Thursday, December 29, 2011

Holiday Reading: Midterm report

When I start my feminist theory class, I always begin with the same sentences:  "Men are not the enemy in this class.  We do not do any male-bashing here.  The enemy is our idea of what's 'natural' for men and women."  Then I ask them to try to identify any characteristics or experiences that all women share.  They propose quite a number of shared experiences or qualities--like motherhood or nonviolence--and then become aware of how many exceptions there are.  So they get very basic, down to women menstruating, but then I tell them that young girls who have had cancer and radiation or girls who are anorexic or very thin athletes or ballet dancers don't necessarily menstruate, and we're delightfully puzzled about why we're all sitting in this room talking about women--which is exactly where we should be.  Later I will tell them that our ideas about gender--about what's natural for men or women to feel or experience, about how some behaviours are natural (like men being aggressive and women being nurturing)--are a set of boxes and expectations that imprison all of us. 

One of the early articles that we read is about the number of children born with ambiguous sexuality, and the way the largely male medical profession works to turn anyone ambiguously male into someone more decidedly male. Enter Kathleen Winter and her hermaphrodite Wayne/Annabel.  It's as if Winter took my feminist theory class and really got it--which can't be said for everyone, try as they might.  It's kind of hard to think yourself outside the boxes of gender.  I can do it for other people, especially if they're young, but there are facets to being a stereotypical woman that I actually like.  I like being nurturing and making quilts.  I loved being a mother.  But I would fight long and hard for any other woman's decision to discard or avoid those roles.

I finished Winter's Annabel shortly before Christmas and so I'm trying to tell you about it without having to writer "spoiler alert!" at the beginning of every paragraph.  So maybe I'll stick to the theoretical issues.  Wayne has to take a lot of medication to establish his masculine musculature and voice.  No one's told him exactly what the pills do to him, but it simply doesn't feel comfortable, so he quits.  Then he's dropped into the ambiguity of sex and gender.  Winter does a wonderful job of letting us feel what it's like to be in Wayne's own skin (or letting us imagine we know what it's like to be in his skin), but it's her treatment of society's wildly varying anxiety about Wayne/Annabel's sex/gender that seems to me dead on.  Not surprisingly, the person most uncomfortable about it is Wayne's father, though Treadway also redeems himself brilliantly toward the end.  My one theoretical disappointment is that Wayne's mother, Jacinta, gets no say or role in Wayne's life once he's decided to stop taking the medication and embrace the way his desires (and these are wonderfully varied:  intellectual, aesthetic, and physical) lean toward what we usually think of as feminine.  I realize that Winter is suggesting that men still hold the cards with respect to deciding whether someone is masculine or feminine enough, or whether someone's decisions are valid and acceptable.  But Jacinta would have so loved a daughter, and my heart broke as she became more and more withdrawn after Wayne left their small Labrador community.

On Boxing Day, I began Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, and would recommend it even more strongly.  It's a plot-driven novel, which I don't usually devour (I hate being manipulated into devouring a book by its plot!) but because the plots are so compelling, so tied up in both individual desires and weaknesses and historical horrors, because the plots parallel one another in interesting ways, but defy those parallels in others, it's really a novel about how people choose to act when history throws them into the cauldron of Nazi Germany and the Nazis' quick march into Paris.  Our guide is Syd, a "high yellow" African American (which means he can pass for white unless you think a lot about race and observe him carefully) who plays the bass in a jazz band in Nazi Germany.  Between 1939 and 1940, he has to come to terms not only with Nazi policies regarding negroes and jazz (one example of the decadent art--created by even more decadent negroes--the Nazis cleansed from their culture) and effect an escape from Germany with his fellow musicians, but has to watch as his solid but minor gift is eclipsed musically and romantically by that of Hieronymus Falk, a half-blood German trumpet player who has a remarkable gift. In 1992, he has the chance to reconnect with Falk and to confess (or not) to the way his actions inadvertently put Falk in harm's way, sending him to a Nazi labour camp.  The novel's shift between the two time frames keeps the tension delightfully high, but also draws a possible comparison between Syd's jealousy and rediscovered delight in playing jazz as the group records the "Half-Blood Blues" of the novel's title, and the kinds of personal animosities and hatreds that drive the German "boots" who beat up the band and necessitate their escape from Berlin.  At other levels, there is simply no comparison between Syd's behaviour and that of the Nazi army, and it's this ethical dance that Edugyan won't simplify that keeps us thinking about the characters long after we've finished the novel.

But Half Blood Blues is also about music.  It's about people's need for musicians to express the whole range of human emotions and experiences, regardless of whether they're "decadent" or not.  It's not a simple thing to "rid" Nazi Germany of jazz.  It's also about the particular qualities of jazz, about the way it depends on a group dynamic and the way it invents expression out of thin air when musicians improvise.  It's also about the power of music to be rebellious.  The song they are trying to record when the Nazis march into Paris is based on a poem written and set to music by Horst Wessel, a thug the Nazis try to turn into a martyr after his wife has him shot.  It is a kind of anthem to Nazi nationalism and ideals.  But in the hands of jazzman Falk, it is ironized, and turned into the blues for those who are Nazism's victims.  Although it's believed all the takes are destroyed, a set turns up in the walls of a house undergoing renovations, as if musical expression, no matter how temporary or tenuous, won't be silenced.

I finished reading Half Blood Blues this afternoon, and was strangely and wonderfully aware of the soundscape of that experience as I turned out my reading light and sat in the blue dark with only the lights of the Christmas tree.  There was the silence of newly-fallen snow; there seems to be less traffic on College between Christmas and New Years'.  Sometimes the silence was interrupted by people's tentative attempts to clear walks and the particularly hollow sound of a shovel trying to clear stairs.   Prompted by CBC earlier in the day, I'd decided to put on some Beethoven, and wanting to hear the lovely under-performed Fourth Symphony, I also had to listen to the Third, the Eroica.  Of course I couldn't help thinking about the difference between the carefully-scripted symphony and the improvisation of jazz.  Then came the second movement, Beethoven's funeral march for the men who died in Napoleon's absurd quest to become emperor of Europe, and then I couldn't help hearing the enduring similarities. 

1 comment:

  1. Jazz, the child of so many foundling parents. Well placed in Half Blood Blues, that tension between creativity, discovery, and free association. The snow shovel was happy to provide background ;)