Thursday, January 19, 2012

Feeling Sentimental

Apparently we pregnant types are supposed to be sentimental. Every other blogpost on the pregnancy part of Babble is about crying at the cotton commercial or something. For better or worse, I seem to be the same cynic I've always been.

Of course, there's a lot of suggestibility when it comes to talking about emotions. If I were being paid to blog about being pregnant and how I felt about being pregnant I would probably attribute a lot of things to it that I don't when I'm just going about my life. Which is why I was interested to find a link to this article, from New York magazine. Now, you might think that reading an article with the subtitle "Why Parents Hate Parenting" might be a bad idea for a 39-week pregnant lady, sentimental or otherwise. But it's a strong article because instead of falling into the normal lifestyle carping (singles are happier! no marrieds! no parents!) she sets out to solve the seeming paradox of why studies have consistently found parents less happy than those without kids although almost no parents would say this. A lot of it is what you'd expect: parents are in denial, parents expectations have become too high, etc. But the real meat comes at the end, when she demonstrates how, like always with such studies but is so rarely mentioned, it really comes down to the questions being asked. When you ask moment to moment things, like, do you have more stress, of course parents say yes. But when you look at more existential questions, like feelings of loneliness, parents come out as less depressed. One of the parents are less happy people doesn't buy it, because life is actually experience as series of moments, not as what we make it in reflection. I'm not so sure. I've always been fond of what Annie Dillard says, that good days are not hard to find, it's good lives, and that a day spent reading is not always a good day but a life spent reading is always a good life. People like to tell aspiring creative types or whoever that you have to enjoy every part of the process, the doing, not just the having done. But the process sucks lots of the time for almost everyone. So if we are not so happy moment to moment, but construct ourselves that way in retrospect, is that really such a failure? "Being in the moment" may be a balm against anxiety, but does it take us away from where the meanings are - in where we've come from and where we're going?

So I was thinking about this and thinking maybe I'm not so unsentimental after all, and then I came across Philip Levine's wonderful poem "You Can Have It" in Rita Dove's new anthology, and thought especially about these lines:

. . . We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctor's appointments, bonds
wedding certificates, diveres licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then the bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.

Like any good feminist, I'm skeptical about nostalgia. The nostalgia here totally takes me in, but mostly because it's for a time before my birth. "Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Radio Days" are my favorite Woody Allen films. It's as impossible for me to imagine commemorating 1994 the way Levine commemorates the year he turned twenty. It's as impossible as imaging my kid at twenty in 2032(!) Maybe my youth was just less textured and nostalgia-worthy than Levine's. But Levine's nostalgia goes hand in hand with its impossibility. The past as we imagine it, his 1948, his being twenty, is as if it never was, unless he wills it back, give it to us, who were never there. It's a construction, but just maybe it's not a lie, the way I always thought it was. Life may be a string of moments in which the average parent is more unhappy and stressed, but it's also the string of moments who trail behind, as equally unfixed as any vibrating present the happiness gurus could imagine.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Vanity and Despair

So I was so absorbed by Downfall, the 2004 Hitler's bunker movie and father of the father of internet memes, that I subscribed to London Review of Books just to read this amazing review by Bee Wilson of a new biography of Eva Braun.

Before watching Downfall, I hadn't thought of Braun as much more than a Woody Allen punch line. As Wilson tells it, she was a throughly apolitical person, enamored with Hitler from their initial meeting when she was seventeen. She took endless photos of their life together, and mostly wanted the same things any younger mistress of a powerful man might want: more time, more attention, nice clothes and nice parties. As Wilson notes, she didn't fit the Nazi's propaganda of the selfless self-sacrificing wife and mother, but her apparent sentimentality and complete lack of self-reflection make her very recognizable. How different is gleefully cheering for your man and clinging relentlessly to the idea of your relationship, with all the photos to prove it happened, from being any kind of functionary? Sentimentality is the ideology, just like the bureaucracy was for Arendt.

Looking at the reviews of Downfall it was funny to see echoes of the tired debates about whether or not art should "humanize" Hitler or other Nazis to help us understand "how such things happen," and whether viewers need to be reminded that the Nazis being portrayed were really, really bad people. The whole thing is particularly funny when film critics take this on, as if any three hour film could "explain" anything. Shoah is nine and a half hours and it only works because it sticks to its own dictum to describe rather than to explain. Anyways, Arendt had the last word on this a long time ago.

"Vanity and despair" was a phrase Robin Morgan once used to describe the dominant subjective conditions of patriarchy. Reading about Braun is particularly unnerving because there's so much vanity and not enough despair, at least not until the bunker. I didn't know before seeing the film that they got married 36 hours before they killed themselves together. Guess the apocalypse is one way to get a commitment. It makes me think of the end of Shaun of the Dead, when the main character laments having to kill his zombified mother, best friend and girlfriend in the same day. "What makes me think I'm taking you back?" the on-again off-again girlfriend asks. "You don't want to die single, do you?" he answers. Wilson ends her review by noting that she may have also been trying to persuade him to have children, posing him for pictures with the children who came to call. But charm and sentiment only got her so far.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Poetry Corner: Transformations

Early in my pregnancy, when the changes were subtle and undetectable, I compared the experience to music playing in the background: something you would tune into or out of many times over the course of a day, without fully realizing it. At the same time, actual music was taking on more weight: instead of having the ipod on and being half tuned in while I read, it took all my attention to keep up. Along with music, poetry seemed more interesting than anything else I was reading: against all the books and columns and blogs of deadly literal advise and polemics, nothing seemed more appropriate than the metaphoric. Not surprisingly, Plath's "Metaphors" has held on as a the ur-text through all eight syllables (and counting) so far.

Anne Sexton's classic 1971 collection Transformations is among other things a fascinating combination of the literal and the metaphoric. The back of my edition describes it use of fairy tales as "reenactments, parodies" but that doesn't seem quite right to me. True, there's a lot of humor in juxtaposing the stories to contemporary language and metaphors: the miller's daughter in Rumplestiltskin is a "poor grape with no one to pick./Luscious and round and sleek./Poor thing./To die and never see Brooklyn." Later, after she becomes queen, and tries to bargain with Rumplestiltskin for her child, she is "as persistent as a Jehovah's Witness." But the stories themselves are mostly told straight: dwarfs and Kings and death behave much as they're supposed to. It's the language and, especially, the more generalized openings of each of the poems, prior to the start of each narrative, that cast them in a their frame. Thus "Cinderella" begins: "You always read about it:/the plumber with twelve children/who wins the Irish Sweepstakes./From toilets to riches./That story," while "Rapunzel" begins with the witch Mother Gothel's apologia: "A woman/who loves a woman/is forever young." It's the sympathies and not the stories that bring in the revisionism. Interestingly, along with Gothel, Rumpelstiltskin, another child-stealer, also comes in for sympathy: "She offered him all the kingdom/but he wanted only this -/a living thing/to call his own./And being mortal/who can blame him?"

The so-called "confessional poets" have fascinated me for a long time. A lot of people seem to look at them the way a lot of people look at second-wave feminism: a necessary step, but incomplete, and certainly less sophisticated than what's come since. There are a lot of connections, of course, and Transformations especially resonates with the feminist criticism of the period, with "images of women" and the rereading of the existing canon. But for lots of contemporary readers and feminists it's all too blunt, too much about the body and babies and breasts, and did Sexton really have to write "The Ballad of he Lonely Masturbator"? But I don't think so: no social movement or body of work is perfect or even complete, but that doesn't mean that those of the recent past should be seen as relics or as stages on the way to where we are now, the way the fairly recent past is so often judged.

"A strange vocation to be a mother at all," Sexton writes in "The Maiden Without Hands." Even when children are not stolen, they are everywhere contested, made strange; they transform and are transformed. At its best, the project shares the ambition of the feminist classics of the period. The movement says, what has been is not what what will be, and the poetry says, what is is already not as it is.