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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

11 OCTOBER, 2013

How Virginia Woolf’s Orlando Subverted Censorship and Revolutionized the Politics of Lesbian Love in 1928


A beautiful fusion of the tools of science fiction, the feats of feminism, and the polemics of homosexuality.

“Much preferring my own sex, as I do,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend in the 1920s, “[I] intend to cultivate women’s society entirely in the future. Men are all in the light always: with women you swim at once into the silent dusk.” As her exquisite love letters to and from Vita Sackville-West tell us, Woolf made good on her intention — but nowhere does her lesbian sensibility come more vibrantly alive than in her novel Orlando: A Biography (public library), published on October 11, 1928. A parodic fantasy-biography of a young hero who adventures across three centuries and changes genders, the novel is based on Vita’s life and work; her son, Nigel Nicholson, famously called it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In an essay on Orlando from the altogether fantastic 1997 anthology Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings (public library), Cornell’s Leslie Kathleen Hankins writes:

Orlando came out of the closet as a lesbian text in the 1970s and remains out as critics continue to discover and celebrate its subversive, pervasive, and persuasive lesbian strategies. The complex and witty lesbian text plays an elaborate game of hide and seek with the reader and the censor, teasing with taunts: “What can we suppose the women do when they seek out each other in society?”

More than anything, Hankins argues, the novel mocks “compulsory heterosexuality” and challenges homophobia in an age decades before common society would come to accept same-sex love and nearly a century before the law would. In this way, rather than making explicit statements about censorship like so many famous authors have done, Woolf chooses instead to tease and taunt the censor with her literary magic wand, which she uses, more than anything, as an empathic tool. Consider this seemingly simple, infinitely evocative passage:

As all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Hankins notes:

With this simple, understated passage, Woolf pulls a fast one on the censor, creating a radical text that enables readers to repudiate homophobia and experience lesbian desire.

Cover of the first edition of Orlando, 1928

But the novel, Hankins cautions, isn’t only a lesbian text — it is a lesbian feminist one, a combination that comes with its own singular rewards and “opens up fascinating networks of artistry and agency in the novel.” More than that, it bespeaks Woolf’s brave opposition to the era’s anti-feminist undercurrents of queer male culture. Hankins then revises Vita’s son’s famous proclamation and elaborates on the broader implications:

Throughout the novel, Woolf brings feminism squarely into the queer realm by confronting the sexually ambiguous protagonist with this/her own complicity in the misogynist sex/gender system and by encouraging a feminist conversion experience. … By tying lesbian erotics to feminist politics, Woolf seduces non-feminist lesbianism. We may reclaim Orlando as the longest and most charming lesbian feminist love letter in literature, recognizing its narrative strategies as specific responses to the heterosexist censorship and non-feminist gay and lesbian cultures of Woolf’s day.

The complex text of Orlando is a letter with multiple dueling addressees, addressed not only to Woolf’s “common reader” but lovingly to Vita (the lesbian lover), mockingly to the censor (intent on banning lesbian love), and polemically to straight, gay, and lesbian readers — and the tension between the addressees provides much of the wit, delight, and power of the novel.

To be sure, Woolf didn’t shy from engaging with the politics of censorship directly. When Radclyffe Hall’s seminal lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, released several months before Orlando, was challenged and Hall was put on trial for obscenity less than a month after Orlando’s release, Virginia was eager to testify in Hall’s defense and signed a petition — decades before Facebook had rendered those moot exercises in personal guilt-alleviation — on the deadly effects of censorship for writers. Her most powerful stance against censorship, however, was Orlando itself. Hankins writes:

Woolf’s lesbian signatures, messages, and strategies were shaped by the brooding presence of the censor, for no lesbian writer in 1928 was immune from the perils of censorship. … She lampoons the censors and censorship trials in her outrageous mock masque trial and sex change at the centerpiece of Orlando. … Placing Woolf’s strategies in Orlando within the censoring climate of her day reveals the text as both an accommodation to censorship and a profoundly witty and powerful critique of censorship.

In a strange and wonderful way, Orlando plays with possible realities and challenges social impossibilities in a way that science fiction so frequently and so deftly does, rendering Woolf’s novel an unsung masterpiece of the genre. Though Hankins doesn’t touch on this directly, she captures the essence of such a comparison beautifully:

In a brilliant rhetorical coup, Woolf chose to spotlight the various strategies for avoiding the censor, making these options and strategies the topic and the focal point of her book. Was it necessary to hide lesbian love? Well then, turn the novel into a rollicking game of hide and seek! Did censorship require that lesbian love be interrupted? Well, then turn the tables and make a game of interrupting heterosexual love throughout the book! Was a sex change necessary to provide the appropriate heterosexual coupling of boy girl boy girl? Well then, make the compulsory sex change the centerpiece of the novel! Turning compulsory heterosexuality into a carnival of Eros, Woolf toys with the options by using the sex change subversively rather than for protective coloration. She draws attention to the constructed nature of the sexuality and gender of her protagonist and torments the censor with daring suggestions of cross-sex desire — all the while demurely obeying the dictates of censorship. In cheeky defiance of the censor, Woolf complies with the letter of the law while outrageously demolishing the spirit of the law. Her deft targeting and teasing of the censor seems to me the most radical and daring choice because it renders farcical — and thereby critiques and disrupts — compulsory heterosexuality and censorship per se.

And yet, despite all its implications for feminist theory and lesbian history, Orlando remains, above all, a love letter. On the day of its publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.

Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

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07 OCTOBER, 2013

Edie Windsor, Patron Saint of Modern Love


“The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.”

At the 2013 New Yorker Festival, I had the existential thrill of meeting the magnificent and humbling Edith Windsor — beloved patron saint of modern love, who invested years of legal battle and decades of personal struggle in making marriage equality a constitutional reality for all of us, and subject of the soul-stirring 2010 documentary Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement. During her conversation with the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy — whose beautiful profile of Windsor remains a masterpiece of magazine journalism, an absolute must-read, and a lamentable case of paywalls robbing culture of culture — 84-year-old Edie spoke with remarkable wit, wisdom, and bravery about her journey and her monumental win for universal love as she was losing the love of her life. Thea Spyer, her spouse of 42 years, who died in 2009 and her death imposed an outrageous estate tax of $363,053 on Edie, which precipitated the landmark United States v. Windsor case that resulted in overturning DOMA.

Portrait of Edith Windsor by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

Here are some of the most memorable highlights from the talk.

On being gay and in love in the 1950s:

It looked impossible.

On the elegant humanity of how acceptance happens:

The more we see each other, the more we love what we see.

On reconciling rejection from family and friends — something Edie knows a grim lot about, given her own homophobic sister didn’t speak to her for thirty years:

You just have to live your life, and the people who can’t catch up, can’t catch up.

On the rewards of her pioneering role in the LGBT rights movement, despite the personal tragedy:

I can’t think of a better position to be in and I can’t think of a better life for myself to have. There’s so much love and such a sense of community.

Her relationship advice to all couples, gay, straight, and varied — a wonderful addition to history’s greatest wisdom on love:

Don’t postpone joy.

But the moving moment, for me, came when I got a chance to ask Edie a question about love and mortality. Her answer, simple and honest and immutably human, was pure goosebumps:

Q: My partner is older than I am, so the prospect of mortality, of eventual and inevitable grief, always haunts the back of my mind. How do you keep love alive after death?

A: I sometimes wish I knew how not to.

Thank you, Edie, for everything.

Try not to tear up at this trailer for Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement:

Complement with Windsor’s Reconstructionist profile and Debbie Millman’s illustrated account of Edie’s historic phone call with President Obama.

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30 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Brave Genius: How the Unlikely Friendship of Scientist Jacques Monod and Philosopher Albert Camus Shaped Modern Culture


“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

What makes a good life, a meaningful life, a life of purpose? And how can one live it amidst pain and destruction; how can the human spirit soar in the face of crushing adversity? The meaning of life resides in the answers to these questions, which countless luminaries have been asking since the dawn of recorded time, and which an unlikely duo of Nobel-laureate friends — revered writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus and pioneering biologist Jacques Monod — set out to answer during one of the darkest periods of human history, the peak of World War II. In Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize (public library), molecular biology and genetics professor Sean B. Carroll — not to be confused with the cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also authors fascinating works, but of a rather different nature — tells the story of how each of these extraordinary men lived through the terrifying reality of the war and emerged as an exceptional mind of creative brilliance and humanistic genius, a story of “the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events — of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.”

It was the Occupation of Paris that served, as Carroll poignantly puts it, as the “perverse catalyst” that sparked each man’s genius and propelled them into intersecting trajectories of greatness as they entered each other’s lives.

Jacques Monod’s identity card for the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), in his nom de guerre ‘Malivert.’ (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

Camus, an aspiring 26-year-old writer working as a newspaper layout designer, and Monod, an “underachieving and, at age thirty, relatively old doctoral student in zoology,” met at a human rights event in 1939. Both had to contort their lives to avoid death — Camus by disguising his identity for security reasons with a false ID under the assumed name of Albert Mathé, and Monod by sending his Jewish wife to safety outside of Paris, also equipped with a fake ID that Aryanized her maiden name; both men joined the Resistance against the Germans, each contributing in his own way — Camus through the power of the written word in his moving editorials for the underground Resistance newspaper Combat, and Monod by joining the French armed forces, where he excelled as an officer and went on to lead the coordination of Resistance activities in the latter stage of the Occupation.

Albert Camus’s false identity card, in the name of Albert Mathé, writer. All of the information on the card -- birthdate, place, parents -- is false. (Courtesy of Collection Catherine et Jean Camus, Fonds Camus, Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence, France)

Odette Monod’s false identification card. Odette changed the spelling of her maiden name, Bruhl, to ‘Brulle’ to conceal her Jewish identity. (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

But they otherwise had little in common by way of upbringing or professional background. Still, they instantly hit it off and found a kindred spirit in the other. More than that, the friendship sparked an uncommon and boundlessly fruitful cross-pollination of intellectual curiosities, which would come to shape each man’s work and impact on the world. Carroll writes of their special connection:

Francis Crick described Monod in terms that applied equally well to his new friend Camus: “Never lacking in courage, he combined a debonair manner and an impish sense of humor with a deep moral commitment to any issue he regarded as fundamental.” In addition to the special bond of former resistants, Monod and Camus discovered they shared many similar concerns. Over the course of their friendship, those concerns would encompass a broad spectrum of humanitarian issues, including the state of affairs in the USSR, human rights in Eastern bloc countries, and capital punishment in France. Monod gave Camus further ammunition for his indictment of the Soviet Union, an indictment that terminated many of Camus’s friendships with left-wing peers.

Camus gave Monod access to his world of literature and philosophy.

Most impressive of all, however, was the enormity of literary and philosophical works Camus managed to publish during the Occupation, underpinned not by the desperation of a war-torn world and a lamentation of evil but, like Viktor Frankl’s timeless treatise from the same era, by a profound faith in the human spirit and our shared capacity for goodness. Carroll writes:

The terror and cruelty of the Occupation, the slaughter of tens of millions in the war (the second such war in a generation), and the horrors of the Holocaust that were coming to light had made many despair and abandon any hope for the future of humanity. Denial of any meaning or purpose in life — nihilism — was a widespread response.

But Camus vehemently rejected nihilism and took an entirely different path. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addressed what he contended was the fundamental issue of philosophy — “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To Camus, the crux of the matter of life was the certainty of death. The practical question that certainty prompted was: How could one live a meaningful life in full knowledge of the inevitability of death?

Camus asserted that by recognizing the reality of the physical limits of one’s life, one attained the clarity and freedom to make the most of life as it is. He reasoned that the logical response to the certainty of death was a revolt against death — a revolt that took the form of living life passionately and to the fullest: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

Camus’s recipe for living life to the fullest was to do nothing in hope of an afterlife, and to rely on courage and reasoning: “The first teaches him to live without appeal [to religion] and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom … and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”

For Camus, even Sisyphus — condemned as he was to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down and to begin again — was master of his own fate. Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concluded the essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This “reasoned optimism,” as Carroll puts it, resonated with readers in France as they struggled to heal from the psychological atrocities of the war. Camus, whom his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre described as “an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work,” offered hope amidst hopelessness:

Camus once wrote, “In the depths of winter, I discovered that there lay within me an invincible summer.” Readers in France, and then as his works were translated, millions more readers around the world, responded to that invincible summer. Camus offered a practical philosophy for living without succumbing to nihilism or appealing to religion. In the aftermath of the great calamity, Camus offered the masses a picture of a brighter future for France and the world, an alternative to the cycle of war that had darkened a half century, and that threatened to continue. He offered a choice, as he put it, “between hell and reason.”

While Camus was contemplating the philosophical foundations of life, Monod was shedding new light on the biological. During the 1940s, before the discovery of DNA as the basic building block of life, biology was a budding science propelled by, as Carroll elegantly puts it, “simple but fundamental questions.” Enthralled by the mystery of how cells grow, Monod and his collaborator François Jacob, a nineteen-year-old second-year medical student en route to becoming a surgeon, laid the foundations for our understanding of how a single fertilized egg could blossom into a complex creature — and they did it with extraordinary taste, a concept seemingly counterintuitive and belonging more to the literary world than the scientific, but in fact essential for scientific discovery.

Like Camus, Monod also transcended the boundaries of his discipline to effect broader cultural and political awareness. After the liberation of Paris — the momentous triumph that marked the beginning of the end of WWII, which both Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway recorded with exuberant relief — weapons were replaced by dueling dogmas. Carroll contextualizes the climate:

Soon after the end of World War II, a new war emerged — of ideologies. It was a war between capitalism and socialism, between democracy and Communism, and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In France, those along the entire spectrum of political ideologies from the far left to the far right vied for power and influence. The Communist Party enjoyed strong support, particularly among the intelligentsia and workers, many of whom looked to the Soviet Union as a model of where socialism in France should be heading.

In the summer of 1948, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the Soviet head of agriculture appointed by Joseph Stalin, launched a concentrated attack on the science of genetics, pushing for geneticists to be purged from Soviet biology — a kind of “ideological terrorism” that flew in the face of what science knew to be true, propagated by France’s communist-owned newspapers. Appalled and infuriated, Monod eviscerated Lysenko’s arguments in an op-ed that ran on the front page of Combat — the same Resistance newspaper in which Camus had given hope and sanity a voice. Stirred by the incident, Monod was moved to “make his life’s goal a crusade against antiscientific, religious metaphysics, whether it be from Church or State.”

September 15, 1948, issue of Combat featuring Jacques Monod’s critique of Soviet biologist T. D. Lysenko and Soviet science. (Archives of the Pasteur Institute)

Unsurprisingly, given their bond and enormous overlap of convictions, Camus’s influence had a profound impact on Monod, who integrated philosophical inquiry into his biological pursuits. Carroll writes:

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Monod turned to consider the implications of the discoveries of modern biology — how the answers to Schrödinger’s question “What is life?” bore on the question of the meaning of life. He explained his impulse in Camusian terms: “The urge, the anguish to understand the meaning of his own existence, the demand to rationalize and justify it within some consistent framework has been, and still is, one of the most powerful motivations of the human mind.” The opening epigraph of Monod’s resulting, widely acclaimed, bestselling book, Chance and Necessity, was the closing passage from his friend’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

Indeed, receiving the Nobel Prize — Camus in 1957 and Monod in 1965 — while equally deserved, produced radically different responses in the two friends. When news of the philosopher’s award broke, Monod immediately sent his friend a letter of warm congratulation:

My dear Camus,

My emotion and my joy are profound. There were many times when I felt like thanking you for your friendship, for what you are, for what you managed to express with such purity and strength, and that I had likewise experienced. I wish that this dazzling honor would also appear to you, in some small part, as a token of friendship and of personal, intimate recognition. I would not dare coming to see you right now, but I embrace you fraternally.

Jacques Monod

But Camus, who feared such public attention would fuel his critics and indicate that his body of work were complete rather than ever-evolving, met the news of the prize with mixed emotions, oscillating between pride and panic. (A reaction not wholly unsurprising given the conflicted story of the Nobel Prize’s very conception.) In his journals, he noted “a strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.” Despite his friendships with such intellectual and creative icons as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Orwell, he chose to share his feelings only with Monod, responding in a letter:

My dear Monod.

I have put aside for a while the noise of these recent times in order to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm letter. The unexpected prize has left me with more doubt than certainty. At least I have friendship to help me face it. I, who feel solidarity with many men, feel friendship with only a few. You are one of these, my dear Monod, with a constancy and sincerity that I must tell you at least once. Our work, our busy lives separate us, but we are reunited again, in one same adventure. That does not prevent us to reunite, from time to time, at least for a drink of friendship! See you soon and fraternally yours.

Albert Camus

But beneath the warm professional support of their friendship, there was a deeper bond that held them together, one of shared purpose. Carroll writes:

Both men were deeply engaged with timeless questions about finding meaningful experiences in life. They were forced to ask, by virtue of the experiences into which they were plunged, the most fundamental questions of all: What is worth dying for? And what is worth living for? Once free, they were compelled to ask: What is worth spending one’s life pursuing?

Brave Genius is scintillating in its entirety, reminding us that even in a time of profound adversity, it is genius, not misery, that loves — longs for, necessitates, thrives on — company.

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