 1988.
Tate, Claudia. ‘Nella Larsen’s Passing A Problem of Interpretation’. Black Literature Review Forum. 14.4 (1980), 142 – 146.

July 12, 2007

A Note on Nonconformity in Wales

I am currently rewriting a chapter on the poet, Gwyneth Lewis, who was a member of a Presbyterian church as a child. I am interested in the influence that Nonconformity and Dissent towards the main Anglican Church might have had on Lewis and so I have been reading D.W. Bebbington, an authority on Nonconformity.

Bebbington talks about Welsh Nonconformity quite often in The Nonconformist Conscience. He suggests that the ‘confident mood’ of Nonconformity at the fin-de-siècle was particularly marked in Wales where the Welsh revival was taking place between 1904 and 1905 (1). Bebbington is clear that ‘chapel-going was as socially acceptable as church-going’ (1). In discussing Nonconformist politics, he suggests that Wales was an ‘extreme case’ because ‘national resentment against the Church of England helped Nonconformity to become the religion of the people’ (3).

In his analysis of Dissent in Britain from the late nineteenth century onwards, Bebbington focuses on his notion of the ‘Nonconformist Conscience’. The ‘Nonconformist Conscience’ had three characteristics according to Bebbington:
• ‘a conviction that there is no strict boundary between religion and politics;’
• ‘an insistence that politicians should be men of the highest character;’
• ‘and a belief that the state should promote the moral welfare of its citizens’ (11).
Out of these three principles, Bebbington maps a quest for religious equality via the disestablishment movement. In Wales, this movement was also connected with the campaign for greater Welsh autonomy and Bebbington describes how some Welsh MPs used the disestablishment movement as another means to promote Wales’ difference from its English neighbour.

Bebbington, D.W. The Nonconformist Conscience: Chapel and Politics, 1870 – 1914. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982.

July 11, 2007

Langston Hughes ‘Passing’

On sunny summer Sunday afternoons in Harlem
when the air is one interminable ball game
and grandma cannot get her gospel hymns
from the Saints of God in Christ
on account of the Dodgers on the radio,
on sunny Sunday afternoons
when the kids look all new
and far too clean to stay that way,
and Harlem has its
washed-and-ironed-and-cleaned-best out,
the ones who’ve crossed the line
to live downtown
miss you,
Harlem of the bitter dream
since their dream has
come true.

Hughes, Langston. ‘Passing’. Phylon. Vol. 11.1 (1950), 15.

Thinking About Passing

Conyers and Kennedy define passing in ‘Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass’ (1963) as ‘the entry into the white group of Negroes whose appearance is such that they can make this transition intentionally or unintentionally, permanently, temporarily or partially’ (215). It refers to subjects ‘who are identifies as white without initiative being taken by them to conceal their racial identity’ (215). I want to consider here definitions of passing and to discuss how the original context of “passing for white” in African American literature has been extended to apply to other situations. A classic reading of passing is presented in Cheryl A. Wall’s chapter on Nella Larsen in Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995). Wall gives a typical plot summary, referring to Larsen’s story, ‘The Wrong Man’, as ‘the female protagonist, alternately paralyzed by fear of being unmasked and desperate to ward off discovery, commits an act that jeopardizes the life that she has carefully constructed for herself’ (85). These stories and the later novels are bound up with ‘issues of marginality and cultural dualism’ (88).

Both Quicksand and Passing contemplate the inextricability of the racism and sexism that confront the black woman in her quest for selfhood. As they navigate between racial and cultural polarities, Larsen’s protagonists attempt to fashion a sense of self – free both of suffocating restrictions of ladyhood and fantasies of the exotic female Other. They fail. The tragedy for these mulattoes is the impossibility of self-definition. Larsen’s protagonists assume false identities that ensure social survival but result in psychological suicide. In one way or another, they all “pass”. Passing for white, Larsen’s novels remind us, is only one way this game is played’ (89).

A more positive reading of passing is presented in Martha J. Cutter’s essay, ‘Sliding Significations: Passing as Narrative Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction’ (1996). Cutter begins her essay by noting that all of Nella Larsen’s heroines ‘want to “pass” ’ and that the strategy of “passing” is ‘more than just a racial strategy: it is a strategy to be a person’ (75). In fact “passing” is ‘a subversive strategy for avoiding the enclosures of a racist, classist, and sexist society’ (75). In novels like Quicksand (1928), Larsen uses “passing” as ‘a way of finding a unitary sense of identity – a sense of identity structured around one role, a role that somehow corresponds to her “essential self” ’ (75). However, in Passing (1929), “passing” becomes a way to ‘not be confined by any one signification, be it of race, class and sexuality’ (75). The heroine of Passing, Clare, ‘founds her identity not on some sense of an “essential self” but rather on a self that is composed of and created by a series of guises and masks, performances and roles’ and in doing so, Clare discovers that she ‘transcends the labeling of society, for the more she passes, the more problematic and plural her presence becomes’ (75). Cutter suggests that “passing” in Larsen’s body of work acts as ‘a subversive narrative strategy and […] an artful method for keeping open the play of textual meaning’ (75).

In the galaxy of signs that is the novel Passing, Clare functions as a signifier whose meaning cannot be stabilized, fixed, confined limited; and the “passing” becomes the ultimate mechanism for creating a text that refuses to be contained, consumed, or reduced to unitary meaning. (76)

Cutter compares this positive view of “passing” with more negative views, such as that of Cheryl A. Wall who suggests that the problem of “passing” is ‘the impossibility of self-definition’ (76). While Cutter recognises that “passing” can be read negatively, she suggests that in Larsen’s novels at least, ‘it is not the assumption of a false identity per se that causes Larsen’s protagonists to fail’, but ‘the assumption of only one guise or form of passing causes Larsen’s characters to become stable, static, fixed in their meaning, entrapped within social definitions’ (76). Cutter suggests that a homogenous identity can be a negative one: ‘To assume a single identity in a world in which identity itself is often a performance – a mask, a public persona – is to ensure psychological suicide’ (76).

Cutter’s remarks suggests that “passing” is not simply concerned with race, but with other factors of identity too, and this view is supported in Marion Rust’s definition of passing in the essay, ‘The Subaltern as Imperialist: Speaking of Olaudah Equiano’ (1996). Rust notes that passing has many manifestations such as ‘impersonation, masquerade, drag, crossing over’, but she wonders why passing has been adopted as a term that applies to other contexts too (22). She concludes that the term, passing, ‘evokes something the others, with the possibility of crossing over, revoke: namely, a quality of loss’ (23).

Like overlapping signs, passing describes an act of simulation, in which two states, being and non-being, assumption and revocation, inhere. But although words like the above synonyms enfranchise the former – the act of putting on, be it a mask or a pair of women’s stockings or men’s suspenders – it is the melancholy privilege of passing to foreground the latter – what is lost that’s there.

Rust cites Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter in which Butler suggests that passing ‘also signifies the ultimate turning away, death’ (Rust, 23). Rust suggests that in a more general sense the act of passing ‘mocks our melancholy, ridiculing essentialist notions of a “true” self preceding, and corrupted by, its subsequent enactments’ (23).

In ‘Passing and the Spectacle of Harlem’ (2000), Maria Balshaw also sees passing in Larsen as being bound up with ‘a non-absolutist attitude to identity, particularly racial identity’ (45). Balshaw argues that visual spectacle is intrinsically important to passing and in Larsen’s work, she sees ‘attention to the construction of the self as a spectacle and through the repeated use of the motif of the exchanged glance between women in a public space’ (55). Larsen’s novels are, in Balshaw’s view, ‘negotiations of visual economies, economies that are bound up with the representation of very specific forms of difference’ (63).

Balshaw, Maria. ‘Looking for Harlem Urban Aesthetics in African American Literature. London: Pluto Press, 2000.
Conyers, James E. and T.H. Kennedy. ‘Negro Passing: To Pass or Not to Pass’. Phylon. Vol. 53.6 (1963). 215 – 223.
Cutter, Martha J. ‘Sliding Significations: “Passing” as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction’. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 75-100.
Rust, Marion. ‘The Subaltern as Imperialist: Speaking of Olaudah Equiano’. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 21 – 36.
Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.


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The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik

Night ramblings of insomnia, and day ramblings for the sleep deprived.

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